Fourteen - Mother hen
It was late in the afternoon when Maurice trudged into his office with heavy steps and shoulders slumped with exhaustion, a grave, tired look on his face. He heaved a sigh and reached up to undo the robe covering him up, hanging it up on the rack of jackets and hats by the door. Water gurgled in the heavy boots on his feet; he'd have to get them fixed sometime soon. The weather had gotten dreadful lately on certain parts of the European continent.
Pleasant warmth enveloped him and drained the tension from his limbs. From the kitchen the lovely, sweet smell of freshly baked cookies drifted, and he could hear Galen hum cheerfully to himself while cooking. He sighed, welcoming the comfort and familiarity of his own office, and left his boots by the door to join his secretary.
"Welcome back, sir. How was work?"
"Busier than expected. The circumstances changed enough to cause me a bit of trouble. If you could read through my reports when they're done, that would be lovely, Galen."
"Certainly, sir. Now sit down, and I'll find you a cup of tea and some cookies, alright? You ought to take a breather." The demon smiled and guided him to a chair, ever the helpful and merry little demon, and wasted not a second in fetching the kettle from the stove, pouring him a cup before he added three teaspoons of sugar and stirred. "There you go."
"Thank you." It was lemon tea, which seemed like a sharp contrast to the sugar, but it was an oddly nice combination once it hit the taste buds.
"And your cookies," Galen said, setting down a plate topped with chocolate chip cookies.
Maurice sank back in the chair with a pleased sigh and nibbled a cookie. The thought of the reports that awaited him once his little breather was over weighed his shoulders down. A holiday would be very welcome at this point –he hadn't felt quite this tired in a while- but alas, there was no such thing as holidays on request for a person in his position. His brow furrowed. There was little point in contemplating if's and maybe's.
For a while he was content to simply eat his cookies in peace and quiet while watching Galen move about the kitchen, humming and at times swaying his hips from side to side, seemingly without noticing so himself, and sip the tea prepared for him.
A discomforting sense of unease was deeply seated in him, though, lurking under his skin and nestling at the base of his spine like a stubborn child.
After a certain blond boy's name popped up in his mind for the fifth time, he understood that he couldn't stop his mind from circling back to Gilligan, who lay in bed with a broken leg and, last that he had seen, a terrible mood. Maurice had been gone the entire day and hadn't seen him since this morning, but Gilligan was only barely awake then and probably hadn't registered his presence in the room.
"How is he?" he asked without raising his head. His lips pressed themselves into a thin line.
"As well as can be expected, I suppose. The young sir is very grumpy, but he has yet to throw a tantrum. I think he must be bored, cooped up in bed all day long without your company or anything to do. Is there anything you can think of that I may bring him to ease his boredom?"
Maurice blinked. "He does not read books, and…"
Exactly what did Gilligan like to do in his spare time?
Even after careful consideration of the question, he could not think of a good answer. Truth to be told, he truly didn't know what Gilligan's hobbies were. It put a shameful blush in his cheeks that he could not answer what ought to be a simple question about his assistant.
"I'll ask him myself, Maurice," Galen said kindly with an offered smile. "As for what you can do to help him…Paying his mother a visit might not be a bad idea."
His eyebrows rose. "How so?"
"A mother knows her child best, isn't it so? Perhaps she can think of something," he said. Galen moved the small stool he used to reach the uppermost cabinets and cupboards and climbed onto it, then stuck his entire head into the cabinet he opened. "Gilligan may be mature for his age, but he is a child still in the eyes of many, and someone so young must surely miss his mother."
Maurice sighed and nodded. Then he remembered that Galen couldn't see him, and cleared his throat, saying, "Yes, I believe so too."
"If you do visit her, would you be kind and ask her for some recipes? Serving Gilligan the food he's used to may make him feel more at ease living here with us."
"I'll remember that."
The conversation faded, and in its wake Maurice's head was filled to the brim with thoughts of Gilligan, none of which had any solution or easy answer. He sighed again. It was oddly pleasing to do so.
Maurice fished the clock out of his sweater to look at the time. It was six o'clock in the afternoon, and still early enough to pay a visit to Gilligan's mother. There was one other person he wanted to check up on, but he thought the Red Dragon might be able to wait for a bit longer. "I'll be off for a bit then, Galen. Will there be pudding later?"
