The phone on Van's desk rang.
He blinked, glanced at his watch. Ten after twelve? He hadn't thought he'd been working on this for more than half an hour or so.
He picked up the phone, braced it against his shoulder while he attempted to bring some kind of order to the chaos. “Hello.”
“Van? It's Catherine.” She sounded oddly shy.
“Hi!” He forgot about presentation notes, sat up straighter. “How are you?”
“Doing well, but I'm more and more curious. Is that offer of a tour still open?”
“Visiting York House and Cornucopia? Absolutely. We can do it today, if you like. Pride is running around on her own right now, doing heaven knows what, but she's going to meet me here at four. We could come pick you up, or you could meet us here like before.”
“Today would be wonderful, and I think it will be simpler for everyone if we come to you.” She sighed. “I suppose I should learn to ride the bus, taxis every day add up to a lot.”
“Go slow,” Van cautioned, wincing from the sudden mental image of a traditionally-raised mage having a panic attack on a moderately-filled bus.
“I will. Well, I imagine I should let you get back to work, or lunch, as the case may be.”
“I had lost track of time working on a presentation I'm giving next week. I should definitely be eating lunch. See you here at four?”
“We'll be there.”
Van hung up, sent Randi a quick text message to tell her what to expect, and reached for his backpack to find out what he had for lunch today.
Hm, a kaiser roll stuffed with three types of meat, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Randi must have made it, since the bread barely fit around the filling. Three home-made peanut-butter cookies, a small plastic dish of fruit salad, a can of pink lemonade.
He started on the sandwich, while he got back to work on his notes for a presentation on workplace communication skills.
At four, he escorted a client out to the waiting room, and found Randi perched on the edge of the desk, chatting happily with Beth. Dark blonde, more clearly female, with subtle changes to her features, she looked just different enough that Beth gave no indication of connecting her with the runaway who had stumbled briefly into the centre that spring. Free sensitives Randi had known before had been startled, but had rapidly adjusted to this as Randi's in-town look.
The preference for jeans, the hazel eyes that missed nothing, the jaw-length haircut that meant it sometimes fell across those eyes, those were all the same. So was the silver chain with its hawk pendant.
He wasn't sure what Beth and the others believed him and Randi were to each other, but whatever it was, it couldn't come close to the real infinitely-complex, infinitely-simple nature of it.
“All done?” Randi asked.
“Just let me grab my stuff. Catherine and Sable aren't here yet?”
“Not yet. I've been watching for them.”
“I'll be right back.”
He doubted he'd have time tonight to get any work done on his presentation; he left books and notes on his desk, slung his backpack on his shoulder, switched off the light, and closed the door behind him. With due farewells to his co-workers—who might have been truly friends, were it not for the gaping abyss between mage and mundane—he and Randi left.
Good timing: Randi pointed out the other pair half a block away, and coming closer. Van studied them, picking out more details every second.
Sable was in the same form as before, rich dark brown hair loose to her shoulders, pale tawny skin, sensual curves to which the heavy knit fabric of her short-skirted short-sleeved black dress clung. Same collar and wrist-cuffs, the ones she'd worn to the party but without the chain, same boots as last time, similar make-up but her lips were a dark purple instead of red. If it was actually make-up at all, which he doubted. The sway to her hips suggested she knew how many eyes were following her, and that she loved every instant of it.
The contrast with Catherine was acute. The mage wore a long, simple, sleeveless lilac-coloured dress, embroidered with deeper purple, and flat black sandals, and neither make-up nor jewellery except a strand of amethyst beads around her throat and amethyst studs in her ears and a silver chain with a pendant that had dropped down out of sight under her neckline. That amazingly long hair lay forward over her shoulder, neatly braided with a lilac ribbon threaded through it. She carried herself with the poise of an aristocrat, paying no attention at all to those around her.
He caught a hint of insecurity sneaking into his mind, that he was somehow shabby, in his oyster-coloured cargo pants and forest-green t-shirt, that there was probably dirt under his nails or something caught in his teeth. Recognizing it was enough to deflate it, but he could understand why he'd heard people at the Vladislav's party call her aloof, and why some of the rumours Kerry picked up had called her arrogant and cold, sure of her superiority. He was inclined to think it to be learned behaviour turned into a defence. There was more there than she was letting on, and he had a strong suspicion as to what it was, and every intention of confirming it today.
Van greeted Catherine with a smile. “Wandering around downtown?”
