The Sphere comes by Carlos's home at half past two. His tux was disheveled by the stress of the morning, and not in an artful way, so he's wearing the outfit that Dana (visiting the house by astral projection) picked out: frilly collar and tiger print and all. It's a nerve-wracking minute, but the Sphere approves...then does the same for Kevin, who cuts a much more dignified figure in a stylish vintage halter dress.
So they've survived. That part is good. It still re-sharpens Carlos's terror for Cecil, which was barely soothed in the first place, and Kevin has to talk him down anew. "Remember what Dana said? Tell me."
"Said she couldn't get special mayoral dispensation to protect any individual from the Sphere," says Carlos, watching out the kitchen window as the fashion-conscious entity descends on his next-door neighbors.
"The other thing, Carlos. The good thing."
Carlos swallows hard and tries to focus on hope. "She said...if Cecil doesn't care at all whether the Sphere deems him fit to live, that's actually protective. Because there is no truer form of hipness than complete apathy to whether or not other entities believe that you are hip enough."
"And what else?" presses Kevin. His painted dog daemon, wearing a crown of flowers that matches her human's outfit, keeps alert eyes on Carlos's face.
"...and that she'll send someone to make sure he gets home."
There aren't many people Carlos would trust to manage this situation, but Dana has wrangled far-more-complicated responses to much bigger threats under even higher pressure. Not to mention, she's a dear friend of Cecil's. The only people in town who care about Cecil more were either part of his family to begin with, or ended up marrying into it.
The Sphere moves out of view; Carlos pries himself away from the window, still far from consoled. "I don't understand. Why is he like this? What went wrong? He didn't spiral like this after Dana went through her separation ordeal, and hers wasn't voluntary. He didn't have an extended breakdown after yours, and you look exactly like him! It shook him up for a few days, but he got better. Why is it only now that he can't get better?"
Kevin doesn't try to answer, just holds Carlos for a while and lets him rail against the unfairness of the universe.
...and then guides Carlos through the process of looking up inpatient programs.
"Just in case," he reiterates, whenever Carlos starts feeling overwhelmed. "We don't think he's a danger to himself. Not actively. Not right now. We're looking at this just in case."
They listen together for the start of Cecil's show.
It opens...normally. Cecil reports some average news. Describes the outfits of various locals as they get their fashion reviews. Relates the community calendar (Kevin glows with pride when Cecil mentions the alien invasion he's scheduled to help Tamika defeat). Offers a traffic update.
The station is traditionally the last place the Sphere judges, before moving on to the scrublands and the sand wastes. Sure enough, at last Cecil informs the listeners that the moment is approaching.
I tell you now that I...did not prepare for the Sphere. I just wore the same thing I slept in last night. He sounds so terribly casual. It's not that I forgot...i-it is that I do not care, and I'm not afraid.
He throws to the weather.
"I do understand why our ordeal didn't get to him like Janice's did," says Va'eira softly, while Kevin rubs Carlos's back in a futile (but appreciated) attempt to loosen some of the knots of tension. "There was no risk that separation would make Kevin feel worse."
Carlos, hunched-over, holds his own daemon close to his chest. For all the comforting things Kevin and Va'eira have said today, they come second to the sheer fact of Kevin's presence, the reminder that a person can go to the place Cecil's in and come back alive.
The weather plays on.
It can last for hours, Carlos reminds himself. They might be in for a long wait. It doesn't mean anything's gone wrong.
Now there's a strange note in the chorus — doesn't seem to be in the same key as the rest of the song, does that mean a freak weather pattern, or —
"Carlos!" hisses Kevin. "Your phone!"
Carlos grabs it, heart thudding against his ribs — the phone keeps spontaneously changing ringtones, that's why he didn't recognize it, but for months it's been using marine mammals for Cecil, and that's definitely a humpback whale song — clumsy fingers nearly send the call to voicemail by accident, but he gets it, he answers. Let it be Cecil. Let it not be someone making a courtesy call on Cecil's behalf. "Cecil?"
