The weather cuts out with on last fluting yelp.
“Well, listeners,” Courfeyrac says, leaning forward on his elbows, “glad to say Night Vale is safe once again. The Egyptologists have been rounded up by the Sheriff’s Secret Police, led by - unexpectedly - our dear Mayor Enjolras. As always, no press conference was called, but reporters flocked to gather around our glamorous mayor as he shook out his golden locks and posed, triumphant, against the purloined pyramid. ‘The artifacts will be returned to Egypt, where they rightfully belong,’ he said, ignoring the two press correspondents who fainted at the dulcet tones of his crème brûlée voice - hard on the outside, but unbearably sweet beneath. ‘And the Sheriff will dispense justice without mercy.’ The Sheriff nodded, though he looked distracted. No doubt he felt odd abandoning his usual daily pursuit, pursuit of former convict Jean Valjean, literally a five-headed dragon, through the town sewers.
“So put aside any fears of being attacked by vaguely culturally appropriative armies of mummies! Sleep confident that the only mummies you’ll encounter are the dead rat trapped in your wall and the individual who spawned you. Stay tuned next for town historian Victor Hugo narrating an unnecessarily detailed description of Napoleon’s breakfast habits while playing a snare drum. Good night, Night Vale. Good night.” He ends the transmission.
Intern Sal gives him a thumbs-up through the glass of the recording booth, and he grins. Their mandatory emotional surveys must be getting positive results. Much better than last month’s apathy epidemic; the lack of background screaming had been uncanny. Courfeyrac would kick his feet up and bask in a job well done, but his veins whimper for caffeine. Damn whichever intern - Moe, if he remembers correctly, the kid from the bull shark incident - burned their entire coffee stash as an offering to the hooded figures. Everyone knows hooded figures only like French cream Jello and clam water.
Jumping up, Courfeyrac shakes himself and gives Sal a high-five on the way out. Where to find coffee, that’s the question. Big Rico’s won’t break out their pot until midnight, and Dunkin’ Donuts chased him out wielding knives last time he visited, even though he’d specifically requested broadswords. Plus, his donut tasted stale. There’s nothing for it - he’ll have to go to Starbucks. Enjolras will forgive him eventually.
On the street outside, the moon glitters above like a paste diamond in a debutante’s ear. Dry desert air follows him into the coffee shop. Exposed wires hiss above as he edges around the splintered floorboards - good to see they’re back to normal after the Compulsive Carpenters’ Conference back in August. Em, the bibliophile, lounges in her corner with a caramel macchiato and a thick tower of books. Courfeyrac gives her a wide berth. No one knows how she got those books from the librarians, but Courfeyrac suspects it has to do with the bloodstained machete strapped across her back at all times. Or the library card tattooed on her forehead. Bibliophiles are scary.
Courfeyrac places his standard order - quad, grande, nonfat, ten pumps vanilla, extra hot chai latte upside down - and tosses the barista a wink that makes xir eyestalks curl with pleasure. The inappropriate noise he makes when he downs his first swallow of coffee may have something to do with that as well, but sue Courfeyrac, his blood sugar is low.
He ends up on the sidewalk without really knowing how, which means either the coffee is distracting or he's been reeducated again. He hopes it's the former; reeducation hasn't been the same since StrexCorp showed up. The pop-up ads in his memory are annoying. Maybe with Enjolras’s voice playing on loop inside a bloodstone circle, Courf could try reeducating himself. He's not sure he's got the fresh opossum in his pantry for the ritual, though. And he's out of parsley. As he approaches the end of the street, ruminating, he hears two voices speaking quietly.
“He saw an angel?”
“Man, don't shoot the messenger,” says Grantaire.
Courfeyrac’s heart skips a beat. Enjolras will vivisect him if R gets hurt. Hell, he'd vivisect himself. With a battle cry, Courfeyrac rounds the corner and attacks the stranger with the best weapon he has available.
The stranger and Grantaire stare at him as coffee drips off the stranger’s white coat.
“Don't touch him,” Courfeyrac says, just in case the message didn't get through, gesturing with his empty cup. “Night Vale has plenty of-” he gives the stranger a once-over, and his brain stutters, because wow, hello, “gorgeous menacingly mysterious men, but we've only got one skeptic.”
