Cecil wraps up his Saturday show and hustles out of the radio station with a haste that is, perhaps, just the tiniest bit unseemly. Carlos is finally back, if the text that appeared on Cecil's phone halfway through the show was real and not a figment of self-delusion.
Cecil is reasonably confident he couldn't have imagined the entire brief-but-flirtatious exchange that had followed that first text. He just doesn't have Carlos's flair with dinosaur emojis.
In theory, they don't have long, because Cecil has to be back in just a few hours. The coverage team for Valentine's Day is going to lock themselves in the broadcasting bunker before midnight tonight, to ensure they'll be able to provide continuing coverage of the impending disaster without themselves falling victims to any of its many and foul hazards.
But Cecil has been thinking. The scientists have their own bunker, yes, and Carlos isn't technically part of the radio station staff, but there's no actual rule that says Carlos can't join them in the broadcasting bunker. They won't be able to get up to much, since Cecil will be working for long stretches and there will kind of be other people right there, but Carlos can bring his current assignment for his online class, and during breaks they can share coffee and just … be together.
Cecil misses just being with Carlos. They had a lovely, if quick, visit with Carlos's family for an … unusual Christmas, but ever since they got back, one thing after another has pulled them apart. A little of that is Cecil's job, and most of it is Carlos's job, and the rest is a succession of ordinary but poorly timed interruptions.
Even before Christmas, Carlos was distracted by both Council business and end-of-term deadlines, and though he made certain the Christmas trip happened, he's barely been around at all since then. When he has, it's mostly been for a day or two, and those rare days have been on such short notice that Cecil hasn't always been free for them himself. Cecil has mostly made up for his forced "vacation" now, but that took a lot of extra assignments and groveling. And the Tumbleweed Incident certainly didn't help matters.
But difficult periods just happen sometimes, and all they can do is make the most of the chances they do get. So if they have to huddle in terror for a day or two, why not huddle in terror together? Besides, the staff all like Carlos, so his presence would probably boost their morale, too.
Not to mention Carlos's, for that matter. The scientists can't have anything that would keep him busy or distracted enough not to fret about all the destruction. Cecil isn't sure whether Carlos has even been in town for Valentine's Day before, but if he was, he probably paced enough to wear holes in the floor of the science bunker. Which means even the scientists will probably prefer Cecil's plan.
Carlos is on the couch when Cecil finally gets home. He glances up from whatever he's working on and smiles, the sweet one he seems to reserve just for Cecil. Cecil smiles back, relieved at this ultimate confirmation he hasn't just been engaging in wistful imagining.
Carlos looks back down to murmur the last few syllables of some kind of incantation before easing his sword back into its sheath. Doubt pierces Cecil's high spirits like a single small-caliber bullet through a hot-air balloon, because why is Carlos working with his sword now?
Cecil looks around at the rest of the room, and his hopes and tentative plans come plummeting down as that warning shot is followed up with a fusillade of damning details.
Carlos's Warden's cloak is draped over the arm of the couch, his staff on the floor beneath it, carefully placed away from stray feet but in easy reach. A new multi-pack of grenades, still bearing stickers from the current holiday/disaster clearance sale, is next to the waiting duffel bag. So are several magazines of ammunition for the two handguns sitting in their holsters, right out on the coffee table.
Carlos has very nitpicky rituals — even if he gives them a fancy scientific name like "basic safety protocols" — for his munitions in the common areas of their apartment. This isn't a putting-away of recently used weapons, and it isn't a simple seasonal rotation of the ordnance closet, which Carlos never bothers with anyway. This all-too-familiar scene means he's heading out on yet another mission.
And unless he's suddenly changed his mind and become comfortable with using time wormholes, there's no way he could finish one of his usual missions in the few hours before the radio station bunker is sealed.
"You have to leave again," Cecil says, trying not to sound bitter and failing extravagantly. He didn't think hoping for a couple of days was really asking so much. "I guess I should just be grateful you're still here at all."
Carlos glances up at him, the smile disappearing. "Apparently not," he mutters. He pulls off his glasses as he stands and shoves them in a pocket of his lab coat. He starts packing the sheathed sword and the smaller weapons into the duffel, his hands careful but quick with far too much practice.
