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A Blinking Light Up On The Clouded Mountain

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Night Vale.

Rising mayor Dana Cardinal is many places.

She is with the masked warriors at the edge of town, saying goodbye, hugging the ones she's grown closest to. Dʌg cups her between hands half as long as she is tall and gives her the gentlest of squeezes. Әliʃə promises that the translation artifact will stay attuned to Dana a little while longer, while their Prius-sized dog nuzzles up against Dana's astral-projected form for tiny scratches.

She is outside the burn ward of Desert Bluffs' hospital, giving careful directions about one of the patients.

She is walking the path near the official press conference gazebo, in the company of Pamela Winchell. The outgoing mayor is explaining that she's retiring from politics completely, to have a quiet, uneventful life. Perhaps take up some hobbies. Since Dana will likely never see her again, Winchell has to pass on all her knowledge about how to maintain the mosses that grow on City Hall grounds, by singing the proper songs.

And she is in the lobby of Night Vale General, escorting Sohvi Palmero.

Their destination is down a hall to the left; Sohvi banks right and heads for the gift shop, long white hair and black silk dress swirling behind her. She studies a display of Get Well Soon pillows and stuffed animals, plucks a violet pillow off the shelf, and turns to leave without a word.

"Hey!" protests the cashier, scrambling out from behind the register. "Hey, you can't just take that!"

The witch fixes him down with an icy look. "You will have your lungs for three more years. They will be replaced with something else that breathes, but not for you."

"Cutsey baby talk or not, Señora, you still have to pay for things."

With a sigh, Dana gets between them. "Charge it to the Mayor's office."

That settled, Sohvi follows her to the surgery waiting room. There's an adult watching a couple of toddlers in a sectioned-off play area, a family grouped around a square bank of seats and tapping to each other in quiet Morse...and Cecil, slumped over the arm of a striped chair, eyes closed. Khoshekh is puddled on his leg, three feet tucked in and one sticking out, nose twitching in his sleep.

Bare feet and insubstantial ones make no noise on the carpet. As they get closer, Sohvi's steps slow, eyes never moving from the adult son she last saw when he was sixteen.

"Dana," she says in a low voice. "The real Dana."

"That's me," says Dana. "And you are the real you, this time."

"And him?"

"Your real son," confirms Dana. "Well, one of them. Who really wants to see you. Go ahead."

Sohvi crosses the rest of the distance, lifts Cecil's head, and rearranges him so he's lying on the pillow instead of awkwardly bent over the armrest. When Cecil stirs and mutters under his breath, she splays a hand on the crown of his head and says, "Sleep."

A few of the lines on Cecil's face smooth out. He sleeps.

Dana leaves them to their privacy. She has other places to be.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Unknown.

Awareness comes in flickers and fits.

Nausea.

Something beeping.

Darkness.

A dull burning ache flashing up here and there on his skin.

Voices, on and off, sometimes near and sometimes not.

A tube down his throat, rasping as he breathes. In. Out.

Cool air.

A heavy blindfold.

More voices.

"...not ready to be moved out of..."

"...straight from the top, I don't..."

"...be there when he's up."

Someone with latex-gloved hands grasps his head, eases the tube out of his airway.

He doesn't let himself react. No swallowing, no flinching at noises, no fumbling to get the blindfold off. Playing dead is the only self-defense he has the energy to keep up, here in this fog of nausea and sleepiness and undifferentiated aches.

Wheels squeak and his bed (?) jostles as he's taken...somewhere. Quieter. Still cool.

Voices at a short distance, too low to hear.

A door closing.

Footsteps.

A familiar sniffle. "Dear Carlos. Please wake up."

It's the one voice he'll never play dead for. "H-hi."

Cecil guides Carlos's hand to cup his face (the contact stings on his sunburned skin, but it's worth it) and answers all his questions, even when Carlos gets confused or forgets a detail and has to ask the same thing twice. They won. There are ongoing skirmishes, but the Smiling God is no more. It's been almost two days since Carlos lost consciousness. He's in a Night Vale hospital. He needed a lot of treatment. He'd lost a lot of blood.

