"Percy!" Frown lines settled across Demi Walker's forehead when there was no reply. "Per-cy!" she called again through the greenhouse, scowling darkly as she stalked down the aisle, muttering to herself. "That girl takes so long..." Emerging at the end of the row of plants, she found her blonde daughter sitting and singing to the flowers around her as she watered and fertilized them. "Persephone !" Demi snapped, and the girl jumped, looking up at her mother guiltily. Demi's dark blue eyes flashed and she gestured violently at the rows of plants, ignoring the wisps of dark hair that straggled out her tight braid. "How many times have I told you? You simply cannot take so long on one greenhouse! You have a whole side of this one, and another one, and we need you to watch the office!"
Percy gulped, her mother's words reminding her that today wasn't the same routine as always - Demi and her husband Jonathon were going to pick up a bulk shipment of fertilizer and would be gone several hours. As usual, Percy had dallied in her work amongst the plants to shower love and care on each individual bloom and tendril. As a general thing this only cut into her free time at the end of the day but today, with minding the shop, she'd be several hours behind and it would take her days to catch up. "Oh," she said in a small voice.
"You have five minutes to finish this greenhouse - ten if we stretch it," Demi said sternly, glancing at her watch. "Forget the other one, you'll have to do it tonight. And hurry up," she finished, before turning and vanishing along the row. Chastened and anxious, Percy quickly watered and fertilized the rest of the flowers along the last row before running towards the office, her heart thumping hard in anxiety at what her stepfather was going to say about her tardiness.
John and Demi were already standing by the truck as Percy sprinted up, wheezing for breath, her hair straggling out its restraints. Her mother cast a jaundiced eye over her daughter's bedraggled appearance as Percy attempted to catch enough breath to apologize. "We'd best be going," John said expressionlessly, cutting off Percy's not-quite-started sentence. "Mind the store."
"And redo your hair," Demi added, before getting in the passenger's seat. Percy stared after the retreating van forlornly, not quite sure if the lack of scolding meant that John secretly sympathized with her or was going to tear her apart later. As they turned the corner, she slowly entered the small cramped office in front of the rows of greenhouses, stepping into the tiny restroom momentarily to wash her hands and face and retwist her hair into a sort-of bun and wrap her scrunchie back around it. She eyed herself sternly in the mirror - her hair was long, thick, full of body, and best friends with gravity - no matter how she styled it, ten minutes later it had drooped down into an unbecoming bag. For the moment at least, it was up, and she only looked as though she'd come from a windstorm, not a tornado.
Grabbing her laptop from the back room, she settled down behind the desk and pulled up her homework. There were rarely any customers, so she'd have plenty of time to finish her schoolwork...and probably play games when she should be out watering the plants...she smacked the counter in frustration. John had ordered a pager so that they wouldn't be tied to the office the entire day, but it hadn't arrived yet and Percy chafed under having to be inside the small drear office when she could be amongst her beloved flowers and shrubs.
The only sound was the ticking of the cheap analog clock mounted on the wall, as Percy immersed herself in her English work. She loved words, almost as much as plants. As a young child she'd desperately wanted to be an artist, but it had quickly become apparent that she had no drawing talent to speak of and so she had turned to words and phrases to paint the pictures in her mind. Having devoted herself to the art of words, she enjoyed expanding her vocabulary and discovering new ways to phrase commonplace conversations. English was her favorite subject, and the only subject in which she could totally lose herself.
So she didn't notice the bell as two persons entered the office, and she remained oblivious to the presence of others until a gentle cough and a polite 'excuse me?' snapped her out of her concentration. She looked up to see a well-dressed young man and a tall, elegant woman with not a hair out of place standing in front of the desk. Suddenly she felt very small and dowdy and frowsy looking, but she plastered a semi-convincing smile on and stood, unobtrusively setting aside her computer. "My apologies," she said humbly, willing herself not to blush and further humiliate herself. "How may I help you?"
The imposing auburn-haired lady gave her a warm, if not entirely sincere, smile. "I was wondering if you had any Norfolk pines?" she replied politely.
Keeping her face professionally blank in an effort to not reveal her opinions on the stunted trees, Percy nodded, her mouth still frozen in its forced smile. "Of course - we get them in especially for the holidays. Follow me," she invited, opening a door into the greenhouse directly behind the office and leading the woman and her son inside.
