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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.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Jaina’s little green car trundled down the road.

The weathered, sturdy Proudmoore house sat atop a hill overlooking the ocean.  Like a generations-old sentinel keeping watch over the sleepy little seaside town.  Boralus’s population swelled with tourists in spring and summer, then quieted in fall and winter for the locals to enjoy.

Jaina scarce noticed the scenery passing her by as she drove to work.  Still dazed by the encounter with her stepmother at breakfast.

That scar from the dream...  It couldn’t be...  How did I...?

At the bottom of hill, at the edge of the town proper, was a house.  The closest thing the Proudmoores had to a neighbor.  Jaina saw Anduin in his front yard, playing fetch with Genn.  The shaggy gray wolfhound was almost as big as his owner.

As Jaina pulled up, Anduin gave her a smile warm as the morning sunshine.

“Auntie Jaina!”

Jaina knew Anduin since he was a child, even babysat him sometimes.  Poor lad lost his mother as an infant and his father this past year.  Now eighteen, Anduin was technically old enough to live on his own.  Jaina still checked on him every couple weeks to make sure he was doing all right.

Jaina stopped her car and got out to chat.  She could spare a few minutes before work.  She smiled at Anduin in greeting, and joined him and Genn in the front yard.

“Haven’t seen you since your mother’s remarriage.”  Anduin scratched his blond head in amazement.  “The news sure came as a shock.”

Jaina sighed.  “To you and me both, Anduin.”

Even here at the bottom of the hill outside town, they could smell the ocean on the morning breeze.  Spring flowers bloomed in Anduin’s yard, attracting butterflies.  One butterfly alighted on Jaina’s head for a moment, perhaps mistaking her single streak of blonde amid white hair for a flower’s pistil amid white petals.  Genn lay at ease on the grass with his tongue lolling out while the humans chatted.  An old chap, but loyal.

“So, what’s your new stepmother like?  Is she nice?”

“Nice?”

Jaina deliberated.  It was a surprisingly difficult question.

“No idea, honestly.  She’s... certainly something.  Keeps Mother happy, that’s all that matters.  I will get used to it.  I will.”

Jaina made her voice resolute.  Trying to convince herself more than Anduin.

“I’d love to meet her,” Anduin said.  “Bring her and Katherine over for a barbecue sometime.  I’m not as good with the grill as my dad, but I’ll do my best.”

The lad drooped a bit at memory of his father.

“I’m sure you will, Anduin.”

Jaina patted Anduin’s shoulder in reassurance.

Genn leapt up from the grass with an OH IT’S PAT TIME? perk-up, his eyes bright beneath his shaggy gray brows.

The wolfhound bounded over to Jaina to “hug” her.  Genn was large enough to stand on his hind legs and put his front paws on Jaina’s shoulders in imitation of a human hug.  Although his size intimidated strangers, in truth he was a big cuddle-bug who did anything for belly rubs.  Jaina preferred cats, but she was used to old Genn.  She let him hug her and scratched behind his floppy gray ears.

Without warning, Genn stopped.  His spine went rigid and his tail stood out stiff.  His black nose twitched, crinkled.  He moved his snout close to Jaina’s face, as if he could not believe what his own nose was telling him.  Paws still on Jaina’s shoulders, Genn peeled back his lip in a snarl and let out a low, vicious growl.

Shock rooted Jaina to the ground.  She never witnessed so aggressive a reaction from Genn.  He was such a gentle old creature, rarely even barked.

“Genn, behave!” Anduin yelped in dismay.

Anduin grabbed Genn’s collar in both hands and hauled the wolfhound off Jaina.

“Sorry, Auntie!  Don’t know what got into the old boy.”

Jaina was unharmed, but definitely unsettled.  She tried to shrug it off.

“Must have smelled something on me that set him off.”

Or someone?

Anduin calmed Genn down.  The lad knew yelling would only stress the dog further and spur more aggression.  Anduin spoke gently to him, patting him with one hand and still holding his collar with the other in case he tried to bolt after Jaina.

She and Anduin exchanged goodbyes.  Jaina got back in her car and continued on her way to work, troubled.  The day was not off to a good start.

She drove to the center of town.  Boralus’s Main Street was lined with shops and cafes.  One of the cross-streets housed the town’s official buildings.  City hall, the library where Jaina loved to spend hours, and next to those, her workplace.  Boralus Municipal Water District.

The inside of the Water District building bustled with typical office energy.  Other coworkers were arriving around the same time as Jaina, ready to start the day.  Desks and cubicles filled the main area, with individual closed offices branching off.  The thermostat on the wall was sealed in a glass case to end the wars over it.  The coffee maker on the refreshment counter was making a weird noise, because of course it was.

Jaina bid the receptionist good morning and went into her little office.

Her desk remained how she left it yesterday, covered in papers and files and printouts.  And a mug of pens, half of which were out of ink but Jaina never got around to replacing.  A potted plant sat in one corner of her office.  A friendly coworker gave it to her ages ago, and Jaina diligently watered the plant for months before realizing it was fake.  Took a long time to live that one down, tons of snickers and teasing of Jaina in the break room.

Jaina settled into her desk chair and turned on her computer.

Loading.  Installing automatic updates.  Loading.  Please do not turn off your computer.  Still loading.

“Fantastic,” she muttered.

“Jaina, we got a problem.”

She looked up as her boss came in.

The ultimate Surfer Dude, her boss always looked like he just rolled up off the beach.  Flip-flops, swim trunks, the whole deal.  His dark hair hung in dreadlocks, and he went shirtless with a big medallion on his bare chest.  Jaina’s simple outfit, just boots and a blue skirt and a lace-fronted white top, felt formal compared to his.

“Morning, Neppo.  What problem?”

His full name was Neptulon, but he decided it was supremely uncool and insisted everyone call him Neppo.  Solidly-evidenced arguments from Jaina and his other staff of “but that sounds even stupider” did no good.

“Something strange going on with Boralus’s water-flow,” Neppo told Jaina.  “Some sort of chemical imbalance in the water coming out of people’s indoor pipe systems.  A few places around town reported unexplained side-effects last night.  Nobody taken ill yet, but we need to investigate this to make sure it’s nothing serious and it doesn’t spread through the entire town.”

Neppo shut Jaina’s door behind him and took the visitor’s seat in front of Jaina’s desk, while she remained behind the desk in her computer chair.

He went on, “Might be a contaminated rupture on one of the external pipelines.  We aren’t sure the root cause yet.  Reporting data suggests the corrupting agent isn’t coming from within the town.  Must be from one of the pipelines leading in from the ocean.”

“You mean the big ones in the harbor, at the bottom of the water?”

Growing up in Boralus, Jaina often played at the harbor and its beach.  She knew exactly the pipelines Neppo meant.  Thick metal pipes, wide enough to choke a whale, half-entrenched in the underwater sediment.  Jaina and her schoolmates used to race each other for who could be fastest to dive down there, touch the big pipe, and swim back to the surface.  It was doable without scuba gear in the shallower parts of the harbor.  Jaina never braved the deeper, denser waters farther out from shore, where the old pipes vanished down into the darkness of the ocean and you could swear unseen eyes watched you from below.

“Them’s the ones,” Neppo confirmed.  “I’m boating out to the north side of the harbor today.  Gonna swim down to the north pipeline and see if anything weird maybe got stuck on the pipe or pierced it somehow.  I’ll gather some chemical samples, send them off to the department’s lab for testing.”

“Good luck.  But, why are you telling me?”

Jaina had no idea why her boss came to her with this problem.  Not at all her arena.

Neppo held up two fingers.  “Because the harbor has two main pipelines, north and south.  I’ll be busy at the north end of the harbor.  Need someone to gather a sample from the south end’s pipe.”

Jaina jumped up from her computer chair.  The movement rattled her desk so hard her mug of pens wobbled.

“Are you kidding me?  Neppo, I’ve never done field work!  I’m the Water District’s administrator.  You know, paperwork, zoning agreements, repair contractor licensing, supply oversight.  I keep the office running so you waterboys can go do the field work.”

He spread his hands in placation and coaxed her back down into her chair.

“Yeah, yeah, you’re our resident book nerd and we love you for it.  Hydraxis usually assists me in the field, but he called out sick, and we gotta get those samples to the lab before closing time.  I can’t get both pipes done on my own before the lab crew goes home for the day.  Please, Jaina.”

Jaina protested, “It’s not that I don’t want to help.  This is completely outside my area of expertise.  I know nothing about water chemical imbalances or whatever substances may be contaminating the flow.”

“Don’t need to.  Just need you to swim down there and scrape a sample from the pipe’s exterior.  The lab will do the rest.”  He nodded in encouragement.  “You’re a good swimmer, Jaina.  There’s no one else in the office I trust with so important a task.”

Neppo thrust a testing kit into her arms, stuffed full of vials and rubber rings and drip-readers and other little devices Jaina had no idea what they did.

Jaina turned the box over in her hands, considering.

“Actually, Neppo, can you give me two kits?  While I’m down there, I’ll grab a second sample.”

“Lab only needs one per pipeline.”

“I know an alchemist.”

Actually, I barely know her, but I have intimate dreams about her every night.

Jaina went on, “She’s good with chemicals and reagents and stuff, a real expert.  If our department’s testing lab can’t figure out what’s wrong with the water, maybe she can.”

Sylvanas ran an apothecary business that developed new chemical compounds.  Pharmacology was not the same field as water purification and pipeline distribution, but Jaina believed her stepmother would be willing to help.  At the least, it would give the two of them something to talk about, instead of Sylvanas’s teasing or Jaina’s shy awkwardness.

I did promise Mother I’d try to be friends with Sylvanas, Jaina reminded herself.  It’s not my stepmother’s fault those inappropriate dreams keep happening.

At least, I think it’s not.

This morning’s discovery of Sylvanas’s scar, somehow already known from last night’s fantasy, still confused Jaina.  The only certainty was that Sylvanas knew more than she said.

Neppo’s face lifted in hope.  “So, this means you’ll do it?”

Jaina agreed, if only because it was an important job.  They needed to find out what was going on before the town’s pipelines got damaged further or people fell ill.

“You owe me for this, Neppo.  There better be a fat box of donuts waiting in the break room when I come in tomorrow.”

Jaina gathered the two testing kits, got instructions from Neppo, and left the office.

Boralus’s harbor lay only a short drive from the Water District building.  Navigating to the harbor was easy from anywhere in town.  Just look up and follow the gulls.  They would lead you to the beach.

Jaina knew the route well.  She took full advantage of living in a seaside town, went swimming and beach-strolling as often as she could.  Made a habit of keeping a spare swimsuit and towel in the trunk of her car, though she never expected to need them for work.

At the harbor, Jaina parked her car and changed in the beach bathroom.  The sand residue tracked in on the concrete bathroom floor tickled her feet as she stepped into her swimsuit.  A simple blue swimsuit, its only design a narrow stripe of tiny white butterfly silhouettes marching up one side of her ribcage.  In spring, the water was warm enough she did not need a wetsuit.

Jaina did not stick out.  Most people around the beach and harbor docks wore swimsuits and trunks and tank tops.  On a weekday, the place was not too busy.  Some visitors, some local surfers and boaters.  People chatted happily, took pictures, or sat on the beach to read.  One guy was grappling with a seagull trying to carry off his selfie stick as loot.

Boralus’s harbor was a popular tourist and date destination.  A long pier stretched out into the water with shops and restaurants, while a few marinas neighbored the sandy beach.  Everything smelled of sea salt and sunscreen, threaded through with the mouthwatering scents of sugary treats from the beachside stalls and fresh-caught fish cooking in the upscale restaurants on the pier.

On the public marina, anyone could dock their boat if they were lucky enough to find an available berth.  A private wing of the marina had assigned berths for members’ boats only.  It was to this marina Jaina went, stepping along wooden planks thankfully too smooth to put splinters in her bare feet.  She unlocked the gate to the private docks and shut it behind her.

Jaina headed to one mooring in particular.  Inherited from her father, her boat floated in its berth.  “Starshine” was painted in gold letters along the side of the prow, named after a lullaby he used to sing her.

Starshine was a bowrider, a small boat intended for casual jaunts around the harbor, not far out to sea.  Modest compared to the huge, elaborate pleasure-boats the town’s elite docked here, or the yachts rented by tourists.  Jaina’s little brown boat only fit four to five people on its green vinyl seats.  Starshine had a steering wheel and a single motor, and an open top to feel the breeze.

