Work Header

run, run, fast as you--

Chapter Text


June 11, 2012

"Night Vale?" Lucinda sputtered, spitting a mouthful of dry cappuccino back into her Starbucks cup. "What do you mean, Night Vale? When did you even apply for that grant? And why on earth would you want to go there? I mean—“ She laughs a little, looking uncomfortable, "I know people who swear it's not even real."

"It's real." Carlos tugged open the top drawer of his tiny desk and dumped its contents into the cardboard box on the floor. A purple highlighter, a half-empty box of paperclips, and one of those "motivational" desk calendars (a birthday present from a more than usually clueless junior lab assistant) missed the box and scattered to various corners of the room. Carlos dived for the purple highlighter, then dropped it. It would be useless where he was going.

"I've got weather reports, geological specimens," he continued explaining to his (now former) Ph.D. supervisor. "Not to mention, they have a website.”

"From what year?" Lucinda demanded. "And what geological samples did you…?” She froze. “Oh god, not those. Steuben didn't let you handle them without gloves, did he?"

In all honesty, Carlos hadn't even tried to handle them. The specimens had the consistency of rock candy crystals and glowed blue. He’d just want to drink the sight of them in for awhile.

"I know how this must look," he said, trying not to sound out of breath. He hadn't slept for 36 hours, and he'd scarcely stopped moving in all that period of time. "And I appreciate your concern. But this, this trip to Night Vale is vital to my research."

"What research?" Lucinda sounded nearly frantic. "I just talked to Robert yesterday, he didn't say a word about any changes in your project.”

"Yes. Yes, that's another thing. I'm not working with Robert anymore."

Lucinda greeted this cool announcement of the dissolution of his working relationship with his research partner of three years with a blank, gaping expression which clearly indicated that she'd run out of exclamation points.

Carlos avoided her eyes and began stuffing papers into a duffle bag. His brief case was locked in the trunk of his car, along with every other item of value he possessed. There was a depressing amount of room left over. Carlos expected to be able to fit the duffle back there as well.

"Look, I'm not just running out on my projects.” This was a lie. His samples were in ruins, his readings illegible. It scarcely mattered if he ran out on them; there was nothing to save. That’s what months of trying to do science in a state of complete distraction got you.

"Robert and I have talked." That part was true, according to the strictest possible interpretation of the English.

"We've both agreed that we're, we’re moving in opposite directions." That statement was neither true nor untrue. It was simply a fact, like gravity, or something far less reassuring, like baryogenesis.

Lucinda’s expression shifted to something like concern. She was a clever woman, mature enough to be a stable and useful advisor during his doctoral work, and young enough to see right through any bullshit excuses her students attempted to fob off on her. Carlos wouldn’t say they were friends—he didn’t really have many friends—but she knew him better than just about anyone else in the department.

"Look, I wouldn’t pry, but is this about Robert’s…” Lucinda spread her hands, a vague, encompassing gesture. “Thing?"

Carlos had just turned his back to examine the tottering bookshelf in the corner, and he was profoundly grateful not to have to meet her eyes. He hadn’t had the faintest idea that Lucinda knew about the thing.

"Believe me, I appreciate the awkwardness of having to deal with a colleague who—“ Her mouth tightens. “I appreciate the awkwardness of dealing with colleagues. But surely we can figure out a way to make the situation less uncomfortable without you moving yourself and your mountain of sticky notes all the way to—where is Night Vale, anyway?”

"My best calculations make it about 500 miles west of Albuquerque. I might be off, it might be a little more to the north."

”You see, you can’t even find it on a map. That is not acceptable, Carlos.” Lucinda put a hand on Carlos’s shoulder, and the light touch made him spin to face her. She lowered her voice when they made eye contact, almost as if she could see…something that made her think he needed not to be yelled at anymore. “Listen, no one is supposed to know this, but the university has lost people at research outposts in Night Vale before.”

Carlos glanced from her face to the clock. It was two forty-five already.

“I wasn’t aware.”

“It was in the fifties. I checked, believe me. You think you’re the first bright young scientist to hear the rumors about that town and get a hair up his ass?”

”You’ve got this completely the wrong way around,” he told her. Yes, he’d heard the rumors—the dangers, the mystery, the once-in-a-lifetime anomalies that occurred on a routine basis.

He isn’t going to Night Vale now because he finds them suddenly irresistible. He’s going for other reasons.

“And in any case, it’s past the point where debating will do any good. I signed the contract already. I’m leaving tonight.”

Robert's office was only two doors down from his. His office hours started in fifteen minutes. Carlos hadn’t meant to cut it so fine, but he’d had to stop at the post office and put a hold on his mail. There had been a line.

Carlos attempted to smile at Lucinda, but she wasn’t having it. There was exasperation in her expression, and a tincture of something even less lovely—regret, maybe, that she’d invested so many years’ worth of her professional energy in someone as erratic as Carlos had turned out to be. Carlos felt a bit sick. It wasn’t the kind of look you wanted to see on the face of a woman whose respect had always been important to you.

"I'll call," Carlos told Lucinda. “Let you know I’m there safely, that I settled in.” He wasn’t certain if he was lying or not.

Carlos shouldered his duffle bag and hefted the cardboard box. “One last favor,” he said.”

”Favor?” Lucinda arched an eyebrow.

"Don't tell Robert where I'm going.”

It was melodramatic. It was, on the surface, positively juvenile. Lucinda’s face was making a lot of expressions all at once, and Carlos didn’t have the energy or the time to stand here and unravel them all.

He nodded his farewell, not trusting his voice to speak, and walked out the door and down the hall, his footsteps echoing after him like the fading, disregarded tones of his own regrets.

The last thing he did before leaving his department’s wing of the building was check his pigeonhole one last time. Just as he had been told (warned?) there lay a manila envelope stuffed inside. It was adorned with a mysterious, acid green blob of sealing wax which smelled of camphor, and evoked the peal of dying bells in Carlos's head.

He took the stairs down to the parking lot. Robert always took the elevator. The box, and his duffle bag, went into his trunk. He had a buyer for the car lined up already; he couldn’t take it to Night Vale. Carlos drove away, watching the last three years of his life shrink to nothingness in the rearview. He kept waiting to feel relieved about this.


June 10, 2012

There weren't as many professional opportunities for a newly-minted Ph.D. like Carlos as a person might think. His field of study was…eclectic. His options were really rather narrow. Lucinda knew that, but of course, she’d expected him to stay on at the university. She’d thought he was doing valuable work, bless her.

The Night Vale post had been a tantalizing possibility at the back of Carlos’s mind even before “leave the state ASAP” moved to the top of his list of job criteria. Everyone knew about Night Vale. Generous funding and unheard-of project autonomy went with the position. Fascinatingly contradictory rumors about the place abounded.

The mortality rate put most people off in the end, but not Carlos. It was the isolation—a four person research outpost working with strangers had sounded lonely, and while it wasn’t as if Carlos wasn’t used to being alone, he’d actually been hoping to change that about himself, now he was no longer a student. He wasn’t hoping for romance, but he would have liked to make some new friends.

His research partner of three years turning up at his apartment waving a gun around had somewhat altered Carlos’s perspective on prospects like “making new friends with strangers”, however.

Robert had come pounding on the door of his apartment just before midnight. They were still both on student sleeping schedules, so that wasn’t strange in itself. But glimpsing Robert’s bleary eyes through the peephole made Carlos’s stomach twist uncomfortably. He was pretty sure he knew what the visit was about.

No time was really a good time for yet another conversation about what Robert wanted from him, but Carlos opened the door anyway. That was a good example of why Carlos needed more friends—he ended up letting the few he did have push his boundaries to an unpleasant degree.

Robert didn’t speak at first. He pushed past Carlos, pacing and fidgeting on the far side of the room. His coat was slung over his left arm. Once or twice, Carlos started to ask if he could take his coat, offer him some kind of nice, hot, non-caffeinated beverage. But Robert hadn’t looked as if he was in the right kind of mood to appreciate Carlos's collection of locally grown and blended herbal teas. So Carlos had waited, concealing his impatience as best he could.

And then Robert had tossed the coat aside, and the gesture had drawn attention to what he was holding in his right hand. Carlos saw the gun and almost vomited on the spot. He didn’t experience a single moment of comforting denial. The gun made sense, in a way he could barely explain. It made sense that Robert would have one, and that he would feel he had a right to bring it here.

Carlos said nothing. He was frozen, inside and out—even his thoughts were slow. Robert didn’t look to see if Carlos was reacting to the gun, but he knew how quickly Carlos noticed things, so it was all the same. He collapsed in an armchair near the window and heaved a weary sigh. The gun rested on his knee.

"I was going to just shoot myself.” Robert’s handsome, almost immature features crumpled to match the broken tones of his voice. "Write you an email, know. But I wanted to say goodbye to you first, so I tried writing an email. I couldn’t do it, I had to, you know, I just, I had to see you.”

Carlos's mouth was so dry that he didn't think he could form words, but a choked, "God," forced itself out of his mouth anyway.

”But what am I supposed to say now?” Robert laughed. "I mean, saying goodbye, it’s not easy. And words are hard, I mean, I'm a scientist, not a, a lit major."

"Robert, tell me you’re not serious,” Carlos rasped.

He instantly regretted speaking. Robert looked at him for the first time, and a hard glint entered his eye. “Why can't I be serious?” he demanded. “You think this is easy to live with? You don’t know what it’s like, Carlos. You don’t know anything about this kind of pain.”

Images and memories that Carlos associated with the word pain flash through his mind. He thought of the uncle who'd babysat him for a week while his abuela was out of town, who’d pulled him down out of a tree by his ankle; Carlos had broken his leg in the fall. He thought of his sister’s funeral, and his mother, who he hadn’t seen in months, turning up just long enough to scream at everyone and vanish again, this time for good. He remembered his first day at the GT high school where he'd been the only non-white student, how big and cold and empty the hallways had been before and after school.

The one time he believed he’d fallen in love it had ended with his boyfriend calling him a freak and making sure that everyone else at Pride club had known he was a freak too. Antonio was right, probably, but Robert was wrong. Carlos knew perfectly well how much love hurt.

But all he said was, “I don't want you to die," because Robert obviously wasn’t the least bit interested in anyone’s feelings but his own.

"Who cares what you want? You're the reason I'm like this." Robert's voice cracked. "You changed everything for me. And now it's all just—over. We're not students anymore. You'll find another job. You won't even care whether it's anywhere near me. You expect me to just go on living, not knowing where you are—or who who you're with. It isn't even the sex, you know? Not completely. It’s was just…being near you. How warm you are, the way your hair falls over the collar of your lab coat. The way you hum when you're working out equations." Robert gave a despairing laugh. "How am I supposed to live without that, now that I've had it?"

If only Robert would put the damn gun away, then maybe Carlos could think, maybe he could find the right words to say. But his eyes were trained on it helplessly. Robert seemed to sense that the gun was the only thing capable of holding Carlos's complete attention, and he wrapped his fingers around the grip. Carlos made a faint, miserable sound low in his throat.

"I think," Robert said slowly, "You should do it. You should be the one to kill me. It makes sense. There's symmetry to it."

"Jesus fuck, Robert!" Carlos bolted backwards, tripping over a stack of books he’d left next to the table. He scrambled against the wall for balance. "I'm not going to shoot you!"

Robert looked calmer than a moment before, almost satisfied, like Carlos had finally given him part of what he'd come looking for.

”You should do it. You might regret it if you don’t.” Smoothly, he picked up the gun and leveled it at Carlos. “I think…that if you don't kill me…I might kill you."


"Not tonight, of course." Robert looked around vaguely, and Carlos's knees nearly gave way. "I didn't really prepare…and there wouldn't be much point, if I just got caught afterwards. I mean, dying's one thing. I couldn't go to prison." He huffed out a little laugh. "They wouldn't give me lab access in prison."

Carlos’s chest was rising and falling at an accelerated rate, but he wasn’t taking in enough oxygen. Stars burst before his eyes and he felt pins and needles in his face.

”Please, don't shoot me. Don't shoot yourself. Just…" Carlos took a deep breath. "Look, this was an experiment, right?"

Robert blinked.

"Coming here tonight, saying you wanted to die, the gun…it was all to prove the hypothesis that that I would be strongly affected by the prospect of you dying. And now you know, right? You know that I don't want you to die. Please, Robert. You've got a bright future.” Carlos heard his voice break. He had no idea if it would help to save his life or end it all the faster. "If you kill me, or yourself, you'll just be throwing yourself away. I'm not worth that.”

"Oh, Carlos."

Robert was frowning at him. For practically the first time since Carlos had met him, he looked sad for someone other than himself.

He stood up, the gun in his hand, and walked across the room toward Carlos, whose back hit the wall. Robert pressed their bodies together, and Carlos felt the cold metal of the gun pressed against his side.

"You've got no idea what you're worth," Robert whispered. "No idea. No one ever made you see how good you are. How beautiful, how perfect." There were one or two fat tears rolling down Robert's face.

He reached for Carlos so fast that Carlos couldn't stop himself crying out in fear. For the first time, he wondered if the price of getting Robert out of his apartment was going to be giving him sex. The idea made him want to throw up, but he also felt relieved—if it worked, then it would be worth it. Wouldn't it?

Robert used his free hand to cup the side of Carlos's face. His breath smelled of bourbon. He mashed his mouth against Carlos's mouth, and Carlos parted his lips, because he was terrified and because he knew that was what Robert wanted. He tasted the sour tang of Robert's breath and saliva. He felt the slimy mash of their tongues, the awkward click of their teeth and bump of their noses.

Robert drew a deep breath, and just as Carlos thought it was over Robert dived in deeper. Carlos was suffocating, the cold gunmetal pressed to his side, the six inches of height Robert had on him pinning him to the wall. He was choking on spit, on alien organs protruding into his body, and he wished, for an instant, that Robert would just shoot him, so long as he did it quickly.

Finally, Robert pulled away. Carlos's face was damp with tears. He couldn't tell if they were Robert's or his own.

"I know you," said Robert, and Carlos could barely hear him over the chant of "please go away, go away, go away" beating like drums in his head. "One day, you'll meet someone and you'll love them. You might not want them, but you'll give yourself to them, and you'll make them so happy.” Robert sucked in a deep breath, “And I'll hate them. Wherever you go, wherever you are, I'll feel it, I'll know, and I'll hate them, because they aren't me. And I’m so afraid, Carlos. I'm afraid I might hate you too." Robert shook his head. "I don't ever want to hate you, Carlos."

"I don't want you to hate me either," Carlos whispered.

They stood like that for a long time, or a short time—time had lost all meaning to Carlos by that point. Then Robert sighed, slipped his coat back on, and tucked the gun away.

"I'm sorry," he said, in a strange, dissociated tone. He sounded very calm. “I shouldn't have come over. I'm a little drunk."

Carlos blinked at him, stunned. When he realized Robert was waiting for a reaction, he nodded vigorously, hoping like hell that was the right reaction.

"Probably better not to mention to anyone that I was here tonight," Robert continued. "It would just be…embarrassing. For both of us."

"No," Carlos agreed automatically. "You're right. No point mentioning it at all."

For just a moment, there was a gleam in Robert's eyes, and Carlos wasn't sure if he was more afraid of Robert kissing him or producing the gun again.

Instead of doing either of those things, Robert turned, opened the front door, and left. Carlos stayed where he was, listening to Robert's heavy footsteps as they descended the wooden stairs leading down from his door. He didn’t move for a long time.


Carlos spent the night in a closet with his laptop, filling out the electronic application for the Night Vale position. He expected to wait at least a month before hearing back. What he would do with himself in those four weeks, he didn't know.

He got an email about half an hour after he’d affixed his digital signature and hit send. He assumed it was an auto-receipt, but he opened it anyway. The email addressed him as “Doctor [Scientist]” and informed him that he’d been awarded the job, that all his terms were agreed to, and the only condition was that he remain on site in Night Vale the full two years of the project. He was to leave the next morning. The papers would be sent to his office address by messenger.

It made no sense. It was suspicious as hell, and it quite possibly beat even Robert’s shoving a gun into his side for the weirdest thing that had happened to him that day. Carlos lay down in the nest of pillows he’d made in the closet and laugh-cried hysterically until he fell asleep around dawn.

He told no one where he was going, or even that he was going, except for Lucinda. There was no one else to tell; he’d lost the last of his family years ago. He would hardly be missed.


At three a.m. the next morning he took a cab to a deserted bus station platform, carrying only his duffle bag and his cardboard box. The bus driver—a nondescript man in a tan jacket—seemed to be waiting for him.

Carlos handed his ticket over to the driver. The ticket was a peel from an orange segment, on which the word “INVEIGH” had been spelled out in colored rhinestones. The driver tore it in half, ate part of it, and handed Carlos the stub, now spelling “IGH”. He inclined his head to indicate that Carlos shoulder have a seat. Carlos had his pick of seats. He was the only passenger.

Carlos didn't expect to sleep during the trip, but "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult was playing over the speakers on infinite loop, and eventually his head drooped. When he woke up—with no sense at all of how many hours might have passed, or how far he'd traveled—it was daylight outside, and the bus was pulling to a halt. He'd arrived.

"Welcome to Night Vale," said the bus driver in the tan jacket, opening the doors for him with an air of ritual.

Carlos blinked the sleep out of his eyes. He hefted his bag and clutched at his box, stumbling down onto the platform into the translucent light of the desert dawn.

On the sidewalk, a few yards from the bus platform, there stood a tall, skinny man with dark, mostly vertical hair, and incongruous sleeve tattoos that ran up his arms before disappearing under his shirt. He was clutching a tall paper cup of a hot liquid that gave off a noxious looking yellow vapor.

Carlos did not look at this man, or wonder why he had stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk. He trudged sleepily into the light of the rising sun, hoping a lot there would be coffee in his immediate future, and hoping a little that there would be a peaceful, moderately pleasant forty to fifty years of existence in store for him after that.

Chapter Text

June 12, 2012

The papers in the fat manila envelope with the acid green seal contained a lease for a combination lab and living space. Carlos typed the address into Google maps; the screen promptly turned purple and the speakers emitted a ghostly wail.

He tapped the screen a few more times, and the correct information grudgingly appeared. The app seemed to be directing him to a pizza restaurant about a ten minute walk from the bus station.

If nothing else, Carlos was hungry, although it was a bit early in the morning for pizza…wasn’t it? Carlos blinked at the time display on his phone. When he'd got off the bus, he could have sworn it wasn't quite 7 a.m., but now his phone was telling him it was after eleven. Well, misreading a digital display wasn't so mysterious, not when he was half out of his mind with sleep deprivation.

He kept his head down and put one foot in front of the other as he followed the map, his luggage getting heavier by the second. Finally, Carlos was at the door of Big Rico’s. It looked like any other strip mall pizza joint he’d ever set foot in. But when he stepped inside, he heard, not the chime of bells, but a woman's voice from a loudspeaker overheard. "Statistical anomaly,” it announced. The sign at the counter was equally helpful. In large gold letters, it said, BIG RICO'S VALUES ALL ITS CUSTOMERS. PLEASE CHECK AVAILABLE BOOTHS FOR DISCORPORATE BEINGS BEFORE SEATING YOURSELF. 

Carlos claimed the empty booth closest to the door, sliding into his seat very slowly, just in case. (He'd always believed in ghosts. He challenged anyone to grow up around his abuela and not believe in them.) He glanced around the restaurant, trying to get a feel for the population. About a third of the customers were eyeing him openly, though for the most part Carlos could see nothing but benign curiosity in their expressions. The other two-thirds of the restaurant's occupants were shoveling food into their mouths, with a desperate expression and an eye on the clock behind the counter. There wasn't much conversation going on. Everyone—even the people who darted occasional glances in his direction—seemed weirdly intent on their food.

By accident, Carlos caught the eye of a small girl with dark hair done up in round, pom-pom style pony tails. He smiled awkwardly. The girl stared back at him with cool indifference, then dipped a spoon into the glass jar of red pepper flakes on her table. She put the spoon in her mouth and swallowed it down like ice cream.

Carlos's eyes were still watering sympathetically when the waiter appeared.

"I'm Big Rico," said the waiter. "Welcome! You must be the scientist."

Carlos was painfully aware that he was still wearing his white lab coat. He'd been wearing it the night Robert came over, and he hadn't changed clothes (or bathed, ugh) since then. So there wasn't any mystery there. 

He was, however, slightly surprised to discover that Big Rico was a stout, bald, middle aged man whose head barely cleared the top of the table. He was even more surprised that Big Rico's complexion, while perhaps best described as sallow, also gave off a distinct chartreuse bio-luminescence.

"Hungry?" said Big Rico, as Carlos adjusted his gaze downward. "'Course you are. Food'll be up in a minute. In the mean time—“ Big Rico dug into his pockets and produced a single silver key, attached to an unadorned key ring. "The building next door is your lab. Fully outfitted, of course. They were very clear about that. If you need anything else, just come and ask! More than my hide's worth not to provide it!" Big Rico laughed, a bit too heartily. The sound echoed in the relative silence of the restaurant. No one looked at them, except for the girl with the pom-pom hair, whose expression was stern and unchangeable.

"I see," said Carlos, who didn't, at all. He touched the key carefully. It felt almost exactly like what it appeared to be—a smooth, cool metal alloy. "Are you my landlord?"

"Oh, no, no, no. No. No!" Big Rico laughed again, sounding slightly nervous. "City Council owns the lab. It didn't used to be a lab of course, but…well, it's a lab now. There's living space in the back. Nothing fancy, just a bedroom and a bathroom. But you scientists, you're used to roughing it, aren't ya?"

There was something about the way Big Rico said "scientist" that made Carlos feel like he meant something other than what was commonly understood by the word. If he were saying "ninja" or "cowboy" or "deep-sea diving shark wrestler", his tone might be more appropriate.

"Do I pay the rent to you, then?" Carlos asked. "Or do I send checks to City Hall?”

"Oh God, don't do that! The City Council doesn't allow unauthorized attempts at correspondence." Big Rico twitched a little, shaking his head. "No, no, you'll come here. Eat your weekly meal and pay for it, just like everyone else in Night Vale. That's all you need to do."

"I just have to…eat here?" Which, he didn't bother to add, he was bound to do anyway. He was lazy about meals, and the proximity of the restaurant to the lab meant that he was bound to get most of his food either here or at the Arby's across the street.

"Special arrangement with the City Council," said Big Rico, as though that explained anything. "And, hey—you being the scientist and all, they'll probably get you to help collect the specimens! Might even share 'em with ya!" Big Rico's hearty grin turned instantly nervous. "Not that I know anything about those, of course. Uh, maybe I shouldn't have said anything. Let me just…go check the food. Yeah. Back in a jiffy!"

Carlos waited until Big Rico had scurried away to drop his head into his hands. At the back of the restaurant the kitchen door swung open, releasing the fragrances of garlic and pepper and olive oil into the dining room. There was a radio playing back there—a talk show or something, judging by the smooth, sonorous tones of the person speaking.

The food that Big Rico delivered to his table a few minutes later was surprisingly tasty, though difficult to identify. It was some sort of pasta with sauce. Fennel was the only flavor Carlos recognized with any certainty.

When he'd finished eating, he took his duffle bag, cardboard box, and silver key, and walked across the sandy lot to the small, square, sandstone building next door.

The door opened as soon as Carlos aimed the key in its direction. He thought of the keychain remote that he used to unlock his car. He dismissed the idea that the door had simply backed away from the key in fear.

The front room was, indeed, a lab. As normal a lab as any Carlos had ever seen, and well equipped. He wouldn't need to order an electron microscope, or a mass spectrometer, or even a new array of beakers and graduated cylinders. There was also a seismograph, a Geiger counter, and a few other items he couldn't identify at first sight.

Among those items were three young people, who had scurried from different corners of the room to line up in a row before him, like the family von Trapp or something. All three were wearing sparkly, bleached white lab coats. Carlos felt his heart sink into his stomach. He hadn’t realized his colleagues…or were they students? He hadn’t realized anyone would be waiting for him here. He would much rather have had a chance to sleep, shower, and change clothes before introducing himself, but he could hardly turn around and run out on them now.

On the far right stood a tall young man, much taller than Carlos. He was possibly Native American, and he sported a tattoo in the shape of an eye in the middle of his forehead. A streak of his long and otherwise dark hair was dyed electric blue. 

A shorter woman stood beside him. She was blonde, with a complexion that said she'd probably lived in the desert her whole life. Her appearance was...unremarkable. Remarkably unremarkable. Carlos blinked, and instantly lost all memory of her face. He opened his eyes again, and there she was, obviously unchanged from two seconds before. Carlos blinked again, this time in confusion. Her smile faltered, and she stirred, looking tense.

The third person was a child approximately twelve years old. She was taller than the blonde woman. Her hair was neatly arranged into cornrows and fastened together in back with a hair tie. She had very dark skin and red eyes with rectangular pupils.

"Good afternoon, Doctor Mazte,” said the young woman. “Welcome to the lab! We are your assistants. We will be assisting you, in your lab.” She smiled, impossibly wide, before nerves appeared to catch up with her, and she looked down at the floor.

”Er, thank you. Just Carlos, is fine. And you are?"

"Perry,” the young man answered, when his colleague only bit her lower lip. "And this is Daisy." 

The blonde woman nodded, confirming her identity.

"Nice to meet you both.” Carlos waited for one of them to introduce the third lab assistant, but neither of them did. They didn't even look uncomfortably aware that they were neglecting to introduce her.

"I'm Nijeia," said the girl with the cornrows. "Perry and Daisy aren't being rude. They can't see or hear me. They won't hear you talking to me, either."

”Really.” Carlos's first thought was that he was being hazed. Or pranked—surely lab assistants wouldn't dare haze their lead researcher, not when their academic and professional futures rested in his hands. "And…why is that?"

"Cuz I'm twelve," she said, matter-of-factly. "And my parents are dead. All the orphan kids stay invisible till they turn sixteen, unless the Orphanarium finds them a new family to stay with. I got special permission so we could talk. Usually old dudes get questioned by the Sheriff's secret police if they try talking to the kids. I mean, they can't see us or nothing, but sometimes they try anyway."

"…Okay," said Carlos. Frankly, even if this was a prank, he didn't have the brainpower to unravel it right now. "Right. Nice to meet you, Nijeia." He cleared his throat and looked at the other two lab assistants, who were watching him with concerned expressions. “Nice to meet you, Perry, and uh…Daisy. I look forward to getting to know you and…and discussing our research goals, and finding out about your areas of expertise. Right now, though, I've had…well, I've had a long couple of days, and I'd really like to just—“

"Call a town meeting!” said Daisy, stepping forward, like he wouldn't have noticed her otherwise.

“Nooo…” Carlos shook his head. “‘Go to bed’, is what I was going to say.”

”Okay, but first you have to call a town meeting. We already scheduled it. It's in an hour."

Carlos took a step backwards, towards the door. It closed behind him automatically. Probably just the wind. "Why?” he said, squeakily.

"Standard procedure," said Perry. "You're the scientist. It's your first day. The town needs to know your intentions.” He looked at his wristwatch, frowning, then shook his head. "We could put it off for a bit, if you want, but we told everyone three o'clock, and Old Woman Josie is baking corn muffins.”

It wasn’t like Carlos couldn’t speak in public, it was just that he had no idea what they wanted to hear. He hadn’t come to Night Vale with a definite project in mind! But apparently he would have to make something up. "Fine, fine—three, you said? And what time is it now?"

"One-thirty," said Nijeia, directly contradicting Daisy's statement that the meeting would take place in an hour. "Your room's all fixed up already. Perry already got you towels and sheets and stuff. He's a suck-up."

"There are towels, if you want to take a shower," Perry piped up on cue. "And I borrowed some sheets from my mom. Figured you wouldn't want to bother shopping on your first day."

Carlos looked from Nijeia's knowing smirk, to Perry's ingratiating grin, to Daisy's slightly worried but hopeful face. "Right," he said. "Well. I'll just…shower, then. And maybe lie down for a bit. Um…just wake me up in time, if I doze off."

"Oh don't worry," said Perry brightly. "The bed won't let you oversleep."


"A new man came into town today. Who is he? What does he want from us? Why his perfect and beautiful haircut? Why his perfect and beautiful coat?"

The shower had done a great deal to restore Carlos's general grip on sanity. He still didn't have the faintest idea what he was going to say or do at this town meeting, but at least if the citizens of Night Vale threw rotten vegetables at the stage, no one would be able to say it was an improvement on how he’d looked and smelled already. 

The radio switched itself on while he was in the bathroom. Considering that his bed also functioned as an alarm clock, he probably shouldn’t have been so surprised that his other furnishings were equally pro-active. He fiddled with the dial while waiting for his hair to dry, hoping to find some music, but the reception wasn’t great. The only station he seemed to get here in the lab was the local talk radio station. The current broadcaster seemed to be using his program as a venue for prattling about whatever came across his desk, or possibly just his mind. He did this in alternating tones of cheerful reassurance and deep foreboding.

"He says he is a scientist,” the broadcaster intoned, as Carlos gave his hair one last pat with the towel. “Well, we have all been scientists at one point or another in our lives. But why now? Why here? And just what does he plan to do with all those beakers and humming electrical instruments in that lab he is renting—the one next to Big Rico’s Pizza?"

Carlos, who had just picked up his comb, immediately dropped it into the sink. He turned slowly and looked at the radio. A cold, sick feeling snaked through his guts.

I just got here, he thought despairingly. How could he have been—noticed already, and in such disturbing detail?

He’d just showered, but suddenly he could almost smell the stench of Robert's breath against the side of his face.

It was some kind of gimmick. It had to be. He wasn't attractive. Hell, he was barely even groomed. He only combed his hair, on average, once every three days.

At that very moment, his phone, lying on the nightstand, chimed with an incoming text. Carlos looked down at the screen. There were five text messages, all from Robert. Somehow, he'd missed all the notifications until now.

Weakly, Carlos sat down on his mattress. He knew he should just delete them, but what if he missed some kind of warning of impending retaliation because he’d been too squeamish to take precautions? He forced himself to take a deep breath.

Where are you?
Lucinda says you've left town.
Don't be afraid of me, Carlos.
I'm so sorry about last night.
I would never hurt you, not really. You have to believe me.

Carlos tossed his phone aside and scrubbed his face over his hands. For one wild, irrational instant, he thought of disappearing entirely—leaving, not just Night Vale, but the southwest, or even the country.

Just then, the manila envelope with the acid green seal let out a sinister whirring noise from its perch atop the cardboard box. Carlos stared, remembering the terms of the contract he'd signed. One of the signatures had required a thumbprint in his own blood.

There was no point running again. He was here now—and if he ran across this, this radio personality, he’d just have to put his foot down right away, and begin as he meant to go on.


three hours later


"That new scientist we now know is named Carlos called a town meeting. He has a square jaw and teeth like a military cemetery. His hair is perfect, and we all hate and despair and love that perfect hair in equal measure."

Perry cleared his throat and jabbed Daisy in the arm, grinning. Carlos pretended not to notice. He hunched over a stack two decades’ worth of seismograph readings and gritted his teeth.

He'd been bullied a lot in high school. As a nerdy Latino teenager with occasional acne, that had been pretty much inevitable. It would pass, the adults had all assured him. One day he would grow out of his baby fat, his hormones would level out, and people would value him for who he was on the inside. Somehow, none of the adults had seen the inherent contradiction in that kindly-meant reassurance.

The thing is, Carlos had known better, even then. Sometimes bullies did grow up into decent human beings. Sometimes, though, they just turned into bigger, stronger bullies, who gained access to automatic weaponry. Or drive-time talk radio shows, apparently.

The meeting itself had gone okay, to Carlos's surprise. He'd babbled a bit about all the fascinating scientific opportunities Night Vale had to offer, but he hadn't fallen over once, nor had his voice squeaked. Even the questions afterwards had all been easy to answer, possibly because none of them had anything to do with science.

Old Woman Josie (apparently that was what she wanted to be called, though it made Carlos cringe—he was all but waiting for his abuela to appear from the afterlife and smack the back of his head) had wanted to know what he did with the buttons he lost from his shirts. The little girl from the diner had asked him for the taxonomy of the largest animal he’d ever wrestled. A portly middle-aged man with a huge, guileless smile had asked if he would be joining the PTA. He’d been undeterred when Carlos stammered that he didn’t have children.

After the town meeting, Carlos had returned to the lab, Perry, Daisy, and Nijeia following him in a row, like ducklings. Carlos had given them arbitrary orders to clean and re-arrange the already spotless and logically arranged lab equipment. They were obviously just going to sit there otherwise, staring at him hopefully until he gave them something to do, and Carlos wanted some quiet time to collect his thoughts. He'd tried turning the radio off—he worked better in silence—but the radio dial was stuck, and yanking the cord out of the wall hadn't silenced it.

"Carlos told us that we are, by far, the most scientifically interesting community in the US, and he had come to study just what is going around here.”

The sound of his name being pronounced over the airwaves in that voice created a sensation like tiny bugs running down the back of Carlos's spine.

"He grinned, and everything about him was perfect, and I fell in love instantly."

Carlos dropped a beaker. It shattered on the cement floor of the lab with a tinkling sound, like a tiny wind chime.

"Wow," said Daisy, in a hushed voice. "He must really like you, Doc—uh, Carlos."

Nijeia, whose insistence that she could not be seen or heard by any adult other than Carlos had not yet been contradicted by any empirical data, walked over to Carlos with a broom and dustpan.

"I don't understand," said Carlos numbly, not moving a hair as Nijeia swept up the remnants of the beaker. He wanted to protest—she was a child, she shouldn't be handling broken glass—but she was too quick, and besides, she was a lab assistant.

"I need to ask you a question," said Carlos, as Nijeia tipped the contents of the dustpan into the sharps disposal bucket.

"Yes?" said Daisy, perking up.

"Not you, I was talking to…” Carlos looked at Nijeia, confused.

"You got to say my name, or they're gonna think you're talking to them. Or yourself, I guess.”

"Nijeia," said Carlos, and Daisy's eyes unfocused immediately. She looked around vaguely, then began to polish an already spotless Erlenmeyer flask. Okay, that was an effect he kind of wanted to test under more controlled conditions, but now was not the time.

"Nijeia. What do you know about the radio host—Cecil? Is that his name?”

"Sounds like he’s in love with you."

Carlos would have glared at her if he hadn't felt like there was a nest of snakes writhing in his stomach. Nijeia, seeming to sense his discomfort, took on a more thoughtful expression.

"I don't talk to him," she said. "He’s an old dude. Like you."

"Actually an 'old dude', or old like, my age?”

Nijeia cocked her head. "I don't know? I guess he looks like y'all might be the same age. But nobody really knows how old anybody is around here, except for the Orphans. City Council tracks our ages. But I think I’ve been twelve a long time."

”What, like a vampire?”

Nijeia narrowed her red eyes at him. “Sorry, bad joke. Um, what does Cecil look like? Do you know?"

(Carlos assumed that, as a radio personality, this Cecil person was probably seen much less often than he was heard, but anything Nijeia could tell him would be helpful. Carlos was going to need to secure the cooperation of the locals for a lot of the research he planned to conduct, and that might be hard to do if he got a reputation for peering with fear and suspicion at every male-presenting stranger between the ages of thirty and forty.)

"He's tall," said Nijeia, pulling herself up on a stool beside Carlos and opening a drawer in the workbench, from which she retrieved a cellophane bag of some snack Carlos didn't recognize. It giggled when she opened it, and there was a faint noise of satisfaction under the crunching when she popped one corn-chip-looking piece into her mouth. "Black dude, but lighter than me. His hair goes everywhere." She sketched the shape of something like an irregularly maintained afro around her head. "He's got like, grooves in his hair from where he wear those headphones." She crunched down on another corn chip. This one made a little shriek of despair as it crumbled between her teeth. "Uh…. He wears glasses? And he’s got tattoos like Perry’s, all up and down his arms."

An image was forming in Carlos's mind, along with a budding sense of recognition. "Does he wear sweater vests?"

"I guess, sometimes?"

And now he had it. Through the haze and fog of his sleep-deprived memory, Carlos recalled the image of a dark-skinned man with large, messy hair in a sweater vest, standing on the sidewalk near the bus platform when he'd disembarked earlier that morning.

"He thinks I'm beautiful?" Carlos practically shrieks. When he'd climbed off the bus, half his hair had been stuck to the side of his head with sweat and grease, and the other half had been standing practically vertical. There'd been a red line engraved along his cheek, where his face had been mashed up against the back of the seat in front of him.

"Guess so.” Nijeia shrugged.

Carlos stared blankly at the stack of seismograph charts. He felt…well, he wasn't sure what he felt, but the writhing in his stomach was easing a bit. It was almost as if…well, it was absurd, and he would never say it out loud, but some tiny part of him had been wondering if Robert hadn't somehow managed…

But no. This was Night Vale. It had plenty of its own oddities. It didn't need to import new ones from Carlos's terrifying recent past.

"Ooh, Doc—I mean, Carlos." Daisy approached him, looking right through Nijeia. She waved a canary yellow phone at him. "Someone's just called in a report about a non-existent house. And Perry—“

"Look. At. This seismograph." Perry's voice was filled with equal measures of excitement and dread, and he was staring at the instrument like he couldn't take his eyes away. "Just—just come and look at it."

Nijeia arched an eyebrow. "You go on and worry about Cecil later," she told him, disposing of her empty chip bag in the trash can. It caroled a cheerful farewell as it sank into the depths. "Looks like we got science to do."

Carlos looked into her small face. Her curious red eyes were beaming with an eagerness that she obviously felt would be too uncool to demonstrate in any more obvious fashion. Carlos knew all about that. He'd been that kid once himself.

The nice thing about being a grown-up, he'd found, was that you didn't have to play cool when awesome science stuff was happening around you. You could just say, "Awesome!" and start messing around with it.

"Which first, Nijeia?" Carlos said. "Non-existent house, or intangible earthquake?"

Nijeia grinned. She didn't even hesitate as she ran for the seismograph.

Chapter Text

(still) June 12, 2012 (probably)

If he'd had an infinite array of options, Carlos doubted he would have chosen to meet Cecil, Voice of Night Vale, on his very first day in town. (Assuming it was still his first day. Temporal fluidity in Night Vale now being an established fact, and no longer a theory, all Carlos knew for certain was that he hadn't properly slept since his arrival. He would have liked to have slept before coming face to face with Cecil for the first time. At least he'd showered.)

But there was just so much that was happening. First the devastating earthquakes, sensed only by the seismograph. (Perry had called that one into the radio station--he said that, as Scientists, they had a duty to report these things, for the good of Night Vale citizens. Carlos definitely agreed that they needed to report it to someone, but the local radio host would not have been the person at the top of his list. If he'd had a chance to make a list.)

(Carlos didn't actually have any clear idea yet how Night Vale's infrastructure was arranged: who was in charge of emergency services, or if they even had emergency services. He'd tried calling FEMA behind Perry's back, but his phone had begun to ooze a viscous, purplish-black fluid before he could even hit send.)

While Perry handled the data-gathering on the intangible, insensible earthquakes, Carlos drove Daisy and Nijeia out to the house that did not exist, according to its neighbors. He expected, basically, to find an…absence, where a house should be. But that turned out not to be the case at all.

"My parents live in this neighborhood," said Daisy, as they piled out of the car and came to stand in a row on the pristine white sidewalk that bordered a line of immaculate green, yellow, purple, and chartreuse lawns. "I grew up here."

She stared at the house--indistinguishable, in its appearance, from any other house on the street, apart from the fact that instead of a gleaming brass number plate indicating the address, there was a runic looking figure on the door post that was too bright to look at directly. That was probably just the sun reflecting off it, though--it did still seem to be made of polished brass.

"So you've never seen this house before?" Carlos asked, still trying to wrap his head around the fact that complaints of non-existence had been called in on a house that palpably…existed. After all, it was right there.

"Noo…." said Daisy, thoughtfully. "No, it definitely used to be here. This was where my friend Delilah lived, till her dad got a promotion and they moved to that gated community they built up around the mayor's house."

"Ask her did it have that creepy ass sigil-thing back then," said Nijeia, from Carlos's left.

"And did it have a house number then, or was the…glowing thing always there?" Carlos said, relaying Nijeia's highly pertinent question with a sense of guilt that he was, essentially, taking credit for her observation. He'd already figured out that Nijeia was the most astute of the lab assistants the City Council had assigned to him. Maybe once he understood how time worked here, he could see about aging her up a few years, so she could start thinking about things like publishing papers, or going to a real school.

"No, it used to be 1212 Garibaldi Lane," Daisy said. She tilted her head sideways. "If you….kinda squint your eyes, you can almost see the ones and the…and the twos…"

Carlos looked at her sharply. Her voice was taking on a worryingly vague tone, and, in Carlos's opinion, she should definitely be blinking more.

"Hey." He bumped her shoulder. Daisy shook her head and looked up at him. He grinned. "Want to ring the doorbell?"


Nijeia wanted to ring the doorbell. She wanted to ring the doorbell with an eagerness that Carlos felt duty-bound to restrain--he'd only been joking, confident that Daisy wouldn't do it.

In the end, he put Nijeia back in the car and left Daisy in the Desert Creek development to record observations. (Now he thought of it, "Desert Creek" was a strangely appropriate name for a subdivision containing a non-existent house, and also, hadn't Daisy said she'd grown up there? It was a new housing development, according to the information he looked up when he got back to the lab.) In any case, her parents did, definitely, live nearby, because they came out to say hello while Carlos was still arguing with Nijeia about the scientific validity of throwing rocks through the windows. Daisy's parents promised to give her a ride back into town when she was finished working, so Carlos drove Nijeia back to the safety of the lab with a clear conscience. Nijeia pouted the whole way back--which was to say, she plugged her mp3 player into the car's speakers and forced him to listen to zydeco music for the fifteen minutes it took them to get to town.

Carlos wasn't quite sure where the car came from. It was just sitting out in front of the lab when he walked out the door earlier. The same key that terrified the door of the lab into submission also fit into the car's ignition. He'd filed this away into a mental folder labeled "impossibilities to be coped with a more highly cognitive-functioning time". Which is to say, after he'd slept.

The road back into town ran due west, and Carlos grimaced in anticipation of the sun's glare. He had a pair of sunglasses somewhere but he hadn't had the foresight to shift through his duffle bag of earthly belongings and find them before setting out. He adjusted the visor over the windshield and squinted in painful anticipation.

He'd been driving for about five minutes when it occurred to him that, actually, the sun was no more shining in his eyes than it had been when he first got off the bus that morning, shortly after what he'd presumed was dawn (but had turned out to be closer to noon.)

"Nijeia," he said, saying her name three times before she condescended to turn down the music and look at him. "What time is it?"

"Five after eight." She pointed impatiently at the car's clock.

"Yeah, could you…confirm that somehow? With a…watch, or your phone, or something?"

Nijeia rolled her eyes but did as he asked. "Eight-oh-six on my phone. Why?"

Carlos didn't know if it was the sleep deprivation (which always did tend to make him a bit giddy), or if it was just the cumulative affect of the day--days--he'd had, or if he was just, finally, coming unhinged. But a giggle started up, deep in his belly, and when he spoke again the force of keeping the laughter down made him sound a bit strained. He glanced over to confirm that Nijeia had a smartphone, then said, "Look up the National Weather Service and find out when sunset's supposed to be."

"Uh, maybe you slower than you look," said Nijeia, "but the National Weather-whatever don't know about us."

"No, no, I know--or at least, I figured. Um…try Albuquerque."

Nijeia gave him a skeptical look, but did as she was told. "Sunset at 7:42, give or take 28 seconds."

"Okay. Now just…look outside. Tell me what you notice."

Nijeia didn't bother. "I ain't got to do nothing' special to notice how the sun ain't burning my eyes out," she told him impatiently. Carlos noticed that her grammar seemed to get less formal depending on how her estimation of his intelligence rose and fell. "Sun ain't setting'. Big deal. Call a press conference."

The giggles welled up and spilled out of Carlos's mouth, like the remains of a poorly digested fact. He clutched the steering wheel for balance, wheezing slightly, as Nijeia looked at him with an expression that hovered halfway between scorn and concern.

"That's it," he told her. "That's just what we're going to do."

Carlos drove them to the lab, where Perry was sitting at the workbench surrounded by readings from the seismograph. He looked up at Carlos as he walked through the door with wide eyes. "I think we might all be dead?" Perry said, sounding strained. "I mean, the data says that we're dead, basically, and this building fell into a newly formed canyon about three hours ago, and--I don't know, do you think we're maybe, actually, dead? Do we get to keep doing science after we die?"

Carlos waved away the stack of print-outs Perry tried to shove into his hands. He put a hand on Perry's shoulder and guided him out the door to the car. "We're going to the radio station," he said, opening the back passenger door for Perry so that he wouldn't sit on Nijeia by mistake. "We've got Science to report."

"Okay," said Perry, sounding relieved. "That's good. Cecil will know what to do."

Carlos put the car into reverse, still grinning in a way that would have probably disturbed him if he'd happened to glance into the mirror. "That is a hypothesis we are about to put to the test," he said.

Nijeia rolled her eyes again and turned up the music. They drove into downtown Night Vale, under a beaming, roughly 5:30 p.m.-ish sun, blaring accordion music all the way.


When they reached the radio station, they were instantly recognized by the intern, whose name Carlos didn't register. The intern babbled something incomprehensible at them, then rushed to open the door to the recording booth, shouting their names into the room.

Carlos and Perry walked inside the small room. Nijeia trailed close behind. She was playing some version of Angry Birds on her phone that Carlos had never seen before. The birds seemed a lot angrier, for one thing.

"Oh," said Ceil, Voice of Night Vale, as the door swung shut behind them. "Oh." He sounded breathless. "H-hello! Welcome to the station, Scientists!"

Cecil had turned his pivoting chair to face them, but he didn't stand up. He looked like he'd forgotten how. His eyes were wide--huge, really--behind his glasses. He wasn't looking at Perry, or at Nijeia (obviously.)

Cecil looked at Carlos--only at Carlos. And suddenly, Carlos felt like a fool.

All the details he hadn't registered when he first glimpsed Cecil outside the bus station that morning could now be recorded by the incessant, data-assimilating portion of Carlos's brain that had essentially doomed him to a career in Science at an early age.

His first thought was that Cecil was built like a neatly compressed bundle of twigs--he was a little thicker in the torso than in the legs, and a little more developed in the legs than in the arms, but essentially, he was a stick. Or a stick-based humanoid construction. Cecil's hair, which traveled outwards in all directions from his head, was actually the widest point on his body. Like a cat, he could probably fit through any space he could push his head through.

Carlo's second thought was that Cecil had the most guileless eyes he'd ever observed in the face of a sentient creature. They were mostly dark, but his pupils were too dilated to get an accurate impression of their color. Their darkness was ringed with a violet light. His entire iris might be purple. Carlos found himself entertaining the strange hope that they were, because that would be lovely.

Now he was finally face to face with the man whose voice had haunted his every step in Night Vale--who had declared himself in love with Carlos a mere….however many hours ago--Carlos was forced to compare him to Robert. He didn't want to. He already felt that it was grossly unfair to Cecil. But Carlos had been too frightened for too long to resist the compulsion. So he made his inventory.

First, Carlos tried to imagine Cecil holding a gun. It was actually very easy. That is to say, it was easy to imagine Cecil looking down at his slender, dusky hand, finding a gun in it, then dropping it like it was coated in hydrochloric acid while screeching like a frightened child.

Next, Carlos tried to imagine Cecil pinning him to a wall. Cecil was tall, certainly--even sitting in that chair, Carlos could see that Cecil was tall enough to loom over him. But the looming would be a technicality, considering that he had neither bulk nor breadth to back up the looming. If Cecil had Carlos up against a wall, it would be…more of an awkward and delicate shuffle that ended with Cecil accidentally treading on Carlos's toes, because he'd lost all spatial awareness and forgotten where he ended and Carlos began. It would be intimate. It would be anything but a threat of harm.

Finally, Carlos imagined Cecil kissing him. He tried to imagine Cecil grabbing his face and shoving his tongue down his throat. But he failed at the imagining; the image wouldn't resolve in his head. The best he could do was to conjure the feel of Cecil's slender fingertips, resting like tiny insect legs on either cheekbone, while he angled his head down on his slender neck and touched his surprisingly full, dark lips against Carlos's lips. Their brush would feel like the brush of butterfly wings. Carlos would smell only sweetness, delicacy, maybe a whiff of the paprika tea he'd been clutching outside the bus station that morning. (Carlos had bought some from a street vendor earlier in the day, recognizing the yellowish vapor. The flavor would take getting used to, but it wasn't at all unpleasant.)

"Hi," said Carlos, surprised by how dry his throat had become. "I'm Carlos."

"Yes." Cecil nodded vigorously. "Yes, you are. No! I meant--" Cecil coughed. "Hello, Carlos. The Scientist! Welcome to Night Vale. Welcome to our show. Oh, um, we aren't broadcasting at the moment--right now we're airing a children's feature on how to communicate in whale song. Our next segment is in about half an hour. But we received the many useful and, and fascinating reports that your Lab sent us throughout the day! I must say, it livened the broadcast right up!"

At that point, Perry pushed his way forward. "You told them about the earthquakes, right? About--about the devastating, civilization-destroying earthquakes? Your listeners need to know that we're probably all, actually, dead right now. I mean. That's important, isn't it? That's newsworthy?"

Cecil looked at Perry and smiled. It was a kind smile. It was a smile that said Cecil had looked into the abyss of many a terrifying news broadcast and always lived to broadcast another day. "I certainly did," he told Perry, his voice deepening in a way that even Carlos found soothing. "No casualties reported so far. I suppose we might all be dead, but even if we are, things seem to be carrying on like normal, so there's probably no point worrying about it, right?"

Astonishingly to Carlos, this seemed to reassure Perry. His shoulders slumped in relief. He wandered over to a randomly placed folding chair and sat down, bowing his head and mumbling to himself inaudibly.

"Soo," said Cecil, turning back to Carlos. "What brings you here? More…Science to report? Or…" Cecil cleared throat awkwardly, and his voice rose in pitch. "Perhaps you came to make…inquiries? Of a more…personal nature?"

Since clapping eyes on Cecil, here in his…native habitat, as it were, Carlos had been having…feelings. Feelings of an inexplicable, practically unprecedented nature that made Cecil's long, bony face take on a strange, sweet softness in Carlos's perception. It was difficult to explain. Possibly it had something to do with the fact that, assuming the person who had declared their love for you in front of the entire town was not in any way reminiscent of the abusive ex who had shoved a gun into your ribcage, it was almost impossible not to feel some…tenderness for that person in return. There really was something incredibly powerful about being preferred so openly. Especially by a man with eyes like Cecil's, and hair like Cecil's, and long, spindly fingers like Cecil's.

But Cecil's poorly disguised (if you could even call it disguised) and clumsy little flirt forced Carlos to take a mental step or two backwards. He didn't know this man. All of Night Vale felt that they knew him--Perry had practically vibrated with relief at the idea of asking for Cecil's help--but it didn't change the fact that Carlos didn't know him. And that he didn't trust him.

Carlos didn't…not trust Cecil. There was an inkling of something there that might very well develop into trust, friendship, even affection, over time. But this was Night Vale, and time worked differently here. Maybe Cecil's subjective experience of the temporal distortions meant that he felt that he'd already known Carlos long enough to love him without question. But from Carlos's point of view, he'd been living one long, exhausting day that had begun in terror and was ending in a kind of resigned bewilderment. He couldn't trust any decision he made right now, not even a decision as innocent as trading phone numbers with Cecil (assuming that was, indeed, what Cecil was angling for.)

Anyway, Carlos didn't flirt. He didn't know how. What would be the point of flirting, when you were a…freak? It would be like inviting someone over for dinner, setting a beautiful table, and not putting any food on the plates when they showed up. Carlos might not know or trust Cecil yet, but he was slightly suspicious of the possibility that he'd already fallen slightly in love with Cecil's big, innocent, trusting eyes. Flirting back with him would just be the first step on a long road that would only lead to hurting Cecil.

Carlos might not know much, but he already knew he didn't want to do that.

"Yes," Carlos said, and seeing the spark of hope in Cecil's face felt like being stabbed. He rushed on, adding, "We have Science to report. I'm afraid that sunset is happening at the wrong time. People should be aware. There's an airport in Night Vale, isn't there? The ATC will need to know, it's important for…pilots, as well as the general public."

"Oooh." If Cecil was disappointed, then he was very good--very professional--about hiding it. Except for his eyes. Those eyes hid nothing at all, and Carlos had to look away from them. "Yes, that does sound like important news. If you'd just have a seat and…tell me about it, I'll work it up into the lead for my next segment."

Cecil snapped his fingers at the intern, who appeared instantly with a chair for Carlos. Carlos called after the intern, asking for any clocks that might be around the building. The intern returned with three clocks, which Carlos arranged at the booth opposite Cecil. Perry came out of his stupor long enough to come and sit by them.

Nijeia, who up to this point had been leaning against a wall staring at her phone, walked over to Carlos's chair. She stood just between him and Cecil. Obviously, Cecil didn't notice, but it helped Carlos maintain his concentration.

He felt a terribly unprofessional urge to squeeze Nijeia's hand in gratitude, except that he suspected she would bite him.

"When you all done lookin' at clocks," she said to Carlos, "you may wanna go on and check this out."

Carlos blinked at her. Nijeia reached into the pocket of her slightly oversized coat and produced the Geiger counter from the lab.

"I'm just saying'," she said. "Some crazy ass radioactivity up in here. It don't seem to be hurting nobody, but I'm gonna wait for y'all in the car, just in case."

She left the Geiger counter lying on Carlos's numb, outstretched palm. He looked down at the dials and blinked.

"Nijeia," he said. "Could you…take Perry with you? Somehow?" Carlos wasn't going to give his very first lab assistants from his post-doctoral career cancer. He just wasn't.

"No problem," Nijeia called, from near the door. The next thing Carlos knew, Perry was yelping, scrambling backwards out of his chair. Nijeia had a fistful of his long hair and was pulling it inexorably after her. Perry looked confused and panicked, but he also seemed to be in a considerable amount of pain, so Carlos didn't blame him for following his hair, which to his eyes must have seemed to have taken on a mind of its own suddenly, out of the recording booth.

Cecil sighed. Carlos looked at him, and Cecil shook his head. "We really must call the exorcists in again," he said mournfully. "But of course, June is their busy season."


"Carlos, perfect and beautiful, came into our studios during the break earlier, but declined to stay for an interview. He had some sort of blinking box in his hand covered with wires and tubes. Said he was testing the place for materials. I don’t know what materials he meant, but that box sure whistled and beeped a lot. When he put it close to the microphone it sounded like, well, like a bunch of baby birds had just woken up, really went crazy."

Carlos had just finished his second shower of the day--this time, in the decontamination unit built into the side of the lab. He was drying his hair with a towel when Cecil's voice wandered into his hearing. He followed the sound back to his bedroom, where the radio on his nightstand had switched itself on again (this radio was also impossible to silence by unplugging.)

"Carlos looked nervous. I’ve never seen that kind of look on someone with that strong of a jaw. He left in a hurry. Told us to evacuate the building."

He laughed. He couldn't help it. Strong jaw, indeed. Carlos hadn't even discovered he possessed a jawline under all the double chins until he was 25.

Really, he ought to be more concerned by the fact that Cecil was, clearly, right where Carlos had left him--in a radio station booth with a microphone emitting so much radiation that it might as well have sustained a direct hit from the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. But--and it might just be the sleep deprivation--Carlos had noticed something, just before Cecil stuffed a slip of paper into his hand and walked him to the door of the station. Cecil's sleeve tattoos, which had appeared to be lined in white ink against his dark skin while they were inside the recording booth, were black, outside the building.

It made no sense of any kind, at all. Tattoos did not protect from radiation. They didn't protect your sanity from repeated exposure to temporal anomalies, and they certainly didn't give your wide, guileless eyes the power to see straight into a man's soul and fall in love with him instantly. Cecil's tattoos, obviously, were complete normal, and the confusion about what color they were was just a trick of the light, and Carlos's exhausted, bleary vision.

Still. Cecil hadn't been worried. Cecil's still not worried. Carlos is listening to him right now, being supremely not worried. And…for some reason, it's enough to make Carlos, at least for the present, not-worry too.

"But then, who would be hear to talk sweetly to all of you out there? Settling in to be another clear night and pretty evening here in Night Vale. I hope all of you out there have someone to sleep through it with, or, at least, good memories of when you did."

Carlos turned off the lights and collapsed backwards onto his narrow bed. Poor Cecil; he'd sounded a bit…wistful just then. Carlos thought of the little slip of paper with Cecil's phone number penned across it in careful, incredibly readable handwriting, and felt a bit wistful himself. Sleeping through the night, curled up with someone who was safe, and warm, and could be trusted to touch you only where you wanted to be touched, and nowhere else?

It was probably Heaven. Carlos wouldn't know. He doubted he'd ever find out.

Chapter Text


Time, of a sort, passes in Night Vale. Carlos cannot quantify how much time, because Night Vale does not keep pace with time in the outside world. Everyday, he feels his heart beat (he always checks). Sometimes he counts his breaths. He watches his hair and fingernails grow and sees the lines around his mouth and eyes deepen. He knows he is aging, but it does not make him a reliable standard for measurement. It just means he carries his entropy on the inside, which isn't unusual even for Night Vale.

The digital clock Carlos brought with him from Albuquerque falls prey to Night Vale's temporal fluctuations the moment he plugs it into a wall. He does have one cheap bed-side alarm clock powered by nothing but the coils and gears inside it. He winds it carefully every day. But he keeps that clock in a locked drawer and doesn't look at it very often. He lives in Night Vale now. No point confusing himself unless it's some kind of emergency.

As always, the time-keeping device he relies on the most is his phone. Carlos's phone has become a kind of paradox. The clock and calendar converted to Night Vale time/non-time during his first twenty-four hours here, but it still receives messages from the outside world. Those messages tend to be date-stamped, depending on who they're from. Sometimes they're dated according to the time zone of the person sending them, other times they…aren't.

Lucinda, for example, tries to keep in touch with him his first few months in Night Vale. Her messages keep New Mexico time, but they taper off after the first month or so and eventually they stop completely. Carlos isn't sure if it's because she's given him up for dead or because there's been some interference in the messages he attempts to send back to her. He hopes she isn't worrying too much. He sends her emails occasionally, but she doesn't reply to those either.

The only other person who texts him on a regular basis is Robert. As far as Carlos can tell, Robert messages him, at minimum, twice a week--Albuquerque time. Carlos tends to get months-worths of these messages all in a cluster, which arrive in monstrous data packets that eat up the memory in his inbox.

Sometimes Carlos reads them. Often he doesn't bother, skimming only the first few in the list. They all say pretty much the same thing: Why did you leave like that? / I've been doing research--it isn't safe for you in that freaky place. / Do you need help escaping? I'll find you one day, I swear. / God Carlos, you just make me so angry sometimes. / Please don't be afraid of me. / When I find you, you're going to pay for making me worry so much :-D

A year ago, the fact that Robert was still pursuing him would have terrified Carlos, but honestly, he has too many other demands on his resources to give Robert very much thought these days. Hardly a (relative) week passes without some major crisis threatening the town, and since Carlos spent his formative years reading comic books, he's pretty sure that being the town Scientist means it's his responsibility to deal with them. (He relaxes a little after crisis #27 or so, once it finally dawns on him that Night Vale got along just fine before he arrived, and that it does, in fact, have a kind of infrastructure that's as equipped as anything could be to deal with things like the Glow Cloud, the Void, and the--God--the Librarians. It makes him feel slightly embarrassed by all his frantic running around, until Sheriff Mitchell claps him on the shoulder one day and smiles at him. He doesn't say anything, but Carlos feels a strange, warm feeling of inclusion in that embrace. It's like Night Vale is saying, "hey, most of us are going to die anyway, and there's not a lot you can do to change that, but we really appreciate the way you keep trying!" He feels like maybe this is Night Vale's way of telling him he's not an Outsider anymore. He's not entirely sure is that's a good thing--what if he wants to leave one day?--but for as long as he's here, it's probably for the best.)

Once Carlos absolves himself of the responsibility to keep Night Vale from the brink of destruction, he starts confining his studies to the things that genuinely interest him. In other words, he starts behaving like a scientist again, not a super-hero wannabe. At the moment, he's keenly interested in the Whispering Forest and the miniature civilization under the pin-retrieval area of Lane Five at the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. He's designated Perry as primary researcher on the Whispering Forest project, because, technically, Perry has seniority over his other lab assistants (he's the only with a degree, for one thing, even if it is only from Night Vale Community College.) Besides, Perry is an excitable, nervous type, the Forest always seems to calm him down. He doesn't burst into fits of crying and nervous babbling so much since he started spending more time in the Forest. So far as Carlos can tell, this is a good thing.

Nijeia is Carlos's assistant on the miniature-city project. Carlos is most definitely in charge of that project, because there's no way he's letting Nijeia climb down into into the miniature city to take readings on her own, even if she is smaller and of a better size to squeeze down there (as she points out to him repeatedly).

Carlos is slightly concerned by the fact that Nijeia hasn't grown any taller since first they met--weren't twelve year olds prone to random growth spurts at the drop of a hat? Carlos is aging--Carlos's hair is at least 30% more grey than it was when he first arrived. But Nijeia looks exactly the same as she did the day they met, except that recently she shaved off her hair and no long sports a pony tale of thick corn rows at the base of her neck. She explains that the corn rows were actually weaves--synthetic hair, dangerously prone to catching fire near gas jets and open flame, and thus not really practical for scientists. The short hair makes her look slightly older, but Carlos would feel better if he were making more progress on the temporal stabilization ray he's been tinkering with since he first got to Night Vale. He doesn't entirely trust the Orphanage, where Nijeia returns every night. He feels like she comes back to the lab every day just a little thinner than the day before. She's brilliant--far too brilliant to waste her talents as his unpaid labor. She needs to explore the world and find out what she can do with that keen, inquisitive brain of hers.

As for the third member of his team, Daisy….well. Daisy doesn't work for Carlos anymore.

