Thistle led Franklin and Excalibur down the corridor that led to the kitchen. She was an orphaned infant bujanga that Jake Stone and Ezekiel Jones found while on a mission in Malaysia and ended up adopting her. Franklin was Jenkins's pet tea dragon, and Excalibur was, well...Excalibur. And they were on a mission of their own.
When they reached the door that led to the kitchen, Thistle stood up on her hind legs and pushed against it. It swung open easily and the trio slipped inside. Thistle made a beeline straight for the refrigerator, Franklin and Cal right behind her. Again, she stood on her back legs, grabbed the door's handle with her forepaws and tugged hard on it. But this time the door didn't budge; a child-proof lock further up, out of a small bujanga's reach, held the door fast. Thistle lowered herself and looked sadly at Franklin.
"Lock," she murmured, her long ears drooping mournfully. But Franklin wasn't deterred so easily. The dragon instantly attempted to ram his long snout between the rubber gasket sealing the door and the body of the fridge, his claws scrabbling madly against the metal door and the tile flooring as he grunted and squawked loudly with the effort.
"Fran! No!" exclaimed Thistle quietly, alarmed by all of the noise her friend was making. Humans didn't have hearing as sharp as a dragon's, but Franklin was making more than enough noise to attract even them! Franklin pulled his head away from the fridge and looked at Thistle, a soft, questioning trill coming from his throat. She looked up at Excalibur hovering above them.
"Cal help?" she asked pleadingly, her ears rising hopefully. Excalibur bobbed in the air above the two dragons, whining uncertainly. Locked doors meant no one was supposed to enter a room or open a thing; Galahad was always very cross with Librarian Ezekiel whenever he picked locked things open.
"Please?" begged the little bujanga. Cal finally yipped in agreement. He liked Thistle and Franklin, and he wanted to help them. With an eager bark, the longsword swung through the air and neatly sliced through the thick nylon strap that was holding the fridge closed, not leaving so much as a scratch on the fridge itself. As the sword backed off, Cal yipped proudly, pleased to have been able to assist his little friends.
Thistle tried the door again, and this time it popped open, sending her tumbling backwards into Franklin and knocking him to the floor. The two friends squealed with delight as they scrambled to their feet and ran forward, each of them going up on their hind legs to see what was inside the large, cold box, while Cal thoughtfully held the door open for them.
The little dragons' eyes quickly fell on a large, round fruit tart, its glazed fruit and berries glittering like jewels in the dim lighting of the refrigerator.
Jenkins carried his empty teapot back to the kitchen for a refill. As he passed through the door, his eyes immediately fell on the open refrigerator, Excalibur propping the door open. His broad shoulders slumped and his jaw dropped in astonishment.
Two small dragon heads and a flying longsword whipped around at the sound of his voice and stared at him, all three panic-stricken. The reptiles were comfortably seated on the kitchen floor in front of the fridge, their snouts and paws covered with sticky glaze and bits of fruit. Surrounding them were the remains of a tart, mostly the discarded crust and smeared pastry creme; the greedy dragons had devoured all of the fruit.
"Franklin! Thistle! Excalibur!" he gasped in horror as he rushed across the room. Cal immediately zipped through the air past his head and was gone in the wink of an eye, yowling in terror.
The dragons exchanged a quick glance. Before Jenkins could reach them, they scrabbled wildly to their feet and shot past his legs, disappearing through the kitchen door and down the hallway, shrieking all the way as though their tails were on fire. Jenkins whirled around and shouted their names after them, but they ignored him.
He set the teapot down on the counter and hurried over to the mess in front of the fridge, carefully stepping so as to avoid soiling his shoes. He looked up at the refrigerator lock—placed there in an attempt to dragon-proof it after what had quickly come to be known as "The Pistachio Pudding Incident" several weeks ago. He reached up to finger the nylon strap and noted the clean cut. Excalibur's work, clearly.
Jenkins looked down at the sticky remains of the tart. One hand went up to cover his mouth as he stared in consternation. Eve Baird had made the tart that morning for a very special occasion: She was introducing Flynn to her grandmother this evening, an Army veteran herself who had very exacting standards, and a notorious weakness for fruit tarts. Eve hoped the tart would sweeten the meeting between her grandmother and Flynn, who—let's face it—was the exact opposite of exacting.
Eve had worked long and hard on the tart for hours, making the entire thing from scratch, from the pate sucree crust to the pastry creme filling to the heather honey glaze, not to mention slicing and preparing the fruit, then meticulously arranging them in an intricate pattern before glazing it. The results had been stunning; it looked exactly like something out of a gourmet magazine. Eve had been very proud of herself, and rightly so. She was going to be devastated when she saw what had happened to it. And probably pretty angry, too.
Jenkins stooped and picked up the empty tart mold. As he stood there trying to figure out how to proceed, the kitchen door opened behind him. He whirled around, and his heart dropped when he saw Eve frozen in the doorway. She stopped in her tracks as soon as she saw him standing in front of the fridge, the empty tart pan in his hands, her beautiful tart scattered all over the floor at his feet. She raised her wide, shocked eyes and stared at him.
"Jenkins?" she gasped, finally finding her voice. "What the hell did you do? What have you done to my tart!" Her voice went quickly from stunned to angry. The immortal, seizing the opportunity, stood up straight and squared his shoulders as he held out a placating hand.
