The last visible sliver of the sun slipped below the horizon, and American Museum of Natural History's most powerful secret began to work its moon-powered magic just as it had every night for more than half a century, minus a few hiccups and a three year hiatus. Life swept into Jedediah like the exact opposite of a chill running down his spine, and the cowboy used his first voluntary movement of the evening to cross his arms and scowl at his surroundings, because this was most definitely not his home diorama. He hated waking up in unexpected places. He hated waking up in unfamiliar places even worse, but at least he had been spared that particular fate tonight by virtue of being well acquainted with his current location.
However, Jed had no idea why he and several dozen others should find themselves standing on a table in one of the basement rooms where the curators took the museum's various specimens and display items for restoration and repairs. None of his people had needed to be sent down here since everyone had called a truce and started engaging in friendlier activities than constant battle, and the previous dawn they had all settled into their usual places without so much as a torn shirtsleeve to translate into a spot of scuffed paint once they returned to their inanimate state. Judging by the muttering and grumbling coming from his compatriots, he was not the only one feeling disgruntled by the situation.
"Well," Octavius said, his voice cutting into Jedediah's thoughts, "that raises more questions than it answers."
Jed looked up, then turned to face the direction in which his boyfriend was pointing, and was greeted by the sight of a giant piece of paper standing folded in half like a sandwich-board sign and bearing the words:
"There was an incident this afternoon involving a group of third-graders and projectile yogurt. All residents of the Hall of Miniatures are fine, but your exhibits are going to be closed for cleaning for the next couple of days.
Jedediah snorted. "I'll say! Question numero uno: Who lets a bunch of third-graders bring enough yogurt into a museum for it to become the defining feature of whatever shenanigans happened next? This place is supposed to be strictly no food or drink allowed, end of story."
"Actually," Octavius said, now pointing over Jed's shoulder, wide-eyed and sounding somewhat shaken, "I believe a more pressing question would be: Where did those come from?"
"What?" Jed spun around, because, down here in the employees-only basement areas, there was no telling what piece of ancient weirdness might have slithered out of its storage container for the first time in decades and decided to eat its smaller brethren before anyone could explain that the museum was a much more enjoyable place to live when everyone got along and ignored the instincts which told you where you were supposed to be on both the literal and the metaphorical the food chain. One time, back in the seventies, Jed and some of his men had awakened down here after a particularly hard fought battle to find themselves sharing space with the very angry remains of a crumbling taxidermy ocelot. That had not been a fun night. This time, however, there was nothing there. "Yeah, ha ha, very funny," he said. "Now let's get upstairs and see how much damage a bunch of yogurt can do."
"Jedediah, my friend, you really need to look behind you," Octavius insisted.
"I just did, and there's nothing there." And yet, now Octavius was not the only one looking at him funny, as if he's grown a second head or something.
"No, Boss-man," Lee-Ho, one of Jed's Chinese railroad workers, spoke up, "not over there, right behind you." He stepped closer, reached behind Jedediah, grabbed something, and yanked.
"Whoa there, boy!" Jedediah yelped, snapping his wing out of Lee-Ho's hand and pressing it flat against his back. "Hands off the merchandise, those are--!" Jed froze in horror as his mind caught up with what his mouth apparently already knew. Wings? Since when had he had wings? Well, since sometime today, obviously, but that in and of itself was not a very helpful answer. Very carefully, Jed craned his neck as far as it would go to look over his shoulder. He could not see much of anything while his wings were pressed flat to his back, but that problem was quickly solved by spreading them wide again with only a thought and a twitch of muscles which operated with disturbing smoothness for being parts of anatomy which he had not possessed the night before.
There were four of them, and they stretched out into elongated teardrop shapes from narrow attachment points near his shoulder blades, mostly translucent with hints of yellow/blue iridescence highlighted by black leading edges and sparkling dark red tips, like something belonging to a gigantic dragonfly. Great, just great, he probably looked like some kind of cowboy Tinkerbell. It was not easy, but he twisted an arm around behind him, felt around, and found four holes in his shirt and vest, just large enough for the base of each wing to pass through and perfectly circular with neatly stitched edges as if they had always been there. So much for that time he was supposed to spend with Octavius in the Roman baths tonight, because it didn't look like he would be able to take off his clothes off from around his wings without using a pair of scissors. With an irritated huff Jed pressed his wings flat again and returned his attention to Octavius, who was still staring and could only offer a confused shrug as a comment on the situation.
"We need to get upstairs now," Jedediah said, and nobody tried to disagree.
