She should not have been knocking on this particular door. No, not at all. She hadn't thought she was going to need to either. And here she was standing, tapping her heels on the stone steps lightly.
But in the end, she'd left some things behind, things she could live without for a while but William was highly unlikely to let her back into the human world to replace them. She wasn't even supposed to be here now. But one trip was less likely to bring down managements wrath than several. Besides, chances were no one would even realize she was gone. Hopefully. If all else failed she'd find some way to get out of it. Perhaps she could have sent Ronald to get her things, that's what trainees were for after all. But he would likely have left something behind and she really was not in the mood for that sort of thing. As well, it seemed like a very, very bad idea to introduce him to any of the Phantomhive servants, lest he make a complete and utter fool of himself. Which he was very good at doing.
Baldroy answered the door, not fully, one foot behind it. Perhaps there was a rifle propped against it. Or maybe something was on fire in the background. "Hello? Very sorry ma'am, Earl Phantomhive is in the city, but if I can take a message for him...-"
She knew that. She wouldn't have arrived if he had been around. Phantomhive meant Sebastian and as darling, as he was, he would not have let her get her things and leave. At least not without a little blood drawn. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Sebastian said I could come by whenever I returned to England. I'm Miss Sutcliff...Mr. Grell Sutcliff's sister, I'm...here to collect...his things."
Baldroy paused, eyes widening and a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip. He snatched his mouth shut before it could fall to the floor. "Oh! Oh, I'm sorry, Sebastian must have expected you to come by when he was here."
He ushered her in, hand hovering over her the small of her back. She'd grabbed one of the dresses carefully preserved in the back of her closet. This one in black, corsetted and bustled and appropriately lacey and delicate. Not her most gaudy dress, but a capable one. She could tighten up and use it to create the figure she needed. "That's alright. I apologize for not calling ahead in some manner. I was on the continent and it took some time to get the news and I...well I hurried back as soon as I could."
"Of course, I understand. We left the room he was staying in alone, aside from putting the items from Lady Dalles estate that were believed to be his in there. I'm...so sorry about what happened Miss Sutcliff."
"Thank you..." She almost, almost said Bard and bit her tongue, looking away to hide her face. It would very easily ruin the whole deception to call Baldroy by his nickname, especially since he hadn’t technically given her his name yet.
"Oh! Baldroy ma'am, I'm the estates cook. Earl Phantomhive and Sebastian, our butler are out." Baldroy led her deeper into the estate, and she took smaller, hesitant steps on purpose, giving off the impression of someone who had not explored the estate from top to bottom. It had been fun to scare Sebastian, showing up where he least expected it, in part because he really had not expected any competence from her whatsoever, and popping up behind his back at random intervals had truly gotten on his nerves.
He made slight, polite conversation, having offered his arm to Grell. Somewhere he had put out the cigarette when she turned her head. Perhaps the butt was hiding in a potted plant somewhere. Grell leaned against him softly, squeezing his arm gently. Bard smiled at her, wide and genuine. Grell had an inch or two on him in her heels, but he hardly seemed to mind, looking up at her with soft eyes. “Here Miss. I’ll give you a minute but if you need anything I’ll be outside.”
Bard left her alone in the old room, a little dusty but otherwise unchanged. She regathered her things, some clothes, some hairpins and bows, personal little items that were annoying to have left or have to replace. A few things Angelina had given her and there was some sentimentality attached to the lady and those items. She had wanted those back, to hold on to.
When she returned, Baldroy was waiting with Mey-rin. Mey-rin startled, caught her hand and shook it quickly. She had to bounce away from where she’d been nearly pressed against Bard’s side to do so. Grell hadn’t heard of whatever they’d been speaking so closely about. "You must be Miss Sutcliff! I'm Mey-rin, the maid of the manor. I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Thank you." It was familiar and yet not. Their personalities subdued to adjust to what they assumed was her need. A little too much professionalism in their voices for Grell to simply fall back into their dynamic. It was a good thing, safe and a reminder, if not a little harsh of a tone against her ears after their time working together. "It's nice to meet you Mey-rin."
"Will you be holding a funeral for Mr. Sutcliff now that you’re back?"
"I'm afraid not. I don't have a body to bury and he requested I not in his will regardless."
