Always Weird at the House (14)

He hated it less the second day. They produced chicken a la king with no chicken.

“Meat is a texture thing,” he told Maggie. “People don’t like to hear that, but you can get something that tastes like meat from a lot of places. The only reason people mind eating crickets is the texture thing.”

Hyacinth heard him say that and abstained from dinner along with Sanaam. He did not use crickets. They did not have crickets at the store, obviously, and it was silly to run around chasing crickets just to prove a point, even if Maggie could’ve done it for him.

The third day was best of all. Hyacinth caught him hiding in the downstairs bathroom and coughing. She declared him feverish and forbade him the park. He wouldn’t have hidden the coughing if he thought she might do that! Hiding was only a matter of habit — Erik worried when he coughed.

He got to be in the kitchen with Erik and drink tea and not tell stories. And when Erik got to be a little too much, he said he was tired and went back to his room and they let him.

He produced a voluminous shopping list with the basic ingredients bulleted and the potential substitutions in parentheses. He gave it to Maggie and Sanaam and told them to get whatever was cheapest. He also requested one cricket, alive, preferably in a small box.

He showed Maggie how to get something approximating steak out of mixed nuts and breadcrumbs, and they had real green beans and lemon butter and fake mashed potatoes made of doctored cauliflower. He also produced a plum pudding without plums. The cricket made an appearance during the brief interlude between dinner and dessert. “Oh, damn it, missed one!” he cried, and he made several futile attempts to smack it with one hand.

Hyacinth would not have any plum pudding even though he asked her very nicely and said she had been such a good girl for eating all of her crickets.

It was a stupid thing to do. A big meal and excitement and a lot of laughter and smiles. It seemed perfectly nice while it was going on, but then Erik couldn’t sleep. First he was happy and then he was tired and then he was loud. Loud made its appearance at about one o’clock in the morning with the rest of the house asleep and unaware of any difficulties. Mordecai dealt with it, which was to say he sat there and listened to it and sometimes held Erik by the hands or the shoulders to keep him from hurting himself.

The others didn’t know what it was. Most of them must have thought he just wasn’t making any sense. Hyacinth might have had a better idea, but she didn’t know the implications. She didn’t know what they did to people. She didn’t know what they did to Erik’s mother. Because they didn’t know, they could cope with it. They thought he was hurting now, but that was all it was. Mordecai saw the gateway to a lifetime — a short one! — of pain and suffering yawning open before the boy, and his unsteady steps tottering right up to the edge.

And a great horde of Invisible hands attempting to push him over.

It doesn’t ever have to stop, Mordecai thought, rocking with his head in his hands. It can keep happening forever. Whenever he gets tired. Whenever I’m stupid and try to do something normal that he can’t handle anymore. Whenever he’s hurt or upset or I’ve upset him because I can’t take this.

Or, it could get worse. It could always get worse.

The others could take care of him because they didn’t know.

It was showing faintly light through the bedroom window when Erik finally fell into exhausted sleep. Mordecai sat beside him and waited for someone better than him to knock on the door and offer to help. That was Hyacinth, and she didn’t knock, she just opened it and looked in.

Mordecai was very calm about it. He had to be. If he let anything slip, they were all going to start worrying about him. There would be breakfasts and lessons and cooking and the gods alone knew what and he could not handle any of that. So he was calm. He said that dinner had been too much excitement and Erik had been up all night. He did not think that Erik ought to get up right now, but he was willing to differ to Hyacinth on the matter.

“When did he fall asleep?” she asked him.

“Just before dawn.”

She sighed. “Well, he probably won’t be in very good shape today, but if we let things slide, he won’t be in very good shape tomorrow, either. He’s had a few hours and he’ll be able to nap.”

“All right.”

She regarded him suspiciously. No argument? Not even for an extra hour or two? “Mordecai, are you all right?”

“I don’t feel very well. I would appreciate it if you gave my apologies to Maggie and Sanaam this morning.”

“Yeah…” she replied. “Was Erik loud last night?”

Loud. Yes. That was what they were calling it. Loud. “Yes.”

“You didn’t wake me.”

