Van parked his car in its usual place, and went inside, musing over the drastic changes that could happen in a couple of twenty-four-hour periods.
Oblique greeted him in the kitchen with a smile. “I expected you to be later, shopping for Miranda.”
“Actually, I had a sudden inspiration, and all I had to do was find the right one. Where is she?”
“She's been out helping Brennan all afternoon.”
Van frowned. “She's been through a lot, are you sure she's in any condition for hard physical work?”
“She didn't wake up until ten or so, and she didn't go outside until after lunch,” Oblique said patiently. “Do you think Brennan would let anything happen to her? Being active is good for her. Come on, let's go so you can give her her present.”
Miranda, in overly large cotton shorts and a T-shirt that was much too big for her knotted at the front, crouched in Brennan's vegetable garden weeding what Van thought might be carrots. Brennan was nearby, hoeing something or other.
“Heya, Van,” he said equably.
Miranda looked up, and smiled. “Hi. How'd work go?”
“One very bad crisis, a couple of standards sessions, a cancellation that gave me some time to start preparing for the talk I got asked to do for a college class. About like usual.” More than a bit confused by his own mixed emotions, he toyed nervously with the chain hidden in his jacket pocket. What if she didn't like it, or thought it was a way of making fun of her? And why on earth was he jealous of the fact that Brennan had been with her all day?
“Van has something for you,” Oblique said.
Miranda stood up, wiping her hands on her T-shirt—one of Oblique's old and somewhat ragged work shirts, Van noted irrelevantly—and picked her way carefully between the rows to him. She looked uncertain, too, which made Van feel both better and worse. Brennan paused to lean on his hoe and watch.
He pulled the silver chain out of his pocket, and held it out to her. Like Oblique's, the chain was heavy; instead of looking like a twisted rope, though, it was trios of small links alternating with a single longer one.
Miranda accepted it, smiled when she saw the silver hawk pendant, and flipped it over to read the other side.
And read it again, her eyes wide.
“Now that's appropriate,” Brennan said.
“And could have a number of interpretations,” Oblique murmured.
“I can replace it, if you want,” Van said, hesitantly.
Miranda shook her head, vehemently, and a tear slid down one cheek. “Just... after what he...” She gave up and hugged him hard, with more strength than he'd have expected in that slight frame—her head came not even to his shoulder—and he returned the hug with care. Just as suddenly, she let go and pressed the chain back into his hand, spinning around so he could reach the back of her neck. “Put it on?”
“You don't need it around the house.”
Still at a loss but not inclined to argue, Van fastened the chain in place for her. Miranda twitched it straight, and turned around again to show him, her eyes bright and happy despite the fact that another tear was sneaking down her cheek. “Thank you.”
Okay, obviously I did something right, here. “You're welcome.”
“It suits you,” Brennan said, and got back to hoeing.
Miranda glanced at the row of maybe-carrots, then at Van. “I don't like leaving this half done...”
“If you want to keep working, then go for it. If you're tired, stop. You don't need my permission.” He smiled, hoped his own tangled feelings didn't show. “What you do need is lots of energy to go shopping tomorrow.”
“I think I'll finish the carrots, and then stop,” Miranda decided.
“You've done a lot already,” Brennan said. “It's nice to have help. Oblique's more of an indoors kind of person, and Van has been banned from my garden since he pulled up all the cucumbers and left the weeds.”
Miranda grinned. “He didn't really. Did he?”
“I was about twelve,” Van protested.
“Kerry, my older sister and Van's mother, was distinctly not impressed,” Brennan chuckled. “She doesn't like getting her hands dirty, but she adores fresh cucumbers.”
“Maybe you should've done a better job of showing me which ones were the weeds.”
“Anyway, Van is not allowed to do weeding, and there's certainly enough to keep a second pair of hands busy, anytime you're bored.”
She's not Brennan's, she's mine!
Van forced the sudden resentment down and away, firmly. What was with him lately? He was certainly no saint, but getting angry and possessive like this just wasn't normal.