"Eve! Eve, I am SO very sorry!" he said, voice low and hopefully soothing. "I came in to make myself another pot of tea, and when I went to fetch the milk from the icebox, I had to move your beautiful tart to reach it and...well...it...slipped. From my hands, you see, and..." He lowered his head in shame and embarrassment.
"Seriously, Jenkins?!" Baird barked, angry and frustrated as she threw her hands into the air. "Of all the times for you to be a butterfingers, it just had to be today? Do you have any idea how long it took me to make that damn thing?" She was near to tears as she chewed out the hapless old immortal.
"I am very sorry, Colonel," Jenkins repeated. He closed the fridge door, then hurried over to the broom closet the get a broom and dustpan, setting the tart mold on the counter next to the teapot as he went.
"I'm more than willing to do whatever you ask in order to make up for this! I know how important this gathering is to you, I know you wanted to make a good impression with your grandmother and everything..." he babbled as he hurried to clean up the mess.
"A fat lot of good being sorry does!" she shot back peevishly as he began to sweep up the remains of the tart. "Now what am I gonna do?" She heaved a deep sigh and ran her hand over her forehead and hair. She dropped her head to rub her temples.
Calm down, she told herself. It was just an accident, he didn't mean to it, there's no reason to be so mean to him...
Even blinked as something on the floor at her feet suddenly caught her eye: Tracks. Tiny, non-human footprints, two sets, in pastry creme and fruit juices. She followed them with her eyes, and they lead from the fridge to the kitchen door.
Shoving aside her anger, Baird's Guardian instincts kicked in. Her eyes retraced the trail of footprints back to the floor in front of the fridge, and it suddenly struck Eve that there was no fruit among the ragged scraps of crust that Jenkins was now quickly sweeping up into the dustpan. Her eyes went next to the fridge lock, and even from where she was standing, she could see that the strap had been cleanly, neatly cut.
Eve's eyes narrowed as she quickly worked out the scenario: Humans wouldn't need to cut the lock in order to open the fridge—but fruit-loving bujangas and tea dragons would. But neither bujangas nor tea dragons had the manual dexterity or the strength to wield a sharp knife—but they wouldn't need to if they had a certain, ancient, sentient longsword as a playmate.
Eve looked at Jenkins as he briskly dumped the tart into the trashcan. Her anger and disappointment evaporated as she shook her head in disbelief at the realization that Jenkins loved his little charges so much that he was willing to take the hit for their mischief. That thought was immediately followed by a question: If Jenkins loved the ornery little dragons enough to do that, what was he willing to do out of love for her and the Librarians?
Blinking back the tears that were threatening to fill her eyes, Eve went to the broom closet to get a cleaning rag, then wet it in the sink. She wordlessly carried it over to the fridge, knelt down, and began to wipe up the gooey residue from the tile floor while Jenkins washed out the dustpan. When he was finished, he turned to face her, dropping his eyes.
"I truly am sorry, Eve," he said yet again. He started to say more, but she cut him off.
"You're sorry, all right," she said gently, kindly as she stood up. "You're a sorry old liar!" Startled, Jenkins looked up at her questioningly, perplexed by her sudden change in temper. Before he could question her, though, the Guardian stepped forward and gave him a warm hug.
"I…I beg your pardon?" he blurted, now thoroughly confused. Eve let go of him and stepped back. She reached out and grabbed his shoulders, then turned the large man around to face the kitchen door. She moved to stand next to him and pointed to the line of tracks on the floor in front of them. She felt his body stiffen slightly as he realized that Baird had caught him in his lie.
"Yes...well..." he fumbled awkwardly, clearing his throat. "May I…offer my assistance in making a replacement tart? Cassandra bought some plums this morning at the market. It might not be as showy as your creation was, but I've known plum tarts to be very tasty nonetheless."
He turned a faint shade of pink when Eve leaned over to give his cheek a quick kiss.
"I'm sorry for jumping down your throat like that, Jenkins," she said sincerely. He snorted softly as he began to fuss with the cuffs of his shirt.
"It was perfectly understandable, Colonel," he answered. "I had hoped that the child-proof lock suggested by Cassandra would also prove a deterrent to small dragons, but that's clearly been proven not to be the case." He straightened and turned to face her.
"It seems that we must upgrade our icebox security to something made of high-grade carbon steel. I shall certainly have a serious talk with Excalibur and our small reptilian friends, as well!" he said, a stern expression coming to his face. Eve reached out and laid her hand on his forearm.
"But not too serious?" she urged gently. Jenkins raised his head and looked down at her.
"As you wish, Colonel," he sniffed, and loosed an exasperated sigh. He rolled his dark eyes as he feigned being put out by her request. "But the miscreants do need to be punished, all three of them. I'll have to think about a suitable form of discipline…"
"Oh, please!" Eve laughed at his performance. "You talk a big discipline game, Jenkins, but all I've ever seen you actually do is spoil those little hooligans rotten, especially Franklin!"
"Yes, well," blustered the old Caretaker, his cheeks pinkening again as he turned and held out one arm toward the pantry, inviting her to go ahead of him. "That tart isn't going to make itself, you know! Shall we get started, then…?"
"We shall!" she said breezily, grinning as she headed for the pantry to bring out the flour and sugar, while Jenkins slipped out of his coat and began digging out aprons for both of them.