"Carlos?" says the sweetest living voice in all the worlds.
Carlos sits up straight, with a vague fiddly gesture at Kevin that's supposed to mean it's him! "Are you okay? Is the Sphere still there, or did it move on?"
"Oh — you've been listening!" realizes Cecil. He sounds self-conscious, almost shy. "The Sphere has gone. Other things have happened too. And I survived. And I — Carlos, I am sorry about this morning — I am...glad, to have lived. I want to keep being alive."
Carlos has to wipe his eyes. Thank the imperfect heavens. "I want you to keep being alive too."
(At the edge of his vision, Kevin clasps his hands in relief.)
"I want to see you," adds Cecil. "I have things to tell you...good things!...and I want to hold your hand, and...is there any way you could leave work early? If not, I have a ride...I could meet you in Desert Bluffs, and —"
"Cecil, I'm not in Desert Bluffs."
"I'm at the house. You thought I would — that I could just — that I would want to head off to work, carry on like it's business as usual, after everything you said?"
Bad enough when Carlos had assumed Cecil was just too far gone to care about how his death might affect his loved ones. To hear him talking as if he'd forgotten they would be affected at all...!
"Maybe you weren't afraid for your life, but I was! Cecil — honey — the only reason I didn't follow you downtown is that I was busy having a panic attack in the kitchen."
Cecil's breath hitches. "Carlos — are you —"
"Better now. Dana projected herself over — took care of a few things — sent Kevin to keep me company." (Beside him, Kevin gives a silent little wave.) "He says hi. And Dana promised to send someone for you, too — to make sure you got home safely — did anyone show up yet...?"
"The Mayor's envoy is here," says Cecil solemnly. "She — ah, but we have fifteen seconds until I'm back on the air — and I owe my brother a conversation too, I ought to call him after the show is over. I'll explain a few things on the broadcast, then tell you the rest at home...is that all right...?"
"I'll see you then." Isaña has unrolled by now; Carlos rubs her ears. "I love you. Go ahead and go — I'll be listening."
Back from the weather, still here. The Sphere has moved on.
Listeners, I must apologize for my...outburst, earlier. That was...unprofessional. And probably worrisome for many of you. I was not considering that at all, and I should have. I was not thinking of the people who are important to me. I was not thinking of how I am important to you.
I have been...rather aggressively...reminded, thanks to the guest who has arrived at the station.
The Sphere had just begun to materialize in my booth when my mother's daemon, Bekhorei, let himself in and stood at my side. You may have seen Bekhorei around town. He's a white-feathered bird, very distinctive, in that his wings are arranged straight down his spine like sails, and also in that he is approximately twice the size of a sailboat.
I do not know exactly how the Sphere judged me. Did it take my empty, uncaring heart to be the proof of some transcendent level of hipsterism that most of us can only hope to approach? Or did it gaze into my mother's soul and decide that attempting to devour me in Bekhorei's presence was more than its mysterious existence was worth?
Whatever the case, it moved on. And I laughed, and made some comment to my mother's daemon about the timelessness of community radio.
Bekhorei laughed too. It was not the jovial laughter at the end of a sitcom, when the romantic misunderstanding has been cleared up or the vengeful spirit has been appeased with sacrifice, and the characters joke with each other before the closing credits. No, it was a humorless, uncaring sort of laugh. The kind of laughter from which all the joy has been hollowed out.
"My son," he said. Not to me. Not, perhaps, to anyone at all.
And I understood, then, that the way he sounded to me was in turn the way I must have sounded to you.
Then...well. Then he lifted my chin with a claw as wide as my wrist, and shook me, and said —
"You do not need to be like this! For us, this is all there is. But for you, it does not have to be!"
