As usual, Cecil joined Carlos in the shower that night. Neither of them was feeling particularly frisky, especially after they'd been traveling all morning; it was just that Cecil had a major thing for washing Carlos' hair, and Carlos was happy to indulge it.
"I'm still remembering something new every fifteen minutes or so," he said wonderingly, eyes closed as Cecil lathered up his scalp. "It's so weird. There are things I've known this whole time — like, I knew I played soccer in elementary school — but then I had completely blanked out on the fact that we picked our mascot by getting shrunk in the middle of a swamp and having some giant butterflies scare the daylights out of us."
Cecil shuddered. "They didn't eat any of you, did they?"
"What? Of course not!" spluttered Carlos. "They were just butterflies, they don't...." He trailed off, realizing that he had yet to actually run into any Night Vale butterflies. "Where I grew up, butterflies feed on nectar. Sometimes pollen, or rotting fruit, but they're definitely not predators."
"If you say so," said Cecil dubiously. There was still a touch of possessiveness in the way he massaged Carlos' roots, like he was afraid a rogue caterpillar might burst in and try to steal his boyfriend. "You played soccer, you said? Did you like it?"
Carlos shrugged. "Sure, I guess. It wasn't anything special. Everyone at our school had to play something, and, you know, we weren't bad for eight-year-olds but we weren't that exciting to anyone but our parents, either. Now, the time the bus turned into a submarine...that was exciting! I can't believe I never told the family. We all sort of understood that the bus had to be protected, but you'd think it would have slipped out at some point that I'd spent an afternoon in a diving suit fifteen hundred meters below sea level."
"Yes, oceans, I understand they're very interesting." Cecil nudged Carlos forward so his head was directly under the spray. "I want to hear more about you, though! What were you like as a child? Was your perfection already in full flower, or did you still have a metamorphosis to go to before you got there?"
It was useless to try to argue Cecil out of the "perfect" descriptor, but Carlos made a token effort. "I was average, I swear. Goofed off in class a lot...I got decent grades, just not amazing ones. Mike was the family genius, he could already do crazy things with computers when I was still figuring out how erosion worked. And I went through this terrible pun phrase around third grade! My dad was always making them, and back then I thought they were the most hilarious thing ever."
"You sound perfectly adorable," said Cecil stubbornly. "I bet your class loved you."
"We all pretty much got along that year." Carlos had to smile as their faces flashed across his mind. "We were a quirky bunch — I never forgot that part! Dorothy Ann always had a couple of books on her to do extra research...I used to get on her case about that, and then I ended up reading one of her books on volcanoes, and couldn't put it down."
"And two decades later you were doing seismology research that ended up leading you to Night Vale! I should really track down this Dorothy Ann person and send her a thank-you card."
"Tim sometimes drew comics and put all of us in them," continued Carlos. "Phoebe was kind of shy, but if there were animals in trouble she could step up and take charge, and it wasn't just the cuddly or the pretty ones, she would defend snakes and spiders too. Phil...."
Whatever had been on the tip of his tongue slipped away. He trailed off, confused.
"Yes?" prompted Cecil. He tugged Carlos back out of the spray, smoothing the fully-rinsed locks back from his forehead so he could open his eyes again. "What did Phil do?"
Carlos stared at the pretty faux-stonework pattern of the shower tiles. It didn't give him any clues. "I don't think we had a Phil. Not that year. I must be mixing it up with another grade."
"Well, that's all right." Cecil opened a bottle of some kind of gel, and the bathroom was filled with a flowery scent as he worked this into Carlos' hair next. Something from the Violaceae family, if Carlos had his chemical compounds straight. "I want to hear more about you anyway."
Fair enough. No reason to dwell on not remembering his exact elementary-school classmates. "Um....I mentioned the soccer, the goofing off, the puns...oh! I played an instrument."
"How wonderful! Which one?"
"One that I made up," admitted Carlos sheepishly. "Built it from junk out of the garage. It sounded kind of stupid even when I got it working, but the Friz — uh, I mean, your aunt — was totally encouraging." There'd been a field trip involved in figuring it out, but he didn't think Cecil would be wowed by the story of a museum where the books had sounds in them instead of words. That had happened in Night Vale twice already this year.
"That's just like her," cooed Cecil. "And just like you, my daring, innovative Carlos."
