“Cornucopia might be kind of busy, Catherine,” Randi warned, as they walked. “Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. But Sable and I won't let anybody touch you, even if it is.”
Having a sensitive—other than her own, because he had a feeling Sable was highly protective—offer to protect her was probably a new experience for Catherine, but she accepted it with grace. Accepted the lack of an honorific, too, come to think of it. “Thank you. It would be embarrassing if I were to over-react to someone simply trying to get by me.”
“You wouldn't be the first. With all the government cut-backs, there are a lot of people on the streets who are really not very stable, and now and again something happens that sets one of them off.” Randi's eyes widened, and she clapped a hand over her mouth.
Catherine, far from being offended, laughed; Van snuck a peek at her, and discovered that she looked absolutely delighted. Now that was something for which he lacked a ready explanation. “Sometimes I'm convinced that I'm not really very stable, either.”
Randi lowered her hand, bit her lip in embarrassment. “Sorry, I didn't mean that to sound the way it sounded.”
Catherine waved that away. “So. When we get there, there will be Donovan sensitives in charge, possibly with mundane volunteers as well. And potentially quite a lot of mundanes there to eat, possibly with a few sensitives?”
“They were virtually all mundanes until Randi convinced her family that it's safe, and they started spreading the word,” Van said. “There are a lot still too afraid, but the ones who've had a few meals at Cornucopia and survived, or slept a few nights at York House, bring others. It's a slow process, but then, we're fighting generations of fear and ignorance.”
“You're still in contact with your family?” Sable asked, startled. “You have a family?”
“Yep. A big one,” Randi said.
Randi's cheerful description of her mother's household, who struck Van as a perfect illustration of the adjective “colourful,” kept Sable and Catherine enthralled the rest of the way to Cornucopia.
Randi darted up the few stairs to the small porch, and turned to wait for the rest to join her. Van saw Catherine pause to appreciate the sign next to the door, Shvaughn's work.
Better than half the seats were filled, and there was a background buzz of conversation. Automatically, Van checked, spotted a couple of sensitives over near a corner, a trio in another corner, a very young pair who were waiting their turn to be served, and Jonathan was here, wiping down tables. Van was finding himself, like others in the family, growing rather fond of the young sensitive. Whenever he could, he found errands he could pay Jonathan to run for him—to the post office, to the book store to pick up a special order, anything that came to mind. Sometimes he helped out here instead of paying.
He'd known Oblique was on today, but had expected her to be upstairs directing the chaos in the kitchen, not downstairs serving. She flashed them a smile, without missing a beat.
“I'll go give her a hand,” Randi decided, and scooted away and around the tables without waiting for a reply. She was up the stairs to wash her hands with barely a quick greeting to Oblique, almost before her companions realized what she was doing.
After this long, Van was used to that. He simply found an unoccupied table for four that they could claim. He rather thought Catherine could use a minute to rest and have a cold drink.
Jonathan wandered over. “Hey, Van. Hi, Lila.”
Van did a double-take, stared at him. “Pardon?”
“When did you met Lila?”
Sable looked at Van, calmly. “We wanted more information. So I went exploring.” Her tone turned dry. “I'm surprised Sage didn't mention that, since he'd heard about dinner the night before. Jonathan, my mage Catherine.”
Jonathan gave Catherine his usual amiable smile. “Hi. How's it going?”
“Better all the time, I think,” Catherine said. Van glanced at her, wondering from the faint quaver in her voice if she were about to cry.
She was here yesterday...?
Van shook himself mentally. Okay, so she'd done the sensible thing and gone looking for information from other sources. “I don't know whether Sage told Randi, but no one told me,” he said, keeping his tone light.
Jonathan let his gaze run along Sable's body. “Man. Nice look. I'm going to have to get myself caught so I can come play with all the sexy girls.”
“Get caught and you might end up being a sexy girl,” Sable retorted.
He shrugged and grinned. “Sage seems to deal with it okay.”
“How do you two feel about a drink or a quick snack, and then you can see the rest of the place?” Van suggested.
“That's fine,” Catherine agreed, and Sable shrugged, looking perfectly relaxed here.
Randi reappeared long enough to set a tray on the table, with four glasses and four homemade cookies on napkins, and looked at Jonathan. “I'm helping Oblique, you sit and be me for a minute.”
Jonathan gave her a doubtful look. “I don't think I have that much bounciness. And I sure can't scrunch down that small.”
She rolled her eyes, pointed to the chair next to Van, and commanded, “Sit.”
“Yes, mistress,” Jonathan laughed, and sat down—easily within Van's reach, which both Catherine and Sable very visibly noticed. “What? Van's had tons of chances if he wanted to do anything nasty. I'm always underfoot, running errands for him or whatever.”
“Winter's coming, I'll put you to work shovelling snow,” Van teased, which got him another shrug and grin combination. Jonathan helped himself to one of the cookies, nibbling on it absently.
