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IC: S1:E4a "Three Times the Trouble!"


Grim
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"Hey, Grimsley."  Mrs Kochinski was a large woman - not quite fat, thanks to being reasonably active and a foster mom to a sometimes busy household - but 'matronly' would not be a poor word to describe her.  She smiled at the boy as she caught sight of him, heartened a little by his return smile, scant though it was.  He was an old soul, as her mom would say, and why wouldn't he be, really, given what the poor kid had gone through?  Despite his closed-in and stand-offish nature, he was polite and unfailingly helpful around the house, and she never had to chase him to do homework or check that he'd done chores.  On the downside, he had nightmares, was shy of physical contact and reticent to talk about his ordeal, something that the counsellor at the school had said would 'sort itself out', which was good for a snort of doubt from the den mother.  That no-good counsellor wasn't the one that had to wake up hearing the boy cry out in a strange language in his sleep, sounding like he was in pain...

"Hey, Mrs K."  Grim peered around the kitchen, eyes alighting on the cookie jar.  "I've got a schoolwork thing to do with some of my classmates - is it okay if I grab something for the road?"

"Nuh-uh, mister."  She pointed a spoon at him.  "Cookies are not food 'for the road'.  Grab a sandwich.  And where are you going and with who?"  Grim rolled his eyes slightly as she turned away, but quickly grabbed the bread, bologna and mustard, assembling two sandwiches with adept speed, bagging them, then cheekily grabbing three cookies as well and packing them with the rest of the impromptu lunch/dinner.

"Working with Laurel and Dale."  he said truthfully, checking his phone for messages and grunting softly as he scrolled through them.  "We're meeting up and headed to the cemetery - a Halloween thing."  True enough, if not the whole truth and nothing but.

"Not getting up to mischief, are you?"  Mrs K's gaze was piercing, but then Grim was expecting it and simply smiled a little, shaking his head as he stowed the lunch in his satchel before going to the fridge and taking out a can of Coke.

"If anything, the opposite, Mrs K."  He chuckled softly to himself as he jogged lopsidedly upstairs, retrieving the blackwood stave from under his bed, then back down again.  Mrs K was by the lounge windows, looking out.

"There's a pretty blonde out there with a car and driver, looks like she's waiting."  She looked at Grim askance, one eyebrow raised as if mentally comparing the scruffy young raven in front of her with the radiant beauty outside.

"Oh, that's Laurel."  Grim nodded.  "Guess she arranged transport."  He flashed a rare charming grin at his foster mom.  "I'll be back soon, Mrs K.  Thanks for the cookies!"  He repressed a chuckle at her huff of annoyance and headed for the door, escaping further questions.

"Stay out of trouble!" she called out behind him as he left the house and stumped down to the sidewalk, the staff in his hand tapping the ground as he walked up to Laurel.

"All set." he announced, mismatched eyes studying the car and the driver patiently waiting beside it before glancing at Apollo's daughter.  "Sorry for the wait."

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"Not at all. We could hardly leave without you, could we?" she replied easily, the response both polite and eminently practical. “Besides, if you don’t mind too much, I’ll have to ask you to wait for me, as well. I’ve been in these clothes all day." The admission was accompanied by a faint, somewhat abashed smile that warmed and brightened measurably as Laurie turned to the well-dressed, roughly middle-aged man waiting beside the passenger door of the old silver Rolls-Royce. “James, this is Grimsley Algar, the friend I told you about. Grim, this is my-“ She hesitated. When was the last time she’d needed to introduce him to anyone? At the dance, maybe… But, no. They’d taken the limousine that night, and Eric and his Band were too busy talking and searching for champagne to bother with niceties. Had she ever needed to tell anyone who he was? “Well, my James, I suppose,” the girl mused, considering the sober-looking man. “I don’t think I could do without him.”

“As the Young Miss requires,” he replied with a faint inclination of his head and gazed for a moment at Grim, keen brown eyes appraising the dour youth from behind his glasses. “A pleasure, Mister Algar,” was all he said, and then the passenger door opened and the two teens were sliding into the impeccably-maintained car: Laurel with her violin case, and Grim with his staff. Inside, the leather and  burled wood interior shone as if never touched by naked human hands, and as the trio pulled away from the curb, the sounds of the world outside faded away.