“We thought we'd check out a couple of stores we noticed last time but didn't have time for then,” Catherine said.
“I'll show you around someday, Lady Catherine, if you want and if my Lord will let you have me for the day,” Randi offered. “Good places to buy things and neat things to look at and everything.”
“That could be extremely helpful, thank you,” Catherine said, surprise making her pause only for a heartbeat. No sign of annoyance that Randi had offered on her own.
“If you don't mind more walking, it would be simpler than trying to find somewhere to park,” Van said. “York House and Cornucopia are both reasonably close.”
“Walking is fine,” Catherine said.
“Two minutes to toss this in the car.”
“It'll only take me one minute, my Lord,” Randi pointed out, and held out a hand for the keys.
Van gave her keys and backpack, and she darted away around to the back of the building. And, of course, she was back much more quickly than Van would have been.
“Which one first, my Lord?” Randi asked.
“York House is quieter, and likely a better place to start,” Van suggested, with a glance at Catherine.
She smiled. “You're the tour guide.”
The two sensitives, perfectly properly, waited for the mages to start walking, and fell into step behind them.
York House was some five blocks away, on York Street. Not enough time to fish for the information he really wanted, but enough for him to get her talking about what she'd been doing since he'd seen her at dinner night before last, casual social stuff that helped her relax noticeably. She did mention that she was seriously considering offering anything she and Sable could do to help at Cornucopia, which was one more scrap of information that suggested he was right.
Van pressed the doorbell, and they waited.
“It's safer, with the door locked,” he explained to Catherine.
A mundane man Van had met a few times, a volunteer in his late thirties or so, opened the door to admit them, with a friendly greeting. He certainly knew Randi, who accompanied free sensitives here for their first visit at times. Van had brought or referred a few mundane clients, as well.
“Catherine and Sable are thinking about volunteering some time,” Van explained. “Probably at Cornucopia mostly, but they were curious about this place, and it helps to know it's here to refer people to.”
“True. Come on in. There's only two staying here at the moment, and they're watching a movie in the living room, it's a good time for a tour.”
“Van and I'll stay here, if you'll be okay,” Randi said, with a questioning look at Catherine and Sable. The lack of an honorific would've made most tame sensitives highly anxious, but in front of a mundane, it was the sort of thing that raised questions that were hard to answer. She did keep her eyes below Catherine's, though.
Catherine nodded, and the two of them followed their guide deeper into the house. Randi peeked into the living room, glanced at Van and shrugged, indicating that they weren't sensitives, and vanished around the corner. He heard her voice and that of another girl... discussing the movie, from the sounds of things.
Van checked the table of pamphlets, cards, and the like, with information on various organizations and services and events that might be of use or interest to those staying here: free food and clothing, other shelters, addiction services, where to turn in a crisis, counselling services, support groups. He spotted an unfamiliar one for assertiveness training workshops to be held regularly, if there turned out to be enough interest, and took a copy of that one. A few of his regular clients could benefit a lot from it, and Hayley and Zach could likely think of some as well. Maybe in return for the referrals, Zach could arrange for a discount for their clients, since many of them couldn't afford the full price.
It wasn't like he needed the tour around York House. Ground floor: living room, dining room, office, half-bath, and slightly small kitchen—which was all they needed, since lunch and supper came from Cornucopia. Basement: one room for laundry and furnace that was also used for storage, plus a full bathroom and two bedrooms, each with a single window and a pair of single beds. Second floor and attic: more bedrooms and another full bathroom. There was nothing fancy about the place, but Maya and Nairn and their sensitives had managed to make it feel comfortable and casual.
Catherine and Sable eventually returned, and Van managed to attract Randi's attention long enough to tell her they were leaving. That girl made friends at any hint of an opportunity; it simply boggled the mind, how she could always find something to talk about with absolutely anyone.
“Well?” Van asked.
“Fascinating place,” Catherine said. “I assume it's quite a lot busier in poor weather.”
“Very much so. In the worst of winter, it's usually full. Mostly mundanes, a few sensitives. Sable? Any thoughts?”
A brief pause. “I can think of times when I would have been grateful for a place like that, my Lord,” she said finally. “But I also think it would have been terrifying to take the chance of going there, knowing that it was run by mages, and it would have been an extremely difficult decision, to go or sleep outside.”
