Fixing the Red Toaster (27)

Milo checked outside of his door for porridge. Yesterday, there had been porridge. The previous day, as soon as he’d set foot in the kitchen, Hyacinth had put a bowl in his hands and sent him away. Having porridge left out for him like Iron John was not as charming as he had imagined. The context was bad. He knew what was going on in the kitchen. Ann had heard Mordecai do forty-five minutes on how Royals were the wrong crackers, in between coughing and noises of pain. Some of the observations were quite astute. He could’ve gotten an act doing that at the Black Orchid. It was actually kind of horrible.

There was no porridge this morning. So, things had either improved in the kitchen or they had deteriorated to the point where porridge was no longer possible.

Milo wondered if it mightn’t be easier to just be Ann this morning and then change in a pay toilet on the way to work.

But he had promised… No, he had not promised, but Hyacinth had asked Ann very nicely not to do that anymore and explained she didn’t have to and Ann had promised. That had been years ago.

He stayed Milo and he wrapped all ten fingers around the kitchen doorframe before peeping inside.

Erik — no, not Erik — was sitting at the table and drinking coffee. Hyacinth was absent and Mordecai was quiet. Milo sighed relief. He knocked on the kitchen doorway and waved greeting at Auntie Enora. Erik smiled at him, nodded at him, and returned to her coffee.

Milo crept into the kitchen and sought out a bowl — as quietly as he could, which was very quietly. Mordecai undoubtedly needed his rest. He heard Auntie Enora pour another cup of coffee, and then Erik set it on the counter next to him.

“Milo, do you mind if we speak before you eat? This is a matter of some urgency.”

He nodded.

Erik nudged the coffee towards him. “That’s for you, dear. Fix it how you like, then come sit with me at the table when you’re ready.”

Finding a spoon and mixing in sugar gave him a moment to decompress, which he really appreciated. He wished he could tell her. He sat at the table and he even managed to look at her.

“Mister Milo, we have a mechanical problem. I know a man is not a toaster, but Miz Hyacinth and I are not engineers, and I believe you may be the best we can get on short notice.”

Milo nodded and straightened proudly in his seat. He touched his chest. I’m your man.

“You see… Oh, let me get the notepad. I’ll draw this.” Erik departed briefly and returned with paper and pencil. “Well, now this is a lung.” Erik drew a slightly-lobed shape. “That would be a big ol’ bag in your chest that you need to breathe, dear.” Erik made a grin that proved she was teasing. “The tissue is all full of little tiny cells. That’s how the air gets into the blood. And the whole thing has to expand and contract. That’s how the air gets into the lung.”

Milo nodded. This seemed reasonable.

“What Mordecai has is a problem with all of those tiny little cells. They’re torn up and damaged and they don’t give him air like they should. Now Hyacinth tried to fix that, but all she can use is metal. If she knew how to work with flesh we wouldn’t be in this predicament, but there’s no helping it now. We start patching him up with all different things, the whole works will collapse. So, metal doesn’t expand and contract like flesh, not even when you magic the hell out of it. This is what Hyacinth did.” Erik drew several thin strips across the body of the lung. “These places are made of gold. They have proper cells and they strengthen the lung, but they’re stiff. The weak parts with the bad cells move better. It works a little like a bellows, you’re got a soft place in between two hard places and the whole thing works together to move air. But when he breathes too hard or he coughs, or say he’s sick and the tissue is all swole up with water, those stiff places can’t flex like the rest and they come unglued. And when they come unglued, that makes him cough and breathe harder because his lungs aren’t working right, and that makes more come unglued.

“Now what we have been doing for the past few days is gluing those pieces back down, and as you can imagine that hurts him like hell. I believe we’ve got him on the mend now and if he stops taking damage I can repair his health, but you see how it’s only a matter of time before this happens again. He needs more expansion in these strips. I don’t know if we can hinge them or fold them or what, but he needs something. And if Miz Hyacinth can do it while I’m here, then I can keep the process from hurting him too badly.

“I believe his child will hold me for quite a few days to come, but we are under a bit of a time constraint, Mister Milo. Can you help me out?”

