Towel-wrapped, Van tapped on Miranda's bedroom door. “Miranda? Are you awake?”
“Randi,” came the response—it might have been sleepy, or just muffled by the door. “Sort of.”
“We need to be out of here in about forty-five minutes so I won't be late for work.”
“Okay.” He heard motion, and retreated to his own room to get dressed.
He beat Miranda to the kitchen, but not by much; the younger sensitive stopped in the doorway, eyes wide, as she spotted Oblique.
Oblique laughed, and set another plate of eggs and bacon and toast on the small kitchen table. “Still me, dear.” Van rather liked her this way, all milk-chocolate skin and lush curves set off perfectly by, this time, a form-fitting white dress slit up one side to show long legs that were guaranteed to get the attention of most men and a few women, her long dark hair gathered up casually but with curly tendrils escaping to frame her face. The heavy gold chain simply looked like jewellery, a match to the dangly earrings and the watch that circled her left wrist.
“That's how you really...?”
“In the same sense that Oblique is my real name.”
Miranda caught on fast. “What's real is what you want it to be.”
“What's real for me is,” Oblique agreed. “What's real for you is up to you. And it can change.” She refilled her glass of orange juice, took a sip, and gave Miranda a mischievous grin. “We're much luckier than anyone else, that way. No one else can change their body the way most people change their clothes, to suit their mood and mental state and situation.”
“True, I s'pose.” Miranda finally shook herself back into motion, and joined Van at the table. “Where's Brennan?”
“He's already outside feeding the hens.”
“Bren is definitely a morning person,” Van grumbled, and took a swallow of his coffee.
Right on time, they left the house and headed for the car—Brennan, messing around with the front flowerbeds, waved—Van with his knapsack holding book, lunch, and sundry such items, Oblique with her white leather purse and a larger cotton bag holding her library books, Miranda empty-handed. Knowing Oblique had already checked, Van nonetheless made sure both sensitives were safely collared before they got in the car. Miranda's looked out of place with her now-clean but badly worn jeans and a too-big T-shirt. Oblique, he was sure, had her cell phone in her purse so she could reach him easily if anything came up.
Van dropped them off at the library, wished them much fun shopping, and headed for work.
A little past four, which was when they generally tried to close, he escorted a client through the empty waiting area to the door, wished him luck and reminded him that they were always there if he needed them again, and retreated to his office to collect his things. On the way out, he retrieved his keys from Beth.
“Oblique says she'll be waiting in front of the library, and she had a great day shopping.”
The unusual location and the lack of reference to Miranda puzzled and worried Van briefly, until realization struck: Beth had seen Miranda, would recognize her as having come here for help, and that she'd left with Van. Taking a client home did not normally fall within acceptable professional ethics. Silently, he blessed Oblique for having thought of that in time to avoid serious repercussions. “Thanks. Enjoy the weekend.”
“I intend to,” Beth laughed. “Got a hot date lined up for tonight. If I don't make it in on Monday, that'll be why.”
“Lord, don't abandon us, we can't function without you.”
“Amen,” Hayley chuckled, emerging from her own office. “Have heaps of fun over the weekend, but make sure you get here Monday.”
Beth tapped her lips thoughtfully. “I bet I could hold out for a big raise, just by going on strike.”
“We'd all end up giving you a chunk of our pay,” Hayley laughed. A physically unassuming woman of no readily identifiable age, overweight and plain-featured, something in her smile and her aura made her co-workers depend on her without hesitation and even the most frightened client open up. Not mage-magic, but a kind of magic of its own.
Zach joined them. “Who's giving who their pay?” The centre was his brain-child, born of many years of counselling in other organizations. He could have set up his own practice as a psychologist, he had the qualifications—and looked the part of the dignified scholar, Van thought—but had chosen instead to help those who couldn't afford high hourly fees, and those who were in crisis now. Funding was always a little precarious, but somehow—aided subtly at times by a nudge of a probability here, an anonymous donation from a Donovan there—they stayed open. And Van and Hayley, who had graduated from different colleges, stayed instead of looking for better-paying jobs elsewhere. Zach had chosen them personally, years ago, insisting that their skills were of more use in this kind of front line work than a university degree in psychology.
