“Van?” Beth tapped on the half-open door of his small office, pushed it open. “I know you're getting ready to leave, but we've got one out here who came in while you were with your last one, and she looks like she's right on the edge. I've never seen her before.”
Rory Donovan sighed, weighing options. The counselling centre's director discouraged pushing too hard, worried about them overdoing it in a job that had a high stress and burn-out rate. On the other hand, abandoning someone in crisis—and Beth would not have brought it up unless she judged it a true crisis—went against everything the centre stood for. Maybe it would be a simple issue, and he could direct her to the local women's shelter or something.
His family would be expecting him for supper, and he'd been looking forward to a relaxing evening. But he'd never be able to enjoy it knowing he'd walked away. They'd understand.
He deposited his backpack beside the desk again and nodded. “I'll see what I can do. Do me a favour? Call home and tell them I'll be late?”
Beth echoed the nod, sympathetically, and vanished from the doorway. Ever since Zach had founded the centre, she'd been here, doing all the thousand and one clerical jobs that kept them open, along with reception duty which sometimes included clients who were hysterical or aggressive. She knew what it cost, sometimes.
Van sank back into one of the two comfortable chairs he'd bought—the two of them, plus the desk that faced the opposite side wall, and a single bookcase, filled the room nicely without cluttering it. Atmosphere mattered.
“Right in here,” Beth's voice said, and she escorted Van's newest client through the door, then closed it behind her on her way out.
Just as well she had, or the little sensitive would have bolted. As it was, she froze, trembling violently. He knew that look of exhaustion and hunger and despair: she had hunters after her. She looked to him like a terrified mouse, slender almost to the point of being gaunt, all big eyes and tousled dark hair, and she couldn't possibly have been more than an inch away from five feet. She lacked the dishevelled, dirty, disreputable look sensitives tended to have after a couple of days of running, but though her jeans and sweatshirt were reasonably clean, they'd certainly been well-worn.
“Everybody's right,” she whispered, and sank down where she was, huddling into a ball. “You are everywhere.”
“No, I'm right here all the time,” Van said. Carefully, he leaned to one side so he could open the bottom drawer of his desk and fish out one of the protein bars he kept there. “Catch, you look like you need this.” He waited until she uncoiled a bit, mostly in surprise he thought, before he tossed it to her. She snatched it out of the air and tore it open, but she had enough control left to take it in small bites. Nibbling like a mouse, tiny bits but rapidly. “My name is Van. I work here, I have for years. I'm not a hunter, I have nothing to do with them. I won't leave this chair, I won't touch you. What's your name?”
What am I going to do with her?
Big dark eyes widened, and she stopped eating long enough to stare at him in amazement. He waited, and after a moment she said, “Miranda.”
“The hunters are after you, Miranda?”
“How many days?”
“A lot.” She licked the last crumbs from her fingers, and regarded him warily. Trying to decide what to do? No, there was something more there. He'd had a few others stumble in here, over the last eight years, and he'd learned to recognize the look of a sensitive confronting a mage for the first time. Whatever was going on in this one's head, it wasn't the usual mix of blind panic, imagination, and despair. Fear, yes, but that gaze that seemed to be measuring him and what she could get away with was unprecedented.
At least, in free sensitives.
He took a closer look, checking her aura. She'd definitely had a mage drawing power through her, violently and recently to judge by the raw channels. That didn't fit. Hunters didn't catch sensitives, rape them magically, and release them.
“How many is a lot? It must be at least four or five, the weather's changing and they wouldn't start a hunt they couldn't be sure of finishing before it breaks.”
“Something like that.”
“I see. I take it you'd like to be safe from them.”
“Nowhere is safe. I came in here for help and found another mage. Somebody I know got arrested and never came back. Someone else I know knew someone who went to a hospital and never came back. Thanks for the food. Are you keeping me here until the hunters come?”
She was rather astonishingly articulate for someone who had supposedly been run for four or five days.
“No. If they want you, they'll have to do it themselves. They think they're superior to the rest of us, I'm sure they'd see it as an insult that I could ever think they'd need me.”
“Then what are you going to do?”
“What would you like me to do?”
Any normal sensitive's response would have been an instant, “Let me go.” Miranda, however, stopped to think about it.
“What I'd like you to do or what I think there's any chance of you doing?”
“Either. Or both.” Under other circumstances, he would've enjoyed the challenge of fencing with her, but not while wondering if she were a threat to him and Brennan and Oblique.
