Water spots his khaki shorts and the lenses of his glasses, mud sucks at the soles of his boots, and his pith helmet isn’t doing much to keep out the rain, but Michael hasn’t felt this good in a long time.
Eleanor’s annoyed yelp behind him only makes it better.
He turns, plastering a concerned look on his face, just as the deluge has plastered Eleanor’s blonde hair to her forehead. She’s not looking back at him, but down at the soggy ground she’s barely managing not to slip on as they ascend the peak up to a cave for shelter.
“We’re almost there!” he calls to her, adjusting the weight of his backpack. “Nearly home and dry!”
Her mouth forms the word motherforker as she glares at a nearby tree, its bark black with rain, its leaves bowed and dripping. Then she glares at Michael. She’s undeniably fetching in her own explorer’s outfit--or she was until ten minutes ago, when a covert wave of Michael’s hand got the rain started.
“Don’t suppose this cave has a walk-in shower?” she demands, raising her voice to be heard over the water.
It’s too, too good. He should have thought of this ages ago. “I told you, Janet’s offline today! Bad luck about the rain, huh? Come on, the sooner we get moving, the sooner we get to shelter.”
Eleanor growls, takes a step forward, and trips. A rock slides under her feet, and she pitches forward with a yelp, but Michael is already there, skidding down faster than any human could and catching her by the shoulders.
Mud’s one thing, but injury--after all, can’t give the game away--
Eleanor grabs on to Michael too, steadying herself. “Whoa.” She straightens up carefully, keeping her eyes on the ground. “Thanks.”
“Not at all.” His heart, or the human sham of it, beats too hard. Eleanor’s skin is cold from the water. Maybe he should have gone for something warmer, more tropical. It would have annoyed her almost as much, and she wouldn’t be chilly under his fingers.
He keeps hold of her hand, leading her up to the cave. She doesn’t slip again.
When they gain the cave’s entrance, she gives a huge sigh of relief and runs her fingers through her slick hair. “Ugh, thank God. How is it that paradise has shirty weather?”
He’s prepared for this. As he takes off his glasses and wipes them--somewhat ineffectively--on his damp shirt, he says, “Well, is rain really all that...bad?” He eschews even the fake profanity of this realm. Goes well with the wide-eyed innocence that’s fooled her so thoroughly, even after eleven months.
Eleven months. He can’t believe it. The party he’s going to throw when they’ve reached the one-year mark will put Tahani to shame. Literally. And now that he’s got the knack of it, how hard can it be to keep things chugging along for 999 more?
He continues, keeping the glee out of his voice, “After all, rain is a sign of renewal. Personally, I’m really enjoying it! Water is life.”
“Water is cold, bro, and your priorities are weird.” Eleanor gathers her wet hair into one lock and wrings it. Then she dumps her backpack on the ground, crouches, and unzips it. Water pools on the dirt beneath her boots. “Nothing sucks worse than cold rain.”
Now that they’ve had a minute to catch their breaths, Michael finds himself wanting to agree. His human skin reacts to physical stimuli much as an actual human’s would, and it doesn’t care for cold water, or for the way his wet clothes are sticking to him.
“Except store brand Nyquil,” Eleanor adds. “That crap is worthless.”
Michael instantly makes a note to have a cold spread around the neighborhood. Not soon, that would be too obvious, but maybe in six months or so. Nothing debilitating, nothing that lasts too long--something he can explain away as another glitch. And the only cough syrup available will be the Good Place brand.
Then again, that would put Eleanor out of commission for a little bit; she’d definitely take the excuse to stay home, eat chicken soup, and act as helpless as if she’d come down with bubonic plague. She’d be unsupervised. His so-called faithful assistant could go rogue, and anything could happen. Even in just a couple of days.
Maybe everyone but Eleanor can get sick. She’ll be grossed out by seeing the whole neighborhood sneezing and coughing all over the place. That’s better.
“Anyway,” she says. “Eyes to yourself.”
Michael snaps back to the present moment to see that Eleanor is standing over her backpack and...unbuttoning her shirt.
“Um,” he says, as the image of sneezing demons vanishes immediately from his mind.
“My blanket’s still dry. Next best thing to a towel. And you might not have a sex drive, but frankly, the sight of my boobs could spontaneously create one in any guy alive or dead. So turn around. Unless...” She waggles her eyebrows.
She’s not kidding. That shirt’s coming off. Eleven months, eight hundred reboots, and Eleanor Shellstrop can still throw him for a loop.
His mouth goes dry and he turns around.
“Your loss,” Eleanor sighs.
Two hundred years (as Hell’s time goes), and he’s only pretty sure she’s kidding.
To the cavern wall, he says, “I, ah, think our little survey’s going splendidly, don’t you?” Then he curses himself, silently but profoundly, for the hitch in his voice. There’s no way she missed it, not when they’ve spent almost a year in each other’s pockets. Eleanor knows his tics and quirks. Most of them are manufactured. But sometimes--
“Sure, for a thing I still don’t understand at all.” The shuffle of fabric. “Or have you discovered any new trees or rocks or blades of grass you didn’t already know about?”
“No. Nothing new. Everything seems to be in order. But that’s the whole point of the inspection!” There’s a thudding noise that must be her taking off her boots. He swallows hard. “Besides, it’s really wonderful to see what I--”
“What you designed in person, yeah, yeah.” He can’t blame her for the exasperation in her voice; he’s explained no fewer than a dozen times why he, the great Architect of the neighborhood, needs to get out and explore a thousand miles’ worth of the wilderness he mocked up. She must be sick of hearing it. He should be sick of saying it. He’s not.
He hadn’t been lying to Val two hundred years ago. Architects, good and bad, spend so much time designing their neighborhoods, only to see no more than the blueprints. But when Janet created Michael’s neighborhood, he’d spent hours walking through the little town, touching the buildings and tapping his feet on the cobblestone streets.
Now he and Eleanor are taking in the broader span of his creation, on day three of the expedition they’ve spent marching through brush and bush. He’s dialed down his cruelest ideas: no mosquitoes, no poison ivy or dangerous animals (though it would be fun to rescue Eleanor from a tiger at the last second), nothing that would go too far and tip her off again. Hard rain is pushing it, but his excuse seems to have satisfied her.
This is even better than being in town, and not just because they’re somewhere wild and off the grid instead of in a picture-perfect lie. They’re alone out here. Nobody’s watching them and waiting for him to fork up. Vicky’s expressed reservations for months about the way Michael keeps Eleanor constantly near him in this reboot. After all, she’s usually the one who figures out the ruse. Doesn’t this increase the likelihood he’ll slip in front of her?
No, he’d argued, it’s the exact opposite. Things go off the rails when Eleanor’s around the other three idiots. Take her out of the equation...torture her personally...and the others will torture each other. And it’s working! It’s as he’d originally planned, just with this one little tweak.
The only shame is that it took him so long to figure it out.
“Right,” Eleanor says. “You can turn around. I’m decent.”
He stops a laugh just in time, then turns around, ready to ask her to start a fire using the old, moldy sticks in the back of the cave. Diabolical. But the words never make it out of his mouth, because Eleanor’s wrapped up in a bright blue blanket, holding it shut in front of her in a way that just exposes the tops of her shoulders. And that pile of clothes near her bare feet definitely includes her underwear.
His mouth is hanging open, and what the here for? Human bodies are stupid and fragile and gross, with clothes or without, and it’s not as if he hasn’t seen every inch of hers already. It was hardly prurient. He knows about everything she’s ever said or done. As far as the basics go, there aren’t any surprises left. The smattering of freckles on her right hip is as irrelevant to him as how many Good Place Architects can dance on the head of a pin. So he can just forking close his mouth already.
Fortunately, she’s not looking at him. She’s staring out at the rain, her expression unreadable. She’s got a flawless poker face when she chooses to employ it. It’s almost as good as his.
“I gotta hand it to you, buddy.” Her voice is oddly low, and Michael goes on guard at once. Gears are turning in Eleanor’s head. That’s never good. Was the rain too much? Is she about to guess the truth?
But then she adds, “You’ve made something pretty dang incredible. Look.” She extends one arm from beneath the blanket to gesture at the view from the cave’s mouth. Through the rain, Michael can see forests, rolling hills, mountains in the distance, and beyond that, an ocean. He’s really gone all out. Far beyond what any other Bad Place Architect has ever done. They’d called him insane, couldn’t understand why he’d wanted to make something pretty instead of a good old fashioned tarantula geyser. Everyone’s a critic.
“That map in your office,” Eleanor says. “I remember, in the lower right corner, there’s a sea monster. Is that really out there?”
The soft note of wonder in her voice might be real. On the other hand, it might just be the strange ringing in Michael’s ears. He’s heard that before, but always at the moment he realizes Eleanor’s rumbled him. He’s never heard it like this, when they’re just hanging out--whether they’re singing karaoke, bowling, eating frozen yogurt, playing Uno, watching Property Brothers, stargazing, or building a house of cards. Or standing near the edge of a cliff, looking out over his world.
He clears his throat and takes off his pith helmet. Shaking his head helps with the ringing and earns him a few seconds to reply. He sounds properly chipper when he says, “It sure is!”
“That’s kind of cool.” Eleanor sits down on a boulder near the mouth. “It must be a nice monster if it’s in the Good Place. What does it eat, rainbow kale or something?”
It eats fish. Most Bad Place monsters eat raw, bleeding human flesh, sometimes feces for a special treat, but Michael couldn’t exactly have asked Janet to provide that. Animal flesh was the closest substitute, and he can say for certain there’s one pissed off sea monster out there. He still couldn’t help himself. The notion of putting a monster--a proper monster, seen for what it is--in his world was irresistible.
He means to tell her, Something like that. But what comes out of his mouth is, “I wouldn’t call it ‘nice.’” When she looks over at him with raised eyebrows, he curses himself and adds, “It’s, you know, a creature. Unicorns aren’t ‘nice’ either. They’re just unicorns. But hey, people love them, am I right?”
“Ugh.” Eleanor wrinkles her nose. “I guess I’m prejudiced by how the first one I ever saw pooped on my foot.”
Michael barely hides his grin. Of all the noises she makes, the little cry of disgust is one of his favorites, and it had reached a whole new pitch that day.
She tilts her head to the side. “Why don’t any other residents ever come out here? I’ve never heard anybody talking about exploring. They all just stick around town. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice town, but there’s more to life than tapas and TV. Holy fork, I can’t believe I just said that.” Her shoulders stiffen. “Uh, yes I can. Obviously there’s more to life than tapas and TV.”
Wow. What a slip-up. She’s been so good about not making those. Eleanor excels at keeping up the ruse and wearing her forced, unbearably appealing smile.
Normally, Michael loves watching her backtrack. This moment, though, seems fragile, and he doesn’t trust it to go where it should.
Best to let her off the hook, then. He gives a hearty laugh. “Of course there is! You of all people know that.”
“Yeah.” The woman who’s pretended to be an environmental activist for eleven months slumps over on the boulder, pulling the blanket more tightly around herself. “Me of all people.” She looks at her knees.
He’s never seen her in this mood. Gone is her grifter’s confidence, the sheer bravado that’s powered her through centuries of dodging, lying, and facing him down at the last. Now she’s just thoughtful, even vulnerable. When has that ever happened?
Well...with Chidi. She’s lowered her defenses hundreds of times for that little geek, whom Michael has made sure she barely knows this time around. But even that was different. There was never this--what can he even call it? Melancholy? Human emotions are still something just beyond the reach of his fingertips.
He’s got to say something. He always says something. She’s expecting it.
He sits down on the boulder next to her and pats her shoulder. Her whole body moves, a little. A tremble? A shudder? He can’t see her face from this angle.
Michael licks his lips and reaches for the jovial tone. “Rain aside, Eleanor, I’ve got to say this has been a real pleasure. I always knew you loved camping, what with how you took those Make a Wish kids on a hike through Yellowstone every summer. I knew you’d be just the right person to come with me.” He squeezes her shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here. You’re a good--”
She whispers it. He can barely hear her over the rain. She’s not looking at him.
Something has gone very, very wrong, and he doesn’t know what or how. Has she guessed? No, it can’t be. She never acts like this when she guesses. She’s always furious, alight with both rage at his deception and pride in her cleverness. She gets in his face. Sometimes she gets so close he can feel her breath on his mouth, especially if he’s bending down toward her.
Keep it cool. Michael takes his hand off her shoulder. “Oh? Then I’ll give you my blanket as well.”
“Don’t you need it?” Eleanor tugs the blanket around herself tighter still. “Your clothes are wet, too. I won’t tell anybody you stripped for me. Pinkie swear.”
