“I'm starting to think I should just trade my car in for a mini-van,” Van laughed, slowing the car to turn in the driveway of his mother's house.
“Or I should see about Lila and I getting a car,” Catherine retorted. In the back seat with Randi, Lila grinned to herself. It was nice to see her mage not guarding every word all the time.
“Or that. But a van would be easier next time Randi and Oblique go shopping.” He pulled up next to Brennan's truck. Lila noted that Catherine said nothing about Van going well out of his way to pick them up; either Van had finally convinced her that he didn't mind, or she'd decided that it was pointless to protest. “Today should be fun. I bet most of the family drops in to say hi to Jonathan.”
Lila distinctly remembered the one Donovan gathering she'd been to already. The Donovan family was easily the biggest in the city, the handful who were less open-minded balanced by the allies like Maya Kalindi. Oblique's estimate had been that some four dozen feral sensitives had been present that day for at least long enough to greet Lila and give her a hug. And it had trailed off, down to just what Oblique called “immediate family,” Rich and Azure, Unity and Meta both, Sage and Randi and Oblique, and they'd found a quiet little clearing in the heart of a wall of lilacs.
All of whom had conspired on the phone, over the last couple of days, wanting a look that would make Jonathan feel included but take into account the fact that he'd had only a few days to get used to quite a lot.
She and Randi were both in the kinds of brief halters and shorts that the other female sensitives were likely to wear variations on; Randi's pale blue skin bore a riot of intricate vividly-coloured butterflies that must have taken Van hours; Lila's was darker, a soft brown, and serpents coiled around arms, legs, torso, in lazy, delicately-patterned spirals. Otherwise, both were in their natural shapes.
Lila glanced at Randi, and they shared a grin and abandoned the car in favour of seeing who was already here. The gravel driveway made little crunching noises under sandaled feet. Okay, so September wasn't exactly the time of year for wearing next to nothing, but it was a mild day and besides, what could you show off under too many clothes?
“Oh, sure,” Van grumbled halfheartedly behind them. “Leave us to carry everything. Brats.”
Catherine laughed, and said something Lila didn't catch, but it sounded indulgent.
More laughter was clearly audible from the side of the house, and Jonathan's teasing, “Go right ahead and try.” Puzzled, the two sensitives followed the sound.
Along the side of the house the driveway continued, but it had been paved a long time ago—to create a space for Kerry's mother's sensitive to work on cars, Oblique had said. Not that it had been used for that purpose for years.
A post had been set up at the edge of the pavement, with an unpainted backboard and a new orange hoop bolted to it. Jonathan, in blue denim cut-offs and the remains of a severely altered black t-shirt, with Asian dragons twining along much of his exposed skin, waited between Neely and the basket; Neely, in similar shorts and a grey tank-top, feinted to one side with the basketball and came back towards the other, in vain.
“Oh, cool,” Randi said, eyes wide. “It's been ages since I played basketball!”
Jonathan glanced towards her, and grinned; Neely straightened and turned around. “Now that's hard to visualize,” Jonathan teased. “Basketball's for tall people.”
“Oh yeah? Bet Lila and I can beat you two!”
“Neely's just learning how, so I guess that evens up the odds a bit.” He gave Neely a questioning look; she laughed and nodded, and tossed Lila the ball.
Lila paused to throw her sandals on the grass, saw Randi do the same—lacking a decent pair of running shoes at hand, bare feet would be better traction. She wasn't at all sure that Randi was going to be able to live up to her claims, but it should be fun anyway, and what difference did it make who won?
Randi might not have much height, but she was fast and agile, and easily able to duck under arms and snatch the ball. Her aim was no better than Lila's, however. Neely might be new to the game, but she was picking it up in a hurry, and her reflexes were extremely good—although given what they'd all seen her do a couple of nights ago, that wasn't much of a surprise.
“Oh, that explains why Randi and Lila never made it as far as saying hi to the rest of us,” Azure said, his tone strongly amused. Jonathan caught the ball, and Lila looked in Azure's direction.
All basically human form, the rest of the “immediate family,” none wearing any great amount, each with a different design: Azure with multicoloured footprints in wandering trails that looked like many tiny animals had tracked through numerous puddles of paint, Rich with silver and gold and copper chains punctuated by occasional locks, Unity with incredibly detailed knotwork patterns in black and strong primary colours, curvaceous Meta with thorny green vines and deep red roses in bud or full bloom, Sage—currently in the female version of his usual shape—with fanciful soft-hued birds and trailing feathers, Oblique with silvery spiderwebs shimmering on her midnight-blue skin.
All together, Lila thought, they made quite a sight.
“That or they just don't love us anymore,” Sage said mournfully.
“Time-out for hugs,” Neely laughed, and leaned against the post to watch nine sensitives tangle themselves into a complex knot of hugs.
“So how come you aren't playing?” Randi asked, snuggled in Rich's arms—a picture in itself, given the drastic size difference.
Rich chuckled. “I haven't played basketball since before you were born, I'm a bit out of practice.” Not that it showed; age became irrelevant when confronted with shapechanging.
“So what?” Lila countered. “It's just for fun.”
“Five on five?” Jonathan suggested, though he didn't appear to be in any hurry to escape Oblique's arms.
“I have to go help Grania...” Unity protested, obviously torn.
Sage gave her a wicked look. “Ah, I'm sure she and Catherine can survive in the kitchen without us for a bit. And Kerry's playing with the twins. So how are we going to do teams?”
“Girls vs boys doesn't work, too many girls,” Randi mused, and gave Sage a stern look; Sage just grinned and shrugged. “How come so many sensitives are born male and switch to female, huh?”
“Because it's more fun,” Sage said impishly, and eeped as Azure tickled her. The others went on planning teams while the pair chased each other around the yard.