“There was nothing you could have done.”

She wondered why they bothered about putting him in the basement if Mordecai was capable of handling it this well. She expected anger and large gestures and maybe attempting to run off in his nightclothes.

Still, calm and rational behavior did not suit him very well in these circumstances, either. He wasn’t giving her so much as a nail to hang her uneasy feeling on, though.

She went into the bedroom to help Erik.

Mordecai sat cross-legged in his bed and watched her sort out a woozy child who could not remember how to operate buttons and did not know who either of them were. Not even after they told him. She did not seem to be too badly upset by it.

She asked him if he wanted her to bring him any breakfast.

He said, “No thank you. I’ll come out for lunch.” This was calculated. He knew they weren’t going to let him stop eating and hide, at least Sanaam wouldn’t. But if he promised he was going to do it later, they might give him a little space now.

Hyacinth nodded to him. He could not suppress a sigh of relief.

Then there was no more Hyacinth and no more Erik and he could lie back in the bed and pull up the covers and shatter. Except he couldn’t do that, either. What if somebody came in to check on him?

So he just lay there, staring at the near darkness of a plaid blanket over his eyes, occasionally coughing, and thinking to himself, Please don’t let them notice me, until he fell asleep.

———

Sanaam was drawing monsters with Erik at the kitchen table. Designated ‘time with crayons,’ during which Erik tried very hard to understand and remember things and upset himself had evolved into ‘time with stories’ which happened to involve crayons. He seemed a lot happier with it, even though Sanaam drove the crayons most of the time, and if he needed to remember it, there were plenty of drawings of it. Sanaam also wrote things down. Erik couldn’t read them, but they could be read to him. He frequently requested this.

Could I have done that for him if I tried? Mordecai wondered.

No. Even if he’d thought of it, he didn’t know anything about monsters.

Not fun monsters.

Maggie was also at the table. She had a dish of white crystals. She kept touching them and then tasting them. “This is really easy,” she opined, when she saw Mordecai.

“If it wasn’t easy, I couldn’t do it,” he replied. He examined the cabinets for something else easy. Cold things were in the basement and he didn’t want to bother. Bread. And… butter? Was there butter in the butter thing? Yes. All right. He didn’t want that, but he didn’t want anything. If he wanted to be left alone, he had to eat.

There was room at the table. He sat there, but a little removed.

“Good morning?” Erik hazarded.

Mordecai waited a moment to see if he was going to get an ‘Uncle’ out of the boy. No. Erik didn’t remember him today. Too tired, or too hurt.

Maggie and Sanaam didn’t seem to notice. Just as well.

“Good morning, Erik.” It was daylight. It was morning enough.

Erik snatched up the paper to show him. “Look!”

It was a green monster with purple spots and three heads. The innuendo is a voracious beast. It speaks in riddles.

Mordecai managed a smile. “Cute.”

“Mm-hm!” said Erik. He didn’t like to nod. He put the paper down so Sanaam could draw more.

“Holding up all right?” Sanaam asked.

“All right,” Mordecai replied. When that got a frown, he added, “A little tired.”

That was accepted with a nod.

Hm, thought Mordecai, attempting a slice of bread. People who want to help you can be managed the same as hurt people. Just tell them what they want to hear.

Erik looked up, frowning. He looked at his uncle, and then into the middle distance. There was something he wanted to ask, but he needed words. Words were very hard today.

The thing when it’s… over there… standing… and on fire… then we have it and it’s good… He does it and she does it, too.

No, none of that was enough.

He found a piece of paper with some white space remaining and he drew what he remembered. A plate, and brown here and white here and green here. He showed it and asked, “This?”

“Are you hungry, Erik?” Mordecai asked him.

“Mm-mm.” He didn’t like to shake his head, either. “Now for later.” He pointed over at the stove.

“I think we had too much dinner last night, dear one,” Mordecai said, flinching. “You couldn’t sleep.”

Erik considered his drawing. He didn’t really want dinner. “Just a bowl?” He mimed tasting with one finger.

“Frosting?”

“Yes.”

