Van came home to find a familiar Honda motorcycle parked next to Brennan's truck.
He left everything in the car, and circled around the house, curiously.
Sure enough, Neely was there, adding her efforts to what was already a considerable accomplishment. As mages went, she was uncommonly athletic; swimming, martial arts, and yoga kept her in good condition. For the most part, mages in an area interbred to the point where racial traits vanished, but Neely's hair was a startlingly bright copper-red, cut to her shoulders but currently tied back, and her skin lighter than normal, with freckles across her nose.
But then, like many other Donovans, there was some question, never spoken even within the family, as to whether her father was in fact the mage the records said, or her mother's sensitive. Occasionally, like in Brennan's case, it was really not much of a question at all.
What he didn't see was Randi.
“Hey, what'd you do, steal my sensitive?” he asked her teasingly.
Neely heaved another load of brush off to the side, then paused to pull off a heavy glove and wipe ineffectually at the hair escaping its confinement. “Nah, she's around here somewhere. She's in better shape than the rest of us, actually.”
Motion, just inside the tangle of brush, and Randi wriggled out. Van compared the sleek, pale-creamy scales covering her to the scratches and welts that mottled Neely's lower arms. “Hm, I see what you mean.”
“I'll get you all icky if I hug you,” Randi said mournfully, setting down the hedge clippers so she could stretch. “Oh well, I'll hug you twice once I get clean.”
“Take a break for a minute,” Brennan told Jonathan, and they joined the other three.
“How much more do you want to clear?” Van asked. “That's a lot of space already.”
“We were hoping to double the garden,” Randi said. “Since there are two of us to look after it, not just Bren alone, and there's certainly demand for the results.” She surveyed their work. “I think we're getting pretty close to that.”
“Looks like,” Jonathan agreed. He and Brennan showed the same kind of damage Neely had taken, above where work gloves could protect—Jonathan's was easily the worst, without even the partial protection of reflexive telekinesis. There was probably a clue in there somewhere as to why sensitives and mages had evolved as they had, and Van stored the idea to think about later.
“Need anything, or should I go away and let you finish?” he asked.
“Go away,” Randi said cheerfully. “We'll see you inside in a bit.”
Van nodded, and left them to it.
Less than two hours later, the quartet came inside; Van, at the computer with Oblique while she showed him pictures on the Internet of some fascinating tattoo designs, heard them scrubbing as clean as they could in the laundry room sink.
“Jon's arms are a mess,” he said, quietly. “Want to take care of him, and I'll look after Bren and Neely?”
She nodded. “Scales have practical uses. We do have advantages no one else has.” Graceful as always, she rose, and they ventured to the kitchen.
Randi had stripped off her dirty clothes entirely and was perched on a chair to rub at herself with a wet facecloth, removing most of the grime easily. The scales covered her pretty much completely, though it was her own boyish outline beneath them; that she still had short dark hair seemed impractical, but that and the colour of the scales softened the alien effect quite a lot, which presumably was why she and Brennan had decided on it. It probably also explained why she'd left her clothes on to work, though the branches must have been snagging on the fabric. Still, it seemed a reasonable compromise.
“I feel so sorry for the others,” she said. “They're all scratched up something awful.”
“There were a couple of moments there that I was wondering whether it might not be worth it,” Jonathan said ruefully. “But it's not really so bad. It's all just shallow scratches.”
Oblique fetched the ointment from the downstairs bathroom, and pointed to one of the kitchen chairs. “Sit so I can make sure of that. Take the T-shirt off now, so it doesn't drag through it afterwards.”
Jonathan obeyed meekly, and offered each arm in turn for Oblique to smear liberally. It was frustrating, Van thought. In a matter of seconds, he or Brennan or Neely could have repaired all the damage, making use of a simple trick of evolution, but there were any number of reasons why that wasn't going to happen.
“I'll do Bren,” Randi volunteered.
Van gave Neely a questioning look. “Would you rather do it yourself, or...?”
She smiled wearily. “Please, help.”
So the ointment was passed freely around while various scrapes, scratches, and welts were seen to, which emptied the tube.
I'll have to pick up more tomorrow, we need to have it around.
“Jon's going to stay another day,” Randi informed Van and Oblique. “There's more stuff we can use help with.”
Pick up lots tomorrow, he amended.
“I can talk Aiden and Sage into letting me out of lessons tomorrow,” Neely suggested. “I won't be in any shape for my yoga class tomorrow night, but that's okay, I'm reaching a point where I can't learn much more from this teacher anyway. I think I'm going to ask if they need someone to teach the basic classes, to tell you the truth.”
“You're already teaching beginner ju-jitsu classes,” Brennan said. “You're going to have your own school before you know it.”
“I know, cool, huh? Probably just after I pass my Master's exam. While you've been planning to rearrange mage society, did you happen to stop and think of a way those of us without sensitives are ever supposed to find 'em? It's a good thing Sage offered to help. Calum and Emer are still farther from needing it than I am, but the three of us were talking about it the other day and it really isn't looking all that great.” She added in an aside to Jonathan, “Calum and Emer are my brother and sister. They're a lot younger, they're sixteen and fourteen. Mom got distracted.”
“I know,” Jonathan said. “Well, I didn't know Calum's your brother, but he's been at Cornucopia a few times. Talking to Randi's brother Trey and a couple other guys around that age about movies and music, mostly, and video games, and stuff like that. I think they might be hanging out together in other places. Haven't seen your sister though.”
“He has? I've been missing him, then. Cool. He doesn't tend to make many real-life friends, so if he's actually got a social life that isn't online, that is awesome.”
“He's corrupting Trey,” Randi chortled. “Trey wants a computer at home now. Or at least a smartphone. I think I'll get him one for Christmas.”