“That's exactly the worst problem we're having,” Van admitted ruefully. She'd answered honestly, not just trying to give him an answer that would please him, he noted. There was definitely an active mind somewhere under that mask of submissiveness. “But we're getting there, a little at a time.”
“Some have very little to lose,” she said, very quietly, and added almost as an afterthought, “my Lord.”
“Also depressingly true.” He kept on straight, instead of turning at the corner that led most directly to Cornucopia.
“I believe you mentioned that the mages try to stay behind the scenes,” Catherine mused. “Which would help somewhat. That would, I assume, leave quite a lot of the day-to-day management in the hands of the sensitives? Which would certainly require quite a lot of faith in their loyalty and their abilities. And a very accurate evaluation of what those skills are, collectively and individually.” She didn't sound scandalized, only thoughtful.
“We don't usually point that out to the ones who think we're doing something wrong,” Van admitted. “It's one more example of the Donovans giving our sensitives freedom and responsibility that, traditionally, are considered inappropriate.”
“Loyalty isn't a problem, my Lady,” Randi said softly. “We know where we belong. And Cornucopia and York House matter to us, too.”
“Yes, I imagine they do,” Catherine agreed.
They passed a park, one barely large enough to deserve the name, just a small bit of grass with a couple of benches between two houses. Van paused there, and looked at Catherine. “Can we wait a minute before we go to Cornucopia, and talk?”
Catherine's expression turned cautious. He regretted the loss of her increasing comfort with him, but unless he was drastically wrong, it would be stronger than ever in a few minutes. “All right.”
The two mages settled on one bench; Sable, with care but without hesitation, sat on the grass, and Randi got comfortable beside her, raspberry-coloured jeans more practical for this than the short black dress. Sable looked alert, he thought, but something else as well... expectant? No, couldn't be.
“I have to confess something,” Van said, carefully, praying he could find the right words. It was a familiar prayer, though usually it was during formal counselling sessions.
“I got nosey. I asked my mother Kerry to ask a few questions, and one of the answers involved the first time you stood for your Master's exam. And what happened afterwards.”
“That must have been quite the question.” The temperature of Catherine's voice dropped several degrees.
“Not really, it just left me wondering even more. And I think it's worth the risks involved, to ask you something directly, because I've put together enough little pieces to be reasonably sure of the answer.”
“And what question might that be?”
Van met Catherine's cool blue eyes steadily. “By mage law, Pride is my property. But that's the only way she is. I've never forced her into anything she objected to, whether that means magic or shapechanging or sex or anything else. She has all the freedom I can give her without putting us both in danger, and we are very much partners and equals. Are you?”
Sable started; Randi closed a small short-nailed hand around Lila's tawny, purple-nailed one, and squeezed. Van left Sable to Randi, kept his attention largely on Catherine.
Never breaking Van's gaze, Catherine nodded, slowly. It was a dangerous thing to admit, for either of them, but some things were worth the risk.
Van smiled, gently. “I am very glad to hear that. I was hoping I'd guessed right. Standing your ground like that, with no support anywhere, took an incredible amount of courage, but it has to have been frightening, and extremely exhausting and wearing. I'd wish you'd been born a Donovan, or at least in a city we're in, so you wouldn't have had to, but then you wouldn't have been there for Sable.”
“For that, everything was worth it,” Catherine said, flatly, then her voice softened. “I was so afraid I was the only mage who couldn't help but really see sensitives as people...” A tear slid down one cheek. Hastily, she wiped it away. “I'm sorry,” she said quickly, and laughed, shakily. “After working all day, the last thing you need is to have me start crying.”
“It's okay,” Van said, still keeping his tone as sympathetic as he possibly could.
“You really mean it.”
“He really does,” Randi assured her, all hint of deference suddenly absent from her voice. “Van honestly does see me as an equal and a friend and a partner, not as a pet or a possession. When we aren't playing the game in front of other mages, I pretty much do whatever I want. Run around the city for the day by myself, play on the computer, work in the garden, whatever I feel like. And what shape I'm in is always up to me.”
Catherine took a deep breath. Van watched her closely; mages weren't as good at withstanding emotional shocks as sensitives were. “Two cities ago, we thought we'd found someone who understood, and we very nearly told him everything. Then he started talking about what he called reservations for sensitives.”
“I don't think reservations normally include ten-foot electrified chain-link fence with barbed wire at the top,” Sable muttered.