She's not dead or anything, which is honestly a relief at this point--all three of his assistants are accounted for, and all are still alive, unlike Cecil's rota of interns at radio station. Poor Cecil; he seems to handle the mortality rate at NVCR relatively well, but Carlos honestly isn't sure if Cecil is just repressing, or if this is one of those Night Vale things Carlos isn't entirely comfortable with yet.

Daisy left them about two (relative) months ago. She started getting restless not long after the Glow Cloud enrolled its child (the cutest little multi-colored puff of existential angst and soul-crushing despair anyone's ever laid eyes on) in the Night Vale public school system. Daisy was obviously troubled, but she didn't share what was on her mind with the rest of them at the Lab. She just…started working on a secret project of her own that involved a lot of genome sequencing, and she shooed Carlos away every time he asked questions or offered to help.

The result of all her work had been a tearful confrontation with her parents around Thanksgiving. It turned out that Thanksgiving, like Valentine's Day, was another Night Vale holiday that resembled open warfare more than any kind of traditional festivity. She'd driven out to the Desert Creek subdivision where her parents lived and had a screaming confrontation with them on the front lawn of 1432 Garibaldi Lane. Eventually, after a long, protracted battle which involved a machete to one point, Daisy's parents had confessed that she wasn't their biological child. At least, not the biological child of both of them.

Carlos hadn't been nosy enough to inquire which of Daisy's parents had conducted the brief, illicit, mind-altering affair with one of the Erikas that led to Daisy's birth. He'd tried to get Daisy to talk to him afterwards, but she'd chosen to hole herself up in her tiny flat for a week instead, eating delivery pizza from Rico's and watching the Twilight movies on endless repeat. This had gone on until finally Old Woman Josie had come to pay her a visit. Carlos has no idea what was said during the visit, but the next day Daisy packed a bag and went out to Josie's place for a nice long chat and endless cups of the "special" tea that Josie reserves for guests who need a little…clarity in their lives.

Since then, the official word is that Daisy no longer officially exists. Because, of course, angels do not exist. But the small group of Erikas who take refuge at Josie's place have increased their numbers by one. And if you were rude enough to stare at them openly the next time Josie invited you around for dry corn muffins, you might notice that one of the Erikas was a little shorter than the others, and had a light mop of blonde hair that fell into its face full of elongated eyes. Also, its wings were slightly shorter than the wings the other Erikas sported, like they were new and still growing in.

Josie, being a clever and aged veteran of Night Vale, has Carlos around pretty shortly after Daisy ceases to exist from all public records, and she finds her own ways of assuring him that the newest addition to her collection (Carlos tries very hard not to think the words "hive" or 'harem') of angels is doing very well and has taken to keeping special watch on the dog park, herding errant children away from its gates. It's nice to think that…Erika is doing good work. That was what she'd wanted as a scientist, and now that she's…something else, she's still doing it. Playing her part in making Night Vale a safe and welcoming community for residents, and for visitors.

Ugh, Carlos things, reviewing that last sentence in his head. He has obviously been spending too much time listening to Cecil's show, if a sentiment like that just popped into his head, avoiding every internal censor. But that's his own fault. He listens to Cecil's show pretty much every day now. He can't seem to help himself. It's not just because Cecil's smooth, sonorous voice casts a practically hypnotic trance over everyone who listens to it (even when he's announcing dire, life-threatening disasters, or his tone takes on that creepy, slightly possessed sound when he's relaying statements from the Glow Cloud or similar.) It isn't even because Cecil is prone to…talking about him on the radio, expressing sentiments that he has yet to say to Carlos's face. (Carlos no longer finds this threatening. He's just accepted that it's the way Cecil is.) On the radio, he is himself, in a way that he isn't in day to day life. He never stutters when he's broadcasting. If he blushes, it's impossible to tell. And he's not at all awkward, not even when he's burbling about the fact that Carlos phoned him, or relaying his disappointment that Carlos never seems to mention weekend plans when they communicate.

Cecil knows that Carlos listens to his show. He must know--listening is practically compulsory. But the way Cecil talks about Carlos on air is like…well, it's like overhearing Cecil talk to one of his best friends. It's weirdly intimate. It isn't (and Carlos is extremely sensitive to this sort of thing after Robert, so he's sure of it) manipulative. When Carlos runs into Cecil on the street, or at Rico's, Cecil doesn't act like he's waiting for Carlos to respond to the comments he made on the air the previous night. It's almost like the things he says on broadcast are the sentiments of a different Cecil, a private Cecil, the Cecil who'll ask his listeners for advice in how to approach Carlos or interpret his messages, without ever considering that Carlos is one of his listeners. When they meet in person, Cecil doesn't seem to expect Carlos to react to anything other than whatever is passing between them right then and there at the moment. It's bizarre, obviously, but by Night Vale standards, maybe not that bizarre.

And in a way, it's teaching Carlos to trust Cecil more. For the first few months, Carlos had felt uncomfortably pursued--especially after the incident with the poor barber who'd butchered his hair. Cecil had all but called out a hit on the man, and Carlos had made a point of going to Telly at his shop every day until passersby stopped glaring at him and mysterious, balaclava-hooded figures wielding maces and machetes had stopped lingering on the street corners. Back then, Carlos hadn't been able to help wondering if Cecil was trying to influence him indirectly via his uncanny powers over the people of Night Vale. Whether he realizes it nor not, Cecil has influence. He also has fans--fans like the checkout girl at the grocery store who drops a box of condoms into his basket and winks at him, without ringing them up. It wasn't possible not to feel pressured, and the experience with Robert is still so fresh in his memory that Carlos only knows one way to cope with pressure, and that's to run the other way.

But as (relative) time passed, and Carlos continued to listen to Cecil's show, he realized that it really wasn't like that at all. Cecil doesn't mean harm. Hell, Cecil might be unaware that he has the capacity to do harm. The one thing all abusers had in common was a need for secrecy, and Cecil couldn't keep a secret if his life depended on it (which it sometimes does.) Cecil is an open book, with no filter. And Carlos literally can't imagine Cecil harboring a jealous, possessive, objectifying urge (the incident with Telly notwithstanding) in the way that Robert had--Robert, who had pretended to be his friend, pretended to be fine with just being friends, only to show up drunk at his apartment holding a gun.

No, Carlos isn't afraid of Cecil. Not the way that gay men and women had to sometimes be afraid of the men who wanted them. But Carlos is just…slightly afraid of Cecil, the Voice of Night Vale. Not Cecil who bumps into him in the grocery store and stammers and trips over his tongue and whose line tattoos turn a brilliant, blushing scarlet in Carlos's presence. But the Cecil who can make people do things--unconsciously or not--just by expressing certain wishes.

Carlos wishes he could just…spend some time with Cecil. Not by calling him up and asking for a date--he's not ready for that, and Cecil is far too full of wishful thoughts for Carlos to suggest they just hang out without Cecil misinterpreting Carlos's wishes. He'd just like to know the regular Cecil better, because Carlos does feel that flicker of potential there. He's not even as freaked out about the inevitable conversation regarding sex as he was when he first moved to Night Vale, because sex, so far as he can tell, is another one of those things that can happen either conventionally, unconventionally, or not at all when it comes to intimate relationships in this town. But for once, sex isn't the issue. Carlos isn't entirely sure what the issue is, but he knows that he need to know Cecil better before he can figure it out.

Well. He's got plenty of time. Assuming they aren't all wiped out by some Librarians, or some abomination settling over the town before then. He'll figure it out soon enough.

In the mean time, he's got a semi-sentient Forest and an underground civilization planning war against Night Vale to investigate.

Chapter Text


June 12, 2013 (Probably. It's Night Vale time, so Carlos has sort of stopped trying to keep track)


"Carlos," whispered the bush outside the open window of his lab table.

The air conditioning was broken in Carlos's lab--for the third time this month--so every door and window was wide open, and as many fans as Carlos had been able to beg, borrow, or ethically confiscate were sitting around the room, stirring the hot, dry air into currents that didn't actually help to cool things down any but at least kept the flies in circulation rather than settling on his face, and also stopped him from feeling like he was about to choke to death. The fans meant that Carlos had to use a lot of weights and old coffee mugs just to keep his papers in one place, and the Secret Police had complained more than once about the noise pollution interfering with their surveillance. But they understood the situation, and they seem to have a strange fondness for him (or else they were just much more polite in general than one would think) so they weren't being too strict with him. Sheriff Mitchell had even mentioned that he'd try to get Carlos bumped up a few places on the waiting list for services from the municipal A/C and electric power repair plant.

For that reason, and because, as far as Carlos was concerned, there was no point making the job of an asshole who had to hang around in people's bushes for a living any harder than it already was, he didn't pretend not to hear the surveillance officer when he spoke up.

"Right here," he said, without looking out the window or otherwise drawing attention to the officer's hiding place. "You need anything? Water bottle? We've got cold ones. Or sunscreen?"

"Thank you kindly, Carlos, but no, I'm fine," the voice replied cordially. "Just wanted to let you know, that boy of yours is out front stirring up some kinda ruckus with the Apache Tracker. I've been letting him say his piece--Perry, I mean--cause God knows that guy is a jerk, but Perry looks like he might be fixing to clock him one, and we'll have to take him in for Peaceable Citizen's Re-education if he starts a fight in public, and I figured you'd rather keep it from coming to that."

"Shit." Carlos hopped off his stool, with one last careful look at the experiment brewing in the beakers in front of him--it should be fine for the next twenty minutes or so, but even if it wasn't, it would be easier to start over again than spend a week or so spoon-feeding Perry while he recovered from municipally mandated re-education. "Okay, I'm going."

"They're in the parking lot of the Arby's," said the voice from the bushes. "I'd hurry, if I was you."

"On it."

Carlos dashed out the front door. The Arby's was just across the street, so it wasn't hard to see what the officer had been talking about. Perry was waving his arms and gesticulating wildly at the figure of the Apache Tracker. Ever since the Apache Tracker's apparent physical transformation into an actual American Indian Perry had been dying--literally twitching, spasming, and occasionally foaming at the mouth--out of a desire to haul the him into the lab and perform DNA tests. Carlos would be interested in the results of those tests himself, simply on the basis of--well--science--but he wasn't entirely certain why it mattered to Perry so much all of a sudden.

Well, no, that was stupid. Of course it mattered to Perry. It would matter to Carlos if some obviously white guy wearing a poncho and a sombrero rode into town one day on the back of a burro, calling everyone gringo, and then suddenly disappeared and turned up again looking pure Yucatán Indian while speaking nothing but French. But Perry's feelings about the Tracker had an urgency to them that Carlos didn't entirely understand. Now, obviously, was the time to get to the bottom of it.

Carlos jogged across the street to the the scene of the altercation, which was beginning to draw a small crowd made up of people exiting the Arby's, still chewing their curly fries and cheesy tater tots while gaping at the short figure of the older man who was standing stoically with arms folded, and the younger man who was shouting and flailing his arms wildly.

It took a second for Carlos to realize that the Apache Tracker was mimicking the pose of those old wooden statues of Indians that used to stand outside drug stores to advertise cigars. It took him a longer second to catch up to what Perry was shouting at him--or rather, to catch up to the fact that Perry wasn't shouting in English. It wasn't Spanish, Italian, French, or German, either, so Carlos's impressive knowledge of modern languages were useless to him (as they had been for most of his life, really--he'd meant to travel more, before coming to Night Vale.)

"Perry." Carlos touched the back of Perry's shoulder lightly. Perry immediately shook him off, which Carlos was prepared for; he snatched his hand back quickly. "Perry, come on. You're being watched. You can't afford to make a scene in public, okay?" Carlos looked meaningfully at the sparse scrub bushes lining the western side of the Arby's parking lot, where a tan police uniform hat was just visible through a gap.

Perry turned to Carlos. "I know," he cried, in exasperated. "I'm sorry. But this shit has to stop. He's embarrassing everyone. My dad was supposed to go to Jeremy's party at the Desert Flower tonight, but he's too humiliated to show his face, because of this guy." Perry turned and poked his finger through the air at the Apache Tracker, stopping just short of actually touching him.

"But why would your dad be embarrassed?" Carlos could tell he was missing something. Probably something obvious that would really embarrass him once he figured it out.

"Because," Perry ground out between his teeth. "This is my uncle Vasily--my dad's brother. Who is acting like a complete and total douchebag."

Carlos blinked. Behind him, he heard a whisper of shock, accompanied by the delighted, juicy awareness of a new piece of gossip traveling through the small crowd of onlookers.

"The Apache Tracker is your uncle?" Carlos choked.

Perry scowled. "What, you don't have any white people in your family?"

"No, no," said Carlos hastily. "I mean, yes, of course I do." Carlos had grown up in Texas, and the last member of his family to be born in Mexico had been his maternal great-grandparents. His father was white (according to reports--Carlos had never met him) and so was his maternal grandfather. Carlos was comparatively fair as a child, to the point that his abuela used to say that people thought she'd stolen him when he was a boy. By the time he was twelve, though, his complexion and hair had darkened and he looked every inch like part of his mother's family.

"That's not what I meant," he continued. "You just never said anything about being related to him before."

"Would you?" Perry demanded. "I mean, look at him!"

He whirled, jabbing his finger in the Tracker's direction. "If you wanted to look Indian so bad, why couldn't you even do it right?" He gestures at the Tracker's headdress with its plastic red, blue, yellow and white feathers. The feathers at the bottom had dragged along the dusty ground for so long that they were mangled, grey and colorless. "You know that this shit is not Apache! Mom took you with us to tribal meetings! Did you see anyone there wearing a fuck-ton of fucking plastic feathers on their heads? No! You know why? Because if the Apache wore shit like that, they'd have fucking died of heat exhaustion!"

Perry turned back to Carlos and pointed at the Tracker (despite the fact that Carlos now knew his name, it was still impossible for him to think of him as anything but 'the Tracker'.) "That thing he's wearing is supposed to look like a Sioux warbonnet. They kind they wore for sacred ceremonies. They didn't fight in them, or even walk around in them, because they weigh a fucking ton and, as you probably noticed, they drag around in the dirt! They make 'em in plastic now and sell them in gift shops because that's what white people think we look like. But he knows better!" Perry jabbed an accusing finder at his uncle. "My mother actually made him a beaded headband with our tribal designs, since he's technically part of the family. But he wears this tourist shit instead because he doesn't think the real thing looks Indian enough!"

Despite himself, Carlos was beginning to feel bad for the Tracker. The older man was trying to maintain his stoic expression, but he was now looking at the ground, obviously embarrassed. Perry seemed to pick up on this, because his shoulders slumped and some of the fire went out of eyes.

"Why can't you just wear the headband, anyway?" Perry said to his uncle, despairingly. "You wouldn't sweat like a pig when you wore it. Because it's a headband. Which is what you fucking wear when you're an Indian in the fucking desert!"

The Tracker hung his head. Perry sighed, deflated. The Tracker looked up at Perry for a moment and spoke quietly. Now that Carlos was a little more up to speed with the family dynamics at work here, he realized that the Tracker was speaking Russian--as he had, ever since returning from wherever he'd disappeared to months ago. Perry replied, speaking Russian back to him.

Had the Tracker always been able to speak Russian? Possibly, since Perry could. But had he really lost the ability to speak English when returned, transformed,, or was he just being a jerk and pretending that he couldn't? Carlos's bet was on the "jerk" theory. Even though the Tracker was clearly a sad, pathetic old jerk whom Carlos couldn't help feeling slightly sorry for, now that Perry had handed him his ass in public.

Carlos was feeling sorrier for Perry at the moment, though. He didn't blame Perry for losing his temper, but now that he'd stopped looking angry he just looked…sad. Almost tearful.

Perry muttered some parting remark to his uncle, then turned and headed back across the street toward the lab. Carlos fell into step beside him. They didn't speak to each other until they'd reached the lab again.

The first thing Carlos did was check on his experiment--still bubbling away merrily, with ten minutes left to go on the timer. Then he went to the portable cooler, which was full of ice, soda, bottled water, and alcoholic beverages that didn't count as wheat by-products, all from Crazy Sadie's Gas Emporium down the road. Ben (Carlos was pretty certain that was the name of the surveillance officer parked in the bush outside his window) had tipped him off that morning that the ice from Crazy Sadie's didn't melt. At all. Ever. Apparently Sadie and Old Woman Josie were cousins, and the angels (that didn't exist) had done something really useful to her ice cooler. As soon as the A/C was working again, Carlos planned to run some tests on that ice. If it would let him. Angelically blessed items were notoriously difficult to get under a microscope.

"Here," said Carlos, offering Perry a couple of bottles. "Cider, or mead?"

Wordlessly, Perry took the mead. Carlos cracked open the cider and settled back on the lab bench.

"So," he said, after a slightly awkward moment of silence. "Family, huh?"

Perry laughed helplessly. Then his shoulders slumped.

"I shouldn't have done that," he said. "Not out in the middle of the Arby's, anyway. I'm supposed to have more respect for my elders. Even though he's not actually that much older than me. He's like, fifteen years younger than my dad. They had different mothers."

"Huh." Carlos blinked. To him, the Tracker looked like a man in his mid-fifties.

"Yeah, I know," said Perry. "It's cause he wanders around in the sun all day and won't wear sunscreen. He wants that gnarled, desert look. He's actually 36." Perry rolled his eyes. "My mom keeps trying to tell him, you know, Indians use sunscreen! We watch TV! We buy our meat from grocery stores! There's nothing un-Indian about embracing the 21st century!" Perry sighed. "He wanted to marry my mom, you know, after she and my dad split. But he was creepy about it. Kept talking about the "proud braves" she'd bear for him." Perry shuddered.

"Well," said Carlos, thinking about all the white kids at school who'd smacked him hard on the back and made him drop his books, then fake-apologized, calling him "amigo" and asking if he had any "hot tamales" to share. "I don't think anyone could blame you for losing patience with him."

"Shouldn't have done it in the Arby's, though," said Perry glumly. "I mean, have you ever really looked at that fucking hat they use on their sign? This is the southwest--even if it is Night Vale. It's all cowboys and injuns out here."

"And red hot chili peppers," said Carlos, lost in mournful memory.

Perry blinked. "Huh?"

Carlos shrugged. "Yeah, I never understood that one either."


About two hours later, around the time the sun should have been setting (although it was still burning strong, because meteorology in Night Vale was a pain like that) Nijeia came running through the open door of the lab. She announced her presence by accidentally kicking over the oscillating fan Carlos had set there to capture whatever stray breeze might try to sneak by. Fortunately, Perry had already wandered off to take his daily readings at the Whispering Forest, otherwise Carlos would have had to think of a way of explaining an apparently spontaneous kinetic phenomenon, and Perry was already jumpy enough.

"Some shit going down at the bowling alley," she told him breathlessly. Being twelve, and still invisible to most Night Vale residents, she got around by walking, running, or else riding her bike along carefully chosen routes where the bare minimum of bystanders would notice the unmanned vehicle. Normally she used the bike, but tonight she was sweating, which meant she'd probably run here from the bowling alley. Very few things unnerved Nijeia to that degree, so Carlos was already on his feet and turning off the burners before she started to explain.

"That crazy-ass militia group Teddy Williams got going look like they about to do something world-class stupid down where the underground city at. They ain't listening to me. Obviously." She grimaced. When she'd first come to work for him, she'd seemed to enjoy her invisibility and all the opportunities for 'messing with folks' it gave her, but now that her scientific work was taking a more serious bent, she was finding it a genuine inconvenience. Carlos was going to do something about that, he really was. He just hadn't had time to figure out what, yet.

"When you say 'world-class stupid…" Carlos wasn't sure he wanted to hear the details, but he had to ask.

"They got guns," said Nijeia grimly. "There's noise coming from under that lane--shouting, tanks rolling, some kind of heavy metal, I don't know. Teddy Williams' done flipped his shit and called in those dumb-ass, trigger-happy rednecks. I don't know what they think they gonna do, but it ain't looking pretty."

"Tell me about your latest readings," Carlos told her, gathering basic equipment and throwing it into his duffle bag--first aid supplies, a seismograph, bottle water, a tazer, and a device that had been in the lab when he first moved in. Carlos wasn't certain what it was, but it functioned slightly like an incredibly tiny, portable MRI. He had no idea what he'd end up using it for, but the difference that made between this scientific excursion, and every scientific excursion he's made in Night Vale so far, was essentially zero.

"Still weird," said Nijeia. "They's a lot of noise, but the static reverb I'm recording doesn't match up. Even that far underground, the tremors should be stronger, to account for the noise."

"Okay. We'll take the car. You need anything?"

Nijeia looked around the lab. She picked up a clip-board, which had a magazine picture of the band Paramore taped to the back. Then she picked up the small, child-sized machete the Orphanage equipped all children with when they turned ten. "Ready."

Carlos barely glanced at the machete--he'd done more than glance at it the first time he'd seen it, but he's accepted it as part of Nijeia now, especially since the hilt is covered with glittery stickers of mutant strawberries with razor sharp teeth and other, similarly sinister and sparkly fruits. He grabbed his duffle bag and headed out to the car, Nijeia following close on his heels.

The Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun complex was just a five minute drive from the lab. (Practically everywhere in Night Vale was a five minute ride from the lab. Between the obvious spatial distortion the roads underwent to reduce travel distances, and the fact that he'd walked outside the lab about six months ago and found his car upgraded to a hybrid coupe, Carlos assumed that the City Council was very concerned about Night Vale's carbon footprint.)

When they arrived at the bowling alley, the parking lot was unusually full. There were trucks with guns mounted on the beds in some of the spaces. Carlos had been in the southwest, to say nothing of Night Vale, long enough not to find this too unusual.

"Stay in the car," Carlos told Nijeia.

"Don't talk crazy to me, we ain't got time."

"I mean it, Nijeia. There are men with guns in there and they can't see you. I won't have you getting shot by accident. Or on purpose. I will call you if I need you, okay?"

"So what you want me to do? Sit here and knit you a damn sweater?"

Carlos scanned the parking lot. He saw the Apache--well--the Tracker, standing by the door, looking grim faced, scowling and muttering to himself.

"Watch him," said Carlos, pointing. "If he comes inside, text me."

Nijeia kicked the floor of the passenger side and banged her shoulders back into the seat. "Fine. But if shit goes down, I'm going in,.I don't care."

Carlos smiled grimly. "I'll try to keep it from coming to that."

Hoisting his duffle bag into his lap, Carlos opened his door and locked it again before shutting it. The windows were down, out of necessity, since Nijeia was inside and it was still at least 93 degrees outside thanks to the tardy sunset, but he hoped she would respect the gesture of the locked doors anyway. He avoided eye contact with the Tracker as he went inside, where he found careful, muttering pandemonium. A group of people were sitting in the snack area, holding balloons and wrapped presents, clearly waiting for a birthday party to start. The guest of honor, Jeremy Gordon, had wandered away from his guests and was propped up against a wall, watching six armed men in woodland camo hunting gear form a semi-circle around the pin-retrieval area of Lane Five. Even from this distance, Carlos could hear the unearthly, grinding noise from the bottom of the pit. But armed with Nijeia's observations, he immediately picked up on the problem she'd spotted. Anything making a noise that loud, that near the surface, ought to be making the ground tremble under his feet.

Teddy Williams looked up as Carlos knelt next to Lane Five, rummaging through his bag and trying to locate the seismograph without accidentally shooting himself with the tazer. "This is no place for Scientists!" Teddy bellowed, hefting his--well, Carlos couldn't tell the difference between one gun and another, but it was huge, and for a split second he was back in his apartment a year ago, with Robert, and there was no escape and he couldn't breathe--

"Run along before you get yourself hurt," Teddy went on. He was, Carlos observed, keeping the nose of the barrel pointed down, and that helped him to unfreeze enough to seize the seismograph with shaking hands.

"Just want to take a reading," Carlos muttered, hoping no one was going to try to march him out of here at gunpoint. His pants were new and he really didn't want to piss in them, even though Bub at the dry cleaner's liked him a lot and always gave him a discount on cleaning his lab coats.

The seismograph confirmed what Nijeia had told him. The tremors were consistent with the walking, pacing, stomping, and shifting of the people inside the bowling alley. The needle only jumped once, but that was because someone on Lane Twelve had just bowled a strike and was jumping up and down in celebration. There were no significant readings coming from under Lane Five.

Carlos shoved the seismograph back into his bag and stood up straight. There were half a dozen heavily armed and dubiously sane men standing between him and the underground city, but Carlos had faced men with guns before. Even before Robert, when Carlos was a boy in Texas and Arizona, there were always white men in trucks, vigilantes who patrolled the Mexican border and looked suspiciously at all brown men on the wrong side of the Rio Grande. Carlos could face them. Science was more important than their tiny little fears and bigotries.

"I need to get down there," he announced, in a loud clear voice. It was nothing like the way Cecil could make words roll off his tongue and plant impulses in the heads of his listeners, but at least he was audible, and his voice wasn't shaking.

(He found himself wishing, strangely, that Cecil were here. That he'd called him--'not for personal reasons'--just to get his uniquely Night Valian take on the situation, and…and maybe so he could grip his hand for half a second before charging through the militia. He'd never wanted Cecil that way before, but between the huge, ugly, terrifying guns and the unknown danger he was about to plunge into, he wished he had…a friend. Cecil wanted to be more than his friend, of course, but Carlos was somehow sure that Cecil would be his friend, happily, if that was what Carlos wanted. He didn't know why that thought had never occurred to him before. He needed someone on his side in this town. Not just now, but in general.

Well. Time to think of that in more detail after he'd dealt with the problem before him.)

"You loco or something?" Teddy Williams demanded. "We're at war! My men are the front lines of this war! War is waged by men with guns, not geeks with…with…"

"It's called a seismograph, you ignorant, deranged buffoon," Carlos snapped. "Whatever's going on down there, it's not what you think. I need a closer look. Now are you going to let me through--or do I need to call the City Council?"

It was pure bluff. Carlos knew that he was, technically, employed by the City Council, but he didn't have a direct line to them--he'd always gone through Cecil when he needed to make contact. Still, the words worked on the militia like magic. One man after another blinked, lowered his gun, and shuffled slightly to the side, until there was a gap big enough for Carlos to squeeze through.

He strode forward, trying to look confident. He left his bag behind. He wasn't planning to be down there long enough to take any readings, and besides, he doubted the bag would fit.

There was absolutely no dignified way to squeeze himself through the gap in the pin retrieval area and down into the hollowed out earth below. He was distressingly aware that he was getting dirt all over his white lab coat. But sacrifices were sometimes necessary in the cause of science, so Carlos slid, mostly on his ass, until his feet found square purchase below.

Carlos looked around, blinking in the dim light as his eyes adjusted. He peered down at the buildings, the spires, the armaments--the tiny catapults, the tiny walls made of what appeared to be grey Legos, carved and pitted to look like stone. He blinked. Then he blinked some more. The spire of the tallest building reached approximately to the level of his knee.

He could hear the rustle of movements in the hidden burrows and crannies etched into the dirt walls. It sounded a bit like a colony of mice trapped under the floorboards of a house. Despite himself, Carlos grinned. He grinned because there had seemed to be danger, and instead there was…science. There was knowledge. There was something entirely new and unprecedented in the physical world, and he had discovered it--a mere year, give or take, into his first research posting.

There were tiny people living in Night Vale! A tiny new civilization to make contact with and study and trade knowledge with! NASA was going to go out of its collective mind with jealousy!

Carlos crouched so that he was eye level with what, he guessed, was the central municipal building. Nothing at all like Night Vale's municipal buildings--obviously the people of this civilization were still operating at a 15th, maybe 16th century level of building technology, so the edifice looked a bit like a European castle or stronghold. He had the random thought that if anyone had ever thought to build Nijeia a dollhouse, this was exactly the kind they'd build for her--full of weaponry and…more weaponry.

Laughing quietly to himself, Carlos straightened. He had to bend his head slightly so as not to hit his head, but he was able to catch the eye of the militia men who were perched and crowded along the edge of the lane, peering down to watch him.

"You guys," said Carlos. "Put your guns down. It's fine. It's all fine! There's no threat!"

"What do you mean, no threat?" Teddy Williams barked, outraged. "What are we here for, if there ain't no threat?"

The question was unanswerable in practical terms. Philosophically, there was a long explanation involving xenophobia and human tool-use as a defense against unknown fears, but--

"I mean, the creatures who live down here are going to be about six inches tall, maximum," said Carlos. "I haven't seen any of them yet, but I'm having to step carefully because otherwise I might accidentally stomp on them, but they're definitely no danger to--ow! Fucking--!"

At first, Carlos though the loose dirt under his feet had shifted, causing him to stumble and wrench his weak knee--the left one hadn't been in good shape since his uncle pulled him out of the tree when he was a kid, and the sharp pain he was feeling could possibly be accounted for by his having over-extended the tendon.

Except then he looked down, and found that the knee of his khaki pants was turning rapidly dark with welling blood. A long, thin, stick---a Barbie-sized spear, basically--was sticking out of the joint.

"Uh oh," said Carlos, backing up a step. A low, panicked buzz started up at the back of his brain. It was the sensation that usually let him known that he'd just got into a situation that was way over his head. Obviously, he'd underestimated--well, no, he hadn't thought at all. Idiot, he chastised himself, as he started looking for a way to get himself back up the dirt mound without being too obvious.

He was also hoping to spot a face--a tiny one, not the faces of the assholes above--because communication, he firmly believed, could solve any problem. Also, his knee hurt too much for him to climb very fast.

"Can you understand me?" he called to the tiny, invisible people, pitching his voice low. The last thing he wanted was for the militia to panic and start firing down into the hole--they'd probably hit him before they damaged anything else. "Please don't be afraid. My name is Carlos, I'm a--ow!--a scientist. I'm not here to fight you! I'll leave right now. There's no need for alarm. No need to--oomph!"

Something incredibly heavy struck Carlos in the solar plexus. Instantly breathless, he collapsed to his knees. His watering eyes found the ground. There was a large round piece of hewn sandstone at his feet.

Shit, Carlos thought. If they had the technology to hurl something that size at him, the last thing he needed was to be on his knees, right at face level with their weapons. He tried scrambling to his feet, but his injured knee gave way beneath him and fell right back down again, with an agonized cry that must have carried all the way to the surface, because there was a sudden ruckus above him.

"Fuck," Carlos muttered. He'd just made the most important scientific discovery of the millennium and those assholes upstairs were about to come stomping down here and destroy everything. They're people!, he thought desperately, tiny, scared people, you can't just--

Oh, what was he thinking. This was Night Vale, where cannibalism was more a gastronomic eccentricity than a cultural taboo. Anyway, he couldn't be too worried about the tiny people, because he was lying on his side, mostly unable to breathe, and he was pretty sure he'd just felt another tiny spear dig into his shoulder blade. If his attackers had any knowledge of human anatomy and knew how to locate the carotid or femoral arteries, he was done for.

Carlos's thoughts on this subject were not quite the sort of thoughts he'd ever expected to have just before he died. Instead of wondering whether he would see his abuela again, he wondered if anyone would think to tell Lucinda, or send her his research notes. He wondered how long Nijeia would sit in the car waiting on him, or whether anyone would be able to track down his mother--she was in rehab again the last time he heard, but he'd sent her a card only to have it returned unopened.

And he wondered…what would Cecil say when he found out? Carlos the Scientist, dying in the underground city--that would definitely count as news, so Cecil would certainly report it. Would he be sad? Would he extend his condolences to Carlos's scattered family, who would never hear them, the way he did when the interns died at the radio station met their various but inevitable deaths? Would his voice falter? Carlos had never heard him so much as stutter on the radio before. And anyway, he barely knew Carlos. It was stupid…stupid to think…

A whistling noise, and then a searing pain in his head. Carlos felt a trickle of hot liquid run into his eye. Head-blow--good, no one would think too poorly of him if he passed out now.

His last awareness was of the light at the top of the tunnel that led back into the bowling alley grow dark and crowded by some vaguely human shape. Carlos hoped it was human anyway. For all he knew, carcasses in Night Vale were disposed of by wolves. Come to think of it…hadn't Cecil…Cecil had said something about that once…on the radio…

Carlos felt a tickle of spraying dirt against his cheek. Then his eyes closed, and darkness swam up behind him, and he heard no more.

Chapter Text


Later on June 12, 2013 (Carlos is pretty sure the date is confirmed at this point.)


Something was poking him. Something blunt, but pointy, like a skinny finger. It was poking his stomach, which was sore for reasons he couldn't quite remember.

"Carlos." The voice that was shaping itself around his name sounded…angry? Probably angry. Maybe a little scared, or worried? But mostly pissed off.

"Murblewhuzzle," Carlos enunciated precisely in response. He couldn't remember ever having said the word before, but he spoke five languages--odds were that it meant something in at least one of them.

He seemed to hear the crack of someone slapping his face before he actually felt the pain of the blow. It wasn't a terrible pain compared to the other pains making themselves known from various other locations in his body, but it was unexpected enough to get his attention. He found himself opening his eyes. He hadn't realized they'd been closed.

Nijeia was sitting on his chest, glaring down at him. She was light enough that this didn't actually interfere with his breathing too much, but since she had just slapped him he couldn't help flinching a little as she learned forward. But her expression softened slightly when he blinked at her, and she scooted off him, kneeling on the floor.

"Rule One," she said. "No more telling me to wait my ass in the car while you go and pull some fool stunt. You hear me?"

Carlos nodded. He had only the vaguest memory of what she was alluding to, but nodding seemed like the smart option.

"Rule Two. No more fool stunts."

Carlos swallowed. His mouth was really dry. "Okay."

Nijeia pursed her lips. Then she turned to the duffle bag--his duffle bag--and pulled out a bottle of water. She uncapped it and held it to his lips and Carlos drank slowly, gratefully, until he couldn't drink anymore. Nijeia set the bottle aside and returned to glaring at him.

"Well?" she said. "You dying? I heard Teddy Williams say you won't, but I don't trust that redneck. Where I come from, doctors is doctors and dudes who own bowling alleys is dudes who own bowling alleys. The educational tracks that define they careers don't exactly overlap."

"I--don't think I'm dying," Carlos said. Then he caught up to what she'd just said, and he blinked at her. "Wait. Are you from Outside? I didn't know that."

Nijeia rolled her eyes. "Not now," she said. "Can you sit up?"

Carlos considered the proposition carefully. "Maybe?"

A small, brown hand, adorned with three sparkly plastic rings on the middle fingers, was thrust into his face. Carlos gripped it lightly and let himself be pulled upright. He looked around. He was still in the bowling alley, lying on one of those padded mats they used to make the lanes shorter for the kid's games. Apart from Nijeia, no one was paying any attention to him. Half of the bowling alley patrons were clustered around the pin retrieval area of Lane Five, and the rest were…well, Carlos couldn't tell what they were looking at, because their legs and posteriors were blocking his view.

"What, um…" He turned aside, coughing. He felt Nijeia press the water bottle back into his hand and he drained the rest of its contents. "Tell me what happened."

Nijeia folded her arms. "You gone freak out on me?"

Carlos shook his head, feeling oddly confident on this score. "Not now. Probably later. I'll probably freak out about a lot of stuff later. Too tired right now. What's going on?"

Niejia met his eyes squarely. "That white dude that called hisself the Apache Tracker got killed."


Nijeia was ready. Rather than trying to push him back down as he started lurching to his feet, she just grabbed a handful of his hair by the roots, which stung mercilessly. Carlos settled back down, with an "ow, ow, OW" that seemed to satisfy her.

"You can't help now," she said, her voice matter of fact, her eyes tracking his every tic and glance. "He's the one climbed down after you into that pit, after you got your head bust open. He pulled you out, then he died. They still mopping up the blood."

Carlos, intentionally, did not look in the direction where Nijeia was nodding. He didn't want to see a crew of bowling alley employees wringing their mops into buckets full of red-tinged water. He had no desire to live with that mental image in his head.

"The…Tracker saved me?" Carlos tried to keep the incredulity from his voice. "Just like that? No one…made him?"

"Nope." Nijeia's voice was grim. "I was watching him, like you told me. He just stood there for 'bout an hour, looking like something done crawled up his butt and died. Then folks inside the bowling alley started shouting and hollering, firing they guns in the air, and he ran inside. I texted you, like you said, then I followed him." She didn't look even slightly guilty about that. "He was already down that hole by the time I got inside. I didn't see him again till he came dragging you out. You was limp and bleeding all over, so I…you know. I figured you was dead." Nijeia shrugged, her expression stoic. "But Teddy said you was just knocked out. Then a few seconds later that Tracker dude just sort of…fell down. Teddy said those little dudes down the hole got him in the leg."

"God." Carlos covered his face with his hands. "Oh God," he muttered, and before he knew it, his hand was doing something very strange. It was making the sign of the cross--forehead, stomach, left shoulder, right shoulder. He literally could not remember the last time he'd done that. He'd been about twelve, probably.

Carlos could feel Nijeia watching him. He half expected her to make fun of him, but she didn't. "You all right?" she said dubiously, when he was done and his hand was lying limp in his lap again.

Carlos wasn't prepared to even attempt to answer that question. He looked around vaguely, blinking a lot, ignoring the indecently excited murmuring filling the bowling alley. "Has anyone told Perry?"

"Told him what?"

"Vasily--the Tracker--he's Perry's uncle. I only found out today."

"Shit." Nijeia slumped. "I don't know if he know or not. Cecil been talking about it on the radio--people call in and tell him whenever shit happen, so he pretty much been reporting all this live. Perry maybe run into someone who told him, but I don't think anyone went to find him special."

Cecil was talking about it on the radio. Cecil knew--well, what did he know? Nijeia had thought he was dead at one point. Had Cecil thought so too? Did he know better now? Was Cecil okay? Why do I even care? Carlos wondered. He shook his head, forcing himself to think about Perry instead.

"Perry was taking readings at the Forest last time he checked in with me," he told Nijeia. "He doesn't carry radios out there--says they interfere."

"He'll check back in at the lab before he goes home for the night." Nijeia bit her lip. "You want to call him? I got your phone." She handed it over. It was a bit scuffed, but otherwise undamaged.

"I…yeah, hang on." After a moment of deliberation, Carlos decided to text instead. Emergency. Need you back at the lab right away. Perry wasn't likely to answer a phone call while he was working, but he'd see the text when he was done.

"It's a quarter till ten," Nijeia said, a low thrum of mostly-concealed agitation in her voice. "I got to be back at the Orphanage by ten sharp or they gonna send the Orphanarians out looking for us, and you already almost died once tonight."

"It's okay," said Carlos, smiling at her softly. "You did good. Thanks for looking after me."

Nijeia snorted. "Whatever. You gonna be ok? For real, now."

Carlos peered into her small, worried face. Then he did something he'd been tempted to do a dozen times, but never had before. He reached out and pulled Nijeia close to him for a brief, tight hug.

He half expected her to react like a cat that had been dropped into a tub of water. Instead, she buried her face in his shoulder and squeezed back. Carlos was shocked for a second. Her face was damp. Not with sweat--with actual tears.

It occurred to him suddenly that as unimpressed with him as Nijeia generally seemed to be, Carlos was still the only adult she could talk to--literally. He didn't count the Orphanage attendants. He'd seen them once, and they were basically slightly less feral second cousins to the Librarians, the only difference being that it was the children they guarded with tooth and claw, rather than books. The Orphans were doubtless safe in their care, but he couldn't imagine anyone allowing an Orphanarian to hug them--or an Orphanarian wanting to, for that matter.

"Thank you," Carlos whispered to her. "Everything's going to be all right, okay?" He petted the short, soft puff of hair she was growing out around her head and smiled. "Come on. I'll drive you back to the Orphanage."

Nijeia sniffed. "You better off to let me drive. You like to wrap that Prius round a telephone pole."

Carlos laughed. Nijeia stood up, and Carlos followed suit. He stood stationary for a moment, taking stock of his injuries, his head, his field of vision. Everything seemed stable and clear--his head hurt, as did his knee, his back, his arm, his face, and, well, generally he was just in a lot of pain, but-- "I'll be fine," he said. "Just poke me if I look like I'm gonna fall asleep."

"Fuck that," said Nijeia, sniffling, as she hefted Carlos's duffle bag onto her shoulder. "You fall asleep behind the wheel of a car, Imma taze your ass."


Carlos got Nijeia back to the Orphanage with a solid five minutes to spare. The tall, spiked, wrought iron gates, though unattended, swung open for her as she approached. It looked as though she started to turn and wave back at him, but as soon as the gates closed behind her everything on the other side of them was instantly shrouded in impenetrable black mist. Carlos frowned and made a mental note to send Nijeia home one night with some with equipment to take readings on the air quality. That mist hardly looked safe to breathe.

As he started his drive back to the lab, he checked his phone. Perry hadn't returned his text yet--but then, Perry often didn't leave the Forest until midnight.

Carlos gripped the phone tightly for a moment. There was a strange, almost burning sensation in his fingers, like they really, really wanted to do something and his higher brain functions were only just managing to stop him.

It was Cecil, he realized, after a moment. He wanted to call Cecil. Not for…any of the slightly bullshit reasons he'd called him in the past. He just wanted to call.

No, it was more than that. He wanted to see Cecil.

When was the last time Carlos had wanted another human being that way? Maybe it was Antonio, back in eleventh grade. Maybe it was during those few, whiskey-bleared seconds that had made him decide to go home with Robert, that one disastrous night, so long ago.

Carlos shuddered. To want Cecil, it seemed, was to summon Robert's memory, whether he liked it or not. Carlos was still getting huge data packets worth of old texts from Robert, delivered at totally random times. The messages had consistent themes--protestations of love, thinly veiled (and unveiled) threats, promises to "find him". Since Carlos's research posting in Night Vale was publicly accessible information at the university, he guessed that it was Night Vale itself Robert was having a hard time finding. But then, that was why Carlos came here in the first place, wasn't it? To be safe.

The thought nearly made him laugh, but the various patched wounds across his body caused him to reconsider that idea. Instead, he pulled his car to the side of the road and called Cecil's name up on his contacts list. His finger hovered over the button for a moment--then he pressed send.

"Hi, Cecil," he said, hearing his voice tremble as he began recording the voice mail. "It's--it's Carlos. I'm, um. Calling for…personal reasons. Would you---come out and meet me?"

When he finished recording, he hung up the phone. His hand fell to one side, weak and exhausted, as though it had just accomplished a feat of strength much greater than pushing a couple of phone buttons. There was a lightness permeating his body, but Carlos didn't know if it was relief, or anticipation, or his injuries catching up to him.

He decided it didn't matter. All that mattered was getting to the Arby's and waiting for Cecil before he passed out and wrapped his Prius around a telephone pole.


The sun was finally beginning to set (at, Carlos checked his watch, fifteen after ten at night) when he arrived at the Arby's parking lot.

He sat in the dimming twilight for a few minutes, looking at the empty block of asphalt, thinking about the scene he'd witnessed that afternoon between Perry and his uncle. This was Night Vale, and the experience of talking to someone in the morning and having them die on you by nightfall was…well, Carlos hadn't got used to it yet, but he was sure plenty of people had, since the population in general seemed no more insane or depressed than the population in general. Still, it was impossible to stare out at that parking lot without mentally recreating the figure of the Tracker as he'd appeared that afternoon, with his stoic, slight hurt expression, his pathetic plastic headdress trailing in the dust.

Why had he saved Carlos? They'd never even spoken to each other. Like everyone else in town, Carlos got embarrassed just by looking at him, and avoided his eyes when they crossed paths.

Maybe…maybe the Tracker had been ashamed when his nephew had yelled at him in public. Maybe, in saving Carlos, he'd been looking to prove something about himself, or about some strange ideal he'd wanted to live up to.

It didn't matter really. What mattered was that he was dead and Carlos was alive because of him, and Carlos didn't know how to feel about that. More accurately, he didn't know how to feel about the fact that he was glad it was that way around.

Eventually, Carlos took the keys out of the ignition and unbuckled his seat belt. He opened the door of his car and closed it behind him, and the dry, cooling air outside was immediately refreshing, even though he'd had the windows rolled down. It was finally starting to feel nice outside, now that the sun was creeping sulkily, reluctantly below the horizon line. And the first of the mysterious lights that routinely shone over the Arby's were just now twinkling into existence.

Carlos was suddenly seized by the urge to do something he hadn't done since he was an undergrad. He walked around to the back of the car and stepped up on the bumper, climbing onto the trunk. He was careful to fold his less injured leg under the one that had had a tiny spear jammed into the knee (the spear had been removed but the knee still ached like a motherfucker, pardon his English), and yet it was surprisingly easy to make himself comfortable.

There was plenty of room for someone else to join him there. Carlos imagined inviting Cecil to hop up beside him. It would be the hospitable thing to do, considering he'd asked Cecil to come out here. Really, the trunk of his car was a very nice place to sit here in the gloaming. It gave Carlos a place to rest his legs, rest his back, stretch out his knee. It gave him a great view of the lights, and he was perfectly positioned to catch the tiny whisper of a cross-breeze that was just starting up.

It also gave Carlos an excellent view of the corner round which Cecil came rolling up on his bicycle a few minutes later. Well, strictly speaking, it wasn't Cecil's bicycle--Cecil had a car, but the station interns usually had bikes, and Cecil tended to steal/borrow them when he needed to run errands near the radio station.

When, exactly, did Carlos get to know Cecil so well that he knew about his bike-theft habits? It was weird, how that kind of knowledge--that kind of intimacy--crept up on you. How could a year (possibly a relative year, possibly a lived year, but some kind of year, definitely) have transformed the Cecil he'd first met from a terrifying stalker who declared his love for him over the radio, into a sweet, attractive dork, despite (or because) of his tendency to elegize about Carlos on the radio while lapsing into slang that was last popular amongst high school cheerleaders in the 1950's?

Carlos watched Cecil stop his bike at the foot of the car. He looked up at Carlos, wide-eyed behind his glasses. He must have been riding pretty fast to make such good time, but he wan't sweating. Cecil tended not to sweat, Carlos had noticed. Cecil's sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and his tattoos were doing something new. Carlos had observed that it was normal for the designs to move around a bit, to rearrange themselves, even to interact with each other in various ways, but what Carlos kept his eye on was the color of the ink, which changed sometimes, and seemed to indicate significant things about Cecil's state of mind. Carlos thought he had the code partially deciphered. Black ink--all was well, all was normal, the tattoo was just a tattoo. White ink--Cecil was in some kind of danger. Station Management level danger, or ridiculous levels of radiation danger. The tattoo protected him somehow, when it glowed white.

Just now, however, the light from Cecil's arms shone a muted reddish-violet. They glowed like a high wattage bulb that had intentionally been shaded so as not to hurt anyone's eyes. Carlos didn't have any idea what that signified.

Cecil was still staring, waiting for Carlos to speak first. He also seemed to be devouring Carlos with his eyes, and that answered at least one question: there must have been at least a moment when Cecil had thought he was dead.

Carlos had never believed someone he loved to be dead, only to find out later it was all a mistake. But if he had, he thought he might want to stare at that person for a bit too. So he just smiled down at Cecil and let him look. Cecil returned the smile instantly, lips parting to reveal teeth that were slightly sharper than normal but glowed white like moonstone.

Eventually, Carlos patted the trunk beside him. "Hey," he said. "Come have a seat. If you've got the time?"

Cecil's smile transformed into a beaming beacon of joy. "Okay!" he said. "I mean, yes! Yes, I have time." He climbed up nimbly onto the trunk. Skinny though Cecil was, there wasn't a lot of space to spare between them, but Carlos found that he didn't mind. It gave him the chance to really study Cecil's face close up for the first time. His expression of pure joy didn't quite hide the fact that his eyes were red-rimmed and puffy. He had been crying, not long ago.

Robert had cried around Carlos a lot. He'd cried when Carlos had pulled miserably away from him in bed and confessed that he just couldn't go through with it. He'd cried afterwards, pleading with Carlos to give him another chance, let him prove that everything Carlos knew about his own body and mind was wrong. Fuck, he'd even cried the night he brought the gun to Carlos's apartment.

But Robert had never once wiped his tears away before Carlos could see them--never put his own pain aside and projected sheer delight just at seeing Carlos face to face. He'd never put Carlos's feelings first at all. And even though Carlos had known for a long time that Robert and Cecil might as well be two different species of prospective boyfriend, he'd never seen proof of it like this until now.

"Do you need my help?" Cecil said, before Carlos could even begin to decide how, or if, he should try to articulate any of what he was feeling out loud. "Or is there something my listeners can help you with?" Cecil folded his impossibly long legs crosswise, and if he angled his torso just a bit closer to Carlos while doing so…well. Carlos didn't mind, actually. He was astonished by how little he minded--by how comforting Cecil's warmth was, by the fact that not one single particle of him wanted to push Cecil back out of his space.

"No," said Carlos, unable to tear his eyes away from Cecil's eager, searching look. "I don't need help. Not like that."

Cecil tilted his head. He didn't look disappointed. Just curious.

"I just wanted you," Carlos heard himself saying, and suddenly it felt like ice water was flooding his stomach, because he had never, literally never, confessed a vulnerability like that to another human being before, and it felt like he'd just excised a piece of his own heart and thrust it into Cecil's hands, with only the vaguest notion of what Cecil might do with it. "I don't know how much you heard, but some…stuff happened to me today." Carlos's throat was suddenly dry again, and his next words came out sounding hoarse. "At first I just…wanted someone. Then I realized…the someone I wanted was you."

Cecil's mouth fell open, but he closed it rapidly. His eyes were, if possible, even wider than before, but Carlos could clearly see the whole of his violet irises this time. They were….lovely. Everything about Cecil was lovely. Even though he didn't look any different today than he'd looked yesterday, with the exception of his red-rimmed eyes and the new fuchsia glow of his tattoos, he was beautiful to Carlos, suddenly, in the way that a face with harsh, angled features sometimes became soft and melting in candlelight. Only this had nothing to do with the light. This was just Carlos, seeing with new eyes. And, possibly, Cecil looking at him with new eyes--eyes filled, for the first time, with hope.

"You really wanted me?" Cecil sounded breathless. Tremulous. Almost…fearful. Like Carlos was dangling something precious in front of him, and Cecil was afraid that he might snatch it away again.

Carlos was angry with himself, suddenly. Angry that he hadn't had it in him to be honest with Cecil before now about…everything. About liking him--then liking him a lot--then realizing that he had beautiful eyes, and delicately shaped ears, and ridiculous hair that nonetheless made Carlos smile whenever he saw or imagined it.

Most of all, he wished he'd been honest about his reasons for holding back from Cecil before now. He wished that he just admitted that he was scared, and that Cecil had nothing whatsoever to do with his reasons for being scared. Then, maybe, Cecil wouldn't look so heartbreakingly vulnerable right now, like he was poised between seeing his dreams come true or else watching them shatter forever.

Carlos realized that now was the time for honesty. Otherwise, his bringing Cecil here would amount to nothing more than a selfish, blind groping for comfort from the one man he knew would give it to him without question. And Cecil deserved more than that. If Cecil was going to be part of his life now--and Carlos was certain, for the first time, that he wanted him to be--he was going to have to tell him things.

Carlos took a deep breath. He clenched his hand into a fist (the left one, because his right hand hurt, for reasons he hadn't investigated yet) and started talking.

"When I first came to Night Vale, everything was so different. So strange. I didn't mind, though. There was so much to explore and discover. Impossible things, terrifying, inexplicable, absurd, harrowing things. And I'm a scientist. I wanted to learn, to make discoveries." Carlos took another breath. The first one, apparently, hadn't been deep enough. "But the truth is, I was also looking for…distractions. I didn't mind that Night Vale was frightening, because it was…it was a different kind of frightening than what I'd left behind."

Cecil was listening, rapt. His lips were slightly parted, but Carlos had never seen someone who looked less inclined to interrupt. So he wetted his cracked lips and continued.

"I was literally running for my life when I came here." Carlos plucked at the knee of his pants, which was stiff and stained with blood. "Which is slightly hilarious to me now. But. No one's actually pointed a gun at me since, I've been here, so…" He laughed, aware that there was a faintly hysterical note behind it.

"Carlos." Cecil's voice was both breathless and as deep as Carlos had ever heard it. Different from his radio voice, but just as commanding, in its own way. Carlos had to fight not to look at him. He continued plucking at his knee.

"Basically, not to be coy, there was…someone. Who thought he…loved me." Saying it was was difficult. Calling Robert's insane obsession "love" felt like an insult to Cecil. But he didn't have a better term. "And then I came here, and you said…what you said, during the broadcast on my first day, and….I'm sorry, Cecil. I am really, really sorry, because I know now--I knew the first time I saw you that you were nothing like him. But…God, this place!" Carlos laughed again, running his hands through his hair. "Everything's different. I don't just mean the clocks not working, or time being impossible, or the fact that the sun sets whenever it damn well feels like it. People are different too. I guess they have to be, in a place like this. But it took me awhile to accept that. To realize that…just because things were different, it didn't mean they needed to be fixed." Carlos sucked down one final lungful of fortifying oxygen, then made himself meet Cecil's eyes. Cecil seemed not to be blinking, and maintaining the contact was hard, but Carlos knew it was necessary. "A lot of things that seemed wrong, or malevolent when I first came here…don't, anymore. The clocks don't need fixing. The things that are different aren't…wrong. They seemed frightening, but now I understand that…underneath it all, they're really just…innocent and pure."

Cecil still wasn't blinking. Carlos had to blink, but he didn't look away. "Do you--do you know what I mean?"

Cecil's mouth formed a perfect "o". It was a lovely shape. Cecil's mouth was full, nicely formed and very expressive. And Carlos could practically hear him thinking--practically see the rapid calculations happening behind his wide, dark-and-violet eyes.

"Yes," said Cecil, after a long moment. "I think I know just what you mean."

Something subtle changed in the periphery of Carlos's vision. He glanced down. The ink of Cecil's tattoos had turned pure indigo. Carlos had no idea what that meant. He wanted to ask, but then he realized he was slightly afraid of the answer. There'd been a lot of truth spoken tonight already, and Carlos was feeling more than a little raw.

Instead of asking, Carlos stretched out his hand, with the palm upturned. Cecil seized it instantly. He squeezed it tight for a second, then laced their fingers together. Warmth seemed to course up into Carlos's body from the point of contact. Not the wrong kind of warmth--not the forced arousal of having a man pin you to a wall and jerk you without permission. Just the soft, delicate warmth that was like sipping tea while wrapped in a soft blanket.

Figuring he might as well take his chances before his defenses could kick back in, Carlos rested his other hand on Cecil's bony knee. Cecil sighed, contented, cat-like, and the next thing Carlos knew, a warm, heavy head, cushioned by a lot of springy hair, had tucked itself down into the crook of his shoulder. If he'd had a third hand, Carlos would have liked to strok that hair. But his hands were comfortable where they were, and he had no desire to move at all.

Together, Carlos and Cecil sat there, watching the lights glow and flicker over the Arby's sign. It had been at least half an hour since Cecil's arrival, but Carlos felt that time, in its funny little Night Vale way, was standing still for them. He didn't find that at all sinister anymore. He felt more like the town was giving them a gift. Maybe it was the gift Night Vale had been trying to give Carlos all along, and it had just taken this long for Carlos to accept it.


Eventually, and with a sigh of the most profound regret Carlos had ever heard, Cecil pulled away and muttered something about having to get back to the station. He expressed concern about leaving Carlos on his own, after his "dreadful ordeal." Carlos hid his wince as he adjusted his posture and patted Cecil's hand.

"It's fine," said Carlos. "Actually, I need to go and find my assistant Perry tonight. I don't know if you knew--the Apache Tracker was his uncle. I'm not sure if…if he's found out what happened yet."

"Oh, of course." Cecil squeezed his hand. Tightly. It made it even harder to bear when he let go again. "My sweet, compassionate Carlos. Of course you need to do that." Cecil hesitated for a second, then rushed on. "I'll be off work in about an hour. If you…if you wanted to call me later, or anything. I'm free for the rest of the night. Not that you have to call me! But I am…available to you. Whenever you should want me. For anything."

Coming from another man--virtually any other man in the world--Carlos would be incapable of interpreting this as anything other than a shy request for Carlos to come to Cecil's place and have sex, or sexual prelude activities, as soon as possible. But coming from Cecil…Carlos just believed him. Believed that Cecil wanted to be available. Emotionally. Any way that Carlos needed him. And honest to God, how had it taken him this long to see that this was what Cecil was really like?

"Thank you." Carlos knew his smile was wavery, but he trusted Cecil to understand that the waveriness was indicative of his general emotional state, not reluctance to accept his offer. "I might do that."

He wanted to say, yes, I absolutely will call you later, but he didn't know what Perry would need from him after he came back to the lab, and he wouldn't want to risk disappointing Cecil by making a promise he might not be able to keep. However much he wanted Cecil's…affection, support, attention, his first duty right now was to his lab assistant. "After I've talked to Perry, if it's not too late, then…I'll call."

"Neat!" said Cecil, and it was ridiculous, but Carlos didn't give a damn. They looked at each other for a moment. Carlos wanted to….not say anything, because words were not his true metier. But he wished he knew how to express what he was feeling just then. He was frozen, though. Memories of Robert kept him frozen. He hated that; he didn't want Robert to have anything to do with this fragile, lovely, blossoming thing with Cecil.

But then, as if able to read his mind, Cecil ducked his head and kissed him. Not on the mouth--Cecil's kiss was not some invasive, squirming battle of tongues and teeth. Cecil kissed his face. He kissed Carlos just at the corner of his eye, where Carlos was deeply aware he sported deep stress lines.

The gesture was so tender, so…claiming and yet freeing that Carlos could do nothing but blink. He blinked again, because there was water in his eye, and he didn't want Cecil to misinterpret.

"Good luck with the rest of the broadcast," Carlos told him, his voice hoarse.

"Oh my sweet Carlos." Cecil hopped down from the trunk of the car. He hesitated a moment, then seized Carlos's hand and kissed the back of it. A strange shyness seemed to come over him. "Don't worry if it's later, if you want to call after. Honestly. I won't mind. My phone will be on all night."

Carlos smiled. "Okay."

"Okay." Cecil smiled back.

The actual moment of parting was awkward--it could scarcely be anything else, when neither of them actually wanted to leave. Finally, Cecil mounted his stolen bike and turned it around. He pedaled off. There was an air of determination about his rapid pedaling, like he was making himself go, live up to his duties, be responsible, even though he'd rather be doing--something else.

Carlos watched him until he could no longer see the little reflector light on Cecil's bumper. Then he got back into the car and drove it across the street, parking in front of his lab.

Perry was sitting on the front steps of the lab. He had his own key, so he must have simply….wanted to sit there. Carlos cut the headlights and got out of the car, approaching Perry carefully.

"Hey," he said softly.

Perry didn't look at him, but he raised his hand in a salute. The hand saluting him was gripping a bottle of very cheap whiskey. Carlos winced sympathetically. He wasn't about to quibble with Perry's choice of how to deal with the day's events, but no one deserved to have to drink Wild Turkey unless they truly wanted to.

"Got a bottle of Maker's inside," he said, gesturing to the lab door with his keys. "Want to do this top shelf style?"

Perry appeared to consider this for a moment. "Will it get me any drunker?"

"Um. No, probably not, unless you finish that rotgut off first."

"Then we'll wait till it's gone. Might need to get drunker, after it's gone." Perry poke at the dusty ground with the toe of his shoe.

Carlos looked down at him, feeling helpless. He had no idea what to say, or if he should say anything.

But after a second, Perry scooted over, making room for him on the step. Carlos sat down. After a second, Perry passed him the bottle, and Carlos forced himself to take a swig. It was vile. But that, possibly, was more appropriate than something that went down sweeter.

They sat there for a long time--the Arby's lights were still clearly visible from the lab and Perry couldn't seem to take his eyes off them. After another few moments he passed the bottle back to to Carlos, who drank.

They sat there for a long time. Or maybe a short time. Neither of them were looking at their useless watches. And as always, the Night Vale sky kept its mysteries to itself.

Chapter Text

June 13, 2013 (but only just)


Carlos drove Perry back to his mother's house around two a.m. The whiskey was gone, but Perry was at least conscious, and Carlos wasn't drunk. (He'd cheated by pouring some liquor onto the dusty earth each time Perry passed him the bottle. Perry didn't seem to notice, and this way the boy's hangover would at least be manageable.)

Perry's mother didn't look surprised when Carlos rang her doorbell. Technically Perry had his own studio apartment in old town, but Carlos hadn't wanted to leave him there. Perry's mother looked them both up and down as Carlos stood before her with Perry's arm slung over his (mostly) uninjured left shoulder. Under her scrutiny, Carlos realized with chagrin that his clothes were still covered with bloodstains.

"You'll be the Scientist," said Perry's mother, her voice deep, musical, unaccented. "I'm June."

She was quite a beautiful woman. Carlos had observed before, in an academic sort of way, that Perry was a very good looking boy, and the resemblance between son and mother was strong. They even had the same thick, dark, waist-length hair, though June didn't sport the electric blue streak. (She had two identical white streaks at each temple, instead.)

"Thanks for keeping an eye on my boy," she continued. "I was about to go driving around looking for him."

Carlos swallowed. He tried to summon an appropriate response to her gratitude, but every possible phrase stuck in his throat. Carlos was acutely conscious of the fact that he was standing before a woman whose brother-in-law had been killed because of him. The evidence of the deed was splattered all over him. (He knew most of the blood on his clothes was his, but he doubted that all of it was.)

If he'd had a chance to think it through first, Carlos would have have changed clothes before driving over, for…well, for general hygiene purposes, but also for fear of being insensitive. Now, though, he wondered if appearing this way--battle scars intact--wasn't somehow more appropriate. June didn't look like a woman of delicate constitution, even by Night Vale standards. Maybe…maybe it was some satisfaction to her, seeing the evidence of the danger that her family had saved him from.

"So, um. Where would you like me to…?" Perry was swaying heavily against Carlos's side. Not yet totally limp, but definitely unable to stand upright without assistance.

"Give him to me." June stepped out onto the porch. She was several inches taller than Carlos. Before he quite knew what was happening, she had stooped, flipping Perry's prone form over her shoulder in a fireman's carry. Carlos blinked, impressed, and slightly intimidated.

