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Curse Reverse LLC

Chapter Text

He was desperate. So desperate he turned to online forums for socialization, once a practiced he disparaged as being the sad shadow of a social life reserved for losers who lived in their moms’ basements.

And now, he grimly reflected, he was the basement-dweller trying desperately to make a connection. The fact that mom and dad were long gone out of the picture wasn’t exactly a plus.

Have you ever done something he typed into the universe (gingerly since his hands were not built for typing or anything requiring a light touch) that you didn’t think was a big deal at the time, but completely changed your life? Not for the better?

A bevy of replies followed, mostly concerning lost job opportunities, significant others who got away, being in the wrong place at the wrong time and losing college scholarships.

No he typed, frustrated with himself for even asking. Not petty bullshit. Something that eviscerated your life. Tore it apart. Ruined it. Something that you did that shouldn’t have been a big deal, but was.

Fewer replies then, but no less vapid, no less unimportant. Disappointments and petty grudges. Things that could be fixed.

Then:

Not me. But a relative. A great-grandmother. Ruined her life and her kids lives. And mine.

Username: imnoangel(a)

He hesitated over the keyboard, then messaged back:

What’d she do?

The reply came almost instantly.

You’d never believe me.

A mouthful of fangs were bared in a rare and frightening smile. Luckily there was no one around to see.

Try me. I’m pretty fucking gullible.

Chapter Text

Isabel Gonzalez lived in a neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification. The bodega on the corner had been there since forever. The coffee shop selling sour-tasting nitro cold brew had just shown up in the last year and never seemed to be open, except for when it was playing host to the metal band that seemed to rehearse only on nights when she had to get up in the morning.

Tonight was one of those nights. Bel pointedly glared at the frosted glass, as though the people inside could see her - or would care if they did. It was past ten o’clock in the nighttime for cripes’ sake, didn’t the city have laws about noise pollution? Maybe she’d look up the municipal code when she was at work and shove them passive-aggressively under the door the next time she walked past their rehearsal.

No, probably not. She was great at coming up with relatively harmless revenge plans against those who wronged her, but terrible at the follow-through. She’d probably spent the next day at work playing Text Twist on the computer, compulsively clearing the search history every time a manager walked behind her.

Bel shivered as a breeze whipped through the line of buildings. She should have worn a jacket or something. The days were warm, but the nights were still plunging down below fifty. She hadn’t meant to walk this far or this long. She just wanted to get out of the house, away from the noise of the band playing in the coffee shop, from the snores of her father who could sleep through anything.

It had to be past midnight, but there wasn’t anyone else outside. They weren’t so close to downtown that anyone was spilling out of trendy night spots and restaurants. And they weren’t so close to the bus terminal that anyone was sequestered in doorways, asking for a light, a smoke, some change. Just another little immigrant neighborhood playing host to more and more college kids as the families that had been living there aged or were priced out of their tenaments. Just like all the other crappy little neighborhoods on the edge of major cities that she and dad had been living in since he got out of the army and she graduated from college with a B.A. in English and no desire to get an M.A. so she could teach.

Aimless vagabonds, the Gonzalez two, hard workers without end goals. Dad had given his life to the military for years, until he bounced off the glass ceiling and wound up on their couch, trying to turn his tremendous technical know-how to work designing an app that would CHANGE THE WORLD (all-caps). Bel had devoted her life to the acquisition of knowledge, with college as the endgame. And she’d done phenomenally, at least as far as language arts was concerned. She got 5s on all her AP exams, even took a class in Old and Middle English freshman year, since she’d tested out of Brit Lit 101. All things considered, it was a fantastic four years.

The only problem was, no one had exactly told her what she was supposed to do with her 4.1 GPA after college ended.

Being a student forever was appealing, but she didn’t have the money for grad school. And, anyway, what would she do after grad school ended? The idea of a ‘career’ just wasn’t appealing.

“You should be a writer!” Dad mentioned, at least twice a day. “You love books!”

Yeah. She loved to read books. That other people had written. Already done and published and proof-read and everything. Bel considered herself a woman of excellent taste and tremendous imagination - but imagination was not creativity. When it came to being creative on her own, without the guiding help of an author’s world and vision, she came up flat.

Bel’s midnight wandering had taken her to Felt N’ Fun Puppet Emporium, a store she long assumed was a front, but that she enjoyed walking by anyway. The floor to ceiling windows were crammed full of painted and stuffed life-size puppets and marionettes. Most of them were freaky-looking, like Muppets from Outer Space or the darkest abyss. Huge round blue heads with bulging eyes and sharp teeth, stringy green creations of coiled springs and long, noodly limbs.

Some little kids in the neighborhood insisted their moms and abuelas take them across the street so they wouldn’t have to pass too close. Bel liked to press her nose up against the glass, trying to peer behind the wacky creations into the interior of the shop, trying to get a glimpse of some artist or craftsman inside. She liked their funky monsters, an imagining of if Cookie Monster from Sesame Street hooked up with Cthulhu. But she’d never seen anyone. The store was always closed weekends, closed when she left for work in the morning, closed when she came home at night.

She wasn’t sure what she’d do if she saw someone in there. Maybe wave awkwardly, give them a thumb’s up, mouth, ‘I LIKE YOUR STUFF!’ at them before shuffling back home. Vaguely hope they’d open the door, invite her in. She liked to imagine that she and the creator of the monsters in the window would be friends. Kindred spirits. Bosom friends, to quote Anne of Green Gables.

Bel squinted into the darkness beyond the fluff vinyl. Nothing. No sound. No light. But also no dust, she noted, turning on the flashlight feature on her phone. There had to be a caretaker, someone had to come through periodically. Unless the storefront was just vacuum-sealed and no one had been inside for years and years. The thought made her sad; she thought the freaky creations in the window must get lonely, somewhere in their little stuffing hearts.

Having failed in her mission, this was usually the point where Bel would go home, but she was particularly restless that night and walked around the side of the building into the empty alleyway where the metal door stood shut as always. Peering around the corner, she was startled by the sight of a big...something in the alley.

Her first thought was, ‘Chewbacca,’ because it looked like a Wookie - one that had been dabbling in performance enhancing drugs. The hulking figure had to be seven feet tall and furry - though the head was more leonine in the light of her phone than the Star Wars character, topped with impressive curling horns, like a gargoyle. So cool.

So someone was going in and out of the place. That had to be the latest addition to the menagerie of colorful characters in the window. Well, not as colorful. Despite the huge proportions and giant head (plus horns!) Alleyway Chewie was a dull shade of dark brown.

“Aww, what are you doing out here all alone, big guy?” she asked, because no one could ever accuse Bel Gonzalez of being the kind of normal person who didn’t talk to puppets. “Did someone forget the keys and just leave you?”

The light of her phone wasn’t enough to illuminate Alleyway Chewie all at once, but the light caught on the heavy horns, the thick fur, the onyx black claws...and the most gorgeous pair of glass blue eyes she’d ever seen. They had to have been painted over with laquer because they glittered in the light, almost wetly. Like real eyes.

Bel approached to get a closer look, because hey, you don’t leave your amazing artistic creation outside and not expect people to want to look at it, do you? And there really didn’t seem to be anyone around; crazy that they wouldn’t worry about their beyond awesome sculpture-puppet (was it a suit?) getting stolen.

Then it moved. Bel jumped back, startled when a shudder went through the thing, as though the puppet had been holding its breath and just couldn’t take it anymore. The huge barrel chest moved up and down rapidly. The eyes blinked.

“Whoa!” she exclaimed, delighted with the turn her midnight ramblings had taken. These were some Jurrassic Park-level animatronics and she was impressed. “That’s amazing! Whoever you are! With the remote...or are you in there?”

Even rising on her toes didn’t put her at eye-level with anything other than Alleyway Chewie’s chest, but she assumed that was where the eyes would be for a person inside the suit. She looked for some kind of mesh covering under the fur, a place where it was fainter, lighter, giving the actor or performer a way to peer out, but she couldn’t find one. Even as the chest moved up and down with the evident breathing of the creature.

Back up to the head she looked - it had moved. The expression on the mouth had changed -

Eyelashes.

The thought came unbidden, making her heart thud hard, making her breathing accelerate, much like the breathing of the puppet, the performer in the suit, the...the...

The creature had eyelashes. What kind of sculptor put eyelashes on a puppet? Or eyelashes on a creature suit.

There was warmth radiating off the body. The black snout shone faintly with moisture. The air, where it was expelled, misted out of the mouth.

The creature blinked again. So did Bel.

“Oh,” she said, not quite to reconcile what she thought she was seeing to...what she was most definitely seeing. “Um. Okay. Good...good-night. Sorry to have...um.”

She took a step backwards, stumbling on something on the ground, but she caught herself before she found up sprawled on the pavement before the creature. My, grandmother, what big teeth you have…

Against her better survival instincts, Bel looked down and realized she’d tripped on a ring of keys on a big black carabiner.

“I, uh…”

Bel’s head snapped up. A deep, growling rumble came from the creature’s chest, out its throat - it took her brain a minute to process the fact that it...um...he...uh…they? had spoken. English, even. English words in sentences.

The creature cleared its throat, which sounded like a cross between a Great Dane growling and a motorcycle engine revving up.

“I dropped my keys.”

It spoke. It honest-to-God spoke. She wasn’t sure if that was more reassuring or more terrifying. She decided to be reassured; it wasn't like being terrified was going to help her any.

Bel bent down to pick up the keys; it felt like the polite thing to do, since she had less far to go to pick them up. The metal hook was broken, swinging uselessly, snapped back on its hinge.

“Here you go,” she said, voice steady despite the shaking in her knees. She held the keys out, looking up into the creature’s eyes. Be polite, even to non-human things - especially to non-human things. It was why she always said ‘Please’ to Alexa and pet the printer at work, told it that it was a good boy. She wanted to have some allies during the robot apocalypse. Though, as she belatedly determined, this was not a robot.

After hesitation, the creature extended one of its enormous...hands? Paws? There were four fingers on each appendage, opposable thumbs. But the claws looked lethal and the palms were rough and leathery, like the pads of a dog’s feet.

The creature turned the limb, palm up, fingers lightly curled. Bel dropped the keys into the waiting hand (yeah, go with hand).

“Thanks,” it (he? Would it be too heteronormative to assume she was talking to a he?) replied, lowering the great big head as if it was embarrassed.

“No problem,” she replied automatically. Then, realizing she might not get another opportunity, finding an oasis of calm in a situation so freaky that it didn’t seem to call for any reaction but calm added, “Um. I like your puppets.”

The creature raised its head. The mouth - lips, fangs, heavy jowls, all surrounded by a thick mane of fur - quirked up into something that might have been a smile, but it vanished before Bel was sure. “They’re not my puppets.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed, suddenly embarrassed and thinking she might not have as many allies in the robot apocalypse as she originally thought. “Sorry! Are...are they - ”

“Puppets,” the creature said, its speech easier to understand now. “Definitely puppets. I didn’t make them, though. Just...to clarify.”

“Oh. Okay,” Bel said, glancing over her shoulder, looking for...what she didn’t know. Maybe another person to confirm that she was in fact having a conversation with Chewbacca’s burlier, more manticore-looking cousin, but no sooner had she turned her head away than there was a wrenching sound as the door was flung open and she turned back just in time to see the creature duck through the metal door.

Maybe I’m hallucinating, she mused, but, nope, the interaction was confirmed when she saw the deep grooves in the door created by Alleyway Chewie’s claws, the slightly off-kilter repositioning of the door in the frame. Apparently the creature had foregone the keys and just busted its way inside.

Go home, she told herself, when she realized she’d been staring at the ruined door waiting for...what? That invitation inside she thought she’d wanted?

It didn’t seem likely. So Bel took a deep breath and turned to go, making one last-ditch effort to be polite because...well, she didn’t know what else to do.

“Um. Goodnight,” she called back down the alley. Silence. Maybe she could write the thing off as a sleepwalking incident…

“Goodnight,” the growly, vocal chords-in-a-blender-that-has-been-chucked-down-a-canyon voice replied.

Huh. Maybe they had similar plans for surviving the coming apocalypse. Bel tried to find non-human allies. And the creature tried to find human ones.

Chapter Text

Impulse control was a quality the Beast did not possess in abundance. Hindsight, yes, he had plenty of that. Enough to know, immediately, that he should have used his keys rather than just wrenched the door off its hinges.

“You know,” an obnoxiously-French accented voice sounds behind him. “At first, I think to myself, ‘Oh! That awful noise! Surely something terrible has happened.’ So I rouse myself from my comfortable bed and I run, to the rescue, I think! Only to find that there is no emergency. Just you being you. You understand the tragedy of the situation.”

The Beast turned around and immediately wished he hadn’t.

“You couldn’t put some pants on before you ‘ran to the rescue’?” he asked, hand over his eyes, vision of Jean-Marc’s dangly bits...well, dangling forever imprinted behind his eyelids.

“Pants would slow me down,” Jean replied off-handedly. “And look who’s talking!”

“It was a long night,” the Beast replied, eyes still covered because, though he could hear the sound of Jean’s bare feet on the ground, he didn’t hear anything that sounded remotely like pants being put back on. A second set of footfalls joined in, significantly softer, but that wasn’t a surprise; Angela constantly complained that the floor was cold and so wore slippers in the house.

“Could you guys try to keep it down?” she asked, voice harried and harrassed. “And - WHOA! Pants! Immediately! Pants. I did not join up to become a member of a society of nudists, thank you not at all!

“Fine, fine!” Jean said, walking in the direction of his room. “I was going out anyway.”

“You might have a little trouble with the door…” the Beast mumbled under his breath, peeking out through his fingers so that he could see that the coast was clear.

It was, this time it was Angela who was standing by, both hands clasped over her eyes, hair contained under a knotted headscarf for sleeping. He did feel badly that he’d woken her up, even if he couldn’t extend the same empathy to Jean who did most of his living at night - not out of necessity, out of choice. Whatever, if they couldn’t get the door unstuck, he was skinny enough to shimmy out a window; he’d done it before plenty of times.

“Do I want to know what happened to your clothes?” Angela asked, eyes still covered.

The Beast shrugged and slunk off towards his room, “Some kind of demonic insectoid mucus defense - it was incredibly sticky and incredibly gross, I dumped my clothes in a trash bin, figured no one would see me, but…”

He trailed off thinking of that ridiculously chill girl from the alley. It had been too dark to see much of her (and she kept shining the light from her phone in his eyes which didn’t help). While he was standing there, watching her watching him, he assumed she was like them, but somehow he doubted it. Just an uncannily composed Hispanic girl with big brown eyes and bigger brown hair. Who wished him good-night.

The Beast rummaged through his drawers until he found a pair of adequate pajama bottoms (specially sized and ordered from the internet, customized for tail accommodation because his life was just that awful) to protect Angela Potts’s modesty.

When he emerged he found the source of her irritation. The only thing that would bother her more than finding her two male coworkers-cum-roomies naked in the living room would be the fact that their antics had woken up her little charge. Chip stood by in a pair of Spiderman PJs, holding a stuffed bear, looking as wide awake as Angela looked exhausted.

“Hi, Boss!” he chirruped, full of more pep and energy than any creature - human or not - had the right to feel at midnight (except for Jean-Marc who’d clearly been sleeping all day). “Did you get in a fight? Did you win?”

Angela gave him a look that clearly read as He’s all yours, and shuffled back to her room, shutting the door gently behind her.

“I won, my shirt lost,” the Beast informed him, realizing that his night of relaxing downtime, accompanied by Trader Joe’s burritos, the last episode of Survivor and the first episode of The Bachelorette were indelibly squashed. He’d brought it on himself. Once again he kicked himself for not using his keys.

“That’s good!” Chip said enthusiastically with a gap-toothed grin. “You can always get a new shirt!”

Yep. $55.99 for custom orders.

“Hey, Boss?” Chip asked, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, shifting his teddy from arm to arm. “Mama said I can stay up and watch TV with you. CanIcanIcanI?”

“Sure,” the Beast said, because it wasn’t like he could refuse without risking a trembling lower lip and tears and the wrath of Angela. “Let me check my messages, first, okay?”

“Okay!” Chip agreed, bounding over to the couch. And settling himself down on the chaise - in the Beast’s preferred lounge spot, specifically lengthened with the addition of an ottoman at the end. Because of course he did. Even though he was three feet tall and didn’t even fill up one cushion’s worth of room on the sectional.

The Beast put five burritos in the microwave (he was an expert at arranging them so they cooked evenly, one of his few useful life skills) and checked his messages. First, telegram. Then, the shortwave, followed by answering machine. Then he checked his email for any notifications from the various antiquities departments, libraries, or auction houses that Cogsworth liked to leave vital communication in. Nothing.

Normally he would have checked his cell phone voicemail, but after the last one was destroyed (crushed, to be accurate, in his pocket because he fell on it) he was dismayed to find out that the store no longer carried a non-touch screen version of his phone. Since he didn’t have fingerprints, he couldn’t use a touch screen and the new phone sat, useless, on the coffee table.

Poking his head out of the kitchen, he was just in time to find Jean-Marc, dressed for the night, climbing onto a chair to make an escape out of one of the high living room windows that looked out onto the street.

“Could you check my messages?” he asked.

Jean smiled at him, charmingly, perfect white teeth set against perfectly smooth dark skin. “You fix the door, I check your messages,” he said, like that was a fair compromise. “You know, I don’t like to start my night already filthy from the sidewalk - ”

“Let’s not talk about filthy,” the Beast growled, eyes narrowing down at Jean, staring smugly up at him. Decidedly not covered in giant insectoid slime. “If you’d gotten off your lazy - ”

“Ah!” Jean held up one gloved hand to stop him. “Language! In front of l’enfant! Tsk, tsk, mon patron.”

Chip had already turned on PJ Masks and was thoroughly absorbed, so the Beast just flipped Jean off, rather than cursing him out. Jean laughed and climbed out the window, leaving the voicemails unchecked.

The Beast stood over Chip on the couch, plate of burritos in one hand, a 32 oz Gatorade in the other. “Here’s the deal, kid,” he said gruffly. “You finish this episode. Then you can hang out on two conditions: One, you let me have my seat. Two, you let me watch my shows.”

Chip tapped his chin consideringly. “Can I have a popsicle?”

He’d probably brushed his teeth already, but one post-toothpaste popsicle wasn’t likely to do him any harm. “Yeah, sure.”

“Okay!” Chip said, springing over to make room on the couch. He patted the chaise invitingly, like he was the one doing the Beast a solid.

The Beast sat heavily on the couch, feet up, head back, hating everything about his life. It was a low and constant thrum, hating his life, and everything about it, but tonight the hatred was especially virulent, exacerbated by unhelpful and pissed off coworkers, unexpected babysitting, and an annoying kids’ show. And this wasn’t hanger (Angela attributed most of his bad moods to the Beast being hungry, like his life was a Snickers commercial). Even after scarfing down all the burritos and half the Gatorade he didn’t feel any better.

As he took the old people remote with the huge keys (the only kind of remote he could actually use with his stupidly giant paw-hands), the Beast scrolled through the DVR until he found the show he wanted, pleased that Jean-Marc hadn’t taped over it with some crap from the classic movie channel.

The screen went black, then lit up with Jeff Probst’s familiar face in front of a live studio audience.

“Who’s that?” Chip asked, pointing at the face of the first featured contestant.

“Dom.”

Two seconds later. “Who’s that?”

“Wendell.”

One second later. “Who’s that lady?”

“Laurel.”

“And that guy?”

“Donathan.”

“Jonathan?”

“No. Stop talking.”

“You didn’t say,” Chip began in an infuriatingly I-know-better-than-you singsong tone the Beast hated, “I had to be quiet. You said you had to have your seat and I had to let you watch your shows and I could stay!”

Sometimes the Beast could forget just what Chip was, his origins, who’d made him. It was times like this though, that his nature was painfully obvious.

Not his fault, the Beast reminded himself before he yelled at him. He can’t help it. Don’t get pissed.

“I also said you could have a popsicle,” the Beast said, back teeth gritted and grinding down. “So go get one.”

“Okay!” Chip hopped off the couch, leaving the bear behind. He returned a minute later with a cherry popsicle, already dripping down his chin. The bear he clutched in one arm, the other he wound around the Beast’s left forearm, tucking his head into his side, dripping cold, sticky popsicle juice into his fur.

Still. He wasn’t talking.

The Beast tried to concentrate on the show, the challenges, the interpersonal drama. It helped, sort of. To turn off his brain and focus on the pettiest, manufactured conflict network TV had to offer. Helped him forget how ridiculous and awful his life was. How much he hated living it.

Usually it was just one crappy thing after another. But tonight...his thoughts drifted back to the girl in the alley. Freakishly composed after coming face-to-face with something out of a nightmare. The one who’d bid him good-night. Giant, pus-filled insectoids and terrible Haitian roommates aside, she was the strangest thing he’d encountered all day. So freakishly normal amidst all the supernatural crap that took up his time.