When Demi had married John, a year ago, things had been rough going. He'd had only the one greenhouse and barely the ability to keep it up. Percy had been violently opposed to the marriage, she had not forgotten her drunkard father abusing her and her mother until the icy night he had skidded into a light pole, dying instantly. Demi had not wasted long pretending to mourn him, she had to find a way to support herself and her daughter, quickly. Percy had not bothered to pretend at all, and had silently sworn to never have a man in her life again. Two years later, though, unable to find work and refused any help from every charity to which she had applied and denied assistance by the government, Demi had remarried, desperate to save herself and her daughter by whatever means necessary. They'd had to work hard at the nursery John owned, but Percy had the greenest thumb of anyone he'd ever met and within a year of his and Demi's marriage, his business had tripled in size. Her hostility towards him had been veiled but present, causing an underlying awkwardness in all their interactions. It hadn't taken him long to discover that Demi's previous husband had mistreated them both, so he had done his best to leave Percy to her own devices and not antagonize her in hopes that she'd one day be reconciled to him.
She stood by the door to the office as the woman browsed the pines, her attitude and posture wooden. The son - he was in that stage somewhere between boy and man, and his adult air was enhanced by his well-cut clothes and quiet demeanor - stood patiently waiting for his mother, hands in his jacket pockets. Percy watched him covertly, astonished at seeing another young person not glued to a mobile device.
She did not have friends, nor did she desire any. First of all, there was her name - Percy was just about the worst nickname one could acquire, it made her feel like some effeminate male who wore satins and lace and ruffles and a fake sword and attended fancy balls and engaged in frivolous small talk. Then there was her incurable shyness, she could barely find five words to say to a stranger and almost never had the right responses forthcoming - learning how to deal with customers had been a kind of torture all its own. And finally there was the fact that she simply didn't share any interests with anyone else she'd met even close to her age. Not many teenagers knew that Tar-Ancalime was the first queen of Numeanor, nor would they care.
"This will do," the lady said finally as she straightened, one of the pines in her hands.
"Perhaps we shouldn't start with one so fine, Mother," the boy said with a trace of amusement, eyeing the tree his mother had selected.
She scowled at him a moment before her face relaxed into a wry expression, and she gave Percy that same quick practiced smile - it would not have looked forced if Percy herself hadn't been quite accomplished at making herself look pleasant. It took a great deal of practice to narrow your eyes just right at exactly the right moment to make your smile look genuine, not threatening, and she wondered how much practice this clearly wealthy socialite must have had to be such a master at the art.
"It's true," the woman admitted. "I'm terrible with plants, they tend to die on me, no matter what I buy or do to keep them alive."
It took all of Percy's professional training to prevent her from snatching the Norfolk pine right out of the woman's hands and cuddling it. Her blood boiled at a plant killer - who knew she was a plant killer - continuously buying plants anyway, and killing them off. She contented herself with a polite suggestion instead. "We carry an excellent fertilizer, if you want to try that, and it should do well for the pine," she remarked, opening and holding ajar the door so the customers could return to the office. The young man took it from her and she gave him a startled glance, too surprised to immediately remember that she should thank him. By the time she remembered it had been a bit long and she wasn't quite sure whether it was still appropriate, so her thanks came out a bit mumbled, her incoherency flustering her yet further. Scurrying behind the counter, she busied herself ringing up the plant to cover her embarrassment.
The woman dug into her purse for money as the boy browsed casually along the counter, clearly bored. He paused at the paperback tome Percy had tossed down on the counter that morning, examining the ornate front, and his eyes widened in realization. "The White Tree," he said suddenly, and his mother and the girl looked at him quickly. "The name of the nursery - is that in reference to the White Tree of Gondor?"
Percy smiled, a real smile, her whole face lighting up and her eyes brightening, just the tips of her teeth barely showing in a faint grin. "You're acquainted with Tolkien's works?" she exclaimed in delight.
He smiled back, his dark eyes losing their bored look and brightening as well in response to her excitement. "Just passingly," he admitted. "I never could get all the way through The Silmarillion."
"It is heavy reading," Percy agreed, leaning against the counter. "And depressing. There's only one even halfway happy story throughout the entire book."
"How many times have you read it?" he asked wryly, loosening his scarf in the heat of the office.