Isaña is in a basket on the shelf under his mattress; Cecil picks it up so she can roll out and cuddle up next to Carlos. She'll be gazing at their boyfriend as much as possible...but Carlos wants more. "Blindfold...? When does it...off?"

"Not yet. Soon."

"When they change the bandages...be here?" implores Carlos. "Wanna see you. Jus' for a second."

A tear runs down Cecil's cheek, landing in the crook of Carlos's thumb.

Cold fear swells in Carlos's chest. "Cee...?"

"The good news," says Cecil, "my dear, brave, incredibly resilient Carlos, the good news is...you are at the top of the list to receive bionic eyes."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Six Flags Desert Springs.

The staff at the theme park is surprisingly freaked out when their guests for the day arrive.

Tamika gets on some level that Night Vale is an unusual town. She could understand if they were scaring random visitors, from districts with different customs. But the regular staff? They see families from Night Vale every summer. They shouldn't be that startled by a visiting party that includes a hundred and twenty strange, daemonless children, two floating Eternal Scouts with glowing white eyes, and a handful of angels.

Well, for once, it isn't her problem. Scoutmaster Harlan (bearded, tanned, with the kind of muscles Tamika wants to have when she's that age) organized the trip, and it's on Marcus Vansten's dime. All she has to do is be around at the end of the day to cut open a window to their spectre-ravaged and slowly-rebuilding home universe.

She can...relax.

Tamika Flynn — librarian-slayer, war hero, multi-world-army commander, God-Destroyer — takes in a puppet show.

She plays a game, shooting plastic frogs with darts until she wins the biggest plush Hello Kitty the stall has to offer, then bequeaths her prize to the nearest wide-eyed daemonless six-year-old.

She and Rashi splash around in the wave pool for a while, then towel off, relax in one of the park areas, and enjoy a scoop of triple-chocolatl soft-serve.

The cloudy skies aren't ideal for a day of water rides and ice cream, but they're all right by Tamika. She's had enough sunshine for a while.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Carlos gets a steady stream of visitors. First, it's the doctors and nurses: checking his vitals, adjusting his pain and nausea medication, asking to shake his hand or give him a high-five. As Carlos returns to lucidity, he starts to suspect that last part is not legitimate doctoring.

When he's stable enough, they let him get unclipped from the monitoring equipment, put some real clothes on, and accept visits from outside. Köhler brings gifts from the team: a get-well-soon bouquet and a card, signed by everyone, with text that he's kind enough to read out loud. Josie brings more flowers, and promises to return with lingonberry tea once he's well enough to drink it. (For now, between the sore throat and the anesthesia-induced nausea, he's subsisting on IV nutrients and ice chips.)

From the sound of the commotion, Cecil has to forcibly resist Steve from tackling Carlos in a hug. "He is in a very delicate condition, Steve Carlsberg, and you need to express your completely-justified hero-worship in ways that will not make it worse!"

It's heartwarming. It's also exhausting. After extracting a promise from Cecil not to go too far, Carlos rolls over on his less-sore side and sleeps like the dead.

The next time he wakes, it's to fresh waves of burning pain on his forearms, calves, and face. There's already someone putting a cooling salve on one of his legs; Isaña looks, and though Carlos can't see through her eyes, he picks up the perception that it's a legitimate Night Vale nurse. Besides, he can hear Cecil's voice not far off, so he can't be in too much trouble.

From the sound of it, Cecil is on the phone with someone. "...would have to stay there. I mean, I'm sure Tamika can let you back to this world in eight or ten years, but you wouldn't be able to come back and forth for weekend visits. A very smart and handsome téolo— uh, científico has calculated that it'll shred a permanent hole in the universe if we try it...Oh? Okay. No, that's good! As long as they're nice to you...Rogiéro, eh? What's he like? Is he cute?...well, if he's ten then he probably is cute, isn't he. Oh, shut up. Uh-huh. You too, Earl."

