“I have to do it.” Janet Mason spoke the words emphatically. Loud enough for the statement to be heard over the physics lab machinery.
Fellow Ph. D candidate Zhi (a.k.a. guy-with-no-life) didn’t even look up from his calculations. “You’ll cave.”
“He’s screwing with my life. As my advisor and the head of this lab, it’s his job to help me. I’ve been waiting weeks for his thoughts on my thesis proposal. I need his direction.”
“Good luck with that. He likes self-starters. And self-middlers. And self-finishers.” Then he looked at his watch. Yeah, yeah, she knew it was 4:00 on a Friday afternoon, but she had to work herself into confrontation mode. She planned to spend the weekend stirring herself up into a froth of righteous fury.
“I can’t wait any longer.”
“You’ll change your mind before Monday.”
At least a hundred times. And right here was where she started doubting herself. Was she supposed to figure this stuff out on her own? She’d been trying, but she was only a Ph.D. candidate. Professor Jefferson had the degree plus a couple others. If he’d just help her a little bit, then—
“Now’s your chance.”
Janet’s head snapped up in shock because right there, walking into the lab was her boss. What the hell? Professor Jefferson never showed up in the lab, and certainly not this late on a Friday. He was too busy doing “administrative things.”
She never got his full title out, because he cut her off with an imperious flick of his fingers toward his office. No words, just that flick which could have been a twitch.
“Uh…,” she said, her heart beating hard in her throat. But then she pulled herself together. Zhi was right. Right now was the best chance she had to confront Prof. Jefferson even if his mood was not the best. Or perhaps verging on the worst, given the glare he sent her way. Then worse, he stomped to his offer door, hauled it open, and stood there staring at her. Oh shit. Maybe she should wait until Monday…
“In my office please, Ms. Mason.”
Formal name. Oh hell. He hadn’t called her that since they’d first met four years ago when she was still in undergrad. Damn it, it didn’t matter. It was his job to help her and she was going to make sure he did. Even if he looked like he wanted to chew her a new one.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said too brightly as she scrambled out of her seat and rushed forward. She had to surreptitiously wipe her sweaty hands on her jeans. “I’ve been looking for an opportunity—”
“Have a seat, Janet.”
Hell, he hadn’t even let her finish speaking. She dropped into the chair in his office, waiting anxiously as he shut the door behind her then walked with hard clicks of his heels over to his desk. The surface gleamed mockingly at her. Her workspace was always a cluttered disaster, but his desk always gleamed in pristine emptiness. Four years ago, she’d thought it was a sign of a brilliantly organized mind. Now she wondered if it just meant he never did anything.
“I’ve been emailing you,” she began. “I really need your help—”
“I’ve looked at it,” he interrupted. Again. Then he sat down at his desk and did it. The worst possible thing a man in his position could do to her. He sighed and gave her that fatherly, I’m-disappointed-in-you look.
“I was really disappointed with the work you did. You understand that this is graduate school now. Slapdash doesn’t cut it.”
It took her a moment to process his words. Numbness settled into her chest. Her fingers were already useless given how tightly she was gripping them together. And still her mind wouldn’t work. Not so big a problem for her mouth. “But you already approved my thesis,” she said. “Weeks ago. But the early research hasn’t panned out and I emailed.” God, she sounded like a whiny child. She had to be clear. State her case with strength. But before she could find the words, he started shaking his head. “I just don’t get the feeling that you’re fully focused right now.”
“Graduate students need to be self-starting. I believe I told you that.”
“Of course, but…” She bit her lip, trying to find the answer he wanted. “I’ll do better. I’ve been working hard at my other job. The stipend doesn’t cover much.” No, no! She’d fallen back on being the victim. Why couldn’t she find the right words?
“Everyone has problems. It’s the people who work through them that go far. I’m afraid you’re just not cut out for this program, Janet.”
It took a moment for her to hear his words over the growing scream in her brain. She was being kicked out. “But you know I’m a good student. You know I work really hard. ”
“I know you were and you did.” Again with the heavy sigh. “But you haven’t been that stellar student for a long time now.”
She stared at him, her mouth hanging half open in shock. Do something, damn it! Even passing out would be preferable to this gray blankness of non function. But all she could think was that she couldn’t get kicked out. Where would she go? What would she do? Theoretical physicists only got jobs if they had a Ph. D. She was a part-time barrista. That wasn’t enough to pay rent much less food.
“Look,” she said, scrambling for any option. “The problem’s the thesis proposal, right? Let me work on it. Let me–”
“There isn’t time.”
“Of course there is. You know what I can do in just a week. Remember that paper on proton acceleration?” Probably wasn’t the time to tell him her star paper had been written in a weekend. “I got really intense on that and–”
“That was undergrad. I think you need to accept the situation here. It gives me no pleasure to do this to you.”
