“Everybody certainly jumps and runs when that Lord of yours says so,” Lila chuckled, shooing Jax up the stairs to the front porch. All it had taken was a comment at lunch that he'd be interested in meeting the pair Catherine had mentioned, and some two hours later, Aiden and Neely and their sensitives were here. With Randi, who had apparently spent the night with them. “It was nice of him to say that you could go, though.”
Jax shrugged. “He promised me he'd make sure I had some time to spend with you while we're here.” He settled himself comfortably on the cushioned floor, while she closed the door. “Sensitives only? For real?”
“For real. I haven't been around here much, but Sage says none of the mages come in here, ever. They could, of course, they just don't.” She sat across from him, legs crossed. As worried about him as she was, there was no way she'd been able to pass up the chance for the two of them to have time together. For all she knew, in a few days Andreas would take him away and she'd never see him again. For real, this time. Although at least she'd know, instead of having to wonder.
“Seems to me that's pretty common around here. Mages not doing things that they could do.” It took him just a heartbeat longer than it should, but he met her gaze steadily enough, smiling. “You're really happy?”
Talking was hard, having to walk the line between outright lies and giving away information that could be dangerous if it got to Andreas. She had to choose words carefully, thinking about each, but luckily, she knew how to do that already. She gave him edited descriptions of how she'd come to live with Catherine, and what life was like right now. And he told her about Andreas and Zephyr and Phyllida, and Veritas who was dead but whose shadow lingered. Lila tried not to wince too obviously too often, but wasn't entirely sure she succeeded.
“It's not that bad,” Jax said mildly. “You're going to give yourself whiplash if you keep flinching like that.”
“I've been watching how he treats you. He takes you totally for granted. Would it kill him to say thanks when you get something for him?”
Jax sighed. “It would be nice, but if he didn't get focused the way he does, he wouldn't be who he is. He isn't one of these half-insane Donovans who always stop just inches shy of actually saying mages and sensitives are equals. And it isn't all that hard to figure out why your Lady fits in so well with them. There are a few changes I'd make if I could, but they're all things I can live without.”
“That's the point of the anti-abuse laws and trying to get Van's book recognized and all! So things'll change!”
“What things, exactly?”
What did he mean, what things? “Oh... no forcing shapechanges, no nasty shapechanges, none of the stuff that some mages pull that's outright torture...”
He halfway smiled. “And this will make what difference in my life? That I can say no to shapechanging? He's never done anything that was more than mildly inconvenient anyway. I eat what and when my Lord eats, I sleep in the same bed. That hardly counts as torture.”
“If they all have to see all of us as people, maybe eventually we'll get to choose. Who we want to be with, what we want to do...”
“Did you choose your Lady?”
“Not exactly... well, sort of.”
“How many of the sensitives you know got to choose?”
“Um... two?” Jonathan definitely, and Randi more or less.
“And how many of the sensitives you know regret who they're with?”
Lila frowned, thinking of Aiden and Sage, Brennan and Oblique... “Okay, point, but it still isn't right, that they hunt us like animals and can do anything they want to us!”
“No, it isn't. That they can do that to us is wrong. What passes for freedom for sensitives is wrong, that we ever have to live that way. That it's okay for a mage to starve or beat or kill his sensitive and no one can do anything is wrong.”
“That's what we're trying to do something about.”
He regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then shook his head slowly. “You thought I'd read that book and it would make me see things the same way you do, didn't you? Because what it really says is that we're all human and should be treated that way, and that's not a concept we usually come up with on our own after spending our whole lives thinking of ourselves as victims. While we're free we hate and we fear and we resent the way things are, but it just doesn't occur to us that they aren't automatically superior. And then it's made very clear to most of us that we're property.”
Well, she was in this deep... “But we are all human. And we need to get that idea to as many people as possible.”
“You want to change the system, and you don't even understand what it is you're changing,” he said softly. “You want to change the lives of all the tame sensitives in the city, and the domain, and probably the continent, but you never even stopped to wonder whether the changes you think are necessary are the ones that the rest of us might want.”
Lila stared at him in disbelief. “He treats you like a damned pet!”
Jax shrugged. “And?”
“And it's... it's degrading!”
“A year ago, I would have agreed with you totally.” That soft tone never varied; his eyes weren't quite focused on her, attention turned as much inward as outward. “And a week ago, I think I would have at least a little. I couldn't fall asleep for a long time last night, I was thinking too much, and again this morning. And I realized some stuff.” He blinked, looked directly at her again. “Are you going to actually listen if I try to explain it, or are you just going to try to convince me I'm wrong?”
