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A Story About Consequences

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You spend the better part of your first year in Night Vale being afraid.

Your work is a blur of impossible readings, surrounded by hooded figures and nonexistent houses, deadly radioactivity and deadly warnings from the Homeowners' Association. Sometimes you fight against the tide — pleading in the City Council's chambers for realistic safety laws, urging the local radio host to warn his listeners. Other times you are too busy being scared of them to be scared for them. It's hard to grasp any kind of security when something as simple as a bad haircut can be so...consequential.

It takes you a while to adjust to the way the locals treat you. They're...indulgent. Amused. You try to educate them about, say, the dangers of long-term nuclear exposure, and the old woman who lives out by the car lot pats your hand and says that's nice, dear, now where did you get that cologne?

Not even the scientists, the ones whose team you drove out into the middle of nowhere to join, take you too seriously. They do the most hazardous research without any fear or self-consciousness. You leave the lab every night surprised that nobody on the team has blown themselves up yet. Sometimes you dream that you're only the latest in a long line of outsider scientists, invited here to be as disposable as the radio station's interns.

Then there's the evening Rochelle sets off an explosion that demolishes half the lab. But she isn't hurt. Nobody is hurt. You don't even hear murmurs of worry about whether the team's insurance will cover it.

They tell you to come in the next day as usual, and you show up in the morning to find the building intact. Like there was never a heap of rubble here at all. You can't find so much as a scratch on the wall.

You start to notice, after that, how the population has a statistically average number of scars and missing limbs. Which is to say, not nearly as many as you would expect, given the amount of peril they seem to be constantly in.

 

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While this trail of thought is not quite finished marinating, you happen to catch a news broadcast that takes place entirely in second person. You figure out pretty quickly that Cecil's not talking about you, you, but there are similarities. It makes you consider how little you have heard from the university since moving here, even though you've sent regular progress reports, and money has appeared in your bank account every two weeks. It makes you consider a lot of things.

The next month, you skip the progress report. Also, your rent payment.

Nobody calls you on it. Your department chair doesn't send a reprimand. Your landlord...may have been the one who sent the spiders, but it's hard to be sure.

There is no punishment.

It doesn't terrify you, not like the unnamed you that Cecil was addressing. It doesn't make you feel that life is bleary and washed-out without meaning. What it does, at least for now, is relieve you. The kind of consequences you have been anticipating since arriving here are mostly brutal, cruel, and random — nothing that anybody could deserve. What if that isn't the case at all? What if even the horrible fates you've heard about (the trail of dead interns; the mad former barber wandering the sand wastes) don't mean what you think they mean?

A garbled phrase from a book you once read crosses your mind: Thank God, even this place isn't quite so bad as that.

There must still be limits somewhere, and there are lines you don't try to cross. The local scientists keep a respectful distance from that one house, for instance, so you follow their lead. But you push in other ways. You start using illegal pens again. You spend an entire week without sleeping, and only get back into the habit because it's relaxing, not because you ever got tired. When all the clocks turn out to be full of an unidentifiable sludge, you play with the substance bare-handed.

You even phone the radio host. Not asking him to spread another warning: you're no longer so scared of him that you only call when you're even more scared of something else. Just hoping he can put out a call for information.

He thinks you're asking for a date.

You think...he may or may not be dating material, but he is probably not a malevolent psychopath, so it's at least worth getting to know him.

 

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A flashback:

When you were a kid, you had intrusive thoughts sometimes. Startling and upsetting ones. Sudden, vivid mental images of throwing your backpack into that stream you passed while walking to school, of opening a car door on the highway and having a passing truck shear it away, of staring into the orange glow of a DON'T WALK signal and stepping out into traffic.

At some point you tried to research it, and spent a couple months believing you had OCD, another few convinced you were clinically depressed. Problem is, all you had were thoughts — not compulsions, nothing you had to struggle not to follow through on — and not serious enough to upset you all on their own. Eventually you relaxed into the idea that, okay, you just have a thing. Lots of people have things.

And this thing mostly went away as you got older. You didn't have a lot of visions of yelling I'm gay! in the middle of a crowded high school classroom. You learned to drive in peace, without getting interrupted by images of car crashes as seen from behind the wheel.

It came back once, unexpected and intense.

You were moving cross-country to take the position at the university. The freeway narrowed and rose up, herding all the traffic onto a suspension bridge, including you in your rented van packed with all your worldly possessions...and you thought about how easy it would be to jerk the wheel left. To crash through the barriers and pitch over the side. How much you could destroy in a couple of seconds, with a single gesture.

Your chest tightened around a pounding heart; your hands gripped the wheel so hard it hurt. As if the van might jump the rails on its own if you didn't hold it in check. Your system helpfully turned up the adrenaline levels, preparing you to struggle or flee or make split-second decisions, frantic to deal be ready for an imminent danger that was only in your head in the first place. The river was already a big one, the bridge long. This made it feel endless.

