Sunday turned out to be a perfect day for a barbecue: sunny and warm, not hot, with just a hint of a breeze, a few fluffy clouds drifting lazily overhead.
Oblique had demanded a return to her dragon-form, with a small modification or two, largely the absence of the webbing linking arms to sides. But, otherwise, she was back in tiny scales, black that shimmered with every colour of the spectrum, especially in the sunlight. She'd found a rather short skin-tight strapless white dress to wear, with a slit up the back to allow her serpentine tail more freedom; it did a lot to emphasize the scales, along with curves that were definitely not reptilian.
Miranda preferred to keep her tabby stripes, and Van made no effort to convince her otherwise. She did look cute, in her back-slit denim shorts and a red tank-top.
Oblique picked up the huge bowl of potato salad she'd made the night before. The trunk of the car already held the other part of their contribution, a liberal assortment of cans and bottles of juice and pop. “I think we're all ready. Is there anything else?”
Van slung his backpack—with towels, swimsuits, and the like, plus sunblock for him and Brennan—over one T-shirt-clad shoulder, and shook his head. “I think that's it.” He gave Miranda a one-armed hug, reassuringly. “Relax, Randi, you'll be okay, I promise.”
“If you say so,” she said doubtfully, but she came out to the car with them.
The sensitives had the back seat—Miranda obviously suddenly realizing why the car windows were tinted as dark as legally possible in the back. Oblique grumbled a bit about getting comfortable with her heavy tail caught under her, but squirmed until she got settled. Miranda stayed very quiet during the ten-minute drive; Van worried about her, wished he could make her feel better, but said nothing. Which left Brennan and Oblique to fill the silence, which they did.
The house Van and Brennan had grown up in was very large and very old, and had been in the Donovan family for a long time. Kerry, her sister, and their mother had lived here as long as Van could remember; he missed his grandmother badly, but she'd proven a few years back that no mage power could fight cancer, no matter how great the strength of will. To add to the grief, her sensitive who had been with her for almost fifty years suicided immediately afterwards.
But the house still stood, next to the lake, screened from the road by distance and a wall of trees.
Van parked next to a car he recognized as his cousin Grania's.
“Finally.” Oblique was out of the car in a heartbeat, her tail swishing as she worked the kinks out. “The things I go through to look good...” But she said it mostly under her breath, so Van and Brennan could pretend not to have heard. Miranda passed her the salad, and got out; Van popped the trunk before he and Brennan followed suit.
The front door opened and Richard came out. No... Van did a small mental shift. Tinker, not Rich.
Miranda stared at him, eyes wide. Van tried to see him as Randi might, and thought he could understand the amazement: Rich was big, larger even than Van or Brennan, and at the moment, he was a muscular tiger, quite a lot furrier than Oblique usually preferred, black stripes and white belly and brilliant golden-orange, and completely naked except a wide studded leather collar. Not that anything showed, since cats had everything tucked away neatly inside. The massive humanoid cat was definitely impressive.
“Lady Kerry is in the back yard, my Lords,” he said, eyes low, perfectly respectful. “My Lady sent me to bring inside what you brought.”
“Thanks,” Van said. “It's all in the trunk, except the bowl Oblique has.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Tinker relieved Oblique of the heavy bowl, and picked up one of the cases of pop with his other hand. Van didn't miss Oblique's admiring look, or the way her tongue ran along her lips. Or Tinker's wink in return. But he pretended he hadn't seen.
Miranda shook herself, and hastened to join him. “My Lord?”
Brennan simply glanced at Oblique, and she came, as well, around the house to the back yard.
The picnic table was near the gas barbecue, but currently was bare; half a dozen lawn chairs and a couple of blankets had been arranged on the grass, not far away.
Kerry was in one, her greying hair pinned up, the body under her swimsuit and robe softening noticeably these days. Aiden, who was first cousin to her and Shvaughn and Brennan, was nearest her, long thin legs stretched out in front of him, long thin fingers wrapped around a glass. Shvaughn herself, hard and fit, and her daughter Grania, slightly overweight but voluptuously curved, with long wheat-gold hair, were relaxing in two of the others.
