It's New Year, and Pete is staying at Kingston's, helping him clean what's left of the mess the pigeons made here what seems like an eternity ago.
They are still finding feathers and bird shit in the cupboards and behind the head of beds, when Pete drops on a chair and presses his face in his hands.
Kingston doesn't say anything, but puts a hand on Pete's shaking shoulders, and goes to find beers.
''It was fun though, kid,'' whispers a gravelly voice in Pete's head and he smiles, wobbly through the tears.
It's cold in Central Park when they go in there, Sofia in a matted coat that covers half her legs and big boots, Esther idly kicking piles of snow and laughing at every snowflake that falls on her face. Em is back in place, watching over the passing New-Yorkers, a calm smile decorating her bronze face.
''We brought coffee,'' Sofia says, and holds up a little Starbucks bag.
''And breadcrumbs,'' adds Esther. ''For the fishes.''
''That's so kind of you,'' Em smiles, and extends her wings so they can sit under, protected from the wind and the snow. ''Wanna tell me what happened in the big city since last time?''
''Well, Esther for sure has things to say,'' Sofia shoots, and Esther grins.
''Before you ask, yes, his ass has muscles,'' she says, smug, and they all spiral into laughter.
They chat a bit. ''You should come see the Ortiz twins. They have fangs now, and they are so badass, I wanna train them so bad. Do you think they would want to be in the Order?'' Sofia tells Em, and Esther says, ''I don't know if I'd be ready to let them go, even for you'' to which Sofia answers ''Fair''. Em laughs and asks why they can't be at both the Society and at the Order. Esther's eyes light up.
''Don't give all the bread to the fishes,'' Em tells Esther at some point. ''It's not good for them to have too much. We can give the rest to the pigeons.'’
''Sure,'' Esther answers, and doesn't notice how Sofia has tensed up next to her, eyes trained on the floor, hands clenching on her empty coffee cup. It's not that late but the sun is fading behind the trees, casting its last rays as people hurry through the freezing park. Pigeons are flying, here and there, and not far is a little arch that leads to a magic clearing where a pixie once held a wedding.
''Everything alright, honey?'' Em asks, because she notices, of course she does. Sofia nods, sharply, then shakes her head. Her voice is unsteady when she speaks.
''It's just... no one told him yet, y'know? And we'll have to. We can't leave him wondering. It wouldn't be fair.''
''Oh sweetie,'' Em says tenderly. She flies down, in a powerful flap of wings, to sit between them and wraps a cold, metallic arm around Sofia's shoulders. Sofia goes easily, and buries her head against her side. ''Let me guess, hits too close to home?''
Sofia lets out a shaky laughter, and wipes a tear. ''Something like that, yeah. I don't want him to think that- that Kug just let him drop, 'cause that's the worst, I know something about it, but I'm not sure I can tell him myself, y'know?''
''I can do it if you want,'' Em offers. ''I know him pretty well. He's been coming to perch on my shoulder since he was a small baby pigeon, no bigger than my finger.''
Sofia shakes her head, again, and straightens up, wiping the last tears off her face. ''Nah. I have to do it myself. I wanna do it myself.''
''You do you girl,'' Em rubs her back. ''We'll be right here.''
Sofia sniffles. ''Thanks.''
''No problem,'' Esther says. ''Even though I have no idea what you two are talking about.''
Sofia takes some bread out of her hands and starts throwing it on the ground. ''Long story, but basically Kug had a boyfriend, super horny, super in love, and I don't think anyone's told him that, well- that Kug- that dating Kug's gonna be a little more difficult now. Hey, you?''
The pigeon that has started picking on the crumbs tilts their head at Sofia and coos.
''Hey, d'you know Perry? Perry Pigeon?'' The pigeon coos some more. ''Cool. Can you tell him to come here? We'll save some crumbs for you if you do that.''
The pigeon takes off. Sofia sighs.
''Dating the universe would be pretty awesome if you asked me,'' Esther says, and Sofia cackles like it's been pushed out of her.
''Yeah,'' she says, a little bit choked up. ''Yeah, it sure would be.''
At their feet, a little bit of wind kicks off, rushes up into the air, and swirls around their faces, playing with Sofia's hair. It smells of a bacon, eggs and cheese sandwich. Sofia smiles.
There is so much to do, now that it's all over. Rowan meets with people, works out the last wrinkles in Misty's succession, does open mics and tries on being a queen. It's not easy, even with Aquamarine and the clock gnomes to help her, and they don't even always agree to do so. She reads about politics, asks Kingston for help a couple times, very nearly throws her pin on the ground and slams the (metaphorical) door behind her one time when the situation seems so unbearable that she finds herself wishing Tatiana were still here.