"I'll put him down next to his father," she said, matter-of-factly. "He's been sleeping it off in Perry's old room since he stumbled in about an hour ago. I've just been waiting on Perry to show up before I went to bed."

"Right," said Carlos. "Okay. Well. I--I won't keep you, then. Um. Good night."

Awkwardly, he turned and began to walk away. June stopped him halfway down the front steps.

"Vas was an asshole," she called after him. The house was isolated, on the outskirts of the desert wastes, and her voice rang for a clear distance. "I'm not gonna miss him. But I'm glad he died doing something useful." She laughed, dry, humorless. "Sergei will be glad too. Tomorrow he'll be able to go to the bar and talk about his brother without shame."

She didn't add that this would be the first time anyone in Vasily's family had been able to do that, but the implication rang hard in her tone.

Carlos nodded, swallowing. He didn't turn back to look at her--he couldn't. But it didn't matter. The door of the house swung shut behind him, and all the lights inside had gone dark before he'd even got the door of the Prius open.

He slipped behind the steering wheel and wrapped his arms around it, resting his head against the vinyl, which was still warm from the hot day they'd had before the sun finally made up its mind to set. His chest felt tight and heavy. Selfishly, he'd hoped that he'd be able to talk with Perry about what had happened--not for the boy's sake, but for his own. But Perry hadn't wanted to talk; only drink. Carlos wished now he'd been able to drink with him.

There was that bottle of Maker's back at the lab. Or the bottle of Patrón--that would be better.

Carlos started the engine. Automatically, the radio blared to life. He started to turn it off, assuming it would be the usual late night programming documentary on air burials, or recordings of spiders devouring their mates after copulation, or something equally fascinating yet horrible.

But it wasn't.

It was Cecil.

Carlos knew that Cecil was home now. Cecil had texted him when he got back to his apartment, just to remind Carlos that his phone would be on and "no time would be too late to call! :-D". So it wasn't really Cecil on the airwaves. The radio station was just re-airing the broadcast from earlier in the day.

Which, on any other day, would have been fine. They probably re-aired the day's broadcoast every night at this hour. Except--in today's broadcast, Cecil was crying. Actually crying on air.

Over Carlos.

The sound of it made Carlos jolt, like he'd grasped a live current with his bare hand.

Carlos knew Cecil had been crying earlier, of course; he'd seen it in his face, in his red-rimmed eyes. But hearing it was different. Cecil was narrating a slightly inaccurate, bizarrely dramatized version of the events at the bowling alley, including things Carlos himself couldn't remember (such as collapsing in the underground pit, and the Tracker dragging him to safety) and at first, it was just surreal.

But then Carlos heard Cecil's voice falter--his perfect, smooth, beautiful voice, cracking, growing hoarse, then breaking, as he reported Carlos's death. And Carlos--well--

Carlos didn't know what he was feeling. The entire issue of his feelings was suddenly irrelevant. He had to do something, and he had to do it now.

On consideration, he had two options. The first was to sit in his car in the gravel driveway outside Perry's mother's house and cry until he was too empty and drained to do more than drive home and sleep for twelve hours. The other--


After he'd awakened in the bowling alley with Nijeia sitting on his chest, Carlos had thought about leaving Night Vale. He'd thought about drinking himself blind while he waited for Perry to turn up. He'd considered a lot of different options, the way you did in the immediate aftermath of a near-death experience.

In the end, he had chosen Cecil. Who had come the moment he knew Carlos wanted him. Cecil had sat with him, holding his hand, warming him with his undemanding presence. He'd opened his sweet, guileless face to Carlos, allowing him to read everything in it that neither of them dared say out loud.

There weren't two options, after all. Carlos had already decided, and nothing that had happened in the last five hours had made him change his mind.

Carlos put the car into drive and turned in the direction of downtown Night Vale. Cecil's neat, square little row of adobe apartments sat there, two blocks away from the city dog park. Even though Carlos was normally a safe driver who never used his phone while behind the wheel, he sent a text to Cecil's number: On my way over. Hope that's ok.

The answering ding of Cecil's reply sounded almost instantly, but Carlos didn't bother looking. He knew what it would say, because he knew Cecil. He drove straight on, aware that he was dissociating slightly under the stress of the day. But he was determined to reach Cecil's house before he was forced to pull off the road.

He made it to within a block of Cecil's apartment before he had to pull over or risk popping his tire on the curb, or doing some worse damage. He got out of the car, not even bothering to lock it behind him, and walked the rest of the way.

Cecil's door opened before Carlos had finished the first knock. Cecil was still fully clothed, as though it weren't almost 3 am. His face was radiant, his hair was a marvel of kinetic energy, and his glasses had slipped slightly down his nose. His tattoos were glowing pink--the deep, blushing pink of a fresh carnation.

"Hello!" said Cecil, greeting him without the faintest hint of question or confusion in his voice. As though there could be nothing more welcome or natural than a slightly deranged and more than slightly traumatized, blood-stained scientist appearing at his door step in the wee hours of the morning. "Please come in! Would you like coffee? Or tea? I'm all out of cayenne, unfortunately, but I have a nice rooiboos-agave blend that Old Woman Josie--oomph!"

The sound of breath being compressed from Cecil's lungs was created by the fact that Carlos had just thrown his arms around him and squeezed. By some standards, Cecil was the smaller of the two of them, being built like a bundle of twigs, but Carlos was shorter by a good five inches, and he took full advantage of the height difference to tuck his head into Cecil's shoulder and bury his face in the surprisingly soft poly-blend of his ubiquitous sweater vest.

"Oh," said Cecil, sounding both stunned and delighted. "Oh my. Oh, my Carlos." Delicately, Cecil's long, bony fingers found their way just to the edge of Carlos's hairline. "M-may I?"

The sheer fact that Cecil was asking delicate, breathless permission to touch his hair made Carlos catch his breath in an unmistakeable sob. He nodded. Cecil responded by crushing Carlos against his chest. (Cecil was unnaturally strong for someone who looked so weedy). He scratched Carlos's scalp with his fingernails, using just the right amount of pressure, and Carlos responded by melting bonelessly into Cecil's careful, iron grip.

"I'm so glad you came," Cecil whispered. "Not that I wouldn't have understood if you hadn't--you must be so tired. And look at you! Your poor clothes--"

Cecil gave him an extra little squeeze. Carlos was unable to help gasping a bit--he was somewhat tender around the ribs, though he was fairly sure they were only bruised, not broken. But Cecil froze instantly at the noise. He pulled back, holding Carlos at arm's length, and the suddenness of the movement made Carlos wince involuntarily. Cecil's eyes widened, as though some horrible suspicion had just been confirmed.

"You feel pain!" Cecil cried. "Oh no--I mean, of course you do, you're an Outsider, but I didn't even think. Stupid, stupid Cecil--"

Carlos mumbled a protest. It was hardly Cecil's fault, and anyway, Carlos had grabbed him first. But Cecil paid no attention.

He guided Carlos into the apartment, only pausing to shut and lock the door behind them before he peeled the blood-stained lab coat off Carlos's shoulders. He automatically started to unbutton Carlos's shirt, but when Carlos tensed, Cecil's hands faltered. He looked Carlos in the eye, waiting, and Carlos reminded himself of where he was, and with whom. When he finally nodded permission, Cecil divested him of the gore-streaked plaid cotton with brisk, efficient movements. There wasn't even a hint of seduction in the way Cecil stripped him down and guided him toward the bathroom, despite the fact that he was murmuring endearments and nonsense the whole time.

Inside the small, blue-and-white-tiled bathroom, Carlos sat on the closed toilet, and Cecil knelt down, untying his shoes. When he'd finished, Carlos took over the task of removing his pants and boxers, while Cecil started the shower, fussing over the temperature of the water.

Carlos didn't even think about how long it had been since he was last nude in another person's presence until Cecil turned around and made a breathy, helpless little noise that, coming from someone else, would almost certainly have signified arousal. Carlos knew better, though. Cecil was looking at his wounds, not at--anything else.

"That Teddy Williams," Cecil growled. "I may not have the normal human complement of pain receptors anymore, but even I would have known better than to let you walk out of there without so much as a single aloe-tentacle bandage!" He huffed indignantly as he helped Carlos to his feet, bracing Carlos as he stepped carefully over the lip of the tub and into the stream of hot water. Carlos forced himself not to make a face as the spray struck his open gashes; the water stung, but the heat felt amazing against his clenched muscles, and he thought he might like to just stay there for a day or two, if Cecil wouldn't mind too much.

He drew the clear plastic curtain shut, and through it he saw Cecil take up position on the closed toilet and stare furiously at the tiled wall ahead of him, while tapping his toe against the bath mat in a display of deep agitation. "I'll just have to have a word with the Night Vale medical board," he said, loud enough for Carlos to hear over the shower, though he was clearly still speaking to himself. "Because that is not the quality of care we expect from the doctors in this community, even if--"

"He was a little distracted by the fact that the Apache Tracker was dying at his feet," Carlos interrupted, almost too tired to make himself heard over the water. He had to say something, though. After the fiasco with his haircut last year, he really didn't want to know what kind of vengeance Cecil might be plotting. "Plus, you guys around here generally…heal a bit faster than people like me. He probably just forgot."

Carlos glanced over long enough to see Cecil purse his lips. "It's still no excuse," Cecil said snippily, to the wall.

Neither of them spoke for the next few minutes, as Carlos did his best to scrub away the dried blood and gently expose the broken skin to soap and water. It occurred to him suddenly that Cecil probably didn't even own a first aid kit. Cecil was probably like Nijeia, whose scraped knees and paper-cut fingertips always closed up clean and smooth before Carlos could so much as dig out a bottle of antiseptic.

When Carlos shut the water off, it was with great reluctance, but deep necessity; he was so dizzy that he thought there was a real chance he might just faint on his feet and drown under the spray. The moment Carlos pushed aside the shower curtain he was greeted by a wide expanse of fluffy dry terrycloth, which Cecil was holding up at the level of his own eyes. Carlos took the oversized towel gratefully, and Cecil immediately turned his back.

Carlos wondered where this deep regard for his modesty came from. Was it just another of Cecil's peculiar old-fashioned quirks, or was it possible that he…sensed something about Carlos?

No. Better not to indulge what could only be wishful thinking. Cecil was just a considerate person; it didn't mean Carlos was off the hook. They were going to have to talk soon. Cecil deserved to know, before this got any more complicated than it already was.

(Did he really have to find out, though? whispered a voice at the back of Carlos's head. Cecil was incredibly considerate. Carlos had never met anyone like him before, let alone tried to…and anyway, Night Vale was so different. Maybe Cecil wouldn't even ask him for…or if he did, maybe it wouldn't be the same as…)

Carlos patted himself dry, uncomfortably aware that, now that the crusted blood had been washed away, he was, essentially, leaking from various spots all over his body. He stared at himself in the mirror as little rivulets of blood appeared on otherwise freshly washed skin.

He fastened the towel around his waist and took another one from the cabinet under the sink, wrapping it around his shoulders like a shawl. Then he walked out into the apartment. Cecil was making tea, but he looked up the instant Carlos shuffled into the main room.

"Come sit down!" Cecil all but dropped an empty tea mug, hurrying over to take Carlos's elbow and lead him to a rocking chair with overstuffed cushions and wide, welcoming arms.

Carlos wanted to protest; it wouldn't be very thoughtful of him to bleed on Cecil's furniture. But then Cecil gave him a small shove. The backs of his knees hit the seat cushion, and his body folded itself into the chair's embrace.

"The tea will be ready in a moment," said Cecil. "In the mean time, I could--oh, no, not with your clothes still in the wash. Would you be more comfortable, if I--? Oh, but that won't work either…"

Carlos blinked up at Cecil, who was biting his lip and looking down at him, helpless and confused. "Carlos, I'm so sorry, but I have no idea what I should be doing for you," he confessed, his tone a cross between humiliation and self-directed anger. "It's so embarrassing, but I hardly know the first thing about how to help hurt people who have normal DNA."

"That's fine," said Carlos, filing a mental note to ask what Cecil would do for someone with other-than-normal DNA at a later time. "If I could just lie down somewhere--"

"Should I call a doctor?" Cecil interrupted. "Not Teddy Williams, obviously, but--"

"I really don't think I need a doctor."

Cecil looked dejected; then, in the next instant, furiously thoughtful. Suddenly his eyes lit up. He fumbled his phone from his pocket. "I know! I'll call Old Woman Josie! Maybe one of her angels would be willing to--"

"Please don't call Josie," said Carlos, grabbing Cecil's wrist and trying not to shudder. It had been been years since he thought of religion as anything more than an outdated mechanism for civilization building, but the idea of being healed by an actual angel made him want to say an "Our Father" out of sheer self-defense. "Cecil. Calm down. I'm going to be fine. Just…" He scratched his damp head with his free hand. "Do you have a first aid kit?"

Cecil bit his lip again. He looked like he wanted to cry. "I'm sorry," he said, almost wailing. "I never thought you'd be hurt the first time you came here."

"It's okay," said Carlos, trying to sound soothing, trying not to think too hard about the fact that Cecil had, apparently, made up his mind a long time ago that Carlos would be in his apartment one day. "There's no reason you should have one. It's fine, I promise." He gave Cecil's wrist a little squeeze. Cecil laced their fingers together and squeezed back, which was slightly painful (Cecil really was incredibly strong).

"Tell me how to help you," Cecil demanded. "There must be something--I refuse to leave your medical needs unattended all night." His face crumpled. "I can't bear to think of you being in pain that long."

Despite his exhaustion, Carlos nodded in weary agreement. Apparently, he couldn't bear Cecil's obvious distress any more than Cecil could bear his being injured.

"I've got supplies," Carlos told him. "They're back at the lab. If I could borrow some clothes, I could go and get them."

Cecil looked at him, appalled.

"You can't leave," he said slowly, as though speaking to a child. "I'm sorry, I don't want to be high-handed, but you're in no condition to drive. I simply couldn't allow it. And you can't walk to the lab, not at this hour."

"It isn't that far," said Carlos.

"That isn't the point," said Cecil, a bit primly. "You came to my home, and that makes you my responsibility. Legally, as a matter of fact. It would be different if you hadn't been bleeding, but, well." Cecil's eyes went soft and sad as he looked at a particularly long and deep gash that crossed Carlos's sternum. "You were. You still are. That's very dangerous. Especially after 3 am."

Carlos suddenly had a memory flashback to hearing his abuela talking to his older cousin Graciella: I hope you don't think you're walking to Diana's house at this hour, not dressed like that! Possibly Night Vale was the only city on earth where the male residents felt just as terrorized on a daily basis as the female ones.

"Do you want to go and get them?" Carlos said, gesturing to his keys, which were lying on the coffee table next to his phone. Cecil must have removed them from his pockets before throwing his wrecked clothing into the wash.

"Yes," said Cecil, brightening instantly. "Yes, yes, I'll do that. In your lab, you said? I'll go straight there." He sprang up from the coffee table, where he'd been perched to face Carlos. "And just ignore the tea kettle if it starts to scream--it has abandonment issues, but it'll shut itself off after a minute or so."

Carlos smiled faintly. "My first aid supplies are in a large, clear plastic box with handles on the top shelf of the closet. It's labeled. Shouldn't be able to miss it."

"I'll be back before you know I've gone," Cecil promised. He paused. "Well. Not literally. Not unless--no, it's June, that's very unlikely." He shook his head. "You should rest while I'm gone. Do you want to lie down?"

"I wouldn't mind taking a nap," Carlos confessed.

Cecil grabbed his hand and helped Carlos up out of the chair, which seemed to make a noise of disgruntlement as he stood up. "I just put fresh sheets on the bed today," Cecil said, his tone bright and cheerful again. "I always do on Fridays." He led Carlos to the bedroom, letting go of his hand to pull back the covers. "The Faceless Old Woman who lives in my home might come by to tuck you in, but she won't bother you if she can see that you're tired."

"Thank you," Carlos murmured. He sat heavily on the mattress, then fell in a kind of controlled collapse against the pillows. "I really hope I don't bleed on your sheets."

He was vaguely aware of Cecil picking up his legs and putting them on the bed, then pulling the blankets over them. "Don't worry about it," Cecil said. "If you do, we'll just add them to the pile when we burn your clothes and those towels. It'll all be fine, as long as we bury the ash under the bloodstone circle before sunset tomorrow."

"Okay," said Carlos. He had understand maybe every three words, but he trusted Cecil's soothing tone. He closed his eyes, falling asleep almost instantly--but not before he felt the feather-light brush of Cecil's lips against his cheek.


When Carlos woke up again, it was with a groggy awareness that he'd had strange, vivid dreams. He couldn't remember anything about them apart from the little tune he was humming under his breath. He didn't know the name of it, and he was pretty sure he'd never heard it before. At least, not in waking life. He didn't mind though; it was a nice tune.

Slightly more disconcerting was the fact that when he opened his eyes, he found himself covered in three more blankets than Cecil had left him with. Cecil--whose quiet return to the bedroom had nonetheless brought Carlos back to wakefulness as effectively as a gunshot cracking the air--just smiled indulgently as he set down an armful of supplies on the desk beneath his window.

"I was right," said Cecil. "She must like you. Those are all the blankets I have in the apartment."

Carlos shook his head. "What?" he croaked.

"The Faceless Old Woman who lives in my home. She knows where I keep the spare linens, obviously."

Carlos pushed the blankets back carefully. Cecil's air conditioning was running full blast, but Carlos was still a little over-warm. He hoped that if the Faceless Old Woman who lived in Cecil's apartment was watching, she wouldn't be offended. It seemed like it would be a bad idea to offend someone who could be that close to him in his sleep without waking him up.

"Did you find the--" Carlos saw the pile of boxes Cecil had just carried into the room and trailed off before he could say 'first-aid kit'. "Christ, Cecil, what is all that?"

Cecil looked slightly embarrassed. "I did get the box you described," Cecil explained. "But I also looked around and…well, I just picked up things that looked like they might be useful."

Carlos could practically feel himself pale at the thought of Cecil--who was not unintelligent, but whose scientific education appeared to be limited to tracking moon phases and considering mountains to be mythological--wandering freely around his lab and making value judgments on the "usefulness" of various items based solely on their appearance.

"Please tell me you didn't--" Carlos hardly knew how to finish the sentence. "Open anything. Or shake anything up. Or…or touch anything for too long."

"Anything that was glowing, I handled with tongs," Cecil said, in what he must have thought was a reassuring voice.

"Oh…God. Um. Thank you, Cecil. Please just…back away from the table?" Carlos extricated himself from the covers and swung his legs stiffly over the edge of the mattress. He held up a hand to forestall Cecil, who took a step forward, a protest obviously on his lips. "Please. I need to see what you…um. What we have to work with."

Cecil looked unhappy, but he nodded, clasping his hands stiffly and watching Carlos as he shuffled across the room. The large plastic tub labeled "medical" was there, thank God, but so were three lidless shoeboxes containing a variety of objects, some of which Carlos could see being useful in a medical context, if, say, they were stocking a MASH unit and had to improvise with whatever they could lay their hands on.

But the box on top of the first aid kit also contained--

"Cecil." Carlos forced himself not to gulp audibly, or jump. He shut his eyes so he wouldn't glare; after everything Cecil had done for him tonight, it would be unkind. "What exactly made you think--no. Sorry, never mind."

"Did I forget something?" said Cecil anxiously.

Carlos looked down at the shoebox on the top of the pile, which contained a small quantity of mercury fulminate in a plastic jar. Small, of course, was a relative term; there was more than enough of it to detonate and kill them both if it was mishandled.

"No," said Carlos. Gently, but deliberately, he picked up the box--which also contained a speculum, two scalpels, 5 milliliters of hydrogen peroxide, and a random, coffee-stained towel--and carried it out of Cecil's bedroom and into the bathroom. He looked around, then set the box down in the bathtub.

"Thank you for the blankets," he said aloud, to no one in particular. "It's very important that no one disturbs that box, incidentally."

When Carlos returned to the bedroom, Cecil had opened the first aid kit. He looked up at Cecil uncertainly. "Is everything okay?"

"Yes," Carlos assured him. It would be, assuming the Faceless Old Woman in Cecil's bathroom didn't secretly harbor a grudge against him and take her chance to blow them all sky high. "Just bring the first aid kit over here."

"I can help with this, I promise," said Cecil, carrying the box over to the bed. He sounded dreadfully earnest, like he was afraid Carlos wouldn't believe him. "It isn't that I don't know the basics of cleaning and bandaging wounds. I was a Weird Scout, you know."

Carlos sat heavily on the bed beside Cecil, biting the inside of his mouth. "Yeah?" he said, with a straight face.

"Yes. But it's…safer to use the medicine you brought with you. Outsiders sometimes have unpredictable reactions to angst leeches…oh, good. This is familiar." Cecil took out a roll of cotton gauze, and a roll of medical tape. "What else do you need?"

"Let me see. I don't remember half of what I put in here."

Considering that Carlos had made his preparations for Night Vale in a haze of exhaustion (and terror that Robert would track him down and lock him in a basement before he could make it out of town) he'd managed to be fairly thorough in stocking this particular box. There was plenty of antiseptic, both gel and liquid, in varying strengths. He'd brought medicine too--everything from antihistamines to aspirin to the prescription pain killers he'd been given after his last root canal, which he hadn't used at the time. He handed a bottle of disinfectant to Cecil and looked down at the small bottle of pills with thoughtfulness and longing.

"Are those for pain?" said Cecil, with a shrewd look.


"Then you should take some."

Carlos grimaced. "They can make me a little loopy. And…it might be better to save them. Just in case."

Cecil put down everything he was holding and took the bottle from Carlos's hand. He read the label carefully, then opened it, reached for Carlos's hand again, and shook two pills into his open palm.

"You're in pain," said Cecil, gently but firmly. "You're not allowed to be in pain if there's anything we can do to stop it. Don't worry about 'just in case.'"

Carlos blinked at Cecil a few times. Cecil's dark-and-violet eyes were bright and determined behind his glasses. His tattoos were deep indigo; they had been since moments after Carlos first arrived. Carlos was beginning to suspect that he knew what indigo meant, but he wasn't going to say it out loud just yet.

"I may say silly things," Carlos warned him, reaching for the water glass on the nightstand. He swallowed the pills, and watched as relief eased the tense line kitting Cecil's smooth dark forehead.

"I look forward to it," said Cecil, smiling a little. "Now lie back. Stop me if I do anything wrong."


As it turned out, Cecil had been telling the truth when it came to possessing a basic knowledge of how to apply medicine to a wound and cover it with a bandage. If anything, he was excessively thorough; if Carlos hadn't been fighting to stay awake through the process, he felt there was a chance he would have woken up completely mummified in white cotton gauze. To be fair, his legs were covered with so many small, deep wounds that he looked like he'd waded pants-less through a briar patch. There was no telling when he'd be able to stock up on supplies again, though, so Carlos only allowed Cecil to put bandages on the wounds that were more than three inches long or half an inch deep.

They didn't talk much through the process at first. Cecil was deeply occupied by the business of unrolling bandage and using the scissors to snip it into squares and rectangles, while Carlos directed him as to how much antiseptic was appropriate (again, had he not been keeping an eye on things, Cecil probably would have bathed him in it.)

"You're doing a really good job," he told Cecil, thinking he could use the reassurance. The hydrocodone was making him feel light and floaty, and his voice came out soft, his words slurred around the edges.

"Thank you," said Cecil. He did not, contrary to Carlos's expectations, beam proudly under the praise. He just continued to cut, and snip, and apply antiseptic. "I was just thinking it was lucky that you came so well supplied for medical emergencies. But then, you are a doctor after all."

"Not that kind of doctor," Carlos pointed out. "Just…like to be prepared."

"Mm." Cecil's left hand came to rest on Carlos's ankle for a moment. He rummaged through the box with the other. "Was there something in particular you were preparing for?"

Carlos had done as much research on Night Vale before arriving as it was possible to do from outside the town itself, which wasn't much. All he really had to go on, honestly, was the exceptionally high mortality rate amongst previous occupants of his post. He wasn't going to tell Cecil that, though.

"I've been on my own a long time," he said. It was more than Carlos would have confessed under different circumstances, or if he hadn't been drugged up, but he felt sure he wouldn't regret telling Cecil. "Since my abuela died. I was in college. Undergrad. Used to being…self-reliant."

"That must have been difficult," said Cecil, evenly. "Did you get hurt a lot? This really is a very well-stocked box of medical supplies, if I may say so."

Carlos felt a hint of suspicion that Cecil was leading up to asking him something, or else trying to lead him into some kind of confession, but he had no idea what kind. "Not really. My leg got messed up once when I was a kid, but that was ages ago."

"I hope you'll tell me that story one day." Cecil wasn't using his Radio Voice exactly, but he didn't sound quite like he was making casual conversation either. It was difficult to pin down the difference. The drugs didn't help. "I was wondering about something you mentioned earlier."

"What's that?"

Cecil hummed under his breath, then stood up. "All done here," he said. "I need to look at your back now. Will it hurt too much to lie on your chest, or would you prefer to sit up?"

"No. I mean yes. I'll just…" Carefully, Carlos rolled over. The towel he'd been wearing around his shoulders since getting out of the shower had at some point joined the pile of other bloodstained materials that Cecil was, apparently, going to immolate in some kind of necessary and municipally approved ritual later in the day. Cecil's sheets felt deliciously soft against his skin, and the painkillers kept the gash along his chest from registering as much more than a faint, dull ache. "This okay?" Carlos asked, hazily.

"Carlos," said Cecil, reprovingly. "You are hurt. Nothing about this is okay." He sat down on the bed again; Carlos felt the mattress give slightly under his weight. "I was wondering about what you told me when we were watching the lights over the Arby's earlier in the evening. About…what happened to you before you came to Night Vale."

"Oh." Despite the floaty drugs, Carlos felt heavy, suddenly--pinned back to earth by the dull flesh of his injured body and the weight of his memories. "You want to know about Robert."

"Was he the person who frightened you?" Cecil's voice was light, but it seemed to resonate strangely, as though his bedroom had acquired extra dimensions that would allow for a faint echo. "I never thought of him as having a name. Silly of me. When you said he loved you, I naturally felt a fleeting pulse of sympathy towards him. But then you said that he pointed a gun at you and after that, I simply assumed he was a monster. Something from the Void, maybe, that got lost and wandered outside the city limits."

Carlos blinked. His head was resting on the pillow at an angle that forced him to look at the nightstand. It was nearly six in the morning, and he could see the first rays of natural light coming through the window over Cecil's desk.

"It's actually one of the finer points of religious debate around here," Cecil continued, his hands not pausing in their work. "Whether or not a monster can feel love. Though 'monster' isn't actually a very polite or precise term. Since 1997, monsters are legally defined as any being with more than six limbs or two heads, or--I can't remember, but I think there's some other qualifying factor. Depending on whether the extra limbs are deemed to be more useful or more of a hindrance, the creature possessing them is eligible for certain benefit programs, or else liable for paying luxury tax on each extra limb or head. It's believed by some that these ruinous taxation practices are what drove Hiram McDaniels to insurance fraud. You remember Hiram McDaniels, don't you? The five-headed dragon?"

Carlos shut his eyes. "Cecil."

"Yes, dearest Carlos?"

"I literally cannot tell whether or not you're joking."

There was a brief pause in the movement of Cecil's hands. Then he cleared his throat. His hands were light against Carlos's back, but Carlos could still feel tension in the rigidity of his fingers. "Forgive me," he said. "I was trying to lighten the mood, but that wasn't the right moment." He worked in silence for another few seconds, then let hand rest against the small of Carlos's back. "I know perfectly well that there are mostly-human monsters, with names and feelings, even outside of Night Vale. Did he hurt you?"

Even through the haze, and even though Carlos had, apparently, decided that he was ok with having this conversation considerably ahead of when he'd planned to have it (which might have been never, maybe), he didn't really know how to answer that question. Robert had never inflicted physical injury on him, but 'hurt' was a broad concept. Carlos decided to be specific. Precise. He was a scientist, after all.

"He didn't shoot me," he told Cecil. "He hinted that he might, but he didn't. And he didn't…actually force me to do…anything. You know. When we were together." Carlos gave a laugh, which turned into high-pitched giggles and ended in a derisive snort. "Haha, I just said we were together. We weren't together. Our relationship lasted for like, five hours, and four and a half of 'em were spent getting shit-faced in the bar across from campus."

For a few moments, and for the first time in over an hour, Cecil stopped touching him entirely. It made Carlos worry. Perhaps the Robert thing was more than Cecil could handle, after everything else that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. Maybe Cecil was about to tell him that, since it was dawn and Carlos was no longer bleeding freely, it was now safe for him to walk back to his lab, so would he please let Cecil have his bed back?

Then Cecil's hands came to rest on his shoulders (one of which was slightly wrenched, but at least the skin there wasn't broken). Carlos felt an increase in pressure, like Cecil was leaning forward, leaning in, towards the back of Carlos's neck. This new proximity made him think about flinching. Then he thought about the careful way Cecil had been touching him all night and decided it was fine. Good, even. Cecil's body was warm against his back, and he was being very careful not to put pressure on anything that was hurting.

"Sorry," Carlos mumbled, half into the pillow. "You probably didn't want to know about all that. It's nothing to worry about now, I promise. He doesn't know how to find Night Vale. I mean, he keeps saying he's looking for me, but he hasn't showed up yet, so I'm sure it's fine."

Cecil stood up. Quickly. Carlos felt the loss of his nearness like a big piece of duct tape had been ripped away from some place on his body that had just enough hair to really hurt, like his lower legs.

"I'm sorry," he said again, not quite sure why he was apologizing, except that Cecil's closeness had felt good, and then it had stopped, and Carlos felt sure he must be to blame for that. "Am I being a pain? I could shut up. I think I'd be really good at shutting up right now, actually." He yawned immediately on completion of the last sentence.



"Look at me for a moment."

Carlos pushed himself up on his elbows and levered himself onto his side, craning his neck so he could look over his shoulder.

The lamp on the nightstand was still on, though there was enough light coming through the windows that they didn't really need it anymore. There was also a dim violet light in the room. It emanated from Cecil's forearms and seemed to glow from beneath his shirt. His tattoos, of course, only they were shining now at a wattage Carlos had never seen before.

"Wow," said Carlos, blinking. "Can you do that whenever you want? I bet you never stub your toe when you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night."

"No," said Cecil. His expression was a strange mixture of blankness, worry, and…something else. Something he was hiding, or repressing, that nonetheless spilled out at the corners of his tight, unhappy little smile. "It's involuntary. And not always convenient. But it's not…" He sighed and shook his head. "As you say, it's nothing you need to worry about right now. I wanted to ask you…"

Carlos forced himself to perk up a bit more so he could pay Cecil attention. "Yeah? What is it?"

Cecil's mouth worked for a moment. He looked determined, a bit uncertain, and slightly awkward. Carlos had a strong suspicion that he was having some kind of silent argument with himself.

"Do you mind if I get into bed with you?" Cecil said finally. "Just to sleep, of course. I don't mind taking the couch, of course, but I…I'd like to. To be near you. While we sleep. If that's all right."

The request, gently phrased as it was, sent a spike of automatic panic into Carlos's chest. But the sting of it faded, almost immediately, so Carlos decided that it had nothing to do with Cecil. He was also pretty sure that Cecil had wanted to ask him something different, then changed his mind. Still, he didn't doubt for a moment that Cecil wanted exactly what he was asking for, and nothing…more.

"I might bleed on you," Carlos warned him.

Cecil's face softened slightly. "Don't be ridiculous. I was very thorough with the bandages."

"Yeah, I know. It's fine if you want to sleep here. It's your bed, after all." Carlos held up a hand to stop the automatic protest. "Sorry. I didn't mean it like that. No, I don't mind. I…I think it would be nice, actually."

And then, because he really didn't have the energy to keep himself propped up anymore, he collapsed back onto the mattress. "Do you mind turning out the light? I know it's right next to me and everything, but…ugh."

Carlos heard Cecil's slow, hesitant footsteps approaching the nightstand on his side of the bed. (Not your side of the bed, he told himself fiercely. It just happens to be a side of Cecil's bed that you are presently, temporarily, occupying.) The lamplight disappeared with a soft click. Then the room grew substantially darker, as Cecil crossed to the window and drew the heavy curtains that were designed to block out the powerful desert sun.

Finally, the footsteps approached the bed. Carlos listened to them, and to the thrum of the air conditioning. He heard various quiet, fabric-based noises--the soft thump of a balled-up sweater vest and jeans being dropped into a hamper, then the quiet shush of blankets being drawn back on the side of the bed closest to the door. At last, he felt the gentle dip of the mattress beneath Cecil's bony, insignificant weight. The bedclothes shushed again as Cecil leaned back against the pillows and drew the blankets over himself.

It was strange, how different the bed felt with Cecil in it, even though they weren't touching, even though Cecil was keeping so much distance between them that Carlos barely registered the warmth of an additional body near his. He decided that, since this was his first time sleeping in a bed with another person, and possibly also his last, he ought to get the most out of the experience. It wouldn't have been possible with anyone except Cecil, but Carlos trusted Cecil.

He rolled over, once. It hurt, just a bit, but mostly because his muscles were stiff. He'd need another long, hot shower in the morning, once the explosives had been removed from the tub.

"Hi," Carlos said, looking Cecil in the face.

"Hi," said Cecil back, looking slightly stunned and disbelieving. Carlos couldn't tell if he'd been wearing that expression when he got into the bed, or if it had come over him suddenly when Carlos decreased the distance between them to just a few inches. It was too much distance, Carlos decided after a moment, so he reached out and rested hie hand on Cecil's narrow shoulder.

Cecil's eyes fluttered shut for a moment. His features scrunched up, almost like he was the one in pain. He laid his hand over Carlos's hand, increasing the pressure against his shoulder for a moment before releasing him again, quickly.

"I don't know if I snore or not," was the second-to-last thing Carlos remembered saying before he fell into deep, drugged, dreamless sleep.

"I'll be sure to tell you," said Cecil, sounding amused.

The actual last thing Carlos said (or probably said--he might have just imagined saying it) was, "You can touch my hair, if you want?"

Either way, he drifted into sleep feeling Cecil's fingers carding through his rumpled, still slightly shower-damp hair. And either way, he was completely fine with that.

Chapter Text


June 13, 2013 (later. much later.)

Carlos woke up a little after one in the afternoon to the sound of loud hammering against the front door. At first, he thought he'd overslept, and Perry had forgotten his lab key. Then he opened his eyes, and immediately twitched, bewildered by his unfamiliar surroundings. Clarity returned as he caught sight of the pink lava lamp on the desk, and the poster on the wall printed by the City Council listing all banned items going back several years, starting with the moratorium on writing utensils. He was in Cecil's bed, in Cecil's apartment. He'd spent the night because he'd been hurt. Vasily, the Apache Tracker, was dead. A weight descended on him, making it momentarily hard to breathe. Carlos shook it off and blinked, rubbing the grit from his eyes.

The bed was empty apart from him. This was both a relief and a disappointment. Waking up alone was probably less awkward than the alternative, but Carlos had done it every day of his life. He thought he might have enjoyed the new experience of opening his eyes and seeing someone safe and trustworthy stretched out beside him. Also, he would have liked to have seen what Cecil looked like first thing in the morning, before he disappeared into the bathroom and emerged looking groomed and impeccable. But Cecil had obviously been up way ahead of him. His pillow was cool to the touch. Cecil had also managed to make the bed with Carlos still in it; the blankets tucked in around him him were smooth and unrumpled, and on Cecil's side they were flat and tucked in under the pillow.

Carlos sat up. Carefully, since the smallest movement pulled against stiff muscles and scabbed flesh. The pain pills he'd taken before bed had worn off in his sleep and with every movement he made he could feel wounds opening beneath the bandages. Part of him--actually, almost all of him--wanted to sink back down into the mattress and sleep a little longer, but the hammering at the door had stopped, to be replaced by the sound of voices in quiet conversation. Carlos was curious about who would come to see Cecil at his home. He'd got the impression that Cecil lived a fairly solitary life, without many close friends. What if it was the police? What if Carlos had accidentally got Cecil into trouble? There were way too many municipal by-laws and ordinances in this town for Carlos to keep up with, and there were new ones announced every day. Maybe he'd put Cecil in an awkward position by spending the night without first filling out the proper forms for Overnight Visits From Tentative-But-Undeclared Romantic Interests? He lurched to his feet and began limping toward the door, hoping he wouldn't get them into even more trouble by appearing shirtless. Not that much of his skin was visible beneath the yards of blood-stained gauze covering his torso. His legs, though…Carlos looked down, blinking. When, exactly, had he acquired pajama bottoms? He must have been completely dead to the world not to notice Cecil wrestling him into those. Carlos blushed, trying not to think about it. Surely if he could trust anyone to dress him while he was naked and unconscious, it was Cecil. The greater mystery, really, was where Cecil had got clothes to fit him. Anything Cecil owned in the way of pants ought to be be yards too long for him in the legs and pinch around the waist. But the sweatpants had drawstrings that had been cinched and knotted securely above his hips, and the legs only bunched a little bit at the ankles--he certainly wasn't tripping over them.

Carlos was a scientist. It wasn't difficult to deduce the correct answer. Cecil had clothes that fit Carlos, but would never fit him. Ergo, Cecil had entertained other overnight visitors, and those visitors had resembled Carlos in their general shape and build. There was absolutely no reason why that should bother him. So Cecil had a type. So what? And so what if Carlos fit that type? Maybe those other men also had less-than-whitebread complexions and riots of wavy black hair that couldn't be tamed by either comb or scissors. Was he really going to get grumpy, or jealous, just because Cecil had a past, or a preference? Had Carlos really thought that Cecil spent the last forty-whatever years of his life waiting to fall in love with him>? Cecil was attractive, he was a local celebrity, of course he'd had relationships. Come to think of it, hadn't Carlos heard a rumor about Cecil and the guy who used to lead the Boy Scout troop before that nightmarish incident with the feral children…?

Stop it, Carlos told himself firmly. It was too early in the morning to feel this anxious; he'd get a headache if his heart rate didn't slow down. But as stubbornly as he tried to just not think about it the more entrenched the suspicion became. After all, Cecil barely knew him. He'd told the entire town that he was in love with Carlos before they'd so much as spoken to each other. The idea that someone could want him that badly based solely on his looks would have made him laugh, because his mental image of himself was stuck at age fifteen, when he'd been six inches shorter, twenty-five pounds overweight, and hadn't yet come up with the perfect formula for his own acne medication in the chemistry labs after school. But evidence was evidence. Cecil was sweet, he was innocent, or at least as innocent as anyone could be when they'd lived in Night Vale all their life, but…objectively speaking, there was nothing sinister about desiring someone based on their appearance. Not when their face lit up like the full moon every time they saw you, not when they took care of you when you were injured and shared a bed with you without so much as hinting that they wanted more. It might have started as a physical attraction, but Carlos had no doubt that he meant something to Cecil as a person. And that was good.

But it meant that they needed to talk, sooner rather than later, because Carlos couldn't shake the feeling that he was sitting on a bomb that would only do more damage the longer he waited to detonate it.

Actually--speaking of bombs--

Carlos opened the bedroom door and rushed, limpingly, toward the bathroom. There, undisturbed in the bathtub, sat the box containing the mercury fulminate sample, right where he'd left it. Carlos leaned against the wall, heaving a sigh of relief. Obviously, if anything had set it off, he would have heard the explosion (assuming he hadn't been killed by it--the amount of damage it could do in an apartment this size would depend strongly on how sturdy the support beams were) but he must have been out of his mind to just leave it there without warning Cecil. Carlos hadn't wanted to make him feel stupid for bringing something that dangerous home from the lab, and of course he had asked the Faceless Old Woman to keep an eye on it--nevertheless, it had been irresponsible of him.

He was just standing there, wondering if he should leave the sample where it was or else call someone to dispose of it properly, when a breathy, "Oh!" sounded from the doorway behind him. Carlos bit back on a yelp and spun around.

"You're up!" said Cecil, adjusting his glasses nervously. He was dressed for the day in a sweater vest of soft lilac, a white shirt, and a yellow and white polka-dotted bow tie. "I was just coming to check on you, but, well…here you are."

He smiled at Carlos. The smile was blinding, pure, and sweet, and Carlos felt a sick, sinking sensation in his chest. He remembered why he'd called Cecil to meet him behind the Arby's after the Tracker died. He remembered why he'd nearly wrecked his car in an effort to make it to Cecil's place before he passed out. He realized that he was done for, and that Cecil might reject him once he found out that Carlos couldn't give him everything he was probably hoping for, and that if he did, it wouldn't make the slightest difference to how Carlos felt about him.

He comforted himself with the reminder that Cecil wasn't a cruel person. He did care about Carlos. Surely he wouldn't reject him all together. Surely they could be…friends? Carlos would accept that, no matter how much he yearned for something more. He didn't really have a choice. He would take whatever Cecil could give him, and be grateful for it.

Cecil was squinting at him now, looking concerned. "Are you all right?" he said. "Maybe you should go back to bed. I can bring you water, or orange milk, or make some food--"

"No." Carlos shook his head. "I mean. I'm fine. Thank you. And, um, good morning. Or…afternoon? What time is it?"

Cecil glanced at his watch. As he tilted his hand, Carlos caught a glimpse of Cecil's fingernails. They were painted a delicate shade of robin's egg blue. They hadn't been painted last night.

"It's a little after two," Cecil told him, blinking, and Carlos noticed that his eyes, which were always framed by long, thick dark lashes, had been traced in back eyeliner, which made them seem larger, almost doll-like behind his glasses. Cecil also sported two lilac gemstone earrings in his left ear that sparkled magnificently in the florescent bathroom lighting. Carlos couldn't remember ever seeing Cecil wear them before. He was wearing some kind of fragrance, too, something light but spicy overlying the earthier notes of the avocado-based hair product he used on a daily basis.

Carlos wondered if he should comment on the obvious effort Cecil had made with his appearance. The phrase "you look really pretty today" sounded impossibly stupid in his head, but it was right there at the tip of his tongue. In the end, he choked it back. In Albuquerque, if Carlos had awakened in another man's home and found him looking like Cecil looked, the only reasonable assumption would be that he'd dressed up for Carlos's benefit. But this was Night Vale, where ornamentation didn't seem to have any direct correlation to sexuality or gender identity. Cecil probably just had an important meeting later, or a function he had to look nice for.

And anyway, if Cecil had gone to all that effort for Carlos's sake, what could Carlos possibly say? He could sit and look at Cecil for hours--he wanted to pet the soft cloud of his dark hair and breathe in the scent of him, maybe even press kisses to the knuckles of each painted finger--but he was pretty sure that wasn't the kind of desire Cecil hoped to evoke in him.

"Gosh," said Carlos, a little too heartily. "I sure slept in, didn't I?"

If Cecil was disappointed with Carlos's response, he hid it remarkably well. "Don't be silly," he said. "You needed to sleep. That's what I told her," he jerked his head irritably back toward the living room, "but she wouldn't go away until I'd checked to see if you were up. She certainly knocked loudly enough to wake you."

"She?" said Carlos, baffled. "Someone came here looking for me?"

"I told her you were in no condition to talk," Cecil groused. "But she's very stubborn. Do you feel all right? Does anything--hurt?"

Cecil's tattoos blushed. The warm pink color complemented the general palette of his pastel ensemble. Carlos had never met someone who blushed when they were worried before, and he found it more charming than he was comfortable with.

"I'm pretty sore," he admitted. "But that's only to be expected. I should probably change some of these bandages in awhile, but I can…talk first." He was suddenly dying to know who his visitor could be. Apart from his lab assistants, the only person he knew in town was Old Woman Josie, and Cecil liked her too much to look so severe about her making an uninvited appearance.

"Okay. She's in the living room. I've just finished making lunch. There's enough for your friend--" Cecil's voice dropped to a stage whisper. "Unless you want her to leave. I don't have to make extra."

Baffled, Carlos followed Cecil into the living room. Cecil gave a derisive sniff as he passed through, continuing into the kitchen area. Carlos looked around, then stopped dead when he saw the room's only other occupant.

Nijeia was seated in Cecil's comfy rocking chair. A bottle of blue nail polish sat on the side table next to the lamp. Nijeia was using it to paint her nails, pausing to wave her hand in the air and blow against the wet polish when she caught sight of Cecil.

"Well, looks like someone ain't dead," she said, while Carlos stood there, gaping at her. "That's cool. Not like I was worried, but still. Cool."

"How--" did you know I would be here? "How--" can Cecil see and hear you? "Are you--" borrowing Cecil's nail polish, or did he borrow yours?

Nijeia narrowed her eyes at this sequence of stutters. "You okay?"

"I told you," said Cecil from the kitchen area. He was fussing with various food-related items, and pointedly not looking at Nijeia. "Carlos is recovering from serious injuries. He had a very long night and he needs his rest."

"Yeah, I know about that." Nijeia rolled her eyes at Carlos. "I was there when he got all injured. Unlike some folk who need to get off their high horse."

Cecil whipped around, sputtering. He couldn't seem to make up his mind what to say, though; he just pursed his lips and turned back to cooking.

"Nijeia." Carlos shook his head, trying to think clearly and coherently. "Please tell me that your being here won't result in Cecil being dismembered by Orphanarians on his way to work?"

"It's fine." Cecil sniffed, without looking at him. "I'm not working today."

Well, that put paid to Carlo's theory that Cecil had taken extra effort with his appearance for professional reasons. He shook his head, refusing to be derailed. "That's not what I meant. Nijeia, I thought I was the only adult who could see you?"

Nijeia blinked at him, then slowly, deliberately, turned in her chair, so that she was unmistakably addressing Cecil. "Don't he know?" she said.

"Know what?" said Carlos.

Cecil's mouth tightened irritably. "The subject never came up," he said in a terse voice.

"Why? You ashamed or something?"

"Of course not." Cecil picked up a pan, then let it fall to the countertop with an unnecessarily loud clatter. "Adults simply have better things to talk about than rehashing ancient history. We lead busy, complicated lives. If you're very lucky, one day you'll find out for yourself."

Carlos opened his mouth, on the point of telling Cecil to watch himself. Carlos didn't think the exceptionally high mortality rate among Night Vale's children was something to throw in a twelve year old's face, particularly a twelve year old that Carlos cared about and felt responsible for. But Cecil looked genuinely unhappy, while Nijeia didn't look upset at all. In fact, she seemed to lose all interest in Cecil. She turned back to Carlos and looked him up and down, like she was trying to decide whether he was sturdy enough to handle a shock.

"Cecil's my brother," she said.

Carlos felt the floor lurch beneath him. Then he realized it was just his pulse spiking. Carefully, he sought for a chair behind him and lowered himself into it.

"Brother?" he said, in a weak voice.

"If you must go into this, you could at least be courteous enough to not mislead him on purpose." There was an impatient bite in Cecil's voice. "She's just trying to get a rise out of you, Carlos. She doesn't mean that we're blood relatives."

Nijeia grinned, and it was obvious that she'd enjoyed Carlos's dramatic reaction. But when she spoke again, it was in her fact-reporting voice, the one he trusted to relay results in the lab.

"Back in the day, Cecil was a Orphan, like me."

"Only temporarily," Cecil interjected, but Nijeia carried on like she hadn't heard him.

"Grown-up Orphans can see us, as long as they go back to the Orphanarium every couple of years for a psychic check-up. Cecil never misses a check-up, do ya?"

There was a hiss of escaping steam from the oven door, and Cecil's voice rose above it. "It's important for a journalist to be able to speak to children as well as adults," he said, removing a tray with a pair of bright orange oven mitts.

It suddenly occurred to Carlos that he was sitting in front of Nijeia, who was twelve, and who worked for him, and that he was doing this without wearing a shirt. He had a notion that the Orphanarians probably wouldn't like that very much. He didn't like it much either. Carlos plucked an afghan from the back of the couch (it was crocheted in a pattern of red and green chili peppers and was not even close to being the weirdest thing in Cecil's apartment.) He wrapped it around his shoulders, feigning nonchalance, though the arch of Nijeia's eyebrows suggested she wasn't even slightly fazed.

"Um," said Carlos. "How, how are you, Nijeia?" Despite her cool, unruffled demeanor, he was painfully aware that she'd watch him almost die last night, and that she had, however quickly she seemed to recover, been upset about that fact.

"Better than you look," she retorted.

Carlos grinned, and Nijeia grinned back, but Cecil made a strange, almost growling noise deep in his throat. "Excuse me, young lady," he said, "but you will not speak to Carlos like that in my house."

"Cecil, it's ok."

"Yeah, Cecil, chill." Nijeia smirked. "Me and Carlitos, we tight."

"Don't antagonize him," said Carlos, because Cecil's chest was puffing up. "Be nice to each other."

"I have been extremely nice," Cecil protested, apparently unaware that the remark hadn't really been for him. "I put the required blood-signatures on all her forms so she could come in and see you. And I gave her orange milk, because they almost never get it at the P--at the Orphanarium."

"Yeah, Cecil, you a true bro." Nijeia rolled her eyes and picked up the nail polish again. Carlos wondered what word it was that began with a "P" that Cecil had stopped himself from saying.

"Did you just come by to check on me?" said Carlos, as Nijeia applied a second coat to the nails of her right hand, apparently content to sit there and ignore the two grown men whose awkward morning-after she'd interrupted.

Nijeia shrugged. "Sort of. I got bored. I went down to the lab, but you wasn't there, Perry wasn't there. I went down to the bowling alley to try and do my observations like normal, but the Sheriff's secret police got that place all shut down till further notice. So I went back to the lab and caught up with my notes in the field journal. Then I ran out of stuff to do." She shrugged again. "I got to be busy doing something or else I gotta go back to the Orphanarium, so I thought I'd come and see how you was doing. Oh, plus, I think some dumbass broke into the lab last night and stole that mercy fulminate sample that Perry left sittin' out after you told him he won't allowed to use it on the house that don't exist. I dunno what whoever took it thought they was gonna do with it, but since they just gonna blow themselves up---"

"I don't think anyone broke into the lab," said Carlos hastily, pointedly not looking at Cecil. "I sent…someone over there last night to pick up the first-aid kit, and I think he…tried to tidy up the lab for us. I'm sure he just put it away safely somewhere."

Carlos was trying to spare Cecil's feelings, but he wasn't sure he needed to bother--Cecil looked highly preoccupied with slicing a loaf of what looked like sweet yellow cornbread. It looked and smelled like Josie's cornbread, which meant that it would probably taste nice, apart from the lack of salt.

"Oh. Right. Yeah." Nijeia's eyebrows were perfectly arched as she dabbed the finishing touches on her nails. "Your 'friend' put the explosive away somewhere. 'Cause it was cluttering up the place. Yeah, I get it."

"Nijeia--" Carlos began helplessly.

"Whatever. How's Perry doing?"

Carlos blinked, then sighed, accepting the change of topics. "I haven't talked to him today. He, uh, wasn't in the best shape last night, so I took him home to his mother. She thanked me for bringing him over, and said she'd look after him."

"You actually saw Cactus June?" Cecil blinked, looking suddenly interested in the conversation again. "That's remarkable. She's the third-most beautiful woman in Night Vale, you know. And she hardly ever speaks to men these days--not since the last time she went to Big Rico's and most of the male employees got into a three-day long brawl over who got to fulfill her request for extra parmesan. She got a special dispensation from the City Council to have her weekly order delivered after that, and they don't hand those out lightly, believe me."

Carlos's brain hit a snag as he tried to imagine how on earth Night Vale possessed a ranking system for the relative physical merits of its women, considering that fully a third of Night Vale's inhabitants were either clearly inhuman, or else human but gender-indeterminate according to the preferences of those persons on a particular day. For a society that absorbed its most prominent citizen publicly declaring his love for another man without so much as a hiccup, the patriarchy apparently did not lack its foothold in Night Vale. Carlos decided it would be wise to remember this in future.

"She didn't introduce herself to me as 'Cactus' anything," Carlos said dryly. "But we didn't talk for long. She just…thanked me for bringing Perry home. She was very polite."

"She probably just knew you was into dudes," said Nijeia.

Carlos blinked. "How could she possibly know that?" How did Nijeia know that? he wondered, trying not to blush.

"You try to hit on her?"

"Of course not!"

"Then that's how she knew."

Carlos stared at her, then giggled before he could stop himself. Nijeia grinned in response.

In the kitchen, Cecil slammed the oven door shut with an air of finality. "Lunch is ready. If you two can spare the time from your fascinating conversation long enough to eat."

"Of course." The sulky petulance in Cecil's voice called to an old, ingrained instinct buried deep inside him. It reminded him, unwillingly, of…other people in his life who had wanted things from him that he knew he couldn't provide, and how hard he had to work to make it up to them in other ways. So he forgot his injuries, forgot that he needed to move carefully, and sprang up from the couch without a second thought.

But the sudden movement was a huge mistake, he realized instantly. His ribs registered their protest via seizing muscles that forced him to double over, gasping. No sooner had the first grunt of pain escaped his lips than Carlos heard a loud rattling noise, like a fistful of cutlery being cast aside in a hurry. Before he knew it, there was an arm around his waist, tucking the chili pepper afghan around his arms, supporting his weight.

"Carlos!" Cecil sounded heartbroken. "Oh, I knew you should have stayed in bed. I've got you, it's okay. Just lean on me."

Carlos obeyed willingly, tucking himself into Cecil's arm, feeling the soft, wild cloud of Cecil's hair brush against his cheek as he straightened up, slowly. He opened his eyes and saw Cecil looking panicked, and slightly ashamed--almost like he knew why Carlos had pushed himself beyond his limits. Carlos forced a small smile, patting Cecil's arm, which was holding him in a grip of iron.

"It's all right," he said. "Tempting as it would be to stay in bed all day, I need to be up and moving around. Otherwise my muscles will get too stiff. Just…help me to the table?"

Cecil looked lost, and slightly dubious, but he nodded vigorously. "Of course."

Cecil's kitchen table was small and rectangular and would seat a maximum of six, assuming everyone was friendly and didn't mind bumping elbows. There was plenty of room for the three of them to sit comfortably. Carlos allowed Cecil to deposit him in a chair, and Nijeia appeared a second later, seating herself at the end of the table, to Carlos's left. She cocked an eyebrow at him and then looked at Cecil, who had slipped back into the kitchen and was returning with a pan held between the orange oven mitts.

Carlos blushed, conscious that Nijeia's eyes were taking in every last detail. It was a little embarrassing to have a twelve year old present during the uncertain preliminary stages of his…budding relationship, or whatever you'd call it. Especially when she clearly understood everything that was going on, possibly in greater detail than Carlos understood it himself.

"After lunch, I've got some things that need to be taken back to the lab," he told her, as Cecil put plates in front of them and served up squares of baked cornbread sandwiches from a spatula. It was really more casserole than sandwich, and Carlos didn't recognize any of the ingredients he could see poking out of the edges. He was hungry, though, and it all smelled delicious, so he decided not to risk putting himself off his feed by asking what was in it. "They should fit into the basket on your bike. Er. You should probably be careful, though. Avoid potholes. Don't run into anything. It could…blow up in your face. So to speak."

Part of him was appalled at himself for asking a twelve year old to dispose of a potentially unstable explosive when he was afraid to let Cecil so much as touch it. On the other hand, Nijeia wanted to be a scientist. Learning how to safely transport unstable compounds was all part of her training.

"Uh huh." Nijeia picked up her sandwich, which was so hot it was giving off steam. She bit into it without so much as a wince. "Yeah, I could do that. Though, if Cecil gonna be hanging out at the lab from now on, he better off to learn what he safe to touch and what he ain't."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Cecil looked up from cutting his sandwich into neat quarters, while Carlos glared at her.

Nijeia arched her eyebrows, the light of mischievous innocence in her narrow red eyes. "It mean Carlos spend about twenty hours a day in that lab. You better plan on coming around, now that y'all boyfriends or whatever."

Boyfriends> Carlos hastily bit into his sandwich. It burned his mouth, but he chewed through the pain. He would happily have chewed gravel rather than having to think of something to say in response to that comment.

Cecil's made-up eyes grew large (larger) and round (rounder) behind his glasses. A dreamy expression crossed his face. He seemed to forget about his sandwich as he stared into the middle distance, smiling slightly.

"This--this is really good, Cecil," said Carlos, trying to drag him back to earth and away from wherever his daydreams were leading him. "Thanks for cooking for us. Did you get the cornbread recipe from Josie?"

Fortunately, this line of inquiry succeeded in distracting Cecil by prompting a vehement lecture regarding the recent salt shortages in town. ("It's a very serious matter, you know, especially in the month of June, which is the worst season for demonic vermin--nothing really keeps them out except the salt, and once they've got in--well, you know how exorcism rates go through the roof in the summer.") They were able to make lively conversation about both salt and demon-related nuisances through the rest of lunch. ("You really never had any demons in the plumbing in your other apartments?" "No, but a scorpion wandered onto our front porch when I was a kid. My grandmother was having the priest over for coffee. He killed it for her.")

When they'd all finished eating, and Cecil began gathering their plates, Nijeia disappeared into the bathroom for a moment. She came out, carrying the mercury fulminate sample in a controlled, steady grip. Carlos arched a questioning eyebrow at her, and she shrugged.

"Want me to lock the lab up, since it don't look like anybody gonna do any work today?" she asked, carefully shrugging a backpack onto her shoulders.

"Er…" Carlos considered this. "I dunno, I'll probably go back later. I mean. I do live there."

"Yeah, but I figured you and Cecil was--"

"We haven't discussed plans for the evening yet," said Carlos, cutting her off before Cecil could start looking too interested in the conversation. "Anyway, Perry may want to drop by later."

"Whatever." Nijeia gave him one last up-and-down look, as though ascertaining for the last time that he was genuinely all in one piece. Then she turned to Cecil, and, in a surprisingly straightforward tone that bore little resemblance to her earlier taunting, she said, "Thanks for the lunch."

Cecil blinked at her in surprise. Then his face softened. He gave her a small smile that could almost be described as warm. "You're welcome. Ah…thank you for coming to check on Carlos."

If Carlos found that a strange thing for Cecil to say, Nijeia clearly didn't. "Somebody got to do it," she said. "I been doing it all year, I ain't about to stop now."

Nijeia let herself out of Cecil's apartment, box tucked tightly under her arm. Cecil watched her go, and Carlos watched Cecil watching her. He was suddenly bursting with questions for Cecil; Nijeia had brought out a side of him that Carlos had never seen before, namely, the first indication Cecil had ever shown of having a past, or complicated emotions about that past. But Carlos reluctantly forced himself to acknowledge that prying more confidences out of him would probably be a poor repayment for all Cecil had done for Carlos last night. He wasn't really sure if they were there yet, anyway--and besides, Carlos was undoubtedly the one with more to lose, if it came to trading stories about their past.

An echoing silence followed Nijeia's departure. Carlos cleared his throat, prompting Cecil to spin and face him. "I'm sorry about all that," he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of Nijeia's departure. "I know you weren't expecting…visitors. It was nice of you to let her stay for lunch."

Cecil smiled crookedly and shook his head. "I like that she's concerned for you," he said. "And I understand her social failings. The Orphanarium is a necessary and well-run municipal organization, but the children aren't exactly brought up with charming company manners."

"You're very charming," said Carlos sincerely. It was true. Cecil's charm was of a distinctly Night Vale type, but once you'd put him into the context of the town itself, he just…tugged at you. Like gravity. Or quicksand. "Also, you, uh…look really nice today." The comment seemed to will itself to be spoken; Carlos was quite certain that he'd made up his mind not to say anything on the subject just a few minutes ago, and yet, here it was, out in the open.

"Do you think so?" Cecil's voice was at least an octave above his normal speaking pitch. A strange, reddish glow began to fill the the room, like the early rays of a premature sunset. Carlos looked down. Cecil's tattoo's had turned a fiery shade of hot pink, bordering on red. He nearly remarked on it--until he remembered, hazily, Cecil's late night confession that he had no voluntary control over the coloration of his tattoos. Carlos held his tongue, realizing that Cecil might be uncomfortable if he drew attention to them.

When Cecil spoke again his voice had almost returned to normal. "I'd say the same to you. About looking nice. But…you already know that I think you're beautiful." He grimaced, seeming self-conscious. "I'm sure a lot of people have told you that."

Heat crept up Carlos's neck and into his face. It occurred to him suddenly that he was still wearing a chili pepper afghan in place of a shirt. And that he was still covered in rust colored bandages.

"It's kind of you to say so, considering." He made a gesture, encompassing the general mess of his torso. "And actually…no, it's not something a lot of people have said. Not, um, reliable people, at least." Robert had showered him with compliments that were so precisely engineered to make him uncomfortable that he thought he really preferred the insults and threats that came later. No, don't think about Robert now. Change the subject. "Can I ask you something?"

Cecil's expression went from indignant at the idea of Carlos being under-complimented, to fearful, in the blink of an eye. "Of course," he said--promptly, but without much enthusiasm. He was plainly expecting Carlos to ask a personal question, and while he was braced for it, he also obviously wasn't looking forward to it. Carlos smile, trying to take the edge off his apprehension. He knew all about the fear of uncomfortable questions. He wasn't going to put Cecil through that if he could help it.

"I, ah. Last night, after I saw you--the first time, I mean, at the Arby's--they were replaying some of the broadcast from earlier in the day. I, um…caught a little of it."

"Oh." Cecil swallowed. "I should probably apologize for that. I'm afraid I wasn't at my most professional last night."

You were heartbreaking, Carlos thought, with a vehemence that shocked him. Fuck professional.

"I'm sorry I didn't make it to the, uh, the ceremony." He hadn't even known about Cecil planning the ceremony until he'd heard the broadcast. There were several messages on his phone that he hadn't got around to checking yet, and he knew at least one of them was from Cecil, who'd called yesterday morning while Carlos had his hands full in the lab.

"That's all right," said Cecil. He looked shyly at the floor. "You were doing your job. I understand."

"Can I see my trophy?" Carlos blurted out.

Cecil's eyes lit up. "Yes! Oh, I'm so glad you reminded me. It's right here, actually." Cecil walked over to a bookcase that stood against the wall next to the kitchen table. From the top shelf, he pulled down a small golden cup on a little wooden pedestal. He held it in his hands for a moment, as though the physical contact had triggered a powerful memory, and he was was helpless and lost inside it for a moment.