There was little in the way of conversation as the scenery of Salem drifted past the windows, and apparently little need for it. The teens knew almost nothing of each other, after all, and the dearth of common interests or relevant topics for discussion made idle banter all but impossible. The minutes passed in relative silence, broken only once or twice by quiet humming as Laurie worked through a passage from the sheet music she was reviewing, and by Grim’s somewhat curmudgeonly, “’Bout damn time,” after checking his phone to find that the others had also begun to move. Soon enough, they turned from the main road down a winding, tree-lined lane and through a tall gate, and as the car rounded a charmingly wooded curve, the house itself came into view.

To call it a “house” was perhaps something of an understatement: the massive Tudor Gothic mansion, its pale spires thrusting proudly toward the greying skies, was ringed by a low stone wall and, beyond that, bounded by dense trees all crowned in the flaming glory of autumn. It was the sort of place where exclusive concerts and parties were held, where film producers dreamed of shooting on-location, and where wealthy couples exchanged vows amongst a select group of friends, family, and photographers. It was also the place Laurel called home. As they approached the front entrance, the sunny young blonde leaned forward, unfastening her seat belt. “I think you can leave the car, James. I’m just going in to change and grab something to eat. Please,” she smiled, turning to address the saturnine youth beside her. “Won’t you come in?”  

He looked at her with raised brows, plainly surprised - and gratified - at the invitation. For an instant, the too-old-for-his-years demeanour cracked and he smiled - not a thin quirk of his lips or a wry smirk - but a genuine warm smile that came and went like a ray of sunshine across a frosted field. "I'd like that, yeah." he said as his composure slid back into place, nodding as he moved to follow her out of the car. "Thank you." he added gravely, but the flash of warmth lingered in the mismatched gaze that glanced from her to the house and back again.

Although he’d only thanked her for inviting him in, the instant, unrehearsed brilliance of Laurie’s answering smile was such that it almost seemed Grim had been the one to do her some kindness or favor. Leaving the omnipresent violin case in the back seat, she led him up the front walk, matching his pace despite the characteristic awkwardness of his gait. “I apologize in advance for not being a great hostess, by the way. Obviously I didn’t know you’d be coming over or I’d have been more prepared.” As the unlikely pair passed beneath an arched entryway, the inestimably competent valet opened the large wood and glass door, and the heir to Brightman Manor received her first guest. “James, do you think you could-“

“Certainly, and welcome home, Young Miss. And for the gentleman?”

She turned, eyeing Grim speculatively as she unbuttoned her jacket and draped it over the rack there in the foyer. “Coffee, I think, since he wasn’t able to finish it earlier. He might like sugar, as well. Oh! And a thermos for both, please. And maybe a quick bite? Thank you, James. Grim, I’ll show you the library, if that’s all right.” With another smile, she waved him along into the manor proper. “It’s just down the hall, here, past the music room.” Although the girl’s voice echoed in the grand entrance hall, down the broad corridors on either side and up through the second-story, there was no answering call, no sign of movement or activity in response to her homecoming. “I thought you might like to wait there while I get ready. If nothing else, it’s got a really nice view of the garden.” She glanced over her shoulder at him as they walked down the carpeted hallway, one eyebrow twitching in amusement. “And my father’s bar, as well.”

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That was good for a wry answering smile as he followed her down the hallway, keen eyes noting the echoing emptiness of the house and the pristine maintenance of the place.  Was James the only servant here?  Or were there others, perhaps, who came in at odd times like shoemaker elves to dust and clean and garden and ensure the pantry was stocked?  His agile mind spun that question around like a coin on a tabletop as he considered Laurel in the context of this, her home.  A massive, empty museum, with only the valet as her confidant and company...  No wonder she'd introduced Grim as a friend, rather than acquaintance, though that could just be a politely gracious introduction...

He pondered that, too, as always seeking the patterns and details in peoples words - what they said, how they said it, the choice of one word over another.  Was Laurel a friend?  If so, she was a most unlikely one: beautiful and graceful and warm.  Why did you use the word beautiful, Grim? he immediately interrogated himself, pouncing on the word in the confines of his own rumination.  Because she objectively is, moron. he answered himself testily.  Aha! the inquisitor crowed.  But beauty is subjective, a slave to the eye of the beholder-  And then Laurel opened the door to the library, and stepping in after her Grim stopped second-guessing himself as he saw the room.