He wished he’d gotten a better look at her. Wished he’d...but, no, that was stupid. To wish he’d said something more interesting than ‘I dropped my keys.’ Why? It wasn’t like he was ever going to see her again. No doubt she’d assume the whole thing was a sleepwalking incident. There wasn’t even any reason he should want to see her again.

Even so, as the drama mounted over a fire-making challenge and the Beast felt his mind start to wander, it kept wandering back to her. Brown eyes. Curly hair. Calm.

Chapter Text

Bel risked being late for work, taking the long way to the library just to walk past Felt N’Fun again. The creatures in the windows stared down at her as usual, from black, empty eye sockets with de-powered LED pupils. Everything looked totally normal. For a second she thought she really had dreamed the whole thing.

But she went into the alley next to the building and looked at the door. Four grooves where claws had been dug in. Deep, wide impressions next to them from the pressure of huge, strong fingers. She traced the marks with her own index finger, feeling the smooth indentations in the metal, before the more jagged places etched by those thick, black claws.

I didn’t make it up, I’m not crazy, I don’t need to stop taking Zzzquil, she thought to herself as she took a picture with her phone, as a reminder if she started doubting herself later in the day.

If only she’d taken a picture of the creature himself! (She couldn’t stop herself from calling the creature ‘he,’ the creature just struck her as being very dudely.) The voice she couldn’t forget, it was so rough and deep and memorable. But the physical form was already beginning to escape her, since she hadn’t gotten a good look. Big head, mane of brown fur. Horns. Fangs. Claws. And those eyes.

If she’d been designing such a creature she never would have gone for big blue eyes, bright and piercing like a summer sky. Not her, she would have gone for goat eyes since goats had the coolest pupils. Yellow. Or maybe red. Something vaguely wicked and intimidating. The entire ‘I’m a big scary monster’ look was kind of diminished when you looked into those eyes. At least it had been for her.

She wished she was an artist, so she could have rough sketched her impressions of the creature before the memory faded with sleep, but creativity (as ever) wasn’t her strong suit. The best she could manage was a stick figure with big teeth and a squiggly line around the head meant to indicate a ruff of fur. Hardly photorealistic.

Maybe I should leave a note, she thought as she peered up at the door, stuffed back in its frame on a slight angle. Had a great time meeting you! What’s your life story?

But she didn’t have a pen or paper on her and the morning was wasting away - she had to get to work after all.

Before she started her purposeful stroll in the direction of the library, she did stop to try the front door on the off-chance that the shop was open and the proprietor forgot to put the sign out. Locked. Closed. No posted hours of operation. Damn it.

The city library was a gorgeous building surrounded by urban decay. A product of the ‘20s when civic-minded individuals left fortunes to build grand edifices to knowledge and the city burned through their endowments in two decades then tried to keep the place open and relevant on what meager funds they wring out of the city council every year. That was what had happened to their branch, a beautiful shell with tall white columns overlooking a cracking front staircase that led out to a small lawn, set back from the sidewalk that was littered with cigarette butts and little plastic nip bottles.

Bel had to ring the doorbell and wait to be let in at the side entrance before she could begin her labors. When they hired full-time circulation assistants, she made sure to mention her credentials as a lover of literature with a wide breadth of knowledge, all-encompassing literary tastes, and expert Googling skills.

'Great,' Thea, the director, had said pleasantly at her job interview. 'We could use a Readers’ Advisor to supplement the Reference staff.'

She did maybe two Readers’ Advisory questions a week. The rest of her time was spent emptying book drop, shelving, and directing people to the bathroom. Also fielding complaints.

No sooner had she donned her nametag and taken her place behind the circ desk than she was accosted by one of their regulars: ‘Roid Rage.

Not that his name was ‘Roid Rage. Not that she knew what his actual name was since he didn’t seem to have a library card. In fact, as Bel looked him over, she struggled to remember if he’d ever actually set foot in the library before. Usually the staff saw him outside, getting his cardio in before opening, running up and down the front stairs, contributing to the cracks and damage with every heavy step.

As the nickname implied, it appeared that he dabbled with the sort of nutritional supplements that couldn’t be procured from the neighborhood GNC. In short, he was huge, six-foot something and built like The Rock (not a rock, The Rock) which ordinarily would have pinged some of her ‘Damn, boy’ buttons, but his tight t-shirts with an interchangeable litany of motivational fitness phrases ‘Cheat on your girlfriend, not your workout,’ and ‘Friends don’t let friends skip leg day,’ nipped any potential attraction in the bud.

But she needed to be a professional. And the library was for everyone. Even ‘Roid Rage.

“Hi, can I help you?” she asked, smiling in a blandly pleasant way.

‘Roid Rage leaned his sweaty forearms on the desk, causing Bel to instinctively shift away from him, leaning back on her heels.

Personal space, dude.

“Your water fountain’s not working,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder with one thumb all while maintaining uncomfortably long eye contact with her.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Bel replied in a rehearsed, falsely sympathetic tone. “The pipes are old and need to be replaced, we’re hoping to get it done before the end of summer.”

‘Roid Rage shook his mostly-empty gallon container of water. “I need to refill. Refilling is refueling.”

“You’re welcome to go ahead and use one of the sinks in the bathroom, the pipes were replaced last year, so - ”

‘Roid Rage blinked at her - it was the first time he blinked since the interaction began and Bel was filled with a palpable sense of relief. “I’m not - you expect me to use bathroom water?”

Bel nodded and patiently re-explained that the bathroom plumbing had been replaced last year and they were no longer experiencing any difficulties with the water in the public restrooms. That did not satisfy ‘Roid Rage.

“But...but…” he spluttered, aghast. He took his arms off the counter, leaving moist patches behind. “But that’s where the toilets are! That’s disgusting!”

Do you not brush your teeth in your bathroom sink at home?

The question popped into her mind, but she bit down on her tongue to keep from voicing it aloud.

“Well, I’m afraid that’s the only solution I have,” she said with a helpless shrug. “There’s a convenience store down the street - ”

The forearms were back on the desk and ‘Roid Rage leaned even closer this time, prompting Bel to take an automatic step back.

“Come on,” he said in a tone that he probably thought was sweetly cajoling, but Bel found so greasy it reminded her of an oil slick. He glanced down at her chest and she felt flustered and offended until she realized he was just reading her name badge. “Isabel - do people call you Izzy?”

Nope,” she said flatly, all trace of her bland smile now gone. “Bel. As in Telephone Company.”

‘Roid Rage’s eyebrows contracted as he tried to parse her statement. Failing to understand he shrugged to himself, then cocked an eyebrow, smirking, “What if I call you Izzy?”

“I wouldn’t respond,” she said, eyes sweeping from side to side to see if she was in earshot of a supervisor. “Since that’s not my name.”

Rather than looking either chastened or annoyed by her insolent tone, ‘Roid Rage just smiled wider.

“You’re sassy, I like sassy. Well, Izzy,” he said, shaking his water container again. “I’m sure you’ve got a staff room kitchen or something you could just take a walk on down to and refill this for me. If I say please and all that. Don’t you?”

Nope,” she said, shaking her head resolutely. “We don’t. Sorry. Like I said, there’s a public restroom - ”

“I’ll take that for you,” Josh, another one of the circ assistant said. Bel had noticed him coming upstairs with a handcart stacked with delivery, but hadn’t notice him abandon the cart and make a beeline for ‘Roid Rage. “It’s no trouble at all.”

‘Roid Rage’s smile dimmed only slightly and just for a second before he handed the empty container over. “Thanks - I really appreciate that, man.”

“No problem,” Josh said, smiling broadly up at him. Bel distinctly heard him mutter, “Dibs,” as he brushed by her on his way to the staff room.

You can have him, she tried to communicate telepathically as she turned away from ‘Roid Rage and unpacked the first box of delivery. She figured Josh would be back in a minute or two and ‘Roid Rage would jog off, never to be seen again except for when they glimpsed him pummeling the front steps.

No such luck. Even after Josh returned, water jug filled to the brim, ‘Roid Rage didn’t leave. He uncapped the jug and started downing it like he was doing a keg stand, swallowing really loudly. When he’d ‘refueled’ he lingered by the desk, vainly trying to start a conversation.

“You know, this is the first time I’ve been here since I was a kid,” he said, glancing around. “It’s basically the same. Only now you guys have DVDs. That’s pretty cool. How much is it to rent them? I’m a Prime member, but they don’t have everything.”

Josh tried to take over the interaction, but ‘Roid Rage seemed to only want to get his answers from Bel.

“It’s free with your library card,” she said.

‘Roid Rage laughed, “I don’t have a library card. My grandma got me one when I was, like, four, but I never used it.”

“You might still be in the system,” Bel said, hoping he’d pick out some movies and leave. “Want me to look you up?”

“Oh, do I,” ‘Roid Rage said, waggling an eyebrow at her in a way she would have interpreted as an exaggerated attempt at humor, except he didn’t seem to think he was joking.

Bel was all business as she looked up his library card (turned out his name was Foster Gumm - of all the name she could have picked for him, ‘Foster’ didn’t even make it into the top twenty, she assumed his parents would have set his path early and named him something like Chad or Brick). It was there, but it was expired. She updated it, with his current address, email, and cell number.

Can I have yours?” he asked bluntly.

Bel stared at him. “My library card number? No.”

Foster laughed, “No, your cell number.”

“Oh,” she replied, feeling slightly taken back. It wasn’t that she thought she was hideous by any stretch of the imagination (actually she had really good skin and decent eyebrows), but she wasn’t particularly thin, nor did she dress to show off whatever assets she might possess. Not the kind of girl most guys looked twice at. Especially not guys who clearly cared about their appearance as much as Foster did. “Um. Still no.”

“What?” he asked, as though he’d lost his understanding of the English tongue temporarily. Then his expression cleared and he smiled. “I get it. This is a work thing. Mad respect. When do you get off your shift?”

Thank God the phone rang.

“Excuse me a minute,” she said, then picked up the phone and became involved in a blessedly long conversation with a patron who wanted to know the individual due dates of all five books, fifteen CDs, and ten movies they had out, then had an additional list of titles she needed to look up.

Foster turned out to have either a very short attention span or a very strict workout schedule. He glanced down at his phone when it sounded an alarm and waved to get her attention.

‘SEE YOU AROUND’ he mouthed, then jogged off toward the front door, water in his jug sloshing around.

Josh was standing by with his arms folded, a frown on his face when she finally got off the phone fifteen minutes later.

“I thought I called dibs,” he said crossly.

“I’ll give him your number if he ever comes back and asks again,” she rolled her eyes, confident she’d seen the last of Foster Gumm in that library.

The morning’s interaction was so out of the ordinary and bizarre that she almost forgot about her much more bizarre encounter from the night before, at least until she came back from her lunch break.

“Bel, can you check Elyse’s email?” Thea asked. Their children’s library was out on vacation and the task of looking at the children’s email account had fallen to Bel in her absence. Mostly it was parents concerned about finding their kid’s summer reading assignment, nothing she couldn’t handle, along with the occasionally solicitor of various children’s programs. Those emails she replied to in the negative, since the summer programming line-up was already in the bag.

There was one such email in Elyse’s inbox and Bel was prepared to copy and paste the standard rejection until she saw where it was from.

Felt N’ Fun Workshop Tour, ALL-AGES!

The email was limited on details, but the person who sent it (a Chas. Worth), said he’d be happy to conduct a private tour for the facilities director to see what they offered.

Bel made a split-second decision. She forwarded the email to herself and erased it from Elyse’s inbox.

Mr. Worth, she wrote, heart pounding since she knew she was doing something against the rules, but she soldiered on anyway. The children’s librarian is out of town this week, but the library will send a representative in her stead - Isabel Gonzalez - at the date and time you specified.

The reply came so quickly that Bel assumed Chas. Worth must have had his phone in his hand when she sent it.

That would be delightful. I look forward to our meeting.

Me too, Bel thought, feeling a small thrill of excitement.

She might have been short on creativity, but she was big on curiosity. It wouldn’t write her any books, but it might be the start of an interesting adventure. And she'd always wanted to have an adventure.

Chapter Text

Eventually, with enough coaxing (okay, bellowing, but who needed to be that specific?) Jean uncrusted his eyelids and prised himself out of his booze-coma long enough to check their messages.

“Spot of bother!” Cogsworth’s voice sounded like it was a million miles away - and god knew, he might have been. “It appears I’ve made an appointment I cannot keep - Tuesday...two-thirty pip-emma! If you would be so good...keep it. Just upstairs, you see! Managed to pop in and, ah, un-fermer-la-porte, as it were - ”

“He says shit like that to torture me,” Jean rolled his eyes and winced at Cogsworth’s crappy French.

...but had to...ah, well, couldn’t be helped! If one of you stalwarts could just make your way topside, I’d be very much obliged…

The Beast frowned and asked Jean-Marc to replayed the message twice, but the sound kept fading in and out, even with the phone’s volume turned all the way up. Tuesday. Two-thirty. Today was a Tuesday, but which Tuesday?

“Can you - ”

The Beast should have known, even before the words were out of his mouth what Jean’s reply was going to be.

“No. Non. In any language - no,” he said, shuffling off back to bed. He’d emerged from his room, wrapped in a blanket, under which he probably wasn’t wearing anything. The Beast supposed he ought to feel some level of gratitude for that consideration, but he couldn’t feel anything at all except for annoyance.

So, Cogsworth was out, Jean was indisposed (read: deeply hungover), Angela was in class, and Chip was...five (practically, if not literally speaking). Which meant he was required to do the schmoozing for everyone. Shit.

Usually when they were contacted by a client or (more commonly) Cogsworth put someone in their path who needed help, the person in question had seen more than their fair share of freaky stuff. Songs coming out of the odd scraps of greenery in the city that called themselves parks. Supposedly inanimate objects moving around on their own. Pets drained of blood, or eviscerated with a barbarity too animalistic to be human and a precision too human to be animal (they didn’t let Chip go on those calls).

But most people still weren’t prepared to make small-talk with a monster. Or to believe that a monster was the answer to their problems. When their little rag-tag group of freaks got together, the Beast figured he’d be the mastermind and the muscle, but very much take a background role. Jean-Marc was the face of the organization, with the charm and smile that convinced their clients that it would be okay in the end. Angela was the brains, with just the right combination of common sense and magical know-how to dismantle straight-forward hexes and complicated jinxes. His expertise mostly came with maintaining their website and punching things. Client meetings were very much Not His Thing.

You need to put on a different face and get yourself a better attitude, his father used to berate him, years ago, chiding him over his lack of ambition. Well, he had a different face now, but not one his father had ever envisioned.

Still, there was nothing to be done. Whatever this person’s problem was, the Beast would help out, even if it meant scaring the crap out of them first.

The Beast dragged himself upstairs, into the puppet shop of horrors. For location, they couldn’t beat their current space in the basement, but he would never deny that the creepy puppet show upstairs unnerved him deeply. For all the encounters he had with neighborhood brujas, centuries-mad alchemists, run-of-the-mill mad scientists, and extradimensional slime monsters, there was still something unsettling about the creations in the window.

When Jean-Marc found the place (on Craigslist, naturally), the Beast thought they’d been asked to do an exorcism. But nope. It was just an abandoned commercial space, left years ago when the artist who owned the building gave it up.

Because it was haunted? he asked Jean-Marc, wanting to poke one of the puppets to see if it reacted, but not quite daring to.

No, because making puppets does not make money, Jean-Luc replied, looking at him a little oddly.

Not since Punch and Judy, Cogsworth reflected sadly. Apparently neither of them had ever read a book from the Goosebumps series or seen a Twilight Zone episode since they couldn’t understand his reluctance to move in and thus overrode his vote when it came time to choose a new living space. So far, none of the puppets had gone on a murder-spree. And they provided a decent cover; no one could see behind them from the outside, which made for an optimal meeting space for clients.

Still, the Beast always kept one eye on them when he had to go upstairs. Just in case -

And then, as he lumbered up the stairs, squeezing out the side door, he saw out of the corner of his eye, qne of the puppets moved.

Though he’d been expecting the demon felt upstairs to go rogue ever since they moved in, the Beast still didn’t take well to being startled. His reaction was, predictably, to scream and let forth a colorful array of swearwords, some of which he just made up on the spot. Of course, given his current state, most of his horrified surprise and inventive use of the English language merely sounded like one indistinct roar.

The (presumably evil) puppet didn’t respond. But whoever was standing behind it screamed bloody murder, if not as loudly as the Beast, then about fifteen octaves higher. His hands went over his ears and he winced.

Abruptly the scream cut off. The Beast opened his eyes and saw her. The girl from last night. In the shop. Like, in front of him. He almost rubbed his eyes to see if she was real (and his keys were still broken, so it wasn’t like he imagined her or anything, no need to stop double dosing Unisom).

The girl blinked at him, looking him up and down as he was doing with her, not quite sure if he was there. Then, weirdness of weirdness, she broke out in this huge grin and said, “Hey! How are you? Are you the, um, tour guide?”

Cute smile, he thought. Which was objectively true, she had a round face and dimples, which he hadn’t realized he thought were hot before, but -

Holy shit, get it together! What is wrong with you?

Trying to recover rather than blink at the girl (Isabel, her nametag read...why was she wearing a nametag?), he cleared his throat and repeated, “Uh...what?”

The smile faded slightly and her brow furrowed. “Um. Felt N’Fun shop tour. You guys sent me an email. Someone named Chas? Said he ‘so looked forward’ to our meeting.”

She raised her fingers in little air quotes around ‘so looked forward,’ and suddenly the Beast realized who the source of this awkward encounter was.

“Cogsworth,” the Beast clarified (only not really clarified, how was she to know about the guy’s stupid nickname). “Um. Yeah. He’s...somewhere. Not here. Sent me instead to, um...do you...do you need…”

Even before he was cursed, the Beast was often perceived to be a big, dumb animal - or called as much by his family. Where everyone else had been tall, blonde, willowy, and sophisticated (‘polo fit,’ as their mother said admiring of his brothers), he was some atavistic throwback to an ancestor from the Old Country, digging potatoes in Ireland or hauling beer kegs around in Germany. Add to that a pronounced stammer and...well, he wasn’t the one whose accomplishments were lauded over dinner parties.

The best speech therapists in the metro area had been employed to help out and his parents got their money’s worth...for the most part. The Beast still felt himself getting tongue-tied when he got anxious and something about this girl made him nervous.

Isabel waited patiently for him to get it together, but when the Beast lapsed into silence, she interjected, “Well, I remember you said these weren’t your puppets, so I guess a shop tour isn’t actually...happening.”

“No,” he said shortly, a word he could manage with no problem, under any circumstances. “Is...is that why you came? A tour?”

The grin was back, but altered slightly. More chagrined than openly friendly. “Kind of...actually, I was hoping I’d run into you again. Just...you know. It’s, ah, nice to meet…new people.”

The Beast found himself tongue-tied again. Nice to meet new people. She thought he was a people? It had been a long time since anyone who wasn’t a walking trash can fire (Jean-Marc, Angela, Chip, and Cogsworth were all trash can fires, some bigger than others), thought of him as a people - gah. A person. The Beast was oddly touched.

But Cogsworth had sent her here. So there had to be something more to it than Isabel wanting to broaden her friendship circle.

“That’s, uh, different,” the Beast muttered, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand, trying to make sense of it all. “Most people want to run away from me - ”

But his self-deprecation was cut short. Jean-Marc came bursting into the room, holding a sheet of telegraph paper, waving it around like a flag.

“Situation!” he exclaimed, slightly out of breath. “Situation! The city calls it a gas leak, but Cogsworth says we should go.”

Jean-Marc handed the paper over to the Beast (carefully, since he wasn’t wearing his gloves) and the Beast scanned the message:

SUBTERRANEAN MENACE STOP WILL REQUIRE INTERVENTION STOP HASTEN TO EISNER PUBLIC LIBRARY STOP DO NOT DRESS IN BEST

A growl worked its way out of the Beast’s throat as he skimmed the message. Almost five years ago the Beast decided to go from being useless to being useful. Fine and dandy. Maybe noble, if looked at in the right light. But if he had to deal with two slime-based monsters in two days, he might have to rethink his chosen line of work.

Chapter Text

Bel probably shouldn’t have been getting up close and personal with the puppets, but Chas. Worth was late and she was bored. Of course, Bel being Bel, she wasn’t content with just looking at the puppets (she’d been doing that for years through the front window anyway). She wanted to touch the puppets.

At first she thought she’d just run her fingers lightly over the felt and stitching, just to see how they were constructed. They were a lot heavier than she thought, limbs articulated with a fine level of craftsmanship. She suspected they had metal skeletons underneath the padding and she was just about to remove one from its stand, just to see how it worked when her ears were accosted with a deafening roar.

She screamed. She jumped. She might have peed, just a little. If that was a security system, it was the best/worst security system ever -

But when she saw it was Alleyway Chewie (who, if she was reading his facial expressions correctly was just as startled to see her as she was to see him), she went from scared to delighted.

