14 – Van

The hunters stayed long enough to share the ice cream Aiden had brought, but finally excused themselves.

“Go watch,” Shvaughn told Azure, quietly. He nodded, and went in the house, presumably to watch through one of the front windows that both hunters had indeed left. Without that confirmation, they dared not relax. They all heard tires on the gravelled driveway, and a moment later, Azure came back.

“All were in the van, and it's gone past the end of the driveway.”

“Finally,” Kerry sighed, and all but collapsed onto the picnic table bench. “Rich, go get Sage and Miranda, would you?” Her tiger nodded and padded away.

“What do you want to bet they've been tracking me?” Van asked angrily. “Their showing up coincidentally is pushing belief a bit too far.”

“It's very likely,” Kerry agreed. “It should make no difference to the hunters either way, they've been paid and as long as they have proof that a sensitive isn't going to be dangerous, it doesn't involve them. I think the more power they lose, the more obsessive they are about using what they still have. And Elena's grudges don't help.”

Miranda and an extremely sensual pseudo-mermaid followed Richard back outside. Hm, apparently Sage was being female today, with emerald and jade scales down her legs, webbed hands, and long greenish-blonde hair, her throat circled by a thin silver band and a longer strand of mixed shells; unlike the others, she was dressed, more or less, in a green two-piece swimsuit with shells on it.

Miranda looked extremely uncertain. Van sat down on one of the blankets, legs crossed. “C'mere, sweetheart. It's okay, they're gone. No more acting.”

She came, snuggled into his lap as invited, but looked up at him. “And before they came?” she asked. Something in her tone and her expression made Van suspect she'd figured it out. He'd halfway expected she would, she'd heard enough about the Donovan family's efforts.

“It's hard, being out in public the first time,” Azure explained, stretching his elegantly-scaled body full-length on the grass. Shvaughn sat next to him, stroking his back lightly. “Let alone being on trial for absolutely perfect behaviour, and after being abused. It's scary being around lots of unfamiliar mages, and being out where people can see you shapechanged when you're hardly used to it yourself. I think we all could've used a chance to get used to it in a safe environment, before having to do it for real.”

“Oh yeah,” Unity sighed, arranging her feathers carefully as she sat down in the chair next to Grania's. “I wish.”

Miranda echoed the sigh. “You lied to me again.” She sounded exasperated, but not angry.

“Don't be mad at Van,” Sage said—voice currently a clear light soprano. “He was worried about you.”

“Yeah, I know. I guess this falls into the category of 'keeping any or all of us safe,' so I suppose I can forgive you.” She leaned against Van, purring softly. “But nobody was expecting them?”

“Hunters are, traditionally, welcome at any mage gathering,” Shvaughn explained. “A small family dinner like this is definitely pushing it, but right now we don't dare get them any more resentful than they are.”

“Even when they're telling bloody scary stories to children,” Aiden growled. “Miranda should not have had to listen to that.”

“And, oh, god, their poor sensitives,” Unity said softly. “That just doesn't get any easier, seeing that, even without having the hunters threaten to take you away from your mage.” It didn't take much empathy to see the pain and anger aroused by any thought of the sensitives of the junior pair, universally in those present.

“Anyone who fights back like Miranda did, isn't going to panic over a nasty story or two,” Rich rumbled. He was sitting at Kerry's feet, while she ran her fingers through the fur covering his shoulders and head. “But you're right, even a gutsy little kitty shouldn't have had to hear it, or have it thrown in her face what the hunters would just love to do to her.”

“Can the rest of us eat now?” Sage asked plaintively, playing with her necklace of seashells. Van was willing to bet that it was a deliberate change of subject, and a useful distraction.

“Sage is right,” Azure seconded. “It smells so good, and we haven't had any.”

Grania got up. “They messed up my estimates, but I think there's just enough left for a couple of burgers apiece.”

“That'll do,” Azure and Unity said together.