Catherine's gaze, Van noticed, kept coming back to Jonathan. There was something peculiar about her reactions to sensitives. He couldn't accept even the possibility that she might be lying, but it puzzled him. “There are a lot of people here,” she observed. “That's a lot of food disappearing.”
“I don't ask about the details,” Van said. “But I gather Grania gets everything fairly cheaply, in some cases for free.”
“Nobody minds the little cut corners like two-day-old bread,” Jonathan said, on behalf of those who regularly ate here. “It's a couple of days old, big deal, it's not like it's turning blue. And okay, so it's usually one-dish stuff like stew or spaghetti, except for holidays or because someone donated a lot of something. Who cares?”
“And they're very efficient about using everything possible,” Van added. “They don't waste anything up there that can be eaten.”
“That would take a lot of very careful organization,” Catherine mused.
“It does. And that part's mostly up to Oblique and Sage and the others.” He smiled. “I'm sure they'd love to have another pair of hands who know what to do in a kitchen.”
“That's extremely tempting,” Catherine said softly, and took a sip of juice, gazing around the room thoughtfully.
Sable shifted position a bit. “Maybe no shapechanging would've been better. I get the distinct feeling that every free sensitive in this room is staring at me.”
“They don't know you,” Jonathan said reasonably. “And you look awesome. Of course they're looking, they're trying not to drool in their soup while they wonder who you are. Do you want to meet them? I know all the sensitives here.”
Sable hesitated, glanced at Catherine—not for permission, Van was certain of that.
“I'll stay right here with Van,” Catherine assured her. “There's nothing to worry about. Go ahead.”
“Okay,” Sable said, a bit doubtfully, but got up, and went with Jonathan to meet the others.
“Doing all right?” Van asked.
Catherine nodded. “It's a lot of people, without mage conventions to prevent contact, but it feels... safe, I suppose.”
Oblique left serving to Randi, and joined them. “I only have a minute,” she said apologetically, “but I wanted to come say hello for real. I'm Oblique. Brennan's sensitive.”
“You live with Van and... and Randi.”
Oblique nodded. “We'll have to invite you two out for dinner some night. It's beautiful out where we live, the leaves are all turning gorgeous colours right now. And I hope Van told you about the family get-together on Sunday, it'd be great if you'll both come.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Catherine said, and that faint quaver was back. “I imagine Lila would love to. She's been rather isolated, for the last year.”
Oblique nodded understandingly. “Hasn't fit with any other sensitives? Brennan says the Donovan sensitives are feral. Feral animals, ones that were tame but have gone wild, are much more dangerous because they aren't afraid anymore, the way a wild animal that was never tame is. It's getting harder and harder to call ourselves the Donovan sensitives, because there are some who aren't, and there seem to be more all the time. So we're thinking of starting to call ourselves feral sensitives, as opposed to free sensitives or tame sensitives.”
“I like that.”
“The chaos in the kitchen is slowing down a bit now, if you'd like to come take a look around.”
Catherine nodded. “Please.” She smiled. “But I promised Lila I'd stay here. She worries, she knows I don't like crowds.”
“I'll tell her you're upstairs,” Van assured her. “Although she'll likely see where you're going for herself.”
Catherine wavered briefly, then nodded, and departed with Oblique. Van scanned the room, spotted Sable—not hard—and discovered that she was indeed keeping an eye on Catherine, watching her climb the stairs.
They weren't upstairs all that long; when he saw them, he wove his way over to the serving tables. Sable came, as well, though Jonathan stayed where he was, deep in conversation.
“Well?” Oblique asked. “Heaven knows, we can always use extra hands, especially hands that know what they're doing.”
Catherine tilted her head to one side, and smiled. “You can have me, as many days a week as you want me, on one condition.”
Her voice dropped, enough that a couple of approaching mundanes wouldn't catch it. “You do not, any of you, ever, call me Lady Catherine unless it's absolutely necessary.”
“Us, be disrespectful and impertinent?” Randi pretended to faint against the stair railing.
Oblique laughed. “I think we can do that. Shoo, all of you, there are too many bodies back here, and there's work to do. You too, Randi, you've been covering for me long enough. You don't need to wait for me, Azure has Shvaughn's car and he'll drive me home once we're finished.”
Randi ushered Catherine out from behind the tables, and pulled a folded sheet of paper out of one pocket. “Okay, this is Friday... Oblique thinks we should get you in here for a day or two so you can get some practice before we toss you in for real...”
Van caught Sable's eye, and nodded to one side; she slipped away from Catherine to join him, a few feet away.
“I don't know if I should ask, but why does Catherine react to sensitives the way she does?”
Sable shrugged. “They're treating her like a person,” she said simply. “Not just as one of the masters. She's not used to just being accepted as who she is.”
That wasn't a possibility that had occurred to him, and it was going to need some reflection, but it was a relief to know that it was that easily named. “There's probably going to be quite a lot of that in the immediate future. She'll be okay?”
“Yes.” Sable smiled, and rejoined her mage. Van followed.