Bull shit. He was totally loving it. “There is time. I’ll get you something else. In two weeks, I can–”
“Monday, Janet. I can hold off until Monday, but no longer.”
She blinked. Monday? It was Friday. Late Friday afternoon. Hell, almost everyone had already left for the weekend even though they weren’t supposed to skip until five.
“I can do it, sir,” she said rushing her words just so he wouldn’t interrupt her.
“You can’t. No one could.”
She gritted her teeth. “Just watch me.” Then she stood up and left. She walked right out without so much as a good-bye. Or a clue.
She made it home by way of Espresso Royale. She made her favorite drink–a quad raspberry latte with extra whip (thank God for sugar and caffeine)–before dropping her shifts for the two weeks. “Going into deep retreat mode,” she told her manager.
Yes, she only had a weekend, but assuming she pulled her butt out of the fire, she’d need to haul ass to lock it in. If it were just the work, she’d have it down in a single all-nighter. She could whip out a paper in no time. But the problem wasn’t her writing, it was her core idea. She just hadn’t a clue what to research and no interest in anything either.
That was the big problem. Back in high school, she’d adored the clean simplicity of formulas like E=mc2 and p=mv. She liked that there were laws nobody could break. And the idea that she could discover a new formula? Well that would be like uncovering the Da Vinci Code.
Except she never really discovered anything because that was the realm of Nobel Prize winners. Unfortunately, that was exactly what Dr. Jerk J wanted for her stay in the Ph. D. program. So now she had a weekend to think of something brilliant, to uncover something no one else had thought of before, or at least to aim in a direction no one else had gone before.
And she was stumped.
She made it home slowly, mentally cudgeling herself with every step. It didn’t help.
None of her housemates were home. They all had lives. Well, everyone except the medical student who spent every waking moment at the hospital. It didn’t matter anyway because Janet needed a brilliant physics idea. An engineer, a med student, and an architect were the beginning of a bar joke, not the kind of resources who could help her with advanced physics.
So she sat on her bed, drank her latte, and tried to be inspired. She ended up watching Tom Hiddleston videos instead. Inspiration of the wrong sort, obviously.
What the hell was wrong with her? Why had her entire life faded into a wash of gray?
She stared at her walls which were bare. She had a couple pictures she wanted to hang, but she’d never gotten around to it. And since her biological father had once said menial labor helped him think, she decided to give it a try. Maybe she would become brilliant while hanging a picture of Einstein.
Of course that required tools. She had a hanging kit purchased almost a year ago, but she needed a hammer. Usually she’d grab a shoe, but she wore mostly flip flops or stiletto heels for the occasional date. Which meant…
Marty’s room. The engineer had a zillion tools kept in pristine order and she wouldn’t care if Janet borrowed a hammer. Assuming, of course, she kept the thing clean and returned it to its anal-retentive spot in the tool belt. Just in case, she knocked on her friend’s door.
No one home–which she already knew–so she opened the door and went in, stepping around three foam-covered fake swords and designs for a medieval catapult. Marty was a LARPer. Live Action Roll Play was her favorite hobby because the internet-based MMORPG versions were just too lame, according to her. Janet, of course, was more into “sit on the couch and name the plot holes,” but to each her own.
“If I were a tool belt, where would I be?” she asked herself. And when had she started talking to empty rooms? “Closet. Duh.”
She opened the walk-in closet which was filled on one side with clothes and the other side with Marty’s Container Store obsession. The tool belt was in one of these boxes. No it wasn’t, it was hanging on a hook at the back, a mixture of cheapo student belt with cobbled on Batman Velcro pouches. She knew that it held all sorts of cool stuff plus all the usual tools. She was just grabbing it when a blast of cold air chilled her to the bones. She looked up. Had someone just come home? But why would she feel the breeze in a closet?
“Hello?” she called.
“Praise Goddess garble!”
She frowned. Okay, that sounded like it came from deeper inside the closet, not from downstairs. Which was weird. And come to think of it, the breeze had been from there too.
Intrigued, Janet pushed forward. The back of the walk-in was where Marty stored her costumes. Brocaded tabards right next to vampire capes complete with spooky netting. She had to be careful when moving them aside, but she pushed and…
“Whoa.” Just that. One word as she stared at the coolest hologram ever. Brilliant sky, rocky cliff, and a creepy looking tree with a huge ass nest braced between three branches thicker than her thighs.
So this was Marty’s secret project. But why the hell would she build it behind her costumes in the back of the closet? For secrecy, obviously, but damn… Talk about a narrow workspace.
Another blast of cold air hit her, and she squinted against the bitter wind. There had to be a fan here somewhere. Nice effect, but annoying as hell not to mention cold. But where was it coming from? She stepped closer and half tripped over Marty’s thigh-high sex boots. Which is when he showed up. Or rather rose up from the middle of the nest.