"Certainly, sir. Take care."
With a tap of fingers to the clock he transported himself from the kitchen of his office to the porch of Gilligan's house. A chilly breeze whisked past him. The trees in the garden were bleak and naked, robbed of the colourful leaves that lay at their feet, decaying slowly under the harsh weather of October. The taste of rain was in the air. A human walking the dog hurried by down the street, huddling against the chill under a bright yellow rain coat. Not for the first time, Maurice was glad that the weather here had little effect on him, save for the tendency to soak his boots, which were of the human world. He shook his head and turned to ring the doorbell.
The sudden barking of dogs came from the other side, and Maurice saw the shadow of said animals moving through the tinted glass, eager to greet the guest, their paws scratching at the door. The muffles voice of Gilligan's mother, Sophia, scolding the dogs, seeped through. Surprise flitted across her face upon seeing him there. "Maurice! Come inside," she smiled, stepping aside to let him pass through.
"I hope I am not intruding?" The dogs pawed at his shoes and wagged their tails. He bent to scratch them behind the ears with a smile.
"No, no, not at all! Please, take off your shoes, and I'll fix you're a cup of tea straight away. My son isn't with you, is he?"
"I'm afraid not." He paused, hesitant. "I am here to talk to you about Gilligan," he said, then, at her frown, quickly added, "There is no cause for concern, I can assure you."
"Okay. Why don't you come with me to the kitchen, and we can sit there." She snapped her fingers at the dogs and pointed at the living room. "Leroy, George, go lie down."
Whining sadly, they obeyed.
Maurice nodded and reached up to remove his robe. His eyes strayed to the framed pictures on the wall, the same ones that were there before. In most of them Gilligan was a sullen, sulking, serious child, but his mother had caught him at a few good moments too, smiling or laughing at something that Maurice could not make guesses at from just looking at them. He wondered if the boy had been as he was now his entire life- had his mixed blood affected him deeply? Somewhere in Gilligan's past the reason for his loathing of humans hid, and he was keen to uncover it simply to better understand his young assistant.
Sophia urged him to take a seat at the table while she moved around the kitchen, putting on a kettle, finding cups and fetching snacks for them, all with the ease of someone who knew their surroundings well. "So, what brings you here? Has my son done something?" Concern showed in the mild wrinkles on her forehead.
"Don't be worried; Gilligan has been a good assistant to me. He is a fine boy," he said gently and offered her a little smile. "I'm here because he was recently involved in an accident that broke his right leg, and-"
"He broke his leg?" Her eyes widened. "Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Sophia." His tone of voice was firm. "Our section's doctor took well care of him. He should be perfectly healed in a week, rest assured."
Her shoulders sank visibly with relief. "I forget that your kind has better ways of handling injuries and sickness than we humans do…"
There was no need to point out to her that the people of the Underworld were not his 'kind', as she thought. If he was to correct every wrong impression a human had of him and his colleagues, he would be stuck doing so for a long, long time. He sipped the tea she'd given him –blackberry, with sugar enough to suit his taste buds- and regarded her with a silent stare until she looked up at him again.
"How is he? Is he cooped up in bed?"
"For the time being, yes. My secretary will have some crutches ready for him soon, but until then there isn't much he can do except rest. Actually, that's why I am here; I wanted to ask you for something to keep him occupied. He is restless and…easily irritated."
"I'm not surprised," she said, shaking her head. "Gilligan was always grumpy when he was forced to stay in bed. He hates being helpless like that, even if resting is good for him. I'm not sure why, but…I think maybe he thinks it's too human. He never truly got sick, but he'd get fevers when he was little."
This might be a sore, inappropriate subject to approach, and while Maurice's deeply ingrained need to be polite told him to steer the conversation in another direction, he was also so very curious. He sighed. "Would it be terribly rude of me to ask why he loathes humans so?"
Sophia smiled sadly and shook her head again, closing her hands around the cup sitting on the table. A moment of silence passed before she spoke up, nostalgia layered into her voice and expression. "Even before he started school other kids were uncomfortable being around him. I took him to kindergarten, but he kept getting into fights with the boys and being rejected, and the people working there didn't like him either. They never told me, of course, but I could tell. I hadn't noticed, because he's my only child, but it must have been his mixed blood that made others scared of him. The same thing happened when he started school."
