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"I'll tell you what we'll do, we'll try again, and this time, try not to go on fire. I think that would be the best."

 

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Cecil glared at him. "You're looking at them. Stop looking at them."

"I can't not look at them when they're right there. Anyway, I like them." They were watching the sky from a shamefully clichéd plaid picnic blanket. Carlos pointed up at the clutch of tiny clouds gamely making their way across the desert sky. "That one looks like a hummingbird."

"It is dangerous to look at them or think about them. And it's a goatee, not a hummingbird. No one even knows what they are."

"We know what hummingbirds are, Cecil."

"Clouds!"

Oh God, Carlos thought, Not this again. "Those too."

"Can't hear you."

"It's water--"

Cecil jammed his fingers in his ears and glared. "LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!!!"

Patience, Carlos. "Sorry."

Cecil removed his fingers from his ears.

"Water vapor!" Carlos said quickly.

"Dammit!"

"It's just science. It's nothing to be scared of." He grinned in a way he hoped was wicked and not utterly creepy. "You're very into science these days."

Cecil blushed. The color of the moment was a gorgeous lapis blue. "You stop that."

"And sometimes the other way around."

Cecil was laughing now. "Stahhhhhhhp!"

They stared up in silence. The blue was endless, but less terrifying than it might have been. Even this far out of Night Vale, it could take on an existential emptiness that threatened gravity's grip. Sometimes, when Carlos found himself part of a small crowd, screaming at the sky, he wondered if this was an actual, measurable quality, or just ordinary mass hysteria. He’d have to come up with an experiment.

Cecil sighed. "Sometimes I think you think I'm stupid."

And our next guest: Passive-Aggressive Cecil. "No, I don't."

"You don't?"

"If I thought you were stupid, I wouldn't, y'know, ever talk to you. I admit, I find your education completely baffling..."

"Says the guy who's never had Basic Transmigration."

"See? You know about the hierarch--"

"NO!" Fingers in the ears again.

Carlos waited until they came out. "Sorry, sorry, this week you don't know about the hierarchy of angels, and I know about...science."

"Psh. What is science, anyway?"

"Don't 'psh' science."

"No, seriously, what is it?"

"Well, it's...it's everything!"

"Start small, Carlos."

Carlos pondered. "Well...it's all about asking questions."

"What kind of questions?"

This was harder to answer than it should have been. Everything, to Carlos, called up questions. There were mysteries in the weave of his lab coat (petroleum and cotton -- geology, chemistry, biology, and botany -- with a bonus fuckton of economic history attached to both), in the color of Cecil's hair at any given moment, in the way the layers of hot desert air refracted the sunlight. He could read stories going back billions of years in the tiny rock fragments in a block of pavement, or follow a long evolutionary chain in the twist of a blade of grass. "All right. Say you're on the sidewalk outside of Big Rico's. One square of pavement is whole and the next one is cracked into half a dozen sections. Why are they different? What made one of them fracture?"

"Hiram McDaniels."

Godammit Cecil. "Try to imagine that you're in a town that doesn't have an 1,800-pound dragon running around -- and anyway, he's in jail -- let me start again."

"On the sidewalk in front of Big Rico's, you're more likely to find bullet chips."

"Let's try something that's right here. How about that crack in the ground over there by your head?"

Cecil looked to his left, then frowned. "The one that wasn't there a minute ago?"

"Yes -- wait, what?"

"It wasn't there before. Oh, cool, it's getting bigger."

A klaxon went off in Carlos' head. "Get up, Cecil."

"Look at that! You can see it--"

"GET UP!" He yanked Cecil up by the shirt collar and pulled him away from the fissure.

"Ow okay okay--"

"Run!" They were already running.

"Which way?"

"I DON'T KNOW JUST AWAY FROM IT I think it's a sinkhole which I also think is impossible in the desert unless there's an aquifer which there almost certainly isn't because it's the fucking desert just away from it!"

Cecil looked behind. "Go left!"

They went left.

"Oh shit go more left!"

Carlos went more left, though doing so offended his sense of geometry. "That's really not a good str--"

Now Cecil was pulling Carlos. "IT! IS! CHASING! US!"

"Oh shit oh shit run away from the car!" He had no idea what was going on, but having their only way back to town swallowed up by the earth -- possibly with them -- was not an effective survival strategy.

Carlos' turn to look back. The crack had widened enough to swallow their picnic, blanket and all. "My Grandma made that blanket!"

The ground rumbled. "What do we do?" Cecil looked terrified.

Carlos felt terrified. "I don't know I don't know I don't --"

There was a sound like dull lightning. Oh good even more terror.

Cecil shoved Carlos hard. "'Scuse me."

Carlos hit the ground, breath knocked out of him. "Ow." He turned over in time to see Cecil silhouetted against a rising cloud of dust. "Cecil!"

Cecil actually managed to ride the edge of the widening fissure for a moment -- until it stopped, and the sudden lack of momentum proved more than he could cope with. His arms windmilled as he tried to keep from falling backwards into the crevice.

Carlos was saucer-eyed. "Cecil!" He lurched forward, nowhere near fast enough to grab Cecil's hand.

"Oh, shi--" Cecil vanished into the dust cloud.

"CECIL!"

 

Now, if you happen to be a scientist, or even if you aren't, all of this raises any number of questions. For example: What the fuck just happened? That’s a good question to start with.

 

What the fuck just happened? Carlos managed to not jump straight into the hole after Cecil, though it took actual effort and a strong reminder that landing on Cecil, wherever he'd fallen, would not in any way help either of them, while not landing on Cecil could earn him a pair of broken legs. Instead, he circled the edge of the pit until he found a shelf a few feet down that looked like it might take his weight. He couldn't see the bottom for the dust, and was well aware that he was doing a very stupid thing. But...Cecil.

"I'm coming! Hang on!"

He made the descent in a long, sandy spiral, showering rocks and roots and surprising a jackrabbit whose burrow had gained an unexpected window. The dust was blinding and his footing uncertain. He could never have done it if he'd thought about it too closely. But jumping into literal and spatiotemporal holes without thinking had become a recurring motif in Carlos' life in recent months. He put this down to Cecil's influence. One guy jumps blindly into a vortex, next thing you know everybody wants in on that action. He tried very hard not to think about the consequences of the last time he'd done it. I mean, you nearly die, accidentally massacre hundreds of tiny innocents, get another guy killed saving you, trigger a lopsided genocidal war, and suddenly it's a big deal.

"Okay," came from below.

"Cecil! Don't move!" He's talking he's not dead he's not dead it'll be fine.

"...kay."

"Fuck!" Carlos tripped and faceplanted in the sand. He'd gone as far down as he could go, apparently. "Ow."

Okay, up. Stand up, genius. He managed this after a moment or five.