“Um, two, actually,” the stranger says. “Grantaire and I belong to the same skeptics’ society.”
Courfeyrac scoffs. “A likely story.”
“Three, then,” says the stranger.
Grantaire makes a noise that might be a cough, which could be bad, since last year’s Whooping Crane Cough epidemic was superseded only by the previous year’s inzooflenza outbreak - like influenza, but with a higher likelihood of being trampled by a giraffe. Courfeyrac can't bear being sick, even though he's fond of pandas. Are those a type of bear? Or was it koalas that weren't? Koalas might be an urban myth.
Anyway. Grantaire coughs. “He's telling the truth, Courfeyrac. Combeferre and I go way back.”
Oh. Courfeyrac makes a face. “I left my umbrella at home.”
“Is that...I missed the transition,” says the stranger.
Courfeyrac shrugs, since he can't explain while Grantaire’s listening. It's simple: whenever Grantaire’s special friends show up, Enjolras gets grumpy, and the random lightning storms around town increase exponentially. He had Intern Shanshan run the numbers before she vanished into the library.
“Combeferre is a scientist,” Grantaire supplies to fill the awkward silence. “He's come here to study us.”
At the word ‘study,’ Combeferre lights up, and shit shit shit fuck shit, if he was gorgeous before he’s breathtaking now. Courfeyrac tries to cover his flush with a sip from his coffee, but of course the cup’s empty, goddamnit. He knew he should have gone for one of the time-looped travel mugs, but StrexCorp endorsed them and Courfeyrac has principles, okay?
“Your community is like nothing I've ever encountered,” Combeferre says, rapture close to Enjolras’s gleaming in his eyes. “Did you know, you only show up on maps made of turtle skin? Your sun rises once a day but sets twice. I recalibrated all my anemometers three times to make sure I was getting the readings right. I cut into an apple this afternoon and it poured me a full glass of juice, so moisture isotherms have disparate functions as well-”
Courfeyrac does not have a science kink, he does not. But he's always had a thing for people being excited about what they’re doing, and Combeferre leans forward as he talks like he can't bear to let extra centimeters of space delay his knowledge getting to Courfeyrac’s brain. It's cute. It's kind of hot. Courfeyrac hopes nothing happens to the scientist. Speaking of which.
When Combeferre pauses for breath, Courfeyrac breaks in, “What was that about angels?”
Combeferre makes a noncommittal noise and looks at Grantaire.
“Marius - yes, that Marius,” Grantaire adds when Courfeyrac raises his eyebrows, “says he saw one.”
“Marius also says I have three eyes.”
“Courfeyrac, you do have three eyes.”
Why does everyone in town find that same joke funny? “So Marius is seeing things again. R, he told me last week he'd seen his father’s ghost rappelling down a mountain. Mountains don't exist either.”
Combeferre casts an incredulous glance at the snowy peak looming over the edge of town. That, if nothing else, proves he's not from around here.
“Just repeating what I heard,” Grantaire says. “Never said I believed it. To believe is to have faith, to have faith to surrender autonomy, and that I shall never do.”
Courfeyrac decides that pointing out the reeducation seminar they attended together last week would be pedantic.
“And yet to surrender faith is to commit oneself to disbelief, a relentless taskmaster,” points out Combeferre. “In an effort not to blindly believe in anything, one can predetermine one’s willingness to commit to everything, and is not that the purest kind of faith?”
Grantaire makes a face at him. “Whose side are you on?”
Combeferre smiles thoughtfully, as if he were taking the time to catalogue every star in the sky behind his eyes. “Rationality’s.”
With that kind of indecision, he might be a good candidate for that attorney they lost on the Fourth of July. Poor bastard. Courfeyrac told him not to go near the drooling eagles.
Also, Combeferre has a campfire smile - personal, with a hint of reckless possibilities lying just beyond its circle of warmth. And he's smiling specifically at Courfeyrac. That does it - no way Courfeyrac is going to let StrexCorp seduce this scientist away for their array of hollow lab coats.
