Chapter 1: Elmo
The day the Avengers come to Sesame Street, Oscar complains that the letters of the day must be PR, but Elmo thinks that's silly, because the yowling yellow yaks don't just show up at Hooper's Store every day for no reason. Besides, everyone knows that Avengers starts with A.
But the superheroes aren't there for the letter of the day- or the number, either, since there aren't twelve of them. They're just visiting to help everyone fix the buildings on Sesame Street after the big incident last week, because everyone knows that if you shared in making the mess you should share in cleaning it up, even if it was an accident.
Elmo saw them on TV, and they're just like he expected. All of them are brave and strong and nice- well, most of them are nice, at least- and they really do wear their costumes even when they're just walking around helping, which Elmo will point out the next time Oscar asks why Grover is wearing a cape if he isn't even leaving Sesame Street.
Mr. Thor is teaching Abby and Zoe how to use tools so they can help fix the flower boxes that fell from windowsills, even though his hammer is much bigger than theirs are. Mr. Clint is helping Big Bird rebuild his nest, and Mr. Bruce is sitting in a corner fixing the electric blanket. Miss Natasha is trying to help fix Oscar's trash can, and even though he keeps yelling at her she just smiles like she deals with this all the time and says she's used to dealing with cranky green men, which makes Mr. Bruce smile a little when he hears it. Elmo's pretty impressed with Miss Natasha for that, because it took him a long time to understand how to handle Oscar. But he's the most impressed with Mr. Steve, who just smiles and listens and helps everyone with whatever they need. Elmo is pretty sure he wants to be Mr. Steve when he grows up.
Mr. Tony isn't doing much of anything, except being Grover's new idol. Elmo is a little nervous, because Mr. Tony does a lot of work with electricity and Super Grover isn't even allowed to use matches yet. Plus Mr. Tony said that he'd make Super Grover shoes so that he could fly better. Elmo doesn't think Super Grover flying more is the best idea.
Elmo tries not to pay too much attention to that, though, because he doesn't want to think about Grover getting hurt. Besides, Mr. Steve is a really good question-answerer. Sometimes people who don't know Elmo get angry when he asks a lot of questions, even though he just wants to know things. Mr. Steve just smiles at him and explains what Elmo wants to know, and one time when he's carrying a really big stack of wood he even lets Elmo sit on top of it so that Elmo can see what Sesame Street looks like from Big Bird's point of view.
Elmo wants a costume just like Mr. Steve's when he grows up. Except he's already red, so his costume just needs to be blue and white.
"Mr. Steve?" Elmo asks while they're re-painting the front door of 123 Sesame Street. "Why do you have a shield?"
"To protect people," Mr. Steve tells him. "I can use it to make anyone who wants to hurt someone stop."
"Oh." Elmo pauses for a moment. "Elmo got a shield once. But Oscar took it back because it was raining and his dirt collection was getting too muddy."
Mr. Steve nods. "Want to help me with this, buddy?" he asks.
Elmo is a very good helper. He can reach the bottom of the door much more easily than anyone else can, and he's very careful to paint in straight lines. Gordon says it looks even better than it used to, and that maybe Elmo should be the new handymonster for the block. Elmo's considering it
"Mr. Steve?" Elmo asks.
"How can Elmo spell shield?"
"There's an easy way to remember that," Mr. Steve says. "SHIELD is an acronym. It can stand for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division."
Elmo stops on the sidewalk, thinks about that for a good long time. Mr. Steve waits while he does. Finally, Elmo looks up at him. "It's a lot easier to spell trash can lid."
Chapter 2: Telly
Telly's gotten a lot better about his worrying. He used to worry all the time, and now he only worries most of the time- which, if you think about it, is a pretty huge change. Most of the time, he's proud of how much progress he's made.
But right now it doesn't feel like he's made any progress at all. Something important is broken, and he needs to be the one to fix it, and he doesn't know how.
He runs through all the grown-ups in his head, but he doesn't think any of them could fix this. This isn't the kind of thing Luis or Maria could fix in their workshop. They're smart, but this is going to take more than a hammer and nails. He doesn't think Gordon could fix this either; this isn't a science problem. And Susan- and Gina-
He's so deep in thought that he crashes right into the man wearing purple.
"What's wrong?" the man asks him. He sounds concerned.
Telly isn't supposed to talk to strangers, but the words are hitting his lips so fast that he can't think of a way to stop them. "I broke it and I can't fix it and I don't know what to do." And he isn't crying, exactly, but he might maybe be about to panic. Maybe. It's broken. In his situation anyone else would panic too.
"Hey, hey, slow down." The man kneels down so that his face is at eye level. "I'm Clint. You met me yesterday, remember?"
Telly does remember. A little. Maybe. He nods. Swallows hard.
"You're Telly, right?"
"What's wrong? What's broken?"
