Losing herself in her own personal world in the Internet was running away, an escape from stress, and Oblique knew it. But she stayed where she was at the computer anyway. Randi was with Sage and Jonathan, they could cuddle her and comfort her without their own too-great feelings getting in the way, and meals for just her and Brennan didn't take all that much time. Maybe she should have gone with Randi, rather than staying here alone, but somehow the thought of being so far from Brennan was unbearable.
Bad enough moments like this, with her mage off to take Van more books and see if there was anything he needed. The silent empty house was depressing, even the radio was only a thin substitute for all the busy life that normally filled the space. Fear was a habit she'd lost long ago, secure in her home and in the knowledge that she was safe and loved now, but it was stirring again, little whispers: what if Andreas can't out-argue Elena, no matter how confident he is? What if the Elders decide that one mage is a reasonable sacrifice to keep mage society from upheaval? What if they don't give Van back to us? How many more sensitives will live their whole lives in fear and unhappiness if the precedent is set that the whole subject is forbidden? For the most part, sensitives might not be good at thinking about the future, but she'd never been able not to.
In Europe, mages and sensitives had been equals a long time. Even there, mages tended to dominate, simply by nature, but the fundamental North American certainty that they were the masters and sensitives had no rights at all was missing. In Australia, according to their traditions, the sensitives had stood their ground right from the beginning and fought back, and the mages had learned a healthy respect. And the laws of both reflected that, protecting each from the other, defining the very outside edges of acceptable behaviour and leaving pairs to negotiate the details, and then the laws provided options if either suddenly changed the rules. Sensitives existed legally, could live all their lives independently if they chose to, although Oblique wasn't sure that would be any better, never feeling the utter joy and completion of sharing with a mage in love and trust.
One of the European sensitives had set up a private mailing list online, for a group of a couple of dozen from Europe and Australia, mostly sensitives but not entirely, and a handful of North American sensitives and a couple of mages, spread all over the continent. Others like Lila and Catherine, who had believed they were alone in being partners. Exploring, back when Brennan and Van first bought the computer, she'd wandered into chat rooms and mailing lists for the BDSM community, finding a certain amount of camaraderie there with mundane submissives; one of the Australian sensitives had picked up on something and cautiously established who she was, and introduced her to the group. Sage, in contact with some of the Europeans he'd met in person while travelling with Aiden, had introduced her to a second circle of acquaintances, and she'd shown him the group she'd become a part of.
Oblique had shared it with Randi, the only other one in the immediate family particularly interested, but for the most part, it was her private world, away from this house and Cornucopia and all the things that filled her everyday life. Brennan and Van respected that, had never asked, and as far as she knew had never so much as opened the program she preferred for email.
She heard the truck pull in, tracked her mage by sound as he came in the front door and followed the hall to the kitchen. He paused there, and came to the doorway to the dining room.
“What are you doing?”
She shrugged. “Email and a private chat with a couple of friends.”
“That's what you were doing last night, too, and this morning before I left.” Something in his voice that shouldn't have been there made her look up; he was frowning as he contemplated her. “What on earth have you been writing about all this time?”
“I've been telling them what's happening here, of course. None of them are from this domain at all, and some of them have been asking questions. Mostly it's just good to have someone to tell.”
“And what have they been saying back?”
“That they're worried about me, about all of us, and that they're there to listen. That they wish they could help directly and they're hoping everything will be okay. They're my friends, what else would you expect them to say?” It occurred to her that Brennan was, well, not exactly looming over her, but she was still sitting down and the arms of the chair would make it impossible to get out of it before he could stop her... and the simple fact that the thought crossed her mind made her shiver. Why was she feeling cornered all of a sudden? Looking for ways out?
He regarded her measuringly. “Then why are you acting like you have something to hide?” He didn't wait for an answer, came closer so he was behind her; Oblique felt herself wince away, and that she could react in fear to her mage only made her more afraid. She let her hands fall to her lap, stayed very still, while the mouse moved with no hand on it, flipping through the window that held the chat room, then to her email.
