Richie hesitated in the doorway to Tessa's studio. As he'd agreed to move in with Tessa and Duncan a few weeks previously, he was still figuring out what was OK and what wasn't. Interrupting Tessa in her studio struck him as being questionable, but the only way he was going to find out was to try. Sweat shone on her skin as she welded a piece of metal to another. Richie could only guess what the final product would be, but he could see that she had a circular frame on a tripod base, and was adding what looked like wheel spokes to the frame.
Abruptly, she cursed in French and switched the welder off. Shoving her welder's mask off, she set the tool and the mask on a nearby workbench, and swore again.
At the sound of his voice, Tessa whirled to face him, then sighed. "Sometimes I think I'm an artist," she said with a rueful laugh, "and think the rules of metalworking don't apply to me." She studied him a moment. Eyes narrowing perceptively, she asked, "Something I can help you with?"
He shrugged restlessly. Having a roof over his head and no worries about where his next meal would come from had made him an outsider to the circle of friends he'd had, and he wasn't sure what he was supposed to be doing on a Monday afternoon when the antique shop was closed and Duncan was nowhere to be found.
"Just wanted to see what you did in here," Richie told Tessa now.
She smiled. "Today, I'm not sure. I had an idea for a sculpture, but now I don't think I can do it."
Startled, he looked at her. "Why not?"
"Because if I heat the metal too hot, it will be brittle and break, instead of being able to support the weight I want it to," she explained. "You've never worked with a welder?"
Richie shook his head. "No. Is it hard?"
Tessa laughed gently, sounding amused. "Everything in life is, until you try," she said. "Come, I will teach you, and then you can help me."
"But it's your work. What if I mess it up?" he asked anxiously. He knew enough by now that Tessa's work was good enough to be showcased in a downtown gallery; he'd seen the prices her work commanded.
"That's the nice thing about art," she confided. "If you never tell, no one else will know if you meant it to be something else." She held out her hand, inviting him in. "Or you could just sit and watch, and be willing to lift those bars over there when I need them. When you're ready to try, you tell me."
Richie eyed her warily, unwilling to seem afraid to try. "How about on something small?" he negotiated. "That way, it's not the end of the world if I fu–I mean screw it up."
Tessa smiled. "Bring me those three small bars on the waste pile over there," she directed, pointing, "and the big gloves and the mask from the hooks on the wall. And Richie — I will warn you now, I swear in French. A lot."
He laughed. "Mac makes me feel like I shouldn't ever swear, especially around you."
"If you want to impress a girl," Tessa advised, "keep it clean. If you're working around fire, well," she grinned impishly, "that's a different girl, and she doesn't care. Fire only cares that you pay attention."
"Got it," Richie said. After obtaining the gloves and mask and setting them down where Tessa indicated, Richie went to get the bars from the waste pile.
"Uh, Tessa? Which 'small' bars did you want? The smallest ones I see are about five feet each and three inches wide."
"Oh, not those," she said. "There are three smaller than that I just threw over there."
Digging around, Richie found them a few minutes later. Half afraid they'd be heavy, he was pleased to find they were almost lightweight enough to toss. He was tempted to juggle all three, but decided against it because he had a feeling Tessa wouldn't appreciate his skill. He brought them over to where Tessa stood waiting.
"All right, first lesson," she began. "Don't play with fire–"
"What?! I know that!"
"–unless you mean it," Tessa finished, ignoring him. "A welder is not a toy, and you can burn yourself very easily if you're not careful." She went on to detail more precautions.
"I can't believe you do this," Richie burst out. "You're beautiful; you could do anything. This — this kind of work could scar you forever."
Tessa smiled. "I have been with Duncan for twelve years," she said. "The first three years, he made me take classes; he was afraid I was going to get bored if I stayed at home and did nothing." She laughed, remembering. "I was a tour guide when we met, you see. I always wanted to learn more, wanted to go to university. But I went to class, and all the professors were so boring! I started drawing on my notebook, and Mac found them."
"Let me guess, he conveniently arranged for you to attend an art school."
"Even better: he had a friend who was an artist. At first, I didn't even know she was famous, or that she rarely ever took on a student. But she liked me, and helped me figure out that I liked working with metal more than any other medium."
Richie was quiet a moment as he pulled on the gloves Tessa handed him. "I'm not Mac's first project, then."
Tessa chuckled softly. "No, and probably not his last, either. He likes to take care of people. You haven't been taken care of enough, I suspect."
Uncomfortable with her perception, Richie shrugged. "I've gotten by."
"If that was enough," Tessa observed, "you wouldn't be here now." She patted his cheek, then switched the subject to the next part of her lesson.
Mac found them there, two hours later, still hard at work on a crooked little pyramid that Richie would later insist was perfectly straight.