“Have fun,” he said lightly. “Did you guys leave me any brownies, or are they all gone?”
“I made chocolate chip cookies,” Oblique said. “They'll have to do.”
“I can live with that.”
Inside, Oblique offered him a platter heaped with cookies. “Now, go keep yourself busy for a while, I didn't expect you home for at least another hour and supper will be late tonight.”
“No problem. Zach just finished reading an apparently very thorough book on addictive personalities and behaviour, and he loaned it to me.” He helped himself to a handful of cookies, poured himself a glass of juice, and retired to curl up on the couch and read.
He heard Miranda and Brennan come indoors, heard water running in the laundry room, and a moment later both headed upstairs. Van paused long enough to look, but Brennan was keeping just out of reach, and they were talking about the hens, a safe sort of subject, so he went back to reading.
Clean and once again sarong-clad, this time without the shirt underneath, the silver chain lying clearly visible over the multicoloured fabric, Miranda joined him on the couch. “What are you reading?”
Van laid his bookmark in place, closed it, and handed it to her. “One of the other counsellors thought I might find it useful. So far, I think he's right.”
Miranda nodded slowly, as she studied the cover. “Some sensitives have problems like that. They start drinking a lot or doing drugs so they don't have to think about hunters. They're even more of a mess than the rest of us.”
“There's a long list of problems that tend to be combined with addictions, causes and effects and just associated behaviour. Sometimes people come to us because they want to get straightened out and don't know where to go, or they're looking for ways to deal with short-term problems that sometimes are connected with addictions. Suddenly being unemployed because they missed too many days at work due to hangovers, say. Or someone running from an abusive and alcoholic partner. But sometimes the addiction itself is a symptom of having been abused, or of growing up in a family where it was normal, or of psychiatric problems... or of feeling trapped in a situation with no way out and no hope for the future. It's a pretty complex issue.”
“It sounds like it.” She frowned, thoughtfully. “The ones who come to you are the ones that don't have lots of money, but it can't be just them.”
“No, but people with more money tend to have more options open to them when the world starts falling apart. If Bren and I started fighting all the time, I could move out and get a place of my own, and we'd all be okay. Lonely, but the bills would get paid. Take away the big well-off supportive family, the educations paid for by our family, and the mage tricks...”
“... and you couldn't get away from each other and still survive,” Miranda finished for him. “Because it would take combined resources to make ends meet. My mother and aunt rent a house together, and sometimes other sensitives stay there for a while when they need a place to go. It works because what keeps sensitives together is stronger than the arguments and annoying things that happen. Take that away, because I don't think normal people have it mostly, and the whole thing would be awfully shaky.”
“Oblique's mentioned stable sensitive households before, but I gather they aren't common.”
“The instinct to keep running is pretty strong, even for women with children who are logically safe,” Miranda explained. “But there are a few exceptions. My mother and her sister grew up in the same kind of house. They arranged shifts so one of them could always be home to watch the kids, until a couple of us were old enough to watch the younger ones, and we didn't move all the time. Most of us actually finished high school or are still in school, and we all have legal ID and stuff, and I had a better job than most do. Just cash and stocking shelves in a corner store, but it was a lot safer than the stuff most sensitives end up doing. My next youngest sister and my almost-sister both have babies of their own, so they should be safe and it'll keep going.” She sighed. “I don't know why I bothered with school, though.”
“Why? It sounds like you were doing pretty well, and had a reasonable chance at a fairly stable life.”
“I got born wrong. I'm a girl, but... not totally. I can't get pregnant, I never started, um...” She shrugged. “Anyway, by the time I was sixteen or so, I'd figured out that my chances of the hunters overlooking me were about zero. I don't even really look like a girl, I can run around with no shirt on and everyone thinks I'm a boy.” Her gaze dropped. “No wonder he wanted to change me.”
