Hello Readers! This is my final chapter. Thank you to everyone who read the story, special thanks to those who reviewed it. I hope the last chapter is acceptable-it's mostly wrap-up fluff.
"See? You did get a lollipop."
Nico couldn't argue with Rafael, partly because he did indeed have a cute little birdie size lollipop, and partly because said lollipop was currently lodged in his mouth. He sucked on it happily and tried to glare at Rafael, but his visit hadn't actually been that bad. He had no negative feelings to fuel the glare with.
Blu was squawking happily at Linda on the other side of the room, always elated when he had a chance to visit her. Rafael, Nico, and Pedro were all familiar with the humans who ran the Blu Bird Sanctuary, but they always felt more comfortable when Blu was there. They also liked to see him behave like a spoiled pet while they snickered in the background. Later, they would call him a pansy.
"There you go, Blu," Linda half-whispered, handing her best friend a lollipop of his own. Pedro gaped.
"That's not fair!" he yelled.
Nico ripped the sucker from his mouth. "He wasn't even injured!"
Rafael laughed behind them. "You know he gets special treatment."
"That doesn't make it fair."
Although Linda could only hear squawking, she correctly guessed the reason for Pedro's sudden frenzy. She giggled. "Calm down, I can hand lollipops all around just this once," she said amiably while giving suckers to both Pedro and Rafael. Pedro immediately popped his in his mouth, but Rafael kept his, mumbling something about giving it to the kid who annoyed him least tomorrow.
"Don't tell Tulio," Linda whispered to Blu. "He keeps wondering why we run out of suckers all the time."
Blu winked, offering his feathered head to be rubbed affectionately by Linda. Nico brooded as he sucked on the remnants of his own lollipop.
"Qwat's chup witch yoo?" Pedro asked, unwilling to remove his sucker and instead talking around it.
"This makes my lollipop less special," Nico sulked, crossing his arms.
"Kids, kids, don't fight," Rafael said with a touch of sarcasm.
"But he got one too! He didn't even have to sit through a check-up," Nico whined, failing to recognize the amused exasperation in Rafael's tone.
"You're just jealous that my lollipop is better."
"No it's not."
"Well I have a bigger one."
"That's because I've been eating mine!"
"It's still bigger!"
"It's the same size as the one I got!"
Linda giggled as she interrupted the squawking birds. "Okay, little guy," she said, gently prying Nico away from Pedro before the canary could strangle his friend. "Let's look at this one more time before you go, just to be safe."
When the four birds arrived, Nico riding Rafael's back, Linda had immediately noticed the canary's incapacitation. After fleetingly greeting Blu, she gingerly picked Nico up, took him into the examination room, and did a quick check-up, since Tulio had taken the night off. The check-up didn't last for more than 10 minutes, but to Nico, who would try to avoid a medical examination if he needed open-heart surgery, it might as well have lasted 10 hours.
Linda did the same examination this time, although she didn't bother taking him into the back room. She felt his wing, gentle enough to avoid causing the canary unnecessary pain, but hard enough so she knew where the wing did cause him pain. After a few minutes, she declared her original assessment. "Yep, looks like it's just a sprain. We don't even need to put a cast on it, it'll heal up in probably less than a week." She put Nico down, then looked sternly at the little bird. "But no flying until then. Come back in a week and we'll see how you're doing."
Nico piped his thanks, thoroughly annoyed at being banned from the skies. He turned to Blu. "Now I know how Jewel must have felt."
"Jewel couldn't fly for two weeks."
"What did she do in all that time?"
A dreamy expression suddenly overtook Blu's face. "Oh, you know…there's not much for two birds in love to do on the ground…"
Nico promptly started making gagging noises.
"You like the kids, don't you?"
"Stop talking," the canary begged, hands over his ears.
"Okay, you heard her," Rafael interrupted. "No flying for a week. So hop on my back."
"Where we going?"
"Back to The Branch. It's still early. I bet we can get there in time to hear the winning announcement."
"You mean we won't have to wait until tomorrow?" Blu asked. "That's good. Jewel will want to know."
Nico and Pedro looked at each other, expressions equally elated. Nico clambered back onto Rafael and Pedro and Blu took off.
As Rafael prepared to follow, he said, "See? I told you it wouldn't be that bad."
Nico and Pedro slid out of The Branch triumphantly, wings raised in exalted fist-pumps.
"We won, man!" Pedro held his hand up high.
"I know! I was there too!" Nico jumped up to slap it.
