The next morning is much calmer, because Cecil doesn't have to go in until early afternoon. He's able to enjoy watching Carlos sleep for a bit before kissing him awake just enough to let him know he's going out to pick something up for breakfast. Carlos greets that news with a sleepy smile and contentedly burrows back under the covers.
Cecil drives the extra few blocks to the cafe that makes the muffins Carlos likes, even though their machine-ground coffee is inferior to properly hammer-ground blends. He's glad he went to the extra effort when Carlos shuffles into the kitchen, hair still rumpled and glasses a little crooked, and beams at the breakfast laid out on the table.
Once they've kissed a proper good morning, Cecil reaches over to straighten the glasses. Then an unhappy thought strikes him. "Did it hurt you when I left and came back?"
Carlos shakes his head. "It didn't hurt." He scrunches his face up charmingly in consideration. "I felt it, I guess? I definitely noticed. But it didn't actually hurt." He presses the glasses more firmly into place, unnecessarily. "Better safe, though."
They sit to eat. Carlos is even more pleased to learn of Cecil's free morning. "So you can stay until lunch?" he asks. "Or did you have errands?"
Cecil sighs. "I should go food shopping. I'm sorry I let it get this bad."
"You've been busy," Carlos says. "And I usually do most of the shopping, since I know what I'll need for cooking. You shouldn't have to try to figure that out. It's my fault — I shouldn't have been away so much. At …." He rubs his forehead. "Um. Those, um, science conferences. Oh!" His growing discomfort clears away with the light of sudden realization. "Those calls the other day. They were probably from a conference organizer."
"They … were?" Cecil is reasonably confident they weren't, since Carlos hasn't actually been at any science conferences. Possibly ever. Unless they're suddenly using "conferences" as code for "wizard missions" again, and "conference organizer" really means "secret wizard society's military commander", in which case Carlos is actually right after all. But it seems unlikely he's remembering that and yet being obscure about it.
"Probably," Carlos says again, but his tone conveys definitely. "I can't think of anyone else who would call me and not already have a real name programmed in my phone, or a clear caller ID." He chews a bit of muffin thoughtfully, carefully swallowing before he continues. "I should have answered so I could turn them down."
Cecil is glad he did no such thing, because he can't imagine that the commanders of secret cabals encourage their highly-trained and deadly cloaked operatives to turn down missions. "Don't be hasty," he warns.
"Why not?" Carlos asks. "It doesn't make sense for me to go to conferences anyway. I study science. I'm here in Night Vale because it's so scientifically interesting. So why would I leave it to go to some conference about something else? And that whole year when I couldn't get back — what if that happened again? I would never want to put us through that a second time."
"You said that was just a property of — of the old oak doors." Of the unknown mystical forces used to activate the oak doors as dimensional portals, actually, but the scientist Carlos currently thinks he is probably wouldn't phrase it that way.
"That was consistent with the observed results at that time, yes, but for verification we'd have to repeat the experiment or run variation trials."
Cecil squirms a little. Carlos doesn't seem to be trying to turn him on at the moment, but that much scientific vocabulary makes it hard to — makes it difficult to focus.
Heedless, Carlos continues, "And what if one of the 'conference' variation trials locks me out?" He shakes his head firmly. "Falsification is valuable in general, but not if success would mean I wouldn't be able to get back to you. I guess I wouldn't get to enjoy reuniting with you if we never spent any time apart, but I can't think of any reason why I would ever accept anything forcing us apart, even for however long a conference is. No, I think it's best if I just stay in Night Vale." He grins. "I can't get locked out if I never leave, right?"
Cecil is starting to understand why Dr. Renegade and Shakeena both thought Cecil had made a wish to cause all this. Even Carlos's phone seems to be chiming in on that theory, choosing this moment to interject he's everything you want from its vantage point on the table next to Cecil's far-better-behaved phone.
And Cecil is dismayed to realize he can't really deny that.
"What about your family?" Cecil asks, troubled. Carlos has a great family, and he gets really down when he goes too long without seeing them.
"Well, maybe they could visit us here," Carlos says with a careless shrug.
The last time that suggestion was made, Carlos greeted it with several minutes of near-hysterical laughter followed by a brief but intense panic attack, so Cecil has his doubts about its feasibility.
"And besides, we can talk on the phone or over the computer. It'll be fine." Carlos looks as satisfied with his plan as Khoshekh looked when he was finally restored to his rightful place.
Cecil has never really been into things like "maintaining order" or "saving the world" himself, but he knows and respects how important they are to Carlos. Seeing Carlos acting this way, dismissing his own (poorly remembered) interests and family so callously, is like trying to capture him in a watercolor portrait: the result may be colorful and skillfully rendered, even intriguing, but it's no substitute for having the real Carlos — all of him — actually present. "Carlos, don't — please don't make a decision about this right now. You're still recovering. You should … make sure you know all the consequences it would have on — on your career."
Carlos looks puzzled. "I thought you'd want me to stay."
"I do!" Cecil says automatically. He can't deny it. "I mean, I love having you here. But your job and your life are important, too. And you haven't been locked out again, all the times you've left since. Even if you did get locked out again, we'd figure something out. I could join you, just like I planned to do before, remember? If you couldn't get back in, which you probably don't even have to worry about anymore. Just … just promise me you won't make a huge decision like this without taking the time to consider all the variables? Please?"
Carlos squeezes Cecil's hand. "If it's so important to you, then I promise I'll wait. And I'll talk it over with you before I make any commitments. Or break them, I guess. Okay?"
Something about that doesn't feel quite right, but Cecil is too relieved at the general outcome to worry about specifics at the moment. "Thank you, dear Carlos."
"I should be thanking you for being so thoughtful and selfless," Carlos answers. "I keep forgetting that I … well, keep forgetting things. I'm lucky you're here to look out for me. Even though that puts you in the position of having to encourage me to — to abandon you for days on end. I just wish —"
Alarmed, Cecil reaches over and covers Carlos's mouth with his hand, but Carlos has already stopped talking. He reaches up and takes Cecil's wrist gently, kissing the palm that's pressed against his lips before tugging Cecil's hand away.
"There's a … a wish restriction, right?" he says, brow furrowed in concentration. "It's okay, I remembered that in time. But thank you again, for making sure I didn't violate it. You're always protecting me like that, and I …."
"I'm not happy I got hurt or anything like that. That headache was …." He winces even at the memory. "Unpleasant, and I miss doing science, and it's frustrating that it's so hard to remember things clearly. And I know this has all been very upsetting for you. But … I feel like it's made me slow down and really pay attention to you. To us. I think — I don't know for sure because there's so much I can't remember, but the evidence suggests that my priorities have been all out of order. That I've been taking you for granted. Being away from you so much, neglecting the shopping — it's obvious I need to make some changes. No rash decisions, I promise, and I'll definitely talk everything over with you, but at least I see there's a problem now. I'm just sorry we had to go through all this to make me understand."