Milo tore a sheet from the notepad and tore a strip from the sheet. He rapidly folded the strip in an accordion pleat and handed the result to Erik.

Erik pulled at the top and bottom of the strip and frowned at the motion. “I suppose that might be a help, but look here.” He shifted his grip and pulled at the sides. “A lung needs to expand all ways, not just up and down.”

Milo took the strip back and played with it for a few moments. He stood suddenly and ran out of the room.

“Well I certainly do hope he didn’t just take a fright,” Auntie Enora muttered alone.

———

He had not stolen the book. He had found it and he had been very interested in it and it had sort of naturally migrated towards his room until it was inside. It belonged to the house and it was still in the house. And if anyone had asked him for it he would have given it — if they knew that he had it and had any idea that it existed. It was called Simple Paper Toys for Children. There was a leaping frog, for example. And a fortune-teller. And a boat. He presented this book to Auntie Enora and opened to the page he wanted.

There! Look! Like that! You want something like that?

Erik frowned and peered more closely at the pages. “I don’t understand. I believe this is supposed to be a strawberry?”

Milo gave a noncommittal nod, bobbing his head from side to side. Well, yeah, it’s supposed to be one, but look how it works! He tapped the directions specifically and nodded at her.

“I… don’t… see what you’re telling me.”

Milo huffed an exasperated sigh. He tore another piece off the notepad and he folded the strawberry. He had never done this before, he appreciated how the designs worked and did not believe they required making, but he did it perfectly the first time without referencing the book. He showed Auntie Enora the penultimate step: a small, flat diamond with a four-pointed star on top.

“I still don’t…”

Milo put his mouth to the star and blew up the strawberry. He continued to blow until it was tomato-shaped and all the creases had puffed out.

“Oh, shoot!” said Auntie Enora. “Well, there’s your lung, right there! Oh, my goodness!” Erik covered his mouth with a hand and cast a glance back over his shoulder at Mordecai. The man shifted slightly but continued to sleep.

Milo nodded at her and handed her the paper model.

Erik turned it in his hands. “The trouble is, it’s too much. All we have to work with are these strips. This looks like replacing the whole lung, and I’d be terrified to try such a thing. This is a lot of expansion you’ve given me, but the lungs are just phenomenal. It’s not even close.”

Milo commandeered the notepad again. This time he took the pencil and drew. He drew a watch, he drew a cup of coffee and he drew a newspaper. He contained the newspaper in brackets and wrote 100% at the point. He contained the coffee in brackets and wrote 10. Then he flipped to the eraser and wrote 5% instead. He presented his demands to Auntie Enora.

“You want time,” said Auntie Enora. “You want an entire newspaper, and you want five percent of the coffee.”

Milo made a rapid seesaw gesture. The coffee was negotiable. Very negotiable. He’d pick up some caffeine tabs on the way home from work if necessary.

Erik smiled. “Child, you can have as much of the coffee as you want, just as long as you leave more.”

Milo nodded. He took back the pad and added a rapid sketch of the factory where he worked, then drew an arrow pointing to the watch. He drew lines and shaded an area encompassing six hours, from eight to two. He made an apologetic shrug.

“You have to work first? Well, I can’t say I’m happy about it, but I do understand. I am overjoyed to have you helping me. I think I would hug you, but I guess you wouldn’t like that.”

Milo backed off from the table, shaking his head.

“Well, what if I stay over there with Mister Mordecai and I don’t say another word to you for your whole breakfast?”

He nodded rapidly to that. He even smiled!

———

Erik collected the newspaper when it arrived and Auntie Enora told Hyacinth where it was going.

“Barnaby wants the weather reports and the horoscope,” Hyacinth said.

“Surely he can do without for one day?”

Hyacinth was already shaking her head. “Oh, boy, no. He really can’t.”

“Well, then, perhaps you’d better have Miz Maggie buy us another paper when she goes out for my cigarettes. Mister Milo specifically requested the whole thing.”