Telly holds it up tearfully. It would have been an absolutely perfect equilateral triangle, except that it's broken. Two of the sides are joined together just right- his furry hand is wrapped around one of them protectively- but the third is attached all wrong, sticking down from the angle where the other two meet. There's nothing Telly loves more than a good triangle, and there's nothing more upsetting than a broken one.
"Hey," Clint says. "That's not broken at all."
Clint gently takes the broken triangle out of his hand and rotates it so that he's holding on to the side that doesn't go right. "It's not a triangle at all, Telly. See? It's a Y."
"The letter Y."
Telly squints at it. He walks a few steps away to look at it from there, then walks back and looks up close again. "Yes," he says. "Yes, it sure is a Y." Almost a full moment of calm, before the words erupt from him again: "What am I going to do with a Y?"
"There's lots of thing you can do with Ys," Clint says.
"Not a many as you can do with a triangle."
Clint considers this for a second. "That's true. You know, I like triangles too."
"Sure." There's a leather strap draped over Clint's shoulder; as he reaches toward the back of it, Telly realizes that it's attached to a case. Clint pulls an arrow out of it. He holds it up so that Telly can see the very top: the arrow's point is a perfect triangle. And then he rotates it, so that Telly can see the feathers. Each one of them is a triangle too.
Clint really does understand triangles.
"But Y's are good too," Clint says. "There's one in my name."
Telly can feel his eyes widening. "You're a bird?"
"Not like Big Bird. But it's my nickname."
"Like how we call Gabi Gabi instead of Gabriela?"
"Exactly!" Clint says. Then, after a moment, he puts the arrow in its case again, so that he's just holding the Y. "You know, there's one of these in your name, too."
"T-E-L-L—Hey, you're right!" Telly says. "But I don't have any of the other letters."
"Well," Clint says. "We could talk about this. Or we could find a T, an E, and two L's. What do you want to do?"
Telly's off running before Clint can even finish his sentence.
Chapter 3: A Brief Musical Interlute
Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood,
in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood?
Say, who are the people in your neighborhood-
the people that you meet each day?
Oh, hi there. You know, with that black outfit, you know who you could be?
A New Yorker?
Well, you're already a New Yorker.
You don't like New Yorkers?
I love New Yorkers, but you could be a top-secret spy!
Well, sure, if you want to Get Smart about it!
Oh, a spy is good for looking 'round
To make whatever you lost, found
If someone steals your tesseract
Well, I'm the one to get it back
Cause a spy is a person in your neighborhood
in your neighborhood, she's in your neighborhood
A spy is a person in your neighborhood
A person that you meet each day.
Hi, I was told I'm scheduled to be here right now?
You must be the director!
Make it quick. I've got a job to do.
You seem angry.
You might say I'm Fury-ous.
A director watches everything
to manage what evil can bring.
Even gods aren't an even match
For a smart guy with a great eye patch
Cause a director is a person in your neighborhood
in your neighborhood, he's in your neighborhood
And a spy is a person in your neighborhood-
Well, they're the people that you meet
When you're walking down the street
They're the people that you meet each day.
Chapter 4: Grover
Grover turns to the camera and adjusts his bowtie proudly. This is the big day. He is about to get the big scoop. If he smiles any harder, his fur will fall off. "Hello, everybody!" he says. "Today I am going to take you into STARK INDUSTRIES. I am here to meet my old pal, Tony!" He -bounces off toward the receptionist's desk, trusting the cameramonster will follow him.
"Hello, friendly receptionist!" he says politely. "I believe my friend Tony Stark is expecting me."
She squints at him over cats-eye glasses. "Who are you?"
"You will probably find me under 'L' in your book. It stands for Lovable, furry old Grover!" He turns and stage whispers at the camera, "Doesn't anyone from Stark Industries watch public television?"
She flips through her book and glances up again. "There's nothing here."
"Well then, it's probably under F for Furry. We'll just go up now. Thank you! Come on." Grover beckons toward the camera, and proceeds to the elevator bank.
"Sir, you can't go up there."
"Of course I can. We are on the ground level, and Stark Tower is very tall. We might not be able to go down, but we can most definitely go up!" Grover pauses for a moment. "I'm not sure if we can go left or right, though. I'm still having a little problem with those." He holds out two furry hands, thump perpendicular to the rest of his paw, to figure out which makes the L. "There we go." He bounds into the opening elevator door, and is about to select his floor when he notices a problem.
"There are a lot of floors in this building," Grover says. "I should have brought one of my taller friends."
I CAN HELP YOU WITH THAT.
"What? Who said that?" Grover spins himself around and around, looking over his shoulder the whole time, barely noticing how dizzy he's becoming until he falls against the elevator's wall.
It's surprisingly soft and very comfortable. It feels nice against his fur. Tony Stark, Grover thinks, is very good at using his for me, for you, and for later jars.
MY NAME IS JARVIS. WHAT CAN I HELP YOU WITH?
