Van left his car in one of the two spaces next to Cornucopia, waited while a rather ragged young couple went in—mundane, he noted absently—and followed them inside. With any luck, Jonathan would be here, and he wouldn't have to go searching through his other usual hang-outs. Randi insisted that when Lila was working, Jonathan was usually around right from open to close, however, so if she was right...
It took him only seconds to spot Jonathan, clearing the empty trays off a table. Lila, in what was probably more or less the form her genes had given her, paused long enough to give Van a smile and a nod, and turned her attention to the couple who had just come in. He knew sensitives learned fast, but in less than a month, she'd made herself so completely a part of the regular routine on Cornucopia's main floor that it was hard to remember a time she hadn't been.
To say nothing of how many people he'd heard praising Catherine's skill and imagination with limited resources. And the pair were visibly thriving on having a place to belong and something to do. Win-win all around, and he'd take any victory they could get.
A couple of sensitives gave him a wary look as he passed, though he took care that he didn't come too close to them. Neither panicked, which was certainly an improvement. One of each sex, probably right around twenty, and the girl's belly was noticeably swollen under her loose top. The boy's right arm was in a rough sling, but he was doing well enough with his left, devouring the food in front of him. It must not be too bad, or Lila would have hauled him off to the hospital emergency room by now.
He hailed Jonathan once he was close enough, and the young sensitive straightened from wiping down the table, smiled.
“Hey, how's it going?”
“Goes pretty well. You?”
Jonathan shrugged. “Can't complain,” he said amiably. “Just saying hi, or is something up?”
“Passing on a message from Randi and Brennan. There's a rather large patch of brush they want to clear, so they can expand the garden for next spring, and they could use all the help they can get. You'd get Randi's bed, Oblique's cooking, and we'll pay you whatever you and Bren work out as fair. But if you'd rather not be out at our place for a couple of nights, it's okay.”
Two tables behind him, he heard the pregnant girl's breath catch, and her one-armed friend muttered something under his breath.
Jonathan simply regarded him thoughtfully, showing no panic, though an understandable amount of caution. Van wouldn't have suggested such a thing to any other free sensitive in the city, except some of Randi's family, and they were all working or in school. “Just a couple of nights?”
“I believe they want to start early tomorrow, so it'd help if you came with me tonight. If you want to come home tomorrow, Bren or I will bring you, no argument, or you can wait and come in with me the next morning. I don't think they're expecting it to take more than one day.”
“It could, though, so that'd be three nights.” Slowly, he nodded. “I'd better tell a few people, so they don't think I've suddenly vanished or anything. Can I have half an hour?”
“However long you need. I'll go see if Lila can find a use for me. Take your time, Oblique's planning supper for later than we usually eat.”
“Shouldn't take me all that long.” He flashed Van a grin, but Van thought it was only on the surface. “Hey, Trey told me about him and the rest of Randi's clan spending the odd weekend at your place and how great your house is, I can't pass up a chance to see.”
Van smiled, and made his way over to Lila. Jonathan finished clearing the table, and headed for the garbage can in the corner.
“Recruiting Jon for another errand?” she asked.
“Out to the house to help Bren and Randi clear some brush. They want a bigger garden for next year, god help us.”
“He's okay with that?”
“He said yes, and I have every intention of being extremely careful not to scare him. Brennan will, too.”
Lila considered that, her forehead furrowed. “Well, if anyone would say yes, it'd be him. How much of this is real and how much is that you're hoping it'll convince more of the free ones that guard dogs are not wolves in disguise?”
Van rather liked Catherine's imagery, though he thought referring to the hunters as wolves was an insult to true wolves, who hunted only for need. “The work is definitely real. I suppose they could have tried to recruit Rich and Azure, but they're busy enough as it is, and Jonathan could use the money.” He smiled. “And if it helps our collective image, that doesn't hurt.”
She returned the smile. “Whatever works, hm? Take good care of him, okay?”
