Written for havocmangawip. This story takes place in her ongoing 'verse, specifically during Chapters 2 to 8 of Jean Havoc: a Work in Progress. The low-down here is that after the events of Chapter 38 of the manga, Jean has been discharged from hospital and comes to stay with Gracia in Central while he rehabilitates. This story was written as a companion piece to WIP, so will probably be at its best if you've read at least the early chapters of that. I heartily recommend it!
The first thing Gracia bought after her husband died was a stepladder.
Ordinarily, she shopped daily, but for two weeks after the funeral, there was no need. After a bereavement, no one expects you want to cook, and no one knows what to say, so instead people bring food. Then, one Thursday evening, she switched on the living room light, and the bulb blew. She needed to feed Elysia her supper, to comfort her and read to her on the couch. The bulb would have to be replaced immediately. But when Gracia stood on a chair and reached up, the new light bulb in her cardigan pocket, her fingers closed on air six inches below the lampshade. Maes was, had been, six foot one in his socks. He'd always done the light bulbs. He'd always done a lot of things: she hadn't realised how much until suddenly, there was no one but her to do it any more.
After a two minute time-out for a burst of discreet crying in the locked bathroom, Gracia powdered her nose and took Elysia next door, where they borrowed a stepladder. The next morning, she bought her own.
The builders said it would take a week, so of course they were there a fortnight. They hammered, they drilled, they made unidentifiable yet deafening clattering noises. They stomped through the house on the cardboard Gracia had put down. They left bits of piping and bathroom fixtures out in the hall. They chattered, they gossiped. They drank endless cups of strong tea; Gracia started keeping a pot on the go in the kitchen at all times. Gracia was amazed at how many men and how much noise and fuss it seemed to be taking to rebuild one bathroom. All right, so they'd had to take a wall down, but still.
As far as Gracia knew Jean, he was a very nice young man. There were all kinds of good reasons why she should take him in as a houseguest. Roy needed Jean back in the game; Jean needed to rebuild his life. But what did Gracia need? The plan her husband had died for lived on after him. With stakes like that, with her beautiful husband newly buried and a small daughter to look after, it was amazing that she had any energy left to be irritated with the dusty boot-scuffs all over her freshly-cleaned kitchen floor. It seemed she did, though.
Elysia took the building work badly at first; she was scared of the noise and the strangers. She hid in her room most of the time in the beginning. After three days, she started tentatively responding to the foreman's waves and smiles. On the fifth day, Gracia caught the carpenter in the kitchen with her, showing her how to blow giant bubbles with soap suds between his circled index finger and thumb. By the eighth day, Elysia was constantly trying to get into the half-built new bathroom to chatter to her new friends. Gracia hefted her and hauled her away crying, and thought, with wonder and a little pride, so adaptable. She wanted to tell Maes, but then, she always wanted to tell him everything.
Gracia, tired grown-up, was slower to adjust. She tutted at the dust, at the constant noise, the delays ("those pipes are gonna have to come out, lady, who put those in?"), at the used tea mugs she collected from every corner of the ground floor. Then, sometime during the second week, she found herself making a batch of sugar cookies to put out in the kitchen for the crew. After she cut out the first batch, Elysia, standing on a chair to reach and learn how, put her fingers into the polka dot holes left by the cutter. "It's a mess," she commented. She sounded very disapproving.
Gracia smiled at her, then balled up the dough, sprinkled a little more flour with a sifter, and rolled it out again.
The day after Jean arrived, he was reading on the couch as Gracia folded laundry, and Elysia wandered up to him and informed him that he smelled. Gracia was mortified, and a little worried. She'd been expecting the start of this. It was only natural for such a little girl going through what she was to rebel against a new person in her home.
Jean looked at Elysia, completely thrown for a moment, then said, "Ah." He fished in his shirt pocket and, just as Gracia had disentangled herself from the laundry and was about to retrieve her misbehaving child for a quick word, he pulled out a packet of cigarettes, flipped it open and showed it to her.
Elysia made a gentle grab for the cigarette, and Jean held it out of her reach. "Remember what I said, kiddo."
