Force of Nature (61)

Mordecai with mixing bowl looking unhinged. Captioned Today on the Unhinged Gourmet: Anything is an Ingredient if You're Brave Enough!

[Author’s Note: Here we go…]

Milo opened his door at five in the morning and detected breakfast. Possibly pancakes. Definitely something to do with eggs and sugar. He smiled without thinking and made his way down the tiled stairs.

He had every right to expect just breakfast, with a bowl or a pot tipped over on top of it to keep it warm, and maybe some dirty dishes which he would happily do. He did not expect all the kitchen lights on and Mordecai taking things out of the oven and smiling at him and talking to him.

“Milo! Good morning!”

Milo ran out of the kitchen and, after a panicked instant of consideration, all the way into the basement. The mage lights they had stuck to the ceiling flickered on when they detected movement. He turned when he hit the worktable and latched on to it with both hands as he monitored the staircase for a further incursion of social interaction. No one came.

Okay. All right. That was scary, but it’s okay.

So, he could either sneak out of the house and go wait at the bus stop for an hour until the first bus showed up, or he could try to go back into the kitchen and obtain the breakfast he was smelling.

It smelled really good. There seemed to be cinnamon and vanilla involved.

Maybe he left what he took out of the oven and went back to bed?

No, that was really unlikely. If he was going to make a go for the breakfast, he had to be ready for more smiling and talking.

Reserving the right to run out and go stand at the bus stop where it was quiet and safe, he crept up the basement stairs and had another look in the kitchen. He held onto the doorframe with both hands and peeped past it, just eyes and nose and glasses.

Mordecai picked up the conversation as if it had never been broken off, “Do you want pancakes or bread pudding?” He was fully dressed, with shoes and vest and tie, though the tie was slightly askew. There were white smears on the vest that could’ve been flour or powdered sugar. He was doing something with powdered sugar at the moment, employing the mixer in the middle-sized bowl. A faint sweet cloud was rising above it. “I was going to just make eggy bread, the bread was stale, but then I thought, well, we have a stove and an oven, and there were enough eggs for both. Would you like something else? I think I saw a tin of corned beef in the pantry. Would you like corned beef hash? We have some potatoes…” He abandoned the mixer in the bowl and wandered into the pantry. “I should’ve done applesauce in the pancakes. I could’ve made you an omelet! I’m going to have to get some more eggs. Is it too early to get more eggs? I suppose it’s still dark outside. Damn it. Why don’t we have chickens? I miss Jim.” They didn’t have to go out and get milk all the time when Jim was living there. You got used to it being warm.

He poked his head out of the pantry and once again scared the hell out of Milo, who had taken advantage of the fact that Mordecai was no longer looking at him to approach the bread pudding and investigate it with a fork, “Milo, do you want cereal?”

Milo dropped his fork on the table with a clatter. He shook his head and crossed both hands in front of him. He pointed at the spongy substance in the casserole that smelled of sugar and cinnamon and vanilla. I will have this! Please stop talking to me about things you would like me to eat!

There seemed to be way too much talking coming out of Mordecai, but Milo supposed that might just be because Mordecai kept scaring him and wasn’t giving him any time to calm down.

Mordecai approached, still smiling, and dished him two large spoons of bread pudding on a plate. Milo accepted this with difficulty. He could’ve done that. He would’ve rather done that. He picked up his fork and attempted to retreat to the kitchen counter.

“Milo, would you like hard sauce?” Mordecai asked him, and Milo dropped his plate on the floor.

“Oh, that’s perfectly all right!” Mordecai said. He went after another plate and ignored the mess on the floor, which Milo was on his hands and knees attempting to collect. “There’s plenty more. Anything that helps empty the casserole. I think I’d like to do a cake. Or maybe a lasagna. We should really have more than one casserole. Do you suppose those glass pots can go in the oven?” He dished Milo another helping of bread pudding and spooned hard sauce out of the bowl with the mixer. “Here. Go on.”

Milo had just got through scooping a certain amount of bread pudding and broken plate into the trash with his bare hands. He was sticky. He regarded the plate suspiciously, and then Mordecai.

“Would you rather have something else?” the red man said.

Milo broadly shook his head. He snatched the plate and ran into the basement with it.

He crawled under the worktable and ate facing the basement stairs. He had to lift the plate and take bites directly off of it because Mordecai had neglected to give him a fork.

Oh, gods, it was good. It was so soft. It melted. There was some kind of butter-sugar substance drizzled on top of it that he would’ve eaten all by itself. With a spoon. He licked the plate.

Okay. Do I want to just leave the plate down here and run off to work where it’s safe or do I want to go back in the kitchen and try to have more of that?

Mordecai was in the kitchen. Mordecai would not stop talking to him. And smiling.

Milo went back in the kitchen and presented the terrifying, smiling man with his empty plate.

He got more bread pudding, and some pancakes. Mordecai also attempted to feed him corned beef hash, but Milo was very full by then and he thought if he got any more scared he was going to throw up. He shook his head, refused multiple permutations of food, backed out of the kitchen door and staggered down the back steps. He was missing his coat and he had neglected to wash the bread pudding off of his hands.