———

Milo darted in at three, assembled a cheese sandwich, collected both newspapers and a cup of coffee and set out for the basement holding the sandwich in his mouth. Hyacinth went after him at seven with a dish of noodles and more coffee. She brought the previous mug back with her. She continued to supply him at two hour intervals afterward.

Mordecai slept peacefully until ten. He woke with a gasp but did not cough and he looked around. “What… What time is it?”

Hyacinth conked her head on the table so hard it made Auntie Enora’s coffee cup rattle. “Oh, gods, not this again.”

“No,” said Mordecai. “I know it’s now. What time is it now?”

“About ten o’clock in the evening, dear,” Auntie Enora said. “Do you think you might manage a little soup?”

“Ten?” he said. “Is that all?”

“It’s been almost three days,” Hyacinth said.

“Three days? Erik hasn’t eaten in three days?”

Hyacinth winced. Truthfully, Erik hadn’t eaten in five, but she wasn’t going to correct him. She also hoped he had forgotten about Auntie Enora not sleeping.

“He is holding up admirably,” Auntie Enora said, nodding.

“I don’t want him to hold up,” Mordecai said, very soft and hopeless. “I’m all right now. I promise I’ll stay all right.”

“Child, that’s not your promise to make.”

He wanted to cry. She wouldn’t let him do that, because the bonds in his lungs might break. She wouldn’t let him refuse food or medicine. She wouldn’t let him damage himself. With all else, she was endlessly patient. She wouldn’t leave, but she understood why he was so upset. She promised. She comforted. As needed, she would remind him that Erik was watching and wanted him to get better (though not very often as that did tend to make him cry). She only touched him when it was absolutely necessary because she knew he hated it, and she apologized when she did.

It was this kindness, as much as Erik’s visible deterioration after five — and then six, and then seven — days of black coffee and cigarettes, that eventually broke Mordecai’s back. On the evening of the seventh day, he ate soup, he took medicine, then he broke down sobbing and begged to be put out of his misery.

He covered his head and said, “Please, let me say it. Then you can. I want you to. I don’t want you to let me up anymore. I can’t take this. I can’t stand watching you hurt him and having you take care of me. I know you won’t kill him. It’s not enough that you won’t kill him. If you won’t go, you have to fix it so I don’t care.”

Erik was already nodding. His features were noticeably sharper, and he was developing dark hollows under his eyes, but his hands remained steady, he could walk a straight line and focus, and he showed no sign of giving out. It was only going to get worse. “I believe you know what you’re asking,” Auntie Enora said. “Do you understand that if I do that, you won’t be able to ask me to stop?”

He shook his head. “I don’t want you to stop until he can come back.”

“It might be awhile…”

“I know. That’s why I need it. Please.”

“Mordecai…” Hyacinth broke in. This was such a total reversal that she didn’t trust it. “Auntie Enora, are you sure he’s with us?”

“He’s been with us, Miz Hyacinth,” Auntie Enora replied.

“I’d like not to be,” Mordecai said softly.

“I won’t put him down so far that he can’t talk to us, Miz Hyacinth,” Auntie Enora said, reaching a hand. “It doesn’t hurt him.”

“I know, I know, but…” But she couldn’t help thinking about when she’d fixed him the first time, she she had to give him all that damn codeine cough syrup so he could heal. He’d had a bit of a habit after that. Nothing she couldn’t fix by scolding him and keeping an eye on him for a few weeks, and it wasn’t like this was drugs, but…

But it was creepy. It was incredibly creepy, and she didn’t like what Auntie Enora was doing to Erik, either, and she didn’t like the thought of Mordecai lying there quietly and letting it happen.

If he won’t do something about it, then don’t I have to?

What else could they do about it?

Erik soothed his hand through his uncle’s hair and made him stop caring.

Hyacinth went down to the basement.

“Milo, show me something good.”

Milo was covered in newsprint, particularly his hands, had been for two days now. Milo’s coffee cup was also covered in newsprint. He held up one finger for a moment’s pause and drained it. He showed her a paper spring. Yesterday had been all about paper springs. She had tried to explain to him that a spiral like that was not an option, but there appeared to be some concept he was trying to nail down and he would not be dissuaded. The last thing she wanted to see was another goddamned paper spring. “Milo!

