It’s day three of the convention, and lunchtime, and even Grace’s brain is moderately melted. Which is understandable, as it is day three, and lunchtime, and a Friday. It is also beyond annoying, as her paper is due in an hour, and if she looks at it again, she’s going to throw her datapad out a window.
So, she takes a walk. Grabs some of the stir-fried noodles that protest as-good-as-the-original-thing (lies) and takes a walk through the United States Botanic Garden's Conservatory to calm the hell down.
She’s not sure how she ends up in the Garden Primeval, but it’s quiet and cool (always a rare thing in hot, humid, awful August). It reminds her of the pictures of Pandora, and soothes something in her awkward, obsessive soul.
It’s when she’s half-way through her lunch that she becomes aware of the mutterings.
Soft mutterings, the voice high-pitched and young. A child – Grace can’t tell the gender, even though she can quite clearly hear the Texan drawl. A child alone, which strikes even Grace as slightly oddly and more than a little worrying (call it a lingering trace of responsibility towards the young of her species). A child, who is currently complaining about someone being unable to draw the differences between a ladder brake fern and a fishtail one. Caught between curiosity and a niggling worry about the child’s well-being, Grace forces herself to her feet and towards the mutters.
The child turns out to be a small, probably-Hispanic girl in a purple dress. She’s maybe six, maybe eight, and her halo of black curls is being vaguely held in place by a purple headband with a shiny cloth-flower on it. She’s lying on the path, idly swinging her bare (and dirt-stained) feet in the air as she draws in her sketchbook (expensive – a wealthy parent’s absent gift? But the dress shows a couple neat repairs, which doesn’t fit). The muttering has stopped, but only because the girl is deep in concentration.
“That’s pretty good,” Grace says, and it’s true - as long as she keeps in mind that the artist hasn’t yet hit double digits, anyway. The girl looks up, her smile lighting up her face.
“Wouldn’t say so otherwise.”
The girl gives her a bit of a look, the kind of look which says that she is nearly insert-age-here, not a baby who doesn’t know when she’s being lied to. “Okay. Thank you. Um, ma’am.”
Ma’am?! “Grace, please.” She’s got another four years to go until she’s thirty, dammit.
“Grace,” the girl says, slowly. Then her smile comes back. “I’m Trudy.”
“Nice to meet you, Trudy,” Grace says, feeling more than a little awkward at the very large distance between her own 5'11 height and the little girl lying on the path. It reminds her why she never wanted to teach anyone who still had physical growing to do. And yet, the girl seems sensible enough. At least, she knows the difference between ferns, even if she is having artistic trouble with them. Ferns, in Grace's opinion, are a far more sensible topic than the latest children's franchise (which probably does involve plants, but of the illicit, greenhouse-grown, psychotropic and hallucinogenic variety. Grace should know, she wrote an undergraduate paper on the properties of hallucinogenic plants). “You seem to have mislaid your parents.”
Trudy widens her eyes and bites her bottom lip and shakes her head. She's such a perfect picture of innocence that Grace has to smirk. “Nuh-uh. Momma's with Gene and Frankie at the kids' garden an' Daddy's arguin' with one of the other scientists.”
She's getting the distinct sense that the girl is in no hurry to go anywhere, and so Grace finds herself sitting cross-legged on the path next to her. “Your dad's here for the conference?”
“Yep. He's an-” and here Trudy pauses, frowns, mouths a word before saying another one, “-archaeologist.”
Well, that narrows down who she belongs to - Trudy is one of Dr Miguel Schuyler's. Which also explains the arguing. All scientists and academics argue, but Schuyler is strong-minded, charismatic, controversial, and has enough gift for drama that he enjoys arguing more than most. Grace also enjoys arguing more than most, but she can understand why Schuyler's daughter has retreated here. Quieter, less social tension for a precocious child to worry at and, hell, plants make better company than people anyway.
“He taught you about the ferns?”
“Kinda. He studies what people did with plants ages and ages ago, and the pictures were interesting. So, he gave me some books an' then I did my own research.” Trudy frowns, and picks up an orange pencil to start drawing something that looks nothing like a fern. “I like 'em,” she adds.