Seeing him under the harsh fluorescent glow of the overhead lights provided a much better view than her phone light had under cover of darkness and her eyes drank him in eagerly. The coolness of his appearance was dampened only slightly by what he was wearing - khaki cargo shorts and what appeared to be an impossibly huge Under Armour t-shirt. Still, the horns continued to be very cool and she realized that he didn’t have bear-feet or anything like that, but something much more interesting: wolf-like legs with elongated feet.

Alleyway Chewie really wasn’t very Wookie-like, she realized. More like a furry chimera without any snake-parts. Nice.

Now, to an outside observer, grinning like a loon before engaging in animated conversation with said chimera (who seemed increasingly bewildered by their conversation), might be considered...odd. Scratch that, was definitely considered odd. Or, perhaps, to quote a popular film, strange and unusual.

But to double-quote that film, Bel herself was strange and unusual. This occasionally got her into trouble, like the time she took home her first ever failing grade when she was eight because she turned what was supposed to be an oral presentation about dinosaurs into a fifteen-minute rant about the fact that because so much about dinosaur physiognomy was relatively unknown, she was utterly convinced that the bones paleontologists studied were actually the remains of fire-breathing dragons, only the soft tissue that enabled them to breathe fire had clearly rotted away with time. (Dad said he appreciated her commitment to her ideals when he signed the bottom of her homework sheet, but also made her re-do the assignment to her teacher’s specifications.)

Still, a useful side-effect of this attitude was the ability to adapt to offbeat things and experiences admirable pluck (even from a young age, Bel preferred being referred to as ‘plucky,’ instead of ‘weird’). Rather than approaching impossible things with skepticism or fear, she was naturally inclined toward curiosity. She’d long ago made peace with the fact that she’d never survive long in a horror movie, being the first person in any given group to want to investigate the source of an eerie noise or spooky shadow.

And, to quote another piece of popular media (literature this time!), she liked to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. What she found more impossible than Fuzzy the Chimera was actually the sudden appearance of a ridiculously attractive guy with the accent who burst in to interrupt them.

“I work at the library!” she announced, alarmed and intrigued that there was something more dastardly going on than petty vandalism (or the occasional appearance of the super gross patron who consistently used the urinal to go #2).

Fuzzy and Attractive Guy both swiveled their heads around to look at her.

“Who’s that?” Attractive Guy asked.

“Isabel,” Fuzzy said, gesturing vaguely at her nametag.

“Bel,” she corrected him. Then, added automatically, “As in Telephone Company.”

They looked at her in confusion for a beat before ignoring her addendum.

“Why is she here?” Attractive Guy asked.

“She’s a client,” Fuzzy replied.

“A visitor,” she corrected, not particularly liking the fact that she was being talked about as though she wasn’t there. They had asked her to come to them, after all. Well, okay, actually they asked Elyse, but the point stood that there was an invitation extended somewhere along the line and she had been the one to accept. What had Fuzzy called Chas. Worth? “Cogsworth invited me.”

Attractive Guy gave her a once-over, then swore under his breath in a Non-English language (Bel couldn’t be sure, but she thought it was either Portuguese or French), then cleared his throat and asked, “Well, is she coming?”

“Yes!” she replied enthusiastically, just as Fuzzy answered, “No!”

Then, before anything more could be said, a tiny voice chirped up from the direction of the open doorway Fuzzy had come through, “Where are we going?”

Attractive Guy and Fuzzy turned and, through the gap in their bodies, Bel spotted an adorable, chubby-cheeked little moppet with neat cornrows and a winning smile. One of his front teeth had a little piece missing which just made him appear all the more adorable.

We,” Fuzzy said, gesturing between himself and Attractive Guy, “are dealing with something. You are staying here.”

But the kiddo shook his head and sighed a remarkably adult-sounding sigh. “But someone has to take care of me.”

It wasn’t so much what he said as how he said it that struck Bel as being slightly off. Any other little kid might have whined or sounded at least a little scared at the prospect of staying home alone. This kid sounded strangely resigned. Weary, was possibly a better descriptor.

“Fuck,” Fuzzy huffed and Bel looked up with wide eyes, first instinct being to berate him for using R-rated language in front of a G-rated person when Attractive Guy asked her a question.

“Do you babysit, cheri?” he asked. “Any experience with children? He doesn’t need much, just...a watchful eye, let us say.”

“Does it even work like that?” Fuzzy asked, folding his arms over his chest.

Attractive Guy shrugged, “You or I have been alone with him, the world has not fallen down, has it? And we must go. If she is a friend of Cogsworth, she must be good for something.”

Bel was good for many things...though babysitting wasn’t really at the top of that list. She helped out with children’s programs sometimes, but her tasks were usually limited to refilling cups of juice or fetching parents if a kid started crying and freaking out in the program room. Still, how hard could it be? She was in and impossible things were happening. She wasn’t about to run back to her apartment now.

“I can babysit!” she declared confidently. “Go, um, ahead. I’ll just wait until you get back.”

Attractive Guy took her at her word and bounced on the balls of his feet, eager to go. But Fuzzy looked more doubtful.

“You have to stay here with him,” he said, a note of warning in his booming voice as he pointed at the little boy standing by the door. “You can’t just take off. You have to stay until we get back - I don’t know how long that will take either...shit. I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.”

“We have no choice,” Attractive Guy reminded him. “We have to go.”

He threw something that looked like a glow stick on a long chain at Fuzzy who caught it. Fuzzy looked at the glow stick, then back at Bel sourly.

“I’ll stay,” she said, conscious of mounting tension in the room, the sense of a clock ticking somewhere, in the distance. Bel held up three fingers (she’d been a Girl Scout when she lived on base, it was the solemnest vow she could make), “Scout’s honor.”

Fuzzy looked at her. Nodded once. Then put the necklace on - and vanished.

Mèsi!” Attractive Guy said and saluted her. The door to the shop opened via an unseen hand and he took off, leaving her alone with the kid. Luckily, the child was not shy.

“I’m Chip!” he said cheerfully, coming forward to take her by the hand. “What’s your name?”

The weariness was gone. Nothing in his voice, attitude, or appearance read as anything other than cute kid.

“Bel,” she said simply, taking the hand that he’d extended. His fingers curled around hers in a secure grip, but nothing freaky happened. No vanishing in a puff of smoke, no sudden transformation into an eldritch abomination. It was actually kind of disappointing; not that Bel had anything against kids, she generally liked them (they were slightly easier to talk to than adults, anyway), but she was expecting something a little bizarre to happen after she caught the uncanny vibes he was generating earlier.

Chip looked up at her, squeezing her hand, and his bright smile broadened. “Wanna see my room?”

As easy as it had been to talk to Fuzzy, now that Bel was seemingly alone with a totally normal kid, she felt herself getting slightly tense and awkward. “Um. Yeah. Sure. We can do that, if you want. Uh. Buddy.”

People call kids ‘buddy’, right? Like, that’s a friendly thing to do. Right?

Luckily, Chip seemed not to notice the fact that she’d gone from Chatty Cathy to Uncomfortable Ursula. He tugged her along down the door Fuzzy had originally entered from and led her down into the poorly-lit stairwell beyond.


 

There were no slime monsters. Thank God. Just a politically-inclined alchemist trying to influence city council elections via a mind-control vapor released through the cracks in the library steps. His plan was fairly straight-forward: get civic minded-individuals who were using the library as a polling place to inhale the vapors on election day and make sure that his candidate’s volunteers were the last ones they talked to before they went in to vote.

“It’s the primaries,” the Beast groused as he walked invisible besides Jean on the way home. “Who goes to all this trouble for the primaries?

It was a boring afternoon at the office, really. The Beast hadn’t even needed to remove the invisibility charm to scare the guy into submission. As soon as Jean burst into his little center of operations in the library basement, he panicked and begged for mercy; he just had one more course to finish before he graduated from the city’s college and was only doing this because the candidate’s campaign manager was hot and she put him up to it. A little interference with the democratic process seemed totally worth it in exchange for a dinner date.

“I didn’t even need to go,” the Beast continued to complain as Jean picked up their Five Guys order. “We didn’t have to leave Chip alone with that girl - who could be from whothefuck knows where, doing whothefuck knows what, at the house.”

“Would you like a cheese course as an accompaniment to that whine?” Jean asked rhetorically, rolling his eyes. He held the cardboard tray containing their five bags away disdainfully. “Take this - most of it is for you, after all, and I am not ruining this shirt with grease stains.”

“Cogsworth said not to wear your best,” the Beast muttered, but he took the tray, which disappeared as soon as it was placed in his hands.

“What Cogsworth does not understand,” Jean replied loftily, “is that for a person who takes pride in their appearance, everything is their best.”

As they neared the Puppet Shop of Doom, the Beast thought’s shifted from their non-adventure to what awaited him behind closed doors. He replayed the conversation with the girl - Isabel - Bel - trying to make sense of it.

She said she’d come for a shop tour - why? None of them knew anything about the upstairs shop, it was mainly used as storage for crap of Angela’s that she never used, but didn’t want to toss. (Which included, at last count, a treadmill, five Rubbermaid bins containing every single Babysitter’s Club book, and an old tea set that she’d inherited from her grandma.)

Bel also said she’d been contacted specifically by Cogsworth. The Beast had no reason to doubt her - fewer people knew his real name than knew his nickname, after all. Despite his prior protestations (okay, okay, despite his prior whining) he didn’t think she was lying about any of it. He figured she was supposed to be there. What he didn’t know was why.

It would be stupid to say he trusted her, he didn’t know her after all. It was just that he just didn’t think she was lying. He had a gut feeling about her, that was all.

“Do you think we should invite her to dinner?” Jean asked out of the blue.

The Beast turned toward him, even though Jean couldn’t see him. “What? Who?”

Jean rolled his eyes, “The cheri, the girl, what was her name?”

“Bel,” the Beast replied immediately and wished he hadn’t. Jean glanced at where he was walking (approximately) and grinned a devilish grin.

“Ooh,” he breathed, then gave a really inappropriate sounding whistle. “Bel. Hmm. Not my type, a little too inosan, you know. Jane the Virgin, konprann? Not a bad shape, though.” And then he traced a wide hourglass in the air with his hands while wagging his eyebrows up and down.

“Ugh,” the Beast rolled his eyes and grunted. “Stop. Why do you have to make everything about sex?”

Jean grinned again, wolfishly. ‘Well, the heart wants - ”

“We’re here, shut up, you’re gross,” the Beast growled as they re-entered the building via the side door. He took off the invisibility charm immediately, relieved to have a form again, even if it was a form he hated. Despite his decade-long familiarity with magic, there was still something unnerving to him about using it on himself; he didn’t know what was worse, to be a hideous monster forever, or to be nothing at all, and he didn’t want to find out.

The Beast put the food on the kitchen table and followed the sounds of mechanical beeps and whoops to the living room. Everything seemed fine. She’d been as good as her word and stayed. The Beast was beset with a feeling of satisfaction that he didn’t understand the origin of. There was just something oddly comforting about the fact that she hadn’t bolted - not least the fact that there wouldn’t be consequences for leaving Chip unattended.

Bel was sitting on the floor in the living room playing Mario Kart with him on the Switch. She was getting thoroughly beaten, but the look of concentration on her face, with her tongue poking out the side of her mouth was -

Stop it. Not adorable. Not cute. Not attractive. Stop.

Except that it totally was. Jean wasn’t wrong when he said she had a nice body - Bel was average height, curvy, and he had to stop his eyes from drifting too far down the v-neck of her white t-shirt...and also from lingering on her ass. She was wearing skinny jeans, even though it was hot outside, but her shirt was knotted on one side, exposing a strip of her stomach that pooched over the waistband of her jeans when she was sitting. Before she’d had a blue plaid button-down tied around her waist, but she’d taken it off. It was sitting, crumpled in his spot on the couch. He also spied a pair of black Converse sneakers on the floor. Well. She’d definitely made herself at home.

It was helpful, letting his natural irritation at his space being invaded override his attraction. The attraction was pointless, if inevitable, but anger could mask a thousand emotional sins.

“Why did Cogsworth send you here?” he asked, not bothering to try to sound less scary than he usually did.

Bel didn’t jump when he spoke, but her car (she was playing as Yoshi) did veer off the course and plunge into the abyss. Chip’s car (Wario) drove across the finish line to victory.

“Yay!” he cheered for himself. “I win again!”

“I was going to smoke you,” Bel declared. “Before I was interrupted. Um.”

She got to her feet, shifting from foot-to-foot as she did so. Bel had to tilt her head back to look at him, giving him a clear line of light brown skin from the column of her throat, all the way down to -

OH MY GOD, he mentally berated himself. YOU ARE AS BAD AS JEAN. FUCKING STOP IT.

“Is the library okay?” she asked, ignoring his question.

“That...that’s not - ” the Beast began, but Jean interrupted him, reassuring her that everything was fine. He then began a rattling recounting of their afternoon, playing up his role as the hero in the whole encounter.

Meanwhile, the Beast watched Bel. Her big brown (STOP IT) eyes went wider and wider and her mouth dropped open. Interesting. It wasn’t a particularly magical encounter, but she seemed enraptured. He assumed she was accustomed to magic, given her non-reaction to him, but maybe not.

“Did you call the Board of Canvassers?” she asked, when Jean concluded his tale.

“What?” Jean asked, face falling. Obviously he was a little dismayed that Bel hadn’t responded with awe and praise for his bravery.

“The Board of Canvassers,” she repeated. “Did you call them? That is some sketchy campaign nonsense and they should be told.”

“No,” the Beast said flatly when Jean only gawped at him, lost for words. “And say what? Th-that there was a guy trying to use mind control elixir at the p...p...?”

He grit his back teeth and grimaced, feeling embarrassed and pissed off. Bel just blinked at him, waiting for him to finish.

“Polling place,” Jean supplied.

“Fuck you,” the Beast growled.

“Hey!” Bel exclaimed, gesturing at Chip, thoroughly absorbed in another round of Mario Kart. “There’s a little here!”

“He’s heard worse,” the Beast muttered. Who was she to tell him to watch his language? Swearing was a way better outlet for frustration than others he had dabbled in. Less expensive too. “Polling place. Who’d believe us?”

Bel got thoughtful. Then she pulled out her phone and started rapidly Googling.

“Allison Walker,” she read off the screen. “That’s the campaign manager you were talking about. I’m not saying that we tell them about the mind control elixir, but we can say someone deliberately set off - what was the city said? A gas leak? To prevent people from getting to the polls. What was the name of the guy you dealt with? I’m sure he’ll talk if they ask, since he was so worried about school and everything.”

‘We’? There was her and there was them. Or regular people and freaks. Lucky and unlucky. Who the hell was this ‘we’ she was talking about?

Then, before the Beast could think of anything to say to stop her (if he could even get it out, though he got less tongue-tied when he was screaming at people), she dialed up a number on her phone and put her finger in her ear so she could hear the person on the other line better.

After a short conversation, she hung up and shrugged. “They said they’d look into it. I don’t know. The redistricting has made voting such a joke in this city, it might not matter. Then again, it might, so, you know, worth the effort.”

The Beast was about to go off on her. To demand to know who she was and where she’d come from. He was ready to bellow at her, scare the crap out of her, do something so that the orbit of his world would shift back to normal.

But she smiled at him. With those dimples. And he found himself asking, “Would...would you like to stay for dinner?”

Her eyes lit up and his world tilted even further out of orbit. Like, so far out that his world was probably straight-up hurtling into another planet in metaphor space. “I would love to stay for dinner.”

Chapter Text

Dinner was both surreal and mundane.

Mundane in that burgers and fries and stilted conversation were pretty par for the course among people who didn’t actually know each other trying to engage in communal mealtime. Surreal in that Bel had never before seen someone shove an entire burger into their mouth at once and was both mildly repulsed and deeply impressed by Fuzzy’s prowess in that regard.

He didn’t stick around long though, just scarfed down a bunch of burgers and disappeared (not literally this time, he just walked into another room and shut the door). He was gone before Bel could ask his name.

Attractive Guy was actually called Jean-Marc, she learned. And there was another roommate, Angela, who Bel met after she got home from class.

Chip was thrilled to see her. He hopped off his chair, when he’d been chowing down on French fries and ran toward her with an excited, “MAMA!”

Angela’s reaction was a little less enthused. She gave him a half-hearted hug and just sighed without looking down at him or addressing him directly. Chip didn’t seem to notice, once he got his hug he went back to his fries as Jean-Marc explained who Bel was and how she’d watched Chip that afternoon.

Well, ‘taken care’ of Chip was the phrase he used, which seemed a little too complimentary.

“We played video games,” Bel shrugged. “And I got him a popsicle, I hope that was okay.”

Angela thanked her and said that was fine. She seemed exhausted, sliding a heavy black book bag off her shoulders and onto the floor where it made a loud ‘thud’ when it landed. She sat down at the kitchen table, balancing her head in one hand and shoveling a burger in her mouth with the other.

The dinner perked her up a little and she offered to walk Bel home, when she found out exactly where she lived.

“It’s getting late and people are creepy,” Angela insisted.

Bel thanked her - she was so socially awkward that she didn’t recognize cues telling her when she was overstaying her welcome - but a huge part of her didn’t want to leave. This was epic! An entire apartment of magic-users ten blocks away! Who fed her burgers!

She’d always suspected there was something going on, that the world was far more wonderful and mysterious than she ever supposed it to be. Military brat that she was, she was more apt than most to assume that UFOs were weather balloons or classified air force equipment, going too far out of the range of the base. It wasn’t like she was totally naive (theories about dinosaurs aside).

And maybe that was why she let her imagination get a little carried away sometimes. Because for all the things that could be explained, there was plenty of weird stuff in the world that couldn’t be explained. Not the stuff that made it onto the nightly news, but other stuff. Weirder stuff. Stuff people might feel comfortable about posting online in the relative anonymity of a forum, or talking about in the context of a podcast and mysterious legends and supernatural occurrences.

Because if something happened once, had a bunch of witnesses, made it onto the news, had all of Twitter abuzz for a few hours, well, that was likely to be nothing too unusual. Something with a rational explanation. It was when lots of people experienced something quieter, more insidious, over and over again that Bel suspected there was more to the story than the obvious explanation. Springheel Jack. Vampires and other animated corpse stories that transcended all races, cultures, and world mythologies. Shapeshifters.

There were so many questions she wanted to ask! But the rules of social conventions proved stifling. After all, how could you ask a big, furry chimera-dude exactly what he was and where he’d come from when he was squinting at the expiration label on a ketchup bottle and pondering aloud whether or not ketchup actually went bad?

Bel got up from the table and thanked Jean-Marc for the food, “How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching toward her messenger bag for her wallet.

Before I go, would you mind telling me absolutely everything you know about how my traditional understanding of the laws of the universe is flawed?

Jean-Marc waved a hand carelessly, “It is on the house, cheri. A repayment for taking care of ti bebe.

Chip looked up from his fries, indignant. “I am not a baby!” he declared.

Non,” Jean Marc agreed, a little darkly. “You are not.”

Angela held the door to the upstairs - the regular, boring old world - open.

Bel glanced back at the door Fuzzy had disappeared through. “Should I - ?”

“I’ll tell him you said ‘bye,” Angela informed her. “He doesn’t like anyone bothering him when the door’s closed.”

They were upstairs and halfway down the block when Angela asked Bel a question that Bel herself had been burning to ask everyone, but stopped because she thought it would be perceived as rude, if not deeply un-PC. “So, what are you?”

“Huh?” was all the intelligent reply Bel made. She figured Angela wouldn't be satisfied with an honest reply of, 'Mostly Puerto Rican, but I think my mom's mom was from Mexico.'

“I was wondering,” Angela continued, ticking off a list of possibilities on her fingers. “I thought maybe a bruja, but if you’d worked magic you’d have that rotten egg smell hanging around - it gets in your hair, I know from experience. Then I thought maybe a clairvoyant, but we don’t need one of those. But I figured you’ve got to be something, you know? If Cogsworth told you to come over. Avian shapeshifter, maybe? Because, let me tell you, if you can fly? You are my new best friend. Or a telekinetic would be amazing.

All Bel could do was shake her head.

“I’m...sorry,” she said awkwardly. “I’m not - I don’t do any of that stuff. I...uh. I just work at the library. That’s all.”

“Huh.” This time it was Angela’s turn to be lost for words. She stopped walking and Bel stopped too, as Angela looked up into her eyes. Angela’s own eyes were hazel, an enchanting mix of brown, green, and gold. They were really striking against her dark brown skin. “Okay. Still. There must be something. Cogsworth doesn’t bring people in for nothing.”

“Honestly…” Bel felt she couldn’t be anything but honest when she looked into those eyes. “The email wasn’t meant for me. It was...someone else at the library’s email. I was just reading it because they’re on vacation.”

Angela was shaking her head though, even before Bel finished explaining. “It was definitely meant for you. I don’t care whose email you read, if you read it, it was meant for you. That’s how Cogsworth works. I’m sure he didn’t mean to blow you off today, he’s a pretty punctual guy when he can be - it’s just that he’s unstuck in time, so…you know how it is.”