"Twice," she admitted. "And dipped in several times over the years as I was bored and had absolutely nothing to read, but I always seemed up to open it to either the tale of the children of Hurin or the fall of Numeanor, my two least favorite tales of the whole thing. And the kinslaying, although I rarely opened to that," she added.
"I couldn't ever get past the Elven genealogies," he replied with a small sheepish laugh. "They bored me utterly to tears."
"I lied. I haven't read quite the whole thing," Percy said with a tiny grimace. "I always skimmed over or completely skipped the genealogies - I couldn't keep them all straight, and almost all of them were no good anyway so it didn't matter too much if it was Feanor or one of his wacko sons wreaking havoc."
The young man threw back his head in laughter at her pointed observation. "Feanor was a bit much, wasn't he," he agreed, grinning broadly.
"Complete basket case," Percy muttered sourly, and her customer chortled again. His mother, completely unacquainted with anything by Tolkien, was browsing a seed catalog nearby.
"I don't remember much about him except that his name means fire something-or-other," he said humourously.
"He made a bunch of jewels that started a ridiculous Trojan-style war, destroyed the earth, caused untold suffering, and were eventually lost to all kindreds anyway," Percy said darkly, then shook her head. "And sired a bunch of sons as crazy as he was."
The young man restrained a snort with obvious difficulty before checking his watch and sighing. "I suppose we'd best be going - I'm Evan," he added a bit belatedly.
"P-percy," she replied, stumbling slightly over the despised diminutive. "It's actually Persephone," she added hurriedly at his slightly raised eyebrow. "But everyone calls me Percy," she finished lamely, feeling flustered and foolish once again.
"A name like Persephone should not be shortened," Evan declared firmly. "I shan't shorten it."
"I doubt we'll see each other again," she said hesitantly.
Evan glanced back at where his mother stood by a shelf reading about gardening in small spaces. "Oh, I think we will," he replied dryly.
"I heard that," she said without looking up from her book, and Persephone restrained a giggle as Evan grinned at her.
"It was very nice meeting you, Persephone," he said warmly, picking up the tree's pot in one arm.
"And you, Evan," she replied, mindful of her slightly grubby hands and keeping them below the counter where they couldn't be seen. He nodded to her before opening the door for his mother and the two of them exited. Percy watched them through the glass-paned door as they got into their black Mercedes, wishing, for the first time in a long while, that she could get to know someone better. Then common sense invaded and burst her wistful bubble. They came from a totally different walk of life where all one's clothes were tailor-made and one's hardest decision was whether to wear the wine cashmere or the red velvet to the next dinner party. (Was cashmere even a winter material? Percy had no idea.)
Going into the restroom to wash her hands again, she stared at herself in the mirror, silently criticizing every aspect of her reflection - chapped lips, messy hair, freckles, a pimple on her temple - not again - blobby nose...at this point, physically cringing, Percy exited the room and crept back to her seat behind the desk, retrieved her laptop, and pretended to forget that she would never be as pretty as her mother had once been.
Two hours later the bell above the door clanged again. Utterly bored with her games of solitaire, Persephone looked up immediately as her mother and stepfather entered with a large burly man carrying several large bags of fertilizer. "Any customers while we were gone?" Demi asked as John directed the workman to the proper shelf.
"Yes, a mother and son, bought one of the Norfolk pines and a bag of Miracle fertilizer," Percy answered absently, watching John as he anxiously helped lower the bags.
Demi sighed silently, the shrinking economy was hurting them badly, no one had money to waste on plants now. "Alright. Go finish the greenhouses," she said wearily, taking her daughter's place as salesgirl. Percy stashed her computer beneath the counter and vanished out the back door towards the greenhouse she'd yet to tend.
Since she'd managed to get all her schoolwork done while minding the sales, Percy was not quite as far behind in her work as she'd feared she'd be, but she still didn't get to bed until well after midnight. Snuggling down under her covers and tugging vainly at her sheet in a fruitless attempt to pull her blanket higher, she thought back to earlier and finding another person her age who knew of Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. He was also the only person in over ten years to call her by her full name. Once again she wished that she could talk to him more and perhaps even become friends, and once again reality butted its ugly head in, as it had a nasty habit of doing. So Percy combated it the same way she always did, by telling herself a story.