Kerry greeted them with a warm smile. “Perfect day for a picnic, isn't it?”
“Absolutely,” Brennan said, claiming a chair; Van took the last. “Hi, all. How are the kids, Grania?”
“Doing wonderfully, thank you.”
“They're home with Meta?” Van asked, already sure of the answer. Grania had two sensitives, but one of them stayed home to raise her beloved small twins. Usually, the entire household came, but if Meta and the little ones had been present, there'd have been no overlooking them.
Grania nodded. “They have a new wading pool, with a slide, and they're having a grand old time. Meta just never seems to get tired, I'd be lost without her. How could I concentrate on everything else if I had to worry about them, instead of knowing they're in the best of hands?”
“Glad to hear it,” Brennan said. “And I can just imagine how much fun they're having splashing around. How's your newest play coming, Kerry?”
“I think it has a lot of potential, although we'll have to wait and see, we've barely started.”
“Make sure we get tickets, hm? Oblique? Get me, oh, a can of root beer, and a glass with ice in it?”
“Yes, my Lord,” Oblique said, but she waited a heartbeat, her gaze flicking from Miranda to Van.
“The same, but orange,” Van told her.
“Yes, my Lord,” Miranda echoed softly, and followed Oblique in the direction of the house.
The mages chatted about Kerry's theatre, Shvaughn's art, Brennan's garden, Aiden's studies in European history and recent trip to Scotland, Van's counselling, Grania's restaurant and children, Neely's absence due to a ju-jitsu tournament. Oblique and Miranda returned, with the requested drinks; Van accepted his with an off-hand, “Well done. Sit,” and returned to the conversation. Miranda obediently knelt at his feet, just a little to one side so she wasn't in the way if he chose to move. Oblique must have given her some of the finer points to go with the technical rules. Normally, Brennan would have sent Oblique to the kitchen, to help the other sensitives, but that would have left Miranda alone with six mages; Van was grateful he didn't.
Kerry stretched, lazily. “Is anyone else getting hungry?”
“I think I could go for some good food,” Aiden conceded.
Grania echoed the stretch and stood up. “I imagine Unity's finished making hamburger patties by now.”
“Your way?” Van asked, with interest. Grania mixed something into the meat she refused to divulge, but it made her burgers, especially barbecued, heavenly.
“Of course my way. There are hot dogs, too, for anyone with no taste. Or for the sensitives, if we run out of burgers.” She grinned, and departed in the direction of the kitchen, her long strides making her colourful cotton skirt swirl around her ankles.
Grania being by far the best able to take charge of the food, the others left her to it. Brennan got up and went for a walk with Kerry to take a closer look at the flowers he'd planted earlier that spring, in and around the rock garden he'd started designing back in his teens and had been perfecting ever since; Oblique was told to stay where she was.
Shvaughn leaned back in her chair, took a sip of fruit punch, and looked Miranda over thoughtfully. “Cute little thing,” she told Van. “You've had her, what, a couple of weeks?”
“Two weeks this Wednesday.”
“You're doing a good job training her, she's well-behaved for a new one.”
“Thanks. Oblique's a good example for her, that helps, I think.”
“I imagine having had a taste of harsher treatment would also help.”
Van felt Miranda wince slightly. Yet, in public, most mages felt free to make comments far more callous. It was one of those things they had to get used to until changes could happen. “Oh, probably. She's smart enough to figure out when she has it good.”
Unity began to bring condiments and dishes out to the picnic table, while Grania carried a platter heaped with burgers to the barbecue and opened it to reveal foil-wrapped potatoes already inside. The sensitive was all sleek glossy feathers today, her chest white, her back black intricately marked with white, her head black and her eyes red. That looked familiar from somewhere; it was the white on the sides and back of her neck that triggered sudden recognition. Loons were a familiar sight on the lake, he should have identified her more quickly than that. The collar around her neck was black suede, almost invisible except for the metal plaque riveted to it; otherwise, she wore no more than Rich.