"All I did was reinvent the wheel, I swear." After leading the rest of the class on a chase around a clearly-haunted museum, beset by a dimensional anomaly that made it bigger on the inside, in the dead of night, all to figure out the basic properties of sound waves. "And I wasn't daring, I just ran into situations without stopping to think how they might be dangerous."
Cecil wasn't even washing anymore, just carding his fingers (and a couple of small tentacles) through Carlos' now-silky-smooth locks. "Oh, of course. Which is totally different from how you are now."
"Yes, it is," deadpanned Carlos right back at him. "Now I give the dangerous situations a thorough scientific analysis before running into them."
"So, uh," said Jon, as they were changing for bed. "Just out of idle curiosity...you don't have any un-manifested tentacles tucked away anywhere yourself, do you?"
"No tentacles," said Stephen. "Although I can borrow some of Cousin Cecil's if you're interested."
Jon made a face. "Oh, geez, seriously? You don't know where those things have been."
"I know one place they've been," said Stephen darkly, at the same time as Jon said, "Okay, I know, shut up, I know!"
He sat on the edge of the bed and tried one more time to check his email. When he tried to connect his laptop to the cabins' network and load Gmail, all he got was a black screen with the words "ACCESS DENIED. YOU HAVE (4) ATTEMPTS REMAINING BEFORE MANDATORY RE-EDUCATION" in bright red, and his phone wasn't getting a signal at all. So much for that idea.
Stephen had lain down beside him. Jon put the phone away and said, "Can I ask what Cecil looks like to you?"
"It's hard to describe," said Stephen. As Jon was imagining all kinds of extradimensional Lovecraftian non-Euclidean impossibilities, Stephen continued: "He isn't really tall. But he isn't exactly short, either. He isn't thin...not that I'd call him fat. You know I don't see race, but I can tell you he doesn't have light skin." He considered this. "Or dark skin. Um, he has a face? Two eyes, a nose...."
"Well, gee, that clears everything up," sighed Jon. "Let me guess, his hair is neither short nor long, and it's roughly hair-colored."
"How did you know?!"
"Lucky guess." Jon always tried not to let it go to his head when he wowed his boyfriend with basic feats of Earth logic. "Do you see at least see the purple eyes?"
"No, those are white. All the way through — white iris, white pupils. It's very Storm from the X-Men," said Stephen. "It's such a pain, let me tell you. If I don't have my third eye open I can't tell which direction he's looking."
Right, the extra eye. Between everything else he'd had to keep up with today, Jon hadn't actually gotten a chance to sit down and process that.
"C'mere a second, okay?" he said, gesturing for Stephen to sit up.
The mattress squeaked as Stephen obeyed. Jon cupped his face in one hand to steady it and gazed into the eye set into his forehead.
It was the same warm brown as the other two, with the same long lashes. The symmetry of its setting was a little disconcerting — both corners were "outer" corners, and Jon couldn't see any tear ducts — and it didn't come with a third eyebrow, since his hairline was right there anyway. But for the most part it looked natural. Pretty, even.
All three eyes blinked at him, and Stephen's aggressive self-assurance cracked a little. "It isn't...too weird, is it?"
"It isn't bad weird," said Jon, dropping a quick kiss on his temple. "You, um, you could keep it open when we get back home, when it's just me around. If you want. If it's a pain to keep it closed all the time."
"Completely unnecessary," huffed Stephen. "It's much easier to have it closed when I'm outside of Weird America. People like you can't imagine what it looks like out there sometimes! It's insane."
"All right, all right! Sorry, I didn't know."
As Jon was getting comfortable on the pillow, though, Stephen curled up against his side and said in a low voice, "But thank you for offering."
Another flood of returning images snapped Carlos out of sleep. Heart pounding, he shook his boyfriend's shoulder. "Cecil. Cecil!"
"Huh? Whazzah?" asked Cecil sleepily.
Carlos grinned in the darkness. "I've been to Mars!"
"No, no, when I was a kid. With your aunt. On a field trip." On an interplanetary voyage. He'd been able to take great bounding leaps across rust-tinted soil; he'd stood at the edges of craters and gazed firsthand at distant unearthly mountains. Even though he knew the planet was only about half the diameter of Earth, the horizon in his memory was impossibly large, because the sun, the only point of reference his mind could get a handle on, was so small and cold against it....
"Oh...yeah, she does that," mumbled Cecil. "Izzat all?"