Maurice frowned. It was rare for demons and humans to produce children, and thus there was little known about how their blood affected them if they grew up among humans. Although Gilligan's human side was by far dominant to that he'd inherited from his father, he supposed it was likely that other humans noticed something off about the boy.
"He was bullied, then?"
"A lot," she confirmed. "Kids can be incredibly cruel when they don't like someone. My boy came home with a bleeding nose on his third day of school, believe it or not. I tried to talk to the teachers and parents, but it didn't help much. God, I used to be so pissed off that they could let their kids beat up my son. It got better for a little while once a new family moved in next door, though." A small smile touched her lips, but even it was burdened. "He made friends with their boy, Henry. They were like peas in a pod, those two, maybe because they'd both been bullied a lot. You should've seen them play, Maurice. Such wild imaginations."
"Something happened, I assume."
"Henry died." Her gaze held his firmly. Something unpleasant tickled Maurice's gut. "Gilligan was there, but he didn't…grieve like I've seen kids do. He told me he'd seen a tall man dressed in black put a hand on Henry's chest, and that's why he stopped breathing."
A memory rose to the surface of his mind, a conversation between Gilligan and him after they'd visited the Scriptor.
"Henry Mackenzie." His voice was demure, shaky. "That was the boy's name, wasn't it?"
A very long, very awkward silence followed, and Maurice's face flushed with knowledge of what he'd done. Guilt throbbed in his chest. It was not guilt on behalf of the boy whose life he had taken, but on Gilligan's, for taking away his friend. His fingers tightened around the cup, squeezing, his shoulders heavy.
"I'm terribly sorry, Sophia."
"It's fine, Maurice. You were just doing your job. I know that it can't be something you do for the enjoyment of it."
"He grew stronger because of it," she said. "My son has always been an odd duck, and I was worried that he suppressed his grief when he hardly cried over losing Henry, but somehow he ended up admiring you. Or your power. I'm not sure which. He was so sure that you were Death. That you had to be the most powerful thing out there."
"I am not, not by far," Maurice sighed, lifting a hand to rub at his temples. "When did you tell him that he is of demon blood?"
Sophia leans back in her chair, frowning thoughtfully, then replies, "When he was in third grade. He broke another boy's finger without meaning to, and he kept telling me that he didn't even use his strength. He's pretty strong, my boy. Stronger than a normal person. There isn't any magic in him, but his senses are sharp too."
"And he took the news well?"
"Better than well- he loved it. It gave him an excuse not to be with other kids. He got really lonely sometimes, but for the most part I think he enjoyed it. It's not…good that he hates humans, or tries to convince himself that he isn't human, but I couldn't change his mind. I don't think he hates them as much as he tries to convince you he does."
They lapsed into silence of the less awkward kind and sipped their tea. Maurice stared at the wood grain of the table without seeing it, lost in thoughts of a Gilligan, who he couldn't make much sense of no matter how he tried. He couldn't recall the day when he took Henry Mackenzie's life, nor could he recall the boy Gilligan was back then, but he knew it had happened. This conversation, however important it was, was not the reason he came here, though. He set down the cup and looked at the woman sitting across the table. "My secretary wondered if he could have some of your dinner and dessert recipes so that he might make Gilligan feel more at home."
She smiled. "Of course. I'll get them for you." She went to one of the kitchen drawers and took out a red and black note book that she handed to him. "I know most of them from memory now, so just take it. I'll manage fine without it. Now that Gilligan's moved out I don't bake much anymore."
"Thank you. Ah, there's also the matter of his boredom. He told me he doesn't read books, so frankly, I'm at a loss."
Her laugh was rich and amused. She flashed him a pretty smile and motioned for him to wait there, leaving, only to return two minutes later with a small bag in hand. "Take these to him. They'll keep him plenty occupied."
Peeking inside, Maurice could see crossword magazines and some sort of gaming machine that he often saw children carrying around nowadays. He put the note book inside and zipped it up, giving her a grateful smile and a nod. "I'm sure he'll be pleased. Shall I tell him hello?"
