Lila nuzzled at Catherine's throat, loving the feel of her mage's lithe body trapped under hers against their double bed. Catherine squirmed, made a sound halfway between a whimper and a giggle, and pulled halfheartedly at her pinned wrists. Hm, where were the long silky scarves they'd made... there, draped over the headboard, in easy reach if she decided to tie or blindfold Catherine... or both... She toyed with ideas and possibilities, trying to decide what she felt like doing, and what Catherine's current mood might allow.
Out in the living room, the phone rang.
“Let it ring,” Lila murmured, working her way up to Catherine's ear, enjoying her scent thoroughly.
“No, answer it,” Catherine countered, suddenly serious.
Lila sighed, but she'd learned to trust Catherine's feelings about things. Reluctantly, she moved aside to free her mage, and ran to the living room to grab the phone.
“Lila? It's Jon.” He sounded exhausted; her heart skipped a beat.
“Something's wrong, what happened?”
“I really really need help... I just spent all day on the run.”
“What? But... no, nevermind. Um... let me think. Where are you?”
“Downtown. Couple of blocks from Cornucopia. Payphone.”
Have him come here, or meet him there, Grania wouldn't mind us using the place after hours for a good reason... “Hang on.” Her mage emerged from the bedroom more decorously, twitching her blue and grey dress into place and tucking an escaping lock of hair behind her ear. “Cath? Jonathan's got hunters on his tail, we gotta do something. He's near Cornucopia. What's going to be easiest, in terms of trails and hunters getting pissed?”
“Less trail to cover if we go there,” Catherine said immediately. “We can get him fed and think about what to do next.”
“Right. Jon? Head for Cornucopia, Catherine and I will be there as fast as we can. Don't worry, okay? We're not going to let them have you.”
“I trust you. 'S why I called,” Jonathan said, with a shaky sound that might have been meant as a laugh. “See you there in a bit.”
Lila hung up, and called for a taxi.
Catherine nodded, silently, and followed Lila upstairs. The door locked with a click behind them, without wasting time fumbling with keys.
The taxi delivered them to Cornucopia; Lila left Catherine to pay, and hopped out, slowing to a prowl as she neared the building. She found Jonathan on the porch, huddled into a tight ball, hidden by the shadows. He raised his head as she approached, and gave her a crooked smile.
“It'll be okay,” Lila said gently. “There won't be any more, we'll make sure of that. C'mon, let's get you something to eat.” She offered a hand to help him up, which he accepted; she slid an arm around his waist to steady him when he swayed alarmingly, but he caught his balance again.
Catherine paused at the foot of the steps.
“Well?” Lila said. “Come open the door.”
“It isn't you that scares me,” Jonathan added, quietly. “I'm not going to freak out. I know the difference between you and a hunter.”
Catherine nodded, and only then joined them to unlock the door. Only a couple of lights were on, leaving the whole large space in deep twilight.
“Sit and rest,” the mage said briskly. “I'll see what the kitchen has to offer.” She flicked on more lights as she passed them, at the bottom of the stairs. Not all, though; the ones towards the front she left off.
Jonathan obediently sank down on the nearest chair; Lila took the seat at right angles to him, and closed a hand around his.
“Thought you guys said there were no hunters around,” he said wearily, but he squeezed her hand.
“We honestly thought there were none. They usually announce it when they come into a city, and they don't normally move this late in the season anyway. I'm sorry.”
He shrugged. “At least I knew what was going on, and that I could phone for help after dark. And you guys all lived through days of that, without knowing?”
“Yeah, we did, and that's why we want so bad for no one else to have to.” She winced from the memories of exhaustion and terror and hunger, forced them down and away. Not Jonathan, not anymore, at least they could save him from it. Even if there'd been nothing she could do to help Jax.
Silence, for a few minutes, until Catherine came down with a tray to set in front of Jonathan. Lila sneaked a peek, as she let go of his hand: Cornucopia staples, stew that looked and smelled like beef, a couple of slices of bread, a glass of milk and another of water. Jonathan had the water raised to his lips almost before Catherine's hands were off the tray.
“There's more, if you want it, but go slow,” Catherine cautioned, as she took the seat across from Jonathan.
“At least he hasn't been mostly starved for days,” Lila said wryly. “Eat, you'll feel better. And while you do that, Cath and I will try to think of a way to fix this.” Jonathan set the empty glass down, and dug into the stew hungrily.
“Options are rather limited,” Catherine said, her voice gentle. “And what they boil down to is a choice of which mage to belong to. Any of the Donovans you know, or I, could claim you as a second sensitive. Or, in Neely's case, as her only sensitive. Grania or Maya would have some difficulty justifying a third, however. Calum could get away with it, I think. There's a chance of age becoming an issue, since sixteen is rather young to have his own sensitive, but I'm sure his mother Oona and his uncles Nairn and Aiden would be supportive. Whichever mage you prefer, the hunters would lose all claim. Or we could hide you until hunting season is well past, and then you can get out of this domain entirely and take your chances elsewhere. I'm afraid I can't think of anything else.”
“Oblique's friends in Europe and Australia would probably help,” Lila said. “Y'know, these options really suck.”
“At least I have options,” Jonathan retorted, between bites. “Which must be some sort of record for this part of the world.”
“Other than me, it's pretty unique,” Lila conceded. “Anyway, relax, and eat. This isn't something to decide in a couple of minutes.”
He shrugged. “It's just a choice of which mage. There's no way I'm going away and never seeing any of you guys again, and I can't help if I'm not here. Y'know, everybody keeps telling me hunters come in pairs.”
“There weren't two?” Lila thought Catherine wasn't aware how sharp her voice suddenly became.
“Nope. Just one, no older than me.”