Carlos sank back onto his side of the bed. He probably deserved it — he'd boosted own ego a couple of times by astounding Cecil with basic color-changing chemical reactions, which was just asking for something like this to balance it out — but it still kind of stung. Mars. "Yeah, that's all. Go ahead and go back to sleep."
When Jon wandered into their cabin's kitchenette the next morning, shaved and dressed but still pretty out of it, he found Carlos standing over the stove frying something. "Morning, Carlos. You know if there's non-deadly coffee around here? And maybe some breakfast foods too?"
Carlos gestured to the coffee machine. "The can with the label that isn't backwards or in hieroglyphics is the one I brought, so that's safe. Help yourself. And I can fry you up an extra serving of this, if you want. It's ham and eggs."
"Would you? That would be tremendous."
Stephen found his way in while Jon was in the middle of figuring out the coffee machine, just in time to see it sprout spidery mechanical legs and try to run away. "Bad! Stay!" he ordered, smacking it across the lid while Jon stared in frozen astonishment. "You have to be firm with them, Jon."
"Uh, sure. I'll keep it in mind."
"And make me a mug of this while you're at it," added Stephen, tapping the can labeled in hieroglyphics, before he went to raid the cupboard.
Jon did finally get his coffee. Stephen poured himself a bowl of what appeared to be Cheerios, except that they sparked like Pop Rocks when he chewed. He was, Jon noticed as the caffeine kicked in, wearing his high-collared dressage shirt and cream-colored jodhpurs. Either there was horseback riding on the agenda for the day, or he just wanted an excuse to wear the tiara that went with them.
At last Carlos announced, "Eggs are up." He already had plates out, so he flipped a serving of ham and eggs onto one of them and passed it to Jon.
"Thanks," said Jon. "Wait, um...they're supposed to be green, right?"
Cecil (today in a fringed T-shirt and checkered culottes) manifested every one of his tentacles for a massive wrestling match with half a dozen of his smallest nieces and nephews. There was a lot of shrieking and growling and giggling as the kids let loose with their own weird features, including a curly-haired boy who had tentacles of his own (sky-blue, in contrast to Cecil's deep purple) and a ponytailed girl who kept spitting fire.
The fight took up most of the floor in the main cabin's sitting room. Anyone who wanted to get through from the front to the kitchen had to either squeeze past on the sides, or give up and walk around outside. Carlos watched from a chair crammed into one corner; it still probably wasn't the safest place for an ordinary human, but he was too charmed to leave the room entirely.
(At first he worried about the children who looked no more supernatural than he did. When the normal girl in the rainbow sweater gleefully sliced open one of Cecil's tentacles with a grappling-hook gun, he realized he could probably relax.)
"Enjoying yourself?" asked a gentle voice, and Carlos realized with a start that the Friz was sitting beside him, in an armchair the same model as his but colored a suspiciously bright yellow. She was wearing another of her trademark dresses with a pattern of brown scales, and a series of brightly-colored frogs lining the cuffs of her sleeves and the hem of her skirt. The ensemble was completed by frog-eyeball earrings.
"I've never seen Cecil interact this much with kids before, that's all," said Carlos sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. "I mean, excluding the voiceless zombie-child messengers of the City Council. I'm not sure they're a fair representative sample."
A blast from the fire-breathing girl caught on a patch of carpet, which flared up in smoke and flame. Cecil effortlessly curled one tentacle around a pantaloon-wearing child in the danger zone and lifted him out of the way, then stamped out the fire with another.
"He's really good with them," said Carlos, half to himself. Then, "I'm sorry, I'm being very...um, what should I call you? I can't just keep addressing you as Ms. Frizzle, right? Especially since there are probably other people from the Frizzle branch of the family around here."
"Dynamic deduction, Carlos!" said his former teacher — and, good grief, Carlos was a capable independent adult in his mid-thirties who had published serious papers that were well-received by the seismotectonics community, but that simple phrase still made him exactly as fulfilled as it had when he was nine. "Of course you can always call me Valerie. But if that's too informal for you to adjust to right away, you're welcome to call me Aunt Valerie, too."
Carlos grinned with relief. "Aunt Valerie it is." His actual parents' sisters were all tías, so it didn't feel as over-familial as it might have. "And I've been meaning to ask you, is Liz still around too?" The Trioceros jacksonii was only supposed to live a decade or so in captivity, but then the Trioceros jacksonii wasn't supposed to be able to drive a bus, so anything was possible.