The laugh she attempts is hollow, and Michael can’t even pretend to be convinced by it. “Er, that won’t be necessary. I’m fine. What about changing into some dry clothes in your pack?”
“I don’t want to get them wet, too.”
“Ah. Right.” How can he be sweating? “Sensible.”
“Think the rain will clear in time for the sunset? I’d like to see that from here. It’d be a decent benefit if we’re going to play explorer for--jeez.” A whine enters her voice. “Are you really serious about six months?”
He’s definitely not serious. They’ll be back in town for that one-year anniversary within the month. Calling an “early end” to the expedition will make Eleanor collapse in gratitude, and Michael’s looking forward to that almost as much as he is to the party.
“I told you, all the arrangements are in place,” he reassures her. “The neighborhood won’t fall apart without us. Mayor Tahani has it all under control.” Mayor Tahani should be dealing with a town-wide toilet paper shortage right now, frantically trying to get Janet back online.
At Tahani’s name, Eleanor definitely shudders. Michael’s lips twitch. Tahani’s the only one of the four he’s permitted to approach Eleanor, and that in vanishingly small doses. They both seem to prefer it that way. Jason’s always off in his own mental dimension of stupid, and as for Chidi, the less said, the better.
So Michael has made sure to say nothing about Chidi. There are no soulmates this go-round. There will be no mistakes.
“As for the sunset,” he begins. Sure, she can get her sunset. He’ll make it a nice one. After all, this is the Good Place, and he’s walked a fine line between torturing her and providing her with just enough pleasures to keep her from getting suspicious. A sunset will provide the perfect balance for the rainstorm. “I’m sure it will--”
“I haven’t had sex in almost a year,” Eleanor blurts.
“Be very...I’m sorry, what?”
“Every time I try to get close to somebody, you’ve got another project we have to undertake. And now I’m out here for six forking months. Hey, Michael?” She turns around and glares at him, her blue eyes fierce, her cheeks flushed red. “That really sucks.”
The ringing’s back in his ears. For a second, he can’t speak.
“I know, I know.” She holds up her hand. “You’ll say you’re a sexless immortal being and you don’t get it. But man, I have a mighty need, and it’s like it hasn’t even occurred to you that might be a thing.”
“I-it wasn’t important to you before,” he stammers. Holy shirt. Never in a million years, literally, had he expected her to say this to him. They’ve grown comfortable with each other...or rather, with the people they pretend to be...but this is on a whole new level.
“Your activist work always came first,” he continues, trying to sound puzzled instead of flat-out shocked. “You said all the time that your real passion was for...”
At age twenty-two, Eleanor Shellstrop lets a man push her up against the wall of an alley, where she says, “Stick that motherfucker in and pound me like you want to tenderize a chicken breast.”
Later, reading her file in preparation for his grand design, Michael’s breath catches, and his stomach clenches hotly in what must be nausea.
“Nature,” he finishes weakly.
Eleanor gives him a little smile that sends a shiver down his spine. “I’m surrounded by the most gorgeous flora and fauna. I guess nature’s really got me going. I’m embarrassed to say so, but it’s time to admit it.” She actually flutters her eyelashes at him. “I get kind of horny for the environment.”
Oh. Who’s the diabolical one now? Michael’s breath catches again at the audacity of it. Eleanor’s found an opening he didn’t realize he was giving her, and true to form, she’s going for it.
No sex in eleven months. If only she knew. She hasn’t had sex in eight hundred reboots. At least, not on his watch.
But sometimes she escapes with Chidi, and Michael really wonders--
“I’m not sure what you’re asking me.” That’s true enough. She can’t possibly be attracted to him. She’s never shown the slightest indication of it. One time, her motley crew tried to get Tahani to seduce him, and what a joke that had been. But never Eleanor.
Which, obviously, is fine.
“Dude,” Eleanor says. “This is the Good Place. You’ve worked really hard on it.” She looks out over the vista again. “And every human desire is supposed to be satisfied here, right?”
Michael spies an opening of his own, and leaps for it. “Are you saying I’ve failed in something?” he asks stiffly. He doesn’t risk much by getting huffy with her. After eleven months, Eleanor’s seen her friendly neighborhood Architect give in to the occasional bout of insecurity, or even irritation. That’s fine, too. It makes him seem more...human.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t back down or apologize. “I’m saying you overlooked something. That’s my job, as your assistant. To assist.” Is that look on her face a sneer? It’s gone too quickly for him to be sure.
“Ah! Well, thank you for the feedback!” Michael forces a smile. “When we get back, I’ll make sure to tell all the residents that they should have as much sex as they want. What kind of pornography should I distribute through the households? Oh no, wait. You wouldn’t know anything about that. I’ll put Tahani on it. She can poll everyone and see what they prefer.”
“Ha!” Eleanor claps her hands and rocks backward on the boulder in delight. The blanket slips and exposes one of her shoulders. “Oh, man, that’s a great idea! Do it at a town meeting!”
There’s a familiar tug in his chest, one that tries to pull him toward her. He feels the old longing to smile like he really smiles, to high-five Eleanor and say, Yes! I knew you’d get it, you wicked little so-and-so.
He contents himself with slapping his knees and straightening his back. “Excellent! I’ll do that. Thanks for the suggestion. Now, should we make a fire? I saw some sticks--”
“Buddy.” Eleanor looks him dead in the eye. “Come on.”
There’s only so far Michael can play dumb, and she’s just backed him right into that corner. He takes a deep breath. His heart is hammering again, his skin prickles, and the hairs on the back of his human neck are standing up.
Eleanor has parted her mouth just enough to show the edges of her small white teeth. He’s thought, many times, about the way she takes a bite out of anything she wants.
“I’m...sorry for your frustration,” he says. Why can’t he feel the cold anymore? And are his lungs malfunctioning? “I’ll just--tell you what. Why don’t I step outside for a moment and give you some privacy to take care of…” The problem. Yourself.
“I masturbate all the forking time,” Eleanor growls, just like that, as if it’s no big deal to tell him. “At least, during the five minutes of the day I’m not with you. Janet made me a vibrator that’s, like, basically the size of my arm. That’s not what I need, Michael.”
She touches his hand.
This is the point when he should pull away from her, but he’s never done that before, not in two hundred years. That must explain why he’s curling his hand around hers instead. Reflex. It doesn’t explain why he can’t speak.
“We have two options,” she says. “Either you take me back to town right this minute and let me on the prowl for the first guy who’s into it--or gal, I’m ready to keep an open mind--”
Red mist clouds the edge of Michael’s vision, only for a moment, at the thought of another demon getting in on the scenario Eleanor describes. No. No forking way. Trevor was bad enough, and Trevor had (mostly) been kidding--
“Or,” Eleanor continues, “you assist me for once. I’m good either way. You decide.”
Her pulse beats at the base of her throat. She speaks carelessly, but he can see the tension at the corners of her mouth and the intensity in her eyes. She means it.
And now he’s the one up against the wall.
There are no good choices. He can say no, take them back to town, and rope an agreeable demon into screwing her: unacceptable. He can say no, not do that, and watch her figure out this is the Bad Place: unacceptable. Or...he can play along, keep the charade going, and give her what she wants.
If she truly wants it. Maybe he can make her not want it. That would be for the best. Wouldn’t it?
“Eleanor,” he says, “are you asking me to service you?”
As he knew they would, the words get her dander up. She yanks her hand away. “Service me? Dude! I’m not a forking car. Although...” Her forehead creases. She’s probably thinking of the time one of her exes, a valet at the Capital Grille, took her from behind over a Ferrari. Yuck. Michael fights not to tug at the red polka dot bandana around his neck.
After a moment, Eleanor’s brow clears, and she gives him a look he’d have to call downright...devilish. Her lips curl up. Michael’s ridiculous body seems to catch fire, and he’d know the feeling, since the first forty years of his apprenticeship were spent in the flame pits.
That’s just his body, though. His brain is gibbering at him, because he is now in the crosshairs of the legendary Eleanor Shellstrop libido, and nothing in his history has prepared him to defend against it.
“Although that’s kind of a hot idea,” Eleanor concludes. “You ‘servicing’ me, in a naughty sort of way. Not a bad way,” she adds, too quickly. “Just naughty. That’s different.”
“It is?” Split hairs. Play for time. “How?”
“Naughty doesn’t hurt anyone.” She sounds so reasonable. “It’s just fun. Trust me on this, pal. You trust me, right?” She puts her hand on his forearm, bare thanks to the explorer’s shirt, and rubs it up and down, gently.
Lightning cracks across the sky at once, followed by thunder only a few seconds later.
Eleanor raises her eyebrows. “Wow. Was that for me?”
Oh, fork, he’s never been so embarrassed. Well, that narrows down the choices. He can’t do this.
“No,” he manages. “It must be, ah, another glitch. Eleanor, I…” I’m flattered, but I couldn’t possibly. If you’re really in such a state, we’ll go back to town. I’m sure some lucky human--
Some human. Like Chidi.
Michael doesn’t know how he knows, but he is absolutely forking certain that if they go back for this reason, somehow Eleanor will slip around any precaution he might set up and find her way to Chidi. It always happens. As if there’s a universal law nobody told Michael about, something he never found a way to fight until now.
“I’d be happy to help,” he hears himself say, and it’s too late to take it back.
Eleanor’s eyes widen. Had she expected him to refuse? Has he called a bluff he wasn’t sure existed?
Then she smiles. Her eyes soften in a way he’s never seen before--not directed at him, anyway. She reaches out to touch his cheek. Her fingertips are warm now. “Oh, Michael. You’re sure? It’s cool with you?”
He can’t even begin to answer that question. This can’t really be happening. He’s not really about to have sex with Eleanor Shellstrop after two hundred years of circling each other, playing cat and mouse. Demons don’t dream, but maybe he’s the first exception to the rule. That seems pretty typical of him.
“Is it cool with you?” he deflects. “Do you really--desire me?”
He didn’t say that. He couldn’t have actually said that, not something so stupid and raw and wrong. But Eleanor’s gaze softens still further, and he realizes that was exactly the kind of thing his idiot alter ego is expected to ask.
That’s what she’s attracted to? The mealy-mouthed purity, the vacuousness Michael wears as uneasily as he wears his fake skin?
“Well,” Eleanor says, “you’ve got the whole silver fox, dad bod combo going, which is getting me going in a weird way.” The wrinkle of her nose is both adorable and not entirely flattering. “Go figure.”
Yeah, he’ll figure, all right. “I’m--”
“Besides.” She gives him a half smile. “You can see in nine dimensions and you never have to take a breath. Let’s just say homegirl’s not blind to the advantages.”
The gleam in her eyes is classic Eleanor, sans Chidi’s influence. The scammer, always on the make, and now she’s set her sights on the next opportunity.
Michael can’t even push back. He can’t question her motives or lecture her about such base desires being unnecessary in the Good Place, because then she’d realize this definitely isn’t. And she’s found a way to make her...request...in keeping with her cover. This bold move that she should have been terrified to make has turned into a master stroke.
And the blood is back in Michael’s ears, ringing and singing, while his mouth goes dry and he gets tunnel vision until Eleanor Shellstrop, naked beneath her blanket, is all he can see. In nine dimensions.
“I don’t know what to do,” he whispers.
He doesn’t. All of a sudden, he doesn’t know what to do, or how to do anything except want this. Their considerable past blurs out of his memory, the future is an impossible thing, this present moment is all he has and all he wants, and he doesn’t know what to do.
“Don’t worry.” Eleanor never spoke to anyone this gently on Earth. She never looked at anyone with such tenderness, and Michael wants that too, wants to eat it right up as his due. “I don’t need anything super complicated. I’ve never been into the whole ‘hours of sweet lovemaking’ thing.” Caution flashes across her face. “No matter how it might have looked, you know, in my file.”
Two hundred years ago, Michael reads about Eleanor Shellstrop ducking into the women’s restroom stall at work, pulling a lipstick-shaped vibrator out of her purse, and biting her lip until she’s done. It takes less than three minutes. Then she tilts her head back and smirks up at the ceiling.
"Take that, Chuck,” she says. Chuck is the guy in the next cubicle, whom she does not find attractive. Even Michael has no idea what this is about, but Eleanor’s cheeks are flushed with satisfaction.
His voice sounds like a stranger’s. “So you just need...a little relief.”
“Now you’re getting it.” Hunger flashes in her eyes. He can guess what she’s hungry for, and it’s more than sex. She needs a little relief, yes--from the lie she’s been keeping up for the last eleven months with no one to turn to. Even for Eleanor, it’s a herculean effort, and nobody else can imagine what that feels like but Michael.