“Hello again, old friend.”

Jaina spoke with affection, like Starshine were some loyal family pet.  Weird, for sure, but anyone who grew up in a seaside town knew boats held a special place in their owners’ hearts.

Her father took her fishing on this boat many times as a kid.  Jaina remembered the first fish she ever caught, a rather grumpy-looking kelp bass.  A small, unremarkable catch, but Daelin brought it home with a proud smile and bragged to Katherine how Jaina caught it all by herself.  He taught Jaina how to skin and debone the fish, and they cooked it together.  A happy memory, but the years since Daelin’s death opened a gulf of sadness so wide that Jaina wondered if even the warmest memories of her beloved father would be swallowed up.

Jaina climbed into Starshine’s driver seat.  She prepared the testing kits Neppo gave her, as well as a bathymetric map of the harbor’s seabed with coordinates for the underwater pipeline.  The plan was to boat out into the harbor until she was directly above the pipe, then swim down from there.

Jaina was about to undo the mooring line and cast off when she heard voices nearby.

An old lady was walking past the docked boats in their berths.  She wore a turtleneck and big glasses that made her eyes look huge beneath the magnification.  Small in stature, she seemed to be carrying her own body weight in the form of an enormous backpack, like she intended to hike a mountain instead of stroll the harbor and its beach.  Scrolls and bottles and seashell-beads decked her backpack, and a utility belt carried even more bottles and pouches.

A little pennant attached to the top of the lady’s huge backpack flapped in the ocean breeze, displaying a logo for something called Save the Turtles Foundation.  Her turtleneck bore an image on the chest, of a seagull with a big red CANCEL circle-symbol slashing through it.  A button pinned to her shoulder displayed the Foundation’s slogan, “Every turtle deserves to make it to the water.”

She looked like the kind of cluttered, free-spirited person who lived out of an RV by the shore.  Even so, she was clean and bright and cheerful.  Endearingly cute in that sweet-old-lady, cup-of-tea way.

The lady ambled up and down the wooden planks of the marina, chatting to the boaters and fishers and holding out a coffee tin to collect money for her charity foundation.

“Donate to save the turtles?” she entreated a man standing on the dock next to where his boat was moored.

It was the berth right next to Jaina’s Starshine, but the man’s boat far outstripped hers.  A fancy cabin-cruiser with an enclosed roof, tinted windows, and a fashionably sleek prow.  Painted in flashy red with brass grab rails, it was as big as a houseboat.

Jaina recognized the man.  Trim and blond, and handsome despite missing an eye.  Lor’themar liked spouting some brave story about how he lost the eye in a dramatic fight.  Jaina knew the truth.  He was careless one time with popping a champagne cork.

After years as dock-neighbors on this marina, Jaina and Lor’themar knew each other, if only in passing.  It was not a... pleasant acquaintance.

Lor’themar was currently being his usual snobby self, badgering the lady collecting for charity.

“How did you get in here?  Madam, this is a private  marina.  Outsiders need a member’s permission to be on these docks.  You are trespassing.”  Lor’themar looked the lady up and down with a sneer.  His cuff links probably cost more than everything on her.  “Leave immediately, back to the public area of the harbor with the rest of the rabble, or I will be forced to contact law enforcement.”

The little old lady wilted under his threat.  Big eyes blinked in uncertainty beneath her glasses, and she clutched her coffee tin of donations close, fearful of losing the help for the turtles.

“She does have a member’s permission to be here.  Mine.”

Jaina climbed out of her bowrider and went over to them.

She stood on the dock, hands planted boldly on her hips, stance strong.  Jaina did not cut a particularly imposing figure, what with wearing only a butterfly-patterned swimsuit.  Even so, she stood firm and did not back down.

Jaina never saw this woman before.  But damned if Jaina would let Lor’themar bully someone without stepping in.  Generations of Proudmoores lived in Boralus before this private marina was even built.  Jaina held a membership since long before Lor’themar, only a tourist himself, began vacationing here.

Honestly!  Picking on a good-intentioned old lady just doing charity work!  So what if she held no membership for this particular marina?  Not like she was damaging the place.  Lor’themar was too elitist to feel something as humble as basic compassion.

Jaina spoke a few words to the old lady, told her to please go wait beside Jaina’s bowrider while Jaina dealt with Lor’themar.  The lady dipped her head gratefully at Jaina and waddled off to where Starshine was moored.

“Hey, Romeo,” Jaina called in the direction of Lor’themar’s boat, “Come get your husband, he’s being a prick.”

With a swish of a black ponytail, another man’s head popped up out of the cruiser’s cabin.

“Well, well!  The younger and less pretty Proudmoore graces us with her presence.”

Jaina rolled her eyes at the jest.  Sure, sure, everyone knew Katherine was hotter.  Still, Jaina and Rommath shared a grin.  Only friends and acquaintances called him that Romeo nickname.  She got along far better with him than Lor’themar.

Rommath climbed out of the cruiser’s cabin, then down the boat’s side-ladder and landed on the wooden dock to join Jaina and Lor’themar.

Rommath slung an arm around his grumpy husband’s shoulders.

“Ignore this old crank.  He’s just in a sour mood because yesterday he parked his car too close to the elephant seal herd’s favorite sunning rocks, those ones close inland from the shore.”

Jaina whistled a “hoo-boy”.  She knew exactly which rock Rommath meant.  And which particular elephant seal lived there.

“Did Whargarble get to it?”

“Uh-huh!” Rommath crowed.  “Fucked a big ol’ dent right into the side of Lor’themar’s Porsche.”

Rommath laughed so hard he doubled over.  As for Lor’themar himself, his back stiffened and his face pinched in pissed-off-ness, but he could not stop a flush of embarrassment from spreading across his cheeks.

Locals named Whargarble for the noise he made.  He lived in Boralus’s harbor for years, and won a reputation as the beach town’s resident vehicle-harasser.  He was both ill-tempered and not particularly perceptive.  Assumed any large solid object he encountered, such as a car parked too close to his rock, must be another elephant seal.  Whargarble was bigger than a three-person sofa, and he put every pound of his considerable weight into body-slamming the fellow “seal”.  The action was either a violent duel or an attempt at tender mating.  No one was quite sure.  Either way, the unlucky cars were quite damaged by Whargarble’s... attentions.

Fortunately for Whargarble, he was a protected species, meaning there would be an obscenely high fine for harming him that made car-repair bills look paltry.  So, everyone left the old bastard alone.  Whargarble even became sort of a town mascot, with beachside kitsch shops selling t-shirts and mugs with his image.  Signposts staked around the harbor parking lots warned tourists not to park too close to his sunning rock.  Lor’themar was not native to Boralus, but he and his husband vacationed here every spring for enough years that Lor’themar should have known better.

Jaina and Rommath laughed together.  Lor’themar was too stuck-up to see the humor in his own inconvenience, but he knew saying anything further on the subject would only make him look even more a fool.

“I think that is quite enough chatter for me.  Good day, Miss Proudmoore.”

With his one remaining eye, Lor’themar threw a skeptical squint at the lady from the Save the Turtles Foundation.  She still meandered a little ways down the dock.

“See that your... guest does not cause trouble.”

Lor’themar turned and stomped back to his fancy red cabin-cruiser.  Jaina silently mouthed, “Dump him,” at Rommath, but the black-haired man only chuckled and waved bye as he followed his husband onto their boat.

Jaina returned to Starshine’s berth.  The old lady shuffled around near the mooring post, seeming a bit absent-minded.  She blinked behind her big glasses when Jaina walked up, taking Jaina in.

“My appreciation for the rescue, young lady!  You have a good heart, I can tell.”

“No problem, ma’am,” Jaina reassured her.  “Pay Lor’themar no mind.  I hope he didn’t frighten you.”

“Oh, I’ve seen worse than him in my time, dearie.  Far worse.  Things best left sunken in the dark forever.”

One of the lady’s hands still carried the donation tin for her charity foundation.  She clapped the other hand to her forehead in scatterbrained realization.

“Oh, of course, you wouldn’t know my name yet, would you?  I’m Nola.  Nola Scrollsage, but everyone just calls me Old Nola.”

“Nice to meet you, Nola, I’m J--”

“Save the turtles, dearie?”

Bills rustled and coins clinked from inside the coffee tin as Nola thrust it forward and wiggled it, not even waiting for Jaina to finish introducing herself.

Jaina chuckled.  Sure was a dedicated one, this Old Nola.  Jaina did not mind donating.  She pulled some cash out of her boat’s glovebox and stuffed it through the slot cut in the lid of Nola’s tin.

“Sorry, that’s all the cash I got on me.  Most places take cards nowadays.”

“That’s all right, dearie!  Every little bit helps.”

Nola looked Jaina in the eye.  For a moment, the gaze magnified beneath those glasses pierced the absent-minded fog with utmost seriousness.

“Sometimes, even the most ordinary person can make extraordinary change, Jaina.  In this world and others.”

Nola hugged Jaina tight.  Tiny, her head only came up to Jaina’s mid-ribs.  The abrupt hug made Jaina awkward, but not uncomfortable.  Just a harmless, friendly old lady.  Jaina patted Nola on the back, gingerly so as not to dislodge the myriad scrolls and oddly-shaped bottles attached to her huge backpack.

Nola released the hug and went on her merry way with a scatterbrained smile.  Jaina did a double-take.

“Hey, wait, how did you know my na--”

Nola waddled off with her tin before Jaina could finish.  Looking quite pleased with herself, she scoured the marina for others to entreat donations from.

Jaina grumbled to herself.  First the fiasco with Sylvanas at breakfast this morning, then Genn snarling at her for no reason, then Neppo drafting her into swim duty, now this.

“Can today get any weirder?” she muttered.

Well.  She came to the harbor for a reason.  Time to get the job done.

Jaina climbed back into Starshine, turned the key in the engine, and drove the little brown bowrider out into the mouth of the harbor.

At the south end of the harbor mouth, Jaina dropped anchor and checked the map’s coordinates against the navigation system built into the boat’s dashboard.  Right on target.  The pipeline should be directly below her.

There were no other boats nearby.  A few fishing boats floated farther out, where the harbor met the sea, but not anywhere that could be considered “close” to Jaina.  The only relatively close vessel was a big white pleasure yacht, the type rich tourists partied on.  But even it was far enough away not to intrude on Jaina’s work.  The yacht’s passengers were only distant, indistinguishable shapes scuttling around the deck.

The first trip down, Jaina did not bring the testing kits.  The preliminary dive was just to gauge depth to the pipe, to see if she could make it down to the harbor bottom and back up with enough breath.

This part of the harbor was not deep enough to merit scuba gear for the dive.  However, she did take a waterproof flashlight with her.  If Jaina remembered correctly, the pipe was not far enough underwater to choke out sunlight, but a little extra light for clarity would not hurt.

Jaina fastened a zipped pouch to the side of her thigh, held in place by straps around her thigh muscles.  It would hold her flashlight and the two sample vials once she filled them, one for Neppo and one Jaina intended to bring home for Sylvanas to test.

Jaina dived off the boat and splashed into the water.  With smooth, experienced strokes, she swam down, down, down.  The current was not too rough.  Easy for a strong swimmer like Jaina to overcome it.

With enough breath to spare, Jaina made it down to the pipeline.  Floating over it, she pulled out her flashlight to inspect the pipe closely.

It looked as she remembered it from childhood.  A miles-long metal pipe, wide enough to drive a car through like a tunnel, half-entrenched in the underwater soil at the bottom of the harbor.  Studded rings and fittings secured each joined segment of the pipeline.  The pipe bore the usual buildup of encrusted sediment and stray seaweed strands and tiny barnacles, and the splotchy discolored blemishes common to old metal.

Jaina moved her flashlight up and down, searching.  This part of the pipe looked normal.  No sign of whatever contaminating influence was causing side-effects in the town.  She swam a little ways along, following the pipeline farther out toward sea.

A prickling sensation tingled the back of Jaina’s neck.  The uncanny feeling of being watched.

Jaina knew that sensation well, but it previously only occurred when she strayed out to the deeper, darker waters outside the harbor, not usually this close to shore.

She turned in a full circle underwater, scanning with her flashlight, but saw nothing near her but the pipe.  In the quiet underwater, Jaina could hear her own heartbeat drumming in her ears.  She strained, listening for any sound that might reveal the unknown watcher.  Still nothing.  Whatever, just imagination.  She ignored the sensation and returned her attention to the pipe.