"How long were you even planning —"
"I'm sorry, all right?" Carlos already sounds frustrated, which means this is not going to go well. He closes the duffel and moves to set it next to the door as he says, "I would have told you. I just wanted —"
"What, to be gone before I got back so you could tell me by text instead?" Cecil suggests, because Carlos may be frustrated, but Cecil is crushed. Okay, maybe he let himself get a little too invested in the whole sharing-a-bunker prospect when he hadn't even asked yet, but expecting more than this wasn't unreasonable.
"That is not fair," Carlos objects. The television suddenly turns itself on and starts surfing channels, which seems to frustrate him further.
"Why not?" Cecil demands. "That's all I've been seeing of you anyway. You're never here anymore. Yes, I know your job and very important and world-threatening peril," he adds when Carlos clearly wants to bring that up, "but even when you're here, you're barely here, and I never have any idea when you'll be here in the first place."
That's the worst part, the rapid cycle of hope and disappointment. If he could just know that Carlos would be away for a week or a month, he thinks he could resign himself to it a little more easily, but he's already been through this and he hated it the first time. The unpredictable and too-brief calls and texts, with all their half-promises and apologetic retractions, feel entirely too much like I'll look for a door tomorrow, okay, but first —
"I am trying," Carlos says, fighting to keep his voice level, but the flickering lights suggest that Cecil has scored a hit. "Can we please just —"
His phone informs them that the sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma.
"Are you joking?" Carlos demands, yanking the phone from his pocket. "Can I not even have ten minutes away from — oh, don't you dare," he snaps as the phone warbles and dies. "You have been through an actual volcano, you can't seriously be losing it now." He shakes the phone vigorously.
"Oh, don't mind me," Cecil says. "It's not like I'm right here or anything. It's not like we were in the middle of a conversation."
The television starts blaring in backwards Russian.
"I can't —" Carlos starts to say, but then he stops and does his silently-counting-to-ten thing before saying instead, "I have to go."
"Of course you do."
Carlos grabs his cloak and pulls it on, going so far as to raise the hood, even though he knows Cecil has an entirely understandable revulsion at seeing a hooded figure in his own home. Cecil shudders involuntarily.
"I saw enough of that text to know it was something about the wards at the labs. I have to go make sure I didn't screw up the updates enough to make the labs implode with my friends inside." Carlos picks up his staff. "I should probably take a walk anyway, unless you really wanted an excuse to replace the television again. Turn off the oven in ten minutes. I don't know if I'll have time to stop back in before midnight, so don't wait too long to leave for the station. Stay safe."
And then he brushes past Cecil and right out the door, grabbing his duffel on the way.
This is ridiculous. Carlos has been getting increasingly stressed about whatever's been going on with the White Council lately, so he's been a lot faster to shut down than usual, but he could at least try.
Cecil wants to chase after him, but this is a matter of boundaries. Carlos is Disengaging Responsibly, and Cecil has to honor that. Besides, Carlos is a wizard. He can hide in plain sight and open doorways to other worlds. He won't be found if he doesn't want to be.
Cecil peeks out into the hallway just in case, but Carlos is not turning back or lingering with an obvious desire to be talked out of his decision to leave. Cecil closes the door with a curse. Righteous anger carries him through getting his jacket off, unplugging the television to silence it, and crossing to the kitchen.
Then it abandons him just as abruptly as Carlos did.
The table is set for two, with candles and elegantly folded napkins, as if Carlos had expected them to share an unrushed dinner. The oven is producing the tantalizing odor of enchiladas, as if Carlos was hoping to recapture a little of the magic of one of their earliest successful dates. When Cecil peeks inside the oven he sees a double portion, as if Carlos had been planning to send Cecil back to work with a generous serving of evocative leftovers.
And Carlos said something about trying to stop back in before midnight. He doesn't leave his weapons out if he's not planning to use them soon … but maybe this time "soon" meant after the few hours before Cecil has to go back to work.
Cecil sinks into a chair. "I think I may have messed up," he tells his napkin, which has been whimsically shaped to resemble the headgear of an arcane religious order. Or possibly of a parking attendant at Tourniquet.
The napkin does not express surprise.