Bel absolutely did not know how it was.

“Not really,” she admitted. But when Angela explained it to her, it started to make sense.

This guy, Cogsworth - Charles Ogden Worth - was born sometime around the turn of the 20th century. A little before, Angela reasoned, since he was fighting in WWI, in France, when the mustard gas buzzers started and he was too slow getting his mask on.

As he suffocated on the yellow air, he desperately choked out that it was too soon. That he needed more time. Time. It was what he wanted more than anything in the world. In the haze that followed, he thought he heard laughter. A voice, offering him a deal. And, distantly, a ticking clock.

“He time travels,” Angela explained simply. Far past, near past, far future, near future. “It also made him functionally immortal. Go back, he gains time. Go forward, he loses time. Usually it balances out, like, usually when we see him he’s a young guy, same age he was as when he went in the service. Sometimes he’s older. Once he was, like, fifteen and his voice hadn’t changed and it was hilarious.”

“How does he time travel?” Bel asked, incredulously. “Just like…”

For lack of anything resembling a proper theory, she snapped her fingers. Angela nodded and gave an answering snap.

“Yeah,” she said. “Sometimes it’s in his control, he visualizes and he’s gone. Other times he’s just...gone. That’s probably why he bailed on you today.”

That Bel could contextualize.

“So it’s like The Time Traveler’s Wife,” Bel said, with deep comprehension.

Angela looked at her blankly.

“By Audrey Niffenegger,” she added.

“Bless you,” Angela said, a frown creasing her forehead. “Was that a movie?”

“Actually, it was a book first,” Bel replied. Then, recognizing the fact that her tone had become extremely bitchy, cleared her throat and said, “Sorry, let me try that again: ‘It was a book first!’”

“Sorry,” Angela laughed. “I have, like, zero time for reading anything that’s not a text book.”

“Are you studying, um…magic,” Bel asked, trying and failing to keep her tone from going from bitchy to awestruck.

“Ha, no,” Angela shook her head. “Magic isn’t something you study, it’s just something you do. Like, I’ve never heard a mechanic say they studied to learn how to fix a carburetor, they just do it. I’m trying to get my degree in social work so I can get a real job. You know, fixing problems that are a little more complicated than hexes.”

“That’s cool,” Bel said, appreciatively. Then, feeling like Angela needed a little more acknowledgement than that, added, “And kudos, you know. For going to school full time and having a son and all.”

Up until then their conversation had been going well, from Bel’s perspective. She hadn’t started monologuing about an obscure, but deeply interesting (to her anyway) issue, nor had she clammed up. Angela’s voice had been warm without being cloying or patronizing and she had a friendly face and nice smile that made her easy to talk to.

But apparently Bel had said the wrong thing. Her expression shuttered. Her bright hazel eyes darkened. And she took in a deep breath through her nose that shuddered through her whole body.

“Sorry,” Bel said, even though she didn’t know what she was apologizing for.

“Nope,” Angela said tightly. “It’s okay. You didn’t - Chip’s not...he’s not my son.

But he calls you -

Bel didn’t even have the chance to finish the thought in her own head before Angela explained.

“He calls us ‘Mama,’ all of us, who take care of him,” Angela said, not looking Bel in the eye anymore. “He’s not...Jean and the Boss didn’t tell you what he was? Before they left you alone with him?”

Mutely, Bel shook her head.

“He’s a changeling,” Angel informed her, bitterness in her voice. “A ‘gift’ to my great-grandmother. She...she and my great-grandfather, after the war. They got their forty acres, they owned their own land...but they had all daughters. No sons. After Reconstruction was over, they were worried about losing the property, Grandma was too old for another baby...oo the story goes, one night she’s out crying in a field - their field, their land - wishing for a little boy. Said she’d do anything. Just like Cogsworth, it’s what They do, get you when you’re low and not thinking straight. They get you to make deals. Make promises. Stupid promises.”

“Who’s ‘They’?” Bel asked warily.

‘They’ had too many names to pick just one, Angela informed her. No doubt Bel heard several of them. The Feufollet. The Fae. Duende.

“So, one of Them,” she continued, “turns up. Asks her what she wants. ‘A little boy,’ is all she says. ‘A little boy to take care of.’ And They ask, ‘Who will take care of him?’ She says, ‘My family.’ And they ask, ‘For how long?’ And she…”

Angela’s eyes closed and she drew in a deep breath before concluding, “She says, ‘Forever.’”

“Shit,” Bel replied.

“Exactly,” Angela agreed. They asked for flesh in exchange. Teeth pulled from each living member of the family. Locks of hair. And, most importantly, blood taken from the flesh just above her grandmother’s heart. They left the offering in the field. And then, the next morning, in the midst of a heavy fog, there’s a knock at the door. And there was Chip, naked, arms upraised, asking for Mama.

Chip wasn’t his original name, Bel learned. In fact, no one remembered what Angela’s Great-Grandma called him. A lot about his early days was shrouded in legend and mystery and if pressed, Chip claimed he didn’t remember it either. Angela believed him.

“It’s like he resets,” she shook her head. “He never gets any older. He gets hurt, like any kid, gets sick, like any kid, but...nothing lasts. When I was little - it was my Mom who took care of him. Then she passed and it was like - I mean, my whole life he’d been there. But then he was my responsibility. And so he started with the ‘Mama’ thing and it was like...the rest just vanished.”

Bel shuddered, she couldn’t help it. Turned out, that uncanny sense she got off the little boy hadn’t been nothing earlier. Chip hadn’t been kidding earlier, when he said someone had to take care of him; he couldn’t be left alone, it was part of the promise - curse, whatever. But, Angela was quick to reassure her, he wasn’t a threat.

“He’s not human,” she acknowledged. “But he’s not...evil. He’s just a little kid. And he didn’t ask for this to happen, he didn’t ask to be made, he didn’t...he’s stuck as much as I am. It’s just...hard. I’ve been trying to finish up my undergrad for five years, at this point. But I’m going to do it. Even with...”

She took another deep, steadying breath and said, with conviction, “I’m going to do something for myself.

This was...this was a lot.

“So,” she said, trying to lighten the mood and make sense of everything she’d just heard. “I babysat a changeling. That’s...cool.”

Angela actually laughed, the serious pall dissipating a bit as she did so. “I’m glad you’re...um, not freaking out or anything.”

Bel shrugged, “I mean, freaking out wouldn’t really accomplish anything and it’s not like - I mean, Chip embarrassed me at Mario Kart, but other than that, we got along great!”

“That’s good,” Angela smiled weakly at her. “I’d say, you know, give me your number, we can make this a regular thing, but - ”

“Sure!” Bel said enthusiastically. “I mean, why not? I can help you out, sometimes. I mean, I have my job, but we have a children’s section! Chip can just hang out all day, if you need him to. Plenty of parents drop their kiddos off, even though it’s not technically allowed.”

Angela stared at her a beat. Then asked, “You’re serious?”

And yes. Bel was serious. Her heart was beating fast and she had the fatalistic sense that if she didn’t agree to this, do something to ensure continued connection, that she was going to lose something both important and precious. Something monumental. Something important. Something she needed.

Or maybe, something that needed her. But she didn’t know that, at the time.

“Totally,” she nodded, pulling out her phone. “Give me your number.”

They swapped numbers outside of Bel’s stoop. And exchanged an awkward hug before Bel let herself into the apartment. Dad was home, hunched over his Chromebook as usual, but he looked up when she came in.

“Hey, mija!” he smiled at her. “Where have you been? I thought this was your afternoon off.”

“It is,” Bel nodded. Then added, truthfully. “I picked up a, uh, babysitting gig. For a girl in the neighborhood. While she’s in class.”

“Great!” he said, getting up and kissing her head. “I didn’t get around to making dinner, I was going to order out, what would you like?”

“Get what you want,” Bel hugged her father briefly around the middle. Miguel Gonzalez may have let himself go slightly since his retirement, but Bel liked that it made him extra-squishy to hug. She could use a good hug right now. “I already ate.”

Chapter Text

To say he had never been so humiliated in his life would be untrue. There was that time when he was seven, after Andrew and Aaron had performed at one of their parents regular ‘gatherings’ for their business associates (he refused to refer to them as parties, since parties were supposed to be fun), when one of the key investors asked, ‘And what special talent does this little fellow have?’

Before he could reply that he could bike without training wheels (major accomplishment in his mind), Dad rolled his eyes and said, “Nothing - yet,” while Mom giggled over a glass of Chardonnay and exclaimed, “Eating!” and everyone laughed at him.

Such a stupid thing to get upset about, looking back, but it was the first time in his life that he’d broken out into a cold sweat and felt the urge to either hit someone or get the fuck out. At seven, unable to cause any major damage, he’d done the latter, retreated into the pantry, found the economy-sized bucket of Cheez Balls and proceeded to prove his mom’s point by munching his way through half the bucket.

At least this latest humiliation didn’t result in neon-orange puke in the aftermath. And, to be fair, it wasn’t like Bel had done anything. Or said anything. But the way she looked at him...she was at least grossed out, if not downright horrified.

It was the mundane things he did that tended to upset the normies the most. Talking. Wearing clothes. And, apparently, eating people-food out of a take-out wrapper and not...dog food or scraps out of a bowl on the floor.

Bitterly, the Beast noted how the conversation sure as hell picked up when he left. Bel was chatting with Angela like they’d known each other for years and even laughing at Jean-Marc’s shitty jokes. They left eventually, Angela offering to give Bel a walk home since the streets were dangerous at night.

She can handle herself, the Beast thought automatically, unable to stop himself envisioning her when she came around that corner. Maybe he shouldn’t have had such a good opinion of her. After all, she’d not only approached him, chatted with him, handed him his keys like he couldn’t slice her pretty face open with one swipe of his claws...but it wasn’t like he would. Rather than being reckless, it seemed to him that she was really, really good at assessing a threat.

The girls gone, he heard Jean wander into the living room and flip on the TV. No doubt he left the dirty cups and napkins all over the table. The Beast was about to go out there and work off his bad mood by arguing with Jean about the dishes when a plummy, chipper voice exclaimed, “Aha! Hamburgers! Splendid, I haven’t had a meal worth its salt in an age!”

As per usual when Cogsworth returned from one of his ‘trips,’ he was dressed like an idiot. This time he looked like an extra out of Star Wars, big coat, tunic, leather boots that looked like they came from the clearance section of a Ren Faire. Granted, even in normal clothes, Cogsworth didn’t exactly cut the best figure - he was pointlessly tall, spindly, with a big head and poofy blondish hair that didn’t look fashionable in any century.

He shed the coat, but didn’t change into anything less bizarre before he started picking all the things he didn’t like off of one of the leftover burgers (namely, anything with flavor - no peppers, no onions, and he even scraped the top bun of mustard and ketchup) before he took a bite.

As the Beast drew near, Cogsworth grinned around his mouthful of food and exclaimed a cheery, “What-ho!”

The Beast folded his arms and glared at him. Screw Jean and the dishes. This guy was the cause of his problems right now.

“What the fuck?” he asked, by way of returning the greeting. Chip, who’d been idling by the fridge, probably hoping someone would take notice of his plight and get him an ice cream sandwich, bounded off toward the living room. Smart kid.

“Sorry,” Cogsworth replied, holding up the soggy, half-eaten burger. “Was this yours? Ought to have written your name on it, old chum. How was I to know?”

“I don’t give a shit about the burgers,” he growled, noticing in his peripheral vision how Jean was handing Chip a tablet and turned the volume up on the TV. He ignored the two of them and focused in on Cogsworth. “What...what the fuck was all this Tuesday stuff? Puppet shop tours - bullshit! It wasn’t like we even needed that girl for anything! Jean took care of that weird guy at the library by himself!”

Briefly, Jean was louder than the television, fist-pumping and shouting, “Whoo-hoo!” because, apparently, part of his curse required being obnoxious every five minutes. Cogsworth just kept eating his burger, looking at him with wide, innocent eyes. The ‘Who, me?’ thing bothered the Beast even more than the embarrassment had.

“Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about - and dont - don’t look at me like I’m stupid,” he said, voice getting louder until he was giving himself a headache. “That girl you sent the email to - she doesn’t have anything to offer us, we don’t have anything to offer her. She’s not cursed, she’s not...she’s not anything. So again: What. The. Fuck.”

Cogsworth finished his burger. Dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. And asked, “Do we have any lemon squash?”

The Beast let out a bellow of frustration and Jean turned the volume up as loud as it could go. Chip darted off for his and Angela’s room with his tablet and shut the door behind him.

Unruffled, Cogsworth stood up and made his way to the fridge muttering, “A fellow can hardly think in all this bother.”

When he noticed that the fridge was bare of lemonade he sighed and turned back toward the Beast, eyeing him up and down. Not wary. Just patiently waiting for him to calm down.

For a minute they stared each other down while the TV blared in the background. The Beast clenched his back teeth and stood silently. Okay, maybe calm wasn’t his forte, but he could at least be quiet.

Once satisfied, Cogsworth said, “In the first place, she was helpful today, wasn’t she?”

“No,” the Beast countered at once. “She…”

“She looked after Chip!” Jean interjected from the couch. “Which was very nice.”

Cogsworth nodded. “There you are - not to mention contacting the Board of Canvassers, top notch thinking right there. And in the second...you’d met the young lady before, hadn’t you?”

The volume on the TV went way down all at once. Jean whipped his head around so hard, it was a wonder he didn’t give himself whiplash.

The Beast was quiet. Not calm. Quiet. “So?”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Jean exclaimed, climbing over the back of the couch to join their conversation, uninvited. “You knew her? Before? Or - ”

“No, not from fucking before, who asked you?” the Beast asked, pointlessly, since once Jean butted in, there was no way he was butting out. “I don’t know anyone from before. She turned up here the other night. Randomly”

“What other - oh!” Jean snapped his fingers. “When you broke the door?”

“Broke the door?” Cogsworth echoed.

“Don’t change the subject,” the Beast said warningly. “But I want to know why this guy invited her. For no reason.”

Being so tall, it was much easier for Cogsworth to look him in the eyes than it was for anyone else. The Beast didn’t particularly like him staring so long. Just like Chip, there was something about his eyes that were off-putting. Tired. Old.

Cogsworth had a kind of code he’d drawn up for himself. Though he put pieces into place to bring about certain outcomes, he didn’t talk about the future. It didn’t help, he said. It didn’t make anyone more prepared, just made them more nervous and, if the future events weren’t particularly savory, made people more likely to screw things up trying to avoid them.

“Certain outcomes,” he said once, when the Beast first met him, “can’t be avoided. Only gotten through.”

The look on his face was similar then to the look on his face now. Tired and sad, but resigned.

“Not to worry,” he said, clearing his throat and breaking eye contact. “There’s always a method to my madness, eh? Everyone’s got a reason for being. Everyone’s got a purpose. Everything in its time.”

Cogsworth smiled at him and reached up at pat his shoulder reassuringly. The Beast pulled away, went back to his room, and slammed the door.

That night, he dreamed of who he was Before. It happened every so often. He’d fall asleep and dream of being himself. Not even doing anything really spectacular, just walking down the street. Or getting a coffee. He’d never get a look at himself, there weren’t any mirrors or anything in his dreams, he just knew that he was normal. That he was right.

This time he was sitting on the stoop outside the Puppet Shop of Doom - only it wasn’t a creepy puppet shop, just a regular apartment building. The sun was out. Even in the dream, the Beast felt it on his skin, on his face. He closed his eyes, took a breath, and when he opened them, there she was. Bel. She was wearing flannel pajama bottoms and a t-shirt that was kind of dingy and way too big for her, but she was there.

“Hey,” she said, stopping and pausing and looking at him oddly. “Do I know you?”

The Beast (well, no, not a Beast in this dream) got up and approached her.

“Uh,” he said, because even in dreams he couldn’t be articulate. “I mean, we’ve met.”

She wrinkled her nose and brow, looking him over, mouth puckered over to the side. “Yeah. I guess - what’s your name?”

He couldn’t tell her - even in his best dreams, that was still taken from him. He shook his head and looked away. She did too, then seized his hand. It felt amazing, her soft skin on his and no worries about accidentally goring her in the process, but he didn’t have long to reflect on the sensation since Bel pointed at something behind him and exclaimed, “What the hell is that?

The sky was darkening and at first he thought it was storm clouds. Weird, his dreams never had weather before. But then he realized it was black smoke, like from a fire, churning and spreading through the city. There was no smell of burning, though, even as the stones and cement sidewalks turned black in the wake of the smoke.

Bel’s hand tightened in his. “We should go - ”

Then a cacophony of voices in his head. “Move!” “Come on!” “Get up!” “We’ve got to do something!” “GET UP!”

The Beast bolted upright, blinking rapidly. As his heartrate slowed, he assessed where he was. Inside. No smoke. No Bel.

Just Chip standing over him, holding a package of Eggos. “Morning boss! Get up! Can you make me breakfast?”

Chapter Text

“Miss! Miss! Excuse me, miss?”

The impatient whining Bel could bear without grinding her teeth, but when the middle aged white guy standing by the copy machine snapped his fucking fingers at her, it was all she could do not to turn into a simmering rage monster and tell him to go to hell.

Bel took a deep breath. Counted backward from five. Then plastered a big fake smile on her face. Simmering rage monsters didn’t work in libraries after all. Better to be fake-accommodating than actually pissed.

“Hiya!” she chirruped in a voice three times higher than her ordinary speaking tone. Josh looked up from processing magazines and inched ever so slightly closer to her. When she started to sound like a Chipette, he knew trouble was brewing.

The white guy - business-ish looking, wearing an ill-fitting suit and too-long tie, pointed accusingly at the copier and said, “Your printer is broken!”

Bel’s back teeth ground slightly together. “Actually, that’s not the printer, it’s the copier. Did you send something to print?”

He had. Two pages. This Bel learned after a three-minute tirade about how he was in a hurry and he never used the library, but his printer was broken and the least they could do to survive into the 21st century was to provide decent service and printing. He never read, not books, he had a Kindle that his daughter bought him, but he never used it. And furthermore -

“Here are your print jobs!” Josh flourished two sheets of paper under the man’s nose. “Free of charge, you know. Because of the hassle.”

That set the man off on another rant - he was expected to pay for those things?

“Cost of paper and ink, yep,” Josh confirmed, stepping slightly in front of Bel whose customer service smile was looking more and more like a snarl. “So ordinarily it would have been forty cents, but like I said - ”

“FORTY CENTS?!” the man bellowed, red-faced and incredulous. “What kind of racket are you people running here?”

Then he looked down at his flip phone and cursed them out for making him late.

“Could have bought yourself five minutes if you stopped screaming at us,” Bel muttered once he was gone (he’d stopped out of the building, making as much noise as possible, presumably because he couldn’t slam the door). She and Josh didn’t get much chance to discuss it since another patron approached them to complain about Angry Copy Machine Man’s volume - and, more to the point, the fact that Bel and Josh hadn’t told him to quiet down.

“This is a library,” the patron hissed in a stage whisper. “They’re meant to be quiet! I used to come here all the time, but its gone downhill - children here all hours! When I was a girl, I wasn’t allowed out of the children’s section.”

She glanced meaningfully over at Chip who was sitting at a computer near the circ desk, watching unboxing videos on YouTube and not making a peep.

“Well, you know,” Josh shrugged. “Times change.”

“Not for the better,” the woman glared and stomped away with her copy of Country Living.

Once she was gone, Josh rolled his eyes and muttered to Bel, “Did everyone take a side of bitch in their coffee? Because I thought about ordering mine with a swirl of whoop-ass, but I guess it’s better that I didn’t. Jesus.”

“I hate people,” Bel said miserably. People were, without a doubt, the worst part of her job. Unfortunately, as Josh loved reminding her:

“If we didn’t have people, we wouldn’t be open,” he repeated for the fifty-thousandth time. “I’ll be putting stickers on magazines, holler if you need me. Not too loud, though!”

Then he exaggeratedly shushed, which had the effect of making Bel smile - a small, brief smile, but at least it was sincere.

“There,” he said, satisfied. “Now you look less like a monster-person.”

On behalf of monster people, I am offended, Bel thought, but didn’t say. Some of my best friends are monster people...okay, some of my recent acquaintances are monster-people.

Angela, at least, was starting to feel like a friend. She’d at least gone from ‘Person Bel Knows’ to ‘Person Bel Likes.’ Stage Three - friendship stage - was ‘Person Who Likes Bel Back,’ and while Bel was pretty sure Angela was grateful to her for letting Chip chill at the library a few days a week, she wasn’t certain they’d crossed over into ‘friendship’ yet. Jean-Marc was flirty with her, but he was flirty with everyone and flirty definitely did not equate to friendly. She’d met Cogsworth once, when he came to retrieve Chip one day and he was pleasant (with an adorable British accent), but kind of distracted seeming. Then there was...the other one.