"Filthy habit!" yelled Elysia delightedly.
They're smelly, kiddo. And they're bad for you." He looked over to Gracia for confirmation.
"Very bad," said Gracia. "A very bad habit."
"Why do you smoke, then?" Jean just looked at Elysia, one eyebrow raising into his bangs. He obviously wasn't quite used to this part of living with a small child. Elysia said exactly what she thought, and she never stopped asking questions.
Then he said, considering, "Well. I'm pretty silly." He pulled a face, crossing his eyes and sticking his tongue out.
Elysia giggled convulsively, then stuck her tongue out back. Then she clambered up onto the sofa and sat on Jean's chest.
Gracia started — was that a good idea? Was she going to hurt him? Jean flicked his eyes over to her, and gave her a discreet thumbs-up.
Elysia, meanwhile, had started an impromptu face-pulling contest. She puffed her cheeks out and made her eyes big. Jean responded by furrowing his brow and pressing the tip of his nose up with one finger. Elysia collapsed in snorting giggles again.
That evening, they were having chicken stew. Gracia bustled through with the soup plates and the trivet, and Jean did the cutlery. He'd worked out a system for it the other day, he'd told her. She was getting used to that phrase: 'I worked out a system'. Meaning, he'd come up with a way around an obstacle or a workaround to let him do something ordinary. There were an awful lot of those things. It had never occurred to Gracia, for instance, that carrying cutlery could be difficult when your hands were occupied getting you around.
Elysia wanted to help, and Jean seemed content to let her. Elysia was crazy about him, these days. She was such an affectionate, open little thing, so ready to make an almost-stranger her new confidant. Gracia knew where she got that from, and it both hurt her heart and soothed it to know it.
"You do the dessert spoons," said Jean, as Gracia brought in the pot of stew. "Deal?"
"Deal!" said Elysia. She'd done the same thing the other night; Gracia knew that afterwards Jean would have to go around putting all the spoons she'd strewn around the table into their proper places.
She grabbed the tea towel. Gracia could see what was about to happen but holding the pot, there wasn't much she could do about it. Elysia took hold of the end of the tea towel to pull the dessert spoons towards her, Jean made a grab for it but didn't reach it in time — and every single piece of cutlery spilled all over the floor.
From over by the table, Jean made a noise that started with "f", but rapidly trailed off into whistling through his teeth. Elysia looked at him with great curiosity, then copied the whistling noise.
Gracia caught his eye and smiled. He raised his eyebrows, and turned the teeth-whistling into a proper whistle, and then into "Colonel Bogie". Elysia tried to copy him again, and found herself frustrated by the fact that she couldn't actually whistle a real tune yet. She settled for pursing her lips together and humming several notes of the tune while she picked up the cutlery and replaced it all carefully on the towel in Jean's lap.
After Elysia had been put to bed, Gracia made peppermint tea for them both, and curled herself in her armchair while Jean stretched out on the couch. After dinner, there was grown up conversation: over the last few days, she'd started to look forward to this time of evening again. Alone with the ticking clock and a coil of appalling absence in her chest, those hours when evening crawled into night had become something to grit her teeth against. Jean's company was making them into a welcome distraction, even a pleasure when she was in a good mood.
"It's difficult, isn't it?" she said. "Getting used to not swearing in front of her." Jean looked at her, almost confused. He probably thought she'd never said a bad word in her life. Sweet. "In the end Maes and I had to invent all these silly curse-word substitutes. The worst thing was, then we started using them when she wasn't in the room. People thought we were crazy."
"What kind of words?"
"Well, the best ones are ones that start off with the same sound. Gives you a moment's thinking time to change direction."
"Futtersack. Dalmations. Sugar cookies. We had to stop the last one, though."
"Because you stepped on an electrical plug and Elysia thought she was going to get cookies?"
"Got it in one." Gracia put a hand to her foot, instinctively. "Ouch. Stepped on a plug. Nothing worse, is there —" Oh. Oh dear.
Jean laughed, and leaned a hand back to tap his chair by the couch. "I'd say I'm in the clear, but if I step on an electrical plug in this, it's gonna cost me big. These tyres are pretty futtersack expensive."