“I'll do my best to listen,” Lila said. This was rather disturbing; she hadn't had much close contact with tame sensitives, only free and feral, and the changes in her friend were unsettling. It might help if she had some idea how he saw things, though, and if nothing else, maybe it would give her some idea how tame sensitives would react to Van's book.
“What are the basic beliefs that all free sensitives share? That mages have absolute power over us, and that we can't do anything about it. And we all resent that, wondering when we'll eat next. Or watching someone die.” He twined his fingers into hers, words and touch a reminder of everything they'd lived through together. “Then the hunters tear the world apart—for most of us, anyway. What are the basic assumptions about belonging to a mage? That everything of value is lost and nothing of value is gained, that anyone would hate and resent that or simply break and really be less than a person, that anyone would of course choose to be free again if they could. Any happiness is just some sort of adjustment and acceptance of what can't be changed, not ever the real thing, just some sort of second-rate version. Or it's all emotional manipulation, because they can do that to us so easily. Hostage syndrome, bonding to a captor we're dependent totally on. Right? Did I forget any?”
“None that come to mind.” Whatever this was, he obviously felt strongly about it.
“Every last one of those assumptions is wrong.”
Jax shrugged. “I used to hate the way I needed his approval so badly, no matter what. It felt, for a really long time, like proof that we're weak and they're strong. And I hated this,” he touched the silver and topaz collar with his free hand, “and shapechanging, and magic, because they were just more reminders of that, having it thrown in my face constantly that I couldn't control anything. Sensitives adapt, and I did. But something's been bothering me all along, and I couldn't quite figure it out. I thought I was unhappy because I belong to someone else. Know something? That isn't it at all. What's been keeping me from being happy is all the damned assumptions that I didn't even realize I believed. You can't really feel happy, no matter what, if you're sure that you aren't supposed to be able to be happy. Like I said, I can think of a couple of things I'd change if I could, and the biggest one is to have more to do, but I don't need that. I already have everything I actually need to be happy.”
Lila couldn't come up with any kind of response to that, it went directly against everything she'd been sure of.
“Lila... I live in a gorgeous house, I get good meals three times a day, I have a warm bed to sleep in, I don't have anything awful to do ever. I even have a Lord who's pretty considerate during sex. He needs me. He loves me. He takes care of me the best way he knows. And I need him and I love him. And I take care of him, too, just... quietly.”
“You could have all of that without being seen as property!”
“Not seen as,” he corrected. “I am. And I have no desire at all to change that. And you and your friends have no right to tell me that's wrong, or that I have to feel any other way. I know there are sensitives out there who are going to want what you're trying for, I'm not arguing that. Some of them need it desperately. But not everyone.” He smiled, taking some of the edge off the flat declaration. “Besides, whatever name you give it and however you define the boundaries, you aren't free either, y'know.”
“Catherine lets me do pretty much whatever I want and make my own choices. Sounds like freedom to me.”
“Is it? If one of your choices was to leave her, do you think she'd let you walk away? Or that you honestly could, knowing that she didn't want you to, even if she made no move to stop you? Maybe she would, I suppose, but I bet there's not more than one or two in all the Donovans and their friends who could actually get away with that. It's fairly obvious that what she wants isn't a pet, it's a partner, and acting that way is what gets you all that approval and affection we need. That suits you, it's the way you naturally act anyway. Remember when it was just us? You usually decided, and I went along with it. What my Lord wants is different. He needs someone who can get things for him, and just fade into the background and wait to be needed, and anticipate what he needs, and make sure that all the little everyday things get done while he's lost in his books. And that suits me. If we were the other way 'round, we'd both be miserable, but the way things are, it works.”
That's crazy, Cath made it clear I don't know how many times that I could leave any time I wanted. She hasn't in a long time, but then, why would she, as long as she thought I knew that and wanted to be with her? And I don't change how I act to be what she wants! Even the thought of anyone being unhappy belonging to Catherine was a hard one to get her mind around. “I guess,” she said, trying not to sound as doubtful and confused as she felt. She needed to talk to one of the older sensitives about this, the ones who had come to live with their mages the normal way and had been around for a while.
Jax leaned forward and hugged her, tight. “Just take my word for it, okay? I don't need or want to be rescued, and I'm not the only one. And the ones who are more like me could probably be a lot happier if they understood themselves better, and that would be an awesome thing too. That doesn't mean I won't do what I can to help, 'cause there are lots who do need to be rescued. I promise not to tell anything that'll get you or your Lady or your friends in trouble. Just try to remember that not everyone necessarily feels the same way, all right?”