You will not understand all the nuances of that, listeners. It alludes to matters that must stay between us. Suffice to say that I had not realized, before she said it, how badly I needed to hear it.
We had other words after that — including more words that I needed to hear, as well as words that I needed to say — until we were interrupted by a violent screeching and guttural roaring from the direction of Station Management's office. They sounded more distressed than I have heard in many years. The din grew louder in one abrupt stroke, as if the office door had been flung open — because, of course, the office door had been flung open.
And I was afraid. Afraid that my life might be ended at the very moment I had remembered how to want to live it.
I tried to hide behind Bekhorei, but he seized my kameez in his beak and pulled me over to the window of the booth. So I watched with dread as unknowable, non-Euclidean shapes thrashed in the depths of that office, as puffs of soot and smoke blew forth into the hall, as the tortured syllables of lost languages intermixed with the tortured-animal roaring.
As I was watching, the office spat out a figure.
The figure skidded to a landing on the soot-stained carpet. Stood. Wiped off smears of what looked like blood, or perhaps ichor, on her dress — it was one of those fine, timeless black dresses favored by the witches, which are always judged fashionable.
It was my mother, of course. She turned, and jabbed a warning finger at the still-open door...and Management howled, and that door slammed shut.
Tossing her hair over her shoulder, Mom came down the hall to the recording studio. I saw as she approached that she was carrying a folded set of papers. I met her on the threshold, and she gave the papers to me.
I am holding those same papers now.
You may remember, listeners, that some time ago I put in a request to Station Management for a vacation. You may have noticed that I have taken an unusual number of sick days in recent months. You may have heard me comment, in ways both direct and indirect, that I am weary.
I am holding the approved schedule for a paid six-month sabbatical.
I have not always been the host you deserve lately, Night Vale. I need time to myself, time to heal. And now I have it. I love you, and eventually I will return to your ears, speaking from a place where I can be better for you...and better for me, too.
In the meantime, I hope I will see you around town. When I am not traveling with Carlos, that is.
Good night, Night Vale. And good speed. And good luck.
There's an unmistakable fwoosh of air on the front lawn when Bekhorei lands, a ghostly white monstrosity in the intermittent glow of streetlights and stars. Khoshekh swirls along beside him, a calligraphic silhouette against the backdrop of feathers.
Carlos heard all the on-air description of being nudged and pulled by the tualapi daemon, but wasn't sure how far to believe it until now, when he sees Cecil astride Bekhorei's neck.
Cecil slides down onto the grass and closes the distance between them in two steps. Before anything else, Carlos insists on looking at him through an electrum spyglass. He doesn't know what active suicidal intentions would look like in the currents of Rusakov particles...and today is not the day he has to find out.
He pulls Cecil into a hug, then cups Cecil's face and rests their foreheads together, more relieved than he has the words for.
"Sabbatical?" he asks, voice cracking.
"Sabbatical," affirms Cecil. He draws the folded papers out of his shoulder bag, holds them flat against his heart. "And more. And — Carlos, I must ask you something. Mom said she tried to come over once, and you sent her away. Was that...did you really...?"
Carlos's face burns. If he'd thought for a minute his mother-in-law could be this helpful, he would have invited her over himself. "I thought you wouldn't want to see her...I thought she'd upset you."
"...and you were not entirely wrong," says Cecil under his breath. "I only ask because...my mother is not, to my knowledge, in the habit of outright lying to me...but I needed to double-check."
He nods to Khoshekh, and the margay rubs his cheek against Bekhorei's. The tualapi's vivid golden eyes, each half as large as Khoshekh's entire head, fall closed with...affection? Probably affection.
"And Kevin...." Cecil moves to clasp Kevin's hand. It's so clear seeing them side-by-side which of them has been working out at the rec center on a regular basis...not to mention, washed his hair more recently...but if the contrast makes Cecil self-conscious, he manages to hold it in check. "Thank you for being Carlos's friend. I never meant to...I wasn't thinking of how he...thank you."