“So do I.”
“Because you're a scientist?”
“I liked them before.” There is a pause while Grace eats some more of her lunch and Trudy keeps drawing, but it's – oddly enough – a comfortable kind of silence. “...is that a dinosaur?” Grace asks at last, tilting her head at the child's sketchbook. Trudy nods happily.
“Yep! It's a T-Rex,” she says, picking up a blue pencil to add in some patterning.
“A baby one?”
“No,” Trudy says, giving Grace a funny look. “They weren't all big. Some were really little. They found skeletons,” and then she says, “I'm gonna draw another one. They lived in packs, too.”
“...I didn't know that.”
“Yep. A mommy one and a daddy one and all their kids. Be like me'n'Gene'n'Frankie and Momma and Daddy. Rawr,” she adds, as Grace tries not to laugh.
“Thought you were gonna draw a tiger when you started,” Grace says, and then wonders why the girl frowns. She doesn't have to wonder for long.
“No. That would be sad.”
“'Cause they're dead.”
“Dinosaurs are dead, too,” Grace points out, cautiously. It probably wouldn't do her career any good at this point if she made Dr Miguel Schuyler's middle child cry. But at the same time, she's genuinely interested in the way the girl thinks.
“Yeah, but, they're supposed to be,” Trudy says. “Tigers ain't. So, if I draw dinosaurs, I won't be sad.”
And Grace really doesn't know what to say to that, so she says, “Oh,” and then she says, “Okay, I think that makes sense,” because it does. In a way.
In a way that kind of hurts.
Grace is also convinced that when next she sees Dr Schuyler – which'll be in half an hour, when she gives her paper – she's going to spend far too much time picturing him as a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
“Trudy! Tru- Ah, there you are.”
...or she could see him now. A short, stocky, disconcertingly handsome man with a mane of auburn hair and green eyes that are startlingly pale against his olive skin, Schuyler is an uncomfortable reminder that she does, in fact, have a libido. Even if he is standing there looking more like a parent than anything else.
“Hi, daddy,” Trudy said, torn between beaming at him and looking worried.
“Gertrude Maria Chacon,” Schuyler says with his customary dramatic flair. “We've been looking for you.”
“Shoes on, okay, princess? Then you're coming back with me.”
Trudy sighs, over-dramatic as only a child can be (although frankly, Grace isn't surprised that a child of Schuyler's knows how to exaggerate), and folds her sketchbook up before finding her sandals.
“Was she bothering you?” Schuyler asks Grace, and she shakes her head.
“No. We were discussing dinosaurs.”
He studies her for a long moment and, despite just how intense his gaze is, she meets his eyes. Then he grins, a wicked expression that lights up his face. “Well, you came to the right place,” he says. “But surprised it wasn't aliens, given-”
“You like humans,” Grace interrupts, “I like plants and aliens.”
“I find plants interesting, too,” he says, still looking amused. Unsettling bastard.
“Daddy! Readytogonow,” Trudy says, all in one breath and nearly all in one word. Her dark eyes were flicking from her father to Grace and back again.
Schuyler's smile softens as he glances down at his daughter, offers her his hand. The girl smiles back as she puts her tiny hand in his, anxiety – briefly, Grace thinks – banished under the warmth of paternal affection. “Then we'll go.” He looks back up at Grace. “I look forward to your paper, Doctor Augustine.”
“Sure,” she says, and she's young and new enough that she flashes him an awkward smile. It's a smile that lasts only until the pair are off and around the corner, with only their conversation drifting back. They're talking in Spanish, which saves her the bother of having to ignore them.
Ignore him. She'd been enjoying young Miss Trudy's company well enough, although she can't say that she's not glad that the girl is under someone else's supervision. Still, Grace remembers what she'd thought about the girl before, about her being precocious and trying to escape social tension. Only, the source of that tension found her anyway, and hadn't Trudy been quick to interrupt them before any actual arguing took place? Fancy a six-or-eight-year old having to do that with her own father.
Grace scowls and stabs at a remaining bit of fried noodle in her bowl. “Humans,” she informs the fishtail fern next to her, “are more difficult than they deserve.”
And people wondered why she preferred talking to plants.