Jaina found what she was sent down here for.

Exactly as Neppo suspected, something weird had gotten stuck on the pipe.  A small rupture cut the metal, like an infection in the pipe.  Unhealthy blobs of an odd purplish color bubbled around the rupture point, emitting a gaseous trail that rose up and dissolved into the surrounding seawater.

Jaina kicked her legs to move closer.  She pointed her flashlight and peered at the blobs of purple goop stuck to the pipe.  “Goop” was probably not the scientific term, but Jaina had no idea what that substance actually was.

The Water District was right to send someone to investigate immediately.  Whatever this goop was, it must be what caused the weird side-effects in some of the townspeople’s pipelines last night.  Jaina hoped Neppo’s northern harbor pipe did not bear the same infection, or other parts of Boralus could fall ill from this strange contamination.  The entire town’s pipelines connected to the harbor.

Whatever that purple stuff was, the underwater life seemed to be thriving off it.  A cluster of oysters encrusted the pipe, gathered around the rupture like devotees gathered around a prophet’s pulpit.  Open-mouthed to drink in the purplish infection.  Jaina never saw oysters of such size!  Big as a shoebox, far larger than the normal local-caught oysters the pier restaurants served.

Having seen what she needed for the first dive, and now running out of air, Jaina rotated her body upward and swam back to the surface.

Now that she knew where the problem site was, it was time to gather a sample.  She held onto the side of Starshine and reached into the boat to open one of the testing kits.  She pulled out a scraper tool and a glass sample vial the size of her finger.

Taking a deep breath, she slipped beneath the water again and returned to the pipe.

Jaina carefully scraped some of the purple substance off the pipe, working her tool around the cluster of huge oysters.  The goop did not come off easy.  It was viscous and sticky and somehow grainy, like insect blood and viscera mixed with crushed fishbone dust.  No way she could clean it all off the rupture by herself.  The Water District’s lab needed to figure out what this substance was and determine the best course of action.

Jaina deposited the scraped sample into the glass vial.  She sealed it with a rubber ring and tucked the vial into the zipped pouch strapped to the side of her thigh.

That done, Jaina swam to the surface again.

“Okay.”  Jaina gulped in air.  “That’s the sample for the official testing lab.  One more dive.  Need a sample for Sylvanas.  If anyone can figure out what that weird purple crap is, it’s her.”

Jaina grabbed a fresh vial from the second kit and made her third and final trip down.  She scraped off more of that weird purple substance from the pipe, around the oysters, then sealed the vial and added it to its twin inside her thigh-pouch.

Mission success.  Just in time, too.  With how long it took to painstakingly scrape off those sticky purple globs, air was running out.

Jaina was about to leave for the last time and swim back to the surface.

Something was... wrong.  Jaina stopped, going still, floating there in the water right atop the pipe.

The sensation of being watched intensified.  It thickened, almost tangible.  Jaina looked around again, but still saw nothing save the pipe and underwater sediment.

Jaina could... feel it.  Something both dark and encompassing.  Beyond rationality.  Jaina was certain if she reached out she would brush up against that unseen presence in the water.

An invasive tingle ran along every inch of her skin in a shadow of a caress, like invisible fingers or tentacles were waving along the outline of her body, less than an inch from touching her.  It traced her silhouette like a child tracing his own hand on paper with a pencil.

“My devoted Chosen.”

Jaina flinched.  On land she would have done an involuntary spit-take, but underwater she blew a stream of bubbles from her mouth in shock.

Where did that voice come from?!

Quiet as a whisper, loud as a scream.  It came from inside Jaina’s head, it came from all around her.  A deep voice with a slow, ageless drawl.  Somehow both smooth and jagged, like dragging a snakeskin over rocks.

Jaina spun in the water, panicked, trying to look every direction at once.  The primal, prey-animal terror of I am not alone here  slammed to the forefront of her brain, overwhelming everything else, even as the rational part of her tried to insist there was no one else nearby.

Amid her panicked flurry of movement, being a land-ape struggling against the underwater currents and strange gravity and odd-dimension waterspace she did not belong in, Jaina lost her sense of direction.  Her flashlight slipped from her grip and bounced on the metal pipe with a water-dulled clang before its light vanished into the dark sediment.  She could still see, just not so clearly.

Jaina whirled, disoriented.  Her limbs flailed, trying to find footing on the pipe.  She found it.  In her clumsy panic, she stepped right into the open mouth of one of the oysters clustered around the contaminated rupture.

The oyster clamped shut around Jaina’s ankle, sealing her in.

Seriously?!

Jaina bent double and reached down to her foot.  Tried to wrench open the oyster’s hard shell with her hands.  She tugged and pulled with all her might, but could not get her foot out.

She could not rip the oyster off the pipe and take it with her.  It was affixed too tight to the metal, mired in that sticky goop.  Jaina did not even have a way to cut off her own foot like a fox’s paw in a steel trap.

She was stuck.

She was stuck, and she was losing air by the second.

Jaina tried to stay calm amidst the fear swallowing her.  A burning pressure formed inside her lungs as her air slowly ran out.  The pressure spread, squeezing her chest, her throat, her brain.  Her very eyes seemed to prickle inside their sockets like thorns.

I didn’t get to say goodbye to Mother.  I didn’t get to say goodbye to Sylvanas.

Jaina’s drowning consciousness on the verge of passing out sent one last electric message sparking through her mind.  Do not give up.  Do not give up!  Her hands still struggled with the oyster clamped around her ankle, desperately trying to force it open.

A shape moved in the water.

The shape swam down to Jaina from above in a streaming swirl of white against the dark blue of the water.  Jaina felt a flash of horror that she was about to be eaten by a shark or something, on top of every other problem right now.  But, the shape coalesced into a person.

Jaina found herself face-to-face with the most beautiful woman she ever saw.  Would have stolen Jaina’s breath, had Jaina any breath right now.

The stranger wore nothing save a strapless white bikini and some gold body jewelry.  Armbands, anklets, a delicate chain necklace.  Long white hair streamed behind her like a banner in the water.

There was something vaguely familiar about the woman, although Jaina was certain they never met before.

Lack of oxygen in her brain must surely be playing tricks.  If not a hallucination, maybe this beautiful vision was an angel descending from above to carry Jaina to her death.

The stranger seemed real enough.  They could not speak to each other underwater, but the woman gestured like she intended to help.  She swam down to Jaina, close enough to touch.

Golden eyes met Jaina’s blue from mere inches away.

The white-haired woman cupped Jaina’s face in her hands.  Those golden eyes closed.  Before Jaina knew what was happening, the stranger pressed her lips to Jaina’s in a kiss.

Jaina’s head almost imploded in shock, before she realized the woman was trying to give Jaina a bit of air to sustain her.  Jaina was not entirely sure that idea would work, but A+ for effort at least.

Having bought Jaina a few more moments, the stranger pulled back from the kiss.  With a smooth kick of her legs and stroke of her arms, the stranger swam down to where Jaina’s foot was stuck on the pipe.  With both women working together, they finally managed to pry open the oyster and release Jaina’s ankle.

Freed, Jaina kicked upward and pumped her arms with her last remaining might.  The stranger helped Jaina rise through the water, away from the pipe and toward the sun-bright surface.

Jaina’s head broke the surface.  She gasped deeply, greedily, gulping in as much air as possible.  She floated there on the water’s surface in pure abject gratitude for a few moments.  Oh, sweet air.  And such a lovely pale blue sky and fluffy clouds.  She felt salt on her cheeks, either from the sea or her own silent tears of relief.

Jaina’s head cleared.  She tread water and looked around to regain her bearings after the frantic, disorienting underwater experience.

Currents and the rushed swim had carried Jaina and the stranger a bit away from where Starshine floated.  They were now farther out in the harbor, close to the yacht Jaina noticed earlier.

Several people aboard the yacht dashed forward with solicitous cries.  Multiple pairs of hands reached down from the lowest part of the deck, grasping Jaina’s shoulders and upper arms to help haul her up the yacht’s side-ladder toward the deck.

The main person gripping Jaina was a woman with long dark hair in multiple braids, held by a golden hairband.  Words spilled from the woman in anxious relief.

“My queen!  Are you all right?  You were down there so long, we worri--”

The dark-haired woman suddenly realized she was not holding who she expected.

“Oh.  You aren’t her.”

The dark-haired woman’s grip on Jaina loosened.

“Well, then.  Back into the drink you go!”

She made as if to drop Jaina back into the ocean like waste.

The white-haired stranger surfaced next to Jaina, and clicked her tongue at the black-haired woman in reproach.

“Now, now, Vashj.  Be nice to my guest.”

Both Vashj and the stranger spoke with an unusual accent.  It reminded Jaina of Sylvanas’s accent, only in that Jaina could not place where it hailed from.

Jaina’s mysterious savior climbed up the ladder onto her yacht.  Her wet skin glistened in the sun like a goddess.  She extended a hand and helped Jaina up onto the deck beside her.

Jaina stepped gingerly.  Her ankle bore a red welt from the oyster’s “bite”.  Sore, but not bleeding.  Fortunately, the ankle did not seem sprained.  Should be fine in a few hours.

Jaina looked around the yacht.  She never set foot on so expensive and elaborate a vessel.  Pure decadence in material form.  Everything was pristine white, decorated in gold.  The color scheme matched its white-haired, gold-adorned owner.

Apart from Vashj and the people who helped Jaina up, a number of others milled around the deck.  Some sitting on cushions and built-in side benches, some walking around holding trays of refreshments, some hard at work manning the yacht.  They all gravitated around the strange woman, the star at the center of their solar system.  Had Jaina interrupted some sort of gathering?

Jaina dripped seawater on the deck.  Her wet braid trailed miserably down her chest like a piece of cut rigging dangling off a mast.  Head to toe, Jaina shivered, either from the water or from shock of nearly dying.

The stranger noticed the shivering.  She snapped her fingers imperiously and pointed at Jaina.  One of the people on the yacht came over and offered Jaina a fluffy towel.

Jaina wrapped the towel around her shoulders gratefully.  She touched her leg to check the zipped pouch was still securely strapped to the side of her thigh.  Thank the tides she did not lose the sample vials down there.

A second towel was brought forward, for the stranger.  By Vashj, who then worked with a few other people to towel the stranger down, all of them drying off her body as reverently as art-devotees restoring color to a Renaissance painting.  Once she was dry, they backed off, silent and unobtrusive, seeming content to merely bask in her proximity.

Jaina did not blame them.  The white-haired stranger certainly possessed a strong presence.  Regal.  Older than Jaina, she was somewhere in her thirties.  Her spellbinding beauty Jaina noticed underwater now stood out even clearer in the bright light of day.

Her gold body jewelry glinted in the sunshine, all she wore apart from her strapless white bikini.  She picked up a white sarong and tied it around her waist.  The sheer, nearly see-through cloth left one leg and part of her ass-curve free.

“I saw your little boat drop anchor,” the woman explained as she tied off her sarong.  “Noticed you went down without any scuba gear.  When you did not resurface in a reasonable time, I dived in after you.”

“Quite a swim,” Jaina remarked.

They could see Jaina’s boat from here, still anchored patiently in the water.  A fair distance, doable if you were a strong swimmer.  This stranger certainly had the body for it.  Tall and sleek and divinely proportioned.  An unfairly-perfect mix of delicious curves and toned muscles.  Not as toned as Sylvanas.

By the tides!  Jaina berated herself. Why do I keep thinking about my stepmother?  Can’t get her out of my head despite the fact I almost died a minute ago.

Jaina tried to be respectful and not stare, but this stranger surely drew the eye.  Even her voice was enticing.  Thick and rich, equal parts commanding and beguiling.

The stranger lay down atop a cushioned divan on the yacht’s deck.  She reclined on her side like some ancient empress.  Without looking, she held out a hand.  One of the people on deck scurried over, bearing a tray with a wine glass.  He knelt and held the tray up above his head like an offering for her.  The white-haired woman took the glass without giving him a thank-you nor even a glance.  As if he were just a piece of furniture or the fridge light, there to do its job and be forgotten.  Jaina was... bewildered by the display.

The stranger sipped on her wine leisurely.  She lounged on her divan with that particular breed of casual dominance only won from years of unshakable self-assurance.

Everyone aboard stared at Jaina.  Like some specimen under a microscope they were observing for reaction.  She shifted her feet awkwardly on the deck, her soles damp from the puddle of her own dripped seawater.