“There's a bit of an aquatic theme going, here,” Oblique observed, looking over the other sensitives. “Loon, mermaid, fish...”

“Tigers like water,” Rich informed her.

“What else, to go swimming?” Azure laughed, and sat up, his gauzy fins fluttering wildly.

“Not immediately after you eat,” Shvaughn said sternly. “You have scales and fins, not gills.”

“I'm sure we can keep busy for a while after we eat,” Unity said. “Talking on the phone and by email isn't the same as actually being together, and when we see each other at Cornucopia, we're usually busy.”

Six sensitives had no reservations at all about crowding around the table to eat, three on each side, and Van thought their conversation was a great deal more animated and full of laughter than what the mages had endured while eating. Typical sensitive ability to live entirely in the moment—the threat was over, and they'd been looking forward to this, so they threw themselves into it wholeheartedly.

Van and Grania helped the sensitives clean up and do the dishes. Even here, Van couldn't help noticing yet again, there was still and always a difference, a separation between mage and sensitive.

That done, the sensitives drifted off on their own to sit by the lake and talk. Oblique had told Van that, among the Donovan sensitives, there was a certain amount of friendly rivalry over who came to a gathering with the most spectacular appearance. Whatever else they were discussing, he'd probably never know, but at least Miranda looked relaxed and happy. That the six of them were constantly in contact probably helped. Even in the moment Van watched, Sage was playing with Rich's tail, while Oblique used the big tiger as a pillow so she could stretch full-length in the sun, and Unity traced patterns lightly on her dark scales. Azure was petting Randi as though she were a real cat, and getting much the same reaction, including occasional inquisitive batting at the trailing fins.

The mages talked, too, about the things they preferred not to mention in front of the hunters, about everything the Donovan family and their allies were doing to try to improve conditions for sensitives, and how much they were really accomplishing. Not nearly as much as they'd like—the push to have laws passed to protect tame sensitives from abuse was being strenuously debated, which at least was attracting notice and forcing people to think. Miranda's certainty that her family could be a contact point to get Van's book and real information to free sensitives was met with a mixture of hope and scepticism, but it was generally agreed that it was worth trying.

Two of their major efforts were so far useful to mundane homeless and poor, but had been totally ineffective as far as helping free sensitives, proving their fears right. One was Cornucopia, which offered healthy meals for a dollar, or for free if even that was out of reach—Grania was technically in charge, but for all practical purposes, primary responsibility was shared between Sage, Oblique, Azure, and Unity, with most of the other Donovan sensitives helping out at least occasionally with the work. The other was York House, basically a safe place to sleep and have a shower, which had one Donovan and a Kalindi friend as administration, with a few sensitives and some mundane volunteers taking care of the direct contact. Random chance should have meant at least a reasonable percentage of the people using both were sensitive, given normal sensitive lives; somehow, even though the mages took great care to stay away, there hadn't been a single free sensitive making use of either facility.

Randi insisted that if she got word to her family that they were in fact the safest possible places for a sensitive to go, since both buildings belonged to mages and were therefore off limits to uninvited mages, that would change and they'd start seeing sensitives there. It might work... it probably wouldn't... but it was worth the attempt, even if it was woefully inadequate as a method of alleviating the appalling living conditions of free sensitives.

Shvaughn vanished indoors briefly, returned with her sketch-pad, and angled her chair a little so she could see the sensitives more easily.

“Is that an hour yet?” Azure called.

Shvaughn checked her watch. “Yes! You can go in now.”

Azure bolted for the water; Sage beat him, but only just, and Azure made it to the raft before her. Both laughing breathlessly, they pulled themselves up.

Oblique pulled her dress off over her head and dropped it on the grass, then paused to say something quietly to Miranda—presumably telling her Van could make her a swimsuit if she preferred not to swim naked, but Miranda shed her clothes and splashed out into the water beside her. Rich waded out just behind them, and Unity ran out as far as she could, then did a neat shallow dive and came up near the raft—rather like a true loon, Van thought.