But it's going... somewhere, that's for sure. Things are more organized in February than they were two months ago, people are coming to thank her for something else than her shows, and when she walks down the street she sees fair folks mingling with New-Yorkers and dreams. It's nice, it's all – mostly – thanks to her, and Rowan likes that feeling.
Her artistic career is going splendidly too, not that she had any doubts about that. She gets noticed pretty much immediately. Alissa is doing – not a splendid job, not really a good one either, but her job, for sure, and Rowan gets a contract for some small show downtown. She makes sure a New York Times critic is here, and lets out a surprised laugh when she comes to knock on her door after the show, like she wasn't expecting her. From here, Rowan can start climbing back.
The artistic community is in mourning. Of course it is. It's not the same without Stephen around, and there are nights where Rowan wakes up, flashes of the combat replaying behind her eyes, wishing she had done something – cast Puppet, given him Bardic. But, as Sofia would say, it is what it is and when word gets around that a show is being prepared in his honour she knows what she has to do.
The night of the premiere, all her friends are in the front row, still on the defensive after the last show they all went to. Ricky's holding on tightly to his new ax, Kingston's scanning the room for all the exits, Sofia's cracking her knuckles, her Louboutins on. But Rowan's focus is elsewhere, on the show, and on the scene she worked so hard to add, and when it's her turn to go on the stage, riding a bear made of three actors in a costume, grimed as Sondheim, she smiles at the gasps she hears and holds back tears.
''For you, old friend,'' Rowan whispers to the artificial wind on stage, to the lights, to Sofia's and Ricky's tears, and the costume tightens around her, like it's trying to hug her.
She closes her eyes, breathes, and the show carries on.
The three Johns are nothing but supportive when Ricky hands in his resignation letter.
''That's sick as hell, bro!'' John exclaims and claps him on the back when he tells them of his homeless shelter project.
''Yeah, that's awesome! It's like firefighter but you're fighting like, poverty and illness and cold and you're getting them in homes instead of getting them out!'' John says.
''I know,'' Ricky nods. ''I think it's awesome too''.
''You call us anytime you need,'' John adds. ''We'll always be here to help. And come by the station too! We can still get buff together!''
''Totally,'' Ricky says, and they all clap each other on the backs and hugging and one John cries a little bit, but ''it's good tears, dude, believe me, I'm so glad for you, I can't wait to work out with you again.'' Ricky hugs him one more time, tells him he'll be back tomorrow to do some weights, and exits the fire station to where Esther and her motorbike are waiting for him.
''How did it go?'' she asks
''Great,'' Ricky says. Esther grins and throws him a helmet.
''Amazing. Let's do this.''
Ricky gets on the motorbike behind her, and grips her waist. ''Thank you,'' he whispers. ''For doing all this with me.''
A hand brushes over his. ''Of course,'' Esther says, and kicks the bike into gear. ''Ready?''
They soar through New York.
Ricky's project starts way smoother than it should have, all thanks to Esther, and Rowan, and all the ties they pull. Three weeks in and he's double trending on Instagram and Twitter as he runs through the streets, food and supplies on his back, Ox at his side. Passersby stop to watch, snap pictures, and Ricky runs, stops wherever he feels like his help could be needed, and sometimes some old man will tell him about what a gift he is, especially since the supplies brought by this weird little hairy man have suddenly stopped coming. Ricky nods, talks with them, and does whatever he can to find roofs and beds.
(And there are days when he's soaring through the streets, a breeze on his heels, and it's like it's playing with him, trying to outspeed him, and Ricky smiles and whispers an ''I'm sure you can catch up, old man'' to the snow and the wind around him.)
Pete is the first to go to Staten Island to visit Sofia and her rats.
She comes to him, as if to make sure he won't turn heels at the last minute, and they take the ferry together. Pete leans against the balustrade, holding his hat on his head with one hand, looking at the Statue of Liberty.
''Do you think you could put in a good word with her for me? Em has got to know her, right?'' he asks, and Sofia hums, wondering.
''You could ask Willy too.''
Pete pulls a face. ''Please, no.''
''What, still jealous that he got to kiss Misty and you didn't?''
''What? No, no, what the, what are you talking about, hey, this bird is so weird don't you think?''
