Shortly after sunrise, the couch abandons any pretense of being big enough and Carlos slides off. Startled, he reflexively rolls into a defensive crouch, but after a few seconds of cautious assessment he realizes he's not under attack. Once he notices Cecil watching, he straightens, quickly tucks the blankets back around Cecil, and kisses him on the forehead. "Go back to sleep, querido." His tone is loving but distant, and he doesn't wait for a response before heading to the bedroom.
Back would require Cecil to have been sleeping in the first place. He was dozing at most, caught between worry and discomfort as tightly as he was between Carlos and the couch. But he doesn't feel especially motivated to get up, either, so he closes his eyes again.
Carlos emerges from the bedroom after a couple of minutes, and he's soon chopping something in the kitchen. Sleep remains elusive and Cecil is too warm anyway, so he gets up.
The apartment is filled with a subdued air of quiet fragility. Cecil briefly wonders if the feelings delivery service has been by, but this isn't really esoteric enough to be theirs. Their brand is — or would be if they had one — focused on rarified specialization, avoiding anything that might prompt accusations of impersonal, mass-market cheapness. Besides, this feels home-crafted.
Carlos is steadily dicing a variety of vegetables. He's dressed and has his fake glasses on, but at least he isn't already wearing the lab coat, though he has brought that out of the bedroom and draped it carefully over the back of a chair. Even though he's not showing off, his knife work has always been very good, and Cecil just watches his hands for a bit, appreciating his skill.
When Carlos finishes dicing the last pepper, he sets down the knife but doesn't turn. "I think you might still have time if you want to go back to bed," he says, his voice dull.
He looks so alone. Cecil goes over to him and offers a hug. Carlos is hesitant as he accepts, but as soon as he's actually folded into the hug, he settles into it gratefully.
They stand that way for a couple of minutes before Carlos mumbles, "Thank you," into Cecil's shoulder. "For last night."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Cecil asks.
Carlos shakes his head, one sharp twist of refusal. That's a little uncomfortable since he still has his head tucked against Cecil's shoulder and his glasses aren't exactly soft, but neither of them wants to let go.
"Okay," Cecil says, before Carlos can second-guess his honest reaction in a misguided attempt to find an answer he might think Cecil will like better.
After another minute or two of nearly comfortable silence, Carlos speaks again, venturing each word as cautiously as a new intern would choose their steps across the minefield in front of the filing cabinets. "Cecil? I'm … I don't …."
When he doesn't continue, Cecil starts to draw back, concerned, but Carlos tightens his hold, as if he needs the protection of their embrace for the words he's trying to produce, as if those words won't survive exposure even to their homey kitchen.
Once Cecil settles down, Carlos says quietly, "I know something's wrong. And you don't — you don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. But I'm — I'm trying —"
"I know," Cecil says. "Oh, my darling, diligent Carlos, I know. I'm sorry I can't tell you everything, but please don't think you aren't trying hard enough." If anything, they have the opposite problem. Part of the tension between them, Cecil thinks, is from the sheer effort Carlos is exerting. "You could try less," he suggests.
Carlos makes a soft sound that doesn't have the energy to be a chuckle. "I don't know how."
And that is so exactly, precisely, entirely Carlos that Cecil draws back just far enough to kiss him.
They rest their foreheads together after, just breathing.
"We'll get through this," Cecil says finally. It's more hope than it is knowledge or even confidence, but like any other human magic, love requires belief. "It's going to be difficult, I think. I'm sorry for the ways it's hard for you. I'm sorry for the ways I'm making it hard for you. I don't know how long it will be, or who we'll be when we get there. But I love you, and that will never change." He's certain of that much, no matter what portion or fraction of Carlos he's allowed. "We'll get through this." He considers for a second and then adds, "Unless we all die horribly first, forcing us into breach of our recklessly made promises and obligations, of course."
That startles a short laugh from Carlos. "Of course," he agrees. He kisses Cecil once more before finally pulling away. "I need to start the omelets before the eggs try to hatch."
"Oh, that rarely ever happens," Cecil says.
"Rarely? Should we check my observation logs? Because I'm pretty sure I remember Frances Donaldson having trouble with that right before Thanksgiving —"
"Well, seldom," Cecil amends. "Well … anyway, think of the excitement, from the first tremble of the shell until the moment a limb emerges to reveal which endearing or horrifying little creature is curled within. Think of the bonding opportunity from the dubiously legal household gambling on the outcome —"
"Nope," Carlos interrupts. He points a whisk at Cecil for emphasis as he declares, "No hatching in my kitchen. House rule."
His grin may be a little shaky, and in a way this is still him trying harder than he needs to, but the mood he's trying to recreate is less about pleasing Cecil individually and more about reassuring them both with a level of comfort they've built together. Cecil may not feel quite as playful as he usually would as he challenges both arbitrary revisions of the house rules and potentially colonialist flag-planting in shared territory, but that doesn't stop him from trying, too.
Cecil drops Carlos off at the labs on his way to the radio station. He stays in the car and watches to make sure Carlos gets inside safely, rather than walking him to the door and risking a conversation with one of the other scientists. Their less-than-subtle attempts to discuss wizards were probably well meant and apparently carefully done, but they weren't the ones who had to sit through the aftermath.
He spends the morning chasing down more quotes for the latest on the ketchup story. Apparently no one expected the alliance with mustard, though Cecil hasn't been able to determine why. He's always been a little suspicious of mustard himself. All that brashness had to be hiding something.
Shakeena texts him that she's picking him up for lunch, which is odd. He doesn't have any direct conflicts, though, so he heads outside at the time she indicated to find her just pulling up in her minivan.
She doesn't have any news or grand revelations; she just asks what kind of food he wants. She seems to want somewhere with a drive-thru, but she vetoes McDonald's because they keep causing traffic detours onto her street, and Cecil vetoes burger places in general because he's just not up to risking abstraction today. Shakeena starts to suggest Arby's, but when she sees his expression she retracts the idea. The idea of Taco Bell doesn't get them any further, because Carlos's opinion of them consists of well, at least they're not Jerry's Tacos, which is not a topic Cecil really wants to dwell on at the moment.
They end up at KFC, where the staff have formed the words NO CONDIMENTS on the menu board using masking tape. Then Shakeena pulls around to the back of the parking lot, turns off the engine, and starts unpacking the food.
"I got a call this morning," she says once they've sorted out their respective meals. "Carlos is worried about you. But he's afraid he's been too smothering, so he asked me to see if there's anything I can do to help you without pressuring you too much."
Cecil stops prying at his box of food, letting his head fall back against the headrest in exasperation.
"I really don't think you'd understand how weird that entire conversation was," she continues. "The regional commander of Wardens usually only calls me when there's some kind of disaster, not when he thinks his boyfriend might need an emotional intervention. But you know me, Cecil. I don't tiptoe. And he's not the only one who's worried about you. So if there's some way I can help you, tell me and I'll see what I can do. Otherwise, let's talk about bowling."
Cecil goes back to prying his box open. The industrial-grade staples are annoying, but the paperboard tears around them easily enough once he gets an edge free. "Do you know a way to —" fix isn't the word he wants "— get the rest of Carlos back yet?"
"No. I could tell you different, but I'd be lying. I still haven't even figured out what's going on with him to start with."
"Well, I haven't been able to reach anyone. Carlos's bisabuela is away on business, even though she's retired, and Harry … the number he left isn't working, and any other numbers I find for him turn out to be so old they've been reassigned to pizza parlors or people offering exciting personal encounters. Have you thought of anyone you could trust?" he asks.
"At the level we'd need? No. So you're not seeing any improvement, then?"