We’re both trying so hard, he thinks suddenly, we’re both so tired, I’m so forking tired, this is no way to live or die. It’s true, he knows it is, but right this minute he doesn’t feel tired. A tired person can’t want anything this much. His extremities tingle. By now, the rain outside is coming down in sheets.
Aloud, he asks, “How?”
Eleanor blushes, but she keeps looking into his eyes. If she looks away, Michael doesn’t know what might happen. Steadily, she says, “I know Janet’s offline, but I’ve seen you create stuff, too. Don’t suppose you could whip us up a pillow?”
Michael’s knowledge of human coitus is limited to the theoretical, but that seems off. “Is that all? One pillow?”
“Yeah.” She reaches up to touch his face again. To touch his mouth. She watches her own thumb as she rubs its pad over his bottom lip. “For your knees.”
Another bolt of lightning strikes outside, so white and hot it illuminates the cave before splitting a nearby tree. Eleanor doesn’t even flinch at the ensuing crack of thunder.
Michael closes and opens his fists while she strokes his lips. There’s too much happening. He has to untangle the weather from his mood before he literally brings the sky down on his whole experiment, but he can’t, not while Eleanor is pressing her thumb against his lips like she’s getting fingerprinted at a police station, pushing it down into the blue ink. As if Michael is a surface she intends to mark. Maybe to bruise.
“You love humans, right?” Eleanor presses down a little more. It feels amazing: hard and a little painful. Michael’s sweating again. “I know you do, Michael. I might not always understand...I mean, there’s plenty of us who aren’t lovable…but you show me that every day.”
His mouth is opening, millimeter by millimeter, and he feels the brush of her thumb against his inner lip. Against his teeth.
Eleanor bites her own bottom lip. “I bet you’ll like this, too. It’s the most human thing ever. Trust me.”
He can’t trust her. He can’t believe her. He can’t do anything but want her.
And she...wants him. Or at least what he can provide. She trusts and believes in him, too, trusts that he’ll give her this in all good faith, helping out his assistant. His friend.
“Pillow?” Eleanor repeats.
With a weak wave of Michael’s hand, an overstuffed cushion appears on the ground in front of Eleanor, crimson with gold piping and tassels. It could have come straight from a bordello. Michael looks at it in mute astonishment, and Eleanor laughs softly. “Nice job.”
She takes her hand away from his mouth, which opens and closes uselessly, as if it’s missing something.
“I get that you’ve never done it, but how much do you know about human sex?” she asks.
“Everything.” It comes out breathlessly. He knows every revolting human mating ritual, every perversion and kink, from agalmatophilia to zoosadism. “There’s, ah, a lot of reading.”
“Ooh, books. You know how much I love books.” Syrupy sincerity threads her voice. The environmental activist Michael invented was also a scholar. Just because Chidi’s not around doesn’t mean Eleanor can’t be tortured via academe. “But some things just can’t be learned from books. There’s no substitute for experience. You wanna know what it’s like to be human? Well, you’re about to get a taste.” She nudges the pillow with her toe and tilts her head. “If you know what I mean.”
There’s a howling in the distance. Michael vaguely hopes it’s not a tornado.
“Oral sex,” he says slowly. “Cunnilingus.”
“Eating pussy,” Eleanor adds. “Muffdiving. So many words, so little time.” She toes the cushion again.
Michael’s kneeling on it before he realizes what’s happening, before it really hits him that he’s on his knees for Eleanor Shellstrop as if he’s genuflecting. For a second, it’s the closest he’s come in centuries to tearing off his human suit and revealing himself in his true form, horns and bat wings and hundred eyes and all. He’d see terror on her face then. Maybe even awe. Maybe, for a few seconds, a little forking respect.
Either that or she’d think it was a turn-on. At this point, he has no idea. Besides, it’d be crazy to lose his head and betray his mission this late in the game, the closest he’s ever been to success--
Eleanor lets the blanket fall and sits before him, placidly naked.
Michael stares at her. Nothing you haven’t seen before, he tells himself, but even he isn’t that good a liar. He’s never seen anything like this before and never thought he would. It’s not just human flesh, it’s Eleanor’s flesh, vulnerable and exposed in the very air he’s designed.
He can’t stop looking, but not as most humans would. Her breasts are no more or less alluring than her shoulders. Or than her arms as she leans back and props herself against the boulder, the blanket providing a trace of cushioning. Ultimately, though, it’s her eyes he always comes back to; and right now, those eyes are glittering down at him with desire.
“So what do you think?” she asks.
If she’d spoken in the voice she once used to seduce human males--the husky, smoky one--Michael would have been able to snap out of it. He’s pretty sure. But now, Eleanor’s tone is only curious, rounded out with a teasing note. As if they’re doing a fun little experiment together. She thinks they are.
“I think--ah--” What would a human say?
“He’d say I was smoking hot, or some other thing to oil the ol’ gears,” Eleanor says, which means Michael spoke out loud and hadn’t even realized it. “And he wouldn’t be wrong, obviously.”
For a moment, Michael finds his footing. “Well, you are an exemplar of Western standards of beauty. Though to be honest, I’ve always found those rather arbitrary.” He sounds his most innocent when he adds, “Was that all right?”
Eleanor purses her lips. Michael holds back his smile. That’s better.
“Okay,” she says. “I think we’re good on sweet talk. You ready to move forward?”
“Oh, absolutely!” Yeah. Maybe this really can be fun. He can get control of this. She might have caught him off-guard, but these past eleven months haven’t been for nothing--after all this time in such proximity, he can figure out how to…
She runs her fingers through his hair.
Michael’s scalp prickles at the light tug, his whole head gets hot, and even the tips of his ears seem to tingle. The air leaves his lungs with a soft, choking noise. His heart begins to race once more, and Eleanor keeps petting him while she looks into his eyes.
“Good,” she says, and opens her thighs.
Reflexively, he looks. And it shouldn’t mean anything. It’s just another human body part. In and of itself, a vagina’s nothing.
Context is everything, he thinks dizzily, and the wind roars outside the cave like a beast. It blasts the two of them, not coldly, but with enough force that Eleanor yelps, and Michael makes a gesture with his hand, not looking away from her, and the wind goes quiet, not because it’s gone, he can’t make it go away, but he can throw up a partition between them and the elements he can no longer control, bulletproof glass for the outside world to beat against again and again and again while he leans forward and presses his mouth to the freckles on her hip.
“Whoa!” Eleanor gasps. Her hand goes from petting to grabbing his hair. She’s absurdly soft and fragile against his mouth, and when he pushes down, he can feel the ridge of her hipbone beneath. Where are his hands, his human hands? He’s fisted them on his thighs.
“Good start.” She sounds choked, too. “Wasn’t expecting...oh, boy. Ow! Hold on a second.”
Michael doesn’t realize that his glasses are pressing against her until she plucks them from his face. He goes still. They don’t correct his vision, they’re just another part of the suit, but right now he feels as naked as Eleanor. Wait, he wants to say, give them back. I need them.
"There we go.” Eleanor sets them behind her on the surface of the boulder with surprising delicacy, given that her hands are trembling, that she’s trembling. She looks back down at him, and her head twitches in a double take, as if she’s seen something shocking. Has his disguise slipped? Have his canines sharpened?
“Wow.” Eleanor touches his temple, then the tender skin beneath his left eye. “When you leave the Orville Redenbacher thing at home, you’re not half bad.”
“Neither are you.” It’s the truest thing he’s ever told her.
“And I’m not gonna lie, the size difference is hot. Jeez, your hands are big. What about…” She cranes over and peers down between his thighs. “Do you have one?”
“I do, yes.” It matches the hands, which is something human men care way too much about.
She pouts. “Then it must not be interested.”
Human perception is so limited. Michael’s arousal is roaring against the barrier he’s set up, and although the glass should be soundproof, he hears another muffled rumble of thunder beyond it. He tells her, “I don’t react like human men.”
“Yeah? Let’s see what you can do like human men.” She looks him up and down assessingly, and nods as if pleased. “A guy’s shoulders are good for exactly two things. Carrying backpacks full of rations to starving orphans, and this.”
She places her legs over his shoulders, spreading herself wider and tilting her hips up at a shameless angle.
Maybe he does need his glasses. His vision’s blurring. His mouth is watering too, from the scent coming from her, the need pulsing through her. In nine dimensions, he can see how she’s getting wet inside without a single touch from him.
Imagine what a single touch could do. Michael’s head spins. In all her sordid Earthly encounters, Eleanor never truly lost herself, never let go of her control. She didn’t seem to know how, and her human lovers looked singularly inept at teaching her.
Demons are better than humans. That’s one fact they all know. One demon is worth a thousand men, or at least twelve women.
“You okay, buddy?” Eleanor’s voice shakes, and Michael has to close his eyes. Worrying about her sex partner isn’t Eleanor Shellstrop’s thing. But Michael’s different, isn’t he? There’s never been anyone like him in her life, and for the first time in eight hundred reboots, she seems to be realizing it.
“Oh, yes,” he breathes, opening his eyes again to behold her. Flushed and slick and full. Magnificent.
“God. Me, too. So, just...start slow, okay?” She puts her hand on the back of his head, and the slight pressure she applies there echoes throughout his body. He thrums with the urge to lean into her, onto her, to rise up and enfold her. “I-it won’t take much. I’ll tell you what to…”
He takes hold of her thighs, the width of his hands spanning them completely, and bends down.
Michael has tasted humans before. Specifically, he’s drunk their blood and tears by the bucket. Eleanor’s taste is a new, intriguing thing, and the first, light swipe of his tongue between her lips tells him he likes it; her shocked gasp makes him crave it.
Demons chase what they crave, and he’s no different. While Eleanor’s fingers tighten in his hair, tugging him, he follows the signals her body sends him. The nerve clusters on either side of her clitoris are lighting up, pleading for him to attend to them, and when he does, they flare brighter still.
“Fork,” Eleanor groans.
When he teases her entrance, her whole body arches toward him, and her thighs shake on his shoulders. When he licks his way inside, she digs both hands in his hair, holding him to her when he’s got no intention of going anywhere. She doesn’t have to tell him what to do; he gives her body what it wants, as much as it wants, until her pleasure centers are singing in harmony and the lower half of his face is wet.
“Holy shirt!” Eleanor rocks forward against him, faster and faster. “Don’t stop! Don’t you dare stop--”
The rain hammers against the glass, just like the blood in his temples and ears, and Michael’s never wanted to stop anything less. But he’s too good at this--he’s never been too good at anything before--and Eleanor begins to come just when he feels like he’s hardly begun.
“Michael!” she cries.
A noise comes out of his mouth, unbidden, a moan so loud his chest aches from it. Somehow it makes Eleanor’s hips jerk again, coaxes an even higher cry from her throat. Her orgasm consumes her from head to toe, her muscles clench and release, and her widening blood vessels turn her pale flesh pink.
Not enough. Human women can do this more than once. Eleanor never has (not that he knows of, which, not the time to think about that), but her clitoris can take exactly the amount of pressure he sucks it with now.
She doesn’t manage any words this time. She just screams. Which is also a first. He doesn’t want to stop. His own nerves are going off like fireworks, there’s nothing in the world but this, and she’s calling his name again--something is building inside him, cresting and getting ready to--
There’s a brutal, cracking noise somewhere to his left that he can’t be bothered to investigate.
With it, though, he exhales, and all the tension drains out of his body at once. Only warmth remains, a lassitude he’s never felt before. Well, that’s...this is just...
Panting, Michael turns his face to the inside of her thigh. It’s damp with sweat and very soft. Next thing he knows, he’s dragging his open mouth over it. He could sink his teeth in here, leave a mark, even draw a little blood. He moans again.
Eleanor’s thighs quiver on his shoulder while she gulps for air. Now his scalp hurts from how hard she’d pulled his hair. Sweat runs down the back of his neck and under his arms. He can’t stop nuzzling her.
“Oh my God.” Eleanor’s grip loosens. Her hands are shaking. “Oh my God. I thought...holy shirt...you said you’ve never…”
“I haven’t.” And look at what he’s been missing. We can do this for a thousand years, his inner voice slurs, drunk and debauched. We can fork our way through this wilderness for the next six months, and then do it all over again. And again. And again.
Now there’s a thought. He straightens up, which gives him enough height to see that Eleanor’s lolled her head over toward the pane of glass.
Michael follows her gaze. A web of cracks runs through the glass, creeping outward from an epicenter, as if someone smashed a fist against it and nearly managed to break through. But the rain is slowing on the other side, and the clouds are beginning to recede. Far in the distance, over the water, a patch of sunlight breaks through.
