In a household the size of Flora's, there was rarely true quiet. Someone was always coming or going, getting up to go to work or feed a baby, heading for the kitchen or a place to sleep. Her own work hours at the bakery being what they were, two in the morning until ten, five mornings a week, meant she'd had to learn to sleep through the evening activity. The house still seemed to always be full to capacity; she and her sister Jenny had seven surviving children between them, so far, of whom only Randi lived elsewhere. There were always friends and lovers—not that there was any real difference for sensitives—around, and nomads passing through or needing a home until they could find a job and get an apartment or a room for a few months.
But there was something distinctly wrong with the chaos that pulled her reluctantly out of deep sleep and contented dreams. Was one of the babies sick? She glanced at the clock next to her bed: a little past eleven-thirty. Jenny should be home, she finished work at eleven. Maybe she could go back to sleep and let Jenny handle it while she stole another hour of sleep before heading to work for two?
No, she couldn't do that.
With a sigh, she pulled herself out of bed and reached for the robe Randi had given her, warm heavy terrycloth that would keep the night's chill out of her. Still tying the belt, she left the twilight sanctuary of her and Jenny's room and ventured downstairs.
Jenny looked up as Flora came into the living room. “Oh, good, I was just going to send one of the kids to get you. Claire's sick. Kirk too.”
Flora brushed past the knot of alarmed children, from teenagers down to Jenny's ten-year-old Gloria, and nomads to the couch.
Claire, a taller, more curvaceous version of Randi, lay coiled in a tight ball in one corner of the couch, her arms across her stomach, sobbing helplessly. Her current lover Kirk was at the other end, moaning softly, tears streaking his cheeks.
“Only these two?” Flora demanded.
Jenny nodded. “They came home about an hour ago. They were okay then.”
Emily, Jenny's middle daughter, appeared from the direction of the kitchen, and set a plastic pail in front of each of the sufferers. “Claire said a minute ago she thought she was going to throw up,” she explained, at Flora's questioning look, straightening with a hand on her lower back—she was starting to show unmistakable signs of her first pregnancy, the contours of her rounded belly shifting from simply a healthy layer of fat to a pronounced bump. Familiar though that was in the household, it was still new to Emily, and Flora saw her often with a hand resting on it. “Food poisoning, maybe?”
“That would be my guess.” And a logical one; they tried to keep standards a bit higher here, but most sensitives ate whatever they could afford or scrounge, and few knew anything at all about contamination or bacteria. It was a common problem. She crouched in front of Claire, and took her daughter's hand gently. “Claire, honey, what have you eaten today?”
“Breakfast here,” Claire said, between gasping breaths. “With Denise and Trey.”
“I'm okay,” Jenny's eldest Denise said. She had Claire's fourteen-month-old daughter in one arm and her own twenty-one-month son in the other, nursing both, which was keeping them blessedly quiet and distracted from the tension around them. “Just toast and cereal. It wasn't that. And Jon was here for lunch, we all had noodle stuff, so it wasn't that, either.”
Seventeen-year-old Trey, Flora's third child, only nodded silently, hugging his frightened brother Dex and Jenny's youngest Gloria, one with each arm, reassuringly.
“Kirk and I made supper at his place... fries and roast chicken.”
“Chicken?” Emily echoed.
“That's probably it,” Flora said. “These two need to be in the hospital.”
“No!” Kirk protested, his words slurred. “No hosp'l...”
“Would you rather die?”
“I don't want to go to the hospital, Mama,” Claire said brokenly. “Mages...”
“There are no mages there, and they wouldn't want you anyway.” This was not the time to argue, food poisoning could be extremely serious. She'd seen sensitives die before, refusing any kind of medical help, more terrified of being caught by a mage than of anything else. And she had no intention of losing her second daughter, having regained the first.
“No hospital. Not 'less Randi and Van are there.”
Flora seized on that, gratefully. “If Randi and Van take you, will you go? Both of you?”
“'F they come,” Claire agreed.
“Kirk? Will that be okay?”
“Guess,” he mumbled. She chose to believe that he'd dropped a pronoun at the beginning and took it as agreement. Quickly, she rose and headed for the kitchen and the household phone.
There was no answer at Randi's house. Swearing softly under her breath, she tried Randi's cell phone; since there was no answer there either, they must be out at one of the mage events where sensitives couldn't bring or use phones. Not a good time to interrupt, but she heard the miserable sounds of Claire beginning to vomit. Too late for that to be much help.
She called Van's cell phone. She got voicemail, unsurprisingly, but he'd have his on him; she said only, “It's Flora, it's urgent,” and waited impatiently. She grabbed the phone in the middle of the first ring. “Van?”
“What's wrong?” She could hear a lot of noise in the background, though at a bit of a distance. Voices, laughter, music.