Cecil slouches further into his seat. "Not unless you count spending all of dinner explaining how awful wizards are as improvement. For him, I mean," he adds, because he thinks he remembers a meal or two over the years that have featured her doing exactly that. "It doesn't hurt him when the wards are parted anymore, at least. And he did blow out a few lights with a nightmare last night, but nothing after that."
"So his magic slipped through again. Was it a nightmare about wizard stuff?"
Cecil shrugs. "Something about teeth." That hardly narrows anything down, of course. Teeth are always on the Top Ten Nightmare Features list, in some fashion. Thanks to StrexCorp's ideas about interior design, they've been in the top two for the past couple of years.
"That's amazingly generic," Shakeena says, agreeing with his thoughts.
"If I pushed, he'd probably tell me," Cecil says. "Which is why I won't. I don't want to take advantage of this. Of him. He's so much less … less himself than I realized, but he knows something's wrong, and he's so stubborn about understanding things. If just a passing mention of something that might have reminded him of being a wizard left him in agony … I'm worried. I don't know if we have much time to find a way to help him more safely."
That thought doesn't help Cecil's mood.
"I know that's hard, honey, and I'm sorry. But look. We both have to get back to work pretty soon, and I didn't really come out here to talk about your boyfriend. Are you okay? Because if I find out you're actually drinking alone and crying in a quiet room …."
Cecil manages to roll his eyes despite the oppressive weight of her ominous trail-off. "That was the advice of the stars. I wasn't really doing that."
"Well, you weren't okay, either, and we all let things go too long. You have to remember that we're here. I know this thing with Carlos is hard," she continues, talking over Cecil's attempt to interrupt, "but there's always going to be some crisis or emergency or deadly peril. You have to make time for yourself, for an actual life. I know that's not always easy, but don't forget you have a lot of friends who are happy to help you with that."
Cecil sits back and sighs, keeping his eyes on the helicopters in the distance, too far away to have discernible colors. "I'll be all right. I didn't mean to worry anyone. I'm just having trouble dealing with this thing with Carlos. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if this past month or two hadn't been so rough for us. It's just hard to … to want to take care of myself when he's so determined to take care of me right now. Especially because this might actually be partly my fault."
She frowns. "You were sure it wasn't your fault just the other day. Or were you lying because we were deep inside the lair of interlopers?"
"No, I meant what I said. I really didn't think there was any way I could be to blame. But I talked to Dr. Renegade yesterday, and … there's a chance my twisted, base desires and insufficient vigilance were part of whatever happened." He eats a potato wedge gloomily.
"Recognizing our role in harming others is always rough," Shakeena tells him, patting his shoulder in bracing sympathy. "Especially if you reject the sweet comfort of denial."
Cecil nods. Believing he was blameless had been much easier. But this burden is his, and for Carlos, he'll bear it. "We'll figure something out. And I'll start making plans again when we get settled down from this, one way or another. I just need time." It's funny how that's the one thing he really wants from anyone right now, even though it isn't real. "Just … give me a little time."
Shakeena accepts that, after some skepticism. He's frustrated to be pushed about the topic when he's got other things to worry about, but he's not-so-secretly pleased at the same time, because he doesn't want a repeat of last year, either.
She's a good friend. He needs to remember he has those.
Even if she refuses to start the engine until he agrees to meet her for a pick-up bowling practice next week.
Once Cecil is back at the radio station, he closes himself in his office and assembles his show very carefully. He doesn't exactly script it, but he makes sure not to leave himself any openings to wander into the weeds of personal reflection while he's on the air. He really doesn't want to worry his friends and loved ones any more than he clearly already has.
Or inspire any of them to intervene any more forcefully, for that matter.
He has plenty of material, at least. But arranging and rearranging his outline isn't quite enough work to keep him busy all the way to the start of his show, so his thoughts inevitably turn back to Carlos. Cecil really had thought they would find a solution by now — that Shakeena would develop a magical treatment, or that Dr. Renegade would fix it with science, or that he would be able to obtain the stealthy help of one of Carlos's outsider friends.
But … they haven't. It's been several days now, and Carlos isn't getting better.
Generally speaking, Cecil has no interest in the White Council or its concerns beyond their importance to Carlos. They'll endure or they won't. Night Vale endures, sometimes because of wizards and sometimes despite them, and that's enough for him. But Carlos isn't caring about his White Council responsibilities right now, which means Cecil has to care about them on his behalf. Carlos was supposed to return to some operation or another, and whatever it was, it was important enough that his captain had to fill in for him. Even aside from that operation, Carlos is important. He would never — normally — want to disappear without his captain knowing about it.
Which means Cecil is going to have to notify her soon.
He can't help flinching at the prospect. Part of that is anticipation of how much Shakeena will yell at him, and part is instinctual. He wasn't lying to Carlos about having met wizards who also happened to be good people, but he also knows that three wizards is not a sufficient sample size (as Carlos would say) and their poor reputation locally is not only a hallmark of high-quality official propaganda. Carlos wouldn't work for anyone he didn't think was a good person, but … Carlos is delightfully imperfect, and he has his own biases when it comes to wizards.
Regardless, Cecil has learned that the hardest part of talking to wizards is apparently locating them in the first place. He still doesn't really feel like talking to the scientists right now, so he sends Dr. Renegade a text asking if she has contact information for the captain.
She gets back to him within a few minutes. Officially no, but I should be able to find a number if we decide we need it.
She quickly follows that with another text: Are we really bringing her in now?
Not yet, Cecil sends back. Just planning; will discuss. There's nothing wrong with acting on impulse, but when they had no leads on what had happened to Carlos, they had all agreed that bringing in someone from the Council was too risky. Now that they have a reasonable explanation, the risk to Night Vale itself and the rest of Carlos's friends is decreased, but he should give them time to make preparations and arm themselves suitably before he acts. That's just common courtesy.
Cecil doesn't think his power is subject to wizarding laws, but even if it is, the risk to himself is nothing if it will help Carlos. Besides, Dr. Renegade has called Carlos's captain "pretty cool", so it might not go horribly.
I'll look, Dr. Renegade answers. Meanwhile, I've modified the testing conditions to check whether your show still follows Carlos around.
That's nice enough, Cecil supposes, but having had some time to consider the matter, he's not sure what her results would prove. Yes, the curse made his show follow Carlos around for all those years, and if it's been satisfied it wouldn't need to enforce that anymore … but Cecil isn't sure that means the phenomenon will actually stop. What if his show has grown to like visiting Carlos every day?
How could it not?
Just because his show doesn't have the excuse of the curse anymore, that doesn't guarantee it won't still find a way to caress Carlos's ears every evening. Dr. Renegade's testing might provide further evidence of Cecil's guilt, but it can't exonerate him. Still, her comment does remind him of something he'd been wondering about, so he texts back, What's purple noise?
The question proves to be a mistake. Dr. Renegade proceeds to regale him with incomprehensible commentary about electromagnetic spectra and measurement methodology, each text more bewildering than the last, until his phone finally gives up and bursts into flames while trying to load the seventeenth message.
Once Cecil has sprayed it down, he's tempted to just leave the phone off for the duration of his show. The radio station's fire-extinguisher budget is not generous. But he can't really be unavailable right now, especially if Harry Dresden or Carlos's bisabuela should choose today to get back to him.
Cecil briefly entertains a fantasy in which all these communication problems are solved by Harry Dresden and Mouse just showing up — not by blasting their way out of the dog park again, thank you very much, but perhaps by strolling in from just outside the town. They could all have a nice laugh about the problems wizards have with phones and texts and being available ever, and then Harry could turn out to know one simple trick for popping the missing parts of Carlos back into place ….