"Let me think...Liz, Liz, Liz." Aunt Valerie tapped her chin, remembering. "The person you're thinking of would have been my TA at the time, gone on to a respectable teaching position herself if she...ah, of course! Your class had Liz McDaniels. We haven't touched base in some time, but last I heard she was doing quite well."
"McDaniels," echoed Carlos. "Liz was a dragon."
"But of course! I would never entrust my class — not to mention my bus — to an actual chameleon."
"Well, no. In retrospect, we probably should have guessed...."
"They can't follow road cues," continued Aunt Valerie, "and they're notoriously bad at signaling."
Jon tapped out of the adults' informal backyard soccer game early. He couldn't run like he used to, and it didn't seem like a fair match when some of the folks on the other team could fly. (Not to mention the fact that, by majority vote, it had been decided that Cecil was still allowed to use his tentacles.)
Carlos was drawing on the front porch again, so Jon retrieved his mini laptop and took the next seat over. "Hey, I don't suppose you've had any trouble with the Internet here? And if so, any chance you've figured out a way to get around it?"
"I know how to bypass the censors in Night Vale, but I haven't tried it here yet," admitted Carlos, putting down the paper notebook to take the computer out of Jon's hands. "I can give it a try. What are you trying to get to, the news?"
"Oh, no. When I'm on vacation, I make a point of avoiding the news as long as I can get away with it," said Jon. "Email. It's not that big a deal, since we're only here for a few days anyway, but I was hoping to drop my wife a line at some point and tell her everything's going okay."
He said it without thinking. Anywhere else, it was his relationship with Stephen that he would have quietly downplayed. Here, Carlos did a double-take. "You're still...? Sorry, I thought...you and Cousin Stephen...."
Right. Well. Might as well just put it all out there. "We are. I am. It's a polyamory thing, okay? Out in, uh, the real world, it's mostly an open secret — anyone who really wants to can go right ahead and believe it's not happening — but everyone who's directly involved is aware of it. And approves of it."
Carlos' face was carefully blank as he processed the idea. Jon found himself half-consciously shifting into his Serious Newsman lean-in, hands folded as he looked the other man directly in the eye.
"Stephen was sure it wouldn't be a big deal here," he continued. "This trip was really important to him because this is the only group where he doesn't have to hold anything back. Our friends at home don't know much about the supernatural stuff, and when it comes to relationship stuff, the other side of his family is convinced we're going to hell for the gay part alone. So, listen, if you want to judge me, have at it, but don't bother Stephen about it, all right?"
It took a moment for Carlos to absorb all that.
But when it sunk in, what he said was, "I have an acquaintance who's a five-headed dragon, which I think makes all his relationships polyamory by default. Also...I have family who thinks I'm going to hell for the gay stuff too. So. What email provider are you using?"
He never did crack the firewalls. And they both agreed to stop for Jon's safety when the error message got to (1) ATTEMPT REMAINING BEFORE MANDATORY RE-EDUCATION.
By that point, though, they were deep in conversation about more of the weird science in Night Vale. Highlights included the wheat (and, Carlos stressed, its by-products) that turned into snakes; the deadly levels of radiation that were business as usual at Cecil's studio; and the house that didn't exist, though all the evidence suggested it really should.
"You must have been into some kind of normal scientific field before you moved there, right?" asked Jon.
"Did I ever," sighed Carlos. "Seismology. With a focus in seismotectonics." Catching what was undoubtedly a deer-in-headlights look on Jon's face, he added. "It's the study of how plate tectonics and local faults affect earthquakes in a given area. I have a couple papers available in PLOS ONE, if you ever care enough to look up the specifics."
"Okay, be honest with me. Would I understand any of them? And keep in mind that I tell dick jokes for a living."
"They're pretty technical," admitted Carlos. Behind the lenses of his glasses, his eyes sparkled. "Guess you'll just have to trust me when I say they're...ground-breaking."
Jon groaned. "Carlos!"
In the hour or so leading up to dinner, a good part of the younger generation ended up in the main cabin playing board and/or card games. (The obligatory kid who ignored everything else in favor of reading ended up in the chair next to the Monopoly game. The leather binding of her book, Carlos noticed, was smoking slightly. Cecil assured him it wasn't a problem.)