“An offer of a way to England and a home there is an interesting kind of help.” There was ice in Brennan's voice.
“She's been saying that for years, that if I ever decide I can't stand life here she and her mage will find a way to get me there and let me live with them. She knows that there's no way I'd take her up on it! By now it's mostly just her way of reminding me that she cares!” She had to half-twist to look behind her and up, but Brennan's expression was cold and flat, told her entirely too much. He doesn't believe me, she thought, numbly. “Bren, do you honestly think the only way I would stay here is because I have no other options? I belong here with you, I wouldn't ever leave you!”
“No? Not to go live somewhere with no collars and no game?”
“No!” Arguments happened, they were inevitable, but whatever this was, it wasn't just a disagreement; frightened, instinctively, she reached for the hand he'd laid on the back of her chair. To her utter shock, he took a step backwards, out of reach.
Whatever this was, she'd already lost. She looked down, felt her shoulders slump. At least she had enough room to get out of the chair and away now. She stood up, gestured generally in the direction of the screen. “I've kept quite a lot of my email, my Lord,” she said quietly. “The chats I'm afraid I don't usually bother to log.” The friends currently in the room would be alarmed by her sudden absence, but there was nothing she could do about it. Arms wrapped tightly around herself, half-blinded by tears, she walked away, upstairs to the tentative sanctuary of her own room.
Somewhat larger than Randi's, it had been her private space for something like ten years, since Van had come home from school and Brennan had bought this house. She'd chosen the wallpaper and put it up, with the inexpert assistance of her mages, a soft blue-on-blue abstract pattern. She'd chosen the handful of framed prints that hung on the walls, landscapes mostly, a seagull in silhouette against the clouds. She'd chosen the daybed where she'd rarely slept, preferring the company of one mage or the other, until Randi had come, and now sometimes they shared it; mostly, it was a comfortable place to curl up and read.
The pillows in one corner fit comfortably against her back; she grabbed another and hugged it close, aware of the tears running down her cheeks, but too dazed even to cry for real. This was insane, Brennan just didn't act like this.
They were well out in the country; there were neighbours to either side, but she could hardly turn up on a mundane doorstep with midnight-blue skin patterned with silver spiderwebs. Her cell phone was next to the computer, and there was no extension for the house land-line upstairs, and anyway, if Brennan kept acting crazy, there was nothing even Aiden and Sage could do to help her. If she'd had a phone in reach she'd have called them regardless, just in hopes that maybe Brennan would listen to Aiden.
Magically, she was sure she could defend herself, she had a much better idea of what a sensitive's abilities truly were than probably anyone else in this domain except Sage. But that was only one way he could hurt her, and by far not the most painful.
This can't be happening. After all this time, I can't be sitting here thinking of ways to protect myself from Brennan. How can five minutes turn me back into a scared animal all over again?
Because I still have the instinctive responses to a mage showing aggression, even if I haven't needed them for a long time, I suppose. I can't believe Brennan would actually act in a way that triggers them, not now, not any more...
The clock on the dresser told her, eventually, that she should be downstairs making lunch. Which would be worse? Facing Brennan, or taking a chance on making him even angrier by staying here?
She stayed where she was. A couple of times, she heard the phone ring, but it just kept ringing, unanswered. She heard the ring-tone of her cell phone as well, both the one she'd set for voice and the one for texts.
She hadn't closed the door all the way, an old reflex she'd thought forgotten, so she could hear if anyone approached. The sound of feet on the stairs jerked her out of a kind of stunned trance, made her heart start pounding and every muscle tense. There was no one it could be except Brennan. Coming to demand that she get back to her responsibilities?
She saw his shadow, just before he tapped on the door. “Can I come in?” Softer tone, more like it should be, but she wasn't sure that meant anything.
“It's your house, my Lord. And your sensitive.”
Brennan sighed, pushed the door open, and came in to sit on the edge of the bed—out of reach, Oblique noted, without looking up. “I deserved that. I'm sorry. That was so far out of line that I'm probably never going to forgive myself for it, and I'm not sure I should expect you to.”