“Shall we join them or let them play?” Aiden wondered.

“Let them play for a while, then we can join them after they've worn each other out a bit,” Kerry laughed, and the mages went back to their own discussion, Shvaughn only halfway paying attention while she did touch-ups on her sketches and kept looking towards the lake.

Miranda's squeal made Van look sharply towards the water, worried, but the squeal blurred into helpless giggles: Rich had scooped her up and was wading back into the water carrying her, to toss her in. She came up shaking water out of her eyes, and came after him; Rich laughed and fled. Even from here, Van heard him say something about being chased by a dangerous little kitty. It took all four of the others to pin him to the raft so Miranda could sit on him and tickle him; occasionally, one or another fell off, but immediately climbed back into the fray.

The next time he looked, Azure and Oblique were all tangled around each other, sprawled on the raft, sunlight shining on scales of iridescent black and brilliant scarlet and purple and blue, her tail around his hips and his fins trailing along her body. Rather a pretty sight, really, and he saw Shvaughn pause briefly, then flip to a new page and start sketching like mad again. She was getting quite a reputation locally for her exotic fantasy art, for which Azure and Rich had been the models more often than most people would ever believe, and the other sensitives irregularly but frequently.

Once the rough-housing eased off, the mages ventured into the water for a cool swim.

And, inevitably, the sensitives wandered off to a lilac-sheltered nook, with a couple of blankets. Van tried to visualize coordinating fins, tails, fur, feathers, and scales, on six different bodies in a wide range of sizes; it boggled the mind, but he hoped they had fun.

And, much later, Van and Brennan collected Oblique and Miranda from the drowsy pile of sensitives.

Amidst various farewells, which were complex with four pairs of six leaving, Shvaughn handed Van a neatly-rolled sheet of paper. Eventually, they got sorted out and into the appropriate vehicles with the correct empty dishes and belongings.

Before he started the car, Van curiously slipped the elastic off the paper and unrolled it.

Randi, snuggled against Rich cozily; Oblique was on his far side, her tail intertwined with his. Azure had his head resting on Oblique's lap, and Sage was in the midst of stroking Azure's scales, and Unity was playing with Sage's long hair. All neatly portrayed in Shvaughn's efficient strokes. He chuckled, passed it to Brennan, and started the car.

“We'll have to pick up a frame,” Brennan said.

“For what?” Oblique asked. “Shvaughn was busy?”

“Yes.” He handed it over the back of the seat to them.

“Oh, cool,” Randi said, in utter fascination.

“You have that something's-bothering-you look, Van,” Oblique said, more seriously. “What are you thinking?”

“In the one group in this city where there should be the least division between mage and sensitive, it still exists,” Van said quietly. “Most of the time after the hunters left was spent in two separate groups. And the automatic assumption was that you'd do all the cleaning up.”

“And how often do other sensitives get to wander off in a group alone? Not very damned often. There are things that it's easier to talk about with people who have been through similar experiences and see the world in similar ways, and it's wonderful to have that. Freedom is being able to do what you choose, not what you should do to fit one ideal or another, and different isn't the same thing as unequal. We love you like crazy, and know we're loved back just as much. But it's nice to be around just other sensitives for a bit.” She chuckled. “Besides, you could've come to join us when we were playing in the water.”

“We love you so much we leave you to do all the work?”

“Grania did all the barbecuing,” Miranda pointed out. “And you and Grania helped us clean up.”

“It's habit,” Oblique said. “Things being as they are, we depend on our mages for shelter and food and clothes. Since we're generally home and have time, virtually every sensitive I know, even the ones who were never told to, does most of the general housekeeping, just because it seems fair. Compared to what most of us were doing to stay fed before, it's light duty. And Donovan sensitives usually have plenty of time left over for our own interests. Rich and Azure and Sage and Unity and Meta are all extremely happy with their lives, trust me. As much so as I am, and Randi's getting there.”