Cecil realizes belatedly that Carlos had been wearing his science uniform. (He wanted to call the lab coat and fake glasses the science disguise, but Carlos objected because he was worried one of them might accidentally say that around people who weren't supposed to know he was a wizard yet, so they settled on science uniform instead, even though the other scientists were mostly amused and a little affronted by the entire topic.) Carlos doesn't usually wear the science uniform around their home anymore, but he knows Cecil likes it, so sometimes he does for Cecil's sake. And tonight Cecil hadn't even had to ask first.
Cecil carefully moves the napkin and plate closer to their mates at the other chair to make room for banging his head on the table. "Dammit, Cecil!" he chides himself. Snap judgments are a very effective and important survival tool, but they have a bad habit of backfiring when it comes to Carlos. Cecil keeps forgetting that.
He digs out his cell phone and texts a simple I'm sorry but makes himself leave it at that, because he is respecting boundaries. Besides, he can't assume Carlos will see the text right away, and he doesn't want the apology to be lost in the many other messages he would like to be sending. Carlos sometimes doesn't see or even receive messages for hours, what with his tendency to travel in countries and dimensions with poor cell coverage, not to mention the way he frequently exposes his phone to temporarily disruptive phenomena like electricity and fire and bullets.
And wizardly emotions, which he's having right now. Because of Cecil.
Cecil sighs, turns off the oven, and makes himself eat a generous portion of the enchiladas, even though every bite feels like a rebuke. He'll need his strength for the upcoming broadcast coverage.
Just as he's dealing with the leftovers, his phone beeps. He snatches it up, hoping, but the message isn't from Carlos. It's from Dr. Renegade.
Don't know what happened, don't care. Fix this.
Then another beep, and I didn't stock nearly enough cheap tequila for whatever this is AND tomorrow.
Then the phone rings, claiming that Carlos is calling. Cecil answers hastily. "Carlos?"
"Whatever she's saying, ignore her. She's meddling and she needs to not." Carlos's voice turns distant. "Yes, Julie, I do mean you, because I don't see any other meddling meddlers in here, do you? What — what does that even — you know what, goodbye. Yes, out the door, thank you, goodbye." He sighs deeply behind a swell of static. Then, before Cecil has a chance to put together the right words, he says, "Sorry I walked out like that. I mean, I had to, but … sorry."
His voice is rough and weary. "Are you all right?" Cecil asks. Which is a useless question, because —
"I'm fine," Carlos says, because of course he does. But then he offers, "I'm just … I'm really stressed right now."
"It didn't help that I overreacted, did it? Carlos, I'm so sorry —"
"No, it's not your fault. I would have told you, but I thought we could get just a few hours first. And I meant to be done with prep before you got back, but Play Ball was short-staffed, so shopping took longer than I expected. I just wanted to get that out of the way so I could at least be there with you all the way up until you had to go back to work. For a change."
He sounds so angry at himself, and static starts dancing across his words.
"You're right I haven't been there for you these past few weeks. No, months. You're right it's not fair I'll have to go right back out. I'm trying to fix it, and I'm failing, and I don't know when it will get better. Or if. I know this isn't — none of this is fair to you. I wish —" But he catches himself even before Cecil can remind him about the current wish restriction and says instead, "I'm sorry I'm so bad at this."
"You're not," he tells Carlos, because while Carlos certainly makes mistakes in their relationship, he's not as bad at it as he thinks he is, and he's not the only one who does. Cecil is the one who ruined a pretty good effort for the circumstances. "I should have waited long enough to find out you'd cooked. Do you think you'll have time to come back before I go in? You didn't eat."
"I'm still working on the wards here," Carlos says. "And you don't have all that long before you have to go back in. I don't want you to be late." The static isn't as bad, but the resignation in his tone doesn't make Cecil feel much better.
He pushes down a swell of jealousy. He does want the scientists to be safe, and it's kind of Carlos to help them on his way to … wherever it is he's going. And if Carlos did come back, they would probably have enough time for something, but they would probably have to rush, and that wouldn't help anything. "I suppose. Do you at least have something for dinner?"
"They're making me eat here. Frozen dinners." Carlos sounds so disgusted that Cecil can't help smiling.