He looked up, saw hard sunbeams filtering through the slowly settling dust, the walls of the crevasse -- no, that's ice, this is rock, you can't have a crevasse in rock -- seeming, impossibly, to lean inwards. He began to reconsider the wisdom of his actions. How the hell had he made it down here in one piece? He couldn't retrace his path. It seemed -- once again, impossibly -- to have vanished. "Oh, man, this is some serious Picnic at Hanging Rock shit."

"I said don't come down," said a plaintive voice at his feet.

"Cecil!" Carlos dropped to his knees, torn between wanting to kiss the holy living bejesus out of Cecil and not touching him because you don't touch a person when they might be injured and really breaky and you have no idea what you're doing. When you're a scientist it is vitally important to know when you have no idea what you're doing. Carlos had no idea what he was doing. "You said 'Okay!'"

Cecil was half-buried in sand, his face coated in dust, his eyes luminous in contrast. "No, I said, 'I will be okay, don't come down here, I will be okay, but whatever you do, do not come down here, it isn't safe.' More or less."

"Oh." Damn. Princess Bride. Apologies, Peter Weir. "I didn't hear the whole thing. I got the wrong movie, sorry. Actually that may just be in the book."

Cecil looked puzzled. Carlos couldn't blame him.

"Never mind. Are you hurt?" This was a patently stupid question. A human leg was not supposed to bend that way.

"I'm okay. I've lost my glasses. I am reasonably certain that my back is broken."

For a few moments, Carlos couldn't make any sort of words. "How...how is that in any way consistent with being okay?"

"Well, it means I can't feel anything from, oh, yay down, so it doesn't hurt that much."

Really really really not in the mood for your cockeyed optimism right now. "Cecil!"

"And I said I will be okay."

If we get out of this, I will fucking dissect you. "Did you hit your head?"

"Possibly. But it's all right."

"HOW IS ANY OF THIS ALL RIGH--sorry, sorry."

"Don't shout. Oh, and sinkholes are collapsing underground caves and don't need water."

"Oh my God, you're right. Good catch."

"I did science!" Cecil grinned, pleased, but then he coughed wetly, and now there were bits of scarlet on the dust. "It'll be...oh hey, hemorrhaging internally. Careful of your coat."

"It's already filthy, you loon. Cecil, I--"

Cecil frowned, looking inward. "Actually you should really take a step back. I don't know what's..."

"Cecil--" He couldn't think of anything to do but kiss Cecil, very carefully, and lace their fingers together.

Cecil smiled dimly. "That's nice. I promise, it's okay. It's okay. It's okay." His eyes closed.

Carlos crumpled like a paper bag, all the light and air suddenly gone from the world. "No, no, no, you can't you can't OH HOLY SHIT WHAT THE HELL OW!"

He'd burnt his mouth.

And his hand.

Carlos' thingonomic nervous system took over and in half a second he'd crabwalked twenty feet backwards into the crevasse wall. Autonomic? No. Withdrawal reflex? I am the worst scientist. And it is not a crevasse, get it right.

What the hell? I was having a thing here I WAS HAVING A FUCKING MOMENT HERE but Cecil was on fire. Cecil was broken and dead and on fucking fire. Carlos wondered if shouting Stop being on fire! would do any good. Probably not. Besides, he was shaking too hard.

The fire grew brighter and hotter until he could no longer look at it, and he could swear it was shrieking, or maybe that was just him, and then...and then...nothing.

Well, not completely nothing, not Night Vale void nothing. Just dark and quiet. Well, actually, it was broad daylight. But he'd stared into the flames like a complete idiot and now his vision was nothing but throbbing Kirby dots.

"Cecil?" he ventured.

Nothing.

 

Carlos crawled forward on hands and knees. This was partly because he was not certain he could actually stand, but mainly because pure animal terror told him to keep his head down. Because...well, because. He did his best not to inhale, because...he didn't let himself think about why. He especially tried not to notice the taste of baked blood on his lips.

He didn't know what he expected to find. Actually, that was a lie. He knew perfectly well what he expected to find -- the person he liked best out of a planet of billions of too smart for their own good primates, reduced to hot black ash and spikey bits and maybe the shoes still with feet in them, like the photos of spontaneous human combustion victims he'd collected as a child.

You were a weird kid, Carlos, he told himself.

Shut up, Carlos, he replied.

And you're talking to yourself.

Shut your hole.

There was black, all right. A patch of scorched earth and sand made by God's own Krylon can, lightly sprinkled with still-falling dust. But there weren't any...bits. There was some smoldering brush, and a hot smell like -- oh thank you, God, only like a badly overheating laptop left in a car in a mall parking lot for a week. And holy shit, some of the sand had turned to glass. I have got to get samples of this, a small part of him thought. You shut the goddamn hell up, he told that small part.

There was nothing at all that might have once been Cecil. Apparently Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had grown bored and wandered off.

This was, of course, impossible. Burning a human body takes ages, and the end product is never nothing at all. And anything hot enough to instantly vaporize Cecil would have done the same to Carlos, and anything else in the crevasse. It's not a crevasse! Pit. Canyon? Gorge? Goddammit.

Oh. Wait. His eyes adjusted. In the center of the black patch, there was a round thing, not quite the size or shape of a football. Coated in the same matte black that surrounded it. Carlos scrambled for it. Don't be a skull don't be a skull don't be a skull crap it's gonna be a skull Alas poor Cecil well at least I found your...

It was hot to the touch, but not too hot to touch. It might or might not have made an inaudible musical sound, like a fall of fat snowflakes or the soft call of budding leaves.

...egg?

Of course. An egg. Why not? Why not an egg? Show me an egg. That's not an egg!

It was an egg.

So. There was Carlos, sitting cross-legged at the bottom of a hole in the desert, covered in his...in Cecil's...covered in black ash, and holding an egg.

A really big egg.

Really really big black -- oh. No. The black came off easily onto his fingers and trousers and lab coat, adding a new layer of filth over the desert dust. Underneath, it was a subtle and delicate sprouting green, shot with threads of pale sunset blue.

I don't understand.

You understand perfectly well, said the argumentative bit of his brain, which had finally given up, detached completely, and was currently floating over his head, watching dispassionately.

Have I ever mentioned how annoying you can be? Carlos asked Floaty brain. You did this shit at Dad's funeral, critiquing the mourners' outfits and cataloging the flowers. On September 11 you earwormed me with "It's Raining Men!"

Floaty brain didn't answer.

Still, Carlos couldn't argue the point. He wanted to weep, or howl, but his strength was gone and he'd had enough and he was weirdly cold -- That would be shock, genius -- though the egg at least was warm, and everything was static, the sound his radio made when he used to fall asleep in the lab pretending he wasn't listening to that creepy Cecil guy's voice and only had the radio on for noise, and then wake hours later to find the station off the air and nothing in the lab fridge. Not the food fridge, at least. So: static.

Good night, place many miles outside of Night Vale. Good night.

It's two in the afternoon, Floaty Brain reminded him. Actually, I think it’s a lot later than that. Have you noticed the sun isn't moving?