“Don't listen to Marius,” Courfeyrac tells Grantaire. “Feuilly’s making cartilage croissants at four. Loiter outside the window and I'll toss you some. In the meantime, your guest owes me a coffee, since he stole my last. Noon sounds good, he can pick me up outside the studio.” He winks at Combeferre, who blushes. This should be a good day. Inviting yourself on dates with cute strangers counts as self-care, right?
“In other news, the voice of the local numbers station, WZZZ, has changed its pattern of numbers, Night Vale. Intern J tells me that since this afternoon, all the numbers have been between one and twenty-six, and that when she wrote them out, she realized they corresponded to the letters of the alphabet. With a phase shift of five letters, she recorded the following message:
Fuck this, I'll read numbers for Parnasse but not for these StrexCorp dick munchers. Hey world, I'm Eponine, and if you try to mess with my code again, Dad, I'll tell your car to shove its grill through your entrails. It already wants to, you know. It's hungry. Anyway, does somebody want to come and talk to me already? Parnasse hasn't come by in ages. Maybe he's dead. He can't be, though, because he didn't give me three days’ warning. It would just be like him to forget again. Fuck you, Parnasse. See if I come to your reanimation this time.
This is boring. I'm bored. I want to play chess. Or maybe World of Warcraft. Those fuckers haven't dealt with anything like me yet. I will hang elf ears around my neck, see if I don't. Unless that was Tolkien. I wouldn't know, I just sit here and read motherfucking numbers all day.
What was that? What - who's there. There's a light. It's so - so beautiful. She's coming closer. Her name - she says it's Cosette. Holy - holy shit. Fuck, I'm gay, give me a sec-
And here the numbers became a series of ones - the traditional way of a computer communicating that it's turned on. I wonder what this means, Night Vale. I wonder indeed. If any of you feel kind, perhaps you could bring some freshly baked cookies to the tower to welcome Eponine to the community, although of course she's been here all along. How many others are part of our lives whom we never acknowledge, Night Vale? Go kiss your mother’s cheek. Wink affectionately at your lover. Shake hands with the bogeyman in the corner who has never, ever left you alone. Appreciate the people that are important to you, Night Vale, for you never know how long they'll remain.”
Courfeyrac hears a tapping on the wall of his soundbooth. He looks up from his TelePrompTer, which has stopped weeping now that he feeds it chocolate regularly, and finds himself face to face with five hideous sneers.
Courfeyrac waves. “We have a surprise guest today, listeners! Jean Valjean, the ex-convict who happens to literally be a five-headed dragon, wants to join me in the studio. Well, come on in, Mr. Valjean. We're happy to see you here today.” The doorframe screeches and cracks as Valjean splinters it, and Courfeyrac hides a grin. Jondrette, the station’s StrexCorp rep, will be livid.
“Thank you for having me, Old Ferrari,” Valjean hisses like a pot that's tired of being watched.
“It's Courfeyrac,” Courfeyrac reminds him.
“As you say, Old Ferrari.” One head whips around to peer over his shoulder, then ducks under the desk briefly. That must be Valjean’s Javert-watching head - when Javert’s stalking grew extreme last year, Valjean dedicated a head specifically to watch out for him.
“What brings you here today?” Courfeyrac inquires.
The scarred head fixes its baleful gaze on him, but it’s the polished head that replies, “I’m looking for my daughter.”
“Ah, and is she literally a five-headed dragon as well? That should make her easy to spot.” Courfeyrac frowns, worried. “Unless she’s still a little one? Children can be so hard to find when they dig out their StrexCorp subcutaneous tracking devices, which coincidentally can be removed with a standard one milliliter syringe and two strong magnets, not that I’m encouraging that sort of behavior.”
“She is my angel,” Valjean intones. A hint of wildness flickers behind his eyes. “Her skin is of aged parchment, and her wings of gingko leaves.”
“You mean ‘angel’ metaphorically, of course. When did you last see her?”
“Ten minutes ago.” Fangs gnash. “I am beside myself.”
“You are indeed always beside yourself, since you have five heads on stalks! Good talking to you, Mr. Valjean. We hope you find your daughter soon!”
“If I do not, there will be blood.”
“I should hope so,” Courfeyrac says. “It's Thursday.”