The library was done in rich, warm shades of mahogany and red leather and burnished brass.  In truth it seemed more of the sort of room where men would sit in the high-backed dark leather armchairs puffing cigars and sipping brandy as they discussed politics and business, but the shelves lining the walls, each stretching from floor to high ceiling with sliding steps tucked neatly at one end, held a wealth of books.  Thick carpet underfoot deadened the sound of his steps to a whisper of a shuffle as he stepped to the center of the massive room and leaned on his staff, staring at them curiously, then casting his gaze to the large double patio doors at one end of the room that opened onto the garden and finally to the polished oak and brass bar on the north wall.

This is how the other half lives, he mused as he turned slowly in place, taking in the room before glancing at Laurel, who was watching him with an expectant gaze in her cerulean eyes.  It took a moment, then Grim realised she'd asked him something.  "Uh... Sorry?" he said belatedly, his narrow shoulders hunching inside the too-large overcoat as he looked a little abashed.

"I said 'feel free to browse and get comfortable, I won't be too long'."  Laurel's answering smile was equal parts good-natured patience, humour, and pleasure at his reaction.  "James will be around if you need anything.  Just pull the bell cord over there."

"Oh, sure.  Yeah."  Grim nodded, feeling as out of place as a crow in a dovecote.  Almost aggressively indifferent to his appearance beyond being clean, these surroundings made him feel like he should have maybe combed his hair or worn a shirt and tie.  Of course, Grim being Grim that feeling of inadequacy fostered an almost rebellious insouciance.  The hostess had said he was to get comfortable, so by Hel he would do so!

It'd be rude to refuse her wishes, after all.

As Laurel smiled again and left, Grim leaned his staff against one of the armchairs and walked along the bookshelf on the east wall, fingers trailing over the wooden shelves and lightly brushing the spines of some volumes.  Then he traversed the large patio window, peering out at the well-kept garden before examining the western wall's shelves.  It was warm in here, and he shrugged out of his long coat and draped it over a chair as he continued before ending up at the bar, eyes examining the bottles and decanters on it before he stopped and leaned against the mahogany counter, facing the room with an air of almost trance-like reflection.  Unbidden, his hands found a crystal tumbler and poured something amber and fragrant into it while he considered, before the youth stepped away from the bar, heading with a determined air to one of the shelves he'd noted.

So it was when James entered, tray held expertly as he navigated the door, he saw the unkempt boy slouched in a chair, a first edition of Wordsworth perched on his knee with one leg resting on the other and a half-full tumbler of what, the valet realised as he studied the decanters, was probably single-malt scotch in the hand that wasn't turning pages.  He set the tray down and turned, studying the strange young fellow, noting the scar over his eye and the myriad of pale scars on the bare forearms where Grim had rolled up his long-sleeved shirt.

"Everything alright, sir?"

"Mmmh."  Grimsley made a sound of contented assent as he took a sip then waved the tumbler slightly, indicating that yes, indeed, everything was just fine and dandy.  Then the odd-coloured eyes blinked and looked up from the tome he was studying at the calm-featured older man, who merely directed his gaze meaningfully at the tumbler.

"Is sir enjoying the scotch?"  The tone was not quite arch or sarcastic.  Not quite.  But it was respectfully calling attention to the fact that the underage rapscallion had indeed helped himself to a prized and expensive spirit.  Grim looked at the drink in his hand with a momentary 'uh-oh' on his narrow, foxish features, then glanced back at James.  Screw it.  When in doubt, forge ahead.

"Is that what this is?"  Grim took another sip with an air of appreciation.  "It's very good.  Gets rid of the chill."

"Perhaps a little early for it, sir?"  That could mean it was too early in the day to drink hard liquor... or it could mean that Grimsley Algar was at too early a stage of life to be drinking hard liquor.  Either approach was valid, after all.  Grim decided not to press his luck.

"Perhaps, yes."  He set the tumbler down carefully on a coaster as James approached with a smaller tray he'd taken from the larger one.  The valet fielded the whisky as he set out a cup of expensive-smelling coffee, a small bowl of sugar and a tiny cream jug.