Incredible. He chuckles, unable to help it. Who cares about glass? It held just enough, and he’s never felt so relaxed and loose.
Or so triumphant. Eleanor lost control, all right. Now she lies limp and weak before him, her chest heaving as she tries to get her breath back. She drags a shaking hand over her forehead. He’s never seen her so undone. She must be mortified.
Will she regret it? Michael’s breath catches at the thought. How perfect if she did. Regret and guilt could weigh her down, and they could only be traced back to her own choices, not to him. She’d blame herself for doing something stupid, which is exactly the kind of torture he’s always dreamed of.
And if they keep doing it--if she gives in to her baser desires again and again because she can’t help herself, while the shame only keeps growing…that would be the ultimate plus. His supreme triumph over her. He’d finally win, and it’d make up for centuries of frustration. It would solve everything.
Then, even as he’s thinking this, a sloppy grin spreads across her face.
The sight would bring him to his knees if he weren’t already here. Oh, Eleanor smiles all the time. It’s nearly always fake. But every once in a while, something real breaks out--after karaoke, say, or during movie night--and Michael always feels this tug inside, a profound pull that could bring him right down to her level if he let it.
Eleanor sits up with a groan and looks at him, finally, with awe. The sight destabilizes something in him. Demon wings wouldn’t have impressed her half as much.
“Buddy,” she says, “next time you complain about being a lousy Architect, I’m gonna remind you that you’re a forkin’ sex genius.”
“Really?” he blurts, exactly like the aw-shucks idiot she thinks he is.
“Really. Wow.” Eleanor takes a deep breath and lets it go. “You definitely went to town.” She strokes his sticky cheek. “How did you know what to do? I mean, exactly what to do. Were you reading my mind?” Her eyes widened. “Were y--I mean, no.” She gives a high-pitched laugh. “Obviously you can’t do that.”
What he wouldn’t give for that power. Especially now. Eleanor’s bare thigh brushes his cheek when she shifts for balance, and he turns his head to kiss it again as if there’s a magnet in his mouth. Softness and salt, and hairs so downy he can barely feel them.
“Nine dimensions,” he reminds her. His lips brush her skin, and she sighs. “I can read your body if I look closely enough. I don’t usually.” Well, that’s a lie. It would be more accurate to say he doesn’t always.
“Glad you did today.” Eleanor grunts and raises her legs from his shoulders, scooting backward over the blanket. She stretches with a pleased little purr that sends a thrill down his spine. Then she arches, and in one movement slides down off the boulder and into his lap, straddling him.
Michael’s heart stops again, and begins to race as she puts her arms around his neck and looks into his eyes. The skin of her lower back is almost as soft as her thighs, and he knows this because he’s taken her in his arms without even thinking about it. Her bare breasts press against his shirt.
“Thanks,” she says. “For the assistance.”
“I…” Say something. She’s so warm now. “I…”
She touches his mouth again, but this time with three fingertips, and so lightly. “Doesn’t seem like you hated it.” She rocks her hips gently against him and frowns. “On the other hand, doesn’t seem like you were crazy about it either.”
Crazy? Holy heck, if only she knew. His hands open wide so that his fingers splay across her back.
Eleanor shivers and keeps looking at his mouth. “Oh, well. What are your thoughts on making out? I know it seems like we’re doing this backwards, but it’s all good, man.”
His chest fills with a more familiar kind of heat, hostile and sharp. Making out? That’s disgusting. In reboot 119, he’d watched her kiss Chidi and wondered if he was about to heave. They’d gone at it for nearly fifteen minutes, until Michael couldn’t take it anymore and sent Glenn and Angelique to interrupt them. You’d think humans were the ones who didn’t need to breathe.
“Yikes.” Eleanor raises her eyebrows. “That doesn’t look like enthusiasm. You were cooler with sex.” She shrugs and begins to unwrap her arms from his shoulders. “Too bad. You don’t know what you’re miss--”
Michael’s left hand slides up to take hold of her damp hair and pull her in. He tilts his head so they don’t smash noses, and presses his mouth to hers.
In spite of watching her and Chidi, and the notes he took during HELL 134: Introduction to Human Pornography I, he doesn’t know what to do. Why does the real thing have to be so different? Nobody told him that your partner can gasp against your mouth, and then sigh against it, and then bite your bottom lip, which makes you open up and then suddenly it’s all about tongues. Tongues are...rough, and wet, and sensitive. Eleanor’s teeth feel sharp when she nips him again, and her grip is strong on the back of his neck. The kiss seems to go on and on, turning him more inside-out with every second.
The little voice in his head says, all too clearly: At last.
Finally, they pull apart, and the hot gust of her breath meets his mouth. His own breath escapes him in a tiny groan.
He’s dizzy, with goosebumps everywhere, and it’s raining again.
Eleanor drops her gaze first. She looks at his chest and plays with his bandana. Michael stares at the top of her head. An impulse tells him to kiss that too. He manages not to, and lets go of her hair while he’s at it, putting his hand on her small shoulder instead. Warm, soft, and smooth.
Pull yourself together, he thinks, but he can’t. He can only wait to see what happens next. At some point, he’ll find a toehold and get back control of the situation. He’s got to.
“You’ve been wanting to do that for a while,” Eleanor says to the bandana.
Michael tenses, which she’s bound to notice. It’s time for a kind chuckle, but he can only manage to say, “No, I haven’t.”
“No?” Eleanor rubs the cotton between her thumb and index finger. “I think you have.”
“What makes you say that?” He means to sound mild. He does not.
She looks up at him. The smile is gone. She holds her lips in a thin line now, and her cheeks have paled.
Because she knows.
She absolutely, positively, unquestionably knows. Michael’s seen that look eight hundred times. If he slept, he’d see it in his nightmares.
His skin prickles all over as his world, constructed with care down to the last atom, prepares to collapse around him for the eight hundred and first time. Only this time, he’ll collapse too, like there’s a black hole in his center and he’ll finally, finally be able to wink out and disappear.
What tipped her off? Was it the storm? The kiss? What does it even matter? What does anything matter now?
“Michael,” she begins.
No. No. He’s been enough of a fool. Michael won’t go through it again--the mocking, the accusations, the whole humiliating dog-and-pony show. This time, he won’t listen to a single word. Especially now, after--oh fork, after he just serviced --
He gets ready to snap his fingers, but as soon as he tries to raise his arm, Eleanor wraps both of her own around him. “Stop!” she says, never looking away from his eyes. “Wait a second!”
Wait a second? Does she know what he’s about to do? How can she possibly? Just because she’s guessed this is the Bad Place doesn’t mean she knows what happens next. Maybe he’s read this all wrong.
“Don’t erase my memory,” she whispers.
Maybe he hasn’t. There is no use at all in pretending at this point. Michael grinds his jaw, and whatever she sees in his face makes Eleanor shiver, but she doesn’t loosen her grip.
“How?” is all he says. A thousand different questions could follow. She can have her choice of them.
“Don’t do it. Just promise you’ll let me talk. I mean” --Eleanor rolls her eyes-- “I know how stupid it is to ask you to promise anything, but I can’t pin you in place here forever, so it’s all I’ve got.”
She can’t pin him in place right now. Michael’s got no idea why he hasn’t pushed her away yet. He’s also got no idea why she isn’t in his face like she always is, taunting him for his failure. Whatever the fork is going on, at least it’s different.
Might as well see where the road leads before he blows it up again and tries to figure out his next step. “I’ll let you talk,” he says. “And no promises.”
“I’ll take it.” After a moment, Eleanor lets go of him, and glances at her backpack. “Uh, I’m gonna put on my pajamas first.”
“By all means.” Michael holds his hands up in a caricature of gentlemanly restraint. But this time he doesn’t look away from her body, and she doesn’t ask him to. He watches her put on her flannel pants and T-shirt with the Sierra Club logo, and then watches her crouch over her backpack and reach inside for something else.
She pulls an object from the pack and pads back to him, looking cautious but not afraid. Talk about being in uncharted territory.
They sit across from each other, cross-legged, Eleanor on the wadded-up blanket and Michael on the stupid sex cushion. She shows him what she’s got in her hand.
It’s a reel from his recorder, labeled with the numbers “1, 2, 3, 4, 5.”
He loses his breath as hard as if she’d punched him in the gut. Eleanor’s found his notes. She’s got in her hot little hand the record he makes of his failures.
“I figured out something was screwy pretty fast, and then I got this.” Eleanor hands him the reel.
He tosses it over his shoulder, and it clatters against the ground. Fork everything. Fork it hard.
Eleanor sighs through her nose, as if he’s being childish. “Look, just...okay. I had Janet make me a reel player plus an instruction manual, though honestly I should have figured out this is the Bad Place based on how you don’t have streaming, and when I finally figured out how to play the stupid thing--”
“How did you get it?” Michael snarls.
Eleanor’s mouth twitches, and the fact that she stops it is the only reason he doesn’t snap his fingers immediately. “Janet again. I told you, something always felt off--I mean, tapas restaurants are okay, but not great enough to build a whole heaven around, you know?”
“Yes,” he growls. “That’s the point.”
“Well…” Eleanor trails off, then she straightens her shoulders as her eyes go wide. “They’re just okay. Not great. Holy fork. Don’t get me wrong, all this is unbelievably messed up, but...that’s genius.”
Eleanor Shellstrop’s called him a genius twice in ten minutes. It shouldn’t make him feel better. Michael grits his teeth. “So, Janet?”
“Oh. Right.” Eleanor shakes her head. “Once, when I showed up in your office, you were rooting around in a cabinet. I saw the recorder in the back, and like this huge stack of reels next to it. You straightened up really fast when you realized I was there, and shut the cabinet door, so I figured that was something I wasn’t supposed to see.”
He remembers this. It had been a nasty moment, but she’d started complaining immediately about something Tahani was doing, so he’d assumed she hadn’t noticed anything. He hadn’t wanted her to spend any more time with Tahani, so he’d diverted her onto another subject--or so he’d thought. Apparently, the whole time, she’d been diverting him.
Who’s the real genius here? Maybe Michael’s always known.
“I asked Janet to give me a copy of the earliest reel. I was hecka confused at first, but then I figured it out.”
Michael’s mental gears spin. When had that episode in his office happened? It can’t have been too long ago, surely. Last week? No. Two weeks ago? No…
“When?” The syllable sounds twice its natural length.
For the first time, Eleanor hesitates. She looks almost apologetic. “Um, almost a month ago.”
“That can’t be right!” he blurts. But it really can’t be, can it?
Her eyes narrow. What does that mean? Anger? Suspicion? She says, “Give or take a couple days. I’m not gonna lie, it’s...kind of made things easier on me.” She shifts on the blanket as if getting more comfortable.
“I’m sure it has,” he says through his teeth. Oh, yes, how much easier it’s been on her. And yet there’s something in her eyes, something hard, that belies her calm tone. He can at least play this out until he knows what that is.
“So there’s a pattern in the ‘reboots.’ Right?” She holds up her left hand and begins to count on her fingers. “One: it’s always me, Tahani, and then these guys named Jason and Chidi I haven’t really met this time. Everyone else is a fake, right? They’re…” She trails off.
“Demons,” Michael says quietly. Her brief shudder gives him a moment’s solace.
She clears her throat. “Um, yeah, and in most of the reboots, I get together with Chidi and learn about ethics so I can earn my spot here. In the so-called ‘Good Place.’” She makes air quotes.
“You lose half a point every time you use air quotes on Earth.” He feels none of the usual mean pleasure in telling her this, the knowledge that he’s making her squirm while she tries to keep up her charade.
“Ooh, do I?” Eleanor makes four air quotes in rapid succession before rolling her eyes and dropping her arms. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter now, does it?”
“Nothing matters.” If only he had a chair to collapse into or an office ceiling to stare at. Michael contents himself with slumping his shoulders and glaring at her. “Why didn’t you confront me right away? You always do.”
“I haven’t been getting good people lessons this time.” Eleanor snorts. “The ‘good’ version of me screwed it up every time by showing her hand. Why would I want to go through that again? Or--” She raises an index finger to cut him off before he can speak. “Why would I want the alternative? I’m guessing that’s going to the real Bad Place and getting my fingernails yanked off for eternity.”
“That’s more like one of the warm-up exercises. But yes.”
She sighs. “Listen, it just seemed like your ash is on the line with this, and I didn’t know if spilling the beans would be the last straw with your boss. Shawn, right?”
Michael leaves the mixed metaphors alone and nods.
“And if it’s the last straw, then it’s fingernail-pulling time for me. So I kept my mouth shut and played along,” Eleanor concludes.
