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     "Eugene!  Are you home?"

 

     "Well, considering it's" - Eugene rolled over and cracked one eye open to peek at the alarm clock - "seven o'clock on a Saturday morning...yeah, I'm home.  Where else did you think I would be?  Wait - don't answer that."

 

     He heard Adam huff impatiently on the other end of the line.  "Good.  Come downstairs."

 

     "Are you here?  Now?  What's going on?"

 

     "Just come downstairs, all right?"  There was a click, and then silence.

 

     "Adam?  Adam!"  Eugene groaned as he set his phone back on the night stand.  Then he closed his eyes and rolled onto his back.  What could possibly be so important that Adam would be waking him up at this ungodly hour?  And on a weekend!  As he lay silently stewing in his bed, he was more than a little tempted to just pull the covers up over his head and go right back to sleep.  It would take him hardly any time at all to sink back into a deep, peaceful slumber.  But then his phone buzzed again.  And again.  He reached for it grudgingly, knowing that in doing so he was all but guaranteeing that Adam would, as usual, get his way in the end.

 

     Hurry up!  the message read.

 

     It's only been TWO minutes!  Eugene typed back furiously, glancing at the clock again.  Nevertheless, within the next five minutes, he had managed to rummage a pair of jeans and a clean t-shirt from his dresser, comb back his hair so that it fell in a lazy wave over his forehead, and brush his teeth.  He was feeling considerably more alert - not to mention more curious - by the time he stepped off the elevator and into his apartment building's little lobby.  "All right, Adam," he grumbled, squinting into the sunlight as he pushed through the glass doors that led out onto the sidewalk.  "This had better be go - whoa, mama!"  His jaw dropped at the sight that was waiting for him at the curb.  "Is that what I think it is?" he gasped.

 

     Adam draped an arm over the driver's seat of the sleek new convertible, and slid his sunglasses just far enough down his nose to be able to peer over the top of them at Eugene.  "I suppose that depends on what you think it is," he answered coolly.

 

     "Unless I am very much mistaken, this magnificent automobile is a brand new Sparky 221 roadster," said Eugene, as he stepped into the street to circle the car, admiring it from every possible angle like it was a priceless work of art.  "With the...sport trim...and a...midnight blue finish...?"  He stopped his breathless pacing and straightened, looking expectantly at Adam.  

 

     "Well it sure as hell isn't a Honda Accord."

 

     Eugene laughed.  "No, it sure isn't.  I can't believe I'm actually standing this close to one.  You know, I heard they can accelerate from zero to sixty in less than two seconds?  And they can go over six hundred miles on a single charge?  They've set all kinds of records."

 

     "Fascinating," said Adam, in a tone that dripped with boredom.  "Now are you going to get in?  Or are you just going to stand there reciting the specifications to me?"

 

     That was all the invitation Eugene needed.  He vaulted over the passenger side door in one fluid move - "Watch it, this is Italian leather," Adam hissed, as his sneaker-clad feet dangled inches over the upholstery - and carefully lowered himself into the empty seat.

 

     "Ahhh." Eugene closed his eyes and sighed as the buttery soft leather molded itself to his form.  "I could get used to a ride like this.  So how'd you manage to give the dealer the slip?"

 

     "The what?"

 

     "The dealer?"  Eugene repeated, opening his eyes and quirking one brow.  "Don't they usually insist on coming along for the test drive?  I can't believe they'd let one of these off the lot without a babysitter," he said, skimming his fingers almost lovingly along the dash.  

 

     "I'm not testing driving it," said Adam, looking slightly peevish at the insinuation.  "It's mine."

 

     Eugene's hand froze in midair, and he looked over at Adam in disbelief.  "You're kidding me, right?"

 

     "Do I look like I'm kidding?"

 

     Eugene had to admit that he did not.  "But I thought the waiting list for these things was like two years long?" 

 

     Adam shrugged casually.  "Cogsworth managed to pull a few strings."

 

     "Waaaiiit a second," said Eugene, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.  "You're telling me Cogsworth bought this?  For you?"

 

     "Well...technically he bought it for the company," Adam admitted, some of his self-assured swagger slipping just a little.  "But the company will be mine in another six months, so..."

 

     "Good enough for me!" Eugene agreed cheerfully, settling back into his seat and resting a tanned forearm over the door.  "So where are we off to on this glorious morning?"

 

     "Nowhere in particular," said Adam, putting the car into gear.  "I figured we'd drive around town for a bit, and then maybe head down the coast so we can see what this thing can really do."

 

     "Sounds like a plan to me.  But can we make one stop first?"

 


 

     They made quite the entrance when they arrived at a busy local coffee shop a short time later.  Adam clicked the lock button on the remote twice as they stepped onto the sidewalk, eliciting a shrill beep beep! and ensuring that the few people who hadn't noticed them rolling up to the curb in the noiseless electric sports car got a good look at them now.  A few bystanders even raised their phones to take pictures.  Then Adam sauntered through the door with his head held high, looking neither left nor right to acknowledge the appreciative glances that were coming from every direction. 

 

      "Ladies."  Eugene tipped his head toward a trio of girls who were huddled around a small round table just inside the door, causing them to erupt in a fit of high-pitched giggles and as he and Adam walked past.

 

     "I didn't think blondes were your type," Adam remarked, pushing his sunglasses up onto the crown of his head as he stepped up to the register.

 

     "They're not, but I'm trying to be more open-minded.  Expand my horizons, you know?  You should give it a try some time," Eugene added, with a gentle elbow to Adam's side.   But his friend offered no more than a noncommittal grunt in response, which Eugene had long ago learned to recognize as Adam-speak for "Thanks for the suggestion, but no."  "Have it your way," he said with a sigh.  "But don't say I didn't warn you. Sooner or later, the endless parade of underfed models and wannabe movie stars will get old."

 

     "One large iced coffee, black," Adam said to the cashier, pointedly ignoring Eugene's sage advice.  "And one large chai tea latte." 

 

     "Name for the iced coffee?" the cashier asked, picking up a plastic cup and a marker.

 

     "Adam."

 

     "And for the latte?"

     

     "Eug -"

 

     "Rider!" Eugene interrupted loudly, pushing his way up to the register. He leaned an elbow on the counter and flashed the cashier his best devil-may-care grin.  "The name's Flynn Rider.  How's your day going..." - his eyes slid discreetly to her name tag - "...Alison?"

 

     Alison the cashier tried - and failed - to hide a smile.  "Not bad," she said coyly, as she scribbled "Flynn's" name on a second cup.

 

     Adam rolled his eyes.  "When are you going to drop the fake name thing?" he asked, once Alison had moved out of earshot.

 

      "I don't know," Eugene deadpanned.  "When are you going to lose the stupid man bun?" 

 

     "When it stops being cool."

 

     "Oh good.  Then you're only about a year behind schedule."

 

     "Whatever," Adam muttered.  But Eugene saw his lips twitch as he moved down to the end of the counter to retrieve their drinks.

 


 

     "So is Cogsworth experiencing a delayed midlife crisis, or what?"  Eugene asked as he slid back into the passenger seat.  He raised his tea to his lips and smiled a little to himself when he saw that Alison's name and number were scrawled on the side of the cup.  "This bad boy seems just a tad flashy for his tastes."

 

     "Nah," said Adam.  Then he frowned to himself.  "Well, maybe. But the car's not part of it.  At least, I don't think.  He says it's some kind of PR thing."  

 

     "How does he figure?"

 

     "He says being the first company to own one will 'elevate our perception as a leader in cutting edge green technology,'"  Adam replied, in a terrible English accent that Eugene nevertheless immediately recognized as an attempt to mimic Cogsworth's square, somewhat sanctimonious affect.   "Or something like that."

 

     "Well for once, I like the way he's thinking.  In fact, if he really wants to make us look good, I think he should go out and buy a whole fleet of these."

 

     "That's the plan, actually.  Once he can get his hands on a few more of them, he wants the sales reps to start using them on client calls."  

 

      Adam's phone began to buzz loudly in the cup holder where it rested.  Eugene leaned over and peeked at the screen.  "Well speak of the devil," he said with a grin.  "Look who it is."  He picked up the phone to answer.

 

     "No wait, don't!"  Adam exclaimed.  But Eugene had already pressed the "answer" button. 

 

     "Cogsworth!  Splendid to hear from you, old chap!  Were your ears burning?  Because we were just talking about you!"

 

     "Eu-Eugene?"  Cogsworth stammered, sounding slightly flustered.  "Is that you?  Where is Adam?  Have you seen him?  Are you with him?"

 

     "Whoa, whoa, easy, Cogs.  Don't get yourself all wound up, it's bad for your blood pressure.   Adam is fine.  He's right here.  I only answered his phone for him because he's driv - hey!" Eugene cried, as Adam swatted the phone out of his hand, sending it tumbling onto the floor.  "What was that for?" he demanded, as he reached down to feel under his seat for the phone.

 

     "Cogsworth doesn't know I have the car, you idiot!"

 

     "What do you mean, he doesn't know?"

 

     "I snuck the keys from his office after he left yesterday!"

 

     "You were at the office later than Cogsworth?"

 

     Adam's phone began buzzing again from under Eugene's seat.  Adam muttered something under his breath that Eugene didn't quite catch, but other than that he gave no sign of acknowledging the call.  

 

     So Eugene leaned forward as far as his seat belt would allow and stretched his arm beneath the seat until his knuckles brushed against the smooth plastic casing of Adam's phone.  He used the tips of his fingers to slide the phone toward him until he could grasp it completely.  "Oh look, you've got a couple of text messages," he announced, sitting back and brushing some lint from the screen.  "Wait, no, actually they're for me."  He cleared his throat before reading:

 

       "'Eugene, what foolishness are the two of you involved in now?' 

 

       "'Never mind, I don't want to know.' 

 

       "'Atta boy, plausible deniability.  And that is why he's the GC, and we are but humble solar panel salesmen - for now, anyway.  Hang on, here comes another one: 

 

      "'Just tell Adam to call me at once.' 

 

      "'At once' is capitalized, by the way.  So you know he's serious."  He looked over at Adam.  "What do you want me to write back?"

 

     "Nothing!  Just leave it!" 

  

     "Well I can't just leave it after your little fit," Eugene protested.  "He'll know something is up." 

 

     Adam took one hand off the wheel to make a grab for the phone, and the car veered dangerously towards the oncoming traffic for a moment or two before he righted it.  "Then give it to me.  You can't even lie your way out of a speeding ticket."

 

     Eugene placed his free hand over his heart.  "You wound me," he said with mock hurt.  "I'm perfectly capable of coming up with a believable cover story.  Besides," he added primly, "you shouldn't text while driving.  It's unsafe."

 

     "We're about to be more than unsafe if Cogsworth figures out we took the car!"

 

     "I think it only fair to point out that you are the one who took the car," Eugene said reasonably.  "I, on the other hand, am merely an accessory after the fact.  At most."

 

     Adam lunged over the center console to make another play for the phone.  "Do you really think Cogsworth will give a f-"

 

     And that was when Eugene saw something looming ahead, out of the corner of his eye, that made his blood suddenly run cold.  "Adam, the road!" he shouted, gesturing frantically toward the windshield.  

 

     Adam turned back to the road just in time to see the approaching roundabout.  He swerved hard to the right and jammed his foot on the brakes.  But it was too late.  As the car jumped the curb and sailed into the air, everything around them seemed to slow down.  Adam's face was frozen in fear as his hands moved sluggishly to a protective position.  Eugene could see his lips moving - uttering an eloquent string of profanities, no doubt - but he couldn't hear a thing over the whooshing sound that filled his ears like waves crashing on the sand.  

 

     Then, time seemed to catch up.  Tires screeched and horns blared. There was a crunch of metal as the car crashed through a section of wrought iron fencing.  Eugene was thrown back against his seat as the airbags deployed with a force that knocked the wind out of him. Thick clouds of smoke or steam - it was hard to say which - billowed out from beneath the crumpled hood, shrouding everything in haze.  And something that looked oddly like rose petals rained down on them like ticker tape as the car finally groaned to a stop in a dense cluster of bushes.

Chapter Text

     "Did they have to make these things so hard?" Adam grumbled, to no one in particular.  He squirmed a little in his seat, trying to ease some of the ache that had begun to creep into his muscles.  The polished wooden benches that lined the halls of the county courthouse might have looked elegant, but they had definitely not been made for long-term sitting.