Carlos takes deep breaths, and lets Cecil's voice wash over him, and falls asleep again once the pain has receded enough to allow it.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The whole team is invited to Hiram's big mayoral-concession/going-away party. He rented the grounds of John Peters' farm for the occasion, partly because John needs to raise some money after spending half a year in a different dimension, partly because most of the guests are dragons. (Two stories tall on average. Occasionally sneezing fire.) Space is weird in Night Vale, but not weird enough for any single building to hold all of them.

When Sherie and Sally arrive, they get escorted into an area marked with red ribbons and giant dragon-language signs. Other human (and mostly-human) guests mill around, snacking on imaginary popcorn and reminiscing about their campaign volunteering. "I wonder what the signs say," muses Sherie. "'VIP Guests', maybe?"

"The red ones? They say 'Not Food'," says Sally from somewhere to her left. "I hope that only applies to us, and not to the goodies on the tables. Those leftover campaign buttons look delicious."

She may or may not still be around when Sherie ends up in a conversation with John and Perle. The farmer is wearing a nice suit, with a corsage that matches the flower crown on his cow daemon. The linguist is the most under-dressed person at the party. She'd be stunning if she dressed up even a little bit, not that Sherie wants to criticize, she looks fine, just saying, but she's in cargo shorts and a sturdy work shirt, gecko daemon riding in one of the pockets.

In the middle of a conversation about John's time in the House that Doesn't Exist, Perle gets a call. She's beaming when she finishes. "My sabbatical got approved! Just in time!"

"Congratulations!" exclaims Sherie. She's noticed Perle packing, but wasn't sure what for. "When are you leaving?"

"Tonight." When Sherie does a double-take, Perle adds, "I did say 'just in time'."

"Wait a minute. Are you going with the dragons?"

"When am I ever going to get a better field research opportunity?" asks Perle. "I'll be back in five years. If I'm still alive. Hiram swears he'll do his best to keep his people from eating me. In the meantime, if you want to call, or if the team's next linguist needs a consult, I switched to a Night Vale phone plan — it has unlimited weekday minutes for anyone in the network."

"Did I hear my name?" exclaims Hiram's green head, as all five of them snake overhead. "Welcome, tiny meat creatures! Is the music pleasing to your flimsy external ear-shells?"

Perle preens the grey head's feathers with her hands, John assures the blue head that he voted dragon, and Sherie apologizes that Carlos couldn't make it, but passes on his regards to the gold. Sally congratulates all five heads for being a worthy opponent, and laments that Hiram won't be around to help her destroy the usurper Dana Cardinal.

"Sweetie, if you don't promise not to go around trying to destroy Dana, I am not dancing with you," says Sherie firmly.

"That is not fair." Out of nowhere Sally appears, wearing a breezy white sundress and coral jewelry that matches her salamander daemon's fronds. "But okay."

Sherie takes her hand. "Also, since I kept my promise not to die, I do believe you owe me your real name."

Their daemons nuzzle up next to each other, and Sally says, "I will tell you as we dance."

 

-{,(((,">

 

When Carlos has reached the point of being able to take short walks, he loops one arm through Cecil's and carries Isaña in the other, and lets Cecil lead him with slow steps to the next ward over.

The bandages are off of his face. He's wearing one of Cecil's floppiest hats instead, pulled down to the bridge of his nose. Even though Cecil swears that he looks, "well, not fine, but everyone here has seen worse!", he feels like some kind of Frankenstinian horror — and besides, the feeling of something over his face helps short-circuit the instinct to scratch, to tear at the stitches until he can open his eyelids and see again.

He grits his teeth when he gets the feeling now, holds his daemon tighter, and shuffles through the darkness as Cecil guides him until the worst of it passes.