"--and then my mum chased her out the door, swinging a giant candlestick like a club and shouting, 'Next time you fake your death, you'd better do less of a crap job of it!' and made such a fuss that three different people called the police, so now we need to find a new funeral parlor to use before someone in the family kicks it for real, because we aren't allowed to go back to that one," Tilly concluded. A ripple of appreciative laughter followed.
It was a Wednesday, which meant Ladies' Poker Night. The night was still young, but, being normal sized people forced to navigating a land scaled for giants, it had taken Jed and Octavius long enough to climb out of the basement that the game, tucked away in one of the smaller second floor side galleries, was well enough underway for them to hear it long before they could see it. They had sent their men off to inspect the extent of the damage to their exhibits and now approached 'the Sacred Feminine Space,' as Octavius liked to call it, alone. Jed figured the place couldn't be all that sacred or feminine if Laaa was allowed to hang around in it and handfeed neon orange cheese puffs to Tilly on demand while the women played cards, but sometimes Octavius liked to get all idealistic about the strangest things, so Jed was not going to argue the point. He had nothing against women having game night and not inviting any men capable of following a conversation; he just didn't see the need to saddle the event with fancy terminology.
"Hey, Rebecca," Jed bellowed as they passed through the doorway into the room. Rebecca, Tilly, Sacajawea, and two of the women from the Dutch exhibit turned to look at them.
"Sincerest apologies, my Ladies, for we do not wish to intrude, but we are in urgent need of a consultation," Octavius called out. He had always been better than Jed at the whole 'polite society' thing. It probably came from all that time spent schmoozing with senators and such to get them to fund his invasion campaigns back in the day.
"It's no trouble," Rebecca said without looking up from gathering the cards from the table, expertly shuffling the deck, and dealing out a fresh hand to each player. "C'mon in. If this is about the mess those children made, then you shouldn't worry," she said as the two men approached, and Sacajawea leaned down, offered a hand to them, and then lifted them onto the table once they had stepped aboard. Sacajawea's eyes went wide with surprise when she got a good look at Jed, but she made no move to interrupt Rebecca, who continued, "I overheard the maintenance team saying it would take a while for them to get the stickiness out of all the nooks and crannies but there didn't look like there would be permanent damage to any of the dioramas."
"Actually, I was wondering if you could tell me how kids throwing yogurt led to me waking up with these," Jedediah said. He stepped into Rebecca's line of sight and then turned around to display his newly-acquired appendages.
Rebecca leaned in for a closer look and frowned. "Those weren't there when I left to get dinner right after closing," she said.
Jed was not sure what he had been expecting Rebecca to say, but it was not that. "Then where in blue blazes could they have come from?!?" His wings were starting to vibrate with his agitation, and it was all he could do to keep his feet on the table.
"Uhhh, I knew there was something I forgot to clean up before doing my last pre-sunset rounds through the building," Tilly said. She bit her lip and looked sheepish. "Sorry," she said, "my bad."
"What?!?" Jed practically shrieked, and yeah, he really needed to calm down or he was going to achieve liftoff.
"This time of year it's still a really long time between when the museum closes and when everyone wakes up, and I get bored," Tilly said. "Sometimes when I get bored I do arts and crafts." Her look of contrition slid into a grin. "Not too shabby for a piece of paper and the contents of my makeup bag, though, right?"
"Indeed!" Octavius said, eyeing Jedediah appreciatively. "You picked just the right shades to match Jedediah's outfit and set off his flowing blond locks, Lady Tilly. They are as fine a set of wings as anyone could ask for."
Jed rounded on Octavius. "Whose side are you on?"
"The side with the best view. The outer curve of your upper pair of wings accentuates your jawline, while the curve of your lower pair provides a perfect echo to that of your firm buttocks," Octavius said, sketching shapes in the air with his hands as he spoke.
"I wish my husband would talk about me like that," one of the Dutch women signed dreamily. The other muttered something in Dutch which sounded like a statement agreement.
"Either Lady Tilly has a true artist's eye," Octavius continued, "or she had achieved one of the happiest accidents since the first time someone managed to film an overconfident feline falling off a sofa. Either way, it is a feat to be savored for the joy it brings, not lamented."
"It's not about looking good or getting youtube likes," Jedediah said, beginning to sulk even as Octavius had him beginning to blush too. "It's about free will and not getting picked up and played with like a toy." He kicked at the table surface. "Besides," he added, "how am I supposed to go on display looking like this?" He flicked his wings for emphasis and noticed that Octavius really did seem to be enjoying the view. "McPhee gets mad enough over the occasional anachronism we let slip in. How do you think he's going to react if we start introducing biological impossibilities?"