Cecil knows he should say something, but the right response escapes him. They have been having problems, but putting all the blame for them on Carlos's priorities is unfair. Carlos is far too willing to take all the blame, to abandon his career and family, to make Cecil the center of his world.
To offer Cecil everything he's ever selfishly wished for, pre-restriction. But he couldn't have caused this … right?
The growing silence is abruptly broken by the declaration anything you want, you got it.
Carlos glances over at his phone, looking puzzled but faintly pleased, before returning his attention to Cecil. "Anyway, for now, don't worry about the food shopping. I should be fine soon, and I can take care of it then."
Cecil firmly shoves down his apprehension. Yes, Carlos's behavior is growing suspiciously similar to what it might have been if Cecil had made a wish. Yes, audio surveillance can't catch every form of wish. Yes, magical screening wouldn't necessarily detect a brief but potentially disastrous proximity to a monkey's paw. But as the old saying goes, "If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck … you should not be so quick to jump to conclusions."
Even if those conclusions are less a jump away than a large step. Large-ish. Well … no. No, Cecil is not going to worry about this right now. He's going to focus on — on whatever they're actually talking about right now. Shopping! Yes, they're talking about shopping. Which is usually one of Carlos's responsibilities, so it's perfectly normal for him to be offering to handle it soon.
But soon doesn't get them food now. "We're out of almost everything. I can at least pick up the basics." Cecil doesn't have much enthusiasm for the prospect; Carlos took over most of their shopping for a reason. Okay, multiple reasons, primarily his pickiness about produce and his unusually strong ability to resist vast-bulk discounts. But they really need at least some food in the house and Cecil can certainly manage.
"It's inefficient to make two trips," Carlos points out. "We've been doing okay so far. We can just keep having take-out for another day or two."
"Are you sure?" Carlos is a little bit of a food snob, much as Michelle Nguyen is a little bit of a trend snob. He accepts the necessity and convenience of take-out, but he usually gets tired of it quickly and his standards are very high. "We're running out of places to order from."
"Well, that's not — there are plenty of places we haven't had recently," Carlos says. "Big Rico's. Arby's. Gino's — well, maybe they don't have a take-out menu, but Applebee's. Jerry's Tacos —"
Cecil nearly sprays him with mediocre coffee.
"Oh, that's right, you really like them," Carlos says, somehow misinterpreting startled shock as interest. "We could have that for dinner tonight. That's one meal down right there."
Cecil wipes his mouth distractedly, staring at Carlos. "You hate Jerry's Tacos." Even that is an understatement. Carlos detests Jerry's Tacos. He loathes Jerry's Tacos. He has lamented that his pesky ethics, in combination with his respect for what he considers Cecil's occasional need for and right to terrible junk food, won't allow him to "accidentally" disintegrate Jerry's Tacos. And then fall backwards into the resulting dust to make dust-Erikas.
"They're not that bad," Carlos says. He doesn't even look like he has to force the words out. "I mean, I really do think I make the same dishes better, and you deserve to have the best food, but you deserve to take it easy, too. It's just one meal. I'm sure it'll be fine." He smiles with easy confidence.
Carlos's phone notes the arrival of yet another email by crooning imaginary lovers never disagree.
Cecil continues to stare at him, but he gradually realizes that Carlos is entirely sincere.
"No," Cecil says slowly. "I'll just go food shopping."
"You don't have to, cielo," Carlos protests. "It's really not that important, and you've been working so hard lately —"
"Just make a shopping list, please? A full one, and I'll pick up what I can. While you do that, I'll … get ready."
Carlos looks unhappy, but he says, "Okay," and goes to get a notepad and a marker.
Cecil heads to the bathroom to take a quick shower. He uses the brief window of privacy to get a bit of hyperventilation out of his system, because he doesn't know if Carlos is getting worse or if he's been this badly not-himself the entire time.
Forgetting he's a wizard is one thing. The topic of Jerry's Tacos is entirely another.
Once he's managed to calm down, he dresses and goes back out to the kitchen, where Carlos is hard at work on his list. Carlos greets him happily but then grows worried as he goes back and counts the number of pages he's already filled. "Maybe … maybe I could go with you?"
"It's not —" Cecil starts to say, but the tentative way Carlos spoke makes him uneasy, so he rewords. "Do you think it's safe?"
"I'm much better today," Carlos points out. "It didn't hurt when you opened the — when you parted the wards," he corrects carefully, using a scientific precision for the term he "learned" from Shakeena last night as if it's still unfamiliar. "Even though I didn't have my glasses on, so they'll be extra protection. I don't think there are any malign influences at the Ralphs, and you'd be there to keep an eye on me. We could try."
Cecil wants to argue, because he wants to wrap Carlos up and keep him safe, but the particular way Carlos is waiting for an answer … Cecil is starting to feel sick, and he can't blame it on breakfast. "You — you know you don't need my permission, right?" he asks with dismay, because that's not their relationship, at all.
"I don't want to upset you by getting hurt," Carlos says reasonably. "And you would get stuck looking after me if I did, so it affects you, so you should have a say." He sounds so, so reasonable as he offers up a degree of his autonomy that Cecil does not want.
Cecil takes a minute to put his response together very carefully. "If you know the risks and you want to come anyway, then I want you to come. If you don't, then I don't." He hopes that's the right answer. He does want to be a highly ranked consideration as Carlos makes his own decisions, but he doesn't want to be the only factor Carlos accounts for, or even the primary one.
He was wrong last night. He hadn't been overreacting at all.
What has his life come to, that Carlos is right here and yet Cecil is still desperate for a wizard to return his calls? That seeking a dangerous and likely painful truth seems preferable to ignorance?
And all the ways Carlos is different — they all come back to what Cecil wants, or once wanted, or conceivably could want in theory, even if he doesn't actually want them in practice. Walking and even quacking are one thing, but if it bites like a duck just after uttering the vast and terrible doom-quack of Hnraaq, the evil duck-god ….
Carlos grins, apparently unaware of Cecil's growing dread. "Cool." He stands and gives Cecil a quick kiss, then hands him the small sheaf of paper. "Here, you should add anything you want that I missed while I get ready."
Cecil waits for him to leave the kitchen before sitting down and resting his head on the table. This situation is going very wrong and he doesn't know how to make it stop.
Wrapped around your finger, Carlos's phone sneers.
"Oh, shut up," Cecil mutters. He has enough to deal with as it is. He doesn't need unfairly accusatory and suspiciously on-point commentary from mad-science-driven electronics on top of everything else.