The sound of a vehicle coming up the driveway startled all of them, mage and sensitive alike; Kerry gestured to everyone to stay, and circled the house to the front. No one should be here, uninvited. Mundanes meant sending the sensitives all in the house in a hurry; the response to other mages depended on who they were.
Kerry came back around the house with four people. Shvaughn and Aiden both half-turned to see; Van didn't need to, he could see from where he was, two in khaki denim, two behind who were silent and visibly tried to take up as little space in the universe as possible. He saw Brennan, by the rock-garden, go very still. Grania simply glanced over her shoulder, and went back to piling potatoes in a shallow bowl.
“I'm sure we have enough food for guests,” Kerry was saying, her tone artificially bright.
“We were in the area and thought we'd stop by,” Brock said casually. “A good dinner is an unexpected bonus.”
Van felt both fists clench, and fought the instinct to bolt to his feet. Miranda shivered and inched a little closer, but didn't otherwise move. Trusting him to protect her, he thought, and felt sick at the thought that he might not be able to. Oblique bent a rule and shifted position so she was closer to Miranda, but dared not actually touch.
Shvaughn got to her feet, gave Van a quick reassuring smile while her back was to the hunters, and made a gesture, blocked from them by her body, that he interpreted as stay. At least he wasn't alone; his family would do everything in their power to keep him and Miranda safe. Van didn't think any of them had any doubts exactly why they'd really chosen to appear here and now. She turned away, strode across the grass to the hunter team.
“We didn't think busy folks like yourselves would have any interest in a small family dinner,” she said. “Of course you're welcome to join us, Grania always makes far too much food. It comes from running a restaurant, I suppose, she's used to thinking in bulk. I suppose you didn't bring anything to swim in, the lake's lovely today.”
“Now that I have you alone and we won't bore the others,” Aiden said, his tone light, “maybe I can get your thoughts on the social dynamics in Ireland and Scotland as Christianity was introduced. There's a considerable difference between knowing the facts and knowing why people acted the way they did, and frankly, I trust you more than any of the works I've read on the subject.”
Van forced his attention away from the hunters, fixed it on Aiden instead, grateful for the distraction. Staring at the hunters like a cornered rabbit was dangerous in itself. “I don't know that much about the subject, you'll have to tell me what it is I'm giving you thoughts about.” It was a subject they could keep going on for hours without ever straying into heretical ground—they'd had similar discussions before—which was probably why Aiden had suggested it. Brennan abandoned the rock garden in favour of rejoining them, listening intently and asking questions to clarify details and offering a thought or two of his own. Oblique, properly, shifted position again so she was near him.
Elena left Brock with Kerry and Shvaughn, and strode over to the circle of chairs, sitting down without invitation or greeting. One of the mute, shattered sensitives knelt at her feet without ever acknowledging the presence of the Donovan sensitives, even via the subtle non-verbal signals that Van knew most mages never noticed; he looked human, from what could be seen under the loose nondescript clothing, but Van cringed from the thought of how much leeway that still left. Worse, seeing the hunters' sensitives was terrible even for the more experienced sensitives who knew they were safe; what was going through Randi's mind right now, confronted with what could too easily be her fate if Van couldn't protect her?
“It takes a certain amount of nerve, to take that one out in public, after what she did,” Elena said.
“Doesn't look to me like she's terribly dangerous,” Aiden said critically. “She hasn't moved or made a sound except when Van's sent her to get drinks for us, she keeps her eyes down, when she does speak she's respectful... what more do you want after ten days or so? And, I mean, really, a tiny little thing like that shouldn't be a threat to any mage who has half a clue how to handle a sensitive. She's awfully cute. The kitten look is appropriate, I think.”