I said Good night.

 

In the small desert city of Night Vale, out by the car lot, next to the empty trailer with the FOR RENT sign, inside Old Woman Josie's house, an angel (it was Erika) looked up from Law and Order and said, "Fiat vox!"

Erika and Erika chirped agreement from the kitchen, where they were making popcorn. Josie had taught them to do it properly, on the stove. None of that stinky microwave crap in her house, thank you.

Josie closed her eyes and sighed. "Again?"

"Metatron," Erika agreed from the armchair where it was happily sorting socks. Josie had no idea whose socks they were, where they came from, or where they went after Erika sorted them. Erika had an unending supply that could be summoned at will. Occasionally a pair that had belonged to Josie years before would land in Josie's lap. If it wasn't still wearable, an Erika would get a sock monkey out of it. Josie hated waste.

One of the popcorn Erikas, the one with the flammable-looking Christmas pageant wings, stood in the kitchen door, head inclined. "A flower in the desert," it said.

"Oh," said Josie. "Oh, that poor boy." Josie was at the age where pretty much anyone who wasn't Josie was "kid" or "boy" or "girly" or "bitsy."

Popcorn Erika nodded gravely.

The other popcorn Erika, the one without the fake, flammable-looking Christmas pageant wings, said, "Sole occidentalis."

Josie put her head in her hands. Dammit. It was one of the Robert Foxworth episodes. Every time she wanted to watch something... "All right. Who's got the car keys?"

"Erika," chimed several voices.

Crap. That meant Erika -- the one with the ghost wings -- was at the Night Vale Cinema 6, possibly until closing. Which might not be for some time, if they didn’t get a move on. "Okay. Erika, Erika, and Erika, get your shoes and your bus passes. We're going to the movies."

Erika with the clockwork wings made a sad noise.

"Yes, you can come too." Damn angels were like dogs at the merest hint of a ride in a vehicle.

 

Carlos could hear something over the nothing. He tried hard to ignore it. It was lovely to rest, and not to think.

Normally he was a big fan of thinking -- I'm very into thinking, these days, said a chirrupy voice somewhere -- but sometimes, sometimes, you get dumped in a hole with your all time favorite fella and he stops working and catches on fire and everything is dusty and awful and hurts and nothing will ever be good again, and seriously, just fuck thinking.

Mump.

Stop it.

Mump.

Oh. Right. Egg.

Mump.

Carlos blinked, and came back to himself. Yup, still awful. But he had an egg to look after, and it was doing things.

It wasn't really a sound. For such a noisy thing, the egg made no sound at all. It was more of a feeling, like the quiet beating of a heart.

Mump. It was actually moving now, rocking a little in his arms.

Oh. Well. Here we go. Better than waiting weeks and weeks, I suppose. He'd had visions of building an incubator in the lab. Nothing difficult. Incubators were grade school science fair stuff, a box with a lightbulb. Egg this size, maybe three lightbulbs.

Mummmpcrk, went the egg. Carlos was definitely awake now. And thinking, unfortunately, but you can't have everything.

Yay, Carlos thought drily. My giant egg is hatching. This is just the latest in a series of sentences I did not expect to say today. I imagine there will be more.

MumpleCRIK. A bit chipped off and fell into his lap.

So. Are we taking bets? Lot of lizards around here. I like lizards. Snake? Do snakes come out of eggs? I can't remember. But I swear to God, if it's a snake I will scream like a really scientific girl and probably throw it, very hard and very scientifically. Because I am a scientist and that is how I do things and I will scream and throw snakes for science. He'd come home to a breadbox full of black snakes one day shortly after his arrival in Night Vale. He hadn't enjoyed it. At least the fridge snakes had been cold and slow and dopey enough to bag and tag ("SNAKES -- KEEP COLD -- DO NOT OPEN"). The freezer snakes, of course, had never stood a chance.

Oh, God, what if it's a baby? What the hell will I do with a baby? Can I just go back to town, 'Hi, no big, just found this here egg baby.' It can sleep in a dresser drawer like my uncle had to during the war. Was the egg big enough to hold a baby? How big are babies? Ladies with babies are bigger than this, but they have all those organs and muscles and pelvises and stretch pants. Is it going to be all covered in horrible stuff like a baby? What if the Council takes it away? I want to keep my baby!

Carlos sighed. I have gone insane.

Chip chip crk. More bits coming off. Cracks. Cracks and bits. Don't help it you're not supposed to help them no that's wild birds you dumbfuck not magic eggs. Help it out of there. Oh God I'll be the first thing it sees and I'll imprint on it and it'll follow me around the lab and crap everywhere.

That is definitely a beak sticking out of there, yup.

"Oh, screw it." He got a thumb or two in and helped the poor thing break its way out. Very carefully, because he didn't know how fragile the occupant was compared to its shell, or whether it was bitey, and there was a layer of wet membrane that was, to be unscientific but honest, super gross.

"Cheep," said the beak. Baby's first words. The head was free now. It had thousand year old eyes, squeezed shut against the light and goo.

"Yeah, yeah. Take it easy."

"Cheep cheep."

"Doing my best here." he got the last of the shell and membrane peeled off, revealing a large, fantastically ugly, wet baby bird the size of a pug dog that unfolded into an uncoordinated mess in his lap.

"Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep," it said. Then, with visible effort, it opened its eyes -- it had front-facing eyes like an owl -- and stared straight at Carlos. Its eyes were not quite blue and not quite grey and not quite violet, a color that Carlos knew well enough to pick out of a Pantone sample book, though no mere flat color, no matter how cleverly mixed, would ever be quite right. Nothing -- no one else had eyes like that. No one else ever looked at him with that expression of goony optimism. He'd seen it too many times.

This is what I've been saying, said floaty brain.

"Cheep!" said the chick, delighted to see him.

"I'm not your mommy," Carlos told it sternly.

"Cheep!"

"No."

"Cheep!"

"Oh fine."

 

Dry desert air, rudimentary beak grooming, and Carlos occasionally offering a fluffing finger or two turned the newly hatched, sopping horror into a slightly less hideous chick coated in grey fluff. The raptor head was hidden under a great dandelion ball of feathers, topped with a cowlick crest that made it look like a cross between a baby owl and a rockhopper penguin. Okay. I am not a birding...thologist...guy, but penguins, I am pretty sure penguins do not have feet with big curtain hook claws. It looked largely harmless, but... stereopsis, beak like that, totally an aerial predator. Probably just as well I'm its mommy so it doesn't try to kill me.

It could be a giant mommy-eating goshawk, offered Floaty Brain. They're vicious bastards.

Look, if I can't depend on you to at least be factual, go away, Carlos replied.

Much of the grey was ash picked up from Carlos' lab coat. The coat itself was an unholy mess, but Carlos kept it on because it was the only familiar thing left in the world.