Mordecai sighed. It was altogether more difficult managing Erik. It should have been easier. He wanted Erik not to be worried about him more.

He was midway to just saying ‘yes.’ Erik would be all right with that, but it would look weird to everyone else if he just made frosting. “We have to have it on something,” he said. “Do you want cookies or cake?”

Erik considered that, frowning.

Mordecai faltered. Oh, gods, Erik, please remember the difference between cookies and cake. He slipped a hand down and held on to the seat of his chair. Do not get up and leave. Do not ruin everything. Act normal.

“Cookies,” Erik said. He was not entirely certain about cookies, but he remembered cake. They had a cake. So they should have the other thing.

“Oh, good,” Mordecai said faintly.

Hyacinth wouldn’t let him out of the house, and he did not particularly want to go out of the house, so he sent Maggie and Sanaam with a list.

I have minions again, he thought. It was neither funny nor sad, it was just kind of weird. At least nobody was going to be shooting at them.

Although he might not mind if somebody tagged Sanaam. Not fatally. A little flesh wound. A through-and-through. Something like that.

———

“Weird at the house right now, isn’t it?” Sanaam said.

“Always weird at the house, Daddy,” Maggie said, considering the list. It was a short one this time. Eggs. Butter. Powdered sugar. Food coloring. They had everything else at the house.

Mordecai had opined that she could do substitutions in her sleep. If she wanted to learn more recipes, all right, but she didn’t have to make them. She didn’t particularly want to learn more recipes or make them. The thing with the salt and sugar was kind of cute, though. You could probably prank someone pretty good with that.

They were in the second hand shop on Sabot Street. They did not sell eggs, butter, or powdered sugar there, but since the list was so simple it wouldn’t have been very fun if they just did that. The big list yesterday had been better because they could argue about it and speculate on what would go better or be more interesting as food. Actual meat? That’s boring. And expensive. What else we got, here?

And they had to find a cricket. That had been great.

She was in jewelry and accessories. She thought that was a great word. Accessories. She would like to have some of those instead of all blue dresses and black shoes and white socks. She wasn’t in the army or a school, why did she have to have a uniform?

She selected a purple scarf with gold stars on it and wrapped it around her shoulders, then her head.

“Different weird, though,” Sanaam said. He was trying on hats in a small mirror. Does this make me look normal? Naaah.

Maggie sighed. “Yeah, I know. It’s been hard. Mom doesn’t like to talk about things being hard.”

“I’m not entirely certain your mom understands that things can be hard.”

“Maybe not,” Maggie agreed. She tried pinning the scarf to her shoulder with a green and gold brooch. It looked like a bug. The pin was somewhat bent.

“Worried about anything?” he asked her.

“No, not like I was,” she said. “I thought maybe he wouldn’t remember me. He didn’t sometimes, but not a lot, and it’s not like that anymore. I think he forgets about me when I’m not there, and sometimes he doesn’t know what to call me, but that’s different.”

Sanaam nodded. He exchanged a bowler hat for a fez. That looked interesting. “Worried something like that might happen to someone else?”

“You mean like you or Mom?”

“Yeah.”

“I dunno. You and Mom are a lot bigger, and you know how to do a lot. Well, Mom knows how to do a lot.”

Sanaam smirked in the mirror. Ow, there’s a hard shot to the ego.

“I guess it doesn’t always matter if you’re big or strong when something bad happens, though.”

“No, not always,” he admitted, “but sometimes it helps.”

Maggie removed the brooch and the scarf. She held up a pair of dangly earrings and considered the idea of pierced ears. Her mom would be really mad if she got pierced ears. Completely frivolous and gives an attacker a place to hold on. “I guess I’m not worried about Mom. People have shot Mom, and she was okay. And she stays home.” She frowned at her father. “Do you have somebody to fix you if you get hurt while you’re gone?”

“There’s always a doctor on the ship,” he replied.

“A good one like Hyacinth, though?”