Kevin can't see either. Cecil, who still isn't thrilled about this but is determined to pay Kevin back for taking care of Janice during the siege, guides Kevin's hand to Carlos's face to touch the scar.

"It really did heal nicely," says Kevin in wonder, fingertips caressing Carlos's cheek. "I didn't think it was possible."

"So you remember the details, huh," says Carlos.

"In glorious Technicolor."

Before Carlos can ask what that means, Kevin gets under the brim of the hat and pokes the stitches, making him flinch.

"Sorry! Did I hurt you? Sorry, sorry —"

"Not your fault! That's nothing to do with you. I just have these, um, temporary skin grafts. In an unusual place, so they're sensitive."

"Prep for eye surgery?" asks Kevin.

"...eye replacement, actually." Carlos doesn't want to dwell. Doesn't want to rub it in how he's eligible and Kevin isn't, because the grafts are protecting essential membranes and nerve endings that Kevin must have lost years ago.

"Ah." Kevin hesitates, then adds, softly, "Did it offer you everything too?"

Carlos swallows. "It tried."

"But Carlos shot it down!" pipes up Cecil, making both Carlos and Kevin jump. Carlos had honestly half-forgotten he was in the room. "He told it off to its face — or at least, to its impossibly-bright formless presence — and survived, and now he's fine. Un científico siempre está bien. Right?"

"Yes. Right," says Carlos, too quickly. "Cecil...honey...I know I promised to let you look out for me, but now that you've seen for yourself how un-Strexed Kevin is, maybe you could just...give us a few minutes alone?"

"Oh," stammers Cecil. "Yes, of course." He drops a quick kiss on Carlos's cheek. "I'll be right outside."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Desert Bluffs.

It's disorienting, leaving the world of the Clouded Mountain while staying in her body. Dana can't pass through walls like this, or flicker from one side of a room to the other. And she keeps getting tripped up by things like hunger, or cold, or physical strain.

That's one of the reasons she makes sure to visit Caleb and Enigma, before she returns to Night Vale in person. Perhaps she and Enigma can commiserate.

The quarantine room is bright and cheerful. People whose medical care Enigma orchestrated have been sending him gifts for more than a week now; there's a lava lamp on a shelf, a series of Beanie Babies lined up on his memory banks, a couple of beaded keychains hanging from his wheelchair. A couple of otherworldly witches are on the near side of the plastic, talking to Caleb about helping out with a project of theirs. ("I'll do my best, but keep in mind that I don't specialize in secretarial work. I study computer science, not programming.")

Enigma spots Dana, and rolls his chair over. He's looking healthier than ever: filled out a lot, face a warm brown instead of ashen and drawn, only slightly winded when he gets close enough to press his hand against hers through the plastic. "Dana! You're here in person! Is that your daemon? She's beautiful."

Eustathias, on Dana's shoulder, furls her fiery feathers. Showing off a little, perhaps, but Dana thinks they've earned it.

"I'm back in my own world, yes," she says. "Speaking of journeys, and worlds, and returning...have you thought about where you want to go, now that the worst of this is over? Is there a quiet corner of your own universe that the angels could take you to? Or, if you'd like to live in Night Vale for a while, I can have a place arranged for you by mayoral edict. That's a thing I can do now."

"Dana, you are the kindest, most generous government official I have ever interacted with," says Enigma fervently. "But there's no need. Caleb and I know exactly where we want to go."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

"There are eighty-one likes on my Facebook post about this being your last surgery."

"Uh-huh?" says Carlos, trying to breathe normally. His phobia of being sedated is well-earned, but Cecil's here, holding his hand and talking him through it, so he can do this. He has to.

"And your baby sister just posted that she's made her connecting flight! No delays. Oh, Carlos, she'll be here by the time you get up."

"See her...whe'm...up," mumbles Carlos, and slips away.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Sherie takes a deep breath, gathers her courage, and knocks on the door of the House that Doesn't Exist.

(Nirliq and Keith are helping, by keeping watch from the sidewalk. The far side of the sidewalk.)