A blonde god of a man reminiscent of Thor. His broad chest was all golden bronze, stretched over well defined muscles. She thought the scars were overdone, as were the streaks of blood on his cuts, not to mention a couple weird white splashes, but whatever. She could appreciate her roommate’s taste even if it was more beach blonde sun-god than Tom Hiddleston evil chaos-god.
“Prithee angel, forsooth I am stuck fast.”
Prithee? Seriously? Marty needed some better writing, but beyond that, this was way cool. She stepped to the very back of the closet and really felt like she was teetering on the edge of a giant abyss. She glanced down long enough to feel a wave of vertigo and had to grab onto a tabard to keep from falling.
“Angel please. Can you unbind me?”
She looked up and focused on the man. The wind was carrying away half his words, but she understood him well enough which was very odd. First of all, she couldn’t exactly hear over the howling wind, and yet had a pretty good idea of what he was saying. Plus, she’d been looking straight at his mouth when he spoke. The words she heard didn’t match the shape of his lips at all. Which meant there was probably some sort of sync problem between the video and audio. Unless she was just distracted by how pretty he was with that rippling chest and all.
“How is she doing this?” She looked around the edges of the closet, trying to see how this was being projected. There was nothing. No wires, no projection equipment or screen. Another blast of air hit her and she recoiled backwards, accidently tripping–again–over Marty’s boots. “Ow!” she cursed, then kicked the nearest leather torture device aside. Those stilettos were sharp.
Then she watched in fascination as the boot did not bounce off of the back of the closet wall. No, it flew into the air–straight into the hologram–where the sun-god tried to catch it. He missed. Her kick was wide, and he apparently was stuck in the nest by that white stuff.
But how could Marty have programed it to time with her kick? How did it sense when–and what–would be thrown?
She shook her head, trying to process just how this illusion was being generated. And then the guy spoke again. She seemed to hear him better when she didn’t look so closely at his lips. But it was still difficult, especially as she didn’t seem to hear actual words and yet the meaning settled into her mind. He said something about “stuck” and “dissolve.” Dissolve the white goo, she assumed, but she hadn’t a clue how. And then “hammer.”
“Hammer!” she cried. She held up Marty’s tool belt and grinned. She ought to feel embarrassed that she was responding to a hologram as if it were real life, but whatever. This was a game and she was having fun. Something that hadn’t happened for her in months. Except…
Damn. She had to work. In truth, she had her entire academic career to fix, so she gave the illusion a regretful sigh. “I’m sorry. I can’t play today.” Then she searched for the off switch. Had the thing been triggered when she turned on the closet light?
She was turning around when he spoke again. She couldn’t even hear the words properly, but the plea in it was heartbreaking. It was insane that she could respond so clearly to something that wasn’t real. And yet, she still turned back, which just made everything worse. She saw desperation in his eyes and felt an echo in her own heart.
How long had she been like him, reaching for an answer—any answer—with no one to help her? She knew it wasn’t real, and yet she couldn’t walk away. It would take no time at all for her to give him the hammer. If she just played out the first level, then maybe it would free her subconscious to solve her academic problem.
She pulled out the tool, but when she reached forward–still gripping the tabard–she couldn’t quite connect with his hand. She could throw it, but she didn’t want to damage whatever sophisticated equipment was hiding back here. She could probably just step out into the air, but she didn’t want to break the illusion. Or more accurately, the illusion felt so real that the very idea of walking on air was giving her the heeby-jeebies. Fortunately, closer inspection showed her the game’s intended pathway.
Far to the edge of the closet, there was an easy step to a branch. Clearly it was what the player was meant to use. It looked solid enough, but with the wind, it seemed to bounce and sway. Well, what was a game without a challenge? So she took a moment to tie the tool belt about her waist, securing the hammer in its normal slot. Then she stepped to the edge.
It was harder than it should have been to let go of the tabard. The icy wind was making her shudder and her hands cramp. Also, the heavy brocade was warmth and…
Warmth. Right. With a quick jerk of her hand, she drew on the tabard. It was like a too large, ornate poncho for the front and back. No sides which made it easier to access the tool belt. A sweater would have made much more sense, but she didn’t want to take too long at this, especially since sun-god guy kept looking around in anxiety and making hurry up gestures with his free hand.
So this was awkward. She stepped from the closet to the thick branch, but flip-flops were not meant for tree climbing. With a grunt of frustration, she kicked them off, then set about branch-walking barefoot. Icy cold whipped over her toes and the branch was none to toasty. More like smooth iron wood which made sense only in her brain. Plus the wind caught her hair and whipped it into her eyes. At least it was pulled back into a ponytail, but her bangs were too long and they kept teasing at the edge of her eyes.
She narrowed her eyes and took another step forward, leaning into the wind. If this were real, she’d be screwed for sure. No one could balance barefoot on a branch that bounced in the wind. Especially in a damned tabard that was warm–thank you–but only seemed to increase the wind’s drag.