“Well…” Hyacinth isn’t really a doctor, Maggie. She’s a metalworker with some basic training and a toolbox that works on people. But he didn’t think Maggie cared about that. Degrees and experience weren’t as impressive as the willingness to stop an ambulance by force and fix burned girls with the roof. “They’re very good at what they do and I’ve never had someone hurt that they couldn’t help.” That was approximately the truth. ‘Help’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘save,’ especially when the injuries were bad. And there were things that did not come under the domain of medicine, like men swept overboard in storms. No helping that.

He was comfortable with the idea of his own mortality. He had seen enough dying that there really wasn’t any mystery left to it. After, sure, but there was no way to know about after, and no real point in worrying about it. He thought Maggie and her mother would be all right without him. He wasn’t home an awful lot, anyway.

But something like what happened to Erik? Not dead, just incredibly hurt and unable to take care of himself? That was a hat he did not want to try on, and it was even worse thinking of it happening to his child.

If something like that had happened to Maggie, he wouldn’t even have known about it until he came home. What if she hadn’t come out to meet him? What if it had been her in the kitchen with no eye and no memory of him?

He didn’t know how in the hell Mordecai was functioning at all.

He knelt down and bundled his daughter in both arms. “C’mere. You know I love you, right?”

“Yeah, Daddy,” she replied. She had been in the middle of trying to fasten a necklace. “I love you, too.”

“Good girl,” he replied. “You have an endless patience for stupid people. Not at all like your mother. Practically a saint.” He saw she was trying to put on a necklace and he pulled her hands down and interfered with her, but in an affectionate sort of way.

“Daddy…”

“Promise me you’ll live forever and give me a million grandchildren, Mag-Pirate!”

“Daddy! You’re being dumb on purpose!”

“Prove it!” he cried.

She reached up and twisted one of his ears.

“Ow! Maggie!”

She took two steps away and fastened the necklace. “I guess Mom is right about those things. Do you think Mom would let me have pearls, Daddy?”

He didn’t know about her mom, but he would certainly let her have pearls. He would’ve let her have a pony if she wanted it. A string of imitation pearls was cheap for a demonstration of devotion — though it was sincerely meant.

They also picked out some rhinestone earrings to go with the General’s tiara.

———

Sugar cookies were simple, especially with real ingredients. The dough needed a little firming up to be rolled out without chilling, that was all. The process was labor-intensive, though, and the smell of baking was distinct and lasted through multiple batches. It was enough to bring in everybody in the house and give them a job.

The General had requested that Maggie show her a substitution, so Mordecai had her do a batch of sweetened salt (the coarser grind was nicer on cookies than plain sugar), divide it up and dye it colors. Hyacinth and Sanaam were rolling the dough and cutting out circles with a jelly-glass. Barnaby had originally started out cutting cookies, but he refused to do more than one at a time.

“Don’t roll it again!” Hyacinth had shouted. “You can do, like, fifteen more on there!”

“Not in exactly the right place, Alice!” Barnaby had replied.

“Don’t call me that!” Hyacinth said.

“You are ruining the dough!” Mordecai told them, which was much more relevant.

Barnaby was now assigned to arranging the cooling cookies. This was not something that really needed doing, they just had to be removed from the pan, but it did help them cool faster. Milo was fixated on his watch, which helped him cope with all the people in the room, timing things down to the second. He did not go ‘ding!’ but he would tap Mordecai on the shoulder when it was time to get the pan out of the oven, which was an improvement over their existing timer that just sat there being empty of sand and could only give them ten minute intervals.

Erik, the General and Maggie (when she was done with the salt) were tasked with decorating. The General found frosting and sugaring below her skillset and did not approve of sampling or licking fingers. She very quickly began doing things to the cookies. Making them glow or change colors was easily accomplished. Erik was amazed. Maggie felt encouraged — she also began to do things to the cookies. Floating, spinning, and crumbling to pieces followed by reassembling themselves were added to the available effects. Erik was relegated to applying a base coat of frosting before handing a cookie to one or the other to see what they would do to it.

Maggie managed to get one to scream, which caused Milo to drop his watch in the frosting.

“Ah! Maggie! Turn it off!” Mordecai told her, pressing both hands over Erik’s ears. (Erik was noticeably-pained, but not yet in tears, and Mordecai wanted to keep it that way.)

