A car pulled up, into the small space beside Cornucopia, and a moment later they heard feet on the steps. A key rattled in the lock, and the first person Lila saw was Sage, in the female version of her everyday blonde form. Neely was the first one in the door, though, pushing past her and crossing the room with long swift strides. Her hair was still wet, and her T-shirt and jeans looked to have been thrown on in a hurry. Was Sage currently female purely by chance, or because it had been easier to reach Neely?
“Where's Jonathan?” Neely demanded.
Lila nodded towards the couch; Neely's entrance, or maybe the car, had woken him already. He stretched carefully, winced, and twisted around so he was sitting up. Neely strode over, but stopped behind one of the chairs across from him, her fingers digging hard into the worn brown upholstery of its back. “Are you okay? You aren't hurt or anything? How early did they find you?”
“Ease up, Neely,” Sage said, moving out of the way to let Aiden enter behind her, then locking the door again.
Neely gave her an irritable look, and turned her attention back to Jonathan.
“I'm okay,” he assured her. “I was just hungry and tired. And extremely thirsty. And kinda scared.”
“Only kind of?” Sage said. Catherine and Lila abandoned the table in favour of joining the others in the corner; Lila grabbed the pitcher of juice and the new collar to take over.
Jonathan shrugged, refilling his glass. “I figured out what was going on pretty quick. And that I only had to keep going until dark, so I could call. That's not so bad, I guess.” Sage and Lila took the spots on the couch to either side of him, leaving the chairs to the mages; Neely stayed where she was, behind the chair Catherine chose, shifting her weight from one foot to the other uncertainly. It was a good thing she kept her nails short, or they'd be breaking under the pressure she was putting against the back of the chair.
“True,” Sage conceded. “Comparatively, not bad at all, but in absolute terms, no picnic. But it's over now, we're not going to let them have you.”
“I know.” He smiled at Neely, and it was only slightly shaky. “Think you can put up with me?”
She stepped around the chair and the circular coffee table in the centre, to drop to her knees in front of him, her eyes searching his. “You're sure about this?”
“As sure as I am of anything right now.” Shyly, he offered a hand; after a pause of a couple of heartbeats, Neely closed hers over it. Both, Lila observed, were trembling.
“I'll keep you safe from them,” she promised. Something in her voice made Lila think of Catherine when she'd offered to stay and help her pass; she smiled at Catherine, and her mage smiled back, obviously thinking much the same.
“Under any other circumstances,” Sage said, “it would be awesome if we could just take you home and let you two work things out in your own time. But all things considered, I think you'd better make absolutely sure there are no loopholes, Neely.”
“Which means a collar and my signature on his aura?” Neely said, doubtfully, letting go, but staying close. “But what if I hurt him?”
“You won't,” Jonathan said. “You've had Sage and Aiden teaching you, haven't you?”
“I trust you.”
Slowly, Neely nodded. “I definitely don't want any possibility at all that they can take you.”
Lila held out the yin-yang necklace to Neely. “Brand new, Cath and I just made it while Jon took a nap.”
That got them startled looks from Aiden, Sage, and Neely. “You made that much metal?” Aiden echoed. “I'm impressed.” He sounded like he meant it.
Catherine simply shrugged, but Lila spotted just a hint of colour in her cheeks. It was nice to be somewhere Catherine's talents were appreciated.
Neely accepted it, and looked at the back of the tag. “No name,” she observed. “We'll have to come up with one soon.”
“As long as your name is on it, it's legal,” Sage said.
Jonathan gave Neely an expectant look, but Lila saw him shiver when the mage leaned forward to fasten it around his neck for him. It was a frightening moment for any sensitive, being claimed as property forever, whether you chose or were forced. Your mage might be one of the ones who treated you as an equal and granted you as much freedom as possible... but the awareness always lingered on some level that it was a gift rather than a right, your mage's choice, that it could be taken away, and that there were limits on that freedom. Love and trust, no matter how strong, couldn't change that.