"You just haven't given it a chance! How many chapters did you even read?"
"C'mon, this guy — wait, let me read you a sentence of this, it goes on forever — and I skipped ahead, there's this whole chapter about how you render whale fat, and another one about plankton, and — just, come on. You've got to admit someone needs to cut this thing down."
"It's — there's so much more to it than that! It's about obsession, and the nature of good and evil, and comradeship, and love! It's the greatest novel to have come out of this country in the last century!"
"Fine, fine, I'll hang onto it, I'll stick with it. If I'm having trouble sleeping, I bet it'll work just great."
Sciezka had come over again that afternoon. Before Maes died, she'd been a likeable, eccentric young woman Gracia felt inclined to take under her wing. Then, very suddenly, the roles had reversed. Afterwards, she'd been around more and more, offering company, looking after Elysia, quietly doing things without being asked.
Of course, now that Jean was here, Gracia couldn't help but notice that she was around even more often.
Their argument was loud enough to carry right through to the kitchen. Gracia smiled to herself, keeping one eye on the coffeepot so she could take it off the heat just before it boiled. She was a coffee drinker now: Jean liked the stuff, and she liked a happy houseguest.
Elysia tugged at her skirt. "Sciezka has too many books."
"Reading is good for you," said Gracia absently. Then she looked where Elysia was pointing. Sciezka's overstuffed book bag had spilled open in the hall, and a dozen hardbacks and paperbacks had fallen out across the tiles. Jean and Sciezka's literary disagreement had certainly sounded loud enough to rattle the floors — perhaps it actually had done? Gracia absently scanned titles as she picked up the books and replaced them in Sciezka's bag. These were probably for Jean — a couple of Empire period novels Gracia remembered from school, something called The Uses of Enchantment that claimed to be a modern psychological analysis of fairy tales. Then there were the eighth and ninth volume of that Aerugan novel that everyone claimed they were going to read and nobody ever did. Trust Sciezka to not only actually be reading it, but to bring the next volume — Gracia guessed, just in case she finished up her current one and wanted to read on immediately. When she set out to do something, that girl really concentrated her mind ... The next book was a medical text on the current state of physiotherapy. How sweet. Sciezka was reading up on Jean's rehabilitation so she could chat with him without burdening him with too many questions. Gracia slipped the book to the bottom of the pile, discreetly. Those two really were getting close. The next volume was a bound volume of the Amestrian Medical Journal, with an article marked. Gracia opened the page to the bookmark. Perhaps as a host and a friend, she ought to read up a little on Jean's condition herself? She scanned the title.
Her cheeks coloured slightly. She flicked down the first couple of pages, then shut the book and reviewed her previous thoughts. Those two certainly were getting close — and apparently Sciezka was finding more practical uses for her determination and formidable research mind than Aerugan literature. Two more books left in the little pile — Gracia didn't even open them, just glanced at the titles and slipped them straight back into the bag. One of them looked like another novel, this time in Amestrian, and of a slightly less elevated kind. The title was highly informative title. The other was a hardback in Aerugan again — non-fiction? Sensibilitˇ, pulsion: le peau comme zone ˇrog¸ne. Gracia really should have paid more attention in class. Her Aerugan would be so much better today if she hadn't had the seat next to the window, and that cute boy in the desk across — the back of her neck prickled.
Sciezka was standing in the hall behind her.
"They spilled everywhere," said Gracia. "I thought I'd better tidy them away for you. I promise I had no intention of snooping."
"Ah", said Sciezka. "Ah." She leant forward and whispered fiercely, "I don't know what you must think. It's just — "
Gracia winked at her. "Don't worry about a thing. What did I say to you, Elysia?"
"Reading is good for you!" said Elysia.
"And Sciezka does a lot of reading, doesn't she? So it must be doing her a lot of good."
Sciezka nodded weakly.
Elysia said, "And she gives Jean books to read!"
"Yes! When you can read, Elysia, you'll be able to share books you like with your friends. And then you can enjoy them together. Books are like food, they're fun to share. Like when we read stories to you."