“Here's an idea, Neely,” Oblique said dryly. “Keep spending time around Cornucopia being useful, get to know as many sensitives as possible, and hope that you can convince one that you have something to offer.”
“I already do, and apparently Calum is. I don't think we can give probability that much of a push.”
“It's not impossible anymore,” Jonathan countered. “Thinking anything is better than being with a mage only works when you see mages as all the same and all like the worst ones. Once you know better,” he shrugged. “I don't think it's going to be anybody's first choice anytime soon, honestly, but it's not everybody's absolutely last choice anymore, either.”
“Well, that's encouraging,” Neely said. “Not promising, exactly, but encouraging. Because I will not be responsible for setting the hunters on somebody.”
“So sue me,” Brennan said, without heat. Oblique, finished doctoring Jonathan, left him so she could perch on her mage's lap and slide an arm around his shoulders. He wrapped both arms around her waist, heedless of getting ointment on her sarong.
“That isn't what Neely meant, and you know it. There was no Cornucopia then, and no other options short of going hunting yourself. It's a valid point, we're not going to get much support from young mages if all we can offer is the possibility that eventually a sensitive will consider them the lesser of two evils.”
“Add it to the list of problems to solve,” Van sighed. “What's one more? But we aren't going to solve it tonight, and I'm hungry.”
“Just how dirty are the bunch of you?” Oblique looked Jonathan and Neely over. “Hm, maybe I should have checked that before I had an affectionate moment. We do not need little prickly bits spread all over the house. Neely, I'll find you something to wear. Are you keeping the scales, Randi?”
Van saw Jonathan start slightly—had he grown so used to the sight he'd forgotten?
“I don't need them now,” Randi said, a bit doubtfully. “I'd rather have something else, but I don't want to freak Jon out.”
“You won't,” Jonathan assured her. “Don't not do stuff 'cause of me.”
“What in particular?” Van asked, as Randi relocated her small naked self onto his lap. The analytical part of his mind wondered whether Jonathan might be curious, and concluded he very likely was.
“Oblique showed you that website with the tattoo pictures?”
“Yes, some of them.”
“Did you see the butterfly one?”
“Don't ask for anything easy,” Van grumbled, but closed his eyes, creating the images he needed. Make the scales go away, that was simple. So was altering skin colour to just about anything, but creating the details took time. Randi whimpered softly and sagged against him, supported by his arms, her breathing accelerating; he knew the expression he'd see if he opened his eyes would be pure ecstasy.
It would take a long time to make this as complete as she was sure to want, eventually. For the moment, he gave her a butterfly-wing mask across her eyes, another across her chest with her nipples like eye-markings in the pattern and swallowtail-like wings extending towards her belly, one on her back, all in the vivid colours she was so fond of.
He left it at that, stopped drawing power, and waited for her to collect herself.
Brennan and Neely were gone, he'd been too distracted to notice, but Jonathan was watching in fascination, and Oblique was watching Jonathan.
“Okay, I'm here,” Randi said, a bit breathlessly. She wriggled off Van's lap, and he obligingly created an illusion-mirror for her so she could see. “Hm... not as much as I wanted.”
“I figured that, and those ones could stand to be more complex, but we can work on that. It should take hours to get it exactly the way you want it.”
“Oh, that's going to be hard to take.”
“Good luck getting her to ever be satisfied,” Oblique laughed. “She'll keep changing her mind so you'll keep making changes.”
“And you've never done that,” Van teased.
Randi finished inspecting herself, and turned around to give Jonathan a questioning look. “Going to bother you?”
“Nope. That looks really cool.”
“Show's over,” Oblique said briskly. “Jon, upstairs, Brennan and Neely will leave enough hot water for you to have a quick shower and get changed. Are you all right, alone upstairs with the two of them, or would you rather I came?”
“I need to find something to wear anyway,” Randi said, before Jonathan could answer.
Van waited until the two younger sensitives were out of sight, then let himself lean back in his chair. “I keep expecting one of us to go just a little too far and make him uncomfortable.”
“Sensitives adapt,” Oblique said, turning away to start setting out supper. “He's not being confronted with any new ideas, just the practice of ideas he's been hearing about for months. He's had time to learn to trust you, and he's met Bren and Neely often enough that they're familiar to him. Given that we're capable of adapting to far worse under far more terrifying conditions in a matter of days or weeks, I'm not surprised he isn't having trouble. I was only unsure of whether he'd choose to come at all.” She handed him a large, covered bowl from the oven, sliding her hands out of the way so he could take the potholders as well. “Go put that on the dining room table? It's another serve-yourself night.”
Six made the living room feel rather full, once they were all settled with food, but somehow they got themselves arranged comfortably. Randi flipped through channels until she found a movie Neely said she'd been told was excellent, so they watched that while they devoured pretty much all of the food Oblique had made, including most of the baking that remained from yesterday.
The four who had been working outside all day were tired enough that, when the movie ended, they decided to call it a night. Brennan glanced at the light switch, and it flipped itself on, while Van and Oblique got up to collect empty plates and glasses.
Oblique's midnight skin, Van noticed, now had butterflies to match Randi's, but rather than being brightly coloured, they were subtle silvery-iridescent. It looked like he and Brennan both were going to be spending a lot of time in the immediate future designing butterflies.
Neely went upstairs to change back into her jeans for the ride home, and said good-night. Brennan, Randi, and Jonathan headed for bed, and Van lingered in the kitchen to help Oblique clean up and do the dishes.
All in all, he reflected, as he curled up next to his soundly-sleeping sensitive in bed, not a bad day, and an enjoyable way to spend an evening.
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