Did you hear the thing I said earlier about the sun? Because it’s been in exactly the same place in the sky since your boyfriend snuffed it.

"I don't suppose you understand any of this?" he asked the bird.

"Bek." Hopping curtain hook claw penguin thing had progressed from "Cheep" to a louder "Bek." Because why not?

"What good are you?"

"Bek," the bird chided.

"Sorry. Are you hungry?" He produced a foil-wrapped bar from his shirt pocket. "I have oaty granola."

"Bek!" They shared the bar. Carlos tried to give the bird the whole thing, but hopping curtain hook claw penguin thing insisted on taking turns, butting Carlos' hand if he didn't at least fake taking a nibble for himself. Really, for an unnatural abomination, it was pretty considerate. He put some of the remaining water from his bottle into the palm of his hand, but the bird refused it. Carlos, choking on dust and tired of the thing banging against his leg, swallowed the little that was left in the bottle and tossed it away.

He immediately felt guilty for littering.

The bottle hit a rock and made a clong noise, startling well-mannered hopping curtain hook claw penguin thing. It made a screep! noise and shook itself, spraying eye-stinging dried egg ick and powdered ash everywhere, and the grey fluff bloomed into a handsome red-gold.

Carlos wiped stuff from his eyes and grinned. "Hah! Look at you. You're gonna grow up cute."

The bird dipped its head modestly. "Bek."

Kids. They grow up so fast. Copper hopping curtain hook claw penguin thing started exploring, going from Carlos' lap to the sandy floor and back again, pecking at things that it might also have been eating -- Carlos really didn't care to know, and busied himself with cleaning the worst of the ash, shed feathers, and shell fragments from his clothing. He pocketed the biggest fragments for later study. He had no reason to believe that he'd ever get a chance to examine them properly, but it made him feel better to try. Habit. Besides, the shell bits were pretty.

"BWERK!"

Okay, a new noise.

"BWERK BWERK BWERK BWERK!"

Bird really liked its new noise.

"Okay, I'm coming. I should walk around anyway. See where we are."

I’m going to say this again. Please listen to me. The sun has been sitting there in that pointy bit at the end of the crevasse ever since we’ve been down here. Something is very very wrong.

It’s not a crevasse. Carlos slid off his rock. He'd feel incredibly stupid if he died of thirst ten feet away from a cunningly hidden elevator door. Well, he wouldn't actually feel stupid, being dead and all, but --

"BWERRRRRK!" said the copper hopping penguin happily, at least as near as you can tell with a bird, and ran up Carlos' trouser leg, flapping -- "Ow ow ow claws claws claws claws!" -- and into his arms. Carlos held onto it, in no small part to stop it from ripping up his chest.

Copper hopping curtain hook claw penguin with Cecil's eyes nuzzled him under the chin. "Bwerk," it said tenderly. Then suddenly its head rotated like a tiny adorable Linda Blair and its gaze fixed on...

Oh yay, Carlos thought. A scorpion. Just what we need. He backed away from it. "Okay, we'll just stay over here, maybe look for a nice scorpion-crushing rock in case it gets tetchy." Most of the local scorpions couldn't do anything other than cause a grown adult pain and annoyance, but a copper hopping curtain hook claw penguin thing with Cecil's eyes and the body mass of a small toddler was a different story.

"BWERK!" The bird leapt out of his arms ("CLAWS!"), flapping, running towards the scorpion.

"No! You're too small, the venom can --"

Zwoot! The bird spat a thin line of fire at the scorpion, instantly roasting it.

"'Kay," said Carlos. A copper hopping curtain hook claw penguin thing with Cecil's eyes that shoots fucking fire.

The baby bird gobbled the scorpion up like a dog treat, and BWERKed at Carlos happily.

"Gross."

At least that explained why it didn't want any water.

Carlos wished he felt the same.

 

Carlos managed a circumnavigation of the creva -- No! It is not a crevasse! -- of the as yet unclassified ground...hole...thing. There were no hidden elevators, ladders, ropes, folding fire escapes, or stairs. And he had not been mistaken, the walls definitely sloped inward, forming an overhang. How had he even got down here?

It chased you, Floaty Brain reminded him. If it could chase you around the desert, then it could make you a nice safe way down and then take it away.

That isn't possible.

If you can't see what's right in front of you, then I have nothing more to say, huffed Floaty Brain.

That is such a lie. Floaty Brain always came back.

It wasn't a box canyon or a blind valley. There was no exit. It might actually be a sinkhole. Good sciencing, there, Cecil.

A sinkhole that chases people?

Fuck off. It wasn't made by running water, so it wasn’t a canyon, ravine, gorge, or gully.

Floaty Brain was not fucking off. Actually Floaty Brain sounded a bit angry. It should be a lot cooler down here, but it is getting hotter and hotter because the sun is pouring right in on you. I don’t know why you’re not listening to me.

All right! I hear you! I get it! Yes it’s hellaciously hot and awful down here and getting worse and time doesn't work here and the clocks are wrong and I am very, very unhappy right now but yes, I hear you. I promise you, no one thinks more highly of my abilities than I do, but I really don’t know how I am supposed to jump-start the sun from the bottom of a hole in the desert.

Floaty Brain was silent for a moment. Then it said, Mirrors?

Just let me take care of one thing at a time, okay?.

"Bwerk!" said the penguin thing from nearby.

Carlos reached down absently to scratch its head.

"Bwerk!" The little fucker headbutted him in the leg.

"What?"

It hopped up and down, flapping its stubby wings. "Bwerk!"

"Is something the matter?"

Then he heard it. A low-pitched rumble, screaming ghost train rails, a rhythm felt as much as heard, and the long honk of a car horn. A voice in his head, filtered, as though someone had installed a budget tannoy in his brain:

For your convenience, free shuttle buses will be provided at the moment of greatest despair and hopelessness, when you least expect it. A shuttle bus will come to you. Thank you for your patience.

Apparently the bird heard it, too, and met his eyes, terrified.

It was the sound of a subway.

Carlos held out his arms. "It's okay. Come here."

The bird ran for him, flapping frantically, and squawking, and jumped. Carlos caught it handily, then fell on his ass.

"Ow! Don't worry. Don't -- Jeez, you're getting big -- CLAWS WATCH THE CLAWS!" The bird burrowed into his coat.

There was a whirling of air, and a rushing noise, and beeping horn...and a small shuttlebus appeared, the kind hotels run to airports, with "NIGHT VALE TRANSIT AUTHORITY -- Oh the place you will go!" emblazoned on the side.

The driver honked the horn cheerily, opened the door, and turned to look at them. It was wearing a business suit, and had the face -- actually a mask, Carlos knew -- of a very concerned deer.

"Good afternoon," it said.

"Oh, hell no," Carlos said. "Not you assholes."

 

Most people stuck in a mystery hole in the middle of the desert would be quite happy to be rescued by a magic shuttle bus. Even a magic shuttle bus driven by someone in a rubber cervidae head. Even if that someone in the rubber cervidae head was actually several thousand quietly hissing cockroaches crammed into a business suit.