You thought, if this keeps up, it will probably count as medically significant distress. Mostly you just told yourself that you were going to be fine. You repeated the thought over and over, eyes locked straight ahead.

The bridge ended, the road flowed back down onto solid ground...and you were fine. Your breathing went back to normal on its own; the sweat dried on your skin. You pulled over at the next exit, but it wasn't because you needed help relaxing, it was because the road sign promised an Arby's and you wanted a burger.

In short: as an adult, the thoughts only bother you if you give them a really blatant invitation. Everything is fine as long as you don't drive on bridges. Or on the narrow cuttings that run up the sides of mountains, nothing but a line of steel rails between your car and a murderously rocky drop.

The fact that Night Vale is set in the middle of a vast, flat, dry desert plain is not the biggest reason you wanted to work there, but the knowledge hovered in the back of your mind as you wrote up the application. It's a perk, you would have said, if anyone had prompted you to articulate the half-conscious thought. It'll make the town even more relaxing to live in.

 

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To be fair to your brain, it never troubles you with images of random destruction in those early months. Presumably because it has more than enough real(-seeming) dangers to keep itself busy.

And they don't come back as you test the limits of Night Vale's secret freedoms, though you stick to the same old habits, just in case. You never drive out to Radon Canyon, even knowing the only bridge is a big metal cage that a full-grown dragon couldn't punch through, let alone your little hybrid. What you do instead is touch the walls of the forbidden Dog Park, have lunch out in the park during Street Cleaning Day, visit the petting zoo and play with the starved wolves.

You don't even think of it as a danger test when you confront Teddy Williams' ragtag militia in the bowling alley. You think they are delusional, to assume there's a hostile underground city giving them trouble, and not a couple of stray raccoons.

And then you find yourself standing in the suburbs of said city, and, okay, apparently the "delusional" comment was out of line. But this is still nothing to be afraid of. They're tiny. Like dolls, like a bunch of adorable toys. Who cares for you? You're nothing but a pack of cards!

When the toys begin firing their itty-bitty cannons, you start to think maybe this was a mistake.

Nobody from your job has taken you to task for going so far off-plan. None of your family has reached out to find you. You haven't paid any bills for months. But that didn't mean the consequences wouldn't come back around at some point...and here they are, and you aren't happy, most of what you feel is a mix of pain and stupidity, only partly tempered the the fact that, well, at least this makes sense.

You die.

Or you don't.

Or you do, but somehow, it doesn't take.

There may be a dark planet of awesome size mixed up in it somewhere.

You hear Cecil breaking down about it on the radio, and you think, okay, he's not a monster. There's something not-quite-real about other Night Vale deaths, that's why he doesn't cry about them. But you're an outsider — your death would be different, important, consequential — or maybe it wouldn't, but Cecil doesn't know any better, doesn't know not to be afraid.

The pain continues until you decide it doesn't matter, and, like some kind of Zen meditation master, you turn it off. Nobody else cries over the Apache Tracker, so you decide that must not matter either. To all appearances he did die in the process of getting you out of there, and you are grateful, but not sad.

You call Cecil. He's sweet, and cute, and almost certainly not malevolent after all. Before he arrives, you use your ruined T-shirt to mop up as much blood as possible, and replace it with a bowling shirt. You wear it out into the parking lot. You didn't pay.

 

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You've never tried to injure yourself while living here. Assumed it would be unpleasant even if it didn't matter in the long run. But now that you've walked into this by accident? It's a great opportunity to study.

The way you can ignore the pain is encouraging, even if you can't figure out how to stop it from being ugly and messy. No wonder the local hospital has admonished people not to come in if they're going to be inconsiderate and bleed all over the place.

You spend a while naked in the bathtub, picking tiny cannonballs out of your torso with a pair of tweezers, alternately curious and grossed-out over the flesh and vessels and internal organs that are newly available to be poked at. If your field was medical science or anatomy, you might have cut yourself open further, to find out more about just what's going on in there. As-is, you aren't in the mood to do anything but patch yourself up as efficiently as possible.

Once you seem to be bandaged enough not to ruin the sheets, you go to bed and sleep for a week. Literally. It's not constant, sometimes you drift back into wakefulness and look at the clock, but it's six days and nine hours later when you decide this test has outlived its usefulness and get up to make some breakfast.

There's no infection. No painfully-growling stomach, no headache or dizziness of dehydration. Not even any chafing from the unchanged dressings. You take them off to find minor scarring, nothing that hurts to the touch, and when you go to the lab that afternoon you are welcomed back without any scolding. None of your colleagues seem worried. You're not sure they gave your absence a second thought.

A few weeks later, you kiss Cecil for the first time.

Nobody in town seems to give same-sex relationships a second thought either.

You feel so free.

You can't think of a time when you have ever been happier.