She cursed and grabbed the brocade about her waist. Then she decided that she would forego any attempt to tightrope walk. Still close enough to grab the edge of the closet, she dropped down to straddle the branch. She’d been a kid with time on her hands once. She could shimmy/crawl her way to the nest. It might not look cool, but she’d get there.
She did. Her fingers were numb by the time she made it to the nest, and ewwww what was that smell? Even in the biting wind it was foul.
Meanwhile, sun-god guy was reaching out with his free hand, helping her scramble into the massive nest. Well, not really massive. For a bird it was clearly huge, but for the big guy and her, it was like having two people maneuver in a circle-shaped crib. At least there were downy feathers at the bottom that gave welcome insulation to her freezing feet.
“Hurry,” he said, as he looked over her shoulder. She started to turn, but then decided she didn’t want to know. Marty was a huge fan of make-up artist shows, not to mention zombie flicks and vampire books (not the teen heartthrob kind). So she just focused on the problem at hand.
Our hero was encased in that white crap. And it really did look like crap. As in from a massive bird. He was trying to move, bunching his biceps as he tried to break his right arm free. She grabbed his fingers and tried to help, but the stuff was like concrete.
“Do you have a weapon?” he asked. The wind had died down enough that she could hear him clearly now. He had a nice voice if a bit gravelly. In truth, he sounded like he was on day three of a whiskey bender. And now that she got a closer look at him, his face was equally haggard. But both voice and three-day beard had a He-Man kind of appeal, so she grinned at him even as she grabbed Marty’s hammer.
She hesitated a moment. After all, she was about to start clobbering a guy encased in concrete bird shit. “In for a penny,” she muttered, then began to whack at the stuff on his forearm.
“Harder,” he said.
She chuckled, knowing there was a bad joke in there somewhere, but too focused on freeing his arm to find it. She was whacking at the stuff, but she’d been trying to go delicately. This was a video game somehow, and she didn’t want to break the equipment. But obviously this required real strength because she was getting no where. So she began to hammer in earnest, slamming down as hard as she could.
She glanced up at sun-god’s face to see if he was wincing in pain. The heavier she hit, the more it had to hurt him. But he was scanning the horizon, and so she went back to slamming her hammer into the crap.
She saw the crack more than heard it, but there was a definite pop of sorts and a chunk of the stuff broke free. She flipped the hammer around, wedging the pronged ends into the crack. Then she tried to lever his arm up and away. It didn’t work. Not until she put all her weight on the handle which was getting slippery with sweat despite the cold.
This time she did hear the crack. The white concrete gave way, but so did she as she fell sideways against the nest. Hero-guy steadied her, keeping her from flying out into the plummet of doom, but it didn’t keep her from stepping sideways onto… Ewwww. Egg. Well, broken egg, now. And it was sliming her foot.
Then ewww turned into ow! The stuff stung! She stabilized herself on her one foot as she wiped off the other on the feathers. But then the feathers just stuck to her foot so she wiped it on the concrete crap. Meanwhile, the big guy had picked up the hammer and was slamming it down on his legs. That was going to take awhile though because he was really buried.
Or rather, he was until she started looking at the egg stuff. It seemed to be reacting with the white stuff. Acid maybe? Which did not bode well for her foot, but whatever. This was just a game, right?
She had a flash of nervousness, quickly suppressed. This was more realistic than any game she’d ever been in. The sensory details were perfect, even the uncomfortable ones. And the wind simply could not be generated from the back of a closet, but she didn’t want to think about that. The present complete with blonde god hero was much more compelling.
Since the stud-muffin was using the hammer, she took out the wrench. With a mental apology to her roommate, she used the thing to start working on the concrete that had been coated by the egg ooze. Holy crap, it worked! The white stuff was softer now and she could scrape it away easily with the wrench.
Made a damned mess, but at least she was seeing thigh now. Thick, corded man-thigh, but that was part of the reward, right? What’s a game without eye-candy? She leaned down and grabbed a handful of egg-slopped feathers. Totally gross, but she used them to smear slime over the rest of his legs. He saw what she was doing and grabbed a handful as well.
But there wasn’t enough to go around. Not until he used her hammer–Marty’s pristine gleaming hammer–to slam into two more eggs near his feet. She hadn’t even seen them there, but they burst with a sickening crunch.
He started scooping up the ooze immediately, not even noticing that baby bird embryos also dropped out. Part of her mind catalogued exactly what level of development they were at. The other part was just repelled by the sight. Then she heard it: a screech. It might have been there for a while, but she’d discounted it as the wind. But even her powers of denial couldn’t block out that sound. An eagle’s screech was what her brain said, but in her mind, an eagle’s cry was bell-like call of a majestic beast. Not this. This was a mixture of pissed off bird and truck brake squeal. It grated down her spine way worse than fingernails on a chalkboard and a thousand times more loud.