Most people had not seen Cecil's colorless face after his first encounter with the Night Vale Transit Authority. Carlos had. Cecil claimed, at least to his radio audience, that the journey through the singularity beneath the center of the city had made him better, wiser, and kinder. Perhaps that was true. It had also left his wonderful eyes with a thousand-yard stare that took days to fade. Carlos had seen that, too. And whatever had happened made Cecil the bird -- And let's give up the repression and denial, Carlos thought, even though repression and denial are generally pretty great if you happen to live in Night Vale. It's Cecil. Cecil isn't dead. He's a doofy bug-eating butane penguin but he's not dead -- it made Cecil, who never had the good sense to be properly afraid of anything, cower in Carlos' arms, terrified.

As far as Carlos was concerned, fuck the Night Vale Transit Authority deer.

 

The concerned deer tilted its head.

For future reference, it's probably a bad idea to call superior life forms who can pretty much do anything they like to you assholes. Carlos summoned a fake smile from somewhere. "Sorry, where are my manners? Hello."

"Hello," the deer replied. "We are here to provide transport."

The bird made distressed noises. Carlos patted it as best he could. "Don't worry" he murmured. "Don't worry. I won't let them take you."

He looked up at the deer again. "I very much appreciate you coming all the way out here, but no thank you."

"You will find the journey enlightening."

"I read Olaf Stapledon in junior high, thanks." Cecil was squirming around in his coat. "Honey, claws, seriously," Carlos hissed. He put a supporting hand under the bird and somehow got to his feet. And I think," he added, "Not to be rude or anything, but I think I really prefer dying in a hole to going anywhere with you."

The concerned deer stepped out of the bus. "You will find the journey enlightening," it said again. Carlos realized that this was not an attempt at persuasion, but a statement of incontrovertible fact. Somehow, he felt cold.

 

THIS IS NOT WHAT HAPPENED:

"Ha! Ha! Ha!" said Carlos in his brave, echoing, manly voice. "Despair? Hopelessness? Obviously, you have never been to grad school!"

"I...I couldn't get in," the concerned deer quavered. "I didn't have the grades. Besides, it's all about who you know. Everyone knows that."

"What I know," the very butch scientist said muscularly, "Is that you guys are really starting to...bug me!" And with that, the action scientist punched the concerned deer square in its rubber jaw. The creature collapsed in a piteous, uneducated heap at the foot of the stairs, out cold.

"Oh, Carlos, be careful!" cried Cecil. "And look! The sheer force of your heroism has returned me to normal, and I'm wearing that tie you think is really hot."

"So you are," Carlos growled in a way science has proven repeatedly that everyone on the planet finds completely sexy and arousing. Cecil rushed into his arms and they kissed a kiss that went on, oh, just forever, with swelling music and the camera circling them dizzily.

Cecil laughed. "'Bug me.' That was so smart!"

"It was nothing," said Carlos modestly, toeing the unconscious concerned deer out of the way. "Come, my love, let us commandeer -- no pun intended -- this air conditioned vehicle and make our way to safety."

They piled into the bus. "It's funny because they're made of bugs!"

"Exactly."

"Oh, Carlos, my darling, take me right now!"

"Oh. Well. Gosh. If you insist. Certainly"

He shut the door, and they had sex right there in the bus. Twice. Plus a handy.

Afterward, Cecil slumped, exhausted, in the shotgun seat. "That was, as always, the greatest sex I have ever had," he complimented his manly and capable partner. Then he pointed at the dashboard. "But goodness, this thing looks complicated. Can you drive it?"

"There is not a stick on this planet that I cannot ride all the way to the finish line," Carlos assured him. The shuttle bus' shift plate was in the shape of a double H, with an added M, and one of those Cyrillic letters that is pronounced exactly the opposite of the way it looks. Simple enough for a scientist.

"Also, we're in a hole," Cecil added worshipfully, "But I know my capable and ingenious Carlos will get us out."

"That is also true," Carlos said. "For look! The shuttle bus is equipped with the experimental Rowling drive, which I have recently read about in a scientific journal."

"Ooo!" said Cecil, sexily impressed.

"Indeed," Carlos replied, and pushed a large red button (it was next to the soda dispenser) labeled APPARATE.

The shuttle bus disappeared from the desert...hole...thing and reappeared instantly in front of Carlos' lab. They were safe at last.

They were so happy that they had sex again in the bus for a whole three minutes, and it was really great!

Back in the hole, Carlos thought, I really wish that would happen.

 

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED:

Carlos' confidence was fading rapidly, but somehow he managed, "How about y'all just eat a big bag of go to hell?" Y'all, he thought. I just said y'all. Jesus.

Then Carlos exploded.

That was unexpected, Carlos thought.

It was also incorrect. What actually happened was, Carlos' shirt exploded.

Wait, no. Still wrong. What really, actually happened was the little bird's head popped out of his coat -- "CLAWS!" -- spewing a huge flamethrower stream of fire, and the concerned deer exploded into several thousand flaming cockroaches.

No, really. That's what happened.

The remains of the flaming deer stumbled back into the bus, and the doors hissed shut. The bus vanished with an occult honk.

Carlos, not unreasonably, said something like "AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH SHIT HOLY FUCKING SHIT AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH," though it was hard to hear himself over the flames and the honking and the hammering of his heart and the thump of him beating out flaming bits of lab coat and the shrieking bird trying to get out of his way, but whatever he said, it was high pitched and extremely sweary.

After a bit he patted himself out, and calmed himself down, and looked around for... "Cecil?"

"Schwerk!" the bird replied from a few feet away, muffled, because its mouth was full. Of cockroaches. It was chasing down and eating the fucking cockroaches. As, Carlos supposed, a growing bird does.

The cockroaches had advertising stencilled onto their shells. Cecil had once been quite respectful of the proprietary cockroaches and their precious ad space, but apparently that was no longer the case. Crunch, went FREE WI-FI. And really, you had to be impressed at the legibility of the roaches' font. It seemed to be slightly reflective as well.

Carlos stared, because really, what else could he do? He certainly couldn't move.

Cecil was happily chowing down. NO PURCHASE NECESSARY vanished. Adios, VISIT SCENIC RADON CANYON. See you in Hell, WRITES 2X LONGER.

Carlos ran a hand through his hair. "Okay. Well. That's one problem solved. In the most repulsive way imaginable, but still." He hadn't given much thought to feeding Cecil beyond the oaty granola, but somewhere floaty brain had been forming and rejecting plans involving chewing up worms and then depositing them in stop it please you know way too much gross stuff about birds and are learning more than you really ever wanted to. Birds? Basically, gross.