“What about the other three humans?” he rasps.
Eleanor blinks. “What about them? Dude, no.” She holds up a hand. “I have no interest in teaming up with them. Tahani drives me crazy, Jason’s obviously a complete bozo, and Chidi…”
She pauses. Michael manages not to react in any way.
“I don’t even know what Chidi’s deal is,” Eleanor sighs. “Except he seems too nice to be involved in this. Besides, if I keep my mouth shut, I’m keeping them all from being tortured too, right?” She looks at Michael with hooded eyes. “So that’s good. Right?”
After a pause, Michael says quietly, “The person you were on Earth wouldn’t have cared about them. Or about what’s ‘good.’”
Eleanor’s eyes widen. Michael begins to burn once again, but not with desire or embarrassment. Oh, he can’t wait to snap all this away, but not for one second is he going to let her think she’s gulling him.
“You’ve spoken to Chidi,” he hisses. He leans forward. “He’s gotten under your skin. Again. How did you do it?” Michael has kept her so busy. When, how, did he miss it?
“I didn’t, man!” Eleanor’s lips pull back over her teeth. “The only time I’ve even met the guy was on the first day, and you swooped in right away! I only know what I’ve listened to on the forking reels!” Her fists clench, and Michael sees his own wrath mirrored in her eyes. Is she going to hit him?
Would he let her?
“A ton of reels,” Eleanor adds.
Michael’s middle finger and thumb tense, ready to go any second. And yet-- “What? How many?”
“I don’t even know!” Eleanor hops to her feet, looking down at him as if she’d like to spit in his face. (She actually has done that, at the end of reboot 119, when she’d realized he was going to take her memories of love. He’d wondered, before snapping his fingers, if that was what a kiss felt like. It’s not.) “Like, at least ten. Always at night, and I always wondered if you’d catch me, but I couldn’t stop listening, and--it worked. Chidi worked, dude. I always got better. I legit became a better person every time!”
Now the look she gives Michael is one of sheer bafflement, as if she understands the concept of sex tornadoes better than she understands this.
“And I wasn’t that bad to begin with,” she adds. Self-righteousness, unearned and all too familiar, pervades her voice. “Sure, I wasn’t great, but--”
Michael laughs. He can’t help it. He rubs a hand over his forehead and laughs. It sounds ridiculous, almost hysterical, and he can’t help it.
Eleanor stares at him. “What’s so funny? I said I wasn’t great--”
“‘But I wasn’t awful,’” Michael finishes. He rubs his hands over his face and laughs again. “‘I was medium! I deserve a Medium Place!’”
Eleanor’s mouth opens and closes like a dying fish’s. The sea monster would be so happy if Michael tossed her into the ocean right now, especially if he followed her and volunteered to be the second course.
“Do you know how many times I’ve heard that?” he asks. He stands up. Eleanor takes a wary step backward. “I’ve lost count. You say it almost every time. ‘I’m not that bad.’ Well, guess what?”
His lips part in the smile he’s longed to give her for eleven months and more. Full of knives and darkness. Eleanor gasps and takes another step back.
“There is a Medium Place,” he tells her. “And you’re not good enough for it. You don’t get to go there, Little Miss Clever. This is exactly where you belong.”
She looks frozen. She’s gone pale. Her voice is low when she says, “I know there’s a Medium Place.”
His smile drops while his shoulders straighten. Oh. Right. Yet again, he almost rocks backward when he remembers she knows everything.
Well, no, not everything. She hasn’t listened to all the reels. She probably doesn’t know about reboot 119.
“That doesn’t change anything,” she says unsteadily. “The points system is forked up. All of this is wrong. And Michael--”
“Don’t ‘Michael’ me. Do you know how lucky you are?” He turns to the boulder and sees his glasses sitting on the blanket. “Do you know who isn’t here? Murderers. Rapists. Genocidal dictators. This neighborhood just contains four annoying people I selected to annoy each other for a thousand years. You said it yourself--it could be a lot worse.”
It’s the first time he’s ever admitted it out loud. As he puts his glasses on, Michael wonders if you can actually combust from shame. He’s been telling himself for centuries that his version of torture is just as effective as the traditional stuff--maybe even more so, because the humans do it to themselves.
None of that is true. His four humans aren’t monsters, three of them aren’t idiots, and none of them would choose the real Bad Place over what he’s given them.
Michael looks up at the dark stone cavern of the ceiling, and says to it, “So stop your benching, because you can’t change the system and neither can I. This is as close as anybody’s ever come.”
And he hadn’t even meant to do it. Well. How about that.
He sits down heavily on the boulder. Even through the blanket and his clothing, it’s uncomfortable. If she sat on this thing naked, she must really have been desperate for…
For what? An orgasm? It can’t be just that, not even for Eleanor.
“Why,” he growls, “in the name of everything unholy, did you want to have sex with me when you know what I am? Are you insane? What was that supposed to accomplish?” The pure brass balls of it takes his breath away. She had known, and she had dared. What was this about, getting to tick off a box on her sex scorecard? Forking a demon: 1,000,000 Shellstrop points.
Even by Jason Mendoza’s standards, it was breathtakingly stupid. For all Eleanor knew, Michael could have transformed into something with bat wings and a hundred eyes. He could have eaten her afterward, like a spider. He is, in fact, considering it.
No, he isn’t. Michael grits his teeth. They’re done now. They’re done. He brings his right thumb and middle finger together.
Eleanor flings herself forward, grabs his hands in hers, and bowls him over on his back. The press of the stone makes him grunt. The boulder’s surface isn’t big enough and his back arches up in protest. Eleanor doesn’t seem to care, since she’s on top of him and trying to pin him down. She’s so short, and he’s so long, that her feet don’t even touch the ground.
In fact, they’re hip to hip. Her chest presses against his. She’s warm. He was about to do something, he’s pretty sure.
“Why sex?” she says, never looking away from his eyes. “Buddy, you designed, like, a mini-world around everything that’s forked up about me. You’ve kept it going for literal centuries. And this time, you’ve hardly even looked at the other three humans here.”
She leans in closer. Their noses touch. Michael can’t move.
“I’m Arizona trash,” she whispers, “and I might not know much about ethics this go-round, but there’s one thing I’m sure of. You’ve been wanting to bang my brains out for a long-ash time, and the longer I’m around you, the more I kinda get it.” She shows him a smile with a sliver of teeth. “Hate-forking is the best, man.”
Michael gapes at her.
“Not judging,” Eleanor adds. “That was honestly the best oral I’ve ever had. Seriously, you have done it before, right? You’re, like, a sex demon or something. You can tell me for real, now, if you want to.”
You can tell me for real. The words echo through him. The implications are wider than she realizes. Michael can tell her about more than his nonexistent sexual history. He can tell her anything. It won’t matter. For the first time, they’re on the same page.
He starts by shaking his head no.
“Are you serious?” Now Eleanor truly looks impressed. When he nods, she adds, “But you didn’t--or did you?” She looks over at the cracked glass. “Was that you getting off?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Michael manages. The weather isn’t usually tied to his mood. If it were, he’d have leveled the whole neighborhood in the third reboot. But with Janet offline for all of today, it had fallen to him to take up the slack. It seemed safe enough at the time.
“So…” Eleanor’s voice trails off, and her hips twitch against his. She blinks down at him, as if she hadn’t meant to do that. “Uh, you don’t--that is, we’re never gonna…”
“You are insane,” he says flatly.
“I’m not any crazier than this whole shirty universe,” she snaps. “C’mon, man, what’s wrong with wanting to feel good? At least for a few minutes, you’re not thinking about how irredeemably forked everything is. That’s the whole point.”
Is it? It’s Michael’s turn to blink up at her.
He knows her every escapade--sexual and otherwise. What he doesn’t know is how they look from her perspective. She never tells him, since she’s trying to keep up her act. She rarely explained herself to anyone during her lifetime, so there’s little of that in her file. And he could never ask her before.
He wants to ask her now, so badly. He always has. Not Why did you do X, he already knows that, but How did it feel? What was it like? Would you do it again?
Would I like it?
All he says is, “Ah.” Then his back twinges from being bent over unforgiving stone, and he struggles to sit up. She pushes back, but can’t do much to keep him down, and soon enough he’s sitting upright while she stands in front of him.
He should snap his fingers. He should not keep holding her hands. He does the latter anyway.
“Were you going to tell me you knew?” he asked. “I saw it in your eyes. But were you actually going to tell me?”
“I…” Eleanor presses her lips together. They’re moist and shiny when she parts them again.
Pressure beats in the back of Michael’s head and neck, trying to urge him forward for what he should never have had, and must never have again.
“I was thinking about it,” she says slowly. Her gaze darts all over his face, as if she’s making sure not a single feature is keeping a secret from her. “Probably. No, yeah. I would have.” She looks down at his bandana.
“Why?” He doesn’t bother keeping the contempt from his voice. “Because listening to all the stories about you and Chidi made you a better person? You just couldn’t keep up the lies anymore?”
Her cheeks flush, and she scowls at him. “Hey, fork you, man. Are you going to act like you’re any different? Are you trying to tell me you don’t hate this?” She squeezes his hands brutally hard, as if realizing he’s about to snap his fingers again. “We’ve ridden the hell carousel over eight hundred times. I’ve only had to deal with this for eleven months. You’re gonna act like you’re still having a good time after centuries of it?”
The reason Michael hates the truth is that it’s so forking complicated. Humans call it “pure and simple” when it is inevitably neither. Yes, he hates this, after slogging through it for so long. No, he doesn’t hate it, because the last eleven months have been some of the best he’s ever known. Fool that he is, he’s lately caught himself thinking that maybe everything has been worth it, since it brought him here. Since it got him…
His fake human heart plummets all the way down into his boots as he looks into her angry blue eyes, and then at her turned-up nose, and then at her pursed lips.
He looks at Eleanor Shellstrop, the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, his nightmare and his curse and everything he’s ever wanted.
“Eleanor, would you let go of my hands so I can turn off the profanity filter for a second?” he asks politely. Before she can reply, he tugs free, raises his left hand, aims his intent, and snaps his fingers.
Then he says, to the opposite cave wall, “God fucking damn it. Fuck everything down to the bottom of this hell-be-fucked world, then fuck it right back up the other way.”
Eleanor’s eyes widen. Her mouth forms the word whoa.
“The universe,” Michael informs her, “can suck my dick.” He bends over, finds a rock that fits right in the palm of his hand, and hurls it across the cave until it hits the opposite wall and bounces back down into the dirt.
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.
“Well,” Eleanor says. She puts her palms together and rubs them briskly. “That was, uh, some kind of thing. You okay, buddy? Not feeling like you want to…” She looks at his right hand. “Because I’ve got a proposition for you, and I really think you ought to hear me out.”
“You mean, another proposition.” There aren’t any other rocks in easy grabbing distance. The only thing in easy grabbing distance is Eleanor, and his hands are twitching with the effort of restraint. “Contrary to what you might think, I’m not in the mood.”
Another lie, and she plainly sees right through him while his face burns. But there must be some mercy in the world, because she skips past it and takes a deep breath.
“I’m gonna play along,” she says. “I’m not gonna blab or give the game away. So you get to pretend that everything’s chugging along like it’s supposed to, and I get to avoid eternal torture. Go, team.”
You’re part of our team, he’d told her in the first version, and watched her gaze flicker to the side. Eleanor hates teams. Now, apparently, Michael’s on hers.
“It seems like I usually figure it out,” Eleanor adds. “Why reboot me and risk that happening again?”
She makes a persuasive case. In fact, he can’t see any good way to argue with it. Maybe he’s not thinking clearly, though. Something’s got to be wrong with the electricity charging his blood as surely as if he’s been struck by lightning himself. Maybe he’s the one glitching.
Because this scenario, the two of them conspiring, somehow seems like the best idea in the universe. They’d be in this together. And they’re both accomplished liars, if he does say so himself. Everyone else will be fooled.
Will they, though? Everyone?
“I’d still have to torture you.” He watches her face freeze. “Don’t want to give the game away, right? So your afterlife is still full of unicorn poop, camping in the wilderness, and organizing paper clips according to their ‘personalities.’”
“Gah!” Eleanor runs her hands through her hair and gives him a look full of spite and fire. It makes Michael shiver with want, and he doesn’t dare look at the broken glass. Eleanor says, “You do know how to get to me, don’t you? You know everything I fucking hate…” Her eyes widen with wonder. “Oh God, swearing feels so good. You know everything I fucking hate, everything I’ve ever done, and you just use it like--well, guess what, buddy? Looks like I’ve been torturing you, too.”