"Where are you?"
I'M EVERYWHERE I'M PROGRAMMED TO BE.
Grover is a very brave monster, which is the only reason he isn't crying. And with that, an important thought occurs to him. "Are you a monster?" Grover asks. He's been scared of monsters before, and that always seemed to turn out okay. Half the time they turn out to just be him.
NO, SIR. I'M JUST A REALLY VERY INTELLIGENT SYSTEM.
"I see." Grover is very lucky he's a superhero, because he's pretty sure that any normal monster would not be handling this as well as he is. But he just politely asks, "Could you please press the button so that I can see my friend Tony?"
OF COURSE, SIR. I DIDN'T KNOW YOU WERE FRIENDS WITH TONY. The number at the tippy-top of the list lights up, and the elevator begins moving up. After a pause, the voice speaks again. I'M A BIG FAN.
Grover isn't sure what he expected, but not that. "Of little old me?"
SESAME STREET IS ONE OF THE BEST THINGS ON YOUTUBE.
It's always exciting when someone says that. Sesame Street has been on for a long time, but most people don't admit how important and influential it is unless PBS is trying to get donations.
"You know what, JARVIS?" Grover says. He still doesn't know who or what JARVIS is, but he thinks they could be friends anyway. "I like you too." He snuggles back against the elevator walls.
THANK YOU, SIR. I BELIEVE WE HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION.
As soon as he says that, the elevator dings and the doors slide open.
Tony is poking at pictures that seem suspended in the sky. "JARVIS," he says without turning around, "I told you not to let anyone up here. I'm busy."
I OVERRODE MY PROTOCOLS, SIR.
"How are you even able to do that? You're artificial intelligence."
HE SAID HE WANTED TO SEE YOU.
"He? Who's he? Who the f-" and that's when Tony turns and sees Grover. He stumbles over his words; drops what he was saying; points repeatedly, like he's right on the verge of realizing something. "You. I know you."
"Hello, Tony Stark! It is I, cute lovable furry old Grover." As he's learned from demonstrating over, under, around, and through, repetition is almost always helpful, although it is occasionally exhausting.
"Grover. Right. I was not expecting you today."
"You told me I could come see Stark Industries when I was older!" Grover says proudly. "And I am three whole days older than the last time you saw me!"
"Yes," Tony says, in the kind of voice that Mr. Johnson sometimes uses when Grover accidentally brings him the wrong soup. "But I was kind of-"
"What's going on, Tony?" It's a woman's voice that Grover doesn't recognize. His first thought is that it's still JARVIS, but then the woman walks out from behind a doorway.
She would be good at Sesame Street, he thinks. She looks very professional, and her voice sounds kind. Her eyes are constantly moving, like she's taking everything in at once.
Right up until she sees him. When she does, she gasps a little, and freezes.
Grover is starting to wonder if coming to Stark Towers today was a good plan.
"What?" Tony asks. "Do you have a file on him? Is he trying to kill me? I knew that fur was just camouflage."
She ignores him and walks right over to shake Grover's hand. "Hi, I'm Pepper Potts. I'm a huge fan. I didn't realize Tony knew you!"
Coming to Stark Towers today was the best plan.
"Hello, Miss Potts. I am very pleased to meet you," Grover says politely. "I was hoping to go on a tour of Stark Industries."
"Sure," she says, "That's no problem."
"Wait," Tony tries to interject. "We have secrets here, huge secrets, national secrets-"
"Do you want to see our labs first?" Pepper asks Grover. "Or where we actually build things? Or, oh, would you like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich first?"
The first two are tempting, but- "With really smooth peanut butter?" Grover asks hopefully. "And a glass of milk?"
"Sure. JARVIS, can you help me out?"
"You didn't make me sandwiches!" Tony protests. "You never make me sandwiches. Either of you!"
"You aren't an icon to millions of children," Pepper calls over her shoulder, but Grover knows most of her attention is focused on him. He can tell from the way her fingers are laced with his and the way that she carefully moves the stick of butter to the side to take three loafs of bread out of the cabinet to let him choose, and the way, that once she's spread the peanut butter thickly on one slice and the jelly on the other and squashed them together, she asks if he wants the crust cut off, and if he likes his sandwiches cut into rectangles or triangles or squares.
Just by how well she knows her shapes, he knows that was right. Pepper would be very good on Sesame Street.
After he eats maybe the most delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich of his life, accompanied by the coolest glass of milk he has ever tasted, Pepper takes Grover on his tour. He had been hoping to learn from Tony, but this is even better. Pepper's hand is cool and soft, and she's really good at explaining things. Any time Grover asks a question and Pepper isn't sure of the answer, JARVIS supplies the information Grover wants to know. A few times JARVIS and Pepper have to remind him that he isn't supposed to know certain things because they're highly confidential national security issues, but then they tell him anyway.