She looked at the big guy. He had to have heard it. But his eyes were narrowed in concentration on his legs as he slammed his hammer down again and again. Right. He had to get free.
The screech came again. Really loud this time, and she couldn’t stop herself from looking. Holy shit that was one big bird. Like a really huge bird with talons that could rip through a freaking car! They were extended as the thing…
Oh shit. It was coming in for a landing. It was probably mommy and they’d just killed her babies. But in their defense, mama bird had probably meant hero to be baby food.
“My sword!” he said as she stood transfixed by those damned talons.
“Aiiiiiieeeeeeee!” she squealed because that thing was coming in fast. She waved her wrench at it. It was the only thing she had in hand, somehow managing to clobber it on the foot. How she avoided getting impaled she had no idea, but the thing screamed at her in response before flapping away.
“My sword!” the guy bellowed again.
She was busy watching feathered death as it swooped in the air, but he gripped her arm and whipped her around to look at him.
“My sword!” he said, and this time he pointed at a mound in the corner. Except it wasn’t a mound. It was a lumpy thing that could be a backpack buried under softened concrete crap, and a hilt. Oh. That sword.
She lurched forward and grabbed hold, flashing on Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone. She didn’t do anything so graceful as that. For one thing, the sword was lying on its side, not sticking upright. She had to chip away at it with her wrench before she could get it free. Marty’s wrench was never going to be the same. And it couldn’t possibly be doing any favors to the sword.
She heard the guy bellow and whip his arms around. She knew from the screech and the scary flapping of wings that the eagle thing had come in for another pass. Something pelted her in the face and she saw a small rock land in front of her feet. It was pretty–kind of a rose tone–and she wondered what sort of stone it was. Her mind really focused on that question because it was way easier than the pain in her fingers as she managed to grip the sword and start hauling it free. Her back was straining, her fingers were bloody, and that bird thing–
Well, it was motivation. She’d give it that.
The sword came free with jerk and she tumbled backwards, landing badly on sun-god guy. He grunted in a manly way, which in this case sounded more like a curse, before he pushed her off him. Not hard enough to hurt, but with enough force to make it expedient.
Then he grabbed the sword with one hand and started waving it around above their heads. Normally this would be cause for alarm, but she was already maxed out on adrenaline, and given that she knew the bird was coming back any second now, she was all kinds of good with him waving a pointy stick around.
Her job, she decided, was to get his feet free so he could do more than sit there and wave the sword. He was mostly free of the crap. His thighs were goopy–and a little bloody she now realized–but they could move. A few moments of concentrated work and she got his feet out too. But his hips. Jesus, his hips and ass were still locked down hard.
She knew what to do and set about covering his privates in the egg goop. She even took a deep breath and broke open the last egg, ignoring the dying embryo in favor of scooping up slop and wiping it all over his hips and as much of his ass as she could get to. She didn’t even have time to be embarrassed, though the hysterical part of her brain was busy making dick jokes. Thankfully, none of the lumps she chiseled (and tossed) away belonged to him and finally he was able to shove himself upright.
There was a tearing sound. His clothes, she thought. But then he was standing tall and whipping his sword around as the bird came back at him. At them. At…
It was definitely coming in for a landing, but hero was there looking really godly with his sword and his rippling abs. She’d love to be sitting on a couch right then with a remote control in her hand. She’d slow down the play to fully appreciate his magnificence. But she wasn’t and he was bellowing at her.
“My pack! Grab the pack!”
Right. The lump beside the sword. Personally she was more about getting out of Dodge than recovering his spare set of tidy-whities, but she knew how these games worked. If you didn’t bother to grab the pack, then you’d escape the demented bird only to starve to death in the forest. So she set about freeing the pack.
Except it was in there good and there weren’t any more eggs to break.
“Not. Happening,” she gasped. Damn, she was winded. Hacking at cement with a wrench really took its toll. “We have to get out!”
He’d managed to scare off the bird for the moment, but it wouldn’t last long. He must have known that too because he looked at her–all grim serious–and nodded. “Go angel. I will protect your retreat.”
Protect her retreat? Whatever. “The closet’s just over there. Come on!”
She grabbed his arm and started hauling him toward the branch. Somehow in her brain, this made sense. The closet meant safety. She’d step out and bring her sun-god with her. They’d order pizza and laugh about the scary bird then talk about physics. And maybe make some chemistry. That all flashed through her brain as she dragged him toward the branch.
Except a second later, she really looked at the closet. Or looked for the closet. Because it wasn’t there. Had she gotten turned around? She had the world’s worst sense of direction, but… but…
“Can’t you make another door?” he asked.
Make another…? “Wait!” There was a ripple there, right where the closet should be. A wave in the air, like heat coming off asphalt. Except there was no asphalt here. Only a hundred mile plummet to death. She stared hard at it. She thought of Marty’s closet and desperately willed those damned stripper boots to appear. And somewhere in the back of her head a pull started. A wrench and an agony. The beginning of what was going to be a killer migraine.