“Beth's threatening to go on strike,” Hayley explained.
“Terrifying thought. Don't even joke about that, Beth.”
Beth laughed. “I wouldn't really do that. I just need to remind you now and again, so you don't take me for granted. You guys go ahead, this is personal stuff I'm working on.”
“Shame on you,” Zach said, in feigned severity. “Personal matters at work. We'll lock up on the way out, so no one bothers you.”
Hayley bid them farewell out front and started walking, since she had an apartment not far away. Zach headed for the nearest bus stop, and Van circled around back to the small parking lot shared by the row of buildings.
Oblique and Miranda were sitting on the front steps of the library when he got there, a collection of bags around them. He pulled up to the curb, and the two sensitives tossed everything in the back seat before getting in.
“Did you leave anything in the stores?” he teased. Miranda, he noticed in approval, was wearing new blue jeans that fit her much better, a russet-coloured shirt embroidered with darker russet around the neck and hem, and new running shoes instead of her battered ones.
“Nothing in Randi's size unless it was in bad taste,” Oblique chuckled. “We took the bus and went to all the second-hand clothing stores, the cheaper new stores, and some other places. And I still had time to collect enough new books to keep me busy for a little while.”
“It was lots of fun,” Miranda said enthusiastically, from the back seat. “I think I tried on more clothes than I've owned my whole life, and we bought all the ones that looked good, and we went out for lunch. Everybody kept looking at Oblique. The waiter in the restaurant was flirting with her, and I thought one guy working in a shoe store was going to drool on the floor. I think he was disappointed we were looking for shoes for me, not for her. All I was thinking of was another pair of jeans and a few T-shirts my size, I was not expecting jeans in four different colours and a pile of T-shirts and sweatshirts and a few dressy kinds of tops and three pairs of shoes and lots of underwear and stuff.”
Van glanced sideways at Oblique; she simply smiled and leaned back against the seat, closing her eyes. “I'm glad the two of you had such a good time. Thanks for saving my job, Oblique.”
“If you get fired, how will you pay off my credit card?” she asked lightly.
“It would get paid, and you know it.”
Her tone turned affectionate. “I don't want to see you lose something that matters so much to you, over an oversight and a situation mundane laws and ethics have no provisions for. So. There's a dresser for Randi's room on layaway in a fairly inexpensive furniture store, along with a proper computer desk instead of the table we've been using. I told them we'd pick them up this weekend. Tonight or tomorrow I think we should do some rearranging, and put the computer somewhere else. Down in the dining room, maybe, I think we can shift the table a couple of feet towards the living room and have enough space near the door to the kitchen, the new desk should fit perfectly. That would actually be convenient, having it close to the kitchen. The bed in Randi's room is only a single, but there isn't much of her, so she fits okay.” The tone of the last sentence was playful.
“There are advantages to being small,” Miranda giggled.
“Do we need a new computer desk?” Van wondered.
“Yes,” Oblique said firmly.
“Okay. You use it more than Bren or I, if you want a new desk, you get a new desk. What about the chair?”
“No, I'm keeping the chair.”
“She promised to teach me how to use the computer,” Miranda added. “Especially how to go on the Internet and talk to people from all over the world. It sounds extremely cool.”
“Just hold off on the shopping online until we get this paid off,” Van laughed.
They found Brennan relaxing in a lawn chair with a glass of lemonade, when they pulled in.
“Slacking off?” Oblique teased him, as she got out of the car.
“Making sure I'm sitting down when I find out how much you bought today,” he chuckled, but stood up and joined them, while Van popped the trunk open and got out. Miranda opened her door, and gathered up as much as she could of what was in the back seat with her, Oblique collecting the rest, while Brennan and Van emptied the trunk.
Van noticed, abruptly, that Brennan was easily in reach of Miranda; without a thought, he interposed himself, and stayed between them across the driveway to the door, which clicked audibly and swung wide just before they reached it.
“Magic?” Miranda asked.
“A little bit,” Brennan agreed. “Worth it, since none of us has a hand free.”
Van glared at him, but his uncle seemed not even to notice.