“Uh, thank you for saving me.  Hope it wasn’t a trouble.  I’m sure I would’ve gotten out of there in just another moment or two.”

Maybe putting a good face on the near-death experience would make it less frightening.

“I’m sure you would have.”

It was a purr.  The stranger took a sip from her wine glass without breaking eye contact with Jaina.  She ran her tongue along her bottom lip to gather up blood-red wine droplets.

Vivid remembrance rose like a bloated, sunken corpse floating to the water’s surface, remembrance of those lips kissing hers.  Jaina shook her head to shove the memory back down.

“I don’t know what happened down there,” Jaina confessed.  “I thought I heard someone in the water.  Something.  A... dark presence.”

As soon as the words left her mouth, Jaina realized how ludicrous they sounded.  These people must think her out of her mind.  Yet, no one on the yacht questioned her assertion.

“Anyway,” Jaina went on, to cover herself, “It startled me, and I accidentally stepped in the oyster.”

“Startled” was a lie.  Truth be told, that voice terrified Jaina.  She could not explain why.  She clutched the towel around her shoulders in futile hope something as simple as cotton could protect her from that unknown presence.  That voice had poked at the very depths of Jaina’s consciousness, waking something hidden and forgotten, like a memory so long past it was more a vague impression than a solid record.

“The mind plays strange tricks down in the depths,” the stranger said.  “What is real, and what is a dream?  Are the two really so separate?  Ask a fish, if you want all truths revealed to you.”

Jaina blinked.  “Ask a... fish?”

“The fish know all the secrets.  They know the cold.  They know the dark.”

Golden eyes seemed to unfocus.  Troubled by whatever thoughts were swimming inside her head, the woman stared away from her yacht, off into the distance where the fathomless ocean vanished into the horizon.

Jaina was fully weirded out by this entire situation, but no one else seemed to be.  The people aboard the yacht hung on the stranger’s every word.

Who was this woman, and why were all these people treating her with such... subservience?  They fawned too much to simply be friends hanging out on the rich woman’s yacht.  They must work for her in some capacity.

Uncanny.  More like worship than work.  Jaina could not imagine looking at her boss Neppo the way these employees looked at the white-haired woman.  Come to think, Vashj said “my queen” earlier, right?  Might be some kind of cult.

Cult leaders often wear white, don’t they?  What’s with that?

Jaina wondered whether to pinch herself to see if she woke up.  This whole scenario was quite surreal.  She almost died, and now she was on a fancy tourist yacht with a cult leader.  A cult leader currently eyeing Jaina with open intrigue.  And with something else, something unidentifiable.  This woman’s interest in Jaina clearly went beyond a simple good deed to help a drowning bystander.

Familiarity still tickled the back of Jaina’s mind.

“Oh!” Jaina blurted.  “I just realized where I’ve seen you before.  You’re that big movie star!  What’s your stage name, again?  Ankara?”

Vashj hissed, affronted as a stepped-on snake.  “Impudent child!  You have the honor of standing before Azshara, the Light Beneath the Tides, and --”

Azshara waved her hand to one side.  An idle gesture, but it cut Vashj off as sharply as a blade.  Vashj went silent and ducked her head submissively.

“Simply Azshara will do fine.  So, you have seen my films?  How delightful.”

Stretched out on the divan, Azshara flicked her still-damp hair in true self-absorbed decadence, no doubt ready to receive praise.

“Well, I saw the trailer,” Jaina admitted.  “Part of the trailer.”

Specifically, the first five seconds of the trailer, before the Skip Ad button popped up and let me watch my video in peace.

It would not be polite to tell Azshara that.

“And what name should I call you, my little pearl?”  Azshara smiled, sultry and secretive.  “Surely you must be a pearl, for I pulled you out of an oyster and you are a beautiful treasure to behold.”

Jaina’s cheeks went a bit pink.  A tingle flickered through her body like an electric jolt.  Surprising to discover, she actually rather enjoyed Azshara calling her “my”.

Celebrity status might explain why all these hangers-on aboard the yacht regarded Azshara with such reverence.  Whatever, big movie star or not, Jaina refused to fawn over anyone.

“My name’s Jaina.  Jaina Proudmoore.”

“Proudmoore.”  Azshara tapped a fingertip on her full, luscious lips.  “Rings a bell.”

Vashj supplied, “That house up on the hill you wanted, my queen.”

Vashj pointed.  From where the yacht floated out in the harbor, the town’s outlying hill overlooking the sea remained visible, though too distant for detail.  Jaina’s home was just a brown-and-green shape crowning the hill.

“Ah, yes!” Azshara remembered.  “I am only in Boralus for a few weeks.  I looked into renting a house for the visit.  To my disappointment, I was informed the charming old house on the hill was not available, that it was owned by someone named Proudmoore.  I ended up having to rent a mansion on the other side of town.”  She made it sound as if the privilege of having her own vacation mansion were tedious.  “One of those uninspired modern styles.  Not nearly as charming as your place.  I do so love a house with history.”

“It’s my family home.  The Proudmoores have lived in Boralus for as long as the town existed.”

Pride filled Jaina, just like her name.  It drained out of her again at a sudden thought.  Were her father still alive, would he even be proud of Jaina anymore, the heir to his long-standing family name?  After she caused his death?

Azshara set her wine glass aside and rose from her divan.  Her gold anklets clinked almost musically as her bare feet stepped gracefully across the deck.  She came to stand in front of Jaina, quite close.  Jaina had to tilt her own head back to meet the taller woman’s golden eyes.

“I am certain the inside of your house is as charming as the outside.  However, should you find yourself wanting a change of scene, you must come visit me at my mansion.”

Jaina’s brow crinkled as she tried to parse what Azshara was implying.

“You mean like a... date?”

Azshara snapped her fingers at one of her employees -- servants? -- and the fellow dashed over to a case-box atop one of the deck tables.  He riffled through some papers and returned with a crisp white business card.

Azshara pressed the card into Jaina’s palm.  She closed Jaina’s fingers around it with both hands.

“This is my private number.  Call me any time.”  Still holding Jaina’s hand in both of hers, Azshara rubbed the pad of her thumb across Jaina’s knuckles in a slow stroke.  “I look forward to the pleasure.  Of your company, that is.”

Jaina took her hand back.

“I will... keep the offer in mind.”

Azshara was alluring, sure.  Gorgeous, confident, famous, rich.  Anybody would leap at the chance of a date with her.  Jaina must admit, the offer was tempting.

Despite Jaina’s undeniable attraction, there was something about Azshara that Jaina did not trust.  If this clearly influential person already had a yacht full of people willing to do anything for her, why exactly would she pursue some local random like Jaina?

I already have one mysterious beautiful older woman in my life.  Don’t need a second one invading my dreams each night.

Azshara directed her crew to steer the yacht over to where Jaina’s bowrider remained anchored.  When they pulled up alongside it in the water, the little brown boat seemed so humble compared to Azshara’s big fancy yacht.  Jaina was not embarrassed.  Starshine was her and her father’s boat.  Jaina would never be ashamed of that connection.

Jaina returned her borrowed towel to one of the employees with a thank-you, then climbed down the yacht’s railed side-ladder onto her own boat.  Careful of her sore ankle.  Thankfully, the red welt from the oyster’s “bite” was already healing.

To Jaina’s surprise, Azshara followed her down the ladder and settled in beside her, in Starshine’s passenger seat.

Jaina did not know what to say.  She could not just shoot off a “Thanks for saving my life, now get out of my boat.”  Besides, Jaina must admit, even if only to herself, it was nice to enjoy Azshara’s company a few more minutes.

Jaina cranked up the anchor and stowed it.  A turn of the key in the ignition, a spin of the steering wheel, and Starshine puttered off.

Vashj and the others stood on the yacht and silently watched Azshara go.  It minded Jaina of dogs pitifully watching the front door when their owner left.

Jaina made small talk to distract herself as she steered back toward the marina.  Her little boat splashed up a tiny white froth in its wake, like quick kisses from the sea.

“You said you’re visiting Boralus for a few weeks.  What brings you here, Azshara?”

“Stargazing.”

Not an answer Jaina expected.  “Stargazing?” she repeated.

“The circle of stars will soon align.  A once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event.  Even a sleeper would want to awaken to witness such glory.”

Azshara slung one bare, toned arm across the back of the green seats and watched Jaina intently.  Once, on a school trip, Jaina visited Boralus’s aquarium, where she witnessed an octopus craftily pry open a mollusk’s hard shell to mercilessly devour its soft, unprotected flesh.  Jaina had watched through the glass, both fascinated and horrified by the devious creature.  Azshara’s gaze evoked the same reaction in Jaina.  As if Azshara were sizing up Jaina’s defenses the same way that octopus had poked and rubbed his tentacles along the outside of the closed mollusk, searching for the one weak point to crack it open.

Jaina said, “Can’t you stargaze from anywhere?  Why Boralus?”

Azshara smiled that mysterious smile again.  “I heard some very interesting things might take place in this town beneath those stars.”

“Heard from who?”  Abruptly, Jaina laughed.  “Oh, did a fish tell you?  They know all the secrets, didn’t you say.”

“As a matter of fact, one did.”

Jaina laughed along with Azshara, certain it was a joke, that Azshara liked playing the mystery-queen.

Before long, they returned to the marina Jaina had departed from.  She slid Starshine into its assigned berth and shut off its engine.  Its prow bumped gently against the wooden dock, neighboring Lor’themar and Rommath’s boat.

Other passersby on the marina spared the two women only a casual glance.  Still in their swimsuits, Jaina and Azshara did not stand out from the other beach-goers.  Thankfully, no one recognized the movie star yet.  The last thing their sleepy little seaside town needed was a swarm of paparazzi descending upon it.

Azshara stepped off the boat first and held out a hand to assist Jaina onto the dock.  Jaina did not really need the help, her ankle was much better now, but she still thanked Azshara for the gesture.  Jaina tied Starshine to its mooring post, securing the little boat until she needed it again.

Awkward as a seagull lost inland, Jaina stood there on the dock beside Azshara, unsure how to proceed from here.  Time to say goodbye, she supposed.  Not sure if that was a good or bad thing.

“Thank you again for saving me.  This might sound silly, given you’re rich and famous and unlikely to need my help, but rest assured you can call upon the Proudmoores if you’re ever in trouble.  I owe you one.”

“Such a sweet girl.”

Azshara gripped Jain’s chin between thumb and forefinger, and tilted Jaina’s face up.

“You should be careful what you promise, Jaina.”

Other harbor visitors casually walked the marina, passing the two women by, but when Azshara’s gaze met Jaina’s, it seemed it was just the two of them in the whole world.  Jaina looked up into the taller woman’s eyes and was drowning in a sea of molten gold that seared her to the soul even as it enveloped her in beauty.

“Azshara, I --”

“SAVE THE TURTLES, DEARIE?”

Jaina jumped straight up in the air like a spooked bunny.

“Oh, hi again, Nola.”

Jaina settled herself down and tugged her braid sheepishly, embarrassed at her own lack of awareness.  Jaina had been so distracted by this gorgeous golden-eyed woman, she did not notice Nola sidle up to them amid the other people on the marina.  The cheerful old lady was still hard at work gathering donations.

Nola thrust her collection tin toward Azshara and rattled it for emphasis.

Azshara’s lips twitched in amusement.  “Friend of yours, Jaina?”

“Yeah, sort of.”

Azshara laughed.  To Nola, she admitted, “I’m afraid I have no money on me.”  Azshara spread her arms in a “search me” gesture.

The action called attention to the fact Azshara was wearing very little.  Merely her strapless white bikini and sheer sarong that left a whole leg and part of her ass bare.

Jaina remained undecided on whether she liked Azshara’s personality, but there was no question she was attracted to this beautiful stranger.  Jaina owed Azshara her life, yet at the same time did not feel entirely safe around Azshara and those strange employees.

There’s something... dangerous about you, Azshara.

Intriguing, even so.  Perhaps beguiling was the most apt word.

Nola shrugged and left again to spread the good word about the Save the Turtles Foundation.  Her backpack’s dangling bottles and seashell-beads jangled as she waddled away.

Azshara readied to leave, as well.

“Remember my invitation, Jaina.  It’s open anytime.”

Azshara glanced down at the welt on Jaina’s ankle.

“Before I go, shall I kiss it better?”

Those golden eyes glittered with mischief.

Jaina said, “I don’t think that will be neces--”

Azshara kissed Jaina anyway.  Not on the ankle, however.