On impulse and a hunch, Van asked, “Who does he remind you of?”
“Someone I hope is with a mage who takes good care of him,” she retorted.
Jonathan set the empty trays, the dishes neatly stacked, at the end of the table, and the rag beside them. “I'm going to leave my stuff here for a bit, okay? I need to go talk to a couple of people.”
“Sure,” Lila said. “And since Van is stealing you, he can do your job.” She tossed Van the rag; he caught it, saluted her playfully, and went in search of tables to clear. Now that Lila wasn't playing the game around him all the time, he rather liked her, above and beyond the fact that he had high respect for her courage right along with Catherine's strength and determination. They struck him as well-matched, though he was extremely certain that he didn't want to be in range when they had a disagreement, or to have either one angry at him.
Jonathan, true to his word, was back in slightly less than half an hour. He retrieved his battered nylon backpack from upstairs, and presented himself to Van with an open-handed gesture and a grin.
“All yours. For a couple of days, anyway.”
Van didn't miss the way the trio of sensitives who had recently come in winced in unison at the statement. Jonathan rolled his eyes, shook his head, sighed, and led the way outside.
“They all think you aren't going to let me go, y'know,” he said wryly, while Van unlocked the car. He slid into the passenger seat without hesitation, deposited his bag on the floor at his feet. “Right, like you haven't had a hundred chances if you wanted to do anything to me.”
“They're scared,” Van said. “Generations of fear aren't going to go away overnight just because a few mages are trying to fix it. I'm surprised we've gotten as far as we have, and that's mostly because of Randi and you.”
“It's easier to listen to somebody you knew before.” Jonathan wriggled around to grab the seat-belt and snap it into place, as Van pulled out. “The others are watching to see what happens to me and Randi's family and Hal. If you need another pair of hands, I could probably get him to come.”
“I think one extra pair's enough. Besides, he doesn't know me as well as you do.”
“True. He knows Grania pretty well by now, though.” Jonathan shrugged. “So why on earth do they want a bigger garden? As it is, they seem to have more veggies than anybody can eat.”
“More they can give Cornucopia, for one thing, and more to give Flora. I think Randi wants to make sure the little ones especially get a lot of fresh vegetables.” With enough healthy food, and less fear of the hospital, just maybe both Claire's and Denise's children would beat the frightening sensitive infant mortality rate. “Lots to have around when we have company. I think Oblique and Catherine want to do a lot of canning and such. Would you believe they're trying to decide whether to plant a few apple trees next spring? It takes a few years for them to start producing, and they're thinking ahead. At this rate, every inch of our land is going to be producing some kind of food.”
“Are they going to run out of land?”
“It'll take a while for them to find uses for all ten acres.”
“Depends how enthusiastic Randi gets,” Jonathan laughed.
It had been a few days since they'd seen each other; they had enough to catch up on to comfortably fill the duration of the drive.
Randi pelted out of the house at high speed, before Van even had the car turned off, and threw herself at Jonathan for a hug as soon as he got out of the car. The rather bright rainbow colouring she'd had this morning lingered only faintly on her skin, turning it to soap-bubble moire when the sun hit it properly, which it did irregularly under her t-shirt and cut-offs. Stronger traces of it showed in her hair, which looked sometimes blonde but more often not. Considerably more subdued, although still a rather pretty effect. She must have asked Brennan to do it, after she'd called Van to request Jonathan's presence if he could arrange it.
“Hi! I'm really glad you decided to come, I know that's gotta be kinda scary but don't worry, Oblique and I'll make sure Bren and Van behave themselves. We're going to make you work really hard, though.”
“Working hard's not a problem,” he assured her. “And I couldn't pass up a chance to come see you, could I?”
“Flattery will get you nowhere in front of my mage,” Randi said primly, and laughed. “C'mon, Oblique's inside. Brennan went to get chicken feed, he should be back any time.”
