Adam bumped her shoulder in the cafeteria. “Heard you’re getting stuck with the new kid.”
The coffee machine was broken again. You’d think with as much money as Congress gave them, the CIA could afford to keep its spies properly caffeinated, but you’d be wrong. Belle sighed, giving it a thump with the side of her hand. “She’s not a kid, Adam, she’s an army brat who grew up in Saudi Arabia. MA from Stanford, PhD from Yale, speaks fluent Arabic and Pashto. Snow’s already excited about her.”
“I take it back,” Adam said, raising his hands in surrender. “She’s not a kid, she’s a wunderkid.”
“Sounds like it,” Belle agreed. She gave up on the coffee machine and grabbed a soda instead. She knew it rotted your stomach – Tiana had sent out another email last month about aspartame – but when you needed caffeine, you needed caffeine. Snow had wanted that report on the latest chatter near the Khyber Pass on her desk by morning, and what the deputy director wanted, the deputy director got. Belle had been up half the night.
Adam helped himself to a hefty serving of meat and potatoes. He was a beast of a man, easily six and a half feet tall and with a breadth to match. “I wonder what she’ll be like. If she plays Scrabble we could cut her in on the weekly tournament.”
“Adam,” Belle said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes, “you do know that the Scrabble tournament was one of the main reasons I broke up with you. No seducing my new partner to the dark side of Triple Word Scores.”
It hadn’t really been the Scrabble tournament that broke them up – that was just a long-running joke. They’d fallen into bed together at the end of a stressful mission and tried to build a relationship based on that, but they’d just been too young and inexperienced to make it work. Friends, yes – lovers, no.
“Besides,” she added, taking advantage of Adam’s mouthful of potatoes, “you guys spend two-thirds of the time arguing about whether non-English words count, and if they do, which non-English languages, and which systems of transliteration you can use.”
Adam swallowed his potatoes, looking injured. “But that’s fun!”
“You have a very strange idea of fun, my friend,” Belle said, sipping her soda and letting the blessed caffeine wash over her. She knew it couldn’t have reached her blood yet, but she was perfectly happy to let the placebo effect work its wonders.
“Excuse me,” someone said behind them. “I’m looking for a Belle?”
“You’ve found her,” Belle said, turning in her chair.
The woman standing there was more of a girl. Her pixie cut made her look like an undergrad, but her eyes were shrewd, and her broad mouth generously shaped. Belle found herself liking her immediately. You couldn’t trust instinct entirely – she’d known more than a few con artists who she could have sworn were upstanding citizens – but it was a good start.
“I’m Rapunzel,” the girl said, sticking out her hand.
Belle shook it, solemnly. “Welcome to the CIA, Rapunzel. I’m Belle, this is Adam, and the damned coffee machine is broken. Again.”
“Now that,” Rapunzel said, settling into a chair next to Belle, “is a tragedy. What kind of spy outfit are you running, without proper coffee?”
Belle looked at Adam. “This is what I’ve been saying.”
“And did I hear someone mention a Scrabble tournament?” Rapunzel continued, brightly.
“Rock paper scissors for her,” Adam said to Belle, sotto voce.
Belle grinned, lazy and sharp. “Nah. She’s all mine.”
Belle leaned on the piano in the small practice room, fixing Mulan with her best gimlet stare. “Tell me truthfully, how bad is it?”
Only three weeks until music juries, and she still needed to decide on her final program. If she chose her pieces wisely and sung her heart out on the day, Belle thought she had a good chance of not only passing her year, but winning the Potts Prize as well. The prize would be a great help next year – good accompanists like Mulan cost money, and so did travel for auditions, and concert tickets, and a new performance gown, and just about everything a young college singer needed.
Mulan pursed her lips, turning her sheet music back to the beginning. “Musically, you’re fine.”
“Great,” Belle said. That didn’t sound good. “And not-musically?”
A sophomore winning the Potts Prize would be something of an upset. Everyone expected Ariel to get it, and if not her, Aurora. That didn’t mean Belle couldn’t try, though. She was stubborn, talented, and competitive, and she hoped the combination would bring her luck.