 

     And Adam had been sitting for a long time.  How long had it been, exactly, since Cogsworth had disappeared down the hallway to meet with the prosecutor?  Two hours?  Three?  Adam glanced down at his wristwatch and grimaced.  Thanks to the accident, the crystal of his favorite Cartier was now sporting a large, unsightly crack that he had not yet had the chance to repair.  The overhead fluorescent lighting reflected off the jagged edges, creating a glare that obscured most of the watch's face  He tilted his wrist, and the glare faded.  Only forty-five minutes??

 

     He sneaked a look at the large "NO CELL PHONES, PLEASE" sign hanging on the opposite wall.  Would anyone really notice if he took his phone out right now?  Aside from him, the only other people in this hall of the courthouse were a couple who were arguing in hushed voices at the other end of the bench, and Eugene.  And Eugene was dozing peacefully beside Adam, his head drooping every now and then onto Adam's shoulder before eventually rolling back onto the bench's backrest. 

 

     He didn't seem to be bothered by their austere accommodations, Adam noted with envy.  But then, nothing ever seemed to bother Eugene.  He had a knack for making himself at ease even in the most uninviting of situations, and for maintaining his cool when others would surely crumble.  In fact, now that Adam thought about it, the last time he could recall seeing Eugene even slightly ruffled had been- 

 

     "Ahem."

 

     Adam jumped, and then swore loudly as a bolt of pain shot through his chest.  Cogsworth, who could apparently add ninja-like stealth to his long résumé of skills, frowned down at him unsympathetically.  "The judge wants to see the two of you in her office."

 

     "Just five more minutes," Eugene murmured sleepily.  

 

     "We don't have five more minutes," said Cogsworth, tapping his foot impatiently.  "Come on, up with you."   

 

     Adam wanted to ask what had taken so long, but found himself instead biting back a groan as he staggered to his feet, clutching his side with one hand while bracing himself against the bench with the other.

 

     "The ribs again?"  Eugene asked, nodding toward Adam's midsection.

 

     "Yeah," Adam gasped.

 

     "How long did the doctor say it would take them to heal?"

 

     "'Bout six weeks."

 

     "Oof.  Sounds like I got off lucky," said Eugene.  "I've only got three more weeks in this thing."  He lifted his forearm, which was resting in a sling, and then winced at the ill-considered movement.

 

     "If you ask me, you both got off incredibly lucky," Cogsworth sniffed, as he led them down the hallway.  

 

     "Does that mean you were able to work your magic with the prosecutor?"  Eugene asked hopefully.

 

     "The prosecutor and I have worked out what I believe to be a more than satisfactory plea deal.  All that's left to do is finalize the details with the judge.  The two of you are to sit quietly, and let me do the talking.  Do not speak unless spoken to.  If anyone asks you a question, you are to give only the barest minimum of information necessary to answer the question.  Do not offer any more than what is asked for.  If you have a question, you can signal to me, and we will discuss it privately.  And for the love of all that is holy, please, attempt to control your temper."  Adam glanced away as Cogsworth shot a pointed look over his shoulder.  Then Cogsworth stopped at a door bearing a plaque that read "Judge Agathe Green" and turned to face Adam and Eugene.  "Do you understand?"

 

     "Yes, Cogsworth," they mumbled in unison, before following Cogsworth through the door and into a large, tastefully furnished office.  Built-in bookshelves occupied one entire wall, housing volume after volume of thick and most assuredly tedious legal texts.  Adam counted at least three diplomas hanging on another wall in matching frames.  Four cushy armchairs, one of which was occupied by a stern looking man with a long, horse-like face, were arranged in front of a wide mahogany desk.  

 

     And sitting behind the desk was Judge Agathe Green herself.  The judge was an attractive middle-aged woman with white-blonde hair that had been styled into a blunt bob and a gaze that could pierce Kevlar.  It could have been Adam's imagination, but he thought he saw a flash of disappointment ripple briefly across the surface of her otherwise stoic expression as they entered her office.   

 

     "Hey there, Judge!" said Eugene, in the same tone that one might use to greet an old friend at the supermarket. He deftly slipped out of Cogsworth's panicked attempt to grab his arm.  "Long time, no see.  Have you done something different with your hair?"

 

     "Long time, no see, indeed, Mr. Fitzherbert," the judge replied evenly.  "And I had rather hoped that it would stay that way."

 

     Eugene looked suddenly, uncharacteristically sheepish.  "Yeah...so about that-"

 

     "Please," she interrupted, waving to the vacant chairs,  "have a seat.  You too, Mr. Dumont."  Adam felt a twinge of unease as her eyes met his, and he let out an inaudible sigh of relief when the judge's attention turned to the man in the fourth chair.

 

     "Gentlemen," she continued, as Adam, Eugene, and Cogsworth took their seats, "this is Assistant Prosecutor Max Chevalier.  He will be handling your case on behalf of the prosecutor's office.  Mr. Chevalier, Mr. Cogsworth, I understand that the two of you have reached an agreement on a plea deal?"

 

     Chevalier cleared his throat.  "We have, Your Honor.  The prosecutor's office is willing to drop the charges of criminal mischief, if the defendants agree to plead guilty to the lesser charge of reckless driving."

 

     "I see.  And what sort of sentence do you propose for the reckless driving charge?" the judge asked.

 

     "We propose a fine of five hundred dollars apiece, and a sentence of thirty days in the county jail, served consecutively, or 180 hours of community service performed over not more than six months."

 

      "Wait, wait, let me get this straight," Adam blurted, ignoring a tight-lipped shake of the head from Cogsworth.  "We have to pay a fine, and do time in jail or community service?  I don't understand why we can't just pay a bigger fine and be done with it?"

 

     "Yes, I'm sure you wouldn't understand that," Chevalier said dryly.  

 

     "What's that supposed to mean?" Adam retorted.  

 

     Chevalier looked toward the ceiling.  "Ask your lawyer to explain it to you later."

 

     "I'd like someone to explain more about this plea deal," Eugene cut in loudly.  "How does the community service thing work?   Do we get any say in where we do the hours?"

 

     "I've already chosen the organization where you'll be volunteering your time," said Chevalier, with a smug glint in his eye.  "If you elect to perform community service, that is."

 

     "Oh - well, all right.  Care to enlighten us then?"

 

     "You will be assigned to a local youth mentoring program called Candles on the Water."

 

     "Youth mentoring?" Eugene repeated with a laugh.  "You want us to...what...help kids with their homework?"

 

     "Mentoring is about more than homework, Mr. Fitzherbert," said the judge, frowning thoughtfully.  "The goal of mentoring is to foster a child's self esteem, and to help them reach their potential by providing a caring adult role model on whom they can rely.  Mentors regularly spend time, one-on-one, with their charges.  They participate in activities together, such as extracurriculars and special events, and, yes, sometimes even help with schoolwork."

 

     Adam wrinkled his nose in disgust.  Every word out of the judge's mouth made this deal sound worse and worse.  "This has to be some kind of joke."

 

     "I don't joke about justice, Mr. Dumont," the prosecutor said grimly.

 

     "Really?" said Eugene.  "Because that line right there, that was funny.  Was I the only one who thought that was funny?"  He looked around the room; four pairs of eyes stared blankly back at him.  "Yeah?  Okay, never mind.  Look, Judge, I think what my friend is trying to say is, you guys might want to rethink this mentoring thing.  Wouldn't our skills be put to better use - and I'm just spitballing here - picking up litter or planting trees or something?"

 

     The judge lifted a brow.  "Do you mean to suggest that mentoring is an unworthy use of your skills?"

 

     "No, no, just the opposite," said Eugene in a conciliatory voice.  "I'm saying that we are the ones who aren't worthy."

 

     "And what makes you say that?"

 

     "Well, kids are like clay, right?  Tiny, squishy, sticky lumps of clay, just waiting to be molded.  And I'm not really sure that we" - Eugene gestured to himself and to Adam - "are the guys you want molding them.  I mean, we're not exactly Mary Poppins here."

 

     "I appreciate your frankness, Mr. Fitzherbert.  And your undoubtedly selfless concern for the welfare of the children is...commendable.  However, despite what you may believe, a good deal of thought has gone into this decision."  The judge sighed.  "The truth of the matter is, we have more than enough volunteers to pick up litter and plant trees.  This program, on the other hand, is in desperate need of volunteers.  There are far more children than there are willing adults to mentor them.  But even if that were not the case, I do believe that the two of you may be better-suited to the program than you think.  Your own childhood hardships may allow you to connect with the children in ways that other volunteers cannot.  And I think you may even find, over time, that the children are not the only ones being molded by the experience."

 

     Adam was unmoved.  "We pick jail," he declared, sitting back and crossing his arms sullenly.

 

     "Whoa, whoa, what's this 'we' business?"  Eugene protested.  "I never agreed to go to jail.  Let the record show, I did not agree to go to jail."

 

     "Your Honor," Cogsworth broke in, speaking through gritted teeth, "may I have a few minutes to discuss the deal with my incredibly loquacious clients?"

 

     "I think that would be wise," said the judge.  She motioned to a door that Adam hadn't noticed until now - a different one from the one through which they'd entered the office.  "The courtroom is empty.  You may discuss it in there if you wish."

 

     Cogsworth muttered a polite thank you and then hurried Adam and Eugene through the door before they could say anything more.  As the door snapped shut, they found themselves in a dimly lit courtroom much like the ones Adam had seen in TV legal dramas, only smaller.  Cogsworth made his way over to the nearest row of seats, sat down, and sighed with exhaustion.

 

     "This is crazy!" Adam burst out, before Cogsworth could open his mouth to lecture them.  He began to pace the aisle furiously.  The rage that burned within him somehow seemed to soothe the pain in his ribs, or at least allowed him to push himself past it.  "They can't send us to jail for this!"

 

     "Actually, they can," said Cogsworth - who, Adam thought, had remained remarkably, annoyingly calm given the circumstances.  Hadn't he assured them that the plea deal was "more than satisfactory?"  In what universe was this deal even remotely satisfactory?  "You destroyed city property, Adam.  That's a criminal offense."

 

     "It was just a couple of stupid rose bushes!"

 

     "Those 'stupid rose bushes' were a beloved public monument!  They were the centerpiece of a garden that was planted in memory of the couple who built nearly half this town!"

 

     "So we'll go out and buy some new ones!"

 

     "It's not that simple!" Cogsworth snapped.  "Those roses were a rare variety donated from the family's private conservatory.  They stood in that garden for nearly thirty years.  They survived wildfires, countless droughts, and the worst earthquake this town has seen in over a century - only to be mowed down like a couple of weeds by the two of you!"

 

     Adam scowled.  "So what are you saying?  That you think we deserve to go to jail?  Is that why you didn't fight for a better deal?"

 

     Cogsworth went red in the face at that, and the sight was strangely satisfying.  "I fought as hard as I could for you.  For both of you!  This plea deal was the best I could get him to agree to!"

 

     "Then screw the plea deal!" Adam growled.  "We'll go to trial and we'll fight!  We'll make this prosecutor wish he'd never come after us!"

 

     "No, Adam."  Cogsworth shot to his feet and shook his head adamantly.  "No, no, absolutely not.  We will not be fighting anything."

 

     "Why the hell not?"  

 

     "Your little joyride has already cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention a slew of bad publicity.  The additional publicity that might result from dragging this out in court could end up costing us even more than that.  The board of directors is livid, to say the least.  The only way I could convince them not to press charges against the two of you was to assure them that I could nip this in the bud."

 

     "They want to press charges against us?  For what?"  

 

     Cogsworth rolled his eyes.  "For theft, Adam.  You absconded with company property - and then you destroyed it."

 

     This was almost too much for Adam to wrap his head around.  "Theft - but how - but it's my company!" he spluttered.

 

     "Not yet, it isn't!" Cogsworth said sharply  "Your mother's shares don't pass to you until your twenty-fifth birthday.  And if you don't think the board has been looking for any excuse to prevent that from happening, then you're more oblivious than I thought."

 

     "And exactly how oblivious did you think I am?"

 

     "Wait, wait," Eugene interjected, and Adam and Cogsworth turned to look at him in surprise, as if they'd both forgotten he was there.  "Hold up.  What was that you said about the board?  Why would they be trying to prevent Adam from inheriting his mother's shares of the company?"