"I'm...just gonna sit over here, okay?" Carlos told...Cecil. Holy shit. He brushed aside a protesting WAKE UP TO WONDERFUL (no point squashing it if Cecil could get some use out of it) and took its place on a rock, his feet well off the ground. Nobody likes sock roaches, even sponsored ones.

"Werk?" After a bit, Cecil abandoned his pursuit of lunch, and flapped and hopped up into Carlos' lap -- and was Carlos insane, or had Cecil grown bigger and heavier? Those are not mutually exclusive conditions, Carlos, sorry. In any case, Cecil held STRIDE FEARLESS FRUIT carefully in his beak, and presented it to Carlos, apparently as an encouraging message.

Carlos had to laugh. "Awww. Thank you. I'll do my best. You can have it back." He ran a finger between the bird's eyes affectionately, and could feel the raptor skull and enormous, bone-cracking beak beneath the fluffball feathers. I know way too much about birds. When did that even happen? Why do I know about birds but I'm totally blanking on holes?

That would be forty years of nature documentaries, genius.

Oh. Right.

Cecil rubbed his head tenderly against Carlos' chin, because again why not, and it had enough of Cecil's body language that Carlos clearly read Well if you're sure...

"There are plenty if I change my mind," Carlos reassured him. And it was actually a relief to know that he would die of thirst long before he would ever be hungry enough to eat a cockroach. Leave that shit to Steve McQueen in Papillion. Even with the advantage of not being dead, Carlos knew he was no Steve McQueen.

"BWERK!" Cecil tilted his head up and swallowed the waving-legged roach ("Gross"), then leapt out of Carlos' arms ("CLAWS!"), flapping, into a herd of live and smoked commercialized vermin, happy as a cat faced with infinite fish-flavored laser pointers.

Carlos watched him for a while, amused. Then a touch of color protruding from the sand caught his eye. He hopped off his rock and went to investigate.

"Oh cool. Hey, Cecil, look!" It was his Grandma's blanket, and his backpack, full of...empty sandwich baggies and plastic bottles to take back for recycling. Oh well.

"BWERSHRIEEEEEEK!" came from across the canyon. It's not a canyon.

"Neat, huh?"

"SHRIIIIIEK!" Cecil’s newest noise was the sound of a stump grinder trying and failing to eat a dozen skateboards.

"Oh dear God."

 

They were back where they started, on Carlos' Grandma's blanket. Carlos was under two feet of nearly useless shade at the crevasse wall. No, not a crev -- oh never mind, if we get home I can fucking look it up. It did nothing for the heat, but cut the glare a little. Cecil deliberately lay in the sunshine, neck and head on Carlos’ chest.

"Greatest despair and hopelessness my ass," Carlos said. "None of those damn bugs have ever been to grad school." No reason to waste a perfectly good line on his imagination. "Or Iowa."

"Bok." Cecil was near comatose, digesting several thousand crawling billboards, two kangaroo rats, and, appallingly, a rattlesnake he'd swallowed in slow, protesting stages. Carlos stroked his feathers. He was the size of a mastiff now, with an impressive facial ruff and long peacock tail, and actual wings instead of pointless chicken stubs. They could see eye to eye when standing.

"It'll be okay." Carlos had no idea how it would be okay, exactly, but they were better off than they'd been when they'd first come down the hole. They had a blanket. Cecil was fed. The concerned deer hadn't been enraged enough to suddenly slam the crevasse closed and crush them -- something it could almost certainly do if it had made the thing in the first place. And fuck it, it was his hole in the ground, he was probably going to die in it, he could call it a crevasse if he wanted to.

Cecil produced a small, fiery belch.

"If we live through this, do not do that in my lab."

"Bok."

"This isn't so bad." It was stupid to waste energy talking. Somehow Carlos couldn't care. He desperately wanted a drink, and talking kept his mind off it. Who knew how much longer he'd be able to keep it up? "Even if you're stuck like this, maybe you're one of those birds that can talk."

"Bok."

"You still wouldn't be the weirdest thing at the station."

"Bok."

"You might actually be less weird than you were before."

Cecil raised his head and fixed Carlos with a look. Then he made the bird equivalent of a shrug that said, Ehhh, when you're right, you're right, put his head down again, and sighed heavily.

"Maybe you'll get big enough to fly out of here. There should be more kangaroo rats after sundown. They're nocturnal." Assuming, of course that the sun set at all. This was Night Vale. He was sure they’d been down here for hours, but the sun remained in place. Their below-ground shelter was gradually turning into a very large wok.

Maybe that was the Transit Authority’s doing. Let them cook for a day and send another bus, see how defiant they were then. Cecil didn’t seem to mind, but Carlos was sliding from discomfort to outright misery. I wonder if I could drink my own blood, he thought. Honestly, I think I would prefer that to drinking my own--

"Bok." Cecil twisted his neck, caught one of Carlos' fingers in his beak, and gnawed on it gently.

Carlos dozed.

Then he sat up.

"Cecil."

"Bok?"

"Cecil!"

"Bok?"

"Get up!"

"Bok!" the bird objected.

Carlos rolled out from under him. "We have rope!"

"Bok?"

"We can make a rope! From the blanket and the backpack and and and my coat if we have to." This last was surprisingly hard to say, even though he owned half a dozen of the things. He tugged on the blanket, succeeding only in pulling Cecil a few feet along the ground. "And fill a bottle with sand for weight and throw it up until it catches on something! And get to the car if it's still there!" The car had their phones and air conditioning and emergency water bottles that had been in the trunk for months, and would be hot and stale and the flavor of leached plastic, and probably be the best thing he'd ever tasted.

"SHRIIIIIEK!" Cecil leaped up from the blanket excitedly, and Carlos fell on his ass.

 

It's quite easy to disassemble a nylon backpack if you have access to thin, controlled streams of fire. A wool blanket isn't hard to tear into strips for braiding if you happen to know someone with sharp claws and a beak. They had a good forty feet of line altogether by the time they were done. The little bungee bits from the backpack held the weighted bottle on one end.

Carlos swung it experimentally.

"Okay. Just reminding you. This...this is stupid and probably won't actually accomplish anything."

"SHRIIIIIEK!"

"You know that's like an icepick going right into my brain, right?"

"Shriek," Cecil said at half volume.

"Thank you." He grinned. "But I have to say, I'm excited. Okay. Let's give it a try. Any idea which way the car is?"

Birdy headshake.

"Me neither. There’s a chance we’ll get lucky and wedge the line under a tire. But we're probably nowhere near it. Stay on the opposite side of my throwing arm so I don't clock you, okay?"

Birdy nod.

Carlos began swinging the bottle, releasing a little more line with each rotation, trying to get a feel for its motion and momentum. He wasn't the most unathletic child ever to graduate Starkweather Elementary, but he had no illusions about his abilities. He would have been more comfortable assembling an Estes model rocket to carry the rope, or an actual rocket that could carry them to freedom. Rockets were a doddle if you had all the bits. But in science, you work with what you've got and hope the next generation can carry on further from there. Wow, that sounded a lot more grim than I meant it to.