The same woman from before, wearing sweatpants and carrying a small owl daemon on her shoulder, opens the fiberglass door. "Hi there," says Sherie quickly. "I don't mean to bother you, but have you noticed that your house exists in a slightly different timeline as the rest of this world?"

"A what now?"

"That's right! Experiments have proved that, from the perspective of everyone else in town, your house — and everything in it — doesn't exist."

Cynthia snorts. "That would explain why my daughter never calls."

"Yes! Yes, it would!" exclaims Sherie. "Your daughter's name is Delphine, right?"

That gets Cynthia's attention. "Wait, are you people serious? She really doesn't remember me? Where is she?"

"I'm afraid she's at work right now. But if I know her as well as I think I do...." Sherie's eyes flick to the nearest false mailbox. "...she'll be visiting soon."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos's new vision has menus.

The specialist walks him through the basic settings. How to change the default visible spectrum (they didn't give him X-ray vision, but if he dials the wavelength up high enough, he can see radio). How to override the automatic brightness adjustment. How to zoom. He spends a couple minutes accidentally stuck in macro mode, trying to focus on the verbal instructions when his whole field of vision is taken up by a cross-section of the technician's suit.

He gets a complimentary 30-day supply of the eyedrops he's going to need, a lifetime warranty on the machinery, and clearance to receive visitors. The nausea and soreness are back, and his face is still puffy and sensitive, from the eye sockets radiating outward...but the exhaustion isn't as bad as before, and his mood is light-years better, so he tells them to send everyone in.

Cecil is at the front of the group, running to Carlos's propped-up bedside for a hug and a kiss the second Carlos beckons him forward.

Azalea, now with blue-and-green streaks in her dark hair, is right behind him. She gets the next hug, and promises to let their parents and other siblings know he's okay. Just as soon as she lets go.

Steve and Delphine and the girls round out the group, accompanied by an unfamiliar woman with an owl daemon. Janice and Renée proudly present Carlos with a care package: artisinal soaps, a teddy bear with a Feel Better T-shirt and an unnervingly realistic blood-splatter pattern on its fur, an aromatherapy eye mask, some snacks, a hand-written Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Carlos ruffles their hair, thanks them profusely, then focuses on the woman in back. "I'm sorry — I don't recognize you?"

"Oh! How terribly rude of me," exclaims Delphine, looking a little shell-shocked, but embarrassed by her lack of manners anyway. "Mamá, this is Carlos. Carlos, this is Cynthia Cabrera, my Mother Who Doesn't Exist. Although she seems like she exists. And is planning to be at my wedding exactly the way she would if she existed."

"Steve Carlsberg!" yelps Cecil, sitting bolt upright. "You're getting married and you didn't tell me?"

"It was one of those spur-of-the-moment battlefield proposals!" protests Steve. "And after that I was saving the news for when you weren't so busy being worried sick about your soulmate! This doesn't mean you won't be my best man, does it?"

Cecil grudgingly admits that of course he'll be Steve's best man, honestly, how irresponsible does Steve think he is. Carlos also gets offered a role in the wedding party, although Cecil refuses to let him enter any binding agreement until he's taken a couple of fencing classes.

As Renée gives Carlos a series of solemn fencing tips, there's a knock at the doorway.

It's a new stranger. Stunningly beautiful features, compact build, long dark hair pulled into a loose braid down the back of his patterned tunic. He looks shyly from face to face, one hand scratching his neck — there are bits of skin flaking off, as if he, like Carlos, was badly sunburned not long ago.

The other hand other holds the handle of a deerskin briefcase.

"I...think you have the wrong room," says Cecil. Though he sounds oddly unsure about it.

"No," says Carlos, leaning forward. (It's nice to have a zoom mode, but sometimes low-tech solutions work best.) "No, hang on. I've seen you somewhere before."