Lila tore her gaze away from Jonathan and Neely, found a sympathetic ache in her own mage's blue eyes, and had to smile again. Okay, so love and trust didn't take away the power the mages had. But they were enough to make some mages use it to protect, not to own.
“Thanks,” Jonathan said, softly.
Neely smiled, and gave him a fleeting kiss. “Thanks for trusting me,” she answered, no more loudly. She sat up straight, though still on her knees in front of him, and her tone turned practical. “Okay. Magic stuff.”
“Wouldn't shapechanging be the most proof?” Jonathan asked.
“It would,” Aiden admitted. “But strictly speaking, as long as Neely actually draws power through you, it'll leave her signature visible on your aura to other mages, and that's been considered an automatic and indisputable claim for as long as anyone knows.”
“So anything at all will work,” Neely mused. “As long as it's enough to leave my signature extremely clear.” She held out her hand, and Jonathan accepted it without hesitation. “If you tell me to stop, I will.”
He nodded. “I've watched Lila and Randi and half the others go all blissed out I don't know how many times, I'm not all that scared.” His grin came back, almost its usual self. “I'm kinda curious.”
Lila glanced past him at Sage, and shared a grin of their own.
“Okay.” Neely's hand tightened visibly, and she closed her eyes, her expression betraying absolute concentration.
The exact second she made contact was extremely obvious: Jonathan made a soft pleasure-sound, and all the tension-knotted muscles loosened, his eyes closing as he sagged against the back of the couch.
Sage laughed softly, and glanced at her mage, who smiled.
Neely stayed motionless, doing nothing anyone else could see, for a long few moments; no one made any effort to hurry her.
“I can't fix being tired,” she said finally, not opening her eyes. “But I can fix a bunch of bruises and strained muscles and such, if I'm allowed to.”
Jonathan made a noise that sounded like an affirmative, without moving.
Another pause, and she reported, “All done. But that didn't really take all that much. Hm. Open your eyes?”
“As long as you don't make me move or stop doing that.” He obeyed, either missed or ignored the chortle Lila tried to stifle.
The room rippled, like a reflection on water, and stabilized again at an outdoor scene. Lila frowned, recognized it after a moment as the back yard of Brennan's house, not far from the garden, with a sunny blue sky above. For some reason, that made Jonathan laugh.
Catherine regarded Jonathan thoughtfully. “Keep going. That's fairly clear, but a bit more would be better.”
Another ripple, this time to Brennan's living room, wrapping around them warm and twilight.
“That should do it,” Aiden said. “I don't believe anyone could argue with that.”
Neely nodded acknowledgement, and a moment later, released Jonathan's hand. He blinked, looked vaguely disappointed.
“Take it easy,” Sage said, amused. “It's like a new kind of exercise, and it's perfectly possible to do the equivalent of pulled muscles and tendons.”
“I guess. Whoa. Suddenly I think I understand an awful lot I didn't.”
This is how it should be, Lila thought. Well, except for Jonathan being forced to choose right now. This is what Randi wants so bad for her brothers.
I hope it wasn't too awful for Jax, the first time.
She hugged Jonathan, tightly. “Welcome to the family.”
“Hey, cool, that means I can come play with the sexy girls.” He snuggled into the hug; she could feel him still shaking a little, but otherwise, he seemed to be fine.
Sage chuckled. “It's getting a bit late in the year for swimming in the lake, but I imagine we'll have to have at least a family barbecue sometime soon. I'll call Azure when we get home, he and Rich can plan it. Congratulations, you're now perfectly safe, by mage law no mage other than Neely can touch you, except Aiden if he has a damned good reason while Neely's part of his household.”
Catherine stood up, and picked up the pitcher of juice. “Oblique will be none too happy with us if we leave a mess here for her to clean up in the morning.”
“Under the circumstances, she'd forgive us,” Sage said. “But since we can, we should.” She fetched the tray, and went upstairs with Catherine.