He couldn’t run, he’d had too much breakfast.

———

The General awoke at seven and changed out of her nightdress, then attempted to change into an eagle for a breakfast of pigeons. A painful crackle of purple light enveloped her, and she felt the sickening give of a failed transmutation. It was like being hit in the chest with a sledgehammer. She gasped and coughed out a mouthful of brown feathers.

“Mom?” said Magnificent, blinking awake.

Still choking, the General staggered to the open window and peered out of it, craning her head to see past the close-knit buildings. There was the faintest thread of purple gathering on the horizon.

“We will have no lessons in magic today, Magnificent,” she said. She coughed again and plucked a fragment of down from her tongue.

“Hey, great,” Maggie said with a grin.

“We will study science and mathematics for as long as possible,” the General continued.

“Oh,” Maggie said with a frown. “Great.”

“I am afraid we must both avail ourselves of breakfast downstairs.”

Upon leaving the room, it seemed like breakfast downstairs was already in progress, judging from the smell. There was also the sound of dishes clattering in the kitchen.

“He’s not playing the ‘cello,” Maggie said. She peeked over the banister in the direction of Room 102. “Or, the violin, I mean.”

“It seems he has decided to cook instead,” the General said. She sighed. “I hope whatever it is is not too disagreeable. I doubt he will let us get away without eating it.”

Maggie’s grin returned. “It smells amazing.”

The General sniffed. “It smells like empty calories.”

“Hey, I could use some of those!” Maggie said. She tore down the stairs and into the kitchen.

———

When Milo left his park bench at eight-forty-five to start his shift at nine, he was greeted with locked doors and a paper sign pasted in front of them.

Closed. Magic weather.

Milo gasped and looked up at the horizon. A faint purple line was visible, and thickening.

But he wasn’t playing the ‘cello!

They always knew when there was going to be magic weather. They lived with a barometer! Violoncello at five in the AM or earlier (or, he guessed it was violin now) meant a storm in the offing. He’d wake Hyacinth and they’d ground the house and start getting it ready for the shelter.

Oh, gods, the house wasn’t grounded. And Hyacinth couldn’t do that by herself. The poles were too heavy.

No! My radio!

Not just the radio. Everything in the house. Everything. Even the hinges were stuck on with magic. The roof was.

Milo turned and ran for the bus.

———

Hyacinth woke up at nine and got going reluctantly at nine-thirty. When she opened her bedroom door, she was also immediately aware of breakfast. When she traipsed into the kitchen, smiling, she became immediately aware of eggs.

There were eight egg cartons piled on the kitchen table. Two of them had already been opened and emptied. There was also a layer cake with chocolate frosting, several bricks of white and yellow cheese, and a blue plate with grated cheese heaped on top of it. There were various plates and bowls on the kitchen counters as well. One of them had cookies on it. One of them had muffins. She could not readily identify anything else. There were a lot of semi-solid substances.

It all smelled amazing.

Mordecai was dishing wedges of something yellow out of a pie tin and on to a paper towel.

“Hyacinth!” he cried. “Thank gods you’re here! Please eat something. I’ve run out of dishes.”

“Mordecai, what are you doing?” she said.

“Eggs and cheese!” he said. He held up the cookbook and grinned. “There’s a whole section! Have you ever had quiche? Do you know how many kids of quiche there are? I’m going to make a soufflé! I’ve always been afraid to try making a soufflé. They’re so delicate. Look! There’s a recipe for a chocolate one! …What?” Hyacinth had crossed the room and was laying her hand on his forehead.

“Well, you’re not sick,” she said with a puzzled frown.

He laughed at her. “Of course I’m not sick. I feel fine. I’m better than fine!” He presented her with a plate. “Please eat the rest of this bread pudding. I don’t think chocolate soufflé can go on a paper towel.”

Hyacinth set Mordecai gently aside and looked past him out the kitchen window. It was hard to tell colors through the window, because the merged glass was all different colors and textures, but there were dark billowing clouds on the horizon. “Oh, fuck me, we’re going to get a storm.”

“Really?” said Mordecai. He laughed again. “Hey, great! There’ll be more people to eat all the food! Do you think I should make a turkey? I’ve got to go back to the store!”

“No, you’ve got to stay put in the house, you goddamned loon,” Hyacinth said. “Where’s Erik?” If Mordecai was like this, she was going to have to scrape Erik off the ceiling. She had to get the house ready, and fast, but she needed to be certain Erik wasn’t screwing around outside.

Mordecai blinked and considered. “Sleeping…?” he offered.

———

Erik was in bed, but not sleeping. When Hyacinth spoke he didn’t answer, but when she pulled down the blanket he was there, shivering. He was soaked in sweat. His hair was plastered to his head and his one gray eye was glazed and staring.

He sobbed a weak breath. “Dying,” he said faintly.

Hyacinth shook her head. “No, honey, you’re not. It’s going to be okay. It’s just a storm. I’m going to get you a fire blanket. I’ll be right back, I promise.”