“Claire and Kirk are down with food poisoning, bad. They won't go to the hospital without you and Randi.”
“Two minutes to get out of here, maybe ten minutes tops to drive there. We're coming.”
“Thanks.” She hung up, and went back to the living room.
“Well?” Jenny asked.
“Ten minutes or so.”
Jenny nodded, and sent Gloria upstairs to the linen closet to get a couple of facecloths, Dex to the kitchen to fill a large bowl with cool water. Jenny took the pail away herself, presumably to empty it into the toilet and wash it out; safer than having any of the kids doing that job, since it might be possible to pick up the same bacteria if not handled carefully.
Then all they could do was try to make the pair comfortable. One of the three nomads currently staying here, she couldn't think of his name just now, helped Kirk to the bathroom when he insisted he needed to get there immediately. The rest tried to stay out of the way, though none were willing to leave the room unless sent on specific errands. Afraid, Flora thought, and piling together for whatever comfort contact and sharing could bring. Denise stayed where she was, torn between the babies and her fear for Claire. Emily stayed near her, ready to offer a helping hand as needed.
A car pulled up out front, and seconds later rapid footsteps thumped on the tiny porch, then the front door banged open. Flora would have known that sound anywhere: Miranda in a hurry.
Except that what ran into the room looked like a not-quite-five-foot bipedal Siamese cat, clad only in a skimpy halter and long wispy skirt both made out of rather sheer scarlet gauze, tail lashing in agitation through one of the many slits.
Although, on second thought, the lines of her face had been altered only subtly, to contribute to the illusion, and other than the fur and the tail, her body appeared to still be essentially normal, if a bit more curved. Startling, but then, Flora and the rest of the family had spent the occasional night out where Randi lived now, and had seen a little, if nothing quite to this extent.
“Oh, get a grip,” Randi snapped, at the ones who recoiled. “I wasn't about to waste time on shapechanging with Claire sick.” She oriented on the couch, and darted around a couple of the kids to Flora's side. Dex simply looked fascinated as Randi's tail flicked just in front of his fourteen-year-old nose. “How bad?”
“Bad,” Flora said simply. “Kirk's in the bathroom. Claire's hardly even conscious anymore.”
Randi laid a dark-furred hand against Claire's cheek, and glanced up as Van caught up with her. “She's burning up.” Her hand slid down to Claire's throat. “And her pulse is too fast. Claire? Can you hear me?”
The lack of response seemed to frighten Randi as much as it did Flora. She sat back on her heels, tail swishing and occasionally smacking against Flora—the two nomads in the room both looked utterly taken aback and stayed well out of range.
“Hospital?” Van asked. “It's safe, right now.”
Van fell back a step, his expression alarmed. “What?” He looked, Flora thought, rather like a sensitive who had just been told how much of the food here came from a mage's garden.
“Heal her! You can do anything except change mass or mind, right? You've fixed things for me before. So fix Claire!”
“Without her consent, I could hurt her bad, you know that, better than anyone! And she's in no condition to give consent!”
“She's in no condition to be hauled out to the car, dragged into emergency, and god knows what when she gets there! I don't know whether she's dying, but I do know that she's suffering a whole lot and that you can make it stop without our having to make it worse by forcing her to move!”
“And then what, tomorrow? It's not that simple!”
Randi stood up and turned around to face Van directly, arms crossed, her jaw set, dark-tipped tail lashing back and forth violently and feline ears flattened. “Van, my sister is hurting, possibly dying, while you stand here throwing bullshit at me. We can deal with the damned consequences. Now do it!”
Neither moved, for what must have been only a few seconds, but felt like a very long time.
“Flora?” Van said finally, much more quietly. “If I can't get Claire's consent, can I at least ask your permission?”
Flora looked down at her semi-conscious, pain-wracked daughter. Well, Van treasured her firstborn and took good care of her. If he could ease Claire's suffering, even save her life, it was worth it. Tomorrow they could think about what it would mean. She nodded. “Please.”
“What?” yelped one of the nomads. “A mage right here is bad enough, but you're going to let him have Claire?”
“Shut up,” Denise snarled. “You don't know what you're talking about.”
“Any more outbursts like that, and you can leave this house,” Jenny said flatly.
“Van's Randi's mage,” Dex agreed loyally. “He's not like the hunters and all.”
“I can't watch this, it's obscene,” the same nomad said in disgust, and walked out, pausing long enough to scoop up his few belongings. No one tried to stop him, even the remaining nomad, who looked distinctly uncertain, but she stayed where she was, well out of reach.
Van crossed the room to the couch, paying no attention to the debate, though Flora knew him well enough by now to know that he noticed it. He dropped to both knees next to Flora, and laid a hand lightly over Claire's.
“Randi, c'mere, I might be able to reduce the chance of damage if I'm pulling most of it through you.”