Except Harry probably would just stroll right up, expecting a warm welcome from his old friend … and Carlos, who currently hates wizards, would only see a dangerous wizard looming. His physical reflexes are just fine, and he hasn't seemed to be carrying any firearms but he's definitely quick to wield his knives. Harry is a friend, but he's very powerful and slightly not-human, and there's no reason he wouldn't defend himself — and he wouldn't know to hold back because Carlos has no magical defenses right now ….
This fantasy isn't a welcome one anymore, so Cecil shows it to the door.
His phone seems reasonably stable as long as it's idle. If someone does call or text, he'll probably be able to get their information from the screen and shut the phone down if it seems about to combust again, so he goes ahead and resets it.
It doesn't catch fire again during his show, but it doesn't offer any wizardly contact, either.
Carlos makes a simple but lovely dinner. He even offers Cecil a few small ways to help, rather than insisting on taking care of everything himself. Then, when it comes time to wash the dishes, he doesn't push to do them himself or even to share the work, but he keeps Cecil company the whole time, and he helps in little ways, like cornering the bottle of dish soap when it gets a little too frisky. It's nice to spend time together sharing the chores while respecting their usual division of responsibility.
Now that Carlos has spent so many days resting up, Cecil would expect him to be at particularly high risk of cabin fever, but they're both tired from their interrupted sleep the night before, and Carlos seems to like the idea of just being lazy at home tonight. Cecil tries to figure out what's wrong with his phone, and Carlos settles in at the other end of the couch with his textbook, sitting sideways so he can tuck his feet under Cecil's thigh.
Cecil investigates a few recently updated apps, but none of them really stand out as likely culprits. He hopes he doesn't have to restore his phone to its original settings.
"Could it be a virus?" Carlos asks, taking a break from reading. "I mean, mine was being weird, and now it's better, but I didn't think to keep it away from yours, and now you say yours is being weird. And they're like computers, and computers get viruses, right? So maybe it just has … I don't know, the flu or something?"
Cecil smiles. "They don't usually get that kind of virus," he says gently. He's amused at first, because Carlos is still so adorably inept with technology, but … he doesn't know what kind of virus protection Carlos's phone has, if it has any. And considering its many modifications and adaptations, there's always a chance it could be patient zero for some kind of cross-species contamination. Cecil starts chanting his way through the logs and definitions in his own phone's anti-virus app.
"You could probably ask Dr. Renegade to take a look," Carlos offers between chants. "She's really good at fixing my phone. And she fixed my radio today. I was so worried I would miss your show when I couldn't get it to turn on, but she got it working just as your show was starting." He frowns slightly. "Actually, she said I should tell you that initial results are promising but additional testing is indicated. I don't know what she meant, though. Are you doing science without me?"
Cecil stops fiddling with his phone long enough to reach over and give Carlos's ankle a comforting caress. "No, I think she's just using me as an experimental subject or something. I'm sure it's not important." As he expected, her experiment clarifies nothing, leaving Cecil mired in not-quite-proven guilt. "But if it comes up again, give her my thanks anyway, please."
"Will do," Carlos promises, flashing Cecil a quick smile of relief. "And I'll pick up a few spare radios tomorrow morning before work, just to be safe." With that he returns his attention to his book.
Now that he has mentioned Dr. Renegade, Cecil realizes that his phone's recent fires have closely followed texts from her … and come to think of it, they've all been since she handled his phone. That's worrying.
Or maybe that timing is a coincidence and the fires have been the result of a wizard attempting to call Cecil back. His phone doesn't usually malfunction just from calls or texts from Carlos, but Carlos does try to temper his effects on electronics. Maybe ….
Distracted by his musings, he doesn't register the phone's slowly rising temperature until it's suddenly scorching hot. He drops it to the floor — which is less immediately flammable than the couch — with a sigh as it catches fire once more.
But Carlos panics even as Cecil is reaching for his pocket extinguisher. "Cecil!" he exclaims, jumping to his feet. With a wave of his hand he redirects the heat from the phone — and more than is entirely comfortable from Cecil's feet at the same time. His aim is usually better than that.
Cecil picks up his phone, which is ice-cold now and completely dark, and it's not until he's straightening again that he realizes what just happened. He turns to look at Carlos, worried.
"What." Carlos is staring down at his own hand, mostly bewildered but with a growing suspicion.
Cecil stands, trying not to panic at the prospect that Carlos might be about to suffer from more psychic backlash. "Carlos, it's all right —"
Carlos edges back, though he's still looking at his right hand. "The First Law of Thermodynamics … and I don't have any … but I felt the heat move." He winces in pain. "I felt changes in the wards even when no one else seemed to notice anything." He rubs at his temple with his left hand but shifts back again when Cecil tries to step closer. "No, I need to think. And — and she expected —"
He presses both hands to his head but pushes on.
"She asked if I remembered being — I know she asks trick questions sometimes, I thought she was just checking for delirium, but she acted surprised …."
His next step backward is more of a stagger, but he scowls despite the clearly growing pain as he yanks the glasses off and shoves them in a pocket of his lab coat. "No, I'm going to get this. The lights. The lights blew out, there's no good reason, we have way too many candles and flashlights, and you're —"
He looks up at Cecil then, squinting, possibly with psychosomatic myopia and definitely with pain.
Cecil has no idea what he should say. "It's all right," he tries to tell Carlos again, helplessly holding out a handkerchief. Carlos accepts it but stares at it in confusion for a few seconds until he realizes his nose is starting to bleed again.
"You're not surprised," Carlos says. "You hated when I talked about them, but not like — you said you'd met some, and you weren't — and you were so vague about —" His eyes widen. "No. No. I'm not, I promise I'm not —"
Cecil can only hope Carlos has recovered enough to withstand this, because it's clear he's not going to leave it alone. "Oh, poor, confused Carlos, you are, but it's fine —" Cecil says, reaching for him.
"Don't!" Carlos jerks back, avoiding contact. "I don't know if it's safe." Then he shakes his head. "But that doesn't mean — I'm not a wizard," he insists yet again. "I'm not. I would never do that to you, I wouldn't."
"To … me?" Cecil asks, bewildered. That makes no sense, because he's fine with Carlos being a wizard. He might have his complaints about the workload, yes, but he doesn't see Carlos's wizardry as some imposition or burden inflicted on him. He never has.
Okay, yes, his reaction to learning Carlos was a wizard was … slightly less gracious than he would prefer to remember. At the time, he had — he thought — only known wizards by their poor reputation, so he had feared that his loving boyfriend was only a lie told by a dangerous and deceptive wizard. Once he realized that, instead, the wizard was simply the inconvenient secret identity of his still-loving boyfriend, he discarded those happily baseless fears.
Sometimes people have socially awkward, clandestine jobs, and that's just how it is. That's not anything to get worked up about. It certainly doesn't merit the panic and revulsion in Carlos's eyes.
Cecil is positive those emotions can't be based on anything he could possibly have wished, even unconsciously. He hadn't felt that way even on the day he first found out, and he certainly doesn't now. He loves Carlos, wholly and completely. He may not know all of what, when, where, or why Carlos is, but has known and loved who Carlos is since the moment their eyes first met.
Judging by Dr. Renegade and even Shakeena, some of the few people who know Carlos is a wizard might be confused enough to think Cecil has some kind of a problem with that fact, but he can't think of anyone who fits that description and would be so determined to please Cecil at nearly any … cost ….
"Carlos, I have a very important question for you," Cecil says urgently.