Bel still hadn’t learned his name or seen much of him. On the few occasions when she’d walked Chip back to Felt N’ Fun on her own, he’d either already been holed up in his room or he just briefly thanked her for bringing Chip back and shut the door in her face. It was enough to make a girl feel unwelcome. Especially when, as she learned, she was doing him a major favor.

‘The Boss,’ as Angela referred to him, was their little operation’s tech guy and was using the time Chip was out of his hair...fur...whatever, to get some work done for their business. Bel even had one of their cards - yeah, they had, like, actual business cards, with a cool graphic design and a glossy raised font that said ‘CURSE REVERSE, LCC.’ Apparently ‘The Boss’ was a wiz with photoshop and maintained their website, fielding requests for assistance with hexes, curses, infestations, and alchemical science experiments gone bad.

“Like...Frankenstein’s monster?” Bel queried when Angela explained their cases, trying hard not to sound too eager.

“Usually more like Flubber with teeth,” Angela grimaced. “We - me, Cogsworth, and the Boss - founded the company together. Small business millennials. Whoot. But he runs the whole operation, like, soup to nuts. He even keeps track of the financials which...yeah, I’m failing my econ class so hard, so obviously that stuff is way beyond me. And Cogsworth can’t wrap his head around the currency exchange.”

Jean-Marc, Bel learned, had at first applied to them looking for help with his condition, then, when all their efforts proved to be for naught, said that if they couldn’t fix him, they could at least put him on payroll.

Angela hadn’t told her what Jean’s deal was and Bel thought it was probably rude to ask. But she did notice that he hardly ever touched anyone, even to brush up against them and that he almost always wore gloves.

So yeah. Monster-people acquaintances. Still, it was a larger social circle than Bel had enjoyed...basically ever. She might be getting a little too obsessed though, she’d started to have some weird dreams. They all started a little differently, but ended up in front of Felt N’ Fun - only it didn’t have any puppets. And everything would start to go really dark. She had a hard time recalling her dreams when she woke, but she could have sworn someone was there with her. She’d feel a hand in hers right before the dreams ended and would wake with her right hand fisted into the covers.

The automatic doors slid open, startling her out of her reverie and in walked another acquaintances - this one less welcome than the monster people.

“Izzy!” Foster boomed out, hand held up for a high-five, which Bel half-heartedly gave him. “My man!”

Josh had jumped up from the pile of magazines and zipped over slapped Foster’s palm with all the enthusiasm he was clearly looking for. Josh had struck up an acquaintanceship of his own, through a mutual love of cult TV shows. “Hey! How are you? Did you like Preacher?”

“It was a ride,” Foster said, grinning. “I don’t actually think I get it? But it was cool - the kid with the face. Ouch. And Tulip? Smokin’. I Googled her - she’s actually Irish. Who knew? I mean, also maybe African? But she sounds Irish when she’s not on TV.”

Josh’s eyes went wide as he pretended all this was Brand New Information that Foster was blessing them with. Bel just nodded silently; it wasn’t like Foster was a bad dude. Just kind of pushy and annoying. Belatedly, she realized he had fliers under his arm and hadn’t only come in to wow them with what he’d learned from Google.

“Do you guys have a bulletin board?” he asked, handing Bel a flier. It was an advertisement for the gym where he worked - Bel fleetingly thought that she ought to recommend ‘The Boss’ as a freelancer. There were pictures of barbells in the corners and a little clip-art woman running across the page. Naturally, the font was Comic Sans.

“Yeah, it’s a little rough,” Foster correctly interpreted the look on her face. “But the offer is sweet - three half-price sessions, plus a consult with a nutritionist and fifteen free minutes in the tanning bed, if that’s your thing.”

“We can’t advertise private businesses - ” she started, but Josh took the flier she was trying to hand back.

“I’ll talk to the manager - we can probably make an exception for local businesses,” he said. Bel looked away and rolled her eyes. It was one thing to have a crush, another thing to project, ‘I LOVE YOU FOREVER AND WANT TO GET MARRIED ON A BEACH AND ADOPT A HOARDE OF BABIES WITH YOU!’ Josh’s face was as close to the heart-eyes emoji as a human being could get without undergoing a strange transformation. But Foster didn’t notice.

“We’ve got a friends and family discount too!” Foster continued, eyes only for Bel. “Lots of ladies are getting big into fitness too, which is great. Mad respect for that. Strong is beautiful, right? If you're interested in getting a little toning in, let me know! I can get you a deal - not that you, like, need it, though. I'm a guy who appreciates a little junk in the trunk, if you know what I mean."

Then he winked and Bel threw up a tiny bit in her mouth.

“Business is good?” Josh said, trying to redirect the conversation to himself.

Bel caught a teeny, tiny grimace on Foster’s face. Just a microexpression, but it was so different from his usual grin that she noticed.

“Uh,” Foster needlessly straightened his stack of fliers on the circ desk. “Um. It’s...been better. There’s some stuff going on with the building, electric - nothing dangerous! Just, um, weird wiring, I guess? We’re in one of the old factory buildings, down by the river, they can be a little funky. You know what I mean, drafts and stuff. Lights going on and off. And I guess sometimes the pipes can make noises that...scare people off a little. I bet you guys get the same in this place, huh?”

“Oooh,” Josh said, affecting a spooky voice, nuding Bel on the arm. “Sounds like a job for Buzzfeed Unsolved, right? Bel loves that haunted stuff.”

Foster didn’t laugh. He looked kind of uncomfortable and lowered his voice. “Uh, we’re not using the h-word. Not my rules! My boss. He doesn’t want to freak people out more than they already are.”

“Do you need an exorcism?”

Somewhere along the course of the conversation, Chip had trotted over and listened to their conversation. Standing behind Foster as he had been, he was completely obscured. Foster didn’t exactly jump when he heard him, but his eyes went wide - honestly Bel couldn’t blame him. A little voice piping up out of nowhere asking about exorcisms would spook anyone.

“Heh,” Foster shook his head. “Uh - thanks little dude. But I think we just need to get a man to come in and look at the wires - or a lady! A lady electrician would be sweet.

Chip cocked his head and looked up at Foster curiously. “Has your house always been funny like that?”

Foster chuckled again and edged ever so slightly away from Chip. “Uh - that’s funny - not funny ha-ha...funny weird. But no. Just...over the last few months. We did a reno, though, so maybe some stuff got…”

No longer looking up at him, Chip diverted his attention to his backpack. He unzipped a side pocket and, to Bel’s simultaneous horror and amusement, pulled out a Curse Reverse card.

“Here you go,” he said, handing it out to Foster, who took the card and frowned at it, like it was written in Sanskrit. “I hope it’s just your lights are broken. But if you’ve got a ghost or something, you should call! I’ll come over and help fight it away. You should email, though, because Boss doesn’t check the voicemail.”

Flashing his trademark grin, Chip went back to his unboxing videos, leaving the adults standing around speechless.

“I’ll just go talk to him,” Bel said, taking the chance to leave the conversation. “Uh. No soliciting applies to everyone.”

She crouched down beside Chip’s chair and tapped his shoulder. He pulled his headphones off and looked at her expectantly.

“Hey, bud,” she said, trying not to sound either condescending or accusatory. “Why’d you give that man a card?”

“Because his house is haunted,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Most people don’t want their house haunted, we come and fix it.”

“Don’t you usually wait until you’re...um…asked?” Bel asked him.

Chip shook his head. “Not always. Sometimes people don’t know how to ask. I don’t think he knew how to ask. So I helped!”

Grinning, Chip put his headphones back on, clearly indicating that the conversation was over. Dismissed by a five-year-old. Okay.

Later, when Angela came by to pick him up, Bel told her about the situation. Angela rolled her eyes and said, “Don’t worry too much. When people see a little kid with a business card, they think it’s cute and don’t take it seriously - especially if he starts telling everyone he’s a Ghostbuster. I’m sure Gym Guy tossed the card already.

“Besides,” she added, a little ominously. “If it turns out his exercise equipment needs to be exorcised - see what I did there? - we’ll hear about it eventually.”

Bel did hear about it. The next morning, in fact, when the phone rang the second they opened.

“Eisner Public Library,” she said in a dull monotone. “How can I help you?”

“Um, hey, Izzy? Bel? It’s me. Foster. From the library.”

“Yep. Hi,” she said, suppressing a sigh. “How can I help you?”

“Uh…” he paused a long, long time. “So...this might be...you know that kid? With the card?”

She replied that she did and had another long wait before he spoke again.

“So. I don’t want you to think I’m…I don’t really believe - if you do, cool! Like, no judgement! But...so I saw something last night. I don’t think it’s the electric. And I know you, like, know him from somewhere? The kid, I mean. I don’t know how legit he was - hell, maybe it was a prank, kids are weird. But…”

A cold shiver went down Bel’s spine and goosebumps erupted on her neck.

“So...it wasn’t a prank,” she said, lowering her voice slightly. Josh glanced over at him and she turned away, blocking her mouth over the receiver with her hand. “Just...ah...look, can I have your number? I’ll put you in contact with people who can...help.”

“Awesome!” he said, sounding incredibly relieved on the other end of the phone. Bel’s sympathy ran a little thin when he added, “This isn’t the way I wanted to give you my number, but what the hell? We can tell this story to our grandkids, right?”

Bel didn’t reply to that comment, but she dutifully recorded his phone number and then typed an email to cursereverse@gmail.com

Morning! It’s Bel. Gonzalez. Actually, I don’t know if you know my last name. But that’s it! I might have a case for you - a haunting? Maybe? I don’t know how you classify things. Hey, do you charge on a sliding scale depending on the thingy? That would make sense. But this place sounds super haunted. Ask Chip, though, he knows just about as much as I do.

She copied Foster’s number in and was about to hit ‘Send’ before she added one more addendum:

If you need any help, let me know! :-)

Chapter Text

Jean loved ghost stuff. Like, marathoned Ghost Adventures, binged every season of American Horror story and would stop in his tracks to watch any show with terrible re-enactments of paranormal phenomenon.

He walked with a spring in his step toward the warehouse district by the waterfront, laden down with a backpack full of ghost-hunting “equipment” he’d gotten used on Amazon. A water bottle full of holy water, a spirit box, an EMF reader, a low-frequency sound recorder, a Ouija board, and a laser grid that the Beast was pretty sure was actually meant to be used as a Christmas decoration for people who didn’t feel like stringing lights. But whatever, potentially doing an exorcism actually got Jean excited for work, so he’d take it.

Angela opted to stay home with Chip; ghosts freaked her out and the chances of needing a magic-user on a haunted house trip were minimal. It usually went one of two ways: Jean took care of everything by screaming at disruptive poltergeists in bad Latin that he’d learned at Catholic school way back in his misspent youth or Cogsworth sat down and had a long therapy session with troubled spirits until they either moved along or (more typically) agreed to haunt the place more quietly from then out.

And him? He was there to play running back, just in case the spirit world decided to connect to the land of the living by throwing shit around, disrupting his colleagues in their actually useful work.

And her? Bel? Apparently she was there to provide moral support from the guy who’d made the initial phone call. The Beast hadn't actually answered the question on her original email, either yes or no as to whether she was welcome to come along. His gut told him to warn her off, but he couldn't bring himself to forbid her from tagging along if she wanted to. Though he'd done a stellar job of being bare-bones polite to her when she brought Chip back from the library, he tried not to engage too much. He was seeing far too much of her in his dreams as it was. Last week they went to the beach. He was surfing again, she was beside him on a boogieboard, looking fine even though she was dressed in her PJs as usual (this time it was a tank top and a tight pair of shorts). They were having a blast - until the storm clouds rolled in and he woke up.

Pushing aside thoughts of Bel soaking wet in the Pacific, he silently followed his comrades down the street. Since he was in invisibility mode, he observed unseen as she jogged down the block, waving frantically at Cogsworth and Jean.

“Hey!” she called cheerfully. “We’re here.”

We included the guy. Foster. The name conjured up in the Beast’s mind an image of a slightly dweeby guy with big hipster glasses and a patchy beard. Not so. He was six-foot something, good-looking, and jacked. Which, in retrospect, made sense, given that the guy worked at a gym.

Her boyfriend? The Beast literally felt his hackles rise in a disproportionately extreme response to the notion that Bel - who was really attractive and sweet and obviously appealing - had a boyfriend. Why shouldn’t she? Why should he have assumed that she didn’t have a boyfriend?

And, more to the point: why did he care so much? Even if this guy wasn’t her boyfriend, it wasn’t like he was going to become her boyfriend. Or anyone’s boyfriend. Ever.

Bel’s Maybe-Boyfriend waved them over, keys jangling from a lanyard bearing the name of the gym: Ironworks Crossfit. Fitting, since according to the Beast’s minimal research into the location, it was once an iron refinery. Dangerous job, definitely ripe for ghostly activity.

“We’re the only business in the block,” Foster said, leading them down the row of broken, blacked-out, boarded-up windows. “My boss invested crazy money getting this place up to code. When he bought it, there were a few other units being used, like, a restaurant and a coffee shop and some artist studios, but now it’s just us.

“Did they report anything...out of the ordinary?” Jean asked, eyes gleaming at the process that he was about to clear an entire building of ghouls.

“Whoa, sweet accent, bro!” Foster gushed appreciatively. “Um. But no? I don’t think so, I think it was the rents.”

“More insufferable than poltergeists, to be sure,” Cogsworth nodded.

“You didn’t tell me all your friends were so classy,” Foster knocked his arm against Bel’s shoulder in a jovial manner, but she didn’t grin up at him in an ‘Oh, Foster, aren’t you the CUTEST?’ way that the Beast would assume she’d do if she was, in fact, his girlfriend. Instead she looked up at him, looked away without comment and walked slightly behind him to discourage further jocularity.

“We are the exceptions,” Jean grinned, turning back to wink at the Beast, which must have just looked weird to Foster, winking at thin air.

Bel stopped in her tracks and looked around.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, startled, looking in the opposite direction from where the Beast was actually standing. “Um. Hi! Also, hi!”

He tapped her on the shoulder and she spun around, eyes looking more or less at the place where his face was. She had such a cute smile.

“Hi,” he said, quietly, but Foster heard him anyway.

“Did you bring a ghost?” he asked, his voice somewhere between excited and freaked out. “Like, to fight a ghost? Because that would be epic. Only - um. My boss doesn’t know I called you, so if you could not make a huge mess, that would be great. Much appreciated.”

“We brought necessary back-up,” Cogsworth informed him, all business. “Hopefully there won’t be any fighting at all, in my experience, most ghosts are eminently reasonable. Now, what experiences have you had with your previously undiscovered tenant?”

It started small, Foster informed them, as most hauntings did. Things moved, lights left on, little incidents that the staff could brush off. Since the building was old there had always been spots where the heat didn’t work so well, or where humidity gathered leading to condensation on the mirrors. Some of the lights blew out consistently after a few days or weeks, where they should have lasted much longer. All of that had been going on as long as Foster worked there.

“I’ve worked here two years,” he informed them as he unlocked the door. “Just desk stuff, for a discount on using the facility, but I got trained on the equipment, on the assistance stuff, I was promoted to a trainer position six months ago, so I started spending a lot more time here.”

The bigger stuff had come to his notice then. Voices whispering in empty locker rooms. A mirror shattered right at opening, when no one had been in the building. Security alarms being triggered at all hours, with no evidence of a break-in. Water seeping into the floor, then disappearing as soon as they dug the shop vac out of storage. And finally -

“I saw something a few nights ago,” Foster concluded, leading them inside and flipping a switch, which dimly lit up a check-in desk area. “Like a shadow? But solid. And it moved. And...yeah. It was freaky. And not much freaks me out.”

Foster walked around, flipping on more light switches, illuminating the gym in a bright fluorescent glow.

“This doesn’t…feel haunted,” Bel commented under her breath. The Beast was inclined to agree with her.

In the first place, there was the smell. In his experiences, ghosts left behind a faint odor of ozone, fresh and clean, like the air right after a lightning strike. It made sense, since most spirits found electrical energy the most plentiful source to draw from when they manifested. But this place, under the more prominent smells of stale sweat and bleach, smelled like rotten eggs. Like magic. Not like ghosts.

In the second...well. It was a gym. A huge gym with a dozen TVs mounted on the walls, free weight racks and treadmills for cardio. It just didn’t scream ‘scary.’

Bel’s attention was fixed on the huge truck tires lined up neatly against a far wall.

“What’s with that?” she asked, and the Beast belatedly realized she was talking to him. “Like, when in my life am I going to need to flip a tire? What’s the point of that?”

“How can you tell where I am?” he muttered, not having any more clue about the purpose of the tires than she did.

“You breathe really loudly,” Bel informed him.

“Oh, the tires - ” Foster unknowingly interrupted their conversation, draping a casual arm around Bel’s shoulders and leading her over to the equipment. “Yeah, they’re kind of iconic, you know? Like, for most people it’s like, ‘Oh, tire-flipping, that’s a crossfit gym!’ But they’re great for working your hammies, glutes - if you’ve got an office job, flip a tire! It helps make up for spending most of your day sitting on your ass. There’s a way to do it right, though, so you don’t just, like, straight-up murder your back - ”

As he was talking the lights flickered. Then went out.

Bel, Jean, and Foster immediately dug their cell phones out and turned their flashlights on. All of a sudden the previously not-spooky room became a whole lot creepier.

“They’ve never blown all at once before,” Foster said, walking around them toward the check-in area. “The circuit breaker is in the back, let me just - ”

But before he could ‘just’ do anything, there was a deafening crackle of sound. Jean had turned on the spirit box.

“Is anyone here with us today?” he asked over the sound.

“You need to warn people before you do that!” the Beast thundered, paws over his ears, for all the good that did him.

Jean ignored him. “Do you have something to say? Why are you here? Were you killed here? In the forge?”

“One question at a time!” Cogsworth insisted. “You never give them space to hear you, let alone reply! And that awful noise - you know, if I was a spirit, I’d be put off by it, I don’t mind telling you - ”

“Shh!” Jean hissed. “If I was un fantom, I’d be put off by your bitching!”

“The noise is coming from you?” Foster, asked, incredulous. “I thought the ghost stepped up his game - ”

There was no reply from the spirit box. It was a stupid machine, as the Beast saw it, and he knew Jean paid at least three hundred dollars for it. The idea was that it scanned radio stations super fast so if they heard an actual sentence, then it was definitely a ghost and not a snippet of a late-night broadcast. Bullshit, the Beast thought, but Jean saw it on TV once and thought it was cool. Mostly it was loud.

“Did you hear that?” Jean asked. “Did it say ‘yes’?”

“It just sounds like, ‘Bam, bam, bam,’ to me,” Bel replied, sidling up closer to the Beast so that she was almost pressed against him. “Sorry, is this your bubble? Am I invading your bubble? Only it’s freezing and you’re super warm.”

The Beast hadn’t noticed an appreciable drop in temperature, but Bel had her arms wrapped around her waist, hands drawn up into the cuffs of her sweatshirt. She was shifting from foot to foot.

“You’re wearing flip-flops, do you think that’s part of the problem?” he asked her.

She shook her head at once, “Nope, I’m good. Usually. It just got really cold all of a sudden.”
“That’s the spirits!” Jean shouted, turning off the box, much to everyone’s relief. “They’re coming, drawing energy into themselves…”

The Beast wasn’t affected by the cold, but he felt something. Not a change in temperature, but instead a sensation of movement around his head, ruffling his fur. Wind. Hugh. That was new.

There was a rattling sound from the rack where the free weights were. Bel whipped around and the light of her phone caught on a dumbbell hurtling toward her.

The Beast sprang into action, grabbing Bel, pulling her close, turning around to brace himself for the impact of a fifty-pound weight on his back - but it dropped to the ground at his feet, rolling away, crashing into the check-in desk.

The televisions came on then, some playing news stations, some cooking shows, others whatever modified movie was playing on TNT. There wasn’t any sound, just flickering images as the televisions began cycling through the channels.

The Beast relaxed his grip on Bel and she blinked, backing up slightly and shining her flashlight through his invisible form. “This is so weird,” she muttered, evidently more unsettled by being grabbed by an invisible being than the paranormal activity wreaking havoc about them.

Foster, for his part, was actively hiding behind the check-in desk. “Um, hey!” he shouted to no one. “Ghost-bro! If your job is to whip some ass, now would be a good time!”

Jean was crouching on the floor, dumping the contents of his backpack on the ground. A huge container of salt opened up and spilled its contents all over the floor. “Okay! Do you want to say - you have our attention! Do you want to communicate with us? There is definitely something here!”

Cogsworth alone was unruffled, standing in the midst of them with a perplexed expression on his face. The light of the televisions bathed him in a bluish haze, deepening the furrows in his brow as he thought.

“No,” he said at last. “There is not.”

As if to belie his words, the shadows in the room coalesced into a shape, slowly gaining the rough form of a man...tall, as tall as the Beast, but skinny with a pale, formless face, long white hands…

“Slenderman?!” Bel exclaimed before anyone else could. “That’s...that’s...no! He’s a meme!”