“Shouldn't take them long,” Aiden commented. “Hm. A three-bedroom house seemed like more than enough for Sage and I, at one point. It seems we're going to have to do some thinking about arrangements, since I'm not going to have you sleeping on the couch. And we need to go shopping for clothes and such.”
“Do you like motorcycles?” Neely asked hopefully.
Jonathan shrugged. “Never been on one, but it sounds fun.”
“Awesome. We need to get another helmet and a proper jacket, too, Aiden.”
“Of course,” Aiden said. “This is one of those special occasions when I don't feel at all guilty about using every possible source of money to cover it. You'll have to come up with a name, too, and we'll have it engraved.”
“Hope,” Lila said, without thinking.
Neely smiled, but stayed silent, only gave Jonathan a questioning look.
He laughed. “Hard to think of myself as anybody's hope of anything.”
“You are,” Neely assured him quickly, and lowered her eyes, blushing. “I, um, was kind of hoping, since out at Brennan's house. Maybe even before then, but that's when I realized it. I just wish they hadn't cornered you like this. I was going to wait and just sort of hang around. I think Oblique knew that,” she added, as an afterthought. “She knows everything.”
Jonathan's eyes widened, startled. “Me?”
The blush deepened. Lila looked from one to the other, glanced at Aiden, and they both got up and went across the room, to let Neely and Jonathan talk alone.
“Not that I think they care,” Aiden murmured. “Or remember that there's anyone else around, at the moment. Hope would be perfect, since this is exactly what we're hoping will become normal.”
“Without the being chased all day,” Lila amended, hopping up to sit on a table. “Did you know Neely was thinking...?”
“I had no idea. As far as I know, no one did, except Neely, and she's probably right about Oblique figuring it out. It's a pleasant thought that given a bit more time, they might have ended up together anyway, purely because they both chose.”
“Oh yeah.” Not so hard to imagine, really, and promising for the future.
Catherine and Sage came back downstairs, Sage pausing to flick off the lights, turning the room back to twilight.
“Did you call a cab?” Lila asked.
Catherine nodded. “It'll be here soon.” She looked at the new pair, and smiled. “Think we can get their attention?”
“Hey, you two!” Sage said, more loudly. “Do you think you can join the rest of us, so we can all go home?”
Both started slightly, but Neely rose, in one smooth gesture, and Jonathan only a heartbeat behind.
“What about your bike?” Lila asked Neely.
She looked torn. “I should probably go get it, but...”
“We can detour that way,” Aiden said firmly. “It won't be safe in the parking lot overnight, and nothing's going to happen to Jonathan while he's in a car with Sage and I.” He shooed everyone out, and Catherine locked the door. The small porch was crowded with six; Neely and Jonathan went down the steps, Lila just behind them.
“Oh shit,” Neely whispered, and stepped in front of Jonathan, protecting him behind her own body.
Leaning against Aiden's car, half-visible in the shadows at the side of the building, were two people. Mages, instinct screamed.
Lila licked her lips, found her voice on the second try. “My Lady? We have... visitors.”
Catherine and Aiden came at, well, not quite a run, but certainly in a hurry, with Sage half a stride behind Aiden and close enough to touch.
“Victoria,” Catherine said, her voice absolutely neutral. Lila inched back a bit so she was within her mage's reach.
“Catherine,” the elder mage acknowledged, with a nod. “This city seems to suit you well, even without family present.”
“I prefer it here.”
“Aiden, and... Neely, I believe.” She favoured each with a nod. “My student, Felipe Santiago.” She gestured, and the younger hunter nodded silently.
“Is there something we can do for you?” Aiden asked.
“You could give me back the sensitive Felipe chose to hunt.”
“We can't do that,” Catherine said. “He's Neely's. Sorry.”