Carlos is careful as he leaves their apartment, but he has no problems, and they get to the store just fine. The produce section takes forever, but Cecil doesn't comment, because he doesn't want Carlos to abandon his standards and start throwing random vegetables in their cart just to try to please Cecil.
Eight people ask to touch Carlos's hair. He politely declines each time.
Carlos's phone has decided to proclaim she loves a puppet at frequent intervals throughout the produce section. Cecil twitches. He can forgive the misgendering, since he doesn't know if phones can even perceive human gender, but calling Carlos a puppet is out of line. Acknowledging the phone's commentary even once was clearly a mistake, though. He bites his tongue.
Once they're finally done with produce, they then go through each aisle, because they really do need nearly everything. The condiment aisle is a challenge, but Cecil fashions shields from cling-wrap and celery — to Carlos's rather overdone admiration — and they get through unscathed. Though part of their success may be because even ketchup respects the sanctity of the pristine white lab coat.
Carlos's phone really seems to like its latest musical selection, going deeper into the lyrics for his porch light's on but no one's home. Cecil finishes wiping a stray smear of ketchup from his knuckles and shoves his handkerchief in his pocket but says nothing. This situation isn't Cecil's fault, and it's certainly not Carlos's fault, and there's nothing they can do right now but wait and hope it gets better.
Their cart is groaning by the time they reach frozen foods. They don't spend long there, fortunately, but they do both like frozen yogurt, so they take a little time choosing flavors, which gives a ninth person a chance to ask to touch Carlos's hair. He politely declines again and the person wanders away, dejected.
Got no soul, only a haircut —
Cecil whirls. "I will flush you," he snarls.
Carlos pulls the phone from his pocket and offers it to Cecil. "Do you want to try to turn it off?" he asks anxiously. "I'm sorry it's bothering you. I don't know what's wrong with it. I tried, but it won't stay off."
Cecil is tempted, but he doesn't trust himself not to destroy the thing. Well, try to, anyway; it's alarmingly durable, and he's not sure he's prepared for how it might respond. "It's fine," he says instead. "Are we done? Can we go?"
"Sure," Carlos says, still clearly worried. He pokes at the phone a few times, rapidly but seemingly at random, and drops it back in his pocket. "This should be nearly everything, anyway. Enough to get us through for a while."
Together they wrestle the cart to the checkout, despite its increasingly irritated groans. Getting through the checkout then takes another forever. It doesn't help that Carlos pauses in the middle of unloading items for scanning to rip open a loaf of potato bread and shove a couple of slices into his pocket. "Nothing!" he says with a nervous grin, moving his hand around in his pocket like he's wadding the bread around his phone. "Nothing at all! Everything's fine."
Cecil still heard most of the faint dullard strung on the wire before it was muffled, but Carlos is trying so hard. Cecil thanks Carlos, takes another slice of the bread and feeds it to the cart to pacify it since the loaf is already open now, and goes back to unloading.
They eventually get through checkout and then loading the car, where Carlos drops his still-sandwiched phone into one of the bags just before they close the trunk. Once they get home, Carlos takes that bag in first and stashes the phone in the freezer while they put everything else away. Cecil thinks he should probably urge Carlos not to risk damaging his phone, but … it's been through worse, and he's feeling vindictive, so he doesn't.
With everything finally in place, Cecil sprawls on the couch. After a few minutes Carlos comes over and sits sideways next to him. He takes Cecil's hand and starts massaging it gently. "You okay?"
Cecil closes his eyes and just grunts, because … just … ugh, but Carlos waits patiently, so he summons the energy to answer in words. "Bad mood. Sorry."
"I'll take care of the shopping next time," Carlos offers.
That's not really the problem, or at least not most of the problem, but it's nice of him to offer. Cecil thanks him and tries to focus on that instead of, well, everything else.
A few minutes later, Carlos asks, "Have you thought about lunch?"
"I was thinking we could … maybe we could go to Big Rico's," Carlos says. That tentative note is back. "And then, do you think I could — sorry," he amends when Cecil flinches. "I mean, I'd — I'd like to try to go back to work after lunch. I mean, if the other scientists are going to be keeping an eye on me anyway, they might as well do it there, right? And I should still be able to get back in time to have dinner ready by the time you get home."
It's not a terrible plan. Whatever is wrong with Carlos doesn't seem to be related to any kind of feedback or irritation from the wards at the labs, and given that, it's probably about as safe as home, especially since he has to be getting restless by now.
Cecil opens his eyes to look at Carlos, who is watching him with hope and love and a deep contentment. "Do you want me to talk to Dr. Renegade with you? Maybe we can get her to waive those post-incident requirements."
"We'll see." Carlos doesn't look too worried.
Their lunch is remarkably peaceful, and Cecil finds himself in a slightly better mood by the end of it. He's still worried, of course, but he no longer feels on the imminent verge of shattering into millions of fragments and swirling out into the infinite void, scattering throughout the farthest reaches of space and time in a fundamental dissolution of identity and legal residency.
He suspects the real reason for his higher spirits is Carlos, who is in an excellent mood at the prospect of going back to work. Well, "work", at any rate. The point is he's happy, so much that he's cheering up Cecil despite everything, and Cecil knows better than to inspect gift horses too closely, for fear of attracting the attention of the government satellites controlling them.
Their civic slice-consumption duty completed for the week, they hold hands for the short walk next door to the labs. When they get there, though, Carlos lets go to straighten his lab coat. He knocks on the door and then stands back. His posture is alarmingly good, and his hands keep fiddling with the drape of the lab coat.
Master Rawhide eventually answers the door.
"Ah, it's you," he says. "Wait right here." He closes the door on them.
A short while later he opens the door again and walks outside, now wearing safety goggles and a construction helmet that is decorated with a few still-smoking scorch marks. "She's coming," he says as he walks past them, trailing the smell of burned plastic. "Good luck!"
He gets in the Sciencemobile and drives away.
A deep whump from inside the building makes its windows shake. After another couple of minutes, the door opens.
"What," says Dr. Renegade.
"I'm checking in," Carlos says. "I want to try one of the challenge questions again."
Dr. Renegade crosses her arms and raises her eyebrows. "Oh, really? Okay, surprise me."
"The force field equation," Carlos says. "I think it's a trick question, and there isn't one, because it isn't actually a force field, it's a magical ward."
Dr. Renegade studies him for several seconds. "Why? Analysis."
"Because I felt better inside the labs than outside, and that's the only place except for home where that's been true. We have wards at home that were shielding me, so there are probably wards around the labs as well. That would explain why Cecil expected me to get worse when we left the labs. And I couldn't come up with any models to generate an actual force field with science."
"Nice try," she says flatly. "But I've replicated the wards before with technology, so there's at least one potential equation."
Carlos wilts, crestfallen.