A big dumb flutter in Jaina’s stomach galloped to life when Azshara’s lips pressed against hers.  It took everything Jaina possessed just to keep her knees from buckling.

Those lips were so soft and full, but they kissed with such command.  Far more intense than that brief underwater kiss.  Azshara cupped Jaina’s face in her hands, not allowing escape.  She slowly stroked her thumbs across Jaina’s cheeks and jawline while her lips caressed Jaina’s.

The kiss might have lasted a century, or merely a few seconds.  Jaina had no idea.  Either way, Azshara eventually pulled back and left Jaina dazed.  Full system crash.  Reboot from disk.  Installing updates, please wait.

Azshara took off her white sarong.  She tightly twist-rolled the length of sheer cloth into a single rope and tied it around her thigh like a garter, so it would not encumber her.  She then promptly turned away from Jaina and dived off the dock.

Jaina watched Azshara swim off into the harbor toward her waiting yacht, long white hair streaming behind her in the water.

“Uh.  Okay, bye.”

Jaina grew up in this beach town and was swimming soon after learning how to walk, but Azshara’s strokes against the current were even more smooth and practiced.  Graceful, like she spent years in the ocean.  A queen of the seas.

A coherent thought finally pierced the useless haze of That Really Just Happened inside Jaina’s brain.  She remembered why she came to the harbor during a workday to begin with.  Jaina still needed to bring those chemical samples to the Water District office before closing.  The two vials of purple goop she scraped from the pipe remained secure inside the waterproof pouch strapped to her thigh.  She hoped Neppo had a safer dive down to the northern pipe than Jaina did at the southern.

Jaina gathered up the testing kits and her other things from the boat before leaving.  She unstrapped the thigh-pouch and pulled on shorts over her swimsuit.

Jaina inspected the business card Azshara gave her.  White paper with gold lettering.  Minimalist design, just the name Azshara and a phone number on the front.  On the back, a little etching of a black fish.  Jaina rubbed her thumb over the fish absently.

She should throw the card away.  Whatever game this stranger was playing, Jaina did not want to get mixed up in it.  Best if she never saw Azshara again.

Despite herself, Jaina tucked the card away safe in the pocket of her shorts.

 


 

On the deck of Azshara’s yacht, her devotees toweled her off after her swim back from the dock.  They were silent and obedient, exactly the way she liked them.

Azshara paid them no mind.  Her gaze focused instead on the marina in the distance.  She could still see the brown bowrider moored in its berth.  Its pretty owner left already, walking to the harbor’s parking lot to drive home, but the young woman remained in Azshara’s thoughts.  Jaina Proudmoore.

“My little pearl,” Azshara murmured.

Azshara traced her lips with a fingertip.  Even the seawater from her swim did not wash away Jaina’s taste.  Exquisite.

Vashj lurked at Azshara’s side.  Deferential, eager to serve.  A handmaiden rather than a friend.  Azshara did not have friends, nor want them.

“Is she the one, my queen?  The Daughter of the Sea?”

Nothing set Jaina apart from any other woman in Boralus.  To the normal eye, at least.  Azshara was not normal.

“Possible, but uncertain,” Azshara said.  “If she comes to me of her own free will, I can perform... rituals on her to find out.  Tests.”

Without alerting Jaina to those tests, of course.  If Jaina truly was who Azshara sought, Azshara must proceed carefully.  Stealthy as a snake robbing an egg from a nest.

“The time is almost right.”  Vashj’s voice came out hushed.  Hollow but urgent, like the reedy whine of a prisoner calling up from inside an oubliette.  “I have heard the whispers again, my queen, every night.  So have the other servants.  The long circle is nearly complete.”

“It seems we were not the only ones seeking Jaina,” Azshara noted.  “Someone got to her first.”

“Yes, my queen.  I sensed it, too.  The presence was... all over her.  Someone familiar with the long-forgotten arts.  I could not determine whether that someone is protector or predator.”  Vashj absently coiled one of her dark braids around her hand, almost like a noose.  “I doubt the girl is even aware of it.”

Azshara did not allow herself such weaknesses as doubt or fear.  Still, she must admit she felt some amount of... apprehension.  They could not afford disruption, not this late in the game.  Azshara risked too much already.  She made a deal, long ago.

“Nothing can stop what is to come.”  Azshara forced herself to sound confident.  “His plans are falling into place.”

And so are mine.

Azshara kept secrets of her own, not shared with Vashj, not even with... him.

“We have loyal souls in the town,” Vashj said.  Fellow cultists, she meant.  Living hidden among Boralus’s ordinary citizens.  “Eyes to keep watch on Jaina.  And remove any threat to her, if need be.”

Azshara ordered, “Have them inform me personally of any suspected threat.  She must be kept alive at all costs.  You know the price of failure.”

Vashj shriveled in on herself.  She knew indeed.  Suffering beyond mortal comprehension, for an eternity down in the depths.

Azshara went on, “Whoever that mysterious person who dug their claws into Jaina is, whether they want to save her or devour her...  Either way, they cannot prevent Jaina from fulfilling her fate.  Soon, very soon, her eyes will be opened.”

And then, at long last, I shall have what I am owed.

 


 

Jaina’s little green car trundled back up the hill toward the Proudmoore house.

She did not usually come home this early.  It was only mid-afternoon, and she normally finished work in the evening.  However, after nearly dying in the line of duty, she dropped off the first vial at the office so the lab could test it, then texted Neppo that she was taking the rest of the goddamn day off.  And if he did not like it, he could officially Shove It.

The second vial, Jaina brought home for Sylvanas.  If the Water District’s lab proved baffled by whatever corrupting agent was creeping into some of Boralus’s pipelines, hopefully Sylvanas’s alchemy expertise could solve it.

Jaina paused her car to lean out the driver’s window and pull the family’s bundle of mail out of the mailbox.  Then continued up the winding driveway to the house proper.  A button press opened the garage.

Katherine’s car and Sylvanas’s motorcycle were parked in the garage, so both women must be home.

Jaina parked alongside the other vehicles and switched hers off.  She leaned forward and pressed her forehead against the steering wheel, trying to gather her head together.  What a wild, wild day.

Jaina had no idea how she would respond to her mother’s usual greeting of “How was your day, sweetheart?”

“Well, Mom, my Surfer Dude boss drafted me into gathering dive samples even though it’s not my field, I nearly threw hands with our snobby dock-neighbor, then got hugged by a turtle lady, almost drowned, and kissed a movie star who may or may not also be a cult leader.  Oh, and I think she asked me on a date.  You know, just a run-of-the-mill Tuesday.  How was yours and Sylvanas’s day?”

Yet, when Jaina went inside the house, neither her mother nor stepmother could be found. 

Last time Jaina saw them, they were feeding each other pancakes in the kitchen, but of course that was hours ago.  Still in her swimsuit and shorts, Jaina checked around the house.  No Katherine nor Sylvanas in the sitting room, study, even the yard.

Jaina dropped the stack of mail on the hall table, near the heirloom grandfather clock carved with kraken tentacles and cresting wave designs.  The rest of the old house bore similar decorative motifs.  Jaina’s ancestors who built this house must have had a thing for tentacles and deep-sea stuff, and the generations since just rolled with the theme.

The only one Jaina found was Cyrus.  The cat sprawled on his back near one of the windows, lazily enjoying afternoon sunshine warming his fluffy belly.  He opened one eye to peer at Jaina when he heard her come in.  He shut it again, unimpressed by her arrival.

Jaina headed upstairs, intending to change out of her swimsuit and shorts.

When she crested the staircase and stepped onto the landing, Jaina finally found Katherine and Sylvanas.

In the open corridor outside the wing that held the house’s bedrooms, Katherine’s back was pressed against the wall, facing Sylvanas as the younger woman lifted and held her up.

Katherine wore nothing from the waist down.  Sylvanas was fully nude.  Faded blonde hair spilled loose down Sylvanas’s bare back.  Sylvanas’s muscles rippled beneath smooth, pale flesh as her hips pumped vigorously.

The thrusting.  By the tides, the thrusting.  Between the tangled press of the other women’s bodies, Jaina could make out leather straps harnessed around Sylvanas’s hips and upper thighs, no doubt the source of Katherine’s moans.  Katherine’s legs were wrapped around Sylvanas’s waist, her fingers tangled in Sylvanas’s hair, clutching Sylvanas close.  Buried in Katherine, Sylvanas worked her wife with slick, merciless pumps.

Every inch of Jaina’s body froze like she had been instantly teleported inside a glacier.  Too embarrassed to even blush, Jaina instead felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her pale and weak.  She wanted to shriek, but could not make a sound.

Sylvanas hit a particularly deep stroke, and Katherine threw her head back and let out a scream of ecstasy, her eyes shut in pleasure.

Too distracted with each other, the other women did not see Jaina at the far end of the corridor.

At least, Katherine did not.

Sylvanas looked right at Jaina.  Her red eyes above those black tear-marks blazed like a comet at midnight, like some ancient omen of doom.  And without breaking thrust-rhythm, Sylvanas gave her stepdaughter a big, filthy wink.  Then buried her face in Katherine’s neck and resumed fucking the other Proudmoore’s brains out.

Jaina fled.

She ran the opposite direction, back through the house, past the old grandfather clock in the hall, past Cyrus obliviously sunning himself at the window.  Jaina had no idea where she headed, only that she needed to get away.  Her brain whirled and stuttered and choked like some malfunctioning machine on the verge of breaking down.

The panicked dash brought Jaina back to the garage, where her green car still ticked with that soft metallic clink of recently-used engines cooling down after a journey.

Jaina fumbled her keys out of her pocket and tried to get in the car.  She dropped the keys before she could fit them into the lock.  She bent and snatched them up off the floor.  Then dropped them again.  Her hands shook too badly to function.

Jaina took a deep, ragged breath and tried to calm herself.  Unsure her legs could support herself any longer, she plopped down limply on the nearest available seat.  Which happened to be Sylvanas’s motorcycle, parked beside Jaina’s car.

Mortified, Jaina put her head in her hands and groaned.

“Why are they doing that in the open corridor instead of their bedroom?!”

Clearly, her mother and stepmother did not expect Jaina to be there.  An awful coincidence they picked that location for their lovemaking on the same day Jaina happened to come home early.  Actually, it occurred to Jaina maybe they did that in the corridor every day since the wedding a month ago, Jaina just never knew because she was usually at work at this time.

“It’s my own wretched fault for coming home early to a house with newlyweds.”

From now on, Jaina better start ringing the doorbell at her own damn house to announce her arrival.

Jaina’s guts writhed.  Disgust and humiliation and regret all competed inside her like a swarm of piranhas snip-chomping away at her brain bite by bite.

She wished today never happened.  She wished she could sail Starshine off into the sunset, never to be seen again.  She wished she could bleach her eyeballs from what she just witnessed.  She wished...

She wished it were her.

Arousal wove through the voyeuristic disgust like sticky seaweed flailing in a current.  Jaina wanted more than anything to be the one to clutch Sylvanas close, thread her fingers in Sylvanas’s hair, feel Sylvanas’s strength holding her body up, wrap her legs around Sylvanas’s waist and let Sylvanas drive into her endlessly.  Just like in those dream-fantasies that invaded Jaina’s mind every night.

Bent in on herself in a pitiful hunch atop the leather seat of Sylvanas’s motorcycle, Jaina thought she could smell her stepmother’s scent on the bike.  Imagination, surely.  Head still in her hands, Jaina gripped her hair in frustration, as if she could tear out of her head all these thoughts, these desires, these unending dreams that tormented her. Haunted her.

An idea hit.

Jaina let go of her hair and straightened up from her miserable hunch.  If Jaina could not push these thoughts of Sylvanas out of her head, perhaps... someone else could push them out for her.

Jaina rummaged in the pocket of her shorts.  She pulled out that gold-lettered white business card.  Smoothed out its edges, crumpled from her pocket.

She stared at the card in silence.

This was a bad idea.  Jaina knew it must be.  She knew.

Even so.

Hands slow and unsteady, Jaina pulled out her phone and dialed the number on the card.  Well, she first spent about ten minutes rehearsing what she would say if anyone actually picked up.

“Hello?”

With that one word in Azshara’s meltingly sultry voice, everything Jaina rehearsed vanished from her brain.

“Uh.  Hi there.”

Hi there?  Smooth, Jaina, real smooth.  I’m sure her panties are halfway off already, you’re such a seductress.