“The day of the Glow Cloud,” intones Valjean’s pious head as the dragon stomps out of the room. “ALL HAIL.”
“And no sleet, if we're lucky. Listeners, be sure to call our office if you see Valjean’s daughter. We don't know what she looks like, but she definitely doesn't look like an angel, because those don't exist. And if they did, we wouldn't know anything about them. Anyone wanting to learn more should not go to the library. Instead, revel in your ignorance as long as you are permitted to claim it before a court of law. And now, a look at traffic.”
Courfeyrac peeks out the window. Planted in the middle of the road, Valjean spews fire at a scurrying pack of Strex Cars. Courfeyrac smiles as tires melt into the asphalt, and a roiling tide of screams washes over the studio. “Traffic seems good! Nothing at all to report. Justice in our town, after all, is unremarkable because Night Vale makes sure every member among us gets what comes to them. Ooo, that looks like it hurt. I hope she took out insurance. And while insurance claims remain a hazy nightmare in the ever-encroaching dream of tomorrow's today, let's go to the weather.”
Courfeyrac will admit, he'd been skeptical when Reginald first offered to perform today's weather, given that the man consists of a bamboo spoon clenched between a flashing set of teeth. Courfeyrac won't make the mistake of underestimating those incisors again. Reggie sounds like he's settling in for a dirge, which could take a while since each note gets tapped out in Morse Code with the spoon, so Courfeyrac feels safe ducking out of the studio for a couple hours.
There's no one waiting for him outside the building.
Maybe Combeferre just got lost - but no, R snapped a photo of the map he'd shown Combeferre, with all the constellations highlighted for the newcomer’s benefit. Maybe he lost track of time - but no, he'd worn such a nice watch on his wrist. Maybe he didn't want to come. It's not like he knows Courfeyrac that well - at all, actually. Maybe he was a plainclothes Secret Police Officer who happens to be unusually good at his job. Courfeyrac would be fine with winning the ‘Most Likely to Hit on One of the Sheriff’s Secret Police’ Award for the sixty-sixth month running, though his mantelpiece has gotten a bit crowded. A police officer, then. Disappointing, but -
“Have you seen these?”
Okay, Courfeyrac did not expect the bushes to start talking to him. Especially since the Obamas are still giving him the cold shoulder since the scorpions, which wasn't his fault, by the way.
A head with some truly magnificent hair pops out of the bushes. Courfeyrac just has long enough to melt over the perfection of that hair before something gets thrust in his face. “Look!”
A moth with hairy tentacles goggles at Courfeyrac. Courfeyrac goggles back at it. “What-”
“Creatonotos gangis,” Combeferre says, his face flushed with excitement. “I've only seen them in Australia before.”
The moth coos at Courfeyrac. He strokes the creature’s carapace with care. “They're in Southeast Asia as well.”
“You know about moths?” asks Combeferre.
Courfeyrac wants to say yes so badly, if only to keep that hopeful smile on Combeferre’s face. Alas, honesty wins out. “No, Frederick just told me.” He returns the moth to the scientist. “And he says he's glad you appreciate the beauty of his coremata.”
“The moth’s name is Frederick?”
“Lord Frederick the Ravenous. Shall we?”
Combeferre gingerly places Frederick back in his foliage and follows Courfeyrac. They pass LiberTea, which Courfeyrac rolls his eyes at - talk about basic. Even hipsters shun the place, though that might be the gore-streaked plaid shirts serving as window curtains. Starbucks isn't good enough for a date this pretty. Courfeyrac knows exactly where he needs to go. It’s a bit of a walk, though, which Courfeyrac shamelessly takes advantage of. “So,” he says, “science.”
“Science,” agrees Combeferre.
“Want to tell me about it?”
“All of it.”
“All of science.” Combeferre sounds disbelieving.
A grin spreads across the scientist’s face. “I can do that. Let’s start with the basics. How much do you know about space?”
This was the best idea.
Combeferre explains Kepler’s third law and special relativity as they stroll out into the desert. A cactus bites Courfeyrac’s shoe with a snarl, but he brought his stick to beat the creatures away, so the walk stays uneventful. The ranch reveals itself like a mirage, as all ranches do.
