Van kept half an eye on Neely, for a while; they didn't need a scene if she got protective over a comment, innocent or malicious. He soon realized that she was deliberately staying near Catherine, which was interesting. He'd known for some time that Neely admired and respected her, but he would have guessed she'd stay close to Aiden. Well, either way, he didn't need to worry about her, and he could immerse himself in his public persona, feigning sincere interest, as he had over and over to the same people ever since he was old enough to attend these things. Which wasn't to say he didn't scan the room for the two women, now and then.
“Pride?” He glanced around for her, found her exactly where she should be, kneeling beside his chair, her tail tucked neatly close out of harm's way. It had been a long day at work, and these gatherings were tiring. It was a relief to be able to simply trust her to keep them both out of trouble. “See if you can find me something to drink that isn't wine or otherwise alcoholic. Preferably coffee.” There should be; not all mages wanted wine, and those who needed to be able to drive were likely to choose non-alcoholic drinks, cold or hot.
“Yes, my Lord.” He didn't think anyone else would hear the sympathy in her voice, just before she hastened off.
“Tiny little thing,” commented Indra Kalindi with whom Van had been discussing meditation techniques. “She obeys well, for not having been around long.”
“She tries hard to make me happy,” Van said simply, and left it at that. Randi returned, carefully holding steady a rather large mug, as she wove her way through the room to his side. “Oh, thank you,” he said sincerely.
“My duty and my pleasure, my Lord,” she said innocently, and knelt again, wrapping her tail around her.
Bold chocolate and cream stripes against honey fur caught his eye: Jonathan, on his way to the kitchen, with a silver tray bearing a delicate porcelain teapot and its matched accessories. Alone, this time, without his raccoon escort from the first trip. Van knew both Catherine and Neely had limited taste for alcohol, so he was probably off to get more tea for them.
Van watched for him, and before very long, he came back into sight, still with the tray but carrying it now with care for weight and spills.
Victoria's protégé Felipe detached himself casually from the group with whom he'd been chatting, and approached him.
Randi darted to her feet and wove her way through the intervening bodies, before Van even had time to set down his cup on the nearest table and rise. He glanced to where he'd last seen Catherine and Neely, saw Lila all but running and ignored by most of the mages, and the two mages some way behind her—though Neely not by much. Jonathan backed away a couple of steps, tail twitching spasmodically, all too obviously uncertain what to do or how to respond to whatever Felipe was saying, wincing from the stronger gestures.
While Randi was still ten feet away and Van half again that, one of Felipe's gestures, or maybe his steadily rising voice, alarmed Jonathan into cringing away and falling back another step; the tray fell, though he snatched desperately for it—but it stopped in mid-air and steadied itself, having dropped only a few inches.
Felipe took two long strides forward and grabbed his upper arm.
Jonathan folded completely, all the self-possession he'd shown at Neely's side deserting him. Some mages he might be comfortable around, but this one's intentions were obviously no better now than they had been during a day of chasing him. There was more panic than reason in his attempt to get free, and possibly pain as well, given how tightly Felipe's fingers looked to be dug in under the sleek fur.
The tray finally hit the ground, as whoever was holding it, probably Catherine, abandoned it. Porcelain shattered, spreading tea, sugar, and milk liberally around the floor. The sound drew the attention of virtually the entire room, rather than just a few nearby who were watching in shock.
Neely's hand slammed upward, just below Felipe's armpit, and he yelped and let go, shaking his arm. Furiously, he threw a punch at her with his left hand; she stepped sideways, seized it, twisted, and in about half a second, had him face-down on the floor with her arm across his throat and her knee on his back. That didn't look like a healthy position for Felipe at all.
“Mine,” she snarled. “He's mine!”
Randi and Lila reached Jonathan, almost simultaneously, pulling him back farther from the fight—not that it really was much of one, it being rather clear who was in control. Van picked his way around the sugar and porcelain.
“Neely, let him go.”
“He had his hands on my sensitive!” Van couldn't recall ever seeing Neely lose control before; she was energetic and outspoken, granted, and too impulsive at times, but the sudden rage and violence were rather disconcerting, and probably as horrifying to those watching as Felipe's breaking a fundamental law. Familiar, though, he'd felt much the same, not many months ago.
“Let go now. Chance is safe, he's with Pride and Sable.”
“No. He'll just try again. I'm going to make sure he doesn't.” Her arm tightened, and Felipe made a gargling noise, straining against her; she eased up, and he sucked in a long gasping breath. “I should fucking kill you. I could do it right here, just hold on a little longer, so you black out completely instead of just enough to get your attention, and then a little longer than that. And the world would be rid of you. I'd be rid of you.”
“And right now, under the circumstances, you'd be forgiven for it,” Catherine admitted, tucking her skirt around her so she could squat near Neely. “But would you forgive yourself for using your skills to kill when you've already disabled the threat?”
When did Catherine learn about ju-jitsu philosophy?
“He could be a threat again. I don't want to have to worry about Chance every time he's out of my sight. I definitely won't forgive myself if this ever touches Chance again.”