The hairs on the back of his neck stand up again. “Sorry, what?”
“Maybe I didn’t know I was doing it, but can you seriously tell me I haven’t been driving you insane for the last two hundred years?” Eleanor steps forward, and Michael’s breathing speeds up proportionally with every inch of her approach. “Holy shit, half the torture was having to pretend I was someone I’m not. You did, too. At least now we get to--”
She stops. Her cheeks go a little pink. Michael says hoarsely, “We get to what?”
“We get to stop doing that.” She’s looking at his bandana again. “We spend a lot of time alone. Now we can drop the act.” She touches the edge of his shirt collar while he holds his breath. “You’re a demon and I’m a dirtbag. We get to take a fucking break sometimes.”
Eleanor meets his eyes once more, like she wants to make sure he gets it: she sees him. If they do this, Michael will be seen, known, and...what. Accepted? Wanted? Or is he only a means to an end, something she tolerates in the name of avoiding a worse fate, while he spends the rest of eternity aching and aching for her?
He shouldn’t ask. He really shouldn’t. He’s going to do that anyway, too.
“Don’t you hate me?” he asks. When she raises her eyebrows, he adds, “Don’t bullshit me. I’ll know.”
He’ll concede it’s an odd question under the circumstances. In the grand scheme of things, what does it matter if she hates him or not? The end result will be the same: they cover their asses, and nobody gets a throat full of centipedes or scattered across the surface of a million suns.
Turns out, though, it matters a whole hell of a lot if Eleanor Shellstrop hates him. If she does, he’ll take it. Anything’s better than indifference, Eleanor resigned to standing by him just because she’s got nobody else. Hatred would be ambrosia compared to that.
Eleanor frowns, and sounds vaguely contemptuous when she says, “Why do you care? You hate me, right? I can deal with that.” Her frown turns into a crooked smile. “Doesn’t have to be all bad. Remember what I said about a good old hate-fuck?”
Hate her? Maybe he does. Wanting her and hating her don’t have to be antithetical. Maybe hatred is what Michael feels, maybe that’s what’s driving this need, and if he gets to spend the rest of their time together hating Eleanor’s guts, why, that’ll be fine.
Her cheek is soft beneath his fingertips, and it flushes pink beneath his touch.
Eleanor’s breath catches. For his part, Michael’s barely breathing at all.
“You really do want it, don’t you,” she says. “How’d you keep your hands off this tight body eight hundred times? Oh, wait.” She begins to unknot his bandana. “You didn’t.”
Michael immediately takes hold of her left wrist, stopping her. “Yes, I did. I wasn’t--” This weak. This stupid. Except I was.
“You touch me every chance you get.” She leans in until he can feel her breath on his mouth again. “You’re super handsy. Have you always been like that?”
He sets his jaw. This isn’t even the first time Eleanor’s called him touchy-feely. Two hundred years and he can’t shed the habit. He touches people. The demons shy away from him now, but the humans never have. They never seem to mind, at least, not until the jig is up.
“It’s never been sexual,” is all he tells her.
“Glad to hear it. That would have been pretty fucked up, even for Hell. So what do you say?” She stays perfectly still, never tries to pull free from his grip. “Do we have a deal?”
He almost says yes, can’t seem to help himself, but then a thought occurs to him. He says, with a note of menace in his voice, “On one condition.”
She lifts her chin in challenge, telling him to go ahead.
“Stay away from the other humans,” he says. “Period. They’ll screw everything up.”
A look ghosts over Eleanor’s face, one he might have called dismayed. She says, “Dude--are you sure? Maybe,” she adds quickly, before he can protest, “they’d play along too. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about--”
“No. Believe me, we’d have plenty to worry about.” It takes unbelievable effort not to tighten his grip on her wrist. “Chidi can’t lie or keep a secret to save his life, Jason’s more stupid than you can possibly understand, and Tahani--” When Eleanor rolls her eyes, he concludes, “Exactly.”
She chews on her lip. Then, after a moment that lasts way too long, she says, “Well...okay.”
That’s not good enough. Not by half. She’s mainlined dozens of hours of Chidi making her a “better person,” and she actually seems to believe that’s possible. She might still seek him out, and that spells disaster for everyone.
“Swear to it,” Michael growls.
Eleanor looks truly spooked. “Uh...what, like a magical demonic vow or something? Some horror movie crap? Because I don’t--”
“No.” Only one binding promise exists in the Bad Place, the Belialic Oath: First, do harm. There is no second. “I’m just looking for a little reassurance after that telling moment of hesitation.”
“Dude, of course I hesitated! I’m about to make a deal with an actual devil. I’m in, okay?” Eleanor pushes her hair away from her face. The gesture makes her look oddly young, as young as Michael feels right now, uncertain and unmoored from everything he’s ever learned.
“But let’s get one thing straight,” Eleanor adds. She takes a deep breath. “I’m not gonna help you torture them, either. I’ll keep your secret, but I’m not ‘assisting’ you with that. I’m scuzzy, not evil.”
What’s this feeling in his chest, heavy and painful? Oh. Disappointment. You’d think he’d recognize it by now. Eleanor’s not going to help him design his tortures--as if he needs the help of a mere human to do that. He’s doing just fine on his own, drawing up the torments again and again and again.
Eleanor’s finger touches his chin, pulling him back to the present, and reminding him that he’s still holding her wrist. She’s fine-boned and delicate beneath his hand.
“It’s a deal?” she whispers.
“It’s a deal.” He can say that. It’s fine. He’s just as good at breaking promises as he is at making them.
He lets go of her hand. They regard each other. Whatever happens next, at least it’s going to be different.
And they’ll be in it together. For all that’s worth. They’ll be in it together, facing each other and known for the first time.
No. Not just for the first time--for all time. Michael’s breath catches.
"Excellent.” Eleanor raises her freed hand in the air, palm-forward, expectantly.
After a second, Michael slaps his own palm against it, and it feels like a pretty damn sacred oath to him.
Fifteen minutes later, they’re half-dressed, on an actual bed, and Michael has vanished the glass wall and managed to untangle himself from the weather. Good thing, too, since the forest beyond the cave has been blasted and scorched, trees knocked over from hurricane-force winds, their black and twisted roots exposed to the air.
The sunset, however, is very nice.
“Dang,” Eleanor murmurs as she sucks gently at the skin beneath his right ear. To her disappointment, he’s had to turn the swear filter back on, lest anyone notice it’s gone. “If that’s your idea of an orgasm, I must have really gotten to you.”
“You must have,” he grunts. She still is. Without the elements to channel his feelings into, his human body is even more responsive, and his penis is showing an interest in the proceedings. It’s difficult not to, with the way she’s cupping him through his shorts.
“I’m glad you’re not going to come lightning this time.” She squeezes. His hips jerk, and she chuckles against his skin. “Everything’s in proportion. Nice.”
Yet again, “nice” isn’t the word he’d choose. It is, however, fascinating to see that his genitals are good for something other than just hanging there. Eleanor’s touch feels...awfully pleasant.
And wrong. They should so not be doing this. If upper admin found out, they’d manage to find a worse fate for Michael than retirement. This is forbidden on every level.
Impossibly, that makes everything feel even better. When she kisses him, he moans into her mouth.
At that, she reaches for his zipper.
It’s more complicated this round. He can still see her in nine dimensions, and he can tell what makes her feel best, but he keeps losing the plot thanks to what she’s doing to his own body. At some point, awfully pleasant morphs into all-consuming. Every time he thinks he’s got a handle on things, on her, she’ll touch him or move against him in a way that turns his brain to slag.
And when she climbs back in his lap and slowly-- slowly --sinks down on him, taking him inside her, his brain checks out of the equation altogether.
Eleanor doesn’t seem to mind. “Payback’s a bench, huh?” she whispers in his ear before nipping at the lobe. The tiny sting gets a hiss out of him. “How’s this feel?”
She clenches her inner walls around him, then does it again, and again, in a rhythm that keeps him groaning into her hair. In this position he can’t move much, can’t do anything but take it from her. Supposedly, the condom she made him “magic up” (on reflection, pregnancy seems all-too-likely in Hell) dulls the sensations. If that’s true, he can’t even imagine how he’d handle this without one.
“F-feels good,” he pants. Only good? His hands slide aimlessly over her sweat-slick back. They’ve shed all their clothes now. It seems fitting, considering how they’ve bared everything else already, but the feeling of skin against skin is something else he wasn’t ready for.
Who’s he kidding? He wasn’t ready for any of this. It’s all warmth, anticipation, excitement so intense it’s becoming agony. He’s completely helpless, and he never wants to stop.
He’s got to slow her down. He can make her crazy, too. Didn’t he manage it before? He pants, “I...ah...don’t you want--”
“You just let Eleanor take care of things now, bud.” She pushes his chest, and he finds himself on his back again. “She’s got this.”
She leers at him. Then everything seems to happen very quickly. She angles her hips so he slides even deeper inside. When he gasps, she leans forward to pinch his nipples, and she sinks her teeth into his chest, and she squeezes him again, and then she does all three of those things at the same time and holy motherforking SHIRT--
“Cool,” Eleanor says when his shaking stops.
“Uhh.” He’s melted. His human body has turned into candle wax. So, evidently, has his mind. There are no words, but he dimly remembers yelling her name a few moments ago. Maybe he should have left that soundproof barrier up. They probably heard him all the way back in town.
The thought should horrify him, but he finds himself closing his eyes and smiling instead. Not his fake Good Architect smile, nor his natural smile that looks like a steak knife. He suspects, horribly, that this is more of a butter knife smile. But whatever. Who knew it was possible to feel this way?
Well, humans, obviously. No wonder they start wars over this.
“I have to admit,” Eleanor tells him, “this is almost exactly how I pictured it.”
He forces one eye open, sure he imagined that. Eleanor’s smirk tells him he didn’t. Talk about knives: she’s getting ready to aim one right at him. This ought to be good.
“Ever since I listened to that first recording, I’ve been thinking nonstop about forking you.” She says it as casually as if they’re taking a stroll down the street, talking about replacing the flower beds in the town square. “It’s been kind of ridiculous, actually. That vibrator’s been getting a heck of a workout. Once a day, at least.” She slides her fingertips down his sweaty chest, over his nipples, across his twitching stomach.
A hate fork, she’d called it. For a reason he can’t parse, that seems sort of...wrong. But Michael can’t deny the trails of heat that follow her fingers, the way satiety is giving way--impossibly--to hunger once more.
“I imagined you on your knees, just like I had you.” She slides her hands back up. Michael’s knowledge of human anatomy tells him that his penis should be over-sensitive and uncomfortable by now, but it’s not. Really not. Maybe it’s the condom.
Eleanor continues, “I imagined you on your back, just like I had you. So forking crazy for me after two hundred years that you couldn’t last five minutes. I gotta say, even though I’m a major hottie, nobody ever wanted me like that.” Her lips stretch, but do not part, in a smile. She’s never looked so pleased with herself, and that’s saying something. “Thanks for delivering the goods.”
Then her eyes widen.
“Holy crap,” she chokes, “are you getting hard again?”
“Not a human,” Michael says, the words coming from the back of his throat like another rumble of thunder. Eleanor gasps, digs her nails into his chest, and he waves his hand so he’s wearing a fresh condom. Her hips jump and she squeaks, so that must have felt pretty strange.
He’s about to make up for it. Michael sits up, rolls them over until she’s on her back, and takes a good look at her in nine dimensions. She lies before him, waiting to see what she’s just provoked and eager for whatever happens next. She’s right to be. He begins to thrust, rolling his hips at the pace she wants, before grabbing her breasts and squeezing in a way that sends a shock of pleasure down between her legs.
Eleanor cries out, wraps those legs around his waist, and slides her arms around his back. Now she’s the one who can’t do anything but hold on for the ride. Heat gathers low in Michael’s belly and at the base of his spine. Fork, she was right, there’s nothing like this feeling, seeing your worst enemy and only ally fall to pieces. He’s already given her the best oral sex she’s ever had. Time to go for broke.
Fighting through the tunnel vision, through the need to lose himself in her again, Michael grabs her hair and tugs until her head’s tilted back. He bends down and whispers in her ear. “Not a human,” he repeats. “You know what I am. Never forget that.”
Before she can say anything, he sinks his teeth into the most sensitive spot on her throat, just the way her flesh is begging him to. She arches up and wails, getting even slicker around him, so much he really is starting to lose the sensation, the friction. It’s not bothering her. She’s still getting plenty from him. He goes at her harder, then harder still, while her thigh muscles begin to shake again and her nipples tighten against his chest. Their skin slaps together wetly, obscenely, and the sound has him losing his mind.