Tonight it was an extravagant Beauty and the Beast, with herself cast in the role of the exquisitely lovely mermaid Beauty, and a horrendous black squid as the Beast. In the end she gleefully revealed to herself that the Beast was, in fact, the evil queen's good huntsman. Upon finding out that he had lied about slaying Shell White, the witch had flown into a rage and cursed her huntsman to live as a terrible monster until he could earn the love of a beautiful maiden, and so he had been in that form for two hundred years. Persephone fell asleep feeling very pleased with herself, not only had she freed a worthy man from a cruel fate but in the process had landed herself a goodhearted, intelligent, strong, brave, handsome husband. One didn't manage that every night.
She still felt tired the next morning, dragging slowly through her household chores. Her mother's constant refrain - hurry up - danced around her up until the very moment they were all clambering into the truck. It was an overcast gloomy day, and to further lower Percy's mood it began to rain while they were en route to the nursery. She put her hood up in preparation for exiting the warm truck and drearily wished herself somewhere warm and dry inside.
John pulled up right outside the office and the three slid out, hurrying through the drizzle to the door, pausing a moment as Demi fumbled with the keys, her cold numb hands sliding on the slick wet metal of the doorknob. Percy's shivering became more violent as a blast of cold wind buffeted them all, and John pulled his stepdaughter into his leeside. Demi finally managed to get the door unlocked, but even as she pulled it open another perverse gust slammed it closed again. John moved forward, grasping the knob with both hands and yanking hard, overcoming the approaching storm. The three of them tumbled inside, the angry gusts outside slamming the door behind them. For a moment they just stood there in the deep gloom, shivering, then Percy fumbled for the lightswitch and Demi moved forward to turn on the heat.
"I - hate - Nov-vember," Percy chattered, standing on one foot and pulling her fleece-lined jacket tighter about herself. John, with a greater cold tolerance, had already removed his jacket, and now he wrapped it about his freeze-prone stepdaughter, who snuggled into it gratefully. There was a soft clunk and a low rumble of warm air traveling through the ducts before the temperature noticeably rose by several degrees. After a moment, Demi shed her jacket and hung on the back of a chair to dry out, and after a couple more minutes of thawing out, Percy followed suit.
John had already vanished into the backroom to warm up and start the sprinklers, as Demi turned on the computer. Percy looked bleakly out at the rain, which was really starting to come down now, and re-donned her jacket, before dashing out the door again, hopping over puddles and wrapping her arms tightly around herself, punching the entry code into the mechanical door and thrusting through before it was even halfway opened, her teeth chattering as she retrieved the hose and attached the fertilizer bag. Only the greenhouse attached to the back of the office building - the one John had already owned when he married Demi - was equipped with plumbing, the other two had to be done manually. That was Percy's job, Demi dealt with customers and dealers, and John oversaw the whole thing, tending plants that were struggling and repairing the breakages and problems that were eternally cropping up.
Dullness gave way to irritation as Percy struggled to turn on the tap, and she finally fetched the wall such a kick that she completely crumpled her tennis shoe in and smashed her toes violently. Red-hot iron wires shot up her leg into her thigh before twining with her nerves in her spine. For just a moment, she locked a howl of pain behind her teeth, but as the pain only increased, without anyone around to hear, she finally let it out, before it faded into an agonized moan and she seated herself on an upturned bucket, unlacing her shoe to examine the damage. After flexing her toes several times and feeling the bones and joints, the process of which nearly reduced her to tears, she decided that they were probably just bruised and possibly jammed but not sprained.
Barely had she finished retying her shoe when the sluggish water from the turned-on spigot awoke and decided to get on with business. The hose started whipping around with the force of the flowing water, spraying moisture and fertilizer everywhere. Percy pounced for the nozzle - sending a fresh wave of anguish along her leg and spine - and ridiculously chased it for several minutes before managing to grab part of the hose. Lifting it up, she unintentionally soaked both her feet underneath the deluge momentarily. Staring down at her squishy, dirty, wet, crumpled tennis shoes, barely able to walk and bedamped above and besoaked below, Persephone resigned herself to having a very bad day.
Finishing her first greenhouse in record time, but actually crying from the pain in her foot and leg, Percy slowly limped the ten yards from the greenhouse entrance to the office, barely noticing the car in the parking lot in front. Opening the door slightly, she bumped into someone - oh, great, a customer to see her like this. "Excuse me," she mumbled, inching her way inside, and looked up in dismay to meet the startled gaze of Evan, his shocked mother just beyond.
