A Town Called Refuge – Chapter Nine -Pretzel (COMPLETE)

Content Rating:
  • R
Warning(s):
  • Discussion-Child Abuse
  • Racism
Genre(s):
  • Alternate Universe
  • Challenge Response
  • Fusion
  • Romance
Relationship(s):
Barry/Lup, Taako/Kravitz, Magnus/Julia, Davenport/Merle, additional background pairings

Word Count:
9,249 / 50,701 / 50,000

Author's Note:
The discussion of child abuse is more geared towards child neglect / ignoring medical issues. Also, certain legal processes get the Handwave of Necessity.

Summary:
All Barry wants is the same as any other person, even if he is, as a sentinel, a supposedly dangerous mutant: to have a home of his own, someone to love, and a place to belong. He'll find all that and more in a little town called Refuge.

The information they got from the Hunger agent was moderately useful. It led to some safehouses that then brought more information the more they dug. Eventually, Raven Securities had to pass that information on to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, knowing that they weren’t equipped to entirely take down a whole terrorist organization. Not having that drive left Barry, Lup, and Kravitz at a sort of loss as to what to do. They were put on temporary leave, allowing them to relax and recuperate.

Barry found himself contemplating the empty bedroom in his and Lup’s house. At the moment, they were just using it as a shared office and occasional guest bedroom, but he couldn’t help but think that it could be put to better use. Lup found him standing in the doorway of the office. She glanced into the office and then looked at him.

“So… What’s cookin’ in that brain of yours, babe?”

“Hmm?” Barry blinked and then shrugged. “I don’t know. Just…” He sighed. “Thinking.”

“I can tell. What about?”

Barry rubbed at the back of his neck. “I…” He sighed. “I don’t know. It feels like we could be using this room for something else. Something better than an office.”

“Yeah?” Lup leaned in against him, resting her head against his shoulder and then sliding an arm around his waist. “Like what?”

Barry shrugged. “Not sure. I just feel like it needs a change.”

Lup hummed thoughtfully. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Why don’t we get out of the house for a bit? Magnus wants us to help pick out his and Julia’s Christmas tree.”

Barry laughed. “You know, it’s hard to believe it’s been over a year since I moved here,” he said, kissing her on the side of the head. “I definitely didn’t think I’d ever meet my guide here or find friends who’ve become family.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here.” Lup kissed him on his cheek and then stepped away, taking hold of his hand. Barry followed her out of the house, making sure he was bundled up against the chill in the air. The first snow hadn’t happened yet, but the forecast over the next week or so looked rather promising. Barry loved the snow, especially now that his senses were so balanced due to his bond with Lup. A full bond wouldn’t entirely keep him from zoning, but it was definitely a help.

Magnus and Julia were waiting for them when they arrived at the tree lot, Julia holding a steaming cup of apple cider in her gloved hands. Magnus waved happily at them as Lup parked their car and then turned it off. Barry got out, pulling his scarf tighter around his neck.

“Barry, Lup! Right on time,” Magnus called out as they approached him. “They’ve got hot cider for a dollar if you want any.”

“Maybe a little later,” Lup replied. “Thanks, though.”

“So, what kind of tree are we looking for?” Barry asked.

“One that’s at between six and eight feet tall.” Julia took a drink of her cider with a happy hum. “Preferably a Douglas Fir.”

“Douglas Fir, got it.” Magnus kissed her on her cheek. “Let’s go find the perfect tree!”

That earned a round of laughter from the others as they followed him into the rows of trees, Magnus rushing ahead in his enthusiasm. Barry, Lup, and Julia took a more leisurely pace. As they were walking through the rows of trees, Barry’s cell phone went off. Curious, he dug it out of his pocket and then answered it, having to strip off one of his gloves in order to do so.

“Hello, this is Barry.”

“Barry, it’s Lucretia. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you on this, but the Bureau’s been pretty busy lately.”

Barry smiled. “No problem, Luce. So, what’s up?”

“So, I was looking into Hammerhead Services, and you’re not going to like what I found,” Lucretia told him. “Are you somewhere that we can talk?”

“I mean, I’m out helping Magnus and Julia pick out a Christmas tree,” Barry said, coming to a halt in a quiet corner of the lot. Lup waited nearby, looking curious as to what was going on. “What did you find?”

“To put it bluntly, they’ve got a shitty track record and really should’ve been out of business years ago.” Barry could hear Lucretia shuffling paper around in the background. “There are multiple incidents of them being reported to the SGOC, but no one’s done anything to shut them down for some reason. From what I can tell, it’s probably because they’ve got someone on the inside.”

She sighed. “Long story short, Angus isn’t going to be getting the help that he needs.”

“Is there anything we can do for him?” Barry asked.

“Unless we get evidence that his conservator isn’t performing his job, not really,” Lucretia told him. “Just… keep in contact with Angus, alright?”

“I wasn’t exactly planning on abandoning him. The fact that I’m still able to send letters to him is amazing. I’m not about to give that up.”

“I know, I know. I just… If we’re going to be able to help him at all, we need to do it carefully. Talk to him about how he’s doing like you would normally, but try not to lead the conversation too much.”

Barry nodded, briefly forgetting Lucretia couldn’t see him, and then spoke when he remembered himself. “Right. Thanks, Lucretia. Is there anything else?”

“Not right now, but I’ll keep you updated,” Lucretia promised. “Have fun with the tree hunt.”

Barry laughed. “I’ll do my best. Talk to you later.”