“I’m not sure how!” Maggie cried.

Barnaby cut the Gordian knot and ate the cookie. You could hear it until he swallowed it.

“Oh, my gods,” Hyacinth said.

“Horrifying,” Mordecai said.

“Hyacinth, do we have any milk?” Barnaby said.

Later, when nobody was looking, Milo surreptitiously licked his watch.

———

That night at the table, the General finally consented to unboxing her tiara. She didn’t see much point in opening it, since she wasn’t going to keep it or wear it, but Sanaam and Maggie just would not shut up about wanting to see her face. She therefore refused entirely to make one. Sanaam had got one face out of her and that was sufficient. Anything more would only encourage him.

She picked it up and held it at eye level so that everyone could get a real good look at her husband’s stupidity. The damn thing was heavy. The metal was silver (-colored, at least) and the clear stones glittered in that tawdry way that only cut glass can manage. She did not even frown at it.

Please wear it for us, sir!” Sanaam cried, ecstatic.

“Yeah, Mom, won’t you?” Maggie said, grinning.

“I invite the two of you to try and make me,” she replied. She smiled at them. “Both at once, if you like.”

Sanaam revealed a pair of glittering earrings, one in each hand, “What about with these?” he asked her.

There’s the face!” he cried, an instant later. “There it is!

“Do you think we could have a little less of this?” Mordecai said quietly. He glanced at Erik, who was visibly delighted.

“You don’t have a leg to stand on after that cricket,” Hyacinth said.

He sighed and put his head in one hand.

The General closed her mouth and cleared her throat. “Please excuse my momentary incoherence,” she said. She put the tiara back in the box and tapped the lid into place on top of it. “Mr. Rose?”

Milo blinked and straightened.

She pushed the box across the table. “Would you like a tiara?”

Milo’s eyes widened. For me? For Ann? He knocked the lid off the box and removed the contents with a reverent touch. He turned it in both hands, then he drew it against him and regarded the General as best as he was able. We can really have it? You’re not teasing me?

“Would you like the earrings as well?” she asked him.

He spared one hand from the tiara to touch his ear. He shook his head. No. No. Ann can’t have pierced ears. I’d have to wear earrings at the factory while they were healing. People would look at me funny.

But… This…? He held it at eye level and gazed into it. It sparkled. It had all the colors if you looked at it right. This was definitely Ann’s tiara. It was so pretty. Could he really give it to her? It was okay?

He couldn’t really ask it. All he could do was test it. Still holding the tiara, he got up from the table and crept a couple of steps backwards. The General sat placidly with her hands folded. Milo had every look of a squirrel trying to get away with a nut.

He bolted from the kitchen and ran up the stairs to his room.

A few moments later, faintly audible despite the distance and the closed door, there came a shriek, “I’m a pretty, pretty princess!

Sanaam was shaking his head with a pained smile. “Didn’t even wait until I was gone,” he marveled. “Didn’t even wait until I was out of the room.”

“I was unaware of any time limit on these matters,” the General replied. She held out her hand. “Let’s have the earrings. I believe I will crush them and dispose of them in your morning coffee.”

“With your bare hands,” Sanaam added, handing them over.

———

Erik did moderately well that night. He made one strange remark about the lady who lives in the mirror and was able to wind down and sleep within an hour of being put to bed despite the excitement. Probably he was exhausted and it wouldn’t have taken much to tip him over in either direction. Mordecai was grateful it was sleep, though he didn’t get much himself.

Two more days until we get back to normal, he thought.

Or, just another new thing we have to figure out all over again.

———

With Erik and Mordecai apparently functional, matters in the bedroom being of a lower priority, and lessons in substitutions off the table, Sanaam felt a make-or-break effort to get the house in order before his departure was in order. He recruited Maggie and Hyacinth for the magic and they put hinges and doorknobs on everything. Whenever possible, they omitted the screws and just used mergers. It was easier on the wood when Hyacinth had to take them off again. The spare screws went into the big box of steel nails he had bought as more-convenient spare materials. In the basement beside it was another box full of iron rivets. (In the basement beside both boxes, Milo was at the worktable messing around with glass lenses. He had to buy them premade and it was difficult to get them just right. He also requested Hyacinth’s occasional assistance with an iris mechanism.)