Va'eira trots over to Khoshekh, doggy nails clicking on the stone of the front walk, and says something low into his ear. Carlos doesn't hear what it is, just sees as Khoshekh nods.
Hard as it is to trust, the flicker of hope lingers on into the night.
When Carlos suggests they order in for dinner, Cecil confesses that he is craving Big Rico's...but that the foods he craves have not provided as much comfort as his instincts would suggest, and perhaps he will feel better in the long run if he eats something with vegetables. Which works out beautifully, because Kevin made stir-fry for lunch. Cecil heats up enough leftovers for both of them.
Enough weight has been lifted from his heart, he assures Carlos, that he has the will and the strength to do his own bathing. Still, Carlos holds on to him and can't seem to let go, or to stop shivering. So Cecil asks if he would like to sit in, and ends up doing most of his scrubbing one-handed, because Carlos is holding the other.
"I would prefer to see the alethiometer in Oxford," he says, during the short time when both hands are free so he can lather up his hair. "Dr. Belacqua's Oxford. I still haven't been. And...I would like to go as soon as possible. Although I understand...you have a conference coming up in just two weeks, and you usually have a rush of last-minute preparation...."
"I can delegate...but not overnight," says Carlos. When he promised they could leave on a date of Cecil's choosing, he'd been assuming they would have a little prep time first. "Can you give me, ah, three days? That'll be enough time to put things in order at the office. Figure out which parts of the workload get awarded to which promising young interns."
"Three days," echoes Cecil. He sounds...not uncertain, exactly, but like he has to be cautious about how much he promises. "I can...yes. I can be okay for that long."
They carry the conversation out into the living room, windows open to the July night. Cecil's hair is silvery in the moonlight. A soft breeze blows in the scent of the garden.
"Can you still be okay if something comes up?" asks Carlos, leaning on the back of the couch. "I mean, not something like 'oh, wow, we just figured out this other universe has a completely new variety of rock', but a scientific emergency. The kind I wouldn't be able to delegate."
"Because if there's any chance...any at all...that you would be better off, that you would be safer, in a more, um, professional care setting...."
Cecil's face crumples. "Don't you think I've thought about that? But Carlos, you know I've tried it — or rather, had it tried on me, as I was a minor at the time — and the distress came back eventually. Along with a profound sense of betrayal. All while a lot of good things were erased in the process, and many of those are still lost...."
"I don't mean re-education!" exclaims Carlos. "I meant one of the treatment centers in Desert Bluffs. Which has a thriving market for them. Outside the jurisdiction of the Night Vale authorities, but close enough that they wouldn't have too much...culture shock...to handle a patient from around here. Kevin helped me look at some good ones. He, um, knows a lot of patients, so he has an inside track."
Once Cecil understands what Carlos is really asking, he gives it some thought. Real, serious thought.
It hurts Carlos's heart that he has to...but it's a relief, in a way, that he isn't brushing it off. If he had, Carlos wouldn't have been sure whether he felt too secure to need it, or too hopeless to bother.
"I would like to hold the alethiometer," says Cecil at last. His voice is so small, a secret-police officer hiding right outside their window might have missed it. "To ask it questions, and not only about medication. You cannot imagine how much I...Carlos, if you are called away, I would prefer to go to Brytain on my own, and let you catch up when you can. I believe the reading will be more therapeutic than contact with any professional. No matter how talented."
"You've missed it, huh," says Carlos.
Cecil palms his forehead, eyes fluttering closed. "It is as if I have been walking around with a sense muffled. Or a limb forcibly bound."
"I wish you had said something earlier. I mean, years earlier." Granted, a few years ago Carlos wouldn't have been so confident with his offer — just because he had come back from the dead, saved the world, and faced down the wrath of a god didn't mean he wasn't still intimidated by the alethiometrist councils — but he could have tried. "I kept offering you Fey...I didn't realize...."