He shook his head. Now he was attempting to show her individual folds in the paper spring. And, since she did not seem to be understanding that very well, he began actually folding things. He was trying to impart a process.

“Milo, I don’t care how you got there, just show me where you are now! Please tell me we are past paper springs!”

Milo dropped what he was doing on the floor and backed up to the basement wall.

“Oh, shit!” said Hyacinth. She turned her entire body away from him and sat down on the floor. “I’m not… I’m not mad at you. I’m a little upset about Erik, but I’m not mad at you. I know you’re doing your best. I just really, really wish that fucking bond in his left lung hadn’t let go. That started all this mess. That’s why Erik called Auntie Enora and that’s why she won’t leave now. And that’s why Mordecai’s up there thinking chicken soup and crackers instead of what’s happening.”

Milo tapped her on the shoulder and handed her a white piece of paper with a quick pencil sketch on it. He flinched when she turned around to take it from him, so she faced away from him again and regarded it.

(mechanical eye)?

“Have you noticed Erik, Milo?” Hyacinth shook her head, answering herself. Milo had a project and coffee. Milo wasn’t noticing anything. “Auntie Enora doesn’t eat or sleep and Erik’s been holding her for a week. Nina never managed her for more than three days at a stretch and Nina was a grown adult. I don’t know how much longer this is going to go on. It’s insane.”

Another note: (wing-tipped shoe)? Milo didn’t shy away from her this time so she turned back around.

“Mordecai just asked Auntie Enora not to let him up anymore. Just… to leave him like he is when she touches him, all the time. So he won’t know what’s happening. He just gave up.” She sighed. “So now I don’t know what to do.”

Frowning, Milo approached the worktable. He retrieved a small folded square of paper, maybe an inch wide and an inch thick. He took hold of two corners diagonally opposite each other and pulled. The whole works blossomed in both directions at once, revealing a gridwork of tiny opposing creases, until Milo was holding an entire two-page spread of newspaper.

“Holy shit!” cried Hyacinth. “Does it go back?”

Milo nodded. Still holding the two corners, he pushed them back together slowly. With a little bit of coaxing, it folded back to an inch square.

“Do it again!” she said. “Open it!”

He did. Open. Closed. Open. Like breathing.

“Can you do it with a strip?”

He bobbed a noncommittal nod. He should be able to, he just hadn’t yet.

“Can you do it with metal?”

He touched his chest and shook his head. Me? No.

“I have to have cheap gold,” Hyacinth said. “And… I think some tinfoil, so I can practice. Do you think you can show me how to do that?”

Another bobbing nod. He’d been trying, but she yelled at him.

“I will shut my mouth with a steel plate if I have to,” she told him. “I will be the most patient, attentive student of folding newspapers that you’ve ever had in your life. I will… Oh, look.” She grabbed the open paper and showed him a small ad. All Gold and Sterling Silver Jewelry, 15% Off! “A sale!”

Mordecai asked her, as long as she was going out, if she wouldn’t mind picking him up something to read. There hadn’t been newspapers in three days.

Hyacinth stopped by a drugstore and bought him two Arlecchio romance novels and a fashion magazine. She was a little bit irritated with him for just bowing out like that.

He didn’t seem to notice. He read everything. And, she later discovered as she was paging through the magazine (she was not reading it, it was just there), he did all the quizzes. Apparently, he was a Winter. There were suggestions for eyeshadow.

———

Milo brought an entire coffeecake home on Sigurd’s Day. Not a day old, which was what they ate almost exclusively. Fresh. He might’ve ordered it special. He dished out five pieces. Maggie. Mordecai. Milo. Hyacinth. Erik.

“That’s very sweet,” Auntie Enora said.

Milo twitched his best attempt at a smile and nodded.

“No, thank you,” Auntie Enora said.

He picked up the plate and followed her.

“Put it down and sit back at the table or I’ll make it so you can’t use your legs, dear,” Auntie Enora said.

