Flora closed the front door of her house behind her—quietly, so as not to wake the babies. Her grandson and almost-granddaughter would be safe enough with her younger children and a nineteen-year-old visiting nomad, until Claire was finished work in another hour or so and came home. Meanwhile, her pay cheque should be waiting at the bakery, and she had groceries to pick up.
No point in locking the door, with all the coming and going of her own children and those of her sister, along with the nomads who needed a couch to sleep on for a few days. There was always someone awake and home.
She started along the street, and paused, as the slighter of two figures, sitting on the steps of the church two doors down, stood up.
Flora closed her eyes, opened them to look again. No, that was still her oldest daughter. “Randi?” she whispered.
Miranda nodded, smiling. She was well-dressed, her clothes new and clean, and she herself looked strong and healthy. Around her neck was a heavy silver necklace with a hawk pendant. She closed the distance to Flora, and gave her a hug that took away any fears that she was seeing a ghost. Flora held her tight, felt a tear slide down her cheek.
“Oh god, Randi, where have you been?” One miscarriage, one daughter who died not even a month old, then Randi, and she'd loved her without reservation, certain that she'd be safe. Knowing that her oldest daughter was no more safe than her sons had been terrible to accept, and her disappearance over a month ago had been worse.
Miranda took a step back, and gazed up at her with dark eyes that held more depths than Flora had ever seen there before. “You aren't going to find it very easy to believe. Come meet my friend Oblique.”
The woman sitting on the steps still, watching with a faintly wistful smile, was stunningly attractive and astonishingly healthy for a sensitive, dark-skinned with long loose dark hair, in a loose cherry-coloured skirt and white tank-top, and a heavy gold rope-chain around her neck, holding a gold pendant at the hollow of her throat. She rose, descended the steps gracefully to offer her hand. Even stronger than her physical beauty was the overwhelming sense of... of balance, stability, like nothing Flora had ever seen in a sensitive before.
“Oblique, my mom Flora. Mom, my really good friend Oblique.”
“It's definitely a pleasure,” Oblique said warmly. “I've been hearing quite a lot about Randi's family, and you especially.”
“I know you have a lot to do,” Miranda said. “Since it's payday and all. But can I have you for a little while? So we can go sit somewhere and talk? I'm thinking the park would be nice and private, and we can get an ice cream cone at the store on the corner.”
“Randi, honey, you've got me for as long as you want me,” Flora said. “I never thought I'd see you again...”
“Yeah. I know. But you will.”
“You're all right? You certainly look it.” Which made no sense. She'd known from the first time someone had told her they'd seen Randi with hunters following her that it was hopeless and she'd lost her forever. She'd known her clever and loving daughter would stay as far from her family as possible to protect them and there'd never even be a chance to say goodbye. She'd known that she'd never even know what happened to Randi. So how could she be here?
“I'm perfectly fine,” Miranda reassured her, and urged her in the direction of the park. Oblique fell into step just behind them. “I live with Oblique and two other people, in a house in the country. I even have my own room, and Oblique is a great cook, we always eat well. I help Oblique around the house and Brennan outside with his garden and the hens. Van works in town, he's in every day, and if Oblique or I want to spend the day in town, we just go with him in the morning and go home with him when he's done. Or we all go places together, or whatever. I really am okay. Now I'm with Van and Oblique and Brennan, anyway.”
Flora frowned. That didn't sound like any sensitive household she knew of. Stable, with two males and two females? “Sensitives?”
“Well, no, actually. Van and Brennan are mages.”
Flora stopped in her tracks. “They're what?”
“Not all mages think the same way about us. Some of them know that we're real people, too, and they like us that way, and they want to help us.” She closed a hand around Flora's, and tugged her into motion again. “They can't do as much as they'd like to, because mages have laws, and the hunters go after mages who break the laws. So they do what they can, quietly, and they make sure their sensitives are treated properly.”
“Spoiled,” Oblique murmured.
“And they're trying to get organized and get the laws changed so we won't have to live scared all the time anymore, and so mages aren't allowed to do nasty things to us. We are trying, I should say, 'cause Oblique and I are just as much a part of it as Brennan and Van are. And it isn't just in this city, it's happening in other places, but not as strongly in some. We've got all kinds of things we're hoping we can do, but the very first thing we decided on was getting real information to the streets. What hunters and mages and magic and sensitives are all about.”
They reached the store at the corner, just before the park. Randi lingered outside, since she'd worked here until being torn from her life with no warning and trying to explain her abrupt disappearance to mundanes was only going to lead to awkward questions. Oblique paid for a trio of large ice cream cones with a twenty-dollar bill she pulled out of the white leather purse at her side, and they retreated outside to the shade of the park, where they could sit on the grass far enough from anyone that they could talk without being overheard. It struck Flora sharply that she'd never before seen a sensitive who carried herself with confidence, not caution, but both Miranda and Oblique did. The changes ran deeper than new clothes and looking healthier—Randi felt balanced the same way Oblique did, though Flora had no idea exactly what the feeling she was picking up was.
“This is all very nice to hear,” Flora said quietly. “But I'm much more concerned with where you've been all this time.”
Miranda sighed, nodded, and began.