Randi placed herself behind him without hesitation, hands resting on his shoulders, her tail still now except the very tip.
Utter silence, absolute stillness, none of the watching sensitives daring to move. Flora hoped they were at least remembering to breathe.
Claire stirred, uncoiled from the tight ball, and blinked dazedly at Van and Flora. Van quickly moved his hand away. “Mom? Van?” Her gaze wandering a little higher. “Oh, hi, Randi... am I delirious or are you a cat?”
“I'm a cat right now,” Randi assured her, and stepped around Van to sit on the edge of the couch and hug Claire tight. Claire snuggled into it, heedless of the fur.
“What happened? I was sick, then I felt good, and now I just feel tired and awfully thirsty.”
“Van fixed your food poisoning.”
“Oh. Oh my god, Kirk. Is he okay?”
“We're getting there,” Randi said.
Van sighed. “Randi, at least Claire knows me, and I hope trusts me somewhat. I've only met Kirk a couple of times, rather briefly.”
“Do I look like I care? Somebody go get him.” Dex ran off in the direction of the bathroom.
“And someone get Claire a glass of water,” Jenny added. “Are you okay, honey?”
“Just tired and thirsty,” Claire repeated.
“Why?” Randi asked Van.
“Because I was trying to keep it to bare minimums,” Van said. “I don't think I did any damage, but I didn't want to risk any more than necessary.”
Gloria brought Claire a glass of water, and ran a hand down Randi's arm. Randi smiled at her. “Yeah, it's real fur, Gloria. We were at a mage birthday party. Maya from York House, actually. And I was being Van's perfectly well-behaved pet, 'cause not all of Maya's family are quite as open-minded.”
“Hard to imagine you being obedient,” Gloria giggled.
“Only in mage-space,” Van said.
Kirk stumbled back into the room, supported on both sides; the helpful young nomad gave Van a wary look and faltered, unable to reach the couch without putting himself in arm's length.
Trey slid himself under Kirk's arm and braced him against his side the rest of the way to the couch, easing him down gently next to Claire and in Van's easy reach.
“Since he doesn't have any family present, that we're aware of,” Jenny said, “to give permission, will mine do?”
Van sighed, clearly unhappy with this whole situation and even more so with this aspect of it than he had been over Claire, but nodded, and reached out. Randi freed one hand from hugging Claire, to lay it on Van's shoulder.
A second time, they waited.
Kirk, rather than becoming more coherent, sighed deeply and fell asleep.
“Seemed like a better idea,” Van said, before anyone could ask. “Give him a chance to sleep before you tell him he's had a mage he hardly knows rearranging his energy and body both.”
“I think I need to sleep, too,” Claire said ruefully, and yawned. She hesitated briefly, then leaned forward and gave Van a fleeting kiss. “Thank you.”
Van's eyes widened in surprise, then he smiled; Flora had to hide a grin of her own at the hint of colour that showed along those aristocratic cheekbones. “You're welcome.”
“I promise I'll thank him properly when we get home,” Randi assured Claire, and gave her a last, fierce hug. “You're okay now?”
“Yes. I should have double-checked that the chicken really was safe, instead of taking Kirk's word for it. I suppose he thought it was. I'm sorry you had to come running.”
“Not a problem,” Van said lightly. “I like Maya, and a fair number of Donovans are there, but I have no objection to a break from the rest.”
“But we'd better get back,” Randi said. “The others'll be worried, and some of the other Kalindis might start asking questions. Get some sleep, Claire. I'll come in with Van in the morning.”
“I will,” Claire promised. “And I'll see you tomorrow.”
Due farewells were said, and Van and Randi left, with a final flourish of that dark-tipped tail.
“That was so cool,” Dex said enthusiastically, reminding Flora briefly of his eldest sister. “It's just like Claire and Kirk never got sick.”
“I can't believe a mage just walked into a house with more than a dozen sensitives, healed two sick ones, and walked back out,” the nomad Heather murmured, thoughtfully. “I honestly didn't think you could possibly be telling the truth about all this.”
“You can talk to Randi tomorrow,” Denise said. “She'll answer anything you can think of to ask. Right now, we need to get Claire up to bed. Sorry, Heather, Gil, but I think Kirk gets the couch for tonight.”
Flora watched in approval as Denise got everyone moving, Claire to the room she shared with Denise and the babies, Emily and Gloria to their shared room and Dex to the one he shared with Trey, Trey and the wanderers to clean up and get Kirk settled.
When Claire and Denise and possibly Emily moved out, in a year or two, and had their own house, it was good to know that it would be well-run. And that would mean two established houses in the city, havens for nomads, and places sensitives could learn about the reality of mages.
Well, it was too late to go back to bed now. Content that Claire was being looked after by Denise, she headed upstairs to shower and get dressed before she left for work.
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