There were screams from multiple directions at once — including the basement and kitchen, and all the lights went out. This made little difference to visibility as all the flying food was glowing, the wheat field was, some of the rocks were, and some of the people were, too. The light was multi-colored and flickering crazily.
“Oh, shit,” said Hyacinth. She ran for her doctor’s bag. It was in the downstairs bath. She’d removed it from the kitchen with the other things Mordecai shouldn’t cook with. Sand was bad enough, but he could kill someone with a gauze and aspirin pie. She had to plow through the wheat field to find the door. The damn thing smelled like a wheat field. Grass, and earth, and it was warm. She did not meet Ted or Maria or Florian on the way out, but she wasn’t as worried about them, or about anyone else.
Barnaby was tearing in the front door with damp hair and a petrified expression as she was tearing down to the basement. He screamed at her, “Hyacinth, what the holy hell was that?”
“I don’t know!” she cried. “Put people out and put them back together! I have to check Seth and Erik!”
“The goddamn house is glowing!”
“I don’t care!”
Milo blew past her, carrying the last rod. The empty cardboard box was lying on the basement stairs. The lights down here had gone out, as well, but Erik was blazing like a bonfire. He was sitting up and sobbing with his face buried in his hands. Seth was lying sprawled with one hand clutched in the bedding. He was silent and still.
Oh, gods, did it kill him? the radio asked in Hyacinth’s voice.
She skidded to her knees without a care for the hard floor, dropped the black bag beside her with a clatter and made an urgent attempt to assess this.
I think he’s not dead. Erik’s voice, but not from Erik. If it had been Erik talking now, it would’ve taken him about a year to say anything.
No, he wasn’t dead. His pulse was faint and rapid and his breath was shallow. He had puked on the folded blanket and his cheek was against it. Hyacinth removed the blanket, made sure he was going to stay on his side in case he puked again, and then moved on to Erik.
Erik made a ragged sound, not quite a scream, and flung both arms around her. She put her arms around him, too. He was shuddering, gasping, and soaking wet. “Oh, honey, please,” she said. “I know you’re scared. Please let me check you. Let me see you…”
He shook his head and hid his eye against her. She gathered him into her lap.
“Are you hurt? Can you show me where it hurts?” She doubted he’d be able to tell her.
“Milo,” Erik said. He sobbed and clutched harder. “Milo… Milo… hurt…”
Milo was all bloody! the radio howled. There was a shriek of static at the end.
“Okay.” She squeezed Erik and rocked him. “I will fix Milo. I promise. But I think he’s okay, even if he’s hurt. He ran past me carrying a rod. I need to take care of you and Seth first, then I promise I’ll help Milo.”
Did the bad men shoot Milo? the radio said.
“Shoot him?” said Hyacinth. She pulled Erik back from her and stared at him. He nodded miserably, discernible through the green flames like a body at the bottom of a pool.
Oh, honey, did they tell you that? Is that something that happened, or is it going to happen? Did they tell you that about me and you got it mixed up?
But she didn’t want to ask him, and she didn’t want the damn radio to ask him. It wasn’t important now.
“No, honey. Milo was up on the roof when the magic hit. I think maybe something hurt him when the rod broke. There aren’t any bad men and he didn’t get shot.”
“Promise?” said Erik.
He closed his eye and nodded again.
“Are you hurt, honey?”
“Wet the… bed,” Erik said weakly.
“You did or Seth did?”
“It’s okay. I think I can probably get Maria to clean it up. It might be a little bit. We’ll have to move things around and call that fixed for a little while. Does anything hurt?”
Erik shook his head. “Head… hurt… Everything… Now… just scared.”
“It’s going to be okay. I don’t know what that was, but Milo and the General are going to work very hard and very fast to make sure it doesn’t happen again. They’re really smart. We’re going to figure a way to fix this.” Even if it means wrapping you in a fire blanket and running you down to the shelter on Pine.
“Do you feel like you need to laugh or scream? Do you feel really bad, like you might hurt yourself, or like you’re not in control of yourself?”
He was shaking his head. He managed, “No,” softly.
“Okay.” It was weird to have someone on fire without laughing or shrieking — from the sound of it, there was plenty of that going on upstairs. She couldn’t really question it right now, she was just glad of it. He was shaking and wet, and the bed was also wet, but all she could do was move a couple blankets around and put him back in it. Erik was holding together and Seth was unconscious. Seth was back to priority number one. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m not going to leave yet, but I have to do this.”
“It’s okay,” Erik said, but he was crying again.
We don’t deserve that kid, the radio muttered.
“Seth? Come on, hon. Wake up. Seth!” She shook him, but he didn’t stir. She went after the bottle of ammonia in her bag.
That brought him around. He gasped and he coughed up a couple more spoonfuls of tea.
“Hey, Seth.” She capped the bottle and dropped it back in the bag. “Are you with me? Can you sit up?”
He did not attempt to sit up. He moaned and pressed both hands over his eyes.
“Come on, Seth. Talk to me a little. Come on, Seth. Please. Help me out.” When she pulled down his hands, he focused on her, but his eyes were glassy and damp.
“When is it?” he said. At least, she was pretty sure it was that. It was faint and slurry.
“Um, not sure,” she said. It was dark through the basement window, but maybe that was just clouds. “Please try to sit up, hon. I need you to drink.”
“Is it too late?” he said. “Is there still time?” His eyes brimmed over and he began to sob like a child. “Please help me…”
“I’m trying, hon.” She pulled at him. She wasn’t sure what this was, where he was. Usually, it was stuff about needles, drugs, and sometimes calling gods. He would talk to Nicky, or Mordecai. If she couldn’t get him back with her, she could get him to take medicine and drink by saying Nicky wanted him to. But this seemed like something else.
“I have to go home,” he said. He curled up and put his hands over his eyes again. “I didn’t tell them. I was sick.”
“What do you need to tell them? Tell me.” She shook him. “Seth, wake up and tell me!”
He sat up. He snatched at her blindly and he managed to get hold of her shoulder and an arm. His fingers dug in. His eyes lost focus and she was afraid he was going to go out again, but he held on. “The house isn’t safe. They know where the house is. It’s away from the fighting, but the house isn’t safe.”