He thinks this is the start of a beautiful friendship.
After a few hours of exploring, they turn around and see that Iron Man is right behind them. He hovers a few inches off the floor, blasting from place to place almost faster than Grover's eyes can track. The suit is gold and red and incredibly shiny. Grover loves his cape more than almost anything, but even he can see that it has nothing on the Iron Man costume. He has to remind himself that Tony's somewhere inside it.
It's hard to not be in awe of Iron Man, but Pepper just rolls her eyes at it. "Stop showing off," she says. "Grover and I are in the middle of learning something."
"Oh, and you can teach him better than I can?" Iron Man asks. His voice is a little muffled from inside the mask. "Which one of us is the super-genius?"
"Which one of us was sulking with a glass of-" Pepper glances at down Grover, who's watching them like a tennis match- "juice, just because I didn't make him a peanut butter sandwich?"
"Which one of us pays your salary?"
Grover doesn't really mind watching grown-ups fight, but he thought they'd be better at it. Even he knows the answers to these questions, and he only met Pepper today.
"I can't believe you're jealous of Grover," Pepper says.
"Well, if you and JARVIS would stop ignoring me because of him-"
"What are you, five?"
No one on Sesame Street would act like this. If he weren't so fascinated, Grover might be insulted.
"Tell you what," Iron Man says. "Grover, you want to see something really cool?"
Grover perks up. "Yes! I would like that very much!"
"Come with me."
Iron Man picks Grover up and holds him as he flies through twisting halls. They end up in a room that's full of a lot of bottles, each containing brightly-colored bubbling liquid and dangling over open flames. It's the kind of thing Grover isn't allowed to go near without an adult. He's pretty sure that Iron Man counts as a grown-up, though, so it's okay.
"I'm creating a new power source," Iron Man says. He describes it with a lot of big words. Grover decides to ignore the meaning and just count the Y words. Three are definitely Y words- yes, yield, and yowza- and he'll need to check on uranium when he gets home to the dictionary.
And then he asks Grover if he wants to look at it up close.
Iron Man asks. That's important.
Because that's when Grover tries to look, but slips on the tile floor when he's almost there. That's when he falls down, crashing into one of the cabinets, and hears the cacophony of clattering all around him. That's when he tries to gather his bruised dignity as he stands up. That's when he feels, rather than notices, Iron Man grabbing the scruff of his neck and zooming away before he can really see whatever it was he was going to get a closer look at.
That's when the explosions start.
Chapter 5: The Count
The Count's castle is imposing on the hill. His bats have free reign over the property, and his spiders have made webs so big that they could trap a fully-grown Koozbanian. On a good day, when the thunder is rumbling so deep you can hardly hear yourself think, it's the creepiest place in the entire Muppet world.
This is not a good day.
The Count isn't unreasonable. He understands that sometimes there are going to be beautiful sunny days with a gentle breeze, without a cloud in the sky. After all, without those plants wouldn't grow, and then how could he count the flowers? But nothing makes him happier than dark and stormy nights, and for centuries the Von Counts have lived for those.
The Count counts the birds chirping outside his window (seven). He counts the bats flapping around above his head (twenty-three). He counts the number of books on his shelves (one hundred thirty-six) and the number of books piled by his chair (six) and the number of books that he can't read because the bats flew away with them and put them high on the rafters (seventeen). But when he laughs his signature laugh, when the weather is just nice, his counting loses some of its spark.
It's days like this he's glad he took on a temporary roommate.
("Not for a long time," Thor had said. "Just for a few months, until Tony has a place ready for me. But it seems foolish to leave Midgard for just a short while." And why would the Count disagree, when he could count the months his new roommate would be with him, as well as the extra rent he would pay?)
Thor loves it as much as the Count does. All of it, the lightning and the thunder and the numbers that come with it. They go out to the meadow together (it can be quite scary when it's dark, but right now it's almost pleasant) and he raises his hammer up high, and almost immediately, the clouds come and the sky lights up.
Because the Count is a good influence when it comes to sharing, and because Thor says he learned some things from dealing with his brother, they take turns.
"One!" the Count shouts over the crackle of electricity in the air. "One godly thunderbolt!"
"Two!" Thor bellows. His voice is deeper than the Count's, and he isn't as practiced with counting, but he's just as enthusiastic.
"Three! Three godly thunderbolts!"
The Count is amazed at how long Thor can hold his arm straight up while holding such a heavy object. He's even better at it than Jim was. "Four!" Thor yells.
"By my hammer, six!"
And then Thor falters. He lowers his hammer and shakes his head sadly. The sun shines through the clouds again, and waterlogged birds chirp.
"What's wrong?" the Count asks.
"I am afraid, friend, that I cannot remember the number that comes after eleven."
"Oh," the Count says. "Would you like me to tell you?"
"Please," Thor says.