 

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Cecil drives through contagious buzzing shadow-beings without fear. He takes a jaunt on a subway that keeps him away from town for years, and has shaken off all visible aftereffects within a few minutes of getting back to town. He shrugs off a few more intern deaths, and the violent dragging-away of his childhood best friend.

You can't imagine it being a big deal that you chew too loudly. Or are late for a few dates. Or, you know, miss a few entirely. Time doesn't work here anyway, right?

And sure enough, Cecil works through his minor annoyances entirely on his own, while you spend that time working on...whatever you feel like. Plants: no. DNA, although you've never studied any kind of genetics: yes. Mirages: definitely no. New types of readings, some of which you make up yourself: oh yes.

There is no accountability. There are no limits. You look into whatever sounds interesting, drop it without finishing if you get bored. Sometimes you talk like a badly-written scientist character on a cheesy TV show, just for the hell of it. It's so much fun.

After the time you perform surgery on your own vocal cords (no anesthesia, no sterile instruments, just you and a mirror in your kitchen), you think, okay, maybe this is a little out of control. Cecil likes the new voice, but what if he hadn't? What if you change something that screws up your relationship? It's one thing for the university not to care what you do, but you would like Cecil to keep caring.

You make him dinner. You try to call when you're going to be late. It's hard to tell how much these things matter, but Cecil mentions them in approving tones on-air. Even if your life here is as unreal as actors on a stage, the good-boyfriend role feels good to play.

 

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The encroaching presence of Strexcorp is more distressing to Cecil than anything since your sort-of-death. And it lasts a lot longer. You aren't worried at all, but you play the part of comfort and support for him, when you remember.

You move in together. Neither of you brings up the question of rent. You are vaguely curious about whether the place is free, or whether there's some automatic process going on in your bank account that you aren't aware of, or whether Cecil is independently wealthy and all of this is his treat. Not curious enough to ask, though. You're comfortable taking some things for granted by now.

One afternoon Cecil reports on the secret-police auction, and discovers that there's a lot with his own name, no description. You happen to be working a few blocks from the auction house that day. You could walk over, register as a bidder, and be settled in with a paddle long before they start taking bids on Lot 37.

But why bother? Even if this isn't a standard Night Vale practice — and from Cecil's agitation, you suspect it is not — you're sure it's all going to work out in the end.

Cecil comes home shaken and unhappy. He tried to bid on himself, but had some kind of episode in the middle of the auction house, and didn't even see who walked away with the lot. You chuckle at his innocent anxiety, hug him, and tell him that it's going to be fine. You know because of science.

He's probably just jumping at shadows because of the whole Strex thing. Even though, as far as you can tell, a twelve-year-old with a slingshot and a high-for-her-grade reading level has that completely under control.

You wonder why you were ever scared of this town. Night Vale isn't a horrifying dystopia, it's a horror theme park. The monsters are mirages, guns don't kill people, and none of the dangers are any more real than the monsters under a child's bed.

 

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When a Strex-made mechanical terror-pet attacks Cecil's cat, you feel the flickerings of doubt.

Khoshekh's near-death experience evokes anger from Cecil, as much as your own evoked grief. You want to be able to say with confidence that Khoshekh will also come through his without any trouble, but you're surprised he could have been torn out of his fixed hovering spot in the first place. That feels like a meaningful change.

The way Cecil gets to hold him now, cradling the monstrous furball in his arms, feels meaningful too. Emotional. Significant.

You mention your allergy to cat fur, just in case it's going to matter. Cecil brings home some Claritin the next time he runs errands, and you have every intention of taking it, but you keep forgetting. Turns out it doesn't matter after all. When he brings Khoshekh home from the vet, you don't even get the sniffles.

It's around this time that Cecil starts making his own anti-corporate rebellion plans. He doesn't tell you directly (it seems like he's trying to go the superhero route, keeping you in the dark for your own safety), but he's not exactly subtle. About as un-subtle, in fact, as he is with talking on-air about how much he hates his bosses.

Once in a while you consider asking to join in. But you've never liked spy games. Evil megacorporations aren't the most interesting villains, and besides, learning Morse code sounds like more trouble than it's worth. If you're going to go through the motions of confronting something dangerous, it should at least be something in your field.

So you start talking your colleagues into entering the house that doesn't exist.

 

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You call Cecil before going in. He's about to orchestrate some kind of city-wide revolution, which he seems to think is very serious...even though you've seen him working on the barricade he plans to hide behind, and it's made of paper KEEP OUT signs. Sometimes he seems like as much of a kid as the middle-schoolers. Playing war inside a fort made of a cardboard box.

You let him know the kind of field work you're about to do. He says you're very brave. You say you're going to be fine.

Only one of you is telling the truth.