The problem of the roof required a foray into the neighborhood with cash in hand. It was too big a piece to be made from trash, even good trash. Sanaam had asked Hyacinth, once again, if it mightn’t be easier to just put in a new skylight. She could use leaded glass pieces like she did the windows, maybe even dome it for strength.

Hyacinth regarded the hole in the ceiling suspiciously and shook her head. “I don’t want to have glass there again, Sanaam. It feels like a jinx.”

So, he needed to find a large piece of something, likely corrugated steel or tin, on short notice. Tin would be best. Tin was too soft for Hyacinth to use in repairs. Well, repairs on people.

Well, repairs on people except in very dire emergencies.

That was why he had bought… Well, he didn’t know if Erik would want those now.

Probably he wouldn’t. It was like a sick joke. And not even a funny one.

He realized this at six o’clock in the evening of the last day, while he and Milo were manhandling a large piece of corrugated steel up on to the roof at practically the last minute for Hyacinth to merge down. He nearly dropped the damn thing.

“Ahh! I didn’t get a present for Erik!” He had been shopping so damn many times! He had taken his wife and daughter to dinner last night! He had got Maggie and the General presents on top of presents!

Hyacinth peeped over the edge of the roof at them. “Are you dropping things down here?”

“No, but I deserve to!” Sanaam cried. Well, maybe not on top of Milo. “As soon as we get this thing up there, you ought to chuck me off!” he told Hyacinth. “I didn’t get anything for Erik, and his birthday’s in three weeks!”

“I think it’s a little more than that,” Hyacinth said. She tried counting on her fingers. She wasn’t really a numbers person. She had outsourced numbers when Milo moved in. What is it today? The third…?

“It doesn’t matter! I’m leaving this morning!” He dropped the metal securely over the hole and he made as if to run off immediately. “Where’s open right now? A store?”

“Eight o’clock on a Sun’s Day?” Hyacinth said. She shrugged. The church people had really sucked the life out of this city after the war. “Maybe a couple of bodegas. You could get him a grape soda. You might have to wrap it in tin foil.”

Tin foil!” Sanaam cried, clutching hands to his face.

“Maybe not, then,” Hyacinth muttered. She knelt and examined the metal. “Can I get it a little bit to the left, you guys? And turn it.” She gestured.

They attempted to do this.

“Yeah, that’s about right.” She pulled down her goggles. “Careful of the light, you two.”

Milo turned around. The two mage lights he had following him zipped a fast circle around his head and then stilled. He had also put one on Hyacinth so she could see where she was going. Sanaam hid his eyes in his hands.

Hyacinth began to make mergers. The sparks flew like fireworks. “Sanaam, we weren’t going to do too much for his birthday this year, anyway.” she said. “It’s hard for him when things are different. It’s been a little hard for him having you here.” They had to have him in the basement again this afternoon. He wasn’t sleeping well at all.

Sanaam looked up once, looked stricken, regretted it and then turned away, blinking.

“No,” Hyacinth said. “It’s really not your fault. Besides, you got his uncle out of the bedroom. That’s worth a little upset. It’s just, a whole day with new things and all of it about him is too much right now. He’s coming back fast, but maybe not that fast.”

“No presents at all?” Sanaam said.

“Maybe just a couple,” Hyacinth allowed. “We’ll have to play it by ear. But it’s all right if there’s not one from you. You can bring him something when you come back. I mean, you do that anyway, right?”

“What about Yule? Are you going to have Yule?” He hadn’t thought about Yule, either. He was entirely used to his family holding the major holidays until he got home. (Cloquette Day would’ve been this visit, had Hyacinth not immediately put the kibosh on anything loud. Sanaam had agreed with her, under the circumstances. Erik had been sufficiently traumatized by actual Cloquette Day. Even Maggie didn’t want anything more than a sparkler.) Yule was one day in early spring, not twelve in late December. He had come home early enough to have Yule with real snow precisely once since the war.