"The wings're just stuck on with some gum arabic I found lying around downstairs, so they shouldn't need more than a dab of water to take 'em off without a mark once the sun comes up," Tilly said. "I'll take care of that before I go home in the morning, and I promise not to glue anything to you again, no matter how bored I get." Laaa gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder and offered a conciliatory cheese puff to Jedediah, who ignored it because he made a rule of never trying to eat anything bigger than his head, so after a few seconds of waiting Laaa ate it himself instead.
Jed sighed. "Next time just ask the night before, okay?" he said.
"You mean it?"
"Yeah," Jedediah said and realized that he did mean it. After all, it wasn't that he was against flying; it just wasn't the kind of thing he wanted sprung on him as a surprise. "And maybe make a set for Octavius, too," he added, "because this would be a lot more fun if I had someone to fly with, and I wanna see if he was just shovelin' a load of horse hooey about your skills at making a fella's ass look even better than usual."
"It's a deal," Tilly said, smiling as she extended one finger toward Jed, who reached out with both hands to complete what was as close to a handshake as two people of such disparate sizes could manage.
"Deal," he agreed.
"Speaking of dealing," Rebecca said, "is there anything else you guys needed, or can we get back to our game?" She gestured to the hands of cards which had been lying untouched on the table for the past few minutes.
"Oh, no, we require nothing further," Octavius said with a bow. "Thank you all for your time, and please don't let us delay your competition any longer than we already have."
"Yeah, thank you. Good evening, ladies, and you too, Laaa," Jedediah said, tipping his hat to everyone. Then he walked to the edge of the table and, when he was sure that Octavius was watching, spread his wings, tipped forward into open space, and glided gracefully to the floor. A few moments later, Octavius, with Sacajawea's help, joined him on the floor, and together they headed back toward other parts of the museum.
Behind them, Rebecca could be heard saying, "Alright, ladies, ante up. For as much magic as there is around here, these cards aren't going to play themselves." And just like that, Ladies' Poker Night was back in full swing.
"So, how was the view?" Jed asked once they were out in the hall, nearing the railing which marked the drop off down to the main lobby.
"Quite rousing, I assure you," Octavius said with a leer.
"Then I look forward to seeing something similar in the not too distant future, but until that happens I'll just have to take your word for it."
"In the meantime, I for one can think of a few ways to enjoy things as they are tonight," Octavius said as he threw an arm around Jedediah's shoulders, then he leaned in even closer yet and whispered his ideas in Jed's ear.
Jed raised an eyebrow and regarded his companion with a smirk. "You just want an excuse for me to put my arms around you, don't you?"
"That is but one of my many motivations," Octavius said with mock gravitas. "Do you think you are up to such a challenge?"
"Shuck that sardine can of yours and I should be able to handle the weight just fine," Jed said.
"You just want an excuse to be able to grope more while you have your arms around me," Octavius countered with a smirk of his own.
"Just one of my many motivations, partner," Jed said.
Octavius unfastened his cape and let it fall to the floor, then did the same with his helmet, sword, cuirass, greaves, and vambraces. If he felt as nearly naked as he looked without his usual protective shell, then he gave no indication of it. Octavius stepped to the edge, and Jedediah pressed in close behind, his chest to Octavius's back. As promised, Jedediah wrapped his arms around the Roman and held on tight.
"So," he asked, "where do you think we could land and spend some alone time where even Dexter couldn't bother us?"
"Over there looks like a good, defensible and tactically advantageous position," Octavius said, pointing to a fancy bit of carved stonework across the room.
"You're the fancy general," Jed said, then tightened his grip even further and pushed them both forward off the edge of the balcony. He snapped his wings open and beat back the pull of gravity.
Octavius laughed, threw his arms wide, and shouted, "I'm the king of the world!"
"Hey, that's my line," Jedediah groused, but was unable to hold back a laugh of his own, torn from him by the sheer exhilaration of flight.
"Oh, right, sorry," Octavius said, not sounding repentant at all. "Let me try that again." He cleared his throat, gave a falsetto gasp, and said, "I'm flying, Jed!"
"That's better," Jed said, then pressed a kiss into the side of Octavius's neck and pulled a loop-de-loop, just because he could. Octavius did not object in the slightest. For as much as Jed had disliked the beginning of the night, things were certainly looking up.