"Fifth year in a row!"
"No one can top us!"
Rafael smiled in the background as the two friends chest-bumped, praising themselves extravagantly in the streets. Blu stood next to him, in a sort of daze.
"There was no prize?"
"But no physical prize?"
"You're saying that we went through all that to get these two to a supposedly important contest where they don't win anything?"
"They win pride."
"That's not a prize!"
"What did you expect them to win?"
"I-I don't know," Blu stuttered. "Some sort of ribbon at least, or a trophy, or money, or something."
"What use would we have for money?"
"At least the coins are shiny. Like a trophy."
"There might not be a physical prize for winning The Best of the Branch, but people know their names now. They win respect, and they get to perform a lot."
"People knew them before! They performed a lot before!"
"Yeah, because they won the contest four years ago," Rafael explained. "Every Branch hit starts off winning The Best of the Branch."
"I guess that makes sense."
"Winning is really just a way for these two to keep their statuses up."
"They couldn't have done that without winning?"
"Nah, they coulda. But look how happy they are." Rafael gestured to Nico and Pedro, who were now running in circles from sheer exhilaration.
"I see." Blu yawned. "HEY! Guys!"
Pedro halted at Blu's yell, and Nico ran into him, falling backwards.
"Congratulations. But I'm tired. I'm gonna go home and tell Jewel the good news."
"Kay! Bye, bro!"
"Thanks for being awesome today!" Nico flashed his friend a thumbs-up.
"Um…yeah. No problem." Blu looked puzzled for a second, but shook it off and then headed in the direction of his tree.
"I think we confused him," Nico whispered to Pedro.
"I don't think he's ever been called awesome before."
Pedro's observation ignited deep belly laughs from the both of them. Rafael suspected they were starting to get slaphappy.
"Have you guys eaten at all today?"
Nico stopped laughing abruptly as his stomach growled. "Now that you mention it…I'm starving."
"I figured," Rafael said drily. "I bet there's a bar open somewhere. Let's grab a bite."
"I don't get it, Raf," Pedro said, mouth full of nachos. He sipped some soda from a child size fountain cup. "I mean…what's counting cards?"
"When you count the amount of cards in a deck during blackjack. It helps predict what cards are going to be next so you know how big your bet should be."
"Aren't there 52 cards in every deck?"
Rafael rolled his eyes, putting his wings behind his head and leaning back against the building. He stretched his legs out onto the restaurant's colorful canopy. "No, Pedro, that's not what I meant. Let's try it this way. There are four aces in each deck, right?"
"So if you remember that all four aces have been played while you've been sitting there, if you have a 10 or a 20, you probably shouldn't take a hit."
"What's getting beaten up have to do with it?"
"Taking a hit means getting another card."
Nico swallowed his substantial mouthful of onion ring and piped in. "Why wouldn't you take a hit if you had a 10? That's a weak number."
Rafael gestured excitedly towards the canary ripping off another bit of fried onion. "See? Nico gets it! The example just means that you wouldn't get a direct 21 with the next card because all the aces are gone."
"But you could get to the high teens."
"Well yeah, you should always get another hit if you have a number under 14. Once it gets to 14 or 15 you've got to be careful."
"What if we know that most of the numbers over 6 have been used?"
"There you go!" Rafael said proudly.
"Show-off," Pedro mumbled.
"How is that showing off?" Nico said, brushing infiltrating nacho crumbs off his side of the canopy.
"Because you get it better than me."
"That's just natural smarts, not showing off."
"Whatever," Pedro sulked and turned back towards Rafael. "So what does all this have to do with what happened to Raoul?"
"You asked the plot of the movie I mentioned earlier. I said it was about counting cards and then you wanted me to explain that."
"Well explain the other thing then!"
"I don't think I will."
"You promised if I went to Linda!" Nico whined.
"That's true. But wouldn't you rather see it?"
Pedro paused putting another nacho in his mouth. "See Raoul?"
"Oh, no. That's long done now. I talked to Miguel before the winning announcement."
"He's banished from Rio."
"Nice," Nico and Pedro said in unison.
"But that doesn't explain what happened to him," Nico continued.
"Would you like to see the movie?"
"Yes!" Nico and Pedro said, once again, in unison.
"I bet we can next week," Rafael said, stroking his beak in deep thought. "You guys know Richie?"
"The guy whose owner owns the video store?" Pedro asked.
"You got it. His owner is going on vacation to visit family in a week or two. Know what that means?"
"We get unlimited access to his electronics?" Nico said excitedly.