 

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It's a long time before you learn how everything went down. The first attempt at revolution failed, partly because it sounds like Cecil didn't actually include anyone in the planning, just expected them to spring into action when he announced it was time. When you next get in touch with anyone in town, they're on the second attempt, and seem to have gotten their act together.

The mysterious desert on the far side of the nonexistent house turns out to be the same mysterious desert that former intern Dana wandered into...a year ago? More? The mountain is pretty distinctive. It wasn't clear from what you've heard about Dana whether the usual Night Vale rules apply out here, but after a few days of nothing to eat or drink, you figure you'll be okay.

Eventually an angel brings you to Dana, Dana gets you astral-projected to Cecil, and a distraught Cecil asks why you didn't let him know you were alive. You make up something about not having phone service, though you know it's how Dana's been keeping in touch with Cecil all this time. The truth is, checking-in didn't even occur to you.

You remind him that you're safe. You tell him not to worry.

He also pleads with Dana about getting you home. There are old oak doors open all over Night Vale by now; a group of ten-foot-tall warriors escorts you through one, ending up in the vacant lot out behind the Ralph's. Then it strikes you that the doors might not stay available after the war, so your chance to play around in a different universe is probably not going to last.

The hard part will be to avoid getting swept up in the war games. So you pick up a five-dollar umbrella at the Ralph's, carry it back to the desert, and tell anyone who asks that you're working on an important scientific light-blocking device. It gives you cover, literally and figuratively, to keep messing around with the otherworld's rocks.

At some point you overhear that Khoshekh has been returned to his fixed point at the station men's-room sink. No more being carried by Cecil for him, no more sitting on your work, or jumping in boxes. If his displacement was only ever destined to be temporary, your pre-Strexpet theories about Night Vale causality still stand...but it's sad, somehow, to think about. In a world that doesn't make you face painful consequences, you don't get to keep the good ones, either.

 

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Here's the line that shakes you, scares you, throws an even bigger wrench in all your theories, gives you feelings of uncertainty you had almost forgotten how to feel:

Former intern Maureen calls Cecil a monster.

She accuses him of carelessly, even knowingly, sending interns into mortal peril. She decries his lack of grief at the string of deaths and other horrible fates. She is angry. She is just as native to Night Vale as Cecil, and she is furious that he can shake these things off.

You sit in a patch of sun-warmed otherworldly sand and listen, and it shiver. Maybe you've been wrong about everything. Maybe this town is exactly as serious and awful as you first thought, maybe all the deaths are as real and tragic as they would be anywhere else, and it's just that most of the locals don't care. Maybe Maureen is the one person with functioning human emotions, in a town full of people so obscenely callous that you couldn't believe it was real, that you made up fantastical excuses so you didn't have to see it for what it was.

Or maybe everyone is fine, it's just that Maureen is the one person in town who can't see it. You want that to be true. You want to think Cecil is exactly as sweet and innocent as he seems...that he's a good person...and that you are still a good person, that you didn't get suckered into becoming shockingly heartless just because everyone else was doing it.

But you don't know! You honestly have no idea what to believe.

You need some time to think.

You could flee back to the university. But, wow, that would invite way too much fallout and accountability to come crashing down all at once. Are you even still employed? Would you be able to find another job, when the last two years of your résumé are "screwed around doing nothing in particular"? How much has changed in the rest of the world since you've been gone? Your mind is a whirl of half-remembered fairy tales, stories about men who fall in love with mermaids or elves and spend a year in their company, only to return home and find that a century has gone by.

Maybe you could just stay here for a while.

If there's something important in Maureen's accusations, the blame falls on the people of Night Vale, not the otherworld's nomadic armies. This desert would be a relatively safe haven in which to work out what to do next. And if all this worry is for nothing, you can return to town once you're sure of it, knowing you'll be welcomed back as if you'd never left.

Everyone is so distracted by the fighting that you can sneak through a stray door, pick up your laptop and a few other things you would miss, and return without being noticed. You're on the otherworld side of the doors when the first one closes, and stay there until you see the last one fade.

 

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Good news abounds. Your calls can still reach Cecil, even though you, physically, can't. One of the armies takes you in, happy to treat you as a kind of friend/mascot (they all speak recognizable English, and have easy names for you to learn). The terrible light that everyone on the Night Vale side found so threatening doesn't hurt anyone here, just retreats into the distance once the doors are gone.

You can't promise Cecil that you'll be safe. There are strange rumblings under your feet, and the iconic blinking light has started unnerving the warriors by blinking differently, and sometimes a rockslide will come crashing down the slope of the mountain. One of these starts while you're in the middle of a call —

— and the kind of mental images you haven't had since before Night Vale flash into your mind. A stray boulder crushing one of your companions. A stray boulder crushing you.

When the dust settles, you realize you didn't just imagine the one that crushed your phone.

There's a moment when you feel despair, or what you think is probably despair. Then, in front of your eyes, the pieces draw back into place and the cracks knit themselves closed. Healing itself, like the inexplicably easy healing you had after your almost-death.