"I really don't think this is a good time for us to watch The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Carlos says, looking bewildered.
"No, that's not — never mind. I know you're very confused right now, and upset, and in pain. I'll explain as much as I can, very soon, I promise. But I need —"
Cecil goes ahead and despises himself a little for using this.
"I need to ask you about something first, and I need you to think very carefully about the answer, and I need us to do this before anything else. Please? For me?"
Carlos stares at him for several more seconds but then swallows and nods.
Cecil hates that it works, but if it can help Carlos, he's going to use it. "Carlos, when you were hurt — I know you don't remember much about what happened, but I need you to think very hard. Is there any chance, any chance at all, that you made a wish that day?"
Carlos just looks surprised by the question. "Why would I make — I don't think so? Especially not when there's a restriction in effect."
"Please. We have to be certain. Any time after you got back to Night Vale before Valentine's Day — is there even a chance —?"
"I was finally back with you. Why would I need to wish for anything?" Carlos asks, which is sweet and completely not helpful.
"If you did," Cecil pushes.
Carlos is clearly trying to think back, trying to answer, but he's soon shaking his head again. "I can't think of any reason I would," he says, plaintive with his failure to provide what Cecil wants. "I have a good job, which is nice. I have you, which is everything. The only thing I can even think of wanting is to be a better boyfriend to you — to be as good of a boyfriend to you as you deserve."
Cecil knows, with a cold and irrational certainty, that this is the answer. But now he needs … "May I borrow your phone for just a moment?"
Carlos hands over his phone, but he says stubbornly, "You said you'd explain." He wipes again at the trickle of blood from his nose with the handkerchief still in his other hand.
No fresh blood appears, though. Cecil aches to see Carlos hurt at all, but … if Carlos was still fighting off a mental compulsion in his current state, he would be in much worse condition than this. He seemed to stop pushing as soon as he reached the possibility he could be a wizard. It's not like him to give up.
"I will explain, but I need to clarify one more detail," Cecil says. The controls and settings on Carlos's phone are just different enough to be frustrating. He manages to open a text to Dr. Renegade and get this is cecil did anyone ever screen carlos into it. He studies the phone's display to locate the send icon, but the message sends itself with a timid blip before he can actually make contact with the icon. He then goes to send the same message to Shakeena, and by the time he's three words in the phone is autofilling the rest for him. This time the message sends as soon as he even glances at the send icon.
As annoyed as he's been with this phone, he has to concede its predictive algorithms are pretty useful.
A couple of seconds later, the phone beeps politely with Shakeena's response. Not me.
Cecil is sure now. Carlos has been, by some definitions, an absolutely perfect boyfriend. Unnaturally perfect, to the point of upsetting Cecil — which in turn upset Carlos, because wishes effected by monkeys' paws always backfire on the wisher. Carlos wasn't in town for most of the screenings, and now that Cecil is thinking about it, he realizes Carlos would have avoided any kind of magical screening within Night Vale anyway, by anyone except maybe Shakeena.
And he spent all of Valentine's Day fighting in various locations across Night Vale. No one screened him specifically for monkey's-paw contamination after that, in part because real public concern about the threat had died down by that point. And that assumes a standard screening could detect it against, past, or through the interference of a full wizard's magical baseline.
Dr. Renegade was right that the spirits that infest a monkey's paw can interact with other powers. She was just mistaken about which power she blamed. If the spirits were presented with a wizard whose desire involved being different in any way, they could probably just shape that wizard's magic into a compulsion and redirect it right back on that wizard, the way Lee Marvin's space-adventure characters use mirrors to redirect laser beams. All they would have to do then is provide occasional corrections, and otherwise, they could sit back and enjoy all the havoc stemming from their victim's self-reeducation.
Carlos isn't giving up at all. He's just not-giving-up on the wrong thing. He's very diligent, and apparently that extends even to unconsciously maintaining his own mental blocks.
Cecil reaches for Carlos's free hand to tug him back to the couch, but Carlos avoids contact again. Disappointed, Cecil pulls back a little. "Do you want to sit down first?" he asks instead.
"Do you want me to?"
Cecil wants Carlos to decide for himself. "You don't have to, but it might make things easier."
"Then yes," Carlos says. He leaves space between them as they head back to the couch, and he maneuvers to keep Cecil to his left as they sit, as if he still particularly mistrusts his right hand.
Once they're both seated, Cecil takes a deep breath. "I'm going to explain now, but I'm going to ask you a few more things first." When Carlos gives him a long-suffering look, he hastily adds, "They're part of the explanation. I have to do it this way. Trust me?"
"Of course," Carlos says automatically.
Cecil actually would prefer he think about it at all first, but too late now. "Okay." Contradicting a compulsion directly is dangerous, but sometimes a stray thread of discrepancy can help someone unravel the imposed worldview less hazardously. "Carlos … how do you know so much about wizards?"
Whatever question Carlos was expecting, that wasn't it. "A scientist is observant," he decides after a few seconds, but there's a note of uncertainty.
"So you've observed wizards?" Cecil presses.
"No!" The response is clearly automatic again, and Carlos rubs his forehead as he tries to reconcile his answers. "Everyone … you can't always observe things directly, and sometimes you wouldn't want to, but indirect observation is valid. Their effects, the signs they leave behind, the things people say — you can calculate an effective description based on secondary data."
Cecil tries a different angle. "When did you first come to Night Vale?"
"June 2012," Carlos says, this time easily rather than just automatically. A sweet smile breaks through, even now, as he says, "It feels like I've known you so much longer, but I guess literally it hasn't even been four years."
Cecil didn't expect him to anticipate and counter that already. He could keep trying that angle, but he's sure Carlos would merrily construct an elaborate alternate history for himself. It doesn't help that Cecil probably gave him plenty of practice in their first not-quite-two-years.
But he's running out of potential approaches. The only other one he can think of is much riskier. "Do you remember when Khoshekh stayed with us?"
"Sure. You were so considerate of my allergies."
"Well, one day during his stay here, you looked after a plas— a dog for a friend. A large dog with excellent manners." Mouse had been a perfectly charming houseguest and an invigorating conversationalist.
Carlos nods. "Yes, I — dammit." He pinches the bridge of his nose, but in what looks more like frustration rather than pain. "I had it, but there's this — this fog in my brain and it just rolled right in. Like San Francisco — or no, like that documentary by Stephen King."
Cecil's heart sinks. Carlos is just too good at anticipating and parrying. Appeals to science, believing his own cover stories, and protective amnesia are certainly gentler methods of enforcement than blinding, aversive pain, but they all have the same end result.
Everyone assumed someone else had imposed all this on Carlos; his wizardly nature is so important to him, the possibility he did something to banish it never occurred to them. But Cecil came close soon after Carlos first woke, when he considered just how reckless Carlos could be about dedicating himself to Cecil, so why didn't he put it all together then? Did he let his own craven, selfish appreciation of Carlos's reshaped identity blind and distract him, even knowing the cost to Carlos's well-being?
The cause of Carlos's condition isn't some scientific puzzle for Dr. Renegade to unlock or some arcane magic for Shakeena to counter; it stems from his relationship with Cecil, so Cecil should be able to fix it. He should know exactly what to do or say to snap Carlos out of his compulsion safely. He should be able to come up with the right hint or suggestion to help Carlos free himself.
If only he were a better boyfriend —
But that kind of thinking is particularly dangerous right now, when he doesn't know enough about the nature of Carlos's contamination. "This isn't working. I'm sorry. I wanted to find a way to do this gently, but I don't think I know how. So …." He braces himself. "Carlos, you've been different these past few days."