 

     The air seemed to go out of Cogsworth like a balloon.  Slowly, he sank onto the nearest bench.  He removed his glasses, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and began to polish the lenses with it.  He didn't speak again until the handkerchief was back in his pocket and his glasses were once again perched on the bridge of his nose.  "There are those on the board," he began in a quiet voice, before stopping to correct himself.  "Well, it's most of the board, really, who believe that Adam is not fit to take control of the company.  They have voiced some...concerns...about his work ethic and his behavior.  They don't think that he takes the responsibilities of running a business seriously enough."

 

     "Well, who cares?" said Adam.  "My mother willed those shares to me.  And it was her company.  They can't override her will."

 

     "That's not entirely true," said Cogsworth.  "The bylaws of the company - which your mother wrote herself by the way, just before she took the company public - include a morality clause that prevents any person whose behavior fails to meet certain standards from holding a controlling stake in the company.  And as an individual, your mother - or her estate, in this case - simply does not have the power to sidestep a corporation's bylaws."

 

     The ground beneath Adam's feet suddenly felt a bit wobbly.  The thought of those smarmy, stuffed shirt, sanctimonious nobodies sitting in a room, plotting against him...plotting to take what was rightfully his...and after they had ridden his mother's coattails for all of these years...it made him want to vomit.  "But...," he faltered, his mind struggling to come up with any counterpoint to Cogsworth's argument.  "But...but wouldn't they still have to prove that my behavior doesn't meet the standards?"  

 

     "Indeed," said Cosworth, inclining his head to one side.  "And the standards are, admittedly, quite vague.  However, a criminal trial is likely to drag up all sorts of unsavory information as the prosecutor looks to discredit you.  Information that I am sure the board would be delighted to get their hands on."

 

     Adam sat heavily on the next bench over and rested his head in his hands.  His temples were starting to throb painfully - almost as painfully as his ribs.  "Then tell them I choose jail.  You can do whatever you want," he said, looking up at Eugene.  "But I'm not giving up every weekend for the next six months to babysit some stranger's brat."

 

     "Think about this, Adam," Eugene pleaded with him.  "You won't last a day in jail.  Trust me."

 

     Adam scoffed.  "You're not really going try to convince me that you know what it's like to do hard time just because you spent a few weeks in juvie, are you?"

 

     "Okay, first of all, county jail hardly qualifies as 'hard time,'" said Eugene, using his fingers to make air quotes around the last two words.  "And second of all, my first point notwithstanding, it's no picnic. I have spent enough nights in there to know that you will be begging for someone to get you out of there long before the thirty days are up."

 

     "Please," said Adam.  "It can't possibly be that bad."  But despite his confident tone, a little seed of doubt had already managed to take hold in his thoughts.

 

     "It's like staying in the world's crummiest motel," said Eugene.  "The beds are hard, the sheets are cheap, and the cable is basic.  You'll be forced to wear clothes that have been worn by who knows how many other people before you.  You'll have to do chores, like cooking or cleaning the bathroom - which you'll share with a couple dozen other guys, by the way.  Say sayonara to your privacy.  Oh, and the food stinks.  But if you think you can endure thirty straight days of that, then hey, go for it.  Me?  I'll take the babysitting."

 

     Adam hesitated.  "...Do you really have to wear someone else's clothes?"  His skin crawled at the thought.

 

     "Jail will be one month of pure, non-stop torture," said Eugene.  "This I can guarantee.  But there's always the chance that the mentoring thing won't be as bad as we expect.  It's only once, maybe twice, a week.  And at least at the end of the day, you get to go home to your nice, cozy, empty mansion, put on some Netflix, and sit down to a home cooked dinner that was prepared by your live-in chef - and not by some guy named Attila from Cell Block B."  

 

     Adam had to admit that when Eugene put it that way, it was hard to argue.  "You really think it might not be that bad?" 

 

     "Yeah," Eugene said seriously.  "I really do.  I mean, come on.  We're full grown adults here.  All we have to do is keep a couple of kids in line for six months.  How hard can that possibly be?"

Chapter Text

     On a Saturday morning roughly two weeks after the meeting with Judge Green, Adam dragged himself from bed as the day's first light began to slip through the curtains. He shuffled drowsily into the kitchen, only to find his live-in chef, Lumière, and the housekeeper, Babette, already there, sitting on adjacent stools at the center island. They were whispering, giggling, and gazing lovingly into each other's eyes as Babette hand-fed Lumière raspberries from a small bowl on the counter.

     "Ah, ah, tu n'as dit pas s'il te plaît ," Babette teased, holding a ripe berry just past the reach of Lumière's waiting lips.

     Adam froze awkwardly in mid-stride. Lumière and Babette had celebrated their seventeenth wedding anniversary a few weeks prior, and yet most of the time they acted more like a pair of smitten teenagers than an old married couple. It should have been embarrassing - and oftentimes it was, especially when Adam unwittingly walked in on them in circumstances that were far more compromising than the present ones. But it also managed to tug at something in him, something that he couldn't quite put a finger on and suspected he was better off not examining too closely anyway.

     Adam looked off toward the corner of the room and cleared his throat to get their attention. When that didn't work, he tried a loud cough instead.

     "Adam!" Lumière exclaimed, pulling back from Babette and spinning around on his stool. There was a dollop of whipped cream hanging off the end of his long nose, which he didn't seem to notice, and Adam wasn't sure whether he should point it out or not. "I did not expect to see you out of bed so early. Here, let me get you some coffee. It's still fresh; I only brewed it a few minutes ago."

     Adam waved a hand. "Don't get up. I've got it."

     "Well then, at least let me make you some breakfast. I would have had it ready when you came in, but I did not expect you to be awake yet," Lumière said again, this time peering at Adam with concern. "Did you have trouble sleeping? Are you feeling unwell?"

     "I'm fine, Lou. Eugene and I just have to meet with the director of Candles on the Water in about an hour," Adam explained, selecting an oversized mug from the cabinet and pouring himself some coffee from the cafetière. He inhaled deeply as he filled the mug to the brim. The coffee was nice and strong; the aroma alone was already making him feel more alert.

     "Aaahh, yes, how exciting!" Lumière's voice was muffled as he rummaged in the refrigerator. "Your first day as a big brother!"

     "I'm not anybody's brother, Lumière," Adam grumbled. "I'm just a mentor."

     "But it is a noble calling, no? To make a difference in the life of a child?"

     "I...guess?" Adam grabbed a banana from the basket sitting on the end of the counter and claimed one of the unoccupied stools for himself.

     "Well, I think it's wonderful to see you devoting your time to such a worthy cause," said Babette. "Especially on your day off." She and Lumière beamed at Adam from across the island like a couple of doting parents.

     Adam's brow wrinkled as he swallowed down a bite of banana. "Uh, you guys do know I'm doing this as punishment, right?"

     Lumière cracked a couple of eggs into a small earthenware bowl with quick, practiced ease. "But that does not mean you cannot take pride in doing it," he said, briskly beating the eggs together with a whisk.

     "I'm pretty sure that's exactly what it means," Adam replied, but his words were drowned out by a knock at the door that led out to the patio. And before anyone could answer it, the door swung open, and Eugene let himself into the kitchen.

     "I had a feeling I'd find you guys in here," he said, plopping himself down by the breakfast nook.

     "Good morning, Eugene!" Lumière greeted him cheerfully. "Have you eaten?"

     Eugene sat up a little straighter, trying to steal a peek at the bowl in Lumière's hands. "What are you making?"

     "Quiche. Do you prefer Lorraine or Florentine?"

     "Which one has bacon again?"

     Lumière nodded. "Lorraine it is."

     "Guys," Adam groaned. "We don't have time for quiche."

     "Do not be silly, this will only take a few minutes," said Lumière. "Besides, I cannot send the two of you off to do good deeds on empty stomachs."

     "He's right, Adam," Eugene added helpfully. "You know how you get when you're hungry."

     Adam pretended not to see the look of sly agreement that passed between Eugene and Lumière at that. Still, he knew when he was outnumbered. "Fine," he muttered, getting up from his seat at the counter and taking his mug with him. "Then I'm having more coffee."

 


 

     The offices for Candles on the Water were located in a brightly painted, single-story bungalow in the Mesa section of town. Thin tendrils of fog still clung to the bluffs as Adam and Eugene parked on the street and climbed the short flight of steps to the front door.

     "You ready?" Eugene asked, looking over at Adam as he jabbed at the doorbell with the hand that wasn't resting in a sling.

     Adam rolled his shoulders. "Let's get this over with."

     Heavy footsteps sounded from inside the house before the door swung open with surprising force. The woman on the other side was tall - almost as tall as Adam - with the lean, muscular build of a swimmer or long-distance runner. She wore her blonde hair in a short, choppy style that he supposed would have been called a "pixie cut," but the name seemed much too cute a term to describe the real-life Amazon who stood before them. She gave Adam and Eugene a brief once-over, and, if the slight downward turn of her lips was anything to judge by, came away wholly unimpressed. "Can I help you?"

     "Uh, we're looking for T.J. Calhoun?" said Eugene.

     "You found her."

     "Her-oh, that's you! Great! We're - "

     "Late."

     "Excuse me?"

     "I said you're late," T.J. Calhoun repeated, stepping back allow them into the foyer. "Eugene Fitzherbert and Adam Dumont, right? You were supposed to be here at nine."

     "It's only ten after...," said Eugene.

     "I don't give a rat's rear end if it's only one after. Dependability is vital to our mission here."

     Adam snickered. "Mission?" Wasn't this chick taking her job just a little too seriously? It wasn't as if the fate of all humanity depended upon them taking a couple of toddlers to Chuck E. Cheese, after all.

     But he found himself choking on his laughter a split-second later, when she turned to pin him with a cold, hard stare. "If I'm going to send you out to mentor a child on behalf of this organization, I need to know that that child can count on you. Because for many of our children, their mentors are the only adults they can count on in their lives. You let 'em down once, and you may never get the chance to do it a second time. So if either of you ladies feels like this responsibility is just a little too much for your delicate constitutions to handle, you'd better speak up now." Her gaze held Adam's for several seconds before shifting to Eugene, and when neither of them voiced any further protests or complaints, she nodded curtly. "Good. Then follow me."

     Adam and Eugene exchanged silent, wary glances before hurrying after T.J. She led them down a short hallway decorated with framed finger paintings of dinosaurs, rainbows, and other whimsical subjects and into a room that resembled the waiting area of a doctor's office. A large sectional sofa and several armchairs that looked like they had come from IKEA were arranged around a low coffee table that was strewn with magazines. A television was mounted against one wall of the room, while the opposite wall boasted a short shelf containing board games and books. A quiet murmur had drifted down the hall from the five other people who were already sitting in the room, but they all fell silent as soon as T.J., Adam, and Eugene entered.

     "Sit," T.J. commanded, and Adam and Eugene immediately scrambled for seats. Adam claimed a vacant spot on the end of the well-worn sofa, next to probably the palest woman he had ever met. Her alabaster complexion, which looked as if it had never seen a day in the sun, was nearly white as snow against the ebony sheen of her hair. Eugene ended up taking an empty chair next to a short, rosy-cheeked young man wearing a blue baseball cap.

     "All right, everyone," said T.J., who had remained standing. "Play time is over. Let's get down to business. For those of you who don't already know me, I'm Tamora Jean Calhoun. I'm the volunteer coordinator for Candles on the Water. And you are our newest team of bigs. For some of you, this will be your first time -"

     She broke off as a girl sitting near the door raised a timid hand. "I'm sorry," the girl said in a breathless rush. "But what is a 'big?'"

     The man in the baseball cap turned to face her with a friendly smile. "'Big' is us. It's the term they use to refer to us mentors."

     "Thank you, Felix," T.J. said brusquely, and Adam noticed the man flush with pride at this little acknowledgement. "That's correct. Now as I was saying, for some of you, this will be your first time volunteering with us. I'm here to make sure that the process goes smoothly, both for you and for your littles. My hope is that you'll find your experience with us rewarding. I'm proud to say that we have a high rate of re-enlistment among our volunteers." At this, she gave small nods to Felix and to the girl who was sitting next to Adam. "Many of our bigs have come back time and again over the years to help other children in need."

     "I just love little ones, don't you?" Adam's fair-skinned seatmate cooed in a high, girlish voice. Adam edged a few inches closer to the end of the couch as T.J. picked up a remote control and aimed it at the television.