"I have done you a grave disservice by driving you to resort to heavily processed foods," he proclaims with excessive drama, because he wants to be able to think Carlos might be smiling too, even if only for a moment. "Can I ever be redeemed?!"
"My options appear to be Salisbury steak or Swedish meatballs," Carlos says. "So."
"Then my debt is sealed! I am forever forsaken, condemned to guilt and shame, knowing I have consigned you to re-formed meat product and excessive sodium content!" He drops the drama to add, "But I'm leaving some of the leftovers in the fridge here, so if you find time, you can always stop by to take some with you."
"We'll see." Carlos sounds a little better. "Stay safe, okay? Don't leave the broadcasting bunker until you're sure it's clear."
"You be careful, too." Cecil will never be happy that Carlos has to leave again already, but at least that means he'll be safe from Valentine's Day. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
And maybe that won't be enough in the end, but it's enough right now.
After hanging up, Cecil makes a face at Dr. Renegade's text, trying to figure out whether he should answer it and, if so, how. Before he can decide, though, she sends another one.
Cecil is relieved to see that Carlos was apparently helped by the conversation, but he kind of agrees with Carlos that the meddling isn't warranted. It's also unusual; she usually stays out of their relationship. He sends a fish-with-earmuffs emoticon and goes back to dealing with the leftovers.
Intern Juan waves his phone above his head. "Sunset! I repeat, we have sunset!"
The on-duty shift cheers wearily. Cecil keeps his cheer brief, because he has to be careful of his voice. He managed to get a few hours of restless sleep before sunrise and during the morning show, but he's had to cover several blocks that are usually filled with pre-recorded content or ambient sounds, and he still has hours to go.
He stretches for a few seconds to loosen up before going back on air and informing his listeners of the milestone the survivors have now passed. Sunset marks the end of the most active threats; with evening, concern turns as it must to the lurking surprises that have been left behind.
There's a brief lull in external reports, but they soon pick up again. Aside from the official emergency reports that arrive on the official emergency teletype, Tumblr and Twitter are popular methods, as usual; semaphore had a spike of popularity last year, but it's been overtaken by both incoherent screaming and old-fashioned phone calls this year. The interns and volunteers are doing a good job of filtering and condensing those reports, letting Cecil focus on keeping the broadcast strong.
One of the "emergency reports" isn't an emergency at all, just a notice that the Monkey's Paw Warning has been downgraded to a Monkey's Paw Watch. The Water Department has been insisting there's no contamination of the water supply for a couple of days now, and the new report is forty lines of blank verse that essentially state the screenings haven't found any contaminated people either. It seems likely the crisis is well over and the risk that anyone will be inflicting the horrible, twisted realizations of their hearts' desires upon the helpless world has passed. If Cecil had to guess, the City Council is burying the update in today's news as cover for their overreaction, but it's not as if he has time to speculate on-air, so he has to admit it's a smart move on their part.
Once he's passed along that report and the latest on the Desert Creek development, he puts on a pre-recorded advertisement to give himself time to drink some more tea, but just as he's pushing his chair back, his cell phone rings. Most people know to call the main line for the radio station, but some people —
It's Shakeena Flynn. He almost sends it to voicemail anyway, but … today of all days, she probably wouldn't call idly. He answers instead.
"Do you want us to pick you up on the way?" she asks immediately, brusque yet somehow gentle. "It's still dangerous out here, but there's safety in numbers, and I wouldn't think you'd want to be driving right now."
Cecil wonders which of them is confused. "I'm on-air right now. Well, not right now, but —"
"They won't let you go? Bastards. You want to fight them? If so, you want help? Or should I just let you know what I find out?"
"About … what?"
Shakeena pauses for several seconds. "You haven't even told Cecil yet?" she demands faintly. She then has a side argument he can't make out for long enough that Cecil has to start another advertisement. When she finally comes back, she says, "Okay. Apparently they didn't call you yet because they weren't sure when you'd be able to leave, so they didn't want to distract you while you were working until they had more answers. But Ward— your Carlos got hurt today, honey."
Cecil's head spins. "How?!" he demands. How could Carlos have gotten to his mysterious mission, gotten hurt, come back through an eldritch siege-slash-pillaging, and made contact with the scientists in their bunker, all already? He was supposed to be comparatively safe today.