The spinning rope was making low whoop whoop noises. He couldn't let it out any further without scraping the ground.

"Okay. I'm gonna try it. Cross your...whatever."

He let go.

The bottle went sailing up in a lovely steep arc and disappeared over the lip of the crevasse. The rope coil at his feet unwound rapidly.

"I'll be darned."

The rope kept uncoiling.

And uncoiling.

And suddenly there was no rope left.

"HOSHIT!" Carlos grabbed for it and missed completely. The end followed the bottle's trajectory up and out of the hole. Shoulda tied it off. Shoulda used the coat.

They heard the distant smashing of safety glass, and a car alarm.

Carlos' eyes were huge. His hands went over his lips, the gesture of a small child who has just broken a large vase.

Cecil looked very much like a very large, dorky bird who was trying not to die of sheer mirth.

They stared at one another.

"I found your car," said Carlos weakly.

And then a voice came from above.

"YOU KNOW YOU JUST BUSTED YOUR WINDSHIELD THERE?"

They both looked up and saw a familiar, tiny silhouette. "Josie?" said Carlos.

Cecil began jumping up and down excitedly. "SHRIIIIIEK! SHRIIIIIEK!"

"I will give you a shiny quarter you if you stop making that noise," Carlos told him.

Cecil made a great show of controlling himself.

"Thank you." He raised his head. "That was an accident!"

"I FIGURED EVEN YOU WEREN'T STUPID ENOUGH TO DO IT ON PURPOSE."

Carlos looked at Cecil. "Everybody's a wiseass in this town--GAHHH!."

Erika with the ghost wings appeared silently beside him.

"Wika," Cecil said.

"Metatron," Erika replied, then nodded to Carlos, and put a hand on his arm. "A Flower in the Desert."

It had taken months for Carlos to realize that the angels were referring to him when they said this. Generally they only spoke in their idea of proper names and a bit of cod Latin, and it was up to the listener to understand what they meant. They could say one word to Josie and she could get a novel out of it. Carlos generally nodded and smiled.

"Hello, ErikaAAAAAGH!" Now Carlos and Erika with the ghost wings were standing next to a grinning Josie. "Oh. Great, thanks."

Then Erika with the fake flammable-looking Christmas pageant wings vanished, and reappeared with Cecil the bird, who looked around curiously. Then he opened his wings -- his wings were huge now -- and craned his neck.

Carlos covered Josie's little ears.

"SHRIIIIIIEK!"

"Yikes!" said Josie.

"You get used to it," Carlos told her, wondering if he'd ever actually heard another human being say "yikes" before.

"Maybe you do, kid." Josie dug into the vast tapestry bag she always carried and produced a bottle of water. She handed the bottle to Carlos. "Sip."

"Oh, God, thank you." He struggled with the cap for a full thirty seconds before Josie took it from him again, twisted it open, and handed it back.

Carlos sipped. It was everything good in the world, and he finally, finally began to believe in his heart that he wasn't going to die. He would have wept if he'd had the strength.

Erika with the clockwork wings stared into the rift, scowling. "Avernus."

The other Erikas agreed, growling. "Avernus." They began to levitate.

There were half a dozen Erikas now, then ten, then twenty, silently winking into view. Carlos recognized only a few of them. They levitated in a ring around the...not a draw, not a graben, possibly a sinkhole--

Whatever it was, it slammed shut with a terrible sound, fountaining dust.

Most of the angels vanished.

Cecil jumped back, shrieking and flapping. Erika with an argyle sock on one hand levitated Josie a few inches off the ground, producing a small pink umbrella from somewhere to protect them from the dirt. Carlos, of course, fell on his ass. He decided he did not have the strength to get up again, and just sat. The desert sand was baking.

"Anyway," he said, as though continuing an ordinary conversation, "Cecil's a big Pokemon or something and I've lost my mind. How's your day been?"

"Nothing special. Thought I'd take the kids out for some air. Sorry they broke your fracture there."

Hold on. "Wait. FRACTURE! That works!"

"Not any more." Josie took Carlos' water bottle, poured a bit into her handkerchief, and dabbed at his face.

"Thank you."

Josie looked at the hankie, now filthy with dust and ash, then back at Carlos. "Well, that did nothing."

"I apologize for whatever I look like right now. And thanks for not using grandma spit."

"I'm not a grandma, kid. It wouldn't work."

"Ah."

Erika sighed heavily and took the handkerchief from Josie. It flapped the hankie out and held it by its corners, displaying each side in turn, stuffed it into its hand, reached in delicately with two fingers, and yanked it out -- Is THIS your card? -- spotless.

So was Carlos.

Josie laughed. "This is why I keep you guys around."

"Oh," said Carlos. "Oh, that is so much better. Thank you, Erika." He could see again without dust and sweat rolling into his eyes, and his coat, while missing a pocket and full of claw holes, fairly glowed. His glasses had not been this clean since the day he'd bought them.

Erika nodded, most of its eyes crinkling. "A Flower in the Desert."

Josie gave him the bottle again. "Keep drinking. SIP."

Cecil's head appeared over Carlos' shoulder. "Bok," he told Josie.

Josie grinned, and kissed him on the beak.

"Bok!"

"Does...does he do this a lot?" Carlos asked her. Oh God, water is just the best thing in the world.

"Bok!" Cecil objected.

"I'm sorry, I know you're right here." He scritched Cecil behind the ruff.

Cecil gnawed his ear gently, then went to watch Erika struggle to turn the car alarm off.

"He does things," Josie said. "The hole is a new one, though. I’m kind of impressed."

"That wasn’t him. It was the Transit Authority."

"Oh, Christ, those assholes? No wonder the angels are pissed."

Cecil was investigating the remains of the fissure, running up and down the line.

"I KNOW! They're such jerks--"

"SHRIIIIIEK! SHRIIIIIEK!" Cecil had his wings out now, sending up puffs of sand as he ran.

"He's not..." said Carlos, and swigged his water like a movie cowboy drinking whiskey in a dirty glass.

"Sip!" Josie scolded. "And yeah, he is."

And Cecil, full grown, strong of wing, shining in the desert sun like a...big...shiny bird (Carlos was a scientist, not a...poem guy) left the ground, happily shrieked a big Bite me! to gravity, and he flew. His wings beat with an easy rhythm and he chased the sun, all gorgeous streaming feathers and graceful movement, climbing higher and higher until they had to squint to see him.

Carlos laughed, awed and delighted. Here was an aspect of Cecil he'd always known existed in that deeply strange, sinister, joyous spirit, now given wonderful reality. "Go go go!" he shouted.

And then he understood: This is why the sun stopped. It was watching over you. It was waiting for you.

