“I want something absolutely clear,” Catherine said, without warning, as she brought supper upstairs.
“If you change your mind and want to leave, at any time, you're free to do so, and I will not be angry or try to stop you. You have not just locked yourself into a cage.”
“I knew that already. And that's why I won't.” Supper was potatoes cooked with onion and some sort of spices, and string beans, and steak. Simple, solid food. Having skipped breakfast, she tore into it hungrily.
Besides, it was something to concentrate on, other than her own fear. If she showed it, Catherine would refuse. So she couldn't let herself show it.
“What exactly does this exam involve?”
Catherine shrugged. “A representative of each family is present, generally chosen from among those best known as teachers. They have the right to question the candidate in theory and history until they're satisfied that the candidate has an acceptable level of knowledge. The other half is a practical test. They name tasks to perform, by magic, to prove control and skill. In theory, there is no rule stating that a mage must have a sensitive in order to pass the practical test, but in practice, it is impossible to do so with the finite levels of power a mage has alone.” She smiled ruefully. “Believe me, I tried. It created a public scandal, in fact. I passed the theory with no real difficulty, and I was doing well enough on the practical until I, well, ran dry.”
“Yes. My mother stopped acknowledging me as her child, my grandmother spent something like three hours lecturing me on duty and propriety, most of my relatives made time to give me shorter versions over the next week or so. And I was given this place to live in.” She shrugged. “My family allowed me try, believing that the humiliation of failure would bring me to see that sensitives are necessary tools. They were rather displeased that I didn't change my mind.”
“Hm. Well, you're going to pass this time, and you're going to do it without giving in to them. Not that they'd be likely to believe that I'm there willingly instead of being forced even if we told them.” I don't believe it myself. I'm crazy.
“I'm not certain I believe it,” Catherine said, echoing the thought.
Lila gave her a sharp look. “We covered that this morning. Don't start again.”
Catherine shook her head, smiling. “I mean that it's such a wonderful thing, that you want to face something that frightens you for my sake, that it's almost... too big to believe.”
Damn. So much for not showing fear. “Yeah, so, I've got generations of the most paranoid sensitives being the ones who stay free long enough to have kids. I can deal with it.”
“I know. But that's what makes it... incredible, in every sense.”
In silence, they finished eating.
Catherine set the plates near the top of the stairs, to take down in the morning, and returned to her pillow.
Lila eyed the distance between them—close enough to reach, but not comfortably—and moved herself and her pillow forward on the threadbare rug before offering Catherine her hand, palm up. It was trembling only slightly, she observed. No more than Catherine's was as the mage laid hers over it. Not gripping, only touching. All the pressure was up in Catherine's shoulders, in fact, turning her entire upper spine to rock.
“Catherine. Relax. It can't be that hard. You can run circles around other mages, and they can do it.”
Catherine gave her a quick smile, took a deep breath and closed her eyes, forehead furrowing in concentration.
“Oh!” she said suddenly. “That's not very complicated at all!”
Oh god, Catherine, please don't give me a long explanation right now, just do whatever you need to do...
She felt... well, didn't exactly feel, because it wasn't on any part of her body, but was aware of a touch, somewhere that didn't exist as she knew it.
And the world twisted inside out and melted away into pleasure. Rather like the explorations of a new and inquisitive lover, Lila though dazedly, roaming gently across her skin... no, it wasn't her skin, there was only her hand against Catherine's, but she could think of no other way to grasp the concept. Braced for discomfort, prepared to forgive it, this caught her utterly off guard. She let her eyes close, simply experiencing this, not trying to analyze it.
“There's nothing to that at all.” Catherine sounded pleased. “It'll mostly be a matter of refining my control with all that extra power.” A pause, then, “Lila? Are you all right?”
“Mmhmm. Feels good.”
“Really? That's interesting, I've never heard of that before.”
“Maybe 's like sex. Feels awful when you don't want to, can feel great when you do.”
“A definite possibility. Consent isn't something that's ever been studied, that I know of.”
“So it'll work?”
She could hear the smile in Catherine's voice without bothering to open her eyes. “It will definitely work. To mage-senses, you're drawing in raw power from your environment constantly, and... do you know how maple syrup is made? The sap from the trees is very thin and watery, but they boil it until it thickens and condenses. Somehow you're doing something like that. It's all pooled inside you, and spilling over because it isn't being used for anything. Mages can barely sense it in the raw form, but in the condensed form... I haven't tried yet, but a mage with access to that while doing magic can make use of it. You have the strength, I have the ability to focus and shape it.”
“Hm, no, I'd say more like two halves that make a whole. Let's see, what's something harmless, in case I lose control. I know.”
The stroking sensation intensified. Lila opened her eyes so she could see what was going on... and felt them widen. The familiar library wasn't any more. They were sitting in a glorious fairy tale palace, the walls hung with shimmery metallic draperies that glowed from behind with the warmth of sunlight. Bookcases, chair, table, were all gone, replaced by a small sparkling fountain that seemed to be made all of glass or ice or something, shaped like a naked winged lady pouring water from a vase. The worn rug had become shining white marble.
“Catherine!” This was just too weird, what was going on?
Catherine laughed. “It's all right, it's only a glamour, an illusion, and only for one sense. Close your eyes, reach out, and you can touch the chair still.”
Lila obeyed, felt the rough fabric of the chair under the fingers of her free hand, right where it should be, but when she looked again, her hand rested against thin air.
“That's just spooky.”
“I'm sorry,” Catherine said contritely, and the fairy palace faded away, back to reality. “I didn't mean to startle you. I needed to try something that couldn't hurt us if I couldn't control so much more power. That one was pretty small. Can I try again, or should I try to think of something different?”
Lila shook her head. “It's okay, I just wasn't ready for that. Go for it.” That stroking sensation, somewhere inside or around or... or something, was soothing, made it easier to let go of fear and anxiety and uncertainty.
Catherine nodded, and frowned in concentration.
She's barely started, this is nothing yet. There's no point in getting freaked all the time, just relax and go with it. So what if it's seriously bizarre? Catherine's good, and she'll make sure we're both safe. Trust her.
It felt like a long time, though she didn't think it had really been all that long objectively, before they both tired.
“It's been about an hour,” Catherine confirmed, untangling her fingers from Lila's gently. “It's not terribly surprising, it's a new form of exercise for both of us. That will change with practice.” She hid a huge yawn behind her hand. “I'm exhausted, and I think I have the beginnings of a headache.”
“I'm not sleepy, just kinda tired, but then, it's getting close to bedtime for you anyway. Maybe we should be doing this in the morning, so you're the one who's wide awake? You're the one actually doing stuff.”
“Hm. Something to think about. But not right now.” Catherine arched backwards in a long stretch, and got to her feet. “Right now I feel like I've been pushing rocks up a hill.”
“Go get some sleep, then. I'll still be here in the morning.”
The smile Catherine gave her was sun-warm and bright. Funny how blue was usually considered a cold colour. “I know, and I'm glad. Thank you.”
Lila shrugged. “If it always feels like that, this isn't going to be hard to take at all.”
“Good. Good night.”
Lila wrapped her arms around her knees, thoughtfully. Right now she felt... how did she feel? Comfortably relaxed and satisfied, sort of like after decent sex. Not like she was drunk or stoned or out of control, just peaceful and content. And tired, yes, she wouldn't have wanted to do much right now, so it was just as well she had nothing more strenuous to do than listen to the radio and read. Unexpected, but if this continued, it would make this whole business much less unpleasant than she'd feared.
She'd be much happier, though, if she could snuggle against Catherine and share it, instead of being here by herself.
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