"No kidding," sighs the man in the patterned tunic. "Years of memory-jogging spellwork, dissolved in five minutes by a Smiling God. Listen, maybe if you just tried really hard to picture a tan jacket...?"

Carlos does — and a hundred jumbled scraps of memory flash back into place in his mind.

Not everything. Not by a long shot. It's a facial expression here, a sentence there, the feeling of talking to someone at a time when he could have sworn he was alone, scattered images of Night Vale from above during a flight he doesn't remember taking. But it's enough for Carlos to snap his fingers in recognition, and point, and blurt out, "Emmanuel Sondheim Palmero, you are not dead."

Janice squeaks with delight — oh, wow, she knew, didn't she? Knew, and tried to tell them, so many times — while Emmanuel breaks into a helpless grin that actually makes Carlos's heart skip a beat. Because the way his eyes crinkle up with the smile is also exactly like Cecil's, and now that Carlos is looking their faces are similar in other ways. On top of which, Emmanuel has that...well, that witchy hotness factor, on a level Carlos has never truly appreciated before, because he's never seen it on a guy before. Good lord.

Azalea bends close to Carlos and murmurs, "Is that the brother?" Steve has both hands clasped over his mouth, through which he stage-whispers, "He was here the whole time!"

And Cecil just stares, wide-eyed, breath caught in his throat.

"Cecil...?" asks Emmanuel. "Do you...remember?"

"No!" exclaims Cecil, finding his voice. "No, I do not remember! And whose fault is that, huh? Couldn't be happy with the family you had, noooo, you had to rope Mom and a bunch of foreign shamans into helping you try some kind of crazy change-how-every-witch-in-existence-sees-you spell that blew up in our faces! Figuratively and literally! And even after that, I had some resistance, didn't I? You could have taught me to build it up, like you did with Dana. I could have helped you! Instead you panicked, and that made me panic, until Josie figured I was going to have a mental breakdown if she didn't wipe the memories completely! This is all your fault, you reckless, melodramatic —"

He leaps across the tiny, crowded room — Carlos has a flash of a different room, of Cecil pinning Emmanuel against the wall in a restraint hold, of Janice yelling Señor Palmero! Let the other Señor Palmero go

— except this time he throws both arms around his big brother in a furious hug. "You could have died! Did you even think about that? I could have lost you again!"

Emmanuel catches him, briefcase clattering to the floor, and embraces him with something between a sob and a laugh. Isaña, cuddled up with Khoshekh, nudges his attention toward the briefcase. The margay soars over, flips the latches with his paws, tentatively noses it open...and is instantly surrounded by a cloud of flies-daemon so thick you can barely tell he's there.

"Have you seen Josie yet? Have you seen Mom?" sniffles Cecil. "Has she found you? Does she know?"

"Not yet. Neither of them. I came looking for you first."

Janice, on Tehom's back, sits up straighter. "Are both my abuelas in town?"

"Um," says Cecil. "Possibly? Mom was here a few days ago. She did not promise to stay, so she may have disappeared again, but she was here. We...spoke. For the first time in many years."

"Long-lost relatives falling out of the woodwork all over this place," observes Cynthia.

"Oh, wow." Janice's gaze sweeps around the little crowd: Cynthia, Delphine, Steve, Renée, herself, Carlos, Azalea, Cecil, and Emmanuel. "I have so much family."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Tamika sits on Rashi's back a few hundred feet from the edge of the Dog Park, watching the night sky.

Palmero and Vieja Josie are with her, both their daemons at their sides. It's not quite outside the government-mandated boundary of safety, but the Knife scares off hooded spectres, so they're good. Those boundaries don't apply to Mayor Cardinal any more; she can go wherever she wants.

Sure enough, it isn't long before a government gyropter thwocks into view, and Dana makes a wobbly landing on the weed-strewn empty lot beside them. She gives the little group a wave, and a hopeful smile.

Her passenger just clings to the sides of the seat, face twisted like he's been riding on the most stomach-churning coaster at Six Flags without a seatbelt.

