Every year there were a few faces missing, and this year those missing faces were numerous. But there was one lingering near the alcohol that made him smile, however briefly. It had been more than ten years since Gigi had come to the manor of her own volition, and though he doubted it had anything to do with wiling away a few hours with family, he was happy to see that she was there.
He reached her just as she breathed her hope for some undisclosed deity to assist her, and couldn?t help offering up a comment in return, leaning heavily on his stick at her back. ?Would you like help, or just a f**k??
?What an obscene proposal. I see you?ve gotten more perverted in your age, Old Man.? Gigi?s voice retained its dry humor though for a brief moment she caught herself smiling. It was reflexive in his presence. If their family was a twisted tree, Humphrey was the sun that saw to every leaf and twig. He may very well have been the firmament that encased their whole world and stood between every Granger?s reality and the heavens.
Teddy would have appreciated the grandiose allusion. Gigi hated that no matter how far she ran or how much rage she held in her heart she would never shake free from the spell of their great patriarch. She could not separate herself from those childhood memories tied to her core of so many days spent happily in his company. Even the smell of his familiar cologne felt comforting.
With a sigh she turned around to face him. ?You?re still spry enough to sneak up on people, I?ll give you that.? She smirked. ?You should show me where you keep your swords if you?re intent on becoming a ninja this late in life.? The disconcerting eyes took a look around at the gathered family before fixing on him. She leaned in so that her next few words would be lost in the hum of noise from their merry relatives. ?We should talk.? Privately. That last word lived in the stress placed on the other three without needing to be said.
Humphrey snorted with laughter at her allusion to his sneakiness, knowing it was kind words and nothing more. But kind words, however they were wrapped up, were rare enough from Gigi that he appreciated them more than if they had come from another source. ?You think I?m bad now, wait until you see the slinky stealth wheelchair waiting in the wings for when the hip gives out completely,? he threatened through a smirk of his own, the quirk of his lips echoing that of his younger relative as he leaned near her.
Her own lean was not lost on him. Nor were the curious glances being sent their way by several of the older Grangers. Gigi?s own generation knew not to make a fuss of her appearance, but her parents? generation hadn?t yet tied together the sweet child with the prickly adult. They were also notorious gossips, most of them, and Humphrey didn?t want suspicion and difficulty falling onto Gigi?s head just because this was the only place she could have guaranteed finding him at short notice.
?Well, since you?re here,? he said, his voice loud enough to carry to the curious ears nearby but not so loud as to be obviously laying a false rumor, ?- and it is charming to see you, of course - why don?t you come into the library? It?s been a long time since you and I shared a drink over a good book.? Tactfully, he didn?t mention that the drink she?d had the last time it had happened had been chocolate milk, simply offering her his arm with a charming display of old-school manners. He had a feeling he knew what she wanted to talk to him about, and hoped she found something a little lighter to take home with her, however long she chose to stay.
With much effort she willed a small smile onto her face, one that held less bite than normal. Gigi took his arm and mentally cursed herself for momentarily relishing the more intimate gesture. Away from Maple Grove it was easy to block out any things she missed about the people and the place itself and only focus on what poisons the Granger name could carry. Here, drinking in the old sights and smells on their path to the library she, Teddy, and even Clayton when he could bear their company, spent many rainy afternoons exploring, it was not as simple to forget.
Once they were tucked away from prying eyes (though one never knew what sneaking ears lurked inside the mansion), Gigi broke free from the embrace as if Humphrey?s arm burned her. It clouded her head to be here with him and she coveted her clarity. ?You?re a good actor, Old Man. We both know I?m the farthest f**king thing from charming.? A last immature stab at rebelling against her own nostalgic feelings and love for him with the crude opening. ?I?m here because Jon may not have his memories but he?s gotten enough of the picture of what happened after his accident that I have to find Eli. And from what I gather Jon hasn?t learned the full picture,? she locked eyes with Humphrey then, ?so you?re going to want to help me find him and figure out how to clean up his motherf**king mess.?
It might have hurt him how quickly she slipped from his grasp, but the Old Man knew this particular generation of his family better than perhaps they might like. Just the fact that she was there was enough to bring a smile to his face, even if it was on business unpleasant to most. ?Crude as you try to be, Gigi love, you are still a charming young woman, whether you like it or not,? Humphrey informed her with perfect clarity of his own, letting her move away and turn to the business she had come to discuss.
