Lila sat on the floor near the top of the stairs, leaning against the railing—carefully—while she listened to the chaos downstairs.
“Advance warning that I'd need to make supper for nine would have been helpful,” Catherine said. Lila wondered whether the edge beneath it was audible to anyone else. “Plus making sure eight sensitives are fed, as well.”
“Surely you can come up with something,” her grandmother said dismissively. “Nothing with soya, now, you know how that upsets Wesley's stomach.”
Catherine sighed. “Yes, I know. Am I expected to create loaves and fishes alone, or will I have assistance?”
Her grandmother's voice sharpened. “Mind your tongue. You'll have Dulcimer to help immediately, of course, and Trice and Zeus when your aunts arrive. I'm expecting a proper meal.”
“I'll think of something.”
Quiet for a moment, and a low female voice ventured, “Lady Catherine?”
“Relax, Dulce, I'm not angry with you. Or angry at all, really, only exasperated. So. What do you suppose we can conjure up to feed nine mages and eight sensitives? Trice's tossed salad is excellent, we can put him to work on that when he arrives. That will do to begin. Entree... steak? No, if I buy the boneless chicken at the butcher shop, and if I can find the recipe for that sweet sauce with the maple syrup that Grandmother liked so much, that will save us quite a lot of time.” Sounds of motion. “Aha, there it is. Rice, I think...”
A few minutes later, Catherine left the sensitive to make the sauce while she went out to buy what they needed. Lila abandoned her post and returned to the library, curling up in the chair with a book Catherine had specifically suggested. It was called Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl, and it was about a Jewish girl during World War Two who lived for a long time hidden in someone's attic, along with her family. It was something Lila could relate to, although the thought of being confined for so long gave her shivers. The radio as background made her feel much less alone, she had music and the announcer's voice to keep her anchored to the outside world.
Catherine didn't come upstairs until much later than usual. Lila was on her feet and out of the chair almost before she'd consciously registered how heavily Catherine moved, how weary she looked.
“I'm sure you heard. Impromptu dinner party. Sorry, I couldn't do much for a meal for you, it's only peanut butter.” She set a plate with two sandwiches and an apple on the little table. “I created something to satisfy them, of course. That would only have tired me, but... they were on their favourite subject. When will I grow out of this silly phase and decide to face life as an adult. Do I intend to spend the rest of my life living here and cooking meals and doing laundry.” She sank down in the chair. “If they'd only leave me alone, the rest I could accept.”
“Sit back.” They'd started leaving a second brush here in the library; Lila retrieved it and waited for Catherine to arrange herself properly. Her hair had been twisted back hastily with nothing but an elastic into an odd bun; Lila took time and care in freeing it, puzzling out exactly what Catherine had done, before starting to brush it. “Tell me?”
She listened while Catherine described, with acid in her voice, the snide comments and outright insults she'd been forced to bear tonight, while the others devoured the luxurious meal that had been devised by Catherine herself with the wholehearted aid and considerable experience of three sensitives.
The mage was much calmer by the time she ran out of words and Lila had her hair braided for the night.
“Go have a hot bath and relax,” Lila suggested. “Then go to bed. You're worn out.”
“A very good idea, I think.” Catherine stood up, and waited until Lila was on her feet before meeting her gaze. “I'm glad you're here. It will be lonely, without you.”
“Yeah,” Lila said softly. “But we both knew I can't hide up here forever.”
“I know. Dulce told me once that sensitives take whatever good they can, and use it to make it through the bad times.” She smiled, though there was a sad edge to it. “Sounds like good advice, too.” A couple of those long strides took her to the doorway.
Lila slumped in the chair, counting days while she absently picked up half a sandwich to bite into. Catherine had said maybe four weeks of good weather. She'd been here a little over three weeks. The weather could change at any time, and then there'd be no hunters, no reason to stay here dependent on Catherine any longer. No home or possessions or job, either, but it wasn't the first time. She could find another sensitive and sleep there for a while.
But the scales weren't balanced. Lila had redone the walls. Catherine had kept Lila safe and reasonably comfortable, fed her well, treated her as a friend and equal, respected her limits.
Given Lila freedom, at least for the moment, and that was all a sensitive could really ask.
Lila shivered, dropped the sandwich back onto the plate, and huddled into the chair, terrified of her own thoughts, even while she recognized the rightness of them.
Catherine had given Lila freedom. Lila could give Catherine the same.
All night, while Catherine slept, Lila turned the concept around this way and that in her mind.
“Good morning,” Catherine greeted her, and stifled a yawn. “You're looking very serious.”
“I'd really like to talk. It's important. Can you get away after you do breakfast?”