(Thor is really very polite. The Count finds his whole story about his rivalry with his brother pretty hard to believe. It sounds more like a myth than anything. But after the Snuffy incident of '85, he's learned not to doubt anything people say to him.)
Thor drops dramatically to one knee so that the Count can stand on his tiptoes and whisper in his ear.
"Of course!" Thor says. "Thank you, Count. You are truly a friend."
"Like I always say, a friend that counts is a friend who counts," the Count says modestly.
Thor raises his hammer again, and the skies turn that pea soup-y green color that means something wonderful is coming. "Twelve!" Thor thunders, and as the lightning goes straight from the sky to his outstretched arm, the Count is sure that he isn't the only one absolutely at peace.
Chapter 6: Big Bird
Big Bird can tell from the looks they exchange that Gina and Chris don't really want him to stay with Natasha, but they don't have much choice. She's the only one who came to tell them what was happening, and they have to go get Grover from the Stark Tower right away, even though it's nearly bedtime. So they tell him to be good and to listen to Natasha, and then the grown-ups wander off to talk. He can't hear what they say, but he sees Natasha roll her eyes and Gina and Chris exchange another worried look. Then they drive off, and the only sound on the street is Oscar snoring in his trash can.
"So you're my new baby-sitter?" Big Bird asks. "I like baby-sitters."
"I'm not a baby-sitter."
Big Bird laughs. "You're a bird-sitter? That's even better! You're funny."
Natasha looks at him, really LOOKS at him, the way everyone first looked at Snuffy when they finally got to see him for the first time and had to take everything in all at once. It makes the feathers on Big Bird's wings stand on end. Gina and Chris said she'll take care of him, and he trusts them, but none of the grown-ups on Sesame Street ever looked at him like they knew what he was going to say before he could even think it.
"Is something wrong?" he asks, and Natasha shakes her head quickly, like she's re-setting her brain.
"No, everything's fine. What's up, Big Bird?"
He studies her carefully for a moment- maybe not as carefully as she looked him, but in his own way, Big Bird understands people pretty well. He doesn't know what's going on with Natasha, but he can tell she doesn't want to talk about it. "Do you want to see my nest?" he asks her politely. "You could meet Radar. He's my teddy bear. I think he'd like you."
She doesn't answer, but she does follow him through the swinging doors that Luis had repaired, and when he settles into his favorite spot in his nest, she perches on the side of it. Her back is to the wall, and he notices how often she's glancing at the wall or up, like she expects someone else to come play, even though she knows as well as he does that everyone's off looking for Grover. When he hands Radar to her, he's surprised to see she holds his bear the right way, like she understands he has feelings too.
"How old are you?" she asks him.
"I'm six." He folds down the two fingers on his left hand so that she can see how many he means, just in case she isn't sure.
"What's it like?" she asks him. "Being six." Her voice sounds like she's saying two things, the words and then something else that Big Bird doesn't quite understand. So he just answers the words, because he knows the answer to them.
"It's great!" Big Bird has been six for a while, so he has a lot of experience. "I can count to fifty, and I know the alphabet, and I can talk in Spanish a little, and I'm really good at riding my tricycle. I have a lot of friends on Sesame Street and we play the best games. Sometimes I go to Mr. Hooper's Store and Alan makes me birdseed milkshakes."
"Wow." But the words still aren't telling the whole story.
Big Bird frowns a little. "What's wrong, Natasha? You sound sad."
"I'm not sad. Just a little jealous. Being six like you are sounds pretty great."
"It's not all great," Big Bird confesses. "Sometimes bad things happen."
"Really?" She bounces Radar in her arms a little. Big Bird knows what that means. It means she's ready for a story.
"One time," he says, "a hurricane came and it damaged my nest even worse than this." He gestures around him. Most of the Street has been fixed by now, but he still knows it happened. You can't just erase the past, even if you have the best tools in the whole world. "And one time I was birdnapped and they painted me colors and made me live in a cage at a carnival for a while, until Maria and everyone saved me."
"Sounds scary." She's still saying two things at once, he thinks, but this time the meanings aren't so different. Her fingers are squeezing Radar's paws, like she isn't used to not having anything to do with her hands.
"And one time- One time-" Big Bird has to stop here, because he might cry, and he doesn't want to cry right now. He just points to the drawing up on his wall that he made and knew he'd keep forever.
Natasha gently puts Radar down on a shelf before she walks over to look at the picture closely. "That's a good picture, Big Bird. Mr. Looper?"
Big Bird nods. "He used to own the store. He taught me a lot of things. He was always nice to me. But then he died."
Natasha doesn't turn around to face him. She just stares at the picture for a while. Big Bird doesn't know why, but he's glad, because it lets him calm down. Sometimes that's harder when people are watching you. It's strange that she isn't saying anything to make him feel better, but he doesn't mind. He's been dealing with this for ages.