I guess I don't rate a hug, right now, Van thought in amusement, collecting his things from the car. Not that it mattered, he could wait. For right now, it might be just as well for her to concentrate on Jonathan. Van hadn't just placed himself in an extremely vulnerable position, entirely on trust and faith.
The house was full of good scents—Oblique must have been baking, quite possibly in hopes that Van could indeed bring Jonathan here.
Oblique—whose skin was currently utter black and whose dark hair shone faintly purple, but otherwise she was her “normal” self, unlike this morning—greeted Jonathan with a warm hug. Van saw no hesitation as the hug was returned.
“I'm glad you're here, hon.”
“Me too, I keep getting hugs,” Jonathan said cheerfully. “And here I was all braced for you two to look seriously strange, after everything I keep hearing.”
“We decided we didn't want to give you a heart attack, and made Brennan tone it down a lot,” Randi laughed.
Van circled around the little tangle of free and feral sensitives to the counter. Pie with dark reddish filling of some sort and another that was clearly apple... the large plastic box Oblique kept for cookies was full... and the oven was still on, the source of the savoury meaty smells. Maybe Oblique had caught a little of Randi's energy and enthusiasm.
“Well, I did my part, he's all yours to do with as you will. I believe I'm going to leave you to do whatever it is you do when I'm not looking, and go collapse on the couch.”
“Anything we want?” Randi mused, eyeing Jonathan speculatively.
The couch was soft and welcoming; Van sprawled full-length on it, and mentally nudged the remote control along the coffee table to where he could reach it. Most television was mind-numbing these days, but right now, that was what he wanted.
“Van? You okay?” Randi asked, from the archway to the dining room.
“Just tired,” he assured her. “Long day, and a bad session. I'll be fine. Go on back to Jonathan, he needs you more right now.”
He didn't hear her bare feet on the carpeting behind the couch, but she leaned down over the back of it to kiss his cheek. “If you're sure. Want me to bring you a couple of cookies and a drink?”
“I'll wait for supper.”
Brennan came home before much longer; he stayed in the kitchen long enough to welcome Jonathan—Van heard the sensitive go a bit shy, less familiar with Bren than Van—then joined Van in the living room, draping himself into the chair comfortably.
“I wasn't entirely expecting him to come,” he observed. “Randi thought he might.”
“Randi also told me exactly where to find him. I think it's fairly clear who's in charge around here.”
Brennan chuckled. “Superficially, this looks very old-fashioned... men in the living room relaxing, women in the kitchen. Until you add in Jonathan, that is, and the interesting colour scheme out there. And rather than watching, oh, hockey for example, we're watching... what are we watching? It looks rather old.”
“Seventies sci-fi B-movie. It roughly matches the level of mental effort I want to put into following a plot.”
Silence reigned, until Randi reappeared.
“Oblique says supper is ready, and we're eating in the living room because the dining room would be crowded, so you should come and get it.”
“What on earth is this world coming to, when you can't even expect a sensitive to bring you your supper?” Brennan complained to Van, and ducked as Randi grabbed a pillow and threw it at him with her usual accuracy. He laughed and got up from the chair, offering Van his hand. “And why don't we make them dress like that, the Barbarella, space-princess look?”
“I'm guessing it's because neither of us is masochistic enough to try.”
“Hm. That could be it.”
Van, like Brennan, took extra care to not touch Jonathan at all, while they were filling a plate each in the kitchen with roast pork and vegetables from the garden. At least a mage within arm's length didn't alarm him.
Somehow, everyone got comfortable in the living room. Randi settled on the floor at Brennan's feet, leaning against the arm of his chair; there was room for Jonathan on the couch, with Oblique between him and Van, but he chose the floor was well.
One B-movie was followed by another, much to the delight of the three sensitives, and watching bad science fiction with two energetic young sensitives and one normally quieter who appeared to be catching the mood was certainly an experience.
Randi snuggled cozily against Van in his bed, leaving hers for Jonathan, and wished him good night with a teasing warning not to turn her into an alien while she was asleep.
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