Mey-rin and Bard shared a look, a specific sort of look she'd seen before. It was the same sort of look she'd shared with William over Ronald's head or Eric and Alan shared with one another. All the time. Because Eric and Alan were constantly judging everyone else together, the little shits. Bard spoke up. "We...perhaps you'd like to accompany us to the garden? We have something you should see."
There wasn't anything she hadn't already seen, she thought so anyway. But she nodded and both servants escorted her out. Mey-rin on one side and Bard on the other, pressed against her like they could hold her up. If she had been grieving as they expected of her, she might have needed that, truly.
They arrived just outside the gardens, to a preciously small and well maintained little section within the treeline. It was tucked away and quiet, almost undisturbed. She wasn’t prepared for what was there.
Grell didn't realize her knees had buckled a little until Bard was grabbing her around the shoulders and then they lost all feeling of their own accord, against the angriest of orders her brain could produce. The dress she'd chosen for the occasion poofed out around her, a little mushroom hiding where the grass would evidently stain her stockings. It must have looked terrible.
"Miss Sutcliff!" Bard knelt with her, no regard for the white of his own uniform and she would have urged him to let her be if she could have. His hands were strong on her shoulders, pulling her a little to lean on him. She wanted to tell him to leave her, that she was fine, she didn’t need him, even though she wanted him.
She couldn't. She didn't know why. There was a stubborn little blockage in her throat, sending her words back into her lungs with gasps. Was it the tears? She hadn't noticed them until Mey-rin shouldered Bard aside, cleaning her face with a soft handkerchief. Bard acquiesced but stayed close. "Sorry, Miss Sutcliff, we didn't mean to upset you."
That brought the tears in earnest, Mey-rin struggling to keep up and Grell simply letting her try. Perhaps she ought to have felt a little bad about taking advantage of the maid's kindness but her warm, slim fingers on her cheeks felt blessedly welcome. As did Bard's arm around her shoulders, hand hovering above her arm now for proprieties sake. That much was laughable, but sweet in its way. She had expected more brazenness from him. He certainly hadn’t hesitated in being a little more forward while she was disguised as a butler. She was fairly certain he was into both men and women. Perhaps she didn’t appeal to him enough like this.
Finally, she caught Mey-rin's wrist gently, black-gloved hands against her well-worked skin. "I'm fine, really."
She had to take her glasses off to clean her face, letting them hang against her chest as Bard offered her his own handkerchief to clean her face. He mumbled a few excuses about the unidentifiable grease, unclear if it was from the kitchen or machinery. A sniff yielded only a burnt smell as a clue and her laugh at his apologies yielded the last of the tears out of the corner of her eyes.
Mey-rin settled her glasses back on her nose for her. Bard spoke. "We really didn't mean to upset you, ma'am. When you said your brother hadn't gotten a funeral or the like we thought...you might like to know someone put him to rest at least."
Mr. Sutcliff was at rest, that much Bard was correct about. Miss Sutcliff wasn't, and wouldn't be until some cryptic redemption allowed it. If that even existed. If that even would be a rest for her. "No, I...thank you. I...to be quite honest I didn't think it would have this effect on me."
Had anyone ever shown her such a kindness? Truly and without any return for it? They had hardly known Mr. Grell Sutcliff, it was not as if Spears had let her prance off AWOL for long enough to truly be their friends. And yet here was a little headstone, and judging by the lovely little red rose bush planted around it, Finnian had had a hand in it as well.
They had put her to rest as best they could. No one had done that for her the first time. There had been no family willing to claim her and no church willing to bury her. She hadn't asked what had become of her mortal body when she'd begun her training. That was too much for one person to know. It had been easier to pretend that her existence as a Grim Reaper was what she had always been and was always meant to be. No mortal coil had been shed as far as her mindset was concerned.
She'd looked at her dossier once, out of a fatal attraction to curiosity and morbidity. An instructor had warned against it, even though their dossiers were accessible to themselves and anyone in management. It hadn't given her any satisfaction to know what had happened after she died. That had been after graduation when she knew what her future would entail. A lifetime ago. And now, finally, a lifetime that was all an act, and acted well to be quite fair, was marked for the world.