“Okay. I’ll tell them. I promise. Now, please let me help you. Are you hearing me, Seth?”
He nodded vaguely.
“Can you drink?”
She held up the cup but she didn’t let him have it. She thought he’d just drop it.
He blinked at it and stared at it. It looked green in the light. There was dark liquid inside that wobbled like a cheap mirror.
“I’m in the basement,” Seth said fuzzily, staring at the tea.
“Yeah, hon,” said Hyacinth. “You’re with me. It’s okay. Come on…”
He cried out, “Oh, no!” He piled both arms over his head and began to rock back and forth. “No, no, no…”
“Seth…” She set the cup aside. She held him and she tried to still him, but he wouldn’t stop and he wouldn’t speak to her. She couldn’t get anything out of him but ‘no.’
“Okay.” She didn’t have time to calm him manually, if that was even possible. She picked up her bag and she brought it a little closer to Erik, so she could search inside. She found some tranquilizers and she crushed one in the little hinged device that she kept for the purpose. Gods, that’s held together with magic, too, she thought, fondling the lack of metal in the hinge. I really hope Milo and the General are working something out up there.
…And not shot.
She mixed the pill into the tea — just the one, she couldn’t knock him out, he was still being sick. On the one hand, crushed would work faster and he wouldn’t have to keep it down as long. On the other hand, she now had to negotiate him through the whole cup of tea to get it into him.
She would first have to negotiate his head into visibility.
She tried stroking her hand down his back. “Come on, Seth. Come on out. This is to help you…”
“Auntie… Hyacinth?” Erik said shakily. “Is… it… medicine?”
He lifted a hand. A tongue of flame followed it and separated from the whole. “I can… make him. But I… might have to… do it a lot.”
“Will it hurt him?” she asked.
Erik shook his head, but he looked pained.
The radio spoke up in a high, frightened voice, Uncle said it wasn’t ever to hurt people, but I don’t know if I’m doing it right!
Hyacinth considered Seth, and Erik, and the noises of chaos coming from upstairs — only for a moment. “Do it, Erik. This is hurting him, too.”
Erik crawled closer, knelt in the rumpled blankets and soothed his hand through Seth’s hair. It was cold and damp like slime and it made him wince but he didn’t stop.
Hyacinth cast a glance in the direction of the shrine and drew two fingers down the bridge of her nose. Hey, invisible people. You’re always bugging him. How about you give him a hand?
The radio spoke again. This time it was a man’s voice, one Hyacinth didn’t know. It was high and a bit querulous. He doesn’t need it, Hyacinth. He knows how.
Erik saw Lame Anthony standing behind the shrine, but didn’t acknowledge him or mention him. He shut his eye so he didn’t have to see him, either.
Seth cried a little less, and he stopped saying ‘no.’ When Hyacinth asked him if he could drink, he lifted his head and smiled at her. Tears were still streaming from his eyes. “Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” said Hyacinth. “Here.” She held the cup. He drank a couple of swallows.
“I can’t…” he said, smiling. “I can’t remember what it was. It was so important.” He sobbed once, and when Erik touched his brow with a hand he sighed and turned towards it. “I can’t think…”
Wonton soup in a white paper carton, the radio said softly. It was a child’s voice, but not Erik’s. Mom…
Erik, is that what you’re doing? thought Hyacinth. Did she show you how to do that?
“Seth, honey, drink your medicine,” she said gently.
“Mm-hm.” He put both hands on the cup and helped her help him. “Can’t remember why I’m crying…” He sobbed again or maybe laughed. “Drowning. Help.”
“I’m here. I’m going to help,” she said. “You’re just sick.”
That seemed to help him, or maybe it broke him. The tears stopped. He closed his eyes and he just smiled. “Mm-hm. Sleepy now.”
“Let’s lie down and rest, then.” She helped him do that. “No. Like this, honey. That’s better.”
Erik briefly lost contact with him and Seth said ‘no,’ once more, weakly, but when Erik touched him again he settled.
“Mom, can I have orange juice, please?” he asked against the blanket, shadowed eyes closed.
“Yes,” said Hyacinth. “All you like.” Maybe she could get Mordecai to do orange juice later, but she thought it probably didn’t matter.
“Tell Dad the house isn’t safe. It’s…” He sighed. “Nice. Can’t remember.”
“It’s all right, honey. Just rest.”
“…bring home some soup after the meeting,” Seth said, then nothing more.
“Erik…” She was going to say ‘thank you.’ She had been smiling. But her mouth dropped open and she said, “Honey, is this hurting you?”
Erik was sitting ramrod straight and trembling like a leaf. His eye was wide with tears running from it. His expression was naked pain. The firelight around him had dimmed considerably and was no longer flicking in tongues.
The radio crackled and spoke, Auntie Hyacinth, he doesn’t want it. He wants to tell them and save them but if I let him remember it he wants to scream and he wants my uncle to let him have the needle until he dies! I have to keep holding him down. He’s kicking and I have to keep holding him down like I’m killing him!
“Oh, Erik…” She clambered into the bed with him and she held him, but she didn’t pull him away from Seth. She wanted to, but she didn’t. “The medicine I gave him is to help him be calm. You might not have to hold him down like that much longer, or he’ll stop fighting so much. I don’t know. Do you have to feel all that when you touch him?”
Erik nodded weakly. He shuddered and sobbed.
If I don’t have to, I don’t know how, the radio said.
“Try letting him up a little,” Hyacinth said. “Try that.”
Seth pitched forward and shrieked, “Get out of the house!”
“Oh, gods. Oh, gods. Okay…” Hyacinth held Erik’s hand and put it on Seth. She kept her hand on his hand, as if she might somehow be able to help him do it or take some of the pain. He was cold and his skin tingled like electricity. “Oh, boy. You don’t need this. Nobody needs this. Oh, gods…”
Seth said, “No,” but then, “Okay,” and he settled back and closed his eyes.
Erik issued a soft whine and winced his eye shut.