Dr. Renegade glances over at Cecil, clearly disturbed that Carlos isn't plastering on a grin and pretending everything's fine. Cecil returns her look with one that says I know and you see what I'm dealing with? and please for the love of the imperfect heavens give him something to focus on for a while that isn't me so he'll remember there are other things he cares about.
It occurs to him too late that she may only have a rudimentary knowledge of Speaking Looks and so may not have gotten all of that, but to his relief she gets enough to sigh and yield. "But I don't actually know the full equation for the magical version yet, and that's what's up now, so I guess you pass," she says, moving so she's not blocking the doorway. "Come on in. Get out of the psychic hailstorm for a while, at least."
Passing through the wards is very nearly as unpleasant as it was on Valentine's Day, and Carlos makes a face. "Ours are better," he whispers to Cecil, smugly. Cecil is torn between pleasure at the sentiment and dismay that Carlos still clearly doesn't recognize his own hand in both sets of wards.
"Why are —" Dr. Renegade starts sharply, but then she carefully adjusts her tone to something more neutral. "What brings you here? Work, daycare, or other?"
Carlos straightens again. "Work, if that's allowed. And other, actually. Sorry, but … would you mind fixing this again?" He works a cloth bundle out of his pocket and hands it to her.
Dr. Renegade just stares at the bundle. "What is this, and what do you want it to do?"
"Oh! It's my phone."
"You kids these days and your fancy phone cases," Dr. Renegade says. She sets the bundle on the nearest table and unwinds the scarf to reveal a dishtowel, and then unwraps the dishtowel to reveal a cloth napkin, and then unfolds the cleverly tucked cloth napkin to reveal a sock, and then shakes the phone out of the sock.
Cecil now has a much clearer picture of at least one reason why their lunch was so peaceful.
"Hooray, something else going wrong," Dr. Renegade mutters as she puts the phone in her own pocket. She raises her voice — not in anger, as would be normal for her, but just to a comfortable average-threat-level volume. "Okay. Let's get you set up first."
She leads them to Carlos's office. "Sit." Once Carlos does, she leaves for a moment and comes back carrying a large amount of paper. She slaps the first thick packet down in front of Carlos. "Assessment. Go through this first. When you're done with that, turn it in, then start working through these." She drops the much larger pile of papers on the corner of the desk.
Carlos squirms with guilt. "I didn't study," he admits, as if he's confessing to a reckless dereliction of duty.
Dr. Renegade covers her face with one hand for a moment, then says, "That's why it's an assessment, not an exam. I just need to know what you've retained so I know what you can work on."
Carlos relaxes, huffing a quick sigh of relief.
"What's your phone doing that needs fixing?" she asks.
"It won't stay off, and it won't stay quiet," Carlos says. "It's being really disruptive."
"Really disruptive," Cecil agrees, though he regrets saying anything when Carlos gives him a look of unhappy apology.
Dr. Renegade rolls her eyes. "Bulletproof, wiz— magic-proof, and telemarketer-proof, but God forbid it's disruptive."
"I know you've done a lot of work on it already, which I really do appreciate!" Carlos tells her. His voice turns plaintive as he adds, "But it's causing problems and I just want it to stop."
Dr. Renegade opens her mouth to say something but then closes it again. After a couple of seconds she settles on saying neutrally, "I'll see what I can do. Anything else I should know about it?"
"I recorded my observations," says Carlos, passing her a handful of paper.
Dr. Renegade gives him an alarmed look. "Municipal food paste," she reads. "Persimmon Chipotle Flaky-Os, fire, bell peppers, tomatoes, jalapeños —"
Carlos patiently reaches out and flips the papers over to reveal the extensive notes he's made on the back of the shopping list.
"Oh," she says. "Good. Let me know when you're done with the assessment."
"Yes, ma'am," Carlos says. His attention is already on the first page, so he doesn't see her twitch. She jerks her head for Cecil to follow and leads the way to her own office.
She slams the door once they're both inside. "If he yes-ma'ams me about one more time …" she growls, but then she makes herself take a deep breath. "I get it, I think. You ever see him with his CO?"
Cecil shakes his head.
"Even without full introductions, it was obvious he took orders from her. Probably some part of his brain knows that whole military-hierarchy thing is missing and is trying to map it to a science context. So, lucky me, he plugs me into that slot. Ugh." She shudders and then grabs a cable from a shelf next to her desk.
Cecil slumps into a chair as she shoves her keyboard aside before connecting the cable to the phone and then her computer emphatically. "I know what you mean," he says, glum again.
She pauses to study him briefly. "What."
Cecil isn't sure how to explain. "I just want the rest of him back," he says instead.
"So say we all." She retrieves her keyboard and slams it back into position. "Okay, tell me what's really going on with this phone."
"Me?" He's flattered to be asked, but …. "I'm — I'm not a trained scientific observer. I didn't take any notes."
"Maybe not, but Carlos is way off his baseline and I already know your observational biases. You're a journalist. Journalize."
Cecil tells her as much as he can remember as she pokes at the phone and computer and occasionally swears under her breath. She already knows it's been playing song clips for notifications, though, and that really doesn't sound that bad out of context, so he has to explain the context, and then he's telling her about the entire dispiriting morning.
She whistles when he gets to the frozen-foods aisle. "Dissing the hair? To Cecil?" she says, nudging the phone with a capped marker. "That's playing with fire." She glances up at Cecil. "I'm actually surprised it's still in one piece."
"Multiple pieces didn't seem likely to improve the situation," he points out. She concedes the point and lets him finish.
"So you think he only went back to making his own decisions … to make you happy," she determines. "Ouch. You know — he's not being a wizard, which was definitely a complication between the two of you. He's trying to stay here for you. He's trying to restructure his life around you. And you seem pretty miserable about it. You do know that sounds an awful lot like a textbook monkey's paw situation, right?"
Cecil sags. "I know, but I don't see how it could be. I don't remember wishing for anything at all in weeks, and I passed all the screenings! Well, they said I passed. Well, the first screener hummed in A-flat, and the second screener flapped up-and-down instead of back-and-forth, and the third spun widdershins. It's not as if I could cheat on those tests; I'm no practitioner. But …." He gestures aimlessly but hopelessly. "I don't know what else could do this to Carlos, either."
"I've already given you my speculations," Dr. Renegade says. "It still could be something unrelated."
She pokes at the phone for a few more seconds and then apparently sets it to process something, because she pushes it aside but leaves it connected to her computer. She opens a drawer and pulls out some kind of science device, setting it on her desk with a far heavier thud than its toaster-oven size would suggest, and then retrieves a bouquet of screwdrivers from another drawer.
"I have another possibility," she says as she removes several screws from the device. "You're going to hate it."
It's uncommonly kind of her to warn him. Cecil braces himself. "Go on."