The reminder of how close Jon and his wife had come to total disaster brought a faint frown to his face as he painfully lowered himself into a chair. He knew most of what went on with the family, and Jon himself had shared quite a few of the details after the ... incident. He looked up at Gigi, meeting her gaze steadily. ?I gather your search has proved fruitless thus far, then,? he said calmly, refusing to give into the temper that flared at any hint of danger to his family. ?I am uncertain, truly, what has happened with Elias. He had a laboratory beneath the Community Faith Family Medicine and Triage Center in WestEnd, though reports indicate that he has not frequented that locale for almost a year. I have also heard that he may have gone looking for vampires, in which case you may well be searching for the first Granger vampire.?
Gigi refrained from rebuking Humphrey on the matter of her charm. She grimaced at the last piece of news. ?I knew he was bat sh*t crazy but I didn?t take him for a masochist.?
Humphrey's brown eyes turned concerned, deeply worried for her in that moment as he looked on one of the self-proclaimed black sheep of the family. ?Be careful, Gigi,? he warned her, sounding as old as he looked in that moment. ?If, at any time, the danger to you grows too great, abandon the search. We can live in ignorance without losing you, too.? We?ve lost too much already.
It had been so long since she experienced someone in her family exhibiting such paternal concern for her that Gigi hadn?t realized she missed it until she saw Humphrey?s expression. Little girls with daddy issues hit the pole, not the streets to deal drugs, Gigi, she reminded herself snidely, harshest to herself most of all. It pricked her though to note the weather of the years in his face. She forgot the consequences of being careless with time. It was a finite resource and who knew how many more occasions for meeting they would have.
?I...? Gigi lost her thorns for a moment but could not bring herself to give life to those words that should have been shared. She could only nod. ?OK.?
Then she remembered what started this all in the first place. A lovesick girl with a crush and a gun. ?I should have taken care of it all myself the first time.? She darkly remarked. Humphrey may not have known the particulars, what tasks Gigi and Elias split amongst them when they found Susie, but he had not been left in the dark. He knew they meant to handle it outside the law and that they thought their work finished. Their error proved disastrous. ?You will look harder too, yes?? She could not outright ask for his help, at least not without the guise of blackmail or some other threat that made them cohorts out of shared circumstance and not family.
He smiled gently, rising to his feet once more to lay a warm hand on her shoulder if she would allow it. ?I am always looking, little one,? he assured her quietly. ?One by one, I will find you - all of you - whenever you go astray, even if it takes me to the end of my life and beyond.? From the desk behind him, he took a small leather-bound book, offering it to her. ?Your Teddy gave me this the year before he died,? Humphrey told her gently. ?But the inscription, I think, was intended for you. I should like you to have it, Gigi.? His hand, so gnarled with age, was soft against her cheek for the barest moment. ?Family is bone-deep, my spiky little love. Even if you walk away and never look back, there is always a place for you, here at the heart of it. All of you.?
?You?ve still got balls.? Her gaze ticked down at his hand on her shoulder but her words were quiet. Not soft by normal standards, she carried too much steel and iron in every part of her needing protecting for softness to stick to her words. But they lacked that jagged edge meant for the barbs she usually chose to spit.
Her fingers wrapped too tightly around the book and gave away her eagerness for the gift. Another relic of her brother?s who grew more saintly every year her memory was all she had left to know him by. She did not dare to read the inscription now. Whatever her brother left there could entirely undo her with the memories it might trigger. ?All right, Poppy, all right.? The ?thank you? that belonged there would have to be heard in the fact that she slipped into calling him by the childhood nickname for him. Humphrey had served as another grandfather regardless of the technicality.
?Well, my darling, without my balls, this family would be a lot smaller,? Humphrey chuckled, appreciating the childhood nickname more than most would imagine he might. But then, only the Grangers ever saw this side of the Old Man - the gentleness that tempered his own steel, offered freely to those of his blood and those they had chosen to make their lives with. Even when he dressed someone down for their behavior, he never lost that milder side that softened the blow. ?Now that we have that serious business done, would you indulge an old man by matching me drink for drink at the bar, little one??
?May as well make a f**king Christmas miracle out of it.? Gigi paused to qualify her point. ?I?ll stay but can?t promise I?ll behave.?
That would do for today. Humphrey offered her his arm once again and guided her back into the common room, his twinkly-eyed charm once more in full view, knowing he couldn?t hold her there for long. But however long she chose to stay, it would be enough. She had her place here, like all the others who had come before and would come after, a last bastion of the family she had almost eschewed for good.
[size=9]((A giant thank you to Humphrey's player for working on this with me, lots of fun!))[/size]