"Very good sir."  James smiled a little at him before heading back over to the bar.  "I have also prepared some quiche as a light repast, if that would be acceptable?"  The rumble from Grim's stomach answered that question, and if the professional and composed manservant had to fight back a smile he gave no sign of it as he brought a plate with a slice of the dish over and set that down as well.  Grim set aside the volume of Wordsworth and picked up his food, watching for a moment as James went back to the counter before shrugging and digging in like... well, a hungry growing Aesir as he waited for his hostess to reappear.

 

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Grim was well into his second helping of quiche when the sound of footsteps, muted though they were by the carpets, announced Laurel’s return. True to her word, she’d cleaned up a bit, pulling her hair up into a high ponytail and exchanging her fashionable leggings and sweater for a crisp white blouse and dark jeans that looked as though they’d never been worn.

“…Who, not content that former worth stand fast, looks forward, persevering to the last, from well to better, daily self-surpast,” she recited with a faint, wistful smile as she entered, glancing from the Wordsworth to the view of the garden outside, and then back to the canny youth in the oversized chair. “My father loved the Romantics. I think my mother just loved that he-” Her bright azure eyes widened reflexively as she took in the sight of him slouched there, lingered in mute horror on the network of fine lines that marked his thin forearms; she’d heard rumours, of course, that he’d been abused or even engaged in self-harm, but the sheer number of scars she could see- traceries of white crisscrossing the pale skin in a web of old pain- was almost incomprehensible. Whether someone had tortured the taciturn young man, or the wounds were self-inflicted, it must have been unimaginably painful.

“Mementos.” The single word, softly-spoken, shattered Laurie’s horrified fascination as surely as a ringing slap, and with the same sharp, stinging sense of mortification as she met his gaze. She hadn’t meant to stare, had no desire at all to cause offense, and yet that’s precisely what she’d done. To a guest in her home. To a friend, perhaps, which was even worse. The unsettled, uncomfortable feeling stirred again behind her ribs as it hadn’t in days.

Grim gave her a slight, sad-and-bitter smile as he tugged the sleeves of his shirt down and shrugged in the offhand, indifferent fashion of teenagers. ‘No big deal,’ the gesture implied, but the art of studied nonchalance was one the flaxen-haired young heiress knew well, and here it reassured her not at all. She nodded, slim fingers twining together, and straightened.

“I apologize.” The daughter of Apollo met his eyes unflinchingly as she spoke, the girl’s stricken expression slowly fading as her composure returned. “That was rude, and I hope you’ll forgive me for staring. Curiosity should not supersede courtesy, however surprised I was.” Crossing the room to let Grim finish his meal, Laurel noted the tumbler and the coffee service on the counter. She leaned over the half-full glass, sniffing the amber liquid curiously before blinking, wide-eyed and shaking her head, waving a slender hand before her face as if to clear away the scent. She’d been kidding about the bar, but it was hardly reasonable to say so now, was it? “Please, take your time eating, and we’ll drive out to the residential area you mentioned afterward. It would be a shame to waste James’s cooking,” she added, and turned over an empty cup to pour herself a coffee. It was, as he’d suggested earlier, likely to be a long night.

Edited by Laurie Brightman
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He lowered his gaze to his plate, the only sounds in the room a faint clink of fork on china as he ate in silence that seemed to grow and spread from him, an awkward stillness that permeated the air between them, cooling their nascent friendship like the autumn chill slowly sapping heat from the world outside...

"No." he said at least, more to himself than her as he set the empty plate aside and looked up, giving Laurel a tight, but genuine smile.  "He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool.”  He shrugged again, picking up his coffee cup and standing, walking with his slight limp over to the bar counter where Laurel stood watching him.  Leaning against it with one hip, he gave her a wry grin.  "I'm still working on trying to be wise, but a good start is to avoid being a fool.  You didn't intend offense, and I didn't take any."

He raised his cup to his lips, looking away towards the large patio window.  "It's me who should be sorry." he went on more quietly, lifting a slender hand to examine the patchwork of scars on his fingers and the back of the hand.  "It's not the most pleasant of sights." He shrugged again, tugging the sleeve of his shirt down a little further to cover most of his hand, then smiled at Laurel - another tight, wry quirk of his lips that reached his eyes for a moment before they shifted away from hers and went back to regarding the room.