“What I'd like is to leave here with the name of a place where I can sleep for one night without getting caught by hunters. I have to get out of town as fast as I can, and money would help, but I think that's really unlikely to come from you. I think the odds are a lot higher that the best I can really hope for is that you'll let me walk out of here and forget you saw me. And I'm not even so sure about the odds of that.”
Okay... is she working with Elena's crew, and trying to catch me out on charges of interfering with hunter business and maybe some kind of admission that half the Donovans have been doing stuff that's borderline illegal? Or is she for real? Hunters and the Donovans shared only a mutual antipathy, and it wouldn't be the first time a hunter had tried to trap a Donovan into giving them grounds for charges. Elena, in particular, had a personal grudge she indulged without hesitation.
Throwing Miranda out to fend for herself wasn't an option, she was in real trouble, whether she was telling the truth or not. He couldn't take her to York House, the mage-founded shelter on York Street, since that could get them all in charged with interference if she was bait for a trap.
He didn't much like the only option he could see, but sensitives were amazingly resilient; she'd get over it. He hoped.
The tricky bit would be to get himself into contact range without spooking her or saying something she could repeat to a hunter.
“Hm. Maybe we can manage something better than my just pretending you never came in here. How about if I call and order a pizza, or Chinese, or chicken, and you can have something to eat?”
She considered that. The hunger was real, he was certain of it, and was voicing its opinion vehemently in contradiction of the ingrained sensitive phobia of mages.
“I need to stand up, I'll have to go get the phone book from Beth. Mine keeps disappearing.” Slowly, he rose, keeping an eye on her; she didn't panic, but she did go tense. “Which would you prefer?”
“What toppings?” If he could just keep her distracted, keep her focused on something ordinary for long enough... He stood up, turned towards the door while she thought.
“I like all the meat ones. Or extra cheese.”
Illusion definitely wasn't among his strengths, but to blur the direction of motion was a small thing. Before Miranda had a chance to panic, or even to notice that he wasn't going to the door after all, he laid a hand on her shoulder and shoved her into a trance. With no resistance, it wouldn't hurt her any further; she'd simply lose some time.
He left her sitting there, vacant-eyed, while he gathered up his backpack again. Then he dropped to one knee in front of the sensitive.
“Miranda,” he said gently. “I want you to come with me. Stand up.”
Mechanically, she obeyed; he moved back to make room.
“Stay with me,” he repeated. This kind of state took away any will, but it also interfered with other mental functions. He hadn't had to shove her deep enough to mess with motor control, luckily, since Beth was likely to ask questions about his being followed by a shambling zombie, and the deeper the trance, the less long he was going to be able to maintain it. “Be polite to Beth, say thank you and good bye to her.”
Beth was at her desk, doing something on the computer. Probably something important, but odds were good she'd stayed in case Miranda felt nervous being alone with a man. She greeted them with a smile.
“Got it figured out?”
“I'm going to give her a ride to the women's shelter,” Van improvised. He hated lying to Beth, but the truth was not an option. “It's not that far out of my way home, it's cheaper than billing the centre for a taxi, and we can make sure she gets there safely.” The last phrase was a sort of private code, that someone with malice in mind could be looking for Miranda.
Beth nodded. “Good plan. You go ahead, I want to finish this and then I'll lock up.”
“Okay. Thanks. See you in the morning.”
“Thank you,” Miranda said obediently. “Good bye.”
“Good bye, and good luck,” Beth said.
Van led Miranda out to the little parking lot in the back, and directed her into the passenger side of the compact car. It was just too weird, having the tranced sensitive physically present but mentally not there; he turned on the radio to break the silence and distract himself.
At least home was only about twenty minutes' drive away. But that was a long way, while wondering whether he'd done the right thing, and how upset Oblique would be.
He pulled up in front of the mid-sized house Brennan had bought, an improvement over the large apartment the three of them had shared when Van first got back from school.
“Miranda, get out of the car, lock the door and close it, and wait for me.”
That done, and his own door locked, he led her to the front door and opened it.
They stepped into a small hallway, with the stairs to the second floor along the right-hand wall, the living room to the left, and a hall down which a glimpse of kitchen could be seen between them. Nothing fancy about furnishings or decor, but comfortable and simple.
Oblique was lounging on the couch more like a cat than the spectacular dragon she currently resembled—delicate jewel-toned scales glittered on all skin, there was semi-transparent webbing between her fingers and linking her arms to her sides like wings, and a serpentine tail lay in a lazy curve across one thigh. The complete lack of clothes showed every inch of it. Odds were about three in four that she'd been male when the hunters caught her, but it had all happened while Van was away at school; she refused to discuss it, said only that she was happy, and he was inclined to leave it at that.