Josie was grinning and clapping Carlos' shoulder, and might even have been giggling. The angels whooped and applauded as Cecil rode the desert updrafts, circling, and his godawful shrieks finally settled into a pure, trumpeting music, like God and Herb Alpert collaborating on a computer start-up sound. (Carlos really, really wasn't a poetry guy, but never let it be said he didn't make an effort.)

Just for a moment, the Voice of Night Vale had a song.

Cecil, overhead, was probably thinking to himself that all of this was just super neat. If so, he wasn't wrong. Likely he thought it was less neat when he suddenly stalled, squawked, and, trailing feathers, went down in a lopsided spiral, a great deal more quickly than he had gone up.

"Ohhh dear," said Josie.

"Cecil!" Carlos tried to stand and failed, but Erika with the argyle sock over one hand surreptitiously took his elbow and lifted him up in time to let him see the great and fiery bird come in much too low and much too fast, hit the ground rolling, and slam into a cactus.

Even the angels winced.

 

"Cecil!" Carlos ran like hell, vaguely surprised that he could manage it. If you've broken your goddamn neck again I will punch you until you die.

Cecil lay unmoving, an enormous pile of feathers.

Oh. Wait. The feathers stirred, and Cecil stood up, naked as the day he was born -- one assumes -- scattering red and gold everywhere. "Carlos. Hi!"

Carlos had him in his arms a moment later. "Oh my God oh my God are you okay?"

"Boy, it’s hot. Did you see?"

"I saw!"

"Did you see what I did?"

"I saw! You flew!"

"I saw you and Josie and Erika and I saw the whole town! I could see it from up there!

"You flew and you sang!"

"It looked so small and flat, like something could just flick it away with a giant thumb, like a a a smudge!"

"I'm so glad to see you!"

"I saw the radio tower -- and the mountains, they're still there! They might even be real!"

"You don't say?" said Carlos dryly.

"Hey! JAYBIRD! Put some damn pants on!" Cecil was hit in the face with an oversized pair of basketball shorts. Josie had some arm on her. Maybe she was a knitter.

"Oh thanks!" He stepped in to the officially licensed NBA puddle and pulled them up, then struggled with the drawstrings. "Gosh, that’s breezy. And and and boy, hitting a cactus really hurts, and wings! They work just like you'd think they do, it was so so so...."

Carlos automatically reached out, pulled the strings tight, and made a double bow (which would later prove utterly insoluble and send Cecil hunting for the good scissors). "Neat?"

"It was super neat! Are you making fun of me?"

"Never," Carlos lied, delighted. It made sense, he supposed. You have ten-foot people turning up at random, you're gonna keep a stock of big and tall clothing in your trunk so they don't get tossed out of the Ralph's for trying to buy Bugles with their junk on display. Even if most of them don't seem to have junk. Keep up with the conversation, Carlos. "You have feathers."

"Aw, still? Oh, I do!" Cecil examined a forearm. His body had bits of red and gold now, like koi scales, and an outstanding crested cowlick poked up through his hair. "Look at that." He grinned. Then his expression became soft and odd. "You came down after me. You told them to go to hell."

"Of course I came after you."

"Nobody's ever...I mean...you..." He swatted Carlos on the head.

"Ow!"

"That was such a stupid thing to do! It wasn't me they wanted, you idiot, it was you. They've had me once. They let me go! I would have been... Oh, Carlos, I was so scared, thank you. And don't do that again, you're gonna give me a heart attack."

"I think we're even in the stupidly jumping into holes and nearly getting killed thing," Carlos pointed out. "And don’t even talk to me about heart attacks." The phrase Carlos most dreaded hearing was Listeners, I must investigate.

Cecil looked sideways as he struggled with a bit of internal math. "Technically, this time I didn't jump, so I think you're right. Carlos, you're falling over."

Carlos always liked to say afterwards that Cecil saying "you're right" was what made him faint.

 

Carlos kicked Cecil's apartment door open with a manly boot and carried him over the threshold. "Don't worry," he reassured the adorable radio personality. "I can fix that. With science. And a screwdriver."

Cecil kissed him extensively in return. "Oh, my strong, handsome Carlos," Cecil exclaimed. "You didn't have to carry me the entire sixty miles back to town."

"Don't be silly, beloved," the heroic yet handsome scientist replied. "You have no shoes. And your weight is nothing for my strong handsomeness. And... No, I'm sorry, this is too fucking stupid even for me. I'm dreaming, right?"

Cecil tapped Carlos' handsome, manly, aquiline nose. "Hallucinating, I think. Look, just take a sip and I'll leave you alone for five minutes, okay?"

"Dammit, Cecil." Carlos forced squinting eyes open.

"Drink." There was a water bottle against his lips. Again. Judging from the wetness on his chin and shirt he'd failed more than a few attempts. You have a day like that, with holes and people catching on fire and all those roaches and no water and feathers, let's see if you do any better. Carlos made an effort and got a successful swallow of water down his throat.

"Good job!" Cecil said, grinning.

"Mahnks," Carlos told him.

His memory of the next few hours was a blurry, low-budget montage on grainy film. Call it French New Wave. Driving into a finally setting sun, Carlos and Cecil were stuffed into the back seat of Josie's car, with Erika, Erika, and Erika, while Erika rode shotgun. There seemed to be plenty of room, which was surprising since the angels were ten feet tall and Josie drove an '87 Chevy Spectrum hatchback. Cecil kept tapping him on the nose to annoy him into taking a sip of water, but gave him a kiss when he cooperated, so that was okay. At some point Teddy Williams was giving him a look-over ("Who's deranged now, Smart Guy?" "Me! It's me!" "Jesus."), and then he was somewhere with lovely clean sheets and Cecil propped up beside him, reading to him from The Amazing World of Cephalopods and Their Friends. And again with the water, over and over, everybody in this town is fucking obsessed with fucking water and fucking Pedialyte... and then he was snoring so loudly he woke himself up.

Cecil, on the other side of the bed and wearing appalling tangerine pajamas, blinked at him. "That was impressive." Apparently he was stuck with the crested cowlick. There was a vase full of red and gold feathers on the bedside table.

"'lo."

Cecil held up a hand. "How many fingers?"

"On you? It varies, and they're not always fingers."

Cecil grinned. "Much better! Last time you said 'Go suck it, platter jockey.'"

"Sorry." He didn’t feel that sorry. Everything hurt, skin and bones and eyes. His hair hurt.

"Actually you just snarled and rolled over. Smell me!"

Carlos blinked. "Excuse me?"

"I smell like brand-new baby! It’s really cool. Smell me." He put a lightly feathered forearm under Carlos' nose.

Carlos sniffed. "Huh." Nothing. Then it hit his sinuses, a primal message of newness, and of I cannot emphasize strongly enough that it would be a very big mistake to kill and eat me. "The hell is that?"

"New baby smell. It happens every time. It'll go away in a couple of days."

"Every time." Carlos stared at him. Finally, he said, "I have questions."

Cecil grinned, thoroughly delighted. "Well, that's where science begins, isn't it?"