The blankets were in the basement with the spare cots and the stone rods. They had anti-magic enchantments on them. Several each. Strong ones. During a magic storm, the atmosphere itself was charged. Spells, charms and enchantments overloaded and malfunctioned, but that was just the practical application. There were people out there who ran on magic, and they were overloading and malfunctioning, too.

Erik’s particular disorder had always been of the happy sort. He just got like they’d been feeding him nothing but cocaine and sugar for the past few days. Even as a baby, when he pretty much cried all the time, during magic storms he laughed, and he stayed awake, even though they could go longer than twenty-four hours. But he had recently been rewired in a traumatic fashion, and apparently it changed the way he reacted to the storms as well as the other stuff.

Hyacinth snatched two blankets off the pile and ran back upstairs with them.

“Here, honey. Let’s double up.” Two blankets was the maximum. If you added more, the enchantments failed to stack. It was just adding more weight. Hyacinth drew him into her lap and wrapped him in both.

“Hurts,” he whispered.

“I know. Just give it a little. It’s going to get better.” The gods alone knew how long he’d been lying there like that. He couldn’t cry out. The poor kid was sicker than Seth.

Erik wept softly.

“Honey? Is it better or worse?”

“Better,” Erik managed. “I… was… scared.”

“I know. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” She hugged him.

“Everything… hurts,” he said.

“Yeah. Do you feel like you’re going to throw up?” Seth always did that, no matter what medicine they poured into him. It was an uphill battle keeping him hydrated for the duration.

Erik tried to think about that. He just felt horrible. It was hard to put labels on things. His insides were all twisted. His brain didn’t even want to work. It felt like someone was squeezing his heart. He wanted to cry and laugh and be sick all at the same time. “I… guess.”

“I’m going to get you some medicine.” She wriggled out from under him and lay him back down in the bed. “I won’t leave you alone for long.”

Erik nodded, frowning, with his eye closed. He looked pinched and pale, with bruised patches under his eye and the empty socket. “Okay. Please hurry.”

———

Hyacinth took him by both shoulders and turned him around. “Mordecai, stop cooking,” she said.

“Stop cooking?” he said, clutching the spoon. He was wounded. No. Do you really mean that? It was as if she had said, ‘Mordecai, drown yourself in the laundry bucket.’

“Yes. I need you to sit with Erik. He’s miserable. It’s the storm. I’m going to bring him medicine, but I can’t sit with him. I have to get the house in order. I need you to sit with Erik. Is any of this getting through?”

“Stop cooking?” he said. But he needed to fold in the egg whites!

“Mordecai, Erik is hurt right now. The weather is hurting Erik. He needs you to help him.”

“Help Erik?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Right now?”

“Yes.”

Painfully, he set the spoon down on the counter. “Okay.”

“Thank you,” said Hyacinth. “He’s in the bedroom. I’ll be there in a minute. I just have to do him some pills.”

Mordecai backed out of the kitchen, nodding. Help Erik. Okay. I’ll have to do some more egg whites… Not right now. Gonna help Erik right now. In the bedroom. Okay…

When Hyacinth rushed in a few minutes later with a glass of water and a scant handful of pills, Mordecai was sitting in the bed with a bundled Erik in his lap. They looked like a couple of refugees. He appeared serious and fairly normal (you couldn’t tell what Erik appeared because of the blankets) but what he said was, “Hyacinth. The oven. There’s a casserole in the oven.”

“Right,” she said. “Well, I’ll get it out.” She knelt down next to Erik. “Here, honey. Can you take these?”

“It needs two more turns on the timer.”

“Okay, I’ll get it out then.” She gave Erik one at a time and helped him sip water.

Mordecai reached out a hand and touched her shoulder. “Do you swear?”

“Yes, Mordecai. I promise you, I will rescue your casserole. I know what it means to you.”

Mordecai, I don’t care if your casserole catches on fire, she thought, smiling at him. I’ll just throw some baking soda at it and then pitch it into the alley.

“Thank you so much, Hyacinth.”

She sighed. She really wanted to put Erik in the basement, she thought he’d do better there, but if she tried to put him there now, Mordecai would have to go past the kitchen, and she didn’t think he’d make it.

You know, it was easier when you shut yourself in your room and played the ‘cello, she thought. What the hell happened?

He didn’t used to cook, not at all. She was aware that he could, but he seemed so fundamentally opposed to the idea that she let him get away with not doing it. Sanaam had gotten him started on it again this past winter, just to pry him out of the bedroom. Apparently he either liked it, or it was a better use of magic than a singing instrument.

Mordecai was just so low-powered, he never had need of fire blankets, but he needed to do something. It was like the grounding rod discharging. Innate magic-users never had any trouble doing magic during the storms, it was stopping or controlling it that was the problem. Sanity and common sense went right out the window. The city provided grounding rods and shelters because that was safer than having a bunch of cackling maniacs roaming the streets on fire, attracting magic strikes and blowing things up. The city did not provide things like food or beds or toilets, or any other human needs. The city did not care if Erik thought he was dying or Seth puked until he passed out, or half the shelter population impregnated the other half in ill-considered unions.

Fortunately, Hyacinth did.

At least we’re not going to have any trouble with food this time, she thought. Although it might all be eggs and cheese.