Lucretia ended the call, leaving Barry to mull over what she’d told him as he pocketed his phone.

“Everything okay?”

“Hm?”

Barry looked up at Lup and then shot her a quick smile. “Hopefully. Lucretia had some information for me about Hammerhead Services.”

“And?”

“And they don’t exactly have a sterling reputation, but there’s not much we can do without concrete evidence,” Barry said, running his now-gloved hand through his hair. “Hopefully Angus will tells us if anything is wrong.”

“Hopefully,” Lup agreed. She kissed him and then smiled. “Come on, we’d best catch up with the others. Otherwise, Magnus is going to get a tree that’s way too big.”

Barry laughed. “Yeah, he probably will.”

They went to find their friends hand-in-hand, the smell of balsam and pine accompanying them as they went.

-/-

Jerry settled back in his chair in the living room, feeling very pleased with himself. He’d gotten himself a sweet gig, and he barely had to do anything at all. Being a conservator was an easy job, especially when the people who’d hired him were rich and didn’t seem to care all that much about whether or not he was actually properly licensed and trained to do the work. If a few small things happened to go missing here and there…

Well, he could always blame some of the other staff or, if he was careful, not get caught at all. It was a lot easier since the McDonalds were constantly off on business trips or out of the house entirely. All Jerry had to do all day was go to school with Angus and hang out in the staff room there in case he was needed. Not that it would do Angus any good if he did need Jerry, but Jerry was planning on cutting and running should that ever happen, and he knew his boss would keep him from getting into too much trouble. Marvey was good like that.

Jerry took a sip of the beer he’d liberated from the fridge, feeling pleasantly buzzed. It might not be New Year’s Eve– or even past three PM –quite yet, but he was going to celebrate the night by getting as drunk as he could since it was the first day of Winter Break and he didn’t have to worry about watching over the brat as much. He closed his eyes, barely paying attention to the sound of the front door opening and closing in the near distance. Life was good for Ol’ Jerry, and he wasn’t about to change a thing.

Outside, Angus breathed a sigh of relief and then pulled his coat closer around himself. Slipping past his conservator was a pitifully easy task, especially when the man was either sleeping or drunk most of the time. Angus had purposefully waited until Jerry had settled in with his second beer before making his quiet escape from his aunt and uncle’s house. It was hardly home to him, not the way his grandfather’s had been, and Angus was more than ready to get out of there for good.

He squared his shoulders and then went to the nearest bus stop, having plotted out the routes he would need to take to get to the Sentinel-Guide Center. Angus had made sure to leave early enough in the afternoon that he should hopefully be able to see Dr. Avi. Angus really liked the friendly man and had never had any reason to distrust him. Jerry, on the other hand…

Jerry was a mass of self-interest and deceit that made Angus highly uncomfortable. He didn’t like being around him any more than he had to be, not to mention the fact that Jerry didn’t have a trace of an empathic gift in his body, let alone any guide abilities. How he’d managed to pass himself off as a conservator for so long, Angus didn’t know.

The young sentinel shivered in the cold as he waited for the bus to come, readjusting his scarf so it wrapped more tightly around his neck. The air was crisp and sharp, speaking of the possibility of snow even this close to the ocean. Angus liked snow, having fond memories of building snowmen with his granddad and sitting by the fire with a good book while it snowed outside, turning the world into a sparkling white wonderland.

Angus perked up when the bus finally came, paying the fare at the front and then finding a seat near one of the windows so he could keep an eye out on where they were at any given moment. It took almost an hour to get to the Center, but Angus didn’t mind. He was away from the house, from Jerry, and most importantly from the echoes of emotions he could feel there. The house was full of various kinds of tension and nearly devoid of love, save for a vague familial affiliation that didn’t exactly give Angus any sort of hope for the longevity of his well-being.

When the Center finally came into sight, Angus pulled the stop cord, waiting eagerly for the bus to come to a halt at the next stop before getting off. A short walk later and he was stepping into the warmth of the Center’s lobby. Angus adjusted the set of the satchel he was wearing, looking around to see if he recognized anyone there. His eyes widened when he saw who was at the front desk, and he hurried to greet her.

“Miss Carey!”

Carey looked up from her computer, blinking a few times in surprise before grinning. “Angus! What’re you doing here?”

Angus stopped in front of the reception desk, one hand gripping the strap of his satchel as Carey came around the desk. He hugged her quickly and then stepped back.

“I wanted to see if Dr. Avi was here,” he said. “I need to talk to him about something.”

Carey frowned, her head tilting to one side briefly. “Angus… Where’s your conservator?”

Angus’ grip tightened on his strap. “That’s part of what I need to talk to him about. Can, uh, can you help me find Dr. Avi?”

“Give me a moment to get someone to cover the front desk,” Carey said, reaching out and squeezing his shoulder. She went back around the desk and picked up the phone. A short phone call later and Carey was able to take Angus through the halls of the Center to find Avi.

The doctor was in his office, sorting through some of the vast amounts of paperwork that his job generated pretty much every day. He looked up when Carey knocked on his half-open door, looking relieved to have at least a small interruption in his day.

“Come in!” he said as he gathered up his paperwork and then put it in his desk drawer to work on later. Carey stepped into the office, Angus a few steps behind him. Avi got to his feet when he saw Angus, surprise flashing across his face. “Angus? What are you doing here? And where’s your conservator?”

“Well on his way to getting drunk in the living room, sir,” Angus said with a lopsided smile. “I wanted to talk to you about him, actually.”