Persephone stood in the doorway a moment, her hair dripping, her face streaked with tear tracks, her shoes squishing, and stared in utter resignation into the office. There was a slight splash as yet another drop of rain fell off her jacket into the small but expanding puddle she had made. And then Demi rose from behind the desk, looking as though she'd been punched in the stomach and the chest. "What happened?!" she gasped in horror, hurrying around the desk,
bumping her hip but ignoring it as she moved towards her swaying daughter.
"Accident - dropped something on my foot - I don't think I can do Number Three," Persephone finished with considerable poise. Her right foot abruptly decided it had taken enough abuse, and her knee gave out as she stumbled to the side, reaching out to catch herself. A strong hand caught her arm, and Evan wrapped his other arm around her waist to hold her upright, his eyes wide with concern. Her face heated, turning red, as she struggled to stand on her own. "I'm - getting you - you'll be all wet-" Some small disconnected part of her mind mused that he and his mother must have a spectacular umbrella in order for both still be completely dry, save for their shoes.
"It's just water, it will dry," he murmured, and then Demi was there, taking her daughter in her arms. Somehow John appeared from some door or other - everything was going kind of fuzzy, and for the first time that day she was actually warm enough. Voices swirled around her in a low comforting buzz, and she thought she might be replying but she wasn't quite sure. A cool hand pressed to her forehead roused her briefly, and she heard her mother's voice, high and anxious, and maybe she was trying to reassure her that she was alright? It didn't matter much... Warmth and blackness swirled around her as she settled comfortably down to sleep.
"Is she alright?" John's voice permeated a comfortable darkness, sounding tense and anxious.
"I think so, she must've passed out from the pain." Contrary to the beginning of her sentence, Demi sounded like she'd been tied in knots. "She stopped moaning after the ibuprofen, anyway." Percy cringed internally, had she really been moaning?
"Do you know what happened?" The voices were clearer, her stepfather sounded like he'd aged several years.
"She wouldn't say, I think she was embarrassed," Demi murmured, stroking her daughter's forehead. "She doesn't feel feverish now, though, I think she must have just been overheated, perhaps hadn't taken off her jacket while she was in the greenhouse."
"Mm 'lright," Percy mumbled, squinting her eyes open slightly. Her foot and ankle felt much better, and she realized she was lying in the backseat of the truck with her head on her mother's lap. John was in the front, twisted around to look back at them, his face drawn in concern. Realization hit her like a load of bricks and her eyes popped open wide. "Oh no - you didn't close early because of me, did you?" she exclaimed in horror.
"Honey, you're much more important than the store," her mother said warmly, taking Percy's hand. "No one comes out in the rain, anyway."
Percy closed her eyes again, turning red. "Evan and his mother did," she mumbled. Demi and Jonathon shared a look, so the young man had been looking for something, their daughter. They must've been the customers the previous day while she was minding the store, and somehow Persephone and young Mister Smith had started talking.
"Go back to sleep, darling," Demi murmured, going back to stroking Percy's hair. Utterly exhausted, embarrassed, and with her leg throbbing, the girl was nothing loathe and swiftly sank back into oblivion.
Demi helped Percy wash that night, since she and John had decided to keep their daughter tanked so high up on painkillers that she was somewhat woozy, in order to keep her from passing out again. They'd called their physician but he had simply said to keep her in hard shoes and try and have her walk as little as possible, and keep her on aspirin. Her mother bent over her, kissing her forehead as she tucked her little girl in. Percy snuggled down under the covers, already mostly asleep, as Demi tiptoed out to the kitchen.
John was fixing coffee, though he looked up as his wife entered. "She's out like a light," Demi murmured, taking the steaming mug he held out to her. "She told me that she kicked the wall when the tap wouldn't turn on - said she was trying to loosen ice, but you know how she is when she gets frustrated..."
Her husband nodded, blowing lightly on his coffee to cool it before taking a sip. "She got up tired, we're going to have to watch her closely over the next few days, she might be getting sick anyway."
Demi cringed at the thought. "And her feet were wet half the day," she said mournfully.
John wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her close and placing a gentle kiss at her hairline right above her temple. "If she does become ill, you can stay here with her and I'll handle the nursery on my own - I used to," he added as she started to protest.