"I had a short speech to go with it," he said turning the cup over and over, then holding it still--staring, but not really seeing it. "I'm afraid I lost my notes, though."

"That's fine," Carlos assured him. "May I?"

Cecil nodded, handing the trophy over. Carlos looked it over curiously. There was nothing unusual or particularly…Night Vale about it. It was just a trophy, identical to every other cheap, plastic trophy Carlos had ever seen. Except he'd never seen one with his name engraved on it before. There was an inscription on the plate: To commemorate a year of dedicated municipal service. Carlos felt a soft smile tug at his lips. He ran his fingertip lightly over the plate.

"I think most places make you wait at least five years before they start marking anniversaries," he said, after he'd been standing there long enough that not saying anything was beginning to feel awkward.

"You're the first scientist who's survived here a whole year without falling prey to a sandstorm, or being disappeared by the Secret Police, or having your permits revoked by the City Council, or fleeing in the middle of the night," said Cecil quietly. "I--I know that this is silly, but…after you were attacked, I felt like it was my fault. Like I'd jinxed you by having the trophy made up. You'd gone a whole year with no major injuries, and then you almost died on your anniversary."

"Oh--Cecil." Carlos didn't think twice. Cecil looked so woebegone that he immediately put the trophy down and reached for Cecil's hand. He gave it a tight squeeze. "I'm reasonably sure causality doesn't work that way, even in Night Vale."

"No," Cecil agreed, looking down at their linked hands with an expression of equal parts wonder and fear. "But I know how dangerous and difficult it is here for Outsiders. If I'd truly had your best interests at heart, I would have been hoping that you would go back to where you came from. But I never wanted that. I was glad you stayed. I hoped…I hoped that the fact that you'd made it here a whole year meant that you'd stay for always." He blinked, his violet eyes bright with tears. "I still want you stay. I shouldn't, but I do. I'm an awful, terrible, selfish person."

"You aren't. Cecil, you're really, really not. Trust me--I've known selfish people." Carlos ran his thumb back and forth over Cecil's knuckles--just as he'd imagined doing, when first he glimpsed those soft, lovely blue nails. "You've been a good friend to me. And anyway, I don't want to leave." He smiled ruefully. "Apart from the fact that I actually like it here--and I realize that's probably the Stockholm Syndrome talking--I meant what I said last night. I feel safer here than…than I've felt anywhere." Carlos said it partly to make Cecil feel better, and partly because it was true. For whatever reason, nothing that had happened last night had really changed that. This was probably not a healthy response to a near-death experience, but Carlos had given up playing psychologist to himself after he'd been in Night Vale for about three months. Sanity was a different thing in this town; you figured that out fast, or you didn't make it.

Unfortunately, though he'd meant the comment to be taken lightly, it didn't seem to improve Cecil's mood at all. Cecil looked up at Carlos, his lip trembling. "But that just means that you can't feel safe anywhere. That's--Carlos, that's awful."

"Hey, no," Carlos protested. He grabbed Cecil's hand, because…well, Cecil was sort of right, actually, but couldn't bear to see Cecil looking so sad. "Anyway, being safe all the time isn't the most important thing. It's more important to…to be close to the people who are important to you."

Cecil went very still. "Do you mean me?" he said quietly. Almost breathlessly. "Am…am I important to you?"

Carlos couldn't answer. There was a knot in his throat the size of a plum that he could hardly breathe, let alone speak around.

"Because I know how I must have come across, in the beginning," Cecil rushed on, his face looking oddly grey under its dark pigment. "I…I saw you, and I just….I had all these feelings, and then I told everyone during my show, and I didn't even talk to you about it first. It's been…explained to me, since then, that that probably wasn't…you know, appropriate." He scuffed the toe of his shoe over the carpet. "Then, last night, when you told me…what you told me, about that man, it made me realize that I must have…well, I must have scared you, at least in the beginning. Carlos…I can't tell you how much I regret the idea that I might, for one instant, have made you feel unsafe. Just the thought of it makes me feel like I've come down with a case of throat-spiders. This may be premature, but I need you to know that…I would do anything for you. Even…even if you wanted me to go away and never talk to you again. I…I might need to submit to some voluntary re-education in order to manage it, but I would do it in a heartbeat. For you. Because you are the most important person in the world to me. And I want to be important to you to, but if I can't be, then--well, I'd be happy, I'd be thrilled, if I could just be your friend--someone you felt safe coming to at three in the morning when you were hurt and you needed bandages in places you couldn't easily reach. I'll be anything to you that you want me to be. Just…just tell me?"

After the first ten or fifteen seconds of Cecil's monologue, Carlos had to avert his gaze. After the first thirty seconds, he had to blink back tears. But by the time Cecil finished, somewhat in rush, somewhat incoherently, Carlos couldn't stop the tears from overflowing. He drew a deep breath and looked up into Cecil's face. Then he squeezed Cecil's hand--he was still holding it--and tugged Cecil forward, pressing himself against the taller man's torso and using his free hand to push Cecil's head down onto his shoulder. Cecil gave one long, shuddering sigh then wrapped Carlos in his long limbs. They stood there for a long moment, entwined, warm, secure, at peace with themselves and oblivious to the rest of the world.

Then Carlos sniffed loud and lifted his head--not quite pulling away, but forcing himself to meet Cecil's warm violet eyes. "There are some things I need to tell you," he said. "Okay?"

In Cecil's eyes he found no suspicion, no pain, nothing at all but trust and eagerness. "Okay!" he said. "Sit down! I'll make the tea. Then we'll talk."


Carlos had never before realized that a thorough explanation of his asexuality would amount, essentially, to a comprehensive autobiography of his life since age fifteen. He'd never realized this, because he'd never tried to tell anyone the whole story before. Apart from Robert--to whom he'd explained bits and pieces, but not in a particularly coherent fashion--there hadn't been anyone to explain it to.

He probably didn't need to be quite as exact, as scientific about it with Cecil as he felt like he needed to. But Cecil was different from Robert. He was different from anyone Carlos had ever known. If there was any chance for them to make a relationship work, Cecil needed to be in possession of the raw facts, because Carlos didn't have a tidy, definitive conclusion to present him with that could bypass the independent reasoning process. So he sat on Cecil's couch and watched him make tea and tried to arrange the facts in his head in a logical, narrative order.

This was challenging for Carlos, because he didn't, as a rule, communicate in narrative; he preferred data, which told its own story, if you knew how to link it all together. But Cecil wasn't a scientist. He described himself as a reporter, someone who also dealt in facts, but Carlos had heard Cecil's broadcasts and he knew that at heart Cecil was a storyteller. So Carlos would need to become a storyteller for Cecil's sake. It wasn't going to be easy. He wasn't even sure how he was going to begin.

Which was probably why he was a lot more relieved than he ought to have been when his phone rang, and the caller ID showed Perry's name on the screen. Carlos saw Cecil look over at him from across the room. Carlos held up a finger and answered the call.

"Perry?" he said. "Hello?"

"It's June, Perry's mother," said the cool voice on the other end of the line. "Perry left a couple of hours ago. I don't know where he's gone, but he was muttering something about trees. What was he talking about? Do you know where he went?"

The hollow cavity of Carlo's chest seemed to flood with ice water. He thought about Perry, feeling guilty and despondent, and he thought about the Whispering Forest, and all the promises it made to those who spent too much time in its shady bower. Carlos had sent Perry to study the Whispering Forest. If anything happened to him there, it would be Carlos's fault.

"I can make a guess," he said, looking around until he spotted his car keys. They were still on the coffee table, where Cecil had left them last night. "I'll go and look for him."

"He took Vasily's car," said June. "I don't have one, so I can't go myself. Call me when you know something."

She hung up, and the silence that followed weighed on Carlos with a mixture of urgency and guilt. He stared down at the phone in his hand, trying to breathe deeply. When he finally looked up again, he found Cecil standing in front of him, holding a travel mug. Red steam was escaping in gentle wafts through the seams in the lid. He looked disappointed, but understanding, and Carlos stood up, clutching Cecil's wrist and giving it a squeeze.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm really sorry, but it's Perry. I have to go."

"It's all right," said Cecil gently. "Of course you have to go. Here." He waited for Carlos to take the tea, then offered him the clean clothes hanging over his left arm. "I managed to get almost all the bloodstains out."

"Oh--right. God. Thank you." Carlos put down the tea, and allowed Cecil to help him fit his arms through the shirt. He didn't protest when Cecil began buttoning it up the front, though he did take the pair of clean slacks into the bathroom and change out of the sweatpants on his own. When he emerged a moment later, Cecil was holding his car keys out to him.

"I'm sorry," Carlos said again. "We will talk, I promise. Maybe--maybe tonight? Depending on…what happens."

"Of course," said Cecil, simply. "It's okay. I know you'll come back as soon as you can."

It was a big assumption on Cecil's part, considering, and audacious promise on Carlos's, but he didn't hesitate to nod, confirming it. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he said.

They stood there, looking at each other for a moment, each having run out of words but neither willing to be the one to say goodbye. Finally, remembering Perry, Carlos leaned up on his tiptoes and kissed Cecil on the cheek. He left without looking back, but his last lingering impression was of Cecil, tattoos glowing scarlet, pressing his blue-enameled fingertips to the side of his face and grinning softly.

Chapter Text


June 13, 2013 (yes, still.)

It wasn't much of a walk from Cecil's apartment to the street where Carlos had been forced to pull his car over last night, but it was almost more of a walk than Carlos was physically ready to handle.

The heat of the day was at its apex. Twice, Carlos had to pause and lean against walls under shaded awnings in order to keep himself from keeling over along the way. He had a headache but he wasn't sure if it was from the heat, the whiskey, or blood loss.

He stopped, uncapping the thermos of tea that Cecil had given him. He was grateful for Cecil's consideration but he wished it were a nice, ice-cold bottle of water instead. To his surprise, though, the tea was cool, and it tasted not unpleasantly of mint leaves and toasted rice. He drank all of it, because he was a scientist and he knew that fluids were best stored inside the body, not doled out from a container. And also because he was thirsty. He wasn't born wearing a lab coat.

Carlos rarely used air-conditioning (it was a moral stance, dammit--although he wasn't sure how, or even if, environmental factors in Night Vale contributed to global warming). But when he reached his car, he cranked the A/C up to full blast without a twinge of guilt. He sat there, basking in its icy plumes for a moment, before setting off in the direction of the lab. He doubted he'd find Perry there, but it was only a couple of blocks away, so it wouldn't hurt to check. He also wanted to make sure Nijeia had managed to get the mercury fulminate back where it belonged without blowing herself or anything else up in the process. Not that he didn't have complete faith in her. But he was supposed to be a responsible adult, and that just seemed like the kind of thing a responsible adult would do.

The lab was empty, to his lack of surprise. And the sample was back in its protected container, which was now adorned with a hazard sticker that really should have been there all along. Carlos could tell that Nijeia had made and printed the sticker on the lab computer because the skull and crossbones under the word DANGER was sparkly and purple, like the stickers on her machete.

Content that things were as normal as they ever got in his workplace, Carlos got back in the car and headed out of town toward the Whispering Forest. Dread twisted in his stomach the closer he got in his approach.

He'd only been to the Whispering Forest once, back when it first appeared in May. He hadn't lingered. Although he'd marveled at the variety of greenery, so out of place here in the desert, the forest hadn't felt safe--not for him, anyway.

Carlos thought of himself as more or less content here in Night Vale, but the fact was, he didn't have any real friends until recently. Perry was nice, but he was an underling. There was Nijeia, who was good company, but was still only twelve, and there were some things that an asexual gay man of 33 simply couldn't talk to a twelve year old girl about, no matter how mature she was. And up until a few weeks ago, even Cecil was an emotionally distant figure. His crush on Carlos might have been public knowledge, but whenever they met in person, the best Cecil could usually manage by way of conversation was incomprehensible, if charming, stuttering. They didn't really have a successful conversation until relatively recently, and if it hadn't been for the attack at the bowling alley last night, Carlos thought they probably still wouldn't be much more than friendly acquaintances.

All in all, Carlos's life in Night Vale had been lonely. And his only connection to his former life came in the form of the text message barrages from Robert he was still receiving once a month. There was no one to talk to when he felt overwhelmed. He'd felt dangerously cut off from human connections--adrift in a strange, lonely little world that constantly defeated his attempts to understand it.

And the trees…the trees. They'd understood all of that. Contrary to Cecil's broadcast on the subject, the trees hadn't spoken to Carlos in the voice of a strange, androgynous child, but in familiar voices: his abuela, who told him that the earth was cool and restful, and that he looked so tired, why couldn't he see that he deserved a rest? He'd heard his mother (it was strange that he recognized her voice instantly, considering that he hadn't seen her since he was five years old, but it was unmistakably her); his sister, who died when he was a boy; Antonio, who'd loved him once, or seemed to. All their voices, calling him down into the earth, asking him to join them, promising rest and safety…

Carlos shuddered, just remembering it. He wasn't entirely certain how he'd made it out of the forest that time, but he suspected it had something to do with the transistor radio he'd had with him, playing a repeat broadcast of Cecil's last show. It was surprisingly hard to get completely sucked into the delusion that your grandmother was speaking to you from a tree, when, just a few feet away, Cecil's voice was describing the many times he and his "traveling partner" had "rolled down a hill together" in that well known European vacation spot of "Sfitz." In fact, Cecil's naive re-telling of the story had stirred an unexpected indignation in Carlos, mostly because he couldn't tell if Cecil was just being coy about his youthful tryst because he was on the radio, or if his "traveling partner" had actually been taking advantage of his youth and inexperience. Once that line of thought had started to preoccupy him, the voices had started to lose their strange hold over his imagination, and Carlos been able to pack his things and drive back to town, determined that only the direst necessity would ever make him go back.

Perry, though. Perry had really taken to the forest. Carlos had been deeply reluctant to give his permission for any research there, but Perry had insisted. And Carlos's worries had abated over time, because Perry always came back from the forest. The time he spent there had even seemed to do him good, in a personal way. Carlos made a rule not to pry into the private lives and histories of his research assistants, but Perry had volunteered a few things over the last twelve months, enough to paint a picture of an unstable childhood, ruled by a drunk father whose temper had gotten him banned from the house by Perry's mother when Perry was twelve.

Perry wasn't a boy anymore, really, but he was still nervous. He flinched at loud noises and worried to an unreasonable degree about little things. So Carlos had allowed Perry to take readings on the Whispering Forest, and linger there while he recorded his observations, because he always came back, and when he returned he was allays a little calmer, a little less prone to startling at nothing. Carlos had come to the conclusion that, just because the forest felt unsafe to him, that didn't mean it couldn't be good for Perry.

But that was before Perry's uncle had died a violent death mere hours after Perry had yelled at him in public. Before Perry had drunk himself into a moderately regulated stupor and had to be poured into a car and carried to bed by his mother. Carlos didn't know Perry's mother well, of course, but he'd definitely got the impression that she didn't worry unnecessarily about anything. But she'd called Carlos, and that meant she was almost certainly worried about him now, so of course Carlos was worried too.

He drove in tense silence until the strange thicket of greenery appeared on the horizon. Carlos slowed the car as he approached, parking a good, clear distance from the tree line. He could see a battered, primer-colored Chevy sedan a few yards in the distance. It was empty. Carlos took a deep breath and pulled out his phone to text Cecil.

Gone to Forest to look for Perry, he typed, fighting auto-correct over Perry's name for a moment (his phone seemed to think he was texting Cecil about pterodactyls.) Send the police to look for me if I don't text you back in an hour.

Despite the events of the last 36 hours, Carlos's headspace wasn't nearly as lost or lonely as it had been the last time he visited the Whispering Forest. He had Cecil to thank for that, he knew. Still, he didn't want to take any chances. He'd made Cecil a promise, and however little he was looking forward to their upcoming conversation, he didn't want to flake on it because he'd succumbed to the temptation to become a tree.

His phone buzzed with an immediate reply from Cecil, but Carlos didn't look at it. He was afraid Cecil would tell him not to go, and it would be hard to make himself ignore a message like that.

As soon as Carlos got out of the car, he noticed how much cooler it was out here than it had been back in the middle of town. Well, that made sense. There was shade here, and…water underground, probably, assuming the trees obeyed any of the laws of nature (which he wasn't prepared to swear to.) You could certainly see what made it inviting. Personally, Carlos was a desert man through and through--when he'd done his master's up north, the profusion of trees everywhere had only made him feel claustrophobic and sneezy. But everyone enjoyed a respite from the heat, occasionally. And there was something about the damp, cool air that settled in the nose and calmed the blood, like aerosolized diazepam.

He strode forward, a fragrant bouquet of pine needles and dead leaves began carpeting the ground under his feet. The scent evoked a bizarre sense of nostalgia and homesickness--bizarre, because "home", for him, was nowhere near pine tree forests. Or oak tree forests. Or…was that a magnolia? Didn't they only grow in the southeast? He wished he'd brought a flashlight. It never occurred to him that he might need one, since it was three in the afternoon, but it was darker here, and it was only going to get darker the farther into the forest he got

"Perry!" Carlos called, frightened that he was already too late. "Perry, it's Carlos. Your mother called me. She's worried about you."

There was an answering susurrus in the trees, leaves stirred by a breeze he couldn't quite feel. He could hear the trees whispering. Their low, gentle buzz hadn't yet resolved into distinct voices, but at odd moments he heard the dying echo of what seemed like a familiar voice. "Perry?" he called again. "Can you hear me?"

"Hi, boss." There was a leafy rustle from deep within the shadows. "Over here."

"Perry!" Anxiety forgotten, Carlos dashed forward.

Every muscle in his body seemed to unclench when he finally caught sight of Perry--not covered in grayish brown bark, as he'd feared, nor rooted ankle-deep in the deciduous earth, but sitting normally on a picnic blanket with his legs folded. He was surrounded by a water bottle, a plastic box that appeared to contain food, his field observation notebooks, and several finely tinkered instruments that Perry had invented for his own research, the workings of which Carlos himself had only the faintest understanding of. The only thing about the tableau that gave Carlos pause was the fact that Perry's observation journals were closed, his contraband eagle feather quill lying on top of them, untouched. The cap was still fastened tightly on his ink bottle. It looked as though he'd come here with the trappings of his work, out of habit, but had lost all interest in work once he arrived.

Well, that was fair enough. Yesterday had been…brutal. Carlos hadn't done a lick of work all day, nor did he really plan to.

"What's up?" said Carlos, glancing around at the trees guardedly. "Mind if I join you?"

"Sure, boss." Perry scooted to make room for him, unnecessarily--it was a big blanket. "You hungry? I got some beans and tortillas from my mom. She makes the tortillas herself--way better than that Tex-Mex restaurant crap."

"I just ate, actually," said Carlos. "Uh…aren't tortillas made of flour?" He eyed the box warily.

Perry snorted. "Just 'cause the folks down at the Whole Foods can't tell cursed wheat when they see it don't mean my mom's gonna stop cooking like her grandmother taught her. It's safe, promise." Perry shrugged. "Even the cursed wheat is safe if you know the right chants. Mom tried telling the City Council, but would they listen?" Perry snorted, shaking his head. "White people."

Carlos couldn't help cracking a smile at that. "You'd think they'd know better, in a place like Night Vale."

"Eh. Not everyone in Night Vale thinks like Cecil." Perry poked at the plastic container without opening it. He didn't seem to notice Carlos startle at the casual mention of Cecil's name. "I know you don't talk much to anyone but him, but…he makes us look good to new people, frankly. And that's because he got out of here and went traveling. Nobody had a problem with how Uncle Vas acted until Cecil started calling him out on it. He knows how to take Night Vale with a grain of arsenic."

"What," said Carlos, disbelievingly. "You're saying that traveling to Luftknarp gave Cecil a…a social conscience? Come on."

Perry waved dismissively. "He talks about places like Luftknarp and Franchia on the radio because they're approved. They're in the zone." Perry drew a circle in the air with his finger, as though tracing some invisible connection. "You can be born here and still get treated like an Outsider, you know. It pissed me off bad when I was a kid. My old man couldn't deal with it, so he started drinking. I didn't want to end up like him, so up until last year I was all set to leave. That's when my mom told me--everywhere you go, there's a Night Vale. Somewhere. Waiting. And if you're running from Night Vale, you're a million times more likely to get swallowed up by one of those other places." He shrugged. "Not all of them let you go again."

Carlos digested this in silence for a moment. "That's…disturbing."

"Seriously. It's why I stay put. Better the devil you know, right?" Perry poked at a tiny hole in the blanket with the toe of his bare foot. "Cecil went lots of places, though. Places he's not allowed to talk about. That's part of why the City Council lets him get away with saying stuff that would get anyone else re-educated. They know he knows about Outside stuff. They just don't know how much he knows. You know?"

Carlos, who was somewhat accustomed to the way Perry communicated, thought he'd managed to parse this. "They're intimidated by him?"

"Pretty much. No one wants to piss Cecil off. He cooperates with the secret police and the Council to a point, but he still finds way to let us know what's up. People weren't used to that at first, but they like it now. They'd go crazy if his show ever went off the air. The Council knows it. That's how he gets away with stuff."

Carlos nodded, digesting this. He was deeply interested, but he reminded himself that he hadn't come out here to learn about Cecil.

"How's your head?" he asked Perry.

Perry shrugged. "I'm fine. Mom knows hangover cures that would kill a bear."

"Right." Carlos struggled, feeling awkward under the weight of their shared masculinity and all the unspoken codes that went with it. "I just thought…you know. This is a nice, quiet place. If I was feeling…weird, I might want to go somewhere…like this."

"Yeah." Perry nodded agreeably.

Carlos darted a glance at Perry's placid expression and gritted his teeth. "Are you feeling…weird?"

"Yeah," said Perry, drawing his knees up to his chest. "I mean…yeah. Weird stuff happened." He shrugged. "But it's better here. I'm…better."

Carlos tried hard to clamp down on the panic that instantly began to bloom at Perry's declaration. "What's better about it?"

"You know." Perry shrugged and folded his arms over his knees. His shoulders slumped forward. It was a boneless pose that made him look very young, suddenly. "It's different. No one comes here. The secret police tried planting all their bugs and cameras and shit, but the Forest just grew right over them. Three of the officers who came out here to check on them never left." Perry nods to a stand of three slender trees, covered in a dark greenish-blue moss, swaying gently as though keeping rhythm with the beat of the universe. "I've been thinking about moving out here."

"Please don't do that," said Carlos immediately. "Please. Your mother will miss you. And what about me? I need you. Now that Daisy's an Erika, you're the most qualified researcher I have left." He bit his tongue, praying that Nijeia would never found out he'd said that.

Perry's eyebrows hunched. "What are you talking about?"

"I know you're…sad and confused, and maybe you feel a little guilty, because you yelled at your uncle--even though he totally deserved it--and now he's…dead, and that's all very…sad." Perry watched him, a look of increasing confusion on his face. "But it doesn't mean you should give up on everything and become a, a tree! You're a scientist!"

"Dude. Boss. Take it easy." Perry held his hands up. "No one's becoming a tree, all right? Is that what you thought? Is that why Mom sent you out here?"

Carlos breathed a deep sigh of relief--and immediately felt a little stupid. "N-no. Not exactly. She was worried about you, but I was the one who…" Carlos sighed again. "The first time I came out here, I didn't think I was going to make it out again, ok? The trees get into your head. At least…they got into mine."

"Oh." Perry nodded. "What about now?"

Carlos forced himself to put aside his dread and really let himself listen. To his surprise, he heard nothing--nothing but the same indistinct whispery noises he'd head when he first arrived, noises that might just as easily be the brush of leaves stirred by a breeze.

"I don't hear anything," he told Perry, embarrassed now, because his panic had been profound, his fear for Perry genuine. "That's…odd." Carlos wondered if he was beginning to actually lose his mind. It didn't feel that way, but he'd come so close to losing his sanity on so many occasions that he wasn't entirely sure he'd notice when it finally happened.

"Yeah, me neither." Perry tapped his observation notebooks. "At least, not like those guys did." He nods toward the clump of three mossy trees again. "I hear, like, bits and pieces of conversations sometimes, but I don't listen to them. They sound private. I talk to the trees more than they talk to me. Like, I asked that big magnolia over in the northwest corner if it would mind if I dug around its roots a little so I could make a diagram of the soil layers. It dropped a seed cone on my shoulder. It didn't hurt, so I took that for a yes."

"Right." Carlos looked around. "So…when you said you were thinking about moving out here…"

"I'll just be camping, for now. I've got a tent and stuff in the car." Perry looked uncomfortable for the first time. "Uncle Vas left me his car apparently, so I can still drive into town for work and stuff."

"I can see this being a nice place to camp," said Carlos, in his best diplomatic tones.

"It's safe out here," said Perry. "Like…it's still Night Vale. But it's more like what Night Vale should be, without the surveillance and the potassium iodine in the water and the helicopters overhead." He sighed, kicking his feet against the blanket. "It's not like this is some kind of 'Indian becomes one with nature' bullshit, I promise. I'm not turning into Vas. I just like the quiet, that's all. I didn't mean to worry Mom--I just left my phone because they don't really work out here."

"If you get far enough away, they do," said Carlos. "I parked pretty close to you, and I was able to get a text out."

"Huh." Perry arched his eyebrows. "Cool. Okay. I'll pick my phone up tonight. I need to get some warmer clothes anyway--it gets down into the forties here after the sun sets, isn't that awesome?"

Carlos's skin was still dry and prickly from his early brush with heat exhaustion. "Pretty awesome, yeah. So, um…I can tell your mom that you're okay?"

"Yeah. Tell her I'll stop by tonight." Perry looked guilty suddenly. "Uh, was I supposed to come into work today? 'Cause I kinda forget all about it--I didn't wake up till noon and I didn't even know what day it was till Mom poured Tia Oracia's cure-all down my throat."

"No, no, it's fine. I didn't get to work either." Carlos stood up, automatically brushing off the seat of his pants. Some leaves and pine needles had drifted onto the blanket and he was pretty sure he'd sat on them. "Take the rest of the week. I'm not planning to get a lot done in the next few days. I've got some, uh. Stuff to figure out." He smiled. "I'd like to see those soil diagrams when you come back, though. Maybe measure the taproot system? I'm curious about the water tables around here."

"There's a small pond about fifty yards in," Perry said, sounding eager. "I could show you if you want. It sings sometimes, when the sun's out."

Carlos tried to hide his shudder. "That's ok," he said. "Diagrams will be fine."


The abrupt transition from the cool, humid forest to the dessicating aridity of the desert nearly took Carlos's breath away. This, despite the fact that meteorology was doing that thing it did in Night Vale, which was to say that the sun was setting about six hours before it was due to set. He walked very, very slowly back to his car. He didn't stop for breaks--he wasn't sure he'd be able to get started again if he did.

It was becoming clear to Carlos that he'd taken a much harder beating last night than he'd realized. He now suspected Cecil of dosing his tea with a ground-up morphine pill, because if he'd felt like this earlier in the day he never would have been able to keep going this long.

Carlos thought briefly about driving himself to the hospital, just to make sure the damage was all surface. But then he remembered that he lived in Night Vale, where the hospital dispensed free cancer and people were happy about it. So when he finally reached his car and turned on the A/C, he took out his phone and called June, because she was waiting to hear from him and he didn't want to leave her in the lurch if he passed out.

"Perry's fine," he told her, not bothering with introductions or pleasantries. She struck him as the sort of person who would just as soon do without them. "He just needed some space. He said to tell you he'll come see you tonight."

"Good," she said shortly. Carlos thought he could detect a grudging hint of relief in her voice. "Thanks for going after him. It was good of you."

Carlos blushed. "It--it was nothing."

"Shut up and take the compliment." And with that, she hung up.

The next thing Carlos did was dial Cecil's number. And the next thing he did after that was drop the phone, because the screeching from Cecil's end of the line was truly ear-splitting. Once the tinnitis had faded, Carlos picked up the phone again and tried to make sense of the stream of frantic babbling that was coming from Cecil's mouth.

"…and then I called the Secret Police, but they said that they're under orders not to send any more officers to the Whispering Forest since the last three never came back, so I said I would go after you myself but they reminded me that I'm forbidden by my contract to get anywhere near the Forest until I've designated an heir and replacement, which of course I haven't done because Dana is still stuck in the dog park, but it's been hours, Carlos--you said you'd only be gone for one hour, and it's been five, and I've been losing my mind. Carlos--Carlos? Are you there? Please tell me you're not hurt. Please--you're not a tree, are you? Carlos?"

Carlos took a deep breath and absolutely forbade himself to laugh. Cecil sounded genuinely terrified, and there was nothing funny about that. "I'm really sorry, Cecil. I'm not a tree. I'm fine, I promise. I didn't mean to be gone so long--I think time must move differently in the Forest. I swear I was only there for half an hour. When I came out, I thought the sun was just setting at the wrong time again."

"Oh, thank goodness." Cecil sounded limp with relief. "Is…your lab assistant ok? Perry?"

"Yup, he's fine. Not a tree either. Just taking some quiet time. Look, I…I'm ok, but I kind of feel like hell. I'm coming straight--" Carlos nearly said "home". "Straight back to your place. If that's okay."

"Carlos." He could practically hear Cecil's eyes rolling. "Of course it's okay. I'm sorry you feel so bad. I thought you'd be okay. I mean, I--" He stopped suddenly, as though afraid he was saying too much.

"You thought I'd be okay because you crushed a pain pill and slipped it into my tea?" Carlos smiled silently, because even though he should be irritated, if not angry, over being drugged again his will, he couldn't bring himself to resent it. Cecil wanted him to be well and safe. Cecil…had boundary issues, but so far they weren't the kind that made Carlos afraid to trust him.

"I'm so sorry, dearest Carlos." Cecil sounded mournful. "It was unforgivable of me, I know. I just couldn't bear the thought of you being in pain."

"It's fine. I can be stubborn about these things. I should have taken it on my own." He leaned his head back against the headrest. "Wish I had some to take now."

"Are you going to be to be okay driving home?" Cecil's voice cut across the fog in Carlos's brain, sharp with concern. "Because I don't--" Cecil cleared his throat and dropped his voice to a stage whisper. "I don't care what the secret police think, I'll come to the Forest and get you."

Carlos fought the urge to laugh. "I think I can make it," he says. "But I'm going to hang up and come over now while I've still got the strength. I'll see you soon, ok?"

"Yes, ok." Cecil's voice wavered a bit and for some reason Carlos imagined him stroking the screen of his phone. "Get here soon. But be safe!"


As Carlos drove back into town, he found that thoughts of Perry, of Nijeia, of his work, of the attack at the bowling alley and the death of the Apache Tracker, even the awareness of his own injuries, were fading from importance in his thoughts, completely subsumed by the reality of what was waiting for him when he reached Cecil's apartment.

He could count the number of times he'd attempted to have this conversation he was about to have with Cecil on one hand, and even then there were fingers left over. Before his abuela died, he'd hinted to her that he didn't see himself getting married or settling down with anyone, ever. But by that point she'd figured out that he was gay--or at least, that the sex he wasn't having was definitely sex with men. And she'd been incredibly kind about it. Amazingly understanding, really, considering her religious views and her age. She'd told him there was more than one way to be happy in this life, and that when he met the right person, the obstacles in their path wouldn't seem to matter so much. She'd told him that her only fear was that he'd be taken advantage of. "You're a good-looking man now, though you don't seem to realize it. And you're easy to love. Not many people are so easy to love as you. People will be drawn to you. Remember that you have a soft heart. Don't give it away to anyone who won't take care of it."

Carlos still wasn't sure how much she'd understood or guessed about the nature of the obstacles he foresaw for his chances of happiness with another person. He thought her advice was probably good advice, even if she hadn't entirely understood what she was advising him about. It didn't change the fact that the prospect of having the Talk with Cecil terrified him.

Because it was one thing for Antonio to turn on him like a snake and make sure that all their friends treated him like a freak from then on. It was one thing for Robert to threaten to kill him. Both reactions had been similar in a way, because they'd effectively slammed a door shut between Carlos and the person who'd claimed to want him. There'd been no hope--and, honestly, no desire on Carlos's part--for any kind of reconciliation with either of them. They'd been vicious, untrustworthy, and even if they'd accepted him in the end he never would have been able to forget the pain they'd inflicted before that.

Cecil, however, wasn't going to hurt him. He wasn't going to betray him, or be unkind.

Cecil was going to be so much worse.

He was going to be understanding, respectful. Cecil wasn't going to demand things from him that he couldn't give. He was going to frown sympathetically while Carlos explained, and afterwards he would draw Carlos into his arms, asking careful permission whenever he wanted to touch him.

It would be marvelous. Until eventually Carlos imploded from the guilt.

For once in his life he wasn't going to be able to depend on another's person's cruelty to help him maintain his boundaries. This time, the assault was going to come from the inside out. Carlos was going to look at Cecil, beautiful Cecil, kind, famous, celebrity Cecil, and he was going to think about all the beautiful, willing people who would love to give him pleasure, companionship, devotion--a complete package that Carlos could only compete with if he was willing to sacrifice a piece of himself he wasn't sure he could live without.

Carlos knew himself well enough to know that he would probably make that sacrifice in the end. And it wouldn't be Cecil's fault. But when it got to be too much--and it would be too much in the end, once the memories of probing, twisting, groping hands and bodies began to writhe like snakes in his brain--he wouldn't be able to help from withdrawing, from shutting himself away in the bathroom, from trying not to retch as the stench of heavy musks clung to his nostrils.

Cecil would notice. He'd see it all, and he'd understand, and he'd be horrified. Carlos could see, plain as day, that he was going to be the one who hurt Cecil, in the end. And that--that was worse than all the rest of it put together.

He'd have to run away, once it all fell apart. Though where he was going to run to this time, he didn't know. Night Vale had practically seemed to draw him into itself at the moment he most needed a refuge, and he was fairly certain there weren't any other places like that.

If Carlos were a better, stronger person, he wouldn't put Cecil through this. He'd leave now; or at least, he'd make up some story that Cecil could believe, something that would put distance between them but would, in the end, hurt Cecil less.


Carlos had almost died yesterday.


being close to Cecil was the only thing that was going to make that better right now.

In the end, Carlos was selfish. He wanted the happiness he could have, for as long as he could have it.

So he drove to Cecil's apartment. He parked his car with the windows rolled down, and he climbed the stairs up to Cecil's front door, his feet dragging, his hands clutching at the stair railing like they were his only hope of staying upright (they pretty much were.) He lifted a heavy hand to knock at Cecil's door, and the door flew open immediately, just as Carlos knew that it would.

"You're home," said Cecil, relief and delight softening every harsh line that worry had etched into his slender face. "Carlos--come here, you look awful--"

Cecil's hands, tugging him forward. Cecil's narrow, bony strength holding him up, his long-fingered hands stroking up and down his back. "I'm so glad you came back," Cecil whispered into his ear. "Come inside now. Rest awhile. Okay?"

The only fight Carlos had left in him was going to have to be held in reserve for other battles. He had no fight whatsoever to offer Cecil. "Okay," he said, melting into scarecrow arms, pressing his face into a bony shoulder. "Okay, I'll stay."

Chapter Text


(almost) June 14, 2013

After he brought Carlos inside, Cecil made him sit down. He poured toasted-rice-and-mint tea into a chilled glass and watched Carlos sternly, like a mother, or a nurse, while he drank it all down. Then Cecil took the glass back to the kitchen, refilled it halfway, and brought it back to Carlos, this time with a dose of morphine pills.

"Take them," said Cecil. "Please. It's been almost eight hours since you had any."

Carlos blinked. "Really?"

"I gave you the pill in your tea when you left around two-thirty. It's nearly eleven now. Please, Carlos, you clearly need it."

If his need for pain relief was 'clear' to Cecil then Carlos could hardly argue. After all, Cecil was the one looking at him--Carlos had barely glanced in a mirror all day. Obediently, he took the pills and chased them with the rest of the tea.

It was really good tea. Kind of a weird combination of flavors, but definitely better than the paprika stuff Cecil had been drinking when Carlos first met him.

When Carlos put the empty glass down on a coaster, Cecil set about arranging the sofa cushions. Or, more accurately, he arranged Carlos in a position where cushions could be placed to support the strain in his lower back, the ache in his left knee, and the cramp in his right shoulder.

"You don't have to do all of this," Carlos protested--weakly, because he was actually enjoying all the fuss. He just felt like he ought to make it clear that Cecil was under no obligation to keep looking after him just because he'd stepped up in the middle of last night's crisis.

"I want to," Cecil said. "Honestly, Carlos. If you haven't figured out that this is precisely the kind of thing I'll always want to do for you when you're feeling bad, then you haven't been paying attention."

That made Carlos laugh. "Fair enough." He submitted with all due docility while Cecil gave the cushion behind his shoulders a final plump. "You'll let me return the favor, if it ever needs to be returned."

"Of course." Cecil surveyed the arrangements with a critical eye, then retrieved one last, large, overstuffed cushion, which he placed on the floor beside the couch. He plunked himself down on it, crossing his bare feet over his knees. The position put them pretty much at eye level--closer to it than if they'd been sitting on the couch side by side. But Carlos couldn't help looking at Cecil's endearingly long toes, high arch, and the ridiculously bony ankles protruding from the legs of his yoga pants.

"In the interests of full disclosure, however," Cecil continued, "I should probably mention that I had the standard procedure to remove 75% of my pain receptors when I was a child."

"That's…yeah you mentioned something about that." Carlos allowed his scientific curiosity to get the better of him for a moment. "What is that like? Have you had any serious injuries since the, uh, procedure?"

"Hmm. I sprained my ankle once when I was in my twenties. It was during my trip to Europe. It was…I guess inconvenient is the best word? Every time I tried to stand up, I fell down. I don't know if I would have even noticed, otherwise."

"Probably just as well that you fell down, then." Carlos shifted, and immediately grimaced as the muscles in his lower back clenched. "The whole point of the body's capacity to feel pain is to make us notice that we're hurt, so we can fix it instead of making it worse."

"Maybe," said Cecil, slowly. "But I think pain is sort of like an alarm clock that won't shut off even after you're out of bed, right? I mean yeah, it makes sure you wake up on time, but then you go take a shower, and when you come back to your bedroom, it's still shouting its head off. Until you're like, 'Enough with the dread and sacred chanting, monks! I'm awake now! Jeeze.'"

Carlos giggled. He kept giggling, and Cecil looked confused for a moment. Then his face broke into a fond, amused smile. Carlos realize that the morphine was probably beginning to kick in. Everything was always funnier on an opiate high.

"I suppose you have a point," he said, when he could keep a straight face again. "Medical science--er, the kind that applies to us Outsiders, that is--it still hasn't really come up with a good way to treat pain. There's not much doctors can do except prescribe powerful, addictive chemicals that sometimes cause bigger problems than the symptoms they were meant to treat." Carlos found himself wondering suddenly if Cecil's alarm clock metaphor wasn't equally appropriate to emotional pain. It had been rational to feel terrified of…Robert, say, when Robert was still a threat, but now that Robert's gone, shouldn't the fear of him be gone too?

I am definitely starting to get high, Carlos thinks. That's the only time I'm ever philosophical.

"There are Outsiders, occasionally, who are born with no pain receptors," he added, for no particular reason. "Those people are incredibly rare, though. And…they tend not to live long lives."

"Interesting." Cecil said it as thought he meant it, but he didn't ask any questions. He just kept his face tilted up to look at Carlos. The message was fairly clear: Cecil expected him to do the talking tonight.

Carlos looked down at his lap. Silence ticked past--seconds, then minutes. Carlos scratched at a hangnail. Cecil kept waiting, his expression both patient and expectant.

"Will you tell me about being in the Orphanarium?" he blurted out finally. "I mean--you don't have to. Nijeia had no business telling me that. But I remember you mentioning your mother and I was just…curious.

Cecil, thankfully, didn't look offended. He shook his head, his violet eyes narrowing with thought. "I don't mind talking about it with you," he said. "I was only there for eight months. I was eleven."

"Did your mother--did you lose her?" Carlos checked his assumption that Cecil's mother had died. This was Night Vale, after all. There were lots of ways to lose someone and you were lucky if you knew for sure that death was the cause, sometimes.

"Yes. For awhile." Cecil blinked. He looked serious and contemplative, but not disturbed. "One day while I was at school she went out with her friends from the Spelunking Society. A sandstorm hit the area they were exploring, very suddenly. No one really knows what happened--everyone else in the group managed to take shelter in the caves in time, but when they got there, they realized she wasn't with them. Her friends assumed she was dead at the bottom of a sand dune, quite naturally. Or that she'd been taken by the vague, yet menacing government agency that created the sandstorm, which would have amounted to the same thing." Cecil adjusted his glasses. "She never said what happened when she returned, but she came back…changed. The Orphanarians didn't think she was fit to take custody of me again and they refused to release me at first. So she beheaded the gatekeeper with his own machete and tore out the head Orphanarian's throat with her teeth, at which point they became more open to persuasion." Cecil shook his head, smiling fondly. "She didn't brush the bloodstains off her teeth for a couple of days. I think it was to warn the others from making any attempt to take me back to the Pit, although she was always a bit lax about dental hygiene."

Carlos stared at Cecil. "Jesus," he muttered, mostly to himself. Then he realized what Cecil had just said. "The Pit? Is that what you call it?" Alarm surged through him, as he remembered dropping Nijeia off at the gates of the Orphanarium and seeing the encompassing darkness that loomed behind them. "Is it that bad?"

"The Orphanarians aren't cruel," said Cecil, which Carlos knew perfectly well wasn't a real answer. "We had everything we needed--plenty of food, a clean place to sleep, combat training, medical procedures to promote our chances of survival. Orphans and former Orphans have the lowest mortality rate of anyone in Night Vale, you know."

"Still." Carlos reached down and plucked at Cecil's sleeve. Cecil looked at him, confused. Carlos continued to tug until Cecil gave him his hand. He laced their fingers together and squeezed. "I've seen the Orphanarians. They don't…they don't look capable of love." That wasn't quite what he'd meant to say, but it was the truth.

"No. Loving us wasn't their job." Cecil looked at their entwined fingers, his expression both confused and heartbreakingly full of gratitude. "They made us into good citizens."

That statement, and the unquestioning acceptance with which Cecil uttered it, made Carlos incredibly angry for some reason. He forced himself to push it aside. "What about your mother? Did she…love you?"

"What kind of question is that?" Cecil looked up at him, bewildered. "Of course she did. She was my mother. She was just a little lost, when she came back. She didn't like to talk. Or look at people." He frowns, as though lost in memory. "She hid from me a lot. But I know she loved me, because she came back. Not many people who disappear around here do that, you know."

Cecil had a point, actually. But he'd deserved more than that, and it makes Carlos incredibly sad that he hadn't received it. "Is your mother still around? Do you still see her?"

Cecil shook his head. "She disappeared again a few weeks before I turned eighteen. Not in a sandstorm or anything. She just left." Something in Carlos's expression must have given away what he thought about that, because Cecil smiled. "It was okay. I'd just received my acceptance letter from the university, and I'd been managing our finances on my own for a few years already. I knew everything I needed to know to take care of myself. And she left me a note. I couldn't read it--she wrote it in some kind of code that I've never been able to decipher. But the fact that she wrote it means she wanted me to know she loved me and was proud of me. Why else would she have bothered?"

Cecil didn't sound like he was traumatized by anything he'd just told Carlos. But the fact that denial was a way of life in Night Vale didn't mean that the damage wasn't real. Carlos just couldn't understand how someone who had been as unloved as Cecil seemed to have been could have grown up to be so beautifully, tenderly loving. But Carlos supposed it might explain where Cecil's streak of shockingly raw vulnerability came from. It made him furious, and it also made him want to wrap Cecil up and whisper all kinds of silly things to him.

"Would you tell me about your family, Carlos?" Cecil sounded eager, but his eyes were cast down shyly. "I'd be really interested to hear about them."

"Oh. Sure." He kind of wanted Cecil to keep going, because every new piece of information Carlos received about him both enlightened him and furthered his bafflement. But it was only fair to take his turn. "I was brought up by my grandmother. My mother left me with her when I was five. I never knew my father."

"Oh?" Cecil asked. "Were you…sad, when she left?"

Carlos shrugged. "A little, maybe. I don't remember much from that early in my life." In all honesty, he had no memories from that time period at all, save for a fleeting impression of his mother as a tall woman with very long hair, who smelled like perfume, hairspray, and cigarettes. "I had an older sister--half-sister--who'd been living with our grandmother since she was a baby. My mother was only sixteen when she had her." He shrugged. "From what I've been able to piece together, my parents were only together for a few months after I was born. My mother tried to keep me for a few years, but I spent a lot of time with my abuela. I think that one day my mother just dropped me off and never came back. Maybe she meant to, only to realize she couldn't really take care of me by herself. My abuela never talked about it much. The last time I saw her was when my sister died. She was a wreck--I mean, anyone would be, but she was drinking, and I think she was on drugs. I remember her and my grandmother getting into a screaming fight in the kitchen. She only stayed for half a day--she left before the actual funeral."

Cecil's eyes widened steadily through this recitation. "Oh. Carlos. I'm sorry. That's awful."

"I guess?" Carlos shrugged again. "Honestly, I was pretty happy as a kid. I cried a lot when Diana died, but she was so much older than me that we weren't very close. And kids are resilient." Carlos struggled for a moment, trying to think of something to tell Cecil about his past that wouldn't sound so detached and clinical. "I loved my abuela very much, and she loved me. She was my rock. Especially when I started growing up and realized that I didn't fit in anywhere. Losing her…it was one of the hardest things that's happened to me."

"When did she die?" said Cecil, softly.

"Fourteen years ago. I was nineteen."

"You would have been in college, right?"

"Yeah. I didn't know she was sick until I came home the summer after my freshman year. She kept it from me on purpose--she didn't want me distracted from my studies. But the prognosis she got from the doctors turned out to be optimistic. She thought she had two years. Instead, she died four months after her diagnosis. It was the middle of July. We were together every day of the last three months of her life." Carlos blinked hard, clearing his throat. "But I wish I'd known from the start. It wouldn't have made any difference to my career--I could have got a deferment and started a year later. My cousin Graciella was there to help her, so she wasn't completely alone, but I…I would like to have been there."

At some point during this recitation Cecil had worked his fingers free of Carlos's grasp. Now he was holding Carlos's wrist in a loose grip and tracing circles in a light, soothing pattern on the back of his hand. "She must have been incredibly proud of you," he said.

Carlos nodded. "She was."

A soft light entered Cecil's eyes for a moment. Then he looked serious again. "You said last night that you were alone after she died."

"Did I? Yeah, I guess so." Carlos smiled tightly. "I wasn't good at being social. I didn't make friends easily. I've always kind of been an outsider."

Cecil made a small noise of dismay. "That's just so weird. I don't--" He looked at Carlos with a face full of honest confusion, shaking his head. "How could anyone who met you not get how amazing you are?"

"Jesus, Cecil." Carlos squeezed his eyes shut. He turned away. How was Cecil able to just sit there with a straight face and say things like that? "There are a lot of reasons why people wouldn't think I was amazing, all right?" It comes out a bit harsher in tone than he meant it to. "Trust me. I'm…complicated. There are things…things you don't know about me."

"Like what?" Cecil looked completely unperturbed. "You can tell me, you know. You can tell me anything. It won't make any difference as to how I feel about you. If…if that's what you're worried about."

Carlos stared at his hands fixedly, all the terror that had been building since yesterday seeming to coalesce into a fixed point. Now was the moment to carry them over the breach. Now was the time for truth and honesty, and all the disastrous consequences that would result from that honesty. Carlos never thought of himself as a coward until this moment. But the idea of taking that final plunge seemed like an entirely insurmountable challenge--like a sacrifice of blood and bone and heart that only Carlos could offer. Which, now that he thought about it, was only appropriate. Night Vale thrived on sacrifices, big and small. Carlos wasn't sure which this was. In the grand scheme of things, it was probably a very small alteration to the crazy-quilt fabric of their existence. But for Carlos himself, and possibly for Cecil, it was about as big and significant as anything could be.

"You seem really sure that nothing I could say would make a difference," Carlos said, and there's a helpless, almost desperate edge to his tone.

"Because I am certain," Cecil said, immediately, no hesitation, completely placid. "I can only think of one thing you could say to me that would make any difference, but I don't think that's what's on your mind." Cecil swallowed, betraying his first hint of real uncertainty. "Unless you're about to tell me that…that there's someone else. That your feelings for me aren't strong enough to compete with your feelings for this…other person. It still wouldn't matter," he rushed to assure Carlos. "It won't…change the fact that we're friends. I could…accept you having feelings for someone else. So long as you didn't shut me out entirely."

"The last thing I want is to shut you out or drive you away," said Carlos, his voice ragged. "But the thing I need to tell you…it's driven other people away. It's done worse than that. It's brought…horrible things out of them, turned them into different people. And I know you're different, I do, I'm not afraid of you. I just…" He sighed deeply. "I can't forget what it was like before."

Cecil's hand--Carlos had somehow forgotten that Cecil was still holding his hand throughout all of this--tightened its grip. "I won't run away," Cecil said, as earnestly as any human being has ever managed to say those words, in Carlos's experience. "I won't change. I won't--hurt you. I swear. You can tell me."

Carlos sucked in a deep breath of air; not a sigh, more a fortification for what was to come. The words were right there on the tip of his tongue. But in order to get them out, he had to--go somewhere else in his head. Let his mind fill with a kind of white static. Let the transmission of information occur during a blip of time in which his own consciousness had essentially checked out and gone on temporary vacation.

When the words finally came out of his mouth, Carlos heard them as though another person was speaking them. He didn't look at Cecil. He looked instead at his hands, intertwined with Cecil's hands. And then the words tumbled out, like a tower of Jenga blocks collapsing as the final cornerstone was yanked out.

"I don't like sex," he said. "With anyone. I never have. I tried to get over it--I experimented, I made absolutely sure that it wasn't just the people I was with or anything like that. But it wasn't a fluke. I can't bear the idea of sexual intimacy. It makes me feel…I can't even describe it, but it's horrible, and I can't…" He made himself stop, catch his breath. "I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't put myself through that again. I vowed that I would just stay in control of my feelings and never again get someone's hopes up so that I had to explain all of this to them. I couldn't stand the idea of seeing their face--their reaction--"

Cecil's hand tightened around Carlos's but Carlos pulled his hands free and covered his eyes. "I didn't mean to end up like this, with you. I should have put a stop to it when I saw that you were…having feelings. But you just…sneaked in under my radar, you know? You said all these perfect things, and at first I didn't even believe them, but then I got to know you and you never pushed me for more than I could give, and the next thing I knew I was having feeling for you that I swore I wouldn't have for anyone again." He swallowed once, hard. "I don't trust myself when I l--like someone. It makes me want to---go give you everything that I'm capable of giving. But I know it's not going to be enough. Not in the long run. Maybe we could both trick ourselves into thinking thinking it'll be okay for right now, but eventually you'll want more, and I…I'll want to give it to you, and it will tear me to pieces, and I'll end up resenting you, and I just…" Carlos felt Cecil lay a hand on his shoulder. He forced himself not to pull away. "I don't want to hurt you. I don't. But I'm going to, I won't be able to help it, and I'm more afraid of that than I am of anything, and--"'

"Carlos." Cecil's voice dropped to a deeper cadence, something not unlike his radio voice, full of command and certainty. "Carlos. Slow down. Be still for a moment. Breathe. It's okay. It's okay." Cecil's hands reached for Carlos's hands again, drawing them away from his face. Cecil clutched them tightly and pulled them to his chest, like they were something fragile, to be protected. "There's no need to be upset. Just focus on the sound of my breathing and the warmth of my hands. You're here with me. Not with anyone else. Not with anyone who ever hurt you. Just focus on that for a moment, and breathe."

Carlos made himself do as he was told. He listened to Cecil's voice--his calm, assured voice, that betrayed not the slightest hint of disappointment or dismay. He tried to breathe, as Cecil had told him to do, but soon the in-and-out rhythm of his breath disintegrated into sobs. The moment the tears appeared in his eyes, Cecil let go of his hands and climbed up onto the couch. He tucked his narrow body into the gap between Carlos and the cushions and wrapped his spindly arms around Carlos's shoulders--not tugging Carlos into his grip, but just offering his own warmth and shelter like a warm narrow blanket. He pulled Carlos's head down onto his shoulder and began to stroke his hair, and for some reason that was perfect--the mostly perfect thing anyone had ever done for Carlos. And even though Carlos felt that this was just too easy, that there was still hours of conversation ahead of them, he couldn't resist the temptation to melt into that embrace and accept the reassurance Cecil was offering him. He'd never told anyone these things only to have the other person react as though the appropriate response was to offer comfort and kindness. Antonio and Robert both had teated Carlos's confession as a betrayal, and Carlos had been the one who had to comfort them.

"My poor Carlos," Cecil murmured. "I'm so sorry." The pattern that his fingers made, stroking through Carlos's hair, was terribly soothing, and it seemed to relax Carlos almost against his will. "I…can't pretend that I understand why you're so upset. Well." His voice took on a darker tone. "I do understand that other people made you feel that this was something you should feel upset over, and I don't understand that either, but it makes me angry, and you don't need me to be angry right now, so I'm trying not to think about it."

Carlos sniffed, feeling embarrassed. He opened his eyes. Cecil's arm--the one that wasn't attached to the hand petting his hair--was draped across his chest. Underneath the long white sleeve of his sleep shirt, Carlos could distinguish a pale violet light. Cecil's tattoos were shining brightly enough to be seen through the fabric.

"What's that?" he asked, managing to croak the question out in vaguely intelligible tones. He plucked at Cecil's sleeve to indicate his meaning.

Cecil made an unhappy sort of grunt. "I told you," he said. "I can't always control them. Especially when I'm having strong feelings about something."

Scientific curiosity poked its head above the surface of Carlos's confusion. He touched Cecil's arm. "What feeling is this?" he said, his voice still rough.

Cecil was quiet for a long moment. "It's hard to tell precisely," he said at last. "But the brightness usually corresponds to the intensity of the emotion."

"What about the color? The color changes with your moods, doesn't it?"

Cecil sighed, and the gust of breath tickled the hair along the side of Carlos's scalp. "Yes, sort of. At the moment, I'm just a little…upset. Don't read too much into it. I'm not upset with you, I promise."

"Oh." Carlos wasn't exactly famed for his tact, but he could understand that if some part of his anatomy chose to broadcast his every emotion in color-coded nuance, he might not want to discuss it in too much detail either. That didn't meant he wouldn't be paying closer attention in the future. Maybe he would make a chart of some kind…

But he was getting ahead of himself. Just because Cecil hadn't reacted exactly the way Carlos had expected, it didn't mean he was entirely off the hook. They still needed to talk this through. Carlos wasn't 100% certain Cecil had even understood him, earlier--he'd reacted strongly to the fact that Carlos was upset, but he hadn't said anything about the…information Carlos had imparted.

"Well?" Carlos pushed himself away from the comforting circle of Cecil's arms. Cecil made a disgruntled, complaining noise, but didn't try to stop him as Carlos shifted around so they were face to face. "I just told you a fairly important fact that will impact that future of our relationship. I'd appreciate knowing how you feel about it." His nervousness made him sound snippier than he meant to, but he wasn't sufficiently in control of himself to guard his tone at the moment.

"Oh, of course. If you need to talk about it, we can talk about it." Cecil did a fairly good job of donning a serious expression, although he kept looking at Carlos's hair like he was uncomfortable with how far away it was from his twitching fingers. "Are you still worried about--those other people? The ones who treated you badly?" A narrow glint entered Cecil's eye. "Was that…Robert person one of them?"

"Yes," Carlos frowned. "I mean, obviously he--no, wait, Cecil that's not what I meant."

"Oh, sorry. What did you mean?"

"I meant--" Carlos dragged in another gulp of air. Somehow, saying it outright like this was even harder than burying it in a longwinded explanation. "I can't have sex. With anyone. Even…even you. No matter how much you mean to me. It won't happen."

Cecil nodded, like he was trying to be encouraging. "Yes?"

Carlos blinked. "So…what do you…think about that? I mean, doesn't it…don't you feel like it's a…aren't you…" He fluttered one hand, exasperated.

"Aren't I…what, Carlos?" A frustrated little crease appeared in between Cecil's eyes. "Am I glad you told me? Yes, of course. It would have been very awkward if I hadn't known and I'd attempted to initiate sexual intercourse with you. More than awkward, judging from your reaction--it seems like it would have upset you a great deal. But now I know, so I won't make that mistake. Should we talk about it further? Would you like to tell me in more detail where you like to be touched and where I shouldn't touch you? That would make sense, actually. I don't want to transgress your boundaries on accident."

Carlos stared. He stared and stared and his emotions did little dances in various parts of his body. His hands and arms wanted to reach for Cecil in gratitude and relief and hold onto him forever. His mind was screaming at him that it couldn't possible be this easy. His chest was tight with an anxiety he couldn't quite name.

"Cecil." Carlos searched for his words and found them not easy to come by. "Are…are you…asexual too?" It occurred to him that, prior to now, he hadn't actually said the word out loud, as though saying it would make it too real.

Cecil shrugged. "Sometimes," he said, and a flare of hope blinded Carlos for a moment. "Not in the same way you are, I don't think. In the past I've enjoyed having sex with people who wanted to have sex with me. But I've…well." Cecil blushed. "I hope you won't think I'm a…tramp or anything, but I've had a number of partners, Carlos. All of them were different. Sex was an important part of some of those relationships. Others…well. I dated Sarah Sultan for a few months after I got back from Europe. That ended awkwardly. But it had nothing at all to do with the fact that she's a smooth, fist-sized river rock, and everything to do with the fact that she isn't very nice and has a cruel sense of humor."

Carlos blinked. Cecil continued to look at him with wide, sincere eyes in face utterly devoid of mockery or guile.

"You dated a rock," was all Carlos could think of to say, after a few moments had passed.

"A river rock," Cecil emphasized gently, as if that was important. "I don't like to speak ill of my exes, but she's not very emotionally stable, in my opinion. But she's a fascinating conversationalist when she wants to be. And her handwriting is really impressive when you consider that she doesn't have hands."

Carlos sat there for a moment. He sat there and looked at Cecil, whose tattoos were still shining indigo with some profound emotion that Cecil had not seen fit to name. He tried to find a space in his head that was shaped appropriately to contain and process the fact that Cecil had once dated a river rock, but there was nowhere to put it. That fact just continued to sit right in the middle of his thoughts, refusing to be tucked away, defying his attempts to catalogue or digest it.

"Excuse me," he said, finally, and extricated himself from the sofa. He was aware of Cecil's eyes following him as he walked to the bathroom and shut the door behind him.

As soon as he knew he wasn't being observed, Carlos sat down on the edge of the bathtub, grabbed a mostly dry bath towel from where it hung on the rack opposite the veiled mirror (Cecil had uncovered it for his convenience that morning, and covered it again as soon as Carlos left) and stuffed the towel into his mouth. The hysterics overcame him seconds later.

Carlos spent about ten minutes in the bathroom, convulsing silently, tears streaming down his face. At one point he slid off the edge of the tub and landed on the floor, where he decided it would be simpler to remain, curled into a fetal shape, as the tremors overtook him. He no longer knew whether he was laughing or crying. Eventually, a tentative and concerned-sounding knock sounded on the door, interrupted his small, meaningless crisis.

"Are you all right?" Cecil's muffled voice sounded wary. "Look, I've made some tea, if you want to…you know. Come out here and drink it. With me." A pause. "I'm sure the Faceless Old Woman who lives in my home would tell me if you weren't okay, but…I really wish you'd let me be with you if you need to have…feelings. You know? That's what I'm here for. At least…that's what I want to be here for." Another pause. "Carlos?" said Cecil plaintively.

Experimentally, Carlos removed the towel from his mouth. He found that he was able to breath normally, and that he was able to make facial expressions that didn't automatically revert into a rictus of mad laughter mixed with existential doubt. Carefully, he pushed himself up from the floor and peaked behind the veil covering Cecil's bathroom mirror. His face was flushed and there were tear tracks visible on his cheeks. His eyes were red. He looked like he'd been crying. He pondered for a moment whether it would be deceitful to go outside looking like this, since Cecil would undoubtedly think he had been weeping in a fit of some kind of delicate, yet fraught emotion.

He didn't have a chance to make up his mind. The bathroom door swung open behind him. He hadn't touched it, and he was fairly certain that Cecil wouldn't have opened it without permission, which must mean the Faceless Old Woman was tired of witnessing his breakdown, or possibly needed the bathroom for her own purpose. Quickly, Carlos splashed water on his face, patted it dry with the end of the towel he hadn't stuffed into his mouth, and stepped out into the hallway.

Cecil's face crumpled slightly when he saw Carlos, but he didn't say anything. He just opened his arms and waited for Carlos to walk into them. Stiffly, Carlos took a step forward, and Cecil instantly tugged him the rest of the way down, making Carlos loose his balance slightly. It didn't matter that much, because Cecil, as Carlos had observed before, was about fifty times stronger than he looked, and didn't even stagger as Carlos's weight hit him square in the chest.

"You're okay," Cecil whispered into Carlos's ear, as one by one each muscle in Carlos's body relaxed and gave in to the rest and shelter that was being offered to them. "You are fine. Carlos, listen to me." He pressed his lips to the outer shell of Carlos's ear, making him shiver. "There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing about you I don't love."

No hysterics, this time. The tears that dribbled, exhaustedly, from Carlos's overtaxed lachrymal glands were simple tears. He wasn't quite sure what they signified. Relief, maybe? It seemed too soon for happiness--happiness might well come, but at the moment all he really felt sensible of was the absence of rejection--and thus, pain. They dripped from the end of Carlos's nose onto Cecil's neck, and Cecil's arms tightened around him like a vise, like the strangle-vine that grew outside the public library, like an octopus with a particularly intriguing piece of coral that it wanted to share with its octopus playmates. Carlos let his head drop onto Cecil's shoulder, and the grip relaxed a little as Cecil took to rubbing his hand up and down Carlos's back.