“Do you want me to call your aunt or uncle?” Avi asked, going down to one knee so he and Angus were of similar heights. Angus shook his head.

“They’re in Portland.”

“God, another business trip?”

Avi and Angus looked up at Carey, who only looked faintly embarrassed. She shrugged. “What? I can’t have been the only one who was thinking it.”

“Um, no, Miss Carey, not a business trip. Well, not really,” Angus replied. “It’s for a fundraiser gala, I think, but they took the whole week. It’s alright, though; I’m on winter break, so I’m not missing any school being here.”

“That’s… not exactly reassuring, Angus,” Avi said, rising to his feet. He grabbed the chair from behind his desk and moved it so he could sit near the other two chairs. Carey shut the door to give them some semblance of privacy before settling in on one of the chairs. Angus took the final chair, taking his satchel off before opening it and then pulling out a notebook.

“I’ve been keeping notes about Mr. Jerry,” Angus said, handing the notebook over to Avi. “I don’t think he has any sort of empathic abilities. He’s not a guide, I know that much, and if he is a sensitive, he’s not high enough on the scale to be sensed in any way. I can tell that he isn’t, even with my limited training. He also doesn’t seem to have any kind of training, either. I think my aunt and uncle chose Hammerhead because it was the cheapest and quickest option.”

“Hammerhead? As in Hammerhead Services?” Avi asked as he took the notebook. He opened it up, noting with some surprise the neatly dated and sometimes timed entries that had been written out in Angus’ careful hand.

Angus nodded. “Yes, sir. I did some research and they don’t seem very reliable.”

“That’s because they’re not,” Avi said with a sigh, continuing to look through the entries. There was a clear pattern of Jerry either slacking off, not doing his job at all, or getting intoxicated heavily at various points, none of which were choices a responsible conservator should be making. He set the notebook aside on his desk and then rubbed a hand over his mouth as he sat back to think.

Legally, he shouldn’t be making any decisions without at least attempting to contact Angus’ aunt and uncle, but this was yet another poor choice of theirs in a long string of them. Avi sat back, contemplating what to do next. He knew he had to do something, but he knew he would also have to play it carefully as well. Regardless of what he did, Child Services would have to be called in, as well as the SGOC.

Those two agencies were necessary to investigate Angus’ claims, as he was both underage and an online sentinel, a complex mixture that brought in some interesting legal challenges. Luckily, Avi knew of some good lawyers who would likely be up to the challenge. He focused on Angus, who was chatting quietly with Carey while Avi had been thinking.

“So,” Avi said, leaning forward with his forearms resting on his thighs, “this is going to be difficult. We’re going to have to contact your relatives, first and foremost, as well as the SGOC and the CPS. We’re also going to have to figure out where you’re going to stay while things are sorted out. Legally, you can claim Sanctuary here and your relatives can’t fight it, assuming they want to. The fact that you’re on winter break is helpful as well.”

“And how do I claim Sanctuary?” Angus asked curiously.

“You’ll need to fill out a form that’s signed by me and another witness,” Avi said.

“I, uh, I probably shouldn’t be that witness, huh?” Carey said with a slight laugh. “Wouldn’t want them to accuse anyone of trying to manipulate things. I can go get one of the other staff members to stand as witness.”

She got to her feet, straightening out her skirt before leaving the office. Angus scratched at the back of his neck before speaking.

“I didn’t bring any extra clothes with me,” he told Avi. Avi shook his head.

“No need to worry about it,” he assured Angus. “We’ll take care of that for you. It’s all part of the Sanctuary responsibilities.”

He got up and then went over to a filing cabinet that held some forms he’d never thought he’d have to use. Avi pulled out a drawer and then rifled through the papers there until he found the correct form. He took it out, shutting the drawer once he had the paper in hand and then went to his desk, grabbing a pen and then starting to fill out what he could without the other witness there.

It wasn’t long after that before Carey returned with another of the Center’s staff members. Jess was a tall woman who seemed rather intimidating at first, but it quickly became apparent that she was well-suited for her role in a care-giving field. Once everything had been explained and she’d heard Angus’ side of the story, Jess read over the form before putting her signature down as a witness. Avi signed next, with Angus making his mark on the appropriate line as the last in order.

“So… now what?”

“Now I get to make several calls,” Avi told Angus, “and you get to be set up in a room. No medical equipment this time, I promise.”

Angus laughed. “Thank you for that.” He paused. “Um… Could I call someone?”

“Who?”

“I was hoping maybe Barry and Miss Lup?” Angus said hopefully.

“You can use my phone,” Carey told him with a fond laugh. “C’mon, let’s get you settled in and then we can call them.”

Angus nodded in agreement, already starting to feel better about the whole situation. He honestly didn’t think his relatives were the evil monsters of fairy tales– racists, for sure, and decidedly not suited for any kind of parenthood –but rather the garden variety known as Homo sapiens.

Carey and Angus left Avi’s office and went to go claim a room for him in the guest quarters area of the Center. Usually used for the families of sentinels and guides under the Center’s care, the rooms looked more like hotel rooms than hospital rooms, something Angus was grateful for. He still had the occasional nightmare that he was trapped in that abandoned hospital with the others, chained to their beds and wondering what horrors would come next.

Angus often wondered what had become of the others, if they’d found good homes or had been returned to the ones they’d been taken from. He felt guilty that he’d never asked about them, but that guilt was tempered by the fact that he didn’t even know if he could be told. Resolving to see if he or someone he knew would be at least able to find out how the other kids were doing, even if it was just in generalities. Angus set down his satchel down in the room Carey picked out for him and then took a seat on the small loveseat there.