"Though nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; / We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind; / In the primal sympathy / Which having been must ever be...”  he quoted softly, a grave expression in his eyes as they looked out of the window at the room's far end.  Glancing back at Laurel again, he flashed her another of his rare, warm smiles and took another mouthful of coffee.

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In the quiet that followed, she wondered which, of the two of them, was the intended audience for his recitation. Or whether it might be both. Or, indeed, whether it mattered.

“I don’t think you should apologize, Grim. At least, not to me.” The platinum-crowned heiress dared a glance up at the tall, wiry young man with the enigmatic eyes as she added first sugar, and then cream to the coffee she’d poured. “It doesn’t matter if they- your scars- are pleasant to look at or not. They’re proof that whatever it was couldn’t kill you. And, I really didn’t mean to stare. Honestly, I just-“ She hesitated, leaning back against the counter and watching the birds outside as she turned the cup in her hands. “I just thought it must’ve hurt. That’s all.”

"It did." he said softly with a small nod. "At least I was alive to feel it, though," he added with a slight smile, casting his gaze her way. "Like you said, I survived it." He was silent for a long moment, his attention returning to the garden. "Sometimes I feel I've spent so long surviving that I forget about living. And then little kindnesses from others ground me, remind me. A proffered donut, an invitation into a home, sympathy rather than pity." He nudged her companionably with an elbow. "Good conversation," he added with a vulpine grin.

“To which you’re most welcome,” she laughed, startled, but not displeased by the unexpected prodding; for a fleeting moment the encroaching chill of the changing seasons seemed strangely distant, the fading light of the afternoon more aureate than argent. “And thank you for being a gracious guest. I’ll try to be a better hostess next time you visit.” The hammered band of gold around her wrist jingled softly against her watch as Laurie lifted the coffee to her lips and, cautiously, nudged him back.

They spoke for a while longer, draining their cups slowly while discussing Wordworth’s use of language and mythological and historical themes, and when James reappeared to collect them she pressed the antique volume of poetry into Grim’s arms. What good was it doing on the shelf, after all? Besides, she reminded him matter-of-factly as he protested: it came from a library, which meant he simply needed to return it when he was done. There was no arguing with her after that, the result having been decided from the moment she’d seen him with the book in the first place; persuading her to the contrary would have been like trying to reverse the tides. Into his satchel it went, carefully wrapped and packed in alongside the lukewarm can of Coke, two bologna sandwiches, and handful of cookies- and, before they left, a thermos of fragrant coffee, as well.

…All of which, of course, the young Aesir would likely devour before he made it home that evening, while still eyeing Laurel’s thermos and the bundle of snacks James had prepared for her. Almost before the two half-divine teens realized it, they were back in the car and headed down the tree-lined lane that would take them into the city, and to the general vicinity of Mrs. Cunningham’s home.

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She cut the contact, removed her brain bucket and her gloves, putting some order in her unruly dark curls. Dale took a long breath and sighed. What am I doing here? She had been asking herself that same question for quite some time now. In fact, she had been since that cursed day her house was set on fire and her Dad died. She could still remember the burns on her father's face when the medical unit pushed the stretcher into the ambulance, hear him coughing and struggling to breathe, feel the warmth her brother radiated in her arms as the dam of his tears broke all over her blouse, smell the acre scent of smoke, omnipresent in the neighborhood as the fire hoses attempted to drench the wild fire eating her home, morsel by morsel, right after it took a bite at their Dad.

She shook her head, sliding her backpack over one shoulder and opening it. Her knife was waiting for her between two sandwiches and a flask of rum, slumbering in its hand-made leather sheath, tightly strapped to a discrete but solid leather belt, bitter reminder of the old lady who helped her keep her nose above the water, back in Boston. She was going to miss her. No, she missed her. The leather belt quickly ended up around her waist, knife on her back, under her jacket. She pushed her sunglasses up her head, wiping her humid eyes, then fished for her flask, taking a long sip, feeling with an odd satisfaction the warm beverage travelling down to her stomach.