“Then why...?” She took a chance, raised her eyes, though not quite to his, she didn't feel quite that safe.
“Fatigue, and I don't think I'm the only one who hasn't slept right the last couple of nights. Stress, wondering what's going to happen, and having to see Van locked in a damned cage waiting for someone else to decide what will happen to him.” Maybe he'll understand how it feels, then, Oblique thought, but that wasn't fair, Van of all mages—except possibly Catherine—came closest to really understanding. “Elena giving me her extremely disturbing view of past, present, and future. I don't know. Probably a combination of all of them.”
He was just upset, god knows what Elena said to him, he didn't mean to scare me like that.
“If I could just forgive and forget like it never happened, I would,” she said quietly. “God, I wish I could. Bren, everything is yours. The house, the computer, the food I make, me,” she waved at the gold chain that hung from a corner of the dresser mirror, “everything. Usually it doesn't matter, I don't have to think about it, but it's something that on some level I can't ever not be aware of. The only reason I have as much freedom as I have is because of love and trust and your sense of what's right, and for the last hour or so that's felt like an awfully fragile thing to depend on. My friends online... that was mine.”
“I know. And I promised you a long time ago that I wouldn't pull this crap on you ever again, and I just did. And I wish I had some idea how to fix it. Van probably would. I don't.” He sounded, and for that matter looked, absolutely miserable.
Which was a kind of power in itself, one that she held, one he'd given her freely. Resentment that he'd done this to her stirred, urged her to hurt him back, she could tear his heart to shreds right now so he'd know exactly what that awful empty despair felt like...
And utterly destroy everything they'd been building since Victoria and Faisal had handed her over to him, a scared confused teenager who was certain that nothing in the world was ever going to be right and that there was no such thing as happiness. With a few false starts and some misunderstandings, Brennan had made as much right as he could.
“A hug would be a really good place to start.” She pushed the pillow she'd been holding aside, made room beside her. Brennan didn't hesitate at all—waiting for the invitation, possibly. In seconds, she was snuggled against him, not the pillows, his arms around her.
“I'm so sorry,” he whispered.
“We fixed everything once, we can do it again.” She felt like crying all over again, just in sheer relief. “But if you ever scare me like that again...”
“You'll move to England?” She thought he was honestly afraid she'd do exactly that.
“The frying pans in the kitchen are a lot closer. And Randi already proved that even reflexive telekinesis doesn't work if a mage doesn't know it's coming.”
He was silent, startled, for a couple of heartbeats, then he laughed and hugged her tighter. “Fair enough.”
There was an awful lot that still needed to be said, but there was so much of it, it was hard to find anywhere to start. For right now, it was enough just to be together.
The phone started ringing again.
Oblique sighed. “It might be important.”
“More important?” Brennan muttered, but he let go of her so she could slide off the bed. She was better coordinated and faster, but she didn't make it down to the kitchen before it stopped.
“Missed it,” she reported unnecessarily, as he caught up with her. She picked it up anyway, heard the beeping that meant there was a message. She pressed the button to see who had called, and Sage's cell phone number came up repeatedly. There were three voicemail messages, Sage each time, sounding increasingly worried. Probably there were more on her cell phone.
“The friends I was chatting with emailed Sage to see if he knew why I disappeared on them, and now Sage is freaking out because no one's been answering the phone. I guess everyone's more on edge right now.”
Brennan sighed. “So call him. I can find something to do outside so you can talk alone.” He hesitated, couldn't quite seem to make himself meet her eyes. “If it helps at all, it didn't take me very long to start wondering what in hell I was doing. I didn't really read all that much, and it was all from the last day.”
Oblique considered that, nodded. “It helps. There's nothing in there that I'm ashamed of or think I have to hide, only...”
“Only it's yours and private and I won't forget that again.” He stepped close enough to kiss her cheek, and a moment later the back door banged shut behind him.
Oblique dialled Sage's number, wasn't surprised he picked up halfway through the second ring. “Hello?”
“It's me. Everything's... not exactly okay, but I think it will be.”
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