"Not as big as it is now," Demi said worriedly, wrinkles appearing around her eyes and on her forehead as a frown settled on her face.
"I can do it," he said firmly, giving her a light squeeze. "Stay with Percy."
Demi didn't protest again, taking a grateful sip of her hot coffee, lost in thought. John gazed down at her, his own drink mostly forgotten. When he had first met her, he'd thought she was ten years older than she really was, and she still hadn't lost that look of premature grey. But in the year they'd been married, despite the hard work and pinched pennies, she'd begun to lose the cadaverous look that had haunted her eyes when he'd met her, and recently he'd begun to see flashes of faded beauty that she must have possessed as a young woman. Persephone had been a pale, fragile, hostile whipcord of a child, and she had been blooming into a stunning young lady, though she hadn't quite come out of her thick shell she'd built to protect herself.
Jonathon had never really had a family. His parents had been too busy for him, his father was cold and bitter, his mother not much warmer. He hadn't been married before Demi, too busy trying to survive and not wanting to leave his own family to take care of themselves. But Demi and Percy had needed him, two frozen flowers that had needed his ability to warm and love. He knew full well, when he'd married Demi, that she hadn't really loved him, she was still too frightened and exhausted. But he had loved her, giving her and her daughter all that he'd been storing up over the decades. His new wife had thawed quickly, still sharp at times, and chronically tense, but she no longer jumped at shadows or cried in the night.
Percy had been harder to reach. She'd been terrified of him and there had been times he'd actually wondered if she would try to sabotage him on the sly. But after she'd realized he wasn't going to start beating her or her mother, or causing them pain in other ways, she'd cautiously tolerated him. Afraid of putting her hackles back up again, he'd left her mainly alone, letting her do what she loved. It hadn't taken them long to find out that she loved plants, and she had taken to working in the greenhouses like a duckling takes to water. He hoped that at this point she not only no longer saw him as a threat but had perhaps even started to accept him as the father she'd never had.
Demi yawned, her eyes drooping shut, and he tenderly took the mug from her earthward-drifting hands and set on the counter. "Can you get a shower, or do you want to skip tonight?" he murmured into her hair, supporting her with both arms.
Blinking sleepily, she pulled herself together a bit and looked up at him. "Yes, I think I want to shower," she murmured, and kissed his chin gently. "Thank you."
He pulled her close, patting her back gently a moment before letting her go, cleaning up the coffee pot and turning out the lights as the shower water in the master bedroom came on. He paused at Percy's door as he crept down the hall and peeked in at her. The fairy lights wrapped around her decorative miniature orange tree in the opposite corner provided just enough illumination for him to see her blonde hair spread out all across her pillow, and the slow pulse of her blankets as she breathed. The other houseplants settled about the room nodded knowingly as the heat turned on and caressed their leaves. John blew his stepdaughter a silent kiss and softly shut the door behind him before walking a few more steps into his and his wife's room.
He turned down the bed, getting his flannel pajamas out the drawer and taking a moment to stick his nose into them, happily breathing in the smell of clean clothes. To his surprise both women had embraced doing the laundry, until Percy had casually mentioned one day that they'd always had to use a laundromat, and later Demi had explained that the only one cheap enough they could afford had been so filthy that it rarely did their clothes much good and they almost always got sick afterward. That had been only one of many times he'd sworn to himself that they'd never face such a situation again.
In many ways his union with Demi had awoken him to blessings he'd always taken for granted - a dishwasher, a washing machine, a paid-off house, a working car, being able to pay his bills and eat every day even if he couldn't always buy that great new power tool. The look on Percy's face when she'd seen her new room had been appropriate to having been hit by a car - at the time John had thought she'd hated it and was too polite to say so, but now he knew she'd been shocked to her core at being able to live a normal life, and it made his chest hurt.
Demi's first husband had never allowed his wife and daughter into society much, for fear they'd reveal how they were abused and he'd be arrested, and so Demi had homeschooled Percy as best she could. After Patrick had killed himself in the crash, they hadn't had the funds to send Percy to school - and since she didn't really get along with anyone else, this suited her just fine - and so even after Demi had married John, she'd continued to homeschool Percy. With the resources now available to them, the library and all kinds of obscure hidden online gems, and Percy's own interest in some subjects, her education had in some areas shot far ahead of her age group, though she had dropped out of math in pre-algebra. She excelled at history, absorbed English like a sponge (though she had difficulty retaining what part of speech was what and why. Despite this she had a good ear for proper sentence structure and often sounded much farther advanced in grammar then she actually had studied,) was bored by science but retained what she had learned, and secretly wrote or told herself all sorts of compositions. She strove for perfection in each one even though it would never see the light of day, and often scrapped her 'stories' in disgust when events refused to go as planned or characters would not stay in their cozy little personality cubbyholes she'd assigned.
