Willow '06: The Magnificent Blending - Chris

Chris Larabee sat by the window, staring out at the gardens. The amber brown of his whiskey had more depth than that garden did now; the gardener hired to maintain them just didn't have the talent of their former custodian, but Chris really didn't care. He almost preferred it to be dull and struggling for continued existence; it matched his own life.

The garden had once been lush with colors, Chris recalled sourly. His wife's deft touch had brought a joyous cacophony of bright flowers and vibrant vines and even fruit trees to the wide expanse. Beyond the gardens lay the lawns, once thick and green, and beyond that the hedge maze and lilac grove which had been a matter of pride to the manor. Sarah had enjoyed throwing parties just to show off her carefully cultivated landscapes, more so because she'd actually had a hand in its success as opposed to many of her friends who had to rely on hired hands. Chris could recall parties he'd been forced to host simply because Sarah wanted to show off her newest rose bush in full bloom or a recent addition to the orchid bed.

That was before.

"Mister Larabee, your father-in-law is here to see you," a voice interrupted his brooding. Chris didn't need to look up to know the woman had a disapproving look on her face as she added, "Again."

Gloria always got that look when she found him in this chair. His 'drinking and moping' chair, she called it. It was big, dark brown, obnoxiously fluffy and positioned to face out the window. He could slouch down in it and pretend to disappear if he wanted. And if he spilled his drink on it, it was easily cleaned. Gloria thoroughly disapproved of his `drinking and moping' periods, particularly because in her opinion drinking to excess was a sin. Quite frankly, Chris doubted she actually understood what `excess' for him was. He wasn't sure he even knew anymore.

"Shall I send him in?"

Chris sighed. He really wanted to say no, but he'd never believed in delaying the inevitable. And that's all a `no' would be. If he refused to see Hank now, the old buzzard would just come back later. Probably later today. And later today, Chris planned to be quite drunk to excess.

Now would have to do.

"Show him in." He grunted. He knew that behind him the stout widow would nod curtly and go about his request, approval or not. Gloria Potter was as efficient as anyone could possibly wish in a Head of Household; more, even. Half the time it seemed she knew what needing doing and did it before Chris himself had a clue. He'd once sworn to Sarah that Gloria's efficiency had to be a special Aspect all its own, but Sarah had laughed and said it was just her very weak but very attuned Spirit magic at work and Chris' complete obliviousness to anything but the `right here and now.'

"What is this!"

The paper shoved in his face almost surprised him, except that even over the plush blue carpeting Hank could still thunder like a herd of horses on stampede. The man probably couldn't achieve stealth if he was dead.

"What does it look like?" Chris retorted quietly, not bothering to shift his gaze. He knew perfectly well what the papers were; he just hadn't expected them to reach Hank's offices this soon.

"You've registered this manor with the Testing Authority!" Hank growled. "How dare you! "You have no right to…"

"Actually, I do," Chris interrupted smoothly, a small smile gracing his lips. "You see, since you've stepped up this little campaign of yours to steal my land, I've been doing a little homework. Turns out the reason you've been trying so hard to get me to sign it over to you is because you can't get it through the courts after all, can you?"

He turned to meet Hank's eye with a satisfied smirk. "If the house was just mine you're having me declared your Minor would have been enough, but it wasn't was it? 'Cuz Sarah had a will filed with the courts, and she left her share to someone else."

Hank opened his mouth to argue, but Chris continued. "You may have gotten my share of the manor, but that's only forty-five percent of it. And so long as you don't have the majority of the ownership, you can't sell so much as a tulip from the flowerbed."

"So if that's the case, why register the house as a residence?" Hank sneered. "Seems you're not so sure of yourself after all."

"Oh, I'm sure, Hank." Chris grinned. "Doesn't mean I'm stupid. My partnership agreement means I have the power of attorney over the remaining fifty-five percent; that's why you've been so all-fired hot for me to sign those papers of yours. I may not own it, but I still legally have the right to oversee it in all actions as I see fit. Like signing control over to you, for example. Or registering it as a residence, which renders it immediately immune to any and all legal actions or claims until the competitions are over. That'll buy me enough time to figure out a way to get you out of my hair for good, old man." He leaned back in the chair with satisfaction and added, "If I even have to."