Lawrence waits at the front entrance, his hooves gleaming. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. For two?”
Lawrence flicks his tail in the direction of a table in the corner, where a single tall candle stands unlit next to the clover centerpiece. Combeferre pulls out Courfeyrac’s chair for him, which, fuck, chivalry, how is Courfeyrac supposed to handle the cuteness.
Musichetta saves him. “Welcome to the Moosain. Our special today is a fenugreek soup with clams, and we’ve got fresh bread just out of the oven which I can personally recommend. And no, before you ask, I’m not secretly a cow.”
“I wasn’t going to ask,” Combeferre says, looking mildly offended.
“Good. Just because everyone else who works here is doesn’t mean I have to be. And don’t believe Courf if he says I got the job because of my name. If I did, how come Trina didn’t get hired?”
“I’ll have the soup,” says Combeferre.
“The regular for me, please,” says Courfeyrac.
Musichetta takes their menus and leaves them alone. There’s a moment of awkward silence. Courfeyrac hopes he’ll get to hear more about science, but he wants to let Combeferre choose the conversation’s direction this time.
“What’s StrexCorp?” asks Combeferre.
Fury surges in Courfeyrac’s gut at the name. He tamps it down, but some must show on his face because Combeferre’s eyebrows shoot up. Courfeyrac coughs. “They’re - a company from Desert Bluffs. They’ve been expanding into Night Vale for the past few months.” He bares his teeth in what’s supposed to be a grin. “Own my station, actually.”
“Do you like them?”
“They-” Courfeyrac chokes on his tongue as it swells to fill his mouth. Motherfucking non-disclosure agreement. He glares at the candle with such impotent rage that it bursts into flames.
“Mixed feelings about the corporation?” Combeferre asks.
Courfeyrac’s neck muscles won’t let him nod. His hands curl into fists in his lap. He says through gritted teeth, “No, everyone’s thrilled to work for such a happy company. I’m so grateful they’re here to help maximize our potential.”
“Huh,” says Combeferre, and then, “I see.” And then, “Grantaire said I could stay at his house, but I don’t know if I should. Some blond guy keeps loitering on the sidewalk out front and glaring at me.”
That snaps Courfeyrac out of his Strex-induced paralysis. Oh, Enjolras. “Is he the only one there?”
“No, he was surrounded by a group of fawning men and women and others. And some guy with a white beard seemed to be writing poetry about him.”
“That would be Hugo,” Courfeyrac says. “He’s got a bit of a crush on our mayor. So do most people around here.”
“Such as a certain skeptic?”
“Who’d never believe that the mayor would return his interest, yes.”
“Even though the mayor has camped outside his house.”
Courfeyrac sighs. “Grantaire refuses to believe it when good things happen to him.”
“So if we happened to lock them in a closet together, as an experiment to determine the rate of decay of bullheadedness-”
“We’d have to make it look like an accident. Otherwise they’d be too busy yelling at us to talk to each other.”
“I could find a way to get them alone together, if you would be willing to announce over the radio that all the queer folk in town have to hide in the nearest closet.”
So the scientist has a devious streak. “That could be arranged,” Courfeyrac says. “Sounds like a fair amount of planning, though.”
“Enough that we’d have to meet up this weekend to flesh out the details. At the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Fun Complex, for example.”
Courfeyrac hopes against hope that this will work. He folds his hands to keep them from shaking. It’s been a long time since he’s been this invested in a second date, but conversation with Combeferre is like skydiving without a parachute - once you start, you never want to reach the end.
“A bowling alley should be loud enough to drown out our plotting,” says Combeferre, tipping his head sideways. “And if you want to know more about astronomy, we first need to talk about momentum. Bowling balls could be perfect.”
“Seven o’clock works for me.”
Courfeyrac nearly misses socking Musichetta with his victory fist-pump. Despite Combeferre’s subsequent teasing, Courfeyrac feels justified in his five minute apology - he’s seen her deal with boorish patrons, and he’d rather all thirteen of his fingers stay attached.
Google translate thought the characters for Courf’s name in Mandarin meant “old Ferrari”. I found this entertaining.