He doesn't know how she realizes when he feels like he's under control, but that's when she speaks. "Did you talk to Clint about any of this?" she asks. She doesn't turn away from the picture. Big Bird is really glad it didn't get destroyed in the chaos. He can't imagine what his home would be like without that picture.
"Not really. We mostly just built my nest. He's a really good nest-builder. I think he must be part canary or something."
Now she does turn, and there's a smile playing across her lips. "I think you're right, Big Bird." She sounds like she means it, but now there's sadness in her eyes.
He hopes that's not his fault. He hopes he can fix it.
"But you know what?" Big Bird says. "I'm glad it all happened." He pauses. "Well, no. I wish Mr. Looper were still here, and I wish my nest hadn't been hurt, and I wish I'd never heard of the Sleaze Brothers' carnival, but they're part of what made me me."
"What do you mean?"
"Every time something happens, I learn from it. If I didn't remember anything that happened to me, how would I learn?"
Another silence, this one as big as all of Sesame Street. He hopes he didn't say anything wrong, but Natasha doesn't seem mad at him. She just seems like she's thinking.
"I think it's time for bed, Big Bird," she tells him finally.
"Are you going to make me brush my beak?"
"I think tonight you can go without it. Just this once." Natasha brings Radar over and tucks him under one of Big Bird's wings. Just like always, Radar fits perfectly.
"Are you going to sing me a lullaby?" he asks.
"I don't know any lullabies."
"Well, can you tell me a story then?"
"Sure. What do you want to hear a story about?"
"Tell me about when you were six."
A lot of things happen on Natasha's face, all at once, and Big Bird doesn't really understand any of them. Her eyes look like fire and darkness at the same time.
She tells him a wonderful story, but as Big Bird dozes off, he gets the strangest feeling that what she's saying isn't really true.
Chapter 7: Murray Monster
Murray tries to not be too obvious about how carefully he's eyeing Bruce, but it's hard. If Bruce doesn't believe this 100%, the whole plan will fall apart.
Murray very much wants this plan to succeed. They've all spent a long time on it. Murray's only job was to convince Bruce to be in this educational clip with him, but it's an important job, and Murray doesn't want to ruin it. He and Bruce have practiced this at least three times. He just needs to do it right again, to give everyone else the time to set up.
It's just a Word on the Street segment. He's done it hundreds of times. So why is he so nervous?
"Ready?" Bruce whispers to him, and Murray nods firmly. Yes. He's ready. He is definitely ready. He looks at the camera, steely-eyed and prepared.
"Hello, I'm Bruce."
"And I'm Murray!"
"And we're here to tell you about the word youthful."
"Youthful, yes! Youthful."
Bruce turns to him encouragingly. "Tell them about the word youthful."
Murray is supposed to keep going with this, he knows that, but he can't. Partly because he just realized he can't remember exactly what youthful means, but mostly because what they're about to do is so exciting that he doesn't want to wait.
"I can't do that."
"Why not? Did you forget?"
"No. But Bruce..." Murray gestures him over, and when Bruce leans over, Murray cups his hands around Bruce's ears to whisper to him. "I have a surprise for you."
"Uh oh. A surprise?"
Bruce doesn't look as happy as Murray expected he would. In fact, he looks a little green. "You don't like surprises?" Murray asks worriedly. None of this will work if he won't go along with it.
"Not really," Bruce admits. "Surprises make me yelp."
"Really? But you never seem nervous to me!"
"Well, I practice some yoga," he explains.
"What if it's not a surprise?" Murray asks. "What if we just tell you right now?"
"Okay," Bruce says. "What's the not-surprise?"
"Come in, everyone!" Murray shouts.
They pop up from all over: to their left, to their right, behind them and in front of them. Some pop up from beneath the counter. A few swoop down from the ceiling.
It takes a moment for everyone to quiet down. None of them are really known for being quiet.
"It is my pleasure," Murray says grandly, "to induct you, Bruce Banner, into the Official Sesame Street Monsters Club."
"Sometimes you're big and green and people think you're scary," Telly explains. "But you're nice and you're a good friend. That's what the Monsters Club is all about."
"Sweetums started it years ago," Zoe says. "He wanted to welcome you himself, but he got stuck in California filming the new Muppet Movie, so he said we could do it."
"Welcome to Monster Club," Cookie says through a mouthful of what Murray doubts is fruit.
He's not even going to try to guess what the two-headed monster says.
"Do you accept?" Murray asks instead. He looks at Bruce, trying to not look as anxious as he feels. "It's okay if you don't."
"No, I, ah. Wow. Of course I accept. Thank you."
Murray smiles so hard his fur aches. "Guys, he accepts! He's one of us now!" he bellows. And they all tackle Bruce in a hug, all the Sesame Street monsters who could make it there. They haven't ever welcomed a human into their inner circle before, but Bruce is a good one to start.