Victoria, who looked no more like Catherine than any other mage but carried herself with something of the same bearing, sighed, regarding them in what might have been disappointment. “I didn't believe Elena, before now. She's been telling us over and over that the Donovan family and their supporters are attempting to undermine mage society in general and hunters in particular. It sounded rather paranoid, and between us, she is prone to taking things excessively personally and exaggerating them. Given that you've chosen to interfere with the lawful hunt of an unclaimed sensitive, I'm afraid I'm forced to wonder whether she might not be right this time.”
Oh no, not good...
“I suppose there's no way you would have known,” Aiden said calmly. “You haven't been around recently, and even if you had, it's not the sort of thing we wanted to announce to mage society in general. Neely's had her eye on this one for a while now—Van suggested it, actually, as a compatible combination of personalities. As an experiment, Van being forever curious about such things, Neely agreed to be patient so we, or rather Van, could find out what happens when a sensitive is exposed to mages gradually and is claimed without the usual initial trauma. Felipe's choice, purely at random I'm sure, has made it necessary for us to either speed matters up quite a lot, or start over and hope for another sensitive with potential.”
Lila thought that was a fairly impressive line of bullshit, the kind of distorted truth the Donovans were so good at. And he'd even managed to suggest, without saying it, that he knew what she wasn't saying.
“I see,” Victoria said. “And there's no chance that you'll change your mind, Neely? As a gesture of goodwill?”
“No,” Neely said flatly, with a perceptible hint of growl to it. “He's mine.”
Aiden shrugged. “I'm sorry, Victoria, but I see no justification for overruling her.”
Slowly, Victoria nodded. “I see,” she repeated. “I can see the collar from here, and he's obviously showing your signature, Neely, so I suppose Felipe will simply have to start over tomorrow. Have a good night, all of you.” She moved away from the car, and Felipe fell into step beside her.
Lila made it to Jonathan in about two strides, a heartbeat before Sage; she wrapped both arms around him, and Sage wrapped hers around them both, with Jonathan safe in the middle. He needed it: he was trembling, badly.
“It's okay,” Lila said, softly so it wouldn't carry. “See? They don't dare break their own laws.”
“Our mages have to twist the truth a lot, to keep us safe,” Sage said, her voice just as low. “It takes some getting used to, to believe that it honestly is twisted and not the way things really are.”
“I'm all right,” Jonathan said shakily. “It just...” He trailed off.
“I know,” Lila said. “But Neely won't let anything happen to you. And there's one huge advantage to a whole family like the Donovans, over one pair alone: all the mages will protect each other's sensitives, too.” Carefully, she let go, felt Sage's hold loosen as well.
“They're gone,” Aiden said. “Well. It appears you were right, Catherine.”
“I know hunters,” Catherine said, with a bitter edge to her voice that Lila hadn't heard in a long time. “They wanted me to be one.”
“Now that,” Sage said, “is a genuinely terrifying thought. I feel much better having you on our side.”
Lila left Jonathan to Sage; Catherine obviously needed a hug, too. So, she gave her one. “Me too, what Sage said.” Catherine hugged her back, with a fierceness that left Lila a bit breathless, but that was okay.
“Amen,” Aiden agreed. “For the moment, the crisis is over, and life goes on. So far, we've weathered this one rather well.”
Catherine nodded, briskly, letting go of Lila. “Our cab should be along any time, and you look like you're about to fall over, Jonathan.”
There was a brief tangle of good-nights, and the other four piled into the car and departed.
Lila sank down on the steps, in the sudden quiet. “Whoa. What a night. And all I intended to do all evening was ravish you.”
Catherine joined her, a step below, leaning against her. “We have plenty of nights for that. Every night, always.”
“Yeah. I know, and I'm glad.” A sudden thought made her smile. “Oh, man, I hope Sage makes sure Jon is in her bed. The last thing the poor boy needs is the shock of waking up next to a mage when he isn't used to it.”
“Sage will take care of it, I'm sure.”
Finally, a taxi pulled up to the curb in front of them, to take them home.
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