"I don't know much," Shakeena says. "Just that he won't wake up and they wanted my help enough to come out in all this."
Cecil doesn't remember standing. He drops his headphones. "Pick me up," he says before hanging up. He raises his voice to call out, "Somebody cover for me." The morning show wraith could do it, or an intern, or they could go to the weather early or something. He filled in most of the day. They owe him. He walks away from the board.
He remembers the mobile equipment mostly by catching his foot on the carry-bag's strap and nearly falling. He brought it along just in case the bunker's board went out for some reason. Professional guilt and a superstition against ignoring hints from inanimate objects make him grab the bag and sling it on, just in case. Maybe he'll be able to find somewhere safe later and then work in a few remote spots.
He does have to fight, as it turns out, but just a couple of sales-Seans who are supposed to be helping with the phones but instead have decided they don't want him to open the bunker door and risk letting something in. After a few seconds of grappling, though, he's able to trip one of them and distract the other by faking a sighting of a new account at the other end of the bunker.
It's not until the door clangs firmly shut behind him that he realizes how woefully unequipped he is to be out and about on what is arguably the most hazardous part of Valentine's Day. Damage and casualty reports near the radio station have been relatively light, but Cecil is very careful as he makes his way through the halls, jumping slightly at each creak and emanation.
By the time he reaches the front door, a familiar unmarked white van is already swerving to a stop, so he takes a deep breath and braces himself, and as soon as its door is thrown open, he hurls himself across the gap. There's an ominous click-snap. Something just misses him and pulverizes itself against the side of the van, showering him in chalky candy dust, but a wave of flames shoots out of the van, providing enough cover for him to make it all the way in safely. He coughs a few times, wincing at the taste of the candy dust, as the van lurches back into motion.
Dr. Rochelle carefully secures her flamethrower and pushes her safety goggles up on her head before greeting him. "Hi, Cecil! Good speed there. You okay?"
Cecil nods. Shakeena thumps him on the back a few times, until the last of the coughs clears his throat. He bites his lip. "Is — is Carlos —"
"Brace for chocolates!" Master Rawhide shouts, barely a second before impact.
The van makes it through largely intact. The tires don't. Everyone winces at the noise of bare rims on pavement, but they all know better than to stop.
When they reach the science building, Master Rawhide stops the van and flashes the headlights in a pattern. When a flashlight responds, Dr. Rochelle covers Shakeena and then Master Rawhide as they dash for the door, then waves Cecil on. He darts over.
"Oh, it's you," Dr. Renegade says when he reaches the door. She has some kind of customized, duct-tape-bedecked weapon in one hand. "I guess you can come in." She uses the flashlight in her other hand to signal Dr. Rochelle and then provides cover for her.
Dr. Rochelle picks up speed halfway across. "Lace hearts lace hearts lace hearts," she warns, shoving Cecil the rest of the way inside. Dr. Renegade squeezes off a few zappy-sounding shots before slamming the door shut, and then all three scientists shove a heavy piece of equipment up against it as soft sounds brush against the other side.
Cecil is busy shrugging off the itching sensation that briefly crawled all over his skin as he entered the building. Shakeena has hooked her spiked tee-ball bat to her waistband and is rubbing her arms as if she felt the same thing. "That's new," she mutters. "Remind me to have a word or ten with your boyfriend about upsetting ward changes."
"Get moving," Dr. Renegade orders, pushing past them to lead the way. "It's not safe up here."
The other two scientists are briefly delayed by shutting down and removing the flamethrower, so they bring up the rear. Dr. Renegade leads them all to the bunker and knocks a different pattern.
After a long sequence of locks disengage, Dr. Renaissance peers carefully around the edge of the door before pushing it the rest of the way open. "Everyone all right?" he asks anxiously. "Oh, hello, Cecil! I didn't know you were coming now." He waves them all in and then starts re-engaging the locks.
The last scientist, Dr. Reliant, is in a corner off to the left, monitoring several screens, but Dr. Renegade leads them to the other end, where several sleeping bags are lined up. Carlos is lying on one of them, his cloak draped over him as a blanket.