“No that’s it!” Foster shouted, running out from behind the desk, latching on to Bel’s arm to drag her to the relative security the check-in desk provided. “That’s what I saw!”

“You saw an illusion,” Cogsworth replied calmly. Even Jean was packing up his equipment, blowing on the salt to scatter it so he wouldn’t be responsible for cleaning up the mess he’d made.

“Bullshit,” Jean muttered, shaking his head angrily. “All this for nothing!”

“You call this nothing?” Foster gaped at them, dropping Bel’s arm in stunned incredulity.

“It’s not a haunting,” Cogsworth replied simply. “I suspected as much when you informed us that though you’ve been employed here for two years, the activity you described only began within the past few months. Unsettled spirits would have likely manifested themselves long before, eh? Certainly with all the sturm und drang of a restoration, what?”

“What?” Foster asked, but Cogsworth ignored him.

“Beg pardon, old thing,” he directed his inquiry in the relatively direction of where the Beast was standing. “In the absence of a true master, I’m going to have to make due - could I have your charm, if you don’t mind?”

The Beast removed the invisibility charm, seeing as how he really didn’t have much of a choice.

“Much thanks,” Cogsworth replied with a smile. Then he smashed it on the ground, right in Jean’s partially decimated salt pile, into which he added his own spit. Gross. Mixing the contents, he drew an arcane symbol in the dust - something to do with banishment, if the Beast remembered correctly. Cogsworth muttered a few words and, just like that, the wind stopped. The televisions turned off. And the lights came back on. With the return of the light, Slenderman vanished like he’d never been.

Of course, the return of the light left them with a slightly new problem - Foster properly saw the Beast for the first time.

“Holy shit!” he screamed, shoving Bel in back of him. “One more! You forgot one more! Fucking werewolf motherfucker!”

The Beast didn’t reply except to say, “Boo.”

Bel eased her arm out of Foster’s grip and stood between them. “It’s fine, he’s with them, this is...uh. Well, he’s their graphic designer. You know. From their card.”

Foster’s eyes went from Bel to the Beast, back to Bel again, as if not quite sure how to quantify what part of this experience was the most alarming. Meanwhile, Cogsworth and Jean conferred.

“So, what was that?” Jean demanded. “Just a lot of noise?”

Cogsworth nodded, “More or less. Bit of physical manipulation. Bit of sorcery. I’d estimate by a millennial warlock, getting a bit long in the tooth considering their inspiration. Rather an outdated figure, I think.”

“So, not a haunting?” the Beast asked, turning slightly away from Foster.

“No, not at all,” Cogsworth shook his head. He directed his next inquiry to Foster. “Beg pardon, but would you happen to know if the owner has any enemies? This appears to be a hired job, a one and done, given the fact that our wizard or witch hasn’t stuck around to maintain their work. Hence why it was so easy to tidy up.”

“Uh…” Foster was still at a loss for words, but he gamely rallied his spirits. “Uh...no? Like...um, I don’t think so. I think he’s divorced, but that’s whatever. I mean, I don’t know if they were married. But he and his lady are not together. They’re cool. I guess.”

“And a spouse would be unlikely to attack their former partner’s place of business,” Cogsworth mused. “Unless the business had something to do with the separation?”

Foster raised his hands and shook his head, some color coming back into his face. “I don’t get involved, man. I stay out of people’s interpersonal shit. But, nah, I think they’re decent to each other? They’ve got a kid together and Pedro’s always saying they stay cool for the kid’s sake. Anyway, he definitely got this place fixed up after they split.”

The Beast noticed that Bel had her phone out again and seemed to be rapidly Googling.

“You said the other businesses here moved out because of a rent hike,” she said, looking down at her phone, but speaking to Foster. “Did your boss say anything about that?”

“Nope,” he shook his head, side-eyeing the Beast like he wasn’t sure their ‘graphic designer’ wasn’t going to design to have him for dinner. “He just pays up. I know the lease is coming up for renewal soon, paperwork’s all signed. He just needs to submit. I told you, business has been good! Lots of, uh...office workers lifting tires.”

He tried for a winning smile, but it was pretty wan, all things considered.

“Until this,” Bel gestured vaguely around her, “stuff started happening.”

“Yeah,” Foster nodded. “Until then.”

She shrugged and put her phone away. “That seems like a pretty big coincidence. Just saying.”

Cogsworth nodded, smiling down at Bel like a proud teacher who’s A student just won the science fair. “Indeed - I’ve been around far too long to believe in coincidences. Well! Foster! You may rest assured that the threat has been vanquished for the present. Just let that rune lie overnight and sweep it all up in the morning. You shan’t have any further difficulties.”

“Oh, cool, great, how much do I owe you?” Foster asked, fishing around in his pockets, from which he removed a few crumpled twenties.

“Ah…” Cogsworth looked briefly awkward as he rapidly mathed in his head. “Er. Well. All things...there was no materials cost. Only labor, and not much at that - ”

“Fifty,” Jean said, holding out one hand decisively.

“Got change?” Foster asked. Jean nodded and handed over a ten, then pocketed the three twenties Foster gave him.

They parted ways shortly thereafter, Foster shaking hands with Cogsworth and Jean, then, after hesitating a second, presenting his curled fingers to fist-bump with the Beast.

“Cool, uh...dude,” he said shakily. “And thanks. A lot.”

Bel hung back by the door during the manly good-byes, offering Foster a wave as she left, waiting in the darkness for Cogsworth, Jean, and the Beast to emerge.

“He’s a lot,” she said, half in apology as they left. “But thanks for giving him a hand. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, really, just clueless.”

“Oh, I quite liked him,” Cogsworth reassured her. Then asked if she would like an escort home.

“No, I’m good - ” Bel began, but Jean interrupted, insisting that Cogsworth and he must return to their apartment at once. But that le patron could probably spare a few minutes to walk the young lady back to her apatman.

When the Beast pointed out that Cogsworth just smashed the charm that let him walk around at night without scaring people, Jean only shrugged.

“It’s late,” he pointed out. “Anyone prowling the streets with trouble on their mind deserves to be scared.”

Bel looked up at him and shrugged, “If you want. I’m good either way.”

The Beast wasn’t stupid, he knew what Jean was up to, but something inside him prevented him from saying no. He was burning to talk to Bel, just for a minute. Mostly to find out exactly how she knew Foster. Once he’d scratched that itch, though, he had every confidence that he’d be able to go back to basically ignoring her, as he’d so successfully done for the past few weeks.

But before he could start grilling her on her relationship status, she asked him a question, “So, what is your name, anyway?”

Dammit. Figured she’d ask him a question there was no answer to.

“I don’t have one,” he replied truthfully.

Bel squinted up at him, “There’s no way - I mean, really? Everyone has a name.”

“Not me,” he said, a growl weaving its way around his words. It was a sore subject. Even now, it still stung. Sometimes literally. “Angela and them call me the Boss. I guess they figure the Beast is un-PC.”

Bel stopped in her tracks, directly under a street light. He stayed in the shadows outside the pool of illumination. There weren’t any cars around and they were taking sidestreets, but it was still better not to draw attention.

“Well, yeah,” she said, curiously. “Your...like, you were just...born? Without a name?”

The way she said ‘born’ with a hint of a question in her tone made him feel hot all over with humiliation and embarrassment and not a little anger. He tried to quell that part of his reaction. She didn’t know. How could she? He might have been conjured or summoned or clawed his way out of the fucking earth for all she knew about him.

“I had one,” he clarified. “Just not anymore. It was taken.

That only made Bel look more confused and he sighed, pinching the bridge of his snout-like nose as he gathered his thoughts, trying to explain in a manner that wouldn’t give anything important away. Or expose him to a world of hurt.

“So, here’s...here’s a useful piece of advice,” he continued, after a pause. “If a faery casually asks if you’d give them your name...it’s never casual. It’s always a...verbal contract.”

Bel blinked at him. “A faery stole your name?”

Took it,” the Beast clarified. “If - if we’re being honest, I gave it to her. I didn’t know that, at the time. It’s...it’s useful to be pa-pa-paranoid about it. Next time you order pizza, make sure you’re ve-very clear that you’re only telling them your name. That they can’t have it.”

The stammering got worse when he was upset. Bel’s expression softened and he looked away, gritting his back teeth, not in the mood for pity.

“So…” she continued delicately, “you can’t...what? Say it? Do you…remember it?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, nodding rapidly. “Yeah. Only if I say it - or anyone else does - there’s a penalty. Faeies have a thing for...for flesh-offerings.”

Bel blanched and he didn’t blame her. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, hair or blood, usually, never teeth which would have been disastrous. Then again, his life was such a wasteland, he wasn’t sure how much worse it could get.

“That sucks,” she shook her head. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, it is what it is,” he said gruffly. They walked on in silence after that. She was speechless and he didn’t feel like talking anymore. He’d already told her too much.

But Bel broke the silence. Apparently she was just too curious to let well enough alone.

“Where’d you meet this faery anyway?” she asked, glancing up at him. “Were you actually ordering pizza?”

His mouth twitched in a smile, not a typical thing when recalling the worst day of his life. “No. I was up in Breckenridge. Colorado.”

Glamping, he thought, but didn’t say since it was an incredibly stupid word.

“We were stationed in Colorado once!” Bel informed him. “I did second grade in Colorado - we were at Peterson. I’ll have to Google to see how far that is from Breckenridge. Maybe we were neighbors!”

“Yeah, that’s before I was up there,” the Beast replied, shaking his head. “I was fifteen, so - ”

“How old are you?” Bel interrupted him.

“Twenty-five,” he said, feeling her eyes rake over him. Figured she wouldn’t know; fur hid wrinkles, after all.

“Oh, cool,” Bel nodded, “I’m twenty-two. So...yeah. How ‘bout that?”

How ‘bout that indeed? She slowed her steps; evidently they were coming up to her apartment. “How long have you lived here?”

The Beast shrugged, “Five years or so. I stayed out West after…”

He trailed off, throat closing in up in a way that had nothing to do with magic. Ten years later and it was still hard to talk about.

But Bel was standing there on the sidewalk, idling by the stoop. Apparently she wasn’t going to go in until he was finished. A light went on in the apartment over their heads, but no curtains parted, giving him no excuse to dash off into the night.

“After…?” she prompted gently. “After your name got stolen?”

“Taken,” he corrected her shortly. “So. You know Angela’s got Chip. And Cogsworth’s unstuck. And Jean can’t touch people skin-to-skin without learning all their innermost bullshit?”

“I didn’t know that about Jean,” she said quietly, looking steadily up at him.

“Okay, well, now you do,” he continued, voice getting growlier and angrier as he went. “So, stands to reason, right, that I got fucked up somewhere along the way? Or did you think I was like, a really civilized sasquatch or something?”

“Or something,” she replied, so infuriatingly calm that he wanted to shake her. He refrained.

“Well, you’re a smart girl,” he practically sneered. “Figure it out.”

And with that he stalked away from her, shoulders hunched, fists clenched - then he turned around just to make sure she let herself into her apartment okay.

She hadn’t moved. She was still standing there looking after him. When she saw him stop, she walked quickly towards him.

“Hey,” she said gently, reaching out a hand that kind of hovered over his left forearm before she decided to touch him. She settled her hand lightly on his arm, prepared to back off if he pulled away. He didn’t. “Don’t - look, I’m super nosy? Like, if you want to share, feel free. But don’t feel like you have to tell me all kinds of stuff about you. I just wanted to know your name, so I could call you something that wasn’t ‘You Over There.’”

The embarrassment was there, but some of the hot fury ebbed. She was just trying to be nice. There was no reason for him to act like a douche.

“I told you,” he said. “The Boss - or the Beast, I guess, since you don’t work for me.”

Bel dropped her hand then, pursed her lips and squinted up at him. “Nah. I don’t think so. Have a good night, okay? And I’ll see you around?”

The Beast hesitated. What was with this girl? Never, not in ten years, not even in his time spent investigating all things ridiculous and unholy had anyone ever wanted to see him. To talk to him. Or anything.

“Yeah, sure,” he said haltingly. “If - if you want.”

She smiled. Squeezed his arm again. “Great. Good-night.”

“Good-night,” he said. Watched her get into her apartment. And then left once she’d shut the door.

Chapter Text

Bel was torn between feeling annoyed at the fact that the...that he snapped at her for asking an innocent question and feeling embarrassed for pushing him to talk about what evidently was a sore subject. But, after all, how was she supposed to know she was poking the bear when she wasn't even aware that there was a bear to be poked? On the other hand, she hadn't actually stopped at one innocent question (What's your name?) she'd asked a series of follow-up questions, (What do you mean you don't have one? How did you get your name stolen? Where were you?). On the other hand, he could have shut her down with a firm, 'I don't feel comfortable talking about this,' which she would have (begrudgingly) respected. On the other other hand, she might have known it wasn't a topic that needed to be examined in-depth when he said that whole thing about flesh offerings.

Too bad Dad was in bed when she got home. Bel would have liked to have a heart-to-heart about whether or not she'd gotten herself into a situation where she ought to apologize. Or whether she should sit back and wait for him to apologize. Or whether it was basically fine and she just shouldn't bring it up anymore and assume he was planning to do the same.

People were complicated. Even people who looked like gargoyle-chimera-werewolves. Maybe especially them.

As she dug around in the fridge looking for something to heat up for a belated dinner, her phone buzzed. Angela's name flashed across the screen along with a message:

Sorry for staying behind, I heard you guys needed a magic-user.

Bel smiled, not at Angela's apology, but at the fact that she'd texted her at all. Like she was in on something, rather than being a hanger-on or outsider.

Leaving the fridge door partially open, Bel sat down at texted back, No worries! Cogsworth did great! I think? :-) He banished the Slenderman and now the gym is clean.

Can a gym ever REALLY be clean? Oh! Jean told me your BF is hot af, so git it girl!

Bel's follow-up text consisted of a face of progressively sicker-looking emojis, concluding with the puking green-faced one. Nope. Not my bf. Not even my f. Just a guy I know. He might WANT to be my bf, but he's

She paused. Buff and studly was usually her go-to fantasy man, but Foster was just kind of...her thoughts trailed off as her texts had. Bel was reassessing her initial read on him - he was pushy and his understanding of personal space could be better, but aside from some clueless remarks (he liked a little something to hold on to - really?!) he hadn't crossed any lines. She felt awkward with him, but she felt awkward with most people. And now that he and Josh were kind-of friends, Foster didn't just talk to her when he came to the library. Still, she wasn't into him. There wasn't any zing, any spark. He was a gym rat who watched WWE and really gory TV shows. He wasn't a bad guy, but he wasn't for her.

Basic. she concluded finally. Then changed the subject, You never told me our mutual tall, hairy friend didn't have a name! I asked him about it and I think I pissed him off.

Angela's reply was almost instantaneous, What'd he do? Because if he upset you, I have ways to hurt him.

Yeesh, that's a little extreme, Bel thought. He hadn't attacked her or anything. It wasn't even what he said so much as how he said it. 'You're a smart girl, figure it out.' Sneering and dismissive under all the growling. She hated being dismissed, condescended to. Still, she didn't need Angela getting her own blood retribution on Bel's behalf.

I'm not upset, she lied. I was just taken aback. I mean, most people have names, right?

Right, Angela confirmed. He's touchy about it. Sorry, I should have warned you. I think it's guilt. He blames himself. I don't want to tell you all his business - hold on, he's back, he just knocked on my door.

Okay, Bel texted back. She waited about five minutes for Angela to come back into the conversation. Then she got up and heated up Chinese leftovers. And checked her phone: nothing.

She went over to the TV to eat her dinner while a medical show played quietly in the background. She checked her phone a few more times, still nothing. Bel plugged it in to charge before bed, glancing at the screen as she set her alarm for the morning, just in case. Still nothing.

The super set the heat for the whole building and it was boiling. Bel slid under a sheet in a pair of boyshorts and a tank top, reading a Scottish horror novel until she fell asleep. The temperature must have been affecting her. If anything she should have dreamed about zombie bunnies bursting out of a veterinary clinic. Instead she dreamed of the beach.

The sky was blue-blue, the clouds were white-white with an intensity that was strange. Usually Bel's dreams, however vivid, had a muddiness around the edges, the sense that she needed to look closer, to open her eyes, that she wasn't really seeing anything. But she felt the heat on her nose and cheeks, the wind whipping at her hair, her toes dug into the soft, white sand.

She sat down by the water's edge, just shy of the break line. Warm salty water doused her toes. She buried her hands in the sand, feeling the wet, compact coolness under the hot upper layer.

A shadow imposed itself on her vision and she looked up, squinting. It was a guy in board shorts. The sun was behind him, she couldn't make out his features.

"Hey," he said in a voice that was vaguely familiar, though try as she might, she couldn't place it. "I know this doesn't matter and that you're not real and..."

"I'm super-real," she said indignantly. Pinching herself as though to prove it. Ouch. Bel looked down at spot on her arm that she'd pinched. It hurt. This was her dream, wasn't it? She wasn't supposed to feel things in dreams.

The head of the figure shook, briefly putting itself in profile. Interesting nose, she thought. Crooked. With a prominent bump on top. Broken?

"How'd you break your nose?" she asked curiously.

"I got punched," he said simply, one arm rising, the hand settling on the back of his neck. There were freckles all over his arms. Bel was briefly jealous; she always thought freckles were adorable, but all her genetics gifted her with was a propensity to sprout moles. "Um. But. I wanted to say sorry. For being a douche."

When were you a douche? Bel thought, distracted from looking at the freckles on his bicep by her own confusion. I've never talked to you before.

Or had she? Now that she was in the dream, she thought that she'd been to this beach before. She looked around; it wasn't a quiet little oasis, sheltered from the world. There were house in the cliffs around the water's edge. Big, giant houses with huge porches. And pools. And...palm trees? Bel's only experience with beaches were the ones along the Jersey Shore. Palm trees were certainly exotic.

"Earlier," he clarified, voice gaining an edge of frustration. That made him seem even more familiar. Gah, why couldn't she place him?

Bel stood up, dusted the sand off her palms and squinted. Even when she stood he still loomed over her. His hair was light a bright copper halo around his head. And his eyes.

A distant rumble made him turn around, facing away from her toward the horizon. The bright warm of the day was overtaken with black clouds - no, not clouds, smoke. And it wasn't coming from the direction of the sea, but from the mansions on the hills, each one billowing noxious plumes of smoke down the hills, into the water. The sand was no longer burning beneath her feet, but cold. Ice cold.

He scooped her up off her feet, carried her fireman style over his shoulders and started running - into the water. He tossed her down onto something hard and wet. A surfboard. They were surfing out of danger?

"What's your name?" she shouted over the roaring of thunder, the crashing of the waves. She thought she heard a voice saying something to her, almost whispering in her ear, but the water got choppy. He was gone. She was sitting, on a surfboard in the midst of a roiling, churning sea and she started to panic, the wind whipping up around her, the salt air choking her.

"Help!" she shouted, or tried to, but there was no one there. "Help! Where are you? Who are you?"

A wave crashed down on her. Blackness.

Bel bolted upright in bed, tangled in her sheet, sweaty and clammy. With a shaking hand she reached for her water bottle, sitting on her nightstand and chugged it down in a few long swallows, breathing raggedly, wiping her mouth with her arm. As consciousness returned, the dream slipped away. Details blurred and were lost. All she knew was that everything was fine at first. Then she was terrified. And there was a name, stuck in her mind like a subconscious post-it note.

Adam.

Bel looked at her phone - there was a follow-up text from Angela, dated 2:40AM.

I AM SO SORRY I FLAKED ON THIS CONVERSATION. Cogsworth is a shit and didn't tell me he smashed my invisibility charm, I've been up for three hours making a glamour. ANYWAY. I AM A BAD FRIEND

There were a few sadface emojis, but Bel ignored them and the text. No doubt Angela's phone was on silent as she slept. And she was on a mission.

Bel opened the web browser on her phone and started Googling.

adam AND disappear* OR missing AND "breckenridge, colorado" OR "breckenridge" OR "colorado" OR "breckenridge, co" AND 20*

The first four hits were advertisements for Airbnb and Vrbo properties, asking if she wanted to disappear into the mountains for a ski vacation. A few results down and she saw something promising:

AUTHORITIES FEAR THE WORST AS SEARCH FOR REAL ESTATE BARON'S SON CONTINUES INTO ITS THIRD WEEK

Heart rate picking back up, Bel clicked on the link. There were no accompanying photos, it was a text-only archived article from a national newspaper, dated ten years ago. Still. It told her enough. Adam C. Printz, the third son of real estate tycoon Alexander Printz, had been reported missing three weeks from the date of the article. The last time anyone had seen him was a week before the police report was filed. The article claimed that the family admitted Adam was prone to "impulsive decisions" and they assumed he'd run off to stay with friends without telling anyone. It was only after a week of no contact from their son and assurances from family and friends that no one had seen him, that they started to worry. A quoted police detective immediately defended the family.