Chris broke into a wide toothy smile that couldn't possibly be called nice as he watched Hank's savvy business mind do some quick calculations. In just under two months, Chris would turn twenty- seven and Hank's 'guardianship' of his percentage of the property would expire, reverting control back to Chris. Hank had until midnight the day before to gain control over the majority of the ownership, sell it off, and redirect the profits into assets which were not under Chris' direct name. If not, he would lose his chance.

"This isn't over, Chris Larabee," Hank spat. "I've been a friend of the courts longer than you've been alive, so don't think I won't find a way around your slick doings."

"Try your best, Hank. The law is the law, no matter how far you manage to bend it."

Chris continued to smile as his father-in-law stormed out of the room and eventually slammed the front door behind him. But the satisfaction was fleeting; Hank would be back and Chris didn't doubt that there would be more to this little war. His smile dimmed as he thought how angry it would have made Sarah to have the two of them going at it, but then he wasn't the one who had started it. It hadn't been more than a few weeks after Sarah's murder that Hank had made his first move to claim the manse that had been partially purchased with Sarah's dowry, and since then Chris had been defending himself against one maneuver after another.

"I suppose he'll be back again?"

Chris turned to see Gloria standing in the doorway. She had been his wife's most devoted confidant, the two of them more like sisters than employee and mistress. Gloria loved this place as much as Sarah did, had fought hard to keep it up to Sarah's standards after the funeral, and was just as upset at Hank's actions as Chris was.

"Yeah, he'll be back. Man just don't know when to let go."

"Does he have a chance?"

The fretting look on Gloria's plump features sent a pang of guilt through Chris; he could hear Sarah scolding him for making her friend worry. "Well, there's always a chance," Chris said reluctantly. "He isn't wrong in saying he knows more about the courts than I do. But I kept wondering why after having me declared his Minor he still was pushing to have me sign over the holdings to him. I just didn't buy that he was trying to avoid having to go to court to do it, 'cuz he'd already gone to court to get the declaration. Turns out getting control of my share isn't enough. Sarah must have suspected her father might play dirty if something ever happened to her, so she made Buck her beneficiary instead of me or Adam. Buck's not a relation even through marriage, so Hank can't petition for legal patronage."

"And the partnership agreement you and Buck signed?"

"Makes me custodian of Buck's property in his absence." Chris leaned forward in his chair, setting the glass on a side table. "So I have the power of ownership without the weakness of it as far as Hank's legal tricks are concerned."

"What good does registering the house as a residence do?" Gloria asked, moving to collect Chris' glass – whether he was ready to give it up or not. "Other than bringing a whole lot of strangers into the house, does it have any real value?"

"Actually, it has a lot. The tests for High are considered one of the most important things going on in the Empire right now, if not THE most important. If I pass the first test, I'll qualify for the further competitions and my house will be automatically accepted. That means until the competitions are over, this house will essentially be a government office and no civil claims involving it will even be considered. If I don't pass, I still have a chance at being accepted as a residence anyway, which would still protect it."

"And if you don't pass?"

Chris set his jaw firmly. "I will, Gloria. No two ways about it. I'm not letting Hank get his paws on Sarah's property just so he can sell it to some high and mighty noble or some greedy merchant just like him. Sarah loved this place."

Gloria nodded, sensing the conversation was over, and left the room. With his glass, Chris noticed sourly. Damn woman was way too efficient.

He stood and stretched. No point sitting in the brooding chair without the whiskey to brood with – just lost some of the strength of the brood. He took a moment to lean against the window and look out. When was the last time he had actually been out in the gardens? Or walked the lawns, or read under the lilac trees? He couldn't recall a single time since the funeral; had he really, not once in nearly two years?

It was only a few steps to the side door which opened from the morning room into the gardens, though taking those steps seemed like walking a mile of bad road. By the time he put his hand on the knob it felt like he'd run a marathon, his heart was beating so hard. Why was this so hard? It was just going to the garden, right? Flowers, green grass, trees; what was the big deal?

Certainly not the ghosts.

He opened the door and felt the burst of fresh air against his face. The air from the gardens had always smelled and felt different from the air in the rest of the world, and today was no different. Except that today he knew it was his imagination. Probably always had been, but he wasn't ready to admit that just yet. No, today it was his imagination because Sarah was no longer here to make everything better. Like before.