“So… can we call now?”

Carey laughed fondly. “Sure. Actually, let’s see if they’re able to video chat. We’ll have to sit close together since the screen’s small, but I guess it’s a good thing we like each other, right?”

Angus laughed at that as Carey sat next to him, her phone in her hand. “I guess so.”

Carey shot him a grin and then hit the button to start a video call with Barry, briefly looking over at the clock. It was still relatively early in the afternoon, so there was a good chance Barry would answer. As it turned out, Lup was the one who answered the call, as Barry had been out of the room when it rang.

“You’ve reached the phone of—” Lup paused, her eyes lighting up when she saw who was calling. “Carey? Angus?” She held the phone away from her face and then called out to Barry. “Barry! Babe! Get your butt out here. Carey and Angus are on video chat!”

There was a distant crash, a faint curse, and then the sound of hurried footsteps as Barry joined Lup, his hands still damp from washing dishes. He had a dishtowel in his hands that he used to dry them off while he spoke.

“This is certainly a welcome surprise,” he said. “What’s going on? Did the two of you meet up somewhere and then decide to call us or something?”

“Sort of,” Carey said. “I’ll let Angus tell you more about what’s going on.”

Angus took in a deep breath and then launched into an explanation of the situation and why he’d decided to do what he’d done. He trailed off into silence once he was done, waiting for Barry and Lup’s reactions. He doubted they’d be angry– at least, not at him –but he didn’t want them to be disappointed in him. That felt like it would be far worse than their anger, if he was honest with himself.

Barry and Lup exchanged looks before Lup cleared her throat.

“First off, I want to say how proud I am of you,” she said. “You shouldn’t have had to make that kind of choice in the first place, but the fact that you did it in pretty much the best way possible is probably going to work out the best all the way ’round.”

Barry nodded in agreement. “You’re safe and in a place that can help you,” he added on. “You’ve done well, Angus.”

Angus smiled shyly, not used to such direct praise. Even his grandfather had been more of a fan of indirect praise, so it was a relatively new experience for him.

“Thank you.” His smile faded slightly. “I just hope my aunt and uncle aren’t too mad.”

“If they are, then they obviously don’t recognize how awesome you are,” Carey told him, sliding an arm around his shoulder and giving him a sidelong hug. Angus leaned into it, soaking up both the physical contact and the comforting empathic echoes he was getting from her. They talked with Barry and Lup for about twenty or so more minutes after that, talking about lighter subjects for that time.

Angus loved hearing about Magnus’ antics when searching for his Christmas tree, laughing at Barry’s description of Magnus’ excited reaction when they finally found the perfect one. The call ended not long after that, with goodbyes being said all around and then Carey turning off the video chat.

“So,” she said after a beat, “what do you want to do now?”

Angus shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe sleep? I’ll be fine on my own for a while, so you don’t have to stick around.”

Carey ruffled his hair gently. “Go take a nap. I’ll be here when you get up.”

Angus nodded as he stood, stretching a little. He took his shoes off and then got into bed, suddenly feeling exhausted. He fell asleep not long after, barely noticing when Carey left the room.

Across town, Jerry roused himself from his drinking binge and went to go check on his charge, doubting that Angus had managed to get into much trouble in the past few hours. He stumbled up to Angus’ room, knocking a few times before opening the door. It took several long moments before Jerry’s alcohol-soaked brain realized what was missing.

“Th’ fuck?” he muttered. Angus was nowhere to be seen and, crucially, his coat and shoes weren’t either. From the little time Jerry had spent with him, he knew that Angus really wasn’t one for going outside, and nor did he really have many friends close by that he could go and play with. Panic started to churn sluggishly through Jerry’s brain. Shit shit shit.

He made his way to his own room, digging around to find his phone. Eventually finding it under a shirt that was in desperate need of cleaning, Jerry jabbed at the screen until he was able to find Marvey’s number and then activate the call. He put it on speakerphone while it rang, hurriedly finding a duffle bag and starting to shove whatever clothes he could into it, not caring if they were clean or not.

“What do you want, Jerry? I’m busy here.”

“I lost him!”

There was silence from the phone before Marvey purposefully cleared his throat. “You did what?”

“I lost him. I mean, I think I did. All I was doin’ was having a drink and then I went to check on him and he wasn’t there and–”

“Shut the fuck up,” Marvey snapped. “How long ago did you see him?”

“I don’t know. This morning?” Jerry finished stuffing the duffle bag full of clothes and what cash and loot he’d managed to steal and then zipped it up. “I’m not sticking around here any longer than I have to, Boss.”

He grabbed his phone, turning off the speakerphone before putting it up to his ear. “Can you send a car or somethin’? I don’t want to be caught driving by the cops when I’m drunk.”

Marvey sighed heavily, the noise turning to static over the connection. “I’ll send Hank to get you, and then the two of you are gonna get out of town and then lay low somewhere. I’ll call you when it’s clear.”

“Thanks, Boss.”

“Don’t thank me for you fucking up.”

Marvey ended the call, leaving Jerry to stand there for a moment while his brain caught up. He grabbed his bag off the floor, pulled on his coat, and then went to go wait for the car. While he waited, he snagged a bottle of vodka from the liquor cabinet and tucked it into his bag, figuring he might as well have something for the road.