“Well,” Mulan said, sounding like she was trying to be diplomatic, “it’s a bit too mannered right now. I think you could work on the phrasing a bit. And do you have someone helping you on the German diction?”
Belle sighed. “It just sits so perfectly in my voice.”
“It does,” Mulan agreed. “It definitely has potential, it just needs some work.” She ruffled her pages. “Again from the lead-in to Ich will nicht mit Fragen?”
After their rehearsal, Mulan left, and Belle slid onto the piano bench, staring at her music. She hated to give up “Ich gehör’ nur mir” – not only was it perfectly suited for her, but it fit just right in her program, balancing out her French and Broadway pieces.
“If only German wasn’t such a verdammt annoying language,” she muttered, glaring at the words. Most singers she knew liked German, but she’d grown up on French and had found it hard to make the transition. Her lullaby had been Les Berceaux, not Wiegenlied.
From the doorway, someone laughed.
It was a freshman with a pixie cut. Belle vaguely remembered seeing her around on the day Dr. Jasmine held auditions for the Chamber Singers. Since Belle’s choir of choice was jazz rather than classical, and the freshmen were off in first-year music theory with Professor Nedakh, their paths hadn’t crossed again.
She looked pleasant, though, her bright eyes sparkling. “I heard you singing Ich gehör’ nur mir,” she confessed, leaning on the doorframe. “I love that musical. Have you seen it live?”
“Not yet,” Belle said. “Though I’d like to. Have you?”
The freshman nodded. “My mother’s from Germany. My grandmother took me last year.”
Sometimes the universe aligned perfectly, and it seemed like today was going to be one of those days. Belle grinned. “You don’t happen to speak German, do you? I could use some diction pointers.”
Smiling, the freshman stepped into the practice room and dropped down on the piano bench next to Belle. “I do indeed,” she said, and turned the music back to the beginning.
Belle could feel the Potts Prize already in her grasp. And, she had the odd feeling, a new friendship as well.
Belle wasn’t entirely sure how she’d ended up volunteering to take her friend Cogsworth’s nephew to the zoo on her day off. She worked with animals enough during the week. Meandering through the reptile hall with a small sticky human in tow – a small sticky human who, moreover, kept giving her heart attacks by disappearing around corners – was not what she had in mind for a lovely Saturday in June.
“Rémy,” she said, tapping him on the shoulder, “we’re not supposed to put our noses against the glass.”
Her young charge obediently shuffled back a step, leaving an imprint of his nose behind, and never breaking eye contact with the python inside for a single second. They’d been through the entire reptile hall at least once already (Belle’s sore feet thought it might have been five times), but Rémy wasn’t flagging in the least. Reptiles were, apparently, his passion.
Belle sighed inwardly. He could have had a worse passion. She knew someone who devoted themselves to their glass slipper collection, which seemed slightly odd. Still, reptiles? She’d always been fond of the lions herself.
Chip, her graduate assistant, loved reptiles. Snakes, specifically - he had three at home, and his Christmas card this year had been him with the snakes wound round his shoulders. He’d promised her that if the snakes had any babies he’d name one after her; she wasn’t sure what she thought of that, exactly, but it would certainly be the most unique gesture of goodwill she’d received from a student. The earnest sophomore who’d baked her sugar cookies with chemical elements iced on top would at last be surpassed.
But she was woolgathering, and had, somewhat predictably, lost Rémy again.
She found him two cases over, talking to a young woman in a zoo uniform. “Is he bothering you?” she asked, apologetically. “He’s very keen on reptiles.”
“Not a bother at all,” the young woman said, smiling. “I was just telling him about Pascal.”
“Pascal’s awesome,” Rémy said, pulling at Belle’s sleeve. “He’s a chameleon. He can change colors to match the leaves or branches, and then things that want to eat him can’t see him.” His eyes were wide.
Seven-year-olds were easily awed, and Belle found herself smiling affectionately down at him. “Really?”
“Really truly,” Rémy said. “Rapunzel says that chameleons are really smart and that Pascal is the smartest chameleon ever. Do you think Uncle would let me get a chameleon? Mama says that she doesn’t like slithery things, but chameleons aren’t really slithery, are they? And maybe I could keep it at Uncle’s house, and see it every time I came over!”