They trooped upstairs, Oblique joking about parades, to deposit everything in Miranda's room. The room wasn't large, to have four bodies in it; despite Van's efforts to stay between Miranda and Brennan, it didn't work.
“Mine,” he snarled at Brennan, pulling Miranda behind him.
Brennan made a noise that might have been a muffled snort of laughter, but his expression was bland and neutral as he held up both hands at shoulder-height. “I didn't touch her.”
“All right. Can I get by so I can go downstairs?”
Miranda hopped up on the bed and knelt there, which meant Van could back up a couple of steps and make room for Brennan to get past him, while still keeping himself in the middle.
“Both of you out,” Oblique said. “We may not have the dresser yet, but we can at least sort it out and put away what goes in the closet.”
Van considered refusing, but Oblique was no threat, and even three people in this room was too many. He conceded, and went downstairs to collapse on the couch, shaken. Where on earth had that come from?
Brennan joined him, handed him a glass of lemonade, and sat in the chair, setting his own on the end table next to him. Automatically, Van took a swallow.
“I have no idea why I did that, Bren, but I'm sorry.”
“According to official mage lore, sensitives bond to an individual mage.”
Van frowned. “As an instinctive response to gentleness or compassion when they're emotionally vulnerable. And, according to the same lore, it's a one-way bond, but we both know that's bullshit, Donovans have always known better. But after so long with Oblique, my tie to her isn't all that much weaker than yours. And I didn't start getting mad all the time when I got back from school.”
“No? You could hardly try to stay between Oblique and I, but I very clearly remember watching you edge in between her and other mages more than once. Close family included.”
Van didn't recall doing it, but if Brennan had noticed it, he must have. “Okay, but she's only been here for, what, not even seventy-two hours!”
“I haven't noticed time being a factor. You know human behaviour, not so much animals, but we aren't really all that different from them. In general, when an animal or a bird starts to court a mate, there's specific behaviour it's expecting to get as a response, and if it doesn't get it, nothing more will happen. When it does get the proper response, there's no hesitation. For the record, that's a gross over-simplification, but the principle holds.”
Van groaned. “Great. So much for her freedom. She got the right responses from me, and I'm getting them from her...”
“This is something that very much needs to go in your book. Think. What responses are you each getting? Why don't sensitives bond constantly to other sensitives? They all look out for each other. Odds would be fairly high of Miranda bonding to Oblique, don't you think?”
Van took another sip of lemonade, turning the puzzle over and over in his mind. Brennan had thrown questions at him all his life, making him work out the answers, and Van had always enjoyed the challenge. He'd thought he and Oblique had done a fairly thorough job of coming up with general patterns for mages and sensitives, but somehow, he hadn't taken the psychological effects of bonding on mages, or the whole process, very seriously. Obviously a major oversight.
“Okay, to bond, a sensitive needs... let's see. Flashes of intense possessiveness? No, that would probably exclude bonding to other sensitives but there are certainly mundanes out there who are capable of that. Mages don't go outside the normal human psychological range, we just tend to be bunched up on one end of it, and sensitives on the other. So it can't be that. The only thing that's unique to mages is magic, but it can't be just seeing magic... it would have to be giving a mage power. Can't be that alone, or Miranda would be with that Vladislav pervert still. Giving power combined with gentleness, maybe. That would be a clear indicator that the other person is a mage and will take care of you. For a mage it depends on... what would the trigger be? Magic, definitely. Vulnerability? Submissive behaviour?” He paused to reflect. “Need to think about that one.”
“So what exactly does bonding mean, to a sensitive? In one word. Oblique to me, for example.”
Van considered and discarded a few, found one. “Loyalty?”
“That works. Now, what do you suppose it would mean, hypothetically, to a mage? Say, me to Oblique. Or, if it makes it easier, you to Oblique. What comes to mind when you think of her, in general?”
“Protectiveness,” Van said slowly, quietly, understanding beginning to dawn. “Making sure she's safe matters more than anything. Which can take a lot of different forms.”
“Especially with the threat of a pair of mages who are known enemies taking away your sensitive.”
Van looked down in amazement at the glass that had just shattered in his hand, spilling lemonade liberally over his lap and splattering the couch and floor. “Ow.”