A half hour later and a car was pulling up outside the house, its driver honking twice. Jerry didn’t need telling any more than that. He left the house and got into the car, pulling the door shut behind him. Hank pulled away from the curb and sped off, leaving the McDonald house behind.

-/-

Alexander wanted nothing more than to scream in frustration, but as he was in public at lunch with some very important possible investors, he had to grit his teeth in a faux-polite smile and then excuse himself from the table so he could focus on the call he’d gotten on his cell phone. He stepped away and found a quiet area outside of the banquet hall before focusing on his phone.

“Sorry, can you repeat that?” he asked, more out of disbelief than actually wanting to hear it again. “And who is this again?”

There was a sigh from the other end and then a reply. “My name is Theresa Hurley of Ram and Raven Legal Services. I’m a lawyer representing your nephew, Angus McDonald.”

“He’s ten. What the hell could he need a lawyer for?” Alexander spluttered.

“He’s claimed Sanctuary with the SGOC and the Eugene Sentinel-Guide Center under the grounds of irreconcilable differences with you and your wife, as well as living in an unsafe environment for a minor sentinel,” Hurley replied.

“And what does that mean, exactly?”

“It means that for the time being, Angus has been taken into custody by the SGOC and your guardianship rights over him have been temporarily suspended. He will be provided room and board by the Center at no expense to you until this issue is resolved,” Hurley told him. “A hearing date is in the process of being set, but will likely happen before the new year.”

Alexander scrubbed a hand over his face, trying not to launch into a volley of curses. That could happen later; he needed to deal with this now. “Is there any way to avoid any kind of legal battle here? We were stuck with him without any sort of by-your-leave after my father died.”

There was a long pause from Hurley before she spoke again. “The hearing is out of court, and out of respect to Angus’ status as a minor, we’re going to do our best to keep it that way. There isn’t a way to entirely avoid legal work, unfortunately, so I would suggest that you either hire a lawyer who is versed in sentinel-guide family law or request that the SGOC provide one for you. Once the hearing date is set, you’ll be notified and then expected to show up at the appointed time and place.”

Alexander sighed sharply. “Fine, we’ll be there. Is that everything?”

“For now, Mr. McDonald. My office will be in further contact with you as–”

Alexander ended the call, not wanting to listen to another word she had to say. It was useless, anyways. He was sure he’d find out everything he need to know soon enough, and if it was truly important, his own lawyers could handle it. He returned to the luncheon, putting on his best smile and turning his mind and effort towards getting the investors his business needed.

-/-

The date of the hearing was set for the twenty-seventh of December, a good compromise between Christmas and New Years’ so that it wouldn’t affect either overly much. Angus stayed at the Center while those representing him– Avi, Hurley, her partner and wife Sloane, and the representatives from the SGOC and CPS (a guide named Roswell and a woman named Paloma) –went to the meeting at the courthouse. Alexander, Beverly, and their own lawyers were waiting there when the others arrived, the former two looking tense while the latter seemed to have a bored air around them.

Once everyone was settled in around the large table in the conference room, a judge entered the room and took his seat at the head of the table. He adjusted his reading glasses and then cleared his throat.

“Right. My name is Judge Cyrus Rockseeker,” he said, looking over the top rims of his glasses as he glanced around the table. He picked up a piece of paper and looked it over. “We’re here to hear the custody case of Angus McDonald, a minor sentinel who has claimed Sanctuary with the SGOC and the Eugene, Oregon, branch of the Sentinel-Guide Center. Representing him are lawyers Theresa Hurley and Lara Sloane of Ram and Raven Legal Services. We also have for the record guide Ash Roswell from the SGOC, Doctor Avi Gunner from the Eugene Sentinel-Guide center, and Paloma Lundberg of Child Protective Services. Representing Alexander and Beverly McDonald are Bernard Bole and Daniel Croft of the Bole, Croft, and Donnelly Law Firm.”

He set the piece of paper down on the table in front of him and then folded his hands on top of it. “We’ll start with statements from either side before we settle things. Who would like to begin?”

Bole cleared his throat. “My clients are willing to cede their rights of guardianship to their nephew as long as they are able to have a say over what happens to the funds left to him by Artemis McDonald, his paternal grandfather.”

Sloane shook her head. “The stipulations of Artemis McDonald’s will clearly specify that Angus’ trust is unable to be touched by anyone until his eighteenth birthday besides licensed wealth management professionals, and even then there is a firm limit on the percentage of funds that can be invested at any one time. Your clients have no legal access or claim to those funds, something I am sure they are well aware of.”

She took a certified copy of the relevant part of the will out of a folder on the table in front of her and then handed it to Judge Rockseeker. The judge took it, read it over, and then set it down.

“That’s settled that, then,” he said. “May I ask why you are so willing to cede your rights of guardianship, Mr. and Mrs. McDonald?”

“We weren’t given a choice in having him,” Beverly said, “and we are in no way prepared to deal with a child who continues to claim that he’s a sentinel, even though that anomaly has been bred out of the McDonald bloodline. He’s clearly delusional and has managed to convince others of his delusion.”

Avi pinched at the bridge of his nose in exasperation. “Mrs. McDonald, Angus is truly a sentinel. We have the results of the medical tests to confirm that diagnosis. He is not delusional. His medical needs are mainly simple environmental adjustments like sentinel-safe cleaning products and natural fiber clothing, all of which can be found for often subsidized prices for families who are unable to afford them. He also requires an empathic conservator who is trained and licensed by the SGOC.”

“Which we provided,” Alexander said with a sniff. “It wasn’t our fault the man was a fraud.”