“Erik, I’m going to give you medicine like I gave Seth.” She scrabbled forward and snagged her doctor bag by one handle. They were feeling the same things and upset the same way, it seemed reasonable. If Mordecai got twitchy about it later, she’d deal with that then. Or maybe just never tell him. “Can you swallow a pill? It’s just half-a-one.” She tipped one out of the bottle and showed him. They were white with a helpful score down the middle. She wanted to give him a whole one, but she didn’t want to knock him out, either, and he was so little.
She nipped the tablet neatly in half with the same hinged device that she had used to crush Seth’s dose. She handed one half to Erik and then crawled forward and went after the teapot. She poured half a cup. Erik took medicine with tea.
This tea is awful, the radio complained, and Erik’s expression agreed.
“I’m sorry, honey. You don’t have to have any more.” She set the cup aside. “That’s going to help you so it doesn’t hurt so much. You might feel dizzy or sleepy, but that’s okay. It’s just the medicine. It won’t be forever.”
“Can… I… sleep?” Erik asked her.
Hyacinth shut her eyes. “When you can let Seth up without him screaming, you can sleep.”
Erik raised no objection to being used as a pacifier. Maybe he didn’t know that was even an option. I can help. Why wouldn’t I help? Not even if it’s killing me.
“Erik, can you tell me what’s hurting him? Or… Or help the radio tell me?”
“I think… radio… help… me,” Erik managed slowly.
I’m sorry I don’t talk right, Auntie Hyacinth, the radio said.
“No, honey.” Hyacinth smoothed his hair back and kissed him. “It’s not your fault. You just do the best you can.”
“Magic… made him… see what… happened to his… family again.” Erik paused and then shook his head.
No, not again, said the radio. He didn’t ever see it before. He wasn’t there. I think they told me about it and when the magic hit I made him see it for the first time.
“I could… hear… shots,” said Erik.
“Shots?” said Hyacinth.
The radio hissed static and spoke again, a low, male voice. …use the silencer. Get the girl.
“How many shots, Erik?” Hyacinth asked numbly.
Erik held up five fingers of his left hand. “Three… but… his daddy… woke up and… ran.”
“Oh, gods, Erik…”
His sister never had anything to do with it, the radio said. But she was in the house because they thought it was safe there. He would’ve been there, but he didn’t try to get out of San Rosille after the siege. He was so tired and he didn’t care anymore and he wanted the needles and he was ashamed about the needles.
“Anything to do with what?” said Hyacinth.
Erik shook his head. “I don’t… know… Don’t… want… try…” He sobbed and put his hand to his mouth.
“No,” said Hyacinth. She squeezed him tighter. “Don’t try to know anything more about it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry you know about it and I’m sorry it happened and I’m sorry Seth had to see it. We’ll talk about it later and I’ll hold you a long time, but all I can do right now is drug you and run out. I’m sorry for that, too.”
“It’s okay,” Erik said.
“It is so not okay, Erik,” Hyacinth said with a sigh. “Can you try letting him up again? Just a little?”
Seth moaned softly but didn’t sit up or scream.
“I think that’s better,” Hyacinth said weakly. “I think that’s going to have to be enough.”
She wanted like hell to give him another pill, that would quiet him, but if she drugged him so much he couldn’t wake up to be sick, Erik might end up down here with Seth choking to death on his own vomit, and that was worse than screaming or gunshots that couldn’t kill anyone anymore.
“Still… hurts him,” Erik said.
“I know, but it’s hurting you, too. It’s not your responsibility and you don’t have to do it. You shouldn’t do it.”
Erik narrowed his eyes at her and the flames around him flared briefly brighter, like when Auntie Enora broke the toaster. Glaring at her, he placed his hand back on Seth’s forehead and stroked gently.
Hyacinth sighed. “All right. I won’t say you shouldn’t. I promise I’ll come check on you… or I’ll send someone to check on you. If you need help before that, you’re going to have to yell for it. There are a lot of hurt people upstairs and they’re loud and distracting. Can you yell if you need me?”
Erik nodded, then he looked deliberately away from her.
He thinks less of me because I don’t want to torture him to help Seth, the radio said in her voice.
“Yes,” Erik replied, without looking back.
You’ll use the roof to fix burned girls, but you won’t use me to fix Seth, the radio said.
“Because you’re a human being, Erik!” Hyacinth cried. “Do you get there’s a difference?”
Nobody said anything, not even the damn radio.
There was screaming and laughing upstairs, and people on fire. Hurt people.
“I can’t have this argument now,” Hyacinth said. She turned and ran up the stairs. Behind her, Erik and Seth were quiet.
There was screaming and laughing and people on fire, but Barnaby and Maggie and the General had put a dent in it. Milo had not managed to put a dent in anything, not even the railing at the bottom of the sweeping staircase, though he appeared to be trying. He was standing and squirming like he needed to go to the bathroom and physically preventing himself from running back upstairs to change. No. I need to be Milo. I need to do math. I need to be smart and think how we’re going to fix this. I need to be Milo. I need to think and be smart. He had yet to accomplish any smartness, but he was still downstairs and Milo, so that was a small victory.
There was a cluster of small tears on the lower right of his shirt and the upper right of his trousers, as if maybe someone had shot him — with rock salt. Blood had flecked the gray fabric and was seeping through in places, but there was not yet enough of it to drip.
When he heard Hyacinth coming up behind him, he gasped and turned and looked at her, for just an instant, with desperation, and then he dropped his eyes.
“Erik’s going to be okay,” Hyacinth said. “He’s hurt and scared right now, but I gave him medicine and that’s the best I can do.”
Milo shut his eyes and nodded relief.
“Milo, what in the hell happened to you? What in the hell happened on the roof?”
Milo just shook his head.
“Alice, will you for gods’ sakes pitch in?” Barnaby snarled at her. He was sitting on a cot next to Mr. Olivier, who was wrapped in a fire blanket but still going on about how they needed to get to the bomb shelter. If somebody didn’t hold him down, he was going to run right off. This necessitated that somebody sit next to him, and tended to curtail that person’s autonomy. It was like that damned party game, “Standing, Sitting, Lying Down.” You had three people act out a scene and one of them always had to be doing one of those things. Except this was “Standing, Sitting, Running Around Frantically.” And Milo was over there by the staircase playing “Living Statue.”