     "This training video will explain a little bit about the history of our program, how we operate, and what is expected of you as a volunteer. Once the video is over, I'll hand out your assignments and answer any questions you may have." T.J. hit the lights as the television screen flickered to life, and the strains of a cloying melody akin to elevator music filled the room.

     It only took a few seconds after that for Adam's eyelids to start drooping, but he had no idea how much time had passed when he felt himself being shaken gently awake. "Whuh?" he mumbled thickly, looking around with bleary eyes. Moments later, the room flooded with light again. As Adam winced against the brightness, he noticed that the image on the television screen had been paused in the middle of what appeared to be a listing of credits. "Is it over?"

     He jumped in his seat when T.J. strode across the room and slapped a stack of yellow plastic folders down on the coffee table. "Fitzherbert," she barked as she picked up the top folder, which, indeed, had Eugene's name written across it in large block letters. Adam noticed Eugene pull a face as he reached out to accept his folder. "Smith," she said as she picked up the next folder, and it continued on in this way until she reached the bottom of the stack. She held the last folder out to Adam. "Dumont," she said with a grimace, as though the name had left a distinctly bad taste in her mouth.

     "In these folders, you will find the contact information for your littles - or, more accurately, for your littles' parents or guardians. All contact will be conducted through them, and they've been notified to expect a first call by the end of this week. You will work with your little's parent or guardian to establish a schedule for visitation. I recommend sticking to a regular routine to provide some sense of stability. You will also find a copy of the rules that were discussed in the video, and a card with my phone number and email address. Any questions you may have that don't relate directly to your littles may be addressed to me. Are there any questions now?"

     The girl she had referred to as "Smith" lifted a hand. But Adam didn't bother to listen to Smith's question, or to T.J.'s response. Instead, he cracked his folder open, curious in spite of himself to see what sort of rugrat he had been paired up with. The name "Charles Potts" loomed at him from the top sheet, along with a phone number and address for a "Beatrice Potts." The birthdate listed for Charles put him at just over five years old. Great, thought Adam. What the hell was he supposed to do with a five-year-old?

     Meanwhile, the barrage of questions continued to wage on around him. Adam's attention was yanked back to the present when he heard Eugene's familiar voice chime in. "Excuse me, Mrs. Calhoun -"

     "Sergeant Calhoun," T.J. interrupted him. "Master. Gunnery. Sergeant. Calhoun. I didn't bust my hump in the United States Marines for twenty years to be called 'Missus'."

     "Well, thank you for being all that you can be," Eugene quipped, his good hand snapping to his forehead in a glib salute.

     "That's the Army, jackwagon."

     Eugene awkwardly lowered his arm. "Jackwagon?" he whispered, with an incredulous, sidelong look over at Adam. Adam offered the barest lift of his shoulders in response.

     "And you can save the flattery - don't think I don't know what you and your friend over there are all about," T.J. warned him, with a jerk of the head toward Adam, who wondered how it was that he had suddenly been dragged into the conversation.

     "Riiiight," Eugene said slowly. "So, anyway. I was just wondering, what are these for?" He reached into his folder and pulled out a sheaf of stapled papers, the top page of which appeared to have some sort of chart printed on it. Adam rifled through his folder until he found a set of similar looking pages.

     "That," said T.J., "is for you to log your hours. Every time you spend time with your little, you are to write down where you went, what you did, and for how long. You will ask your little's guardian to sign it to verify your account. And at the end of each week, you will send a copy to me, so that I can report it to the prosecutor's office."

     At the mention of the prosecutor's office, a few of the other volunteers looked over at Eugene with surprise and curiosity. Adam surreptitiously slid his own forms back into his folder.

     "A log?" Eugene repeated with dismay. "Is that really necessary?"

     T.J. crossed her arms. "Do you know why they put me in charge of helping these kids?"

     "Is it because children are drawn to your natural warmth and charm?" Eugene ventured a guess.

     "It's because I take my duty to them seriously. When I match a mentor with a child, I am entrusting that mentor with that child's well-being. So you'll forgive me if I'm not exactly tickled pink about being asked to inflict two screwups like you and Dumont on a couple of unsuspecting children. I intend to keep an extra close eye on both of you. And if I catch even a whiff of funny business on either of your parts while you are representing this organization, you'd better believe that the prosecutor will hear about it. Now," T.J. said, directing the rest of her comments to the group at large, "if there are no further questions, this meeting is adjourned." She waited for a moment, but no one dared to voice another question. "Good. Then you're dismissed." And with that, she turned on her heel and marched off, leaving a nervous silence in her wake.

     Felix was the first to finally speak. "Jeepers," he sighed. "She is one dynamite gal. Don't you think?"

     Eugene glanced toward the now-empty doorway, his expression wavering somewhere between amusement and disbelief. "Yeah. She's...something, all right."

Chapter Text

     Charles Potts (or Chip, as his grandmother had referred to him on the phone) lived with his grandmother, Beatrice, in a little apartment above the bakery that Beatrice owned and ran.  Adam lingered in front of the shop, breathing in the salty sea air of the nearby harbor as he perused the elaborate confections that were arranged behind the plate glass window.  There were colorful birthday cakes topped with cartoonish looking characters, towering wedding cakes adorned with sprays of candied flowers, and other cakes that didn't even look like cakes at all.  Each and every one was a masterpiece, almost too pretty to eat - not that Adam would have been foolish enough to actually attempt eating one of them.  They're probably barely edible under all that fondant, he thought with a wrinkle of his nose.

 

     As he pushed open the door, a little bell above his head jingled merrily.  At the sound, a middle-aged woman in an apron looked up with a smile from the table she had just been wiping down.  "Good afternoon," she said in a lilting British accent that was miles away - literally - from the California English Adam had grown up hearing.  "How can I help you?"

 

      "Mrs. Potts?  I'm Adam.  Adam Dumont?  We spoke on the phone yesterday?"

 

     "Adam!"  There was a high-pitched shriek, and the next thing Adam knew, a small figure came rushing at him from across the room.  It collided hard with his side and attached itself to his leg with a grip like iron.  Adam placed a hand on the nearest table to steady himself as he looked down.  Through a mop of straw-colored hair, he caught a glimpse of two bright blue eyes and a playful, gap-toothed grin peeking up at him.  "Wow...how tall are you?  My daddy was really tall," the little boy barreled on, not waiting for Adam to answer.  "He used to let me ride on his shoulders so I could pretend I was a giant.  Can I ride on your shoulders sometime?  Can you ride a two-wheeler?  Can you teach me how to ride a two-wheeler?  What's your favorite dinosaur?  Mine's a gasosaurus, 'cause it sounds like they- "

 

     "Chip!"  Mrs. Potts interrupted in a gently scolding voice.  "That's quite enough now.  Let the poor man in the door."

 

     "Oops," the little boy said quietly, loosening his grip on Adam's leg with a giggle.  "Sorry."

 

     "Why don't you come in and have a seat, dear?" said Mrs. Potts, gesturing to the nearest table.  "I'll go fetch us some tea, and we can talk."  

 

     Adam pulled up a chair at the table while Mrs. Potts retreated behind a long bakery counter.  Chip immediately claimed the chair next to him, propped his chin in his hands, and cocked his head.  "How old are you?" he asked, as he swung his feet back and forth over the floor.

 

     "Twenty-four," Adam grunted, purposefully avoiding the little's boy's adoring gaze.

 

     "Do you have any kids?"

 

     "What?" said Adam, slightly taken aback.  "No."

 

     "Why not?  I bet you'd be a really great dad."

 

     "Uh...," Adam began, but he was saved from having to complete that thought by Mrs. Potts, who reappeared with a rolling tea cart.  The top shelf of the cart held a steaming tea pot, three mismatched porcelain cups, and two little bulb jars of what Adam assumed were milk and sugar.  A large platter of pastries rested on the shelf underneath.

 

     "One lump or two, dear?" Mrs. Potts asked, as she poured a cup of tea for Adam.

 

     "Oh...no.  I mean none," said Adam, and then, just barely remembering his manners, "Thanks."

 

     "Any milk?"

 

     "No, thank you."

 

     "My husband used to take his tea the same way," said Mrs. Potts, setting the cup down on a saucer in front of him.  "Which was viewed as rather uncivilized back home, mind you.  But he insisted that properly brewed tea shouldn't need a thing in it, and that's how he drank it 'till the day that he died, God rest his soul," she added with a smile.  Adam wasn't sure how to respond to that, so he simply sipped politely at his tea.

 

     "Five lumps for me please, Gramma," Chip piped up as Mrs. Potts started to pour a cup for him.

 

     "You'll have two," she replied diplomatically.

 

     Chip's face fell.  "Aw, man."

 

     Mrs. Potts offered the tray of pastries to Adam, and then to Chip.  "I can't tell you how nice it is to finally meet you, Adam.  You're all Chip's been able to talk about since you called."  She looked over at her grandson fondly as Adam bit into a scone that he was pleasantly surprised to find was more than edible - in fact, it was delicious.  "He's always wanted a big brother, haven't you, love?"

 

     Adam coughed as a bit of the scone stuck in his throat.  "I'm not -" 

 

     "My friend Jack's brother goes to fireman school," Chip cut in excitedly.  "And my friend Thomas's brother came with us on our class trip last week.  He played games with us on the bus and told funny jokes.  Do you know any jokes?"

 

     "No," Adam said flatly, hoping that would end this particular line of inquiry.

 

     "That's okay," said Chip.  "I can teach you some.  I know lots.  Wanna hear one now?  Knock knock."  When Adam pretended not to hear him, he leaned across the table and said, this time more loudly, "Knock knock."

 

     Correctly deducing that his refusal to play along would only serve to prolong his misery, Adam replied, with barely concealed exasperation, "Who's there?"  

 

     "Interrupting cow."

 

     "Interrupting cow wh-"

 

     "MOO!"  Chip exclaimed, before dissolving into a fit of giggles as only a five-year-old could.  

 

     Adam glanced over at Mrs. Potts, who smiled serenely as she sipped at her tea.  How does she do this all day and not lose her mind? he wondered.  Despite his ever-growing resentment, he couldn't help but feel a certain amount of grudging respect for the woman.  Clearly, there were nerves of steel hidden beneath her warm, motherly exterior.

 

     "So, Chip," she said.  "Have you given any thought as to what sorts of activities you might like to do with Adam?"

 

     Chip abruptly stopped laughing and bolted up straight in his chair.  "Oh, yeah!  I've got lots of ideas," he said excitedly.  This ought to be good, Adam thought with some trepidation.  "Do you know how to fish?"

 

     Ew, thought Adam.  But aloud, he said, "No."

 

     "How about camping?"

 

     "No," Adam said again, trying not to visibly shudder.

 

     "LARPing?"  

 

     "I...don't know what that is," said Adam, shooting a glance over at Mrs. Potts.

 

     "Oh," sighed Chip, his expression nothing short of devastated.

 

     "Perhaps the two of you could start with something a bit...simpler," Mrs. Potts suggested kindly.  "Like a trip to the playground.  Or maybe the library?  You haven't been to story time in weeks."

 

     "Oh!" said Chip, instantly brightening.  "Yeah!  Could we go to story time?" he asked, turning to Adam.  "Please?  You'd really like it.  The li-...the lib-...," he stammered, before looking over at his grandmother for help.

 

     "The librarian," she said gently.

 

     "The librarian," he repeated, enunciating carefully, "is really nice.  And pretty!  And she always brings good snacks."

 

     Adam didn't answer right away.  The thought of sitting through a reading of some banal children's book almost made him beg off again.  But just as he opened his mouth to voice his objections, something made him stop.  The more he thought about it, a trip to the library was still better than fishing.  Or camping.  Or whatever the hell LARPing was.  And it would allow him to outsource the job of keeping Chip entertained to someone else, which was certainly better than having to do it himself.  In fact, he'd barely have to interact with Chip at all if the kid was busy listening to the librarian read a story.  "We could do that, I guess," he heard himself saying.

 

     "Woohoo!" Chip exclaimed, while Mrs. Potts beamed at his enthusiasm.

 

     "Wonderful," she said.  And then, turning to Adam, she added,  "We normally go to story time on Saturday afternoons at the Central branch.  You know the one?"  

 

     "Across from the county courthouse?" said Adam.