Milo looked over at Hyacinth, wide-eyed.

Hyacinth was already nodding. “Oh, yeah. She can do it. Nina once told five battalions of soldiers to sit down and they did. An airship landed.”

“They were in the way of my coffee, child,” Auntie Enora said.

Milo put the plate down and sat at the table.

Mordecai was the only one who had any coffeecake. No one else wanted it.

Hyacinth put sugar in the coffee on Sun’s Day. Auntie Enora had one sip, swallowed with a deeply-displeased expression, and dumped the rest of the pot in the alley. She scolded Hyacinth, “No.

Hyacinth had to stand in the corner for an hour. She had to.

It was at this point abundantly clear that the only way out was through. Erik was not going to give out and Auntie Enora was not going to give in. Fortunately, Hyacinth had completed her apprenticeship at Milo’s Academy of Folding Things and by Moon’s Day morning they were willing to make an attempt at Mordecai.

Two days of bed rest, constant care and peace of mind had drastically improved the man’s condition. It was in fine shape for them to damage him again. He didn’t seem to be too worried about going back to the hotel, either.

“What hotel?” he said.

“Creepy as hell,” Hyacinth intimated through clenched teeth.

She pulled Maggie aside at breakfast and asked her to keep out of the kitchen all day. “There’s a lot of Mordecai to fix and we’re going to do as much of it as we can today. Auntie Enora and I will be busy and he’ll be out of it.”

“Will Erik come back after?” Maggie said. “I really, really miss Erik.” Not one word about how she liked long lunches or Auntie Enora.

“Not right after,” Hyacinth said. “I think not until Mordecai heals from this, so maybe a couple more days.”

Days? Miss Hyacinth, will Erik be okay?”

“Not right away, Maggie, no. But Auntie Enora will make him medicine before she goes, and we’ll all help him get better after.”

“Will it be like when he was hurt?”

“No. It won’t be like that at all.” It will be a completely different kind of awful. After Nina held Auntie Enora — and, again, that was for three days at most — she could hardly move for a week. She said it wasn’t like Auntie Enora was heavy — she was big but not heavy — but she couldn’t say what it was like, and Hyacinth thought it certainly looked like she’d been hit with a ton of bricks.

They drew thirteen hashmarks on the chalkboard. Mordecai had six bonds in his right lung and seven in his left. She had started him out with four and four, but he really needed more repair than that and she had added more as he got sicker and couldn’t do without. They were going to expand (that was a good word for it, as they would be getting larger and more flexible) as many as they could, left then right then left again. His left lung was weaker than the right. It bothered her sense of aesthetics that she couldn’t have them even, but he really didn’t need that. What he needed was the expansion.

She had one of Milo’s folded paper strips for reference (he was better with paper, but she could match him with metal) and a set of cheap bracelets (ten karat gold over sterling silver) that would certainly do for the material. They were fifteen-percent-off. One of them looked like an alligator biting its own tail.

Auntie Enora had altered two more bottles of cherry cordial, for the process and for the recovery. She had given him a good dose of one, to keep the coughing down, and Erik was sat near his uncle’s head in case further intervention was required.

Hyacinth gave the chalkboard a glance and a nod. Thirteen bottles of beer on the wall, thirteen bottles of beer. Take one down, pass it around…

She laid one hand on Mordecai’s chest and shut her eyes.

It was a matter of stretching out what there was and folding it back, and she had to do it very carefully so that he could still breathe. It was easier to move things around how she wanted on the exhale. Milo’s fold was a simple repeating pattern that she could do in her sleep, but every individual crease needed doing, she couldn’t automate a system to do it for her. The strips were thin, but she was more than doubling them in width and length and she still had to do all the little cells. It took her about half an hour to do one.

She erased one hashmark with the index finger of her left hand.

Twelve bottles of beer on the wall, twelve bottles of beer…

She worked until she was fainting. At first she didn’t know she was fainting, then she did know it and she didn’t know what to do about it.

Oh, damn it. Really? Come on.