The intrusive thoughts make themselves scarce again for a long time after that.

You tell Cecil a lot that you love him. It doesn't seem like you should. His fondness for you might be an anomaly in the middle of a vast empathy wasteland, so it would make sense for you not to feel regular human affection in return. But when you have him on the other end of the line, his words keep living up to the hopeful ideal in your heart, and you definitely love him.

The other news from Night Vale is promising too. Not a lot of intern deaths, since the pre-Strex order was restored. Maureen keeps getting sent into dangerous situations, but she always comes back. Other people you had presumed lost come back too: that childhood friend of Cecil's, the resistance small-business owners that Strex supposedly killed, everyone who went into a condo and didn't have a boyfriend to pull them out ten minutes later. It's like listening to a recap of a comic book. Nobody stays dead except Uncle Ben.

You keep waiting to hear that the Apache Tracker is back. Cecil never mentions him, but for all you know he's been back in town for months, and it's just that Cecil doesn't want to give him any attention.

And there's no telling how many anti-deaths happen outside of Cecil's journalistic range. Kevin, for instance, does not wander back into Night Vale looking healthy and happy and totally fine (except for the food stains on his shirt)...no, that's how he wanders into your campsite.

Everything points to the idea that the town's casual attitudes are normal after all, that Maureen was just overreacting. Maybe she'll be the Steve Carlsberg of her generation.

 

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In the process of feeling better about Night Vale, you find something new to worry about.

You spend weeks telling Cecil that you're too busy to look for a way home yet, asking him to be patient. As you stop feeling like you need the excuse, you start wondering about his reaction. In the early days he complains, both to you and to his listeners, but in time the complaints fade away.

It's like when he made peace all at once with the fact that you're not perfect. Except that this isn't some annoying little habit he's learning to live with. Anyone getting into a relationship has to be prepared for the other party to have a few of those, like telling terrible jokes (you) or leaving their laundry all over the floor (Cecil). But for the other party to disappear to another dimension? For the relationship to suddenly become long-distance, without their consent, without their approval? Cecil doesn't know that you stayed here deliberately, but he does know that you keep promising to look for a route back, and then...not-looking.

It's weird that he doesn't put his foot down about this, right?

Eventually you do start looking. Taking relevant readings, investigating the lighthouse at the mountain peak that seems connected to Night Vale somehow, asking the masked warriors to keep an eye out for doors. What you don't do is mention any of this to Cecil. You want to see how much slack he's willing to cut.

Well, honestly...what you want him to do is stop you. To say he won't put up with this any more. To tell you that, even though he loves you, he knows he deserves better than this, and if you don't shape up —

— then there will be consequences, dammit.

The one thing you haven't doubted since the bowling alley was Cecil's love for you. In a city of cartoonishly apathetic attitudes toward everything from mind control to secret prisons to murder, you figured that when you did see feelings, they must be genuine.

What if this doesn't mean anything either? Maybe you shouldn't have been taking Cecil's affection any more seriously than you took Strexcorp's menace. Maybe the fact that he loves you is a fixed point that he's stuck in, something he will always return to even if he gets jostled out of it, and it's not related at all to anything you say or do. In which case...how real can it be?

You wonder if interacting with Cecil when neither of you are in Night Vale would clear anything up.

You ask, "If I find a door, will you come visit?"

Cecil says he'll think about it. He doesn't point out that you said if and not when. Maybe he didn't notice? Or maybe he did, but he's already considered the idea he might never see you again, and decided it's one more thing he's willing to put up with.

 

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You start pushing him in other ways, feeling around for the line, the boundary that would give this some solidity and meaning. It's not compulsive; you could make yourself stop, if you tried. You aren't trying.

It normally flusters him when you call in the middle of a show, so you go a step farther and project your image right into his studio while he's on-air.

There are still local dangers once in a while that upset him. You weren't worried about those things back when you lived together, but you at least made a show of comforting him. Now, you brush off his concerns. When there's an escaped librarian, you tell him it's probably friendly and helpful! When it appears that someone is threatening his dear friend Dana, you change the subject.

You start being cagey and evasive when he talks about you coming home. One time you don't even try to come up with doubletalk, just say "sure" in a tone so obviously fake it leaves a bad taste on your tongue.

At some point in the middle of all this, Cecil discovers that he's being possessed and controlled: not by the usual random entities every couple of months, but by some kind of serial offender. He's convinced this is the results of the Auction, come back to haunt him. Later, he's convinced the culprit is Dana. You are flippant and dismissive and make no effort to tell him to quit being suspicious of his almost-certainly-innocent friend.

He asks you to call less. He even uses the word boundaries. That sounds promising! You respond by calling more often than ever.

This may be getting a little bit compulsive.