John had wanted to buy both of them a computer, but Demi had little interest in anything online and was more than willing to share the old PC in the living room in the evenings. Percy had needed the laptop for studying, though, and after a few weeks of familiarizing herself with its operations and maintenance, she'd begun to explore the world of computer technology. Only recently she had happily started experimenting with all kinds of programs and basic operations and now was delightedly expanding her store of computer savviness.
Gardening remained her most joyful pastime, however, and any given day she'd willingly abandon the computer in favor of tending her beloved flora at The White Tree. She often did her schoolwork at the nursery, since the internet necessary for the business came equipped with WiFi as well as ethernet, so she generally had both favored activities at her fingertips. John knew that being away from the plants, even for only a few days, was going to perturb her deeply.
He was roused from his doze where he lay sprawled in the armchair when the shower water turned off. Knowing his wife would still be in the bathroom for several minutes more he let his head drop back again, his eyes drifting shut in exhaustion. When Demi entered the bedroom he had fallen fast asleep, and when a few gentle nudges failed to rouse him, she just wrapped an afghan around him, kissed his forehead lovingly, and let him sleep. She knew he would wake sometime in the wee hours of the morning, shower and join her in bed. A peaceful silence settled over the house as all the inhabitants sank deeper into repose.
The next morning Demi woke to the sound of pattering rain, snuggled back against her husband, his arms protectively around her as he slept. She gave a soft sigh of contentment, lying there a moment longer, enjoying the feeling of being safe and loved, still novel even after all this time. But the thought of Percy waking in terrible pain and struggling to take care of herself roused Demi, and she wriggled slowly out of John's embrace, careful not to waken him. Slipping on her bathrobe, she squeezed through the door, struggling for a moment as she got stuck - halfway open it squeaked, appallingly loudly, and she'd gotten this far without waking him, she didn't want to squeak the hinges. Finally managing to pop out into the hallway, she peeked in Percy's room. A soft whiffle of air revealed her daughter was still sound asleep so she went on to the kitchen, starting coffee.
Ten minutes later John joined her, he was dressed but his hair was uncombed and his eyes were still sleepy. He took mugs out the cabinet for the two of them, rinsing them at the sink before pouring milk into Demi's and filling both with coffee. She peanut buttered two waffles on a plate for him before taking her coffee and kissing his cheek. "I'd best go see if Percy's awake," she said softly and he nodded, taking the plate and lifting slightly in thanks.
"Alright," he agreed. "Thanks for breakfast - it smells wonderful, as always." Demi, halfway out the room, paused to smile at him before going down the hall and tapping lightly at Percy's door. At an answering groan, she entered, leaving it slightly ajar behind her.
"Are you okay, sweetie?" she asked in concern, turning the covers back slightly to examine her daughter's face. Percy whimpered pettishly, trying to hide in her pillow, but Demi managed to lay the back of her hand against the girl's cheek. "You're fevered again," her mother murmured in dismay. "I'll get you some tea, then you should go back to sleep."
"My foot hurts," Percy whined softly, peering blearily up at her mother.
Demi nodded once, quickly, and tucked the covers back up over her child. "I'll bring an ibuprofen, too. Try not to go back to sleep quite yet." Closing the door softly behind her, she returned to the kitchen. "She's sick," she answered John's questioning look. "Has a bit of a fever and is saying her foot is in pain."
"Do you need me to pick up anything on the way back from the store?" he asked worriedly, getting the ibuprofen out the cabinet as Demi started tea.
She shook her head, rinsing a mug for Percy. "No, I think we have everything." She shook two pills out of the bottle he handed her onto a saucer, pouring the steaming water over the teabag in the cup and letting it steep for a minute before adding cool water. John started cleaning up the waffle iron as Demi carried the mug and saucer down the hall, opening Percy's door with her foot and crossing to the bed.
