Cecil swore up and down that this brand of wine was entirely non-toxic, even to the cyanide-intolerant. By his third glass, Carlos was having his doubts. It seemed pretty clearly to be turning his brain into soup.
With the younger kids in bed and most of the rest of the family watching Little Shop of Horrors in the main cabin, a small group of them had convened in the living room of a secondary cabin to break out the drinks. Cecil had perched himself on the arm of Carlos' chair, in what seemed like an increasingly impressive feat of balance. Carlos was expounding on all the trouble they'd had connecting to email providers, trying to sit up straight rather than lean on Cecil and only half succeeding, when Cecil said, "Why don't you just use Twitter?"
"Dunno," said Carlos. "Jon, Cecil says —"
"Don't have a Twitter," interrupted Jon, who was, after all, on couch right next to them. He had surrendered to gravity long ago and was lying prone across the cushions, head in Stephen's lap. "Don't...barely have a Facebook. 'M an old, old man."
"I'm on it," said Stephen, whipping out his phone from what appeared to be thin air.
"No phones," Carlos told him. "We're not getting signals. Prob'ly the mountain."
With a fond laugh, Cecil patted him on the head. "Right, sweetie. The 'mountain'."
"Hah! It loaded!" crowed Stephen. "Shows what you know. Twitter, it's, Twitter is everywhere. Guess your 'science' doesn't know everything!"
Carlos couldn't even bring himself to be upset. "'Saright. I'm used to it."
Still smirking in triumph, Stephen spent at least five minutes hunting and pecking on the phone screen before Jon took it out of his hands. "Maybe you should do that tomorrow, babe."
"And how is your own wife doing, Cousin Stephen?" put in Cecil. "I haven't heard from her in a while."
Stephen shrugged. "Yeah, me neither."
Which, if it was anything like a Night Vale relationship, meant only one thing. "'M sorry," said Carlos.
"No, she's probably fine," Jon told him. "It wasn't...they never...it was a marriage because of reasons. Stephen still wanted to look heta...het'roshex...straight, an' she needed to be a legal immigrant. Immigrant to the US. From...whatsit. Tiny European place, no one's ever heard of."
"Luftnarp," supplied Stephen.
"Beautiful country, Luftnarp," sighed Cecil. "If you ever have a chance to visit, don't miss it. Tiny little corner of the Alps, easy to fly right past, but the people are so lovely."
Something about that touched off a spark in the soup that had been Carlos' brain. He slumped against his boyfriend's side. "Cecil. Cecil."
"Yes, perfect Carlos?" murmured Cecil, smoothing a lock of hair back behind his ear.
"You said it's in the Alps," said Carlos. "The Alps are mountains."
Cecil sighed again. "Sweet Carlos, I think perhaps you've had enough for tonight. Let's get you to bed, okay?"
"But...!" protested Carlos, though he didn't quite have it in him to struggle as Cecil helped him to his feet. "But, Cecil...geology...fault lines...'course the Alps are mountains, they're on th' biggest, the biggest orogenic belt on th' planet. Compressional forces. Anticlines! Aunt Valerie, tell him!"
Aunt Valerie didn't seem to hear him. In a fitted blouse and slacks that were printed with green and purple grapes, accented by shimmery wine-glass earrings, she was giggling softly and singing to herself, "The wheels on the bus go round~and~round~...."
"Sounds like it's time for you to hit the sack too, Aunt Val," said Cousin BJ. A burlap sack briefly popped into existence beside him; he gave it a punch, and it disappeared. "Here, lemme give you a lift. Night, everyone!" He linked his arm through hers, and with a poof of yellowish smoke they both vanished too.
"That is not at all scientific," complained Carlos, as Cecil escorted him stumbling down the hall to their own room. "Buuuuut it was pretty funny."
Turned out there was a beach nearby after all. A contingent of the family suited up and walked through the forest to reach it the next afternoon, hauling coolers and picnic baskets full of lunch, along with towels and water wings and a couple of inflatable sea monsters to paddle around in.
Jon found himself keeping a safe distance from the water. Apparently he was still a little shaken up from being inside the tuna-shaped bus when it almost got eaten by a shark.
It didn't stop him from enjoying himself. He did some reading, played a little Frisbee, sat back to appreciate the sight of a shirtless Stephen running after a beach ball...and, let's be real here, appreciated the view when the ball got thrown to Carlos, too.