Cecil hurries forward to kneel and carefully take one of Carlos's hands. There's a mark that's half scrape, half impending bruise across one cheek, and there are a few small scratches and acid burns on the wrist and hand Cecil is holding, but other than that, Carlos actually doesn't look nearly as hurt as Cecil had worried he might be.
"Once we got him out of the cloak, we grabbed a passing EMT to make sure we were good to get him off the street," Dr. Renegade is telling Shakeena. "It's apparently not anything medical. He might have a couple of cracked ribs and I have no idea how that knee isn't dislocated, but those don't explain why he won't wake up. It doesn't look like sleep, because …."
She produces a wooden ruler and pokes Carlos in the upper arm several times, pretty hard. Then she waves the intact ruler at them.
"If it was just sleep, this would be dust right now." An unfamiliar note of uncertainty enters her voice. "I know he has some kind of protections worked into that lab coat and cloak, so I thought they might help if we covered him with them."
"Probably," Shakeena says. "Cecil, honey, do you want to try first?"
Cecil nods. After all his traveling through the time vortices more than a year ago, if Carlos was short of sleep, once he did fall asleep he stayed that way until he was fully rested. The effect isn't quite as strong now as it was even several months ago, whether because it's wearing off or Carlos is adapting to it, so now it's just very hard to wake him up if he's not ready. But Cecil has developed methods. They may not help for other kinds of unconsciousness, but he has to try.
He tries stroking the uninjured cheek. He runs a hand through Carlos's slightly unkempt but always lovely hair. He murmurs encouragements as he eases his hand under the cloak and across Carlos's abdomen, careful to keep clear of the one set of scars that always evokes some dark memory. He tries a few other not-entirely-unsuitable-around-others touches that are usually effective and even a gentle kiss. After a moment's hesitation, he leans in and whispers several suggestions that always, always work.
But not this time. Cecil sits back against his heels, looking up at Shakeena helplessly.
She considers for several seconds and then moves a few things away so she can draw a circle around Carlos, with herself and Cecil inside as well. As soon as she completes the circle, Carlos exhales and somehow visibly relaxes even further. The noise level in the bunker doesn't change, yet it feels quieter in a way Cecil can't name.
Shakeena lowers herself to the floor on the other side of Carlos and squints at him for several seconds. She pulls back with a fierce wince. She uncovers Carlos, setting the protective garments carefully aside, before producing a small vial. Dabbing its contents on Carlos's face, ears, and throat, she chants something complex.
Carlos doesn't even twitch, even though several people are watching him closely, and being watched always seems to shake him out of normal sleep. Cecil feels fear carving arcane symbols into his heart.
When Shakeena finishes, she sits back and closes the vial, then closes her eyes for several seconds to collect herself. After covering Carlos back up, she looks up at Dr. Renegade.
"He took one hell of a psychic hit. Probably more than one. Bruising that deep, in someone at his level —" She shakes her head. "There's something else, too, some kind of pall I can't make out, but the banged-up psyche is the thing to worry about right now. I've done what I can, but he needs time, and rest is the best thing he can do at this point. Being inside his own wards or thresholds, plus the spells on that cloak and lab coat — the protections he works in will help. People he likes and trusts being nearby should help, too. Even then, I'd say you want to keep a circle up until at least tomorrow morning."
Dr. Renegade squats down outside the circle to be closer to their level. "Usually he's out there clearing out nests and left-behind trappings by now, at least the worst ones." She ignores Cecil's bewildered look. "And then he's supposed to head back to Project Osgiliath. I take it at least the first part of that won't be happening?"
Dr. Renegade sighs. "I miss the days when he was just managing to get himself hit by cars. Wei! Brace yourself, we're on in five. You." She gives Cecil a challenging look. "You want to help protect this ongoing disaster that calls itself a city? We should be able to patch you through to emergency services, and things will probably go easier if they're talking to you instead of us. Fewer questions."
Cecil glances down at Carlos. "I should —"
"You should let him know you're here, and the best way to do that is talking. Historically speaking, your voice is probably the one thing that can get through to him when nothing else can." She often seems angry, but now the anger seems much more personally directed at Cecil, and he doesn't know why. "Trust me, you'll be doing plenty of talking for this."
