Prompt: History is boring even if we make it, dear.
Length: ~1500 words
Nick blinked in the evening twilight, which had been hastened by the thick ash clogging the sky. Elsewhere in the city, the fires which had raged for the last two days continued, devouring dwellings to leave charred, skeletal structures behind. This area had long ago burned out, the cobblestones of the road creating a separation between two rows of rubble. Nick glanced at a blackened street sign to ensure he was in the right place.
From down the road, a teenage boy jogged towards Nick, cheeks smeared with soot and raggedy clothes spotty with holes from cinder. “Looking for someone, friend?” the boy called, slowing slightly. “If y’are, they’ve a shelter open not too far south of here for folks.”
“I’ve just come from there, actually,” Nick said with a smile he didn’t feel. “I am actually still looking for a family - The Buhligs, do you know them?”
“Buhligs, Buhligs... They lived here?”
Nick glanced at blackened remains of the buildings still standing on the street. “Around here, yes. Two houses down from the abandoned-”
The boy pointed to a large pile of rubble that still smoldered in areas. “That was old Shaw’s place, dead for the last couple years. We sneak in to dice sometimes- Used to, anyway. But sir,” the boy added, rubbing a sleeve across his face and streaking black from temple to nose, “this block went up like tinder, right in the middle of the night. If you didn’t find your friends at the shelter, well, I don’t think they had much chance.”
“You’re sure you didn’t see them? It was a little boy,” Nick rushed out, swinging to face a burned out house two doors from the pile of rubble. “A little boy, a baby girl, the mother and father- They might have stayed to gather some possessions before leaving-”
The boy shifted uncomfortably, turning to leave. “Mister, I was on this street during official evacuations. Weren’t no children, no babies.”
Nick was already picking through the scraps in front of the house, hefting the rare whole piece of lumber before tossing it aside.
“Good luck!” the boy hollered over his shoulder, continuing down the road. Nick barely glanced up. He kicked in the remains of the front door, mindful of the few patches of fire that still twinkled on the porch.
Stepping into the house, Nick, glanced around the one room dwelling with its sparse furniture. In areas, parts had collapsed, and the evening breeze stirred the ash and burned papers on the ground. A cradle, charred, still stood in the corner, besides a large bed with rumpled covers. Nick stooped to begin moving the larger piles of rubble aside.
“Nicolas, this house is going to crumble around your ears.”
Nick whirled around, nearly smashing his head into a low hanging beam. Standing in the doorway, Janette held her intricately patterned gray skirt out of the rubble at her feet. She eyed a nearby patch of embers with disdain. “What are you doing here?”
Nick turned to continue to rummage through the room. “The Buhligs, Janette. The little boy, Richard-”
The house creaked ominously. Janette glanced towards the ceiling, the weakened beams of which strained to maintain the structure’s integrity. “Yes, the boy you’ve been teaching piano to... For free, no less-”
Nick barely noticed the ceiling, moving to one side of the room and shifting aside fallen beams. “He could be a prodigy someday. One of the greats... If you saw how quickly he’s learning, his musicality, Janette-” Nick drew in a quick breath as he uncovered the family’s upright piano, a wooden beam crushing the upper panel. “It took me hundreds of years to get to that level. He’s done it in nine.” Nick heaved on the piano, attempting to unearth it. After it didn’t budge, he looked back towards Janette. “What is that you’re wearing, anyway? A bit... elegant... for the times, is it not?”
“The gray won’t show the ash.” Janette picked her way across the room to stand beside Nick, who had begun to struggle futilely with the fall jammed over the keys. She placed a gloved hand on his shoulder, rubbing her thumb in small circles.
“You say he could be a great, hmm? Nicolas, you’ve known the greats personally. What is a nine year old boy with a hobby to someone who has heard Bach perform?”
Nick brushed Janette’s hand off of his shoulder, frowning at the remains of the upright. “He was amazing. He didn’t deserve this- His entire family, that little girl... None of them deserved this.”