Catherine frowned, instantly worried. “Yes, I can juggle chores a bit and make time. Is something wrong?”
“Not exactly. We just... need to talk. Soon.”
“All right. I'll see to Grandmother's breakfast, something that doesn't take long to make, and I'll come directly back.”
“That'll work. Thanks.”
Catherine nodded, though the frown stayed. “The sooner I get downstairs, the sooner I'll be back.”
Lila closed her eyes and listened to the rather silly morning show on the radio, ordinary people calling in for a contest and answering trivia questions in return for free movie passes. That would be nice to win, it would be easy to find three other sensitives to go to a movie with.
“Lila?” Catherine said tentatively, settling herself on the other pillow. “Dulce is going to cover for me, if necessary. What do we need to talk about?”
“They'll let you move out of here and have your own life and your own apartment and everything if you pass this Master's exam, right?”
“Yes.” Just that, one syllable, no emotion behind it.
“And you can't pass it because you have to have a sensitive, right?”
Lila hoped Catherine couldn't see how tightly clenched her hands were, nails biting into the palms. “I'm a sensitive.”
Catherine simply stared at her for a moment, then blue eyes clouded into anger. “I did not bring you here so that I could trap you and force you! Or out of any expectation that you would feel obligated to me!”
“It's not that. Just that, anyway. It isn't fair, what they're doing to you. And this is something I can do to make it right.”
“Lila, I can't do that to you!”
“You aren't forcing me. It isn't rape if I'm willing.”
“It would mean staying here for, oh, I don't even know how long, weeks most likely, while I learned a set of skills I've carefully avoided my entire life. It would mean helping me with magic, not just watching it, but being involved. It would mean walking into an assembly of mages with me while I take my exam.”
“I kinda figured all that, more or less. No one else would be able to touch me if I'm with you, right? And staying here longer... maybe I can take up a hobby or something to keep myself busy. Winter's coming and that's a good time to stay inside a lot anyway.”
“And the isolation? The magic?”
Lila shrugged. “I can deal with that. Could be lots worse. Look. I'm not afraid of you, and I want to do this. To help you.”
Catherine closed her eyes. She looked to Lila like she was in pain, torn between two impossible paths. “Lila... If I fail again, I have no legal right to claim you as mine. My grandmother can take you away.”
There was a scary concept. “Do you really think she would, when she offered to buy you a sensitive?”
“No, probably not.”
“Do you really expect to fail? I thought you only failed because you were alone. Was there any other reason?”
“No, I can't see that I'd be likely to fail.”
“Am I or am I not a person?”
“Of course you are.” Blue eyes snapped open.
“And doesn't that mean I have a right to make my own choices, rather than having someone else decide things for me? This is my choice, that I choose to make. And what I choose is to help you pass your exam so you'll be free. I don't know what after that. Sensitives suck at planning ahead. But right now, I choose.”
“It's my decision, whether to accept that offer or not.”
“Yeah. But it's not right to base it on what you think is good for me.”
Catherine gave a kind of half-strangled laugh. “I think I'm losing this battle.”
“So surrender gracefully,” Lila suggested. “Don't you know how to accept a gift?”
“Apparently I need to learn how. Although no one has ever offered me a gift of quite this size.” She bowed her head. “Thank you.”
Lila blinked, saw a shining drop fall to vanish on Catherine's russet skirt, then another. “I didn't mean to make you cry...” she said helplessly.
“It's all right. Truly.” Catherine looked up, and it was hope, not grief, Lila saw. “I'm almost afraid to think it might work, that there might be a way out.” She blinked, wiped her eyes with the hem of her skirt. “To be free of this, it's worth it.” Her smile was shaky. “I'll even try not to feel ashamed.”
“You aren't going to do anything to be ashamed of,” Lila said firmly. “If anything, I'm starting to feel like I'm forcing you.”
“I'm sorry.” Catherine composed herself. “I'll try, but there's so much conditioning. The beliefs mages are taught about contact, that it is always a matter of establishing power and dominance. And my own feelings about you.”
“We'll work on it. Are you going to be okay? Now, I mean.”
Catherine nodded. “I think so. Dulce will do what she can to help, if I should slip, she's much more observant and resourceful than my grandmother gives her credit for.”
“Good. I'm exhausted by all this thinking, I'm going to bed now.”
“Oh dear. I forgot your breakfast.”
“I'm too tired to eat. You go act normal, and I'll go sleep, and we can talk about this tonight. I just really needed to say it now, or I wouldn't have been able to sleep.”
Another nod, and a warm smile. “Pleasant dreams.”
“I hope so.”
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