Cecil puts up with the extra calls. Of course he does. You wonder what would happen if you came right out and mocked him, insulted him, belittled him. (In your darker moments — usually when the warriors are off fighting somewhere, and the campsite at night is deathly quiet — you wonder what would happen if you hit him.)

Turns out, even if Cecil is offering you freedom with no limits, there comes a point when your own mind will slam on the brakes. The meanest thing you can bring yourself to say is a mild put-down, over voicemail, and you spend the rest of the call clumsily trying to walk it back.

 

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Some people from the university comes to Night Vale while you're away, looking for you. According to them, you've been gone for two decades.

It's a good thing you stopped caring about sending progress reports, because, wow, you would not have been getting them in on schedule at all.

You aren't sure why you haven't talked about that work with Cecil. It just never came up. You'd be happy to talk about it if he asks, but you don't feel any impulse to bring it up yourself, and he never asks.

 

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You've always known Cecil could come visit you via the dog park (Dana's route), or walk directly through the house that doesn't exist (your own). The catch is, those are one-way trips. What you're really looking for is the old oak door, or equivalent, that will offer a route back.

So when you find other people from Night Vale here in the desert, it's no surprise to learn that they got here via the dog park too. You vaguely remember that Dana got swept in as part of a crowd. And nobody ever grieved for any of them, so of course it was going to turn out there was no reason to grieve.

The surprise, which you discover eventually, is this: none of them used mysterious doors! They just...walked.

The desert isn't another dimension, at least not the way you've been imagining. There is some kind of wild TARDIS-style spatial anomaly going on here. You report this to Cecil, babbling with excitement, but you're pretty sure you get the important part across: he can visit by hopping the dog park walls and going for a stroll.

(You don't think to be self-conscious about how this contradicts some of the "scientific discoveries" you made up out of thin air last year. Maybe Cecil will think you were earnest-but-wrong about how the old oak doors worked...maybe, on some level, he'll suspect that you were lying through your teeth in the full expectation that it would never come back to haunt you...but what's he going to do, call you out? Ask for an explanation? Get real.)

Come to think of it...this also means you don't have to wait for Cecil's bosses to approve a vacation plan. You could go visit him. You could do that now.

You do not.

You don't try to explain. You do nothing to suggest that you should even be held accountable for an explanation.

Cecil does not ask for one.

 

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When Cecil arrives in person at the empty little quasi-town you've built here, the first thing you do is kiss him hello. Then you take him to the apartment and make him dinner.

He's so delighted to see you that you can almost feel like your presence is a wonderful gift you're bestowing on him, instead of the incomplete version of something you promised almost a year ago and have been semi-deliberately failing to deliver ever since. He gets along with the masked warriors. He finds the scenery charming and beautiful, even the parts you've come to see as ordinary, even the rocks and scrub that you know for a fact look exactly like the rocks and scrub around his home town.

Things in Night Vale have been upsetting him lately, and the tone of his discomfort is a new one. You don't take it all that seriously, but you do notice the change.

A few days in, you wake up in the middle of the night with a sudden thought: maybe it's you. All this time, while Night Vale has turned so many parts of your life into meaningless games, maybe you in return were bringing meaning to things that didn't have them before. Maybe everything you've done is significant in Cecil's experience of the world...in a real and serious way that only an outsider can induce. And the reason he isn't pushing you to shape up is because he doesn't know how. He's never dealt with anything like this. Has absolutely no tools for handling it.

So he lets the stress go on, helpless to stop it from weighing him down. Or to keep it from eroding his ability to deal with all the usual flavors of Night Vale terriweirdness.

Over breakfast, you try to bring this up. Not to tell him everything! Just to figure out, once and for all, how he thinks reality works.

You might as well be addressing him in a foreign language. When Cecil responds, it's with solemn existential monologues, prompted by a word or two from what you said but almost never related to what you were trying to communicate.

You cannot get a handle on what the world looks like to him. A soliloquy about how nobody really knows what the world looks like to anybody else may be lovely and poetic, but it doesn't help.

 

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The army is out of town. Kevin has been shooed off to his own pet building project (you keep steering Cecil's attention away from both these things). The canyon is beautiful in the rosy glow of the sunset.

As is Cecil, for that matter.

He walks right up to the edge of the cliff, drinking in the scenery. Gushes over some distant feature, or maybe just the general play of colors.

You see yourself walking up behind him and pushing him off.

The images in your mind are so clear, even while your real vision blurs. How he would be shocked, unable to believe it, how he wouldn't even get around to looking scared or angry until he had fallen too far to make out his face. How the foothills of rock in the valley would break his fall, leaving him pummeled and bleeding before he reached the ground. It wouldn't kill him — you don't think for a second that anything will kill him, not now, it's not his time — but he wouldn't land in a flurry of cartoon stars and a Cecil-shaped hole in the dirt, either. You see him broken. You see his neck snapped backward, shattered bones stabbing through the elbows of his cat-patterned shirt, the desert around him painted with bubbling red.

