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Strange or Malevolent

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Night Vale has a public radio station and the news broadcaster has a crush on Carlos.

Actually, if Carlos isn't mistaken (and he isn't--his memory is impeccable and he needs to cling to that as things in Night Vale get...intense), the man's exact words were that he'd immediately fallen in love with Carlos.

As if Night Vale isn't tricky enough. As if there isn't enough to deal with. As if he isn't already going half out of his mind without complications. But of course nothing goes according to plan in Night Vale, so he's forced to listen to several incredibly embarrassing broadcasts of "Welcome to Night Vale," one of the only normal shows on the staticky local radio station, amidst things like two hours of a high G played on the clarinet and a loop of elephant noises that last from midnight til dawn.

(Normal is relative in Night Vale. The junior quarterback of the high school football team has two heads.)

It's not until Telly the barber is run out of town that Carlos gets up the guts to do something about it.

He's talked to the broadcaster, Cecil, before. He's the closest thing the town has to a news reporter now that the newspaper is mostly giant ads and pages printed in a language made up of symbols that Carlos doesn't understand, so Carlos has called the station to deliver updates on strange phenomenon that he's observed around town, even though half the time he calls, Cecil just laughs and says things like, "You don't have to use excuses to call me, you know! Especially such silly ones--of course the coffee at Moonlight All-Night Diner is purple and gurgling. It is Tuesday, you know. There are easier ways to ask me out for a coffee!"

(The purple coffee actually wasn't bad. It left an aftertaste vaguely reminiscent of root beer.)

He sees Cecil outside of Big Rico's on a Thursday afternoon. Carlos is on his way out after his usual Thursday pizza dinner (that he gets because he likes pizza, not because of the city-wide mandate, or at least that's what he tries to tell himself), checking the time on his phone and squinting at the sun still high in the sky, and Cecil is getting out of his car. Carlos probably wouldn't have noticed him if Big Rico himself wasn't standing outside on a smoke break.

"Cecil!" Big Rico says, his voice booming, and Carlos' attention is immediately turned to the man standing in the parking lot. He's average height and build and has the sleepy quality to his expression that Carlos can tell is a permanent fixture rather than the result of too many late nights.

(Carlos may have had a thing for guys like that in grad school, but he's definitely over it entirely and is in no way attracted to Cecil, not at all, not even a little, that guy is weird and a stalker and kind of dangerous, no matter how cute he is. Or isn't. Because he's not.)

Cecil smiles when he sees Big Rico. He smiles even wider when he sees Carlos. In fact, his eyes go a little round and startled and he gasps.

"Carlos!" he says, and, yes, that's definitely Cecil. Carlos would know that voice anywhere.

(Only because "Welcome to Night Vale" is the only halfway decent show on Night Vale Community Radio. That's the only reason Carlos listens to it every day.)

"Cecil," Carlos says.

"I was so worried!" Cecil says. "You've been so elusive since that ignorant barbarian Telly cut off all your luscious hair." He narrows his eyes and his expression hardens. He immediately goes from sleepy and genial to the sort of hardened anger that should be terrifying. "Telly," he mutters.

(Carlos isn't turned on by that.)

Cecil must notice Carlos' stunned expression, because he quickly adds, "Not that you don't still look perfect. And beautiful. Radiant, really, despite the loss of those generous curls. Even a common thug like Telly can't ruin the essence of your perfection." That dark expression returns. "Telly."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," Carlos says quickly, before this can devolve into another rant about Telly.

(Because they're terrifying. Not because Cecil's voice is...invigorating.)

"Oh, Carlos, you needn't apologize," Cecil says quickly. He lays a hand on Carlos' forearm. "You couldn't have known. No, Telly's nature was hidden even from those of us who are lifelong residents of Night Vale. There's no undoing it now--I mean, unless you've kept the shorn hair. It's usually best to collect it after a haircut anyway, you know. You don't want some ragamuffin to come by and collect hair for some arcane, dark ritual and inadvertently tie your will to that of a horrid monster, called from the dark abyss by sinister magic. Especially since the City Council has ruled that if your essence is used to call forth a hell beast, you're legally responsible for the damage it causes, regardless of whether you knowingly donated the sample. Those fines can get costly!"

Carlos blinks. Cecil beams at him earnestly.

"No," Carlos says slowly. "I wanted to talk to you about Telly."

"Telly," Cecil mutters.

"After your...broadcasts...I went by Telly's to see how he was holding up," Carlos says. Public opinion about Telly had been...not good. The old woman who lived on the edge of town, the one who's always followed around by the tall, imposing strange men that the locals claim are angels, had confided in him that they all knew Telly's true nature now that Cecil had revealed it.

(The people in town largely seem to adore Cecil. That's not at all endearing.)