She had seen David go until he fainted, but he got very excited about things and sometimes he forgot he needed to sleep. The faithful physician pushing herself beyond the bounds of physical exhaustion was just so cliché.

Everything looked purple, and slightly sparkly.

That was very like David. Maybe that was why he pushed himself that way. He liked the way it looked.

“So sorry. Passing out now,” she managed in a vague voice.

Auntie Enora made her a gin and tonic.

At first she thought it was David trying to help her sit up and get her back into the house.

“I’ve been shot,” she said.

“No dear,” said Auntie Enora. “Not for a long time.”

“Oh. Right.” She drank gin and tonic, then she stared into the glass. It was bright green and glowing like it was on fire.

“I know it’s not your absolute favorite,” Auntie Enora apologized, “but it was the best thing we had in the house. Miz Ann and Mister Milo are at work, and I won’t go near that awful woman to get Miz Maggie.”

“It’s fine,” said Hyacinth, sipping. Auntie Enora made a mean gin and tonic. She didn’t think the gin they had was actually all that good, either. She had learned to appreciate cheap a great deal more than good during the war. It was surprising to contend with quality all of a sudden.

Damn it, I guess the store brand isn’t really just the same.

Unless you hit it up with a prohibitive quantity of magic, of course.

She glanced up at the chalkboard. Five hashmarks were remaining.

Five bottles of beer on the wall, five bottles of beer… and they can stay on the goddamn wall, I’ve had plenty of beer.

“How is he holding up?” she asked , nodding to Mordecai. He was breathing very hard, but not coughing, and his expression was tight with pain.

“Reasonably,” said Auntie Enora. “Although I was just about ready to stop you. I think he has had about enough. It really started to hurt him about an hour ago, but he’s been very good about staying where I’ve put him.”

“Where have you put him?”

Erik shrugged. “Here, but different.” He smiled. “You’ve been very good about taking care of him while he’s here, Miz Hyacinth. It’s really a shame about the metal. He’s never going to be quite right.”

“But well enough that you’ll leave?” said Hyacinth, with venom what surprised even her. She didn’t like what Auntie Enora was doing to Erik. She hadn’t even liked what Auntie Enora did to Nina.

Erik nodded sagely. Well, Auntie Enora made him nod that way. “In due time, child.”

She made creamed asparagus on toast for Hyacinth. The asparagus was canned and the toast was alternately over-done and underdone, having been made on the stove, but Hyacinth was not going to be allowed up off the floor until she had eaten, and it really wasn’t that bad.

David had gotten her started on creamed asparagus on toast. The gods alone knew who had gotten him started on it. (It seemed like she just wasn’t going to be able to get away from David today.) He called it poor people food — because you could make it with the canned stuff, it was even a little bit better with the canned stuff — despite the bechamel. (Mordecai called that ‘basic white sauce’ and said it was not impressive. “Hollandaise is impressive.”)

Milo came in when she was about halfway through it and knelt immediately at her side and put arms around her to hold her up.

Hyacinth snickered and shook her head. “No, I’m all right. I’m just being managed. Auntie Enora wants me to quit helping for a while.”

Erik returned from his brief visit to the alley. He was doing up the top button on his pants. “The size of this child’s bladder is unfortunate,” Auntie Enora complained. “Oh, Mister Milo. I was hoping you’d be home, soon.” Erik smiled. “Do you think you’d be able to help Miz Hyacinth to bed? Just as soon as she’s done, there. I was willing to try it, myself, but you see how I am.” Erik spread his arms. Auntie Enora meant how short he was, but Hyacinth couldn’t help noticing he was a little bit wobbly when he did that. He mounted the step stool and attended to the pot on the stove. “I have a little bit left, here. Mister Milo, I don’t suppose…” Erik’s hand slipped. The pot upended itself and clattered to the floor.

Hyacinth said, “Gods!” Milo gave a little gasp and put a hand over his mouth.

Erik regarded them for a moment, then he looked down at the pot and smiled. “Oh, I am so dreadfully clumsy. I’m sorry. That was my fault. I’ll get it.”