"You know about that thing where your radio show follows him around, right?"
"You mean the Doom of the Voice of Night Vale?" Cecil asks, careful to keep his voice low. The curse is an old one, but it hasn't been relevant in years. He was unpleasantly surprised to discover that Carlos was under it.
She gives him a look. "… Right. So wasn't that originally supposed to kill him? Or destroy him as an enemy of the City Council or something?"
Cecil squirms. She's right that he hates this topic. "Yes," he says slowly.
"But it didn't."
"Well, Leonard didn't complete that assignment, on account of his ambiguous termination," Cecil says. "I struck out that duty clause from my contract when I signed on as host, so it was just … suspended, I guess."
"So maybe that's taking effect now — not killing him," she adds hastily, probably in reaction to Cecil's expression, "but destroying the City Council's wizard enemy by erasing that part of him or something."
"It doesn't work that way," Cecil says. "It doesn't have the power to do that on its own. And even if it did, why would that happen now, after all this time?"
"Time doesn't work here," she points out. "With or without Carlos getting involved. I still can't even work out how long your show is — every time I try to measure it directly, my timers turn into exotic spiders. I've started getting nasty messages from the Tarantula Civic Association accusing me of abetting illegal immigration." She scowls at her device and grabs a different screwdriver to pry at a panel.
"My show?" Cecil repeats, mystified. "You could just ask me. It's as long as it needs to be."
"Wow, that's exactly what I expected and yet spectacularly unhelpful. Anyway. Don't try to tell me you don't have some kind of power — you can pacify a mob by randomly imposing 'the weather' on them, and you occasionally get ahead of yourself and report things literally as they're happening, without bothering to leave your studio. That curse made sure your show was glued to Carlos, so I suspect that whatever power you have is what was supposed to take care of the actual killing part, acting through your show. Yes?"
Cecil clears his throat. "We … really shouldn't be talking about this."
She waves a hand. "Our whole team is allowed to discuss Forbidden Topics up to Class Three as long as we clearly confine them to scientific hypotheses. Which this absolutely is."
Cecil actually just meant that it's gauche to talk about these things, not Forbidden, but she's relentless in the pursuit of scientific understanding, so he gives in. "Yes," he says carefully. "A practitioner on the City Council lays the curse, but that just makes its targets vulnerable. Carrying out the sentence was part of Leonard's contract. It's not part of mine." After Leonard left his position so abruptly and … vividly, Cecil managed to get the requirement to terminate the City Council's curse victims stricken from his own contract before he put blood to parchment, because he wasn't interested in their politics and he certainly didn't want to go the way Leonard did that time.
The position of the Voice of Night Vale comes with a power beyond simple personal or political influence. That power works in frequency and resonance, in sound and silence; he has a measure of direct access to it, but it's most effective through NVCR's equipment. Cecil actually knows little about its scope and limits, station management guarding that knowledge jealously, but as far as he's concerned, it's just another journalistic tool. As a radio host, he's most effective if he can give relevant, up-to-date information. He's never been interested in using the power of community radio for sinister purposes; he just wants to use it to serve Night Vale.
"Could you, though, if you wanted?" Dr. Renegade asks. "Actually … you know. Carry out the sentence. On Carlos."
He's so unused to her showing a degree of delicacy that it takes him a moment to realize what she's asking. Then he's outraged. "I would never —"
"Okay!" She raises her hands, placating. "Not accusing, just asking. Take it easy."
Cecil sits back, but he insists, "I would never hurt Carlos."
"I believe you. I don't think you would … intentionally. But what — hang on," she says when he tries to protest again. "Like I said, I'm just hypothesizing about that old curse. What if —"
She takes a deep breath.
"What if there was a monkey's-paw contamination somewhere that cleared up before it could be detected? Or even one that the city officials didn't publicize? That curse didn't just disappear, if it's been making your show follow him around all this time, waiting for the sentence to be carried out. If your power — if the power of the Voice of Night Vale had some kind of cross-reaction with a monkey's paw while being attached to you, maybe that was enough of a trigger to — to satisfy the curse on him, even though you didn't mean it to. So he's all 'perfectly perfect non-wizard boyfriend' and that doesn't actually make you happy."
And there goes Cecil's confidence — not with a bang but a whimpered quack — that this situation can't be one he somehow caused. She's right that magical forces can interact unpredictably, even disastrously, and … and her suggestion fits perfectly.
The worst part is that she doesn't sound angry or even cruel about the possibility that Cecil is to blame.
Cecil isn't bound to power anyone's curses. If he's going to harm anyone with the power of community radio, it will be because he wants to. He would never, ever use that power against Carlos … but he can't be entirely certain that power is completely under his control. Or, more importantly, completely under his conscious control. Wishes don't have to be spoken, after all; that's just the easiest way to provide the requisite levels of intent and focus.
But the outstanding curse on Carlos, the Doom of the Voice of Night Vale, already is intent and focus.
"If … if you're right … that means it could be permanent. That he'll never come back."
"Maybe." She jabs at the device with the current screwdriver, testing the edges of the panel. "I don't know. It could be permanent, or it could only last until he's strong enough to fight it off. It's just another possibility to consider."
Her voice barely crosses seventy decibels; for that matter, she maintains a nearly perfect 175 hertz. Even through the fog of worry and guilt, Cecil can tell something is wrong with her attitude.
He narrows his eyes. "You seem very … calm about it." Calm is a relative term, of course, but wouldn't she be angry at Cecil specifically if she really thought this was his fault? He barely feels imperiled, even sitting here at her mercy with no witnesses. How dare she take Carlos's condition so cavalierly?
Or is this just the relative calm before a whirlwind strike of retribution?
Her jaw tightens visibly. "Yes, it's called being nice. Because I can't yell at Mr. The Scientist right now — he'd just take it and then salute me or something. It would be like kicking a puppy with nice hair. And I can't yell at you, because he'll just come running in to defend you. And then salute me. But don't think I'm calm. There's a reason everyone else happens to be working off-site today."
She levers up a corner of the stubborn panel with the screwdriver, wrenches it off, and flings it aside with such force it buries itself in the wall like a throwing star.
"He got himself tagged with that curse years before I even heard about this place, and it sounds like you at least gave him this much longer. Maybe he's been on borrowed time all along — and if so, you arranged the loan. That's … something. But if it is that old curse, your show wouldn't need to follow him around anymore, right? So I'll check on that this afternoon. Maybe we can rule it out."
"Thanks," Cecil says hollowly.
Dr. Renegade makes a face and starts to speak but then changes her mind, instead fiddling with her device in a way that makes it buzz softly for a few seconds. She applies one of her screwdrivers to adjust the frequency of the buzz up and down as she almost, but not quite, says something several times.