Van nodded sympathetically. “There's at least one book and two computer files in circulation describing in detail variations on the theme. I read the book to see what we're up against, and it frankly scared the shit out of me. It's all so nicely reasoned, full of explanations of why it would be better for sensitives and mages both... and it amounts to even worse slavery than we've got now.”
“That's what fooled me. All the talk about how we need to do something about the conditions free sensitives live in,” Catherine said, her voice and expression both going distant.
Randi mirrored the shudder. “Concentration camps crossed with puppy mills.”
“I was beginning to believe that I was the only one.”
“Are you okay for another shock?” Van asked. “It's a good one, not a bad one.”
Catherine nodded, a bit shakily.
“Most of the Donovan family, along with a few allies like Maya Kalindi, feel exactly the same way. Since the Donovan family is easily the largest in the city, that adds up to quite a lot of households where the sensitives do as they please whenever possible.”
“That many?” Sable said, in utter amazement. “Even with all the laws and the peer pressure and crap like that?”
“Even with all that. We claim we treat them well because, like any other domestic creature, they perform better. In actual fact, we've been treating them as partners in private for well over a hundred years, but it wasn't discussed even within the family, even though pretty much everyone else in the family knew what was going on. In the last forty years or so, it's been coming out in the open within the family, and we've been giving them more and more freedom, everything we can.”
“In a lot of ways,” Randi mused, “Donovan sensitives are more free than the so-called free sensitives. We have mages who let us make decisions for ourselves and encourage us to be who we are, and we don't have to make those choices based on fear of being hunted or where we're going to sleep or what we're going to eat.”
“You aren't alone,” Van said. “And we're making progress, a bit at a time. It means the other families tend to look down on us, but then, I don't think much of them, either. Randi and I will gladly introduce the two of you to the others. If you don't have any other plans for Sunday, you're both quite welcome to join us at my mother's house for what might be our last barbecue and swimming party for the year, depending on the weather. There are usually anywhere from five to ten pairs.”
“Randi?” Sable said.
“Me, of course,” Randi said cheerfully. “Miranda, but my friends say Randi. Did you keep your other name at all?”
“Lila,” Sable said automatically. As far as Van could tell, she was adjusting with the usual sensitive speed, most of her concern for Catherine. Even as he thought that, she pulled free of Randi, and moved so she could close both hands around Catherine's. “Are you okay? You don't look so good.”
Van had to agree. Catherine was pale, except the flush along her cheekbones, and she was trembling very slightly; at least one more tear had gotten away, he could see the track of it still bright, not yet dry.
“I'll be fine,” Catherine said, wrapping both arms around herself. “Just... give me a minute.”
Van abandoned the bench in favour of joining Randi on the grass. Sable took the implied invitation instantly, moving up to sit next to her mage and slide an arm around her, pressing close.
“I'm all right. Tell me I'm not crazy. We're really here and awake, right?”
“We really are.”
“And there is no possible way this is some sort of weird elaborate trap set by the hunters and their allies?”
“I don't see how it could be.”
Slowly, Catherine nodded, and took a deep breath. “Okay. I think I'm getting a grip on this.”
“That's good. You had me scared for a minute there.”
“Sorry. It was just... too big to assimilate. I'm fine now.” And, when Sable drew back a bit to take a close look at her, insisted, “Really I am.”
“Yeah, okay, I'll take your word for it.”
Any lingering doubts about whether this pair were truly equal vanished, during that exchange. Van glanced at Randi, and she gave him a triumphant smile, twining her fingers into his. Somehow, they'd just done something good.
“Better?” Randi asked sympathetically.
Catherine nodded, her composure restored. “Much. Thanks.”
“We just don't adapt as well as they do,” Van said ruefully. “Ah, well, we are as we are. That's why we need each other. It takes one of each, together, to balance properly. Which do you prefer, by the way? Lila or Sable?”
“Doesn't really matter to me,” Sable said.
“I'm usually Randi unless I need to be Pride,” Randi explained.
Catherine brushed back a straying tendril of hair. “So. Anything else, or shall we go visit Cornucopia?”
Van got up, held down a hand to Randi. “If you think you can handle it, we can go.”
“I'm all right.”
Van had a feeling it would all catch up with her in a few hours, once she was home and alone with Sable, once everything had stopped happening around her and she had time to think. But, for the moment, she did seem to be dealing with the revelation.
So, they left the park and got moving again, this time more directly towards Cornucopia, somewhat more raggedly rather than mages followed by sensitives.
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