“That’s a lot of questions,” Belle said, and squeezed his hand. She couldn’t imagine Cogsworth with a chameleon – were chameleons even house pets? She thought one of her friends in grad school had adopted an iguana, but that wasn’t the same – but stranger things had happened. Probably best to distract Rémy for the time being, however. “If Rapunzel isn’t busy, maybe she could tell us about some of the other reptiles.”
“I’d love to,” Rapunzel said, as Rémy burst in, “Chameleons! Tell us all about chameleons!”
An instant later, he’d been distracted by Pascal beginning to move, and bounded over to the side of the exhibit to get a closer view. “Sorry,” Belle told Rapunzel in an undertone, taking advantage of the moment’s respite. “He’s a bit high-energy.”
“I love it when kids get excited,” Rapunzel said, pulling a cloth out of her pocket and wiping away the worst of a nose-smudge on the glass. “I wish they could see the animals in their natural habitat, but for city kids especially, this is the closest they’ll get. And it’s wonderful to see their eyes light up.”
It was nice, Belle had to admit. Comparative endocrinology might be less confusing than small sticky humans, but endocrinology had never hugged her or begged for a pair of pythons for Christmas (on second thought, perhaps introducing Rémy to Chip had been where she had made her initial error of judgement). Her work was her child, but borrowing other people’s for field trips and Honorary Aunt duties wasn’t a bad job, all things considered.
Neither was spending time with a cute zoo employee, come to think of it.
“So,” Belle said, “tell me about how chameleons change their colors.”
(As pickup lines go, it wasn’t the best. Still, by the time the Reptile Hall closed and Belle had to haul a protesting Rémy back to his uncle’s, she had Rapunzel’s phone number.
She winked at Pascal on the way out.)
“So,” Belle asked, pouring herself another glass of champagne, “how do you know the grooms?”
The first time she’d been stuck at a singles table, she’d felt a bit awkward, but by now it was old hat. All her friends seemed to have paired up, so she rarely knew anyone at her table, but it was a great way to make friends. Plus, you often ended up with interesting anecdotes about the newlyweds.
The young woman on her left – Rapunzel, Belle remembered – was smiling. “I used to date Eugene. Back before he realized that I wasn’t, shall we say, what he was looking for.”
Belle set her glass down. “No way! I was Adam’s teenage sweetheart.”
They looked at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Do you think they realize,” Belle asked, “that they sat their exes next to each other?”
“Eugene might have done it on purpose,” Rapunzel said. “He’s a bit of a joker.”
Belle had only met him at Adam’s side, and hadn’t got to know him that well, but she could imagine him having a playful side. His eyes seemed to be caught in permanent twinkle (apart from the times when she’d caught him looking at Adam, the twinkle turned into full-out starry).
“Adam’s a bit stuffily dignified,” she said. “Even when we had a tiny apartment, he insisted on keeping a full set of company china and silverware. He even polished the silverware monthly.” She bit her lip, holding in more laughter. “I’m not sure if it’s a rule, exactly, not to sit exes next to each other, but I’m sure Adam would know. And he won’t be pleased.”
“I’m not sure if he’s capable of not being pleased today,” Rapunzel said, her eyes soft. “Look at them.”
Almost too sweet, Belle thought, as they both turned to look at the head table. Talk about a fairytale romance – she wouldn’t have thought shy, awkwardly dignified Adam and engaging ruffian Eugene would have got on together, but they had. Perhaps few fairytales started at a local gardeners’ club, but you only had to take a look at the way Eugene was adjusting the rose in his new husband’s buttonhole to know just how special this one was.
Belle, being a trifle wicked, caught Adam’s eye and waved, pointing to Rapunzel beside her.
“Belle!” Rapunzel said, laughing.
She knows my name, Belle thought, irrelevantly.
“I think,” she said instead, “that the universe has obviously dumped us in each other’s laps. We should definitely dance together when the party gets going.”
Rapunzel’s eyes twinkled nearly as much as Eugene’s. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with needling Adam?”