Then she could feel something bump on her back. A soft, tender bump she hadn't felt in days. "Swi?" A low rumble, filled with comfort and reassurance, was the only reply she got, as the black cat leaped over her shoulders and rubbed its head against her cheek. "Mwen renmen w tou, Swi..." She said, greeting the black-furred animal with a caress.

The pop of wood against the road caught her attention as an eerie figure appeared at the angle of the street, accompanied by a ray of sunshine probably meant to be its opposite. Grimsley was clad in a coat that seemed too big to be his, his black wood staff hitting the sidewalk every now and then, a transient smile, so quick Dale wondered if she would have missed it had she blinked, stretching his lips for a brief instant as he noticed the chocolate-skinned teen waiting by her bike, with a... cat on her shoulders? Laurie waved her hand as her eyes fell on Dale, and a couple instants later, the Scion of Kalfu was shackling her bike to the street lamp, her sunglasses back on her nose, concealing the fact that she almost had cried moments ago.

"Hey," she greeted the two arriving teens, "I brought a friend. Swi, meet Laurie and Grim."

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"Well, you did say you'd be bringing your cat."  Grim commented in his usual dry fashion, studying the black-furred feline as it crouched on Dale's shoulders.  Yellow eyes met green-and-grey as the two inscrutable creatures each took the measure of the other for a long moment before Grim nodded and Swi groomed a paw, almost as though they had - on some male harmonic imperceptible to XX chromosomal types - agreed to diplomatically ignore one another.

It wasn't that Grim disliked cats.  But Swi was not a normal cat, that much was plain from the way he glared balefully from Dale's shoulders and had evidently traveled here with her on her bike.  Divine critters inspired caution, being as they were emissaries and agents of the gods, much as Hugin had been when he'd guided Grim to freedom.  Until he understood more of Kalfu and of Swi, Grim was going to be cautious.

As for Swi... Well, even an emissary of the gods knew trouble when it saw it, and it wasn't often he had his stare matched.  Best to leave well enough alone, for now.

"He'll be useful."  Dale stated with confidence.  "Y'know, in case."

"Mmm."  Grim's vocalisation was neither doubtful nor one of agreement as he stumped past, his eyes on the house belonging to Mrs Cunningham.  Stopping at the fence, he leaned on his staff and scrutinised the garden, the chill Fall wind whipping at his hair and coat as he attempted to make sense of what he was seeing.

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  • 1 month later...

The walk from the car had only taken a couple of minutes, and in that time neither of the teens had felt particularly compelled to attempt conversation; the Odinsson, because it was not in his nature to be especially loquacious, and the budding muse because her thoughts were occupied with the percussive rhythm of his walking stick and their footsteps on the sidewalk. It wasn't quite 3/4 time, but close enough that she caught herself humming Shostakovich's Second Waltz under her breath as they approached the garden, and the girl who waited there.

Although she peered at the cat dubiously, not having been allowed to keep pets of her own due to their destructive and unhygienic habits, Laurel's smile as she approached Swi's chocolate-hued ward was unseasonably warm, a brief flash of summer glinting in brilliant azure eyes. "Oh, good. I was reasonably certain we'd run into each other again, but I hadn't expected it to be so soon." The sound of her laugh was soft and fleeting amid the gusty chill of autumn's whispers, the cool of the approaching evening sending a shiver down her spine. Adjusting the ivory scarf about her neck, the blonde wished for what would surely be neither the first nor the last time that Fate had arranged for her to end up somewhere warmer. She paused for a moment, watching as Grim studied what remained of Mrs. Cunningham's famed garden. He might've been a scout overlooking the sea from some distant windswept crag, or a tragic hero striding resolutely across desolate moors. The girl before her, even in dark sunglasses, seemed decidedly more animated, more real and substantial and present by contrast. More... of this world, she decided, stretching out a gloved hand in greeting even as she considered the trio's apparent differences. "Dale, wasn't it?  I suppose today is a day for proper introductions, then."

 

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  • 3 months later...

“Can I help you, young man?”  Asked Ms. Cunningham as Grimsley approached the yard.  “Come to see for yourself?”

“I’m sorry,” Grim said sincerely.  He could tell she’d been crying by the swelling beneath her eyes.  She’d just been sitting there just under where he was leaning, and he hadn’t really noticed her until she’d spoke up.  “We didn’t mean to add to your hurt.  We’d hoped that, maybe,” he wasn’t quite sure how to say it.