“Hammerhead Services is well-known for its predatory business practices,” Roswell said, a faint frown on their face. “They are listed in the documentation about preferred providers, both in our pamphlets and on the SGOC and the Center’s websites, as a company to stay away from when looking for conservators.”

“Yes, well, perhaps that should have been made more clear. Regardless, we would prefer to not have to worry about this. Let those who are more prepared to take care of him do so.” Beverly waved an idle hand. “Like Mr. Bole said, we’re willing to give up our claims to him without any fuss.”

“You understand that if you do this, you won’t be able to revisit this issue in the future,” Judge Rockseeker warned.

“That won’t be a problem.”

“Then he will come under the care of the SGOC,” Paloma said, “either until he turns eighteen or someone adopts him.” She produced a thick packet of paperwork from a satchel and then handed it over to Mr. Croft. The lawyer took it and then read it over with a practiced eye before giving it to Beverly and Alexander to read and sign.

It was barely twenty minutes later before the whole ordeal was settled, with Judge Rockseeker adding his final signature on the last page. Once everything was signed, copied, and sealed, the group broke up, though those who had been representing Angus remained behind for a brief moment.

“Well… That went surprisingly better than I thought it would,” Avi said with a sigh.

“And yet I wasn’t exactly surprised by how quickly they gave up their guardianship,” Hurley replied, her tone dry. “Some people just aren’t suited to be parents of any kind.”

“Mm. Well, Angus is going to have a much better life now,” Paloma said.

“And he’ll get the training he needs,” Roswell added, getting up from their chair. “So, who wants to let him know what’s going on?”

“I’ll do it. I’m going back to the Center anyways.” Avi got up as well, stretching out his legs idly before putting his chair back in its place. “Thank you, everyone, for all of your help.”

Sloane nodded. “Always happy to do good work,” she said. “Hopefully now Angus will be much better off.”

There was a murmur of agreement amongst the group before they dispersed, a feeling of victory lingering amongst them.

-/-

Angus was waiting anxiously in the small rec room at the Center, Carey doing her best to keep him distracted. They were in the middle of a game of checkers (at which Angus was trouncing her quite handily) when Avi arrived. Angus immediately abandoned the game and got up, hurrying over to him.

“Doctor Avi! What happened? Did they decide to give up guardianship? What’s going to happen now?”

“Whoa, whoa, hold on,” Avi said, holding up his hands to stem the flood of questions. “Let’s sit down and then we can talk.”

Angus promptly took a seat in a nearby chair, waiting impatiently as Avi sat down as well. He folded his hands in his lap, trying not to wiggle in place.

“So, first things first, they did give up their guardianship rights over you, so you’re now a ward of the SGOC first and the state second,” Avi told him. “We’ll be figuring out where you’ll be living soon, but that probably won’t be settled until after the New Year.”

“What about school?”

“Since you’re going to public school at the moment, you’ll keep going there,” Avi said. “The social worker handling your case– Miss Paloma to you –will be handling your housing and so on once we figure out where that will be.”

Angus nodded, avidly soaking in all the information. He knew it would be important later on, but for now all he had to do was listen and trust that the others would have his best interests at heart. Once Avi was done explaining what was going on, Angus paused before leaning over and hugging him.

“Thank you for doing all of this for me,” he said as Avi carefully hugged him back.

“Of course. I’m just sorry it had to come to this.”

Angus shrugged as the hug ended. “It’s alright. At least this way I’ll be safe and sound, and my aunt and uncle won’t be bothered with me.”

Carey winced at that. “That’s…” She sighed as she cleaned up their game. She couldn’t exactly fault him for saying that, but it wasn’t something she liked hearing.

“The truth,” Angus said. “It’s alright, Miss Carey. I’m not exactly too worried about it. They made their choice and I made mine.”

“Still doesn’t mean I like hearing it, Angus.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t… Don’t worry about it,” Carey assured him. “So… Do we celebrate? I don’t know if this is a thing to celebrate or not.”

Avi shrugged. “I’ll never turn down an opportunity for cake. Just don’t tell Johann and we’ll be good to go.”

Angus laughed at that, his mood lifting. The future was uncertain, but he was sure he could get to where he wanted to be as long as he had people in his corner and the determination to get there. It hadn’t failed him so far.

-/-

When Barry heard the news about what had happened, he was stunned. On one hand, he knew from what Angus and Carey had told him, not to mention his own brief experience, that Angus’ relatives weren’t exactly the best people in the world, but the fact that they were so willing to give him up so quickly astounded him. He wasn’t particularly fond of the idea of Angus being back in the foster system either, but at least he was relatively safe and in a far better environment, both physically and emotionally.

The itch to redecorate their second bedroom had doubled after that, and when Barry found himself looking at how to become a foster parent for a sentinel as a sentinel himself, he knew he was sunk. He had to talk to Lup about this before he did something stupid. He brought up the subject one night a few days into January while they were cleaning up the dinner dishes. His nervous fidgeting with a dirty fork caught Lup’s attention, making her give him a concerned look.

“Everything okay?”

Barry froze for a brief moment and then sighed, putting the fork in the dishwasher before stepping away. “I just… It’s going to sound stupid.”

Lup’s concerned frown deepened. “Babe, you’re many things, but stupid isn’t one of them. What’s on your mind? You’ve been pretty distant the whole meal.” She reached out and put a hand on his arm, squeezing it gently. “Talk to me.”