The first order of business was getting the grounding rod up. She did not yell for Milo. Yelling for Milo did not work. She checked the basement and his room, but he was gone, and there was no Ann, either. Yeah. Mordecai hadn’t been playing the ‘cello, so Milo took off for work. That would explain why he didn’t wake her earlier. Hopefully he would notice the weather and come home soon. But, for the moment, she needed another pair of hands to help her on the roof, and there was only one set available.

She is going to be so ticked that she can’t just magic it up there, Hyacinth thought, rapping on the General’s door.

“Yes?” She was wearing a dark green dress and holding her place in a thick book with one finger.

Maggie was sitting in a chair in the room. She turned and looked hopeful.

“I need your help. Milo’s not home and I have to ground the house.”

“Can’t you just…” the General said wearily, then she put a hand to her head and sighed. “No. I suppose there is no one else competent.” Erik and Mordecai could do magic, but she would not have trusted either of them under normal circumstances. Now? You might as well ask a yogurt cup. “All right. I will assist you.”

“Yes!” said Maggie, upstarting.

“Magnificent, there is no need for you to abandon your lessons. Hyacinth will not require me for long.”

“I need all the hands I can get, sir,” Hyacinth replied. “We’re getting a late start on this. Maggie, can you do cots and chamber pots?” The cots were a bit heavy for her, but she might be able to move one at a time. Certainly she could set up the bathrooms.

It sucked that they didn’t have plumbing, but it did mean that they could decentralize the toilets as needed. The regulars from the neighborhood were used to it, and anyone else who wandered in would have to get used to it.

Magnificent straightened and saluted. “Sir!”

The General sighed.

The three of them went down to the basement.

———

The grounding rods were in a cardboard box under the basement stairs. They came six in a box and there were five remaining in this one. The box was magicked, it had to be, otherwise it would’ve torn itself open and herniated discs in anyone who tried to move the damn thing. The rods were magicked as well, but nothing to do with weight and convenience, there was no room for that. The magic on them was layered and reinforced and served a single purpose: to absorb and safely discharge (sometimes skywards but usually down to the ground) strikes of raw elemental magic.

They had been made with magic, stonework. Many small pieces merged together into a whole, and shaped. They were vaguely conical, needle-thin at the top, each a little over four feet long with a threaded protrusion at the bottom for screwing into the base. These were quartz crystal, but jade and amethyst and amber worked as well. Things like beryl or sapphire might also have done the trick, but would have been stupidly expensive. Grounding rods broke, that was why they came six in a box. You might need two or three for a single storm. They did perfectly well with single strikes, but sometimes there were double strikes. Another bolt of magic might hit before the previous one was discharged, attracted to the radiation of the first, and there was no spell in existence that could take that. The rods would disintegrate back into the individual stones from which they had been formed. They were designed to do so, as this would safely discharge the double strike, and get rid of the large amount of magic that would attract more. Then you had to get back on the roof and slot another one in before more magic hit. A triple strike, while theoretically possible, was never something Hyacinth had to deal with. If ungrounded magic should strike the house for any reason, it would fry everything magical inside, including the people. This would not kill the people, not even the hypersensitive ones like Erik and Seth, but it would unhinge most of them and surely set some on fire — despite the blankets. ‘On fire,’ in this context, meant lit up with raw magic. Auntie Enora had set Erik on fire a couple of times. It was not painful or deadly, but it was inadvisable to give crazy people unlimited access to reality-bending power. They did not tend to use it well.

The fire blankets and the spare cots were also under the stairs, folded and stacked, and a few extra chamber pots. The upstairs and downstairs bathrooms would be supplied with soap and water and a couple of pots, as well as the coat closet in the front room and the pantry in the kitchen. There would also be one left under the basement stairs, and one right next to Seth’s cot, because he threw up a lot.

Hyacinth hoped Erik wasn’t going to need anything like that. He hadn’t thrown up yet… that she was aware of. She’d have to check on him later and see.

“Maggie, do the bathrooms first, they’re lighter,” Hyacinth advised. (She was going to need more water, too, damn it. Setting up the bathrooms would practically empty the cement flower pot.) “Need some help with that, sir?” she asked the General, who was crouching beside the cardboard box.

“It is… somewhat awkward,” the woman admitted, attempting to get her hands under one rod. They rested closely against each other and were quite smooth. She was also used to throwing magic at problems like this. She was not a weak person, though she was not in optimal physical shape to go right back into battle as a human being. (Her eagle form got more exercise, that was just the nature of the thing. It was more convenient.) However, she did not have large hands or a great deal of upper body strength. If she could’ve picked up the thing by a handle and rested it against one hip, she would’ve had no trouble with it.

Or if she could’ve just used some damn magic.

She managed to get a grip on the thin end and the threaded end and hefted the rod out of the box. Hyacinth put her hands under the middle bit and was of zero assistance. The General glared at her.

“All right, fine,” said Hyacinth. She held up her hands and backed off.

The General slowly and heavily climbed the basement stairs, cradling the crystal rod like a wounded soldier. She had to turn sideways to keep it from banging into the wall and the banister. She moved like a terrapin.