Cecil looks to Shakeena. At her nod, he steps out of the circle, and she follows before sealing it again. Dr. Renegade turns towards the other end of the bunker, but Cecil catches her arm to stop her. "Wait. Please. I don't understand. Why is Carlos here?"
She glares at his hand until he releases her sleeve. "We had to get him off the street."
"No, I mean why is he in Night Vale? He was supposed to be on one of his missions."
She stares at him. "It's Valentine's Day."
He stares back. "Yes, exactly!"
"His job is protecting people. I know you know he's out there fighting against these things — you talk about it enough on your radio show."
"Ordinary horrors and disasters, yes, of course. Valentine's Day is different! No one should be out there. There is a time to fight and a time to cower, and this is definitely the time to cower!"
Dr. Renegade looks like Cecil is deliberately flunking a class just to annoy her. "Yeah, because that sounds like Carlos. He's been dealing with Valentine's Day since he started here. How could you possibly have missed — well, okay, that first one after you met him, you had just been through that mind-whammy thing. But the next —" She hesitates again. "Wait. He still hadn't found the guts to tell you about the whole wizard thing by then, had he. And last year he was off playing 'Survivor: Tatooine' and his boss had to cover for him here. So this year …." Her scowl softens into a frown. "You really didn't know?"
"No, I — I didn't — ever since he started here? Ever since the banjolele?" Cecil feels sick at the thought of Carlos being out there all that time, all those Valentine's Days, and Cecil never realizing.
She gives him an odd look. "If you're quoting Paul Simon, it's 'ever since the watermelon'."
"I can't play the watermelon," Cecil says. Of course, he's not very good on the banjolele either, but that's not important now.
"… Right. Anyway, yes. Every year he goes out there to destroy things I don't want to know about and play chew toy for the thing, and then when he's done with all that he beats himself up even more about all the people he still couldn't save."
"So … so he wasn't getting ready to leave again?" Just how badly had Cecil messed up? But no, Carlos had said —
"No, he was. He's been in some train-wreck of an operation, and his boss kicked him off that so he could handle this nightmare, but when he's done here he's supposed to go back. Though at this rate …." She eyes Carlos, still lying unconscious. "We'll see. Come on, let's go see if we can save some people while he's slacking off. But first —" She looks over at Shakeena. "Do you want to stay or leave?"
Shakeena stops looking at Cecil with pity to answer. "Stay. Tamika is guarding the little ones, and I'm not going back in all that."
"You can help too, then, if you want," Dr. Renegade says, leading them over to the monitors. "Andre needs to get some sleep."
"Wei needs to get some sleep," Dr. Reliant mutters, rubbing his eyes.
"Wei can tough it out until I bring these two up to speed, and then I'll take over," Dr. Renegade tells him. She leans against Dr. Renaissance's shoulder to read from his screen. "'Help, help, I'm being oppressed by strings of paper Cupids'? That's it, I'm cutting you off. Go. Sleep."
Cecil is so accustomed to hearing his own show as he broadcasts it that he hadn't even noticed he was hearing it here. Now that he's close to the monitors, where it's louder, he recognizes the familiar lonesome howl of the current Kraft Cheeses spot. He winces, hoping they haven't just been playing advertisements this entire time.
Dr. Renaissance taps a key firmly before pushing himself back from the keyboard. "There. Another report done. Are you sure? I can keep going." He then yawns massively. "A bit of punchiness probably helps with the style-masking."
"You passed punchy hours ago, my friend. Go." She waits for Dr. Renaissance to stand and watches him make his stiff way over to the sleeping area before turning back to Cecil and Shakeena. "So. Welcome to our new disaster-time command center."
Cecil looks more closely at the monitors in front of Dr. Reliant. He's surprised to recognize a variety of locations around Night Vale, apparently in real time, each monitor updating at regular intervals to display a new location. "How are you getting all this?"
"Um, hello, you live in a surveillance state, remember? One that has hidden cameras with highly inadequate transmission security practically everywhere. We're just … temporarily availing ourselves of a public resource, that's all. We were watching for trouble spots so Carlos had some warning of what was going to try to eat him next, but then when he went down … well, at least we knew. Now we're submitting reports with spoofed numbers and geolocation so we don't have to waste time explaining why we know where the problems are. But if you're here, you can just call and tell them people are contacting you. The emergency workers wouldn't question that."