Carlos looks surprised and then worried. "Bad different?"
"Just different," Cecil says quickly, because he really doesn't want to get into that. "We think — Dr. Renegade, Shakeena, and I — that you're under some kind of compulsion. When you notice a discrepancy or start to remember something that doesn't fit, the strain hurts you, especially because you're already injured."
"The headaches," Carlos realizes.
"Yes, but they're not just headaches. That kind of pressure can really hurt you. It's dangerous. That's why we've been trying to protect you. But I think you'll probably just keep noticing things that don't really fit, and you've been getting better, and … really, you have the right to decide for yourself. I just — I just hope you've recovered enough to survive this. But I don't know." He swallows, nervous.
Carlos starts to reach for him before hesitating. He studies his left hand for several seconds. Then, clearly uneasy but determined, he carefully takes Cecil's hand to squeeze it reassuringly.
Relieved that Carlos isn't avoiding contact anymore as much as by the contact itself, Cecil makes himself continue. "You have a choice. You can try to forget what happened; I won't explain anything else, though we can talk about it again later if you want to. Or I can explain the rest now even if it will probably hurt you. Which … which one do you want?" Then he hastily amends that to, "Which one do you want for you?"
Carlos straightens with resolve. "I want to know," he says, because in so many ways he still is himself. His expression darkens further, towards anger. "I don't want something controlling me. Or changing me."
Cecil knows exactly what he means.
That doesn't mean he wasn't afraid of this, but honestly, he's not sure how long he could have endured the other answer. "Okay. You're going to want to deny, refuse, reject — but please try to believe me. That might make this a little easier." Probably not, but he can hope. "Carlos, you are a wizard. You have been since you were seven years old. You came here to Night Vale over a decade ago, soon after you became the regional commander of Wardens in this area. That's when you heard me play the — the banjolele, on my first day."
Carlos's hardening expression of disbelief falters. "I — I remember that. You were nervous — but so professional! And your voice …." His gaze turns distant for a moment, as does his tone. "Your voice made everything right again."
He shakes himself a little, returning his attention to the present. "I know you've been hosting your show for a lot longer than four years, but I really have only been here that long. And I wasn't doing those wizard things you listed before that, of course, I was … well, whatever I was doing can't be that important, because it was before I met you, but I'm sure it must have been some kind of science. But … the radio station's signal doesn't carry all that far, so how could I have heard — oh! Time!"
"Time?" Cecil repeats, his tentatively rising hopes freezing in place.
"Time doesn't work here!" Carlos says with far too much relief, and Cecil's hopes flop back down. "I mean, not the way it does other places. We just ended up in different relativistic frames … somehow …." He hikes his assured grin back into place. "Dr. Renegade can probably explain it. Or maybe it's something else I can investigate! But I'm sure it all still makes perfect sense."
"No," Cecil says, even though that makes the confidence seep right back out of Carlos's grin, leaving only a pleading desperation. Cecil hates to shatter his illusions, but Carlos did ask for the truth. "I'm sorry, but you really are a wizard. I didn't know it at the time, but you've been listening to my show ever since my first day. You feel like you've known me for longer than not-even-four years because you have. The day you met the scientists wasn't your first day here — you had already been protecting us from the shadows for years. That's just when you had to go undercover with them. And I … I didn't react well when I found out you were a wizard, it's true, but we got past that. I can't say I never minded you were a wizard, but I don't mind now, and I haven't minded in a long time. I actually like that you're a wizard. You're very impressive."
For just a moment, Carlos looks devastated, but he rallies, assuming an air of polite challenge as he tries to push up the glasses he isn't wearing. "If I were a wizard … I would have other responsibilities. Secret things. I couldn't be here for you as much as you — as I should be. You wouldn't be able to tell anyone about me. You couldn't be proud of — of a wizard boyfriend."
"But I am," Cecil says simply. "I could be and I am. Most people think my boyfriend is an amazing and beautiful scientist, which he is, though not in exactly the way they think. And a few special people know my boyfriend is actually, and secretly, an amazing and beautiful and highly accomplished wizard. And I am proud of him, of you, either way."
"Cecil …." Carlos looks lost. "I would be anything for you, but …."
Cecil tries not to flinch at the wrongness of that.
He can only think of one more thing that might work. He takes both of Carlos's hands and looks into his lovely, confused eyes.
Cecil is no practitioner, but he knows certain basic principles of magic.
"What I want you to be, Carlos Maria Ramirez —" he says, before pausing for a moment.
Carlos shivers at the carefully precise pronunciation of as much of his true name as he has so far offered Cecil. Cecil knows there is more, and he is perfectly fine with being allotted only this much. Carlos, like anyone else, deserves to have parts of himself he keeps only to himself, to choose what of himself he shares.
Once the shiver has passed, Cecil continues, "— is completely and entirely yourself. Even the parts you think I don't like."
It may be wrong of him to use his apparent control of Carlos's agency even just to give him that agency back, but their world is an imperfect one, and he can only do his best.
For a moment Carlos looks confused, and then for another moment he looks utterly betrayed. "Don't —" he starts, but then he startles himself by coughing. He takes a second to recover from the pain this worsens in his head, straightens, and then coughs again.
"Carlos? Do you need —" Cecil starts.
Carlos shakes his head a little, but before he can speak, he's coughing again, deeply, curling inward from the force. Cecil starts to reach for him, but Carlos puts out a firm hand to hold Cecil back as he picks up the handkerchief from his lap with his other hand and starts coughing into it so hard he doesn't seem able to breathe.
Just as Cecil is starting to panic in earnest, Carlos coughs up something dark and unpleasant, its stygian glisten only briefly visible before Carlos flings the handkerchief to the coffee table. As if to demonstrate one of his science rules, Carlos recoils in the same motion, pushing himself back into the corner of the couch. He grips his head in both hands.
"Madre de Dios," he manages, in the strained tones of someone in the throes of a collapsing compulsion. Cecil has to swallow a whimper of sympathetic dismay, but if the compulsion is already dissolving this quickly, Carlos will probably shake it off any moment now. Though, come to think of it, if not just Carlos's mind but also Carlos's magic is fighting its way free —
Carlos drops his hands to stare at Cecil in sudden realization and the power promptly goes out — not just in the den, but in a wave across their entire apartment.
And, judging from the distant sounds of resigned outrage, the rest of their building.
And, judging from the almighty crack of sound from outside, the distribution transformer across the street.
Cecil can still see a little, between the early-evening glare of the city, the faint moonlight, and the flicker of Carlos's phone as it struggles to withstand the wash of magical energies as Carlos's magic and his natural emotions both reassert themselves. The glowing green energy Carlos is gathering in one hand for some form of attack — because, thank all the spires of various construction, he's back — briefly helps as well.
When Cecil leans forward to try to light the candles on the coffee table, though, Carlos dismisses that energy and lunges forward, blocking Cecil with his left arm as he snatches a stick of chalk from his pocket protector. He swiftly draws a circle around the handkerchief even as he's exorcising the spirits from the foul substance hidden within. The words of his ritual are formulaic, but his voice is low and vicious.
He doesn't lower his protective arm when he's done, too preoccupied with glaring at the vacated cloth, but when Cecil gently wraps a hand around his left wrist, he startles, dropping the chalk.
Carlos could free himself from Cecil's hold with no effort at all if he wanted to, but he doesn't try. He just stares at Cecil's hand for a long time. "I — I should …" he tries finally, hoarsely, but he doesn't finish the statement.