She snuggled into the hug, returned it, just as hard. “I'll try. That's an awful lot to absorb, though.”
“You're telling me? So, let's try this again. What didn't you tell me about how you ended up with your Lady? Because there are big holes in the version you gave me that I don't think anyone would spot if they didn't know you.”
They curled up together, leaning against the nearest wall; Lila wasn't entirely sure what understanding they'd just reached, but as near as she could figure, it was an acknowledgement of differences that had always been there and were now more visible. Since he already knew enough to sink them all, and she believed him, she told him what had really happened.
A knock on the door made both fall silent, some time later; Sage, currently male and everyday blonde, opened it, and leaned against the doorway.
“Hate to interrupt, kids, but life goes on. Your Lord's off to the Matriarch's house to look something up, and he wants you.”
Jax nodded, untangled from Lila—without haste, but also without hesitation. “Thanks.”
Sage simply echoed the nod, and moved out of the way to let him by.
“You okay?” he asked Lila, quietly, while she got up.
“I think so. Confused. Trying to understand what he meant. How can someone be happy not having any freedom at all and not want to change it?”
Sage smiled. “Freedom and power are relative concepts, hon. As long as he honestly is happy belonging to Andreas, and I would say he is, why argue about terminology and technicalities? Just be glad that he is happy. There are any number of people in this world who are theoretically free and utterly miserable. Remind me to teach you how to use the Internet one of these days, okay? There are some places and some people who might help you figure that one out. Coming downstairs?”
“Yeah, I'd better.” She paused, while Sage closed the door behind her. “If you told Aiden you wanted to leave, would he let you?”
“The odds that he would let me walk away from him are about the same as the odds that I would choose to do so, so I'd say that works out just perfectly, doesn't it? I imagine we'll be heading home very shortly, Neely has a ju-jitsu class in a couple of hours.”
“What about Randi? She's staying with you all day?”
“I don't want to send her home until Brennan and Oblique have a little time to work out a... misunderstanding they had this morning.”
“How bad a misunderstanding?”
“They're both tired and under a lot of stress. It's nothing they won't be able to fix, especially if they can be alone together for a bit.”
“Poor Randi's really getting the worst of this. Bad enough she misses Van, but to keep being the odd one out with no mage, and now her other mage is having problems...” Lila sighed.
“Cuddle her every chance you get,” Sage advised. “That's what Jon and I are doing.”
“Oh god, and I haven't had a chance to check with him in a couple of days. How's he handling this? On top of everything he was already getting used to?”
“Jon's fine,” Sage said firmly. “I'm keeping an eye on him. Neely is also fine. Right now, the only thing we need to concentrate on is getting through this hearing with the family intact.”
Much later, Lila snuggled cozily against Catherine in the second guest room—Van had grown up in this room, long ago, Rich had told her, though it had been redecorated since.
“Cath?” she said finally.
“Just purely hypothetically, if I ever told you that I wanted to leave, would you let me?”
Silence for a long moment. “I think my first reaction would be to find out why, and whether I could possibly do anything to fix it so you wouldn't want to. If you still did... I would like to think that I'd make sure you had everything you'd need for a while and let you go, but I think that it would be a very hard thing to do. I think the temptation would be there to hold you, but I hope I wouldn't give in to it.” A pause. “That's with things as they are now. If our relationship changed somehow, the answer might be different, I don't know.”
“Always life-long,” Lila reflected. “There's no divorce if things go bad between a pair.”
“In most households, either a sensitive isn't permitted to disagree, or it's permitted only within limits. Since sensitives are legally property, there are provisions in mage law for giving one away—which I imagine could be used by Donovans in case of a relationship going sour—or stating who will inherit one on the mage's death.”
Lila shivered. “I definitely wouldn't want to belong to your next of kin.”
“Would you like me to talk to Andreas? We can make sure that if anything happens to me, you go to live with Van or Neely.”
“I'd rather nothing happened to you. Ever.”
Catherine snuggled closer. “I have no intention of having anything happen to me. But now that we've thought of it, it's a smart thing to do, and I don't think it will take long. I'll mention it to him. What got you thinking about this?”
“Jax. Just something he said. It's no big deal.” She shrugged, stole a kiss. “I like Sage's take on it: him wanting to leave and Aiden letting him are about equally likely, so it really doesn't matter. I wouldn't leave you for real, I love you way too much, I was just curious. It's been a really long day, and I don't think the next few are going to get any better. We'd better get some sleep.”
To her relief, Catherine let it go. She just wasn't ready to talk about this in detail yet, she still had too much thinking to do. “Sweet dreams.”
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