“I want to foster or adopt Angus,” Barry said in a rush, his words tumbling out of his mouth as his brain finally released what he’d been holding back. “He’s such a great kid, and I don’t want to leave him in the system. I keep thinking that he’d be such a good fit here that it’s hard to shake the idea. I don’t… He deserves to be somewhere that he’s loved and cared for, and he’s really only getting half of that at the group home and–”

Barry trailed off when he saw Lup’s expression, not expecting the look of deeply fond amusement. “What?”

“You’ve been carrying that around with you for a while, huh?”

Barry shrugged, his shoulders hunching towards his ears a little as his cheeks went red. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Well, it’s going to be a lot of work, and we probably won’t be able to take him home right away, even if we do apply for adoption. That shit takes time, but we’ve got some good connections. The fact that we’re a bonded pair will probably help matters. We can ask ‘Cretia what she thinks, see if she has any advice for us.”

Barry blinked. “You’d… you’d be okay with that? With being parents?”

Lup merely smiled. “Barry, I can’t biologically have any kids. I never thought I’d get to be a mom except if I adopted. Even if we only end up being foster parents, that’s still more than I thought I’d be able to do.”

She slid her hand down his arm and then took his hand in hers, interlacing their fingers. “We’re going to have to make some changes. The room, definitely, and also our work schedules. Maybe see about going full analyst and leave out the field work unless absolutely necessary, stuff like that. We can make this work, but it’s going to have to be for the long haul.”

Barry beamed at her before pulling her into a hug. “Fuck, you’re amazing,” he said. “How did I ever get so lucky?”

“I ask myself that every day when I wake up beside you.” She hugged him back, soaking up the cautious excitement he was giving off. “Hey Barry?”

“Yeah?”

“We’re going to be fucking amazing parents, just you watch.”

And Barry could hardly argue with that.

-/-

Lup was right, it did take a lot of work to get approval for what they wanted to do. After a long discussion, they decided to go the adoption route, keeping fostering in their back pockets if Angus didn’t want to be adopted. It took several long months of classes, home visits, evaluations by both the SGOC and CPS, and mountains of paperwork before they were even allowed to broach the subject with Angus.

They met up with him at the Portland Sentinel-Guide Center on a weekend in late May, a scarce few weeks before the school year was due to end. Angus wasn’t told who was there to see him, just that he had visitors. He gave Paloma a curious look when she met him at the Center, giving a nod to his current foster guardian before she led him deeper within.

“You will like these visitors, I think,” Paloma said, absently handing him a chocolate chip cookie as they walked, pulling it out of a Ziploc bag in her purse. Angus took it with a murmured thanks, biting into it and relishing its still soft texture. Miss Paloma always made the best baked goods, and somehow she managed to have his favorites at hand nine times out of ten when he saw her. He enjoyed the cookie as they walked, the sweetness of the perfectly baked dough counterpointed by the slight bite of the dark chocolate chips.

Angus finished his treat just as they reached the conference room where the meeting was going to take place, brushing his hands off idly against his jeans in lieu of a napkin. Paloma opened the door, and what was waiting beyond had Angus losing all sense of his normal propriety and hurrying past her with barely a by your leave. He threw himself at Barry and Lup, his arms immediately going around as much of Barry’s waist as he could manage.

Barry laughed and then warmly returned the hug. Angus could feel his happiness as they hugged, though it was tinged with an odd sense of apprehension that Angus wasn’t sure about. Why would Barry be nervous to see him? Maybe he was just nervous about Miss Paloma, but that was silly. Miss Paloma was one of the least threatening people in the world. She was like every cliche of a nice grandma all rolled up into one person.

Angus let Barry go and then hugged Lup as well, finding that she had the same nervousness to her emotional aura as her sentinel did. He subtly scented the air, but there were only the faintest hints of acridity to either of their scents that he usually associated with that emotion. How odd.

Once all the greetings were done, Paloma led the three of them over to a seating area with two loveseats facing one another and a small coffee table in the middle set in the corner of the room. She settled in on one of the loveseats, placing her overlarge handbag on the table in front of her.

“So, Angus, you are wondering why we are all here, yes?” she said, pulling out a sealed manila envelope that looked to be moderately full of what Angus assumed were papers.

“Yes, I am,” he replied. “Not that I don’t like seeing Miss Lup and Mister Barry, of course!”

“We like seeing your face too, bud, especially in person,” Barry said, giving him a fond smile. Angus returned it before refocusing on Paloma.

“So… What’s going on? Why are we here?”

“Something that has been in the works for quite some time has nearly finished,” Paloma told him, “but your input is something that is needed for it to be fully done. I think I will let the others tell you a little more. They can explain it better than me.”

Angus turned his attention to Barry and Lup, both of whom looked considerably more nervous, Barry especially so. Barry gave Lup a glance before turning his attention back to Angus.

“We, uh, we wanted to talk to you about something,” he began, “something important. I know you’ve been through a lot since we first met and haven’t had a lot of say in how your life has been since then, but this… this was something we couldn’t just do without talking to you first.”

“It’s a pretty big step,” Lup added, taking hold of Barry’s hand and squeezing it encouragingly. “You’ve become a special part of our lives, even if it’s been over a distance for most of it.”

“And we totally understand if you say no or want to look at other options, but…” Barry took in a deep breath and let it out slowly before continuing on. “We were hoping you would let us adopt you. Or- or we could be your foster parents instead, but we–”

Angus was out of his chair and throwing himself at the two of them like a shot, not letting Barry finish what he was going to say before he was embracing him yet again, his grip tight as he clung to him.