"Come on," said Cecil, his tone quiet and even--gentle, but brooking no argument. "Come sit down and drink your tea."

"Sure," said Carlos, exhausted and all too happy to just let Cecil boss him around gently for a bit.

"And while you're drinking your tea," said Cecil, guiding Carlos over to the couch and watching him drop down into the welcoming nest of cushions, "I'd like very much to know how long this has been going on."

Carlo blinked. Cecil looked--not angry, but incredibly grim all of a sudden.

When he held up a hand to show Carlos his cell phone--that is to say, Carlos's phone, which, he could tell from the screen display, had just received its latest monthly data dump of text messages from Robert--it also gave Carlos a glance up the sleeve of Cecil's sleep shirt. His tattoos were glowing like the beacon on a light house, and they were the deep, rich red of a fire engine--or blood.

Chapter Text


As he stared at the phone in Cecil's hand, Carlos became acquainted with a new and startling scientific fact: under certain circumstances, terror and relief were chemically identical emotions, entirely indistinguishable from one another by the person experiencing them.

He knows, Carlos thought, mesmerized by the red glow under Cecil's sleeves and the way his fingers had gone tight around the knuckles. He was too dazed to read the message displayed on the screen, but he could see that it was message 15 of 72, and that it was written in ranting capital letters, and there were three spelling errors in the text (I'm a scientist, not a lit major, whined Robert in his head).

Well, this is probably a good thing, said a voice of forced calm inside Carlos's head. (Outside of his head, he mostly felt numb, but that was nearly the same thing as calm, wasn't it?) Rationally, he knew that Robert's little obsession wasn't healthy for either of them, and it was probably better for it to be out in the open. Honestly, a responsible adult would probably have told the police or something by now, wouldn't they?

Carlos took a breath that felt deeper and easier than any he'd breathed in a year--until two seconds later, when his gut cramped with sheer physical revulsion.

Cecil knew. He knew, he'd read them, all those filthy, wheedling, threatening, manipulative messages. The mere idea of it made him sick to his stomach, and he wasn't even entirely certain why.

Maybe because, until this exact moment, it had been possible to delude himself into believing that the messages--and Robert, for that matter--weren't entirely real. He always deleted them moments after they appeared, after which point they existed nowhere except inside his own head. It was easy to forget about them, between times. He'd become really good at making himself forget.

Now, though, they were also in Cecil's head. Cecil's sweet, fluffy, cat-loving, mountain-denying, Night-Valian head. The evils of the outside world didn't belong there. Yet Carlos had dragged them onto the carpet, like a dog with a festering animal corpse clamped between its jaws. Or maybe Carlos was the rotten carcass, and Robert the dog who had spit him out here. It was all wrong. Carlos was wrong. His presence in Cecil's neat, garish nest of an apartment was suddenly wrong, because he'd brought the evil with him.

"That's my phone." Carlos spat the words at Cecil. Before he quite knew what he was doing, he took a step forward and snatched his phone from Cecil's hand. "Since when do you go around reading other people's messages?" He was trembling, head to foot. His voice sounded like he'd been gargling gravel.

Cecil didn't reply. Carlos busied himself clearing the screen of his phone, then shutting it down altogether. When he'd finished, he forced himself to look up again, unsure what he would see.

Cecil's eyes were violet pools of quiet, simmering anger, at the edges of which a sort of heartbroken tenderness could be glimpsed. It was confusing. Carlos couldn't make sense of it. But he'd snapped at Cecil, and that must be the cause of part of it. He was instantly suffused with guilt.

Carlos sank down onto the sofa, holding the phone loosely in his hand. "I'm sorry," he said, raggedly. "I shouldn't have taken that tone with you. I didn't--I'm sorry." He raked his hand over his face. "I never wanted you to know about this."

"Why not?" Cecil demanded. It was easier to hear the distress and hurt that were mixed in with the anger when he spoke. "Carlos--those messages--they're--" He closed his mouth, blinking rapidly. After a moment, he came to sit on the opposite end of the sofa. He was careful to leave space between them, and the distance made Carlos feel cold.

They sat there in silence for a moment, Carlos staring at his hands, at his phone, Cecil twiddling with the fringes of his red-and-green chili pepper afghan. Carlos didn't know what to say. He wondered if he ought to excuse himself and leave. He wondered if Cecil was trying to think of a polite way to suggest that he leave. He certainly didn't feel as though he had any right to stay, not after the way he'd snarled at Cecil. That had been unforgivable.

"I'm sorry," Cecil said, finally. "Sometimes I forget that we still don't know each other all that well yet. After everything that happened yesterday, I feel like…like we've been close forever. But that's just because I've wanted us to be close forever." He bowed his head, looking down at his clasped hands. "I understand why you didn't tell me. But--please tell me that you've talked to someone else about this. I can't stand to think that you've had to deal with it all alone."

Carlos blinked at him in surprise. It wasn't what he'd expected Cecil to say; but on the other hand, it was exactly the sort of thing Cecil would think. He was kind. He cared.

Which made it incredibly inappropriate for Carlos to respond by laughing, and Cecil's scandalized expression was completely justified. But Carlos couldn't help himself, honestly.

"Who would I have told?" he said, exasperated. He tugged his fingers through his hair. "You're right, I mean…we don't know each other, really. But you're still…you're still the best friend I have here. If I wasn't going to tell you, I wasn't going to tell anyone else."

"You have Perry and Nijeia," Cecil said, baffled.

"Cecil!" It was Carlos's turn to look scandalized. "Nijeia is twelve! And Perry…he's my subordinate. I couldn't put something like this on either of them."

Cecil looked like he wanted to protest. Then he deflated, shoulders falling.

"I mean, honestly," Carlos continued. "Would you have told one of your interns something like this? Other than Dana, I mean."

Cecil's face scrunched up. He looked like a child being asked to eat his least favorite vegetable. "Oh, all right," he mumbled. "I suppose you have a point." Then his face cleared, and he looked at Carlos with an open, almost pleading expression. "But…I know, now. Maybe I don't have any right to ask you to put your confidence in me after you caught me snooping. But--will you tell me? Please?"

Their…relationship, or whatever it was, might still be in its infancy, but Carlos was learning quickly that he had very few defenses when Cecil made a face like that at him. He sighed, defeated. "First, you have to promise that looking through my phone isn't going to turn into a regular thing. I'm serious about that, Cecil. I've got enough trust issues as it is, you're only going to make it worse if you pull stunts like that."

"Oh, no, of course not." Cecil's hands made little fluttery movements, like they wanted to clutch at Carlos's arm, only to be restrained by whatever passed for Cecil's better judgment. "I never would have done a thing like that--normally. But your phone was acting very strange. I was just checking to make sure it wasn't possessed. A lot of NVT carrier phones have been having that problem lately. I would never--snoop, on purpose, I swear."

Carlos was familiar with the peculiar little dance his phone did whenever Robert's messages came through in one of their monthly text-dumps. The vibrate function seemed to develop a mind of its own, almost like the content of the data it was receiving was making it nervous, and it chimed incessantly until Carlos picked it up and stroked it soothingly a few times.

"All right, I believe you," he said. "But as far as talking about it… there's not a lot to tell." He shrugged, settling back against the couch cushions and staring up at the ceiling, where a small chandelier made of colorful, cracked glass bottles tinkled above him in the current of the air conditioning. "I don't even think about them most of the time. They show up once a month. I delete them. That's all."

"Do…do you read them?" Cecil sounded strangled, like he wasn't sure whether he wanted the answer to be yes or no.

"Yeah." He waved his hand dismissively. "But they're always the same. Blah blah, I'm so sorry, blah blah, I'm going to make a lamp shade of your skin. I mean, he keeps saying he'll 'find me' but it's been a year and there hasn't been a there hasn't been a trace of him near Night Vale, so…" He shrugged again. It was a useful gesture that simplified an impressive range of complex emotions.

"A year?" Cecil's face was a Picasso of conflicting, simultaneous contortions. "He's been doing this to you for a year?"

Carlos blinked. "Um. Yeah. I mean. That was when I left him…I mean, Albuquerque…so…" Concern made him lean over the couch and reach for Cecil's hand. "Hey. Hey, Cecil. It's okay. Breathe. Come on, breathe."

He was concerned because Cecil's lips looked blue. Cecil's hand seemed to react to Carlos touching it of its own volition, because it squeezed his fingers. But Cecil's brain didn't seem to process that there was an opportunity for physical closeness to Carlos that he was overlooking, because in the next instant he leapt to his feet and began pacing furiously.

"In all my years as a municipal employee, I have never seen a failure like this." He was fuming--almost literally, Carlos was practically able to see steam rising off the top of his head. "Obviously, someone needs to have a word with the Sheriff's Secret Police. It may be time to speak to the Sheriff himself. This is not how things work here. Night Vale owes a duty to its citizens. It owes them better than to let some stalker terrorize them--"

"I'm not a citizen of Night Vale," Carlos reminded him, quietly. "And I never told anyone. It's no one's fault that no one stopped him. Except maybe mine."

"Don't say that." Cecil stopped pacing. "You're not to blame because you--because you didn't know what to do."

Slowly, Cecil approached him, coming to a stop in front of the couch. He seemed uncertain what to do for a moment. Then he knelt, facing Carlos, and reached for his hands. Carlos didn't resist. Cecil pulled Carlos's hands together then covered them with his, making the shape of a turtle shell over his exposed fingers and knuckles.

"We can make it stop," Cecil said, after a moment where they were just touching, the warmth of their joined heads spread up Carlos's arms and into his body. "It looks like the messages got caught in the censorship net that keeps inappropriate communications coming from outside, but the sheer number of them overwhelmed the safeguards somehow. That's why they all come at once like that. But there must be a way to fix it. I can speak to people." He tilted his face up to look at Carlos and his expression was searching, questioning. He was waiting for permission, Carlos realized. Even though his instincts were obviously to storm off and…do whatever it was a person with his authority and standing in the community was authorized to do, he was leaving it up to Carlos. Carlos smiled down at him, relieved and happy to find that Cecil was, actually, capable of talking things through, when it mattered. It meant that there was a chance for them, after all.

"Don't get me wrong," said Carlos. "I don't like those messages." Cecil nodded automatically, vigorously. "But…I also don't like knowing that he's…planning things, in secret. I'd rather know what he was thinking. I don't want to be…taken by surprise."

Cecil's mouth tightened. Carlos only had indistinct memories of exactly what he'd told Cecil about the way he and Robert had parted, but he did remember mentioning the gun. That was probably all Cecil needed to know to understand what he meant about not wanting to be surprised again.

"Are you afraid of him?" Cecil's voice was low and serious--not quite his radio voice, but it compelled attention nonetheless. "I mean…still, now? Are you afraid of what would happen if you saw him again?"

"I'm not going to see him again," Carlos insisted. There was a faint tremor in his voice that annoyed him, but he couldn't seem to stop it.

"That's not an answer."

Carlos sighed, averting his gaze. "Obviously I don't want to see him again. He--threatened to shoot himself in front of me. And then he tried to get me to shoot him. He said he'd shoot me, if I didn't. That's…not something I want to go through again."

Because he wasn't looking directly at Cecil, the only part of Cecil's response that he registered was the convulsive tightening of his hands on Carlos's wrists. Cecil made a noise, too--something low and growly, human, and yet not like a noise Carlos had ever heard a human make before. From the corner of his eye Carlos could still see the glow of Cecil's tattoos through the sleeves of his pajamas. It was still bright red. Which must signify…anger, or possessiveness, or…

Before Carlos could come to a definitive conclusion, Cecil cut off this train of thought by climbing up on the couch beside him. There was no distance between them this time. Cecil pressed himself into Carlos's side, until Carlos, bending to the hint, opened his arms wide enough for Cecil to wrap his own spindly arms around Carlos's torso. It was insistent, but not demanding. Carlos could have pulled away if he'd wanted to. But he found he was content to let himself be enfolded, to feel Cecil's head come to rest on his shoulder. His hair tickled Carlos's cheek, and somehow the hand movement that was supposed to scratch his face was converted into digging his fingers into Cecil's hair, stroking it back, away from his face and down toward the nape of Cecil's neck. Cecil shuddered--pleasantly, Carlos though--and squeezed him tighter.

"He's not going to hurt you," Cecil mumbled. It was almost funny, to hear such a determined statement muffled by the clothing, hair, and skin that Cecil had tucked his face against. "I'm not going to let him hurt you. Not ever again. I promise."

Carlos sighed. It wasn't that he wasn't pleased to hear Cecil say it--no one had ever been worried about him like this before, and it actually felt…wonderful. But he worried what Cecil would feel if he got hurt anyway--if it turned out there was no way to stop it.

"I can take care of myself," he mumbled back.

"That's not the point." Cecil sounded petulant. He lifted his head long enough to scowl into Carlos's face. "You shouldn't have to. Anyway, if we're…you know. If we…care about each other, then I get to protect you. That's something I get to do." He blinked, and then his expression became uncertain. "Isn't it?"

Something soft and newly exposed ached in Carlos's chest. He brushed his hand over Cecil's hair again. "Yeah," he said softly. "Yeah, I guess it is."

It was late--later than Carlos's objective experience of time could account for, but his body was responding as though it had been awake for all the hours he had missed out on when he was with Perry in the Whispering Forest. And Cecil was very warm next to him, and Cecil's couch was unnaturally comfortable, the cushions molding themselves to his body like an eiderdown nest. Which was probably why he fell asleep--until his phone fell from his hand, clattering to the floor.

He jumped like the impact of plastic on wood was a gunshot. Cecil--who, it seemed, had not been asleep, just content to lay curled up beside him--reached for Carlos immediately, gripping his shoulders, scooting forward so his chest was pressed up against Carlos's back.

"It's okay," he said, tucking his head close to Carlos's ear from behind. "It's okay, it was just something falling. You're all right. Let's go to bed, okay? You're tired and you're hurt. You should lie down."

Muzzily, Carlos nodded. Cecil got to his feet and tugged Carlos up off the couch. He could feel how sore he was, his body making a quiet hum of complaint under the haze of the morphine, but he was able to limp to the bedroom with Cecil's help.

When they reached the bedroom, Cecil didn't bother turning the light on. Instead, he left Carlos propped up against the wall, and then he turned the bedclothes down, plumping the pillows and smoothing the sheets. He turned back to Carlos and helped him the final few steps toward the mattress. Carlos sat down heavily, feeling the springs bounce beneath him. Then he felt Cecil's hand on his chest, pushing him down against the pillows.

"Sleep well," Cecil whispered, pulling the blankets up over him. "I'll be here when you wake up."

The last thing Carlos was aware of before sleep rose up to claim him was the mattress dipping on the opposite side of the bed as Cecil climbed in beside him. Somehow, despite the fact that it was only the second time in his life he'd ever fallen asleep next to another person, it felt as right and natural as anything he'd ever done, and there was no anxiety or hesitation trying to warn him off as he succumbed to unconscious in the warm pool their two bodies made under the blankets.


The sunlight beating against the back of his eyelids woke him up the next morning. At first, he was determined to ignore it, because he was tired and sore and the bed was warm.

Gradually, however, he became aware of other sensations: the fullness of his bladder, the gummy feeling inside his mouth from where he'd failed to brush his teeth the night before, and the uncomfortable way his jeans and button down shirt had twisted around him in sleep. Once these little discomforts began to register, drifting back into a sleepy haze was impossible. So he pried his eyelids open and blinked a few times. Cecil wasn't lying beside him anymore, he realized, but that was strange; it didn't feel like he'd gone away.

Carlos rolled onto his back. There, at the foot of the bed, sat Cecil, cross legged and staring at him.


"Oh, sorry--" A guilty look immediately suffused Cecil's face. He started to climb backwards off the edge of the bed.

"No, no." Carlos shut his eyes again and took a deep breath. "No, it's fine, I'm sorry. You just startled me, that's all." He opened his eyes again and scooted up against the headboard, folding his legs and mirroring Cecil's position. He managed to crack a smile. "Morning."

Cecil beamed back at him. "Good morning," he said. "You slept well!"

"Er, yes. Yes, I did." Carlos was slightly afraid to ask Cecil how he was so sure of that. Surely he hadn't been awake, watching Carlos all night, had he?

"I chanted at the bloodstones on my night stand so you wouldn't have any bad dreams," said Cecil. "There was a community nightmare scheduled for last night. Technically, you're not supposed to skip those because they contain important signs and portents, but I thought you needed the sleep more."

"Oh. Okay." Carlos darted a nervous sideways glance at the little ring of stones in their box of earth on the table beside the lamp and the stack of novels. If he didn't breathe, he could still hear them…humming faintly. "Thank you. It worked."

"Good." Cecil scoot up the bed a few inches closer to Carlos. "I've been awake for about an hour, and I've been thinking. There's something I'd like us to try."

The momentary panic that thrilled up and down Carlos's arms was probably an overreaction. Or at least, a reaction that wasn't appropriate considering it was Cecil he was talking to. The phrase, "something I'd like us to try" made the permanently suspicious, guarded part of Cecil's brain assume…things that it probably wasn't kind to assume, considering how understanding (if bizarre) Cecil's reaction to the whole big no-sex talk had been. Carlos took a deep breath and didn't run away--although he did pull the covers up a little higher on his chest.

"What is it?" he said.

"You don't want to have sex," said Cecil.

Carlos blinked. He nodded his head once. "That's correct."

"But you like to be touched?"

Carlos's mouth fell open. He tried to be scientific and not start formulating hypotheses ahead of his data--in other words, assume he knew what the hell Cecil was getting at before Cecil actually got there. "Ye-es?"

"But you don't want to be touched just anywhere. Some kinds of touching are too much like sex, and other kinds of touching are just not the kind of touching you want. Right?"

Carlos found himself relaxing slightly almost against his will. Because…yes. That was exactly the case. But no one--no one--had ever put enough thought into his predicament to come up with a conclusion like that all on their own before. It made a knot begin to swell in his throat, the kind that was hard to speak around without crying. So he stayed quiet, and nodded.

"Well," said Cecil, sounding ever so slightly…smug. "I have an idea about that."

Carlos watched in bemusement as Cecil bounded up off the bed and walked to his desk against the window. He opened the large center drawer and pulled out…what looked like a single large marker, still in its plastic and cardboard packaging. He opened it, and the marker fell into his hand as though it weighed slightly more than it should for its size. Cecil swept the packaging into the wastebasket beside his desk and came back to the bed with a spring in his step and a slightly manic glint in his violet eyes. He was still wearing pajamas, and his hair was a touch untidy, but he smelled like his lavender and sea foam bath gels. His tattoos, for once, were dull, quiescent, emitting no light.

"This," said Cecil, flopping down on the bed so close to Carlos that their knees bumped together, "is going to help me keep track of where your physical boundaries are."

"The marker is?" Carlos eyed it dubiously. It didn't look any different than any other black permanent marker he'd ever seen, but… "Isn't that a--you know. Writing utensil?"

"There are loopholes in the ban," Cecil said, stubbornly avoiding Carlos's eyes, which were arranged in a skeptical lift of one eyebrow. "So do you want to hear my idea?"

"Yes. At this point, I really do." He was overcome with a curiosity of both a scientific and a personal nature, and the combination was irresistible.

Cecil grinned. Then he held his hand out, palm up-turned, and waited, patiently. Carlos looked at him questioningly. Cecil nodded. Carlos put his hand in Cecil's, and Cecil squeezed it comfortingly.

"I'm going to…touch you." Incredibly, Cecil blushed slightly, saying this. "Slowly, starting here." He tapped Carlos's wrist, right on the knob of the jutting wrist bone. "And when it stops being…good, or nice, or comfortable, or if it tickles, or anything, just say 'mark'. And I'll draw a line there. And that way, I won't forget that that's a place I shouldn't touch you." He looked into Carlos's face searchingly. "Is that ok? Obviously, I'm not going to draw on you non-consensually. We don't have to do it at all. It was just…an idea."

It took a long time for Carlos to find his voice. He just kept staring at Cecil's open, vulnerable expression, like he thought he was the one asking a lot, here. Carlos had to blink rapidly to keep the tears that prickled at the corners of his eyes from showing. The whole thing was…weird, but practical, and perfect, and only Cecil would ever have thought of it. Carlos coughed a little to clear his throat.

"Drawing on me is fine," he said.

The smile that lit up Cecil's face could have powered a nuclear generator. "Oh, this is going to be fun," he enthused, pulling the cap off the marker with an audible 'pop' that filled the room with the aroma of alcohol-based ink and other chemicals that Carlos really ought to be able to name. "I took a drafting class in college, you know. I'm actually quite good at drawing."

"That doesn't surprise me somehow." In the next instant, Carlos's mouth clamped shut, because with the hand that wasn't holding the marker, Cecil began working his way up Carlos's arm. And it was…strange, being touched deliberately, with so much intent, knowing it wasn't going to lead to…anything he didn't want. It wasn't bad, but it was something he didn't quite have a name for. The hairs on his arms tickled slightly, and the thin skin on the inside of his wrist seemed to absorb more than a normal amount of heat from Cecil's hand. Carlos shut his eyes and just concentrated on the sensation of Cecil touching him, reminding himself over and over that it was going to stop when he said it was going to stop, and not a second later.

"Your pulse is racing," said Cecil quietly, as his hand slid from the inside of Carlos's wrist to a spot in the middle of his inner forearm where he'd burned himself with acid in a lab accident when he was 21. "Are you ok?"

"I'm fine, this is just…different. But it's fine, you can keep going."

"You're sure?"


Carlos kept his eyes shut as Cecil continue to explore his arm. He was thorough--almost medically thorough, though no medical exam Carlos had ever undergone had arrested his attention so completely. The sensation continued to ride that strange-warm-weird-pleasant line up until the moment Cecil's narrow fingers reached the inner crease of his elbow.

Carlos jerked his arm away so quickly that he had no conscious memory of deciding to do it. Cecil looked at him, tentative, obviously scared he'd done something wrong. Carlos took a deep breath. Then he stretched his arm out again, and nodded to it. "Mark."

Obediently, Cecil lifted the marker. Then he hesitated. "Show me again?"

With one lightly trembling fingertip, Carlos traced a narrow rectangle around the line of finely wrinkled skin that denoted the inner joint of his arm. He couldn't restrain a shudder as he did so, remembering how Robert's mouth had latched there, like a lamprey, his tongue swiping the skin, electrocuting the nerves. Carlos could actually see, quite easily, how the inner elbow could be an erogenous zone for someone with a normal sex drive. It certain excited his sympathetic nervous system. Just…not in a way Carlos found remotely pleasurable.

"Right," said Cecil, peering at Carlos's forearm deliberately. Carlos could see Cecil tracing the lines that he'd drawn with his fingertip. "Actually, if it's okay with you, I'd like to do something more like this." In the air just over Carlos's skin, Cecil trace a diamond. The widest points of the diamond encompassed his elbow joint, but the narrow tips extended above and below into relatively comfortable zones. "It…it's hard to explain. But it will help me grasp how you sense things better. We can do it the other way if you'd rather."

Carlos shrugged. "No, I don't care. Diamond it is."

Cecil nodded. With a look of fierce concentration, he touched the tip of the marker to Carlos's forearm. At first he though it was just his imagination, but as Cecil drew one long beautifully straight line along a 45 degree angle, Carlos felt a very faint burning sensation. He thought about mentioning it, then changed his mind. He was probably just having a mild allergic reaction to the chemicals in the ink.

"There," said Cecil, sounding satisfied. The edges of the lines were about a quarter-inch wide, and extremely neat. "That should last for a couple of showers, at least. Um--same on the left side?"

Carlos nodded. It was easier this time, giving Cecil access to the other arm. Cecil worked faster than before, and a few seconds later Carlos had matching, indelible black diamonds inside his elbows.

"Um…" Carlos shifted slightly. "If we're going to keep doing this, I'm going to have to…to take some more clothes off anyway. But I'd really like to shower, so…."

"Oh, of course!" Cecil looked abashed. "What was I thinking? You only just woke up, and I ambushed you with advanced relationship negotiation tactics. Ugh, Cecil." He rolled his eyes and shook his head. "You go on. I'll make breakfast, and we'll finish later."

Carlos hid his smile, but he did lean forward and peck Cecil's cheek with a kiss. Cecil's forearms immediately blushed carnation pink. He sat on the edge of the bed as if dazed while Carlos hurried to the bathroom.

True to Cecil's predictions, the ink on his arms did not smudge or run under the water, or even with the application of soap. Carlos found himself wondering just what kind of permanent marker could have escaped the writing utensil ban and whether it was anything to worry about. Obviously, Cecil would never hurt him (not intentionally, at least.) And it wasn't like the markings were painful.

Well, if worst came to worst, he'd have ink on his arms for awhile. The clothes he usually wore would cover them anyway. It was nothing to worry about.

He stepped out of the bathroom half an hour later, washed, shaved, and yet again wearing a clean pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt from Cecil's closet. It was really too early to start thinking about things like…claiming a drawer at Cecil's place, wasn't it? He'd spent the last two nights here because they'd been emergencies. But sweatpants weren't really his style, and also emergencies happened fairly frequently in Night Vale, so maybe he should sneak a few changes of clothes into a corner of Cecil's dresser anyway. Not that he'd really need to sneak; Cecil would probably only be too delighted to give him the space. But it might send a…signal of some kind that Carlos wasn't sure he was ready to send.

They'd only been together for two days, for Christ's sake. How was it even possible that he was thinking along these lines?

When he emerged, the apartment smelled like Cecil's cooking. Which was to say, a lot better than Carlos's cooking. He trudged into the kitchen, careful of the aches, bruises, and cuts that had closed up enough not to require bandages anymore but still twanged any time he pulled them accidentally.

Cecil looked up at him as he entered. Not in surprise, nor in expectation, but in some odd combination of the two: like he was accustomed to Carlos's presence in his living space, pleased by it, but also conscious that it was a temporary arrangement, and frightened that it would never be more than that.

It's impossible to see all that in another person's face, Carlos told himself sternly. You're projecting. He didn't let himself think too hard what it meant that he was projecting aspirations toward domestic bliss onto Cecil. It was too early in the morning for that degree of introspection.

"Omelette?" said Cecil, with a sweet, and, Carlos had to admit, indisputably hopeful smile.

"That's great," said Carlos. "Thank you."

The ink in the crooks of his arms seemed to give a mild twinge. Carlos sat at the table, assuring himself it was psychosomatic.

Chapter Text

June 14, 2012


Carlos made an excuse and left Cecil's apartment as soon as the breakfast dishes were done.

It wasn't a very good excuse, but Cecil didn't object to it. He didn’t even point out that he hadn’t finished drawing on Carlos with the pungent black marker that had created the diamonds on the insides of his elbows. He just looked sad for a fleeting moment, then pinned a brave and hopeful smile to his lips. Carlos felt like an asshole because he was deliberately taking advantage of the fact that Cecil never questioned him when he invoked the demands of "science" as an excuse for avoidant behavior. But he wasn't feigning regret when he kissed Cecil goodbye and promised to call soon.

The time he'd spent with Cecil over the last couple of days had--well, he didn't think it would be overstating it to say it had changed his life. He'd felt comfortable and safe and accepted and he hadn’t been bored for an instant. Cecil was an amazingly entertaining (if occasionally baffling) conversationalist. Carlos was slightly shocked by how much they had in common, how easy it was to relate to a person whose experience of life was so different from his own.

Nonetheless, a lot of strange, overwhelming things had happened to him recently. He needed some time to process, and reflect, plus some privacy in which to do some necessary chores.

Cecil had made a comment over breakfast. The sort of comment that seemed comparatively innocuous at first blush, but burrowed into the memory and began to emit faint warning shocks afterwards. He'd been explaining that the radishes in their radish, fig, and goat cheese omelets were a seasonal delicacy not normally available at this time of year, and that radishes (which didn't usually grow in the desert, even in Night Vale) could be coaxed into thriving so long as the proper rites and rituals were conducted.

"Is a lot of Night Vale's produce….encouraged by…" Carlos hadn't wanted to say magic. He liked to use precise terms and he wasn't sure if the archaic ritualism woven into Night Vale's culture was magical, religious, or superstitious in nature, or something else all together. “Rites, and, as you say, rituals?"

If so, someone should probably have been making a study of the effects that magically enhanced food had on those who consumed it. And that someone probably should have been Carlos.

"Maybe about 15%?" Cecil did a hand-tilting gesture to indicate the figures were approximate (if not plucked from thin air.) "But of course, no agriculture would be possible in Night Vale without the annual sacrifice."

Carlos forced himself not to stop chewing. It's not like you're a vegetarian, he tells himself. Animal slaughter has been the source of most of the meals you've ever eaten. "Oh?"

"Yes. Actually, I should check the community calendar. It’s running a bit late this year. But then, there were so many fatalities last Valentine's Day…" Cecil's brow creased in thought as he chewed.

It takes a second for Carlos to connect the grisly, blood-spattered dots. “Ah." He swallowed. “So the sacrifice is. Is. Human?"

"Well, yes. Depending on your interpretation of what makes someone human, at least. You see, unlike the basic maintenance slaughters that take place during major holidays or lotteries, or the unavoidable yet possibly karmically necessary deaths that result from natural disasters like sandstorms and street-cleaner infestations, the harvest sacrifice isn't random. The sacrificial offering is chosen. You have to have done something pretty nasty to be eligible."

"Oh. So it's more like capital punishment then?" said Carlos, dubiously.

"Ye-es?" Cecil looked uncomfortable. "I suppose. We here in Night Vale don't really go in for that sort of thing. Let's just say that even though the choice of sacrifice is officially kept secret, the person chosen is someone whose death no one ever regrets. Their misdeeds might not be common knowledge, but there are never any complaints when they go missing." Cecil cleared his throat and smiled. "Can I get you some more coffee or orange milk, dearest Carlos?"

It was only after Carlos had begun carrying dishes from the table to the sink (and then been shooed away by Cecil who insisted on doing the cleaning up by himself) that he thought about the way Cecil had quibbled on the definition of "human", and how similar that had been to the way he'd parsed the definition of "monster" two nights ago. And it wasn't until Carlos had looked around for his phone that he'd remembered how angry Cecil had been over Robert's text messages, and at learning that Robert had threatened to come to town looking for him.

Carlos was fully aware that connecting the one conversation ("Night Vale slaughters unpleasant people to make crops grow") to the other ("Cecil hates Robert") so that they formed a dreadful suspicion ("if Robert shows up in Night Vale, Cecil will arrange to have him sacrificed in an archaic pagan ritual") involved serious logical leaps. Scientifically unjustifiable leaps. Leaps the size of Radon Canyon. He knew it was a strictly paranoid notion.

That was, however, slightly beside the point.

The point was that he ought to have done something about Robert a long time ago. Filed a police report before he left Albuquerque, for example. Instead, he'd run as far away as he could get, then spent a year in denial about the effect that Robert's behavior was having on his mental and emotional health. No wonder Cecil felt obligated to protect him. Carlos hadn't really done anything to protect himself.

So while it was ridiculous to worry that Robert would succeed in finding Night Vale and then get sacrificed, or eaten by a five-headed dragon (or whatever other danger he would inevitably encounter here) it wasn't ridiculous for Carlos to feel that he'd been lax about confronting the entire Robert situation. He wasn't going to beat himself up about it. He'd been through a trauma, and a degree of denial and avoidance was natural. But there was someone in his life now who cared about him, something that hadn't been true since his abuela died, and surely he owed it to Cecil to take better care of himself?

Carlos had no idea what, exactly, he was going to do yet, but he knew he wasn't going to figure it out while Cecil was distracting him with hair-petting and kitten videos and long, strange, mesmerizing stories about Night Vale’s mysteries and eccentricities. So he had to leave. He gathered his things, took a half dose of his pain meds, kissed Cecil on the cheek, and been hugged carefully yet thoroughly in return. Then he'd left.

Now he was in his lab and trying to decide what came next.

He sat there for more than three hours before he was interrupted. Not all of that time was spent staring listlessly and failing to come up with reasonable ideas. He also made a shopping list, dusted his computer screen, tidied his papers, listened to his voicemail and checked his email (which contained nothing new, apart from thirty-three and a third messages in the spam folder, all from subsidiary companies of Strexcorp Synernists Inc, which had courted him for a bit after he’d got his master’s degree and subscribed him to every mailing list they ran in an act of spite when he’d turned down their job offer.)

Carlos was just settling in with a pile of graphs that needed reviewing when the door open and Nijeia poked her head into the room, clearly checking to see if anyone was around. Her eyes brightened when she caught sight of Carlos, although she hastily arranged her expression into a smirk when he smiled at her.

“Afternoon, Boss Man,” she said, sauntering into the cramped little closet that served as Carlos’s office. “What’s the what?”

“Uh, nothing in particular,” he admitted, raking his fingers through his hair. “I’m just screwing around, really. What about you, what have you been up to?” Guiltily, he recalled her saying that she was obliged to return to the Orphanarium unless she had work to do. Cecil might have assured him that the Orphanarium wasn’t the worst place in the world for a child, but Carlos knew that Nijeia spent as much time in the lab as she could get away with, and he doubted that she was motivated solely by a dedication to science.

To his utter astonishment Nijeia looked embarrassed. If he’d been standing closer he felt certain he would have felt heat radiating from her face.

“I kept busy,” she said.

“Did you?”

Did you,” Nijeia repeated, mocking his tone and inflection. “Yeah, I did. I just said I did. Need a hearing aid, grandpa?”

Carlos gave her a pained look over the top of the special reading glasses he only used at the computer. “You know, I bet most kids your age would have a little more respect. I’m aging prematurely in the cause of science, after all.”

“Most kids my age ain’t my age,” she said, unimpressed. “How many twelve year olds you know don’t grow none in a whole year?”

She had a point. After they’d been working together for a few months Carlos had asked Nijeia if she’d be interested in participating in an informal study of her own aging process. He’d drawn up a chart and let her take her own measurements—height, weight, caloric intake, etc. She had not, in fact, grown at all from the day the study started. Carlos was no expert in pediatric medicine but he was pretty sure that was unheard of.

“Well,” he said, slowly. “Now that it looks like your project is on indefinite hold…”

“What the hell!”

“Just until it’s safe!” Carlos raised both hands in a ‘don’t hurt me’ gesture. “I know the miniature citizens of the underground civilization are…miniature. And, um, squishable. But they are armed.”

“So am I,” Nijeia pointed out, thunderclouds gathering in her face.

“And don’t think that doesn’t scare the crap out of me,” Carlos assured her. “But the secret police still have that whole lane at the bowling alley cordoned off. Plus, I think I remember a partial cave-in from when I was, um, lying there bleeding. Anyway—I was going to say, since there’s not much you can do on that project for now, maybe you’d like to look this over?”

As Carlos opened the locked filing cabinet beside his computer and began thumbing through the folders for the one marked “Project: Beansprout” he considered the very real possibility that Nijeia was going to kill him. He certainly wouldn’t have like it very much if someone in authority over him had devised a project in which he featured as the subject. He really ought to have asked Nijeia before he first started researching. The only reason he hadn’t was because he’d been afraid his inquiries wouldn’t lead anywhere and he hadn’t wanted to disappoint her. But he’d had the preliminary research finished for at least a month now, so it was time for Nijeia to decide if it she wanted it to go any further.

Nijeia took the thick file folder from his hand and frowned down at it as she climbed up onto a stool. Spreading the folder open across her knees, she flipped through the papers, scanning the titles and abstracts of the various articles.

“Okay,” she said. She sounded slightly dazed. “Okay,” she said again, turning another article over. “I don’t know where you going with this, but—”

“My notes are in the back,” Carlos told her.

She skipped past the rest of the articles and seized the two stapled pages at the back of the file. Carlos could see her eyes tracking as she speed-read through the dense 10 point single spaced font. When she’d finished, she went back and started from the beginning.

“I should stress that this is all strictly theoretical.” He was beginning to get a little concerned at the way Nijeia was staring at the paper, like she was a very long way away. “It’s just a research project at the moment. Any practical ramifications would be months, if not years or decades down the road.”

“You think you can grow me up?” Nijeia lifted her head and looked dead into his eyes.

“We can’t predict our results.”

“Answer the damn question.”

Carlos sighed heavily and removed his computer glasses. “That is the goal. But I’m making no promises, and you can’t work on this unless you stay objective, Nijeia.” That was the other source of his hesitance to bring Nijeia into the project fully. Unfortunately, he didn’t think he could continue without her assistance. Not just her voluntary cooperation as the subject, but her actual methodological expertise. She was rigorous and precise and, most importantly, an extra pair of hands, which he sorely needed. Most scientists in research postings like Night Vale had more than two lab assistants, but until Perry returned from his forest retreat Carlos wouldn’t even have that many.

“I can be objective.” Nijeia’s voice was level and determined. “Look at me, I am one-hundred percent objective. Give me your Lexus Nexus password.”

“I used discretionary grant funds to get you your own login,” Carlos told her. “Check your email. But I’ve got a hands-on task for you before you get lost in a research database.”

Nijeia looked up from rummaging through her bag for her laptop and blinked incredulously at him. “You for real?” she demanded. “I been hanging around doin’ jack for two days while you and your boyfriend swap spit. Now I finally got the most important research project of my damn life to get busy with, and you want to give me chores?”

“It isn’t urgent.” Carlos was not going to blush over the swapping spit comment, he just wasn’t. “You can work on it when you feel like taking a break. I’d do it myself but I suspect you’d be better at it.”

“Well, duh.” She opens her laptop and bends her head over it, clearly not interested. “What is it?”

“Erm. Well. You know Cecil’s intern—I think her name is Dana? She’s the one who got locked in the dog park during Poetry Week.”

“Uh-huh.” Nijeia didn’t look up.

“Well, Cecil was saying on his show that she texted him and asked if someone could throw some food over the wall. And I thought…you know, I don’t have a great throwing arm, but maybe if we built a small catapult…?”

Somehow, just saying the word made Carlos feel like he was back in high school, unintentionally demonstrating for the hundredth time that he was the world’s biggest nerd and that it would be social death to associate with him in any way. The fact that Nijeia was looking at him through narrowed eyes did not help.

To his surprise, however, Nijeia tilted her head, and, after a moment, nodded. “Okay. That’s cool.”


“Yeah.” She looked back down at her laptop. “Later, though. If that Dana ain’t dead yet, she’ll live till I finish reading these articles.”


Eventually, after a couple of not very productive hours poking around his computer as a cover for the fact that he was deep in thought, Carlos left the lab to get dinner. He had to pry Nijeia away from her workstation first, which she hadn’t appreciated much (she’d actually growled at him there for a moment) but he knew that if he didn’t intervene she would still be there, underfed and late for curfew, when he got home later.

“I may not be around much the next couple of days,” he told her as he shepherded her toward the door.

Nijeia rolled her eyes. “So what, now you got a boyfriend, you just not gonna bother with science anymore, is that it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You can text me if you have any questions, and I’ll leave the lab key under the mat so you can get in if you need anything.”

She’d left, singing, “Cecil and Carrr-los, sittin’ in a tree” at him over her shoulder. Carlos stuck his tongue out at her from the front door, then gone back inside to collect his laptop and his wallet.

At Big Rico’s, next to the lab, he dined on an overdue slice of municipally mandated pepperoni and onion pizza on gluten free crust. When he entered the restaurant, the speaker over the door made a chiming noise. A woman’s voice said: “Carlos, the Scientist. One hour, twelve minutes, and twenty-seven seconds remaining.” Sometimes it really annoyed him that no one in Night Vale could seem to remember that he even had a last name, let alone recall what it was.

As he ate, he connected to the wifi and wrote an email to Cecil. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me these last couple of days. I really enjoyed spending time with you.

Carlos paused and looked up through the glass storefront of the restaurant. He wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to say—he wasn’t good with words, and he didn’t even think there were words large enough to contain the extraordinary, complex suite of emotions he felt whenever thoughts of Cecil entered his mind.

Besides, he needed to tell Cecil something, and he didn’t yet know Cecil well enough to guess how he would react. Carlos stared at the screen of his computer for a good five minutes while the cheese and grease on his plate congealed into an unappetizing mess.

I wanted to let you know that I’m going to be out of town for a few days, he typed, finally. I need to go back to Albuquerque for a little while. I’ll message you when I get there, though as you know Night Vale can be hard to reach from the outside world so I don’t know if it will get through. If you don’t hear from me, I promise it’s not because I’ve forgotten you.

Maybe when I get back, we can go out for dinner or something?

See you soon.
Carlos <3

Chapter Text


June 18, 2013

from: Cecil Palmer
to: Carlos <3 <3 <3
subject: re: dinner?


The subject line of your email was slightly misleading, I must say! When I saw it, I thought you wanted to have dinner tonight, and my stomach simultaneously leaped for joy and began to growl hungrily. Then I opened the email and saw that the dinner invitation was for an unspecified day in the near future. My stomach was slightly disappointed, and the growling turned into guttural cursing.

I hope you will return to us very soon, my dear Carlos, and that your travels will be as safe as the uncertain task of navigating the surface of our little ball of rock and sediment as it hurls through space beneath a pitiless sun can ever be.

Yours ever,


June 20, 2013

from: Cecil Palmer
to: Carlos <3 <3 <3
subject: everything ok?

Hi Carlos, Cecil here. Just checking in since I didn’t hear back after my last email. I don’t want to be a bother; I’d just like to know that you reached your destination safely. Do you have any idea when you will return?

I had a word with Ben—you know, the secret police surveillance officer assigned to your lab? He says you didn’t turn in the necessary forms to leave Night Vale and gain re-entry. Of course, I explained that, being an outsider, and never having left Night Vale before since the time of your arrival, you were only making an honest mistake, not intentionally flouting the law. Ben agreed to let me fill the forms in for you, once I made the argument that I had sort of been designated as your emergency contact. You did come to my house bleeding after 3 am, after all. So you shouldn’t have any problems when you get back. But I thought you should know, in case it ever comes up again.

Yours always,


June 25, 2013

from: Cecil Palmer
to: Carlos
subject: worried

Carlos, please just tell me that you’re ok. If you’re gone, you know, for good, then I won’t bug you to come back. Not if you don’t want to be here. But I’m so, SO worried.

Didn’t you live in Albuquerque before you came to Night Vale?

Didn’t…bad things happen to you there?

I cannot help feeling afraid, sweet Carlos. Please, if you can see this: come home.



July 10, 2013

from: Cecil Palmer
to: Carlos
subject: your untimely death

My precious Carlos,

It has been nearly a month since you left Night Vale. My friends have all advised me to give you up for dead and begin the grieving process. “Better sooner than later,” they say to me, as they drop off the traditional black-ribboned soft meat bouquets of consolation and mourning.

I know they are only concerned for my emotional health. But even as I deafened my ears to their remonstrances, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps we in Night Vale are a little bit too used to losing our loved ones to the uncertainties of daily existence, or to giant, monstrous horrors birthed from some abyss sealed over since the birth of the universe, until some well-meaning but intellectually arrogant philosopher-wizard unseals it by accident in a quest for arcane lore.

In Night Vale, we have, out of necessity, learned to grieve with maximum efficiency. But I cannot grieve for you yet because I am not ready to give you up. I do not believe that you are truly dead. Had some hideous mischance truly befallen you, I believe that I would know it in my soul. I would feel the keen quick cut of your absence, in the same way that I would feel the faint prick of a thin hypodermic full of deadly poison in the five or six seconds of conscious thought remaining to me before death.

I will be waiting for you when you come home, beloved Carlos. Whenever you return. Even if I am very old, or have long since lost my sanity to the depths of the howling void, I will be waiting.

I hope it will be sooner than that, when you finally return to

your loving
Cecil xxx


July 12, 2013
4:46 am

Robert’s eyes were wide. He took a step toward Carlos. “It’s you,” he whispered. “I knew you’d come back.”

Carlos was frozen. His legs felt too heavy to run, but also too weak to keep holding him up. “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you.” Robert smiled. He was still walking toward Carlos. In a few seconds they would be touching. “I knew you’d figure it out. We belong together.”

Someone help me, Carlos tried to shout. But he couldn’t speak. Robert was reaching for him, his face open and hungry. Any second now Robert would be on top of him. Any second—

Carlos awoke with a start. His entire body jerked as his brain returned to alarmed consciousness in a split second. He blinked. The insides of his eyelids were lined with sandpaper. His tongue felt as if it was coated in glue.

He blinked a few times, his eyes slow to adjust to the darkness. Familiar shapes began to resolve around him. He realized that he was sitting up, and that his head was leaning against a pane of cold glass. Leather creaked underneath him as began to stir. He was in his car. As soon as he became aware of his surroundings, the memory of how he’d ended up there had returned as well.

He’d spent four days in Albuquerque. Four chaotic, fragmented days full of meetings and…happenings that he wanted all too badly to drink to forget. Cecil had emailed him once, but Carlos hadn’t had time to reply, or even to check his email after the first day. When he’d finally left New Mexico at dawn it was with 48 hours of no sleep under his belt.

The initial drive from Night Vale to Albuquerque had been straightforward—a long, smooth, tiring nine-hour slog southwest. But the return journey was a different matter. Dizziness, exhaustion, and the occasional need to break down into fits of hysteria had forced him to pull over a lot. The delays had lengthened the drive so much that when he finally stopped the car to sleep for a few hours, he wasn’t sure just how far away from Night Vale he was. Probably at least two hours. He’d crossed the state line just as it was getting dark.

Now that Carlos was awake, however, he realized something very odd. About half a mile down the road ahead of him there was a small patch of civilization he didn’t remember seeing before. There was a filling station, identified by a neon pink sign that climbed hundreds of feet into the night sky. Beside the filling station was a Burger King. Across the highway from them stood a car lot, as well as a trailer park, and a few scattered houses, peppering the dark desert landscape.

The little cluster of dwellings and businesses looked remarkably like the outskirts of Night Vale, actually. But then, the outskirts of Night Vale were essentially identical to the outskirts of every other mid-sized desert town Carlos had ever seen. You couldn’t tell what made Night Vale unique just by looking at it from a distance. You had to walk straight into its open maw.

Carlos groped around in the dark car until his hand closed on his water bottle. As he drank, his split lip cracked and began bleeding again. His bruises and stitched wounds (some of them left over from the incident at the bowling alley, some of them fresh) were coming painfully back to life, along with the rest of him.

All things considered, he was lucky that he didn’t feel a lot worse. At least in Albuquerque there had been a real hospital nearby for him to go to, complete with doctors that specialized in people with his kind of DNA. Sleeping in his car wasn’t doing him any favors, of course, but he’d be able to pass out in his own bed in a couple of hours. He was really looking forward to that.

You should probably call Cecil and let him know you’re back, too, his conscience informed him accusingly. Cecil had probably been hurt that Carlos hadn’t bothered to text him once in four days. But if Carlos called him, Cecil might come over, and if he saw the way Carlos looked right now…

Don’t act like you’re being unselfish. You know what Cecil’s like—he’d be more upset to know that you were hurt and you hadn’t called him. Carlos sighed. The truth was, he just couldn’t face Cecil right now. Cecil would want to talk, and he’d have so many feelings, and he’d be angry…not at Carlos, of course, but it was still more than Carlos felt capable of dealing with.

He’d sleep first. Cecil could wait. So could Nijeia and Perry, assuming they’d even missed him. That was the nice thing about scientists, even baby scientists; give them an adequately absorbing research project, and the world could end without them even noticing.

Carlos stepped out of the car and stretch his cramped limbs. Familiar desert fragrances of ozone, sun-warmed rocks, and creosote wafted to meet him on a breeze. He peered into the distance, and suddenly, it hit him: there was only one gas station he’d ever seen that had a neon pink sign, and that was Crazy Sadie’s Gas & Snacks Emporium, where he’d bought unmeltable ice the day the A/C broke in his lab.

It wasn’t a coincidental resemblance. He was back in Night Vale. How was that possible? Had the car traveled while he was sleeping? Or had the town crept toward him gradually in the darkness, like an enormous stalking cat?

“What the hell,” Carlos said out loud. A year ago, he’d have been beside himself. Now, he was too grateful that his trip was nearly over to really care that time and space had apparently folded on itself during the night. He blinked at the pink sign with a kind of glazed acceptance, mingled with affection. Now that he was listening for it, he could just make out the thin sliver of an eerie wail carrying across the desert. Could be coyotes. Or it could be that the Void was particularly empty and desolate tonight, and people were still out and about, howling at it.

Either way, it sounded like home.

Carlos got back into the car and started the engine. The headlights flooded the desert before him with watery yellowish light. A jackalope bounded across the road, pursued by an unnaturally fast-moving turtle. Carlos drove toward the lights of the town and pulled into the parking lot of Crazy Sadie’s, which was open 24 hours, except for when the employees huddled together in the relative safety of the bunker underneath the building on major holidays.

He filled the car up with gas, then went inside to buy some food. The fluorescent strip lighting inside the convenience store made Carlos squint and wince. He wandered over to a hanging basket of fruit and stared at the bananas, apples, oranges, and the lone, soggy, browning mango.

He was just wondering whether he wanted normal coffee or the awful, syrupy gas station hot chocolate he had a secret weakness for when he heard a low voice behind him say, “Oh lordy.”

Carlos turned. Old Woman Josie, wearing a Crazy Sadie’s apron over her jeans and flowery cotton blouse, was staring at him like he’d risen from the dead. He wasn’t sure what that was about, since he’d only spoken to Josie once, at the town meeting he’d spoken at his first day in Night Vale, but he smiled at her politely.

Josie tilted her head back and eyed him sternly. “You got a lot of nerve, sonny,” she declared. “Do you have any idea how worried Cecil’s been? The boy’s gone plum out of his mind, and he never had much of one to begin with. You need a lesson in considering other people’s feelings, that’s what I think.”

Heat blossomed in Carlos’s face. How often he emailed his sort-of boyfriend was hardly any business of hers, but Carlos would no more say that a woman Josie’s age than he would eat his own shoe. His abuela had raised him better than that.

“I had to go out of town for a few days,” Carlos told Josie, hoping that his voice struck the proper balance between respectful and reserved. Honestly, he wouldn’t even be telling her this much, except that he’d got the impression that she and Cecil were fairly close. “I’ll call him, don’t worry.”

Josie’s eyes narrowed. “You were gone a hell of a lot longer than a few days.”

“I’m sorry? I really wasn’t. I only left on Monday.”

“Monday the what?”

“Um.” Carlos did math in his head. “The 17th?”

Josie tilted her chin back further. “What month?”

Carlos stared at her, unsure if she was being sarcastic or if there was something he wasn’t understanding. Then his knees got very weak very suddenly, and he had to sit down on the floor in a hurry.

“Have you just been waiting for me here the whole year I was away?”

“What do you mean, a year? Carlos, you’ve been gone for three months.”

“Temporal displacement,” Carlos muttered, covering his face with his hands. “Oh my god. I didn’t even think. I mean, I found out I hadn’t been gone as long as I thought when I got to New Mexico, but I wasn’t thinking about the time passing here—how long does Cecil think I’ve been gone?”

Josie was standing over him with her hands perched on her hips, but she no longer looked quite as accusatory as before. “Near about a month, I’d say.”

Fuck,” said Carlos, breathing in. “I mean. Shit. I’m sorry. I just. God, I didn’t know. Cecil must think—God, I need to call him.” He fumbled with his pocket and extracted his phone, only to find that the battery had died. “Damn it.”

“All right, now. Don’t go getting all worked up. Get your dusty carcass up off my clean floor and come and sit down.” Josie waited for Carlos to haul himself to his feet, then she led him over to a booth next to the hot dog grill and nacho cheese dispenser. “I’ll bring you a sandwich and a coffee.”

Carlos’s stomach was cramped. The idea of food no longer appealed in the slightest. “I’m fine, really. I should go.”

“Your blood sugar is in the toilet. I can smell hypoglycemia, you know.” Josie poured a cup from the coffee dispenser, adding sugar and cream. She plucked a wrapped sandwich from the cooler next to it and set them both down on the table. “Eat that. You looked like you wrestled a sentient saguaro and lost. How’d you get so banged up?”

Conceding to the inevitable, Carlos took a careful sip of the hot coffee and unwrapped the sandwich. It was some kind of unidentifiable meat paste, but he didn’t want to ask. “Well, maybe you heard…there was an incident at the bowling alley last week. Er, last month.”

“Bullhockey,” said Josie flatly. “You’ve got a black eye. You didn’t get that at the bowling alley. What kind of trouble you been getting yourself into out there, boy?”

Carlos looked down at the sandwich. A tremor was starting in his right hand. He put it in his lap and made a fist. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Hmmph.” Slowly, Josie lowered herself into the booth across from him. She didn’t speak for a few minute, just glared until he took a bite of the sandwich. It didn’t taste like anything in particular, but as soon as he started eating he realized he was actually ravenous. The sandwich disappeared quickly, and when it was gone, Josie said, “Erika says to tell you hello.”

Carlos blinked at her. “Erika?”

“The angels up at my place are called Erika, boy. Aren’t you supposed to know things like that?”

“Uh, sorry. Angel studies weren’t really in the curriculum, where I went to school.” He blinked, then the penny dropped. “Oh! Do you mean Daisy?” He’d exchanged a few text messages with his former lab assistant in the six or months or so since she embraced her heavenly heritage. Daisy had assured him that she was happy out at Josie’s place, but she’d also asked him not to visit right away. She said that the other angels were teaching her all the important angel stuff she’d missed out on by not having already spent several millennia as an immortal being, and it was taking all her concentration to keep up. “Sounds like grad school!” Carlos had replied, because he was hilarious.

“Her name’s Erika now, but yes,” said Josie. “She wants to know if she can come by and visit your science lab again some time.”

“Oh! Yeah, tell her that would be fine. That would be great, actually.” For a second, his head was full of the implied possibilities of doing science with an angel. Daisy—Erika—wouldn’t be offended if he asked for DNA samples, right?

“I’ll pass it on. Drink your coffee.” Josie crossed her arms. “Cecil talks about you a lot.”

“Yeah, I know.” Carlos sobered abruptly, reminded of the gigantic mess he’d landed himself in. He looked down at his useless phone. “I swear, I wasn’t ignoring him on purpose. I feel horrible.”

“Cecil will understand. Just you make sure you make it up to him. He’s a good boy, and he thinks you’re the best thing since the ban on wheat and wheat by-products.”

“I will, I promise.” Carlos stared down into the taupe liquid in his cup. “For what it’s worth, I think he’s pretty great too.”

When he looked up at Josie again, she was giving him a satisfied sort of smile. “Just remember that he means a lot to people in this town,” she said. “No one would be happy if he got hurt. No one.

Carlos blinked at her. “I wouldn’t be happy about that either.” Josie’s smile looked friendly, but there was something slightly lethal looking about the glint in her beady eyes. On reflection, he decided that was probably intentional on her part. “Um, thank you for the coffee and the sandwich. How much do I owe you?”

Josie waved a hand at him and stood. “On the house. I’ll square it with Sadie—I’m keeping an eye on the place while she’s getting her toes waxed. You get on home. Try not to get into any more trouble before you see Cecil again.”

“I’ll try not to.”

Carlos carried his empty cup and the sandwich wrapped over to the trash can. When he turned back for the door, he found Josie standing there, looking at him intently.

“People in this town like Cecil,” she said again. “And they like what Cecil likes. He likes you a lot. You get me?”

“Er.” Carlos was pretty clear on the fact that he was being threatened. Considering what had happened to Telly, he wouldn’t be in any hurry to get on Cecil’s bad side even without the warning. Weirdly, however, he didn’t resent Josie for driving the point home. Cecil didn’t have any family, and it was nice to think that there were people who cared about Cecil enough to watch out for him. “Yeah, I think I do.”

“Cecil’s not gonna be happy about the fact that someone roughed that pretty face of yours up,” she goes on, like he hadn’t spoken. “If it was anyone who lived around here—or anybody who planned on visiting any time soon—they’d better watch out.”

Carlos shifts uncomfortably. “Um. It wasn’t.”

“You sure about that?”

“I’m positive.”

Josie continued to hold his gaze. “It’s a funny thing about Night Vale. A lot of folks end up here because they’re running away from something. But sometimes…they’re chasing something.”

The skin along Carlos’s arms prickled. He forced himself to breathe evenly. “I think maybe I was doing both,” he said, trying not to look like her words had disturbed him on a profound level.

“Is that a fact. How’s that working out for you?”

Carlos thought about the last four days. He thought about the last twelve months, and the three years before that. “I think this is exactly where I’m supposed to be, honestly.”

To his shock, Josie grinned at him, shaking her head. “It’s a good thing you’re pretty, kiddo,” she said, as she walked away.

Not until Carlos was walking back to his car did he realized that he’d been insulted.


“Get out of here, Robert. I swear, I’ll call the police.”

“Stop being such a drama queen. How can you be this selfish? Do you have any idea what I’ve been through? No one knew where you were—Lucinda thought you were dead or something!”

“Well, as you can see, I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine! Jesus, look at you. What happened? You were limping when you came up the stairs. Is that—is that a blood stain on your lab coat?”

“I’m not talking about this with you! I don’t want to talk to you at all. Jesus, Robert, you pulled a gun on me!”

“Well I wouldn’t have had to if you could just be normal for once—hey. Hey! Don’t you dare—come back here! Carlos!”

“Carlos?” Someone rapped on the window beside him. “Mr. Scientist? Are you okay?”

Carlos jerked at the sound of his name being spoken so close to his ear, but his pulse only spiked for a moment. Because he was back in Night Vale, which meant that the person in the black balaclava was not a mugger with an unusually personal touch, but the secret police officer who took the night shift outside Cecil’s apartment. Carlos had forgotten the man’s name, but he’d seen Cecil greet him in a friendly way the first night he’d come here.

He rolled his window down a bit so they could speak without having to shout through the glass. “Evening, officer. Yes, I’m all right.”

“Okay. It’s just, you’ve been sitting outside Mr. Palmer’s door for about twenty minutes, and there’s loitering ordinances in this neighborhood…”

“Right. Sorry. I’m going to see Cecil, I was just…collecting my thoughts.”

“Sure,” said the officer, in a friendly tone. “Say, you sure you’re ok? That’s a nasty bruise you’ve got there. Sure you don’t need a Form 328-B? Or 328-C?”

Carlos didn’t have the faintest idea what the purpose of either form might be, but he was too tired to care. “Yes, I’m fine. Really. Just…walked into a door.”

“If you say so.” The officer sounded skeptical, but he didn’t press further. “Better get indoors. Not safe at this time of night. Or any time of night. Or any time.”

“On it.” Carlos smiled until the police offer went back to his normal post behind the row of mailboxes that faced Cecil’s apartment complex. Then, slowly, sorely, he got out of the car and began climbing the stairs to Cecil’s door.

Not until after he’d rung the doorbell (which wasn’t actually a bell, but rather a chorus of loud, high pitched meows from at least half a dozen cats who sounded like they wanted to be fed) did Carlos realize that he had no idea what time it was. The sky was pitch-black, with thin, cottony wisps of purple-grey clouds. The streets were deserted, and the officer had said that it was night, all of which meant exactly nothing. There had been a week of twenty-four hour darkness back in March and most of the town had decided the best thing to do was sleep through it. It could be noon, for all Carlos knew.

He stood on Cecil’s welcome mat, shuffling his feet against the rough surface as though the soles of his shoes were covered in mud, rather than a thin layer of desert dust. Gradually, he heard sounds of movement in the apartment—footsteps, a muffled yelp, as though Cecil had stubbed his toe. Carlos took a deep breath when he heard Cecil’s hand on the doorknob. He tried to arrange his face in an expression that would simultaneously convey apology, remorse, and pleasure at their reunion.

But then the porch light came on, just a few inches from his eyes, and Carlos reflexively threw a hand up to cover them, his face scrunched up against the brightness. Naturally, that was when the door opened.

“Hello?” said Cecil, cautiously. “Who is—oh my God.”

Carlos dropped his hand, still squinting. Cecil was staring at him, his eyes round and strangely bulbous. His mouth was parted, a strangled noise escaping his throat. He was wearing lime green flannel pajamas dotted with fluffy pink sheep, and the cumulus cloud of his dark hair was bound up in the silk scarf he slept in.

“Hi.” Carlos’s voice sounded small and wavering even to his own ears. “Hi. Cecil. Um. I’m so sorry I woke you up, I didn’t realize it was so late. Or early. Um.” His right hand was starting to tremble again. He clasped both his hands together in front of him. “Cecil, I never meant to be gone for so long. I’m so, so sorry. I can explain, if you want. Although—maybe later. Yeah, um, why don’t I come back later, after you’ve slept? I—”

The last word hadn’t even left his lips before the door flew wide and Cecil darted forward and pulled Carlos into his arms.

It happened too fast for Carlos to anticipate it, but even though he really wasn’t in the best frame of mind for sudden surprising movements, his brain seemed to have accepted that Cecil was harmless on a sub-cognitive level, because he didn’t even flinch when Cecil flung his arms around him. The next thing Carlos knew, he was being crushed against Cecil’s narrow chest, and Cecil’s long, bony arms were wrapped around him like bands of immoveable iron. Cecil wasn’t speaking, and Carlos couldn’t get a word out because his face was mashed against Cecil’s shoulder, but he decided he didn’t care. He let himself relax into Cecil’s possessive grip, realizing as he did so that he felt safe with Cecil’s arms around him in a way he never had before.

“I missed you a lot,” Carlos said. His mouth was full of Cecil’s pajamas, so it was doubtful whether Cecil could understand him. But Cecil’s grip tightened even more, so Carlos was pretty sure he’d got the message.

They stood there, holding onto each other, until they heard a loud, pointed throat-clearing from behind the garbage cans. Reluctantly Cecil took a step back, though he held onto Carlos’s arms, like he was afraid Carlos would disappear again if they weren’t touching.

“I was afraid you were dead,” said Cecil, in a paper-thin whisper.

“Oh, god, I’m so sorry.” Carlos touched the side of Cecil’s face. Cecil shut his eyes. “It was such a stupid mistake. I’ll tell you what happened, but let’s…let’s go inside, okay?”