The last time Carlos was fully himself here, he thought he should leave in order to protect their possessions from his lack of magical control, so maybe that's what he's trying to say now? "The power's already out here," Cecil points out. "I don't think it's safe for you to leave until you … get your bearings. You can go if you need to, of course, but … I'd like you to stay, if you're willing."
Carlos takes a long breath, slowly releases it.
"Let me take this off," he says finally, with no indication what this is. His statement is not a plea, but it's not a command either, and he doesn't move to pull free.
Cecil lets go, and Carlos immediately rips off the lab coat and flings it across the room. He rubs his face vigorously with both hands for a few seconds. Then he retrieves his stick of chalk from the floor, but once he's done that, he just sits there, staring at the chalk in his hands as Cecil finally lights the candles.
"Cecil?" he says after a couple of minutes.
"Last week, while I was away, you said something on your show about a collection of magical artifacts."
"The Unwise Magical Artifact Strategic Reserve, yes."
"Do you know where that actually is?"
"Well, they moved it to a secure and secret location, so no."
Carlos closes his eyes briefly. "Would their idea of 'secure and secret' be an unmarked, shallow grave in a vacant lot off Bandera, by any chance?"
"Well, I certainly wouldn't have thought to look there, so it seems reasonable," Cecil says. "And the City Council does control several seemingly vacant lots through blind trusts and other obfuscating mechanisms."
"So that's why it kept herding me that way," Carlos mutters. "Would they say anything if approximately eighty percent of their 'strategic reserve' was suddenly an unmarked, shallow pool of nearly frictionless dust?"
"Well, that would mean admitting their security measures failed, and the effect on the local economy if news got out … I expect they'd hush it up. If something like that happened."
"I knew something wrong was there, but I didn't have time to check. And I thought the hydrant washed anything that would have mattered off me. I didn't think it could already be … I'll have to get back over there and make sure whatever's left can't cause any trouble, if it hasn't already been moved."
He keeps his eyes on the stick of chalk as his fingers slowly turn it over and over.
"I don't get …" he says finally. "I didn't wish anything. I was a little busy. I wasn't exactly saying, excuse me, I know you want to pulverize me and all, but I just need a second to wish myself completely useless —"
"Don't," Cecil pleads, though he regrets his reaction when Carlos stops talking, because he can't tell whether Carlos originally meant to stop there or is just obeying. He wants to take Carlos's hand but doesn't know anymore if he can trust Carlos to pull away if he doesn't want that.
And he's dismayed that Carlos seems to be missing an important magical principle.
"Oh, Carlos. A wish doesn't have to be spoken. We were both heart-sore, but I was safe in the bunker, while you were out there, on Valentine's Day. You told me you thought you were failing at our relationship — and you're not, you're not, but if you believed it at the time … and you were so bruised spiritually. Hearts can make wishes too, for all they don't usually have mouths or voices, if those wishes are strong enough."
Carlos closes his eyes again. "If all I could think about, in the few seconds I had time to think, was that you deserved better?"
Cecil can't bear this. "Do I really make you feel that way?" he asks mournfully.
Carlos glances over at him, startled. "Cecil, no." He takes Cecil's hand, which solves that problem. "You've been so forgiving, even though I've barely been here at all —"
"I got mad at you when I walked in the door Saturday night," Cecil points out.
"You found out I was leaving again," Carlos says. "You're allowed to get fed up. I shouldn't have gotten mad back. I think I was just edgy about Valentine's Day and I took it out on you."
"You — If anyone should have been making allowances, it was me," Cecil says. "I didn't even realize you were gearing up to fight here on Valentine's Day!"
"You … didn't?" Carlos asks. Cecil can see him going through the same calculations Dr. Renegade did. It's reassuring to see he hadn't been hiding that on purpose. "But you got back while I was still gearing up — oh. Oh, you didn't find out I was leaving later from someone else, you thought I was leaving right then. No wonder you got upset —"
"Can we just agree to split the blame?" Cecil asks, because he doesn't want to argue about that, of all things.
Carlos almost looks like he's still ready to argue about it, but then he lets it go. "That's fair," he says.
Cecil is unsettled by the capitulation. "Do you really think that? Or are you just agreeing because I asked?"
Carlos squeezes his hand. "I really think that. It's a reasonable compromise. I wasn't ever actually taking orders from you, you know, but that whole … spell … thing … is gone now."
Cecil searches his eyes, trying to determine how he can be sure.
Carlos smiles a little. "Would it help if I pointed out Jerry's Tacos should be brought up on charges for daring to call what they sell food?"
"Yes," Cecil admits, and Carlos's smile grows. "So you're back? You're really back?"
"I've been here the whole time," Carlos says. "Just … confused. But yes. I'm entirely here now."
Cecil launches himself at Carlos. To his surprise, Carlos dodges just slightly, redirecting him from a fervent kiss to a solid hug.
"Sorry, but I really need to brush my teeth first," Carlos says. "And possibly exorcise the sink after."
"Oh. Of course." And he probably needs a few minutes alone anyway. Cecil really doesn't want to be smothering. He gives Carlos one last squeeze before letting him go. Carlos thoughtfully deposits the neutralized but befouled handkerchief in their Mr. Incinerator on his way.
While Carlos is occupied, Cecil sets up more candles to make the apartment a little easier to navigate, and he hangs the lab coat up by the door. Carlos's phone seems to have settled down, so Cecil borrows it once more, sending Cecil again - Carlos is restored! :) :) :) to both Shakeena and Dr. Renegade, because they deserve to know.
Carlos takes long enough that it's clear he really did need to collect himself privately. When he emerges, his face is freshly washed and he looks a lot steadier. Any misgivings he might have about what he's been through for these past few days have been either resolved or ruthlessly suppressed, and he moves with renewed confidence as he comes over to Cecil and kisses him very thoroughly indeed. "That's better," he says, a little breathlessly, after. "Tell me —"
His cell phone proclaims, very loudly, that we are the champions, my friend.
"Oh, not again —" Carlos starts to say, but as the clip continues, they both realize it's a call rather than a notification. He checks the screen and rolls his eyes. "Just give me a minute to talk to her so we can concentrate without distractions," he tells Cecil. He accepts the call. "Hi, Julie," he says as he flops down on the couch.
She asks or demands something, and he answers, "There is no 'standard post-incident protocol'." Cecil awards himself full points for figuring that out first. "Unless you invented it in the past few days. And if you did, I'm sure it's something like 'step one, get a full record of everything that happens; step two, try not to be dead; step two-sub-a, if anyone from administration asks, pretend step two is actually step one and that this step doesn't exist; step three, try to keep other people from being dead; and step four, get a paper out of it'."
Cecil is impressed. That's a very practical protocol.
"But you can skip the challenge questions," Carlos continues. "I really am all here now."
Then he pulls the phone sharply away from his ear as she shouts "—WHAMMIED YOURSELF?!"
"Yes," Carlos says, not bothering to move the phone back to his ear. "Yes I did."
"YOU ARE A DISASTER OF GAUSSIAN PROPORTIONS!"
"Yup. Someone's got to give you a challenge. Hey, can you send over some dry ice? We just bought all this food, I don't want to throw it away." Then he hangs up, even though she's still shouting something, and reaches up to catch Cecil's hand and draw him in.
After several seconds of desperate kissing, Carlos pants, "Is this okay now? I mean, if you don't want to go any further, that's fine, of course, but … if you were trying to be careful for my sake or something, you really didn't have to."
"It didn't feel right without you here," Cecil says.
"But I was — oh."
There's something soft in the way Carlos is regarding him. It's familiar, especially after these past few days, but it has context now, and the combination fills Cecil with adoration and desire.