“Yes yes yes,” he chanted, not caring that his voice was muffled or that tears were running down his face. He felt Barry’s breath hitch before the older sentinel hefted him up more firmly onto his lap, Lup leaning in to complete the embrace. Angus could feel the nervousness of the two adults fade away, the emotion being replaced by an almost overwhelming sense of joy and relief.

Once the three of them were able to disentangle themselves from one another, Angus settled in between Barry and Lup while Paloma produced the necessary paperwork to make it all official. The paperwork had already gone before a sympathetic judge and had all the necessary signatures and seals, needing only Barry, Lup, and Paloma’s signatures to make it official. Paloma produced a pen and handed it and the paperwork over, smiling to herself as first Lup and then Barry signed the appropriate spots. She added her own signatures as needed, ending the last one with a bit of a flourish before she put the paperwork back in its envelope.

“Congratulations!” she said, pulling out the bag of cookies and then offering it around. “Cookie to celebrate?”

That earned some chuckles from the new family, but all three took one of the sweets, leaving Paloma to take one for her own. Angus felt comfortably squished between his now-parents, feeling like the luckiest kid in the world as he ate his cookie and soaked up the love.

-/-

Angus forced himself not to pace as he waited impatiently for his name to be called, his hands running over the slightly stiff fabric of his clothes. He didn’t mind. He’d been working hard for this day, and now that it was finally here… Well, he just hoped he didn’t forget what he had to say. He’d been practicing every night for the past week in front of the mirror, but giving a speech in front of a large crowd was a whole different ballgame.

Finally, the moment he’d been waiting for came, making him breathe a sigh of relief.

“–and now, please join me in welcoming to the stage, the valedictorian of the graduating class of 2026, Angus McDonald-Bluejeans!”

Angus stepped out onto the stage to a massive roar of applause and cheers, and he had to smile to himself when he heard the particularly loud cheering from the small group of seats near the front where his family were sitting. He shot them an amused look as he took his place at the lectern, placing his hands lightly on its smooth surface.

“Thank you, Principal Kraft. As you all heard, my name is Angus McDonald-Bluejeans, and no, that’s not a joke, though I can tell you one if you really want.” He waited for the polite chuckles to die down before continuing on. “If you’d told me eight years ago that I’d be giving a speech as valedictorian of my high school graduating class, I probably would’ve looked at you funny. I’ve always known I was intelligent, but speeches? Surprisingly, that’s not really my kind of thing, and yet here I am.

“I’m here because of many things. Sure, my good grades helped, but that’s not the only reason. I’m mainly here because of the amazing support system and family I have. Just after I turned ten, my grandfather died. It was… a rough time after that. Thankfully, I was saved from those rough times by people I’ve been proud to call my family for the past seven years. My father, mother, and uncle rescued me from a dark place and, after some rough waters, managed to give me a safe harbor to grow and thrive in.

“I wouldn’t be here without their support. None of those graduating here today would be where we are without the support of someone, be that family, friends, or teachers. Class of 2026, let’s keep that support going. We’re stepping out into the wide world and embarking on our own journeys, but that doesn’t mean we have to do it alone. Lift one another up. Create new friendships. Learn fearlessly. Thrive. Love. Live.

“We are going out into the world. Let’s make it an amazing one. Thank you.”

Angus stepped back from the lectern, quickly moderating his sense of hearing as the other graduates cheered, clapped, and whistled in celebration. He gave the principal a nod and then left the stage, ducking backstage to change out of his graduation robes while Principal Kraft gave the closing statements. Once he was done, he went in search of his family, his graduation robe tucked safely away in the garment bag he’d brought with him.

“Angus, over here!”

Angus turned at Magnus’ call, brightening up at the sight of his uncle in all but blood and legalities waving him over to the small knot of people waiting for him. His growth spurts in the later part of middle school and the early part of high school had brought him to a height that was just a little above Magnus’ own, though Angus was relatively sure that Magnus could pick him up off his feet still if he wanted to do so. He walked over to his family, unable to keep the fond smile off his face at the sight of all of them waiting for him.

“You did it!” Lup said excitedly, pulling him in for a hug and a kiss. “I’m so happy for you!”

“Thanks, Mom,” Angus replied as Barry gave him a hug as well. “I’m just glad I didn’t mess anything up.”

“You did a lot better than I ever would,” Barry told him. “I hate public speaking.”

“That’s just because you’re a giant nerd,” Taako teased, his tone light. “And somehow you managed to land my sister.”

“Hey, I happen to like giant nerds,” Lup retorted, acting the picture of maturity as she quickly stuck her tongue out at Taako. Angus rolled his eyes fondly.

“You are all ridiculous and I love you. So, what’re the plans now that everything’s done?” he asked, breaking up the familiar bantering between his mother and uncle.

“Dinner,” Kravitz replied. Taako nodded.

“Hell yeah! We’re going all out, bubelah,” he said. “It’s not a celebration until you’re so stuffed you can’t move.” He grinned. “Or you pop a button on your jeans.”

“That was one time,” Merle said immediately. “And those were old anyways.”

Angus couldn’t help the smile that formed as he listened to his family go back and forth, soaking up the deep-seated love and affection that flowed as easily as water downhill. He wouldn’t give it up for the world, and ever since that wonderful day seven years ago, he didn’t have to.

About Pretzel

Aka Scarlet_Gryphon on AO3. I enjoy writing and reading about pretty boys, good plots, and awesome worlds. Writing is my stress relief.

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