 

     Mrs. Potts nodded. "That's it.  Story time starts at one o'clock, so if you pick Chip up at twelve thirty you should have plenty of time to get there."

 

     "Can I take my bike?" asked Chip.

 

     "If Adam doesn't mind.  But if you'd rather drive, dear, I can show you how to install Chip's car seat in your vehicle," she said, looking again at Adam.

 

     "Uh...the bike is fine," Adam said quickly, which prompted another exuberant exclamation from Chip.

 

     "I'm sure you two boys will have a lovely time together," said Mrs. Potts, with another sweet smile for her grandson.  "And just think how delighted Belle will be to see you again."  

 


 

     Eugene's little, Angie Verloren, was nine years old and lived with her Aunt Emma.  And that...was about the extent of Eugene's knowledge on the subject, as Emma Verloren had been rushed on the phone, and he had barely managed to arrange a time to meet before she had excused herself to take another call.  As a result, Eugene had little idea of what to expect from his meeting with the two.

 

     So he certainly hadn't expected Emma and Angie to live in a sprawling luxury apartment complex whose monthly rent could have paid for an entire year's worth of his own living expenses.  And he definitely hadn't expected the woman who answered the door to the second-story flat to be only a year or two older than him -  although the pronounced, dark circles under her eyes did make the age difference seem greater.  "Hi, Eugene," she said.  Her handshake was quick, but firm.  "I'm Emma.  Come on in and make yourself comfortable."

 

      Eugene followed Emma into a large, sparsely furnished living room.  Two sofas whose ends met at a right angle were set up across from an expensive looking television - the only thing that was mounted to the otherwise bare walls.  Half a dozen brown cardboard boxes were stacked against one corner of the room.  Things like "Photographs" and "Books" were written in big block letters across their sides.   "I'm sorry about the mess," Emma apologized, gathering up a laptop computer and several folders that were spread out over the coffee table and moving them to a cluttered counter that appeared to separate the living room from a narrow kitchen.  "I was just trying to finish something up for work."

 

      "On a Saturday?"  When Emma offered a shrug that seemed to suggest that this was no big deal, Eugene raised a brow.  "What do you do?"

 

     "I'm an associate at Hautecourt & Carrera."

 

     "A lawyer?  Wow."

 

     "It's less impressive than it sounds.  I'm only a second-year, so I'm not much more than a glorified intern."

 

     "I'll bet you get paid better though," Eugene pointed out, taking a seat on the smaller of the two sofas.

 

     "Well, yeah."  Eugene couldn't see Emma's face, but something in her laugh struck him as a bit hollow.  "I guess there's that.  Do you want some coffee?"  she asked, retrieving her own empty mug from the table.  "Or anything else?  I think we've still got some sodas, unless Angie drank them all."

 

     "I'm good, thanks.  So...," said Eugene, sitting back and looking over at the boxes again, "you guys must be new in town, huh?"

 

      "Oh...no," said Emma, following the line of his gaze.  "Well I'm not, anyway.  I've lived here for about five years.  Well not here," she corrected herself, waving at the space around them.  "I lived in a studio a few blocks away from here.  But things got a little cramped once Angie moved in with me."

 

     "How long has she been living with you?"

 

     "Almost two months.  But we only moved into this place about three weeks ago.  We're still a bit behind on the unpacking, as you can see," Emma said with a wry smile.

 

     "That's all right," Eugene replied easily.  "My last move was about three years ago.  And I'm pretty sure I still have a few unopened boxes lurking in my closet." 

 

     That earned a more genuine smile from Emma.  "So what do you do, Eugene?" she asked, as she lowered herself, fresh coffee in hand, onto the other couch.

 

     "I sell solar panels for Dumont Green Energy Solutions."

 

     "Really?" said Emma.  "My boss actually worked with Josephine Dumont for a few years, back when she was just starting out.  He says she was a genius.  Like Elon Musk, but with less of the Bond villain vibe."  

 

     "She was brilliant." 

 

     One brow rose over the rim of Emma's mug.  "Did you know her personally?"

 

     "She was like a mother to me," said Eugene.  "Her son was - still is - my best friend."

 

     Emma lowered her cup with a stricken look.  "I'm so sorry for his loss," she murmured sympathetically.  "And for yours."

 

     "Me too," said Eugene.  "But...it was a long time ago.  So, uh," he continued, glancing around the apartment as he attempted to change the subject, "where is Angie?"

 

     Emma looked away and sighed in a way that made Eugene feel as though the temperature in the room had just dropped by about twenty degrees.  "She's in her room.  I tried to talk her into coming out to meet you, but...," Emma trailed off wearily.

 

      "She's shy, huh?" Eugene finished for her.  

 

     "No."  Emma shook her head adamantly.  "Not Angie.  Not by a long shot.  Or at least, she didn't used to be.  But since...well since she came to live with me, she's been different."

 

     "How do you mean?"

 

     "She's moodier," said Emma, leaning forward and resting her forearms on her knees.  She fiddled absently with a silver ring on her right hand.  "Less...social, I guess you'd say.  Getting into fights at school, locking herself in her room for hours at a time - like now.  But she's not normally like that. "

 

     "You think something happened at school?"

 

     "I don't know," Emma said after a pause.  "I've tried to ask, but she won't say.  We used to be so close.  She used to talk to me about everything.  Now, I'm lucky if I can get her to say hello to me.  That's why I reached out to Candles on the Water.  I thought that maybe, if she doesn't want to talk to me, she might be willing to talk to someone she doesn't have to share a roof with.  Sort of a neutral third party.  You know?"  She gave a small, helpless shrug.

 

     Just then, Emma's phone began to buzz loudly against the coffee table.  She leaned over to peek at the screen.  "Ugh," she groaned.  "I told them I'd be unavailable between two and three."

 

     "Do you need to take that?" Eugene asked.

 

     For a moment, Eugene thought that Emma was going to do just that.  She picked up the phone and opened her mouth to say something.  Then, apparently reconsidering, she snapped her mouth shut, shook her head, and hit a button to stop the buzzing.  "I'll call them back when we're done.  It's work," she explained.  

 

     "Duty calls, huh?"

 

     "Sure.  If by 'duty,' you mean another associate who's trying push all of his work off on me so he can spend the weekend in Napa with his girlfriend," Emma muttered bitterly.  She slid her glasses onto the crown of her head and rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her palms.   "Sorry," she said, replacing the glasses.  "You didn't come here to listen to me complain about my job.  What else can I tell you about Angie?"

 

     "What happened to her parents?"

 

     A cloud passed over Emma's face.  "I'd rather not get into that.  Oh, they're not - no, they're still alive," she hastened to add, when Eugene frowned in sympathy.  "But my brother and his wife are...not in a position to care for her at the moment.  And I'm the only other family Angie has.  I couldn't bear the thought of her going into foster care, so...can we just leave it at that?"

 

     "Okay, no questions about the parents," Eugene agreed.  "What about hobbies?  This is my first time doing this mentoring thing, so I don't really know what kids are into these days."

 

     "Well, Angie used to really enjoy art.  I signed her up for an art class that's run by the city - it's on Saturday mornings at the neighborhood center over on the West Side.  We just went this morning, in fact - it was her second class.  Maybe you could take her to the rest of them?"

 

     Eugene considered this.  He'd never been much of an artist.  Well, that was an understatement; to be quite frank, he was a terrible artist. But he could certainly think of worse ways to spend the next few months than finger painting and making macaroni mosaics.  "I'm willing to give it a try," he said.

 

     "Great," said Emma, who looked beyond relieved to have resolved at least one issue so easily.  "I'll go tell Angie.  And maybe I can convince her to at least come out and say hello."  She took a deep breath, got up from the couch, and disappeared into the hallway off the far side of the living room.

 

     A few seconds later, Eugene heard a knock on a door.  "Angie?" he heard Emma say. "Your mentor, Eugene, is here.  He's going to take you to your art classes from now on.  Do you want to come out and meet him before he leaves?" 

 

      "I already told you!" Angie's voice was muffled by the door, but still loud enough for Eugene to hear.  "I don't need a mentor!"

 

     "Angie, please!"  There was the sound of a knob being jiggled.  "Did you lock the door?"

 

     "Why can't you just leave me alone?"

 

     "Angie, please unlock the door and come out of there!"

 

     "JUST GO AWAY!" Angie bellowed.  "I don't want to talk to you!  Or to some stupid mentor!"

 

     In the silence that followed, Eugene could just barely make out the sounds of someone trying - and failing - to stifle their sobs, but he wasn't sure if they were coming from Angie or from Emma.  He got his answer about minute later, when Emma reappeared.  Beyond the lenses of her glasses, her eyes were red-rimmed and still brimming with tears.

 

     "I'm so sorry you had to hear that," she whispered, sinking onto the couch and reaching for a tissue.

 

     "Hey," said Eugene.  He tried his best to muster a reassuring smile, but on the inside he was secretly wondering whether he had gotten himself in over his head.  "It'll be fine.  She just needs some time to get to know me, that's all.  Trust me.  The old Flynn Rider charm will win her over in the end."

 

     "The what?" Emma asked with a watery frown.

 

     "Never mind," Eugene said quickly.  "All I meant was, give it some time, and I'm sure I can get her to come out of her shell."

 

     Emma dragged the back of her hand across her cheek with a sniffle.  "You think so?"

 

     "Absolutely.  Kids love me."

 


 

     "My kid hates me," Eugene moaned.  He was sitting at Adam's kitchen counter several hours after his disastrous meeting - if he could even call it that - with Angie.  His blurry reflection stared up at him forlornly from the surface of an untouched pint of beer.

 

     "So what?" said Adam.  "You not there to be her best friend. You're just there to get your hours in."

 

     "Yeah, but how am I supposed to do that when she won't even leave her room?  I mean, do the hours count if we spend them sitting on opposite sides of a locked door?"

 

     "Then call Calhoun," Adam suggested.  "Maybe she can reassign you.  Give you a new kid who'll actually cooperate."

 

     "Already tried," Eugene said glumly.

 

     "She wouldn't do it?"

 

     "I believe her exact words were, "Suck it up, Buttercup.'"

 

     Adam snorted.  "At least 'Buttercup' is nicer than 'Jackwagon.'"

 

     "Yeah, I really think she's warming up to me," Eugene quipped.  He reached across the counter for one of the treats that Adam had brought back from his meeting with the Potts family.  "So...what was your kid like?" he asked, biting into a chocolate chip cookie that practically melted in his mouth.

 

     Adam took a swig of his own beer before saying, with a grimace, "He thinks I'm the big brother he's always wanted."

 

     "Ah...," Eugene said delicately, and wisely left it at that.

 

     "Yeah."

 

     "Hey, at least it's only six months," said Eugene, attempting to strike a more optimistic tone.  He wasn't really sure whether he was doing it for Adam's benefit, or his own.  "Six months, and then we'll be able to get on with our lives.  Everything goes back to normal, and we can forget that any of this ever happened."

 

     "Yeah," Adam said again.  But he didn't sound entirely convinced.  And for that matter, Eugene wasn't even certain that he had convinced himself.  The best he could do was hope that it would be that easy.

Chapter Text

     The Central Branch of the public library was aptly located in the center of the city's downtown, in an old, Spanish colonial style building with cream colored stucco walls and a wide terracotta roof.  The palm trees that flanked the walkway leading up to the entrance swayed gently in the spring breeze as Adam helped Chip lock his bike at one of the racks on the sidewalk.  Adam had intentionally driven his Porsche that afternoon - a two-seater with no back bench on which to place a child seat - and he had steadfastly declined Mrs. Potts's repeated offers to use her bakery van instead.  It had taken him and Chip the better part of half an hour to get to the library on foot, though the endless (and mostly one-sided) stream of conversation had made it feel much longer.  But if it spared him the humiliation of being seen cruising around town like some middle-aged soccer mom, then Adam was willing to suffer through the inevitable barrage of awkward questions and bad knock knock jokes.  

 

     The day was warm and cloudless - a perfect Southern California afternoon by all accounts - and so Adam was surprised to find that a sizable crowd had assembled inside the building.  A troop of young Girl Scouts, all decked out in matching uniforms and sashes, was busy at work arranging one of the display cases in the lobby.  Another large group was milling about outside the entrance to one of the galleries, where printed flyers that had been taped to the walls announced a book sale to raise funds for new computers.  Adam followed at a distance as Chip wove through the crowds, making his way towards the main reading room on the opposite side of the lobby.  But when Chip suddenly turned just short of the main reading room, and instead skipped down a short flight of steps to the building's lower level, Adam hesitated.  