"He's a hotheaded fifteen year old with some history of antisocial behavior," read the quote, in a tone Bel thought was strangely hostile when a kid was missing. Resources had been poured into the search, but it was slowing down. "No body has been discovered, so we remain optimistic," the detective went on. Then admitted that sometimes, in cases like this, it could be a long time before there were any leads. Especially since it snowed in the mountains unusually early that year, making she search difficult. "We'll keep looking. As long as we have to."

Bel didn't need to read any more to know that they hadn't found him. She downloaded the article to her phone, feeling slightly sick. She'd seen some evidence of the hotheaded temper herself, but antisocial behavior? What did that mean?

She stayed up the rest of the night Googling. So. He was a Printz. One had to have been raised under a rock not to know about the Printz family, they were mega-rich and vaguely famous in the way of mega-rich American families. There were copious articles about the parents, at different soirees, benefits, the Met Gala. Alyson, the mom, was considered something of a fashion icon, a darling of the NY Times society page and clothes-conscious blogs. The two older sons were much older than her, which took Bel aback a little. Andrew, the eldest, was COO of Printz Development Inc., married to a retired supermodel, with whom he had two kids, and was an occasional guest shark on Shark Tank. The younger, Aaron, had been on the US Olympic equestrian team and was even on an episode of an early 2000s documentary/reality show called Love Lives of America's Most Eligible Bachelors an an episode entitled "Printz Charming," which chronicled his dating life.

They weren't publicity-shy people, Bel noticed as she thumbed through result after result, page after page of articles and images of the blonde, attractive Printz family. Their Wikipedia article gushed over Mr. Printz's family's working-class roots, his coming up in the world of real estate and land development, his passionate interest in urban renewal. There was information aplenty about the two older sons' accomplishments, girlfriends, even products they publicly endorsed. There was a small section titled 'Breckenridge Disappearance' which mentioned the third son, briefly, basically rehashing everything the newspaper article said. Adam. The third son. History of behavioral problems. [Citation needed.] Disappeared in the mountains of Colorado when he was fifteen. [This section requires editing.]

The phone buzzed in Bel's hand, indicating that she needed to shower and get ready for work.

"Adam Printz," she muttered, then yelped. Her right index finger began to bleed from a sudden slit, like a papercut. She brought her finger to her mouth, frowning, sucking on the blood. She removed her hand and examined the wound. It would need a Band-Aid.

She padded into the bathroom two wrap her finger up in a water-proof bandage, hoping to clear her mind. Despite the heat of the apartment, she turned the shower on hot as she could stand and stood under the spray, letting the water wash over her as she tried to organize her thoughts.

Adam Printz. There really was a penalty to using his name. Got in trouble a lot as a kid. What kind of trouble she had no idea. Cursed by a faery when he was fifteen. Did his family still think he was missing? Killed? Had they just given up on him?

Bel understood that, actually. Having been in a similar situation - okay, it wasn't like her mom was missing, she just took off. Dad could have gone chasing after her. When she was little she hated him for it. Before she understood why Mom ran off. Why she wasn't coming back. Why it just wasn't worth it to pursue her.

Before she left for work, Bel replied to Angela's text. No worries! All good! Glamours, huh? Sounds fancy!

It was so easy to be chipper over text. Just a few well-placed exclamation marks and pow! Instant cheer.

Ha. Not so fancy - but the Boss needs something if he's going to go out during the daytime. And invisibility charms are EXPENSIVE.

I can imagine, Bel wrote back only she couldn't. Not really.

Angela said he felt guilty. That he blamed himself for getting cursed. The whole long walk to the library, Bel had one burning question on her mind: Why? What had he done?

Chapter Text

Even the Beast wasn't so dim that he didn't recognize the fact that apologizing to Bel in his dreams for being a dick wasn't exactly delivering a real apology. All she wanted was to know his name. Totally normal request in the real world. Crazy how he wanted so much to be normal for so long that somewhere in the wanting he'd completely forgotten what normal felt like.

Normal people had names. Names that you could say without worrying about disinfecting sudden flesh wounds or a hank of hair dropping off your head. And yet at this point, 'The Beast' felt like it was as much his name as the one on his birth certificate. Despite what the others thought, it wasn't a nickname he'd adopted After, in a fit of angsty self-loathing. That was the one thing he carried over from Before. The faery wasn't the first one to call him that. He'd been hearing it all his life.

Adam Printz was a little rotten kid who became a big rotten teenager. What started as a fond, if slightly exasperated nickname referring to his destructive tendencies as a toddler (his oldest brother remarked more than once that his parents shouldn't have had a third son, they should have just gotten a dog for all the difference it would have made), developed into a hateful insult when he was a teenager. It was the last thing they spat at him after a fight in the ski house led to the rest of the family packing up and leaving him behind. Leaving him alone. Until she came.

The Beast didn't like to remember the night of the curse. Others who had been cursed would replay the events over and over. Wondering what they could have said or done to change their fates.

Codswallop, Cogsworth said. He wasn't a particularly passionate guy, except on the subject of curses, especially those delivered by the Fae. They sought the weak, the vulnerable, the desperate. Made deals that people couldn't comprehend the consequences of until it was too late. They never lied. But they almost never told the whole truth either.

The Beast didn't play games of what-if like that. He wasn't like the others. Not like Chip, who didn't ask to be brought into the world, or Angela who was dealing with the fallout from an ancestor's desperate pleas. Not Cogsworth, on the cusp of oblivion, begging to live. Or Jean, who had been born Deaf, whose parents wanted their son to have understanding. To understand anyone he was near enough to touch. That time, when the fae gave, they gave way too much.

They were all cursed. He, on the other hand, was being punished.

It wasn't one bad decision, as much as he once tried to delude himself, it was a lifetime of bad decisions. The faery hadn't done all that much, aside from what Cogsworth called the most extreme "transmogrification of the body" he'd ever seen. All she'd done was make the inside reflect the outside.

The Beast woke up early in the morning after yet another of his Bel-dreams turned nasty. With the onset of the cold weather, he'd been dreaming of surf and sand. He hadn't been to the beach in years. Once upon a time it had been his favorite place in the world. Well. That and the mountains.

As he walked into the kitchen, he found the glamour Angela had labored over all night, after she finished her Psych homework. There was a passive aggressive note under the long cord tied to the dark flask containing the charm. YOU'RE WELCOME :-)

Although he found the invisibility potion unnerving, he preferred it to a glamour. At first, when Angela told him she could whip one up for him to ease travel and being seen during the day, he'd been excited for the chance to look like a person again, if only temporarily. But he quickly realized that it was a lie. This was his life now. This was his real. This was his normal.

The dreams with Bel weren't real either, though she looked solid and spoke to him. Always a little leery at first since she never seemed to know who he was. Then again, how could she? This, the hulking monstrosity digging through the fridge for bacon and eggs, was all she'd ever known.

He made himself a hasty sheet pan breakfast. Before, he'd been a late sleeper. Chronic insomniac, which he still was, but he still got his eight hours by sleeping the morning away. Now he usually slept for five hours at a stretch before waking up hungry. It took a lot of fuel to keep that body in fighting shape.

That was probably what brought him to consciousness the first morning, after he'd been cursed. Hunger. Having never been deprived of anything in his life, he didn't recognize the sharp aching pain in his stomach for what it was, the pain in his back that came of being dehydrated. Couldn't distinguish that from the overall pain that consumed him made him ache from head to...tail.

Cogsworth was there. He'd let himself in, a near-stranger at that point, some weird guy the Beast had been talking to in the ski shop a few days earlier. Buying medical supplies. First aid kits. For him, the Beast found out. But that all came later. First the slow rise to consciousness, Cogsworth shining a flashlight in his eyes, checking his pupils, his pulse. It had been a "wretched scene," was all Cogsworth would say when the Beast asked about it. Cogsworth had been worried he wouldn't survive the transformation - which was ridiculous since Cogsworth knew he must, but still. It had been a bad scene.

The Beast didn't remember much of it. His family left him alone in the house. They couldn't deal with him. Then it started to snow. A woman knocked at the door. He'd yelled at her. She'd smiled at him. And he woke up spitting his own teeth onto the floor, feeling like hell. Cogsworth showed up with a cooler full of first aid supplies and said he was there to help.

Typical reaction, Cogsworth was quick to assure him. The brain's own defense mechanism against an excess of pain and trauma. He'd seen it before, on the battlefield. Men who woke up in hospital, not knowing they'd been shot or blown up until they tried to move their limbs that weren't there anymore. Until they saw what was left of their faces.

The Beast woke with all his limbs intact - and then some. He'd tried to speak, but all that came out was a garbled growl that even made Cogsworth jump. This part, the Beast remembered with almost cinematic clarity.

He tried to speak, but it led to more pain. He bit his tongue and felt blood trickling down his throat. He swallowed, but something about his mouth felt wrong. The way his teeth aligned - his teeth.

Gingerly he ran his tongue over his teeth - hehad teeth at least, but they were sharp, all sharp in the front, uneven, and something about his mouth was off, the shape was strange. He raised a hand to feel his mouth, but his arm ached and felt heavy and weak, so he dropped it back to his side, pressing his palm against the floor. Even the floor felt weird, like he was feeling it through thick gloves. He could barely make out the texture of the carpet under him, only noted that it was soft and gave under his hand.

"Wnn appppn?"

It wasn't a question. It was barely words that issued out of his misshapen mouth, his sharp teeth. And the voice that spoke wasn't his voice. It wasn't even a voice just a sound. A strangled and rasping growling noise.

The crease in Cogsworth's forehead deepened. "Ah. Sorry old thing. Didn't quite - do you know? I think I can work it out. You - ah. Well, I can tell you the what, but I'm afraid I'm at a loss as to why. Transmogrification of the flesh. One of the most extreme examples I've ever seen."

He was speaking quickly, in a clipped, precise way, but his voice got a little higher as his spoke. Like he was afraid of something. Or, if not afraid, very, very nervous.

The nerves were catching. His heartbeat picked up, he started to feel hot all of a sudden, the beginnings of a panic attack. That was what the psychologists called them. Panic attacks. Only when other people shut down, he lashed out. Mercifully, for Cogsworth at least, he was too exhausted to move. Or at least to move quickly.

He tried to turn over, eyes squeezing shut as every muscle in his body protested.

"Oh, I wouldn't - ah, well, just as you like," he heard Cogsworth say. Then he heard Cogsworth scrambling back away from him. He managed to get up on one elbow, but his knees didn't bend like they should, his ankles weren't working right - and what did that even mean? His ankles weren't working? Never mind the fact that he couldn't even begin to guess what the word "transmogrification" meant. He didn't have a clue.

Maybe it was a mark of how foggy he was. Or how stupid. That when he opened his eyes and saw that he'd braced himself on a huge hairy paw, he didn't realize what he was looking at. Not even when he tensed his fingers and black claws dug into his mother's cream-colored carpet. It came on pathetically slowly, the realization about the wrongness of his body. The fact that the paw was his paw, the swollen-looking, fur-covered arm was his arm. He only became truly conscious of the horror of it all when he tried to scream and it came out as a long, loud, roar.

Cogsworth left him alone then, departed for another part of the house, calling out that he'd just leave him be for a minute, but to - ah - shout if he needed anything.

At the time, the Beast was relieved. He was overwhelmed, by the pain, the confusion, and the smell of the house. The whole house reeked. Of weed, the abandoned dishes from dinner that he'd never put away, of booze, and other, grosser smells, like sweat and blood and Clorox bleach. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to know what the hell had happened to him - he wanted to wake up. The whole thing felt like one long, awful nightmare. He wanted to wake up.

It had taken him a while to drag himself into the first floor powder room. He couldn't walk upright, couldn't even stand. He was prowling around on all fours, like an animal. His head was still foggy, but he knew his body was wrong, was twisted, too big, too bulky. He hadn't been a small guy before, but now it was a struggle just to fit into the bathroom. But it was the only room on the floor with a full length mirror.

Which he promptly broke. He hadn't meant to. Hadn't consciously thought about it. He'd lashed out, attacking. People had a fight or flight instinct and his was permanently stuck on fight. What other reaction was he going to have when he saw a huge, fanged, hairy monster staring at him.

He only got a glimpse of himself that morning, but it was enough. Twisted, deformed legs that looked like the hindquarters of a dog or a wolf. Huge body and head, covered with muscle and dark brown fur. Paws. Claws. A humped back and a mane of fur around a head that looked like some cross between a bear, a buffalo, and a wolf. The animals the faery invoked when she cursed him. No nose, anymore, but a snout and just enough of something human about the shape of the mouth and jaw that he was (in time) able to talk.

It took months before he was able to catch a glimpse of himself without asking in his mind, Oh, God what is that thing? Cogsworth said he'd never seen anything like it. Neither had the Beast.

He was in shock. But maybe he shouldn't have been. He'd acted like a monster all his life; now he really was one.

Even Angela, who he warned about his appearance before he met her, was taken aback. Kept her eyes on him the whole time they talked. Kept her back to the door. Just in case.

That was why the glamour was necessary. Even though it was a lie. The Beast picked it up, the bottle dangling from the cord, swinging over the table, strangely heavy for its size.

Maybe Bel - he thought, but a nasty, mocking voice in his head drowned out that thought before he finished it.

What? Maybe she'll like you better that way? Don't fool yourself. It's just a lie. Just a tool. What were you going to do, stroll over to the library and talk to her like you were just like anyone else? It's not even your appearance that's the problem. It's you.

Bel was the only person who'd had a good reaction to seeing him - granted, she thought he was a robot or something, but still. He remembered the way her eyes lit up how she'd come right up to him and even when she realized what she was looking at and talking to she still got his keys for him. Smiled. Told him to have a good night.

Different. She was different from anyone he'd ever met. Kind. Curious (maybe a little too much so for her own good). And, he admitted to himself, remembering her gentle touch on his arm, forgiving. A good person.

And he? He was a monster. In more ways than one. He put the glamour back down on the kitchen table and took his breakfast out of the stove. He'd only use it when he had to. Most likely, Bel would never even see him wearing it. There was no reason to wonder. No reason to hope.

Chapter Text

“Las classes de ingles son los jueves,” Bel patiently explained to the third harried-looking mom that morning. She was trying to have patience, but it was wearing thin; every year the ESL teachers promised they’d send some bilingual fliers and every year she was stuck translating a stack full of English-only posters and business cards to confused potential students. “Solo los jueves. A las diez, y - ”

“¿Por la tarde?” the woman interrupted her, shushing her over-tired kids. “Yo trabajo en la mañana.”

“Sí,” Bel said curtly. “Sí. A las diez, quatro de la tarde, y siete de la noche.”

“¿Los jueves?” the mom asked, digging around in her pocket for her cell phone, which Bel hoped she was going to use to record the dates of the English classes. No luck; she handed it to her toddler to keep him quiet while the four-year-old whined that he was hungry.

“Los jueves,” Bel confirmed, hoping that was the end of their conversation. It wasn’t.

“¿Cuanto cuesta?” Mom asked (she’d already inquired as to whether there was a cost to the class when they started their conversation, Bel told her, but evidently she forgot).

“Vienticinco dólares,” Bel replied, then added, “pero, si necesitas…”

She trailed off, trying to translate the phrase “financial hardship waiver” into Spanish, but the mom waved her off, muttering “venticinco, sí, sí,” and then snapped at the kids that they were going to the car. She left without a thank-you, but Bel didn’t take offence; she’d be pissed if she needed to learn English and found out that the information about the classes was only available in in English. It kind of felt like a set-up.

No sooner had mom-with-kids left than Elyse pounced on her, beaming and thanking her profusely for taking that patron.

“I wish I could speak multiple languages,” she gushed, like Bel was possessed of a rare and exotic talent. “But I’m just a lazy American!”

“Mmm,” Bel smiled blandly and nodded, biting back the comment that she was also an American, though she liked to think she wasn’t lazy. And that she hadn’t been raised in a two-language household; Dad spoke to her primarily in English and most of her knowledge of Spanish was acquired in the way Americans of any ethnicity acquired knowledge of conversational Spanish: four years of high school language classes.

Elyse drifted off back towards the childrens’ area and Bel was left to go back to her prior occupation: conducting an obsessive internet search for images or information related to Adam Printz.

She’d been doing a little research at home over the last few days, but was mostly coming up empty. Though his picture had likely been published as part of his missing persons report, any website that had it archived long ago took it down. And since he was a minor at the time of his disappearance, there wasn’t a lot of public information about him in general.

The only possible glimpse she’d gotten of him was when she forced herself to sit through forty-eight minutes of his brother Aaron’s dating show escapades. At one point, during a casual conversation staged in the kitchen of their giant house, a chubby little red-haired boy could be seen bobbing around in the background; mostly behind the kitchen island, so Bel didn’t get much of a sense of what he looked like. There wasn’t even a guarantee it was him, it was only that he looked about the right age given the fact that he said he was twenty-five when they talked. It wasn’t like anyone in the episode referenced him. The scene in the show was short, a conversation between Aaron and his mother Alyson and they didn’t even glance at the kid wandering around them.

She was getting into the weeds in Google; after about page 3, the results started getting very weird, there was an old defunct blog that tried to explain mysterious disappearances or murders, who had a short entry on the Printz family. The blogger’s opinion was that the family orchestrated the whole thing to cover-up the fact that the third son was in prison, or a mental asylum. The blogger read a lot into the lead investigator’s comments about Adam Printz being “antisocial.” They thought it referenced a literal diagnosis, one that would bring a blight upon a family that fancied themselves the modern-day Astors.

“Thanks for taking that!”

Bel was startled out of her ineffective research by Josh.

“Gah!” she yelped, automatically shutting down the search screen. “Don’t do that!”

“Girl, I don’t care about your lonely Solitaire games, I don’t sign your paychecks,” he said, brushing off her concern. “But seriously, if I have to explain to Elyse that Tagalog and Spanish aren’t the same, I’m going to scream.”

“Well, I just did scream,” Bel pointed out, slightly sourly. “So…”

Josh smiled charmingly and patted her shoulder. “Better you than me. Just wanted to say thanks, go back to Text Twist or Candy Crush or whatever you were doing, I’m going to shelf-read for a while. Did you already peel the ‘New’ stickers off - ”

“Adult Non-Fiction?” Bel supplied. The answer was yes. Yes, she had. And now her hands smelled like citrus. God bless Goo-Gone.

Josh wandered off toward the Mysteries alcove leaving her alone, but Bel didn’t go back to searching. If she hadn’t found anything by now, she wasn’t likely to find anything else in the bowels of the internet. And what she had found only made her feel a little uneasy.

It wasn’t that she was taking the ponderings of conspiracy-minded bloggers who had their heyday around 2010 to heart, not exactly. But still, that word “antisocial” didn’t sit well with her. It could mean anything after all, from just basically being shy to lighting small animals on fire in a woodshed. She knew the - that he had been cursed, like the others. He hadn’t told her how, but knowing what she did of Cogsworth and Angela’s lives, she had to guess that he’d asked for something somehow, something that got twisted up.

Cogsworth was choking on mustard gas and asked for time - a lifetime, but he got all the time in the world. Angela’s great-whatever Grandma wanted a little boy - a son who would inherit their land when he was a man, but she got a perpetual child. What had he asked for? To be...what, swifter than a speeding wolf, stronger than a bear, able to eat whole hamburgers in a single bite?

Unlikely. According to him, his situation was a “fuck up,” like the others, clearly he hadn’t asked to be turned into a monster. But what had he asked for?

Cynically, she thought he couldn't possibly have needed anything. Watching that Prinz Charming show starring his brother, it looked like he'd been born into all the opulence and comfort a person could wish for. They had horses, and a boat, and an Indy track's worth of cars to choose from. Aaron had driven his dates around in no fewer than three different sports cars in less than an hour of television. What could he possibly have wanted?

Unlike the blogger, she was trying not to jump to conclusions. Even with that loaded word, “antisocial” floating around. It might be bogus. She herself had been misdiagnosed by armchair psychologists and it felt pretty rotten.

Bel had gone to seven schools from Kindergarten to high school. Given the fact that her dad’s location was dependent on where the Air Force needed him, they moved a lot. When she was eight, Dad tentatively floated the idea that she could live with his mom in Ft. Worth so that she could have some stability, but Bel flat-out refused that idea and he gave in to her almost at once. He felt guilty about Mom and wasn’t about to deprive her of two parents if he didn’t have to.

If Bel had been a little more self-aware as an elementary schooler, she might have seen instability as an opportunity. The chance to reinvent herself, rather than suffer from being reinvented by others, which was usually what happened. At one school she was considered a know-it-all, stuck-up, and snobby. At another, so quiet that her father was called in to have a conversation with the guidance department about her displays of “selective mutism.” By high school she had gone full weirdo - talking to herself in the hallway, muttering dialogue aloud as she read in the back stacks of the library because she didn’t have actual friends to talk to. That got her sent to the school social worker, who worked very hard to convince Bel that she was developing Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Just because I might want to be Hermione Granger, doesn’t mean I think I am Hermione Granger, Bel muttered sullenly. Looking back, she had more sympathy for the social worker at twenty-two than she had at fourteen. She had been going through her ‘Talk with an English Accent and See if You Fool Anyone’ phase. No wonder people thought she was a little nuts.