Cecil nodded. He took a deep breath, then linked his fingers with Carlos’s fingers and led him into the apartment. Carlos hit the light switch as they walked inside. Cecil’s normally tidy apartment was strewn with take out containers and Big Rico’s boxes, mugs of coffee that had been half drunk and then forgotten, books that had been read up to page twenty then left to lie face-down and forgotten. It was a powerful testament to Cecil’s state of mind recently, as was the collection of empty brandy bottles on the kitchen counter.

“Carlos.” Cecil stood facing him, blinking, like he still wasn’t sure he believed his eyes. He rubbed his face with the back of his hand. His fingers brushed his hairline and he flushed, unknotting his silk headscarf quickly, letting his hair spring free. Carlos adjusted his glasses and tried to think of something to say.

“What do you need?” Cecil asked him. “Do you need anything? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Anything?”

“No.” Carlos shook his head and stepped forward. “No, I don’t need anything. Can…can we sit down? I’d just like to sit with you for a little while.”

Cecil nodded, biting his lip. Carlos took his hand and led him over to the couch. They sat facing each other, close enough for Carlos to rest his knee across Cecil’s leg. He feels awkward, desperate to make things right but sure that nothing he could possibly say would be the right thing.

“How have you been?” he ventured, after a moment.

“Okay, I guess,” said Cecil, slowly. “Trying to stay busy. I tried not to think too hard about. About what might have happened to you. Because that made everything just sort of…stop. And I did still have a job to do.”

Carlos took a deep breath. But then, Cecil’s face brightened, and somehow he managed a smile that didn’t seem at all forced. “But you’re back. So everything’s fine! It’s really nice when that happens, you know?”

Carlos couldn’t help laughing a little. He squeezed Cecil’s hand. “Um…just for future reference. It turns out that the temporal distortions you have here in Night Vale have an unpredictable, and, to my knowledge, undocumented influence, on the subjective experience of time outside of Nigh Vale.”

“Uh huh?” Cecil leaned in a bit closer, like Carlos was telling him a thrilling story.

“Yeah. Like, from my own personal, subjective point of view, I’ve been living in Night Vale for a year. But when I got to Albuquerque, I discovered that in the eyes of my colleagues, I had only been gone for three months.” Carlos cleared his throat. “And—again, from my personal, subjective perspective—I was in Albuquerque for only four days. But…someone told me that it’s been longer than that. For you.”

He couldn’t help holding his breath while he waited to see how Cecil would take this information. He watched as Cecil’s mouth formed a perfect O of astonished realization. Then he rolled his eyes at the ceiling.

“I cannot believe I didn’t think of that,” Cecil declared, exasperated. “What was the point of going to college, if I can’t remember a thing like that? Ugh, Cecil. That was only, like, the most obvious explanation in the world.”

Carlos’s mouth twitched. “Well, don’t beat yourself up about it.” He squeezed Cecil’s hand again, amused despite himself. “I study this stuff for a living and I didn’t have any idea until about an hour ago. Um. So how long has it been, since we last saw each other? For my…for my notes.”

“Thirty-three days and fourteen hours. I think. You know how clocks can be.” Cecil waved his hand.

“I am really, really sorry about that.”

“Dear Carlos.” Cecil patted his hand. “I’m just glad that you’re back. You…are back, right?”

“Yes! Yes, of course I am. Why?”

“Nothing.” Cecil blushed again. “I just…wondered. You know. If leaving Night Vale would make you want things that…aren’t Night Vale. I did hope that was what had happened, when you were gone. It made it easier, thinking that you were alive and happy somewhere else, rather than thinking something had…had happened to you, you know?”

“Yeah. But—I would never do that, Cecil. I wouldn’t just go without telling you. Please believe me.”

Cecil takes a deep breath. “Okay. I believe you.”

“Good. Good.” Carlos exhaled slowly, feeling like the cornerstone of the wreckage in his life had just been slotted back into place. They were okay. As long as he and Cecil were okay, other things could be okay again.

“Yes, good.” Cecil smiled. “So…don’t take this the wrong way, but are you sure you’re okay? You look kind of like someone who stared at the Void for too long and spent a few days wandering the sand wastes.” Slowly, telegraphing his movements, he brushed Carlos’s cheek with his fingertips. They traced the contour of his face up to the edge of his black eye. Cecil bit his lip, and Carlos knew that he was restraining himself from demanding answers.

“Some stuff happened in Albuquerque,” Carlos admitted. “It all got kind of out of hand. I’ll tell you about it, if you want.”

“I do want,” Cecil said immediately. “But right now, you look like you need to sleep.”

Carlos sighed. “I kind of do, yeah.”

Cecil gave him a small smile. He caught Carlos’s hand and stood up. “Come to bed,” he said.

Carlos thought of his room back at the lab. He thought about a bed, unslept-in for a month, smelling of dust, box springs that shook him awake if he tried to sleep for longer than seven hours. He thought about Cecil’s crisp sheets, warm from their bodies, and the smell of scented oil that clung to his pillows.

“Okay,” he said, and let Cecil lead him there.

Chapter Text


June 13, 2012


Carlos opened his eyes and took a deep breath of human hair.

“I’m sorry,” said Cecil, turning over to look at Carlos as he coughed and sputtered. “It goes everywhere when I don’t tie it up at night. I probably should have left the scarf on, it’s just that it makes me look like my mother.”

“It’s fine.” Carlos squinted at Cecil, who was looking down at him with a soft, fond smile. “My own fault for being clingy.”

“I have no problem with you being clingy,” Cecil assured him. “I may have done some clinging myself after you fell asleep. You seemed to be having a bad dream?”

Carlos sifted through the contents of his sleep-blurred memories. A lingering fear and discomfort was stuck to them, like a film of grease. “Yeah, I think I was.” He rubbed his eyes. “Oh well. I’m awake now.”

Cecil carded his long fingers through the hair that had fallen across Carlos’s forehead. Carlos automatically shut his eyes under the soothing pressure of Cecil’s hand. “What time is it,” he mumbled.

“Around noon,” said Cecil. “I thought maybe we could go out for breakfast? I’m afraid I don’t really have anything to eat here.”

Carlos thought about the clutter in Cecil’s normally tidy apartment, the empty liquor bottles and the take-out containers. Guilt lanced through his pleasant, sleepy haze. “Yeah, that would be nice. I’m way behind on my mandated consumption of Big Rico’s products. Is there an exemption for being out of town?”

“As long as you turn in the right forms. I took care of that for you, so we can go to the Moonlite Diner and have waffles.”

“That would be better, yeah.” Carlos was prone to acid reflux when he was stressed, and the thought of breakfasting on tart tomato sauce turned his stomach slightly. “Afterwards I should probably check in on Nijeia and Perry. God only knows what they’ve been up to on their own for a month.”

“Nijeia is okay,” said Cecil. “I stopped by the lab a few times to check on her. I’m afraid she was more concerned about losing her privileges to leave the Orphanarium than she was about your safety.”

Oh, Christ. Carlos hadn’t even thought about that. He’d dangled the prospect of maturity and independence in front of here, then vanished, when he knew full well that she only had dispensation to work in the lab because he was supposed to be there to supervise her. The guilt intensified.

“It’s only natural she was concerned about that. I can take care of myself. It’s not fair that she should have to worry about the Orphanarians taking her work away from her.”

“Hmmph.” Cecil’s fingers trailed from Carlos’s hairline to the tender, bruised skin just under his left eye. “The middle part of your statement is open to debate, I think.”

“Hey.” Carlos opened his eyes and glared at Cecil. “That was not my fault.”

“No, I didn’t mean that!” Cecil bit his lip. “I just meant…I don’t know what I meant. Will you tell me what happened?”

Carlos sighed. “Yeah. Later. Right now I need to take a shower.”

“Of course.” Carlos handed Cecil his glasses while Cecil kicked the covers back. He swung his long legs over the side of the bed. “I’ll just go make a quick sacrifice to get the hot water going.”


Carlos was undressed and standing under the spray of hot water (which hadn’t warmed up until Cecil came darting into the bathroom to get a bandage for the bleeding cut on his forefinger) when he noticed it.

The two black diamonds that Cecil had drawn on Carlos’s arms, just at the inner crease of his elbows, had not washed off yet. Carlos didn’t think that was strange; he rarely bothered to scrub very hard at the insides of his elbows, after all. Anyway, it was called permanent marker for a reason.

What he did find strange were the two new indelible black shapes inked on his body.

There were two long, hollow rectangles drawn down his sides, from just under his armpits to the top of his hips. Perfectly symmetrical and proportionate to one another, they were mostly hidden when he kept his arms at his sides. Carlos was positive they hadn’t been there yesterday.

He was also fairly positive that Cecil couldn’t have put them there. Not that he really thought Cecil would do a thing like that without asking him, but even if he’d wanted to, he couldn’t have managed it without waking Carlos up. He was a very light sleeper these days.

In the greater catalogue of “weird things that happen in Night Vale”, waking up one morning with a couple of extra semi-temporary tattoos was probably hardly even worth mentioning. But it was happening on his body, which automatically made it an urgent and pressing matter. Hastily, Carlos finished washing up, then ran a towel over himself and pulled his clothes back on, ignoring the way the fabric clung to the damp patches of skin.

“Cecil?” he called, walking out of the bathroom. “Cecil!”

“In here.” Carlos turned and looked down the hallway. Cecil was in the kitchen, holding a large black garbage bag, which was half-full of takeout containers and pizza boxes. He blinked at Carlos, then frowned. “Is something wrong?”

“Where did these come from?” Carlos pulled his shirt up and gestured to direct Cecil’s attention to his sides. He turned slightly so Cecil could see both sets of markings. “Because they look like the ones you drew on me, only you didn’t draw them. Did you?”

Cecil dropped the garbage bag and took a step forward, his eyes wide “No,” he said slowly. “I told you, no non-consensual drawing on parts of your body.” He blinked. “Um…”

“What is happening, Cecil?” Carlos dropped his shirt. ”Why are they multiplying?”

“Don’t panic! They’re harmless!” Cecil’s hands fluttered helplessly. “I’m really sorry—I didn’t think that would happen!”

“Didn’t think what would happen?”

“Tattoo markers shouldn’t work on you! You’re not even from here!”

Carlos blinked. “Tattoo whats?”

“Ugh.” Cecil covered his face with his hands. “I’m so, so sorry. I should have explained. It’s a special ink. Once it gets under your skin, it just…does what it needs to do. But your DNA is so…so quaint. I mean, you don’t even have subcutaneous ink ducts. I was sure it would work like a normal marker on you!”

“Subcutaneous—no, you know what? Never mind.” Carlos held his arm out and looked at the diamond shapes on the inside of his elbow. Then he walked over to Cecil’s kitchen sink and turned the tap on. There was a rough green sponge meant for scouring pans on the back of the sink—not as rough as steel wool, but still abrasive. He poured some dish detergent onto the sponge.

“Oh…don’t hurt yourself.” Cecil stood to the side, watching Carlos and making nervous, fiddly motions with his hands. “You have such soft skin.”

“Quiet,” said Carlos, and Cecil put a hand over his mouth. Carlos started scrubbing his arm. A couple of minutes later his fingertips were dripping soapy water, and the inside of his arm was raw and stinging, but the black lines hadn’t faded in the slightest.

“I’m sorry,” Cecil said again, his voice small. “If it worked on you the way it works on me, the ink is all sub-dermal now. I mean. It shouldn’t have worked on you at all, but it looks like it has. Please believe me Carlos—it was a stupid mistake. I wasn’t trying to trick you.”

Carlos braced his hands against the edge of the sink and turned his head to look at Cecil sideways. Cecil had, somehow, put his finger right on the nose of the problem. After the last few days (or the last few years, depending on how you looked at it) the idea of things being done to his body without his knowledge or permission could unsettle him like almost nothing else. Cecil could sense that somehow, apparently.

The tight muscles in Carlos’s neck and shoulders started to relax a bit.

“The place where you drew on me was red and irritated for a day or two after. I assumed I was having a mild allergic reaction to the ink.”

Cecil’s mouth tightened unhappily. “Yeah, that’s normal. Normal for me, I mean. If it’s any consolation, I used the same brand I always use on myself and I’ve never had any problems—no infections, not much itching…”

“What do your tattoos mean?” Carlos barked the question a bit, but he thought he could be forgiven for wanting information.

“Um, they don’t really mean anything? They’re just doodles, frankly.”

“Yes, but they aren’t normal tattoos. Normal tattoos don’t…don’t glow, or turn colors when you get upset.”

“Don’t they?” said Cecil, sounding curious. “I mean, I know bioresponsive tattoos aren’t as popular as they used to be, but when I was in high school you wouldn’t dare show your face without them. Not unless you wanted someone stuffing a week-old leg of sacrificial lamb into your locker. Ugh, you would not believe the smell.”

All at once, Carlos’s patience—with himself, with Cecil, with Night Vale in general—snapped.

“Outside of Night Vale, glowy tattoos do not exist,” he said sternly. “Night Vale is a very small place, Cecil. Small, and to my knowledge, completely unique. Compared to the outside world it’s a blip. The things that happen here barely even register as statistical anomalies. Most of the things that you think are normal are, in fact, not normal at all. Not according to the numbers.” Carlos had turned his back on Cecil and was pacing up and down the length of the kitchen, raking his hands through his hair. He didn’t really understand why he was saying all of this. He knew that he sounded angry, but he didn’t particularly feel that way. Something tight and dense seemed to have settled right in the center of his chest, pressing down on his lungs, and he couldn’t dislodge it, no matter how deeply he breathed.

Suddenly, Cecil was standing in his way. Carlos jumped, taking a half step back, but he didn’t get very far before Cecil caught both his hands.

“Carlos,” he said, and his eyes (plum colored today, like there was more blue in them than normal) crinkled at the corners with worry. “Please. I—I don’t know what to say. Are you all right?”

Carlos stared at Cecil for much longer than he meant to. It was a simple question, and Carlos had a very simple answer prepared in his head.

“No,” he said, surprising himself, because it wasn’t what he’d meant to say at all. “Not really.”

Cecil, to his relief, doesn’t burst into tears, or do anything else that would take attention away from Carlos’s words. “Okay,” he said. “Why don’t you sit down? I’ll bring you your socks and shoes, and we can go have waffles, and then you can tell me. Okay?”

Carlos shut his eyes for a second. He shook his head to clear it. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

Cecil smiled. “I’ll just go put some pants on,” he said.

Carlos blinked as Cecil walked away. He wearing an over-sized sky blue t-shirt that just brushed the tops of his thigh high rainbow striped socks, but Carlos had thought that was just Cecil’s outfit for the day.


Cecil drove them to the Moonlite Diner for waffles. Cecil ordered one waffle topped with dark chocolate ice cream drizzled with sriracha, and Carlos ordered two whole grain waffles with bacon and real maple syrup, which was more expensive than the ice cream. Carlos guzzled a glass of orange juice as they waited for the food to arrive, and held hands with Cecil across the table.

“What did you mean when you said the tattoos do what they need to do?” Carlos asked, as Cecil tickled his palm with the tips of his long fingers.

“They’re responsive to emotional biochemical impulses.” Cecil grimaced. “I don’t understand what that means, but that’s what the packaging says. It seemed like a reasonable explanation when mine started changing colors and lighting up.”

“I don’t really understand why the…ink…would think it needed to do that.”

Cecil fidgeted. His fingertips continued tracing patterns on the inside of Carlos’s palm. “I’m really not the best person to try to explain this, I’m afraid. But when I first got my tattoos, my…my boyfriend at the time had complained that I was too reserved.”

Carlos snorted orange juice up his nose. He coughed, and Cecil looked at him in alarm. “Reserved? You?

Cecil rolled his eyes. “He wasn’t like you,” he said. “He wasn’t…it wasn’t love. You know? He was nice. We were teenagers, and he’d been my best friend for years, and then he started having feelings for me. And I thought…you know, why not? Dating him was a mistake, in retrospect. I ended up hurting him. He always wanted to know what I was thinking, what I was feeling. I did try, but I realized in the end that the reason I wasn’t as open with him as I should have been was because he wouldn’t like it if he knew the truth.”

“So the tattoos…helped with that?” Carlos was still trying to wrap his head around the idea of a younger Cecil being somehow less expressive than he was now.

“Well, they were white. The ink that I used, I mean. The tattoos were white, and I wasn’t. I mean, I’m still not, obviously. I don’t turn blue when I’m cold, or green when I’m nauseous, or red when I’m embarrassed, or grey when I’ve been re-educated by the secret police. Or—or pink when I’m aroused. Earl wasn’t white, but he had light skin, so when I got the tattoos he…read things into them.”

Carlos stared at Cecil, feeling a bit sick. “I cannot believe that someone who claimed to love you would need you to artificially lighten your skin in order to read your moods.”

“Oh, he didn’t ask me to do it! I just thought the white ink would look more stylish. I mean, there’s something to be said for ornamentation that you have to be up close to see, but I wanted to make a statement.” Cecil made jazz hands, then grinned. “The, uh, coloration was an unintended side effect.”

“I see.” Carlos went quiet, thinking about Cecil’s tattoos. Had he been reading into them, like Cecil’s old boyfriend had? He’d assumed the tattoos were black in their…resting state, if that was the right term, but apparently that wasn’t the case. And he had been interpreting the colors the way he would have interpreted the blushes of a light skinned person, which was just embarrassing, really.

(He also didn’t particularly like the fact that he apparently had something in common with the boyfriend Cecil hadn’t been in love with, but that was a side issue.)

A moment later their waffles arrived, and he let go of Cecil’s hand so they could eat. The consumption of carbohydrates went a long way towards lowering his heart rate and thus making him feel more calm. When they’d both pushed their plates away with satisfied groans and Cecil had asked the waitress to bring coffee, they joined hands again.

“So, going off your hypothesis about the behavior of your tattoos,” said Carlos, hardly believing he’d just used the word “behavior” to describe a tattoo, “are mine going to start changing color?”

“Have you noticed them doing that?” said Cecil.

“No. So far they haven’t done anything, except refuse to be washed off, only to mysteriously appear on parts of my body where they’re not supposed to be.”

“Hmm.” Cecil sipped his coffee.


Cecil shrugged. “I can only theorize. It is, after all, your body. But…the original purpose of the tattoos was to delineate areas of your body where you didn’t want to be touched.”


“So…how do you feel about being touched in the location where the new tattoos have appeared?”

Carlos opened his mouth, on the point of saying something like, “They’re just ribs,” or, “Who would be squeamish about being touched there?”

Then he stopped, closing his mouth again. Memories were surfacing, unconsciously bidden. Robert, coming up behind him in the lab and tickling his sides. Robert, stepping up close and sliding his hands down Carlos’s ribs, fingers digging into the narrow indent of his waist just above his hips.

He felt sick. He’d never said anything about it to Robert, because it seemed like an unreasonable thing to complain about, but just remembering that possessive grip holding him in place made him regret that his stomach was full of waffles.

“Carlos?” Cecil’s grip on his hand tightened.

“Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “I mean, you’re right. I don’t like it when he—when I’m touched there.”

Carlos stared down at the table, feeling ill, uncomfortable, and hideously embarrassed. Of those three emotions, Cecil seems to pick up on the latter first.

“Hey. Carlos. Look at me for a second, okay?”

Awkwardly, Carlos complied. Cecil’s face seemed to blaze with an intensity of feeling that Carlos couldn’t decipher. Suddenly, Carlos’s head was crowded with words that were clamoring to get out. He opened his mouth, then realized he couldn’t look at Cecil while he talked. He covered his eyes with his other hand and the words came out in a rush.

“I saw Robert when I went back to Albuquerque.”

“Oh, God,” said Cecil, stricken. “But…Carlos, why?

“Not on purpose! I didn’t go there to, like, confront him. He, um. He was waiting for me.” Carlos fiddled with his napkin. “In my apartment. I’d kept the lease up because I could afford to, with the grant being so generous. And, um. Robert just sort of…moved in, apparently? As far as I can tell he’s been there the whole time I’ve been gone. Which, from his point of view, has been for three months, not…not a whole year. But it’s still creepy.”

“I don’t think creepy is really a strong enough word.” Cecil looked ill. “Was he expecting you to show up, or…?”

“No, I think he was almost as shocked as I was when we first saw each other.”

“Right.” Cecil blinked a couple of times. “Wait a minute. If you were only gone for three months…all those texts he sent you! Oh my God, he must have been texting you constantly!”

Carlos grimaced. “Yeah, that also occurred to me.”

“Is he in jail? Please tell me the secret police dragged him away to small, dark cave with no cable or internet.”

“Uh, we don’t really have secret police in Abuquerque. Or, if we do, they’re a lot more, you know, secret. Anyway, he ran off, after…after I saw him. The police are looking for him. Who knows, they might even catch him.” Carlos didn’t add that he wasn’t holding out a lot of hope for what would happen if Robert was found. New Mexico wasn’t really the ideal place for a gay Latino man to try to press stalking and abuse charges against a respectable looking blonde guy with a Ph.D.

“Ugh.” Cecil looked deeply disgruntled, although Carlos had the impression that Cecil was restraining a lot of emotion for his benefit. “I’m so, so sorry Carlos. Are you okay? I mean, obviously you’re not completely okay, but…did he hurt you?” Cecil looked meaningfully at the dark, swollen lump under Carlos’s left eye.

“There, there was a physical…confrontation. I kind of, um, ran away from him, and he chased me into the parking lot. I probably would have got away but my ribs still aren’t in great shape.” At Cecil’s confused look, he added, “You know, from that thing with the underground city last week. Or, well. I guess it was last month, wasn’t it?”

Cecil clapped a hand over his mouth. “Oh my god, you’re still hurt! You were hurt, and then he hurt you more. Oh, my poor Carlos.” His eyes, wide with emotion, glinted with tears, and his voice suddenly took on a deep, unsettling timbre. “That man is a monster, and if I ever see him, I’ll—I’ll drug him, and cut him into small pieces, and feed him to Koshekh.”

“Okay, well, don’t actually do that?” Carlos couldn’t help being a tiny bit amused. “Not that the occasion will arise, because I don’t plan on introducing you to him, ever. But still. Don’t do that.”

Cecil sniffed. “I suppose that even someone as perfect as you is bound to have a few irrational quirks.”

“Yes. Not wanting you to go to jail for murder definitely qualifies as an irrational quirk.”

“Don’t be silly, Carlos. Murder isn’t illegal. There’s a bill in front of the City Council to make it illegal, but voting’s not due for few months.”

Carlos opened his mouth, then shut it again. Cecil refilled Carlos’s coffee cup, adding the perfect amount of cream and sugar. Carlos picked it up and sipped it to keep himself from rolling his eyes.

Just then, a generic buzz and chime from a cell phone sounded underneath the table. Carlos cringed out of sheer habit. “No, no, it’s okay, that was me,” Cecil said immediately, reaching for the phone with one hand and rubbing Carlos’s wrist soothingly with the other. Carlos felt like an idiot—he knew perfectly well that his phone’s battery was still dead. But any embarrassment he felt was wiped out by the look on Cecil’s face when he checked the caller ID.

“Who is it?” said Carlos.

“Um,” said Cecil. “It’s, um, it’s just someone I know.” Smoothly, Cecil looked over his shoulder, as though suddenly desperately keen to see who might be walking into the diner at that exact moment. It neatly blocked Carlos’s view of his face when he said, “Hello?”

The voice that came bursting out of Cecil’s phone in reply was extremely loud, young, and high-pitched. “Help me!” it barked. “They’re here, they’re gonna take me back, you gotta help me!”

Cecil blinked, as Carlos stared at him in confusion. “Who is taking you back where?”

”Who is it? Carlos mouthed to Cecil, but Cecil only shook his head and held a finger that meant wait a moment.

“Orphanarians!” cried the voice. “We can’t hold them off forever, you have to come!”

Carlos sat bolt upright in the booth. “Is that Nijeia?”

Cecil met his eyes for a moment, and he looked frightened and lost in a way Carlos didn’t understand, and had never seen before. He nodded. Carlos surged up out of his seat and reached across the table, taking the phone from Cecil’s unresisting hand.

“Nijeia, it’s Carlos, where are you?”

“Carlos?!” she shrieked. He could hear the sound of glass breaking, walls shuddering, and a low, guttural voice moaning. Carlos chose to concentrate on that, and not on how incredibly pissed off Nijeia had sounded when she said his name.

“Yes, it’s me. Tell me where you are and we’ll be right there.”

“We’re at the lab.” Another crash, and a distant shriek. “Hurry!”

“Nijeia!” Carlos looked down at the phone in his hand. The line was dead.

Chapter Text

“Oh, no no no,” said Cecil, as Carlos reached for the handle of the passenger side door. “You cannot come, my brave Carlos. It isn’t safe.”

“Obviously not, or Nijeia wouldn’t have called in a panic!” Carlos retorted, getting into the car before Cecil could try something stupid, like engaging the child locks. “Why did she call you, anyway?”

“You disappeared for a month, Carlos. I’m the only adult in Night Vale she’s authorized to speak to. It won’t like she knew you were back, was it? Anyway, we’re friends now, of a sort.” Cecil sounded a bit petulant.

“Be that as it may she’s my research assistant, that makes her my responsibility.”

“You don’t know what you’re getting into.” Cecil turned the key in the engine, then gripped the steering wheel, his face a rictus of tension. “She’ll be okay. The Orphanarians won’t hurt her. They just want to take her back.”

“Exactly! She needs me to keep that from happening! If I can just talk to them—”

“They don’t like adults, Carlos!” Cecil shouted. Carlos had never heard him raise his voice that way and it sent a shockwave down his arms that ended in tingling in his fingertips. “They don’t like the Orphans being outside their control. Did you know there’s never been a single adoption allowed since they took the Orphanarium over from the City Council? Not even former Orphans like me are supposed to get as close to the Orphans as you have to Nijeia. You’re a threat to them.”

“Well maybe it’s time someone threatened them back!” Carlos jabbed a finger at the ignition. “Drive, Cecil. I’m not arguing about this with you.”

Cecil gave a long, inarticulate noise of resigned frustration, as if warbling, fine, have it your way, in some unknown language comprised primarily of warbles and bellows. He put the car in drive with an air of profound resentment, and pulled out of the parking lot in the direction of the dusty little lot across the Arby’s where Big Rico’s and Carlos’s lab stood side by side.

Once they were on the road, Carlos looked over at Cecil. His mouth was set and he was shaking so hard that even his hair was trembling. It occurred to Carlos suddenly that he’d probably put his foot in his mouth in a big way. It wasn’t like he was the first person who’d ever got the idea of challenging the Orphanarians, after all. Cecil’s mother had done it years ago, and Cecil had witnessed first hand the violence and carnage that ensued, and he’d also had to live with the changes that had come over his mother in the aftermath. Carlos didn’t know whether Cecil’s mother had always been odd and vague and prone to hiding from people even before she singlehandedly bested the Orphanarium gatekeeper in hand-to-throat combat, but it was only logical that the ordeal would have changed her. What if Cecil was worried about Carlos changing the way his mother had, even assuming his confrontation with the Orphanarians was successful?

“You know, you don’t have to come,” Carlos said gently, feeling contrite. The only times Cecil ever spoke of his history with the Orphanarium it was in upbeat, neutral tones, but looking at him now it was plain to see that the place had left deeper scars than Cecil had acknowledged.

“I might be the only person they don’t eviscerate on sight,” said Cecil in a tight voice. “As a former Orphan in good standing, I do have certain privileges. They may not be be as lenient with you. If they’re trying to foreclose on Nijeia—


“Then it means they see your absence over the last month as a violation of the contract that allowed her to come work with you in the first place. You were supposed to supervise her.”

“It was a mistake! How was I supposed to anticipate a temporal lag of that severity!”

“I understand that, Carlos, but the Orphanarians will not!” Cecil took both hands off the wheel in order to flail. The car swerved dangerously towed the oncoming lane, and he seized control again just seconds before they veered into the path of an oncoming truck. “Look, don’t feel too bad about this. They’ve probably just been waiting for the excuse to drag her back to the Pit. She’s much too independent for their liking. And if they know about the research she’s been doing…”

“How would they know about that?” Carlos demanded. “Wait—how do you know about that?”

Cecil ducked his head, sheepishly. “We…I guess you could say that we hung out together. Just occasionally, while you were gone. I did tell you I’d looked in on her! There was nothing unseemly about it. I just stopped by the lab with food occasionally, since I knew you weren’t there to badger her into looking after herself. One night we got to talking over extra spicy buffalo wings…” Cecil glanced at Carlos, who was arching an eyebrow, his lips pursed. “Look, you were gone, and neither of us knew what had become of you. We were worried. We just…found it more efficient to worry together.”

“Uh huh.” If he hadn’t been so worried about Nijeia (and how the hell he was going to be able to help her when he reached her) Carlos would have teased Cecil about that. As it was, he made a mental note to tease him later, assuming they all lived through the afternoon.

The thought of the unknown danger awaiting them made Carlos look at Cecil more seriously this time. The trembling in his long, thin body hadn’t subsided. If Carlos was remembering correctly, the last time Cecil had faced off against the Orphanarians, his mother had torn out the throat of the head gatekeeper with her teeth. Presumably they didn’t hold this against Cecil, or he wouldn’t have passed his annual “check ups” and been given the privilege of interacting with the children who chose to seek him out, like Nijeia had. Still, before his mother had come back for him, Cecil had lived almost a year in the…the Pit. The Orphanarians had come to his house and dragged him away when he was a scared, eight year old boy who’d just lost his mother. There’s no way an experience like that wouldn’t have been traumatizing. And now the Orphanarians are attempting to do the same thing to Nijeia…

“You don’t have to come, you know.” Carlos put a hand on Cecil’s shoulder and found it rigid with tension. “If it brings up…bad memories, or anything. You could just drop me off.”

Cecil laughed. It would probably be unkind to say that he laughed hysterically, but it was definitely a high pitched laugh. Possibly even a cackle.

“I am certainly not letting you go on your own,” he said, with a mirthless smile. “My dear Carlos, please reflect: I only just got you back.”

Phrased that way, Cecil’s point was difficult to argue with. Carlos settled for holding tight onto the passenger door handle and making a mental inventory of any objects stored close to the door of the lab that could be used as weapons.

Cecil ignored every stop sign on the way to the lab, and he didn’t even bother presenting his Alert Citizen’s card for the scanners as he did so, which meant he was setting himself up for a fortune in fines and penalties. He made a tire-squealing 90 degree turn into the dusty, unpaved parking area between the pizza restaurant and the lab, and as soon as the car was stopped he leapt out the door and ran to the back of the car, throwing the trunk open. Carlos followed, warily.

Putamadre” he breathed, as he surveyed the—there was really no word for it other than arsenal stored in the trunk of Cecil’s unassuming little sedan. “Is—is that a grenade launcher?”

“Leave that behind,” said Cecil, as he shoved a handgun (Carlos has no idea what kind of handgun because of all the many things that a scientist was, conversant with automatic weaponry was not one of them) into his waist band. “Here, take the machete.”

“I was really planning to try using reason first!” Carlos protested, hefting the unfamiliar weight of the blade in his hand. “Are you sure this is really necessary?”

Cecil said nothing, but shut and locked the trunk again with a grim expression. He turned to Carlos and gripped him by both shoulders.

“Stay behind me,” he said. “If anything happens, know that I love you. Also, my will is hidden in a copy of the Da Vinci Code on the top left shelf of my book case. I’ve left everything to you.”

Carlos just gaped as Cecil strode toward the door of the lab. “But we haven’t even been on a real date yet!” he said, jogging to catch up.


Cecil, true to his intention, opened the door of the lab first. No sooner had he turned the doorknob than he ducked to the left, throwing an arm out to keep Carlos out of the range of the billowing smoke.

“Oh my god,” said Carlos, stomach sinking. “Is there a fire? There are chemicals in there, Cecil! Some of them explode!”

Cecil ignored him. He produced two bandanas—the brightly colored ones he often wore around his neck or over his hair—and thrust one into Carlos’s hand. “It’s us!” he called into the black depths of the lab beyond the door. “It’s Cecil and Carlos!”

A moment later, a black figure emerged as an outline from the smoke. “Black” was the word that came to Carlos’s mind, but it wasn’t a racial attribution—the skin, hair, and clothing of the figure was a one monochrome streak of soot, obscuring any individuality that might lie underneath.

“Cover your mouths,” it said. The voice was young, and female, but it wasn’t Nijeia’s voice. “We have them cornered in the room at the back. Watch your step—they went for the lab equipment first, there’s broken glass everywhere.”

Cecil nodded once, grimly, and pulled out his gun, wrapping both hands around the grip and laying his finger parallel to the trigger. He gestured over his shoulder for Carlos to follow him. Carlos pressed the bandana over his nose and mouth with one hand and gripped the machete hilt with the other. The crunch of broken glass under their feet, as well as the…squelch of other substances made him unwilling to look down

“Oh no,” he groaned, muffled, as he surveyed the wreckage of his carefully organized, usually pristine lab. “Oh my god, it’s ruined.”

“That was the point.” The inside of the lab was less dense with smoke. Opening the door had apparently sucked most of it outside, and someone had taken the precaution of opening the windows and turning the A/C fans on full blast. “They came for her research first. Nijeia’s just the icing on the cake. They won’t get her, though.” The sooty, child shaped figure grinned at them with a mouth full of sharp, blinding white teeth.

Something about that not-quite-a-smile jarred Carlos’s memory, back to his first day in Night Vale and his first visit to Big Rico’s, where he’d seen a young black girl with pompoms in her hair, eat spoonfuls of red pepper flakes with a spoon.

“Hello, Tamika,” said Cecil, who obviously knew her and seemed totally unsurprised to be finding her here. “Is Nijeia all right?”

“Broken wrist, we think.”

“What?” Outrage pierced the clamor of confusion in Carlos’s head. “How dare they! I thought their job was to protect the Orphans!”

“Please,” came the derisive retort. Another shape was struggling toward them through the smoke. Even though it was similarly coated in soot, there was enough sunlight streaming through the open windows to catch the sparkles on her hair barrettes. Nijeia, thought Carlos, almost buckling in relief. “That won’t no Orphanarian. That was the catapult. It wasn’t meant for a space this small. Didn’t dodge the recoil in time.”

Cecil glanced around the room, which was now clear enough to reveal the absence of tall, menacing hooded figures. He lowered his gun, though he kept his hands firmly on the grip. “How did you have time to make a catapult?” he said, confused.

“Stupid.” Nijeia kicked him, and Cecil squawked in outrage. “Tamika and me built that shit weeks ago. Remember? We used it to get them food packets over the wall of the dog park so that Dana of yours could get ‘em.”

“Oooh, right.” Cecil bent down and rubbed his calf with a look of revelation. Carlos followed his gaze and saw a small pile of charred, splintered wood on the floor near their feet. “And you used it against the Orphanarians? Inspired thinking, girls!”

“Don’t need your patronizing grown-up compliments,” Nijeia declared. She did not look at Carlos. She pointedly had not looked at Carlos since she emerged from the smoke.

“Nijeia…” Carlos drew closer, bending toward her. “Um, can I look at your wrist?”

She glared at him. “No.”

Okay, that hurt. But he probably deserved it. Carlos backed away, not quite sure where to look. Just then, from the back of the lab, there came a low, menacing groan that seemed to rattle the walls around them. Carlos jerked, and Cecil stepped in front of him, raising the gun.

“Nijeia’s fine. I wrapped the wrist for her.” Tamika’s tone was brisk and businesslike. “What’s more important right now is the Orphanarians locked up in that fleabag bedroom of yours.”

“Hey! There aren’t any fleas in my bedroom!” Carlos protested.

“There will be by now,” said Tamika, scratching her arm idly. “There any exits back there, Mr Scientist?”

“It’s, um, it’s Doctor…you know what, just call me Carlos. And no, no exits. Just a small window.”

“Hmm.” Tamika turned to Nijeia. “Did you booby trap them?

“Oh, come on,” said Carlos, before Nijeia could answer. “The Orphanarians are at least shaped like average human adults, right? Even a kid would have a hard time climbing though that a window that size.”

“Just the same, I don’t think we should assume the room will hold them indefinitely. Time for advanced tactics.” Tamika looked at Nijeia and at Cecil, both of whom nodded. It was a little disturbing to be the only person in the room who clearly didn’t understand what was meant by “advanced tactics”, but that was probably what he got for not growing up in the Night Vale public school system. On other other hand, Carlos had weathered three major holidays, the sandstorm, and Street Cleaning Day, so he had a pretty good idea that the tactics involved would probably leave his poor lab a small, smoking square in the middle of the sandy parking lot. If he wanted to get through this with any hope of getting his grant renewed next year, he should probably speak up.

“Can I ask what our ultimate goal is?” Everyone looked at Carlos, as though surprised to hear him speak. “What lengths are the Orphanarians prepared to go to to get Nijeia back? Presumably they won’t harm her—”

“They might,” said Cecil in a low voice. “No Orphan has ever defied them to this extend before. And they are certainly more than prepared to harm the rest of us.”

“Okay. So are, we, actually, then, planning to…kill them Because I can see a few problems with that, if the rest of you can’t.”

Nijeia rolled her eyes and pushed herself up to sit on the edge of a countertop that had been wiped clean of equipment during the earlier onslaught. Cecil bit his lip, looking uncertain.

“You’re referring to the possibility of reprisals,” said Tamika, in a steady voice. “If we kill these two, more will come, and this time they’ll want more than to just return Nijeia to the Pit.”

“Exactly,” said Carlos. “They’ll want revenge. Right?” He found himself directing the query to Tamika, because everyone was looking to Tamika, for some reason.

“Not just revenge,” she said. “They’ll have no choice but to make examples of us. All of us. They can’t afford to let it be known that we thwarted them with impunity. The reason why children in the Orphanarium have the lowest mortality rate of any demographic in Night Vale is because it’s well known that there is nothing in town scarier than the Orphanarians. The way they see it, the children will lose that protection it it gets out that we beat them.”

Cecil’s mouth twisted, as though he were suddenly having conflicting feelings about the whole business. Carlos could understand that; Night Vale was not a safe place for children in general, and without the intervention of the Orphanarians, who was to say what might have become of Cecil when he was a boy, after his mother went missing? Did he—did any of them—really want to declare open season on the town’s only dedicated defenders of children?

“Well, they ain’t dead yet,” said Nijeia. “So we got a few minutes to get our shit together. The situation as I see it go like this: We can’t kill ‘em, and I ain’t going back. So what we need’s a compromise. Any ideas?”

Carlos sank down onto the only work bench that hadn’t been overturned and tried to collect his thoughts. An idea was forming at the back of his head, but he wasn’t sure if he could say it out loud without risking death—not from the Orphanarians, but from Nijeia, and possibly from Cecil, and maybe even from Tamika (he didn’t have a good read on her motivations yet.)


“Think I hear some asshole in a lab coat saying’ my name.”

Cecil stiffened, like he was about to issue a rebuke, but Carlos squeezed his arm and leaned in closer to Nijeia. Due to their respective sitting levels, this brought his chin dangerously close to her knee, and he hoped she would resist the temptation to brain him long enough to hear him out.

“Nijeia, am I correct in supposing that the…the reason you don’t want to return to the Orphanarium is because…your research here, it got sort of…” Demolished, was the only word. And with the destruction of the research came the destruction of the hope that she would ever mature naturally and escape the Orphanarium for good.

Nijeia jerked her chin so she was facing the opposite wall, looking as far away from Carlos as she could. “Don’t matter,” she muttered. “Wasn’t goin’ nowhere noways. Probably ‘cause somebody with a whole lotta letters after his name was supposed to be ‘round to help once in a while, but he decided other things was more pressin’ on his time.”

Carlos swallowed. He really wanted to explain that he hadn’t meant to abandon her, but he knew there wasn’t time now. He’d try later, if she was still speaking to him.

“We can start again,” he promised. “And…and maybe we’ll have more luck this time if we don’t have to work around the restrictions you were under before.” Carlos caught Cecil’s eye, feeling a cold tangle of fear and trepidation. In an ideal world, this was a decision he and Cecil would make together, after a lot of conversation, planning, and after they’d been dating for much, much longer than a week (or a month). As it was, this might be the thing that would finally make Cecil says “no, too much, I didn’t sign up for this” and run away forever.

But Carlos couldn’t afford to think of what he might lose. His duty as the senior researcher of the University of New Mexico Scientific Observational Unit: Outpost Night Vale came first. His duty to Nijeia, he realized, came even before that.

“Nijeia.” Carlos swallowed, to wet his throat, then licked his lips, because they were dry. When he’d run out of things to lubricate, he said, “Nijeia, would you like it if I adopted you?”

Silence. Sudden, awful silence. Tamika suddenly pinned Carlos with the hardest stare he’d ever received in his life. Cecil’s mouth fell open, his eyes wide and round.

Nijeia just looked…blank.

“I don’t know what kind of father—or, or guardian I would make,” he continued, feeling horribly as though he was proposing marriage, something else he never thought he would do in his lifetime, “but I can promise that you would always have a home, and freedom to be yourself, and that I’ll do everything I can to…to help you grow up to be the brilliant scientist I know you were meant to be.”

The silence lingered on for another few tense seconds. And then, surprisingly, it was Tamika who spoke.

She walked forward, forcing Carlos to lean back, and then she stood there, a barrier of flint between him and Nijeia. “Are you fucking with her?” she said quietly.

“No!” Carlos took a deep breath, and his shoulders seemed to fill with a brand new certainty. “I’m not just saying this because we’re in a bind. In all honesty, the idea crossed my mind a long time ago I just didn’t…it didn’t seem right to bring it up, before. But I’m as serious now as I’ve ever been about anything.”

“Carlos.” A soft hand touched his shoulder. He turned to see Cecil staring down at him. His expression was unfathomable. “I just told you that the Orphanarians haven’t allowed any adoptions for as long as they’ve been in power. Even if Nijeia says yes, what makes you think they’ll make an exception for you?”

“It’s not that they don’t let people try,” said Tamika, her voice still grave, her expression unflinching, and all eyes turned to her. “I’ve done some research into this. Anyone is welcome to apply to be an adoptive parent.”

“How I never heard that?” demanded Nijeia, hands on her hips.

“Because no one does it anymore.” Tamika’s expression softened a bit as she looked at Niejia. “When the Orphanarians took over, they set up a series of tests that anyone wanting to adopt a kid had to pass. But I’ve never been able to find out what the tests are, or if anyone’s ever attempted them successfully.”

Carlos’s stomach dropped. Cecil turned to him, looking like he wanted to say something, but Carlos didn’t dare meet his eyes. How Tamika knew all of this, Carlos couldn’t imagine, but it all sounded so unpleasant that he was willing to bet it had to be the truth.

“The way I figure it, there have always been so many orphans in Night Vale that nobody really cared what happened to them.” Tamika was talking faster, as though slightly nervous now that everyone in the room was looking to her for information. “A long time ago the City Council built a place for orphans to live, and they made they had food and stuff, but that was all—anyone who wanted to adopt an orphan just had to put their name down in the register and get the kid’s verbal consent, and the adoption was binding. And that…that wasn’t good. For the kids. Do you see what I mean?”

Carlos nodded, slowly. He could imagine what she meant all too clearly. He darted a sideways glance at Cecil. He was staring at the floor, his lips tight.

“Nobody knows where the Orphanarians come from. Came from,” Tamika said. “They just showed up one day, got rid of the City Council types, and took the building over. The next time someone asked about adopting a kid, the Orphanarians told ‘em about the…the trials. Most people just ran away, because they just wanted kids for cheap labor, or…or other stuff, and the trials scared them off. After that, folks who really want a kid to adopt for real might have tried to pass the tests, but nobody knows if they succeeded or what happened to them after. As far as I could tell, it’s been at least thirty years since the last time anyone tried.

“Thirty-two years,” said Cecil quietly. Nijeia and Tamika looked at him, blinking. “My mother. She was the last person who successfully took a child home from the Orphanarium. I was eight then. So it’s been thirty two years.”

Carlos stood there, paralyzed, as he tried to imagine himself tearing out the throat of an Orphanarian with his teeth, like Cecil’s mother had done.

“Mind you, I don’t think she exactly went through a trial,” Cecil continued. “I think she just…did what she thought was necessary.” He cleared his throat delicately.

Carlos relaxed, just a bit. Then he saw Nijeia looking at him.

For as long as he’d known her, she’d never really looked at him like that before. The closest she’d come was the night he almost died at the bowling alley, when she’d cried and slapped him. But even then, she hadn’t really looked…vulnerable. Carlos realized that, in saying what he’d just said, he’d planted a spark of hope in her imagination, and now there was no going back. He couldn’t fail her now. Or at least, he couldn’t fail to try.

“I’m willing to do it,” he told Nijeia. “I don’t know what they’ll want me to do, but I’m willing to give it my best. But only if you really want me to. I know I’m probably not the ideal solution here, and if I don’t succeed….well, at least you’ll have time to get away. You know where I keep my car keys. They’re yours. Drive straight out of Night Vale and don’t look back.”

Nijeia looked like she wanted to cry, or punch him, or both. Her face was scrunched up in an expression that made her look much younger than she ordinarily did. “You really want to take of me?” she said accusingly. “Forever? Like family do?”

Carlos’s stomach sank as the enormity of what he was offering came clear to him. But he steeled his jaw and straightened his shoulders. “Yes,” he said. “I want that. Because you deserve it, and…and because being your family would be an honor.”

Nijeia continued staring at him, hard, like she was trying to read to the very back of his head. Carlos, for his part, didn’t try to hide anything from her—his sincerity, his fears and trepidations, his deep affection for the small genius who had come into his life and wormed his way in his heart. Nijeia blinked a couple of times. Then she leaned back and crossed her arms.

“Yeah, all right,” she said. “Cool. Try not to die or nothin’.”

There was a collective sigh from Cecil and Tamika. Carlos couldn’t tell whether they were sighs of relief or foreboding.

“Okay,” he said. “So I guess…now, I need to go and…talk to the Orphanarians.”

Quietly, Cecil stepped up beside him. His gun was no where to be seen, but Carlos was positive it was concealed somewhere on his person. “Not alone,” said Cecil.

Carlos reached for his hand and squeezed him. Cecil’s grip on his fingers turned into a death lock, as though he were braced for someone to try and tear Carlos away from him. “Yeah,” he said, and they traded smiles.

Together, they started toward the locked and barred door of what once had been Carlos’s bedroom. The moaning inside grew louder with every step they took.

Carlos cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. He knocked.

The groaning grew louder, then ceased. Slowly, the door opened by a crack. There was nothing but darkness inside.

Chapter Text

Carlos took a step forward, towards the open door. The little efficiency apartment at the back of the lab looked darker and deeper than it should have through the crack, considering that Carlos lived there and was very familiar with its dimensions.

Before he could take a second step, Cecil caught his sleeve. “Wait,” he said. “Wait a moment.”


“No, it’s okay. I know you need to do this.” Cecil bit his lip. “I wish you didn’t, but I understand.”

Carlos glanced at Nijeia, who was clearly pretending with all her might that she wasn’t scared. Tamika stood close to her, bumping her shoulder against her friend’s, as if to remind Nijeia she was nearby.

Carlos was grateful that Cecil understood, because in the last two minutes he had already changed his mind (and then changed it back again) about a hundred times. If Nijeia wasn’t actually standing right there, stoically and determinedly not asking him for anything, he didn’t think he’d ever have the guts to go through with it.

“Just listen to me for a second,” Cecil continued, tugging at his arm until Carlos turned to look at him. “When you face the Orphanarians, whatever you do, don’t lie to them. Not even if you think they won’t like the truth. Especially then. Okay?”

Carlos nodded. That sounded like good advice. It sounded like the kind of advice the hero of a Greek tragedy would be given before setting off on a quest, and then ignore it and meet a horrible fate, but Carlos wasn’t Greek. He had that much going for him, at least.

“Second…” Cecil swallowed. “My mother’s name was Adelaide.”

“O…kay?” Carlos blinked at him. “I mean, thank you for telling me, but do I need to know that right now?”

“I don’t know.” Cecil bit his lower lip. “Just remember it. In case.”

Before Carlos could question him further, Cecil bent his head and kissed Carlos high on the cheek, near the corner of his eye. Carlos’s blush didn’t last long, but it warmed him nicely while it lasted.

Carlos took a deep breath and smiled at Nijeia one last time. He tried for a brave, optimistic look, but suspected that he just looked strangled.

Then he plunged into the dark room.

The door slammed shut, untouched, behind him. It was the last normal sound he heard for a long time.


In the main lab, Nijeia and Tamika had set the AC at full blast to try to flush out the smoke from the…Carlos supposed it was a fire, nobody had really told him. But the cold in the room at the back of the lab was of a completely different kind. And the degree of darkness just didn’t make any sense, because Carlos had tried to block the window using blackout curtains and masking tape, the better to nap in the middle of the day when the desert sun was glaring. He’d never come close to managing this degree of light-proofing.

Despite the darkness, he could tell that he was standing near the edge of his bed because his hip kept bumping against the railing. He didn’t try walking any deeper into the room. That just seemed unnecessary. He couldn’t see the Orphanarians, but knew they were there, because of that feeling you sometimes got in empty rooms when you knew that you weren’t alone, only…more so. Still, seconds ticked by, and nothing attacked him. The oxygen wasn’t sucked out of the room and replaced with poison gas. He didn’t hear the skittering of claws against the floor or the walls. So he cleared his throat and began to speak.

“H-hi,” he said. “I’m Doctor—um, I’m Carlos. The, the scientist whose lab you, um. Whose lab this is. When I first came to Night Vale a year ago, you gave Niejia Myrick permission to leave the, the Orphanarium and come work with me. I’m pleased to say that she’s been an excellent assistant, and we’ve become friendly. More than friendly, actually. I…I care about her, personally. In fact, I would like to ask you for permission to, to adopt her. To, to be her father. Legally. On paper. You know. If that’s…okay with you.”

The silence that followed this stretched out for so long that Carlos was afraid at first that they hadn’t heard him. He nonetheless had a strong suspicion that repeating himself wouldn’t be a good idea, so he waited. And waited. His palms began to sweat. He continued to wait.

The voice that finally answered him out of the darkened room was bizarrely…normal sounding. It was an ungendered voice, perhaps a bit dry and raspy, but it wouldn’t have sparked panic if Carlos had heard it coming down the other end of the phone line at three in the morning.

“You abandoned the child for a month,” it said, in a flat tone. “That is why we came to collect her. We didn’t agree to let her work for you so that she could be neglected.”

“I can explain about that,” Carlos said instantly. “I had to leave Night Vale for a few days. There was a time lag in the journey that I didn’t anticipate—that I couldn’t have anticipated! I had no intention of leaving her on her own for that long.”

“But you did intend to leave her for ‘a few days’,” the voice answered.

Guilt flooded him like an outpouring of lava from the mouth of a volcano. “If I were her only caretaker, I would never have done that. But I knew that she slept nights at the Orphanarium, and got her meals there, and I mean, frankly, she’s reached the point in her research methodology where she needs the freedom to—”

“Be quiet,” said the voice, and Carlos didn’t even hesitate before he shut up. “You left Night Vale on a whim to attend to personal business. You didn’t think about the child at all. You vanished, leaving only a note. She has seen dozens of people disappear from her life with as little or no warning. It distressed her very much.”

Carlos bristled, even as he died a little inside, imagining Nijeia being distressed over him. Perversely, the guilt made him want to defend himself all the more, but two things stopped him. The first was the knowledge that the Orphanarian was right, and as a scientist he had a duty to respect the truth when it was spoken out loud. The second was Cecil’s admonition not to lie.

Carlos took another deep breath.

“That’s…that’s true,” he said. “I didn’t take adequate thought for Nijeia’s needs. I’m afraid that I was thinking mostly of my own problems. I’ve gone back and forth between treating her like a child in my care and like any other lab assistant. But it won’t be that way anymore. I want to, to make a commitment to Nijeia and her future. If you allow this adoption, I will always put her first. You have my word. Or…if there’s something else that means more to you, you can have that as well.” Please no internal organs, he prayed.

For the next few minutes Carlos heard the sound of whispering. He couldn’t make out what was being said, not even fragments of recognizable words or names, but he was sure they were talking about him. He felt a dreadful anxiety coiling in his gut, snaking its way up into his chest. If they doubted his fitness to be Nijeia’s guardian, maybe they were right to do. Hell, he’d only made up his mind to do it half an hour ago. And anyway, what did he know about being a parent? He’d never even had a pet—lab mice hardly counted, considering what he’d done to some of them. Maybe it wasn’t too late to call this whole thing off. Maybe he could ask the Orphanarians to forget all the adoption stuff and instead just let her continue working with him—or, if working with him was out of the question, then at least let him see and interact with her, like Cecil was allowed to do.

For a moment, the fear and the uncertainty were so strong that it really was right on the tip of his tongue to recant. The only thing that held him back was imagining the look on Nijeia’s face. It would be one thing if the Orphanarians said no, but if she found out he’d changed his mind, she be…there probably wasn’t even a word for it. She definitely wouldn’t be talking to him anymore. Hell, she probably wouldn’t even look at hi. She’d just add his name to the list of adults who had disappointed and abandoned her in her short lifetime and carry on like he’d never existed.

Underneath the sussurrus of whispers, Carlos heard a faint pinging noise that he was fairly certain was his own heart breaking.

“Please,” he said, interrupting the voices, his own voice little more than a whisper. “Let me just say something else.”

The instantaneous hush was more frightening than if they Orphanarians had shouted at him. Even though his eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness at all, at least not well enough to distinguish shapes, Carlos had the strong impression that half a dozen empty, hooded faces had turned to face him. He grasped the iron railing beside him and squared his shoulders.

“So, Cecil—you all know Cecil, right? My boyfriend?” Carlos felt ridiculous for saying it that way, as though he wasn’t perfectly aware that Cecil had been an Orphan himself once and went back to the Orphanarium for regular visits. “Well, he told me not to lie to you. And, and I haven’t lied to you, I promise. But there’s a difference between not lying, and being completely and utterly honest about things. So—so you should know that I honestly don’t know how good a father I would be. I know for a fact that nothing I’ve ever done has really prepared me to be a parent, especially to someone as gifted as Nijeia.”

Carlos had no idea if he was strengthening his credibility or sawing off the branch he stood on, but now he’d started there was no going back. “I, I, I think that part of me would be relieved if you said no to my petition, honestly, because being a parent is such a huge responsibility. I mean, if I screwed it up, I’d never forgive myself. But—but Nijeia wants this. I don’t know why she wants me, of all people to look after her, because I’m, frankly, a ridiculous human being, as she reminds me constantly, and I’m sure any number of other people could do more for her than I could. But for whatever reason, she’s counting on me to try as hard as I can to make this happen, but—let me just state for the record, I’m not just doing this for her. I’m doing it for me too. I’m thirty-three years old and I’ve never done anything really important with my life up to this point. But being Nijeia’s father would be the most important thing I could ever, or will ever do. Even if I win a—well, let’s be honest, I’m never winning the Nobel, not when I can’t even publish 99% of my findings, but even if did, nothing will ever matter as much as loving Nijeia and being a good father to her. And while I might not know anything about being a father right now, I am very, very good at acquiring new skill sets. I promise you, I can learn to be a good parent. And I promise I won’t let her down, not ever again. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I did that. And, and that would be awkward. For…shaving and things.”

The resounding silence in the aftermath of Carlos’s speech (and its spectacularly unimpressive denouement) lasted for so long that Carlos began losing track of time. He started to fear that he’d stumbled into another temporal lag like the one between Night Vale and Albuquerque, and the lapse of minutes, hours, and days on this side of the door would turn out to be radically different from the lapse of time on the other side of the door, and that if he ever escaped this room again it would be to find himself palsied and demented, while Cecil and Nijeia and Tamika were fresh faced and youthful as ever—

“You should steer clear of mirrors, boy,” said one of the invisible Orphanarians, whose voice was rasping and genderless like the first, but ever-so-slightly higher in timbre. “Playing with mirrors is just asking for trouble.”

Carlos blinked—purely on reflex, because he was still completely sightless. The Orphanarian’s remark was random and slightly off the point, but that wasn’t what made him catch his breath. Carlos was remembering the second thing that Cecil had told him before he entered the room. He also remembered a story he heard Cecil telling on the radio, a long time ago, not long after he moved to Night Vale.

“Adelaide?” Carlos whispered. “Sorry—I mean, I’m sorry—it’s just that Cecil said…”

He didn’t get the chance to finish, because hissing filled the darkness. Carlos recoiled from it immediately. His back hit the door, but the door didn’t budge. He threw his hands up over his face and cringed as best he could without actually curling up in a ball on the floor (and that was only because he had no idea what might be slithering or skittering round on the floor in the darkness).

“Be quiet,” said the voice of the Orphanarian who might or might not once have been Cecil’s mother. Since Carlos was being as silent as he physically knew how to be, he assumed the order wasn’t being directed at him. “Cecil’s a smart kid, he was bound to figure out eventually. Besides, the boy here isn’t breaking any rules. Stop hissing already, it feels like tinnitus.”

Gradually, the hissing faded away, although one or two of the hissers sounded reluctant to stop. Their sibilant sssss’s trailed awkwardly into the silence for a few moments.

“Stand up,” said the first Orphanarian. “It’s very awkward trying to speak to someone while they’re huddled in the fetal position.”

Carlos obeyed. Weakly, clutching the wall for support, he climbed to his feet and stood there, swaying.

“Doctor—er, Carlos.” There was a noise that sounded like a shuffling of papers. “You’ve lodged a petition to be considered as a prospective adoptive parent of Nijeia Louise Myrick—”

“Wait a moment,” interrupted the Orphanarian whom Carlos simply couldn’t help thinking of as Adelaide now. “Nijeia should be present for this.”

“Should she?” The other Orphanarian sounded skeptical.

“Yes, unless you want to explain to her why she wasn’t included.”

And just like that, Nijeia was there in the room, standing beside Carlos. She was shrieking and off-balance, twisting for a hand-hold in the dark, and Carlos realized that the Orphanarians must have simply summoned her somehow—that they had the power to do things like that, and saw no reason not to use them on a child. Suddenly, his own estimation of his potential parenting skills went up a few notches.

Carlos reached for Nijeia, brushing her shoulder with his knuckles and saying her name in a low voice. “It’s me, it’s me, it’s okay. The Orphanarians brought you here. You’re standing next to me with your back to the door of the lab. See? You can feel the doorknob behind you. You’re gonna be okay.”

Somehow, as he was reassuring her, he found his arm wrapped around her scrawny shoulders. And for some reason, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to tug her close against his side. When she didn’t pull away from the shelter he was offering her, Carlos felt a fierce spark of pride in himself for having done something right. Nijeia’s skinny elbows dug uncomfortably into side, but he continued to hold her there tightly, like he was afraid someone would try to tear her away.

Right about then was when he realized: Oh god. I’m done for. Whatever the Orphanarians decided, it scarcely mattered. Nijeia’s fate was twisted up with his now, her tiny, nimble fingers snarled in his heartstrings.

“As we were saying,” continued the first Orphanarian. He didn’t even bother to acknowledge Nijeia’s presence, which made both Carlos and Nijeia bristle in tandem. “Your petition to be considered as a prospect adoptive parent has been taken under consideration. Under different circumstances, the Night Vale Orphanarium Trust would welcome it, and permit you to move to the second stage of the fitness review, which, as you may have heard, is a rather more…secretive, and…athletic process.”

Carlos might have gulped, but he was stuck on the phrase “under different circumstances”. Nijeia scooted closer to him in the darkness.

“However, there’s a bit of a snag.”

Carlos blinked. That really wasn’t the word he was excepting to hear. “Sacrifice” or “bloodletting” or “duel to the death” would not have surprised him. “Snag” threw him for a bit of a loop.

“What sort of snag?” he inquired in a voice that was a bit short of politeness.

“Persons wishing to adopt Orphans residing in the care of the Night Vale Orphanarium Trust must either a) be life-long citizens of Night Vale, or b) have survived five consecutive years of residency in Night Vale, with no more than two weeks of cumulative annual absences,” the Orphanarian intoned. “I’m afraid you aren’t yet eligible, Dr. Mazte. Come back in four years.”

It was such an anti-climax that Carlos just stood there, gaping at the hidden figures. He couldn’t even spare the energy to be impressed that they actually knew his last name (and, more incredibly, how to pronounce it.) He was still waiting for an addendum: something along the lines of, “and in order to insure that you will be available in four years’ time, we will throw you into a dark pit infested by rats for the next four years. You will of course be obliged to kill and eat the rats in order to survive.”

But the Orphanarians said nothing of the kind. In fact, they said nothing at all. Gradually, it began to sink in: he was being dismissed. He wasn’t allowed to adopt Nijeia. Period.

Deep down, he couldn’t really pretend to himself that he was surprised. He’d had the idea so suddenly, and gone about it with so little planning, that it would be stupid to be surprised that it hadn’t worked. It hadn’t been an impulse, so much as a sudden realization of feelings and hopes he’d been having where Nijeia was concerned for the last few months. Still, he was a scientist. He understood the importance of being meticulous better than most people.

He was still blinking back his disappointment, trying to think of something he could say to salvage the situation at least a little, when Nijeia exploded into the silence like a small sonic bomb.

“That is some bullshit,” she hollered. She pulled out of Carlos’s arms like she was about to charge the Orphanarians. “What the hell kind of rule is that? You made it up! You made it up just now so you can keep me!”

The Orphanarians didn’t deny it. They didn’t agree, either. They continued to say nothing, and their silence seemed to escalate Nijeia’s anger to a point Carlos had never seen before.

“I ain’t doing it!” she screamed. “Y’all better tie me up and hang me by the toes, ‘cause I ain’t going back! I’ll live in the sand wastes, just you watch me. Next thing y’all know I be shaving a cactus!”

“Nijeia.” Carlos groped for her in the darkness, but she squirmed wildly, flailing her arms so he couldn’t grip.

“I’m not going back to the Pit! I don’t care! I don’t care, I don’t—”

“Honey, please.” Carlos felt his heart shredding like meat paste in a blender. His arms ached to pull Nijeia in and hold her tight. He knew what it meant when a child said I don’t care in that tone of voice. He took a step forward, finding her when he fist clipped his arm. He wrapped his arms around her tightly from behind, letting her struggle without actually holding her so hard that she couldn’t have got away if she’d really wanted to.