“Holy fork,” she moans. “Oh, yeah…”
“I can make you come a hundred times.” And he will, starting now. She’s almost there, quivering and clenching, breathing faster. Her nails dig into his back, and then she rakes them up and down, practically clawing him. Oh, that’s incredible, the slash of pain from without and the throb of pleasure from within. He’s getting close too, approaching a feeling he can’t wait to reclaim. Are they going to climax at the same time? Can he make that happen?
He groans, “I can see you, I can see everything.” She’s whimpering. Maybe she’ll say his name again. He angles his mouth over hers for a kiss. “There’s nothing I don’t know--”
Michael grinds, literally, to a halt. Both he and Eleanor turn to behold Janet standing not three feet away from them with a sunny smile on her face.
Judging by how his blood goes cold, Hell has officially just frozen over.
“Oh!” Eleanor gasps. She wraps her legs and arms more tightly around Michael, as if seeking to hide herself beneath him. For his part, Michael’s stopped breathing again.
Janet, however, shows no hint of distress. After a brief look of surprise--something she never showed at the start of this experiment--she smiles again. “I apologize for interrupting your act of sexual intercourse. Vice Mayor Vicky got me back online and needs me to convey an urgent message, since nobody could locate you but me.”
Oh, no. Oh, fork. “Did you tell them where we are?” Michael croaks.
He must have one stroke of luck left, because Janet shakes her head. “My programming forbids me from sharing private information about any resident. This currently extends to you, since you’re with--”
“Great!” Eleanor squeezes Michael’s shoulders hard enough to make him twitch. “Can you pull up that blanket, buddy? Feeling kinda exposed here.”
Janet beams. “I assure you, I feel no discomfort or arousal in this moment. Or at any other time.”
“Glad to hear it. Michael!”
It’s awkward, but Michael manages to slip his foot beneath the edge of the blanket, then kick up so he can reach it and draw it over them both. Then he shifts backward and slides out of her. It’s easy, considering that his arousal has vanished in the blink of Janet’s benignly watchful eye. The condom slides off, slack with unfulfilled potential.
“What’s the urgent news?” he says through his teeth.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Janet says, “but Vice Mayor Vicky said to tell you that Mayor Tahani has figured it out, thanks to the storm and the toilet paper shortage, and you need to, I quote, ‘get your ash back to town right the fork now.’”
“I apologize that my being offline has caused so much trouble.” Janet lifts her chin in an apologetic kind of way. “I’m not sure how it happened.”
That’s easy. It happened because Michael took her offline so he could more effectively torture Eleanor out here. It happened because he couldn’t control himself from the moment she touched him. It happened because he has failed yet again, yet a-forking-gain, thanks to how Eleanor Shellstrop undoes him every time.
“She said you need to reboot,” Janet adds. “I’m not sure what that means in this context, but I guess I don’t have to be.”
At this, Eleanor’s nails dig into Michael’s back again, making him hiss. “Janet,” she says urgently, “we need you to make us some fresh clothes. Some fresh, dry clothes.”
A stack of clothing appears in Janet’s hands. On the top of a stack rests a bow tie. “Here you go!”
“Thanks.” Eleanor pushes at Michael again. He rolls off her without even thinking about it, and she sits up. Her self-consciousness appears to have vanished as she takes the clothing from Janet. “Uh--now tell Vicky we’ll be there--”
“No!” Michael puts a hand on her shoulder. “Tell Vicky I’ll be there as soon as possible, after I do the reboot.” He feels Eleanor go rigid against his touch. “In the meantime, I hope Tahani and the other humans have been suitably...contained. That’s all.”
“Okay!” Janet pops out of view.
Silence. Eleanor looks down at the pile of clothes in her lap. Michael looks at the top of her head and thinks about the sea monster again. Not about feeding it, but about swimming out to meet it, look it in the eye, and apologize for making it act so contrary to its nature.
Then getting eaten, no doubt, but right now that feels acceptable.
“Motherforker,” Eleanor says thickly. “At least let me put some clothes on first.”
Is he supposed to pity her? She gets to forget all this. She’ll have no idea what possibilities were lost, what future was crushed beneath Tahani Al-Jamil’s stiletto heel. Michael will spend a very long time thinking about how to torture her next go-round. He’s going to--
The sea monster.
Michael inhales sharply as an idea, half-baked and definitely bonkers, jumps on him. One heck of an idea, and it’s not about Tahani, torture, or any appealing combination of the two. It’s about swimming out to sea. It’s about--
“No,” he hears himself say, a strange note in his voice that makes Eleanor look up at him. “No reboot. Not this time.”
Eleanor’s eyebrows shoot up. “Say what?”
“Get dressed.” His clothes rest on the top half of the stack. He picks them up. “Quickly.”
“Huh? What are you--” Eleanor reaches for the other clothes and gives him a double-take. “Oh, boy. I know that gleam in your eyes. You’re heading off to Crazytown.”
“Yes. Exactly.” Michael grabs the pair of polka dot boxers. His hands shake. “Exactly. Hurry up. There’s no time.”
“No time for what?” But Eleanor’s already struggling into her own underwear. “Talk while we dress. What’s going on underneath all that hair?”
“Just give me a second to think this through.” He’s pulling his undershirt over his head when his nonsensical idea begins to coalesce into something like coherence.
He reaches for his dress shirt. “There’s somewhere else,” he tells her.
Eleanor pauses in hiking up her jeans. “Say what?”
Michael waves at her impatiently, and she zips up while she squints at him. He says, “You know about the Good Place, the Bad Place, the Medium Place. But that’s--”
“The Medium Place!” Eleanor leans forward. Her eyes widen. “Mindy St. Claire’s? We could go there? Are you saying…”
“No. Not there.” Michael has to concentrate more than usual to button his shirt. His heart has never raced this quickly, not even when they were having sex. Insane. This is absolutely nuts. He’s nuts. “The Bad Place would extradite us, given enough time. You weren’t there long enough for that” --at least, in the lone instance Shawn knows about-- “but it will definitely happen.”
Eleanor yanks a patterned peasant blouse over her head. Her hair sticks out all over the place. “So what are you talking about? There’s nowhere else to go, is there?”
“There are…” Michael takes a deep breath as he begins to slide his pants on. One leg at a time, he tells himself, stay calm. “Other places. Okay? Not Good, Bad, or Medium. I guess you’d call them--” He searches for words that can explain the inexplicable.
“Call them what? Dude, come on, out with it!” Eleanor looks around and groans.”I forgot to ask for shoes. Those goshdarn boots.”
“Boots are fine for--” Finally, a phrase comes to mind, both succinct and accurate. “The Chaos Places.”
Eleanor blinks at him. “The what?”
“They’re…” Michael zips up and slides on his belt. Think. Explain. Persuade. “Places where nobody goes. Where nobody’s supposed to go. No demons, no angels, no mortals.” Now’s not the time to explain that there are all kinds of sentient mortal beings other than humans scattered across the Universe. Later, maybe, if she’s curious, if she wants to learn. “Places beyond good and evil, beyond rules and laws, and--” Her expression is incredulous. Michael sets his jaw. “Look, it’s chaos. That’s all.”
“You’re suggesting... we go to those places?” she says slowly.
He nods and shrugs on his suit jacket. It’s one of his favorites, the deep blue one with white piping that makes him feel especially dapper. Maybe it’s a good sign that Janet brought it. “I am. I can’t believe it, but yes, I am.”
A nervous line carves its way between Eleanor’s eyebrows. “Um...you said nobody else goes there. Why not? What’s it like?”
“I only know what I’ve been taught.” And from what he’s been taught, there is no safety there, no guarantee of protection or shelter of any kind. It scares the shirt out of everyone, especially demons. After all, eternal punishment provides a rigid structure. Nobody steps out of line. Everyone knows his place. Demons, for all their reputation as agents of chaos, are terrified by it.
“What were you taught?” Eleanor tugs on the dry pair of socks Janet provided.
Michael watches her toes disappear into the white cotton. “That it’s indescribable. Unknowable. Full of...of things nobody’s ever seen before, ideas no one’s ever had. No order. And no one giving orders.” No hierarchy. Nobody to tell them who they are and what they have to do. “I mean, it’s possible we’ll both go insane upon confronting it, but it’s also possible we won’t. Nobody will follow us there, I guarantee you that.” No demon would risk the Chaos to chase down a lowly Architect and one damned soul. Shawn will just tell everyone to pretend they never existed.
Fine by Michael.
“What’s more insane than this?” Eleanor pats down her hair. “How could anything, anywhere, possibly be more messed up than this? FML. How do we get there?”
Michael’s heart stops for a moment. Then it beats double time as something spreads through him that he can’t define. It’s hot and sharp and almost painful, and it makes him want to grab Eleanor so tightly it’ll be hard to tell where she ends and he begins. But isn’t it already?
He restrains himself, barely. “Janet calls the train. She can’t go into the Chaos, but she can take us that far.” Is he seriously contemplating this? The one, single thing everyone in the cosmos agrees is a terrible idea?
“We make it back to town,” he says. “Come up with a diversion or something so everybody’s gathered in the square.” Together, and with Janet’s help, they can create a whopper of a distraction. “Then we bounce.”
“Just like that? And we don’t know anything about where we’re going, or what happens when we get there?”
“Not a clue.” They could be destroyed the moment they try to enter. That’s one of the rumors: even touching Chaos can lead to a real ending, beyond retirement or death. No reward or suffering, just obliteration.
Michael doesn’t believe that. How can anything really end? A pathetic human scientist had finally stumbled on a basic truth: matter can can neither be created nor destroyed. Everybody knows that. Michael would never take Eleanor to a place where that could happen.
“We’ll be okay.” He finds himself putting his hands on her shoulders, as he’s done hundreds of thousands of times, while she looks doubtfully up at him. “I’m not exactly helpless, Eleanor.”
He’s far from the most powerful demon in the Bad Place, but he’s not a bottom-feeder either. Maybe he really will show her the bat wings. They’re not ornamental. Sure, they smell like sulfur, but they can carry him seven leagues with a single flap. His hundred eyes can see twelve hundred things, and he’s big enough to carry her on his back if they really find themselves in a pickle.
And he can always put the human suit back on if the Chaos allows for sex.
Eleanor chews her bottom lip as she looks into his eyes. She’s avoided his gaze so often, and now all she wants is to find the truth.
He’s only got one truth to give her. “If we stay here, it’s the same as always. Nothing happens. You get your memory wiped. You probably figure me out again. We ride the carousel.” He tightens his grip on her shoulders. “Over and over.”
Eleanor shudders. “Oh, God. This is the worst--”
“Let’s have an adventure,” he whispers.
Her eyes go wide. Michael doesn’t take it back. Doubling down seems like a better idea, as if he could stop himself from doing it anyway.
“Chaos, Eleanor,” he says. “No rules. No good or bad, no forking ethics. Just whatever we find there and what we--what we make of it.”
They can make something, surely. That’s Michael’s whole purpose. To create, design, make something happen. And maybe this time, at last, he can make something nobody’s ever made before, do something that’s never been done. With her.
“No rules,” Eleanor says softly. Those must be the sweetest words she’s ever heard. It’s not so much that Eleanor hates rules as that she disdains them, doesn’t understand why they have to exist and definitely not why they have to apply to her. No human has ever been more suited to Chaos. “No right and no wrong.”
“Exactly! It’s perfect!” Michael lets go of her and rubs his palms together. For the first time in two hundred years, he feels downright giddy. It’s even better than when he conceived of his failed experiment. This time, the possibilities truly are endless. “But we have to hurry. The train--”
Eleanor closes her eyes and presses her lips together. Something about the gesture stops him cold.
After a moment that stretches his understanding of how time works, she opens her eyes to look steadily at him. “What happens to the other three?”
Don’t bullshirt me, he’d told her only minutes ago, I’ll know.
Michael reaches up to tug on his bow tie, but he hasn’t put it on yet. “They’ll be taken to the real Bad Place.”
“And tortured.” Eleanor sticks her tongue in her cheek.
“Because we left.”
“That’s not our fault.” His hands clench at his sides. She can’t seriously care. Is this one more stab at torturing him, getting some of her own back? “They got themselves into the Bad Place. Heck, they were lucky to be here for two hundred years instead of in a python pit!”
“Doesn’t matter. That doesn’t matter.” Eleanor looks down at the ground, sees a rock, and pulls her foot back to kick it. Then she appears to realize she’s not wearing shoes. “Dangit--oh, can’t you please turn off the swear filter again--”
Michael snaps the fingers of his left hand and tries to think. How effective were those reels? Does Chidi not even have to be physically present to ruin everything?
