"My round", says Carlos, rising heavily to his feet. Jane is still staring into the dregs of her pint, and he makes to pat her comfortingly on the shoulder on his way past. His hand misses, and he stumbles a little, then weaves his way towards the bar.
He returns balancing a tray with two pints and four vodka shots. Jane downs one of the shots immediately, then buries her face in her hands. "God, Carlos - I've been an academic for twelve years. I've always been the one on the edges, arguing all these ridiculous theories - I mean, the only person I could get to work with me was Erik, was does that say? - and still, even with all that... I just couldn't believe it. New York, and then this - there's no way. I can't - I can't understand it."
"I know. There's nothing quite like being confronted with your own insignificance right there in front of your eyes, is there? All the mathematics and the evidence and your friends waxing lyrical about our fragility, and still, you can't quite understand it until you see it. I get it." They tap shots together, and drain them in unison.
"New York, though... did you see the portal that opened? So many stars, and then, it was so empty beyond that... and these, things, pouring through, just their numbers, and their technology - we know so little, still, and I wonder sometimes whether humanity will even survive to create a fraction of what they had. It was terrifying, and oh, it was fascinating, too, what I wouldn't give to have even half an hour with those machines..."
Carlos hadn't seen the portal open, but the night sky over Night Vale had always seemed a little more vertigo-inducing, and to weigh a little more heavy over him, than it did in other parts of the the country. There was the usual kind of big empty sky with a few stars scattered around, and then, there was the sky in Night Vale: mostly incomprehensible void, occasional stars looking lost and lonely in the expanse, and below that, assorted citizens staring up at the sky and shrieking in existential terror. He'd had his own share of evenings spent frozen and gaping - nothing in his ten years of studying astrophysics had prepared him for it.
"What about Thor? Was it any help at all to have him around?"
"God, I don't know - it's so routine to him, you know? I can't even start to have these conversations with someone who's been around for thousands of years. I just, there's so much amazing stuff there - where, you know, he is, on Asgard - and I want to talk about them, and ask about them, and he just gives me this affectionate little look, like he's humouring me. I don't think he can quite understand what it's like to be a human, and to be confronted with something that's so vast and impossible. It's like when he said humans were so petty, and tiny, and he was right, but it's still such a big step to comprehend it."
Carlos grins. "I know what you mean. For Cecil - all this stuff is so normal, he spends his life guiding everyone else through it and making all sorts of things out to be ordinary, and I think he finds it a bit strange when I'm surprised. He does that too - you know, like a howling vortex opens in the study or the air conditioning starts raining spiders, and it's fascinating and terrifying and I don't know whether to run or to take notes, and he's just there, looking a bit confused and kind of like he's being patient with me for being shocked at it. It's weird, too - like, I don't think he quite knows how he came to be the Voice, or how long he's been working. He says he's forty-two, but he can't remember interning or even having birthdays. And I think he thinks he's normal, but I'm not sure people are supposed to be quite as perceptive as he is - I mean, from inside a locked room, really - or to have moving tattoos. I... I don't know if I should tell him."
Jane pats him vaguely, on the hand holding his pint. He takes another long draw. "I don't really know what I'm going to do now, either. I can't report back what the team's found in Night Vale - we'd be laughed out of the establishment, it'd end the interns' careers and there's no way we'd get more funding. But - I can't just make up findings to be less weird, the town's just so interesting and I wish I could show everyone in Boston, without worrying that their minds would leak out of their noses just from looking at the graphs." He helps himself to the last shot of vodka, shuddering as he remembers the last time he'd reported back.
"No, I'm the same. I don't know what to do - I've been working on this for eight years and it's just like someone's waltzed in and given me the answer, like just gone 'yup! Sure, that all exists, it's fine!' and no-one else is going to believe me and there's no point any more in chasing this project, and SHIELD are stuck-up bastards who won't even let me see what they've done with the findings I shared with them..."
"There's always a place for you on the team in Night Vale - you know that, right? It'd be an easy commute, and someone of your skills - well, I've been itching to show someone else who understands astrophysics the night sky there, it's unlike anything I'd expect to see from this end of the galaxy. Think it over?"
"Next time, perhaps." She always says that. "Maybe I'll pop back though with you and say hello. Carlos - look, thanks. It's so good to talk with someone who understands. Same time next week, yeah?"
"Yeah. That'd be great. We're looking at the town tap water this week, I'm sure I'll be needing something strong to deal with whatever we find there..."
She laughs, and hugs him tightly. "Thanks for this." "You too - thank you." Carlos ducks out of the back door of the New York bar, walking towards the portal that manifested in the car park some months ago, and then suddenly he's blinking in the fluorescent light of aisle six at the Ralph's. It's a short walk home, and Cecil has left out two pints of water for him and Alka-Seltzer for the morning. Between having drinks with Jane, and getting to come home to Cecil, Carlos thinks woozily that he's just about ready for another week of making sense out of Night Vale.