Carlos waits, restless, in the car outside City Hall. He taps the wheel, switches the engine on, then back off, considers climbing out to stretch his legs, decides against it. He opens the window a crack, only to wind it back up again in a hurry when an unearthly, spine-rattling howling breaks out from the dark bushes across the road. Leans over to double-check the doors are still all locked. Taps the wheel.
The radio is playing a countdown of the top twenty ways to break bad news: the announcer is currently elaborating on number fourteen, namely, coupling the bad news with high-pitched shrieking with the intention of baffling the recipient out of their grief, and Carlos winces and turns it down. He looks out at the sky, bounces his right leg up and down, up and down. Taps the wheel. The radio's just started introducing number eleven, with various local celebrities elaborating on the pros and cons of sending a coded letter before fleeing town to seek out cheap facial surgery and start anew, when Carlos sees movement from a side door.
Cecil is walking out, flanked by two secret police officers in leather balaclavas, who lock up the doors and then melt away into the shadows - presumably reporting to their assigned households for the night shift - leaving him to walk up the path alone.
Carlos forgets about the howling - the noise coming from the bushes is more of a ghostly wail at this point, in any case - he grabs the blanket from the passenger seat and goes to his partner, wraps him up, holds him close. Cecil doesn't quite seem to register him: he is staring incredulously into the middle distance, lips mouthing silently. Carlos walks him to the car and settles him in - "love, are you okay?" - to no answer but a vague nod, then slides in to the driver's seat and sorts out both their seat belts. Cecil won't meet his eyes, but he cocks his head and turns up the radio with an interested hum, so Carlos again checks the doors are all locked and starts up the car. The sooner they're home, the better.
Cecil holds tightly to the blanket as he's guided up the stairs, and it's only when Carlos locks the apartment door behind them that he visibly relaxes. He leans against the door and lets out an almighty groan, before stumbling over to collapse dramatically over the sofa, arms over his head and the blanket tangled. "Lovely, perfect Carlos. Hold me."
Carlos kneels down on the floor and strokes over his back and shoulders, tentatively at first, then scratching wide circles as his partner arches up into his touch. His neat ponytail has fallen apart, and his usually soft hair is pointing every which way in tousled clumps - Carlos wonders if he's spent hours running his hands through it, the way he pulls on his own hair in frustration when the numbers won't add up whichever way he counts them. The neatly-cuffed shirtsleeves of this morning have been pushed up around Cecil's elbows to expose his tattoos, moving messy and jagged over his dark skin. They're usually more subtle than this, Carlos notes with interest - they've always been careful to shift only when he's half-looking, but this evening they're chaotic and muddled, forming hard spikes and swirling out in time with Cecil's breathing.
Carlos doesn't know what to do, so he strokes Cecil's back and murmurs nonsense reassurance, and, much later, guides him towards bed. Physically, he seems okay, just tired: he clings on to Carlos even more than is usual, and falls asleep almost immediately. Carlos stays awake, strokes his hair and listens to his slow, even breaths, watches the stars shift and the sky lighten.
There's a note wedged between the centrifuge and the coffee machine when Carlos walks in - "it's for you, boss, sorry, we didn't want to touch it", Mako says, a little guiltily, from across the lab. Carlos blinks and sleepily scans the lilac notepaper - "requested to report for re-education" - a rock's fallen into his stomach and he rereads it, oh, hell, suddenly wide awake - "effective tomorrow morning, 8am at City Hall" - shit, shit, why, why now? He strides across the lab, past quietly percolating town tap water samples, and throws the window wide to address the tree out in the front yard. "What's going on, Geoffrey? What's this all about - why now, what's happened?" A pause, and the tree shakes a little, a balaclava'd figure emerging with a shrug. "Sorry, mate - no idea. We just deliver the messages. Good luck."
Carlos walks past his colleagues and into the storeroom, closes the door, and has a long, silent scream to himself, forehead pressed against the wall. A count to ten and some calming breaths, then he comes out and carefully sips the coffee that Lena has left on his desk, meeting no-one's eyes. Later that day, when he adds too much of this sample to that beaker, or leaves a reaction going for slightly too long as he gazes out at the sky (taupe today, fuchsia streaks), Mako just quietly switches off the machines and tosses the beaker out of the window, a safe distance from the tree. Carlos doesn't even register the plume of malevolent orange smoke that rises up and makes an unnervingly solid thump against the glass as it tries to get back into the lab.
After almost two years in Night Vale, Carlos' brain seems to have become adept at balancing sheer, unthinking terror in one area with an observational, scientific detachment in another. Even as he walks into City Hall, there's a part of his mind looking around in curiosity and taking notes.