Then she makes the device stop its buzzing and tosses the screwdriver back in the pile. She retrieves a bundle of wires from another drawer, along with a stripping tool, and starts applying the latter to the former. "Look, I don't do relationship talks. That's Kate's thing. But you might want to take some time to think about whether you can work something out with him the way he is now, if the rest of him is gone. I mean, it's still him, kind of," she says. "It mostly looks like the role he's been playing publicly for years. I'm just not used to interacting with that facade for any length of time, and certainly not seriously. Other than the part where he's super into you, do any of us know who Carlos the Scientist even is, if there's no snarky wizard at the center of the lollipop?"
Cecil is surprised to realize that's not a rhetorical question.
Technically, the scientists have known Carlos longer than Cecil has, a quirk of happenstance and timing for which Cecil has mostly forgiven them. Their affection for Carlos is plain, and this situation is clearly just as disorienting for them as it is for Cecil. As worried as Cecil has been about Carlos, he hasn't really considered that he's not the only one who knows and misses the real Carlos, or at least the rest of him. He's not the only one suddenly having to consider how to relate to Carlos if this change is permanent.
"He still likes science," Cecil offers, since Carlos did say he missed doing that.
"Well, 'science', anyway," Dr. Renegade says, making the air quotes despite her full hands. "As for actual science, let's see how he does on that assessment before we go drawing any premature conclusions."
The words are critical, but her tone is less scathing than it is pensive, so Cecil just leaves it alone and tries to come up with what else he knows. "He still says he likes cooking, and … um …."
Dr. Renegade takes her wiring and connects parts of her gadget together while he struggles to come up with something to say about the current Carlos that isn't tied directly to himself. When he still hasn't come up with anything by the time she finishes wiring, she says, "Yeah, exactly."
They share a moment of mutual depression.
Dr. Renegade then pokes at her device with yet another screwdriver. "I wonder, sometimes, what he could have been if he hadn't gotten sucked into the whole magical warfare thing. It's easy to miss, but behind the hair and the cocky attitude and the frankly alarming combat reflexes — all of which are apparently still there, by the way, so we know that much about him — he's got a pretty sharp brain for scientific study. That 'force field' question was just supposed to be a way to check if he was back to himself, not something he was really meant to work out while he still thinks he's just a scientist. And that's not new, either — I didn't actually expect him to make as much progress as he did in all our fields when we had to crash-tutor him that first year."
Cecil is startled. "You didn't?" He knows Carlos didn't technically start out as a scientist, but — "He seemed like such an expert even from the first day."
She snorts. "Science education in Night Vale … people here wouldn't know actual science if it bit them. Sadly, they wouldn't be surprised if something claiming to be science bit them. And you were so dazzled by his looks, he could have read out a Twilight novel in Latin and you would have thought it was cutting-edge scientific research." Her computer chimes, so she turns back to it and then starts poking at the phone again. "But Carlos — there's a reason I hired him to handle our public interactions. He puts up a good front, and he really sells what he does know, and he's disturbingly good at misdirection. But then you turn around and he actually knows more of what he's talking about than you expect, a little deeper each time. If he hadn't dropped out of high school …."
Cecil suspects she actually represents what Carlos might have been, under very different circumstances. He didn't miss the significance of Carlos's plan to specialize in practical theoretical physics. But if Carlos hasn't told Dr. — hasn't told Julie he wants to be like her, it's not Cecil's place to say it.
"He told me he's wanted to be a Warden ever since he found out what they were, when he was a child," Cecil tells her instead. "Even if there hadn't been a war — or wars, really — he was always planning to protect people with his magic." He uses Carlos's phrasing for that, because he's gotten really tired of the common wisdom about the Wardens of the White Council lately.
"Pity," she says. "Then again, he'd die of boredom if he landed in straight research. As much as he criticizes other people for being adrenaline junkies, he's probably the biggest one of all."
She unplugs the phone from her computer and hands it to Cecil.
"It looks fine. Right now it's set to a basic ring for calls, a simple chime for texts, no sound for other app notifications. I can't promise it'll stick, but it should." She raises her voice slightly. "Even if it was smart enough to have its own opinions about this situation, that would mean it's smart enough to realize this city is really not friendly to sapient electronics and so it shouldn't go around calling attention to itself. Or casting blame without evidence, or just piling on confusion and stress for someone it presumably wants to help. Because those would all be good ways to end up on the wrong end of a coffee hammer, or left to rot at the bottom of Radon Canyon."
The phone doesn't react, which Cecil hopes is a good sign. He tucks it in his pocket and then, after a brief hesitation, pulls out his own phone and brings a picture up on the screen. "He was planning to be a Warden even when he was very young, but before that …."
She takes his phone to look at the picture of little first-grade Carlos in his adorable little lab coat, clutching his cunning little science tools. Her face twists. "This is unbelievably cute and I hate it." She hands his phone back. "When Carlos is better, send me a copy. There may be photo badges in our future."
The picture is a little outdated, but it is a good likeness. "Okay." Cecil starts to put his phone away, but it feels hotter than it should, so he sets it to reboot first.
"Good. Now scram. You're on your way to work? I'll keep an eye on him, and I'll let you know if anything comes up."
Cecil thanks her and heads back to Carlos.
Carlos seems deeply absorbed in his assessment, but he glances up as soon as Cecil reaches the doorway, and he sets his marker down when he recognizes Cecil. "You're headed to work now?"
"I am," Cecil agrees. He still has a little more time, but he doesn't think he can bear to stay right now, knowing this could all be his fault. He gives Carlos his phone back, explaining the current settings. He has to raise his voice towards the end as an irregular banging noise starts up from one of the labs.
Carlos thanks him, disregarding the banging with the casual ease of long practice, and they kiss goodbye. "Have a good show, precioso." Carlos reaches over to pat the little radio on his desk and brightly promises, "I'll be listening!"
He's so eager to expose himself to the very power that hollowed him out and unmade him and that — that hurts.
Cecil forces an empty answering smile and hurriedly leaves for the radio station.
Cecil is surprised by just how many text and voice messages he has when he checks his phone during the weather. He reads the ones from Dr. Renegade first (Results inconclusive — couldn't get him away from radio but purple noise levels consistent is first, followed by Making him stay here — pick him up when you're done DEPRESSING EVERYONE wth) and then checks the rest.
There are still a few left when his phone starts burning. That's not a big deal, because the fire extinguisher is handy, but it's strange, because this model has been much better about not catching on fire than his last one. Especially since he stopped communicating with anyone in the desert otherworld within the Dog Park. He doesn't think he's that close to the upgrade window, but he'll have to check later.