Catherine's expression, just for a couple of heartbeats, went flat and unreadable. “I see,” she said slowly. “Well, that goes some way towards explaining hunter presence where there should be none. The senior pair has the novices out practising.”
“Oh, great, I'm somebody's lesson.”
“Were. And the results would have been entirely real in a few more days. I still don't understand why they would switch cities this late in a season, there isn't more than two weeks of good weather left. However, it makes a little more sense.”
There was something more here that Catherine wasn't saying; Lila decided to wait and ask later. Maybe it was something that would scare Jonathan.
For a few minutes, Jonathan concentrated on eating, and the room went quiet. Catherine reached over to close a hand around Lila's, a reminder that there were no hunters chasing her any more, but neither needed to speak, and Jonathan seemed content with the food and the company and the chance to recover.
Finally, though, the bowl having been wiped clean of stew with the bread, milk gone, he stacked everything neatly and ran a hand through his hair.
“Do you have Neely's phone number?”
“Yes,” Catherine said. “Do you want her here?”
Jonathan shrugged, found a crooked grin somewhere. “She said something, when we were at Brennan's house, about it being hard to find a sensitive. How 'bout one who's in trouble?”
Catherine nodded. “I'll call her. That would mean living in Aiden's house for the moment, until Neely passes her Master's exam. Legally speaking, it puts you under Aiden's authority.”
“So? I like Sage and I've met Aiden a few times.”
“All right.” She rose. “Would you like anything else, while I'm up there?”
“Mostly I'm just thirsty now.”
Another nod, and Catherine went back upstairs.
“What's Neely's reaction to this going to be, though?” Jonathan asked.
“Well, most mages operate on the assumption that one sensitive is as good as another. We can be trained and changed at will, according to them. But Neely's grown up with a lot of sensitives who are definitely individuals, so there's not much danger of her thinking like that. On the other hand, they need us, and the Donovan attitude actually gives us a lot of power. We have something they want, and they could take it by force but that isn't as good, and some of them refuse to act that way. Which means they're awfully grateful when we offer. I know Catherine was, and I bet Neely will be.” This is what I get for reading Catherine's books on sociology, she thought ruefully. I sound like a bloody mage.
“Good, 'cause I don't want to live with someone who just sees me as a responsibility. I don't really think Neely would, just...” He sighed.
“You kinda have to learn to see things in a whole new way, when you're around mages lots. Reread that book of Van's, it might help.”
Another sigh. “I lost my backpack somewhere. Can't remember when. It had the copy Van gave me in it.”
“Don't worry about it, we'll get you another one. Hell, there are probably a couple lying around Neely's house. Anyway, mostly it's not so hard to get used to, if you're with a mage who cares.”
All things considered—being familiar with mages in general and Neely in particular, having read Van's book, the support of the feral sensitives as well as their mages, a mage who was probably going to treat him like an invaluable treasure as well as an equal—Jonathan was probably going to have the easiest time of adapting to captivity that any sensitive in this part of the world had had in a couple of centuries.
Catherine brought a pitcher of orange juice downstairs with her, and reclaimed her seat. Jonathan immediately filled his water glass and took a gulp.
“Neely's at the pool swimming,” she reported. “Sage is going to track her down and get her here as quickly as possible.”
“What difference is an hour or two going to make?” Lila objected. She nodded towards the corner that held a battered couch and a couple of overstuffed chairs. “Jon could take a nap until then, or something, and we'd still have heaps of time before morning.”
Catherine sighed. “At the risk of frightening both of you, this smells funny. Atypical hunter behaviour, with the target one of the few sensitives who openly spend a great deal of time around the Donovans, makes me extremely nervous. My apologies, Jonathan, and please don't take this in the wrong spirit, but I will feel much happier about this situation once you're safely Neely's and the hunters no longer have any claim at all. Sage agrees, which is why he's going to the pool to find her immediately.”
Lila frowned. “You think it's a trap?”
“I have no idea what to think, given the information that I have. However, it's entirely possible that I'm simply paranoid.”
Not if Sage thought it was important enough to pull Neely out in mid-swim. If Sage had thought Catherine was over-reacting, he'd've left it until Neely came home in her own time.
“Well, that idea of a nap isn't a bad one,” Jonathan said. “I'm worn out.”
“Then go curl up,” Lila told him. “We'll wake you up when Neely gets here.”
He nodded, finished his glass of juice, and refilled it to take with him.
Catherine and Lila remained at the table.
“Well,” Catherine said briskly. “Best we follow all the rules, which means we need a collar. Shall we?”
Lila nodded, offered her hand, and let her eyes close as the now-familiar bliss tingled along every nerve, a lover's hands that knew the right places to touch... no need to look, no need to do anything except relax and be here and trust in Catherine to use their combined gifts.
The sensation faded, and Lila collected herself, opened her eyes to look. Lying on the table was a simple silver-coloured disc threaded on a heavy cord that was two strands, white and black, twisted together with a simple metal clasp. She reached out to pick it up; the disc bore a silver-and-gold-coloured yin-yang symbol on it, which seemed appropriate. The flip side said Neely Donovan, in neat script that looked a lot like Catherine's handwriting, with a blank space below it.
“There, one more detail taken care of,” Catherine said in satisfaction. “Now we just need Neely herself.”
“She'll be here soon. Can you see her passing up a chance at a willing sensitive?” Lila joked, then sobered. “Nah, she knows Jon too well to be willing to let hunters have him, at any cost.”
They waited, quietly, Lila toying absently with the new collar. Officially, a mark of slavery and helplessness. To the feral sensitives, a much more complex kind of symbol, involving freedom from hunger and cold and fear, submission to the laws of mage society, loyalty to and trust in one particular mage.
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