Until the night StrexCorp attacked the lab, Cecil had always wondered why it was that it had taken Carlos so long to return his affections. It had seemed obvious to him that only a few months after he’d confessed his love on the radio, Carlos had returned his feelings, but the man had kept his distance, cool and silent about anything personal. He thought he understood why he had confessed, finally. Near death experiences did that to a person, brought the important things into focus in one’s head, or so he had heard. But he couldn’t figure out what had taken him so long, when it had so clearly been what he’d wanted.
Until the night StrexCorp attacked the lab, he’d always wondered about the little flinch in Carlos’s face, whenever he’d called him “perfect”, the tone of his voice, cooler than it needed to be, on the phone, after he gushed about him on the air. He didn’t understand why Carlos would be made uncomfortable by his worship. Isn’t that what everyone wanted? Someone to think the stars and planets revolved around them. It was what he wanted, and eventually got, from Carlos, a love that always seemed deep and profound, soft and wonderful. It was a flame that was slow to catch, it seemed, but burned gentle and beautiful. Carlos loved him like he truly knew the value of love, like the stars loved him, like the moon.
He’d tried, once, to tell Carlos about himself, the truth of what he was, the truth of what he was to Night Vale, how he knew things other people didn’t know. He tried to tell him about the City Council, about how they had tamed a thing in the desert, ancient as the stars, caught it with pretty words and promises and then bound it to the earth, to flesh, to walk among them under their control. How they thought they could tame it by forcing it to be human, by making it take hosts from their children and dwell in mortality, over and over again. How it loved them anyway, it’s town, the life inside it. How it learned to be human, like them, and how fragile and beautiful all of their lives were, like tiny stars twinkling in the night, only each little glimmer was there and then gone forever instead of a twinkling constant. He loved them, and he loved Carlos, beautiful Carlos who was not his at all, and then was, in an entirely different way, and it was wonderful and perfect. He tried to tell him, and found that he couldn’t, that his tongue stumbled over the words. He hinted at it on the radio, instead, when he could, and hoped, somehow, that when Carlos found out the truth, he would realize he had been trying to tell him all along, not withholding it from him.
Until the night StrexCorp attacked the lab, he’d wished there was a way to keep Carlos with him forever. Now that Carlos had accepted his love, he could keep him safe from anything that was part of the town, marked him invisibly over and over again until nothing would dare. But he was still mortal, and there was nothing Cecil could do to change that, anymore than he could change that so too was the flesh he currently inhabited. He could stretch things, give them dozens, maybe even hundreds more years, like this, as the themselves they had been when they met, if Carlos would agree to it, let him bind him to Night Vale. They could have so much time, together. But not an eternity. Not forever. He could bend those rules, but not break them, could not grant immortality, only a long life, and eventually, eventually, even their stars would fade and he would be alone, again. He was already not looking forward to it.
Until the night StrexCorp attacked the lab, he always wondered why sometimes Carlos would look at him, sadly, as though he were seeing him fade away in front of his eyes. It always made him melancholy, to see that, because it was the opposite, wasn’t it? He was so young, and still so perfect, and he almost didn’t want to tell him, didn’t want to see the thought of eternity cloud those eyes that looked at him like something ephemeral, fleeting. No one else in the town looked at him like that. They had forgotten, but in their bones, in their blood, they knew what he was, and they knew what they had done.
And then. Then there was the night StrexCorp attacked the lab.
He’d been trapped at the station, held on the airwaves as part of the binding that had been set in place all those years ago. He could leave, of course, occasionally, and occasionally did, but there were repercussions to leaving, and now, without the City Council to enact those repercussions, he wasn’t sure what would happen to him. Did StrexCorp actually have the authority to sell him to the highest bidder? Would his punishment come from them, or from whoever had bought him?
He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to know what it was StrexCorp could do to him, not after meeting his double in the vortex, not after seeing the logos on the inside of his studio and seeing the blood (all of the blood, seeping into his clothes and his shoes and his skin and how long? How long had it been since he’d had a proper sacrifice, and how badly did he want it?) Surely they couldn’t control him. Surely they didn’t understand, the way the City Council had, what it was that he was. And yet, though he had never before seen another like himself, he knew that as surely as there was a Night there also had to be a Day, and they shared the same eyes, and that creature, too, was bound to something mortal. Mortal and controllable and broken. And so too, could he be.
So that held him to the airwaves, to the microphone, even as he understood, implicitly, that this was already his punishment—to be able to see the destruction of the lab, to be allowed to report on it, to have to say the words out loud while yellow helicopters mowed down fleeing scientists and set the building on fire. And yet, the whole time, he was aware of a name missing from the broadcast. A few of the other scientists got names, tiny eulogies on the air. Sarah, who had applied chemistry to baking and made the best brownies. Dylan, who lent him an umbrella, once, when it was raining globs of strange, organic material from the sky. Jamie, who played the violin while lost in thought and filled the lab with music. But one name, one name never came.
And finally, as he expected would happen, Daniel came in with some utterly false reason why he couldn’t broadcast about the story anymore, and he had to turn his attention to other things, explain that it was all a misunderstood pizza delivery, or something, he couldn’t even be bothered to make it sound real and he could no longer intimately watch what was happening. He dialed Carlos’s phone over and over again, during The Weather, but no one picked up. He did not expect anyone to pick up.