Then she heard something else. A scream that was higher in pitch but three times as pissed off. She spun around to look and saw two dark splotches circling the air, one distinctly bigger than the one they’d been fighting before.
“What’s that?” she asked, not really wanting to know.
“The mother,” he answered, looking grim. “They will coordinate their attack, so you must go, angel. Now.”
“How are you going to fight them?”
He shook his head. “I won’t.”
“Meaning you’ll run, right?”
He didn’t answer. She turned to look back at her ripple in the air. She could maybe get it open in time, if that was indeed what she’d been doing. She could also probably take the guess, leap into it, and pray that it was enough of a door for her. Though the 100 mile plummet didn’t make that an appealing option. Plus, it would totally screw him.
Which meant she needed to think of something else. Or maybe, they just needed to run. “We have to get out of this tree!”
He shook his head as he braced himself, sword raised. “Not during their pass. They’ll pick us up like surtar.” She didn’t think she’d heard him right. Somewhere her panicked mind translated “surtar” as “low hanging fruit.” Either way, that didn’t sound good.
“Okay. What do I do?”
He looked at her with a dark glare. “The door. You got me free. That was all I asked for.”
“It’s closed,” she snapped. “Now tell me what to do!”
The birds seemed to be flying further away, but she’d already seen at least one of these patterns. They went back and high and then swooped down with a screech that froze her blood. Which meant they had seconds before the sky would be filled with beaks and talons.
“My pack,” he abruptly said. “Can you get to it? There are stones inside.”
Okay, great. How did that help? She didn’t waste her breath asking but scrambled back up on the branch and into the nest. Her feet were freezing anyway, and if she were going to die by angry bird she might as well make her last seconds comfortable. She found the lump of his pack easily enough. She tugged on it, but just like before, there was no prayer that it was getting free. It was cemented in there good.
She’d managed to expose a side of it though. She scraped at that now, but the softening effect wasn’t enough or had worn out or whatever. She did a quick scan, but she already knew there weren’t any more eggs. Course she really didn’t need the pack itself, just the stones, right? If she could rip it open…
It was too tough. Leather soaked in concrete didn’t give way to her fingernails. If only…
Box cutter. Duh.
She might have slapped herself for her stupidity but there wasn’t time. She felt around the tool belt. It was hidden beneath the tabard, and she tried to find the cutter while jerking the heavy brocade out of the way. Not so easy given that she didn’t have five hands. She found Marty’s inhaler, duct tape, and a drill set before she located the boxcutter.
“Throw them at the birds!” he bellowed.
Oh. He thought she’d gotten the stones. Well, not so much, but she was working on it. She attacked the pack with the cutter, breaking the razor part, but managing to stab a hole into the pack nevertheless. She shoved her hand inside relieved to find that it was softer in there and not at all gross or sharp. Who knew what weapons he had in there? But mostly it was cloth and…
A cloth roll with lumpy stuff inside. Lumpy like stones. She hauled it out, but it was too late. The birds were already attacking. She really wished she couldn’t hear their screech above the pounding of her heart.
She looked back at the stud muffin. He’d braced himself as best he could outside the nest. He was balanced on two branches with the edge of the nest right in front. The smaller bird was doing his flyby. Her big hero was swinging his sword and screaming, some sort of incoherent warrior bellow. She’d always thought that a dumb thing to do. Why waste your breath on noise? But the sound took the edge off her terror. And frankly, to paraphrase Malcolm Reynolds, he was way too pretty to die.
She couldn’t make sense of what happened next. Just grunts and feathers and flashing sword. It all went so fast. But then the bird was past, and she started to straighten up. If she was going to throw stones, she needed to really put her back into it. But then his sword came dangerously close to the top of her head and she ducked back down with a squeak.
Yeah, she got that. In fact, she belatedly realized he’d positioned himself to protect her as she dug for his stones. Which were just hanging lax in her hand.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
She quickly unrolled the cloth, praying that she wasn’t just going to find a set of pretty warrior rings or something. Nope. Stones. And some crystals. Different sizes, different grains, some even with stripes. Okay. What were these supposed to do?
The second bird was attacking. This was the big mama, and she abruptly understood what he meant about them attacking in a coordinated pattern. They were circling to keep up a constant attack. First one then, before she could catch her breath, the second would be coming in for a kill. Eventually, the victim would tire. One of them would get Mr. Studly, and the other would then pick her off.
Smart birds. Except she was not going to admit she was dumber than a couple really big vultures.
“Throw. Them.” Hero’s words which he didn’t even have the breath to yell. It was more a grunt of effort.
Okay then. She grabbed the first two, pale blue ones that felt… Oy… Weird in her hand. Whatever. Mama bird was past, but the smaller one was coming in. She pulled her hand back, and thanked God for her summers in softball. Then she threw.