“He will not interfere with you or your sensitive again,” Victoria said firmly. “I saw Felipe holding Chance, and he is under my authority, with no need to go through the local council. I will personally see to it that he faces the appropriate consequences of a hunter breaking one of the laws we're responsible for enforcing.” She winced in sympathy as Neely tightened her arm again. “Although I'm not sure how I'm going to devise any punishment that will stay in his mind longer than this will.”
Neely looked up at Victoria, measuringly, then glanced at Catherine. “You believe her?”
Catherine nodded, without hesitation.
Slowly, Neely released the pressure across Felipe's throat and stood up. She was shaking, Van noticed. “Where's Chance?”
“This way.” Careful not to touch her, Van urged her towards her sensitive; Catherine fell into step on Neely's other side, protectively.
Lila and Randi had hauled Jonathan back behind everyone, near a wall, and had probably had to make him sit; he was shivering at least as badly as Neely. But he came to her instantly when she held out her hand, and Van didn't think it was simply obedience. She wrapped both arms around him, hugging him close, snuggling into his hold.
“Just got scared. I'm all right now.”
Van glanced at Catherine. Neither was in any shape for acting; they would just have to keep everyone else from getting too close. Aiden joined them as well, said nothing, only positioned himself casually to one side, alert beneath the nonchalance. Sage knelt at his side, as Lila and Randi had done with their own mages, three pairs forming a loose ring.
Van was, more or less, aware of Victoria picking Felipe up off the floor and taking him away, and of three or four sensitives hastening to clean up the mess.
Elspeth made her way over to them. “They're both better?”
She was Neely's grandmother as well as head of the Donovans; Van was surprised only that Neely's mother hadn't beaten her to it. “I think so, they just need a few minutes to calm down.” He glanced at them again. “And hopefully no one is going to start screaming about improper behaviour.” Neither one had let go yet, though their voices were low enough that no one else could hear.
All things considered, it didn't take the pair all that long to untangle themselves.
“All right,” Neely said briskly. “I think everything's pretty much back to normal.” She let herself collapse into the nearest chair; Jonathan dropped instantly to kneel at her feet. “I've heard enough that I was ready for some level of irrational protective impulses, but I wasn't expecting to lose it like that. Which isn't to say he didn't richly deserve every bruise and the sore neck he's going to have in the morning, but it's rather scary to think about the combination of eleven years of primarily ju-jitsu combined with a loss of control.”
“You wouldn't have lost control to that extent if he hadn't acted the way he did,” Van said, choosing words carefully in hopes of forestalling another burst of anger. “You were doing extremely well all evening, until then.”
“Granted, but killing him would have been a bit extreme. On the other hand, that training has all been towards using the minimal force necessary and intimidation when possible, which is probably why I was talking to him instead of killing him outright. Score one for reflex over emotion and instinct. Aiden? Can we go home?”
Aiden nodded. “It's thinning out anyway, and I don't think anyone could be surprised if you don't want to stay.”
With the guests of honour gone, and the shattering of what had been at least superficially a peaceful atmosphere, many were indeed trailing off homewards.
“We might as well all go, I think,” Van said, with a questioning look at Catherine. He'd picked her and Lila up on his way home from work, the six of them had supper together, and they'd used both car and truck.
Catherine nodded. “I believe we're all too tired for any more socializing. It's just as well we planned for me to stay at your house, you don't look awake enough for that long a drive.”
“I'm happier not having to do it,” Van conceded.
There were only a few farewells to be said, and they all ventured outside.
“One question,” Van said, once they were well away from the building and into the paved parking lot. “Neely, why did you bring Jon tonight anyway, instead of leaving more time?”
“She didn't bring me,” Jonathan retorted. “I decided I was coming. To prove to them that this way is better. I was doing pretty well, 'til he scared me.”
“No one would have expected any other reaction to that,” Sage said quickly, as Neely frowned. “And you weren't doing pretty well, you were doing extremely well. A couple of mages commented to Aiden about that, actually, and wanted to know what the secret was.”
“You sure got the hunter-lady's attention,” Randi giggled.
“See?” Jonathan said. “Really well-behaved sensitive without any of the stuff they all thought was necessary. Maybe it'll make them think.”
Brennan chuckled. “That took some guts, but you pulled it off perfectly.”
The sensitives traded quite a lot of hugs—Van was fairly certain that some of them were repeated, not just one from each—with Neely keeping one careful eye on Jonathan and the other on the four mages, all of whom equally carefully kept plenty of distance from him.
“Oh god, what a night,” Lila sighed, as Van pulled out of the parking lot, following Brennan's tail-lights. “I didn't think a hunter could be that stupid. I mean, they have to be pretty intelligent to get to be hunters, right?”
“Intelligence and common sense are not the same thing,” Catherine pointed out.
“And both tend to get forgotten when someone feels he's lost face,” Van added. “Which Felipe may feel over having to give Jon up.”
“Well, he just lost a lot more,” Randi said. “And in public this time. And he's lucky Neely listened and let go, or he would've lost more than face. But it's over, and we made it through another crisis.”
Van didn't bother to voice his concern that the consequences of these crises were piling up and were, before long, going to cascade down on them. Sensitives tended to live in the now, not so much in the future, and he saw no reason to worry them or distract them from their enthusiastic discussion of what Neely had done.
Beside him, Catherine was silent.
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