 

     "Chip?" Adam called after him, but his voice was drowned out by the noise of the lobby.  Where the hell is he going? Adam wondered with a mix of annoyance and genuine bewilderment, before hurrying toward the stairwell.  As far as he knew, there was nothing of interest on the lower level of the library - just offices and storage.

 

     But what he found when he caught up to Chip at the bottom of the stairs was not offices and storage.  Instead, he found himself standing in the middle of one very large, brightly lit room that made the children's wing he remembered from his own childhood look like a closet by comparison.  The room was filled with tiny furniture, colorful rugs, and wide aisles of low shelves designed to put books within easy reach of little hands.  There were even toys and games to entertain the younger kids.  And all of it looked brand new - heck, even the paint on the walls still smelled fresh.  Care had obviously been taken to make this new and improved children's wing a place that would make young visitors feel welcome, but all it made Adam feel at the moment was an overwhelming desire to run.  Walking into it was like walking into a nursery school, or an episode of Teletubbies.

 

     "Belle!" Chip cried, suddenly breaking away from Adam and sprinting ahead.  A young woman standing near the circulation desk looked up just in time to catch Chip as he flung himself into her arms.  She was pretty - very pretty, actually, Adam noted as he drew closer.  Her hazel eyes were framed by the kind of lashes most women would sell their souls - or at least fork a few hundred bucks over to the plastic surgeon - for. Soft wisps of chestnut colored hair had escaped from a simple low ponytail to fall loosely around her face.  And when she smiled, it nearly stopped Adam in his tracks.   The name tag pinned to her cardigan read: Belle Lavigne, Library Assistant.  Was this "Belle the librarian," the one who Chip had been so excited to see again?  If so, then Adam could certainly understand the kid's enthusiasm.  In fact, for the first time, he was starting to think that there might actually be an upside to this whole mentoring thing after all. 

 

     "Chip!" Belle exclaimed.  He giggled as she scooped him up into a tight hug.  "Oh, I'm so glad to see you!  I was beginning to worry that you had decided you were too big for story time."

 

     "Sorry," Chip said sheepishly.  "Gramma's bakery's been real busy."

 

     A frown tugged at the corners of Belle's full lips.  "And...where is your grandma?" she asked, peeking over Chip's shoulder as she set him back on his feet.  "You didn't get separated, did you?"

 

     "Nah, she's at the bakery," said Chip.  "My big brother Adam brought me today."

 

     Not this again, thought Adam, his mood souring once more despite Belle's warm smile.  "How nice," she said, turning to face him.  "I didn't even know Chip had a brother."

 

     "I'm not his brother," Adam growled.  But when he saw Belle's smile falter, he scrambled to save face.  "Er...we were paired through a mentoring program," he explained, a little less gruffly. 

 

     "Oh," she said slowly.  "Well...it's very nice of you to volunteer your time for such a good cause.  And you're very lucky to get paired with this guy," she added, reaching down to ruffle Chip's hair affectionately. "He's a real sweetheart, but I'm sure you've figured that out already."  

 

     "Yeah, he's really great," agreed Adam, with all the enthusiasm of a man being prepped for a root canal.

 

     Belle's eyes widened slightly before glancing awkwardly away.  "Right. Well...," she said, clapping her hands together and putting on a cheery voice, "the two of you got here just in time.  We were just about to get started on today's story.  Chip, do you want to help me bring the craft supplies over to the reading nook?"

 

     Adam trailed behind as Chip and Belle carried their things to an open corner of the library.  Roughly two dozen children were already sprawled out on the carpet in front of an empty chair, talking, laughing, and flipping through picture books.  A few more chairs had been set up behind the children, but these were occupied by other adults.  After a quick scan of the area, Adam claimed a vacant spot for himself at the end of a nearby aisle.  He ran a hand over his hair and attempted to feign a look of casual disinterest as he leaned up against a book shelf.

 

     Most of the children fell silent as Belle settled into the empty chair.  "Good afternoon, everyone."  She smiled as a disjointed chorus of "Good afternoon, Belle" echoed back to her.  "Today we're going to be reading one of my favorite stories by an author named Shel Silverstein."  Adam squirmed as the tiny hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle.  Silverstein.  That name meant something to him, but he wasn't sure why.  And then Belle held up a thin, hardback book with a bright green cover, and the memory hit him with such force that he actually took a step backward.  

 

     A woman who had crouched down to browse one of the shelves behind him let out a squeak as Adam stumbled over her.  His hand shot out to grab the shelf for balance, and he wobbled precariously on one leg for what felt like an eternity as he and the woman attempted to disentangle themselves. When Adam finally had both feet planted firmly back on the floor, he mumbled a quick apology, turned without waiting for a response, and then all but ran as Belle started to read.  "Once, there was a tree," he heard her begin as he made for the stairs.  "And she loved a little boy..."

 

     When Adam reached the ground floor, he pulled out his phone and dialed Eugene.  "Come on, come on.  Pick up," he muttered to himself, but the call only went to Eugene's voicemail.  He ended it without leaving a message and sank onto the nearest bench.  But seconds later he was back on his feet, too agitated to simply sit.  He walked a few laps around the lobby before starting toward the book sale, and then changed his mind almost immediately when he saw how crowded the gallery had become.  The last thing he wanted right now was to be bumping elbows with a bunch of strangers haggling over used books.

 

     He rested his hands on the top of his head and let out a breath as he cast a long look around the lobby.  And then, with one last glance toward the gallery, he started for the main reading room.  The vast, silent room, with its high ceilings, soft lighting, and long rows of tall, arched windows made Adam feel small the moment he stepped into it, but it was a comforting sort of smallness, like the kind he imagined some people must feel in church.  He headed first for the fiction section, where he spent the next few minutes zigzagging aimlessly up and down its familiar aisles, pausing occasionally to pull a book from the shelves.  When he found himself standing in front of one of the windows, he stopped and looked out over the courtyard, allowing the sunshine that poured in through the glass to warm his face.  At least here, on the main floor, the library had not changed much since his last visit.   As he turned away from the window, he tried to remember how long, exactly, it had been since that last visit.  It had to be years, at least.  Long enough ago that he actually had to check and make sure that his library card was still in his wallet.  

 

     Once upon a time, though, in the days after his father had left and before his mother's company had gotten off the ground, the library had been like a second home to him.  He would lose himself among the shelves and curl up in the cozy, hidden nooks, or find a quiet place to finish his homework while his mom worked in the computer center, taking advantage of the free Internet access to complete online business courses and research how to fund a startup.  Sometimes, when he was feeling a bit lonely, he would even sit in on story time, just as Chip was doing now.  The librarian had always welcomed his visits, even though he had been several years older than the rest of the kids.  

 

     He sighed and glanced at his watch.  A little more than ten minutes had passed since his hasty retreat from the children's wing.  Belle had probably finished the story by now, but Adam really didn't want to be there for the follow-up discussion or any of the related activities.  He just couldn't understand it.  There were so many better things to read - literally hundreds of thousands of them in this library alone.  How could someone who had her pick of all of them willingly waste time on that cloying, twisted heap of rubbish?

 

     So instead of returning to the children's wing, Adam settled into an armchair near the dormant fireplace and cracked open one of his books. And in the time it took to read the first few paragraphs, the simple, haunting prose had pulled him right into the dusty, blood-soaked plains of the Old West.  It was a story he had read before, and one he wasn't likely to ever forget, but it still managed to seize such a complete command of his attention that he nearly missed his name being announced over the public address system some indeterminate time later: "Adam Dumont, please report to the circulation desk in the children's wing immediately."  In fact, Adam wasn't even sure that it had been his name that had been announced, until the speaker repeated:  "Adam Dumont, to the circulation desk in the children's wing.  Thank you."

 

     He didn't stir from his seat right away, but his eyes flicked up discreetly, watching as the other library patrons exchanged curious glances.  Only when they had all gone back to their business did Adam quietly gather his books and head back to the children's wing.  As he approached the circulation desk, he saw Chip perched on the counter with his short, scrawny legs dangling over the side.  He was chatting with Belle and munching happily on some apple chips.  

 

     "Orange who?" Adam heard Belle say as he got closer.

 

     "Orange you glad I didn't say banana?" replied Chip, to which Belle giggled obligingly.  It struck Adam that even her laugh was beautiful.

 

     Just then, Chip looked up and caught Adam's eyes.  "Adam!" he called, waving excitedly.  Belle helped Chip scramble down from the desk, and he ran up to Adam.  "Look what I made!" he cried, holding out what looked like a green paper plate with a piece of brown construction paper glued to it.

 

     "What is it?" Adam asked, reluctantly taking the edge of the paper plate with two fingers, in case the glue was still sticky.

 

     "It's a giving tree.  I made it all by myself," Chip said proudly.  "For you.  See?  The trunk is my hand," - he pointed to the strip of brown construction paper, and Adam could indeed recognize the outline of a tiny hand where the paper met the plate - "and the apples are my finger prints!"  Chip wiggled his fingers, which still sported smudges of red paint on the tips.  

 

     Adam flinched.  "Are you sure you don't want to give this to your grandma?" he asked.

 

     "Nope," said Chip.  "I made it just for you.  I even wrote you a note on the back.  Belle helped with that part."

 

     Adam carefully turned the tree over and saw that a message had been written on the back of the plate.  He squinted at it, trying to decipher the childish, barely legible scrawl.  to adum i luv yu luv chip.  Or at least that's what he thought it said.  After a few beats of silence, he looked up and realized that Chip and Belle were both watching him, and probably waiting for him to say something.  "Uh...thanks?" he said, forcing the words past his lips with some effort.

 

     Chip beamed and hugged Adam around the knees.  "Can I take out a book before we leave?" he asked, tilting his head back to look up at Adam with wide, pleading eyes that reminded Adam of a dog begging for table scraps.

 

     "Sure.  Yeah.  Go ahead," said Adam, shooing him toward the shelves.  He'd let Chip take out the whole damn library if it got the kid's grubby, paint covered hands off of him.  

 

     As he watched Chip scamper off in search of a book, it dawned on Adam that he finally had an opportunity to talk to Belle - alone.  He sneaked a look at her out of the corner of his eye.  Did she have a boyfriend, he wondered?  Did it matter if she did?  Clearing his throat, he turned to her.  "So...," he began, but before he could finish that thought, she interrupted him in a low whisper.

 

     "Where were you?"

 

     Adam frowned.  "Huh?" 

 

     "We've been looking all over for you.  Where did you go?"

 

     "I was here," said Adam, as though the answer could hardly be more obvious.  "In the library."

 

     Belle crossed her arms.  "I didn't see you."

 

     "I was upstairs," said Adam, bristling at her accusatory tone.  "What's the big deal?"

 

     "The big deal is that story time ended twenty minutes ago.  All of the other children have left, in case you hadn't noticed.  Chip was the only one whose adult wasn't here to take him home when it ended."

 

     "I was here," Adam repeated.  "Just not...here."  He gestured irritably to the children's wing at large.

 

     "Well, please try not to wander so far off next time.  You don't have to stay in the reading nook if you don't want to, but I would appreciate it if you didn't leave the children's wing.  I'm a librarian, not a babysitter.  I have an actual job to do here."

 

     "I thought reading stories to the kids was your job."

 

     "And I thought being Chip's mentor was yours," Belle retorted smartly.  "So shouldn't you be, I don't know, mentoring him, instead of leaving him on his own all afternoon?"

 

     "Do I tell you how to shelve books?" Adam snapped.

 

     Belle pushed herself away from the counter to glare at him.  "Is that what you think my job is?  Reading to kids and shelving books?  I had to have a master's degree in library science just to be considered for this job!"

 

     "You needed a master's degree to learn how to put books away?"

 

     Her cheeks flushed in a way that Adam would have found attractive had the next words out of her mouth not been so maddeningly self righteous: "And I do a damn better job of it than you do looking out for Chip," she hissed.  "That kid adores you-"

 

     "Please." Adam cut her off with a roll of his eyes.  "He's known me for all of a week."

 

     "Well that doesn't matter to him.  You should have heard him going on about how great he thinks you are - all while he sat here, all alone, waiting for you to come back and get him."