She rolled from her belly to her side, and her smile of greeting froze.
“Oh, Van, what have you done?”
Van held up both hands palm-out in defence. “Whoa, truce, let me explain before you crucify me. It's complicated.”
Brennan appeared from the direction of the dining room linking this room directly to the kitchen, with a glass of something dark. “This doesn't sound good. Van, what... oh.” He spotted Miranda, and both eyebrows rose questioningly.
“Let me get her up to the guest room so she can sleep off the rest of it and wake up in her own time, okay? Then I'll come explain.”
“So thoughtful of a mere sensitive, my Lord,” Oblique muttered. Van winced. When she said things like that, it generally meant she was prepared to be furious.
Brennan perched on the arm of the couch and laid a hand on her shoulder, pacifyingly. “Let him explain. Then, if he's done something stupid, you can tell him off for it. But let's find out what it is, first.”
“That's fair,” Oblique decided.
Van left his backpack there, and took Miranda upstairs. The fourth room had the household computer in it, but also an extra bed. He had her lie down there.
“Now, go to sleep,” he told her. “Wake up whenever you're ready to.”
Her eyes closed and her body went limp. He closed the door quietly, and went back downstairs.
Oblique had rearranged herself sitting up, her feet tucked beside her—a position she'd worked out years ago as more comfortable when she had a tail. Brennan was in the chair at a ninety-degree angle to her. He and Van resembled each other more than passingly, same reddish-brown hair, same tall healthy build, similar facial features. Brennan was the youngest brother of Van's mother, and barely six years older than his favourite nephew; Van had spent his life looking up to Brennan more as an older brother than an uncle, and Brennan had taken to his shadow immediately. Brennan's T-shirt showed more visible muscle, though, and he was tanned darker—results of spending his time outside gardening and raising hens rather than in an office. Unlike Van's shoulder-length hair, drawn back in a tail for work, Brennan's was cut short.
“Well?” Oblique prompted impatiently.
Van slumped into the other corner of the couch, and described the last hour for them. No, not even an hour, and most of it had been the drive.
“What do you think the odds are?” he asked Oblique, at the end.
She frowned thoughtfully. “The odds that a sensitive, having been caught and raped in a demonstration of power, would be willing to help trap one mage in hopes of buying her freedom from the rest? I would say it's very possible, in some circumstances. But I think there may be other reasons that account for your observations, too.”
“Let's wait and see what she says, shall we?”
Which meant he'd get no answer out of her on that point.
“Well. I suppose, rather than terrify the poor girl, one of you had better make me look a bit less exotic. Not entirely human, but closer.” She offered Van her hand—he read it as acceptance, forgiveness, and an offer of reaffirming trust. Fingers laced through hers, he reached for the power that bubbled like a spring within her, and gathered it up. He built the image in his mind, the delicate scales lingering only on her hips and shoulders and down her back before blending into smooth skin the black of the sky between the stars, the webbing and tail gone, but her nails and her lips and eyelids glittered with the colours of the scales. A mental push, superimposing that image over Oblique's extremely malleable morphic field and pouring power into it... that was all it took.
He let go of her hand, let her examine herself.
Satisfied, she nodded. “Much less likely to frighten the poor child out of her wits. I rather like all the scales, though, don't forget that one.”
“Wouldn't dream of it,” Brennan said, amused.
“I'm going to go find some clothes.” She slid off the couch, and headed upstairs.
A moment later, she called, “Van, I'd say she's awake,” over the railing.
Van got hastily to his feet and darted back upstairs. Oblique, now in a simple sarong tied at her hip and a cropped tank top, moved out of his way.
Yes, there were definitely sounds of movement from the guest room. Tentatively, he knocked on the door, said, “Miranda?” and opened it.
Reflexive telekinesis shunted the ornamental vase aside before it connected with his skull; it shattered into millions of porcelain shards against the door-frame. Van flattened himself against the wall, heart pounding, and escaped most of the shrapnel. Seconds later, it was followed by a shriek of utter rage from within the room and a small clock-radio, cord trailing.
“You couldn't just fucking invite me? You just had to lie to me and kidnap me? I couldn't have gotten away anyway, you couldn't even just tell me?”