Jon had figured that, in the name of fairness, Carlos' stunningly handsome face ought to be balanced out by a fair-to-middling torso, maybe a set of legs that were nothing much to look at. Yeah, that was so not the case. He considered himself a reasonable man, and he was already madly in love with two people who made him happier than anything, but in that moment he couldn't help understanding Stephen's burning fury at Cousin Cecil. Just a bit.
The outing changed direction when Stephen got smacked in the face with the beach ball. He abandoned the game in tears, fleeing to the shade of Jon's umbrella for comfort; Jon had to reassure him that no, it hadn't left a mark, and yes, Jon would still love him even if it had. It calmed him down, but clearly he wouldn't be happy until he got back in front of a mirror and could check for himself.
"It's okay, don't worry, we can go back to the houses," Jon assured him, brushing salt-dried sand from his skin. "Uh, as long as you remember the way, because I sure don't."
Stephen didn't. Carlos did, though, and insisted it was no trouble, really, he'd been ready to leave anyway. Jon folded up the umbrella and Stephen gathered up their towels while Carlos (in a huge relief to Jon's hormones) put his shirt back on.
"I'm kind of surprised Cecil didn't come along," said Jon as they made their way up the leaf-strewn path. "All those tentacles he has...well, when he feels like manifesting them, anyway...you'd think he'd have a great time in the ocean."
"Common misconception, Jon," said Stephen, who wasn't too traumatized to be arch. "The tentacles only mean that he's the Voice of Night Vale. Which, as you might recall, is in the middle of a desert."
"Wait, I didn't know that," said Carlos from ahead of them.
"Really? I thought you lived there."
"Not the desert part! The other part." Twigs crunched under Carlos' sandals. "Are you saying he got the tentacles when he got the job, or that he was given the job because he already had the tentacles?"
"You science people and your linear time," huffed Stephen. "As soon as he got the job, he had always had the tentacles. Is that so hard to understand?"
"I'll just take your word for it," said Carlos with a sigh. They came to a fork in the path, around a tree that as far as Jon could tell was a giant redwood, and swung to the right. "And yeah, I'm not surprised he stayed out of this one. Cecil doesn't trust any body of water bigger than a swimming pool. The kid with the tentacles, on the other hand...Stephen, he's your nephew, you'd know better than me, but I thought I heard his family was from Dunwich, Massachusetts, right? Which is right there on the river, and not a long drive from the coast."
"Wait, there's a kid with tentacles too?" asked Jon.
"Haven't you seen him? About yea high, dark skin, the tentacles are sky blue and almost as long as his arms...he was on the field trip, you must have noticed him at some point."
Jon tried to remember. It wasn't ringing any bells. Also, he was getting a headache. He adjusted his grip on the umbrella so he could massage his temples.
Carlos came to a stop. "You okay?"
"Fine, fine. Probably just dehydrated. I kinda forgot to bring a water bottle," said Jon sheepishly. "The sooner we get back, the sooner I can get a drink. Which way do we go next?"
There was a worryingly long pause as Carlos studied the trees and brush in front of them.
Then he said, "Okay, I think we made a wrong turn somewhere. But I knew exactly where we were a few minutes ago, so all we have to do is backtrack...."
Stephen cut him off. "No point. It's not your fault, it's the trees — they're moving behind our backs — see, Jon, this is what happens when you go soft on the environment! It starts thinking it can push you around. Stand back, I'll handle this one."
With a few imperious gestures he lined up Carlos and Jon so they were facing him, a personal audience of two. He stood straight, adjusted an imaginary tie, and fixed all three eyes on a nonexistent camera over Jon's left shoulder.
"Tonight's Wørd: Forests!" he announced, in the clear, ringing voice he used on TV. "What, exactly, are they good for? Writing paper? Packing materials? That's what we have the Internet and styrofoam for! And, think about it, Nation: aren't all these open woods kind of a fire hazard? All that underbrush, nice and dry, just waiting to catch a good flame...the ground so hot and parched thanks to global warming that there's not a single damp patch to slow it down...and once you get a real good inferno going, even the big trees can char all the way through to the —"
He was cut off by a massive snapping of branches, loud as gunshots. A rumble went through the ground beneath their feet, sending shudders through every leaf and every vine. Up in the canopy, a flock of birds erupted out of the branches and took off into the sky with unearthly screeches and a mighty beating of wings. All three men ducked, Jon trying to wield the folded-up umbrella like a misshapen shield in case anything fell on them.