"Please do. Take good care of my son, Maurice." Her hand came to rest on his arm and gave it a gentle squeeze as he rose from the chair to take his leave. "And tell him to come home for Christmas, will you?"
He nodded. "I'll see to it that he gets the day off."
Sophia put her arms around him, just briefly, and stepped back, laughing again at his warm, pink cheeks.
He bid her goodnight, secured the robes around his shoulders and stepped outside to take his leave. Fishing his clock out from the safety of his clothes, he tapped the glass of the delicate mechanism and murmured, "Home."
In less than the blink of an eye he stood in the midst of his office and was greeted by the irritated voice of a certain boy and hobbling footsteps. The words spoken were harsh and crude, but the pitch of Gilligan's voice was too high to make them sound very threatening, rather, he sounded much like a sulking child. Maurice sighed. He put up his jacket, set down the bag, took off his boots and patted down his comfortable sweater, inhaled deeply and entered the kitchen with an inquiring raised eyebrow and a friendly smile. "Is everything alright?"
A rather curious tinge of pink coloured the boy's cheeks.
"Maurice-" Gilligan pointed an accusing finger at Galen, who gave his superior a shake of his head behind the boy's shoulder. "Tell your bloody butler to stop treating me like a toddler! I'm sick of it! I have a broken leg, damn it!"
Somehow, Gilligan wasn't nearly as intimidating when his cheeks were flushed just so and he obviously was upset, not truly angry.
"A broken leg that requires rest and patience," Maurice reminded him kindly, his look mildly chiding. "Noise will bring crutches for you tomorrow, but until then I ask you to take it easy. Think of it as a holiday; surely you must want some time off from work?"
Gilligan shot him an indignant look, as if Maurice had just said something daft.
He sighed. "Please, Gilligan."
Raising his chin stiffly, Gilligan hobbled out from the kitchen, and soon after the slam of a door resounded throughout the rooms. Silence followed.
"A cup of tea, sir?"
A smile touched Maurice's lips. "Tea sounds splendid. And cookies, I hope?"
Galen laughed and nodded. "Of course, sir. Serving under a sweet tooth such as yourself, how could I not have cookies ready for any occasion?"
A familiar, pleasant lull fell over the kitchen. Maurice sank onto one of the antique chairs by the kitchen table and leaned back in his seat, sighing, thinking about his conversation with Sophia earlier and everything he knew about her son. It would not do for the future Death to harbor such loathing for the human race; power could easily be abused, and his position was one that had great influence over the earth's ruling race. Now, if only Gilligan was not so stubborn...
"Are you troubled, Maurice?"
He looked up and met his secretary's kind, warm face. A cup of tea and and plate topped with cookies were set before him, both smelling wonderful. Galen withdrew and moved to take a seat across from him at the table, a cup of his own in hand.
"A bit, I suppose," he admitted. He lifted the cup to his mouth and took a slow, careful sip, tempted to sigh once more. His eyes fell on the steaming liquid that moved about in the cup gently. "Gilligan has much to learn. Certain lessons will be hard on him, but he cannot take my place as he is now."
"That's true, yes. But I don't think you should worry too much; given some time, that boy will understand."
"I hope you are right, Galen, I truly do."
"He does listen to you, you know."
Maurice's eyebrows shot up.
"Why the surprised look, Maurice?" The twitch of his lips told him that Galen was very close to breaking into laughter that he contained only for the sake of being polite. "I think he admires you very much, my friend."
Doubt shone in Maurice's dark eyes. Sophia had said something similar earlier that evening, though.
"The way he looks upon you when you aren't paying attention speaks of admiration. It's rather endearing," the demon said, smiling, and settled back in his chair with his tea. "Perhaps he thinks that he must be tough for you to see him as worthy."
"If so, I wish he would understand that it comes across the entirely wrong way." Maurice made a vague, dismissing gesture with one hand and decided to change the subject. It was making him mildly uncomfortable. "His mother gave me a book of recipes for you to use as you wish, along with some games and puzzles to keep Gilligan occupied."
"Oh, lovely! Where might I find it?"
Maurice chuckled and got up, saying, "Sit. I'll get it for you."
As soon as the book was placed in Galen's hands his face lit up with interest, even more so as he flipped through the pages and skimmed the hand written text and clippings glued to them, and Maurice couldn't help but smile- it was so easy to make his secretary happy.