Randi and Catherine decided that Monday, when Grania was here personally, would be the best day to start, and Randi explained that they came in at ten to get ready for noon. Catherine promised to be there.
“Had enough for today?” Van asked.
Catherine glanced at him, and the sparkle in her eyes, the joy in her smile, made him glad he'd taken a chance on getting to know her. To be able to make someone so happy, by offering her a way to help others...
“I think I'm going to be tired soon,” she admitted. “Although I confess, I don't want to go home and go to sleep tonight and find out this was a dream.”
“It's for real,” Randi assured her, leading the way towards the door. “Everything will still be here tomorrow. Us too. Well, not here, exactly, I don't usually do weekends, but you get the idea.”
“And this concludes our tour of mage-founded social services,” Van said teasingly, once they were back outside, and walking in the direction of the counselling centre. “Not the extent of mage attempts to change the conditions sensitives are living under, however. There are a couple of Donovans and an Santiago pushing for more money for government-funded social services, although so many sensitives are terrified to use them that will be rather limited help to them specifically. And, of course, the anti-abuse laws, and trying to teach the free sensitives the reality of what's going on. But we are pushing one damned big rock up an extremely steep hill. We need all the help we can get.”
“You can add one Eldridge to the list,” Catherine said firmly. “Wholeheartedly.”
“Do you have enough to live on, while you're helping us save the world?” Randi asked sensibly.
“An uncle who was pleased with how good I am at magic set up a small trust fund for me, starting as soon as I passed my Master's exam, and he died before I became an embarrassment so it was never changed. It isn't much, a thousand a month, and it runs out after five years, but it's enough that I can supplement it and we do well enough.” She shrugged. “In another four years, it could become a problem, however.”
“We can work something out,” Van said. “I think this whole sensitive philosophy of sharing everything is contagious, most of the Donovan family has caught it. If you're pouring time and energy into the same goals we're all fighting for, we'll make sure you have secure ground to stand on, as much as possible. Not because anyone thinks you can't survive perfectly well alone, but just because we're all in this together.”
“Together is a huge improvement over alone,” Lila said. “I'm no use at all when it comes to cooking, but anything else I can do, I will.”
“Whoever's serving at Cornucopia doesn't need to cook, just to be able to be friendly and sometimes talk to scared or curious free sensitives,” Randi pointed out. “And it has to be kept clean. Trust me, there's work to do that doesn't involve cooking. Talking to free sensitives is hard work in itself, they aren't all as easygoing as Jonathan. Some of them look at you like you're practically a hunter and as soon as they give you an inch, you'll grab them and drag them off in chains. Don't worry, we can put you to work.”
“Good,” Lila said. “I am so bloody bored and restless... Cath tries, but I just don't have enough to do.”
“In a month, you'll be saying there aren't enough hours in the day,” Randi laughed.
Probably lonely, too, given the social creatures sensitives tended to be. Belonging neither with free sensitives nor tame ones, able to be herself only when alone with her mage, must be a terrible thing for a sensitive. And there must be others, who thought they were the only ones...
Van sighed to himself, recognizing where his own thoughts were leading. Right now, they didn't have the resources to go looking for more problems to solve.
They got back to the counselling centre, and circled around to the parking lot at the rear. Van unlocked the doors, and only then noticed that on each seat, on the passenger side, an oversized paperback lay. The simple green cover, adorned only by a black and white yin-yang in the centre—Neely's idea—and white-and-black text in the understated font Randi had chosen, was familiar.
“What's this?” Lila asked, picking hers up as she slid in. “Mages and Sensitives. By Rory Donovan.”
Catherine settled gracefully into the front seat, and studied the volume in her hand before glancing at Van. “You write, too?”
“It's mostly a more coherent version of notes I've been making for as long as I can remember,” Van explained. “We only got it printed and bound a few months ago, and we're trying to get it out to free sensitives and mages both.” He started the car, backed carefully out of the parking lot. “A dozen sensitives and mages wrote their own stories or told them to me to write down, for a more personal slant. I imagine I'm going to get in quite a lot of trouble over it, but it's worth it.”
Catherine flipped through the book. “Comparison of psychology, magic, social structure and behaviour... this looks thorough. Can I read this?”
“Consider it a gift from the book fairy,” he said wryly, and heard Randi giggle. “I had intended to give you a copy if you were interested. Some sneak seems to have grabbed two copies out of the trunk and left them for you.”
“You and Brennan have the only keys to the car,” Randi said innocently.
He drove Catherine and Lila home, and due farewells were exchanged, along with promises that he would come pick them up on Sunday for the barbecue, and Randi telling Lila to be sure to be something creative and comfortable that could swim. Randi moved from the back seat to the front, to make it easier to talk.
“So, how long is it going to take you and the others to get Lila behind the lilacs if she looks anything like that on the weekend?” he teased.
Randi grinned at him. “I dunno, how long do you think it will take us to all get away from our mages? About that long.”
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