Flora listened silently. Miranda skipped briefly over both the hunt and the immediate aftermath, but the thought of what her daughter could have, must have, suffered made her ache inside. Randi clearly preferred to describe how she'd met Oblique and this pair of mages who, by her descriptions, acted most unmagelike. She was fairly certain there were parts Randi was leaving out, but then, she was also fairly sure that Randi was trying both to express a huge amount in a hurry and to not throw any more alien concepts at her than necessary.
“So I'm really okay and safe and happy now,” Miranda concluded, and touched the silver hawk. “By their own laws, other mages can't touch me, only Van.” She glanced at the watch on her wrist, a moderately expensive sports one. “We should let you get back to what you need to do. Oblique? Do you have...?”
Oblique nodded, reached into her purse again, and drew out a business card, which she handed to Flora. “I had these printed this morning,” she said. “It has the numbers and addresses for Cornucopia, which is somewhere to get a good meal, and for York House, which is a shelter. Cornucopia and York House are both being run by mages and sensitives, with some mundane volunteers, but free sensitives are safe there.”
“Safer than other places,” Randi added. “Other mages won't mess with anyone who's in either place. There are laws about going on another mage's property. And the mages running them wouldn't ever hurt a sensitive. They started both places hoping to help sensitives. Oblique works at Cornucopia a lot, and I'm going to be helping there too. Anyone who wants to know what it's really like can just ask any sensitive working at either place.”
“It also has the counselling centre where Van works,” Oblique said, having paused long enough to let Randi finish. “He will do anything he possibly can to help a sensitive in trouble—as Randi discovered. All someone has to do is go inside and ask for Van. The number on the back is our home phone number, you can call any time you want, whether it's because you need help or because you want to say hi to Randi. We're going to be getting Randi her own cell phone, like the rest of the Donovan sensitives, and we'll let you know but mine is on there too in case you'd feel safer with a line that there's no chance of a mage answering.” She produced a couple of dozen further cards. “Those are extra copies, but without our home number or mine. Give them to anyone you want. We're going to make sure there are more of these at all three places, just ask the first sensitive in reach, or you can let us know if you need more.”
Flora thought she'd never heard a sensitive sound so, well, educated, simply the way she pronounced words, the way she used them. It was almost disconcerting.
“Tell everybody,” Randi said earnestly. “Tell them to watch for sensitives wearing collars, of one sort or another. We'll be around, and we'll make sure everyone has facts, not just fear and speculation. That won't be enough, on its own, to keep anyone safe from the hunters...”
“It's better than the fear and the wondering,” Flora said softly.
“And it's only a beginning,” Oblique said firmly. “We will win this.” She ran a hand fondly through Randi's hair. “And I have a feeling our extremely brave, extremely clever kitten here will be right at the heart of it, all the way.”
“Not the safest place to be,” Flora commented, though, knowing Randi, it surprised her not at all.
“Nowhere is safe,” Oblique said. “Free sensitives live in constant fear. Captive sensitives live under constant threat of unimaginable abuse. Donovan sensitives, and those of our allies, live praying that the hunters won't come after our mages. Donovan and allied mages choose to accept the necessity of walking the line very carefully, which sometimes seems to me to be even harder, since they always know they could make themselves safe at our expense. But, together, we'll make it safe for all of us, and until then, the best place to be is with friends around you who will stand by you.”
“And friends I have lots of,” Randi said contentedly.
Oblique reached into her purse again, and pulled out a handful of folded bills. She offered them to Flora. “Please? I've been with Brennan over a decade, but I remember what it's like. Buy your family a good meal.” She smiled. “Before much longer, we'll have fresh vegetables from the garden, we'll bring you some. Brennan loves sharing them, that's why he always plants far more than we could ever use.”
Flora hesitated. Sensitives shared whatever they had, that was simply a fact of life, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that, ultimately, this money came from a mage. Or two of them.
Yet Randi had done the unthinkable, had come back after being hunted, and was here and was still very much herself, admittedly with a few differences.
Slowly, she reached out, and accepted the money. At a quick glance, it was all green twenties, none of the purple or blue of tens or fives, and there were quite a few of them. “Thanks.” She tucked the handful of cards, and the money, into the pocket of her jeans. Even on her daughter's word, she had no intention of recommending these places without checking them first, but she was willing to consider the possibility.
“You're very welcome. Now, I think we should let you get back to your plans, before we disrupt your day any worse than we already have, and also let you have a chance to assimilate everything we've just thrown at you. It was a lot, and it's going to take time to sink in.” Oblique stood up, and Randi and Flora followed suit.
“Take care of Randi, okay?” Flora said softly, to Oblique.
The tall sensitive laughed. “We'll take care of each other,” she agreed.
Randi pounced on Flora for another hug. “Things've changed in a big hurry in the last few weeks, but I'm still me, and I'll still be around. This isn't bye forever, or anything, just for right now. So stop that crying.”
Flora wrapped both arms around her, squeezed hard, wishing she never had to let go. “I was so sure it was forever, and that I'd never even know...”
“Now you do know. Everything'll be okay.”
Reluctantly, Flora let go of her eldest daughter, and backed up a step, and farewells were duly said. Oblique offered a hug, which Flora immediately accepted.
Walking away hurt.
But not as badly as the nightmares that had haunted her, grim visions of what Randi could be enduring.
Feeling happier than she had in a very long time, and with a great deal to think about, Flora resumed her walk to the bakery where she worked nights, to pick up her pay and get on with her errands.
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