There's no steering wheel to grip, so you dig your nails into your palms. Trying to shake off your brain's insistence on reminding you how easy it would be, how much you could destroy.

But now it's in your head, and it's on a roll. You see Cecil as if you're standing beside him on the canyon floor: gargling for breath, face streaked with tears, struggling to push a femur back under the muscle where it belongs. You get flashes of anguish, then fury, of the way his face would twist as he screamed at you (what's wrong with you, are you insane?, get away from me!). That would cross the line, oh yes, that would explode your relationship beyond any hope of repair, which would be heartbreaking, but at least you would know

Unless it wouldn't. Unless Cecil would re-set his bones, wring the blood out of his clothes, sniffle a little, and say something like well, all relationships have their rough patches, and you just have to work through them. Even when it's difficult. That's what you do, when you have someone special enough to merit special effort. With no thought of being allowed to need any effort in return.

In which case you would do the breaking-up — because you would have proved yourself an irredeemably horrible person, and you would understand, even if Cecil couldn't see it himself, that he was special enough to merit so much better than you're giving him —

You're shaking. It's hard to breathe. "Cecil!"

"Hm?"

"Come away from there!"

"Oh, but Carlos, it's so beautiful!" he exclaims. "Have you ever noticed the —"

"Cecil!"

You don't have the words to reach him, but the scream at least convinces him you're serious. He comes back over to you, back away from the edge. "Carlos, are you all right? You look like you've seen a librarian."

You pull him into a fierce hug. Up against him you can feel the trembling of your own limbs, feel your chest stutter against his. Sweet and precious Cecil, still in one piece. "I need you to stay back here where it's safe, okay?"

In the best possible move for your sanity, Cecil does not take this as a cue to start a monologue about the futility of safety as a concept. "Would you rather just go back to the apartment? Maybe we can hike another day."

 

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You stop trying to hurt him, after that. In every way. If there's a breaking point, you aren't going to find it without becoming a person you do not want to become.

For the rest of his visit, you throw yourself into the cause of doting on him. Making home-cooked meals, cuddling as early or as late as he feels like, talking about your research only if he asks and changing the subject yourself whenever his eyes start to glaze over.

It's a good vacation. You're not sure whether to call yourself a good person, but at least now you're trying.

 

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Part of you wants to confess. To lay all your cards on the table, to admit everything about the doubletalk and manipulation and general confusion of the past year.

Part of you thinks this might just turn the truth into a weapon, into one more way of trying to agitate Cecil into not loving you.

Besides, there's no guarantee you can explain it in a way he'll understand. What if he thinks you've been trying to provoke him because you would enjoy his pain? (As opposed to provoking him in order to satisfy your detached curiosity about whether he's a real human being, which is obviously so much better.)

You don't have the strength to do this face-to-face, to see the look in his eyes. Not to mention, if he's not around he won't show up in your intrusive thoughts, your brain's miswired warning system saying hey, you know this terrible act that you've never in your life planned on doing? Don't do it! Look at how terrible it would be!

So you wait until Cecil goes back home, and you call.

On the first try, you get his voicemail: he's busy being nonconsensually used to save the mayor. Most of what you want to say is too complicated to just dump on him in a recording; all you do is confess that you were hiding Kevin's presence (and reassure him that Kevin is probably okay, just building a radio station, not some kind of one-person Company Picnic site). After hanging up it hits you that, oh right, Cecil thinks of the mind-control as a serious violation — you should have offered some sympathy.

Not hurting him on purpose is easy. Not hurting him by accident, getting back into the habit of being as supportive as you want to be, is going to take some work.

 

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The conversation you expected doesn't happen, because Cecil assumes you were going to ask him to move to the otherworld.

As in, for good.

You hadn't even realized that was possible! Cecil's love for you might or might not be a fixed point that he's irrevocably stuck in, but Night Vale definitely is, right? Leaving his home town, forsaking everyone else he knows and loves, abandoning the job he's so proud of and does so well...that would be, definitively and inarguably, consequential.

And it's a consequence you could experience without having to shatter your relationship along the way.

It's not like you would be risking anything else to see it through, right? As far as you're concerned, both Night Vale and this nameless desert are fine places to make a home. Both have plenty of science to investigate. Neither one asks much of you in terms of money or self-preservation instincts. The desert otherworld boasts self-healing electronics and batteries that never run down; Night Vale counters with kittens and cable TV and fifty-one flavors of ice cream. You can always go back and visit for things like ice cream.

Cecil starts making moving plans. You start trying to talk the masked army out of having so many pointless wars. It would be really annoying if Doug or Alicia went through some kind of pseudo-death arc that kept them from helping you welcome Cecil to his new home.