Nothing did. As the commotion died down and Jon got brave enough to raise his head again, he spotted a familiar silhouette through the beeches and pines. "Hey...isn't that one of our cabins?"
Stephen smirked. "Colbert, 1; nature, 0."
Carlos was in their room, deeply absorbed in the laptop propped against his knees, when Cecil rapped lightly on the doorjamb to get his attention. "A bunch of people are going to pile in the vans and drive into town for the Olive Garden dinner special. Do you want to come, or are you busy with science?"
"Nothing I can't pick up later," said Carlos, a little reluctant, but willing to get over it. "I can go if you're going."
"No, it's perfectly all right! I was looking forward to having leftovers. I just hope I can get to Aunt Morticia's biscuits before someone else gets the last of them," said Cecil. "What are you working on? Can I see?"
"Of course! Come on over and sit down." Carlos patted the bed beside him.
Today Cecil was wearing one of his more normal outfits: a powder-blue polo shirt, dark slacks, dark suspenders with a Night Vale Community Radio pin. With his tentacles non-manifested, and absolutely nothing glowing, he could have been any random guy off the street. According to Carlos' research — and, gosh, how smug DA would be if she could see him now — that was more or less how everyone perceived him: as someone who fell within their mental boundaries for "just some guy." (Hiram McDaniels was always recommending Cecil try different brands of scale polish.)
Of course, any impression that he was "ordinary" vanished the instant you heard him talk.
"I've been pulling up random clips off the Colbert Report website," said Carlos, as his unique, inscrutable Cecil leaned against his side and got a look at the screen. "The Daily Show site is blocked by the censors, but Stephen's isn't. I, um, I actually have a hypothesis that there's no way to block it anywhere in America. Especially not in Weird America. Maybe we could go on a road trip some time and test it out?"
"It isn't easy for me to get time off," Cecil reminded him, clearly not confused about where Carlos' hypothesis might have come from. "But we can try to work something out."
"So he really is the Voice of America."
"Well, yes. Something like that." Cecil slung an arm over Carlos' shoulders and started twirling a couple of fingers in his hair. "That was never...I would have told you if I knew you were interested. Did you think it was a secret?"
"I wasn't sure," admitted Carlos. "You don't always tell me things, you know."
"I don't always know what basic facts your education skipped over! I'm sure Aunt Valerie's class was a big help in that regard, but there's obviously a lot it didn't cover. And sweet Carlos, when I do keep things from you, it's only for your own health and sanity."
This had generally turned out to be true, so Carlos didn't fight with him over it. "Well, for future reference, I'm always interested to know about other Voices. Remember the acoustic analysis I've been doing on your show?" He clicked over to a different window, showing a close-up on the digitized sound waves of Stephen introducing a "Better Know A District" segment. "I've been doing the same with Stephen's. And if I had even more subjects to get samples from, it would make any results I get that much better."
"Oh," said Cecil. He sounded disappointed.
Cecil shrugged against him. "Nothing! My own fault. I must have mistakenly gotten a wrong impression when you said you were doing 'experiments' involving my voice being 'special'."
Carlos thought about this. Then he thought about it in more detail. Then all the blood in his body rushed to his face.
Then he said, "Hey, Cecil?"
"Yes, dear Carlos?"
"We're not in any rush to eat, right? Or to get back to the rest of the family for any other reason?" There was a clock in the corner of his laptop screen, of course, but Carlos had fallen out of the habit of relying on clocks months ago.
"I suppose not," said Cecil. "Why?"
Carlos closed the laptop and set it aside. "In that case...what do you say we spend a little time with me doing something I don't want to do with any Voice that isn't from Night Vale?"
A thrilling little shiver ran through Cecil. "Oh, Carlos, that sounds...wait. We are talking about sex here, right?"
"...That's the idea, yeah." He'd been trying to go for suave and subtle, but come to think of it, with a cultural disconnect like theirs it was probably best to be as literal as possible.
The next thing Carlos knew, Cecil had climbed into his vacated lap and had both hands tangled in his hair. "Then I say...yes," declared Cecil, dropping into the deeper timbre of his radio voice as he drew Carlos in for a kiss. "Yes, my Carlos, yes."