Still, her quirks were harmless. She had a few similarly misfit friends in school, her dad loved her, and she’d like to think that if she mysteriously disappeared, the first responders would have had a little more sympathy than to announce to the public that they didn’t need to worry too much about her, since she wasn’t a great kid to begin with. What made him different?

And does it even matter? she mused, as she checked out a college kid with a stack of chemistry books, people changed in ten years. She no longer spent her days speaking with a fake British accent. People could make progress. He didn’t seem Antisocial in a ‘making of a serial killer’ way. Just kind of tense and grumpy. Not overly pleasant, but being cranky wasn’t a crime.

Bel probably wouldn’t have been worried about it, only felt like she was actively friends with Angela and...well, she was on the cusp of liking him, too. And Cogsworth, and Jean. They all kind of came as a mismatched set. If he was actually evil, she’d probably want to stymie that friendship impulse quickly.

The phone rang, Elyse answered it at her desk and Bel watched her become more and more flustered.

“Hello, Eisner Public Library Children’s Desk, how many I help you? I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I think….sorry, one more time? I think we have a bad connection. Are you in your car? I’m sorry. Um. Just…”

The children’s librarian’s eyes flickered up to Bel and she shrugged helplessly. Bel’s fingers twitched, assuming the call would be routed to her when Elyse put the patron on hold and got up to speak to her over the circulation desk.

“I think there’s someone on the phone asking for you,” she said apologetically. “I can’t understand him - I think there’s a bad connection and he sounds like he has a terrible sore throat. I would have hung up, but I thought maybe your dad - is he sick? If he needs anything, feel free to take the afternoon.”

Bel frowned; Dad wasn’t sick, he was packing up that morning to go to Comic Con. He’d asked her if she wanted to go, but crazy crowds and $5 bottles of water were not her cup of tea, so she declined; he sounded totally fine when he left in the morning.

Elyse transferred the call and Bel picked up. “Hello?”

“Hi,” came his voice over the line, rendered even more distorted than it usually was over the phone lines. “Bel. It’s. Um. Me.”

“Hey, you,” she said, uncomfortably, turning slightly away from Elyse, sticking a finger in her ear to hear him better. “What’s up?”

“The people you work with are idiots,” he grumbled and even though it was mean, she couldn’t say it was inaccurate. “Uh. But. I was wondering, could you do me - us...um. A favor?”

Her heartbeat picked up. A favor. For her new favorite squad of Ghostbusters? Yes, absolutely, she wanted to say, but, given the last few days of research, thought it was wise to be cautious. “What kind of favor?”

“Research,” he said and though he couldn’t see her through the phone, Bel’s eyes lit up. Research! Yes! That was totally part of her skill set, a definite improvement from telling people what time ESL classes were and where the second floor bathroom was located.

“Sure!” she exclaimed, a little too bright and chipper under the circumstances, but she was bored. “What kind of research?”

“Cogsworth wants...wants to know the history of the businesses in that block where the gym is,” he explained. “When the factory closed, if the building was vacant, what tenants moved in, when, who the current owner is. We - we thought the records might be at the library, and since you work there…”

Bel’s heart sank, just a little. In terms of occupancy, building ownership, nitty-gritty details like that, they’d have better luck visiting City Hall. The library had some old city directories, but nothing current. She was just about to tell him as much, when she paused. If she was a librarian, that would be her job, not necessarily to obtain the information her patron was looking for, but to tell them where they could find it. That was the nature of the job, the ethical thing to do.

She was no librarian. She was not bound by any code of ethics.

“I can definitely find that out for you,” she said, all confidence.

“Great,” he replied, and she heard the relief in his voice. “Can you keep the building open a few hours late? Cogsworth and I could come help, only...um. Not...not during normal operating hours.”

Shit, she thought and answered honestly, “I don’t have that kind of power. But! I could make some photocopies? And bring them to you guys? Three heads are better than one!”

“That works too,” he said. And asked when she thought she’d be able to come by.

“Hopefully tomorrow, if I can...get everything together,” she replied a little optimistically. “I can text you, what’s your number?”

There was a long pause, but she could hear him breathing, so she knew they hadn’t been disconnected. “Text Angela.”

Bel agreed she would and he hung up without another word. ‘Thank-you’ wouldn’t have gone amiss. She had the impulse to call and tell him, but she couldn’t do a reverse-phone look-up on a transferred call.

She was getting in deeper with them; despite her pretentions to caution, she couldn’t deny that it felt kind of great. To put her geeky tendencies to work for something other than her own personal edification. To be part of something. Especially something so cool and mildly dangerous and adventurous.

Bel always wanted an adventure. City Hall might not have been the Pyramids of Egypt or the moors of Yorkshire. But it was a start.

Chapter Text

She brought him a library. Well, basically. Bel showed up at their place with two backpacks and a tall shopping cart full of books, papers, and binders.

The Beast stared dumbly down at her as he went to let her in. He only found his voice enough to say, "Wow."

Bel laughed, "Yeah, it's a lot. I walked from City Hall which is like, NBD most of the time, but after twenty minutes my shoulders were mad at me."

"Let me take that," he offered, belatedly trying to be chivalrous. Real helpful, him, carrying two backpacks and the rolling cart over the threshold. Bel rolled her shoulders and he winced as he heard something pop.

"All better!" she declared cheerfully, looking around. At least she had a little cushioning for her shoulders, she was wearing a puffy vest with a hood, which she took off and draped over the back of a kitchen chair. "Flying solo?"

More like abandoned. Cogsworth hadn't been at the apartment when they woke up that morning and Angela was getting coffee with some guy she met on OK Cupid. Jean and Chip were at the movies. Which left him alone. Until she turned up.

When the Beast originally offered to help with research, it was with the assurance that Cogsworth would be there too, to speed read and fill awkward silences. But leaving without a word indicated that his traveling was 'involuntary and of indefinite duration' as he liked to say.

Still, it wasn't like he could tell her to leave, after she dragged all this stuff around town for him - for them. Not for him. Technically for Cogsworth, so...yeah. Slow your roll, there, Romeo.

"The City Directories are reference, but no one ever looks at them, so I uh...borrowed them," she said, emphasizing 'borrowed' with literal air quotes. "I gave them 'On Search' status in the computer, if anyone even asks for them, which I doubt."

The Beast stared at her blankly. He recognized all of the words she'd spoken individually, but the way she put them together had zero meaning for him. He got the gist after a second - she'd done him (gah, them) a favor.

"Thanks," he said, just a few seconds too late for it to sound sincere. Bel pulled up a chair at the kitchen table and started unloading a cart; he pulled a book out of the pile she was building at random, not wanting to tear into her backpacks. "A Pictorial History?"

"Yeah," Bel nodded. "I grabbed that one at the last minute - it might not be anything, but I wasn't able to get as much information as I wanted from the city. I guess the building's ownership is in arbitration? Or something? Some kind of real estate thing, they might not have said arbitration, but the sense I got is that someone's trying to buy it and there's legal...stuff. So I can't have access to that information because nothing's been decided."

The Beast nodded, carefully flipping through the book, trying not to tear the pages with his claws. Lots of pictures of old-timey cars and grungy factory workers and ladies in hats. "Yeah, it could be a co-ownership dispute. That's - that common with buildings like that. That size, that age. They get sold off piecemeal. Like a building owner downsizes, they're using half the square footage, they...they start renting or selling, f-fifty years down the line, no one knows who actually owns the whole property. If anyone does."

Bel's eyebrows shot up. "I wish I had you at City Hall with me, you would have known what questions to ask. I guess you would know a lot about building stuff, considering - "

She half-choked on her words, shutting her mouth guiltily and swallowing. The Beast narrowed his eyes at her and put the book of pictures back on the table. He felt his ears flatten against his head; a total tell that he was nervous.

"Considering what?"

Bel swallowed again and started unloading maps at double-speed. "Um. Considering. Your, ah, family. What your family does."

What family? he wanted to ask. I don't have one of those anymore.

She looked up at him, eyes wide. She wet her lips and admitted, "I Googled you."

"You Googled me," he repeated flatly. His chest expanded as he took a deep breath. He was more confused than pissed. How could she Google him? She didn't even know his name.

Unless - Angela. Or Jean, but Angela was more like to risk a burn, cut, or unexpected new hairstyle than Jean was.

"What did Google tell you?" he asked, folding his arms over his chest. Probably not much; there were advantages to living a life of self-absorbed stupidity before the age of eighteen. No public records.

"Um, that your older brother drives a lot of cars," she said, and he was again confused until he remembered that stupid TV show Aaron and Mom signed up for. Lifestyles of the Rich and Horny or something. Dad had blown a gasket, freaking out that they were cheapening the family brand. All he really remembered of the experience was getting yelled at for daring to walk around his own house and ruining their takes. "And that he 'doesn't mind' dating a brainy girl."

The Beast snorted. That sounded like Aaron.

"Sorry if I...crossed a line," she apologized. "It's...yeah. I'm nosy. Like I said."

The Beast shook his head and waved a paw around like he was clearing the air between them.

"It's...fine," he said, because what else could he say? He could have Angela cast a spell, he supposed, make her un-learn things, but what would be the point? That...that wasn't his family anymore. He wasn't that guy. Whatever she learned, it didn't matter. "I just hope you're not expecting me to pay you for your research. Kind of hard to get at your trust fund when you don't look like your permit photo."

Bel bit her lip and shook her head. "Nope. I'm volunteering my time. Consider it a favor for a - um. For friends."

It was obvious, even for someone thicker-skulled than the Beast that there were questions she wanted to ask him. but she reined in the impulse and he didn't invite her to satisfy her curiosity. It didn't matter, who his family was, who he'd been. No going back. And they had work to do.

The kitchen chairs weren't built for the Beast, so he just crouched down next to the table and opened up one of the older city directories. Bel followed suit, after a beat, spreading out some maps to compare the looks of the streets.

His charade of intense research lasted about ten agonizing minutes; he had difficulty with printed text at the best times and the handwritten notes about the ownership, purpose, and dimensions of the buildings on each block was almost impossible to decipher. His vision blurred and he felt a headache building up right behind his eyes. He rubbed at them irritably.

"So," Bel blurted out, unnecessarily loudly. "Are you mad? Because I'm feeling some tension and I don't know - "

"Nope, it's not you," he growled unconvincingly. He opened his eyes and softened his tone. "Really. I'm not mad. I'm just..."

Stupid.

"Can we switch?" he asked, gesturing at the maps. "I suck at reading and whoever worked for the city government in 1910 had reallyshitty handwriting."

"Oh!" Bel exclaimed. "Sure. I'm actually really good at figuring out bad handwriting, so..."

She awkwardly reached around his arm and picked up the directory. Scanning the document, she muttered, "Beaumont Foundry, owned by J.M - okay, that might be an N - J. Something. Beaumont. Seventy-five employees, it says. I think that's what it says, that might be seventy-five windows, though."

Well, it was something. One of the few advantages to fur was she couldn't see him blush. Ten seconds to decipher what he couldn't read in ten fucking minutes.

Bel pulled a notebook out of one of her backpacks and started scribbling down the info. Her lips were pursed and he could tell she was making a physical effort to hold herself back from asking another question.

"Dyslexia," he said after a minute of awkward silence. He rose from the table, more useless than he thought he would be at this research thing. While he knew Cogsworth couldn't control his comings and goings, he was still pissed he wasn't there to help. Like he was supposed to be - but when had things ever worked out the way they were supposed to for him? "I can read, it just takes...and I'm not...I'm not..."

He grit his teeth and turned away. She doesn't think you can read, now she won't think you can talk...

"Hey," Bel spoke up sharply, pen tapping against her notebook irritably. "Having a...having a learning disability doesn't make you stupid. If that's what you were going to say. So...yeah."

"Pretty sure it does," he groused, stalking off toward the living room, needing to get out of the kitchen which felt cramped and stifling. "Since, you know, I can't learn."

The dyslexia was a late diagnosis. He was at his second elementary school since Kindergarten, he'd come in with a disciplinary sheet that was longer at the time than he was tall, and a diagnosis: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. That was blamed for everything from his getting into fights, to his speech impediment, to the fact that he was nine years old and still trying to stumble his way through Frog and Toad are Friends. The reading teacher at his new school was the one to break the news, first to his nanny, then to his parents, that there was something else wrong with him.

Bel followed him from the kitchen. "You want to take a break?"

"We barely started," he replied, not looking at her. "And, anyway, where would we go? The zoo? You want to...you want to pass me off as an exotic pet?"

She had no answer to that question, but he didn't feel triumphant that he'd silenced little miss smarty-pants. He just felt tired and pissed. Pretty much his default state.

"Okay, new plan," she said, squeezing between the Beast and the door, cocking her head up at him. "What if I do some research, write down facts and since I don't know anything about property ownership stuff, I just come back to you with what I've found and you...put the pieces together. Like you did earlier about the legal issues."

He opened his mouth, prepared to shut her down with an argument about just why her plan wouldn't work - when he thought about it. That might...be something. At least they'd be better off than where they started.

"Sure," he said, nodding. "If you don't mind doing all the hard work."

Her big brown eyes sparkled in the dim basement light.

"I love this stuff," she informed him, sounding genuinely excited. "Like...love it. Give me an hour! Hour and half, tops! If I take longer than that, remind me to hydrate."

He smiled, as tight and closed-lipped an affair as he could manage so as not to freak her out. "Sounds good."

The Beast settled in to catch up on his shows. One perk to being abandoned was that he didn't have Chip buzzing at his elbow, asking who every person was on any given reality show and what they were doing, so he wasn't obligated to keep up a running commentary and miss half the action. He got through two episodes of the new season of Survivor, and was vaguely thinking about ordering pizza, when Bel appeared at his elbow, notebook in hand.

"Ready?" she asked. "Or is this important?"

"No," he said, turning off the recording immediately. "It's just a rewards challenge. Fishing equipment."

"I didn't know anyone still watched Survivor," she commented.

"Yeah, they're just keeping it on the air for me," he replied idly.

"Really?" she squeaked, eyes wide, mouth open.

"No," he shook his head, mouth twitching up at the corners. "I'm kidding."

"Oh!" she laughed and shook her head. "Duh. I mean...you have...you had...you know what? Research!"

Bel held the notebook aloft like the Olympic torch and walked around the chaise to sit next to him on the couch. The Beast tensed very slightly; he'd expected she'd want him to amble over to the kitchen table, he didn't figure she'd take her shoes off and plop herself down next to him, toes of her socks brushing his elbow.

That only lasted for a second, she sat up and tucked her feet under her and held the notebook in front of her nose. "Ready to learn?"

The Beast nodded, the twitch of his mouth working its way into an actual smile. A small one. But still. "Yeah, go ahead."

Bel cleared her throat and read off her paper, obviously embellishing, since she was talking way more than there was text on the page. J.M. Beaumont was the son of a local blacksmith, who got into the importing of raw materials to the area. He consolidated his business and purchased the foundry in his twenties. Both World Wars and the need for metal for the troops meant he retired a millionaire in the forties, leaving part of his fortune to the city. The foundry continued chugging away through the fifties and sixties, supplying metal for the automotive industry. The rise of the suburbs led to major cuts in the seventies and the business was downsized, with portions of the building being closed up or rented in the eighties.

"Just like you said," Bel interrupted her own narrative to interject. "Anyway, the foundry portion of the building was bought out by some overseas manufacturing firm. They sold the machines off and I think pieces wound up in the Philippines? I wound up on an auction site, for that, but it hadn't been updated in a while, anyway, that's not important. The Beaumont family sold the business for the first time in the fifties, it changed hands at least once that I could see after that, before it went overseas. The building, though, that's less clear. As far as I could tell, when J.M. Beaumont bought the foundry in the aughts, he bought the building - and is this normal? - and the land it sat on."

The Beast had been listening attentively. Even when quoting facts and figures, Bel was a great storyteller. She should do audiobooks. But this last bit really made him sit up and take notice.

"The land?" he asked and she nodded. "Like...they didn't use a waterwheel, did they? Because I could see him buying rights to the river for water use and...building zoning or something."

Bel shook her head, curls bouncing around as she did. "Nope, none of the pictures show a waterwheel. I mean, Beaumont bought an older business, maybe they used one, but it was long gone by the time he came along. As far as I can tell, all they did was pollute the river, not use it."

The Beast nodded. "Well, that makes things hard. Legally, I mean. Since, if Beaumont and Company sold off the business, but retained building ownership rights - or sold the business andthe building, but the family still possess land rights...what a nightmare."

"Okay, so that's not normal," Bel confirmed. "To buy the land under a building when you buy a building."

"No," the Beast shook his head. "Not for commercial property. Did it say who he purchased the land from?"

"I didn't get information back that far," Bel admitted. "The people who owned the business before him? I think their name was Villeneuve. Which I'm probably not pronouncing right. But it sounds like their operation was pretty small-potatoes compared to Beaumont. In less than ten years he doubled the business. I can go back do more recon."

The Beast shook his head, "No, you've done plenty."

"I don't mind," she said eagerly, sticking her pen in the spirals of her notebook. "Really, I don't have...um. I love research."

"You said." The Beast thought for a second, then shook his head. "But really, don't bother. At least for now. We don't...we don't even know what we're looking for. Cogsworth can tell us what he wants when he gets back."

"Where is he?" Bel asked curiously. Then amended, "Sorry, when is he?"

The Beast shrugged. "No clue. He wasn't here this morning, so he probably doesn't even know.

"Does he ever bring stuff back?" Bel asked. "From the past or future? I'm really intrigued by the fact that the bananas we eat now are not like bananas from the past."

The tight smile was back again. "He just comes back with the things he's holding or wearing. I guess you could ask him, next time he sees a vintage banana, to carry it around with him everywhere, but he'll probably say no."

"Darn," Bel grinned up at him. "Well, I could always ask anyway - speaking of bananas, are you hungry? Want to get a pizza or something?"

"You read my mind," he said, heaving himself off the couch. "The others will be back soon - can you call it in?"

"Sure," Bel said agreeably. "You don't have a phone?"

The tight smile vanished. "Yeah, I do, I just can't use it. Touch screens."

To demonstrate the difficulty, he held up a hand, thickly padded and be-clawed. Bel squinted up at it.

"You should still be able to use a touch screen," she reasoned, holding her phone out for him to try. "I can do it in gloves, so..."

She kept staring up at him, phone in her outstretched hand. The Beast broke eye contact and muttered, "It takes forever."

Bel grinned up at him and snorted a laugh. "Oh, I get it. It's not impossible. You're just lazy."

The Beast was so taken aback - by the comment, by the adorable snort. That he chuckled despite himself. Sounded like a car backfiring, but still. "Wow. Rude."

"Hey, I'm not the one refusing to call in pizza," she replied, eyes on her phone, but she was still smiling. "How do you feel about pineapple?"

"In general or on pizza?"

"Both."

"I'm cool with it," he replied.

"Yes!" Bel hissed triumphantly to herself. "Hawaiian it is! Should I Grubhub?"

"Um, wait, just..."

The Beast held out a hand for her phone. Bel handed it over immediately and watched as he (painstakingly slowly, trying not to poke a hold in her screen protector), ordered enough pizzas for a crowd. It wasn't like he could help it, but it was still embarrassing to detail just how much he could eat in a sitting. And he wanted to put his own payment information in, since there was no way she'd bargained on ordering enough pizza to feed a small college football team.

"Look at you, using the phone. Welcome to the twenty-first century - Cogsworth will be proud!" she said when he finished placing the order. Teasing. She was teasing him. Up until now life taught him that the only proper response in the face of teasing was to either say something nasty back, or words failing him as they so often did, to use his fists. But the way Bel was talking to him...it wasn't mean. It didn't make him angry. It was like they were sharing an inside joke.

"Want to go back to your show?" she offered, nodding at the TV. "Why do they need fishing equipment? Don't they have Kraft services or something?"

"Ha, no," the Beast said. "Have you ever watched this show?"

"I don't think I've ever seen an episode all the way through," she replied. "They...live on an island? And vote each other off?"

Basically, yes. But...

"It's more complicated than that," the Beast said, turning the TV back on. "There's strategy - like right, now, the theme of the season is David vs. Goliath, so they start with two tribes, who are fighting each other. Not...not literally fighting, they're doing a challenge to get fishing gear, but later there's going to be an immunity challenge. So far the Goliaths have won immunity...and most of the challenges."

"Why am I not surprised," Bel rolled her eyes. "So, are the Goliaths all giant jocks, or - "

"No, it's not that simple," he replied. It wouldn't be accurate to say that they 'watched' the remaining forty-minutes. Or the next hour of programming before the pizza showed up. It was kind of like watching with Chip, in that the Beast was responsible for explaining everything, but...well. With Bel, he found he didn't mind doing so.