“Auntie Enora, is Erik…?” said Hyacinth.

“No-no. Erik is just fine. That was all me. I assure you.” He smiled at them. “Did I startle you, Mister Milo?”

Milo nodded. Hyacinth could feel him shaking.

“Oh, I am very sorry about that. Truly.” Erik wet a dishtowel and began to mop up the floor. “I expect you startle easily.”

Milo nodded.

“Miz Hyacinth, why don’t you just try to finish there and Mister Milo can help you to bed and get changed if he wants to?”

Hyacinth regarded Milo, and then Auntie Enora. What’s going on here? Are you screwing with him? Are you testing him? Did you do that to see if he’d scream?

Hyacinth was very much beginning to empathize with Mordecai’s view of the gods. She frowned at Auntie Enora, but there wasn’t anything she wanted to say in front of Milo. She ate quickly so that he could help her to bed and get changed. She had a feeling Ann would hold up better under any other experiments Auntie Enora wanted to try.

Lying in bed, Hyacinth saw tessellating metal folds on the ceiling until she fell asleep, and then she dreamed about them.

———

Mordecai was away from them the rest of the day. He slept and spoke softly, not really so you could understand him, though sometimes Auntie Enora would answer him. Occasionally, incongruously, he laughed.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” Hyacinth asked him finally. He was even smiling a little, it was faint, but it was there.

“Yes,” he replied. “But I’m lying on the cot in the dining room and you’ve got me so high on cough syrup I don’t care.”

Hyacinth frowned thunderously at Auntie Enora. “He got hooked on that stuff, you know. He had to have it because he was healing, but it wasn’t good for him.”

Erik smiled at her and shook his head. “That won’t happen again, dear. It’s just something nice he remembers, and it’s safe.”

Mordecai sighed, relieved and contented. “Erik’s all right.”

“Yes,” said Hyacinth. Where he was, Erik was all right. Where she was, Erik was sunken and hollow, with dirty clothing that used to fit him now hanging awkwardly and trousers that kept needing to be hitched up. He had started to wander slightly when Auntie Enora wanted to get from one place to another, and Hyacinth had been concerned on multiple occasions that he was going to wobble right off that step stool. Oh, but he was holding up very well.

Hyacinth could only hope that Mordecai would do as well. And very quickly, please.

———

‘Quickly’ didn’t seem to be an option, although with Auntie Enora helping, he was surely doing better than he would have alone. He might not have survived such an extensive remodel alone. He had a lot more gold in him now, two whole bracelets, and he needed time to adapt.

It was almost like when she had fixed him the first time, and Hyacinth kept an eye out for the same symptoms in roughly the same span. She didn’t want it to last more than three days and she was hoping for less.

For that first day, what remained of it, he was just gone. Pained, but soft, and high on cough syrup he had taken seven years ago. Auntie Enora made no attempt at food or water and occasionally gave him sips of medicine when he was breathing in the right direction. Early the next morning he started to shiver, and he was like that on and off for most of the second day. He didn’t want blankets, or any touching at all, but they tried to keep one on him so he wouldn’t get chilled. He didn’t want food, either, but Auntie Enora was much more successful in coaxing him than Hyacinth had been. He had water and medicine and cold chicken bouillon and he didn’t like any of it. But he didn’t cry or talk, he rested. On the third day, he was starting to come back to them. Auntie Enora still kept him from being bothered about Erik, or anything except getting well, but he knew where he was and when. He still wasn’t exactly fond of food, but he managed a little soup and he didn’t seem to mind it being warm. He drank lots of ice water, he would’ve had nothing but that, if they’d let him. For dinner, he asked for a poached egg on toast.

He was back on solids in under three days. After she’d fixed him the first time, Hyacinth hadn’t been able to negotiate real food into him for over a week. It was faster. But he was still weak, and exhausted, and he couldn’t sit up unless you held him. It was nothing that Hyacinth couldn’t have managed herself, especially with the medicine that kept him from coughing, but Auntie Enora did not delegate, and as he approached thirteen days with no food and no sleep, Erik was still somehow able to hold her.

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