"Are you still awake?" she whispered, bending over the bed and setting the saucer down on the nightstand.
Percy peeked out over the top of the blankets and Demi reached down, supporting her daughter and helping her sit up, holding the cup of tea in the other hand as Percy took a couple of sips. Her hand trembling, she reached for the pills, managing to swallow them too before going limp. Demi gently laid her back and kissed her forehead, tucking her in. "Go to sleep, baby," she whispered. "I'll be right around here if you need anything." Her daughter barely managed a tiny nod, utterly drained by her efforts. Leaving the cup and saucer where Percy could reach them, Demi tiptoed out the room, partially closing the door behind her.
John was waiting in the kitchen with his jacket on already, to say goodbye to his wife before he left for work. "Call me if you find anything we need," he murmured, kissing her cheek. She hugged him back with a nod.
"Will do. Have a good day." He nodded in response and let himself out the front door as she went back to their room to get dressed.
John had gone to work a little early that day, things certainly would be harder without his family helping. Taping a sign to the door that declared he wouldn't be in till noon, he turned on the sprinklers in the first greenhouse before going to the second one. He hadn't really believed Percy was loosening ice when she kicked the wall, but he found it necessary to whack it a couple of times himself in order to get the water flowing, and he found himself wondering if perhaps she'd been telling the truth. Attaching the fertilizer bag to the nozzle, he went down the row, spraying each plant, the low rumble of the heater lending a nice background to the pattering of the water.
Even though she took longer than strictly necessary, John had never had a problem with Percy showering love and attention on each individual plant. He himself felt the same way, if not to as great a degree, but today he simply didn't have time to spend on checking each one singly. Customers were rare but somebody needed to be around when they did come, few people were willing to wait for a couple of hours just to buy a plant, especially when they could just go elsewhere. Demi usually worked in the office, while John and Percy took care of the plants, but for the next few days he alone would have to do the work of three people.
Things would be much easier if the pager would just arrive, he mused sourly as he hosed down the leaves, keeping a sharp eye out for any damage the plants may have sustained. Percy had done this entire greenhouse yesterday but it was after she'd injured her foot and he doubted she was paying as much attention as usual. He really needed to install plumbing in the other two greenhouses, the necessary daily checkup would go much more quickly if they didn't have to water too. Something else always seemed to be going wrong, though, or needing attention, and he simply hadn't had time or money to get sprinkler systems installed.
Finishing greenhouse two, he headed out the door, his heart sinking as he saw a black car just about to pull out. Upon his appearance though, the driver stopped and shut off the automobile, getting out as a tall woman exited the passenger side. As he went closer John recognized the Smiths, who had been shopping yesterday and been present when his stepdaughter collapsed. "Can I help you?" he asked, approaching them and managing a smile, though his face was stiffening with the cold.
"We were wondering how Persephone is doing," the son began. John blinked a moment, he'd never actually called her by her real name and for a moment he wasn't quite sure who young Mr Smith meant.
"She looked terrible yesterday," Mrs Smith said anxiously, and something clicked in John's head. He unlocked the door, holding it open for the two of them.
"She will be fine in a few days," he answered as they all filed inside. "She sprained her foot while loosening ice in the pipes and has a slight cold, but the doctor said to keep her in a bed awhile and she should be quite alright within the week."
"I'm so glad," Mrs Smith said warmly, her eyes gentle with concern. "She was so polite and helpful when I bought the pine - you know most teenagers these days, so rude and selfish. It was a delight to meet her."
John beamed, thrilled at the praise of his daughter. "I'll be sure and let her know you said that, she'll be so happy. Her mother did an excellent job raising her," he added, thinking of the debilitating circumstances in which Percy had grown up, and the superhuman way Demi had risen to the challenge.
"She certainly did," Mrs Smith agreed, her admiration of this family rising yet further with the husband's modesty. After a few more polite pleasantries and the purchase of a flowerpot, Mrs Smith and her son departed. Evan had stayed silent save for that single sentence, though he had absorbed every word like a sponge.
As the two exited the building, Mrs Smith murmured sotto voce to her son, "That is the kind of family with whom I want to be friends, polite, intelligent, close-knit. Not some ill-bred airheaded socialite who doesn't know where their fortune came from or how, nor could they care less." Evan nodded in agreement, thinking of the way the fainting Persephone had protested ruining his coat and entirely agreeing with his mother.