Hyacinth winced. “Ahh, I don’t think so. Not all of it. Not with his birthday right in the middle. I mean, we’ll try him on his birthday, and we’ll see how well he handles that. Maybe we’ll have some Yule, maybe not during real Yule.” She flung a gesture. “We can always do it when you get home, Sanaam. Maggie and the General always wait for you, anyway. I’m sure he’ll be feeling a lot better by the spring. We can have his birthday and Yule.”

“Erik hates when he gets a present for his birthday and Yule, Hyacinth.” At least, he used to. He probably would again, once he was reintroduced to the concept of Yule and birthdays. Sanaam had a December birthday, (which they had decided to also hold off until spring) so he intimately understood this phenomenon. He had one particular aunt who had never failed to do this to him. He hadn’t seen her since he was twelve, and he visited everyone.

“Oh, you know what I mean,” said Hyacinth. “You can bring him two presents, if you want. Thirteen presents. But there’s no point running around trying to get him a present now. What time are you leaving this morning?”

“Four,” he said miserably.

“Well then?” she said.

“I want to know how stupid I should feel,” Sanaam said, kicking at the tarpaper roof.

“Not very,” Hyacinth said, “if you’ll take my advice. He’s been a lot happier while you’ve been here, Sanaam. Now, that tires him out and then he gets weird, but it doesn’t take away the part where he was happy.”

“He might not remember it,” Sanaam said.

“He’s got a hell of a lot of drawings of it,” Hyacinth replied. “And things written down that he keeps asking us to read. He’s not going to forget you were here, and he’s not going to forget he loved it. That stuff in the basement? That he forgets.”

Sanaam sighed. He didn’t want to feel better about this. “Just because I’m going to get away with it, that doesn’t make it right.”

“We are all about getting away with things in this house, Sanaam,” Hyacinth said. “Except possibly your wife.”

“Definitely not her,” Sanaam said. His wife did not believe ‘getting away with something’ was a real event that happened. The very idea offended her.

“Come on,” Hyacinth said. She nudged him towards the ladder. “You can do him some more monsters before bed. He loves those damn things.” She paused with her hand on his arm. “You know, I could’ve sworn Maggie said you did bring Erik something. You always bring him something.”

“Oh, yes,” Sanaam replied with a laugh. “I’ll show you. You can tell me whether I ought to chuck them in the garbage or set them on fire.”

“I think Erik would appreciate the opportunity to set his own presents on fire,” Hyacinth said. “Or maybe he could ask your daughter to do it for him.”

“You know, you’re kidding, but it might not be a bad idea…”

———

He departed via taxi again, in the small hours, with a single, wheeled trunk for his belongings. Whether he came back with more than that or less was entirely dependent upon trade. Up one trip, down the next. It had not yet snowed, but the weather was threatening. He was going to miss the snow entirely this year, lost in warm climes and glassy southern seas. Not that he liked the snow, but there were certain other things that one tended to miss. Hot chocolate. Snuggling next to fires. Family, and people like family.

His wife and daughter saw him to the door in their nightclothes. His wife was unable to accompany him to a pre-dawn launch. Eagles had poor night vision.

“Maybe I’ll be an owl, Daddy,” Maggie said. “Grandmama was an owl.”

“An eagle-owl,” the General corrected her. “But she had excellent night vision, yes.”

“Keep everything safe, sir,” he said.

“You do likewise,” she replied.

“I feel like I’ve got the easier part of that deal.” He only had a boat to deal with, and a crew of semi-competent individuals. Maybe some storms. A whale or two. Giant squid.

Mermaids. Vampires. Wild innuendo.

She smiled and inclined her head. “As it should be.”

He embraced her. “Your condescension will keep me warm.”

“Your earrings will be repurposed to kill pigeons.”

“That’s leaded glass, sir,” he told her. “You’d poison your own dinner?”

“Hm. Perhaps I’ll have to wait until you get home. Hurry back, Captain.”

“With all speed.” He saluted her.

He left them with a few verses of ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.’ That was his wife’s favorite song.

Well, if it wasn’t, it should have been.

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