Lila didn't realize she'd fallen asleep in the chair until sounds of motion roused her. She heard water running in the bathroom, and a few minutes later, Catherine looked in the doorway, running a brush through her hair rhythmically. She was wearing a high-waisted blue dress today.
“Good morning,” the mage greeted her. “I realized something last night. I, um, forgot to ask your name.” A hint of a blush coloured her high angular cheekbones.
“Lila. That's pretty. I'll bring you up some breakfast as soon as I make sure my grandmother has hers. How are you feeling? Would you rather more light food, or bacon and eggs?”
“I think I'm okay now, I can eat anything. I wish I could help, or something, to pay you back for this.”
Catherine's smile was warm and pleased. “It's all right. I appreciate the thought, but it would put us both in danger. Make yourself at home, although heaven knows, there's not much.”
Lila picked up the book she'd started the night before, for lack of other options. There were certainly opportunities here to sit and watch the paint peel, but that would drive her crazy, and there wasn't really anything else to do, except go to bed, and that could wait until she'd had something to eat.
Catherine darted up the stairs, set a plate and a glass on the little table, said, “Can't stay to talk,” and was gone again, all in something like sixty seconds. Lila barely had time to realize that the mage was close enough to touch her before she no longer was.
She retired to curl up in the bed with a full stomach, though she left skirt and top on. Her gaze fell on a long brown hair on the pillow; thoughtfully, she picked it up, and rolled onto her back, coiling the strand around her fingers. Until last night, it had been part of Catherine, but now it was only a hair, differing from her own only in the length and shade. Touching it yesterday would have meant touching a mage, but there was nothing frightening about it this morning.
Lingering exhaustion cut off her reflections for some time, but she still woke before Catherine returned. Or had she? The pile of dirty clothes no longer lay next to the bed.
Oh, calm down. She did something with the dirty sheets, she probably took my clothes the same time. She doesn't need you to be asleep to do anything she pleases with you, anyway. Cool it.
She got up, visited the bathroom, and wandered aimlessly around to try to stretch stiff muscles. The blisters and chafed spots would heal, but she borrowed a tube of ointment from the bathroom and made use of it on all broken skin. That killed a fair bit of time.
Catherine came upstairs carrying two plates, and smiled at her, rather shyly. “I thought you might like company for supper. I'll just set these down, and go get us something to drink.”
Lila nerved herself, remembering how many opportunities Catherine had had, and reached for the plates. Catherine froze, not a single muscle moving—not even breathing, Lila thought, and found the thought flitting across her mind that she wasn't sure which of them was more frightened. She took the plates, and backed up a step; only then did Catherine move, and the mage looked distinctly flustered.
“I, um... I'll be right back.” She fled down the stairs.
Lila chose the room with the bookshelves, and set one of the identical plates on the little table before sitting on the floor with the other. Company to eat? How long had meals been simply fuel for her body? Not since Jax had vanished months ago had she actually sat down with anyone to share a meal. She didn't start on it, no matter how her stomach rumbled. She was no animal, ruled by instinct and hunger. She could wait a few minutes, out of consideration.
Catherine returned with a pitcher and two glasses. She didn't sit in the chair, but settled herself across from Lila, and left the pitcher and glasses in the middle between them, then reached behind and above her for the other plate. “I hope you like pork.”
Lila looked down at the plate again, at the neatly arranged boneless pork with some dark sauce on it, the rice and veggie mixture. She contrasted that with the starchy, salty, fatty cheap stuff she'd been able to afford, that had contributed to the softness around her tummy—well, granted, vegetables and rice and such weren't so expensive, but she wasn't the only sensitive who completely lacked domestic skills. “This is the best meal I've seen in a really long time. Maybe the best ever.”
“Oh.” Catherine's gaze dropped.
The sudden tension confused Lila. “You must be a really good cook,” she said at random, hoping to get Catherine talking again.
“I enjoy it, I always have.” The mage looked up, and a shadow of the smile returned. “I don't experiment as much now as I used to, my grandmother prefers her meals tried and true. It might be just as well for everyone, some of my experiments got a bit peculiar. Sometimes they worked. Sometimes they didn't.”
“Wouldn't be much fun if you knew it would turn out no matter what you did, would it?”
“I suppose not. I hadn't thought of it that way.”
Awkward silence for a moment, which Catherine broke. “I need to go out tomorrow and do the grocery shopping. I can take a little time and stop to buy a few things for you, underwear and such. The clothes you were wearing are in the dryer with some of mine. I'd offer to go to wherever you've been living and bring you anything you like, but the hunters most likely have someone watching for you to return there, and they'd certainly notice me.”
“It's okay. There isn't much there. Just a few clothes and things.” You didn't collect much when you moved around all the time, hopping on a bus to move to a new city in hopes of avoiding mage attention for a little longer. “Nothing I need.” What on earth do you say to someone who has absolute power over you and insists that she doesn't want it?
Judging from Catherine's expression, it was no easier to figure out what to say to someone you had absolute and unwanted power over. The mage stirred her rice and veggies with her fork, gaze on her plate.