“Sorry to bother you, this is --”

“Jaina!”  Azshara must have recognized Jaina’s voice.  “What a delight.  Tell me, my little pearl, to what do I owe the pleasure of your call?”

“I was thinking about what you suggested, about me visiting your place.  A... date.”

Jaina shifted on the motorcycle seat.  Spent a few moments working up her courage before continuing.

“I’d like to take you up on the offer.  Tonight.”

For a few tense heartbeats, only silence over the phone line.

Jaina began to worry she misread the situation.  Azshara must not be interested in her, after all.  Jaina scrambled, ready to apologize profusely and exile herself to the opposite end of the planet in shame.

Before Jaina could speak, a low thrum came through the line as Azshara purred one word in triumphant self-satisfaction.

“Magnificent.”

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Jaina hid in the garage for a while.  Hopefully, by the time she came out, her mother and stepmother would be, uh, finished.

Beyond ridiculous, to be an adult sneaking around her own home like a teenager leaving for some illicit party.  Still, sneak Jaina did.  She made it out of the garage and upstairs to her bedroom without seeing either Katherine or Sylvanas.

Jaina peeled off her swimsuit and took a shower.  She let the hot water cascade down her body, washing away the salty residue from her dive in the sea.

Less easy to wash off was the memory of the inhuman voice she encountered down there.  The... dark presence.

Jaina wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered.  She hoped tonight’s dinner date with Azshara would take her mind off that underwater presence.  And off what she witnessed between Katherine and Sylvanas.

After drying off from her shower, Jaina faffed around for a while, fussing over what to wear for her date.  She pulled every item from her closet one at a time, then tossed each aside in defeat.

Jaina knew her inability to decide on an outfit was just a mask for nerves.

“It’s been ages since I went on a date.  And never with someone as far out of my league as Azshara.”

Azshara was an internationally famous movie star, super rich and cultured, and the most gorgeous woman in the world.  How could a small beach-town girl like Jaina make her happy for an evening?

Jaina laughed when she realized something.

“I was shaking from near-drowning and dripping wet like a shipwrecked rat when she decided to ask me out.  If she somehow thought I looked good enough to date even in that condition, then she probably won’t be picky about what I wear tonight.”

Jaina settled on a simple blue skirt and sleeveless white top, with her usual boots laced to the knee.

By the time Jaina finished dressing and braiding her hair, darkness was falling outside the window.  Good.  Azshara said she would send a car to pick up Jaina after sundown.

Ready now, Jaina went downstairs to wait.  Just to pace around and give herself something to do to dispel first-date nerves.

The stairs of the old house creaked as Jaina descended.  The Proudmoore home was built generations ago when the town of Boralus was first settled. The house stood strong atop its hill overlooking the sea ever since.  All the artwork decorating the wood paneling of brown and green was nautical themed.  Oil paintings of ships at sea, wall carvings of tentacles and roiling waves and fantastical sea-monsters.  Jaina passed the tall grandfather clock in the hall, a family heirloom as old as the house itself.

Coming downstairs to wait proved a mistake.

Jaina bumped into her stepmother setting the table for dinner.  In the house’s proper dining room with its chandelier and long table, instead of the informal breakfast nook in the kitchen where Sylvanas made pancakes this morning.

At least Sylvanas was clothed now.  Soft cotton pants and a tank top that exposed her toned arms and shoulders.  Casual clothes, all in black, but she wore them with such self-assurance.  That easy, relaxed confidence somehow made the plain outfit even more enticing than Sylvanas had been naked.

Sylvanas looked up from setting the table.  When she saw Jaina hovering in the doorway, she brightened.  She set the cutlery down and came over to speak with Jaina.

Jaina was rooted in place watching her approach, like a mouse hypnotized before a cobra.  Sylvanas came to a stop in front of Jaina.  Taller than Jaina, yet not as tall as Azshara.  A different kind of beauty than Azshara, too.  Azshara was a classical goddess, Sylvanas a strange specter of forgotten haunts.

Please oh please don’t bring up me accidentally walking in on you and Mother screwing this afternoon...

A futile wish.  Sylvanas would never let an opportunity slide to tease Jaina.

“Did you like what you saw?”

Her voice was delicious.  It had an ethereal quality to it, and a foreign accent Jaina could not place.  Jaina wanted to wrap that voice around herself and fall asleep eternally in its embrace.

Jaina ignored the teasing question, but Sylvanas went further.

“No need to be embarrassed, Jaina.  I’m your stepmother.  Is it not a parent’s job to explain how these matters work?  If you have any questions, I can give you more detail on --”

“I DO NOT, THANK YOU!”

The idea of Sylvanas giving her The Talk was the stuff of true nightmares.  Especially considering Jaina dreamt of making love with Sylvanas every night since the woman barged into her life.  Jaina groaned.

“Actually, Sylvanas, I was just about to leave.  I wouldn’t want to disturb your dinner plans with my mother.”

The table was set for two.  A romantic dinner with scented candles burning in soft illumination, red roses in a vase, and more red petals scattered across the table.  The place settings were arranged so the two people would sit cozily next to each other instead of across the table.

Sylvanas said, “Katherine went out for the evening.  Something about a monthly meeting.”

“Oh, of course.”  Jaina clapped a hand to her forehead.  “This is your first month as part of the family, you wouldn’t know about her book club meetings.  Well, it’s half book club, half potluck.  Really just an excuse to get together with friends and gossip.  So I’m told, anyway.”

Jaina never went to their meetings.  Katherine was a member of that book club since before Jaina’s birth.  Daelin used to be, too.  Although Jaina adored books and would have loved the chance to share a connection with her mother, she did not want to intrude on Katherine’s friend circle without invitation.

“Mother’s gone to that club for decades.  Same day every month.  Today was so bizarre, I forgot the date.”

“Bizarre, was it?”  Sylvanas tilted her head ever so slightly.  “Tell me about it.”

Jaina was debating whether to share all of today’s crazy crap with Sylvanas, when something else occurred to her.

“Wait, if my mother is gone for the evening, why were you setting the table for her?”

“It is for you.  Since it’s just us home tonight, I thought I might cook for us.  What would you like?”

What Jaina would truly like was to run fingers through Sylvanas’s hair in the candlelight.  Jaina shook her head and fought off that thought before it could make her flush.

Come to think, this was Jaina’s first time being alone in the house with Sylvanas.  That realization was... not exactly frightening, but certainly some sort of dark thrill.

Sylvanas did not give up.  “No?  I could order us something, instead.”

When Jaina declined again, Sylvanas clasped Jaina’s hands together between hers.  She gazed into Jaina’s eyes with a deep intensity that really should not be allowed.  Her thumbs stroked gently along Jaina’s knuckles.

“We made a promise, Jaina.  You and I.”

Jaina blinked.  “What do you mean?”

“This morning, at breakfast.  We promised Katherine we would try to be friends.”

“Oh.  That.”  Jaina took her hands back.  “It’s not that I don’t want to try.  I already made plans for tonight.  We can have dinner together some other time.  Just...”

Jaina threw a sidelong glance of discomfort at the dining table with its burning candles, strewn rose petals, and plates set intimately close to each other.

“...Lose the romantic atmosphere next time, okay?”

Sylvanas looked over at the table setup, head cocked like a perplexed tyto.

“Is this setup... wrong?” she murmured.  “I wasn’t sure.”

Perplexity twisted into dismay over her failure.  Sylvanas absently nudged one of the red petals strewn over the table, poking it into position.  She spoke slowly, uncertainly.

“This kind of relationship is as new for me as it is for you, Jaina.  I’ve been many things in my years, but never a stepmother.  I merely wanted to do something nice for you.  If my attempt offended you, I ask your pardon.”

Jaina’s heart went out to her.  Sylvanas was trying.  This was a bizarre little family they had, but Jaina wished fervently for her mother and new stepmother to find all the happiness they could in it.  Life was too short to hold back on love.  No matter how strange a form that love took.

Sylvanas recovered herself.  Cool and mysterious again.

“You said you already made plans for tonight.”  Sylvanas looked at Jaina with red eyes narrowed in suspicion.  “Going out somewhere?  With whom?”

“Frank Lee.”

That gave Sylvanas pause.  She seemed to be racking her brains to remember if she heard that name before.

Jaina elaborated.  “Full name is Frank Lee None of Your Business.”

Sylvanas rolled her eyes.  “Impertinent girl.”  A fond exasperation.

Jaina flicked her braid.  “Hey, you ask an invasive question, you get a troll answer.”  She turned to leave.

“What time tonight will you be back?”

Jaina prickled, offended as a cat rubbed the wrong way.  Sylvanas phrasing the question that way was pointedly demanding that Jaina be back tonight.

“I might not be,” Jaina replied without turning around.  “Might come back in the morning.”

Sylvanas took Jaina by the shoulders and turned her stepdaughter around to face her again.  Her eyes, glinting in the candlelight of the dining room, were full of worry.

“Spending the night with a stranger?  Jaina, I should not need to tell you how unsafe that is.”

“Why do you assume she’s a stranger?”

“You must have met this person only recently.  Were you already dating someone, I would know.  I know you.”

Jaina shifted.  “You... really don’t.  We only met a month ago, when you swooped in out of nowhere and married my mother.  Whose idea was the marriage, anyway?  Mother hasn’t even told me how you two met.”

“Irrelevant.  I’ve found you now, Jaina, that is all that matters.”  Sylvanas stepped closer.  Her fingers, slender and cool, touched Jaina’s cheek.  “I will make sure you --”

Sylvanas cut herself off.  Her eyes widened like she suddenly sensed something she never expected.

Before Jaina could move, Sylvanas grabbed Jaina’s upper arms and yanked her stepdaughter even closer.  She inspected Jaina from head to toe, her gaze running up and down in frantic, panicked search, like Sylvanas was a doctor desperately trying to find the entry wound on a patient bleeding out in her arms.

“What is --  Jaina, did you meet someone today?  Did someone touch you?  It’s all over you!”

“The hell?” Jaina muttered, baffled and more than a little alarmed by the sudden change.  “You mean Azshara?  Why, what’s wrong?  I feel fine.”

“Azshara?”  Sylvanas made the connection.  “Whoever that is, is that who you are seeing tonight?”

Sylvanas bared her teeth like a lioness seeing her cub threatened.

“Absolutely not!  As your stepmother, I forbid you to see this person!”

Open-mouthed in shock, Jaina gaped up at the taller woman gripping her.  This went beyond normal parental protectiveness.  Sylvanas was...

“...You’re jealous!”

Astounding.  And ironic, though Sylvanas could not know why.  The only reason Jaina agreed to a date with Azshara was to drive fantasies of Sylvanas out of her mind!  And now Sylvanas was the one jealous.  Jaina nearly laughed at the absurdity of their tangled situation.

“Jealous?”  Sylvanas stiffened.  “Do not be ridiculous.  It’s only your safety that concerns me.”

Insulted, Jaina pulled out of Sylvanas’s grip and put a few steps of distance between them.

“My private life is none of your business, Sylvanas.  You ‘forbidding’ me to see her means nothing.  I’m a grown woman, I don’t need anyone’s permission to go on a date.  Anyway, why would Azshara harm me?  She saved my life today.  I nearly drowned.”

“You WHAT?!”

It was a shriek.  Sylvanas pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath before continuing in a calmer, if more strained, tone.

“Jaina.  I cannot explain it in a way you would understand.  But whatever I sense on you is... powerful.  Old.  Dangerous.”

Out in the hall, the ancient grandfather clock, crusted with carvings of tentacles and sea-predators’ jaws amid the waves, chimed the hour.  A reminder that Azshara would be awaiting Jaina’s arrival soon.

“Sylvanas, I’m not rudely canceling a date last-minute just because you had some vague bad vibe about her before you even met her.  Do you have any evidence?”

Sylvanas trembled.  She looked so tall and strong, her toned arms exposed in her black tank top.  And yet at the same time, she seemed so vulnerable.  Like she knew there was something out there against which all her strength meant nothing.

“I care about you, Jaina.”

No shrieking this time.  Just a fervent whisper.

Jaina put her foot down.  “Caring about me doesn’t entitle you to invade my privacy and take away my decisions!  I don’t want your caring, I want your respect as a fellow adult.  If you cannot respect me, then we cannot be friends after all, and I’ve nothing more to say to you.”

Jaina’s phone buzzed.  A text alert that Azshara’s driver was here to pick her up.