At the far end of the hall, Oblique began to laugh—not a small chuckle, but full-out, one hand on the railing to support herself.
“What?” Van demanded.
“Big bad mage,” she said breathlessly, using her free hand to brush her hair back from her face, “just got scared half to death by a sensitive half his size.” It carried, there was no way Miranda could have not heard it.
Van scowled at her, but Oblique's mirth showed no sign of abating, and after a moment he had to grin. And then laugh. As usual, she was absolutely right.
“All right, Miranda, I deserved the scare and every word you said, and I apologize. This isn't something I normally do. Will you let me explain? Oblique's a sensitive, too, and she's known me a long time, she can vouch for me.”
Silence, then Miranda growled, “Like I have a choice?”
“Well, I suppose we could come up with something else if necessary, but this seems like the simplest option.”
Another pause, then, “Are you going to lie to me again?”
“On my gifts, my family, my personal honour, or anything else you like, I will not lie to you this time.”
“All right, I'll listen.”
Van had his telekinesis ready before he moved away from the wall and into the doorway, but Miranda was sitting on the window-seat, and her hands were empty. There were a few throwable objects in her reach, however, so Van made a mental note to stay alert. Miranda watched him, anger still visible in every line of her body, while he sat on the computer chair.
Oblique's entrance distracted her, and her eyes widened, raking over the tall gorgeous sensitive. Van noticed that they flicked to Oblique's bare throat more than once. Hm, that was interesting.
She greeted Miranda with a warm smile. “Hi. I'm Oblique.”
“What's your real name?”
Curiouser and curiouser. I didn't think free sensitives knew about collars or renaming.
“Oblique. Brennan, Van's uncle, chose it for me back before I taught him better, but I've grown rather fond of it. And since I much prefer who I am now, safe and happy and loved, to who I used to be, scared and homeless and alone, as far as I'm concerned, it's my real name.” She sprawled casually on the bed, facing Miranda, bare feet in the air. “Van says your name is Miranda?”
Miranda nodded silently.
“Was the other name they gave you pretty bad?”
Miranda jerked, nearly fell off the window-seat—a neat trick, with wall on both sides, but Van was too busy staring at Oblique to pay much attention. In perfect unison, both he and Miranda demanded, “What?”
“The hunters caught you and sold you to someone, and whoever it was hurt you badly, didn't he. She?”
Gaze fixed on Oblique, expression stunned, Miranda whispered, “He.”
“He hurt you badly, and showed you no kindness at all, or at least none that you could believe in. And you did what we've all dreamed of at one time or another, you beat the odds and you got away. How?”
“He...” Miranda licked her lips. “He let me out of the room he had me locked in and told me to make supper. And I hit him. With the frying pan. A big black one. There was blood all over...” Tears gathered in her eyes, and she wrapped her arms around her knees. “He hurt me...”
“Poor baby,” Oblique said softly. She rolled neatly off the bed, picked up the box of tissues from near the computer, and looked at Van. “Leave.”
So much for apologizing and explaining. Why could he never get used to Oblique pulling surprises out of nowhere? Probably too much conditioning too young. Besides, it was part of what made her who she was. But he knew better than to argue with that tone; he retreated downstairs, carefully avoiding the remains of the shattered vase, to Brennan who commiserated with him over the inexplicable behaviour of sensitives.
Oblique came down, briefly, rattled around in the kitchen, and vanished back up the stairs. When she returned, she paused in the archway linking hall to living room.
“So, are you two going to come have some supper?”
“How's Miranda?” Van asked, but he got up and went to the kitchen with her and Brennan.
“Exhausted, half-starved, and more than half burned out,” Oblique said succinctly. “You two are not to go near that room, understand? I explained to her why Van did what he did, and she understands. Fear and the need to hide are familiar to a sensitive. But she desperately needs peace and safety and sleep and food. She's been through utter hell for something like a month without a pause.” The roast was already out of the oven, the rest waiting to be served; Brennan fetched plates while Van collected silverware, and all three got settled in the living room with food.
“We'll stay clear of Miranda until you think she can handle it,” Brennan promised. “I have a lot of work to do outside, so I'll be out of the house all day tomorrow. I can use the half-bath off the kitchen if I need to. Van will be at work. So she won't need to feel trapped in a cell.”
Oblique simply nodded. “What else are you planting this year?”
Both her mages knew a change of subject when they heard one. The conversation shifted to Brennan's garden and the hens, and Miranda was let be in fact and in discussion for the rest of the night.
But not in Van's thoughts.
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