He wipes the residue from the phone's screen once the fire is out, but he's going to have to reset it, and the weather sounds like it's wrapping up. He doesn't need to check those last few messages right now anyway. He gets the idea. He goes back on the air with an awkward chuckle and assures his listeners, and especially his friends among his listeners, that he's fine. That sometimes he might get a little glum or nihilistic, but the vast uncaring universe will be entirely unaffected and they'll all be forgotten in a million years, so any setbacks or worries or passing moods of the moment ultimately amount to nothing.
He tosses in a heartwarming list of matriphagic insects and arachnids, even though he'd planned to save that for Mother's Day. It'll be just as charming a second time, he's sure, and he wants to end his show on an upbeat note.
Carlos is mostly in a good mood when Cecil picks him up, but something has him distracted. He grumbles about not having been able to get dinner ready, so Cecil thinks that's all it is at first, because he gets more animated when he moves on to complaining about the intricacies of nuclear physics for the rest of the ride home.
But he gets a little distant again as he throws together a quick yet surprisingly elaborate dinner, something he calls "a stroganoff-inspired experiment". He refuses to take off the glasses or even the lab coat the entire time, with a determination that leaves Cecil hoping he doesn't plan to sleep in them.
Once they're seated and eating, Carlos gets to talking about Dr. Renegade's research into the intersection of technology and magic. It sounds interesting enough, but there's an edge to his voice that grows sharper as he goes on.
"She's very good," Carlos says. "She's brilliant. She's kept all of us alive this whole time in Night Vale, which is probably some kind of record. But she … she …."
There's nothing that mushroom could possibly have said or done to him to justify how hard he stabs it.
"She has this bizarre idea she'll make better progress if she's correlating her research with — with a wizard," he spits out finally.
"There must be any number of minor practitioners here, reasonable people, but no, that's not good enough!" he exclaims. "Just because she's at the top of her field, she assumes she can only work with someone who managed to get approved under some arbitrary and biased ranking system from a clearly corrupt organization."
That's just the start of a very long rant in which Carlos passionately espouses every negative opinion, stereotype, supposition, and unsupported accusation about wizards Cecil has ever heard. It all sounds depressingly judgmental and hostile, piled together like that. Carlos seems particularly affronted about the secrecy, sneakiness, and duplicity he seems to think are practically job requirements, and wow does he ever have a lot to say on the topic of decapitations. Cecil numbly thinks he should ask for Carlos's sources sometime, because even he hasn't heard some of these criticisms before.
"— any accountability, and — Cecil?"
Maybe it's a good sign that it took him this long to notice that Cecil has stopped eating, and has put his utensils down, and is letting his hands toy with the napkin in his lap. At least Carlos isn't entirely focused on pleasing Cecil above all else. Maybe even unwitting self-loathing has an upside.
"Carlos …" he tries, but he has nothing.
"Oh! I've been — I'm sorry. I shouldn't have taken over the conversation so much — and with such an awful topic, too. I didn't mean to ruin dinner for you. We can talk about something else. Your show was —"
"I've met wizards," Cecil says quietly.
"Oh, Cecil." Carlos uses the tone of futile outrage most people would reserve for discussing a librarian encounter at the very least. "I'm so sorry."
"No? But —"
"They were good people," Cecil says. "One helped defend Night Vale in a mighty battle against — against ghouls." As well as against another wizard (who happened to be a version of Carlos) allied with a vampire, he does not say, because that won't help his case at all. "Another was very distinguished, and … terrifying, really, but in a good way, and helping save people from evil, shape-shifting sea monsters even in retirement." Cecil doesn't dare say anything more specific about Carlos's own bisabuela for fear of triggering another psychic reaction. "And one …."
One is beautiful, and amazing, and perfectly imperfect, and I love him. And he's sitting across from me but he's not there, and I miss him so much —
"One has been protecting Night Vale for years," he says instead.
Carlos gives him a skeptical look. "If this is what being protected looks like, maybe Night Vale would be better off without it."
The casual, contemptuous dismissal of his own hard work and dedication, of everything he has been through defending the residents of Night Vale, feels like a knife in Cecil's chest.
Seeing his expression, Carlos raises his hands, yielding. "Okay, bad subject. I really am sorry I brought it up. We can talk about something else." He reaches over and squeezes Cecil's hand, his irritation at wizards crossfading to concern for Cecil. "Like your show. Are … are you okay? Because you sounded a lot better after the weather, but I was pretty worried about you before that, and you're not eating now."
Cecil makes himself start eating again. The food really is quite good, as it always is when Carlos cooks. It would be swell if he could care about that. "I'm fine," he says dully, remembering every single time he'd resented hearing that from Carlos when it was patently not true. "It's just been a very stressful week."
"Well, I'm cleared for desk work, so you can worry less about me, at least," Carlos offers. "And if there's anything I can do, you'll tell me, right?" His eyes are anxious behind the glasses.
Come back. Be yourself again. "I will," Cecil lies.
Cecil insists on washing the dishes after dinner, not because he wants to, but because he's tired of feeling like he's not doing his part. Carlos looks like he wants to protest but can't find an excuse. After a few minutes he slips his arms around Cecil from behind and offers to help, at least. When Cecil turns down both the assistance and the groping, he wilts a little but accepts the rejection, taking one of his textbooks into the den.
When the dishes are finally done, Cecil braces himself at the prospect of joining Carlos in the den. He can't say exactly why he's so uneasy, because he's confident Carlos won't risk upsetting him by talking about wizards again, but the casual ease he usually feels during a night in with Carlos is stubbornly absent. Lacking anything else to suggest — besides doing laundry, which he's not nearly desperate enough to resort to yet — he dishes out some frozen yogurt and takes that along.
He thought — or possibly hoped — Carlos might keep reading, but the book is closed as soon as Cecil sits down. Carlos watches him with a growing intensity, so Cecil keeps his eyes on his own dessert, trying to soothe his throat, which is aching with unsaid words. Unfortunately, that means he has nothing to do once he's finished, since Carlos has dazedly gotten through only about half of his own portion.
In desperation he opens Carlos's book, but he promptly closes it again. Nothing with that many graphs can possibly be safe to read without training.
Carlos apparently surprises himself with a yawn.
"Did you nap at all today?" Cecil asks, because that's a safe topic.
Carlos shakes his head, still mid-yawn.
"You should probably get to bed soon, then," Cecil says. "Shakeena said rest should help you recover faster."
Carlos looks exasperated but just says, "If you really think I should, then okay."
Cecil should be getting used to that by now, but he's not. Uncomfortable, he stands and reaches to take Carlos's bowl. Carlos hastily shoves the remaining frozen yogurt into his mouth and then makes strange faces as he tries to swallow it without giving himself brain freeze. Cecil can't help finding that adorable, despite his discomfort, but he doesn't want to give Carlos an excuse to put off going to bed, so he makes himself take the dishes to the kitchen.