"Yep. Including his flat-screen. We've already talked about hanging out. I'll suggest watching 21 with you guys to him."
"Since when are you buds with Richie?" Nico asked.
"We're not exactly tight, but we're friends. I don't know. Kind of just happened. I like the guy."
Nico shrugged and looked over at Pedro, who looked equally nonchalant. The two party birds knew almost everyone in Rio de Janeiro, or at least almost everyone who roosted in the rainforest. They had met Richie before, but the fact that he was one of the few birds they knew with an owner meant he wasn't in the forest a whole lot. They didn't dislike the guy; they just didn't know him very well.
"Sounds cool," Pedro said.
"Great. I'll talk to him about it tomorrow. Now you guys get to bed."
Although Pedro sputtered in protest, Nico couldn't argue as he yawned. "Fine, but I'll need a ride."
"Oh yeah." Rafael extended his wing to make climbing easier for the canary. Although Nico could technically fit on Pedro, and had been forced to on certain occasions, Rafael knew he was a much smoother flight. He didn't blame Nico for preferring him to the clumsy cardinal.
Nico and Pedro collapsed simultaneously as soon as they set foot in their little hollow.
"It feels good to be home."
"Got that right, bro," Nico answered drowsily, unwilling to even lift his face from the floor.
"Home always feels better when you slept in a bush the night before."
"Or on the curb under a candy wrapper."
"Why were you on a curb under a candy wrapper?"
"Why were you in a bush?"
"I passed out trying to get away from that cat."
"Oh yeah. I was trying to find you and I hit a stop sign."
"My story's a lot cooler."
Nico pushed himself up from the ground. "No it's not. Where were you all day?"
"Trying to find you! I went to the beach and found Blu and Jewel first, and then we checked with Rafael, and then we checked here—"
"This wasn't the first place you looked?"
"Why does everyone ask that?"
"Why didn't you go to the beach? Or the bird sanctuary? Or any other place I was at all day?"
"We did! We split up to look for you when I remembered Raoul going crazy—"
"Wait, what?" Nico had been about to stand, but halted when he heard Pedro. "You went to the beach?"
"Well I didn't, I was with Rafael. We went into town and Blu and Jewel went to the beach and the sanctuary—"
"You have got to be kidding me."
"I went to the beach! AND the sanctuary! I was at the beach forever!"
Pedro laughed. "No you weren't."
"YES I WAS! I stopped at Blu and Jewel's tree, and then at the sanctuary because I figured he might be with Linda, and then the beach…"
"Then how did you not find anybody?"
"I don't know! I went swimming and then I thought to check Luiz's so I hopped on the trolley!"
"I don't know, four o'clock!"
"WHAT?" Pedro popped up from the ground. "We were there at four!"
"ARE YOU KIDDING ME?"
"We rode the trolley and there was this weird kick mark on it—" Pedro's eyes widened in apprehension.
Nico's bottle cap popped off from sheer frustration. "THAT WAS ME! I KICKED THE TROLLEY!"
"Well where were you!"
"DAAAAAAAAAH!" Pedro collapsed again, more exhausted than before. "Why were you moving around all day?"
"Did you want me to lay unconscious in the street?"
"We probably would have found you easier…"
"Stop all this 'finding me' stuff, I heard Raoul say a cat chased you and then I went to look for you—"
"He kidnapped you!" Pedro yelled, finally forcing himself to stand.
"Why are you convinced he kidnapped me—"
"Because he said he…kidnapped you?"
Nico stood too, looking unamused at his friend. "And you trusted that?"
Pedro remained silent for a moment. "Better than not trusting it and having it turn out to be true," he said finally, moving his foot in circles and looking down at it like a chastised child.
Nico opened his mouth to respond with something sassy fueled by his exhaustion and poor diet for the day, but stopped himself. "I guess so."
Pedro looked embarrassed. "I was really worried about you today, man."
"Yeah…the feeling was mutual," Nico admitted. He playfully punched his friend on the arm. "But don't ever tell anyone."
The friends stayed silent for a minute, neither entirely sure what to say. Or sure anything else needed to be said.
Pedro plopped down on the messy heap of leaves that served as his bedding, and Nico fell onto his slightly tidier pile. They were both asleep within a minute.
Thanks again to all who read! As always...reviews would be great.
Whatever will I do with myself now that the story's done? Hm...perhaps I'll write a companion piece. Yes, I think another story is in order. If you liked this one, keep a look out for it! ;)