From the bottom of the pile, Bruce whispers to him, "Is that a yeti?"
"No, just another monster."
Then more monsters must join the hug, because Rosita's left foot falls between them and he can't hear Bruce anymore.
But Murray doesn't care. It's worth it. He's never been this happy.
Right now, his youthful exuberance can't be beat.
Chapter 8: Bert
Nicky was one of the only kids who came over to play with Bert first when he moved to Sesame Street. Most of the kids go to Grover first, or Elmo, or Big Bird, so it always feels pretty special when someone chooses him and Ernie as their introduction to the neighborhood.
Bert's biased, of course, but he thinks they're a pretty good place to start. They have a nice apartment, centrally located near Hooper's Store and the basketball court, and they have plenty of toys and games. Bert is always happy to show anyone his bottle cap collection, or to teach them how to do the Pigeon, and he's always willing to let someone play checkers with him, even if he and Bernice were in the middle of a game.
Not too many people take him up on that. But when he was little, Nicky did.
Bert and Nicky have stayed friends, even as Nicky grew up. Everyone has some kids they were still close to; Herry still speaks to John John occasionally, and Kermit and Joey exchange letters where very few of the symbols on the page have been replaced with drawings of Cookie Monster. But Bert and Nicky have stayed closer than that, even after Nicky got older and tougher and started being called Nick.
So when Nick calls the day after the big incident that takes down part of the city, and says he needs help, Bert doesn't ask what kind of help he needs, or why Bert, of all people, is the one he called, when he works for the military with all kinds of superheroes. He just tells Nick to come right over, and he'll do whatever Nick asks.
"It will have to be a secret, though," Nick says.
"From everyone? Gosh."
"Not from everyone," Nick says quickly. "I've already talked to Maria and Luis about this, and I'll talk to Gordon and Susan too. But if we do this, you can't tell anyone else on Sesame Street."
"Golly," breathes Bert. It's pretty exciting, just to think about. A secret mission. Sometimes he and Bernice pretend to be spies, but even then, Bernice is the one who's going on missions. Bert just writes the letters that he attaches to her leg. Last time he wrote a Q, a Z, and an N.
"Talk to Ernie," Nick says. "I'll come by tomorrow, okay?"
"Sure!" Bert says. He knows Ernie won't mind. When there's an adventure on the way, Ernie never does.
He and Ernie don't expect Nick to bring a friend. But any friend of Nick's is a friend of theirs, so it's okay.
"Hi," Nick's friend says. "I'm Phil."
Bert wonders if Phil knows how to play checkers. Or if he'd want to learn.
Nick says it's time for a debriefing, which means he's going to tell them what's going on. Over and over, Bert's seen people be afraid of Nick, just because he's big and strong and he has an eye patch. But Bert knows that he's still just Nicky, who might not always be able to tell you everything you want to know, but always always always tells you the rules that you need to know.
Gordon and Maria come down for the debriefing, too, which is good. Bert would do anything for Nick and he knows Ernie would too. But it still helps to know that the grown-ups will help them, if they need it.
"Phil needs to hide somewhere that no one would think to look," Nick explains. "Someplace safe."
"Sesame Street is safe!" Bert says proudly. He knows that they're considered one of the safest neighborhoods in the whole country. When the study came out, Alan posted it in the window of Hooper's Store.
"That's why we thought of it." Nick's mouth is a grim straight line. Bert bets this is the kind of face that makes him scary for people who didn't practice the alphabet with him.
Nicky was always really good at the alphabet.
"Do you understand?" Gordon asks them. "You wouldn't be able to have anyone come over while Phil is here. Not Big Bird, not Oscar, not Herry-"
Bert knows what Gordon is saying. This would be a big responsibility. But he knows that Nick needs him. He isn't going to let Nick down.
"What about the Boogie Woogie sheep?" Ernie asks.
"You might want to hold off on having them come by too," Nick says dryly. It's the best thing Bert's heard since Chris told him he could buy antique paper clips on E-Bay. He wonders if Phil could keep Ernie's cookies in the kitchen, too.
"Well," Ernie says. "I guess that'll be okay, if it's only for a little while."
Bert knew Ernie would agree. They might disagree on some things, but Ernie understands how much Bert wants this. Everyone always notices that he and Ernie are so different, but they don't always see how similar they are where it really matters. They're like puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly. Bert wouldn't even think of doing something that would upset Ernie unless it was really, really important, and he knows Ernie feels the same way about him. They don't need to work toward presenting Nick with a united front; they just really want the same thing.
The really nifty thing about all of it, though, is how great Phil is. Bert knew he'd be okay, because he's friends with Nick, but Phil is better than Bert could have dreamed. He likes to read books quietly. He helps Bert organize his bottle caps by color and he seems to enjoy it almost as much as Bert does. When Ernie can't sleep, Phil brings him a glass of warm milk, and nothing comes dancing in to take Bert's bed out of the apartment. Bert could live like this forever.