“Jon?” Neely glanced at him, and without hesitation he took a couple of steps closer, laying a hand on her shoulder. No fear at all, Lila noticed, pleased. Neely created five short lengths of fluorescent pink cloth and five of equally bright green—about the only colours that didn't show on one sensitive or another right now.
“Get back here, you two,” Rich commanded, and Sage and Azure returned to the rest, still breathless with laughter. Spirits were definitely high today, Lila thought. Maybe sheer delight that they'd been able to keep Jonathan safe and had, with any luck, set a precedent that would be followed? Each with one of the bright scarves knotted around an arm, they launched into a game that was as much teasing and laughter as it was actual basketball.
Lila noticed, peripherally, when the mages relocated from the part of the yard where they normally gathered; they settled themselves where they could watch the game, while Grania kept a close eye on her three-year-old twins. Obviously they'd managed without Unity and the others in the kitchen.
A car pulling in out front distracted most of them—long enough for Randi to sneak past Rich and Jonathan and gain her team another point. The newcomers turned out to be, unsurprisingly, a couple of Donovan mages and a trio of sensitives. Randi declared a time-out for greetings.
Neely made no effort at all to disguise how closely she was watching Jonathan with other mages nearby; the mages in question stayed carefully out of arm's-length while expressing their welcome and their relief that he was safe. Lila rather doubted that anyone who'd been at that last gathering was likely to forget Neely's response to a threat to her sensitive. But the sensitives gave him warm hugs and much enthusiasm with no reservations. Though Jonathan went a bit shy around the mages, maybe over being the centre of attention, he returned hugs from sensitives willingly enough.
For the next couple of hours, the game was interrupted frequently by Donovans and friends, many of whom stayed only briefly. Some stayed long enough for sensitives to get in on the game and their mages to join the others on the grass; at one point, Neely and Jonathan took a break, so a couple of teenaged mages could play, without fear of accidental contact with Jon.
But the visits tapered off, back down to just “immediate family.”
“Feel like taking a break for a bit and having some supper?” Shvaughn called.
The sensitives and Neely paused to discuss that, and concluded that they were all tiring, despite trading off with newcomers periodically. Azure set the ball on the ground next to the post, on the way over to sprawl next to Shvaughn.
“You look worn right out,” Aiden said affectionately, making space for Sage and Lila on the blanket he and Catherine were sharing.
“Getting there,” Sage laughed. “I believe someone mentioned supper?”
“I think maybe a few minutes to rest would be good, first,” Rich said, curling up next to Kerry.
Grania glanced in the direction of the front of the house, as tires crunched on gravel. “Someone must be running late.”
“Must,” Unity agreed, tickling her mage's daughter while the toddler squealed with laughter.
Catherine's hand, idly working tangles out of Lila's short thick hair, stilled; Lila looked up, saw Catherine's expression, and shivered. “Cath?” she asked, very softly.
Three people circled the house, all mages. The junior hunter pair, and Victoria with them. Lila felt more than saw or heard the wave of motion, subtle shifts of position, sensitives sliding into the game instantly in the presence of hunters.
“Yes?” Kerry asked. “You seem to have excellent luck in choosing when to drop in, Elena.”
“This isn't a social call, I'm afraid,” Victoria said gravely.
“Rory Donovan,” Elena said, not at all grave—triumphant, in fact. “You have been charged with seditious acts which threaten the peace of mage society and the authority of the prevailing laws, the creation and distribution of propaganda encouraging immoral beliefs intended to undermine the stability of mage society, and other charges, including perjury to a hunter, are being considered.”
Lila blinked, looked towards Van, who was watching Elena in calm resignation. It was Randi's stricken expression, Oblique's mercilessly tight grip on her hand, that drew her attention, though.
Victoria threw a glance at Elena of mingled distaste and disapproval. “I assume Brennan will be willing to look after your sensitive for a few days?” she asked Van, with considerable courtesy.
“It's going to be longer than that,” Elena muttered.
“Elena! Charges or no, Van remains innocent unless and until a proper hearing reaches a decision.”
Van nodded, and stood up. “Brennan will take care of Pride for me, yes. And I have no intention of resisting.”
Lila shivered, instinctively pressing closer to Catherine. Even knowing that Van had done everything aware of the probable consequences didn't help when those consequences were here.
“I'll be there in a minute,” Victoria told Elena.
Elena's nod was more just a curt jerk of her head, and she and Brock escorted Van around the house, towards the front.
Victoria strode over to drop to one knee in front of Catherine, and held out a folded slip of paper. “Elena will pursue this to any extent,” she said, quietly enough that only Catherine, Aiden, and their sensitives could hear. “I will do all I can to see that the laws are followed properly, but even if I had made a personal decision regarding the matter, it would not be right for me to take sides. I can suggest a way to even the scales. Andreas Nicodemos has the most brilliant legal mind in the domain. His time doesn't come cheaply, but he's the one best able to counter his cousin, and if it's possible to establish that Van has broken no laws Andreas will do so. My advice is to call him.”
Catherine closed her hand around the paper. “Thank you.”
Victoria inclined her head, straightened, and followed the other hunters and Van with long strides that didn't look rapid but covered a great deal of ground quickly.
The sound of the unseen vehicle, probably that damned red minivan, pulling out of the driveway, broke the paralysis. Randi moaned softly, and curled into a tight ball, body quaking with sobs; Oblique gathered her up, rocking her gently.
“What did she say?” Neely demanded, one hand twined into that of her white-faced sensitive.
Catherine repeated what Victoria had told her.
“We'll come up with it,” Kerry said grimly. “I don't care what price he asks, if he can help.”
“We'll win this,” Brennan said quietly. “For Van's freedom and every sensitive in this domain. Whatever it takes.”
Which pretty much said it all.
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