Hyacinth had no desire to get banged in the face by a four-foot-long stone rod or rolled over by one. She waited until the General was all the way up the stairs and on reasonably level ground in the front room before rushing up after her and past her to pull down the stairs to the roof in Room 204. She heard ‘Damn it!’ and a clatter on the sweeping staircase behind her.

Oh, there goes some more broken tile, thought Hyacinth. She did not bother to look back. It would take her about as long to cope with the rickety stairs as it would take the General to cope with the rod. She had no idea how they were going to get the damn thing up to the top of the cupola. Milo and Ann could manage the rod and eeling their way up onto the roof from the railing. Ann could do it in driving rain and a dress (and nice red rubber boots with good gripping soles).

Hyacinth managed to hook the stairs in Room 204 and get them to engage, but naturally they failed to clack all the way to the bottom and lock into place. These ones were worse than the attic stairs because they didn’t get used as much. She planted both feet on the bottom stair, wrapped her hands around the banister on either side and began to bounce up and down with the full weight of her body. She didn’t have a lot of bodyweight to fling around and she had to go over and over again and time it like a swing. At last there was a loud snap and the bottom stair hit the floor and stuck there.

“Oh, gods,” said Hyacinth, shakily. She was always afraid the whole thing was going to collapse — with her on it.

When she checked out the door of Room 204, the General had progressed to the top of the front stairs. Hyacinth left the door wide open, nudged some boxes aside and thumped up the wooden staircase to the cupola to have a look at the sky.

It was blue and white above with angry bruised purple gathering to the east in stacked clouds that looked like cauliflower castles. Occasionally, a pink or lavender flicker lit up the bellies of the purple clouds. There was a gray smear in the distance that proved it was already raining over the harbor. It didn’t appear that the storm had hit downtown yet, but it was gathering fast. And you didn’t always have to have clouds overhead to get a strike.

It was not possible to go over all the things in the house that relied on magic to function, but Hyacinth anxiously listed a few of them. The toaster. The radio. The patch on the roof. The hinges. Repel charm on the cement bucket to keep out the bugs and lint. The attic stairs. The roof stairs. Patches in the basement stairs. Do we have magic holding down some of the loose tile? I think we do… Mordecai’s table is merged back together because the General broke it in half. Ann and Milo’s bed is merged together, no nails. My bed. The General’s bed. All the cots…

The clouds gathered and flashed. A bolt in bright purple like a jagged fey light struck in the distance.

Panting somewhat, the General staggered up the last few stairs and into the cupola. She tipped the rod sideways and rested it against the railing, which was painted in red and green stripes and puzzle pieces. It creaked in protest but held.

Is the railing held on with magic? Hyacinth wondered.

The General put both hands on it and leaned on it as well. She regarded the sky and then the conical cupola roof. “Must I resort to a ladder for the final few feet of this journey?”

“There isn’t one,” Hyacinth said. “Ann and Milo just step up on the railing and boost themselves up.”

Boost themselves up?” said the General. She eyed the railing suspiciously. It was a good four feet between the edge of it and edge of the roof. Ann and Milo were six feet tall — Ann was taller in heels, which was a perfectly ridiculous height for a woman to be, in the General’s estimation. She herself was maybe two inches above five feet, with shoes on.

“I will attempt it,” she said.

Hyacinth offered her a hand up.

“That will not be necessary.” There were columns to hang on to. The General experienced only slight difficulty in mounting the railing and balancing there. She could now sort of see the roof where she wanted to be. There was a threaded stone well at the central peak of the cupola where the screw end of the rod would fit securely and exactly. She clutched the lip of the roof with both hands and pulled herself up. She managed a few inches, lifted one foot off the railing and flopped an elbow on to the gritty tar-paper surface, before losing all traction and sliding back down to the railing. Her black laced shoes stumbled and clattered, before she attained balance again.

There was not only a height problem here, there was an agility problem. Ann and Milo were tall, with proportionately long limbs, and the ability to use them. Ann did choreography and dancing. The General was built like a brick. She also knew how to use that, but its primary function was throwing it at people or using it as a pivot point.

Why don’t we have ladders? she thought, snarling her way through another attempt. Even the damned trenches had ladders!

She failed again, thumped back to the railing and coughed out a mouthful of brown feathers, which Hyacinth noted drifting down.

Ha, she thought, grinning. Somebody screwed up trying to be a bird this morning.

“Are you positive we have no ladders?” the General asked her.

“Not positive,” Hyacinth said with a shrug. She wasn’t positive they didn’t have a flying carpet or a dragon. They had a lot of old boxes.

“Please see if you can locate one. And make a cursory search of the house for Ann and Milo as well. It is possible they have returned home while we have been engaging in this foolishness.” She growled and made another go at the roof.

“Right, sir,” said Hyacinth.

———

As Hyacinth was emerging from Room 204, Barnaby was lightly stepping off the attic staircase. He was dressed. He was wearing a black double-breasted suit with gray pinstripes, a white silk shirt, a gray vest and a purple tie with paisleys. This was all a bit old and dusty, and there was some moth damage to the suit. The shoes were creased and cracking with loose soles.