He's never yet been inside City Hall. It's fairly traditional-looking: the secret police officer sent to meet him leads him through tall oak doors at the front and into an obsidian-floored atrium dotted with busts of past Mayors and city councillors (one of which is oozing, and they skirt around the puddle), then through to long corridors that look as though they were last re-designed in the seventies, all cracked pale green paint and off-white tiling. There's a faint buzzing audible throughout the building that Carlos isn't quite convinced is not coming from his own imagination, and he occasionally hears distant, pained moans and the hum of static as they walk, and walk. The officer eventually shows him through an unremarkable door, and leaves him alone in a small, windowless, magnolia-painted room containing a desk and chair.
There's a steaming purple mug on the desk, jauntily labelled with "Night Vale City Council" in bright colours. Carlos registers, with a slight edge of hysteria, that there are two chocolate biscuits on a saucer next to it. Is this a test? He ignores the desk and paces, up and down, working hard to keep a lid on his increasing panic. He counts his breaths, trying not to revisit the painful horrors he'd lain awake imagining late into last night, and then, eventually, starts to wonder why he's been left alone. How long are they going to keep him waiting? Is this part of the torture, too?
He sits down. The dark liquid in the mug looks and smells like coffee, and, when he takes a tentative sip, it tastes just like coffee. In fact - he takes a deeper sip, to check - it tastes exactly like that cheap instant coffee he inexplicably finds himself craving during all-nighters, all powdery and artificial and exactly what he needs to work through till dawn. It's made with three sugars, just as he likes it. How did they kn- well. Silly question.
The door swings open, and a large, extremely old television fixed to a stand rolls in, pushed by another police officer. (This one has decorated their balaclava with tastefully-placed plastic lizards.) Carlos starts to rise, offering help - the ancient wheels are slipping every which way - but a second later, the television's in place and the officer is fussing with a VCR tape, then dimming the lights. Carlos sits down.
The screen fills with static, and the tape rolls. It's old - there's a hiss overlaying the sound, and the colour balance seems slightly off. The announcer is English, and his hair is... strange. "What is water?", he asks of his audience. "That's a difficult question, because water is impossible to describe. One might ask the same about birds. What are birds? We just don't know."
The film zooms in onto a bird, and a question mark appears beside it. Carlos is suddenly reminded of the outdated videos they used to show at his high school, and he fights to keep his face neutral. The officer is still here, adjusting the volume levels, and then they're gone, and Carlos buries his face in his hands and stifles giggles.
There are more, and Carlos is lightheaded with relief - this is it? - each video seeming funnier for it. "Sulphur - is a metal." The police officer who changes the tapes every so often seems utterly serious, and Carlos carefully keeps his face deadpan when they're in the room. "Man has been using iron since the Stone Age." The next time they bring him coffee, Carlos pulls out his iPad and starts to take notes.
Twelve hours later, Carlos walks slowly out of the side door to see Cecil waiting by the car, arms outstretched. He waits until they're on the road before opening his mouth, because the first word to come out, the only question on his mind, is, "what?"
"Oh, love - I know, I know, it's terrible, I can only imagine how it must have been to have to deal with it for the first time. We'll get you home soon - don't worry", Cecil says, driving just a little faster than seems necessary.
Carlos isn't quite sure what to say to that, so he sits quietly, letting the radio, softly playing assorted swamp sounds, drift over him. As they're pulling in to their road, he manages, "so, is that what they showed you, too? Those - old videos?"
Cecil shudders visibly. "Oh, yes. Eurgh. The voice quality on those - I could hardly even bear to listen to it, do you know it'd be so easy to fix that hiss just with a better microphone filter? I mean, I know it's not especially polite to criticise one's fellow broadcasters, but that's such a basic, easy thing, it's just unprofessional, you know? You can even sort it out in post-production with the right editing software, there's really no excuse -" he carries on as they get into the apartment, bustling around getting Carlos settled on the sofa and the kettle boiling, "- and last time it really felt like they were focusing a little too much on the obvious, I mean, "when you think of Pennsylvania, you probably think of pencils" - as though I'd make a habit of thinking about writing implements, honestly..."
"Is that what re-education is like all the time?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes - I mean, they change the informational tapes based on what you need at the time, but yes, it's all the same style. Actually, the time before last was rather useful, I'd read out a few too many typos in Community Health Tips and now I know that, um, germs are a malevolent form of bacteria, the aim of which is to spread germs, and that they come from Germany. I really feel like getting a decent grounding in pathological processes has improved my reading, come to think about it..."
Carlos opens his mouth, tries to think of something to say, then closes it again. He takes the tea Cecil passes him, and leans back into the sofa. Perhaps they can talk more about it in the morning.