“Mages spoil sensitives by giving us presents and protecting us and changing us to good shapes and giving us as much freedom as mage laws allow,” Miranda observed. “Sensitives can't do that. But coming home to find supper already waiting, or always clean sheets, things like that, are a different way of spoiling someone.”

Oblique laughed. “Absolutely true, sweetheart, although I don't think any of us have put it into so many words before.” Her tone softened. “That you care means everything in the world, Van, but I promise, I'd tell you. Belonging to our mages isn't the problem. It's the way we live before that, and the way we're hunted, and the way we have no rights at all no matter what's done to us. Political correctness is sudden death for any revolution, and getting equal and same confused. Everything's okay. Other than the hunters, it was a good day for everyone, I think, and next time we do this, hopefully we can do it without the interruption.”

“Hope so,” Miranda muttered. “And with no lies next time. But the last part of it was really good.”

“We do need another get-together soon, so we can get serious about what exactly we're doing about York House, Cornucopia, the laws, and your book. Sage had one of her usual brilliant flashes of inspiration, by the way.”

“Oh?” Van asked.

“We'll each write a description, from our own perspective, of life before getting caught and then being hunted and afterwards. You can include them as an appendix or something. It would've been nice to have, back before we were caught, but there was no wonderful counsellor-mage to write a book so we'll do it now for others. And maybe it will give sympathetic mages some idea what it's like for us. Maybe you can get the same kind of thing from the mages, so the other perspective is there.”

“Mine kinda has the extremes,” Miranda said wryly. “And a different background before. None of the others came from a house like mine.”

“Reasonable range chronologically,” Brennan mused. “From Rich being with Kerry since before you were born, up to Randi. Thirty-five-odd years to a few weeks. Male and female both, originally, and with varied histories beforehand and varied experiences in the first few months.” He chuckled. “We've definitely gotten smarter and a lot less secretive within the family in the last few decades. No more trying to hide what most adult Donovans knew was the truth.”

“I'm not entirely thrilled with the concept of digging back to before I was Oblique,” Oblique said. “But for a good reason, I will.”

“Sage is smart,” Miranda said. “Even if she acts silly a lot of the time. I think it'll make it more real for free sensitives who read it. The ones who won't read the rest might even read just that part.”

“And you're worried they feel inferior?” Brennan asked Van dryly.

Van parked next to Brennan's truck, and they all went inside, making themselves comfortable around the living room. The light on the phone was blinking; Brennan picked it up, brought up the voicemail, and put it on speaker.

“Van, I need you to call me.” That was the Donovan Matriarch's unmistakable voice. “The Vladislav family is making very clear their opinion of your claiming a sensitive who attacked one of them, and they're directing it at the Donovan family in general. We need to repair relations, and we do have a way. Irenka Vladislav has decided she wants to have a child. Consider yourself volunteered, since it should mend the problem nicely.” Her voice softened. “I sympathize, you know that, but we do need to stay on reasonably good terms with the other families, and we do not need a feud. Call me when you can, sooner would be better.” Beep. “To delete this message...” Brennan switched it back off speaker and took care of it.

Van groaned. “Up, down, up, down, what a day.”

“I'm confused,” Miranda said.

“Mages are always part of the mother's family,” Oblique explained. “Normally, the woman gets a baby, and she or her family give the father or his family some form of payment or favour in return, negotiations can get fairly complex. Pretty much everything is done artificially these days, Van won't have to sleep with her. Most mages will go to great lengths not to touch each other, I hate to think what it was like before artificial insemination.”

“We all do,” Brennan muttered.

“Under most circumstances, it's purely voluntary.”

“But they want Van to pay for taking me,” Miranda said.

“Essentially,” Van sighed. “Elspeth, that's the Matriarch, she's pretty much the head of all the Donovans in this city, wouldn't have mentioned it at all if blood ties were too close, they'll have checked the records. Which leaves me no diplomatic way out. Ah well, if I have to, I have to. It's worth it, to have you here. It's fairly late, I'll call in the morning. Right now, I want my bed.”

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