He even had socks. He had combed his hair.

He had also hung a pasteboard sign around his neck by a string. It had a newsprint picture of a slot machine on it, which he had altered with a pencil so that all the slots were showing zeros. He had written across the whole thing in large dark letters: OUT OF SERVICE.

“Oh, Barnaby, thank gods,” said Hyacinth. “I forgot all about you.”

“Magic storm,” he said, smiling. He kicked loose the bottom stair, grabbed it with both hands when it came up and sent the whole business ratcheting back into the ceiling.

“I don’t suppose you have any idea if we’ve got a ladder in the house?”

“None whatsoever,” he answered blissfully. He lifted the sign.

“I was sort of hoping you might just remember one,” Hyacinth said.

“No. No, not in the least.”

“Right.” She sighed. “Will you go up on the roof and help the General? We have to ground the house and I don’t think Milo is home to help.”

“Not Ann or Milo?” Barnaby said, blinking.

“No. He went to work. Mordecai wasn’t playing the ‘cello. I mean, the violin.”

“How extraordinary,” Barnaby said. “What is he doing, then?”

“Cooking.”

“Cooking!” Barnaby considered it. “What is he cooking?” He was still smiling.

Hyacinth groaned. “Barnaby, I know you are just thrilled to have to ask people questions again, but would you please get up on the roof and ask questions there? I need to ground the house! I’m going to have another look for Ann or Milo, in case they’ve gotten home.”

“I wonder what sort of strange adventure awaits me on the roof?” Barnaby said mildly, ambling off.

Hyacinth checked Ann and Milo’s room. No one there. There was another patch of brown feathers on the stairs, which she nearly slipped on. Magnificent was coming up from the basement, dragging a cot.

“No one down there with you?” Hyacinth called to her.

“Nope!” Maggie said.

“Damn it,” said Hyacinth. Just to be sure (and also to make certain Mordecai hadn’t gone back in there) she checked the kitchen. No one there, either. She braved the weird smell of Room 103 and had a quick rifle through the boxes in search of a ladder or ladder-like object. It wouldn’t be in a box, she was sure, but among the boxes, which might make it a bit easier. There didn’t appear to be anything, but the light wasn’t great, in spite of the bay window. There were some dead mage lights in one of the boxes, but she had no hope of getting those going again now, even if she could jury-rig an enchantment. She’d just make little glass bombs.

She went back upstairs and had a look through Room 204. That netted her a folded stepladder, but she wasn’t sure if it was any improvement over the height of the railing. She took it up to the roof anyway, hoping to find progress being made up there.

She found Barnaby being trodden on up there. He was standing on the roof, bent over, shaking, clutching the railing with both hands, and wincing in pain. There were shoe prints on his coat. Also, shoes. Two black ones with moderate square heels and laces.

“Please come down and take off the shoes!” he cried.

“No,” the General replied, above. One shoe was lifted and clunked on the roof. Barnaby was of notable improvement over the height of the railing.

“You’re killing me!” he said.

“Sir, for gods’ sakes!” said Hyacinth. She put hands on Barnaby’s chest and attempted to press him upright. She thought she felt him give, like rotten wood.

The second shoe pushed up from his shoulder and found purchase on the roof. Barnaby groaned and collapsed over the railing like a damp towel.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Hyacinth demanded of them.

“I wasn’t thinking about the shoes,” Barnaby wheezed.

“He is tall,” the General replied, above. “But he is not strong enough to climb up here and pull the rod after him. So we did it this way.”

“He is seventy-five!” Hyacinth cried.

“I am on the roof,” the General countered. “Do you think that between the two of you, you can manage to hand me the rod?”

“Gods, no!” said Hyacinth. She was still trying to collect Barnaby.

“Then I suggest you go downstairs and call Magnificent. If she cannot provide enough assistance, we may need to ask Mordecai as well.”

Hyacinth spent a few minutes swearing and dragging at Barnaby’s lapels with clenched fingers to express her displeasure with the situation, but eventually she went downstairs and called Magnificent. Barnaby was somewhat recovered by the time they came up. Hyacinth was not real in love with the idea of pushing a fragile old man to his physical limit, but they really needed to ground the house and she knew she had some muscle relaxants in her doctor bag, so she allowed him to damage himself further by assisting with the rod. They employed the stepladder. Somehow, between the three of them, they got it up there. The General pulled it up with her, ended up lying pinned beneath it, and somehow negotiated it into the grooved stone well. Once it was resting in place, she was easily able to screw it in.

The house was safe, at least for the moment.

“Mr. Graham, if you would like to assist me in getting down?”

“Not with those shoes!” he cried.

“Not at all,” said Hyacinth. She pulled Barnaby away from the railing and put arms around him. “Jump down. It’s not far if you slide off feet first.”

“I should have gotten into my uniform,” the General said. She slid down from the cupola roof, exposing knee-high stockings and slip to anyone in the neighborhood who might happen to be looking up at the time. She landed in an awkward crouch, no levitation spells possible to soften landings, and climbed back over the railing.

Hyacinth had already abandoned Barnaby and gone to put out the sign.