It was a relief to get away.  Jaina could have walked out at any time, but something about Sylvanas, about staring into those unnatural eyes, harpooned Jaina and dragged her in, making her feel there was no escape.

“Good night, Sylvanas,” Jaina said curtly.

Jaina left.  Her stepmother’s eyes burned after her.

A sleek black car, polished like a dark mirror, waited outside the old Proudmoore house.  One of Azshara’s employees, in a black suit and tie, stepped out and politely held the car door for Jaina as she climbed in.  Polite, but utterly servile.  He said nothing the entire drive.

It was full dark by now.  Through the tinted car windows, the stars glinted high above, shining down on the ocean and the little beach town.  Jaina’s mind was whirring so hard she barely noticed the drive across Boralus or its nightscape scenery.

What was with Sylvanas?  She was always an oddball, but tonight’s outburst...  Jaina never saw anything like it from her before.

Jaina did not entirely trust Azshara, but she could not believe this fancy movie star meant Jaina direct harm.  Anyway, she was not looking for anything long-term with Azshara.

Jaina muttered sourly to herself, too quiet for the driver in the front seat to catch.

“Sylvanas married my mother within a few days of meeting her!  Who is she to lecture me about merely having dinner with a stranger?”

They arrived at their destination.  The driver stopped to allow a gate, all curly decorative ironwork, to roll open for them.  It rolled shut again behind their car, sealing them in.

Jaina peeked through the window in awe as they pulled up a round driveway with a central fountain, with ground-lights to illuminate its jets of water in the night’s darkness.

Azshara mentioned renting a vacation mansion for her stay in Boralus, but the scope of it still astounded Jaina.  An enormous building, all clean white stone in sharp-angled and blunt-faced modern style.  It crowned a cliff overlooking the rest of Boralus like a sovereign looking down upon its subjects.

The driver opened the door to let Jaina out.  More employees emerged from the mansion and came down the steps to guide Jaina inside.

The mansion was well-staffed, as Azshara’s yacht had been.  Bodyguards, personal assistants, cleaners and cooks, who knew what else.  What exactly did a movie star employ all these people for?  Just to pamper her every need?  Yeah, probably.

The mansion’s interior was lavish beyond anything Jaina ever saw.  She must be driving down the property value just by being inside it.  High vaulted ceilings, marble floors, exquisite furnishings.  All of it themed in white and gold, Azshara’s favored colors.

“Jaina, my little pearl!”

She turned at the smooth, rich voice.

Azshara emerged into the grand hallway, tall and magnificent and bedecked with finery.  Her white dress was the finest silk, strapless to bare the top of her chest and shoulders.

She greeted Jaina warmly.  Gold armbands and anklets clinked as she moved gracefully across the black-veined white marble floor.  There was a delicate gold chain around her throat, and ear cuffs in gold as well.  She was probably wearing more money in gold tonight than Jaina would make in her entire life.

Jaina’s doubts about coming here melted at the eager reception.

“I was delighted to receive your call,” Azshara said.  Her golden eyes glittered with anticipation.  “I am quite looking forward to tonight.”

“Me, too.”

Jaina smiled back.  She shoved down her shyness and nerves, trying to mimic even a fraction of Azshara’s endless self-confidence.

Azshara led her deeper into the mansion, chatting away with polished sophistication.  Jaina felt entirely gauche and out of her depth, but Azshara dominated the conversation with a relaxed charm, deliberately touching only on light and engaging topics that would put Jaina’s nerves at ease.

They entered some sort of display-lounge.  The employees already put Azshara’s touches on this temporary residence.  One of the wall displays had been converted into a large aquarium, full of colorful fish and snails and what looked like an exotic octopus lurking under one of the rocks.  The other walls had posters of the films Azshara starred in, interspersed with star charts.

Star charts?  Ah, right, she said she came to Boralus to stargaze.  Jaina did not buy that story.  What was Azshara’s true game?

A small table had been set for an intimate dinner for two.  Close to the aquarium so they could watch the fish while they dined.

Servants held out the thin-legged, elaborately sculpted chairs for the two ladies.  Jaina settled in, fully aware she was sitting on a piece of furniture that probably cost more than her mom’s car.  The tabletop was fine glass that clinked with each touch of plate or cup.

Dinner proved to be a mix of seafood dishes, unsurprisingly.  Lobsters on a bed of lettuce, slabs of fish with perfect grill-marks, with sides of oysters and sauced shrimp and some kelp-ish vegetable dish.  Way more food than two people needed, but apparently Azshara’s cooks aimed to impress.

“You must try the wine, Jaina,” Azshara said as they ate.  “I insist.”

Azshara motioned to one side, and a servant brought them wineglasses on a silver tray.

Jaina took a sip of the dark, rich wine.  An unusual taste, unlike any vintage Jaina ever tried before.  Not that Jaina knew much about wine.  She usually drank ale with friends in Boralus’s pubs down at the harbor.

They watched the fish swim as the meal went on, with Azshara pointing out and naming the various exotic species in her aquarium.  Watching all those colorful fish gently swim back and forth would have been peaceful... except that the octopus scuttled out from its hiding place midway through their dinner and brutally seized one fish in its tentacles, ripping the poor thing in half before hungrily shoving its pieces into the octopus’s beak.

Jaina flinched and looked away.  She finished her glass of wine to distract herself.

Strange.  The wine had an odd cloying sensation on her tongue.  A faintly numbing tingle that spread slowly throughout her, different from normal inebriation.  Pleasant, though.

Jaina did not mention the strange sensations.  Whatever this wine was, it did not seem to affect Azshara as it did Jaina, for the other woman kept sipping casually.

“Exquisite, yes?” Azshara purred, watching her guest over the rim of her wineglass.

At Azshara’s imperious snap of fingers, another servant came over to refill Jaina’s glass.  Once it was full again, the servant retreated to await further commands with a submissive murmur of, “At your pleasure, my queen.”

Jaina took another bite of lobster.

“Why do your employees call you their queen?”

Jaina had been wondering that ever since the encounter aboard the yacht.

Azshara’s lips curled in a smile.  She took a slow, lazy sip of wine before answering.

“Because it pleases me to be called that, and they live to please me.”  She added, “I always wanted to be a queen. I deserve it, don’t you agree?”

Jaina did agree.  Azshara certainly had a regal bearing.  Equal parts charming and commanding.  She could make a person fall to their knees in praise and convince them submitting to her was only the natural order of things.

“I suppose being a world-famous movie star is the closest thing to modern royalty,” Jaina said.

Charming, but... unreal.  Azshara was right, really, that she ought to have been born a queen.  Apart from mere mortals.  Azshara was made to sit upon a pedestal for worship like some priceless art masterpiece in a museum, cordoned off with velvet ropes, untouchable.

It was difficult to imagine Azshara doing normal-people things.  Setting the table, filling the gas tank, arguing over whose turn it was to scoop the cat box.  Things Jaina saw Sylvanas do.

Jaina mentally slapped herself.  Stop thinking about Sylvanas!  You came to Azshara to get Sylvanas out of your head.

“I haven’t done this in years,” Jaina confessed.

“You mean dinner with someone?  Or...”  Azshara suggestively lifted a perfectly sculpted eyebrow.

Jaina flushed at the “or”.  By the tides, they had not even done anything yet, and already Jaina was blushing like a first-timer!  She sincerely hoped she did not embarrass herself with her performance tonight.

Jaina took another gulp of the strange wine.  She was well on her way to drunk, but already past caring.  Could use some liquid courage right now.

“I’ve only been with one person,” Jaina admitted.  “Just one time.”

She knew talking about exes on the first date was a big no-no.  Still, the words tumbled out.  Maybe it was the wine loosening her tongue, or maybe it was just the end of a long day of stress and confusion weakening her defenses.

“We were engaged at the time.  Didn’t work out in the end.”

“That one night together, was it any good?” Azshara asked.

Jaina paused.  Good?  “I don’t know.  I loved him, and he loved me.  That makes it its own kind of good, even if neither person knows what they’re doing.”

Jaina was quiet for a moment.

“Have you ever been in love, Azshara?”

A deeply personal question, but Azshara replied without hesitation.

“No.  Who could ever be my equal?  Everyone falls to their knees for a chance to win my heart.  But they never have, and never will.”

Azshara stroked her fingers through her long white hair like a shampoo commercial.  The line between confidence and vanity was very thin, but goddamn did Azshara walk it hard.

Jaina held no delusions she would be the first to win Azshara’s heart.  Tonight was just a hot fling.  A few hours of glamor to distract herself from real life.

Nothing wrong with a one-night stand, so long as both people knew that was all it was.  Jaina and Azshara were on the same page.  This was not a relationship.  Once Azshara’s vacation in Boralus ended, the movie star would return to her fancy, famous life, and Jaina would never see her again except on a TV screen.

Considering she already had a mass of devoted employees a.k.a. worshipers, Jaina was not sure why Azshara picked Jaina of all people for tonight’s pleasure.  Maybe Azshara just wanted to sample some local flavor during her stay in Boralus.  Intimacy seemed a game to Azshara.  Or rather, a power play.  She collected worshipers like other millionaires collected cars.

“Well, my little pearl,” Azshara purred.  She set her wineglass down with a clink, and rose from her chair.  “I think that is enough of dinner.”

“Oh.  Right.”

Jaina stood up, then swayed.  She had to grip the table for support.  Whoa there.  That wine hit hard.  She tried not to slur her words too badly.

“Thanks for inviting me, I had a great ti--”

Azshara cut Jaina off with a low laugh.  “I did not mean our date is over.  Merely that we should move this somewhere more appropriate.”

Azshara reached behind herself to unfasten something.  The strapless white dress came loose, sliding down her body in a graceful cascade to pool around her ankles.

She stepped out of the silky puddle, fully nude now except her body jewelry.  The gold glinted in the low light like it was mined from the earth for the specific purpose of adorning this one goddess of a woman, outshined only by the gold of her eyes.

With a wicked smile, Azshara crooked a finger.  Jaina stumbled forward obediently, cheeks hot.

Azshara coiled Jaina’s braid around her hand and used it like a leash to guide Jaina into another room deeper into the mansion.  Jaina let herself be led, utterly starry-eyed.  A shrimp lured by an anglerfish’s lamp into waiting jaws.

Azshara brought Jaina to some sort of pool room.  Why would anyone own a swimming pool in a beach town?  Whatever.  Must be a rich-person thing.

Next to the full-size swimming poor was a luxury hot tub set into the floor.  It bubbled, steamy and inviting.

The room was vast but dark, its edges fading into shadows that whispered with the lapping of the water.  The pool room’s only light came from inside the hot tub, under the water.  Color-changing lights depressed into the tub’s bottom shone up through the water, first blue then purple then orange, ever shifting beneath the bubbling surface.

“Um.  I didn’t bring a swimsuit...”

Jaina’s swimsuit was still in her laundry basket after today’s misadventures at the harbor.

“No matter.”  Azshara shrugged with graceful unconcern.  “I prefer it without.”

Naked, Azshara stepped down into the hot tub set into the floor.  She turned around in the water and sat on the hot tub’s inside ledge like a throne, with her back against the tub’s wall.

Gold armbands clinked against the white marble flooring when Azshara laid her arms along the hot tub’s rim.  She sat there, in her element, watching Jaina like a shark waiting for a bobbing gull to drift close enough to snatch.

Only waist deep, the bubbling water hid nothing of Azshara’s long, sculpted torso.  Jaina stood there dumbly for a few moments, admiring the sight.

Jaina suddenly remembered others were admiring the sight, too.  A handful of employees lingered around, hanging back in the dim recesses of the room to await orders.

“I don’t like an audience,” Jaina said.

With the fingertips of one hand, Azshara casually flicked a splash of water from the bubbling surface.

“I do.”

“I don’t,” Jaina insisted.

Sure, she was drunk, but she still held onto some decency.  She would not undress in front of these people.  Azshara may be the exhibitionist type, but Jaina refused to put on a show.

“Very well.”  Azshara dismissed her servants with an imperious wave, like sweeping away dust.  “Leave me.”

They filed out silently and shut the door behind them, leaving the two women alone in the near-darkness.

Jaina pulled off her clothes.  She fumbled a bit with her boots’ laces and skirt’s zipper, due to the dim lighting and her own inebriation.

Azshara watched Jaina strip.  Hungrily.  Running her tongue across her bottom lip, she took Jaina in from bare feet all the way up to blonde-streaked white hair.

Once Jaina’s clothes were gone, she carefully stepped down into the hot tub to join Azshara.