Hyacinth made a rapid assessment and tried to locate and diagnose everyone in the room before picking a direction to run.
The potato lady was sitting quietly and appeared to be engaged in assessing the health of her potato, which had taken some serious damage and might no longer be strictly classified as ‘a potato.’ It was sitting, smashed and steaming lightly, in the bottom of the cage. She was shaking the cage and talking to it, but she did not appear to be upset about it. She was not on fire and she did not have a fire blanket.
Elizabeth was sitting in one of the upholstered chairs with her head tipped back, pinching her nose. There was a dark bloodstain down the front of her dress and marking the edge of one sleeve. Tania was crouched next to her, wrapped in a blanket, but speaking softly and behaving reasonably. Tommy was sprawled on the floor with his back against the low table between the chairs, cradling his guitar like a wounded soldier. He was staring glassily at nothing, focused a million miles away, and obsessively playing scales. A wavering female voice recited, “Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do…” with each note, and sometimes he would tweeze a string between two fingers and produce a sound like a needle entering the brain. He was not on fire, but his hands were glowing green and so was the guitar. He had a blanket draped over his shoulders but he was making no effort to keep it there and it was slipping down.
Bethany was sucking her thumb, burning bright pink, wrapped in two blankets and bawling. She wandered around the room, pleading with various people to hold her, and then kicking them or shoving them away when they made the attempt.
Cerise had Violette up against the corner near the door to Room 103, and one hand on her breast over the fabric of her dress. Hyacinth took three very rapid paces in that direction, but then Violette tipped her head back and clutched Cerise’s hand and put it up higher, so it seemed like things were copacetic over there. The General strode past them carrying a madly giggling gray bundle with a faint wisp of red flame curling out of the opening — presumably Pablo. “Will you two please take that into another room!” she snarled. She had ripped fabric and a bloodstain on the left side of her dress, but it impeded her not in the least.
Cerise took a half step backwards but Violette hooked her with a leg and pulled her near and they failed to depart for another room. It was possible they required better directions. Both Cerise and Violette were new to the house.
Florian was lying diagonally across the step leading up into the dining room/wheat field. He was wearing pants and shoes and nothing else. He was neither glowing nor blanketed. He was staring at the broken tile two inches in front of him with a glazed smile. Occasionally, he said, “Wow.”
There was another person (Hyacinth saw brown shoes and blue pants, so she guessed Liam) who was entirely blanketed like a piece of stored furniture. He was sitting against the wall, rocking back and forth and intermittently screaming. As Hyacinth was watching him, he thudded the back of his head against the wall behind him, three times, hard enough to dust himself with plaster.
Okay, there’s my patient, Hyacinth decided, and she got moving.
Ted, Maria, Mordecai and Maggie were nowhere to be seen.
“The sirens are going off!” Mr. Oliver cried, and he attempted to lurch to his feet.
“No,” said Barnaby, endlessly patient. “No, no they’re not…”
Maggie emerged from the wheat field at a rapid pace with a roll of paper towels. “Miss Betty, there aren’t any more tissues. You’ll have to use these…” She detoured and lifted the blanket back over Tommy’s shoulders.
“Bethany, why don’t you sit down,” the General said. This was not a suggestion.
“Hey, Liam,” said Hyacinth. There was moaning beneath the blanket. She crouched beside it and lifted the edge. There was a scream and he banged his head on the wall again. She put a hand behind it, over the blanket, and stopped him from doing it more. “Okay. You need the blanket right now? You need the blanket?” Nodding from the blanket. “Okay. We’ll leave it, then. Can you talk to me?”
Faintly, from beneath the blanket, “Loud… bright… loud… bright…”
“Yeah,” said Hyacinth. It was both of those things in here, in vast quantities. “Liam, I can put you someplace quiet,” she said softly, bringing her head close to his. “Would that be better?”
Frantic nodding from the blanket.
“Okay. Can you walk?” If he couldn’t walk, she was going to have to switch out with Barnaby or the General, or maybe try to get Milo to help her…
Liam took his hands down, he’d had his hands over his ears, and clutched the blanket. “Have to have blanket. Dark. Hurts…”
Tommy played one of those needle-like shrieks on the guitar and Liam screamed.
Hyacinth put her hands over approximately his ears, over the blanket. She leaned in close and spoke softly, “You can have the blanket. I’ll walk with you. Can you walk?”
A whisper: “Try.”
She stood with him. She held the blanket and he put his hands over his ears. They walked. Hyacinth guided him towards Room 102, there were curtains in there and she did not want to try getting him up the stairs. They had to step up and cut the corner of the wheat field.
“That was amazing,” Florian informed them as they passed. “That needs to never happen again or I will die,” he added hazily.
Hyacinth put Liam in Mordecai’s bed and closed the door. There was instant improvement to the noise level, and the light was cut down to a flickering sliver under the door, and a faint yellow line around the curtains.
“Liam, it’s dark here. Can I move the blanket?”
“Please be careful,” he said.
She knelt in the bed beside him and she slowly lifted the blanket. He was glowing just enough for her to be able to make him out, and not anything else. His eyes were winced narrow and he still had his hands over his ears.
“How is that?” she asked.
“Less,” he said. He peered at the darkness around him and he cautiously took down his hands. “Better.”
“Okay. You can be in here as long as you need. I’ll keep everyone else out.”
“M-mind is on fire,” he said weakly. “Rabies like that dog in that book. D-degenerative n-n-nervous system…”
“No, hon. You’re on fire.” She showed him his own hand. “That’s all it is. It’s going out. You’re almost on top of it.”
“Oh, gods.” He pulled the blanket around him, but not over his head this time. The glow faded a little more, leaving a greenish afterimage when Hyacinth blinked. “Was I outside?”
“No. Something seriously weird happened to the house. I need to go figure out what it was and free up some people to do something about it. Are you going to be okay here alone?”
“I-I-I think so.”
“Okay. Try to sleep if you can.” She stood. “I have to open the door, you’re going to have light and noise again for a second.”
He flipped the edge of the blanket back over his head. “Okay. Go.”