Eventually she slump and flung herself against his chest. Carefully, Carlos found her shoulder, then the back of her neck, and held her close. Her breathing was wet and ragged. She bunched her hands up in his lab coat and tried very hard not to sound like she was crying.

“Look,” said Carlos, holding hard to the anger that was building in his chest. He was trying not to think about Cecil’s being Nijeia’s age once and living in that place. He was trying not to think about the fact that the Orphanarians possessed mysterious, terrifying powers, and could probably vanish him into some void between universes if he was impertinent. “Obviously, you’ve got a situation here. Nijeia’s too smart for you to hold her against her will indefinitely, as I’m sure you know. And if she runs off on her own, then—then you’ve failed to keep her safe, haven’t you? Isn’t that your job?”

It was a serious risk. He could tell by the fact that Nijeia got very quiet and still suddenly. Carlos wasn’t oblivious to this, but he was counting on the fact that, if the Orphanarians knew Nijeia at all, which they seemed to, then they would know that if she was determined to do something nuts like run away into the sand wastes and give haircuts to cacti, she would do it. He seriously doubted that even being locked in the Pit could stop her. He was betting the Orphanarians knew that too.

“Do you have a point, or do you simply wish to insult us?” said the Orphanarian who may or may not have once been Cecil’s mother.

Carlos cringed, and hoped the Orphanarians couldn’t see in the dark.

“Don’t you have some kind of foster care system?” he said, his voice rising plaintively. “You know—technically, Nijeia is still in your care, but she lives with a, a family?”

“What family did you have in mind?” said the Orphanarian dryly.

Carlos nearly bristled, until he realized that he hadn’t actually articulated the plan rapidly forming plan in his head. “Well, as it happens, I’ve been meaning to find a slightly bigger place. And, I will no doubt be doing much sooner than planned, since my former living space is a bit, um, destroyed now.” He pointedly did not draw attention to whatever role the Orphanarians may have played in the lab’s destruction. “As for families—I happen to think two people who love each other can be a family all by themselves. But, um, Cecil—you know, Cecil Palmer? My boyfriend? We, we haven’t quite talked about moving in together, but I know he would be around frequently, and he’s on your list of people who are approved to interact with the Orphans anyway, so…” Carlos trailed off, feeling deeply uninspired by his own speech. He’d meant to add a bunch of stuff about how he could improve Nijeia’s education, and about Cecil would understand her in ways that hardly anyone else could, but his unfortunate tendency to end sentences with ellipses meant that he couldn’t add any of that without sounding desperate.

One the Orphanarians—Adelaide?—made a noise low in its throat that might have passed for laughter, in a human.

“The Orphanarium Trust isn’t in the habit of placing Orphans in the care of solitary adults,” said the other one. “If Cecil Palmer is willing to make a formal commitment to co-fostering the girl, we might consider it.”

“Okay.” Carlos’s mouth felt very dry. “We could ask him?”

“As you wish.”

There was a noise that Carlos didn’t recognize, although if he had to describe it, he might say that it was the noise matter makes when it moves through space by a method that should be impossible according to the laws of physics. And then Cecil was in the room with them. Unlike Nijeia, he didn’t scream or flail but he made a little noise that indicated surprise, dismay, and possibly physical discomfort. Carlos could feel the heat of his body and smell the perfumed hair oil he favored, so he knew that Cecil was standing nearby.

“Oh my,” said Cecil. “Carlos? Are you here? Is Nijeia here too?”

“Right here.” Carlos put a hand on Cecil’s arm, and Cecil scooted closer to him immediately. “The, um, the Orphanarians want to ask you a question.”

“Certainly,” said Cecil, and Carlos was deeply impressed by the fact that there wasn’t even a tremor in his voice. He sounded as professional as he did on the radio. Carlos wanted to kiss him; he just knew, somehow, that Cecil had immediately sensed the importance of what was about to happen and was making an effort to sound respectable and reliable for Carlos’s sake.

“Cecil Palmer,” said the Orphanarian with the slightly lower voice (the one who probably wasn’t Cecil’s mother.) “Dr. Carlos Mazte has submitted a request to foster the Orphan Nijeia Myrick for a period of four years’ time until he has met the residency requirement to apply for adoption. He has proposed you as a co-fosterer. We wish to know whether you are willing to undertake this responsibility, freely and without coercion or emotional blackmail, which is why neither Dr Mazte nor Nijeia are permitted to speak until you answer.”

Carlos bit his tongue, hard. He had to admit that this was only fair to Cecil, but he wished that he could have said something to Cecil first—something along the lines of, I know this is incredibly sudden and also kind of ridiculous considering that we haven’t even technically been on a date yet, but I promise that I’ll do most if not all of the work and really this is just a formality, you don’t have to do anything but show up occasionally—

“I am willing,” said Cecil without hesitation, and Carlos gaped. “Will you please outline the specifics of the obligations I’m undertaking, so I don’t accidentally default on them?”

“Wise question.”Adelaide sounded different than before. More like a human, and less like a hooded figure imbued with terrifying unknown powers. Cecil tensed and pressed closer to Carlos, as if for comfort, and Carlos, once again feeling that meat-paste shredding sensation in his heart, immediately found his boyfriend’s hand and squeezed it.

“Your partner will be Nijeia’s primary guardian,” Adelaide said. “But as an Adult Orphan in good standing with the Orphanarium Trust, you should be aware that you will be subject to greater penalties than Dr. Mazte for neglect, misconduct, or failure to abide by the guidelines that will be provided for the both of you in written form. I must also remind you that as an Adult Orphan, you are a mandated reporter. You will be required to submit regular reports on Nijeia’s progress to the Orphanarium representative assigned to your case, in addition to making yourself available for random spot-checks of your residence and Nijeia’ living situation. Also, as you and Dr. Mazte are not currently residing together, you will be required to established co-residency within one year. Your…cohabitation need not take the form of a romantic domestic partnership, unless you come to that decision independently and submit the proper forms to the city council, but the three of you must be living under one roof with a tenancy or mortgage in both your names by the twelfth of July, 2014.”

Carlos stared up at the approximate location of where he judged Cecil’s face to be in the darkness. His stomach was cramping. This was all much, much more than he’d thought he would getting Cecil into by suggesting him as a co-fosterer. He especially didn’t like the bit about Cecil being subject to “greater penalties” if anything went wrong. This had been his idea, not Cecil’s, and anyway, he wasn’t even sure that Cecil really liked Nijeia all that much. But he was mindful of the fact that his other hand, the one not gripping Cecil’s, was being held in a vise-like grip by Nijeia, a silent plea to say nothing and let Cecil make his own decision. Apparently Nijeia was happy to put up with being co-parented, and eventually living with Cecil, if it meant that she could live away from the Orphanarium and with Carlos. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly and waited to hear what Cecil had to say.

“Your terms are acceptable,” said Cecil, simply, without hesitation or any hint of strain. Unless Carlos was imagining things, Cecil almost sounded cheerful. “Will my word suffice, or do you need a blood contract?”

“Blood contracts are required from both you and Dr. Mazte. Please extend your right hands.”

Carlos really, really wished that they could see each other’s faces just then. Just so he could be certain that Cecil really did want to do this. But Cecil let go of his hand, and then Nijeia let go of his other hand, and there was really nothing to do except wait for the…the blood-letting.

Which, as it turned out, felt like the sort of blood stick he’d get a doctor’s office from a sterile lancet. The hands gripping his wrist felt…sort of scaly, it wasn’t to be denied, but they worked efficiently, and Carlos even felt a small band-aid being applied to the site of the stick.

“That will do, then,” said the other Orphanarian, after a long moment’s pause in which Carlos found himself imagining the Orphanarians running their blood samples through some sort of hand-held device, like a blood-sugar monitor perhaps, only subtly less…benign. “One more thing. Nijeia—are you listening?”

“I ain’t gone nowhere,” she replied, still surly but without that wild edge of desperate grief from before.

“Nijeia, you must return to the Orphanarium once a day. That is a mandatory condition of your temporary release.”

“Fostering,” said Adelaide, under her breath, like she was reminding her colleague of something.

“Fostering,” said the Orphanarian, irritably. “Once a day. For no less than half an hour. Perhaps at lunch time? You can see your friends, enjoy some armadillo stew.”

“If you think I’m eating that shit ever again you got another think coming, bro,” Nijeia retorted.

Carlos put a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll make sure she’s there,” he assured them. “Although we’ll give her lunch before she comes, if that’s all right.”

The Orphanarian sniffed. “Nothing wrong with a good armadillo stew,” it muttered. “The Glow Cloud has been very generous in supplying the fresh meat.”

Carlos shuddered. He liked armadillos. But he wasn’t going to get into an argument about the rights of adorable animals with an Orphanarian, now of all times.

In the darkness, there was a sound like that of a heavy ledger being snapped shut. “Very well. Nijeia: your terms of release are set. Dr. Mazte, Mr. Palmer, your obligations have been made plain to you. I hope you recognize that the Orphanarium has been…generous in this matter.”

Delicately, Carlos found Nijeia’s mouth with his hand and covered it, to stop her speaking. “Very generous,” he agreed. “Thank you. Nijeia will be very well cared for, I promise. And…and your strictures will be observed. Strictly.”

The Orphanarium made a small huffing sound. “Be advised,” it said. “We will be watching. We will be watching when you are not aware that we are watching. We will be watching when the Secret Police have turned their heads and sneaked way for their coffee and cigarette breaks. The safety of the Orphans is our mandate. Until Nijeia is 17, her well-being is our first priority. We will not hesitate to intervene if we observe even the slightest cause for concern. Are we understood?”

“We understand, and we are grateful for your leniency and compassion in this matter,” said Cecil smoothly, before Carlos could force his tongue into motion. “Do you require anything else of us?”

A silence fell in the wake of this question. Then an Orphanarian spoke.

“We have all we require of Nijeia and Dr. Mazte,” said the voice. It was Adelaide’s voice. “We would like some few minutes of private conversation with you. Cecil. If you are willing.”

Carlos could feel Cecil trembling against his side, but he didn’t think it was from fear. “Of course,” said Cecil. “Is it ok if Carlos and Nijeia leave now?”

“Yes,” said the voice, and then Carlos’s entire body folded.

It was a sensation Carlos could not possibly describe, not if he had a year with a thesaurus and an inexhaustible supply of municipally un-approved writing utensils. For a second—which get like an hour—he was flat. He could feel his heart jack-knifing to the left inside his sternum. Breathing was impossible. Thought was a distant memory.

And then he was blinded by light. He fell to his knees before he even realized that he’d been standing on his feet. Carlos clasped his hands over his eyes and only when he felt his forehead touch the cool tile did he realized he was prostrate on the floor of the lab, where the lights were on, and physics behaved themselves, and most importantly there were no Orphanarians.

Distantly, he heard a shriek. He didn’t have the cognitive focus to determine the source of the sound, but as seconds ticked by and his eyes (slowly, so so slowly) began to adjust to the presence of light again, he realized that he was out of that small room, and that Nijeia was with him—both of them transported there by the same supernatural power the Orphanarians had used to bring Nijeia, then Cecil, into the small apartment at the back of the lab in the first place. Despite his discomfort, and his incipient existential crisis, he felt an overwhelming surge of outrage that this process had been visited on Nijeia twice—and unlike Cecil she hadn’t been even slightly prepared for it.

When he managed to straighten up, blinking and fuzzily sight-enabled once again, he saw that Nijeia was being embraced by Tamika—poor Tamika, who had been standing the lab with three people only to see all of them vanish into that small room one after another. He suspected the shriek had come from her as well. Dazed, Carlos settled back on his heels and watched Tamika stroke Nijeia’s back in soothing circles. Her face was set and furious, but her touch was gentle, and his heart warmed toward the odd girl with her taste for raw red-pepper flakes as she comforted her friend and peered around the room with a deadly expression in her eyes, like she was daring anyone to take Nijeia away again.

Eventually, Tamika looked over at Carlos. Nijeia’s face was pressed to her shoulder. “Well?” she said, in a deep, oddly adult sounding voice that was seriously at odds with her stature and puffy, childish features.

“It’s ok,” Carlos gasped. “It’s ok. Right Nijeia? You don’t have to live there anymore. You’re coming home with us.”

Nijeia lifted her face. There were tear tracks etched into her dark skin and her eyes were rimmed with red. “Whatever,” she mumbled.

Fortunately, Carlos had enough experience translating Nijeia-speak to normal-speak to understand what she meant. Laboriously, he picked himself up off the ground and stumbled over to her. She seemed a bit reluctant to let go of Tamika, but she let Carlos fold her into his arms.

They were still standing there, Carlos scritching Nijeia’s hair with hand and patting her back between her shoulder blades with the other, when Cecil reappeared in the brightness of the lab.

Carlos was deeply grateful that Nijeia let go of him instantly when she saw Cecil. He wouldn’t have pushed her away for the world, but he did very much want to go straight to Cecil. Nijeia, though, was apparently content to walk over to the lab bench where Tamika was sitting and whisper with her. So Carlos lurched (he didn’t seem to be in full control of his limbs after his translation-by-Orphanarian) to where Cecil stood blinking, his face raw and open in a way Carlos had rarely seen it.

Carlos didn’t quite dare to touch him right away. But as soon as Cecil managed to focus, he looked at Carlos with such pleading in his lovely eyes that Carlos could no more have resisted pulling him into his arms than he could have held back the tide.

“Are you okay?” he whispered into Cecil’s ear. “I’m so sorry—I had no idea they would ask so much of you. What happened when we left? Are you…I mean, did they say anything about…” He hardly knew how to phrase the question. Obviously Cecil had known, or suspected, what his mother’s fate had been after she left him the second time, but there was a difference between being aware and seeing it face to face. Carlos couldn’t even imagine what had passed between them in private, or if they’d even talked at all.

“I’m okay,” Cecil whispered back. He chuckled a little into Carlos’s ear. “Family, right? It’s okay though. We’re going to be fine.”

A knot, so huge that it might as well have been a tumor, formed in Carlos’s throat. Cecil had placed a delicate emphasis on the ‘we’ as though to be sure Carlos knew that it was meant to include Nijeia.

“Are you sure?” Carlos said. “I never meant to drag you in so deep—and I had no idea how much they would ask of you—and your mother, Cecil, how are you even remotely— ”

“It’s really fine. I promise.” Cecil was much taller than Carlos, but he still managed to hunch his spine enough to tuck his head into the crook of Carlos’s neck. “I wanted this. All of it. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”

“All of it?” said Carlos, hesitantly. “But so much of it just got…sprung on you. And we’ve been together such a short time.”

Cecil lifted his head and looked at Carlos. He touched the hair at Carlos’s temples. “You’ve got more grey,” he said, sounding fond. “Just in the last hour or so. Prolonged exposure to Orphanarians can have that effect.”

“Great,” mumbled Carlos, touching his head self-consciously. “People already think I’m ten years older than I am. Now it’ll be fifteen.” He was conscious that Cecil was making a delicate effort to change the subject. He knew they would need to talk about all these things seriously later, but for now Carlos was willing to let it the deflection pass.

“So, um. You’re okay with having us at your place, then?” Carlos smiled weakly, looking at a corner of the lab that appeared to have been the site of a very small explosion.

“Only too delighted,” Cecil caroled, tucking Carlos’s arm into his. Then he turned and cocked an eyebrow at Nijeia. “Ready to go home and have dinner?”

Nijeia stood up slowly. She shoved her hands into her pockets and rocked on her heels, evaluating Cecil closely. If you didn’t look too closely at her puffy, red-lined eyes, you wouldn’t be able to tell that she wasn’t the same heavily armed, cocksure 12-year-old she’d been that morning.

“Of course, Tamika’s invited as well,” Cecil added, before Nijeia could reply. “I thought we’d stop for tacos and take them home?”

The little smile that crooked the corner of Nijeia’s mouth for a split second before she traded looks with Tamika might not have looked like a miracle of hope to anyone else. But to Carlos, it looked like the beginning a future the likes of which he’d not dared to hope for in a very long time—one full of acceptance, family, and love.

Nijeia looked at Carlos and rolled her eyes. “Don’t start with that mushy shit,” she warned him, grabbing Tamika’s hand and brushed past him on the way out of the ruined lab. “Just ‘cuz you my foster-whatever don’t mean I can’t kill you in your sleep.”

“Perhaps it’s time to discuss some rules for living under my roof,” Cecil said primly, as he and Carlos followed her.

“Discuss ‘em with yourself, bro. I do what I want.”

Carlos didn’t think she meant for Cecil to see the grin that she tossed over shoulder. Cecil saw it anyway, though, so the drive to the taco place was made in companionable, contented silence.

Chapter Text

They ended up eating dinner at the taco restaurant, rather than picking the food up and taking it back to Cecil’s apartment. This was because Tamika had to phone her parents for permission to have dinner with them, and her parents reminded her that she had school the next day. The restaurant was only a short drive from her neighborhood, which made it possible to get her home before ten without having to rush through their meal.

Ten p.m., apparently, was what qualified as a reasonable hour for a child to be out with friends on a school night. Carlos made a mental note of this, slightly bewildered by the suddenly dawning realization that he now had a growing girl of his own whose adequate rest, nutrition, and education was now his responsibility. The idea of giving Nijeia a bedtime or a curfew felt very nearly presumptuous to Carlos—disrespectful even. He was, after all, painfully aware that she had essentially raised herself all those years in the Orphanarium. Stepping in now with a bundle of arbitrary rules (and they would be arbitrary, because he didn’t have any practical experience or logical system for basing them on) struck him as the worst kind of adult authoritarianism.

Which was kind of ridiculous, because he was an adult, and Nijeia was a child, and wasn’t that the whole point of being a parent, or something? His abuela certainly hadn’t hesitated to lay down the law when he was a kid (although in retrospect, most of her lectures had been directed at his cousin Graciella, who had lived with them for two years when he was twelve or so. He, Carlos, had been so boring and nerdy that his grandmother had been more inclined to scoot him out of the house than yell at him for coming home late.)

He actually didn’t have any idea what Nijeia got up to when she wasn’t in the lab. He didn’t know if the reason she spent so much time working on science projects was because it was her only alternative to the Pit, or if the enthusiasm came from inside her. What if she wanted to disappear for hours or days at a time now that she didn’t have to go back to that awful place every night? What if she wanted to experiment with drugs—or whatever passed for illicit drugs in Night Vale, where salvia and peyote cigarettes were available in convenience stores?

“Carlos.” Cecil nudged him from the driver’s seat.

“Huh? Oh, sorry, I was miles away. Did you say something?”

Cecil smiled and jerked his head. “Look.”

Nijeia had got out of the car to walk Tamika to her front door, where they were lingering on the porch, their dark heads bent together in low, intent conversation. Tamika was shorter and more solidly built than Nijeia, who would be a long streak of nothing (to use one of his abuela’s phrases) as soon as she had a growth spurt. Their skin was a similar dark sienna in tone, and there was an even more pronounced resemblance in their eyes—not the shape or appearance, but the expression, which said they had both seen and thought about things that children in Carlos’s idea of the world should never have to see or think about. They could almost be sisters.

Except it was impossible to deny that Tamika’s clothes were in better shape than Nijeia’s. And her hair looked like it had been cared for by someone who knew what they were doing, whereas Nijeia’s hair was in tight cornrows that looked like…well, like they’d been done by another child. Tamika possibly. Should he buy Nijeia clothes? Take her to a hair stylist? Take her shopping to pick out her own clothes? What if she wanted to dress like Cecil? What if—

“They are so cute together,” said Cecil, breaking into this train of thought. “Ah, young love. I was about their age when I had my first crush.”

Carlos whipped his head round to stare at Cecil so fast that his neck ached. “What? Crush? What?”

Cecil rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? They became positively inseparable while you were away on your trip. Look at them, whispering together.” Cecil sighed and clasped his hands, wearing an expression Carlos normally associated with Cecil watching an hour-long marathon of cat videos on YouTube.

“But that’s. They can’t. What?” Carlos looked pleadingly at Cecil. “They’re children!”

“They’re young teenagers, Carlos. That’s exactly the right age for love to blossom! Don’t be such a sourpuss.”

“I am not a—!” Carlos sighed as Cecil grinned at him. “You’re teasing me.”

“I might be. A little.” Cecil twined his fingers with Carlos’s and stroked his palm with a thumb. “Does it really bother you?”

Carlos leaned back against the headrest, sighing. “No, no of course not. If they make each other happy, that’s wonderful. I guess I just find it…difficult to relate to.”

“Mmm. You never had a crush at that age?”

Carlos tensed. “There…was that boy. When I was in high school. When he found out I didn’t want to have sex, or…do anything sex-related, he…he wasn’t kind to me.”

Silence filled the car. Eventually, Carlos looked over at Cecil, who was staring at him with a hard-to-read expression. “What?” he said.

“May I kiss you?” said Cecil.

Carlos’s mouth fell open. “Oh. Um. I, uh…”

“You don’t have to. I won’t be disappointed or angry, I promise.” Cecil’s grip tightened on his hand. “But I would like to kiss you very much.”

Carlos’s heart rate seemed to triple in a second, which made him feel very light-headed. He thought about the kisses—or rather, slobbery tongue invasions—Robert had forced on him in the past. He made himself look at Cecil’s face, to see Cecil and no one else.

“Yeah,” he whispered. “Okay.”

Cecil frowned. He seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then he unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned across the armrest. His long-fingered hand came to rest lightly against the side of Carlos’s face. Carlos breathed faster. He realized that he had no idea whether he was excited or afraid.

“Carlos,” Cecil said. “Darling. My darlingest darling. Do you trust me?”

Carlos felt like they’d been transported, Orphanarian style, out of the car and into some alternate plane that was barren and dark as the desert at night. He couldn’t feel the car around them. He jerked his head once in a nod. Because he did trust Cecil, of course he did.

That had never been the problem.

“Will you close your eyes?” Cecil asked him softly, and Carlos complied. It was a relief. He’d always mashed his eyes shut when he saw Robert’s kisses coming. It helped not to have to look.

He heard the creak of the car seat as Cecil drew closer. He felt Cecil’s breath—wintergreen scented—against his cheek. Carlos felt an aching tension in his back and shoulders and he knew his entire body was rigid, muscles like iron.

Cecil’s finger pads traced the contour of his cheekbone. They brushed the hair at his left temple, with its new supply of extra silver. He felt Cecil’s thumb trace his eyebrow, then come to rest at the spot between his eyebrows, where he rubbed in a tiny firm circle, until Carlos felt his brow unfurrow. Cecil traced his other cheek, and then he took Carlos’s face in both his hands and leaned forward, touching their foreheads together. Carlos felt the tiniest peck of lips against the bridge of his nose, between his eyes. Then another peck, this time on the tip of his nose. The fingers of Cecil’s left hand threaded through his hair, and without quite meaning to Carlos braced himself for a yank, or a tug, but Cecil kept carding through the dense locks, his fingernails scratching against Carlos’s scalp.

“Cecil?” said Carlos, his eyes still closed. He heard the pleading and the confusion in his own voice, though he hadn’t meant to let either of those emotions out where Cecil would have to deal with them.

“Ssh,” said Cecil. “I have you.” His hands cupped the back of Carlos’s neck. He kissed Carlos’s forehead, lightly. Then he kissed the corner of his left eye, then his right. He stroked the back of his knuckles down the side of Carlos’s neck, and Carlos shivered. Cecil paused for a moment, his already feather-light hold relaxing just a bit more. Then his fingertip traced around the outside of Carlos’s mouth, and brushed against the surface of his lips.

Slowly—exquisitely slow, telegraphing every quarter-inch of distance that was vanishing between them—Cecil tilted his head and pressed his lips to Carlos’s lips. And there they rested. Carlos felt nothing but the warmth of their skin touching. There was no moisture, no probing, no biting, no demand for entry.

Before Carlos quite knew what he was doing or why, he parted his lips. Just the barest fraction of an inch, just enough that Cecil must feel Carlos’s breath mingling with his. Cecil made a noise deep in his throat, and Carlos, having no idea what to expect anymore, didn’t tense. Cecil’s lips closed on Carlos’s bottom lip—again, without pushing him to open his mouth wider, or using his teeth. He tugged very, very gently at the lower lip, gripping it with nothing but his own two lips. There was a faint, wet noise, the sound that kissing makes when only the two people doing the kissing can hear it. Cecil kissed him one more time—just a bit harder, which was to say, not really hard at all, but more firmly, and the slick, wet skin just inside their lips made contact for a second or two.

Then Cecil sighed, loudly, like he’d been holding his breath. He kissed the corner of Carlos’s mouth, then took his face in his hands again and kissed his forehead. Then he tugged once, hard, at the back of his Carlos’s neck, and Carlos collapsed into his arms, feeling he’d just participated in the slow, controlled defusing of a nuclear bomb with a timer counting rapidly down to zero.

“I know you know that I love you,” Cecil whispered close to his ear, as he rubbed Carlos’s back in firm, kneading circles. “But I don’t think you know for certain yet that I’m not ever going to hurt you.”

Carlos tried to pull away at that, a protest forming, but Cecil’s arms became inescapable bands of iron. He held Carlos firmly against his chest and didn’t let him go. “It’s okay,” said Cecil. “Because I know it isn’t about me. I understand, I do.”

Carlos expelled a deep breath into Cecil’s shoulder. It wasn’t quite a sob; it also wasn’t quite not a sob. Cecil kept rubbing his back, his hand moving up to stroke Carlos’s hair occasionally.

“Actually,” Cecil continued, sounding thoughtful, “I think I misspoke. Perhaps it isn’t that you fear that I might hurt you. Perhaps some part of you simply expects hurt to happen, as a natural part of things. Which is an intelligent and logical thing to expect, if, for instance, you are observing nature, or a PTA meeting. But it shouldn’t be something you expect from those who love you.”

Cecil let him go, then. Not entirely—he kept a grip on Carlos’s arms— but he pulled back far enough that they were able to see each other’s faces. Not until Carlos saw Cecil’s expression crumple slightly in the dark car interior, and felt him reach out to trace the track of a tear down his cheek, did he even realize he’d been crying.

“I know you can’t help what you feel,” Cecil told him. “It’s my responsibility to show you that it’s natural and logical to expect better things. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to try my very best, at least. Okay?”

Carlos stared at Cecil for such a long time that Cecil started to look nervous. “Did—did I say something wrong?” he said.

“No,” said Carlos, choked. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “No, Cecil. You said nothing wrong. I’m just…I’m trying to figure out how you’re even real.”

Cecil’s brow furrowed curiously. “I’ve never thought about it before,” he said. “I suppose that I might be some kind of self-aware figment of your imagination. Is that a problem?”

Carlos’s mouth twitched. Cecil grinned at him, hugely, lights reflecting in his glasses like stars in a Voidless night sky.

He wasn’t sure whether it was out of sheer habit, or something other post-making-out instinct that he didn’t know how to identify, but Carlos glance discreetly at Cecil’s lap. Cecil followed his gaze and adjusted himself in the seat, looking a little self-conscious.

“Um.” Carlos hardly knew what he wanted to say, but he’d been too well-trained in these situations to feel that he could just ignore it. “Are you, um…”

“It’s fine, my dear Carlos.”

Carlos looked away. “Are you sure?” he said, hating the waver he heard in his voice.

“Carlos. Honestly, look at me.” Cecil reached over turned Carlos’s head toward’s his with one finger underneath his chin. “It really isn’t of the slightest importance. Okay?”

Before Carlos could answer, there was a a loud rapping on the window beside his head. He jumped, and turned. Nijeia was standing outside the car, her arms crossed over her chest, her foot tapping the ground. Sheepishly—he had forgotten that Nijeia was waiting, and possibly that she even existed, for the last two minutes or so—he rolled his window down.

“Y’all done necking in the parking lot so we can get out of here, or do I need to set me up a hammock in some trees?”

“Yes, we’re finished necking,” said Cecil calmly, while Carlos blushed so hot that he feared for the fabric of his heat resistant lab coat. “The back is unlocked.”

Nijeia made a “humph” noise and let herself into the car. Carlos couldn’t bring himself to look at or speak to her during the trip back to Cecil’s place, but it was hard to mind his embarrassment too much when Cecil was driving one hand, holding tight to Carlos’s hand with the other.


When they pulled into the parking lot of Cecil’s apartment complex, Carlos felt immediately that something was wrong.

He didn’t say anything to Cecil; he couldn’t. He’d trained as a scientist for far too long to feel remotely comfortable giving voice to a random premonition of doom, especially one so vague that he couldn’t even process it verbally in his own head. Carlos was a disbeliever in anything he didn’t have solid evidence for. All joking aside, that, actually, was the first thing a scientist had to be. (His belief in ghosts totally fell under the category of “evidence based”. His abuela had believed in them. That was evidence enough for Carlos.)

Making an idle comment to his boyfriend wasn’t exactly a high crime against rational empiricism, and if Carlos had been able to really put his finger on what was bothering him, he probably would have articulated it. But he would have felt silly making a spontaneous exclamation along the lines of, “Hey, that car has New Mexico plates,” without being able to follow it up with an explanation for why that was disturbing.

(Even though he knew perfectly well that Cecil was on first-name terms with everyone who lived in his building. Even though he was sure that Cecil would have mentioned if he had a neighbor from New Mexico, and probably would even have introduced them to Carlos by now.)

Nijeia was the first one out of the car after Cecil had parked it, throwing the back passenger side door open as though the fifteen minute drive from Tamika’s house had lasted an eon (and considering how little Carlos understood about how time worked in Night Vale, maybe it had, for her; Cecil had been holding his hand all during the drive, which had certainly affected his own subjective experience of the passage of time. Which is to say, the trip could have lasted forever, and he wouldn’t have minded, or noticed.)

Nijeia bounded up the exterior staircase leading to Cecil’s front door and stood on the landing, bobbing impatiently on the balls of her feet. Carlos and Cecil followed at a more sedate pace. Cecil smiled as he selected the apartment key from his strangely heavy and over-crowded keyring, cocking an eyebrow in Nijeia’s direction without actually looking at her.

“You do realize that nothing awaits you once you get inside except for a bath, the ritual cleansing of your teeth, and bed,” he told her, as he fitted his key into the lock. The door opened inwards by a crack as soon as he turned it.

“Dude, you are not even serious.” Nijeia’s tone dripped with scorn. “I don’t go to bed at no ten-thirty p.m.!”

Cecil ignored her. He was frowning at the open door, making no move to walk through it.

“Is something wrong?” Carlos said. The stiffness of Cecil’s posture was doing nothing to mollify his own dim and lingering sense of unease.

“Nooo?” said Cecil, sounding dubious. “Almost certainly not.”


“Well. It appears that I forgot to fasten the deadbolt.” Cecil adjusted his glasses. “Which, certainly, is a thing that people do. It isn’t necessarily a sign that anything is amiss.”

Carlos felt his pulse begin to grow rapid. “Except that you’ve lived in Night Vale your whole life, and the odds of you making a careless mistake about your personal security are pretty low.”

“The chances that I would be careless about my security are low,” Cecil muttered. “But I suspected you would be returning here tonight, and the chances that I would carelessly risk your safety are slim to nonexistent.”

Nijeia was suddenly very still and quiet. She didn’t look scared, any more than Cecil did, but there was a similar expression of troubled concentration on her face. It occurred to Carlos that he wasn’t certain what, if anything, Nijeia knew about the trouble in his recent past. Certainly, he’d never said a word to her about Robert, either before or since his most recent trip to Albuquerque, but she had an unsettling knack for coming by information through her own channels. It was part of what made her such a talented scientist-in-training. Also, she and Cecil had apparently spent a lot of time together during the month Carlos was gone, and Cecil’s notion of what constituted information appropriate for sharing with children was…well, it reflected the culture of Night Vale, where the P.E. curriculum in schools focused equally on running laps and playing dodgeball, and training with automatic weaponry.

“What about…what’s his name? Behind the trash cans?” Carlos gestured vaguely towards the curb across the street. The police officer who’d warned him against loitering the other night had seemed to have been hiding there. “Should we ask him to come inside and have a look?”

“Hmm. That might be a good idea. The sheriff’s secret police are watching us for our own safety. Among other things.” Cecil cleared his throat, then cupped his hands around his mouth. “Excuse me! Officer!”

There was a rustling noise near the trash cans, which reminded Carlos of nothing so much as the raccoons and opossums back east who viewed the human habit of leaving their waste outside as a fine-dining experience. Then a balaclava-clad figure appeared, rising from what must have been an uncomfortable crouch.

“Is this an emergency, Mr. Palmer?” it called back, in a male-sounding voice.

“Suspected home invasion,” Cecil answered.

There was a loud sigh, and a burst of static as the police offer spoke unintelligibly into a brick-sized black radio. Carlos shifted his weight from foot to foot, feeling increasingly silly, self-conscious, and paranoid that he was about to look paranoid.

A moment later, the officer joined them on the staircase landing outside Cecil’s door.

“Thanks,” said Cecil politely, but without any hint of the hesitation that Carlos felt at causing so much fuss over what was almost certainly just a case of bad nerves. “I can authorize the forms here, if that would be convenient.”

“It would, yeah.” The officer produced a long, thin canister from his belt and tapped the bottom until a rolled-up sheaf of paper slid out. He handed the papers to Cecil. Through the slit in his balaclava, he eyed Carlos. “You gonna need some forms for your…friend, here, Mr. Palmer?”

Carlos wondered if Nijeia, being a child, was somehow exempt from the police officer’s impolite scrutiny, or at least from some degree of mandated paperwork. Then he remembered that Nijeia was invisible to adults who hadn’t got exemptions from the Orphanarium. Apparently that was still the case, despite their new fostering arrangement. Ultimately, that was not a good thing, but for tonight he was just as glad not to face speculation about what she was doing there. His relationship with Cecil had skipped over enough traditional milestones; he was in no mood to deal with a stranger’s opinion on the fact that they were jointly fostering a child before they’d even been on an official date.

“We’ll be filing official change-of-residence sacrifices at City Hall soon,” Cecil informed him, crisp but still polite. “Tonight, Dr. Mazte is a guest. My class B hospitality permit is valid until April, I believe.” Cecil flattened the papers against the wall with one hand and reached into his pocket with the other. Why he was carrying a sterile lancet, identical to the ones used by the Orphanarian who had taken their blood an hour ago, Carlos hardly dared to speculate. Most of the paperwork he’d had to file since he’d been living in Night Vale had been completed in crayon (banned by the writing-utensil restriction except for official municipal purposes) but apparently once you breached a certain level of bureaucracy, fewer signatures and more bodily fluids were required.

Cecil pricked a finger that didn’t already have a bright green band-aid on it and smeared the signature line of each page. Carlos counted at least five of them. He gave them back to the officer when he was done, and the officer rolled them up tightly again, then stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. Carlos flinched, as a medium-sized bird (he was terrible at identifying wildlife, and terrible at nature in general, but the bird appeared to be some kind of cross between a pigeon and a bird of prey) came flapping in from the darkness and alighted on the officer’s shoulder. He extended the paperwork canister, which the bird seized in its talons before flying off again.

“So, you think someone broke into your apartment?” said the officer. Carlos wasn’t sure if he was imagining the patronizing tone or not. “Surveillance didn’t catch it.”

“I’m certain the sheriff’s secret police are nothing less than ceaselessly vigilant in monitoring the homes of private citizens for criminal trespass,” said Cecil smoothly. “We’re just feeling especially cautious tonight.”

“Okiedokie.” The officer shrugged. “You folks want to stay outside?”

Carlos opened his mouth, but Cecil caught his wrist and squeezed. “If you don’t mind.”

“Suit yourself.”

As soon as the officer started into the apartment, Nijeia stepped around from behind Carlos and began to follow him. It took a second for Carlos to realize what she was up to. He lunged forward and grabbed the back of her shirt, shaking his head and mouthing, ”No!” when she glared at him.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to no longer being in the care of the Orphanarium,” Cecil mused aloud, examining his powder-blue manicure. “No doubt you’ll be discovering that, in the days to come.”

“You awful smug for a dude who dresses like a—”


She rolled her eyes and leaned against the wall beside the door, sulking visibly. It really ought to have occurred to Carlos before then that living with both Nijeia and Cecil was going to feel like supervising two squabbling siblings, as often as it felt like two grown men parenting a single child.

They waited about fifteen minutes before the secret police officer joined them again on the landing under the yellow glare of the outside light. “The apartment is clear, Mr. Palmero. No sign of any break-in or disturbance as far as I could tell.”

Carlos relaxed, pressing into Cecil’s side. Cecil squeezed his hand and nodded.

“We appreciate your diligent service to the community, as ever,” he said. “Hopefully there will be no need to disturb you again.”

“Eh.” The officer shrugged. “No problem. Good to get a chance to stretch the legs. My shift’s done at midnight, but I’ll let the relief officer know that you’ve got concerns. We’ll keep an eye out.”

“Thank you,” said Carlos, meaning it sincerely. The sheriff’s secret police were frightening, but on the whole, his encounters with them had been more civil and less suspicious than most of his encounters with the police outside of Night Vale. The SSP might not tolerate loitering, but he’d never been harassed for walking-while-Mexican, or been talked to in loud, slow tones on the assumption that he didn’t speak English.

Cecil turned a bright smile on him as the officer headed back down the stairs, and opened the door, gesturing to Carlos that he should enter first.

“I feel like, I don’t know—I should say something, or perform some kind of ceremony,” Cecil said, and Carlos could swear he was glowing. “We’re going to be a family! All of us together, in my little apartment!” Cecil’s expression turned thoughtful. “Actually. It is sort of small, for three people. I mean, it will do for awhile, but…maybe we should look into getting something larger? We can all look together!”

“That would be, um.” Carlos smiles sheepishly. “Neat.”

Cecil’s grin turned radiant. He leaned forward and pecked a kiss onto Carlos’s lips, while Nijeia made loud gagging noises behind them.

“And honestly, tonight I just want to be behind a locked door so I can get comfortable and rest,” Carlos continued, blushing, when Cecil pulled away. “So…maybe we’ll do a ceremony later.”

“Of course,” said Cecil immediately. “Please come in. Both of you.” He turned the smile on Nijeia as well. She rolled her eyes, but Carlos knew her well enough to read the anticipation in her expression as they walked inside.

Cecil’s apartment was cleaner than it had been when Carlos arrived in the middle of the night, but it wasn’t yet restored to its former orderly primness. Carlos didn’t mind, though; his own bedroom behind the lab was currently a chilly, flea-infested well of darkness, and even before the Orphanarians had contaminated it, it hadn’t been anything more to him than the place where he slept when he wasn’t working.

“Nijeia, the room at the end of the hall is yours,” said Cecil. “We’ll pick your things up from the Orphanarium tomorrow when you go for your daily visit. Feel free to re-decorate. Just don’t set fire to anything.”

“Funny man,” Nijeia growled, immediately setting off down the hallway to inspect her new living space. Cecil watched her go with a look on his face that could almost be described as fond.

“The Orphans are housed in large dormitories of fifty beds apiece, although it’s never fully occupied,” Cecil told him, quietly. “Privacy is difficult to come by. We should be understanding if she spends a lot of time alone in her room at first.”

Carlos nodded. “I hear that that’s normal for teenagers to do, anyway?”

“Perhaps. I don’t know that I was particularly normal, myself. I’ve always preferred to be around people. Not a lot of people, but…I always wanted to have someone. Life can be so lonely, you know?”

Carlos found it difficult to swallow for a moment. When he’d finally accepted that his asexuality wasn’t something he could negotiate or navigate around for another person’s sake, he’d also had to accept that he would probably be alone for the rest of his life. Honestly, he still caught himself thinking the old, lonely thoughts from his old life, before he remembered that Cecil existed, that Cecil accepted him exactly the way that he was. The idea that he could share his life with another person without having to sacrifice parts of himself that he couldn’t do without—well, it was so revolutionary that it would probably take awhile yet to really sink in.

He felt guilty sometimes, because Cecil’s unguarded, over-enthusiastic fondness for him sometimes made him feel cold and ungenerous by contrast. He was sure that his feelings for Cecil ran deep, that they would last, but it just wasn’t in his nature to…to bleed affection from his pores the way Cecil did. But at the same, he was grateful, because if Cecil weren’t like that, if his emotions weren’t so unapologetically larger than life, Carlos didn’t know if he would ever have been able to believe that they were even real. He’d been so sure he would always be lonely. Even now, he wondered how much of what he felt for Cecil was just…for Cecil, and how much of it was sheer gratitude for the fact that Cecil gave him hope for future without isolation.

“I know,” he said, stepping a bit closer to Cecil and slipping his arm around his waist for a quick sideways hug. “Having someone is important.”

Cecil smiled down at him. Then he looked over his shoulder, into the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I think I’m hungry. I’m not sure what I’ve got, though. Hmm. I think I have eggs, and some cornbread. Does Nijeia like eggs?”

“I don’t know about Nijeia, but I could definitely eat. Hang on, I’ll ask her what she wants.”

Cecil went into the kitchen and started rummaging through the refrigerator. Carlos started down the hall towards Nijeia’s new room. The door was partially open, and he could see the back of Nijeia’s white t-shirt, but she hadn’t turned the light on.

“Hey.” Carlos caught the door in one hand and gave a perfunctory knock before stepping inside. “Everything okay? Cecil was just about to…”

The words died in his throat. Nijeia gave him a frantic, wide-eyed look over her shoulder. Her child-sized machete with the sparkly stickers was raised over her head, poised to strike.

About two feet away from her, Robert was sitting at the desk chair. The moonlight from the window over the desk illuminated his thick blonde hair, the defeated slump of his shoulders, the back of his thick neck. He was leaning forward with his knees on his elbows.

There was a gun in his hand.

He looked up when Carlos entered the room. An expression of infinite weariness crossed his face. His eyes skated right over Nijeia, invisible, protected, and lit on Carlos. He raised the gun.

Carlos looked from Robert to Nijeia, stunned. Nijeia’s face hardened. She turned back to Robert; the tensing of her shoulders proclaimed her intention of striking.

“Nijeia, don’t!

He shouted on instinct. If he’d been evaluating the situation in cold blood, he might have made a different decision; logically, it made sense to use Nijeia’s invisibility to their advantage, to stop or slow Robert down before he could hurt anyone. But in the split-second he had to make the choice, all he knew was that his first act as Nijeia’s guardian couldn’t be to let her kill or maim another person because of him. Maybe Night Vale had a whole different attitude towards these things, but Nijeia had told him once that she wasn’t from Night Vale originally. If she attacked another person, she would feel it like an Outsider felt things, and it would change her forever.

Nijeia only hesitated for a second. A moment more, and she probably would have struck anyway. But in that moment, Robert shrugged off whatever lethargy had kept him pinned to the chair so silently and still that the secret police had managed to overlook him. He lunged, knocking Nijeia aside. The unseen obstacle in his path threw him off-balance, made him stagger.

“Nijeia, run! Cecil—!” Carlos threw himself towards Robert, only just aware of Nijeia scrambling to her feet and making a break down the hall. For a few seconds, he wrestled with Robert for the gun in near-silence. There were no words, only grunts, gasps, the feel of Robert’s sweat-slick palms sliding over his skin, the smell of him triggering gut-churning memories of Robert’s last two assaults, and the parody of intimacy they had shared that started everything. Carlos heard, as though from deep underwater, the pounding of footsteps in the hall—Cecil was coming—and then Cecil’s voice, deep, resonant, authoritative, the way he sounded on the radio when he was speaking for all of Night Vale.

Let him go.

Carlos made a mistake then. He looked towards the door—towards Cecil—towards the comforting assurance that Cecil was there, that this time there was no danger that Robert could make him disappear with no one to notice. He saw Cecil standing at the door, holding a rifle to his shoulder, peering down the sights. He looked comfortable and assured with the weapon in his arms, and for a moment, just a moment, Carlos went weak with sheer relief.

That was all it took. Robert, desperate, wrenched the gun away from his slackening grip, gaining control. Cecil hiked the rifle higher, like he was about to make the shot. But he couldn’t. Carlos was between them.

And then Robert was behind Carlos, his arm locked tight around Carlos’s throat. He felt the inflexible, unforgiving pressure of the gun’s muzzle pressed against the side of his head, where his hair was buzzed short. The cold metal burned his scalp.

“Get out of the way,” Robert said, his voice rasping, like he’d not drunk water for days. “Let us go, or I’ll shoot him, then myself. I don’t care. You can’t threaten me. I don’t care.”

Carlos’s vision was swimming. He wasn’t sure if it was shock, or oxygen deprivation from the choke hold Robert had on him, or tears. It was probably all three. He was grateful for it; he didn’t want to be able to see what Cecil’s face must look like.

A few seconds passed in which no one spoke. At least, they were probably only seconds. They felt like years. They felt like a lifetime—a distinct, separate period of consciousness in which this was the only place Carlos had ever been, or ever would be. His entire life coalesced into a landslide of suddenly-fulfilled probability. Maybe, in other universes, created by other possibilities, this had never happened. But it was happening right now, and it would happen forever, and it was the only that had ever happened. And even though nothing, really, had come before, he knew that he had been prepared, by experience, by thought, for every universe that would be created by what was happening right here, right now.

“Cecil,” said Carlos. He couldn’t really know what Cecil was thinking, but Cecil was still holding the gun, which might mean that he had made a decision, or else that he had not. Cecil’s whole body was motionless, frozen in the eternal moment that preceded a life-changing decision. He didn’t know what was happening in Cecil’s head. All Carlos knew was that Robert was giving Cecil a choice, and it was a choice no one should have to make.

“Cecil, it’s okay. Whatever you do, it’s okay.” He had to say those words. Cecil needed him to say those words. They weren’t the words Carlos wanted to say. In his head, he was saying something very different: Shoot, he screamed silently. You can kill us both with one shot. Don’t let him take me, don’t—

Cecil blinked, once, hard, behind his glasses.

Then he lowered the rifle.

Chapter Text

Three months—no, a year—no, a million years ago—Carlos had gone to the Night Vale community radio station and met Cecil for the first time. It had been just over 24 hours since the night Robert turned up at his apartment with a gun. All he knew about Cecil at the time was that he had a radio-perfect voice, and that he’d declared himself to be “in love” with Carlos based on two sightings and zero conversation. So Carlos hadn’t been able to help comparing him to Robert. People, as a rule, didn’t go around using the “L” word to describe their feelings for him; if Robert and Cecil had that in common, it had seemed only natural to worry that they had other things in common as well.

Try as hard as he liked, though, Carlos hadn’t been able to picture Cecil with a gun. The idea of skinny, eager Cecil, with his limpid eyes and long, sensitive fingers, holding a lethal weapon steadily in two hands and staring down another human being with the intent to kill? Preposterous, Carlos had thought. Cecil had always looked, to him, like the embodiment of harmlessness. Of caring, and tenderness, with never a hint of violence lingering under the surface.

And yet, here Cecil was, pointing the business end of his rifle at the ground with a kind of absolute control and languid elegance that told anyone watching that he could have the rifle back up to his shoulder, blasting holes through furniture and flesh, with just a twitch of muscle. This probably shouldn’t make Carlos feel better. It did, though. For a given value of “better” that meant “possibly fractionally less terrified than he would otherwise be. Possibly.”

In retrospect, Carlos had seen that look on Cecil’s face before. It was the look that said, I would cheerfully hurt anyone who tried to take you away from me. It really only emerged when Carlos talked about Robert, so if Carlos had ever though about it seriously—if he’d ever connected it to other things he knew about Cecil, like the fact that Cecil was a member in good standing of the Night Vale chapter of the NRA—he might have been able to predict a scenario like this one. He just hadn’t…let himself. He hadn’t wanted to think it would ever come to this.

But here they all were. All Carlos’s denial had come to nothing in the end.

“The Sheriff’s secret police are watching this apartment,” Cecil said, addressing Robert, but the reminder was for Carlos too, he was sure. He wanted Carlos to remember that, even if Cecil failed here, there were other safeguards. Carlos shuddered, feeling Robert’s arm tighten against his throat. “If you try to take Carlos away, they will pursue you.”

Robert shrugged. Carlos felt the up-and-down movement of Robert’s shoulders against his back. “So? If they try to take him away from me, I’ll kill us both. I told you, I’m not playing around. We’re leaving here together. We’re going. You try and get in our way, and you get to watch him die.”

“I don’t want to watch Carlos die,” said Cecil. Not angrily, Carlos thought; he didn’t even sound frightened. If anything, he sounded…soothing. Reassuring. “You don’t want him to die either, do you? Of course you don’t. Why would you? You do lo—you care about Carlos, don’t you?”

Cecil managed to smooth over the hiccup in his little speech so smoothly that Carlos would barely have noticed it if it weren’t so strange to hear Cecil talking kindly to Robert at all. It was strange, and yet, he understood what Cecil was doing. He’d had to put the gun down, so he was using the only other weapon he had—that voice, that hypnotic, lulling voice that had soothed Carlos to sleep more often than he could remember.

For a second, it almost seemed to be working. Robert wavered just the tiniest bit. Carlos could feel him relaxing, his muscles unclenching, the gun moving just a millimeter or two away from his head. But it didn’t last. Robert snapped back to attention. The muzzle of the again bore into the side of Carlos’s head again.

“Don’t,” Robert croaked. “Don’t act you like understand me. Just—put the gun down and back away.” Cecil didn’t move. “I said put it down!”

For the first time, Carlos forced himself to look Cecil in the eye. He nearly flinched at the helplessness in Cecil’s long, mournful face. He doubted Robert could see it, because for someone who broadcasted emotion so effortlessly, Cecil could be very opaque when he wanted. But still, Carlos saw it, and understood, because he felt the same way. Bizarrely, he felt as though he had let Cecil down as much by getting into this situation as Cecil probably felt he was letting Carlos down by not being able to make it stop happening. They were both all too painfully aware that there was nothing either of them could do—nothing they could promise or threaten against Robert, nothing that would persuade or maneuver him. He had become a fixed point, an inexorable force; he wanted just one thing, and didn’t care if he had to die to get it.

Carlos resented Robert for that on a level that was completely separate from the anger and fear he felt towards him for the death threats, stalking, and general creepiness. He resented Robert for making the love that Carlos and Cecil felt for each other seem so powerless, a fragile connection that could be crushed by something as banal as Robert’s fanatical selfishness. That wasn’t how it was supposed to work—not in stories, not in the fragile, candy-coated theory of causality that even scientists knew was full of holes, yet in their personal lives still clung to passionately, even violently. Especially when that theory was up-ended, as Robert was up-ending it now.

“Last warning,” Robert hissed, and flecks of his spittle landed inside Carlos’s ear. They tickled. “Put the rifle on the ground. Walk down the hall—backwards—and keep your hands where I can see them.”

“Okay.” Cecil spoke gently. “Okay. Down goes the rifle.” He bent from the waist without bending his knees, setting the rifle carefully on the floor. As he did so, the fabric of his tuck-in shirt pulled taut over a lump at the back of his waistband. It was the handgun Cecil had collected from the trunk of his car before they went in to face off against the Orphanarians. Carlos had completely forgotten about it. Cecil straightened up quickly. Robert gave no sign that he had noticed the bulge, or had any idea what it signified.

“Walking backwards now,” said Cecil, keeping his hands low, fingers spread away from his hips, to show compliance.

Robert nodded. He exhaled loudly, the noise like a hurricane in Carlos’s ear. They were pressed so closely to one another that Cecil could hear the churn of Robert’s stomach, the rapid, too-rapid beating of his heart. Robert pushed him—not so hard that he would stumble out of Robert’s grip, away from the gun, but hard enough to make the unyielding choke-hold against his throat tighten until he could see star-like bursts of golden flecks in the corner of his vision.

Clumsily, like a pack animal yolked to a heavy cart, he stepped forward. Robert stepped with him Another step, then a pause to see if Robert was keeping up with him. Gradually, together, they shuffled to the mouth of the hallway, where Cecil was waiting with his hands still spread harmlessly at his sides, not making any move towards the gun in his waistband. Carlos wondered if he was waiting for the opportune moment, or if he thought it wasn’t worth the risk, or even if he’d just forgotten he still had his gun on him—that made sense, actually. Surely he would have put the gun back in the trunk of his car before they went into the restaurant, if he’d remembered he was still carrying it? But then again…Night Vale…

“Keep going,” said Robert. “All the way to that wall there—yeah, beside you. Stand with your back against the wall, hands in front.”

Their long, slow trek down the short span of hallway seemed to take a very long time. Carlos felt the mad urge to apologize every time he accidentally stepped on Robert’s feet—but then, that had been their dynamic from the beginning, hadn’t it? Carlos, falling all over himself when he put a foot wrong, Robert holding a gun to head over imagined slights…Carlos didn’t see Nijeia anywhere, thank God for that. She didn’t need to see him like this, she definitely didn’t need any more temptation to commit lethal defensive acts. Carlos had wanted to help her grow up, but not that way…maybe Cecil had the sense to make her leave the apartment, maybe she was already carrying a message to the Sheriff’s secret police. They couldn’t see her, but she could put a slip of paper in front of them…maybe that would work…oh, he should have tested her limits more, when he’d had the chance…

All of a sudden, they were in the living room. All three of them. Robert and Carlos were standing between the kitchen island and the front door. Cecil was standing with his back flush to the wall farthest away from them.

“Where are the police?” Robert demanded. “You said they were watching the apartment, where are they positioned?”

“Hmm.” Cecil looked thoughtful. “Well, if it’s just the normal overnight surveillance, then it’s just Officer Matthews, behind the trash bins? But we had him in for a look around when we got home and found the deadbolt open, and he said that he would let headquarters know that we were feeling a bit…insecure tonight, so there may be more. I really couldn’t say.”

“How did you do it?” Carlos wheezed. Robert’s arm must be getting tired, considering how rigidly it was locked around his neck, but it was as restrictive and immoveable as ever. “How did you keep them from seeing you when the officer was looking around?”

Robert laughed. It was short, hysterical burst of laughter that hurt Carlos’s ear. “I’ve been in this town for days now,” he wheezed. “This town, you know? Fucking…I can see why you stayed, Carlos. Jesus, it must have been like traveling back in time to the days of the early natural philosophers! How can you account for anything according to the rules of science as we learned them? You can’t! You can only collect data. Like this.” The gun moved away from his head, and the relief was so dizzying that Carlos didn’t even have a chance to gather his wits and make a break for it—besides, Robert’s arm was still around his throat. A second later Robert held up a small piece of heavily embroidered fabric. “Took this from a kid. A Boy Scout, can you believe it? Jesus, growing up in this town must be like growing up in a war zone…”

“Ah.” Cecil’s mouth became a thin, disapproving line. “You stole an Invisibility Badge from an Eternal Scout. Well, I suppose they couldn’t put up much of a fight, suspended as they are in a plane that is neither this world nor the next.”

“I’m like Harry Potter!” Robert giggled. “This whole place is magic. Like…like science-fiction science, you know, Carlos? God. When I started reading the reports on this place I just couldn’t get why you would stay, but man.” He giggled again, then cleared his throat. “So this is what’s going to happen. We’re going to walk out the front door. I’m going to wear my little invisibility cloak here. Carlos is going to walk beside me. I’ll have the gun pointed at him the whole time, so don’t get any bright ideas. If these police of yours are watching, it should look just like Carlos is leaving, going about his normal business. We’re taking your car,” he adds, speaking to Carlos. “And you’ll drive, until we cross the city limits. If anyone follows us—that means your boyfriend here, or anyone with flashing blue lights—and I’ll shoot. Understood?”

Carlos stared at Cecil. Apparently it was his turn to make a decision. Cooperate, and he would spare Cecil the pain of watching him die right before his eyes, but burden him with the knowledge that Robert had stolen him right from under his nose. Fight, and he might die here, and so might Cecil, and he’d be spared however many hours…days…months of uncertainty and terror that Robert had planned for the two of them together.

Only… Carlos thought, very rapidly, only maybe it didn’t have to be that way. If Carlos was driving….Robert didn’t know Night Vale very well yet, he couldn’t, even if he had somehow found his way here ahead of Carlos returning. Once Carlos was behind the wheel of the car, he would have power again. Even with a gun aimed at him. He could make his own decisions—take risks that wouldn’t endanger Cecil directly. Or at least, keep the scene of the danger well away from where Cecil would have to witness it.

“All right,” Carlos breathed. “But you’ll have to let me go, or it won’t look normal.”

Robert made a little scoffing noise. “Give me some credit, here.”

And then, finally—finally—Robert released him. Automatically, Carlos’s hands flew to his own throat. He took deep breaths, gingerly feeling for signs of petechial hemorraghing that would worsen and eventually constrict his airways, leading to a prolonged death by slow suffocation. But his throat seemed to be okay. Robert was a scientist, after all, and one with a stronger grounding in anatomy than Carlos himself possessed. He’d been careful to put pressure only on the carotid artery. A very little pressure there was all it took to make your victim weak and seeing stars.

“Let’s go,” said Robert. He grabbed Carlos’s arm and spun him around to face the door. “And don’t get any smart ideas,” he told Cecil, over his shoulder. “If you shoot me from behind, the bullet will go right through your boyfriend here. Trust me, I’m a scientist.”

“You’re not a doctor,” Carlos couldn’t help muttering.

“Close enough.” Robert shoved him toward the door.

And that was that. There wasn’t time for one last backwards glance at Cecil. Or maybe there was, and Carlos was just too much of a coward to take it. He could hear Cecil gnashing his teeth. Carlos couldn’t bear to think what his face must look like—the agonies of indecision he must be undergoing as he contemplated the gun in his waistband, whether he could risk a clean shot to Robert’s head without damaging Carlos in the process. It was too important, too complicated a choice for anyone to be forced to make in the spur of the moment.

In the end, the only merciful thing Carlos could do was shorten the moment, and thus the agony. He opened Cecil’s front door and walked out onto the landing. He could feel the muzzle of Robert’s gun, flush against the back of his skull. He heard the door shut behind them, the click of the bolts falling into place like a seal falling over his fate.

Right on schedule, the secret police officer rose from his station behind the trash bins and called out to him. “Everything ok there, Mr. Scientist?”

Robert jabbed the gun so hard that Carlos stumbled forward a step. He forced himself to smile.

“No problem, officer,” he said. “Just realized I left some things at my lab.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“No problems inside?”

Robert cocked the hammer of the gun. Carlos swallowed hard.

“No problems at all,” he said, a bit hoarsely. “Just the normal demands of science.”

Woodenly, he made his way down the steps leading from Cecil’s front door to the parking lot. He tried not to think about the fact that, with each step he took, he was increasing the chances that he would never see Cecil again. Instead he focused on the fact that distance between them made Cecil safer. Without Cecil nearby to worry about he could think more clearly, which increased the chances that he could save the situation still, somehow.

When they reached the car, Robert said, “You have to open the passenger door for me or it will look strange. Don’t try to run away once I’m in the car, or I’ll just get out again and shoot you.”

“Understood,” Carlos muttered. Even as he opened the door, and pretended to arrange some things inside, it occurred to him that if he ran toward the police, he might just stand a chance of getting behind cover before Robert could hurt him badly. He was still thinking about it when someone tugged his shirt from behind.

“Act normal and keep your mouth shut,” it ordered.

Carlos’s heart sank. He turned, slowly, doing his best to make the action look completely normal. “Nijeia. Get out of here.”

“I’m going with you. You heard what that cracker said. It’s gonna look weird if you ain’t the one opening the door. I’ll do it anyway, but…”

“You are not coming with us,” Carlos growled.

There was a sharp rap against the interior window: Robert reminding him to get a move on. Nijeia seized her chance and flung the back passenger door open. Carlos, acting purely on instinct, barely had the chance to catch the door and make it look like his own doing before Nijeia crawled into the back seat. He couldn’t tell if she still had her machete, or whether she was armed in any other way.

“What are you doing?” Robert demanded.

“Nothing,” said Carlos, quickly. “Just trying to look normal. I’m…searching for something. I didn’t find it in the front seat so now I’m looking in the back, see?”

“Whatever. Just get in the car. We’ve got a long drive.”

Carlos straightened, glaring his hardest at Nijeia as he did so. She just gave him a thumbs-up, like she had a plan and everything was going according to schedule. It made Carlos’s stomach twist, like he was about to be sick. He’d been so relieved to have led Robert a safe distance away from Cecil. But Cecil, at least, was a grown man—an armed man, at that. What did Nijeia even think she was doing? Being invisible to Robert was an advantage, sure, but if he’d wanted Nijeia to assassinate his stalker ex-boyfriend he would have let her cut his throat with a machete back in the apartment.

Each step felt heavier than the last as he trudged around to the driver’s side. He panicked for a moment, thinking he’d left his keys in Cecil’s apartment—would Robert believe him, or would he decide that Carlos was never going to cooperate, and finally carry out his (frankly tired and unoriginal, at this point,) threat to shoot them both?

Fortunately, he managed to locate the keys in his back pocket, just as the sweat was starting to run down his forehead. He slid in behind the wheel, buckling his seat belt automatically. Nijeia, he noticed, glancing in the rearview, had done the same. Robert hadn’t bothered. He was one of those people who thought seatbelt laws infringed on individual liberties. Carlos had always suspected him of being secret libertarian leanings.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked Robert.

“The fastest way out of this traveling circus,” Robert retorted. “You know the town changes locations? Like, it shifts, on a map, geographically, physically. Did you investigate that phenomenon at all?”

Great, Carlos thought, putting the car in reverse. He wants to talk science. “We were…preoccupied with other projects. There’s a lot to study here.”

“No kidding.” Robert snorted. “Invisibility badges. What the hell. You know, you are so selfish I can’t even deal with it sometimes. You got this plum research posting like, a week after you got your Ph.D., and you didn’t even tell me about it. I was your research partner!”

“I got the impression you were more interested in the adjunct position,” Carlos muttered to himself.

“Yeah, when I thought you were going to be there too!”

Carlos kept his mouth shut and pulled out of the parking lot from Cecil’s apartment complex, merging with the traffic on the main road.