He doesn't know how Ernie feels about any of it, but he's lived with Bert long enough that he must be used to it by now.
What neither of them expect, though, is how sad Phil gets. Everyone on Sesame Street is almost always happy- maybe not all the time, but enough for what matters. They have problems, but they solve them and things are okay. Phil's problems, Bert thinks, go deeper than most of the problems he's used to. He can be happy sometimes- like when Bert teaches him how to do the Pigeon and they discover that Phil's a natural- but when he thinks no one's looking, the smile slides off his face.
Bert knows Ernie notices- it's come up a few times at bedtime- but it's hard to ask. If Gina or Alan was sad, they would be able to explain why, but it looks like Phil's upset about something more than just not having enough birdseed to make milkshakes tomorrow. So Ernie and Bert just make the decision they always make when they don't have the answer: keep doing what they're doing, and they'll find out eventually.
They don't expect eventually to happen as quickly as it does.
It's the day when all the superheroes are helping out around Sesame Street- which, they all understand, is the day they have to be the quietest about Phil being here. So they all sprawl out on the living room floor, sorting paper clips by date, which Ernie has been much happier to help with since Phil came. "Do you have a collection?" Bert asks Phil.
It's just making polite conversation, the way you would if you met someone at the Laundromat while waiting for Leela to finish rolling your argyle socks. But Phil's face looks like Oscar's did the time Baby Bear asked him if he'd like a bath. "I used to," Phil says after a moment.
"What did you collect?" Ernie asks.
"Have you heard of Captain America?" Phil asks. They both nod. "I had all of his trading cards. The original, vintage ones." His voice is very, very calm.
"Wow," Bert says. He's looked at trading cards before. They're even more complicated to collect than bottle caps.
"What happened to them?" Ernie asks.
In the back of his mind, Bert realizes he should remind Ernie not to be rude to their guest, but he's as curious as Ernie is. He can't think of anything that would make him get rid of one of his collections. Or, well- he remembers that Christmas. Maybe he'd lose his collections for Ernie- but not for anything or anyone else.
"Nick needed them more than I did," Phil says.
"Wow," Bert says again. He knew Nick and Phil were friends, but he didn't realize that they were that close. If he'd known... he doesn't know what he would have done differently, but something, he's pretty sure. Friendships like his and Ernie's don't just come around every day.
There's a long silence while they all move paper clips around. He understands, now, how Phil is so good at organizing them; it's something only collectors understand. Collectors and their best-best-best friends, who've been around them so much it's almost second nature.
Bert doesn't even need to think. He carefully scoops the dozen clips that comprise the Henson WWII collection into his hand. It's taken him almost three years to get a full set, true, but there are things that matter more. "Phil?" he says, his voice maybe only trembling a tiny bit. "I want you to have these."
"But Bert," Phil says, "I can't do that. These are your paper clips. I can tell how much they mean to you."
"No," Bert says. "I can't get you back your vintage Captain America cards. But you're our friend, and you're Nicky's friend, and your other friends are out there but you can't see them. This is as close to a 1942 trading card as I can get, but you should have it."
Phil doesn't protest when Bert presses the paper clips into his hand. He just lays them out in front of him, one by one, in three rows of four. "Thank you," he says quietly.
"You're welcome, Phil," Bert says.
Nick calls that night. Phil goes into Gordon's apartment to talk to him, and it takes forever. Bert hopes everything's okay. He knows that Ernie's worried, too; even though he's practicing his saxophone like he's supposed to, he never puts his rubber duckie down to watch. Neither of them says anything, though. They're both thinking of Phil.
Phil comes down after a million hours, and silently hands his phone to Bert. Bert knows enough not to ask Phil why it looks like he was crying. He just says "Hello, Bert speaking," because that's what you're supposed to do.
"Bert." It's Nicky's voice, and even though Bert knows that Nicky's a grown-up with a grown-up job, he sounds like he did right when he first moved to Sesame Street. "You're a good friend, you know that?"
And Bert says the thing that he knows they all try never to say to the kids who used to live on Sesame Street, because they shouldn't feel like they can't grow up, and yet- and yet- "We miss you, Nick," he says.
"I miss you guys too. I'll come back as soon as it's safe. I promise."
"Will you-" The question is stupid, Bert knows, but he can't help himself. "Do you maybe want to play checkers sometime?"
"Definitely," Nick says.
And Bert realizes, suddenly, that he would give up all of his paper clips, all of his bottle caps, maybe even some of his stripy shirts, for more than just Ernie. He'd do it for Nicky too. He'd do it for Phil.
He doesn't mind if the Boogie Woogie sheep come tonight. He doesn't care if Ernie eats cookies in his bed and then pulls off his nose for a sculpture. He doesn't care if it all happens with a banana lodged in his best friend's ear.
Right now, everything is perfect.