A dispirited shrug. Maybe Cecil didn't realize either.
"Would you rather go even earlier?" The idea makes Carlos's hands shake: not just letting Cecil out of his sight again, but sending Cecil beyond the reach of everyone else Carlos would trust to protect him. He asks anyway. "We can put you on the first flight tomorrow, if you're up for it."
"We really can, can't we?" Cecil raises his face, a touch of wonder in his voice. Carlos hangs on to every syllable. "It's really happened. I'm on vacation. I can go whenever I want."
On the rug near his feet, Khoshekh starts purring.
"...but I have not made any travel plans," adds Cecil. "It's been so long since I could bear to visit the websites for tourist attractions in Oxford or Oslo...since I could even look at images of the magnificent architecture of Brytain, or the exotic upside-down forests of Norway, without an upwelling of despair and the beginnings of tears. So, now...now that everything is different...I should do that. I want to do that."
He touches Carlos's arm.
"And it will take a little time. Perhaps three days."
At long last, something Carlos can promise without reservation. "I'll book the flights tonight."
(He can wait until later to tell Cecil they're not going to any country called "Norway.")
They end up taking four days. Carlos can't get a doctor's appointment any faster, and Cecil says he'll be okay with pushing things back a little, if it's for the sake of making sure Carlos isn't likely to drop from a stress-induced heart attack in the middle of High Street.
Cecil spends a lot of his new free time sleeping, but when he's up, he's in tentative motion: going for walks, trying simple recipes, soliciting his Facebook friends for European gift requests. In the mornings he sends Carlos off to work with a kiss goodbye. In the evenings he talks about the latest tourism plans he's been working on, while Carlos half-listens, half-relaxes into the sensation of Cecil playing with his hair and massaging his scalp.
On their final night in town, Carlos comes home to find Cecil, Emmanuel, and Janice gathered shoulder-to-shoulder around Cecil's laptop. The screen shows a desolate frozen wasteland; the Palmeros are radiating warmth and care. Emmanuel points out some familiar feature, Janice laments that she wants to visit too, and Cecil tells her, next time.
At last Carlos returns from the bowling alley with a clean bill of health. Blood pressure higher than the doctor would like, but as long as he limits his sodium and asbestos intake, he's told he should be fine.
Evening finds them at the Night Vale aerodock, surrendering their suitcases to the baggage wraith and reciting the lists of everyone they've ever kissed for the security scan.
The waiting area is empty except for Carlos and Cecil: carry-ons at their feet, daemons in their laps. Khoshekh sits up on his back legs, leaning on Cecil's chest so he can stretch his long body and neck up towards Carlos's face:
"When we were young, after it happened...."
Cecil gives the margay a cautionary squeeze.
"I will tell him," says Khoshekh, voice deep and terse. To Carlos: "After it happened, I felt utterly alone. Despondent. Hollow. Cecil and I were carried back to the house together; we were placed right beside each other on the couch; but I could not bear to reach out to him. I felt...unworthy of the comfort, much as I needed it. And I learned later that he was unable to reach back because he felt the same."
"You are worthy," says Carlos softly. "It wasn't your fault. Neither of you could have stopped it. You were a child."
Khoshekh nods. "But we are not a child now. So when those feelings reoccur in the present, it is not easy to escape from them. Which is why...Carlos, you don't know how much it means, that you've been here for us. When we cannot bring ourselves to ask for help, it is never because you have made us feel ashamed to need it — or made empty promises, so that we are afraid to trust — or given us any reason to doubt, for a moment, that you love us. It has been hard, sometimes, for us to remember and appreciate the good things in our life...but that is what you are. A good thing. The best in our world."
At a loss for words, Carlos puts an arm around Cecil's shoulder, rubbing small circles in the fabric of Cecil's tunic with his thumb. He isn't doing this for the praise, but he's only human, and it helps to hear.