“Cats,” Elena said, in obvious distaste, “are cunning, treacherous, deceitful, arrogant beasts that will, with no remorse, bite the hand that feeds them. They have none of a dog's straightforward loyalty and honesty and obedience.”
“Yes, well, everyone has different tastes. I know someone who has a pet snake, which I can't say would be a pet I'd want. Especially the part about feeding it mice. I'm not especially squeamish, I'd say, but I don't believe I'd want to do that on a regular basis. And what on earth would be the point of a pet you can't pet, go for walks with, count on to catch vermin, or use as a guardian? How would one play with a snake?”
“Depending on the size of the snake, very carefully, I'd say,” Brennan said dryly.
“I don't believe I know many mages who actually have pets,” Elena mused. “Other than sensitives, that is. Of course, the variation one can achieve with only a sensitive can be considerable, depending on the mage.”
“I don't think anyone here is unaware of that,” Aiden said. “Oblique and Sage are rarely the same from week to week. I'm sure Van will be waxing creative before long, as well.”
Elena smiled, and Van flinched inside. No cat was ever as deliberately cruel as she. “I was thinking of the truly creative mages. You come up with some attractive, artistic looks, I'll grant you, and there's a lot to be said for subtlety, but I've never heard of any of you pushing the limits. Not so long ago, I had to find a new sensitive for a mage who decided to experiment with the possibility of turning a sensitive, not into an anthropomorphized bear, but into a living bear rug. No bones, just fur and internal organs.” She shrugged. “As it turned out, he made a mistake in trying to adapt the heart and lungs, and found himself less a sensitive. But I find it difficult not to admire the mind that asks such questions. Don't you?”
Only a hunter would say something like that to a trio of Donovans, Van thought, nauseous. Oblique's expression had turned to stone; he couldn't even imagine Miranda's reaction, though she hadn't moved. He'd wanted practice, not an ordeal like this!
“Elena,” Brennan said, his voice steady but his eyes gone hard, “I would appreciate it if you would spare us the gory details. I'm looking forward to Grania's burgers, and after much more of that, I'm afraid I won't have any appetite left.”
She inclined her head in acknowledgement. “I'd think that some experiments would interest Van. We're told that we can't influence a sensitive's mind directly, but what happens if you alter the brain structure to that of a lower mammal? Or even a bird or a reptile? What about leaving it human but reshaping it without one part or another, to find out exactly what each does?”
“Elena!” There was an edge of outright anger in Brennan's tone, this time. “You will be granted the respect due a hunter here, but that does not extend to listening to descriptions or speculation about matters you know very well no Donovan would ever consider.”
“I've always thought it might be interesting to try some of the more extreme variations myself. If one were very careful, it should be possible to keep a sensitive alive through multiple experiments, or at least learn quite a lot from the exact reason for death.” That smile came back, and her gaze flicked to Miranda. “Maybe one day I'll get the chance.”
“Elena! No more!” Aiden said flatly. “You're overstepping any possibly bounds of courtesy.”
“Not on my sensitive,” Van growled, only half aware of both hands clenching into fists, utter rage surging. “ Keep away from her. Don't threaten her, don't even fucking look at her.”
The smile didn't waver at all. “Until Wednesday. Then we'll see.”
Every instinct screamed at him to attack, that she was a danger to Miranda and to him; only Brennan's quick head-shake stopped him. He wasn't sure what he'd have done, anyway. Attacked her physically? Magically?
“Van, take Pride, go sit by the lake, and get your temper under control,” Brennan said firmly. “Oblique, go see how dinner's coming along.”
Van rose, said curtly, “Pride, come,” and strode towards the lake. Miranda ran after him, had to half-jog to keep up. Behind him, he could hear Brennan's voice, low and cold, but couldn't make out the words.