Bard offered her his hand as she stood, solid muscle assisting solid muscle. She let him hold her for that moment, fluttering her lashes just a little for the sake of it. "I really do appreciate this. Thank you, both of you, for doing this for...him."
"Of course ma'am!" Mey-rin brushed off the dress before she could, fingers lingering just a little as she adjusted Grell’s skirts for her. "It was the least we could do. If we had known he had a sister we ought to have waited for you but..."
"No, no I understand. This was far more than any of you needed to do. Thank you." For all they knew, she was mourning a brother. It didn't matter what she was truly mourning. Could you mourn your own self? She supposed so. She had died after all. There was a life to be mourned there. She hadn't done that when she had first died, feeling there had been no life at all ended for her to mourn before. Now, these two, these precious two had insisted otherwise and that...hurt. It hurt in that blessedly pinpricking way she hunted for. Hunting for the hurt to bring pleasure because it was the only way to find it. "I can't express what this means to me."
As much as it had all been an act, she had let them in on enough emotion and enough of the events she’d experienced while human. They had thought all of that worth mourning and remembering. They had thought her worth remembering. They had...loved her, to some degree, somehow.
"He was a good man ma'am. A little on the dramatic side, but still." Her head snapped to Bard, a little offended in her own right and he carried on. "But a friend. And it is always good to see someone get one by Sebastian. Mr. Sutcliff seemed to know how to belt one to him, piss him off a little as it were. He's a good butler of course, but it's nice to see that perfect facade fall."
Oh, if only Bard knew exactly how many Grell had gotten past Bassy. From the disguise to that lovely little headbutt during their fight. If she'd meant to kill him, he would have been dead right then. He had gotten the upper hand after, but William had been watching by then and it hadn't mattered. He wasn’t going to let the office lose an employee, short staffed as they were. She had almost gotten what she wanted if his cinematic records hadn't been so dull. Perhaps if she'd had time to look a little further...but no matter. Time constraints had made themselves known by that point, in the terms of Bassy finding it a good time to get back up and stop her investigation.
"You're awfully pale ma'am. Let us go back to the estate for tea yes?" Mey-rin looked through the bottom of her glasses, up at Bard pointedly. He offered Grell his arm after a silent moment of staring off in the other direction completely missing Mey-rin's signal. He might have been wondering about when it would be appropriate to smoke in front of a lady. She was a little dumbfounded not to see the ever-present cigarette on his lips even now. Or maybe he was just a little embarrassed that Grell was still leaning on him.
"That would be lovely, thank you." She walked back with them, relying on the bustle and corset to bring her stride and swagger under control. She could have outpaced Bard in seconds, and it was difficult not to let out what often felt like a horribly burning, limitless power and energy. The itch to run and fight and fire every nerve in her body until she was thoroughly worn was ever present. Bard seemed to unconsciously adjust, striding at a pace that was comfortable for both herself and Mey-rin. It wasn't a lady's dainty step by any mean. "I really must thank you both for everything. I'm afraid I've put you both terribly out of your way for myself today."
"Nonsense, it was our pleasure." Bard waved her off loosely, patting the hand she’d placed in the crook of his arm with his free hand. "Glad we could help."
He swayed a little suddenly, in and out of Grell's space and her eyes flicked to the side, catching Mey-rin and Bard's hands brushing as they swung backward before separating. Bard’s hand came back up to rest on hers with far too much tenderness for Grell to ignore.
That little affection she had initially discounted between Mey-rin and Bard. She had looked at all their dossiers when she’d met them, and that had clued her into Sebastian. He did not have one, did not have a soul the way a human did, reapers did not collect demons when they died, as rare as it was. Mey-rin, a former contract sniper, and Baldroy, a former soldier. They understood each other's pasts in a way that didn't require speaking. Bonds forged quickly under those sorts of circumstance, she had taken it to be that.
Perhaps not. At the very least, their affection was worth more than that. They meant more to each other than just a support system, she could see enough to see it. Whether they knew that or not was a different issue and one she shouldn't bumble in.
She kind of wanted to bumble around it. If only. But Sebastian would attempt to have her hide if he caught her on the premises. That could be fun too though. He did look so elegant while fighting, those eyes blazing into her like they could disrobe her simply by looking at her. And she would have loved to have show off for Mey-rin and Bard too, have Mey-rin’s sharp eyes watching her fight. Have Bard see her strength match his own. Her bumbling butler persona had not represented her true talents nearly well enough.
