A campfire the size of a tractor trailer flickers under the inconsistent starlight. An hour ago two of the masked warriors were roasting something, so the whole area smelled like charred meat. Now they're mostly on patrol or asleep, so the flames burn low and the strongest scent on the air is cactus flowers.
Kevin is recharging on the bed the warriors set up for their tiny charges, leaning against the wicker frame. It's really a spare doggie bed for Alicia's bichon frisé, the velvety cushion adorned with buttons as big as a normal person's head. When they first found Kevin, Carlos started retreating to a child's doll-tent every night, sleeping on the rough sand and diminishing the efficiency of his rest hours rather than share the huge cushion with someone else.
He doesn't have those silly hang-ups any more. He scrambles up over the wicker, outlined in the firelight, and comes right over to flop down with his head in Kevin's lap. "Hello, friend!"
"Hi, friend," echoes Kevin. "Did you have a productive day?"
"Oh, yes. I did a ton of science. You should've seen it."
Kevin starts running his fingers through the scientist's hair. It's so long and unruly and Kevin hates it, ugh...but the gesture makes Carlos comfortable, and keeping him comfortable is important while he's still in the adjustment phase.
Unless he's fully acclimatized by now? But no, it took at least this many months for Kevin to adjust when Strexcorp first came to Desert Bluffs, and they had a whole team of medical and pharmaceutical professionals keeping an eye on him. And Kevin doesn't even have a hard copy of the company guidebook to work with, just his best guesses. He has to play it safe.
"It was so productive," continues Carlos. "The most productive." He tilts his head to give Kevin a better angle...and sighs against Kevin's leg.
It wasn't a happy sigh. "Is something wrong? Maybe you should try smiling more."
"Nothing's wrong. At least, I don't think anything's wrong. I'm doing good work, I'm living with friends, my boyfriend's coming to visit...everything about my life is great."
"Well, there you go!"
But Carlos doesn't stop at what should have been the happy conclusion. He's a thinker, this one. Thinking makes it so much harder to settle into peaceful obedience. "Cecil's coming to visit...once he gets into the dog park, and walks however long it takes to get here, in whatever direction 'here' is."
"That's right," says Kevin. "So, any day now."
"What if he can't get into the dog park? It's forbidden, remember?"
"If there's one thing I know about Cecil, it's that he is excellent at ignoring and subverting authority," says Kevin through gritted teeth. Even a legitimate authority like Strexcorp, which limits and monitors your every action for good reasons, such as profit! So different from Night Vale's oppressive government, which forbids people from entering the town dog park for no reason at all, probably.
"He is that."
Carlos's mouth stretches until it's almost a normal, proper smile...then falters as he rolls over to look up at Kevin, so abruptly that one of Kevin's hair-stroking fingers goes right into his eye. Well. Technically, eye socket. Same difference, right?
"I should go meet him halfway. Don't you think? Because it's going to be a long trip, as far as I know. Scientifically speaking, I would get to see him sooner if each of us did half the traveling."
"Don't do that!" exclaims Kevin. What if Carlos discovers that they're in a geographical loop, that nobody can currently leave? Or, worse, what if he discovers one of the elusive ways that a person can leave, and Kevin can no longer bring the light and happiness of the Smiling God into his life? Either way, it would be a disaster. "Think of your career! Think of all the incredible scientific opportunities you might miss out on."
"Cecil's taking a vacation for me. Maybe I could...."
Kevin claps a hand over the scientist's mouth before he can suggest something obscene. What does he think he is, an executive?
"Mmmrmph?" asks Carlos.
"Nothing's wrong! I just...thought you were going to frown for a second there." With a nervous laugh, Kevin uses thumb and forefinger to stretch Carlos's cheeks apart. That's...smile-esque. "You need to stop being such a negative Nellie and let yourself be happy. Your boyfriend! Is coming here! To see you!"
"Yeah." Carlos relaxes. The unsightly furrows on his brow smooth out. (If they ever get back to civilization, he should get some injections for those. And some dye for all that grey in his hair.) "Yeah, that's exciting, isn't it? I'm excited."
He gets up. Oh, good, if he's done cuddling, that means Kevin can stop trying to stomach that tangled mess he calls a hairstyle...except that Carlos doesn't leave, doesn't go curl up on his side of the cushion. Instead, he gives Kevin a hug. Such a light and gentle hug that Kevin doesn't even have a hard time breathing.
"I'm really glad you're here," says Carlos, face resting against his chest. "I used to feel so scared and helpless, and I missed Cecil, missed Night Vale, so much that it hurt. Now I feel fulfilled, and productive, and nothing hurts at all! And it's all thanks to you. Thank you."
"Oh...it was nothing! I was happy to." In spite of all his deeply-repressed complaining, Kevin feels his eye sockets crinkle up with emotion. This is why he loves serving the Smiling God. The human connection. The ability to make a difference in people's lives. "All in a day's work."