Cecil goes ahead and washes them, too, because while he trusts Carlos with his life and his heart, he doesn't trust him not to wash the damn dishes if he gets half a chance. When he finishes with that, he turns to find Carlos waiting for him, too many things in his expression to piece out.
"Bed?" Carlos asks quietly.
Cecil doesn't have a good reason not to, so he agrees. He can at least make sure Carlos actually gets to sleep. He lets Carlos get through his bathroom tasks first and then takes his time brushing his teeth. When he gets to the bedroom, Carlos has finally taken off the lab coat and changed into his typical, ruthlessly practical, might-have-to-rush-into-danger-at-any-moment night clothing, which is to say he has shed his outer layers and now is in a t-shirt and boxers.
Cecil grabs the first comfortable sleepwear he finds — rhinegraves and a tube top — and changes. Carlos is watching him from the bed, still wearing the glasses, so Cecil points out he should take them off to make sure they don't get damaged. Carlos agrees and takes them off, though he doesn't look happy about it.
Cecil turns off the lights and lies down. He relaxes and breathes evenly, hoping to encourage Carlos to sleep, but it isn't long before Carlos's hand is caressing Cecil's chest, and then Carlos is much closer, gently seeking a kiss.
Cecil accepts briefly but then draws back with a sigh. "I'm … really tired," he says.
Carlos immediately stops and pulls back, but his, "… Okay," is puzzled and uncertain. He shifts around to curl against Cecil. "Is this all right?"
Cecil goes ahead and draws Carlos into one of their usual sleeping arrangements, because he wants the closeness too, much more than he doesn't. "This is fine," he confirms.
It's hard to explain, even to himself, why this is as far as he's willing to go right now. It's not as if he's not still interested in Carlos physically, and it's been too long since they've had the chance to do more than make out on the couch.
But anything more feels wrong, somehow. It feels like … like cheating on Carlos.
Dr. Renegade is right that, while part of Carlos is gone, much of Carlos is still here. The Doom of the Voice of Night Vale was designed to be a killing curse, so Carlos and Cecil are both unimaginably blessed that even this much of Carlos remains. Maybe, eventually, that will be enough. Maybe the relationship they build based on who they both are now will even be much like the one they had before.
But right now, all Cecil can see is a distorted image of himself — his own desires and preferences, his own former prejudices, his own old ideas of a perfect partner. He really hopes this isn't what his mother meant when she told him someone would kill him one day and it would involve a mirror.
He turns that possibility over in his mind a few times, but he can't find it in himself to believe in it. Heartbreak is rarely fatal, and metaphors weren't usually her style anyway.
Of course, Mom also used to say, "You can't learn to love others until you learn that others are fiction and that self is unreliable." Carlos is being particularly fictional now, and Cecil has rediscovered that he can't even trust himself, so maybe this is just a vital relationship stage for them.
He can't remain aloof from Carlos for long without giving him some kind of reason, and he doesn't even know if he really wants to. But for now, Cecil needs time. Time to hope, maybe, or time to grieve, or just time to accept, but time.
He lies in the dark, listening to Carlos gradually slipping into sleep.
Cecil isn't sure when he fell asleep himself, but he's startled out of it when Carlos flails awake. The room is bright, impossibly bright, so bright Cecil's still-waking brain first thinks the old StrexCorp has somehow brought their Smiling God into the bedroom. At that thought Cecil flails right back at Carlos, latching onto his arm, because he couldn't possibly endure another year-long separation.
Then the overworked bedside lamps and ceiling light explode, plunging the room back into near-total darkness. Cecil has just a moment to be glad of the measures they've taken to prevent glass from flying around the room in cases like this, but then Carlos makes a despairing noise that sends Cecil diving to light one of the room's several emergency candles. "Carlos? What is it?"
Carlos is sitting up, in a manner of speaking. He's clutching the sheets desperately, and his breathing is harsh, rapid. Whatever he's seeing, it's not in the room with them.
Cecil carefully reaches across to touch his arm again and then his cheek, as a test. When Carlos doesn't reflexively knock him away either time, he moves around to kneel on the bed in front of Carlos, taking his face in both hands. "Carlos, you're okay. You're at home. You're with me. You're all right." He continues the simple, calming litany, calling Carlos back.
Carlos usually responds pretty predictably to nightmares. For mild ones, he just snuggles in more closely and goes back to sleep. For stronger ones, he apologizes for waking Cecil and then goes to another room to exercise for a while or read for the rest of the night. For particularly upsetting ones, he apologizes, grabs some weapons, and goes out on patrol. (His response to scheduled communal nightmares is to be out of town.) It's rare for him to get lost inside himself like this. Most of the few times Cecil can bring to mind were shortly after he came back from the desert otherworld.
Carlos starts shivering, so Cecil takes a moment to wrap the blanket around him, talking the entire time. Carlos's eyes finally start to focus. "Ce-Cecil?"
"I'm here," Cecil assures him. "You're all right."
Carlos shakes his head. "No, th-there … teeth, and I — I can't — can't —" His expression crumples and Cecil hastily pulls him into a hug, trying to help ground him.
Carlos clings for a minute, but then he starts shaking harder. "Light, please, light, it's — it's dark —"
Cecil gives him a quick squeeze and lets go to light the rest of the candles. The combination still isn't very bright, but Carlos looks a little less freaked out, so Cecil leaves the room long enough to turn on the hall and den lights, as well. They spill into the bedroom, bringing the light level there all the way up to murky.
Cecil goes back to the bed and carefully sits next to Carlos. "Is that better?" Carlos doesn't try to answer, and he's staring at the doorway fixedly, so Cecil tries, "Do you want to go out into the den?"
Carlos nods jerkily, so Cecil helps him untangle himself from the sheets and blankets and guides him out to the couch. Carlos lies down and promptly curls up, staring into the middle distance. Cecil brought the blanket along and covers him with it, but Carlos is still shivering, so he goes back to the bedroom, snuffs the candles, and grabs another blanket and a quilt from the closet.
He hesitates before piling them on. "Do you want me to join you? Or would that be worse?"
Carlos takes a few seconds to answer, and when he does, all he says is, "Cold," small and miserable and hopeless.
Cecil decides to listen to his instincts. The couch really is too narrow for this, but he gently encourages Carlos to shift forward, toward the front edge of the couch, and then carefully wedges himself between Carlos and the back of the couch. When Cecil starts piling the blankets on top of both of them, Carlos squirms his way into Cecil's body heat, which is a better answer than he managed in words. Once the blankets are settled, Cecil wraps his arms around Carlos as well to give him that much more warmth, and Carlos relaxes a fraction.
Cecil realizes far, far too late that bringing a distressed wizard into the den for the light probably should have just made that light blow out, too, but the power remains reassuringly, frustratingly steady for the rest of the night.