"Stories!" said Elysia. She sidled over to Sciezka's book bag. Gracia steered her out of the way.
"Not those ones yet, though. The printing's a little small for you, isn't it, Sciezka?"
"Oh yes," said Sciezka. "It's absolutely tiny."
A few days later, Sciezka sat at the kitchen table. Her fingers twitched over the little paper cup that had held the tea she'd drunk on the way over. She was absently tearing and folding in strips as she talked, until it fanned out in her hands in ripped petals. Her cheeks were pink.
Gracia leaned by the stove, and listened as Sciezka rambled, keeping one eye on the coffeepot.
"... Far smarter than he makes out, don't you think? Do you know the other day he was telling me about the 1891 Siege of Briggs, and he mapped it all out with matches and the salt and pepper shakers and he propped his notebook up to make the wall. I didn't think I was so interested in military history, but the strategy is fascinating, did you know that ... "
"... looking like that, he must be used to girls throwing themselves at him, huh? And I'm — I've never liked my butt, it's just flat, there's nothing there —" she did a little twirl, tried to peek over her shoulder at it, and then pointed.
" ... and also, I think I need to go shopping. I just looked in my dresser yesterday and realised the newest top in there was two years old, can you believe it? So I was thinking maybe I should get something more — fitted, but not too much, you know, I don't want to look desperate. And with it I thought maybe just my dungarees. If I'm uncomfortable I get uncomfortable — you know? Katy at work was trying to get me to wear a pencil skirt and high heels, but I don't want to. It's the principle of the thing, I don't want to dress up as someone else, the uniform's bad enough. But can I show you? The outfit? Do you think I'll look nice? I mean, I don't want to be too obvious about everything, I don't want to put him off ..."
She hadn't stopped talking, even to draw a breath, for the last ten minutes. Gracia filled a tall glass of water at the sink, held it out to her with a smile, and waited for her to realise.
"... Oh." Sciezka breathed for a moment, then said, "Was I going on a little bit?" She took the water, sipped for a moment, and then suddenly tipped her head back, and gulped it down in a few big swallows. She looked bemused as Gracia took the water glass back and refilled it. "I didn't realise I was so thirsty. How did you know?"
Gracia patted her on the shoulder and waited for her to get her breath back. "Let me give you a bit of advice," she said. "Don't worry too much about being too obvious. Quite often, men are not very subtle creatures. For instance, you might spend months flirting with a young man, only to discover he's smitten with you, but had no idea you were interested. And at that point it might become necessary to just throw caution to the winds, put some red lipstick on and jump in his lap."
"I'm not sure about red lipstick," said Sciezka. "It's not good with my skin tone, it makes me look like a corpse."
"I think berry shades would look nice with your complexion. Oh, and" — how to put this? She indicated the modest neckline of Sciezka's top, then indicated a spot two inches below it.
"Ah," said Sciezka. She nodded and frowned, very seriously, as if she was thinking it all over.
Jean's soft Eastern accent floated out from the living room. He was reading a story to Elysia. Sciezka wandered out to join them. The coffeepot was ready; Gracia took a tea-towel and turned off the gas hob the moment before it boiled. As she did, something caught her eye. Sciezka's ruined paper cup was sitting on the counter, but it was no longer hanging in tatters. She'd folded the strips around each other in elegant loops, to make a neat white flower.
As she went to get the coffee cups, Gracia paused for a moment and fingered the paper-cup flower. Sciezka wanted to evolve and to stay herself; well, that was good. That sounded like what she needed. What did Gracia need, herself? She wanted a lot of things in life that she wasn't going to get, but —
Well, for now, the house was full, of purpose and projects and people she cared for. Jean's therapist, she remembered he'd said, had told him to fill up his life with good things, to keep moving. That sounded sensible. It sounded tiring, too. What Gracia needed was too great a question for her to answer today. It was easier, just for the moment, to think about what other people needed: Elysia, Jean, Sciezka, Roy, the builders, even this house itself. And what the house needed right now was what it was getting: for someone to come in here and make lively noise.