Carlos had been concerned and went back out to Telly's, only to find it abandoned, the door hanging open, and Telly nowhere in sight. At least, not until a few days later.

"The place was empty," he continues. "And then, a few days later, I was going out into the sand wastes to take some readings and I saw Telly there wasn't good."

Cecil's eyes light up. "Oh really?" he asks.

"Yeah," Carlos says. "He was wandering around, screaming at the sky, holding...uh, someone's hair--" It was Carlos' hair. He doesn't know how he knows but...he does. "Begging god for a second chance. He was badly sunburned and crying and when I tried to approach him, he screamed and then huddled behind a cactus and started trying to--well, I think he was trying to give it a haircut."

Cecil nods slowly.

"I think he was run out of town," Carlos says. "I think he was run out of town because of what you said on the radio."

"Oh, Carlos," Cecil says. He's genuinely moved, and the hand that had been resting on Carlos' forearm moves to press against his chest.

(Carlos doesn't miss it.)

"That is the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me," Cecil says. "Oh my goodness, I'm blushing. Carlos, you charmer. I'm nothing more than a public servant, doing my part to make sure people are aware of the important issues in our little desert town. How they choose to use the information is up to them, of course, and I can only hope they'll always make the correct choice, as they have this time. But if you really want to thank me, you could always join me for my weekly mandated slice at Big Rico's?"

His smile is eager and blinding (not charming, not sweet), and Carlos finds himself able to do little more than stutter.

"I didn't--I meant--I...just ate," he says. Cecil's face falls.

"Oh, well," he says with a sigh. "Another time then?" He takes the phone that is still clutched in Carlos' hand and starts tapping the screen before Carlos can protest. "Here, I know you've called the station, but I'm giving you my personal number in case you ever need to report a story or want to go to dinner or need to ask any questions or want to get a coffee or need help with anything or just want to chat, okay?"

"I--" Carlos starts to say as Cecil shoves the phone back at him.

"Anyway, I should go," Cecil says. He's still blushing and the smile is back. "It was so nice to see you, Carlos, and don't let Telly get you down--even a bad haircut can't hide your luminescence." He squints. "Speaking of, have you been spending time down at the Night Vale Sanitation Plant? You really should use those chemical showers before you leave. The glow is comforting at first, but before long it's so bright it gets hard to fall asleep at night. Anyway, see you around, Carlos."

Carlos watches him go and then stares down at his own skin. He thinks he's never needed a drink more in his life. And something about the sunset--or lack thereof--is bothering him.

Research. He needs to do research. Silent, steady research alone in his apartment. Comforting numbers. In the face of all that is Night Vale, logic is the only comfort he has left and it's rapidly unraveling. He doesn't want to think too hard about what that means for his sanity.

(Or what--who--is available to replace science as his touchstone.)


"...Listeners, I am not one to stand aside harshly and say that a man deserves the punishment that comes to him, but I also am not sorry to see Telly in this state, given his crime. In any case, if your cactus is in need of a haircut, try Telly, out wandering the sand wastes."

Carlos sighs and turns away from the radio. So much for getting Cecil to back off of Telly. He can't help but feel partially responsible for Telly's downward spiral. He shouldn't. It's Cecil and this fucked up town, but the blame still lingers, and despite his outrage at Telly's fate and his desperate fear when confronted with most aspects of this town, he's not packing his bags yet. He can't even bring himself to turn the radio off.

There are reasons that Carlos should run the other way and never look back. Night Vale is a terrifying police state, otherworldly and beyond the laws of time and space. Thirty-eight people can be murdered at a PTA meeting with no consequence and roads can disappear into the ether and things that shouldn't exist walk down the street every day. He probably has a better chance of survival running out into the desert than he does living through the week in this town--the team of scientists he came with has deserted him or died in only a few short weeks. He shouldn't stay, and even if he does, he shouldn't complicate things further by taking up with an eerily prescient and nosy radio host. If things go well, it will keep him from leaving and if they go poorly, Carlos fears what the town will do to mend Cecil's broken heart.

He doesn't know anything about Cecil, other than the fact that he's unsettling, strange and possibly malevolent. Something about Cecil seems deeply connected to this town, to this place that's unexplainable and frightening. Carlos doesn't want that in his life. He'd be better off without it.

His phone buzzes on the table, the short burst that indicates a text message. Hardly anyone ever talks to him. All his friends are dead or gone.

Thanks for the tip about Telly :) it says. Cecil, of course.

Carlos can't afford the danger inherent in taking up with Cecil. He can't even entertain it; just being in Night Vale has already drastically shortened his projected lifespan.

Still, he stares at the text for a long time, and though his thumb lingers over the button, he puts his phone away without deleting it.