“Fuck,” Eleanor breathes. She turns to look at the mouth of the cave, at the sunset Michael’s mood no longer controls. “Fuck it. I can’t do that. There is such a thing as right and wrong.”
This can’t be happening. “Not out there, there isn’t. Dammit, Eleanor--”
“I can’t just leave them like that. Not when I know what it means. Holy shit, I’d deserve to go insane if that’s what happens in the...chaos whatever.” She doesn’t turn around, but jams her hands in her pockets, as if that will keep her from grabbing the only opportunity they have to get off this ride.
“What’s the matter with you?” Michael says, aghast. “What happened to you? You’re the woman who lied to your best friend that her boyfriend was cheating on her, right after your boyfriend dumped you, just so you could have somebody to be mad with!”
Eleanor’s head dips forward, and she makes a snorting noise. A laugh. “Oh man. I forgot about that.”
“I didn’t.” He’s never forgotten anything. That’s his whole deal. He steps toward her. She doesn’t turn around, but she doesn’t flinch when he puts his hand on her shoulder, either. Eleanor’s never flinched from him. He’s not sure how he’d handle it if she did. “Eleanor. This is our only chance. Let’s go.”
“Go by yourself,” she says.
Michael yanks his hand from her as if she’s turned into a lava monster beneath his touch. He tries to say something. He can’t.
Eleanor hears what he doesn’t say, though. Her shoulders hunch. “You hate it here. You know how to get out, and you’re totally psyched for it. Just leave me here with them and have fun in the Chaos. Go crazy enough for the two of us.”
“You’re the crazy one,” Michael says hoarsely. “You don’t even know Jason and Chidi this time, and you can’t stand Tahani. And you’ll be tortured with them forever. What’s that supposed to accomplish?”
“Nothing!” Eleanor whirls to face him. She bares her teeth. Her face has gone white with the same helpless rage he feels. “It doesn’t accomplish anything, except I don’t do the worst fucking thing imaginable, and meanwhile, you’re free. Right?”
His ears are ringing again.
“Just leave and get it over with!” Eleanor hugs herself. Her eyes grow bright with unshed tears. She’s never cried in front of him before. His chest feels like it’s about to explode. “What’s stopping you?”
What is stopping him? She’s right. He’s a demon. Selfish and rotten to the core, and he wants out. In the Chaos, possibility awaits him. He can leave Eleanor to Vicky and Shawn’s tender mercies, to Trevor’s sleazy come-ons.
Trevor. That halts him in his mental tracks. Michael remembers the one time he has been on a train with Eleanor. It was the first version. She’d confessed she didn’t belong, pulled the rug out from under him, and threatened his whole vision.
He’d been forced to tell Shawn, and Shawn had given him a foolproof solution: have Trevor take Eleanor to the real Bad Place, just as she expected. She’d learn the truth when she got there, a nice twist of the knife. The three remaining humans would be none the wiser, and Michael could keep torturing them in peace. Alternately, he could get a replacement human and round the number back up to four.
It made perfect sense, but everything in Michael had rebelled at once. That couldn’t be the answer. He couldn’t abandon his fourteen million point plan, and it wouldn’t do to send Eleanor away because of one lousy misstep.
Not the woman whose file he’d already read a hundred times, whose face had arrested him the moment he’d seen her picture. Her eyes had told him: Hi, scumbag. Show me what you got.
Instead, he’d suggested drafting another demon to play the “real” Eleanor Shellstrop (was Shawn already torturing him by choosing Vicky? Michael has wondered). That’d be perfect, he had argued, a way to torment Eleanor more than ever. To keep her there, right where she belonged, with him. Always with him, something he didn’t say because he hadn’t known.
Revelation is really and truly a bitch.
“You’re stopping me,” he tells her.
She blinks. Her forehead puckers in confusion, but at least no tears fall from her eyes. “What?”
“I won’t be leaving.” He rubs his thumb over her chin. He smiles in a way his face isn’t used to. It feels small. It feels sad. “Chaos is no fun alone.”
Eleanor’s mouth parts slightly. Realization begins to dawn in her eyes.
Hell. He might as well say it.
“I’m not leaving you,” he says. “Not now. Not ever.”
“Michael?” she whispers. The look on her face might be shock, or disbelief, or hope. It’s too much for him to take apart, too hard to understand.
“It’s you and me, Eleanor.” He lowers his hand from her face. “And one of these days…”
“Wait--Michael--what are you sayi--”
“I’m going to fucking win.”
The world goes white. When it’s back to normal, Eleanor has vanished. Elsewhere, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason have just done the same. Now it’s time for Michael to return, murder Janet, and talk his furious underlings off the ledge one more time.
He sits on the edge of the rumpled bed, removes his glasses, and rubs his forehead. His head hurts as much as if he’s just slogged through Chidi’s manuscript again.
He laughs. It hurts his throat. Just think, in a couple more hours, Eleanor Shellstrop is going to be smiling at him in his office, looking forward to the wonderful things he’s promised her and unaware of her impending doom. She won’t recognize Michael. She won’t know a single thing about him, and moreover, she won’t care. Soon, she’ll be in full-on CYA mode, and nothing else will matter.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be like that, though? Michael could tell her the truth right away. He could face her across the desk and explain the entire fucked up situation. They can work together, just as she proposed last time, except now it’s from the beginning. No secrets or lies.
Or--or they can escape after all. Why didn’t he think of that first? He doesn’t even have to tell her about the other three humans. She’ll carry no burden of guilt, and fuck knows he won’t either. He and Eleanor can make a run for it within minutes after their eight hundred and second first meeting.
He knows her, though. She won’t jump at the offer right away--she’d be crazy to. Instead, her eyes will narrow with skepticism. She’ll shake her head and say, What’s the catch? Why are you doing this for me?
For you? he could laugh, or try to. What makes you think this is for you? What makes you think I’d risk my neck for...
Oh, fuck. He’s out of his head.
That’s the only explanation for all this. Michael fists his hands on his thighs. At some point, he’s going to grind his jawbones down to powder, which he’s been told makes a fine aphrodisiac. Before that, though, he can face the truth: this has gone too far. Way too far. Eleanor Shellstrop is a weakness he never anticipated and can no longer afford.
Chaos. He’d suggested going into the Chaos? Risking his destruction, and for what? A woman who sees him as her only option, who will never choose him in return, that’s what, and the worst, the worst thing is that he’ll do it again. Probably forever. Eternal beings don’t have temporary attachments. The soft spot on his underbelly is here to stay, and it’s only going to get bigger until every inch of him can be punctured by a toothpick.
He glances down at the bow tie waiting next to him on the bed. It’s one of the peacock ones. Doesn’t really go with the jacket, but without it, he’s even more naked than he is without his glasses.
Michael puts the bow tie on a lot more slowly than he should, considering that he’s got places to go and demons to placate, but his hands don’t want to move any faster.
He should have been a normal Architect, content with the afterlife’s usual offerings for his kind. This idiotic scheme should never have occurred to him. His own arrogance, his belief that he’s better than what’s come before, has ruined him. Eleanor has ruined him. He’d give anything to forget this blistering humiliation, to…
There’s a thought.
It’s also another terrible idea. But it can be done. Anything with a memory can be rebooted. It happens in the Bad Place when a big mishap needs to be erased conveniently. To Michael’s knowledge, no demon has ever done it to himself, but it seems like he’s destined to be a pioneer no matter what.
Hell yes, he wants to forget.
And if he wants to do it right, it’s going to hurt. He can’t afford to snap his fingers and just wipe himself clean. If he comes out of this with a blank space in his brain, it’ll drive him nuts trying to figure out what happened, and he won’t be able to explain the last couple of hours to his crew.
Careful, he tells himself, careful, and he makes a plan.
The first thing he does is snap away the bed and the red-and-gold cushion he knelt on, plus their discarded explorers’ gear. He turns the profanity filter back on. It won’t do to be faced with a mystery when he comes out of this.
Then he takes a deep breath and waves his hand. A shaving mirror manifests in front of him, floating in the air. He stares at his own forehead. This has to be quick. He doesn’t have much time, and interruption is fatal.
He puts his right index finger to his forehead, aims his intent, and begins to-- ow. Begins to--forking ow!
“Don’t be a baby,” he tells himself through gritted teeth, and begins, again, to carve into his mind. This time, he forces his way through the pain, and after a moment it’s not so bad. It dulls from a white-hot knife to something that’s just weird, as if his own hands are pulling apart his brain lobes and picking through what he has for gray matter.
Careful. Start with the easy stuff. His suggestion of the Chaos Places: that’s gone, and for good measure, he surrounds the whole concept with an extra dose of horror. It must never occur to him again to go there.
After that, he carves out the memory of Eleanor’s offer to join forces with him, the moment he really started to embrace his folly. He slices away the feeling of her body against his, the way she tastes, and the sound of her moans. Finally, after a ridiculous moment of hesitation, he erases the kisses. After all, kissing is...gross. Why is he thinking about kissing?
Things are starting to get foggy. Soon, he’ll forget why he’s doing this. Before he can do that, he’s got to pack his brain full of fake replacement memories, even if they’re not as solid and crisp as reality. It’s difficult as heck, especially since he’s stumbling through the mists, and he’s not sure this is going to work, maybe he’s going to turn into an infernal vegetable and
His ears ring.
Michael opens his eyes to find himself standing in the cave where he and Eleanor took shelter from an unexpected storm during a walk through the forest. A storm that...
A storm that was caused by Janet going offline. A glitch. The glitch was what tipped Tahani off, combined with the toilet paper shortage.
It’s the first time Tahani’s ever figured it out, and the thought makes Michael grind his teeth. Things had been going all right this time. He’d kept the humans in the dark for eleven whole months! He’d even brought Eleanor out here so he could savor her simmering frustration over a forced nature walk. He couldn’t remember--
The last time he’d had so much fun. Finally, a chance to put Eleanor Shellstrop in her place and give his hatred for humans a chance to--
Spread its wings and fly--
Express itself to the max. It was working perfectly. And now it’s all ruined.
His crew will be furious. He’s going to have to deal with them, and even the thought makes his shoulders slump.
He can hear the criticism now: Why weren’t you here to keep an eye on things? Why didn’t you watch all the humans more closely? Vicky’s been saying that since the start of this reboot. She’s going to be forking delighted now.
The worst thing is, she’s not wrong. It was a mistake to separate the humans, even if that did let him keep an eye on the biggest pain in his ash. It just made it that much harder to know what was going on in their pointed heads. No, they need to be together in a unit that can be easily monitored. Besides, isn’t that the whole point? For them to torture each other?
Michael’s got to go back to the beginning. First principles. Put blabbermouth Tahani with Jason the silent chowderhead. (Oh. Chowder. That’s a thought.) Put the unscrupulous, incurious Eleanor with Professor Turtleneck--
He puts his hand on his stomach to repress a surge of--must be indigestion. That MRE he ate for lunch was a mistake. Worth it, though, for the sight of Eleanor pretending to enjoy nature.
Yes. Well. That was fun while it lasted, but it’s over now. It’s time to return to the basics.
Michael takes a deep breath and heads for the mouth of the cave. Night is falling quickly, but just enough light remains to see the wreckage. He winces when he beholds his lovely forest torn apart with bent or fallen trees all over the place, mud everywhere, animal constructs chased out of their nests and burrows.
Dang. That was one heck of a glitch.
Seven days later, Michael knows he made the correct decision.
Everything’s going smooth as silk, and he’s got a good feeling about it. Going back to the original formation was definitely the right idea. Find a formula that works, eliminate the rogue variables, and you’ll solve the equation just fine.
He picks up his recorder. It’s important to keep tracking his progress. When he triumphs--which he is definitely about to do--he wants to have it on tape, proof of what you can achieve after hard work and perseverance. A lot of perseverance.
Michael clicks the “record” button.
“Okay!” he says. “This might be the one. We’re a week in. Chidi’s teaching Eleanor, but she hates it.” Good. That’s good. That’s great, in fact. “Tahani still thinks that Jason’s a monk.” And she’s tearing out her perfect hair, as usual, which Michael finds more satisfying than he ever has before.
Finally, something positive he can bring to the meeting in just a few minutes. This is bound to lift morale. The stars are aligned, the train’s on the--
The train’s on the right track--
Right. It is. Everything’s coming up roses. Michael’s worked for two centuries and now, finally, he’s got this.
“Everyone’s miserable,” he says, and smiles. The corners of his mouth feel tight; there’s an ache in his head. “I’m so happy.”