“That perhaps we could assist in finding those responsible for vandalizing what is Salem’s loveliest garden,” Laurie interjected.  She used the present tense as to not strip away the last vestige of hope from a woman who seemed to enjoy gardening more than anything in the world.

“Yes,” Grim agreed.  “We’re familiar with how the high schoolers around here sometimes act.  We thought perhaps we could find something that was missed.”

“Oh,” she tried to seem cheerful, grateful even, as she fumbled with a wad of tissue in her anxious fingers.  “I appreciate it, I do.  Already told the Sheriff everything and he didn’t seem one iota concerned with it.  You’re welcome to look, I don’t at all mind.  I Harley doubt anything will come of it.  It’s a garden after all, not a murder.  Police have far more important things than to track down some kids who wronged an old lady.”

Grimsley’s view of the world faded away from normal colors.  The fires of autumn’s leaves muted to a grayscale account of Ms. Cunningham’s backyard.  The autumn chill was still in the air as the wind danced through his hair and slithered down the back of his neck, urging him to shrug and tug his jacket up a bit as he leaned against his staff.

From the gray the gossamer shimmer of faint, spider silk strands began to form, there, yet not there as their thinness almost made the threads invisible.  Yet, they were there.  Always in front of him, yet always beyond his reach as a 3D layer imposed itself over him.  He could see them, walk through the gray garden, yet he would easily pass through them.  Fate threads, although they could be manipulated, were forever out of the touch of mortals, even divine ones.

Had magic been used here?  Well, not exactly.  It was not that magic had been used here in Ms. Cunningham’s garden specifically, so much as the effects of magic had affected her plot of land.  Even in the fading warmth of Summer, Ms. Cunningham’s garden was a bastion of life and Nature’s bounty.  It was enduring long after Autumn’s chill should have claimed it but not through divine protection or providence… but through something as simple as love.

He could feel it here, under the chill of winter’s ravenous approach: the slight empathic bond she shared with her garden, the love she had for the simple act of tending, pruning, and caring for the flowers and vegetables and fruits that grew so easily and readily for her.  A ghostly image of Ms. Cunningham faded in and out of view, resonance of memories the dying garden felt as the last vestiges of life were clawed apart by the cold.  To weak were the plants now and Grim knew that no amount of love could restore them.

“There, there,” the phantom of Ms. Cunningham said as knelt beside withered tomato plants.  “Those storms sure were something, weren’t they?  No water for you today, but look,” she produced some manner of item that he couldn’t make out in the ghostly image.  “Some nutrients to mingle with the water and soil.  You hang in there and I’ll check on you in a bit.”

“Oh!” she appeared again over by the rose bushes close to her back porch.  “Well, look at you lovelies!  Just flaunting all over the place, aren’t ya?  Well, pretty you may be, you be nice to the others.  Loving you all the same I am.  If I hear tell of you picking on the others again, well, I’ll be moving you to the side of the house for a season.  Uproot you and all, so don’t test me.”  She waggled her finger at the bush.

So, it went on and to the outside looking some would have considered the old woman nuts.  Truth of the matter was, as Grimsley wandered slowly though the scene piecing it together, this was all she had.  With her husband gone she’d taken all her love for him and placed it here, in her garden.  When the phantoms appeared of the two of them planting and talking and planning where each seed would go it dawned on him that she put up a good front of the children, but she was crushed inside.  Very few mortals lost their same husband, twice.

There was no ritual here.  Whatever, or wherever this destruction came from it pulled the very life this spot to fuel itself, traveling off to some other location.  Grimsley watched as the phantoms of the past faded and as they did so the final withering of the garden followed too.  Dying stems and leaves withered further, crumpling to sun-dried bits as the bulbous fruits and vegetables turned in on themselves, blackening in the span of a heartbeat and rotting away.  They had delivered their message as best they could: we loved her too.  Goodbye.

Color returned to Grimsley’s world.  All the color except that of the withered plants around them.  Ms. Cunningham simply sat there, staring off into nothingness towards the side of the garage where the entire length was taken up by what was once a beautiful row of daisies, sunflowers and all the colors of Easter that came three foot out from the wall in a specially made box of soil.  There she and her late husband had planted the first seeds and now there was nothing but rot and decay.