Sofia laughs and swats him on the head. They get to the monastery without problems, Pete climbing up the stairs without even needing to do magic (''I'm still working out with Ricky, I think there's like a love-hate relationship now between us two, cause I'm getting my muscles but at what cost.'' ''It's entirely one-sided then, Ricky can't hate anyone.'' ''I mean, Moses-'' ''Ok, that's cheating, shut up.'').
Sofia gives Pete the grand tour. It's a cloudy day, and it's freezing downstairs in New York, but there's a heat charm over the monastery and Pete idly plays with a flame whenever Sofia shivers.
''Jackson still comes by sometimes,'' Sofia tells him. ''More than sometimes even. He kept saying he wanted to retire and now that I've taken his place he can't hold still.''
Pete snorts. ''Kingston said he's at the hospital way too much for a retired monk. I'm supposed to tell him to tone it down if I see him here.''
''Good luck, his stealth bonus is fuckin’ bonkers.''
Sofia introduces Pete to her mother, and they spar a bit on one of the training grounds, trading hits and spells. It's nice, and the sun comes out during the afternoon, distorting their shadows on the ground. But Pete keeps getting distracted after the first few rounds, eyes darting to the crown lying on a bench, at the edge of the court, covered with grime and soil.
Eventually Sofia sighs and drops down her fists.
''Wanna see how the rats are doing?'' she asks, lips curved in a small smile. Pete hesitates, then sighs.
''Let's do this.''
Sofia leads him through the corridors and to another court, a smaller one, with miniature buildings all around and tubes running through the ground and between the houses. She has gripped the crown on the way, and her knuckles are white around it, fingers stained with all the dirt that cover it. She holds a flask on the other hand and offers a sip to Pete, who refuses.
They have barely made it to the court that already dozens of excited high pitched screams surround them. Pete puts a hand over Sofia's, over the crown, and hears – for the first time – what the rats say.
''The big folks are back! The sorcerer is here! It is now time to train, brothers, show the Vox Phantasma what we are capable of!''
''Are they always like this?'' Pete stage whispers to Sofia who shrugs, nods, and takes another sip.
''Yep,'' she says, and pops the ''p''. ''That or they sing epic songs of their universe-king. I don't know which one's worse.''
''I kind of like this enthusiasm,'' Pete says, and gently wrestles the flask out of Sofia's tight grip. ''Nod knows the city council could use it when it comes to support public funding. The bookstore's not doing so great right now.''
''I can give you money,'' Sofia says, and it's immediate, but detached, like she's thinking about something else. Not hard to guess what; none of them have really stopped thinking about it.
''How about La Gran Gata? Isn't it too complicated to have all these rats here with her around?''
''She knows that she's not allowed to touch them. No rats deaths. That's the rule.''
Pete nods, and bites his lip. ''Cool.''
They stay silent, and watch the waves of grey and brown run across the yard, jumping and rolling and grappling, both still holding the crown.
''Their furs look good,'' Pete remarks eventually. Sofia snorts, wet, and when Pete turns to look at her there are silent tears streaming down her face.
''I give them a brushing sometimes,'' she says, voice shaking. ''Brush their tails when they get tangled. Happens way more often than you'd have thought.''
Pete lets go of the crown, takes Sofia in his arms, and she goes, hiccuping against his chest. ''He probably loves that. And hates it too. Now he can't call them his ''dirty rat bastards'' anymore, all because of you.''
''I know,'' Sofia says, and it's halfway between a wail and a laugh. ''That's why I do it so often. I've thought-'' and she stops, tightens her arms around Pete's waist, breathes. ''I've thought about teaching them his dance-''
''It's a good one. Would be too sad for it to disappear.''
Sofia laughs, wet and grateful. ''I know! But they still have trouble with it. I'm not that good of an instructor either to be honest.''
''I'm sure you're brilliant,'' Pete says in her hair and lets go of her with one hand to wipe his eyes. He sniffles. ''But we have to face it, he's the only one able to pull it off.''
''Yeah.'' Sofia sighs, breathes deeply, and takes a step back. ''Sometimes I feel like he's still doing it, wherever he is.''
''Can you imagine,'' Pete says, as Sofia gently brushes the tears from his cheeks. ''We're living in a dancing hairy baby universe.''
''Wouldn't have it any other way,'' Sofia says, and Pete nods.
Around them the wind picks up, leaves swirling left and right in a strangely rhythmic movement.