She opened the door, scuttled out, and shut it as quickly and quietly as she could.
Florian had managed to collect himself into a seated position. He had his elbows in his lap and his face in his hands. “Oh, wow,” he said, muffled.
“Are Ted and Maria still in there?” Hyacinth asked.
“Yeah. Maria didn’t have her dress on, so I said give her a minute. Is it a minute?” He seemed genuinely uncertain.
“It’s been more than a minute, but she still doesn’t have a dress on,” Maggie called over. She appeared uncomfortable. “And I think she still doesn’t want to come out.”
“Ted’s unconscious but he’s breathing all right,” Florian said. “And neither of them were lit up, so I left them alone. I needed some distance.” He laughed. “Maria wouldn’t let me alone. Everything feels like electricity.” He rubbed his eyes and he lifted his head. “It’s a little better. Is there anything I can do, Miss Hyacinth? I used to be a medic…”
“You’re a medic?” cried Hyacinth. She hugged him.
“Ahh-ahh-ahh!” said Florian. He shuddered and both his arms prickled into gooseflesh.
“Oh, gods, right, sorry,” said Hyacinth. She backed off a few paces. “I’ve got wounded. Can you patch them up?”
“Not with metal or anything. I can do stitches.”
“I think that’s all we need. I’ve got a med kit, give me a second…” She’d dropped it at the top of the basement stairs. She grabbed the General on her way past. “Sir, get over by Florian so he can see about that damage. If you let him do it, I can see about everyone else. Give me the kid.”
The General was willing to give her the kid, but she expressed reluctance in the other matter. “I believe I would rather wait for your limited experience than trust a drunk man with no shirt as my personal physician. It is only a little shrapnel.”
“I’m not drunk, I’m high!” Florian called over. He waved personably. “And it’s a little better!”
“Sir, I need you back in fighting shape so you can see about whatever that was and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Hyacinth said. She shouldered the infant and picked up the black bag. “And we’re down to our last rod. We need a solution now. We can’t wait a half hour because the colored guy makes you nervous.” That was calculated, and it had the desired effect.
The General snarled and snatched the bag from her. “I am not nervous. And the incident on the roof will not happen again. It was a calculated risk and it turns out we were in error. Apparently, there is a legitimate reason that grounding rods do not reassemble themselves, it is not merely due to laziness or stupidity. I still believe we were justified in making the attempt.”
“What did you do?” Hyacinth demanded. She was having a look at Elizabeth’s nose, but it was a small room, and Liam wasn’t screaming anymore. They could talk if they raised their voices, and neither Hyacinth nor the General had any care for demure silence.
“We designed an enchantment that caused the rod to reassemble itself. It worked perfectly.”
Florian took the bag from her. “Thanks. Have a seat.”
“I do not need to sit down,” the General said coldly, regarding the step.
“Yeah, that’s great. I can’t stand up. Have a seat.”
The General groaned and sat down.
“I don’t feel like I’m cleaning up after a thing that worked perfectly, sir!” said Hyacinth. “Here, Bethany, break this.” She presented the sobbing child with a plate. It had a couple pieces of quiche on it, but they were cold and she felt they could be sacrificed. There was plenty of food.
Bethany reached out to take the plate, but Hyacinth held it back from her and put it on the floor. “No, honey. Use magic. Like when you blew up the pie.”
“The enchantment worked perfectly,” the General said. She winced. The man was pulling metal fragments out of her side with glowing yellow magic, which she did not approve of. “However, due to the enchantment, the rod failed to discharge the double strike, and it attracted a third.”
Bethany shattered the plate and blew pieces of quiche into the air. She took her thumb out of her mouth and made a wobbly smile. “Yay,” she said.
“Good. Break it more,” said Hyacinth. “So, you guys added a function to the rod that screwed up every other thing it was supposed to do.”
“Not every other thing, Hyacinth. You will note that the roof and windows are still intact.”
“Just not the people,” Hyacinth muttered. She took a couple contraceptive charms out of the bowl on the table. “Hey, Tommy. Can you play ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine?'” She knew that one was fairly recent, popular, and it had to be fairly simple. Mordecai was trying to teach it to Erik. He’d heard it on the radio and had Milo save it so he could learn it.
“Guns N’ Roses,” Tommy said. He blinked and managed a vague smile.
“Yeah. You know it?” she called back. She handed the charms to Cerise. “Here, you two. There’s a room upstairs with a bed. What do you think?”
“Where?” cried Violette.
“The rod attempted to reassemble itself a second time, but the enchantment failed under the strain,” the General said. “It was not designed to stand up to such stresses, of course.” But she was privately pleased it had tried. “The rod was… I suppose I should say ‘pulverized,’ but that may not be adequate. There will not be any raw materials to collect from that particular explosion.”
“Are you saying we could have had four strikes?” Hyacinth cried. She released Cerise and Violette in the general direction of Milo’s room, it was the closest one. Well, it was the closest one not occupied by a man who screamed at loud noises, or… or whatever was in Room 101.
“That is highly unlikely, Hyacinth,” the General disdained.
“Okay,” said Florian, “so I can either pull up your skirt or snip a hole in it. What say?” He brandished a scissors.
“So is three!” said Hyacinth.
Tommy began to pluck out uncertain notes on his guitar.
“I would rather you damaged my dress than my modesty,” the General said.
“I can probably patch it up for you,” Florian said. He bent closer and peered at the fabric. It appeared to be wiggling somewhat. “This storm is like a battery. It’s not… It’s not actually crawling, is it?”
“It is not,” the General said.
“Yeah.” He carefully employed the scissors. “I think it’s the pattern…”
“There is no pattern! It is a solid color!”
He beamed at her. “It’s going to be really fun if you need stitches!”
Hyacinth briefly reclaimed her bag to seek out a tranquilizer for Mr. Olivier. “So this is because you guys extra blew up the rod.” She flung a gesture at the General’s wound.
“No,” said the General. “We were a safe distance away from the rod, or I imagine we would have been, if it had posed any threat. This is because Mr. Rose,” she turned and said that directly at him, “apparently forgot that windless watches contain enchantments. Even though he spends six hours a day enchanting them!”