 

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The phone is streaming Cecil's show when he announces that the Sphere has arrived, and confesses that he didn't make any preparations. It might decide to kill him. Who knows? He laughs. Either way, he doesn't care.

You laugh too, because, come on, really?

In another world, another life, you would have seen it as a desperate cry for help. Concern and sympathy and fear would have propelled you to his side, as soon as humanly possible. But here? This pseudo-suicidal stand is about as real and meaningful as his barricade of paper KEEP OUT signs. It's cartoonish. There is no chance he's actually going to die.

 

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That night, you have a dream in which Cecil reveals that he's been the one testing you for human emotion. That when you didn't react to his latest broadcast, you failed the final test. He explains this while cast in shadow from the dark planet of awesome size, perched in its sunless void, hovering in the air over your heads.

But the next day, the waking Cecil is still planning to move here. And the next day. And the day after that, while your memory of his dream-accusation blurs and fades.

 

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Two days before the big move, and your home is a disaster zone.

The masked armies, which seemed so peaceful six months ago — moving about the beige wastescape, none of them fighting, only wandering — have been fighting all the time lately. The army that took you in has been in and out of the apartment, increasingly battered and bruised. Increasingly destructive. The ones who are left, that is. Doug and Alicia are among the living, but even they aren't protecting or helping you now.

Every note you've taken is shredded, or spattered in blood, or both.

You try to clean it up. Some of it is useless, some of it you got bored with, but a lot of this was interesting, dammit, and you thought you might really discover something. Even if it's not a discovery you would write up or get published, even if it would never change the rest of the world...as long as you can have it for yourself, and maybe show it off to Cecil, that's all that matters.

Twenty minutes and one rampaging dog later, your notes are a disaster zone and your laptop is a smoking wreck.

You stop the cleanup. You stop everything. You lock all your doors, draw all the blinds, then sit in the middle of everything and stare at the laptop for who-knows-how long.

Waiting for it to heal.

Waiting for all of this to unhappen.

Or, failing that, waiting for it not to matter.

 

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Real consequences have finally come back around to hit you.

And you don't like it.

You don't want to live in a world where things are this real. You don't care, you realize, if everything in Night Vale is a pointless game of child-friendly monsters and cardboard forts. You don't even care whether your relationship means anything.

The game made you happy. That's all you want.

 

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Cecil's seeing a play or something tonight. You decide not to call until it's over, but to start walking in the meantime anyway.

The walk takes less than an hour.

You could have been visiting, all year, every weekend, as easy as breathing.

You hop the dog park walls, take a few steps...and promptly walk into an angel, who tells you to hurry up, the van's waiting.

Everyone at the afterparty-on-wheels is perfectly nice. The ones who recognize you say hello; you remember more than half of their names. All of them must know you were away, it's been on the radio enough, and you halfheartedly hope somebody will scold you for mistreating their beloved radio host...but, nope, doesn't happen. You get tacklehugged by a ten-year-old in a wheelchair that you don't recognize at all, until she calls you Uncle Carlos and you realize this is Cecil's niece: a girl you've met exactly once, more than fourteen months ago.

You let her know that her uncle Cecil doesn't have to move away. It turns out nobody told her he was moving in the first place. This plan has been in the cards for five weeks, he was going to leave the day after tomorrow, and not a single person considered that little Janice might need or want to know.

You are so glad to be back in this ridiculous, thoughtless, consequence-free town.

Your last-minute decision to cancel the move causes exactly as little fuss as you expected. The lease Cecil broke is un-broken. The job he quit, where tomorrow was supposed to be his last day, is renewed indefinitely. You wake up in the morning to find that every object Cecil boxed up is back on the walls or in the closet or on the shelves.

Also: that whole serial-possession thing he was so distressed about? Worked itself out, just in time, without you needing to do a thing. (And the culprit wasn't Dana. Called it.)

 

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A month after the opera, Cecil gets sucked under the spell of a cult, has his body horribly transformed, and flees the studio mid-broadcast with the cultists' eerie chanting on his lips.

You roll your eyes and change the channel. Maybe there's something good on the numbers station.

If Cecil is horrified afterward, you're prepared to play the supportive-boyfriend role, but Cecil comes home that evening all smiles. (Not literally! His body has gotten less grotesque, not more. Eyes and hair all back to normal.) He has new boots, and a cute headband, and stories of feeling totally connected and in-tune with a bunch of dancing strangers.

"So nothing about it bothered you?" you ask.

Cecil cocks his head. "No. Should it have?"

"Just checking," you assure him.

Of course he's okay. Why would he complain, just because some outside force took control of his body and used him for its own purposes? In Night Vale, that's what you call Tuesday. It means nothing. Hurts no one, not in any way that matters. There will be no fallout.

You could live this way forever. In fact...considering the time discrepancy between Night Vale and your old home, it's quite possible that, from some perspectives, you will live this way forever.

You can't think of anything that would make you happier.