 

     "He wasn't all alone," Adam protested. "You were right here with him!"

 

     "But you were the one he wanted to be here!"

 

     "Yeah, well, you can't always get what you want."  It was a lame comeback, and Adam knew it, but it was better than letting her get the last word in.  "The sooner he learns that, the better."

 

     Belle's eyes narrowed.  "What mentorship program did you say you were from?"

 

     "I didn't," Adam said coldly.  

 

     "Hmm," she said, giving him a long look.  Then, she shrugged.  "That's all right.  I'm sure Mrs. Potts remembers.  I'll just ask her the next time I'm in the bakery.  And now that I think about it...I am all out of lemon rosemary scones.  You don't happen to know if she's open late today, do you?" she asked sweetly.

 

     Adam tensed. She's bluffing, he told himself.  She has to be.  But...but what if she wasn't?  His jaw clenched as he tried to read Belle's face, but she was giving nothing away.  It would hardly take any effort at all for Belle to get the name of Candles on the Water from Mrs. Potts, he reasoned.  And he knew that once word of him ditching Chip got to Calhoun, she wouldn't hesitate to call the prosecutor on him.  In fact, she was probably just itching for a reason - any reason - to do it. Which meant that if Belle followed through on what she seemed to be threatening to do, there was a very good chance that Adam would end up going to jail - and lose control of his mother's company in the process.  Could he really afford to take that risk?  "Look," he finally muttered under his breath, "what do you want from me?" 

 

     Even as the words left his mouth, Adam suspected he would come to regret them.  And Belle wasted no time in proving his suspicions correct.  "Let's start with what I don't want," she said briskly. "I don't want any repeats of this afternoon.  From now on, no more disappearing on Chip.  You need to be here to meet him when story time ends.  If you're not, I will make sure that whoever is in charge of your program hears about it.  Got it?"

 

     "Be on time.  Great," said Adam, starting to walk away.  

 

     "Wait," said Belle, stepping quickly in front of him.  Adam sighed and looked down at her impatiently, but she simply lifted her chin and plowed onward.  "Being on time is a good start.  But you owe Chip more than just that."

 

     "Owe him?" Adam choked out in disbelief.  "He's just a kid!  I don't owe him anything!"

 

     Belle folded her arms and met his gaze calmly.  "I wonder whether Mrs. Potts would agree."

 

     God, she was really enjoying this little power trip.  "Fine," Adam growled, digging his fingertips into his throbbing temple.  "What exactly is it that you think I owe him?"

 

     She ignored the obvious derision in his tone.  "Stop treating him like he's got some kind of contagious disease.  He doesn't.  He's just a lonely kid who wants to spend time with you.  Talk to him.  I mean, really talk. Don't just nod your head and grunt while secretly tuning him out.  Play with him.  Read to him.  Maybe find a story that the two of you can connect over."

 

     "You want me to read to him?" said Adam, his brain latching on to the thing that he assumed was mostly likely to get her off his back.  "Fine.  I'll read to him.  Happy?"

 

     Belle looked at him in surprise.  "Well...yes," she said after a pause.  "And I'm sure he will be too.  And if you have any trouble finding things you can read with him, I'm happy to help you look through what we have here.  I know Chip loves dinosaurs, and pirates, and that cartoon movie with the talking race cars..."

 

     "I can pick out my own books, thanks," said Adam, lifting the arm under which he'd tucked the books from upstairs.  "I know how to use a library."

 

     "I see.  And what did you pick?" And before he could stop her, Belle reached out and plucked one of the books from the crook of his elbow.  "Cormac McCarthy?"  She looked up at him with an expression of undisguised horror.  "You can't read Blood Meridian to a five-year-old!"

 

     "Why not?" Adam shot back.  "It's better than that garbage you just read to him."

 

     "Garbage?" she repeated, and she looked for a moment like she had had the wind knocked out of her.  "The Giving Tree is a timeless classic!"

 

     "Classic garbage."

 

     "It teaches children about the selfless nature of love!"

 

     "It teaches them to be pushovers," Adam said bluntly.  "To give and give and give to someone who never gives anything in return, until there's nothing left of you in the end.  Is that the kind of bullshit lesson you want me to connect with him over?"

 

     To his great shock, Belle didn't hit back with some sharp-tongued retort.  In fact, for several moments, she didn't say anything at all.  Instead, something in her demeanor seemed to shift and soften as she gazed at him in thought.  "You sound like you've had some experience with that," she finally said, with a  gentleness that irked him for some unknown reason.

 

     Adam scowled and snatched his book from her hands.  "Did your master's degree in library science include a minor in psychiatry?" 

 

     Belle frowned.  "No, of course it didn't."

 

     "Then quit trying to psychoanalyze me.  I thought you had an 'actual job' to do."

 

    "Ugggh!" she groaned.  "Why is it so hard for you to act like a normal human being?"  

 

     "Why is it so hard for you to mind your own business?"  And then, without waiting for Belle to answer this time, Adam turned on his heel and stalked off toward the shelves.  "Chip!" he hollered, ignoring the disapproving looks from the other adults in the library.  "It's time to go!"

Chapter Text

"Sooo....art class," said Eugene, quickening his step to keep pace with Angie.  How did someone with such short legs manage to move so fast?  They'd only walked a few blocks, and he was already winded.  "Who's ready to make some macaroni necklaces and hand print ash trays?"

 

Angie glowered at the sidewalk.  Or at least, Eugene thought she glowered at the sidewalk.  When her long black fringe fell across her eyes like it was doing now, it was hard to tell precisely where her icy stare was landing.  "I haven't made a macaroni necklace since I was five."

 

"So what you're saying is, it's been a few months?"

 

Oh, now she was definitely glowering at him.  "And smoking is gross."

 

"Well, you're not wrong there.  I actually tried cigarettes once or twice when I was in high school, you know.  Thought they looked cool.  But they were definitely disgusting.  Take my advice, kid: if anyone ever offers you one of those filthy cancer sticks, just say no."

 

"I don't need your advice, Eugene."

 

"Hey, hey," said Eugene, glancing furtively around them.  "I thought we agreed to keep the Eugene thing on the DL, huh?"

 

"I never agreed to any of this," Angie said bitterly, tugging at a charm that hung on a thin gold chain around her neck.  

 

Christ, this kid was like a mini version of Adam.  Eugene had even taken to calling her "Angry" in his head, instead of Angie.  He looked up to the sky and took a deep breath.  "Listen, I know you think you don't need a mentor..."

 

"You don't know anything," Angie countered.  

 

 "...and I certainly don't think I need a grumpy midget sidekick. But like it or not" - and here Eugene was pretty sure he heard her mutter "not" under her breath - "we're stuck with each other.  So what do you say we try to make the best of it?  I'll take you to your art classes and gush over how brilliant your hand turkeys are, you cut me some slack on the name and maybe dial the attitude back just a notch or two, and in 180 hours, voila!  We part ways as unlikely friends."

 

"You got the unlikely part right," said Angie, picking up the speed again.  And for the rest of the walk, she refused to respond to any of Eugene's further attempts to engage her in conversation.   At this rate, thought Eugene, as he held open the door of the neighborhood center, these are going to be the longest 180 hours of my life.

 

Inside the center, the main room had been cleared to make space for about twenty easels, which had been arranged in a large horseshoe in the middle of the checkered tile floor.  A few children - and a few adults too, Eugene noticed - were already seated in front of some of the easels.  Angie dropped her backpack next to one of the vacant easels and took a seat, and, taking her lead, Eugene sat down at the easel next to her.  

 

A woman was standing, with her back to them, in the middle of the horseshoe, and she was fussing over something that had been set up on a short, cloth-draped wooden stool.  Her hair, which immediately caught Eugene's eye, had been pulled back into an intricate, waist-length braid that swayed about her body as she moved.  The woman paused and raised a hand, tapping one finger against her cheek as she gazed at the stool.  Then, with a sudden squeak, she hurried off toward the far end of the room, and gently lifted a fern from a potted arrangement near the window.

 

As she turned away from the window with the frond in hand, Eugene finally got a decent look at her, he let out a quiet, involuntary "huh."  She was young - maybe not even twenty - with a heart-shaped face and wide-set green eyes that shone with childlike exuberance.  Her golden blonde hair almost seemed to glow in the shafts of sunlight that streamed in through the glass.  A smattering of freckles (as well as a smudge of something purple that might have been paint or chalk) graced the bridge of her cute, slightly turned-up nose.  A paintbrush was tucked, bristles forward, behind one ear, while another couple of brushes stuck out from the front pocket of her short denim overalls.  

 

She carried the fern back to the stool and laid it carefully in front of a bowl of fruit that had been set on top of the cloth.  Then she adjusted the position of a lamp that was pointed at the arrangement, stepped back, reached out to adjust the lamp again, and finally nodded in satisfaction.  As she spun to face the group, her braid lashed out like a whip.

 

"Is everybody here?" she asked, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet.  "Great!" she exclaimed, without waiting for a response.  "Good afternoon, everyone.  I'm so glad to see all of you again."

 

"Good afternoon, Miss Blume!" the children replied as one.

 

Miss Blume smiled.  "As you can see, we're going to continue our work with oil pastels today," she said, gesturing to the easels.  Eugene looked down and saw that a package of fancy looking crayons was indeed resting on the tray of his easel, as well as a couple of paint brushes and some other tools that he didn't recognize.  

 

"I've composed our subject for today's project," Miss Blume continued, now motioning to the collection of items on the stool.  "As you work, try experimenting with some of the techniques we worked on last week to see if you can capture the different textures of the objects.  I'll be coming around the room to check on your progress, but if anyone has any questions or needs any help, just raise your hand."

 

Eugene's arm shot up like a rocket.  "Yes?" said Ms. Blume, her large eyes blinking in surprise.  "Did you have a question already?"

 

"Yeah, I just want to make sure I understand this exercise correctly.  You want us to draw a bowl of fruit...and some leaves?" 

 

"It's called a still life," Miss Blume replied with a nod.  "It's a centuries-old art form.  In fact, you've probably seen hundreds of them hanging up in museums."

 

"Still life, huh?"  Eugene repeated, casting a dubious glance at the stool.  "Well if this life gets any more still, it's going to put me in a coma."

 

Miss Blume frowned and tilted her head.  "What do you mean?" 

 

"I mean this is boring.  Look, no offense, but kids don't want to draw a bunch of produce.  They want to draw something exciting and dynamic.  Am I right?" Eugene asked, looking around the room for support.  A few of the kids nodded hesitantly and murmured what he assumed were words of agreement.  

 

"I'm so sorry," said Miss Blume, and she did sound genuinely apologetic.  "But I don't remember meeting you at any of our previous classes, Mr...."  

 

"Rider," said Eugene, flashing a wide, toothy grin as he leaned an elbow over the back of his chair.  "The name's Flynn Rider.  I'm with her," he added, with a jerk of his head toward Angie, who slouched down a few inches in her own chair and covered her eyes with her hand.

 

"I see," Miss Blume said softly, her eyes sliding over to Angie before returning to Eugene.  Then she turned back to the class and clapped her hands together twice.  "Change of plans, everyone," she said, as the others looked up attentively.  "Instead of working on a still life, we'll be trying our hands at figure drawing.  And Mr. Rider has very graciously volunteered to be our model for today's work."

 

Eugene sat up so fast that the metal legs of his chair rattled noisily against the floor.  "Wait - I - what?" he sputtered, as the children began to cheer.  

 

"Flynn, Flynn, Flynn!" they chanted - and he was stunned to see that Angie was actually leading the cheer.  Well look who finally came around... 

 

"You can sit here," said Miss Blume, removing the bowl of fruit from the stool.  "Please feel free to give us you most exciting and dynamic pose - oh, but please try not to move too much. Everyone else, go ahead and move your seats if you need to to get a better view."

 

"Well," Eugene sighed dramatically, as the rest of the class started to move their chairs and easels, "who am I to deny the artists their muse?  But you know, Blondie," he said, dropping his voice in a teasing manner as he approached the stool. "If you wanted to see me naked, all you had to do was ask."

 

Miss Blume gave him a funny look.  "If I wanted to what?" 

 

"Come on.  Convincing someone to pose nude for your art project because you secretly have the hots for them?  I mean, I can't say I'm not flattered," Eugene said as he lifted the hem of his shirt.  "But I've seen this exact scenario play out in at least a dozen cheesy romcoms."