Well, she’d never been a pitcher.
She’d meant to hit the thing in the chest. Missed by a mile. Well, not really, but in bird terms, she’d plunked them harmlessly against a wing feather and it had passed right through. Well what did she expect? She wasn’t chunking boulders at them. These were pebbles.
She whipped her head around to look at her hero. Well as much as she could see of him amid the flashes of his sword in the sunlight and the gray black bird feathers that were floating around. He was damned good with that sword, thank God. But his face and body were streaked with sweat. Oh shit. He was getting tired. She’d thought his face kind of haggard before. Now it was gray and…and really not happy.
But he kept the bird off of them for that pass.
Course now it was little one’s turn, though they had maybe a five second breather. He used it to drop the tip of his sword to the edge of the nest as he took in big gulps of air.
“Activate,” he said between gasps. “Magic.”
Right. Activate the magic. “How?”
His face took on a sad cast. Not just sad, but drooping with exhaustion and the grim realization that they were going to die. Okay, so maybe she was projecting her emotions onto him, but she recognized that look. It was the I-am-so-screwed-and-there’s-nothing-I-can-do-about-it look.
Well fuck that. “Tell me what to do!”
He shook his head. “Don’t know. I just do it.”
Out of time. Little bird was coming.
Teeth and claws and feathers, and she threw it.
Again, she missed. She could already see that it was going toward the wing not the chest. Fuck, she was awful at softball. But the moment it got near, the moment the pebble was going to glance uselessly against its wing, the thing exploded.
Well, not exploded. Explosions meant fireballs and smoke. This became a huge orb of blue light. Or force. Or something. The bird’s wing was shoved down and the head snapped sideways. There was an audible crack and then…
It plummeted out of the sky.
Broken wing? Broken neck? She peered over the edge and saw it continue to fall. It wasn’t recovering. A second later she watched it hit and bounce on the rocky cliff. Ouch.
One down, one to go. And lest she forget, the bird released another scream of fury that had Janet’s toes curling in terror.
But it was okay, she reassured herself. They had the stones now. They could blue fire the big bitch too. She looked to her warrior, expecting to see a reflection of her own excitement in his eyes. After all, they weren’t going to die by bird now. Except he wasn’t looking up.
He was wiped. Like down on one knee, head on the hilt of his sword down. The only sign of strength in him was the one hand that gripped the nest to keep him from falling off the branch. Oh shit.
He must have been the one to turn on the blue thing and now he was completely exhausted.
“Tell me how to do it!” she screamed. With the wind noise and that bird screech, she had to bellow to be heard. “How do you turn these things on?”
He didn’t answer. He barely even moved except to breathe. But he’d already told her, hadn’t he? He just did it. He didn’t know how.
Mama bird was doing her pass. Janet barely had time to see the bitch beyond a massive dark shadow, but she shoved her hero flat and did her best to cover him with her body, draping herself half in and half out of the nest. It wasn’t as selfless as she’d like to think. He was her only chance. If he died, she was beyond screwed. So she shoved him down, covered him as best she could, and screamed at the bitch as loud as she could.
She called it every filthy name in her repertoire and a few mangled Russian words because the language had always sounded mean to her. She felt more than heard her warrior grunt as his body jerked sideways. She kept him on the branch–or he did–but when she looked up she saw a bright streak of crimson along his back. Damn. He’d gotten a talon across the back. On the one hand, she was glad he hadn’t gotten pierced through the side. On the other hand: talon across the back and it was bleeding. Not snapping the spine, thank God, but a dark red streak that went from shoulderblade to hip.
One word, barely audible above the wind. She angled back to him.
She quickly sorted through the roll of stones, spilling half of them until she came on one that was as close to red as she could find. It was more rosy mauve than red but whatever. She held it out to him but he just shook his head.
“What?” she asked.
He reached out, then with a backhanded gesture knocked the thing out of her hand. It landed somewhere into the depths of the feathered nest.
“Shit,” she cursed, but when she went to grab for it, he held onto her.
He tugged on her arm, pulling her out of the nest. Well, not really pulling because he had zero strength. But the meaning was clear, especially as he glanced up into the sky. Mama bird was back. She didn’t even need to look.
Janet scrambled out of the nest, joining him on the teetering branch. He straightened up, but damn, he was too tired to even carry his sword. She grabbed it, wrapped an arm around his waist and wondered exactly how they were going to scramble down a tree like this. It was all she could do to keep him braced there against the nest.
Then he did something. She wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t been pressed so tight against him. It was like his chest was a solid wall of muscle and then it was smaller. He’d caved in. He drooped more. And his face–Jesus–she’d seen movie zombies with a healthier complexion.
“Not a problem,” she lied. “We’ve got this. We can do this.”