“There is no excuse for the way he treated you,” Van growled. “Creative sexuality is one thing, but he's seriously disturbed.” Miranda looked up, eyes wide and uncertain, and he reined in the protective anger firmly. “Not being able to get pregnant is very likely caused by something a mage can fix,” he said, keeping his tone carefully calm. “There's a lot more to shapechanging than dramatic visible effects. It's another option, if you decide you want to leave.”
“Oh. That's... something to think about.”
“Supper,” Oblique called from the dining room.
“Nice timing,” Van muttered, but got up and, without thinking, offered Miranda his hand. She did hesitate, but not even long enough for Van to realize what he'd done and let his hand fall; she accepted it and the help getting to her feet, and let go with no particular haste. All things considered, Van took it as an immense compliment. They joined the other two in the dining room, and there Miranda paused, one hand resting on the back of the chair she'd taken the night before.
“Do you need extra hands?”
“All under control,” Oblique said. “Have a seat.”
It seemed odd to Van, that after Miranda having been present such a short time, she fit so neatly into a household that had remained fixed for something like a decade, since after he'd finished college but before he'd taken his Master's exam. Yet, somehow, she simply seemed to belong, as though she'd always had the fourth place at the table.
“It might not hurt for you to head for bed early, Miranda,” Oblique suggested. “You did a fair bit of work outside, and you'll need to be up in the morning if we're going shopping.”
“My friends usually call me Randi,” Miranda said, a bit shyly. “It's shorter and easier. Although if you use it most places, people tend to think I'm a boy.”
“So who cares what people tend to think?”
“No one around here, that's for sure,” Brennan said. “Pass the rice, Van? Thanks. Popular opinion is highly overrated, and personally, I like the way Randi sounds. It fits you.”
Miranda blushed, just a little. “Anyway, going to bed early is probably a good idea, I'm kind of tired.”
“Van, quit glaring at Bren,” Oblique said. “Being tired is not dangerous.”
“So I worry,” Van snapped. “Since when is being concerned a crime?”
“It isn't,” Brennan said equably. “Although you might keep in mind that you don't have a monopoly on it.”
Van had to admit, there was no way Brennan would allow Miranda to work hard or long enough to interfere with her recovery, or that Oblique wouldn't step in to protect her if she saw any reason to. As much as he'd prefer to personally look after her, make sure she had everything she needed, make sure she healed from the exhaustion and stress and trauma, make sure nothing like it could ever happen again... it was insane to believe that she wasn't perfectly safe with Brennan and Oblique. “Sorry.”
“It's been a tense couple of days.”
“I do know my own limits,” Miranda pointed out. “I did survive for twenty-four years all by myself. Well, not all by myself exactly. But I do know when to stop, I promise.” It sounded more like reassurance than annoyance, so Van chose to take it that way.
“I'll try to remember that.”
“One of you will need to change me to normal,” Oblique said, adroitly shifting the subject. “I certainly can't spend a day in town with scales no matter how much I like them. Tonight would be easier, to save the extra rushing around in the morning.”
“Not a problem,” Brennan said.
“And my credit card is all paid off from last time, so we should have no trouble at all paying for things.”
“Promising that Van and I will pay for them, you mean.”
“Same thing. And I need to get my library books together to take back, although I don't know if we'll have time for me to look for more. I'm expecting this to be a very large shopping trip.”
“I imagine so.” Brennan sounded amused and indulgent.
“If you run out of hands, stop by and drop some of it off,” Van said. “I'll leave the car keys with Beth, in case I'm with someone when you come.”
“Good plan,” Oblique said approvingly.
Miranda did, shortly after supper, choose a shower and her bed over staying up. Van sprawled in the chair in the living room to read, leaving the couch to Brennan and Oblique, but close enough to offer opinions on the playful shapechanging games, and to occasionally reach over to clasp Oblique's hand himself and show them ideas of his own. Oblique, as usual, enjoyed the attention and sensation and creativity immensely.
Much later, Brennan returned her to her chosen “normal” look, and they all scattered to bed.
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