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"A tenth I know: when at night the witches / ride and sport in the air, / such spells I weave that they wander home / out of skins and wits bewildered."  Grim muttered as he beheld the destruction of life.  He took a breath, smelling the composting, rotting vegetation, eyes narrowed and lips pinched in anger.

Someone had not just taken life.  They had taken love, and time, and care.  They had taken Ms Cunningham's soul, or a part of it at least, to fuel some working or rite.  But to what end?  What rite?  Life for life, soul for soul.  Some manner of transference?  A rejuvenation?  Or just a simple sucking of something good and decent to power something else.  The principles of Sympathy and Contagion as he understood them certainly indicated the former.  What had been done here was... vampiric in it's effect.  Taking, to feed something else.  And that something else needed the love and life of this garden.

"What's that, dear?"  Ms Cunningham asked, sniffling from where she sat by Laurie.  Grim turned, strands of his dark hair whipping across his pale, raw-boned features, and stepped over to her, sinking with some difficulty to one knee.

"I'll help you re-plant this."  he told her soberly.  "Even now, I can see the love you put into this garden.  Right now, all is bleak.  Fall turns to Winter.  Let the ground stay as it is, absorb what is left into it, recover and revitalise.  Winter always breaks, and when it does we will replant."  He smiled faintly.  "You'll have to show me how, but we'll have beauty here again."

"But... why would you do that, dear?"  Ms Cunningham felt fresh tears coming as she stared at the mismatched eyes.  Grim pondered for a long moment, trying to find the right words to express how he felt about it, why he was making such an offer, why he cared.  He settled for part of the truth.

"It would be wrong not to." he said finally, his manner thoughtful as he stood, grunting a little as he leaned on his staff to help him up.  He motioned with his head to Dale and Laurie as Elaine Cunningham sniffled, weeping silently as she looked at her ruined flowerbeds, drawing the two girls aside with him.  In concise murmurs, Grim outlined what he had seen, what he had felt from the emptied, hollowed-out shell of the garden. 

"So it wasn't a hex against her, or anything personal like that.  This was an act of... convenience.  Necessity.  Someone needed the life that was in this garden."  he finished, looking over his shoulder at the sorrowful old woman ten feet away before looking back at Laurie and Dale.  "It was used as a battery, I think."

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  • 1 month later...

"A battery..." Laurel repeated, frowning a little at the implication. One really only needed batteries to fuel other things- they were rather meaningless on their own. What on earth could they possibly have wanted all that energy for? And at the cost of this poor woman's beloved garden, as well. Destroying something that must have been beautiful and meaningful, once, seemed an awful means to, probably, a much worse end. For now, though, there was little else to be done, and Grim himself had offered to help restore the plantings when the weather was right.

"Well," the platinum-haired young daughter of the sun declared decisively, "if you mean to help her replant in the Spring, I shall of course help you. If nothing else, I can make sure any tools or..." She paused, lips pursing in thought. "Seeds?" she assayed, considering; how did one go about planting a garden, anyway? Casting a sympathetic eye at the older woman, she pulled the thick wool of her coat more tightly around herself. "Bulbs, perhaps? Whatever supplies are necessary, I'm happy to see that she gets them. Excuse me, please, for just a moment." She smiled a little, then, drawing a small, rectangular case from her coat pocket as she approached the sniffling figure nearby.

"Mrs. Cunningham?" Laurie pressed a crisp white card, embossed with neat blue and gold lettering, into the forlorn woman's hands as she looked up. "Here. My name is Laurel Brightman, and this is my contact information. I've promised my friend over there that I'd take care of the costs of replanting when it warms up again, so please- when you're ready- give me a call, and we'll make the arrangements. It's the hope of color in the spring that gets one through the winter, after all, and neither you nor Salem should be deprived of its beauty."

Within a few minutes, the three young Scions had agreed amongst themselves that proceeding to Harmony Grove was the best course of action. While Dale and Swi took the more expeditious paths available to someone with a motorcycle and little fear of death, Laurel and Grim returned once more to the insular luxury of the car, the snacks, and the quiet of their own thoughts.

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