Bard walked her inside, seating Grell in the drawing room. Mey-rin joined her, even as Bard went to fetch tea and something to eat. She took Grell's hand gently, seated next to her on the couch. "Thank you for coming by. It really is nice to know Mr. Sutcliff has a family to remember him."
"I cannot express how much everything you've done means to me. I...had honestly expected to be the only one to...remember him." At the very least, until very recently, she had been the only one to remember herself.
Mey-rin was quiet for a moment, squeezing her hand gently. Her eyes were down, a careful consideration beneath her glasses. "Please let us know if there's anything you need."
"I will, thank you."
Bard bustled back in, with tea and cake and awkwardly set them out. He'd obviously gone to some care, without Sebastian there to save whatever he attempted to make. He sat across from them, leg bouncing awkwardly and Grell had to urge them to join her. Both dug in happily, setting some aside for Finny.
There was little more to be said, aside from gradually easing into a conversation. That she was a master at. It was a skill she rarely employed, preferring to use words to put people on edge. It threw them off and gave her the opportunity to judge them. But this called for an ease into familiarity and conversation, the opposite use. One had to know both to use either skill effectively.
She was a little saddened to leave, the familiarity suffocating her like a freshly laundered and still warm blanket pulled up over her head. There was an essence to the living that was hard to replicate. As tedious as existence was, they never fell so deeply into the pit of tedium that reapers were capable of. The same work every day, for a foreseeable eternity, tended to do that to a person. That harsh grip to meaning and life that the living still had, bruising and assaulting the flesh was easy to obsess over. She'd not found it in life, but it was nice to feel a sliver of that. She bruised even easier with it now than ever, but the marks of the living vying for a purpose were pleasant to look at later. They never lasted as long as she might wish they would.
Mey-rin was the one who caught her as she left. She took Grell’s hands in her own, thumbs rubbing anxiously. "Miss Sutcliff! Please...feel free to come by and...visit...anytime. We'd be ever so pleased to have you. I'm sure the Earl and Sebastian would as well."
She could not and they most certainly would not be happy to see her after that business with Madame Red. It was not for fear of Sebastian. Oh, another wrestle would be splendid. But rather that another incident would reflect very poorly on her already tenuous record. If Will took her off collections completely she would certainly never see them again.
Bard spoke up quickly. "If you'd like, feel free to write us, either of us. We wouldn't mind hearing from you."
That was not exactly the offer Grell had expected. She paused as Bard helped her with her coat and felt a lovely little stab of regret and longing launch into her stomach. Bard was resolutely looking at her coat, his free hand rubbing the back of his neck. Mey-rin was looking up at her with perilously bright eyes, flushing from the tips of her ear to the collar of her dress. That was a flush she'd seen many times when Sebastian was around.
And oh it made perfectly lovely clear sense. Their care when it had been Mr. Sutcliff, and their care for her now. They couldn't know, no her disguise had been far too good. But the affection had been cruelly snatched away, only for an opportunity presenting itself to reflect those affections elsewhere. She supposed she acted enough like her dear deceased brother that those replaced affection made sense. Well, she’d hardly changed herself for that role at all, only subduing her personality enough to match the rather mousy look she’d taken on. At that time, she had played with it, thinking it only teasing flirtation, but she’d been wrong.
She hid her grin by kissing first Bard on the cheek, and then Mey-rin. "Thank you. I'll be sure to write. Perhaps I can see you both again sometime."
She shouldn't have done it, but she had, and she swept out before either of them could say a word. Her upper teeth bit into her lower lip in a manic grin, their sharp points drawing blood against her lipstick all too quickly. A pleasant little reminder of the pressure those lips had just placed on certain cheeks. She wondered idly how long they would let her lipstick mark them. If she was lucky, they’d let it mark them until Sebastian came home, and maybe he could guess at who had been around and what she’d done.
She’d have to come up with some suitable lie eventually. Or maybe just a twisted version of the truth. But she certainly wasn’t planning on leaving the Phantomhive estate alone now, especially not those two.