Milo collapsed on the bottom stair and buried his head in his arms.
“…And I consented to share an umbrella with him,” the General concluded. “A mistake which I will not repeat. Why can’t I feel that?”
“I’m numbing the pain,” said Florian. He was dabbing with a wet cotton swab.
“You want it to hurt?” said Florian.
“I want to know what it is you are doing at all times.”
“You could look with your eyes.”
“That is insufficient.”
Hyacinth needed water from the kitchen, or something drinkable. Florian appeared competent, despite the General’s protests. She was going to point him at Milo next. And then maybe she’d have him take a look at Liam.
It was dim in the kitchen, with the only light being overspill from the front room and dining room, and from the outside via the big window. She was going to have to put Tania on fixing the mage lights. Tania seemed okay.
There was soft giggling going on in the kitchen, and no visible Mordecai. Hyacinth stumbled back a pace and almost fell over the kitchen step.
Oh, gods, he’s discorporated. He’s become one with the concept of cooking. What am I going to tell Erik…?
No, wait, he was lying on the floor.
He was sprawled on his back and clutching a wooden spoon in one hand, with pieces of broken bowl on him and around him. He was liberally dusted with flour and spattered with white batter. His sleeves were rolled up, his tie was loose, his vest was altogether missing and the top three buttons of his shirt were undone, exposing the gold scar on his chest. He was also missing a shoe, but that was nearby. It appeared to have burst open like a baked potato and there was a curl of red flame seeping out of it.
He was smiling and staring at the ceiling.
Hyacinth knelt down beside him, still clutching Mr. Olivier’s tranquilizer and the baby, “Mordecai, did you lie down here or did you fall down?”
“Ha-a-a…” he replied weakly.
“Yeah,” said Hyacinth. She dipped a glass of water and went back out. She gave the water and the pill to Mr. Oliver and the baby to Barnaby (over his protest). Then she removed Barnaby and the baby from Mr. Olivier and sat Magnificent in his place. That seemed like it might hold for a couple minutes. So she returned to the kitchen to collect Mordecai.
“Come on, weird stupid man. I can’t shift you unless you help me out. I need you in the front room so I can keep an eye on your concussion. The gods know I’m not gonna get anything useful out of you with questions. Are you capable of putting down the spoon?”
“…what spoon?” he managed, smiling.
She pulled it out of his clenched hand and left it on the floor. “Right. Let’s try walking.”
He almost fell down the kitchen step and dragged her after him.
“Hyacinth, what do you want me to do with this thing?” Barnaby demanded of her. He was holding the giggling gray bundle away from him like a ten pound sack of manure.
“Hold it and make sure it’s still breathing and come poke me if anything weird happens,” Hyacinth said. She put Mordecai in the other upholstered chair.
“Am I supposed to feed it?”
“I wouldn’t trust you to try,” Hyacinth replied. “Hey, Milo…?” Milo was still sitting on the bottom stair, looking like the most dejected human in the universe. The stain on his right side had grown slightly. She sat next to him and didn’t touch him. “I want to see about patching you up. I promised Erik. He saw you were hurt and he was really worried about you.” She was priming Milo for an unpleasant situation, weighing him down with emotional obligations. If you don’t do it, people will be sad! “Do you think you could let Florian take care of you? He’s really good at things.”
Milo had a look at Florian. His mouth dropped open and he began to rapidly shake his head. That’s the house-of-cards man who hates me!
Florian waved at them. He had made done with the woman in the crawling dress and she had gone off somewhere. “It’s okay! I’ll come over! I make house calls!” He attempted to stand, wobbled and sat down again. “Wow. Okay. Hang on. My shoes are melting.”
Hyacinth glanced down at his shoes, attempting to discern if he had a shoe problem or a brain problem. He appeared to have a shoe problem. They had sunk about an inch into the floor and stuck. This should not have been physically possible, but, whatever. It was a magic storm.
He stepped out of his shoes and managed to get standing while holding the doctor bag. Ha-ha, I’m awesome. I bet I can get all the way over there without falling, too! Is this tile fuzzy? This tile feels fuzzy… When he looked down at it, it also seemed to be moving. Hey, great!
The General popped up from the basement like a cuckoo on a spring. “Excuse me, Hyacinth. There is a visibility problem in the basement. The mage lights have gone out. Erik is insufficient to work by if I must write things down for Mr. Rose’s benefit.” She regarded Milo coldly for a few silent moments. “There is also an odor problem, but I can cope with that.”
“I’ll send someone down to help with the basement in a second,” Hyacinth said. “I have to do something about Milo. You don’t have to write things down for him while he’s up here bleeding on the staircase.”
The General sighed. “No, but I could have gotten a head start on it. I will do my best.” She departed.
And, while they were talking, Milo had gone halfway up the stairs. Hyacinth urgently stood. “No, Milo, please don’t! I’ll fix you if you really want me to. You can’t go back up. I need you.” Also, Cerise and Violette are screwing in your bed.
Florian had experienced a brief involuntary detour into the kitchen, but he examined his surroundings, he determined that that was not where he needed to be, and he course-corrected for the stairs. The bleeding man that presumably he was going to be looking after seemed pretty upset.
Well, it’s got to be hurting him. And this storm is pretty bad. He had not put it together that this was not a colored person and so the agitation could not be storm-related, but in any case, it needed to be dealt with. He did a little magic. It was just a simple thing he’d worked out for infirmaries and hospitals. Didn’t work on the battlefield. On the battlefield, people were either desperately happy to see you or screaming and fighting everything, there was no persuading them. This was for non-combat situations where you had a little wiggle room.
Hey, there, guy on the stairs. I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m pretty nice, actually.
…That is the nicest person in the whole world, Milo thought. That person is not mad at me for breaking the pretty oak tree he made out of poker chips or for screwing up the rod or for forgetting about my watch. He doesn’t hate me. He’s just nice.
Oh, that was such a relief!
Milo staggered down two stairs and then he walked the rest of the way with a dazed smile.
“Oh, Milo, thank you…” said Hyacinth.
Milo hugged Florian.