Bitch mama was back. They were in a better position to flatten up now. They dropped below the line of the nest and since mama apparently didn’t want to shove her home down into the valley, her beaks and talons missed, though Janet was sure she’d just gotten a hair cut. Mama bird’s claws were definitely razor sharp.
And sun god in her arms was still bleeding. His back was slick with blood and sweat, and she was going to have trouble holding onto him. Just in case, she glanced over to the closet. Or rather where the closet ought to be.
Nothing. Not even the ripple.
Well, fine. No cheats then.
“We’re going to have to run,” she said.
He nodded, and she felt him gather his strength. And while he was pushing himself upright, she smelled something acrid. Something really nasty. Overall, the nest had been nasty to begin with, but this was gross with an extra helping of…
The nest was on fire.
That little red stone had nestled deep into those downy feathers, and now the whole thing was crackling toasty warm. Nice! Especially since the heat was welcome on her face.
Except then reality kicked in. They were in a tree. On a cliff. Hanging suspended over a zillion mile drop. And the tree was on fire.
“We really have to go.”
He didn’t waste his breath answering. He straightened up and gently pushed her forward, away from the rapidly growing bonfire of a nest. She went, releasing him as soon as she was sure he could find his balance. It didn’t matter if he couldn’t. No way could she support him and climb down a tree at the same time. But she waited, and at his nod, she released him.
Then she started moving. The fire helped warm her fingers, and so she was able to scramble forward, grabbing handholds as best she could. The nest had been on a conjunction of branches, she now saw. It hadn’t been the main trunk, and what the hell kind of tree was this? It was huge. Easily the size of a city block. Sadly, the needles were sparse, so they provided zero coverage and just stabbed her hands when she grabbed at them. And the sap…yuck. Now that they were closer toward the center of the tree, there was sap that stuck to her feet and hands.
“Careful,” he grunted from behind her. “Sap.”
“Naturally.” This tree was going to go poof and in a really spectacular fireball kind of way. They really needed to get out of here. She couldn’t move any faster than she already was and rather than focus on her impending death, her mind chattered away about the genetic disadvantage of tree sap being flammable. Evolutionarily speaking, that was seriously stupid for any tree that hung out on the side of a cliff. Mama bird came swooping back twice. The first had been an aborted attack. She came flying in, but veered away when she must have seen the fire. Then she was screeching and howling–Janet hadn’t thought a bird could howl, but this creature managed it–while hero kept pushing them doggedly forward.
Janet looked behind her once. She was checking on sun-god–who was looking stained-sweatshirt gray–but saw the flames behind him. Wow. The nest had gone up all pretty and red. Which was now creeping up the branch.
“Shit.” She picked up the pace while mentally listing all the possible mutations that would have made more sense. It was the only way to stave off the panic. Much more sense to have poisonous sap or razor sharp leaves. Why not bark with metal in it for extra strength? Hero grunted something, but she couldn’t tell what. She wasn’t really sure how the man was still standing, much less moving, but she was grateful. The branch was thick enough for her to scramble. She’d been looking forward to straightening up from her crouch, but other branches cut into her headspace. And arm space. And chest space. Now it was more a game of twist, shove, scramble and pray.
Her tabard got caught more than once, and she cursed the damn thing. She would have tossed it aside, but she didn’t want to take the time. And besides, she used the front half to wrap around her hands. That made it easier to grip things.
Once the back half of it got snagged on something. A branch. A needle. Who the hell cared? She tried to rip it free but nearly choked herself in the process. Then he was there with his sword raised. With one downward swipe, he cut the thing away. But the momentum of his swing nearly pulled him off the tree.
“Oh no,” she said as she grabbed for him. Her hands slid right off his cold, slick chest, but she found purchase in his pants. There was a rope there or a belt or just a thicker fold of fabric. Whatever, it caught and held even when her fingers poked through the fabric beneath. But did she have the balance to hold them both?
They stood poised for a couple seconds while she was too terrified to scream. But just when she thought they were both going to plummet to their deaths, but he managed to steady them with one hand, pulling her tight against the solid mass of his chest.
And wow. His chest was pasty gray, but still hunky. Like Chris Hemsworth broad. Clearly, it was better to catalogue hot guy attributes than advantageous tree mutations. But as everything grew blistering hot, there was only so much distraction her mind could provide. She was a breath away from full out hysteria.
“There,” he said, gesturing with his chiseled chin. “Fast.”
She looked then did as she was told. He had indicated a pathway down the center of the tree, and she began to scramble and claw her way down it. Above them, the branches had caught fire, the sap hissing and snapping with the heat.
They had maybe a minute. Probably less.
Faster, faster. Must go faster. Now was not the time to start muttering movie quotes but Independence Day did fit with her desperation. She half slid, half fell. And then, hallellujiah, she hit dirt. Or rock. Whatever. It was ground and she looked around for the best direction to run…
The entire cliff face was littered with nests.
And birds. Like a million damned killer birds.
And they were all looking at her.