There weren’t many cars out this time of night, so they made good time through the residential neighborhood where Cecil lived. Soon they were driving through downtown Night Vale, which was equally deserted, until Carlos made a left onto Route 800 Business, getting closer to the bypass exit for Route 800 Infinity. They passed a couple of long-haul trucks going the opposite way. Carlos wondered whether those truckers had actually meant to end up in Night Vale, or if Night Vale had simply…drawn them in, because they had something Night Vale needed. Maybe the cargo…maybe the trucks…maybe even the drivers. themselves. Carlos thought about how he had ended up back in Night Vale two days ago, hours earlier than his drive should have taken him. It was as though the town had reached out long, shadowy arms to gather him in. He wondered how Robert had finally managed to find his way here—whether it wasn’t just possible the Night Vale had plans for him as well…

It took about half an hour before they found themselves on the long stretch of highway that led through the sand wastes, and, eventually, depending on how vast the sand wastes were on that particular day, to the edge of the city limits. Carlos kept glancing nervously into the mirror.

“Relax,” said Robert, whose gun was lying at rest in his lap, covered by one hand. “No one’s following us.”

“Mmm,” said Carlos. He wasn’t looking at the road behind them—he could see all too clearly that they weren’t being pursued by anyone. He was looking at Nijeia, trying to get a hint of whether she was planning some kind of sudden, heroic action, and if so what he needed to do to put a stop to it.

Nijeia’s reflection caught his eye. She winked. To his relief, she was showing every sign of being content to sit quietly in the seat behind Carlos, hardly moving at all, except to pick flakes off of her peeling nail polish. Which was just fantastic—now there were going to be glittery purple flecks all over the backseat….

Carlos blinked, and reminded himself that he would be a very, very lucky man indeed if he lived long enough to yell at Nijeia and make her go over his upholstery with a handvac.

“This isn’t right,” Robert mumbled, after they’d been driving through the sand wastes for about fifteen minutes. “I came through here on my way into town, it didn’t take anywhere near this long. Are you fucking around, hmm?” Robert picked up the gun. He didn’t point it; he just seemed to need the reminder that he was, supposedly, the one with the power here. “Maybe driving in circles, thinking I won’t notice?”

“I give your scientific powers of observation enough credit to assume that you would be bound to notice if I was driving in circles,” said Carlos, dryly. Even as he said it, he arrived at the giddy realization that he had nearly reached a point beyond fear. He had only two concerns anymore: keeping Nijeia safe, and making certain, one way or another, that Robert could never saunter back into his life again the way he’d done twice already. Frankly, if not for Nijeia’s presence, he thinks he might have…done something already. Crashed the car into a saguaro, or aimed it over the edge of Radon Canyon. He wondered if Nijeia had had some inkling that he was thinking along those lines, and if that was why she’d stowed along for the trip, to certain any heroic plans that ended in mutually assured destruction.

“Just as a point of curiosity,” Carlos said, hearing a slightly manic lilt in his own voice, “did you know that murder isn’t illegal in Night Vale?”

Carlos glanced over, just long enough to see Robert blinking at him like he wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. “It’s true. There’s an ordinance up for vote before the City Council, but they won’t be meeting for a couple of months yet. I just mention it as a point of curiosity. They don’t have official capital punishment, either. Instead, they round up the people who are known to have…done things, and they sacrifice them to ensure a plentiful harvest in the desert climate. Kind of like the Wicker Man, only with less virgins. Interesting, huh?”

“Stop trying to freak me out.” Robert’s voice was trembling, his hold on the gun tightening. “Just…just get us out of here so we can go somewhere and talk like normal people, all right?”

“Is that what you think is going to happen?” said Carlos, honestly surprised. “Robert. We’re not normal people. The moment you pulled a gun on me—the first time, I might add, back in Albuquerque—we stopped being normal people with relationship problems. You became a criminal, and I became a domestic violence statistic. There’s never going to be any normal for us.”

In the back seat, Nijeia suddenly sat up very straight and still. Carlos looked at Robert’s gun hand automatically, wondering if he’d pushed his pet madman over the brink, but then he realized that Nijeia wasn’t looking at him. She was looking out the window.

Carlos followed her gaze automatically. He didn’t see anything in the darkness of the sand wastes, but that didn’t mean nothing was there. Nijeia often saw things with those red eyes of her that he missed completely. He’d meant, back in what felt now like another lifetime, to ask her to submit to some experiments—he had a theory that her unusual eyes gave her the ability to see farther into the ultraviolet spectrum than most people. He had a similar theory about Cecil and his lovely lavender-purple-indigo eyes. Then and there, Carlos made a promise to himself: if he ever got back to Night Vale, if he ever got to rebuild his lab, and start a home, and do all those lovely things that had seemed so possibly, so tantalizingly within reach, for such a brief time, he was going to start focusing on the research he really want to do—the research that was important to him for personal reasons. It’s not like his backers were going to object. He’d never even met them, after all.

“What are you looking at?” Robert demanded, sounding nervous. He’d just noticed the frequent glances Carlos was directing out the window.

“Um—nothing? At least, I think it’s nothing. I was just looked out the window. There really isn’t much to see in the sand wastes, although the dark can sometimes play tricks on your—SHIT.”

An enormous, flapping back shape cut across his path from the right. Carlos swerved left so sharply that if he hadn’t been driving on an open desert road with nothing but sagebrush, rocks, and the occasional cactus lining the highway, he would have been sure to have crashed into something.

“What was that?” Robert’s voice was high pitched, breathless. He’d raised the gun, though he didn’t seem to know where to point it. “What the hell was that?”

“I don’t know, I swear to God, I don’t—fuck! There’s another one!”

Keeping pace with their car—and occasionally diving sharply in front of it—were figures that Carlos instantly, mentally dubbed “witches”. Even though that was ridiculous, because witches in Night Vale had a nice church all their own with lots of gardens and plenty of well-maintained bloodstone circles. But to anyone who had grown up on traditional western folklore, the shapes inevitably suggested the word “witch”, because they were solid black and covered in tattered black robes. Also, they were flying, although Carlos had yet to spot a broomstick.

“What the hell is going on?” Carlos directed the question to Nijeia, because she was still looking supremely unconcerned by this turn of events.

Her response was a dramatic eye-roll and a sigh. “You got a short memory, boss man,” she caroled from the backseat, inaudible except to Carlos. “Think back like, two hours ago.”

“Nijeia!” It was still incredible to him that just by saying her name he could make any comment addressed to her inaudible to those adults not authorized to see or hear her, but he’d never been more grateful for it. “Don’t play mess with me right now, please. What’s happening?”

“Yeah, all right. Since you said please.” She sighed again. “The Orphanarians let y’all be fostering me, you and Cecil. But you ain’t adopted me yet. Remember? So what did the Orpharians tells you after you bled all over the paperwork?”

“That—I don’t know, that they would be watching?” Carlos blinked. “What are you saying? Is this—are we being chased by Orphanarian??”

“Hey, y’all the ones trying to take an Orphan outside the city limits without permission.”

Before Carlos could muster a reply to this, another Orphanarian swooped in front of the car, skimming the windshield this time. Carlos was forced to cut the wheel so sharply that he didn’t have time to look at what was ahead of him, or brace for the impact. He only saw the formation of rocks just before his left fender and tire collided with them. A second later, his airbag exploded, filling the interior of the car with choking dust.

His vision was dark. His face was burning. It took a minute or so to get enough air back into his rapidly decompressed lungs before he could look around properly. Robert, who hadn’t been wearing his seat belt, was slumped over the dashboard, unconscious, blood oozing from his forehead and his nose. He appeared to be breathing, though, so Carlos looked for the gun. It had fallen from Robert’s slack hand and was down on the floor somewhere. Coughing, Carlos felt around until his fingers traced the edge of the hard metal. His picked it up carefully, more concerned about keeping it away from Robert than he was certain what use he could make of it himself. For a second though, as he held the gun in his hand, he contemplated his unconscious stalker in the seat behind him. Could he shoot Robert where he lay, unconscious, unresisting? Wouldn’t it…solve a lot of problems? Wouldn’t it be the most efficient way out of their trouble?

“Carlos!” In the back seat, he heard the sounds of Nijeia unbuckling her seat belt and scrambling forward. “You ok?”

“Yes,” he said immediately, all thoughts of the gun forgotten. He put it in the console and turned to look at Nijeia. “What about you, are you—”


“Huh?” Carlos blinked at her, all too painfully away that his brains probably resembled the consistency of watery scrambled eggs at the moment. “But the car—”

“City limits is half a mile ahead. You can make it. Just get there. Go on!”

If he had been in a state even remotely resembling his right mind, he would have had a lot more questions before he blindly accepted the orders of a teenager. But some dim instinct was telling him that, of the three of them in this car, Nijeia was the healthiest, the one thinking most clearly, and furthermore, the one who had had a plan all along. So he drove.

To his shock, the car’s engine was still running. The tires were just stuck in the rocks. Bracing himself, he cut the wheel to the right as far as he could and and floored the gas pedal. The Prius gave a mighty lurch—an all-terrain vehicle it was not, and as soon as the car was on level road again it was immediately apparent that the front left tired (and possibly others) had been punctured. But it was still moving, after a fashion, and Nijeia was shouting “go go go!” at him urgently. So he drove, blindly, obediently, without the faintest idea what his goal might be. Were they still trying to outrun Orphanarians? Were they going to dump Robert’s unconscious form outside the city limits? Who could tell. Carlos was no longer certain he cared.

Again, the fairly flat desert landscape prevented him encountering any major mishaps during the final half-mile of driving ahead of him, although the engine was shaking and the entire car was heaving and lurching in a frankly concerning manner, owing to the flat tired. Carlos was also, fortunately, so stunned, that the swooping figures of the Orphanarians—who no longer seemed to be actively trying to run him off the road, but were merely keeping pace with the car—didn’t unnerve him very much. He had a simple goal: reach the city limits, like Nijeia had told him. After that, presumably, he could stop, and resign himself to the unconsciousness that was threatening him. Or possibly Nijeia would have a new set of orders for him. He didn’t like to think that far in advance. He wanted to call Cecil and tell him that Robert was unconscious and no longer had his gun, but since Carlos wasn’t positive that his chance of surviving the night had necessarily increased any since then, he decided to wait. It would be cruel to give Cecil false hope, after all.

Finally, they passed the neon pink sign of Crazy Sadie’s Gas Emporium on the left, which meant that the city limits were close by. The engine was still making unpleasantly worrisome sputtering noises, and the whole vehicle was shaking like the contents of a beaker full of salt water and Pop-Rocks. But they were still gaining on the city limits sign, which was a standard green highway sign, illuminated by purple lights: Night Vale, population— and then a lot of scratched out numbers that nobody seemed to be taking the trouble to keep current anymore.

The moment they were a single car length past the sign, Nijeia lunged forward, beating against the back of Carlos’s seat. “Stop!” she yelled. “Stop the car!”

Carlos hit the brakes, which squealed and fussed and didn’t really stop right away. But eventually the car came to a halt. Before Carlos could turn to Nijeia and ask, “what now?”—before he could point out the black-robed figures of the Orphanarians swooping down on them—she was climbing out the back door. After a few seconds careful deliberation, Carlos took Robert’s gun out of the console (though he hadn’t the faintest idea how to hold it safely, so was pinching the grip between two fingers like it was a venomous snake that could recoil on him at any moment) and got out of the car too.

“Oh my god.” The moment Carlos clapped eyes on Nijeia, he forgot all about the gun. It dropped on the sand next to the driver’s side door as he rushed to Nijeia, who was lying on the ground, twitching and nearly convulsing in pain. Despite the darkness—or perhaps Carlos’s eyes had simply adjusted—he could see her the muscles of her legs cramping and contorting, her back arching, her arms reaching out and clawing in the sand as the thin, ropy muscles under her dark, dusty skin writhed like snakes. She screamed—just once—and it was the most heartrending noise Carlos had ever heard. She pressed her hands to the sides of her head and took deep, gasping lungfuls of air.

“Nijeia.” Carlos started walked—then his legs buckling, and his his head began to swim. He fell to his knees and crawled toward Nijeia, who seemed to be doing her best to burrow into the desert sand, as though the cool earth would bring her some relief. “Oh god, honey. What’s wrong? What can I do?”

He was terrified of touching her, afraid that, whatever she was going through, physical contact would only make it worse. But Nijeia, her eyes scrunched closed, seemed to hear his voice. She reach out a hand in the darkness, and Carlos took it immediately. The power of her grip nearly made him gasp; he had never been in the habit of holding hands with Nijeia, but he never would have guessed she had that kind of strength. Still, he bore the pressure silently, grateful to be of even the slightest amount of help.

There was a faint noise behind him. Nothing as obvious as footsteps; a lighter noise, like fabric brushing the loose desert sand. Carlos spared a glance from Nijeia’s face, now a rictus of pain. Orphanarians were standing around them, in a circle. He hadn’t been able to tell how many of them there were when they were flying alongside the car, but now he could see six of them, just enough to form a wall around the huddled figure of a single scientist and his foster-daughter, curled up together on the ground.

“What’s wrong?” he demanded of them. “What’s happening? Help her!”

There was a faint, rattling sigh. “We can’t,” said the Orphanarian who used to be Cecil’s mother. At least, Carlos was fairly certain that was which one it was. “We can’t help her anymore.”

“Why?” Carlos demanded, outraged. “Because she broke rules? Because I’m, I’m fostering her now? You’re the one who said she was still under your care. What’s the point of—of you, if you can’t help her now?’

“She’ll be fine,” said the Orphanarian—Adelaide—even as Nijeia’s body continued to convulse and shudder. “They’re just growing pains. You must have had them as a child yourself. Cecil certainly did. That boy shot up like a bean sprout when he was about ten—grew a foot, practically overnight. Kept him awake for days at a time. Having them all at once is no picnic.”

It was hard for Carlos not to react when Adelaide knelt down next to Nijeia. Her tattered black robes and veiled face made her look like nothing so much as a Nazgûl from the Lord of the Rings movies. It was instinct to want to shield Nijeia from anything that looked so sinister. But the hand that emerged from the length of her sleeve wasn’t scaly or rotten. It looked uncannily like Cecil’s hand—dark sepia in color, with nicely manicured nails. She lay her hand against Nijeia’s forehead, and Nijeia, giving one last shudder, subsided into stillness.


“She’ll sleep through the worst of it, though you should give her pain killers and lots of water when she wakes up.” Adelaide stroked Nijeia’s forehead once, tenderly. “She wanted to be grown up so badly. Bright as she is, I suppose we’re lucky it never occurred to her to try this before.”

Carlos tugged Nijeia’s still form into his lap, so that her head and neck were cushioned against his legs. “Try what, exactly?” he said, aware that he sounded pathetic, even childish.

“She’s an Outsider,” said Adelaide, and behind her another Orphanarian hissed. Adelaide hissed back in response, and the other Orphanarian fell silent. “Night Vale’s orphans are better off in their immaturity. They live longer. They’re happier. But by the time Nijeia came to us, she already remembered how it felt to start growing up, to grow strong and tall in her body. She never accepted that it was better to be protected than to grow.”

Carlos knew that, once he was thinking clearly again, he would have a lot of opinions about the information he was receiving just now. For the moment, however, he could do nothing more than seek, plaintively, for more answers. It was the lone scientific instinct that couldn’t be quashed, even by trauma and head injury, apparently.

“So whatever it was you did to her to keep her from growing,” he said, feeling very slow and stupid, “it only worked as long as she stayed within the borders of Night Vale?”

“There are limits even to our powers.” Adelaide sniffed. “We aren’t Librarians. We have a mandate.”

“How old is she now?”

Adelaide shrugged. “You’ll have to ask her when she wakes up. See how old she feels.”

“I’m awake.” Nijeia’s voice, slurred and unsteady, cut through the exchange like a knife. The attention of every person watching was riveted on her. “I did the calculations. You tried taking my memories, but I kept ‘em. I know how old I was when I got here. I know how long I been here.” She coughed, a low, rasping noise that made Carlos hold her shoulders even tighter. “I’m seventeen. That’s how old I’m supposed to be. That’s how old I am.”

She opened one red eye, large and glaring, like a beacon or a spotlight. “You got trials for them fuckers who want to adopt us. Well guess what—” She paused to cough again, and Carlos watched her face in concern. “I fucking…did my trials. All this shit—it was me. Knew you’d come after me if I got in that car with that gun-toting cracker. I brought you here. I saved Carlos. I stopped that asshole.” She coughed once more, her voice a dry rasp. “You hear what I’m saying? I did my own trials. You best let me go now. Let me be. Let me do what I want. Got it?”

There came a curious whispering from above and behind them. The Orphanarians circling them were having a sort of conference between themselves. Eventually, Adelaide stood and joined in. The conversation seemed to go on for a long time, but Carlos’s internal chronology was skewed from the wreck, and from…other things. He ignored them and knelt down close to Nijeia, so she wouldn’t have to strain to hear him.

“You did good, kiddo,” he whispered. “You probably save my life, you know that?”

Nijeia rolled her eyes. Yes, she was perfectly aware of that.

“I don’t care how old you are,” Carlos continued. “I wouldn’t care if you were thirty. You’ve got a home with me for as long as you want it. Okay?”

Nijeia blinked at him for a few times. Then she smiled—the first smile he’d seen on her face since he’d driven the car up on the rocks. “Cool,” she said.

Adelaide returned to them a moment later. “We’ve conferred,” she told them. “Since, chronologically speaking, Nijeia’s eighteenth birthday is less than a month away—and, since she has proven her maturity through cleverness, daring, and self-sacrifice—the Orphanarium Trust sees fit to release her into her own custody. On the understanding, of course, that her foster parents will continue to fulfill the duties of parents, and ease her through the daunting transitions that await her, for as long as necessary.”

“Happily,” said Carlos. “We will happily do that. Gladly. Ecstatically, even. Erm.” With a painful effort—he was starting the feel the after-effects of the collision, and it was apparent that the muscles of his upper back were none too happy with him, not to mention his throbbing head—he looked over his shoulder in the direction of the smoking Prius. “We do still have one small problem.”

Robert, apparently, was still unconscious. He hadn’t stirred from the wreckage of the car. Carlos supposed he could just be lying low, but…honestly, he couldn’t imagine Robert not having made a scene before now, if he were awake and aware.

“You needn’t worry about the Outsider.” Adelaide straightened. “Nijeia was still our ward when he attempted to kidnap her. We have…plans for him.”

The circle of Orphanarians behind her let out a throaty chuckle, all together, like a single entity. The noise made Carlos’s skin crawl.

“We will see to it that he reaches the right hands,” said Adelaide. “In the mean time—I believe the approaching sirens are probably for you. We should be on our way before they arrive. So much paperwork when jurisdictions cross. I’m sure you understand.”

“Uh huh,” said Carlos. Nijeia, still cradled in his lap, was a warm certainty against the bafflement surrounding him. His head was swimming. The sirens were coming, and he knew, somehow, without a doubt, that Cecil would be with them. In the mean time, he could think of nothing better than lying down, curled around Nijeia’s newly long, lanky body, feeding off of her warmth and giving warmth back to her in turn. “Um. Thanks,” he added, vaguely, in Adelaide’s general direction.

As he gathered Nijeia into the crook of his arms, he seemed to feel a hand brushing the side of his face, almost tenderly. Everything after that was a haze of indistinct noise and movement.

Carlos closed his eyes, let unconsciousness take him, and gave himself up to an almost child-like trust that whatever was coming next would be waiting patiently for him on the other side, when he’d finished resting.


He knew that voice. Carlos couldn’t put a name to the voice, but he knew it; he knew it was a voice he would remember even if he had forgotten his own name.

“Oh, no, don’t try to move—here.” Long, thin fingers intertwined with his. He was cold, but warmth seemed to spread all throughout his body from that single point of contact. Stillness falls over him. He hadn’t realized until just then that he’d been thrashing against the cold desert dirt, probably ruining his lab coat. And there was another source of warmth—or there had been. It was gone now.

“You’re safe now.” Cecil—it was Cecil’s voice, how could he have forgotten that, how could he have forgotten Cecil, even for a second? “The Orphanarians…” Cecil shuddered. “They gave Robert to the secret police. He’s gone now. You’re safe. We’re all safe. Shhh. Just relax.”

Carlos opened his eyes. It was a struggle; the insides of his eyelids felt like they’d been coated in sand. And maybe they were, after all; he’d been lying face-first in the sand for who knew how long. “Cecil?” he rasped.

“That’s it!” Cecil sounded delighted to hear the sound of his name. Carlos wondered if he had been unconscious for a very long time. But then he remembered, no, that was always how Cecil sounded when Carlos said his name. “How are you feeling?”

“Urgh,” said Carlos. Automatically, he reached out, feeling in the dirt for…he wasn’t sure what. Then, memory returned, like a lightning strike, and he sat bolt upright, which made his skull feel like an eggshell that had been rolled against a countertop until it was broken in every conceivable place, held together by nothing but the thin, internal membrane that kept its sac of fluids intact.

“Nijeia,” he gasped. “Where—she was right here—”

“I’m still here, boss.” Someone pressed an object into his hands. He realized, from the familiar shape, that they were the glasses he absolutely did not need for anything other than working at his computer. Clumsily, he squashed them onto his face.

Cecil was sitting behind him. Propping him up, really—Carlos doubted he would have stayed upright, if Cecil hadn’t immediately moved in behind him for him to lean against. He could feel Cecil’s chin propped on his shoulder, the thick cloud of Cecil’s dark hair tickling the side of his face. Cecil’s hands were wrapped around his waist, like a car seat belt.

Kneeling in front of him was…Nijeia. At least, he presumed it was Nijeia.

She was tall. He could tell that even though she was perched on one knee. Her legs were impossibly long, or maybe they only looked that way because the shorts she’d been wearing that morning were now extremely short on her. Some girls her age—the age she was now—dressed like that on purpose, but she looked uncomfortable, the shorts looked impractical, and she kept tugging at her shirt, which showed several inches of her stomach.

And her face…

It was Nijeia’s face, there was no doubt about that. Twenty-four hours ago, if he’d met this young woman, he might have believed her if she’d said she was Nijeia’s older sister, but there was no genetic drift in her features. Just the changes inevitably wrought by maturity. She’d said she was seventeen; if she told him now that she was twenty-four, he would believe her. Her chubby cheeks were remodeled into high, dramatic cheekbones. He hair seemed to have grown, but because it was still in cornrows it was puffy up top and tangled where the braids fell down her back. Her lips were full and wide, and when she smiled at him the smile hinted at all sorts of secret knowledge.

The most striking difference, though, was her eyes. They were no longer red; even in the dark of the desert night he could tell that. They were dark. Beautifully dark, framed by long, dark lashes.

“You can stop staring,” she said. Her voice was deep—a deep, musical contralto, so different from her child’s voice that Carlos actually jerked from the shock. “I know you gay and all, but I’ve had enough staring from them police offers and ambulance crew. How ‘bout we get indoors somewhere so I can cover up before I have to do impromptu facial reconstruction surgery on some mothafuckers?”

“Are you okay?” Carlos blurted. He didn’t mean because of the staring, although he was already looking around at the various uniformed male figures and glaring at them—That’s my daughter you’re perving on, assholes,. “You were in a lot of pain, I mean…did they give you something, or…?”

Nijeia shrugged. It turned out that her shrug was one thing that hadn’t changed about her at all. “Just growing pains. They go away. You think you can stand up if we help you?”

Carlos nodded. Cecil made a concerned noise, but he didn’t protest as Carlos attempted to get his legs underneath him. Cecil got a firm hold on his left arm, and Nijeia sprung to her feet—“Wow, you are really tall,” Carlos mumbled incoherently, as she took his right arm. She wasn’t as tall as Cecil, but she was a good inch or two taller than Carlos.

“Good thing for you,” she said, as they hobbled toward Cecil’s car, parked at an angle to the ambulance and secret police cars clustered around the scene.

They’d barely made it three steps before a short person clad in a back balaclava came rushing out to stand in their way. “Mr Scientist, wait—”

“His name,” Cecil growled, “is Dr Carlos Mazte. He is coming home with me so that he can rest and recover from the frankly shocking ordeal he’s undergone this evening. An ordeal, it pains me to point out, that the sheriff’s secret police did nothing to save him from until after he was rescued by outside forces. He’s bleeding freely from the head, as you can see, which means that he is temporarily exempt from having to officiate any paperwork requiring blood-signatures. He will be happy to give you a statement just as soon as he has his strength back and the bleeding has been stopped. You know where I live. Feel free to call any time after noon tomorrow. Unless tomorrow gets rescheduled, in which case you may call afternoon on the next day scheduled.”

“I—I—um. Yes. Okay, Mr. Palmer.” The officer blinked at Nijeia through the slit in her balaclava. “Um—who is this?”

“This is our daughter, Nijeia Mazte-Palmer.” Cecil’s arm snaked its way around Carlos back so that he could put an arm on Nijeia’s shoulder. Miraculously, she didn’t shake him off. “She is seventeen and still a minor, so you will need the permission of her guardians to question her. And you are free to do so—again, tomorrow. I trust that’s all in order?”

“Um.” The officer blinked rapidly, her eyes clouding with confusion. Abruptly, she turned and walked away. Apparently there was enough paperwork for her to fill out elsewhere.

“Right,” said Cecil, in a voice of deep satisfaction. “Home, my perfect Carlos? Home, my dear Nijeia?”

“Home,” they answered in unison, and continued limping towards the car.

Chapter Text


The hot water in Cecil's apartment was astonishingly plentiful. Carlos wondered what, precisely, Cecil had sacrificed this time in order to make it work so efficiently and in such abundance.

He'd made Nijeia shower first. Carlos was proud of himself for that. He’d never expected to have children, and in the space of a single evening he’d probably proven that he was the worst foster parent ever, but he’d picked up enough from his abuela to know, at least, that Nijeia’s needs came first, and that a hot bath and an early bedtime were the proper remedies after a long and miserable day.

(Privately, he was just grateful that the seventeen-year-old version of Nijeia was grown up enough to see the sense in his suggestion. If she'd fought him, he doubted he would have had the nerve to put his foot down. She was practically grown now. Did he have the right to make her do anything, anymore?)

At any rate, Nijeia was safely in bed now, and it was Carlos's turn in the shower. He was enjoying it. This shocked him, slightly; after everything he’d just been through, it seemed wrong that he could take pleasure in anything. But the noise and the sensation of the hot water beating against his body was like a shield, or a dampener, preventing him from feeling anything else too much. He wanted to stay for as long as the water heater held up. But he was already getting light-headed, and he knew he needed to get out soon. He'd lost blood when the Orphanarians ran his car off the road. Not enough to require hospitalization or a transfusion, but enough that it took several minutes for the water to run clear while he was rinsing his hair and scalp. Carlos knew that Cecil was hovering just outside the bathroom door, ready with clean clothes, towels, and a steady arm in case Carlos collapsed. The first two things sounded nice; the third would be adding far too much drama to an already overly-theatrical night of events.

Carlos was just reaching, reluctantly, to turn the water off when Cecil knocked. It was a worried-sounding knock—tentative, lasting a beat or two longer than it should have.

"Come in," he called, and, turning his scrubbed face up to the hot spray one last time, he cut the water. As soon as it was off, the air conditioning began burning him with cold. In a distant, clinical way, he was aware that he was in some form of shock. But that was okay, he told himself, chuckling under his breath. If a year spent in Night Vale was good for anything, it was for building up an immunity to shock.

"Everything all right?” said Cecil, sounding dubious, as he entered. Carlos was still hiding behind the shower curtain, so there was no point nodding. Instead, he reached a hand over the top of the curtain rod. Cecil immediately handed him a towel. He rubbed his hair gently, mindful of the still-oozing abrasions on his scalp, then patted himself off and wrapped the towel around his waist. He didn't quite succeed in pulling the curtain open, but Cecil did it for him, not even glancing at Carlos's clumsy, fumbling fingers. He extended an arm for Carlos to brace himself against as he climbed over the edge of the tub. Ccil had placed his pajamas in a neatly folded pile on the lid of the toilet.

Carlos knew that Cecil was about to excuse himself so Carlos could dress in private. But surely they were past that point now? If Cecil had resisted the temptation to maul Carlos in his sleep, he could be trusted not to feel that Carlos pulling on a pair of boxers and a t-shirt in his presence was equivalent to making a promise he didn't intend to keep. So Carlos turned his back and dressed quickly. He heard Cecil catch his breath when he dropped the towel, but Carlos knew that, once again, it was the sight of the bruises and scrapes that Cecil was reacting to.

Would they ever do this in a normal way—share an intimacy that wasn’t forged from some kind of horror? Would they even have anything in common if their emotions weren’t always being stirred to a fever pitch over traumatic events? Maybe ordinary life, if they ever achieved such a thing, would feel like some kind of bizarre disappointment in comparison to all the drama they’d been through. Maybe Cecil would lose interest in him when he no longer needed to be rescued and looked after. Or maybe Carlos would never get over this; maybe he’d always be broken and vulnerable, and Cecil would eventually get bored of that.

Carlos took longer than necessary, adjusting his t-shirt and pants. He turned to the sink and brushed the sand and grit from between his teeth without meeting Cecil’s eyes in the mirror. Of course, Cecil never looked at mirrors, so maybe he didn’t notice.

Carlos was shivering slightly when he rinsed his toothbrush and turned the bathroom light off. Cecil reached for his arm, and Carlos let him take it. He did not, however, let Cecil take him to the bedroom, despite his gentle tugging in that direction. He went to the living room instead. Cecil followed, rather than be separated from him.

Once he was out in the open of the largest room in Cecil’s apartment, Carlos began pacing. He checked each window, one by one. Those that weren't already locked, he locked, pulling the shades down for good measure. He could feel Cecil tensing behind him. Of course, making the windows opaque went against a lifetime of training, for Cecil. But Carlos really couldn't give a damn, and he was ruthlessly prepared to take advantage of Cecil's unwillingness to refuse him anything at the moment. Everything of importance that was going to happen tonight had already happened. The police were already up to speed on all that. The only thing left was his impending breakdown, and Carlos preferred to minimize the number of people who witnessed it.

"Where is he now?" Carlos asked brusquely, as he secured the final window. The door should come next; yes, Cecil had been preoccupied, getting the three of them into the apartment earlier. He could easily have forgotten to lock the door. (Except that Cecil wouldn’t take chances with Carlos’s safety, not if he could help it; he’d said so, he’d made that officer look in every room before he even let Carlos inside, it wasn’t Cecil’s fault that—)

“He’s in the custody of the secret police," said Cecil gently, not needing to be told which "he" Carlos was referring to. "He's in temporary holding while they decide precisely what to charge him with. There are some jurisdictional tangles. The Orphanarians have a claim on him as well. It's been a long time since anyone crossed them. I think they'd like to make an example of him."

"Well, they can't." Carlos unfastened, then refastened each of the five locks and deadbolts on Cecil's front door. "He's got rights. He's not from here. And he crossed state lines when he came after me; that makes his crimes federal." It was strange to Carlos how little connection there was between what he was feeling and what he was saying. A federal crime? What ridiculous TV show did he pluck that bit of trivia from? Even if it was true, the last thing he wanted was to draw outside attention to Night Vale.

“The representatives of the vague, yet menacing government agency are welcome to put in a claim for him if they like," said Cecil in a slow, careful voice that came much too close humoring him for Carlos's liking. "I doubt they will, though. They're as scared of the Orphanarians as everyone else."

"Well, I'm not going to let them lock him in a cave for the rest of his natural life, or feed him to a five-headed dragon, or make him into some kind of archaic harvest sacrifice," Carlos snapped. "I've got rights too. If this had happened in New Mexico—”

"It didn't happen in New Mexico," said Cecil. "It happened here. He broke into my home and threatened to kill us. He kidnapped you and Nijeia. You can argue with the secret police all you like, but I’m afraid it won't make a difference."

“No, of course not.” Carlos laughed bitterly. “It’s not like listening to me has ever, I don’t know, saved their lives. What was I thinking?”

“Everyone in Night Vale knows what they owe you,” said Cecil, his voice persuasive, urgent, alarmed. “All the more reason for the police to want the person who hurt you swiftly and severely punished!”

“But not enough to give me any say. Not enough to take into consideration how the actual victim of the crime might be feeling.”

“You will get a chance to say anything you want to say.” Cecil worried at his lower lip. His hands were clasped tightly together in front of him. “The officer who took our information earlier sent me a text. He said they’re coming by tomorrow morning to get our statements.”

“What about the trial? Do you even have those here, or are they just held in secret?”

Cecil opened his mouth, then closed it, and shrugged helplessly.

“God.” Carlos pulled at his hair. It stung the scrapes along his scalp, so he stopped. "What is it with this place anyway? Do people just not care about human life? There’s no justice system, no social services, people die in droves—how do you even sustain your population from one generation to the next? Nothing about this place makes sense! Nothing, Cecil, are you hearing me?"

Not until he saw the tears standing in Cecil's eyes did the flow of angry words dry up. But he couldn't make himself apologize, or take any of it back. He needed answers. He needed things to make sense. He needed…

"It must be wonderful, where you come from," said Cecil, discreetly wiping a tear away under the pretense of scratching his cheek. "I guess the police there never make mistakes, and all the children get to be taken care of by people who love them, and justice is easy. Obviously, it can't be perfect, or that man would never have hurt you there, but I guess that once he was caught, everyone would have known how to keep him from hurting anyone else, without being harsher than he deserved. But Night Vale is my home, Carlos. I'm the person I am because I've always lived here. I guess I hoped that you would grow to love it the way I do, even if it isn't perfect. That…if you grew to care about me, you could see Night Vale the way I see it.” He sniffed once. “Maybe that was too much to expect."

Carlos felt his chest growing tight. He was faintly aware that his mouth had fallen open, like it was prepared to spill an avalanche of scathing retort, but he knew perfectly well that he had no retort to make.

Scientists owed a duty to fact, and to truth. As a boy, he'd hurt his family by turning away from many of their beliefs because he knew even then that serving the truth, to the limits of his understanding, was his calling in life, a calling higher than any other loyalty or bias he possessed.

He wasn’t thinking like a scientist now. If he were, he would have to acknowledge to himself that Night Vale was only shocking because its flaws were different than the flaws he was used to. They weren’t any worse, probably. Even if they were, that wasn’t a qualification he was qualified to make. He wasn’t a sociologist, or a philosopher.

He was, at the moment, just a guy. A hurt, angry, frightened guy, lashing out irrationally because he didn’t know how to make himself feel better. And that wasn’t just unscientific: it was stupid. Because the person he was lashing out at was the last person he wanted to hurt, and the only person who could make any of this even marginally better.

Carlos covered his face with his hands and sank down onto the sofa beside Cecil. Cecil’s arms opened immediately, and Carlos slumped against his chest, which was soft from the fuzzy, inside-out sweatshirt Cecil was wearing.

"I'm sorry," Carlos mumbled. "I shouldn’t have said those things. I didn’t mean them.”

“Didn’t you?” Cecil sounded hopeful.

"Things aren't wonderful where I come from either.” Carlos wrapped his arms around Cecil’s waist. "The police are racist and sexist and corrupt, people who ought to be locked up get off scot free while innocent people are killed or put away for life. Children go hungry and homeless and don’t get the education they deserve. Night Vale isn’t any worse.” He paused, swallowing. “And I do love it here. You taught me how to love it.” He sighed. “Night Vale is bizarre and inexplicable and terrifying, but it isn’t the problem.”

"Robert is the problem," said Cecil immediately, suddenly confident again. "The fact that a person can claim to love you and then hurt you is the problem. You’re used to making sense of things, but that is one fact that doesn’t make sense anywhere. Of course you’re frustrated and angry. I am too.”

Carlos swallowed and tightened his grip on Cecil's shirt. His body felt starved of warmth, which was ridiculous in July in the desert. "He would never have come here if it weren't for me. I didn't take adequate precautions after he assaulted me in Albuquerque. He could have killed you. He could have killed Nijeia."

“Now, don’t start that,” said Cecil sharply. “It’s not your fault that he hurt you. You went out of your way to make it hard for him, and he chased you just so he could do it again. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find Night Vale when it doesn’t want to be found? It wasn’t an accident. He must have wanted this badly enough to make a lot of sacrifices for it.”

Carlos opened his mouth automatically to point out that sacrifices weren’t a thing outside of Night Vale, but…weren’t they? What did he know? A sacrifice was just something you gave up, in an effort to get something else that you wanted. And Robert had thrown his life, his whole career away, to chase Carlos.

“I can feel you thinking,” said Cecil, tapping Carlos’s head. “Maybe you should let it go for the night? It’s been a very long day. I’m sure you could sleep, if you tried.”

It was on the tip of Carlos’s tongue to deny this. He still felt tense and wary, like even if he went to bed, sleep would be a long way off. Yet, the longer he lay with Cecil, the blanker his thoughts became. With each rise and fall of Cecil’s chest beneath him, his body seemed to slow and quiet, like a temporary blackout had fallen on his mental laboratory.

"I think your hypothesis is sound," he told Cecil.

“Come on.” Cecil dislodged him gently and got to his feet, reaching for Carlos’s hands. “It will all look different in the morning. Maybe not better, but different.”

“I could use a little different,” sighed Carlos, allowing himself to be led.


Carlos got his wish over the next few days.

The first night, he barely slept. Or rather, he slept many times, never for longer than an hour before another nightmare jerked him up to the surface of consciousness again. Each time he woke, he found the light still on, Cecil already reaching for him, already stroking his hair. He was a mess when he finally gave up, shortly after dawn, but around lunch he took a long nap, and when the police came, the freelance shrink from the Night Vale Psychiatric Association came with them, toting a free sample bag full of sedatives. Which was hardly safe or sound medical practice. But Carlos wasn’t complaining when he got a deep, dreamless ten hours of sleep that night.

Giving their statements to the police was a tense experience. In the interests of scientific rigor, Carlos forced himself to disclose the full history of Robert’s various assaults, which meant that Cecil heard a lot of the nastier details for the first time. Only the knowledge that Robert was already in custody, and the fact that Carlos kept his hand clamped in an iron grip, seemed to be keeping Cecil in his seat as he listened. But when Carlos ended the story with a plea for what he considered to be Robert’s basic human rights, and what the Night Vale secret police officer entered in his notes as “extreme leniency”, he saw Cecil and the officer exchanging a look. It was clear that Cecil still wasn’t a big fan of Carlos’s “Robert is a human being” argument, and that the officer agreed with him.

Yet somehow, Carlos found it impossible to be angry with Cecil, even though he had essentially just given the secret police his tacit approval to do their worst. Cecil had a right to his feelings. Robert had hurt him too. And Carlos had done much more than his duty by arguing Robert’s case sincerely.

At least matters were out of his hands after that. Whether he was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, or whether it really had just been the right thing to do, he’d gone above and beyond to be Robert’s advocate. Now he just wanted a quick resolution, so he could get back to his life.

Carlos’s normal life—or at least, the routine that had become normal over the last year—was definitely on suspension for the time being. Responding to the combined influence of his own over-wrought nerves and Cecil’s ill-disguised anxiety about being separated from him for any amount of time, Carlos didn’t set foot outside the apartment for a week. On the afternoon of the second day after Robert’s attack, Carlos, more than a little humiliated by the necessity of the request, asked Nijeia if she would like to go and oversee things at the lab for a few days in his absence. Her response was a measure of how much she’d matured inwardly, as well as physically. The twelve-year-old Nijeia would have rolled her eyes and informed him she’d been planning on doing it anyway. Her older counterpart just grunted, and said that was probably a good idea.

There was no denying that Nijeia was in better shape than Carlos, but events had taken their toll on her too. The day after the police had come by to get their statements, Cecil had taken Nijeia back to to the Orphanarium one last time to collect her things. When they’d returned, laden with overstuffed boxes of books, 3-D science models, logic puzzles, and a small but carefully curated collection of monstrous stuffed animals, Nijeia had shut herself in her room for a long time. Cecil, in low tones, had explained to Carlos that the experience of being out in the open and completely visible to everyone had been something of a strain on her. She wasn’t used to anyone looking at her; the fact that certain people not only looked, but stared, completely without apology, had been baffling at first, and a provocation to violence after awhile. Cecil had only intervened on one occasion, because, he explained, for the most part, the objects of her wrath really had deserved it. Cecil said he didn’t see why men like that weren’t mauled by young women with machetes more often, really.

Carlos had checked in on her, but Cecil had also swung her by the lab to pick up her laptop. Nijeia never been able to take her computer home with her before, because the Orphanarium ran on some kind of power that was, apparently, generated by the Orphanarians, and not compatible with electrically powered devices. Faced with the unprecedented riches of unfettered internet access, Nijeia had barely had a word to say to either of them all week. Carlos wondered if he was failing in his parental duty by not monitoring the amount of time she spent online, but whenever he poked his head in to see how she was doing, she was either chatting with Tamika or marathoning Mythbusters. In the end, he decided there were far less productive ways a seventeen-year-old could be spending their time, and decided to leave her to it.

All in all, the first week after Nijeia and Carlos moved in with Cecil was about as pleasant and tranquil as the week following a kidnapping and assault with deadly weapons by a deranged stalker could possibly be. Which was to say, moderately tolerable, with some extremely tense moments (Carlos was not okay with waking up to find both Cecil and Nijeia gone, even when they’d only been making a run to pick up breakfast burritos), some awkward ones, (stumbling out of bed wearing only his pajama bottoms was one thing, but boxers-only was definitely not the recommended form with a teenage girl in the house unless you wanted to become the subject of endless mockery) and some delightfully cozy and domestic interludes (Nijeia had discovered, then forced Pokemon on Cecil and Carlos, resulting in marathon nights of popcorn and takeout) that boded well for the future of their lives together.

In fact, Carlos was just settling in to the new routine, mentally steeling himself for a return to the lab, and organizing his ideas for how to approach Nijeia’s education (he wasn’t certain if she’d ever been to a real school, but she was definitely ready to study the sciences at university level) when everything threatened to fall apart again.

It was Saturday night, six days after Robert was arrested. Cecil had a temporary arrangement with the radio station, recording his shows in the early afternoon for later broadcast, so that he could be at home with Carlos in the evenings. He was watching television. Nijeia was in her room, as usual, and Carlos was making lasagna for dinner.

They’d been eating fast food pretty much all week, because anything more than the briefest of grocery store runs was still a trial for Carlos’s nerves. But he’d felt well enough that day to send Cecil out with a complete shopping list and await his return without getting too fretful. (He and Nijeia had watched Pokemon the whole time. It was an effective distraction.) When it came time to cook, Cecil had tried to shoo Carlos from the kitchen; he was still in the fussy, over-protective frame of mind that made him want to wait on Carlos hand and foot. But a week without work had made Carlos listless. He needed a distraction, and cooking was essentially chemistry, so he’d threatened Cecil with a spatula until Cecil let him get on with it. He was just assembling the layers of lasagna sheets, sauce, and cheese in the pan when Cecil’s phone rang. Cecil paused his show, looked down at the caller ID, and frowned.

He didn’t say “hello”, when he answered. He said, “What’s happened?”, in a brusque, unfamiliar tone that made Carlos stop what he was doing, arms falling heavily to his sides.

“I see,” Cecil continued. His face was dreadfully blank. He stood, abruptly, and walked to the window, peering outside. “No, nothing. Yes, I’m certain.”

Then, possibly for the first time in his life, Cecil deliberately pulled the window blinds down. Carlos sagged back against the countertop, suddenly breathless.

“Yes, we’ll be here. Yes, that’s fine. Just make sure they remember the coded knock. Yes, I’ll tell him. Goodbye.” Cecil ended the call and slipped his phone into his pocket. He didn’t look at Carlos.

“Cecil,” Carlos tried to say. His mouth was very dry. “What…”

Ignoring him, Cecil walked down the hall to the closet with the fold-out doors that held the washer and dryer. He leaned in and started poking around, and for a moment Carlos heard fairly normal, closet-rummaging noises.

Then Cecil emerged, holding his rifle, and Carlos was abruptly lightheaded. “What the hell,” he choked.

Cecil continued not to look at him as he checked the rifle over. Apparently, he’d been keeping it loaded and in good working order, because his examination was brief. He carried the rifle into the living room and laid it down on the coffee table. Then, and only then, did he look at Carlos.

“That was the secret police,” he said. “There’s been a breakout from one of their secure facilities. Robert is missing. They’re sending a couple of officers around to stay with us while they get the situation under control.”

Carlos blinked. At least, he tried to. But his body no longer seemed to be under his command. All he could do was stare at Cecil, while bile churned in his stomach.

Behind him, the oven gave a shrill series of beeps to indicate that it had finished pre-heating. He jumped, whirling to face it, like it was signaling an alarm.

A moment later, Cecil was next to him, pulling him out of the kitchen and over to the sofa. He made Carlos sit down. He did not, contrary to custom when Carlos was upset, immediately enfold him in his arms and make a nest for the two of them among the oversized couch cushions. Instead, he held both of Carlos’s hands tightly, while keeping his feet planted on the ground and his stance open. A second later Carlos got it: Cecil was keeping himself at the ready to grab the gun, in case he needed it.

“Don’t be scared,” Cecil told him, pointlessly. “At least, try not to be more scared than you can help. He’s spent a week in an abandoned mine shaft—and it wasn’t the one with the king size beds and HBO. If he’s got any sense of self-preservation, his goal will be to flee the town as fast as he can. He’ll have had a taste of what punishments lie store for him.”

That sounded dire, but just then Carlos didn’t have it in him to feel even slight concern for Robert’s well-being. “He’s scared and alone in a strange town. Sometimes people run for what’s familiar. He might come here, thinking I’ll protect him. Or that he can steal your car. Or—”

“We can only hope he tries, because that’s the most certain way for him to be re-captured quickly. The Sheriff doubled the number of officers assigned within a three block radius of my apartment last week, and they’re sending more reinforcements as we speak.” At Carlos’s arched eyebrows, Cecil gave him a brief smile. “It’s possible the Sheriff owes me a favor. From when we were in high school. You’d be amazed how the interest on a life-debt accumulates.”

Carlos barely registered the joke, if it was a joke. He looked blankly around the living room, trying to think. Thinking, that was what he was supposed to be good at. What could he do? What would make them safer?

“Nijeia,” he said, jolted by the remembrance of her presence. He tried to get up, but Cecil held onto his hands, shaking his head.

“There’s no point alarming her,” he said. “She’s in her room with the door shut and locked. She’s as safe as possible.”

Carlos swallowed a few times. “We won’t be, if she finds out we kept this from her.”

“Ha. True. But I’m willing to deal with the consequences.” Cecil patted Carlos’s hands. “We’re going to be fine. We’re going to wait here, behind my locked door, close to my rifle, with our ears keenly attuned to any strange noises, and we will wait for the secret police to knock their coded knock. Nothing is going to happen to us. I won’t let it. Night Vale won’t let it.”

It was true that this time, at least, they’d had warning. Maybe that would make a difference. He certainly had no desire to believe that he was simply fated to die at Robert’s hands. “Are you about to tell me that Night Vale itself is some kind of sentient entity with an autonomous consciousness and a fondness for scientists?” he said weakly. “If so, you really ought to have mentioned it before. I need to factor that kind of thing into my research.”

Cecil chuckled. “Night Vale is just an ordinary town,” he said. “And like any collective human habitation, greater than the sum of its parts, reflecting the will and intentions of those who reside in it. People here are very fond of you. You’ve done a lot for them.”

Carlos reddened. “Haven’t done much lately, hiding out here,” he mumbled. “I didn’t even try to solve that…malevolent shadow energy that was vaporizing people last night.”

“And yet, here we all are. Sometimes even terrifying and inexplicable phenomenon simply run their course and move on.” Cecil relaxed a bit, leaning back into the cushions so their shoulders were touching. “Funny you should bring up that malevolent shadow energy. According to the officer on the phone, that was how the prison break occurred. The guards at the mineshaft were apparently neglecting their duties to huddle up near the heater in the break room over a game of poker. The shadow energy swooped in and took them out, all at once. It got a few of the prisoners too, but unfortunately, not all of them. And there was nothing stopping the rest of them from climbing out of the mineshaft, presumably using a rope made of human hair, and making a run for it. Several of them have already been re-apprehended.”

“But not Robert.”

“Not him.” Cecil pursed his lips. Carlos had noticed before that Cecil said Robert’s name as little as possible. Even hearing Carlos say it seemed to offend him.

They sat in uncomfortable silence for about five minutes. Carlos counted the seconds off in his head, one, Mississippi, two, Mississippi, because his only accurate timepiece was back at the lab and counting focused his thoughts. At three-hundred-twenty-five, Mississippi, Carlos couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Did they tell you anything else?” he asked. “Like…do they have an approximate idea of his location, or anything like that?”

Cecil adjusted his glasses. “Very approximate,” he said. “He was spotted heading towards the outskirts of town.”

“What direction?”

“Um. East, I think?”

A tingling of alarm, new and distinct from the alarm he was already feeling, sets Carlos abuzz. “Would that be close to the area east of Night Vale where the Whispering Forest is located?”

“Ahh…maybe?” Cecil looked confused.

Carlos sat up on the edge of the sofa and turned to face Cecil. “Robert is a scientist. If he sees an enormous pine forest rising out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, that’s where he’s going to go.”

“Right.” Cecil nodded slowly. “Well, if you think so, you should certainly tell the officers when they—”

“Cecil, the Sheriff’s secret police refuse to go anywhere near the Whispering Forest! Remember? You asked them to look for me there the day I went to find P—” Carlos’s stomach sank. “Oh no. Oh my God. Perry.”

Cecil just looked confused. “Your lab assistant, Perry? Cactus June’s son?”

Carlos stood up shakily and took a few steps toward the kitchen, only to stop and brace himself against the nearest wall. Thanks to the temporal distortion that turned his four-day trip to Albuquerque into a month long absence from Night Vale, he hadn’t seen Perry in weeks. Carlos had left him to his campsite out in the middle of the forest. Since he’d been home, he hadn’t had the time to spare more than a thought for his assistant.

But if Robert was headed for the Whispering Forest—and the police refused to follow him there—and if Perry was still there, alone, blissfully collecting samples and recording his notes in the dead zone where phones couldn’t reach him—

He was aware of Cecil watching him, tense and concerned. Carlos forced himself to draw a deep breath. “For the last month or so, Perry’s been camping out in the Whispering Forest, doing independent research. He’s alone. The forest isn’t that big. If—if Robert approached him, Perry would never think to be suspicious of him until it was too late. Even if Robert tried to avoid him, I’m pretty sure Perry keeps a special eye out for anyone wandering into the forest, in case they get stuck there.” He pressed the heel of his hand against his temple, where he could feel a headache beginning to gather. “Robert might take him hostage. Or—or hurt him so he can steal his gear, or—”

“Slow down.” Cecil walked over to him. “Let’s not jump to the worst possible conclusion yet.”

Carlos swallowed, but he forced himself to square his shoulders and meet Cecil’s gaze. “I have to go to Perry.”

“No!” Cecil barked the word, not even pausing for thought. His face was a mask of alarm. He looked much more frightened now than he had when the police called. “You can’t, Carlos!”

“I have a responsibility!” Carlos didn’t quite shout at Cecil, but he came closer to it than he ever had before. “I’m the only person who knows he’s in danger!”

“Then we’ll tell someone!” Cecil was in his face, blocking any attempt Carlos could make to maneuver around him. “We’ll find a way to help Perry, but we’re not going to do it by giving Robert another shot at you. I won’t let you, Carlos! I’m sorry, it isn’t in my nature to be controlling, but if you try to leave I will have to stop you.”

Carlos wasn’t angry with Cecil, not really. But suddenly, Cecil was a convenient excuse to be angry, and the anger was a welcome distraction from dread.

“That sounds an awful lot like you do want to control me, if I’m honest,” Carlos said between gritted teeth. “The last person who wouldn’t let me leave the house wasn’t very nice.”

He regretted saying it before the words had even finished leaving his mouth. Cecil’s face crumpled and tears sprang to his eyes. Carlos felt sick.

“Carlos,” he said, choking. “I didn’t mean—I just don’t think you’re thinking clearly. We can help Perry, and we will, but it won’t help anyone if you’re in danger. Please. Let’s…let’s just talk about it, okay?”

Carlos reached out, tentatively, and held Cecil by the shoulders. “I’m so sorry,” he said, in a hoarse voice. “I had no right to compare you to him. You’re right, I’m not thinking clearly. I’m sorry, please don’t cry.”

Cecil leaned down, touching their foreheads together, and Carlos looped his arms around Cecil’s neck. He held him for a moment, listening to Cecil sniffle and catch his breath. After a minute, Cecil straightened up and dropped a kiss on the top of his head.

“Do you still have June’s number in your phone?” he asked, in a fair approximation of a steady voice.

“Um, yes, I think so.”

“Call her. June will know how to find Perry in the forest much faster than either of us. Did you know she’s also the second deadliest woman in Night Vale? She led the Girl Scouts for ten years before Lucy Guttierez took over.”

Relief flooded Carlos’s body, but he was still hesitant. “I still can’t just call her and tell her that I got Perry into this mess, but that I don’t plan to do anything about it.” I won’t be a coward again, he thought fiercely.

But to his surprise, Cecil just smiled. “Don’t worry. If she wants your help, she’ll tell you exactly how to make yourself useful. But she’s not going to ask you to face Robert—no offense to you, my brave, resourceful Carlos, but she’s much too well trained in covert maneuvers to involve an unarmed Outsider in the apprehension of a violent criminal.”

Just then, there was a knock at the door, or rather a series of knocks, beating out a deliberate rhythm. Cecil squeezed his hand reassuringly even as he tensed up.

“It’s the police,” Cecil told him. “I’ll talk to them. You make the call.”


Not until after Carlos got off the phone with June did he realize how certain he had been that June would be furious with him when she heard what he had to say. He wouldn’t have blamed her for being angry in the slightest—wasn’t it his fault that Robert was in Night Vale at all? And didn’t Perry deserve better than to have been left out of the loop when there was a dangerous criminal in town, gunning for his boss? Carlos definitely blamed himself for every conceivable aspect of the whole mess. It would almost have been a relief if she’d yelled at him.

But June, it turned out, was well up to speed on the local gossip and had already heard a not-entirely-garbled version of Robert’s kidnapping attempt, although the prisoner breakout at the secret mineshaft was news to her. She took Carlos’s stammering explanation calmly. And when Carlos attempted to apologize, she cut him off, the first sign of impatience she betrayed through the whole conversation.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve had to straighten out a violent, possessive asshole,” she informed him, in clipped tones. “It’s not your fault. Tell that useless cop at your place to radio for a defensive perimeter to the north of the Forest. I’ll flush the bastard out, and they can lock him up again.” Then she’d hung up on him.

With shaking hands, Carlos put his phone away and relayed the message to the skinny, gender-indeterminate secret police officer who was sipping the coffee Cecil had given them. The officer made a call to secret police headquarters on their radio. Carlos, not knowing what else to do, returned to the kitchen to finish making lasagna.

When they’d finished their call, the police offer looked over at him and made a chiding sound behind their balaclava. “Dr. Scientist, I hope that’s not a wheat by-product you’re cooking with. It would be a real public relations disaster for the secret police if we had to send you to quarantine after all this.”

Carlos put the box containing the unused lasagna sheets on the island, so they could inspect the label. “Jerusalem artichoke flour,” he said, pointing, before he put the pan in the oven. “Much less gummy than rice flour.”

“Ooh,” said the officer brightly, examining the list of ingredients on the side of the box. “Any chance I could try a bite? Or maybe get a recipe? I really miss lasagna.”


Two hours later, the officer received another call on their radio, telling them to stand down. There was no explanation until a few minutes later, when June called Carlos back.

“Perry’s safe,” she said over the speaker, and Carlos’s knees nearly buckled underneath him in relief.

“Thank God,” he whispered. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes, and he took his glasses off to pinch the bridge of his nose. “What about Robert? Do the police have him?”

“He’s not going to be a problem anymore.”

“I—what does that mean?” Carlos looked instinctively to Cecil, who walked over to him and took his hand, standing quietly as he listened. “Is he…alive?”

“Perry heard screaming,” she said, her voice almost without inflection. “He went to investigate, but by the time he got there, the trees had already taken care of things. Turns out, when they want someone, they don’t always take no for an answer.”

Carlos thanked her, and said goodbye in a near-uncomprehending daze. He stared ahead blankly.

“Carlos?” said Cecil, concerned. He squeezed Carlos’s hand tighter. “Are you okay?”

“I—I don’t know.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how I feel.”

“You don’t have to feel anything.”

“Yeah, I know, I just…” He looked up at Cecil. “You said—you said Night Vale wouldn’t let anything happen to us. Sometimes I feel like this town has been trying to kill me since the moment I got here. So I wasn’t really…prepared to take you literally.”

Cecil smiled sadly and brushed a few tendrils of hair behind Carlos’s ear. “We work in mysterious ways,” he said. “We lead mysterious lives, and only the odd coincidental link between cause and effect permits us the illusion that there is any predictability to existence. We are continually at the mercy of both annihilating and creative forces. Sometimes, there is tragedy. And sometimes there is justice. Occasionally, justice even finds the time to be poetic.”

“The universe is governed by set laws, the effects of which can be observed,” said Carlos faintly, trying to translate Cecil’s words into science. “But we are also observing the effects of random and unknown variables that act upon the experimental conditions of our lives. It’s true anywhere, but in Night Vale those variable are…more random. More unknown.”

Cecil beamed at him. “My dear Carlos,” he said. “You do understand, don’t you? I think, perhaps, you might not really be an Outsider anymore.”

A fragment of an old verse, stowed away in his memory for decades, emerged from Carlos’s lips as a conscious thought. He clung tighter to Cecil, lifting his face to look at him. “Whither thou dwellest, I will dwell,” he said quietly. “Your people will be my people, and your god, my god.”

“That is so sweet!” Cecil exclaimed, cupping Carlos’s face between his hands. “If you’re serious, it’s probably time we got you your own bloodstone circle.”

The laughter that overtook Carlos then was probably more than slightly hysterical sounding, but it was better, he supposed, than tears. He’d had quite enough of those. If he was going to embrace lunacy—and embracing Night Vale probably amounted to the same thing—better to be the laughing kind of lunatic.

From the end of the hallway, there came the sound of a door opening. Nijeia poked her head out, scowling, a pair of large noise-cancelling earphones hanging around her.

“What the hell is so funny?” she demanded. “I’m trying to watch my show!”

“Why don’t you cue it up on the television in the living room?” said Cecil, holding tightly to Carlos as he tried to get his breath back. “We’ll watch it together over dinner. Carlos made lasagna.”


That night, when Carlos came to bed, he noticed Cecil studying his bare torso with an expression of thoughtful curiosity. “They don’t hurt anymore,” he said, thinking that Cecil must be looking at the cuts and bruises he’d acquired when the Orphanarians ran his car off the road.

“Hmm? Oh. I’m very glad about that. But I was actually looking at the, erm. Your tattoos. Or rather, the evidence of my foolish mistake with the tattoo marker.”

Carlos glanced down at himself, surprised. The original boundary lines Cecil had drawn on his body had been joined more recently by lines that circumnavigated his hips, circled his navel, dipped below his collar line, and set off one asymmetrical patch on his back that was freakishly ticklish. Cecil’s hypothesis, that the tattoos appeared where they were needed, seemed to be borne out by the fact that they had multiplied to such an extent in the aftermath of the kidnapping. He’d felt vulnerable and unsafe after that last exposure to Robert’s possessiveness, even when he knew, rationally, that he was perfectly safe. His discomfort with intimate touch had correspondingly intensified.

“I’ve wondered about them myself,” said Carlos. “Actually, after…you know, what happened today, I’m wondering if maybe you were onto something when you said that…that maybe I’m not really an Outsider anymore.” Cecil arched an eyebrow inquisitively, and Carlos explained. “You said the tattoo marker shouldn’t have made a permanent mark, or created any new marks, because I wasn’t from Night Vale. But it did. So maybe…maybe I’ve been here long enough to have been exposed to some environmental factor that made the ink respond to me like it would respond to a Night Vale native.” Or maybe, he couldn’t quite bring himself to say out loud, because it was so ludicrously unscientific, it knew before I did that Night Vale had started to feel like home.

Cecil looked thrilled. “What a lovely thought! Yes, perhaps that is what happened. I’m no expert, but I feel quite confident hypothesizing that stranger things have happened.”

Carlos laughed, and climbed into bed next to Cecil. Burrowing under the covers, he rolled onto his side so he could fit his head into the crook of Cecil’s arm. “I think your hypothesis is supported by sufficient data,” he mumbled into Cecil’s chest.

“Actually, I was just going to point out…” Cecil grasped Carlos’s arm and pulled it gently from beneath the covers. He stretched it out between them, and his finger hovered, not quite touching, over the inner crease of Carlos’s elbow. “Look. The first marks I drew on you are gone.”

Frowning, Carlos looked down. Cecil was right; the diamond shapes that had once mapped out a small patch of thin, sensitive skin inside his elbow had vanished.

“May I?” said Cecil. “Just as an experiment?”

Carlos considered this for a moment, then nodded. Cecil ran his fingertips from the top of Carlos’s bicep, over the elbow crease, and down to his wrist. He looked closely at Carlos’s face, and when Carlos didn’t flinch, his fingers traced the same path over again.

“How does that feel?” said Cecil, looking concerned by Carlos’s silence.

“It…it feels really nice, actually.” It was true. Rather than being unpleasantly overstimulated by the whispery sensation Cecil’s gliding fingers, it just felt…gentle. Soothing. Similar to having his hair petted. Something dense and heavy in Carlos’s chest seemed to lighten. “I guess…despite everything that’s happened recently, in some ways I feel safer than I did before? Maybe some of the other marks will go away over time. Maybe…maybe I’ll get those pieces of myself back, some day.” A year ago, it would have seemed like an impossible dream, to think that he could touch and be touched by someone who loved him, and never have to be afraid, or compromise himself. It felt more like a promise now.

“I hope so,” said Cecil quietly. “I hope one day you’ll have to struggle to remember how it felt to be afraid. I hope one day you forget entirely.”

“I’m sure there will be other things to feel afraid of eventually,” said Carlos, but he was smiling, and he felt no dread. “I live here now, after all.”

“And I’m very grateful that you do,” sighed Cecil, pressing his lips to the top of Carlos’s head. “Dearest Carlos. Welcome home.”