A disembodied voice announces that their flight is ready to board. Cecil lets go of his daemon, Carlos lets go of Cecil, and they gather their bags. As they approach the gate, Cecil speaks up. "Carlos...."
"Have you found any universes with a completely new variety of rock lately?"
"Um," says Carlos. "Yes, actually."
"Tell me about it?"
"It's fascinating." Even with everything that's happened, enthusiasm lifts Carlos's voice as he warms to his subject. "We have these contacts who come from a planet with completely foreign geologic processes. You should have seen their faces when we explained how volcanoes work! And then they started describing their own, it was the wildest thing, two of our petrographers almost got into a fistfight over whether one of their descriptive terms should be mapped to a subset of metamorphic rocks or treated as a new term entirely...."
The long-established alethiometrists at the university treat Carlos with a wary, conditional respect. Their students, in contrast, are almost more deferential to their famous guest than to their teachers. And they're in outright awe of Cecil, recognizing him from the footage Carlos provided of him reading another alethiometer, on film specially developed to show the blinding swirl of Rusakov particles around the golden frame.
They have conditions; they have demands. Cecil will be allowed an hour for this session, with the option of more later as long as it goes well. He's not allowed to touch the device unless he's wearing gloves. He will do his reading in the Atal observation room, one of the first in the world, where the Oxford alethiometrists can study him from the next room over through a window of treated electrum panes.
"I will fight them on that last one if you want," says Carlos. "Buy them off with the promise that you'll answer some extra questions for them. Or, if you'd rather keep things simple, buy them off with money."
"It's all right." Cecil pulls on the thin cotton gloves. "I don't mind letting them watch. As long as you are watching alongside them."
It's a tight fit. The space is designed for four or five observers, not what looks like the entire department. Carlos presses himself into a corner at the front of the room, remembering those simpler days when his whole team, all of them brand-new to Night Vale and none of them dead or turned into trees yet, crammed into Cecil's office to watch him turn a similar set of dials.
A golden cloud of Dust swirls around Cecil as he enters the opposite room, Khoshekh at his heels and an acid-free storage box in his arms. It's not the record-setting brilliance Carlos has seen from him in the past, but the currents are driven by a shaky thread of hope, backed up with a whole lot of fight.
Cecil musters up a smile and waves at his observers, before setting the box on the plain plastic desk and taking out the Oxford alethiometer.
Carlos surreptitiously triggers the zoom function on his eyes — then a polarizing filter, which makes it easier to see past the Dust — to get a better look. Its chassis is duller and more scratched than the one he knew, marked with the souvenirs of a journey in the hands of a determined twelve-year-old through continents, worlds, and Wars. But it fits into Cecil's hands in just the same way, and his hands are swift and sure on the dials, as if they've never left.
He answers a handful of questions for the alethiometrists with easy authority, then moves on, silently, to ask his own. In the space of five minutes, the flow of hope around him gets steadier. In ten, his whole posture has relaxed. There's a single moment with a pulse of happiness that brightens his whole aura, and after that Carlos loses all track of time, knowing that on this side of the window he himself must be glowing with more contentment than he's felt in months.
At last Cecil sets the alethiometer back in its box. He's still enveloped in currents of struggle, but they're calmer now, and this time it's not because he's dimmed in general with the fading of his will to live. "May I come back tomorrow?"
Carlos is startled to realize they've run fifteen minutes long. Not only that, the department heads practically trip over each other in the rush to promise that yes, Cecil is welcome to return.
"I bet they would've let you stay all night, if you wanted," says Carlos as they head outside, a little jealous but mostly proud. Of course they would appreciate his Cecil. His talented, brave, brilliant, slowly-healing Cecil.
"I did consider it," admits Cecil. "Some of them wanted me to. But I think perhaps I should pace myself. Besides...the Botanic Garden closes in an hour, and I would like to walk there with you, and take a look at the statue you bought them."