He stepped out into the sun, gritting his teeth. Even now it didn't seem fair that the world could have bright sunny days without Sarah in it. He took one step, and then another, until finally it didn't feel like a forced activity. He moved along the path past the flowerbeds to the grand lawn until he finally reached one of the many wood and cast iron benches Sarah had positioned along the various walkways around the estate. He sat heavily, rubbing at his eyes and then the back of his neck. Everything had been so perfect before. He'd had the love of his life, their beautiful son, and his best friend. There had been this house and all its lands, the ranch on the associated estate on the edge of town, and a thriving business raising the best horses in the province. They had lived well and happy, with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.

Then it all went away.

He remembered the trip they'd taken, he and Buck, delivering a dozen of Chris' finest stallions to a buyer in a small town just south of Four Corners. The buyer, a eager young man just starting his own private coach service, had been tight on money and convinced Buck to agree to a payment plan that was overly generous; but of course, Buck had always been a soft touch for the down-and-determined-to-get-out. Sarah hadn't seen the harm in the terms, either – they had more than enough money and could easily afford to give the young entrepreneur a break.

Chris wondered briefly if the young man had continued paying his debt on the horses after Sarah's death and Buck's departure; Chris surely didn't have a clue.

The young man had been very grateful for their financial flexibility and had gone out of his way to ensure the two men had a good time while visiting his home town, including having arranged for the best rooms at the Small Fox Inn. Buck had convinced Chris to stay on a day extra, calling it a long overdue `boys weekend,' and they had enjoyed every amenity from the good food to the better beer to the exceptional company in the Inn's private brothel. It had been a very good weekend.

It was as they had approached the ranch on the edge of Four Corners that it all went to hell. The smoke, the small residual fires as they continued to dwindle, the blackened wood of the remains of the small but comfortable residence to house the ranch hands and their family when they didn't want to make the trip back to the manse in the middle of the city… all gone. The worst part was when they found the bodies in the yard, burned beyond recognition, and the sixteen-year-old ranch hand beaten, shot and left for dead in the yard.

Chris had simply shut down after that; in fact, except for the occasional sober moments when the liquor ran out, he barely remembered anything from the first six months. He had vague images of Buck dragging him out of taverns and paying for the damages he'd caused, Buck pulling him out of one prostitute's bed after another, Buck bailing him out of jail after he'd gotten arrested for drunken brawling or who knew what else. He knew Buck had sweet-talked more than a few of the city's constables and minor law officials to keep him from a longer stay behind bars. Another six months and he had taken up residence in the mansion's guest suite, locking himself in for days at a time. At some point during that time Buck had disappeared from his life leaving him in the charge of Gloria Potter and her damnable efficiency.

And now here he was, alone, sitting in his garden for the first time in nearly two years.

With a giant fireball coming at him.

Chris blinked and focused on the large fireball moving across the yard toward him. Large yard as it was, the ball was plenty far away but it was also gaining speed as it made a straight line toward him. Chris stood out of habit, confused that someone would actually be attacking him in his own home.

"Damn!" He leapt sideways just in time for the ball to go hurtling by, feeling the blistering heat as it passed. As he stood and watched, expecting the ball to hit the rose garden, he was surprised to see it slow to a stop, then reverse and start coming back again. Whoever Hank had trying this little trick certainly had decent control over their magic.

"But I'm better," Chris growled. He reached out with his power to touch the giant ball of flames, letting his mental fingers tentatively grasp the moisture in the air as it was being sucked out by the extreme heat. Impressed by the strength being used by the Fire user, he opened wider to the power, pulling water from Sarah's koi and lily ponds and using it to encircle the ball.

The ball fought to continue on its path, but Chris increased his sphere of water around it and began to shrink the size of the sphere as he started sending showers of water through the ball itself. The sphere continued to shrink around the outside of the fire even as the steam created by the showers being burned off worked to stifle the air that still remained inside the fire ball itself. A matter of minutes maintaining the tight outer sphere and continuing the interior showers, and the fireball fizzled out with nary a whimper for its troubles.

"Gonna have to try something better than that, Connelly," Chris grumbled. He returned his waters back to the ponds and stalked toward the house, no longer interested in sitting around among the peonies and begonias.

Funny how being attacked by a fireball in Sarah's gardens could sour his mood.

Vin's Story