“Must remember not to mention that again. Here, let me see.” Brennan sat forward, and turned Van's hand palm-up so he could check for glass in the cuts—telekinesis was useful for delicate work like that. Van very much doubted he could have held still under the touch of any other mage, right then, even his own mother or his aunt Shvaughn who was all but a second mother. “Conclusions, expert?”
“That you're smarter than I am.”
“Other than the blindingly obvious,” Brennan laughed.
Van tried to distract himself from the pain beginning to tingle in his hand, by concentrating on the intellectual puzzle. “We already knew that it's perfectly possible for multiple bonds to form, although I can't think of any examples that go beyond two of each, and it's not common outside the Donovans except in the form of a mage with two sensitives—except in the damned hunters sharing their sensitives. Mom and Shvaughn and Rich and Azure are definitely bonded every-which-way. Hm. We figured the root of the traditions about avoiding each other's sensitives had to do with forming clear mutual bonds but it's gotten out of hand, but we forgot to consider that the root of the thirty-days law limiting mage responsibility for a new sensitive's behaviour also limits consequences for the mage's behaviour if the sensitive is in... Ow!”
“Sorry, that one was pretty jagged.”
“Individual variation being what it is, and with a lot of factors involved, there are going to be mages who form a deep bond but do it slowly, who would probably not show any more dramatic behaviour than you can reasonably blame on socially-encouraged possessiveness, and mages who bond shallowly who if possessive would be for all the wrong reasons. And mages, probably ones that are fairly receptive with some degree of empathy, who are going to bond hard and deep as fast as their sensitives do. Crap. All things considered, my behaviour is likely to stay erratic for a while. Great, that'll go a long way towards helping Miranda trust me.”
“Oblique must have figured it out and explained it to her. Otherwise, I think her reaction upstairs just now would have been a bit stronger.”
“Well, that's something. Ouch!”
“There, I think that's all the glass, and none of the cuts look serious. Too bad mages can't heal ourselves. Or each other. We'd better do something with this mess before it gets sticky.”
The two sensitives came downstairs to find the mages, with a mixture of magic and manual labour, cleaning lemonade off couch and carpet, and collecting glass.
“What happened?” Oblique asked.
“Broke a glass,” Brennan said.
“Then why is Van not using his right hand?”
“That's what broke the glass.”
“You got hurt?” Miranda darted around the coffee table to Van. “Let me see.”
“Bren got the glass out, it'll be fine,” Van assured her.
“That isn't what I asked. Let me see.”
Van straightened, still on his knees, and could read nothing save stubborn determination in her expression and body language. Meekly, he offered his hand, which was definitely starting to hurt. Like he needed another source of frustration in his life right now.
“Behind the mirror in the half-bath,” Oblique told Miranda. “Go fix him, I'll help Bren finish this.”
“It's not that bad!” Van protested.
“Surrender gracefully,” Brennan advised.
“For me?” Miranda said.
Well, if it would make Miranda feel better about it... Van got up, and went with her to the kitchen. Miranda's hands were gentle and practised, as she cleaned the cuts thoroughly with peroxide, which stung and made his hand twitch as it bit deep, then smeared the inner surface of his hand with ointment that soothed the discomfort considerably.
Brennan stopped in the laundry room to toss the paper bag of glass in the garbage; Oblique deposited sodden rags in the kitchen sink and began to rinse them.
“Verdict, doctor?” Brennan asked.
“It's going to hurt using that hand for a couple of days, but that's all,” Miranda said with absolute certainty.
“Thanks,” Van said.
Miranda shrugged. “Sensitives get hurt a lot. At work, mostly, or in rough sports, stuff like that. You get good at fixing it after a while, if you can't go near doctors.” She flashed him a smile. “But you're welcome.”
“So,” Oblique said briskly. “Supper can be either something fast, like soup and sandwiches, or we can do take-out.”
“We could have pizza delivered,” Van teased, and grinned when Miranda pretended to hide behind Oblique in terror. “For real this time.”
“I think that's actually a good idea,” Oblique mused.
“I have those occasionally.”
“Occasionally,” Brennan agreed.
The evening ended comfortably, with pizza devoured while they watched a movie, and generally catching up on the day, before they scattered to various pursuits for an hour or two before bed.
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