The adults present included Cecil and Aunt Valerie, both playing with the kids; Cousin Stephen, apparently playing at the same level as the kids; and Jon, who confessed to Carlos that he was mostly there to make sure Stephen didn't throw any tantrums if he lost. Carlos himself had gotten fed up with drawing leaves, and was now taking advantage of the glory of pens to document all the differences in these games from the versions he was familiar with.
(There were easy-to-understand changes, like how the Scrabble set included Sumerian runes, and more confusing ones. He had no idea what was in the 'Bloodstone Circle' stack of cards on the Monopoly board.)
So this was the scene when a girl with dark plaits and hollow, sunken eyes (it wasn't a goth fashion choice or anything, the black lacy Victorian dresses notwithstanding; her face was just built that way) plopped down next to Stephen and said, "Uncle Stephen, how come you've got three eyes?"
"I don't know," said Stephen testily. "How come you've got only two, huh?"
"Because everyone has two per head, and I only have one head," said the natural-goth girl. "So how come you have three? Three is weird."
"Are you sure about that, Friday?" cut in Aunt Valerie. "Two eyes per head is the only way to be normal? Nothing else found anywhere in nature?"
"Well...spiders, maybe," said young Friday sullenly. "But I never seen anything else on an animal."
"Never say never, kids!" exclaimed the Friz. "If you haven't personally seen something, that just means you have a perfect reason to go looking. In fact, let's do that right now. To the bus!"
She jumped to her feet, and kids all over the room abandoned their games and followed with a cheer. Even the girl with the book closed it, tucked it under her arm, and joined the crowd. Cousin Stephen, beaming, grabbed Jon's hands and pulled him out of his chair. "Come on, Jon! You don't want to miss this!"
Grinning pretty hard himself, Carlos dropped the notebook and pen in a pocket of his casual lab coat and practically skipped over to the Scrabble board. "Let's go!" he exclaimed, reaching for Cecil's hands to lift him off the floor.
Instead, Cecil locked a hand and a tentacle around his wrists, and added a couple of other tentacles to yank Carlos down with an oof into his lap.
"Cecil? What's going on? They're gonna leave without us...."
Cradling him in an unusually firm grip, Cecil fixed him with a stern look. "We promised Aunt Morticia we'd help with dinner."
"But...!" protested Carlos. They could do that afterward, surely? "Science...your aunt...the bus...field trip!"
"You, Carlos...daring, perfect, occasionally insensitive Carlos...have already been on enough of Aunt Valerie's field trips to last a lifetime," said Cecil. "Besides, science always works her up an appetite. This is your chance to show some appreciation by having a balanced meal waiting on the table when she gets back."
The kids, plus Jon and Stephen, were bursting with excitement as they piled into the back yard fresh off their ride on the bus. Dinner was almost all laid out on the picnic tables, with Cousin BJ teleporting from spot to spot in little puffs of smoke to put down the last of the silverware.
"So lots of animals have a third eye, called the parietal eye!" exclaimed the girl with the book (which had stopped smoking, at least for the moment). "Lizards, frogs, tuataras, and some kinds of fish, including lots of sharks!"
"Parietal eyes aren't as developed as main eyes, but they still sense light, and have lots of different uses," continued Friday, skipping along next to Aunt Valerie. "They keep track of the seasons based on the amount of sunlight, and use that to control things like when to get sleepy, and how much of different kinds of hormones to produce."
"And mammals like us still have the gland in our brains that a parietal eye would be attached to," said Jon. "They're even made of cells that are a lot like the cells in our retinas. So I guess you could say we all have third eyes!"
"As I always say," put in Aunt Valerie, "if you've gotta see...why not have three?"
While the children split off into groups or ran to find their parents and relate their adventure in more detail, Jon stumbled to a stop and leaned on the chair Carlos had reserved with his notebook, blinking, weirdly dazed. "Did we just recap the whole trip?" he asked Stephen under his breath. "Why did we do that?"
"Perfectly normal side effect. It wears off fast, don't worry," said Stephen. "Ooh, quesadillas!"
"Mostly safe!" called Carlos from the far end of their table. "Jon, don't eat the blue ones." He finished sticking serving spoons in the tureens and hurried over. "So how was the trip? What did the bus do? Grow, shrink, fly, swim, tunnel...?"
"I think the highlight was the point when it transformed into a tuna," said Jon. "With us inside it."
A wistful smile lit up Carlos' face. "At my old school, the bus was always turning into animals when we were inside it."