It's almost March, and they were supposed to gather at Kingston's apartment to have dinner together, but the sun was high and warm in the sky and Kingston texted them all that he had a surprise, followed with a I Love Lucy gif for some reason. So they are instead waiting for him, sitting on and around a bench on the banks of the East City River, talking about Pete's new apartment and making plans to drop by his bookstore soon. Sofia is petting Ox, flask of alcohol confiscated by Rowan's mage hand, and Ricky is giving his pet bits and scraps of food even though he doesn't really need it. So it's no wonder that when Kingston shows up, a limping dog with patched fur and watery eyes at his side, they all jump down their various perches and run up to pet and coo at the dog.
''I just got him from the shelter'', Kingston says when they've somewhat calmed down enough that he could be heard. ''Old bastard, this one. He's gonna get a good wash as soon as we get home.''
''He's so cute,'' Sofia coos, extending the ''u'' way past its expiration date. ''Can I wash him too? Give 'im a little brushing? Look at you, you good boy!''
''We can walk our dogs together now,'' Ricky says. ''Awesome!''
''Except on Sundays,'' Rowan says, and they all go ''ooh,'' and ''aahs'', and wink at Kingston who stammers indignantly.
''And what's his name?'' Rowan finally asks, as Pete is still picking balls of crusted dirt and trash off the dog's fur and Sofia is already going at him with a comb.
Kingston smiles, leans down to pet the dog's head, and says,
''This piece of trash? Bruce.''
If Sofia sheds a tear, she insists it's because the wind is too cold and harsh. Kingston invites them all back for some hot chocolate at his apartment. Bruce and Ox yap excitedly all the way back. Pete, Mindlink still open – always open, whenever he can, even at night, when he allows himself to drift off into sleep, just in case the universe can gather pieces of himself enough to turn back into a rat with a big heart – smiles at the affectionate curses that are being thrown Kingtson's way by a disgruntled incorporeal voice.
It's March and everyone shows up at Ricky's apartment with last year's calendar, including Esther. Rowan has one too, but when Ricky says he won't do any new calendars she takes matters into her own hands.
Her, Sofia and Pete install the set. A couple photoshoots and spells later, Rowan hands them all their new calendars. There is a date on it, set to reset and change every year. Rowan has put herself as Mrs. January; Ricky is obviously Mr. March. Pete has downed his best scary grin for October. Kingston claimed September, Sofia July, Esther April. They go down to Central Park for a quick shot of Em so she can be in May. December is a drawing of a rat and, in place of the 31 st , a paw print.
They stay up all night, and listen to Rowan's stories, of the morse dancer and her travel from the UK to New York. Pete lights up candles, Sofia makes a salad, Kingston narrates his first encounter with Misty Moore, and they all fall asleep in a pile.
The candles' flames flicker and tremble during the night, but the wind is always careful to keep them alight.
It's April and they go to visit Wally in the North Pole, minus Rowan, who has a show, and Kingston, who never leaves New York (it might have to do with the walks with Liz which now take his Saturdays too). The Pole is bustling with activity, hundreds of elves running around and toys being packed.
Wally comes to them, arms wide open, and ushers them inside, where string cheese awaits for them. Ricky, who's already come here many times, goes straight for the rack of weights in Wally's quarters.
''I've installed a public transport system,'' Wally explains enthusiastically, in between mouthfuls of hot-dog and cheese. ''That way the elves don't have to sleep in the ateliers and can have their own homes! We make a lot of little beds now. Do you want to see the little beds?''
They go to see the little beds. They are the size of a big rat. ''I couldn't find any when Dad came to stay with me,'' Wally says, and Dad barks at his side. ''Not you, rat Dad. So I've made them, in case Dad comes back. I even have all the John Wicks here.''
Sofia hugs him. He hugs back.
''I'm fine,'' Wally says eventually. ''This time I know for sure he’s not mad at me. He did what he thought was right. I still miss him, though.''
''Yeah,'' Ricky says. ''We all do,'' Sofia adds.
''I still leave a basket of cheese out every night. D'you think he likes it?''
''I'm sure he loves it,'' Pete assures him, and Wally nods.
''Wanna see the lists?''
They go see the lists. Wally explains how he's been working on them, been contacted by Heaven and Hell (''cool dudes, yeah, a bit intimidating, but so buff! We had cheese together, it was cool.'') regarding the changes he proposed.
''I don't see why some people can't have gifts for the holidays. What if because they don't have any they decide to never become good!'' Wally says, as he pulls out a dossier. It's green, and it has ''The Kugrash Project'' written in big, bold font on it.
It's a new system in the process of being developed. It would consist in tracking people more closely and bump them from the naughty list to the not-good-but-not-that-naughty-either list whenever they did a good action, a new thing that Wally came up with after Esther showed him and Ricky The Good Place . ''We're still looking for a name, so if you have any suggestion,'' he says, and Pete absolutely doesn't cry when he sees that he's on this one.