 

He had of course heard the saying "blushing to the roots of one's hair," but Eugene had never actually seen it in action - until now.  Every visible inch of Miss Blume's face went red right before his eyes.  "This is a children's art class!" she said in loud whisper, her hand darting out desperately to lower his arm.  "We don't draw nude models!"

 

Eugene's hands dropped to his waist.  "You don't?" he asked in surprise.  "Oh.  Well, I could lose just the shirt if you want..." 

 

"No, no, no.  Please don't lose anything," Miss Blume pleaded with him.  

 

This is kind of an off day for me, Eugene thought bemusedly.  A woman begging him to keep his clothes on?  That didn't normally happen.  But he shrugged before tucking his shirt back into his jeans and attempted to take things in stride.  "Suit yourself."  He took a seat on the stool and tested out a couple of poses while Miss Blume raised the lamp and angled the light toward him.  Do I go for brooding and mysterious? he wondered, resting his chin on his fist and furrowing his brow in imitation of a famous sculpture he'd once seen in a museum in San Francisco.  Or cool and confident?  He leaned back and propped one foot up on a rung of the stool while adopting a lazy smile.

 

There was a giggle to his right, and when he turned in the direction of the noise, he saw Angie talking in low voices with the boy at the adjacent easel.  Both children quickly swallowed their laughter and disappeared behind their easels when they caught Eugene watching.  "Be sure to get my good side, kids," Eugene called to them.  "I'm kidding," he added after a beat.  "They're all good sides."

 

"It's sweet that you have such a nice relationship with your niece," said Miss Blume, who was still fidgeting with the lamp.  

 

Eugene raised an eyebrow.  "With my what now?"

 

"With your niece.  Angie?" 

 

"Did she tell you I'm her uncle?"  He looked over toward Angie's easel, but she was busy whispering to another girl and didn't seem to notice that they were talking about her.

 

"Well, no.  I just assumed...you know...because she usually comes here with her aunt...?"  Miss Blume trailed off uncertainly.

 

Eugene laughed.  "I'm not her uncle.  I'm her mentor."

 

"Oh," Miss Blume said with a chuckle.  "Well, that's really sweet too, actually.  Have you been, uh, mentoring long?"

 

"This is my first time, actually," said Eugene.  

 

"What made you decide to do it?"

 

An overzealous prosecutor with a shitty sense of humor.  He was almost tempted to tell the truth, just to see how she would take it.  But he was afraid that doing so would only invite further questions about his legal situation, which he wasn't especially keen to discuss with some stranger he'd just met - and in front of a bunch of other strangers, to boot.  Better to lie and change the subject.  "It just seemed like a fun thing to do," he said vaguely.  "So how about you?  How long have you been teaching art classes?"

 

Miss Blume's face broke into a smile that was almost blinding.  "This is my first time too.  And I think it's going really well so far, don't you?"

 

"Uh, yeah," Eugene agreed.  "Undoubtedly."

 

"I mean, I know this is only the third week of class, but it really feels like the kids have come so far already," she went on.  "And I'm really excited to see what they do with today's project.  It's a bit more advanced than what I had planned, but sometimes a little challenge can be a good thing.  Healthy, even, you know?  And I do love figure drawing."

 

Eugene clasped his hands together and forced a grin.  "Yay!"

 

Miss Blume beamed at him before returning to her seat.  "Okay, guys.  Let's see what you can do!"

 

And for several minutes after that, the only sound in the room was the scratch of pencil on paper as Miss Blume and her students began to sketch out Eugene's likeness.  It felt a little strange, knowing that he was surrounded by other people and being able to hear them move about, but not being able to see them except for their feet or the occasional head that peeked out from around an easel to study him.  It was also surprisingly boring.  Exactly how long did they expect him to sit there like a fish in a bowl?  He was pretty sure his left leg was starting to go numb.

 

So when his phone began to buzz, it was a welcome distraction.  But as he slid a bit off the stool to reach into his pocket, Ms. Blume spoke up.  "Could you please try to hold still?"

 

"But my phone is ringing," Eugene protested.

 

"It's only for a little bit longer.  Thank you!"

 

Eugene sighed and reluctantly settled back into his seat, sans phone, and the ringing eventually stopped.  "So what's your story, Blondie?" he asked, more out of desperation to pass the time than out of genuine curiosity.  "Are you living the dream of teaching eight-year-olds to draw grapes?  Or is this just the side hustle until you get your own wing in the Getty?"

 

"Uh...neither?" she said with a laugh.  "Although those would both be great.  But I've still got another year of grad school to go."

 

A graduate student, huh?  So he had pegged her age about right.  "Art major, I assume?"

 

"My bachelor's degree is in fine art.  But I'm working on a master's in art therapy."

 

"Is that like when you hold up a splotch of ink and ask someone whether they see a butterfly or the Bat-Signal?"

 

"You're thinking of a Rorschach test," said Miss Blume.  "That's more of a diagnostic tool that psychologists use to understand their patients' thought processes - although, I don't think they're even used very much anymore.  What art therapy does is incorporate different forms of creative expression like drawing, painting, and sculpting as part of the patient's program for treatment."  

 

"And does that actually work?"

 

"Oh, yes.  The creative process can be very healing.  It can help to ease the physical and emotional pains of illness.  It can provide an outlet to work through difficult experiences...or to express emotions that can't be put into words.  And of course, there's a certain sense of accomplishment that comes with just creating something.  Art is a wonderful therapeutic tool.  And it allows me to share my abilities in a way that helps people who are hurting.  I can't think of anything better than that."

 

Really?  Not anything?  Eugene could think of several things that sounded much better, but something stopped him from naming any of them aloud.  Maybe it was the earnest way in which Miss Blume had spoken about her chosen career path - completely sincere, without even a hint of irony.  In fact, the girl didn't seem to have a single cynical bone in her body.  It seemed almost cruel to poke fun at her dreams, and though Eugene was many things, he liked to believe that cruel wasn't one of them.  So instead he simply chose to say, "Well, ah, good luck with that.  A master's degree.  I'm sure that's a lot of work.  Heck, my undergrad degree was a lot of work, and I barely showed up to any of my classes.  Uh - not that I condone skipping classes," he added hastily, his eyes darting around to look at the backs of the easels.  "Stay in school, kids."

 

When Miss Blume finally - finally! - looked up at the clock and announced that it was time to wrap things up, Eugene hopped off of the stool before she could change her mind.  "Has it been two hours already?" he asked, stretching his arms up toward the ceiling with a groan.  "Where does the time go?"

 

"I know, right?" Miss Blume agreed.  "This class really flew by.  But I guess that's what happens when you're having fun."

 

"That's what they say."

 

She smiled at him.  "I'm so glad you enjoyed it.  Thank you for posing for us, Flynn."

 

"Don't mention it."

 

Her smile turned mischievous.  "Would you like to see the works of art that you inspired?"

 

He wanted to play it cool, but even Eugene couldn't refuse an offer like that  "Well...well, yeah."

 

"Great!  We can start here with Zach," she said, dropping her hand onto the shoulder of the boy with whom Angie had been whispering earlier.  "And then we can work our way around the room so that you get a chance to see each drawing."

 

Eugene sauntered over to join Miss Blume in front of the easel where Zach had been working.  But as he rounded the easel and came face to face with his own, well, face, he had to refrain from doing a double take.  

"Oof."  He grimaced, then, with a pointed look from Miss Blume, managed a smile that he was quite certain was convincing no one.  "Wow, uh, that's...that's really quite a drawing."  And the drawing actually was quite good in most respects - except for one.  For some reason Eugene could only guess at, the boy had chosen to draw him with an enormous, bumpy nose that was wildly out of proportion with the rest of his face.  His superhuman good looks had been transformed into a superhuman joke.

 

 

"This is lovely, Zach," said Miss Blume.  "Very nice use of artistic license.  And I like the confidence in your line work."

 

Artistic license?  Ha.  That was easy for her to say.  She wasn't the one who had spent half the afternoon carefully holding her best pose, only to be sketched with a schnoz like the Matterhorn.  Eugene rubbed his nose self consciously, as if to reassure himself that it was still there and still as perfect as it always was.

 

Miss Blume must have picked up on Eugene's dismay, because she placed a gentle hand on his arm and said, "Why don't we move on to the next one?"  Eugene shot one last disgruntled look at Zach's drawing before following Miss Blume toward the next easel, which happened to be Angie's.  "You've done a wonderful job with the lighting here, Angie," Miss Blume said, making a circling motion with her finger.  "I just love the depth and richness that you captured in his hair."  

 

That bit about the hair piqued Eugene's interest, and he shuffled over curiously to get a look at Angie's work.  "Really?" he sighed, shooting Angie a weary look.  She simply smirked back at him.  The majority of the drawing was, again, surprisingly good.  And he had to admit that she had done a nice job with his hair.  But she had also given him a long, skinny nose that made him look like a grown-up version of Pinocchio.

 

And the rest of the drawings did little to assuage Eugene's wounded pride.  Some were good, some were even very good, and most were about what one would expect from a bunch of school-aged kids.  But every single child, without exception, had drawn him with some sort of ridiculous nose that looked nothing like the real thing.  One child had given him a big, red clown rose.  Another had drawn what looked like a shag rug coming out of his nostrils.  And still another had given him a pig's snout.  Only the adults had attempted to draw him with anything resembling a normal nose.  It was almost as if all of the children in the class had banded together and made some sort of secret agreement to make him look foolish.  But that would just be crazy...

 

By the time Eugene reached the last easel, he was sure he had seen it all.  But the universe decided to spring one final surprise on him.  "Hey...," he said, his face breaking into a real smile for the first time since he had climbed off the stool.  The drawing was, quite frankly, stunning.  Whoever had drawn it had managed to capture not just his likeness, but his very essence.  From the slight quirk of his mouth, to the cock of his head, to the slant of his shoulders, Flynn Rider seemed to come alive on the paper.  "Now this...this is a face I'd be proud to post on my Tinder profile.  This is a real masterpiece.  Look," he said, waving Miss Blume over.  "They even got my nose right."  For once.  "Whose drawing is this?"

 

"It's mine," said Miss Blume, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

 

"Oh," Eugene said in surprise.  "Well...it's really good.  You know, you've got a real talent there, Blondie."

 

"Rapunzel."

 

"Gezundheit."

 

"No, Rapunzel is my name."

 

Eugene winced.  And I thought my name was bad. "What is that, Australian or something?"

 

"It's a kind of flower," Rapunzel explained, her cheeks turning pink.  "My mom's a botanist.  And reeeaally into her work."

 

"And she couldn't go with something like Rose or Lily?"

 

She shrugged.  "The Rapunzel flower has always been her favorite.  And I mean, it could have been worse.  At least she didn't stick me with the Latin name: campanula rapunculus."

 

Eugene smiled wryly.  "Yeah, because that would have been a mouthful."  Rapunzel laughed, and the sound transformed his smile into a lopsided grin.  She was pretty cute, actually, he realized.  When she wasn't being so relentlessly perky.  He shook himself after a moment and looked away.   And that was when he realized that almost everyone else had cleared out of the neighborhood center.  Angie was waiting alone near the door with her backpack slung over one shoulder and a sour look on her face. "Well, uh, I should probably get my kid and get out of here."

 

"Oh! Yes," said Rapunzel, shooing him toward the door.  "I didn't mean to delay you guys.  Will you be joining us again next week?"

 

"And every week after that," said Eugene.  And he almost managed not to sound gloomy at the prospect.

 

"Then I'll see you next Saturday, Flynn."

 

"Not if I see you first, Blondie."  And with one final wave, he and Angie were out the door.

 

"Not if I see you first," Angie mimicked in a high, whiny voice.  "Barf.  Is that really the best you've got?  No wonder you're single."

 

"I'll have you know I do just fine with the ladies," Eugene retorted.  "And how do you know I'm single anyway?" 

 

"Why else would you be on Tinder?"

 

"I'm not on - that was joke!"

 

"You're a joke."

 

"And how do you even know what Tinder is?" 

 

"I'm in third grade," said Angie.

 

"Oh, well that explains everything."

 

She stuck out her tongue. Eugene returned the gesture, but she had already turned her back on him and hurried several paces ahead.  He glanced down at his watch with a sigh.  Just under 178 hours to go.  But who was counting?