"I think I shall try out some of these right now, if you don't mind. Gilligan's mother is a good cook, I can tell. Excuse me, sir."
And then Galen was up on his feet and about, moving around the kitchen to fetch ingredients and equipment while humming a merry tune to himself, having completely forgotten about his superior in his excitement. It was part of Galen's charm, so he didn't mind. Thinking it better to leave him to his beloved hobby, Maurice slipped quietly out from the kitchen to pay his assistant a little visit. With the bag in hand he knocked the door to what had once been his largely unused bedroom, stood back and waited. A gruff voice permitted him entrance.
"I have something for you," he smiled, holding up the bag as he approached the bed.
Recognition flickered in Gilligan's eyes, then confusion, and he arched an eyebrow at his superior. "That's my bag." Implied was the question so why do you have it?
"I paid your mother a visit this afternoon. She said these would keep your boredom at bay." He set the bag down on the bed and let the boy zip it open and rummage through the contents. "She asked that you be given Christmas Day off from work."
"I'll ensure that you'll have it."
Something awkward came over Gilligan then -he couldn't quite tell what it was, but seeing the sudden hesitation in his posture was odd- and Maurice cocked his head curiously, deciding to wait. The pause stretched on until it was nothing but tense silence. His skin crawled unpleasantly. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and contemplated speaking.
"Um, I should let-"
A word was mumbled.
Maurice blinked. "Come again?"
Gilligan made an impatient sound, as if it hurt him to repeat what he'd said, and Maurice saw that his cheeks were slightly flushed. "Thanks."
Warmth blossomed in his chest. "You are very welcome."
That aside though, he really should let him get some rest and peace now that he had his puzzles to entertain him.
Before he could go anywhere however, the boy locked eyes with him. The sharp gaze pinned him. A prickle ran along the back of his neck. He held the gaze for as long as he could muster, but this time it was he who could not keep it up, and he averted his eyes, not certain about what was going on here. Then, as he was about to simply leave, the words came, and Maurice paused mid step to listen.
"You were scared, weren't you? At the ball."
Figuring that out certainly wouldn't have taken a genius, but Maurice's face flushed a little nevertheless. "Yes," he said quietly. "Yes, I was."
"You were panicking pretty bad. There is a lot I don't remember, but I remember that you were frantic, like I was dying." A fine eyebrow was arched, and he felt as though it was an accusation, when really, he could tell from the boy's tone of voice that it was not. "And you stayed when that doctor fixed me up."
Gilligan's brow furrowed. More words seemed to fail him.
Seeing him like this was like having a small child before him, and Maurice smiled, a small, soft smile that reached his eyes as well, and took a seat on the edge of the bed. Would it be arrogant of him to assume that the boy was trying to make him admit that he cared enough about him to be scared on his behalf? No, he thought as he looked at him, it would not. It cost him nothing to admit that it was true, and that was why he placed a hand on Gilligan's good leg and gave it a little squeeze. "You are my assistant, Gilligan. It is only natural that I would be concerned for you when you get injured. Unlike me, you are not immortal."
"I'm not human, either."
His face softened. "You are human enough."
Gilligan's frown deepened.
"I've promised to look after you, but accidents like that do happen, and I can't predict them anymore than I can predict anyone's death."
"You're worried that I could get hurt again," he said, a hint of a question in his words.
"Of course." He brought a hand up to lay it against tousled, blond hair and patted it down, quite like he would have if it were Loke before him. The feeling behind it was different though, he realised; a sort of tender warmth beat in his chest, pulsing through the fingers touching those light strands. It was a wholly peculiar sensation. He did not know what to make of it, but it felt...alright. Nice, even.
They stared at each other, and for once Maurice did not feel the urge to turn his eyes elsewhere or pull his hand away, not even when Gilligan leaned into the touch and briefly let his eyes close, abandoning all of his usual walls and defenses for that one moment.
"Bring me newspapers tomorrow."
Maurice withdrew his hand with a smile. "Alright. Until then, please rest."
"Fine, I'll behave. Don't want you hovering over me like some mother hen."
A soft chuckle, then, "I see."
He closed the door quietly behind him as he left.
a/n: Well, that was some absence. A busy spring topped with computer trouble kind of does that to you.