———

The sign was also under the basement stairs. She hadn’t dared put it out before they got the rod up — if they couldn’t get the rod up or if they took a strike before they got the rod up, they would not be a shelter at all. Everyone would have had to go down to the one on Pine Street, or Kelly Avenue.

The sign was on a sandwich board. One each side was an orange pentagon with a black lightning bolt in the center. It proclaimed ‘SHELTER’ in large black letters on a yellow background. It was not possible to magic the thing to light up or do anything else more visible. It would attract strikes if they did that. She kicked over the plywood board that was serving them as a gate and set the sign in the cobbled street.

A yellow man who was attempting to cross from the other side of the street called out and waved at her. “Hyacinth! Are you open?”

“Yes, Ted!” she called back. “We just got a bit of a late start on it! Bring the family!”

He nodded and ran off.

———

There were already five cots set up in the front room, with blankets on them. That meant Maggie had finished with the bathrooms. They were going to need more water and she ought to get a pot of tea going for Seth (if he should mange to stagger in on his own) but with the rod up and the sign out, she considered Erik and Mordecai to be the next order of importance.

Erik was curled up in bed under the two blankets, just a small lump making unhappy noises. Mordecai was pacing from the wall to the closet, past Erik, over the rug, with his arms folded across his chest. Occasionally he would stroke his own shoulders or shake his head.

“Hyacinth,” he said, when she opened the door. His expression was miserable. “I can’t. I can’t. I know I have to, but I can’t.” He couldn’t even think straight. He had to keep reminding himself. About Erik. Because he wanted to go back in the kitchen and cook things. Eggs and cheese. And the next section was desserts! A cheesecake. He could make a cheesecake. They didn’t have a springform pan, but it could probably go in the casserole. He’d have to sub something for the crust, oil for butter, and…

No. Stop it. Stop it. You don’t have to do that. You have to help Erik.

But he didn’t know how. He wasn’t even totally sure what was wrong. He knew Hyacinth told him what it was, but when he tried to think about it, he could only pull up more cooking.

Maybe he’s hungry? I could make lunch…

“Mordecai,” Hyacinth touched him and stopped him. “It’s all right. I know you can’t. It’s not your fault. Thank you for staying with him.”

“Oh?” He nodded. “Uh-huh.”

“Did he throw up at all? Do you know?”

“Throw up?” He shook his head. “No. He…” He looked back at the shivering form under the blanket. “Erik is sick.”

“Yes, but it’s all right. I can take care of him.”

“Should I make soup?” he asked her.

“Go back in the kitchen and make whatever you like,” she said.

He smiled at her with evident relief. “Hyacinth, thank you so much.” He left without even a ‘goodbye’ in Erik’s direction.

But it really wasn’t his fault. Hyacinth was surprised he had lasted as long as he did. She knelt at Erik’s bedside and hugged him and helped him to sit up. “Honey, how are you holding up?”

“Hurts,” Erik said weakly. But he pulled back and looked at her. “My uncle keeps talking about food.”

“It’s just the storm,” said Hyacinth. “He still loves you, he just needs to do stuff right now.”

“Do I hafta have the food?” Erik said. Affection was not foremost in his mind at the moment, either. He was vaguely aware that he liked his uncle, but his uncle kept twitching and pacing and saying it was okay and asking if Erik wanted anything to eat. Erik wanted him to sit down and shut up and stop… stop existing so loudly! Everything hurt. His uncle was being too many things.

He didn’t even want a hug from that person. His uncle. It wouldn’t be a nice quiet hug. There would be talking and poking and food with the hug.

“No, you don’t have to eat anything if you don’t want to,” Hyacinth said. (Hyacinth was a lot calmer and quieter. Erik didn’t mind her as much.) “But I’m going to want you to drink something. We’ll figure out later what you’d like. If I can send someone to the store, I will. Right now, I want to get you down to the basement…”

Erik began to sob. He shook his head. “I don’t…. want to be… sick in the… basement!”

“Oh, honey,” said Hyacinth. She hugged him again. Erik had been sick in the basement for a long time — hurt, and then when he could get out of bed and sleep in his own room again, they still had to drag him back down there when he got too tired. He would talk and shout at them and try to get up and move, even kick them. It wasn’t really him doing that but he remembered it. It scared him. He hated it.

“It’s not like that,” she said gently. “You’re not broken or hurt… It hurts, but you’re not hurt. It’s just the storm. The basement is lower and farther away from the strikes. You’ll feel less sick there. That’s why I want you to go.”

“I… don’t… want… to be… sick… in the… basement!”

“You won’t be all by yourself. Seth will be there. You remember Seth, don’t you? He’s nice. He gets really sick during storms, too. You can keep each other company.”

“I… don’t… want… to… be… sick… in… the… basement!”

It took him almost a minute to get through that last iteration, groping for every word. She let him find them, even though she knew which ones he wanted. He needed to say it, he had so often been unable to say things, back when he really was sick. When he was through, she sighed and spoke again, “Honey. Please, can we just try it? If it doesn’t help or you’re too scared of it, we’ll come back up. I’ll just sit with you for a little and we’ll try it. Okay?”