He followed the shoreline until they were out of the direct line of sight, and let go of the barely leashed fury. One fist slammed into a dead tree; telekinesis snapped into play a fraction of an inch before he connected, keeping his hand in one piece, but the tree splintered and cracked. Brennan, even barely out of contact with Miranda, was no real threat; on some level, he always knew that. Elena was something else altogether, and there was nothing he could do.
Miranda looked nervously behind them, and said, very softly, “Van?”
He hugged her, tightly, felt the tension in her body. “She can't have you,” he said fiercely. “I won't let her.”
“I know.” Her voice shook, just a little, but she snuggled close. “She wanted to scare me so I'd do something I shouldn't.”
“Or so I would. Or just for kicks, knowing her.”
“Are you okay?”
“Am I okay?”
She looked up, and smiled. “Well, I know exactly where I am on the okay-not-okay scale. Which is somewhere in between but more towards okay. She's awful, but I'm staying with you. Where are you?”
“Closer to okay every minute.”
She pulled away, gently. “It would be bad if someone came looking for us. I think we should go back to where they can see us.” She took a couple of steps back towards the beach, and paused to wait for him so she could follow a step behind.
Van sank down on the edge of the grass, his feet on sand, and crossed his arms on his raised knees—it was a place he'd spent many hours, both while he lived here and since. Since no one else was close enough to tell whether he'd given her a command or not, he left Miranda to choose where she wanted to be.
That turned out to be curled up at his side, not quite touching, making full use of the more flexible spine that matched her feline markings. Together, they watched the rippling waves, and the loon that lived in a nearby cove. Van heard Miranda whisper, “Oh, that's what she is.” The anger and frustration and helplessness faded somewhat, down to manageable levels at least.
He hoped Brennan had kept his head and not said anything to Elena he shouldn't. He was well within his rights to call her down for continuing a subject she'd been told was disturbing, violating hospitality laws she was supposed to enforce. But, knowing Elena, it would only make her more determined to hurt Bren, and if he said the wrong thing, she'd have him up on charges in heartbeats. Much like either hunter would do if any of the sensitives slipped, even once.
Van glanced behind him. “Yes, Unity?”
“Lady Grania sent me to tell you that dinner is ready, if you'd like to come join the other Lords and Ladies.”
“I suppose I'd better.”
“Lady Shvaughn says to remind you that the thirty-days law applies to mage behaviour as well as sensitive behaviour, my Lord.” It was delivered in the same perfectly innocent tone, but one crimson eye closed in an unmistakable wink. “And that there are times to react, not think, and that you did the best thing you could.”
“Thanks.” He stood up, and stretched. “Go with Unity, I'm sure there's something they can use extra hands for.” The others would keep themselves between her and the hunters as best they could, he was sure of that.
“Yes, my Lord,” Miranda said dutifully, and uncoiled. Behind him, on the way back towards the house, he heard Miranda whisper, “You look like the bird in the lake. It's pretty,” and Unity murmured back, “It's a loon, and thank you. I like your stripes, too.”
Grania handed him a plate with a burger on it. “Potatoes and salad and all are on the table, and I'm starting the second round of burgers.”
The lawn chairs had been moved closer to the table, as an alternative to trying to fit eight mages along a picnic table with no contact. Donovans, influenced by their sensitives, were considerably less obsessive about it than others, but it was all part of the game—and who'd want to sit next to a hunter? Van sank into a chair between Shvaughn and Brennan, and felt a bit safer, until Brock took the one on Shvaughn's far side in the loose arc. It could easily have been the same sensitive who sat at his feet, with no command from Brock spoken or unspoken, that had been at Elena's earlier: there was no trace of personality or individuality left in either.
“Feeling better?” he asked Van courteously.
“Calmer, yes,” Van said shortly, and took a bite of well-dressed burger. It seemed a shame, wasting Grania's cooking on an atmosphere like this.
“Glad to hear it. Elena's a damned good hunter, but she's not exactly subtle, and she takes things much too personally. I got distracted, and the next thing you know, she's making not-very-veiled threats against your sensitive.” He shook his head, sighed. “If you stay near me, I can yank her chain if she gets carried away again.”