"Oh, look, here you are," Cecil says unsteadily. "This is okay now. It's very, very okay —" and then his mouth is too busy for words.
Unfortunately, after only another minute or two, Carlos pulls back — not to lead Cecil to a more comfortable location, sadly, but to press the heels of his hands against his eyes. "Sorry."
"What is it?" Cecil asks nervously. "Are you still being affected? Is it coming back?"
"I'm fine," Carlos says, because of course he does. But he looks surprised by Cecil's growl and quickly adds, "No, I just mean, it's not that. It's — I have a headache."
Cecil blinks at him. Carlos was in favor of this plan just a few moments ago, and he regifted the "Passive-Aggressive Relationship Euphemism of the Day" calendar that came in the city's official relationship starter kit —
"Not like that," Carlos says hastily, realizing Cecil's confusion. "Throwing off a psychic influence leaves a pretty nasty migraine, it turns out. Endorphins help," he says, with a crooked grin, "but apparently not enough."
Cecil sighs, because there's always something getting in their way lately. "And on top of an alarming amount of psychic bruising, too," he says disapprovingly, guiding Carlos to lie down with his head in Cecil's lap. He runs his fingers through Carlos's hair in ways he knows help with headaches.
Carlos relaxes into the gesture, some of the tension already leaving his expression. "The Valentine's Day thing has been getting stronger," he says after a minute or two. "It's a problem. Getting devious, too, as if it wasn't bad enough already. And our mental defense training is still completely inadequate. If I can't take it down without taking myself out with the backlash …."
"Well, you have most of a year to work on it," Cecil offers, because Carlos doesn't need the stress of worrying about his frustrations with work right now.
"Yeah. Maybe I can build on what Flynn did with those glasses," Carlos says, completely missing the part where Cecil is trying to get him to relax. "She did a really good job on those. Maybe I can work out a way to build on that — if it's the innermost layer, I could still project a shield …."
He keeps mumbling theories and speculations to himself, and Cecil doesn't have the heart to interrupt, because he's so happy to see Carlos willingly acknowledging his own magic again.
"… And you don't need to hear about this stuff," Carlos realizes a little while later. "Sorry." He sighs. "Really sorry, because I need to report in."
"I know." He reaches across to take Carlos's phone from the coffee table and hand it to him. "I don't think you're in any condition to go anywhere, but you don't usually agree with me about that."
Carlos accepts the phone but doesn't use it yet. "I really am sorry," he says quietly.
"Carlos," Cecil starts, more than a little exasperated, because he seriously doesn't want to have to argue about this. He makes himself take a deep breath and try again. "I've had you here for several days more than I expected. Well, most of you. More than half. Even prorated, I come out ahead of recent projections. You need to go be a wizard now. It's fine."
Carlos catches hold of Cecil's hand and kisses it briefly before making his call.
Which doesn't last long, because the person he asks for isn't there. "She's not dead, is she?" he asks warily. The answer he gets seems to reassure him, so he agrees to leave a message. The message he chooses to leave is that he's finished his assignment and is now awaiting orders, and while Cecil doesn't entirely approve, he can agree it sounds reasonable under the circumstances.
Carlos sets his phone back on the coffee table when he's done, rather than holding on to it.
"It's just as well," he says. "I need to figure out a better way to report what I've been up to than just saying I accidentally compelled myself into forgetting I'm a wizard. If I have to argue technicalities of the Fourth Law, I'm already in trouble, and I'm not the only one." He sighs. "I should get a stamp card, at this rate. One stamp for each law I manage to break when I'm supposed to be enforcing them. Maybe if I fill it before they get around to cutting my head off, someone will send me a toaster or something."
"I would think small kitchen appliances would be more appropriate for successful evasions," Cecil says. "A full stamp card really ought to give you some kind of immunity."
"As long as it's not immunity from continuing to exist," Carlos says.
"But this wouldn't count," Cecil says. "You didn't really enthrall anyone, even yourself. You were being influenced. Even if the spirits of the monkey's paw made you turn your own power against yourself, that's not the same thing at all."
"We'll see." Carlos doesn't sound especially confident, but he isn't feeling well anyway, so that's probably affecting his outlook. He's good at paperwork. He'll find a way to work it out.
They sit quietly for a few more minutes, but Cecil eventually has to ask, "You don't really think I 'deserve' a non-wizard boyfriend, do you?"
"What?" Carlos frowns up at him. "No. Don't — I can't really explain everything, because it's not like I sat down and planned all that. Mostly I just kept thinking be perfect for Cecil all the time."
"Objectively perfect for my sake, or perfectly suited to me? Because I knew you were perfectly imperfect years ago." More than one year, and in this happy case, more than two. "I thought I made it clear I loved that about you. And I already thought you were perfectly suited to me."
"I don't … I don't think I thought there was a difference," Carlos admits.
"Why would being a wizard be a problem either way, though?"
Carlos closes his eyes. "I don't know. It's been so hard for us lately, and sometimes it seems like things were easier back when I was first starting to get things right with you, you know? Back when you thought I was just a scientist and you could safely hate wizards."
Cecil makes a face, because he wants to protest, but some of the harsh things Carlos said about wizards were uncomfortably familiar. He may not remember specifics, because he has abjured his former convictions and chooses to deny them utterly, but he suspects Carlos does.
Unseeing, and so unbiased by Cecil's expression, Carlos makes a face of his own. "It wasn't easier, for the record. I know that. It just feels that way sometimes." His voice turns distant. "And then, just after you took being surprised with the truth of who I really was so badly, that condo showed me that the most perfect thing I could imagine was to really be the scientist you still thought I was at that point. So I guess there's precedent." He twists his mouth as he adds, "Oh, and let's not forget how I got an entire year of practice as a wannabe scientist with memory impairment and no magic to speak of. It's almost like the universe is trying to send me a message."
Cecil considers that possibility. He hasn't heard of a new message system of that type, but then, there was no press release for the launch of the feelings delivery service … or a formal launch date, for that matter ….
As he's pondering, Carlos continues, "And … I know you've been trying with your show, but this city still really doesn't like wizards."
"I didn't know it was that bad," Cecil admits. "Or that decapitation was that unpopular! I mean, I don't think it even made the top ten in the annual round-up of horrifying ways to die last year, and that was just a couple of months ago." He clears his throat. "A hot new opinion trend like that could be quite the scoop."
Carlos just makes a noncommittal sound, either missing the subtle hint or catching it but choosing to protect his sources. After a few more seconds he sighs. "And when you're standing there, facing something several times bigger than you physically and about ten times that psychically, and you're soaking wet but you're still sticky with cherry liqueur, and you're half-paralyzed from psionic screams, and you're just trying to finish the job in a hurry so you can go back to the same betrayals and defeats you've been dealing with for so long …."
He sighs again.
"Maybe some cowardly little corner you didn't know you had grabs the chance to not do all that for a while," he finishes, dispirited.
"Carlos, you have one of the lowest cowardice scores I've ever seen," Cecil says, properly exasperated now. "I know it's rude to comment on these things, and I would never want to change you, but a score that low is rarely healthy."
A cowardice deficiency as strong as Carlos's tends to cause some really alarming, even life-threatening, symptoms. Like going out and fighting Valentine's Day. Cecil makes a mental note to find out if anyone ever did develop those supplements that were supposed to be coming out, because Carlos is clearly resistant to the standard terror therapy. Carlos will probably decline, but he deserves the option.
"And you're allowed to need a break sometimes, even if that happens to be just when you've run afoul of a literarily notorious magical influence. Besides, if all that had been from cowardice, you wouldn't have left yourself stubborn enough to just break through it a few days later."