“So how did you know where I was?” Lila asked. Maybe that would give Catherine something to say, and banish the uncomfortable silence.
“The hunters were here for supper, Brock and Elena. I listened.” She shrugged, and gave Lila a lopsided smile. “No one pays the slightest bit of attention to what I'm doing, as long as meals are made and the house is clean and the laundry and shopping are done. It was easy enough to wait a little, until they left. They have somewhere else they prefer to sleep. Once they were gone and everyone else was in bed, I came looking for you. I followed their trail backwards, and once I was in the park, finding exactly where you were was no trouble at all.”
“And they can't just follow this same trail back here?”
“No. I made sure of that. The other local pair might have guessed at my being involved, if they were here, but these two won't.”
“Are you going to get in trouble if they do find out I'm here?”
“There's very little risk of that. No one will come up here. They prefer to forget my existence, as long as I do my job.”
“That isn't what I asked.”
“I have very little left to lose that they can take away,” Catherine said quietly. “What they will do to me if they find you here is less than the least of what will happen to you. I choose to consider it worth the small risk involved.”
Lila chewed her pork, thoughtfully, not at all sure that she liked the idea of Catherine putting herself in any danger at all, but there really wasn't much she could do about it. “I can't hide up here forever.”
“If you stay here until the weather turns and the hunt ends for the season, that will at least give you the winter to decide what you wish to do.”
“That could be months!”
Catherine cocked her head to one side, as if listening to something, and shook her head. “No, the cold will come early this year, and the heavy snow not long after. Three weeks, maybe four at the outside.”
“For a month you're going to have me underfoot here?”
“It will be worse for you,” Catherine pointed out. “At least I leave here during the day. You won't be able to leave the servant's quarters.”
“Oh, is that what this is?”
“It used to be, yes. Appropriate.”
Lila gazed into space, chewing thoughtfully on a bite of rice, wondering fleetingly what all the veggies in it were. Hide out here, trusting in a mage, for a month. Cramped into three small rooms. Or go back outside, and pray that the hunters wouldn't find her again over the next month. Her job was already gone, her rented room being watched. Neither was much to speak of, but they were all she had. She could find another sensitive to stay with, but what sensitive had the resources to deal with that? Material or magical? Insane as it was, she was safer with Catherine than with one of her own kind.
“You honestly don't mind?”
“I honestly don't,” Catherine assured her. “It's rather pleasant, having someone to talk to, in fact. A little extra food will be no trouble at all.”
Lila sighed. “Then I guess I'm staying. Although how I can ever possibly pay you back what I'll owe by the end of this, I don't know.”
“You don't owe me anything.”
“I don't have anything you need, you mean.”
“You have quite a lot to offer that I need,” Catherine corrected quietly. “But none of it means anything if it's given out of duty or fear or taken by force or manipulation.”
“That doesn't make any sense.”
“No, maybe not.” Catherine scooped up the last of her rice, and laid her knife and fork neatly on her plate before setting it aside. “I have never pretended to be sensible, however.” Her tone turned brisk and practical. “So. If I'm shopping for you tomorrow, I need some idea of sizes and preferences. And are there any foods you're allergic to? I know some people react very badly to lactose or nuts or wheat gluten or some other fairly common things.”
“Um, no, I can eat pretty much anything, no allergies or anything. I'm not even very fussy.” Lila went along with the subject change, more than a bit astonished to be sitting here sipping grape juice with a mage and doing, well, girl talk, about clothes and favourite foods. On the other hand, it was no less unexpected than anything else since Catherine had found her.
As though it were a normal conversation, the subject even wandered, from clothes to how Catherine intended to pay for everything—by manipulating probability and choosing scratch-and-win lottery tickets that would give her moderate amounts of ready cash. Lila wasn't entirely sure how she felt about benefiting from magic, but had to admit she already had, and how else did she expect Catherine to keep her fed and hidden?
And, somewhat later, Lila realized they were chatting about everyday sorts of things, encounters with guys yelling rude comments at them, and the peculiar image of the female body that so many clothing producers appeared to have, and an unexpectedly shared feeling of being both part of and apart from the mundane city around them that saw only one dimension of them.
Lila blinked, looked around for a clock, but didn't see one. “Oh no, it must be getting late, and you've gotta get up in the morning.”
Catherine's eyes widened. “Oh dear, I completely lost track of time.” She smiled. “It was worth it, but I should probably go to bed, or I won't be able to concentrate tomorrow.” The smile turned mischievous. “I might bring you clothes that are all frilly pink and lace, if I shop while I'm sleepy.”
“God, no! Torture!” Lila laughed.
“Do you need anything else before I go to bed? There's still grape juice in the pitcher, in case you get thirsty.”
“I'll be fine.”
Catherine nodded, and stood up. “I'll see you in the morning.”
Lila sat still for a few minutes, until everything went quiet. Mages weren't supposed to be real people who had ordinary things happen to them. Mages were supposed to be all-powerful, all-knowing, arrogant. Mages and sensitives weren't supposed to be able to sit down and talk and enjoy each other's company.
But Catherine was, and wasn't, and they had.
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