“Gah-hah! Ah! Oh, gods!” said Florian. Hyacinth was pretty sure she saw his hair stand on end. She was pretty sure hers did, too.
“What did you do to Milo?” she cried. “Did you break Milo? I need Milo!” Even if they couldn’t fix this thing with the storm, she was sure as hell going to need him to put the house back together afterwards!
“It’s just a charm!” Florian said, shivering. “Oh… Oh, boy. It doesn’t usually hit people like this. It’s just to keep them from punching me. I only get hugs from kids.” He glanced down at the man who was doing the hugging and tried to focus on him. His hair appeared to be rippling. “Is he simple?”
“Milo is extremely complicated,” Hyacinth replied gravely. As was evident.
“Maybe it’s the storm,” said Florian.
“Maybe it is,” said Hyacinth. She could still recall Milo pacing back and forth in the kitchen and totally unable to feel fear just because Mordecai told him he felt fine. Now, that wasn’t magic, but it proved Milo was incredibly easy to convince if you hit him the right way, and it looked like Florian just had.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Florian said. “Thanks for liking me.” He patted Milo on the head. Milo looked up at him, in the eyes, and smiled.
Hyacinth staggered back a pace. She knew there was a part of Milo that liked hugs and people and eye-contact — needed them, even — but that part of him was always in a dress. “Is that going to wear off?” she said.
“About a half hour,” Florian said. He was still patting Milo’s head. “Wow, your hair is really nice. I’d like to pet you.”
Milo nodded. Sure. It’s okay. I don’t mind you petting me. I don’t even have to have sandwiches after.
…not that he would mind sandwiches. And maybe a chocolate bar.
Ann broke into his thoughts with difficulty, Milo, we do not just let people pet us!
Sure we do.
Milo was confused. What about nice people?
Not nice people who are high on magic and can’t make decisions!
Ann wasn’t the only one concerned about the petting. Hyacinth caught Florian’s hand by the wrist and removed it from Milo’s hair. “If you’ve only got a half hour, you’d better fix him fast. I really need him to help me with the house. That thing you don’t want to happen again, Florian? That thing is gonna happen again if Milo can’t figure something to do about the rods.”
Florian cringed and shuddered. “Oh, gods. Oh. O-kay.” He had barely survived that in the first place. If it happened now, when the floor was fuzzy and the lines in the wallpaper were buzzing, his brain was going to melt out his ears. He delicately removed himself from Milo’s embrace. “Hey, Milo, you mind if I get a look at that shrapnel?”
Milo shook his head. He pulled up his shirt.
“Do you use conditioner or something?” Florian asked him, as he began to remove pieces of watch with gentle magic.
Milo nodded, smiling. I’ll tell you what kind! I’ll do you a card!
Hyacinth asked Tania to please fix the mage lights in the basement, and then in here, and then she braved the wheat field to see if she could convince Maria into a dress.
Erik was sitting up in bed and glowing softly with his hand on Seth’s forehead. Erik was staring glassily into thin air with a hazy eye and an open mouth, and he did not look over when Milo came down the stairs.
Erik was drugged.
Did SETH do that to him?!
The radio crackled and shrieked, Milo, DON’T!
Ann had to stand on the metaphorical brakes with both feet to prevent Milo from dragging Seth upright and slamming him against the wall.
Hyacinth said she gave him medicine! The medicine must have made him tired!
That is not medicine to do something else, Ann! That is medicine to do THAT!
Seth can’t have given him drugs! You know how Seth is when he’s here, Milo. He can’t do anything. And he never has any drugs because he’s always crying about how he wants them! It must have been Hyacinth!
Why would Hyacinth hurt Erik like that? the radio said.
Erik turned to look at him, closed his mouth and made a weak smile. “It was really hurting me, Milo,” he said. He didn’t have any trouble with slowing like this. A little trouble with remembering what he wanted to say. And he couldn’t seem to sound happy or sad or anything, just flat. “This is so I can’t feel how it hurts. She didn’t want me to be hurt.” He frowned. “But she cared more about me than him.”
Well, she should do that, the radio said. That was two voices in tandem, a man and a woman, Milo and Ann.
Erik shrugged. “I’m gonna try to sleep. It’s not hitting the house so much. The triple strike kinda took everything out of the clouds over us, and they’re trying to keep the magic from hitting so you have time, but they’re small and it’s hard.” He laid down beside Seth and drew a pillow over his head. “They’re talking about it, but I don’t think I have to listen. The medicine helps.”
I’m okay, Milo, the radio said. Please don’t hurt Seth. He’s hurt enough. That’s mean how you think about him… it faded into a faint hiss.
“Mr. Rose,” said the General. “If you are quite convinced as to Erik’s well-being, perhaps you’d like to do something to keep him that way?” She offered a pencil.
I don’t want to keep him that way, Milo thought. But he didn’t want magic to hit the house and hurt Erik more, either. He took the pencil.
Mordecai was recovering in one of the big chairs in the front room. He did not know how he came to be in one of the big chairs in the front room and he did not know what he was recovering from. Also, he seemed to be missing his spoon.
There was quite a handsome woman sitting in the adjacent chair for him to look at, though. That was nice. She was holding a bloodstained paper towel under her nose, but she had nice blue eyes, and she was tall. He liked tall ladies with long legs. She was well-padded and soft and not at all like Cathy and that was also nice. It was a shame about the paper towel.
There was some nice music going on, too. Not really great music, but okay. He didn’t think he’d heard this one before. He didn’t know what the radio was doing in the front room. The radio was supposed to stay in the basement because Erik still got nervous around it.
“We been dancin’ with… Mr. Brownstone! He’s been knockin’… he won’t leave me alone!”
Anyway, it was all quite pleasant to experience while he tried to work out who he was and what the hell was happening and get the damn ringing out of his ears. It felt like someone had fired him out of a cannon into a church bell.
“Yowza!” a young voice cried. “Thank you, San Rosille!”
What? thought Mordecai. He groped absently for his ‘cello case. Don’t we have another set?
“Slash and the band thank you! Goodnight!”
What? Did we open for these people?
“We are now taking requests!”