He finished the broadcast as smoothly and sonorously as possible, calm, performing exactly as they wished him to, their own personal little dancing monkey. But as soon as he flipped the switch and the On-Air light was gone, he was out the door, running. He didn’t have to look at Daniel to see the too-wide grin on his face, the triumph, but there was no time to stop and rip him to pieces, now. There’s somewhere else in Night Vale. A place he’d like to be, just now.
He wasn’t omniscient, exactly, could sense things in his city limits more than see them, most of the time, with a few exceptional moments of absolute clarity. So, while he could tell the battle was all but over, he didn’t know what he would find when he rounded the last corner (far faster than a human could have gotten to the scene), did not truly know what he would find there, only the death toll, only that it would be horrible.
What he saw was a warzone, most of the building missing, the rest on fire, dead scientists everywhere, some known to him and some not, blood soaking the ground. He could feel a few of their lights sparkle and go out and he swayed on his feet, slightly, feeling ill, feeling vertigo, feeling himself slow back to human reactions, human speed, eyes slowly tracking the final helicopter in the air, as it pitched, suddenly, out of the sky and slammed into the side of the building, crumpling one of the last solid parts of it. There was no way there were survivors. Carlos was dead, actually dead this time, and there had been no one to save him. Carlos was—what was that?
The helicopter had not just given up and plummeted to the earth for no reason. Something had plucked it out of the sky. Something was now tearing open the cockpit and into the man inside, who was screaming incoherently even as he turned into something halfway between a spray of blood and formerly vital organs, and food for whatever terrible thing held him in it’s grip. What was it? Cecil had never seen anything like it, and he drifted forward, unafraid. If Carlos was dead (and how could he not be?), if Carlos was dead and the City Council was gone, and the town he knew and loved was slowly being eroded by StrexCorp, what was there to stop him from becoming like the Voice of Desert Bluffs? If the creature inside the helicopter sprayed him across the walls like the man inside, what would happen to him, without a new vessel prepared and prophesied? Would he be free? Would there be peace? Would he ever be able to forget?
The creature finished with the man inside the cockpit, raised its head out of the mess and looked at him, barely ten feet away now. Its mouth was terrible, streaked with gore and too wide for its face, its eyes huge and luminous in the moonlight, birdlike, wild and crazed and intelligent, but uncaring. Wings rose from its back, multicolored, also streaked in blood, at least five of them, maybe more. Its legs were birdlike as well, it’s arms separate from its wings but clawed, wickedly. Cecil thought of harpies, but while the torso of this thing paid lip service to a human, that was all it was—lip service. There was nothing half-human about the creature. There was nothing human at all. It was beautiful and terrible, and Cecil saw eternity in those eyes. His knees trembled. He had never seen anything like it, never been in the presence of another eternal being in full manifestation before. All he could do was gape, helplessly, at it, and hate and despair and love it, all at once, unsure of what he felt like it was, other than some form of horrible, perverted perfection.
He took a sudden, startled step closer and he saw the thing hesitate a moment, as though it had been expecting the opposite reaction and didn’t know what to do. He knew that gesture. He had seen it before. And that made the decision easy-- he walked right up to it, even though, like this, in a human body, he couldn’t help the cocktail of human chemical reactions to being in the presence of a god, all divine terror and existential wrongness. He slicked his hands in blood when he cradled its head in his hands, and let the corner of his mouth curl into a smile, even as the flesh trembled and his mind babbled at him to run, run, run, if only so it could pursue him and he could know the ecstatic pleasure-terror of being chased and then devoured. He wiped some blood off both its cheeks in a line, like the opposite of war paint,
“You are welcome here,” he said, and when he did, he was all Voice, leaning in and up to mark a kiss on its forehead, taste the blood and battle from its skin, “You have fought for me, and I will never forget that. You may always call Night Vale your home. Forever, if you wish. For as long as you defend me.” He was covered in blood. He could feel it against his skin. The blood of the enemy, of their enemies. The human soul in him trembled, but it only made the rest of it exquisite, when he leaned up and dragged his tongue along inhuman flesh, tasted StrexCorp blood, pressed closer,
“You are perfect. Let me share in your victory,” and then, deeper, darker, sensual, “Let me show you my thanks,” shadows curled around them both, clung to its thighs and chest and wings, but it wasn’t about tangling this strange, beautiful creature up, it was about holding himself closer, sinking fingers into feathers, tilting his head back for the press of teeth at his throat, feeling it kiss the blood of the fallen into his skin, and he let himself, for the first time in a long while, be nothing at all human, and drink of revenge and pleasure, and dark things moving under and on the earth.
Until the night that StrexCorp attacked the lab, he had been worried about the fate of Night Vale, about the fate of them all. There was only so much Cecil could do. Cecil was bound to the town, to vows and behaviors and mostly human flesh and bone, to rules. But Carlos, dear, sweet, perfect Carlos, the town’s favorite Outsider, was not. It should have been it’s own set of worries, something powerful and inhuman in his town, something he could not control, something unbound and more powerful than even he was capable of resisting. But as wings curled around him, protective, possessive, as he was pushed down into the ground, inexorable, irresistible, the human part of him caught in the arms of ecstatic divinity and the inhuman part so in love and so grateful, he found that it was hard to worry about anything at all.