Palmero is ready with a thermos of some kind of special witch-tea. Josie recites some important-sounding phrases in an unfamiliar language. Tamika lets Kevin hold her hand.

She knows the group from the other side of the dog park is getting close when she sees Dana's phoenix daemon, flames turned up so she's a living torch in the distance, casting flickering shadows on the weeds and the asphalt and the park's high onyx walls. The light falls on another figure, too: not one of the witches, but the biggest damn bird daemon Tamika has ever seen. Size of a tractor trailer. Big white wings like sails, one behind the other.

Janice lands, her daemon switching from a wyvern to a horse and touching down. Her long-lost dad does the more usual thing of lowering his branch of cloud-pine until he can stand on his own two feet. Her long-lost abuela does the same.

And the giant bird drops a smaller daemon out of its beak to land on the grass.

She's a dog — a lean wild dog with huge ears, a dark face, and beautiful marbled tricolor fur. Big brown eyes dart from face to face. "Tamika! — Kevin!"

Kevin's already out of the gyropter, stumbling because he doesn't waste time double-checking the distance to the ground. The painted dog daemon shakes off her fur and bounds over, and then he's on his knees and she's in his arms, and for the first time Tamika thinks they have a real shot at someday being okay.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The City Council is lined up in front of City Hall when the limo pulls up to drop off Dana on her first day. Scarlet cloaks, dark eyes, and black bird daemons loom over the top of the steps.

"You'll do great, honey," says her mother. "Just remember, nobody really expects any candidate to keep most of their campaign promises."

"I didn't even campaign...."

"So you'll have it easy, then," says Maureen. "Make sure you get me that exemption from the intern program, though, okay? They've got me singing to the ants again! I hate singing to the ants."

Now that is a promise Dana actually made. "It's at the top of my agenda," she says, giving the First Girlfriend of Night Vale a quick kiss before stepping out onto the walkway.

The Council shuffles to either side as she approaches, then coalesces in a circle around her and escorts her inside. They start chanting in Modified Sumerian as the first set of veils falls shut, closing them in the third-most-secret inner sanctum of the government. Shadows begin to swallow the columns and portraits on the walls; swirls of dust stir around the Council's formal robes and Dana's brand-new flats.

As the path gets darker around them, the Mayor's daemon only blazes brighter, lighting her own way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-{,(((,"> ♥ ,,,^..^,,,~

 

Bermuda.

The waves close to the beach are a clear, vivid turquoise, shading to a deep azure at the horizon.

The tide is on its way out, smoothing down the last foundations of yesterday's sand castle as it goes. Cecil was aghast to see his work destroyed, and, after Carlos explained to him how tides work, spent a good twenty minutes yelling at the moon (nearly full again, a pale ghost in the cloudless sky). He seems to have recovered by now, though; he and Khoshekh are splashing around in the shallows, looking for shells.

Carlos can't join them. Dunking his head underwater will short out his new eyes, so swimming is no longer an option. But he can stretch out on a beach chair (under the shade of a normal, non-scientific umbrella), dig his toes into the sand, and enjoy the view.

He's enjoying it very much when his relaxation is interrupted by a ringtone.

Neither of them brought their normal phones on this vacation. Got a cheap one in case of emergencies, only gave the number to a handful of people. Cecil has been talking with his brother every afternoon, but other than that they haven't been contacted since last week, when there was a problem at the station and the interns needed Cecil to trigger a Voice-activated reset. (Instead of the day's May Monologues, it had started broadcasting the contents of Cecil's voicemail inbox.)

Today's caller turns out to be Dana. "Carlos! Is your trip going well?"

"It's been wonderful. So far," says Carlos. "Is everything okay back home?"

"Oh, yes. It's just that one of our otherworldly visitors wants to talk to you. You spoke with her before, remember, the woman from the world with man-witches, and internal daemons? I am sorry to interrupt your vacation, but we're finally approaching the last phase of sending everyone back to their original worlds — she'll be out of reach by the time you get home."

