Chapter 16: First, Do No Harm

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A few weeks after Maggie had stormed out of his house, and out of his life, Rob came home and kicked off his shoes. His feet ached, he missed Maggie, and the last thing he wanted was his cousin asking him—

"Yo, Rob-O, whatcha doing right now?" Zev said through a mouthful of cooked grains. He was eating standing up, a wooden bowl perched just beneath his lips.

Rob unslung his leather doctor's bag and looked around for his leather slip-ons he'd bought from the Shoemaker. Though his feet remained too delicate to wear the thin-soled shoes outside, he enjoyed having something besides his light hikers to wear around the house.

"What am I doing?" Rob knew what was coming, because he'd been hearing it all day long. "This is the day I set aside to work on my Star Trek fan fiction. So I'm really busy, okay?"

"Classic or Next Gen? Forget it—both answers are wrong. Tonight's the Harvest Ball, dude. Time to spiff up."

"Zev, I'm going to tell you what I've been telling everyone else: Not going to the ball."

Zev scraped the bottom of his bowl with the spoon, sucking down the last bits of his meal. "That's crazy talk. Come on, let's get you fed and dressed. Did you snag a date?"

"No date."

"Rob-o, that was your one job today."

"Not going."

"Dude." Zev refilled the bowl from the pot on the hearth, wiped the spoon on his tunic, and handed them over to Rob. "I thought we agreed. You gotta take someone to the ball so the Godmother doesn't run you out of town on a motherfucking rail. You don't have to get married, just a little engaged-like."

"It's not right, toying with someone like that." Rob forced himself to eat a few bites. Since Maggie had gone, his appetite was a shadow of its former self. "Do you know where my slippers went?"

"Yeah, I'm wearing them," Zev said. "I think I'm stretching 'em out for you."

"Dammit, I don't want them stretched out!"

"Dude, you left them right out in the open, what was I supposed to do?"

Hans walked in the back door, took one look at Rob, then turned to Zev. "Why isn't he ready?"

"He just got back, little dude. I'm working on it."

Hans marched up to Rob. "Robert, I deliberately gave you a light schedule today so you could prepare for the Harvest Ball. How is it, then, that you're only now returning home?"

"Not going," Rob repeated, mechanically chewing his food.

"He couldn't get a date," Zev explained.

Hans looked incredulous. "You couldn't get a date?"

Rob choked down his mouthful of dinner. "Of course I could get a date! Girls are throwing themselves at me every time I go outside. I have to pull my cap down over my face just to cross the road!"

"Yeah, yeah, you're living your worst life, that's all we've been hearing out of you lately," Zev said. "But today's the day you need to shit or get off the pot."

Hans took a step forward. "In this case, and against all odds, I agree with your cousin. We're running out of time, Robert. The Fair Godmother's deadline is tonight. And mingling with the town's well-off tonight will help us develop a customer base with money to pay its bills."

"Will you forget about the money, please? Let's talk about the Godmother. Can she really do this? Can she really cut me off if I refuse to marry somebody?"

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