“This is the lot of mortals, Nicolas.”
“Oh? And the fires in Paris not six months ago? The Louvre library, the Palais D’Orsay-”
“Yes, well, that was a tragedy,” Janette replied, one lip curled delicately. “This is almost a stroke of good fortune. This city was a firetrap; I doubt it took much more than just a spark in the right place.”
Nick bristled. “The Union Stockyards just opened, Janette. The city was growing, and-”
“This city was ugly!” Janette snarled. Nick widened his eyes in surprise. “Ugly, polluted, and crass. No culture, no-” Janette took a deep breath, calming herself with visible effort before narrowing her eyes at Nick. “You brought us here. You kept us here, when I pleaded with you to leave this dreadful continent, to return to something more refined-”
“Did you do this?” Nick interrupted, grabbing her shoulders and eliciting a hiss. “Did you set this fire?”
Janette scowled. “You know I never play with fire, Nicolas... Not literally, anyway.”
“Do you know who did?”
Janette took a step backward, his hands falling away. “You mean did I plan this? No, I didn’t. History is boring even if we make it, dear. I knew, though, as soon as I heard it had crossed the river that this city would be decimated.”
Nick turned again to gaze at the upright. “I should have come straight here, tried to get them out...” Nick trailed off, stroking the stuck fall unthinkingly.
Janette heaved a sigh. She looked around, at the hearth, ironically untouched, the broken glass littering the floor, and the sheet music, crumpled and twisting in flames.
“Your prodigy got out, Nicolas.”
Nicolas, lost in thought, took a moment to react. His fingers on the piano paused. “What was that?”
Janette sighed again. Stooping, she carefully picked up a worn copy of advanced piano exercises that was only just beginning to smolder around the corners, patting it out. “I knew as it crossed the river that it would be too late for this part of the city, and I knew you would mourn these mortals for the next decade if they died - absolutely insufferably, I might add. So they were warned, and prudently took my advice-”
Nick swept Janette into a hug. “They’re out? They left? They weren’t at the shelter-”
Janette smiled despite herself before gently removing herself from Nick’s grasp. “Well, there was no shelter then, was there? They said they had friends in the country, a bit outside the city. I sent them out by the safest route I knew.” She handed him the book in her hands.
Nick stood holding it happily, smiling at nothing. “They made it out. I can find them if they’re that close, and help them start over-” Nick paused, turning the book in hands over. “Why, Janette?”
Janette looked out the window at the stragglers beginning to appear on the street, some picking through the ruins and others trudging toward the shelter to the south. “Nicolas, somewhere a clock is ticking for these mortals. Such a fleeting existence, a blink and no more, and they waste it in theft, in fighting, in shortening other already short lives at the cost of their own. How do you watch it? How do you long to be a part of it again?” Janette shook her head. “Why? Partly for you, Nicolas. Partly for what little beauty of humanity this city had left to offer.”
The beams of the ceiling groaned again in the silence following her words. Extending a hand to Janette, Nick clutched the book in one hand and stepped carefully over the debris on the floor to lead them outside. Janette stumbled slightly, cursing her skirts softly, much to Nick’s amusement.
“You forwent the hoops today, I see.”
Janette frowned. “They’re as much a death trap as the city. I can’t wait until fashion here catches up to civilisation... Or we return to it.”
He gave her a small smile, raising her hand to his lips to press a kiss to it. “Thank you, Janette.”
“Thank me by getting us to somewhere safe before dawn.”
Nick laughed lightly, tucking Janette’s hand into his elbow. “Give me a week to get them set up on the outskirts of the city while it rebuilds. Another just to ensure they have enough to get by on, and then we’ll go anywhere you want.”
“I will hold you to those terms, Nicolas. I only wonder one thing,” Janette mused as they began to walk. “How on earth do you plan on fitting that grand piano you’re planning into whatever tiny hovel they manage to find?”