Cecil eyes the setup thoughtfully. He can work with this. "Or I could just remote-broadcast," he says, patting his mobile-equipment bag. "They all listen to the radio, too. I can pass along reports much faster this way."
Dr. Renegade regards him for several seconds. "That could work," she says finally, which from her is high praise indeed. Shakeena pulls over an extra chair so she can start going through feeds, and Dr. Reliant helps Cecil set up his equipment before staggering off to join the others in rest.
Once everything is ready, Cecil reaches for his phone so he can warn the staff back at the radio station to switch over to his control, but Dr. Renegade puts her hand over his phone first. "Look. About earlier." She keeps her eyes on the monitors, but he has no doubt her words are only meant for him. "Normally I leave you guys to fumble through your whatever in your own way, but … you sent him out like that to deal with today, which even Warden Army-of-One over there takes seriously. If he went and bought it while you two were fighting over something stupid — well, I know from personal experience that would suck. And a mopey radio host is almost as bad as a mopey wizard. Anyway, I didn't know you didn't know. So." She releases his phone again.
"Your usual restraint is appreciated, but under the circumstances, so is your intervention," Cecil tells her. He can't bear the thought of Carlos facing — fighting! — Valentine's Day still feeling the way he must have after their argument. "So for this one time, thank you."
"Good. Let's never do this again." And with that, they start working to save Night Vale.
In many respects the work is horrifying. Cecil is used to hearing the descriptions and seeing pictures of the aftermath, but he's not used to watching it as it happens. But in other respects it's rewarding, as he is able to direct emergency workers where they're needed before anyone else can and even, in several cases, warn people away from hazards that sharp eyes on the monitors catch.
Sometime after midnight, Dr. Rochelle takes over from Dr. Renegade by stealing her chair when she goes to get more coffee and refusing to give it up unless Dr. Renegade can get all the way through the alphabet without yawning. Dr. Renegade tries to argue that wasn't a yawn after R but eventually gives in with poor grace. Shakeena hangs on for several more hours before yielding her space to Master Rawhide.
Cecil, though, is buoyed by twin adrenaline rushes — one of horrified and disgusted helplessness, and one of triumph at successfully wielding information that is delayed and distorted only by his own flawed perceptions to save lives, limbs, and in many cases both. Repeatedly citing "an anonymous network of vigilant citizens and devices", he fills the airwaves with warnings, requests for intervention, and condolences.
The staff back at the radio station feed him filler, like the Water Department's statement calling for the Monkey's Paw Watch to be downgraded further to an Advisory and the Night Vale Daily Journal's new ad-evasion pricing structure. They also slot in the occasional advertisement so he can quickly refresh himself and check on Carlos. With their support, he's able to carry the coverage all the way through to the morning show. Thanks to the scientists' generous supply of honey, he's only slightly hoarse as he reminds his listeners of the brutal nightmare they have experienced before, are experiencing now, and will assuredly experience again, as well as of his confidence that it has not diminished and cannot diminish Night Vale or its citizens.
He wraps up with, "To those of you now joining us, I offer you an unfamiliar but sincere good morning. In just a few moments I will pass our continuing coverage to your usual morning drive-time team. But to those of you who have been working or suffering or enduring throughout this night and remain with me now, I bid you a metaphorical and unbowed good night, Night Vale. Good night."
He shuts down his mobile equipment with a flourish and turns. Everyone else — except Carlos — is awake again by that point, and they offer him a brief and possibly slightly sarcastic but still warm round of applause. He accepts with a weary smile and allows Dr. Reliant to take over his chair.
He shambles over to Carlos but waits for Shakeena's approval to break the circle. He pulls one of the sleeping bags closer. She repeats her vial treatment and then seals Cecil back in with Carlos. Careful not to dislodge the bespelled garments, Cecil carefully wraps himself across Carlos and closes his eyes.
This isn't exactly how he'd pictured sharing the day with Carlos, since he'd wanted him conscious and unhurt, but other than that, it's surprisingly close. He would worry about that, but he's sure this situation is just an ordinary unnerving coincidence.
He murmurs encouraging endearments to Carlos until he falls asleep.