Carlos seems to consider that. "I am pretty stubborn," he says finally, with a touch of pride.
"You're pretty ridiculous," Cecil says, and Carlos grins. "But if the universe really is trying to tell you something, maybe it's trying to tell you that you need to negotiate better time-off benefits."
"Yes, I'm so sure that's it," Carlos says, his tone conveying the opposite.
Carlos hasn't had as long to think about this as Cecil has, so he might easily miss the one benefit of his little misadventure. "You went into that condo right after the rooftop picnic, didn't you? Which means you were in terrible condition. I know that when you got locked out of Night Vale, you were fighting that Smiling God even without most of your magic, and that wasn't very long after all your wormholes. You really weren't in very good shape then, either." How much of the year afterwards was related to that and how much was Carlos giving up — on coming back, on them, just in general — is a question Cecil really doesn't want to touch right now. Or ever. "And honestly, if you had remembered you're a wizard when you woke up in the science bunker a few days ago, what would you have done?"
"Finished cleanup, tried to get at least an hour or two with you, and then gone back to my mission," Carlos says automatically. "… Oh."
"Yes! Even though you couldn't walk outside without a shield Shakeena made for you. Maybe the message the universe has for you is that it would like you not to get yourself even more hurt. Or killed. I know you try to be responsible, but you are surprisingly terrible at recognizing when sheer willpower really isn't enough to keep you going."
Or shouldn't be, at least. Carlos somehow forces it to be anyway, and that can't be good for him in the long term.
"I don't really think the universe is going to go to any great lengths to remind me to take five every now and then," Carlos says. "If for some reason it cared about that, it could just try not having everything be on fire all the time. Metaphorically. Mostly metaphorically. But … I can try to be a little more careful about my reserve levels, I guess."
"The universe and I would thank you," Cecil says. Carlos looks amused.
Cecil wonders if the universe — or any other vast and unknowable power or entity — might be trying to send him a message as well. He was getting upset about Carlos's string of absences and starting to feel as ignored and abandoned as he had when Carlos kept not looking for doors. That was never a fair comparison, though; he just never had the chance to pause and really think about it while they were in the middle of everything.
Carlos has been away a lot lately, but honestly, that's not so unusual. He has a lot of responsibility and being a wizard keeps him busy; that's always been true, and they've found ways to deal with it. The past several weeks have been worse than usual, yes, but Cecil would normally have had faith things would eventually get better.
The problem was the Christmas trip. It's easy to forget, but Carlos was — is — an outsider. The Christmas trip was pleasant, for the most part, and Carlos's family was absolutely lovely, but Cecil was forcibly reminded that Carlos knows the outside world the way Cecil knows Night Vale. He fits there, the way Cecil fits in Night Vale. He's always alert and vigilant, but he was actually ever so slightly less on edge the entire time they were outside Night Vale's borders.
He was so confident out there, so at ease … just the way he was when he showed Cecil around the city he and his masked-army friends were building in the desert otherworld. And every time Carlos promised but, more often than not, failed to get back to Night Vale this past several weeks, Cecil couldn't help being reminded of Carlos's persistent failure to even look for a way back from his exile back then.
Now that he consciously recognizes the association, he can banish it. This isn't the same situation and they are no longer the same people. If Carlos decides to leave Night Vale, Cecil can join him. And here, now, Carlos does try to get back to him, and he does come back when he can, and his failures frustrate him at least as much as they do Cecil. He may be very busy and distracted as a wizard, but Cecil doesn't just want the parts of Carlos that fit nicely in Night Vale; he wants all of Carlos, including the inconvenient and ill-fitting parts.
Cecil is rusty at the protocols for Vague and Unattributable Gratitude towards Parties Unknown. He adds looking those up to his running list of mental notes. It's dangerous and probably futile to attribute meaning to a cold and meaningless universe … but really, what is life but attributing meaning to a cold and meaningless universe?
Their conversation comfortably ended, they sit together quietly, Cecil continuing to do what he can to ease Carlos's headache. A few minutes later, though, Carlos frowns and sits up just before someone knocks.
"I can get it," Cecil tells him.
"No, it's probably Julie with dry ice," Carlos says. "I don't want you to get hit if she decides to throw something."
He goes over to open the door, parting the wards at the same time, but then he's slamming the door closed again before the person on the other side gets out more than "Hi, Car—!"
"What's wrong?" Cecil asks, alarmed. The voice was wrong for it, but — "Is Dr. Renegade lying in wait with a new death ray?"
"No, don't worry," Carlos says, squeezing his eyes shut for a few seconds. "It's just Kate out there." He digs the glasses out of the pocket of the lab coat and shoves them on, looking irritated about it. Then he opens the door and the wards again. "Sorry. Hi. Come in."
"Okay. I brought the dry ice," Dr. Rochelle says, waving a cooler as she steps inside. "Did you know this entire section of the grid is out of power?"
"I'm starting to remember why Night Vale isn't too thrilled about wizards," Carlos mutters.
"Don't be silly," Cecil tells him. "Power outages aren't nearly as frequent as they used to be. People need to be reminded so they don't get complacent."
"The rest of the team is out there helping set up some generators," Dr. Rochelle says. "And Dr. Kwan thinks she knows where the weak points probably are, as long as nothing is actively interfering." She looks at Carlos sidelong.
"I'm calm," Carlos says. "I'm downright chill. Speaking of, thanks for the ice."
The problem is that the fridge and freezer are both pretty full, leaving little room for the dry ice. They have to make some hard decisions, and they have to make them fast, so Dr. Rochelle leaves with a cooler full of frozen yogurt to share with the rest of the team of scientists.
Once they're done in the kitchen, Carlos actually goes so far as to form a magical circle around the couch and coffee table before he sits down and takes off the glasses. He tosses them on the coffee table, next to his phone. "If I have to wear those on my next mission, there will be questions," he says.
"Just tell the truth," Cecil suggests. It's a radical idea, but just this once, it might work. "They're an experiment in improved mental shielding. And you look great in them."
"It's true, I do," Carlos says, with a grin so cocky Cecil just has to kiss him.
Once that has been accomplished, Cecil takes Carlos's face in his hands. "Are you really okay?"
"I am. I promise. Except the slight migraine. Other than that, I'm totally fine. But are you? Be honest, please. I know this has been hard on you."
"It has," Cecil agrees. "But I've got you back now — all of you. I get to spend time with you until whenever you get called in. You'll deal with your mission and you'll be back when you can. Tomorrow, I'll go back to the joys and frustrations and casual terrors of my job. And I'm going bowling next week. So I'm okay. And even though various forces will always conspire to drive us apart, I think we'll be okay, as long as we can remember to have faith in each other, no matter what our training or masters might tell us."
Carlos's answering smile is complex — it's mostly satisfaction and agreement, as well as fondness, but there's also a faint amusement. "As you wish."
Carlos's phone goes back to its usual eclectic mix of ringtones, signifying only the callers, to Cecil's relief. He doesn't want a spectator for their relationship, much less a running commentator. Mutual ignoring is entirely fine with him.
His own phone soon recovers as well, going back to its usual well-behaved self for the most part. And if for some reason its ringtone for Carlos gets stuck on an upbeat tune telling Cecil he only means everything, going on to promise spider-riddled suites and poisonous fruits if he lets it ring too long, well, he can forgive that. It's sweet, as a metaphor for Cecil being home to Carlos no matter where Carlos has to go or what he has to do, and it's helpfully ominous, as a warning reminder of what could go wrong if either of them takes the idea too literally.
Besides, the ringtone keeps reverting whenever Cecil tries to fix it. He can take a hint.