I could really go for a little ‘Who Are You’ right now, thought Mordecai, but he could not collect himself enough to say it. Or maybe some Zeppelin. What in the hell did I take?
“Play ‘Freebird!'” somebody said.
Oh. I see. I’ve died and I’m in hell.
“People who admit to liking ‘Freebird’ will be ejected into the magic storm with extreme prejudice!” the young voice said. “Any requests?”
“‘Mary had a Little Lamb!'” That was a child’s voice, which excused it not in the least.
“Sure thing, squirt!”
Oh, gods, no…
“Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. It crawled in the desert and croaked from thirst, its bones were white as snow!”
“Yeah! Dig it!”
Mordecai breathed a laugh. I like this club. He sat forward and had a look around it.
This club appeared to be his house.
“Oh, I think that’s finally staunched it,” the black woman with the white paper towel said. She crumpled it and laid it aside.
Mordecai stared at her. His mouth dropped open. “You are absolutely gorgeous, are you aware of that?”
Her hair was combed up in a loose but complicated arrangement that resembled a paper bow, with many fine white strands breaking free of the whole and some trailing down the back of her neck. She was the color of ink with round shoulders and just a hint of a double chin. Her eyes sparkled. She smiled at him. It was like a pearl necklace on a black cocktail dress. “Yes!” she replied.
(Subtlety was neither necessary nor expected during magic storms.)
“You’re so tall! How tall are you, dear lady?”
“Why, I’m about five-ten, sir. Taller in heels!” She lifted the hem of her skirt and displayed a black patent leather boot with a three-inch stiletto heel that would’ve made Milo explode in worshipful envy.
Mordecai was rather more interested in the leg above it. “Absolutely stunning. I have no idea how you’ve come to be in the front room, but I must say I would like to take you out of it.”
Then Hyacinth was leaning down into his vision and blocking his view of the tall pretty lady, and Hyacinth was not at all pretty. Hyacinth was pale and ragged, and skinny, and she had even less of a chest than Cathy and hair like a mop and she was not at all tall, she was shorter than him, and she was not at all what he wanted to be looking at!
He shooed a hand at her as he would shoo a fly. “What are you doing here? Go away.”
“I am assessing the status of your head,” she said. Gods, even her voice was like… like rubbing sandpaper on your ears!
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with my head!” he snapped. He blinked. “Is there something wrong with my head?” That would explain the church bells. And the band. He could still hear the band. What in the hell? He turned and looked for it.
“Well, you may have given it a good crack on the kitchen floor when magic hit the house three times in a row. I was trying to work out if you’d damaged your brain, but it’s kind of hard to tell that at the best of times with you.”
“My brain is fine! My brain would like to get better acquainted with the lovely tall lady behind you. I think we can attribute the music to my romantic intent.”
“We can attribute the music to the green kid with the guitar,” Hyacinth said. “You’re not parsing reality very well but nobody is. Florian keeps asking me to turn down the wallpaper. Sometimes I really do wonder if Barnaby was right about that wallpaper. Does this hurt?” She pressed a hand to the back of his head.
“Does it hurt when I’m not touching it?”
“It doesn’t make me want to slap you when you’re not touching it!”
“You seem pretty sharp, but you always did pretty well on cough syrup. Your mouth works even when your brain doesn’t.”
“I have not had any cough syrup!” Although that would also explain the church bells and the band. And the total lack of context for being in the chair. “Have I had any cough syrup? Flash message. Stupid superstition.” He didn’t seem like he’d had any cough syrup. “Stop interfering in my love life.”
“That last one is too easy.” Hyacinth leaned in and peered at his eyes. They seemed equal and he was focusing all right. “Can you follow my finger?”
“Can you follow mine?”
She stepped back and sighed. “I’m not going to get anything out of you but sarcasm while I’m in the way of the pretty lady, am I?”
“We seem to have found something you prefer to cooking,” Hyacinth said.
“We have found something I prefer to air! Will you for gods’ sakes let me talk to her?”
Elizabeth leaned forward and touched her shoulder, “Hyacinth, who is this delightful gentleman and why have we never been introduced?”
“Well, you may have been introduced to his crazed ‘cello-playing from behind the door of Room 102.”
“Oh!” said Elizabeth. “You’re Mordecai!”
“I am charmed,” he replied. He sketched a bow, but he did not attempt to get out of the chair. His damn head hurt.
“Hyacinth is forever shouting at you,” Elizabeth said.
“It’s only because she’s a horrible person,” he said with a smile. “Hyacinth, who is this gorgeous girl?”
“This is Elizabeth,” said Hyacinth. She paused a moment and added, “From the Dove Cot.” Not that it would make any difference, but she did think he ought to know.
“The Dove Cot!” He touched a hand to his chest. “Oh, my gods, no. I’ve hardly any money!”
“Handsome gentlemen get a considerable discount during magic storms,” Elizabeth said.
He leaned forward hopefully. “How much would that be, dear lady?”
“At least ninety-percent.” She stood and offered her hand. “Shall we see about negotiating the other ten?”
“With ardor!” He stood.
He blinked and looked down. “I’ve lost my shoe.” He looked up. “Hyacinth, where is my confounded shoe?”
Hyacinth laughed at him. She was exhausted and he was hilarious. She didn’t care if he was concussed. He was like the world’s ugliest, most articulate toddler. Mater, where has my shoe gone? You have hidden my shoe solely to vex me, Mater!
“Your shoe is in shoe heaven, Mordecai,” she choked out, practically sobbing.
He lifted his foot, he removed his remaining shoe, and he threw it at her. “Send the other one after it, then!”
“Whoa! Hold on!” She recovered from the giggle fit and the shoe to the head in time to prevent him from entering his room. “There’s a guy sleeping in there. Use my room. And use one of these!” She threw him a charm out of the bowl.
He caught it one-handed, which was better than she had managed with the shoe.
“Just one?” Elizabeth said poutily.
With a stunned smile, Mordecai wandered over to the bowl and took two more.
“You’re delusional, old man!” Hyacinth hollered after them.
He ignored her, if he heard her at all.
Well, at least he’s out of the kitchen, Hyacinth thought.