If it does help and you’re too scared of it, I can always feed you a tranquilizer. I don’t think your uncle will notice.

“I don’t… want to be… sick in the… basement.” But it was much quieter this time, and not so slow. Hopeless.

She squeezed him tighter and wiped his eye with her hand. “If we go in the basement, you might not be sick.”

He sniffled and scrubbed his shirtsleeve across his face. “You… promise you won’t… leave me there if I… hate it?”

“I promise.”

“Okay.”

“Do you want your eye in?” she asked him. That might help him feel a bit better about it. There hadn’t been any eye when he was sick before.

He nodded.

She retrieved it from the jelly-glass on the table and handed it to him. When he reached out to take it, there was an audible snap and he cried out in pain. He dropped the eye in the bedclothes. It rolled a small distance and came to rest in a wrinkled valley.

Erik began to sob again.

“Oh, shit!” said Hyacinth. After her time as a medic and running the house during the siege and being an official shelter since the war, there wasn’t a whole lot she hadn’t seen, magic-wise. This sort of thing was more usual in people who had just been on fire, or were currently on fire (although they didn’t mind about it, then).

She picked up the eye and dropped it back in the glass. “Okay, no eye right now. I’m sorry, Erik. Was it like a shock?”

He nodded, crying and clutching his hand.

“Okay. I think that’s because it’s magic. Your eye is magic. It’s just because of the storm, but we need to be really careful now and not touch anything else…”

Oh, gods.

She recalled the list she had been going over before, of magic things in the house. Floor. Hinges. Furniture. Things that the storm could fry. Things that would now fry Erik.

Oh, crap. The whole place is booby trapped.

“Okay. All right. We are going to walk really carefully into the basement and you are not gonna open doors or touch anything. Do you think you can walk?” She didn’t want to carry him. She couldn’t do that very well and she’d done it a lot when he was being sick in the basement before. She thought if she asked Mordecai to do it, he might drop Erik or carry him into the kitchen — where the furniture was held together with magic and scattered all over the room. Asking Barnaby to heft another heavy object at this point might very well snap him in half, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to ask the General. Erik would hate being carried by her.

Erik thought he could walk. Hyacinth stuck close and put her hands on his shoulders to guide him (and to help hold the blankets in place). She opened doors and pushed things out of the way. It turned out they were holding down the broken tiles in some places with magic, but not obvious ones. They were like landmines. She should’ve put shoes on the kid, but she didn’t want to leave him and she sure as hell wasn’t going to turn him around. They kept going. Erik cried out and kept crying all the way down to the basement, and then Hyacinth did have to leave him — standing there with bare feet on the concrete, bundled in two blankets and bawling, because he couldn’t have a cot. She couldn’t bring him a chair, either. She stole blankets and pillows from his and his uncle’s bed and brought them down. She couldn’t move the mattress. She also brought him his patch. He had touched his metal socket trying to wipe his eye and that had zapped him, too. At least the patch would cover most of it and make it harder for that to happen again.

She made him a nest and she sat with him in it and held him and spoke gently to him until he calmed.

“It’s… awful,” he said weakly.

“I know, honey. I’m so, so sorry. Next time, we’ll have everything ready and we’ll know what you need. It won’t be like this ever again.”

Next… time?” Erik said. He began to sob again. So she held him again.

“Is it any better?” she asked him, when she felt he was breathing evenly enough to maybe reply.

Erik sighed. He nodded. He didn’t want it to be. He wanted upstairs and his own room and his own bed, but he could think down here. Upstairs, it was all just bad feeling. Here, he was beginning to absorb that this was the storm and it would only be for a day. That still seemed like a long, long time, but it was a lot less than when he had been hurt before. And it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t just him. Today, it was everyone. Hyacinth said he wouldn’t even have to be in the basement alone. She said Seth got sick like this, too.

If he had to feel horrible, it was nice to know that he could share it around. He knew that was mean, but it still made him feel better. He liked anything that made him feel better right now, even if it was only a little bit.

“I’ll have Milo bring down your whole bed first thing when he gets home, okay?” Hyacinth said.

Erik nodded. “Auntie Hyacinth, can I have my elephant?”

“Is it magic at all?” Hyacinth asked, frowning.

“I don’t think so,” he said. It had gold places on it, but he thought that was just sewn on, no mergers. It didn’t light up or play music or anything special like that, it just hugged real good.

“Sure. We’ll try it,” she said. “You want anything else? Your soldiers?”

He shook his head. He didn’t really want to play. He didn’t feel good enough for that. Just something to hold.

“Will you tell Maggie not to come? I don’t want loud.” He didn’t want her to see him being sick in the basement again, either. He was embarrassed of it, and he thought it might make her unhappy.

Hyacinth nodded to him. “Sure, honey.”

She brought him the elephant, then she said she was sorry and she had to go do things for the house, because there were going to be people, but she’d be back to check on him. Protest wasn’t really an option. Erik clutched his stuffed elephant, held the two fire blankets around him, sat in a nest of further blankets and pillows that did little to warm or soften the basement floor, and tried to be okay.

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