“Nah,” Belle said, sipping her champagne. “He’s like a brother to me. Teenage mismatch – he really wanted to be kissing boys and I really didn’t – but he’s a dear man and I’m glad he’s found love.”
Until today, she’d have said she was too old for love, in the self-consciously jaded manner she’d found herself adopting rather too often lately. She’d kissed a fair few toads in her time, but none had ever turned into a princess, and she was beginning to think fairy godmothers didn’t exist. Perhaps Adam had stolen all the fairytale magic that one city had a right to expect.
Somehow she felt a little less cynical today, however. Her stomach was fizzing oddly (though that might be the champagne – she didn’t trust Eugene not to have meddled with it), and even her breath was coming a bit more quickly. Rapunzel was very pretty, she realized, with that adorable pixie cut and those laughing eyes…
“You don’t have to be carrying a torch to want to tease someone,” Rapunzel said, quirking an eyebrow.
“All right, maybe I do want to tease him a little,” Belle admitted. She darted a glance at the head table again, where Adam and Eugene were deep in a murmured conversation. Adam was smiling shyly, and Eugene’s hand covered his on the tablecloth between them. Any minute someone would start clinking a glass again, and Adam would turn beet red but kiss his husband anyway, and everyone would die a little from the overwhelming magicalness.
Weddings got to Belle just a little bit, as much as she might try to act her age and deny it.
This was demonstrated by the fact that she didn’t leave well enough alone, but leaned in rashly to whisper in Rapunzel’s ear. “But mostly, I just want to dance with you.”
Now she’d gone too far. She’d barely met the woman! She should have gone more slowly, she should have made all that awkward small talk she wasn’t good at, asking about her job, her interests, her hobbies…
Rapunzel’s fingers closed for a moment over hers. “In that case,” she said, “who am I to say no to the universe?”
Adam and Eugene may or may not have exchanged a sneaky high-five under the table when they saw their exes heading to the dance floor together. They always denied it, just as they denied any matchmaking intent whatsoever.
The universe, however, knew better.
“I will hit you with this frying pan,” the shadows said.
Belle blinked. “Why?”
A girl with ridiculously long golden hair emerged, a chameleon on her shoulder. “Because you’re from outside,” she said, as if it was obvious. “Mother says there are ruffians and thugs and men with pointy teeth out in the world.”
She had a point there. “Well, there are,” Belle admitted. “But I’m not a ruffian, or a thug, and I’m certainly not a man with pointy teeth.” She grinned. “See? All my teeth are straight, and I’m a girl.”
The girl still looked dubious, but she lowered the frying pan slightly.
Belle was glad. She’d never been hit with a frying pan before, but she didn’t imagine it’d be a good experience. Why had she ever given in to her curiosity and come exploring in this part of the forest? Adam had said this part of the wood was a strange place. She’d ignored him, because it looked perfectly harmless and he was a worrywart, and see where it had landed her? Staring down the business end of a frying pan. She hadn’t even known frying pans had business ends.
“If you’re not a thug or a ruffian,” the girl asked, “why did you climb my tower?”
Belle shrugged ruefully, keeping a close eye on the frying pan. “I’m too curious for my own good. It comes from having an inventor for a father.”
The tower room she found herself in was quite homey (apart from culinary threats). Someone had painted elaborate murals over the walls, the air smelled of freshly baked cookies, and Belle’s expert eye picked out the books nestled into various nooks. “Your home is lovely,” she added. It never hurt to befriend your captor, however awkward it felt at first. She’d learned that with Adam, of course, and see where it had taken her! “Did you paint all these?”
That did the trick. The frying pan lowered all the way. “Yes,” the girl said, and smiled proudly.
Belle smiled back. Somehow, she felt, this was the start of a beautiful friendship.
(They just wouldn’t tell anyone it started at the end of a frying pan, or that it never would have happened if Belle hadn’t been incapable of passing strange towers without investigating them.)
“Here,” the girl said, reaching down and taking Belle’s arm. The chameleon was still regarding her suspiciously. “Let me show you the one I painted this morning.”
Belle was delighted.