The water enveloped her, heated her, relaxed her.  She let out a sigh of contentment.  Luxury had its upsides.

Through the bubbling and roiling, she could barely see the lights set beneath the water.  They changed color again, lit up green now, like a stormy sea.

Azshara stroked through the water and pulled Jaina close.  Warm skin and hot water combined to enthrall Jaina.  Her eyelids lidded in pleasure.

“You should feel fortunate, my little pearl.”

Azshara alternated between whispering into Jaina’s ear and licking its outer shell.

“I usually have my devotees service me, without me reciprocating like this.  But you are something special, Jaina Proudmoore.”

“Uh-huh.  I’m sure you say that to all the girls.”

Azshara laughed throatily and bit the ear she just licked.  Not hard enough to draw blood, but hard enough to establish dominance.  Jaina whimpered, more from desire than pain.

Jaina ran her hands down Azshara’s back, dipping beneath the water to follow those deliciously smooth curves all the way down.  Waist deep, the two women floated together in the water.

In this tight embrace, Jaina could smell Azshara’s perfume.  Feel the taller woman’s sheer presence pushing out every other rational thought in Jaina’s brain.  Yes.  This was exactly why Jaina came here tonight.

Fill my head.  Drive out everything else.

“Make me forget,” Jaina mumbled.

Azshara dipped her head to lavish Jaina’s neck with kisses and sharp nips.  When Jaina moaned for more, Azshara obliged by biting down hard over Jaina’s pulse point.  The possessive teeth-clutch reminded Jaina of Sylvanas in those nightly dreams of lovemaking.

Jaina forced that thought out with a vehement, “No!”

Forget Sylvanas, damn it!  Jaina hollered in her head.

Azshara stopped.  She pulled back a little, her brow furrowed.

“No?”

Jaina stumbled over her own words.  “I, uh, I didn’t mean you.  No to something else.  You, keep going.”

By the tides, Jaina must sound foolish!  Azshara opened her mouth to ask, but Jaina stopped her with a kiss.

Azshara resumed their pleasure, delighted by Jaina’s enthusiasm.  She devoured Jaina’s lips with dominating force, both commanding and consuming.

Jaina threaded her fingers into Azshara’s wet hair.  Their legs entwined beneath the water, tangling their moving bodies together.  The water bubbled and roiled all around them.  It seemed to be growing hotter, but surely that was only Jaina’s wine-drunk body reacting to the mounting pleasure.

Azshara pulled back to let Jaina catch a breath.  She gripped Jaina’s chin in her fingertips.

The underwater light changed again, a deep purple this time.  It cast shadows across the high cheekbones of Azshara’s beautiful face.

“Do you accept me, Jaina?  All of me?”

Jaina nodded as much as she could with Azshara holding her chin.  Confused by the question, but eager to keep going.

“Then hold still, my little pearl.  This will hurt.”

“Wha--”

Azshara’s hands clamped down on Jaina’s upper arms, holding the shorter woman in place.  Her grip was inhumanly strong.

Azshara wrapped both her arms around Jaina.  Then a third.  A fourth.

Wait, how many arms does she...

Jaina’s eyed widened in shock.

Azshara was... changing.  Growing larger, looming over Jaina.  Her skin darkened to oceanic blue, the blue of deep fathoms that never saw sunlight.  Gill-fins flared from the sides of her neck, spined with venomous points.

Pain bit the skin of Jaina’s thighs when Azshara’s legs entwined with hers became thick tentacles lined with serrated suckers that held on tight.  Azshara’s multiple arms clamped down mercilessly, preventing escape.

“What is happening?!”

Jaina’s voice was slurred from wine and panic.  Whether this horrific apparition was a product of drunkenness or a dream or pure madness, Jaina had no idea.

Azshara’s eyes opened.  Flaring, burning.  Molten gold.  Then another opened, another and another.  A crown of three eyes above her normal two.

Azshara -- the thing that had been Azshara a moment ago -- grinned at Jaina.  Its inhuman face was still intimately close to Jaina’s, its warm and sweet breath brushing Jaina’s cheeks.

“You won’t remember this in the morning.  The drugged wine saw to that.”

Someone was screaming.  Jaina distantly realized it was herself, numb from a drugged mouth in a body that could not fight.

She howled and thrashed in Azshara’s grip, and howled even harder when the arms and tentacles holding her did not budge.  Jaina screamed herself hoarse, but what was the point, when the only people in hearing distance were the servants of this... this creature?  No one would save her.

Azshara’s inhuman grip was unyielding on Jaina’s arms, her serrated suckers attached cruelly tight to Jaina’s legs.  Jaina felt helpless as a krill in the maw of a great whale.

“Now then.”  Azshara caressed Jaina’s trapped body like a lover.  “There is something I must check for.”

The underwater light changed again.  A burning orange like the depths of an ancient volcano fuming on the seafloor.

And then Azshara began.  What it was she began, Jaina could not comprehend, for although Azshara’s many limbs stayed outside Jaina’s body, something nonphysical seemed to pierce Jaina’s chest.

That nonphysical feeler rooted around, checking, stabbing in and out.  Azshara was searching inside Jaina.  Inside her body, or inside her soul.

Azshara had warned this would hurt, and it did.  Oh, it did.  Jaina’s body was unmarked, but the invading force sent shockwaves of pain racing along her every vein, making it feel like her blood was corrupted with boiling-hot sea foam, salty streams that left her arteries shriveled and deprived.

Azshara scoured further.  Searching.  But for what?

The invasive sensation tore down Jaina’s defenses, ripping away all concealment to reveal what was hiding formless inside Jaina’s spirit.

Jaina felt an energy pulsing and writhing within herself.  It pushed back against the invasive search that was revealing it.  It was part of her own being, yet not.  An energy that was powerful, otherworldly.  Magical was the only word she could think of, yet surely that could not be!

The strange power throbbed inside Jaina like a second heartbeat, though it took no physical form.  A tiny spark of energy inside her soul, hiding like a skeleton shoved inside a hollow tree trunk to hide a crime.  Was this spark new, or had it always been there inside her without her knowing, merely waiting to awaken?

“Where, where, where.”  Azshara whispered to herself, still clutching Jaina in the waist-deep water that roiled violently around them.  “Where is -- ah!  There it is!”

Azshara straightened up with a surge of triumph.  She found whatever she was looking for inside Jaina.  Was it that spark?

Azshara’s tri-crown of golden eyes blazed like a constellation of stars about to supernova.  Gill-fins flared and stretched their venomous spines to full extension.

“Yes!  He was right.  You are indeed the one we seek.  The one to turn the tide...”

Azshara smiled.  A terrible sea-monster’s smile, from a maw lined with the devoured bones of deepwater species unnamed by any human tongue.

“...the Daughter of the Sea.”

Jaina passed the fuck out.

 


 

Jaina opened her eyes to another place, another time.

She knew she was dreaming, yet she could not make herself wake.

She was standing fully-dressed in a corridor in an old wooden house.  The corridor stretched forward, long and narrow, leading somewhere unknown.  It was dim, the source of light unknown.

No windows.  No doors.  Was she underground?

Underwater?  came an even weirder thought.

“Where am I?” Jaina wondered aloud.  “How did I get here?”

And why was the inside of her chest throbbing dully like a second heart beating?

She could not remember the answers to any of these questions.  But in typical dream fashion, the gaps in awareness were easily glossed over.

Her skin prickled with the feeling of being watched by unseen eyes.  Despite that, she felt calm somehow.  Like she belonged here.  Like this was always meant to be.  Had she done this before?

These surroundings looked familiar.  Brown and green wood paneling, wall-carvings of tentacles and sea-beasts, nautical decor...  This was the Proudmoore family home.

Jaina stepped forward.  Her family’s heirloom grandfather clock stood against one wall of the corridor.  It ticked slowly, inexorably.  She got the impression it was no longer ticking to mark time passing forward, but was now counting time down to something.

“This looks like my house.  But it can’t be.  The setup is all wrong.”

A reply came.  It whispered from every direction and simultaneously from inside her very head.  A low, wet, bubbling chuckle.  Like a cauldron of defiled bones boiled in insect blood.

“This is not your home, but I wanted to meet you somewhere familiar.”

That voice...  Had she heard it before?  Her dream-fogged mind could not grasp specifics of memory.

Jaina followed the strange voice.  In this enclosed corridor without exit, there was only one direction to go.

Farther and farther she walked.  Deeper, dimmer.  It felt like miles.  She could no longer see where she started from, nor hear the tick of the clock counting down.  Still no doors, no windows, no outlets at all.

Jaina’s footsteps padded across the green carpet runner.  Same carpet she ran and played on as a child.  It could not be.  This corridor was far too long to fit inside her house.

The corridor only got dimmer as she walked deeper.  The tentacle carvings on the paneling became thicker and more intricate, until the walls seemed choked with tentacles like jungle vines.

Those tentacles sculpted into the woodwork swelled and deflated ever so slightly.  As if they were... breathing.

“I have dreamed your destiny, mortal.”

His words seemed to ooze from the very walls, like squeezing pus from an infection.  She still could not see who was speaking.

He was almost purring idly to himself, speaking as if Jaina were barely even there.  Jaina could picture a cat lying on his back watching flies skitter on the ceiling, things delicious and puny and frustratingly out of his reach.  All he could do was watch, and wait.

“How long have you been down here, all alone with no one to talk to?” Jaina asked.  She did not know whether to fear this strange being or pity him.  “Are you even sane anymore?”

He laughed like she had said the funniest possible thing.  His laughter was the spilling of a million spiderlings from a cracked egg-sac, a sound that washed over her in countless skitterings of tiny spiked appendages piercing her every pore.

Jaina shuddered from head to toe, though she was untouched, the sensations merely imagined.  This was a bizarre dream indeed.

“In time, you shall see it is you mortals who are mad, while I am the sane one.  Only I can behold the infinite truths.  Only I can sustain you.”

She finally reached the end of the impossibly long corridor.

It ended in a plain wooden door, sealed shut.  With a small grate set high in the door, like the slats of a prison cell.

The grate was too high for Jaina to see through.  But she could hear.  That voice came from whatever lay beyond the door.  Words drifted out through the bars of the grate like vile gases bubbling to a pond’s surface from a corpse decomposing at the bottom.

“It has already begun,”  he whispered.  “You cannot stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“The hour approaches when all eyes shall be opened.”

Well, that cleared up nothing.  Real informative, this guy was.

Just who the hell are you?  she wondered.

“Drown yourself and you will see.”

Jaina jumped in fright.  He...  He answered her question even though she did not speak it aloud.

“Can you read my mind?” came Jaina’s terrified mumble.

A different possibility occurred to her.

“Is this my dream, or yours?”

No answer this time.  Only a silent seethe that roared louder than words.  Distant, as if reverberating through water.

She did not know him.  But she knew, somehow she knew in her bones, that he was waiting for her.  Right there on the other side of the sealed door.  Inches away.

The door was sealed, but the barred grate was not.  She could stand on her toes to peek through the grate and see who was in there.

The tiny part of her brain still lucid amid this dream-haze held her back.  She did not want to see him.  Let him stay here forever.

Jaina turned around to leave.

Oh, he didn’t like that.

The tentacles carved into the walls moved.  Wood became flesh, dark and oozing and thorny.  The spiky limbs whipped forward from every direction, reaching for Jaina.

She tensed her entire body and squeezed her eyes shut.  There it was again.  There was a power inside her she never knew before.  She could feel some sort of energy blazing within her soul, ready to strike back at him if he touched her.

The tentacles halted a bare inch away from her flesh.

As one, they all shrank back without touching her.

Jaina cracked an eye open.  The tentacles along the wall were mere wood carvings once more.  Motionless.  Harmless.

The strange, warm energy still thudded inside her chest like a second heartbeat.  Was that what repelled him?

The awful voice rang out one last time.  A pounding of vast drums, an insect’s sting, the wet slide of writhing flesh, all at once.  Half of her wanted to hungrily gulp down that voice until she vomited black.  The other half wanted to jab icepicks into her ears so she would never hear it again.

“Go... for now.  You will yet serve me.”

Jaina ran.  Away from the sealed door, back up the long corridor, past the unseen eyes always watching.  She ran and ran and ran until she collapsed.

Her dream faded.  But that sensation remained, of the throb inside her chest.  The steady thrum of a power that could not be suppressed now that it was awoken.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

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.”

“Good morning.”

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.”

Jaina choked.

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.”