Carlos sits up straighter. "Don't apologize! Is she with you right now? Can you put her on?"

"Even better!" exclaims Dana. "We have a fix on your location, so she can teleport over to see you in person. If now is a good time, that is."

Over in the water, Cecil starts when the bushy-haired witch appears on the sand. Carlos waves for him not to worry, and stands to greet her. "It's good to see you! I would have been sorry to miss you. I wish we'd gotten more time to compare research."

"Oh, but that's exactly what I wanted to ask you about!" exclaims the witch. "You're aware of how Strexcorp was sharing information and orders between different branches on a regular basis, even when they didn't have a portal open?"

"Sure." Carlos has been to the office in one of Strex's buildings that linked up with a room in the Clouded Mountain. He rated the equipment "not intrinsically evil", but couldn't figure out how to make it work. "Did you get any of those systems running? If you took one to your world, and I used the Desert Bluffs one, then maybe...."

"Or we could leave them where they are, re-purpose the structure of the Clouded Mountain itself, and convert the whole network into some kind of multi-universal science exchange forum."

"...Can we do that?"

"As of this morning, Fey is running the Mountain," says the witch proudly. "Dr. Rose and his...companion...have volunteered to handle the physical maintenance over the next few years. The scientist is an expert in that kind of equipment, and the whole dimension is so lifeless that it's the biggest sterile quarantine zone his poor friend could ask for. Of course some of the communication nodes have been destroyed in the fighting, and others are still in the control of local company branches that haven't sorted out their new chain of command, and my universe doesn't have a connection point at all yet — but I'm sure we can build one — at least, I'm sure I understand the theory — the point is, we were hoping that you —"

"I'm in! I'm in. I am so there!" Carlos's heart is racing, daemon hopping in the sand with excitement. "Do I need to bleed on any— that is, do I need to sign anything? Who's managing this, who do I report to?"

"We were sort of hoping that the rest of us could report to you."

Carlos catches his breath.

"You're the only scientist with any substantial experience coordinating research from multiple worlds," explains the witch. "All of us who've worked with you appreciate how it's been handled. You already have a rapport with the AI. Everyone on your team speaks very highly of you...." She wrings her hands. "Honestly, if you turn the directorship down, I can't even imagine who the next-best candidate would be! Unless you have any suggestions —"

"Of course I'll do it!" exclaims Carlos. "Of course I — you have no idea how many dreams of mine are — it'll take some doing, oh wow, this is going to mean big changes for the Night Vale team. Tell them to brace themselves. Tell them to go ahead and start looking at new prospective members. Tell everyone else I said yes. Yes! A thousand times, yes."

Cecil has strolled up the beach to listen by now, standing a few paces off. When their visitor disappears, messages in hand, Carlos fairly leaps down the sand to grab his boyfriend in a spinning hug. "Cecil! Did you hear, did you hear?"

"I did! Oh, Carlos, this is such a great opportunity — and you'll be perfect at it, I know you will. It's everything you ever wanted, isn't it?"

Carlos is grinning so hard his face hurts. "It's pretty close!"

"You'd better spend as much time as possible with me for the rest of this vacation. You're not going to have a second of free time once we get back."

"Absolutely. I am at your disposal."

Cecil twirls a lock of Carlos's hair around his fingers. "And even when you're busy, you'll call, right? If it's not every night, I'll understand...but as often as you can?"

"What are you talking about?" laughs Carlos. "I'm getting a new job, not leaving the country."

"Well, yes, but —" Cecil's expression fluctuates between hope and confusion. "The workplace is in Desert Bluffs. Right? And it's spatially linked to the Clouded Mountain, so it's not like you can just pick it up and move it."

"Sure, but that doesn't mean I have to move, either." Carlos stills his feet on the warm dunes and cups Cecil's face in his palms. "You and I are building that house in Night Vale, we're going to spend the rest of our lives making a home together, and I? Am going to commute."