Do you honestly think I can't recognize good cop/bad cop when I see it? Van snarled in his own mind, but Brock's false sympathy was marginally less grating than Elena's overt malice, so it was probably worth playing along. “Thanks. I don't know why I lost my temper like that.”
Brock shrugged. “Happens to some mages when they first get a sensitive. It's a possessive thing. That's one reason why we have the thirty-days law, after all.” He bit into his burger, and his eyes half-closed in bliss. “Oh, this is good.”
“Grania's very talented,” Shvaughn said, allowing a touch of pride in her elder daughter to creep into her voice.
“I'll say. Anyway, it doesn't look to me like you're having any trouble keeping... what did you name her?”
Brock was good, there was hardly a flicker of reaction. “Cute name. Keeping Pride under control. If she acts on Wednesday like she has today, there shouldn't be a problem.”
The pause simply invited Van to confide any difficulties he was having; he knew the technique, used it himself.
“Good, because she's learning fast and hasn't kicked up a fuss at all.”
“Just be careful, okay? You can never completely trust them after they've gone as far as physical assault. Once they've done it once, they're likely to do it again, and what they see as a good reason isn't necessarily one any mage can predict. Or understand. I know Piotr Vladislav, I can imagine what he did that made her break once, but it won't take something that extreme for it to happen again.”
Van frowned. “You think so? I suppose I see a variation of it all the time, at work. As soon as someone hits his or her partner the first time, it's much more likely to be repeated, and it usually escalates.”
Brock nodded seriously. “They're never completely reliable.”
“I guess we'll both have to keep a close eye on her,” Brennan said. “I'm at home during the day while Van's at work, so it isn't as though she's ever unsupervised. Usually she either helps me outside or Oblique inside, depending on where she's most useful that day.”
Brock's expression grew even more sober. “You might want to keep the two of them from being alone together. If they get to talking about it, she could corrupt yours, as well. Give her the idea that attacking a mage is something a sensitive can get away with.”
“Oblique? Nah. She's been with me for, oh, years now, and she hardly ever misbehaves at all. She wouldn't turn renegade.”
“Don't be too certain of that. It's happened before.” He shrugged. “I don't mean to be depressing, I'd just hate to see anything nasty happen to the two of you at the hands of your own sensitives.”
“We'll keep it in mind,” Brennan assured him. “Hm, I think I need a drink to go with this.”
“Azure, come,” Shvaughn said, normal tone; Azure must have been very close, because in a couple of heartbeats, he was there.
Van blinked, took a second look. Slender, mid-height Azure made a stunning... what were they called? Bettas, that was it, fighting fish, the males bred to have long diaphanous fins and brilliant colours. Azure was as scaled as Oblique, but his shaded from intense scarlet at his head through vivid purple to rich blue. Arms and legs trailed long colourful veil-like fins that must weigh virtually nothing, from the way they floated in even the faintest breeze or at the slightest motion; it gave the fascinating impression that he was moving underwater. The golden band around his throat, engraved with his name and Shvaughn's, contrasted beautifully.
“What was it you wanted, Bren?”
“More root beer, with ice.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Van requested more orange pop, Brock cola, and Shvaughn ginger ale, then she sent him off. There was another fin down his back, too. His own natural grace only added to the illusion of gliding through water.
Conversation stayed light and, at least on the surface, friendly; Van kept an eye out for Miranda, but he didn't see her. He finally stopped Oblique, on her way by, and asked where she was.
“In the kitchen doing dishes and generally being extremely helpful, my Lord. Shall I tell her you want her?”
“No, I was just wondering.” That was probably a good place for her, out of sight and hearing, away from both the hunters and the constant reminder embodied in their sensitives—and now that he looked, he still hadn't seen Aiden's Sage, so he doubted she was alone. If Sage was with her, she'd be all right.
<-- Back Next -->