''There's also a fourth list,'' Wally says and pulls it out. ''THE BAGEL LIST'' is messily written at the top, and there's only one name on it. They all approve of it.
Wally insisted on these names, even though he was thinking of calling the project ''Rat Jesus'' at first. They all know that it probably made the rat-shaped universe bawl its eyes out anyway.
It's summer and warmth comes roiling out of manholes. The subway is hell on Earth. Pete skips down in the sewers, seeking refuge in the freshness and the water dripping down the walls. Perry the Pigeon is perched on his shoulder. There's a big room at the center, with a stage on it, and Rowan is here, directing alligators. One of them has a crown on its head. The premiere of the show is set to be next month. It's great already, and Perry claps as much as he can with feathery wings.
It's August and Sofia drowns the last of her alcohol supplies down the gutter. It's fall, and David has a big trial. It's October, and Pete dresses as Nod to knock on doors with Kingston's nieces and nephews. It's November and Perry shows up with a new date. It's December and Ricky and Esther move in together. It's the 25 th and they wave at Wally in the sky, text and meet up on the 26 th to exchange gifts and hugs. It's almost the 31 st and Kingston suggests they set up a grave.
''Why would we do that? He's not dead. Only, y'know. Incorporeal.''
''It might be good, for us all, to have a place for, you know. Mourn. Drop flowers.''
''We don't have anything to mourn. He's still alive. Pete can even talk to him. Right Pete?''
Pete exchanges a glance with Kingston, then looks back at his cup. ''I- I've stopped. The Mindlink. It- it wasn't good, for me, to keep doing this.''
Sofia's fists tightens on the table. Esther puts a gentle hand on her arm.
''He's still alive,'' she growls through gritted teeth. ''No need for a, a grave, or something morbid like that.''
''He's not really dead, sure, but he's not alive either,'' Kingston says calmly. ''And it's not a Dale situation. He has no Heaven to escape from. It's not healthy to keep this sort of half-grieving.''
Sofia stands up. ''Fuck you,'' she spits, and strides out of the cafe.
(She hasn't told anyone how Dale's visits are less and less frequent, how the baby deers are growing up without him, how she's drowning in all the paperwork, how her fingers itch for a drink.)
La Gran Gata curls around her neck that night, when she's still hitting air, the moon high in the sky.
''He's not like me,'' she purrs, Sofia scratching her chin. ''He's more and less. But he sees you. He worries. I do not like to live in a worried universe. It being a rat is already frustrating enough. Go set up this grave so I can sleep in peace. I need my naps.''
It's the first of January, again, and they bury a dirty scepter along with a cape in a patch of ground in Central Park. Wally is leaning against David's side. Perry is openly sobbing, dozens of pigeons cooing sadly around him. The ground is covered in crying, screaming rats, squawking ''be strong for your King! But being in touch with your emotions is good! Cry strong for your fallen King!''. Gabriella puts a lily on the freshly made grave, a crying Esther at her side. Sofia mushes a few sandwiches into the ground, and Pete creates the illusion of a cheese bagel, floating high in the air above the grave. Rowan sings a last goodbye.
There are a lot more people still, gators, bugs, but also humans, who now sleep in warm beds and didn't die of hunger nor cold thanks to the actions of a hairy baby. There's a lot of crying, a lot of singing too, and afterwards some of them get drunk and Ricky pulls Wally aside and shows him the calendar. Wally sniffles and asks if he can have one.
''I have a better idea,'' Ricky says.
They take new photos. Everyone keeps their respective months, but December is now the picture of a smiling, puffy-eyed Wally. After all, it's only fair to have Santa Claus on their calendar.
The 31 st remains a paw print, with added grime on it. Sofia shoulders through the whole day with tears streaming down her face and doesn’t touch a drink.
It's not perfect. It can never be. You'd have thought that after some time they'd run out of tears, but it's been one year, two years, and the flood gates are still open. They go to Central Park on their own, together, by accident. Sofia cries when she sees a bagel. Rowan makes sure there are always fresh flowers on the grave, Kingston that no one other than friends can find it. It still hurts, even though the tears get rarer, fonder.
It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better, and when they all gather, for Christmas, a drink or a fight, they leave a place open for the universe to take it if it wants.
(And always, the wind is around them, playing with their hair and running at their heels, whispering quiet words of encouragement and, looking down from the sky, a big rat makes sure that they are all as alright as can be.)