All the caution Jon had taken around Colbert/Palmer/Frizzle/Addams/and-so-on home cooking, and it ended up being the chicken alfredo at the Olive Garden that got him sick.
Just looking at the vehicles their party had ridden over in made him feel queasy all over again. Especially Cousin BJ's van, which was a nauseating shade of green, with a skull-shaped hood ornament that was more realistic than it had any right to be. "Aunt Valerie!" demanded Stephen. "Help us out, here!"
The magic bus hadn't been with them on the way down here, and Jon didn't want to make her go all the way up and back just to give him a smoother ride. "It's okay, you don't have to...."
"Oh, I insist!" said Aunt Valerie, and clicked her keyring. A cheerful beep-beep! rang out from the far end of the parking lot. "Just give me a minute to set 'er up."
Jon sat on the curb with Stephen while she swished over to the bus, amoeba-patterned skirt rippling behind her.
The engine revved, and the whole vehicle rearranged itself in a way that shouldn't have been possible in only three dimensions. It was lower-slung and all-around sleeker as it rolled up to them, door popping open on its own. "All aboard!" trilled Aunt Valerie from the driver's seat, inviting them into an interior that looked more like a first-class international flight than anything Jon had ever seen serving a school. The seats were wide and reclining and bed-size. One of them was equipped with a couple of handy plastic-lined bags.
Jon lay down in that one, while Stephen took the seat directly behind his aunt and perched on the edge, the better to lean on the back of her chair and talk with her. It didn't seem like a conversation that needed Jon's input, so he mostly tuned it out.
The ride was dreamily smooth. Somehow the bus even managed to drop them off directly inside their room.
"Good news, Jon," announced Stephen, as Jon crawled onto the sheets without even bothering to kick off his shoes. "I successfully talked my aunt out of taking the kids on an educational trip through the current state of your intestines."
"I...did not realize that was a risk."
"You're welcome," said Stephen pointedly. "So is it getting better? You think you're gonna throw up again?"
"Don't think so," muttered Jon, throwing an arm over his eyes. "Just need to lie down for a while."
"Oh, good! Because they'll charge us extra if any of these rooms incur excessive cleaning costs."
"Gee, thanks for your concern."
Stephen was so uncharacteristically quiet that for a moment Jon thought he had snuck out of the room.
A check-in found him still standing by the bed, though: hands balled into fists, mouth trembling. "Jon," he said at last, "if you are seriously hurt I will make it so that the name of the Olive Garden becomes this continent's vilest curse, and there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth as its founders tear their hair and throw themselves into the sea, lamenting that they were ever allowed to touch the restaurant business."
Jon sighed. "Stephen, babe...I know this doesn't come naturally to you, but do you think you could try to stick to the middle ground for a while? Something that isn't 'pretending you only care about the state of the carpet' or 'threatening to rain down apocalyptic curses on an entire chain restaurant and all its staff because their chicken didn't agree with me one night'?"
Stephen folded his arms. "You're right. It doesn't come naturally. But...I can try it. Just for you."
He fussed over Jon for a bit after that: taking off Jon's shoes for him, getting a glass of water, trying to fluff his pillow (unfortunately, while he was still lying on it). At last Jon convinced Stephen to slow it down, maybe lie quietly in bed if he wanted to stay by Jon's side, but be careful not to bounce around too much.
"I worry about you, you know," said Stephen quietly, curled up next to Jon and holding his hand. "To a moderate degree."
"Yes!" exclaimed Stephen. "Because I...somewhat love you. So I need you to be all right. Within reason."
As the words went into Jon's ears, his stomach calmed down. All the way. In an instant.
He rolled over and put an arm around Stephen. "You know I love you too, right? To a reasonable, yet still extremely large, extent."
"And you know that's never gonna change. You can trust me. No matter how many extra eyes...or other appendages...you break out."
"I told you," said Stephen sullenly, tucking his face against Jon's neck. "I don't have tentacles."
"Yeah, okay. But you have something, don't you? Because you're like Cecil. I mean, you're like everyone here, but you're specifically like Cecil. With the capital-V Voice. And I'm guessing it doesn't just work on trees, either — how much power are you sitting on, here?" (When Stephen made his absurd and hyperbolic threats, was it just bluster, or could he do something to back them up?) "And do you also have...is the shifting-appearance thing part of it? When I look at you, am I really seeing you?"
"C'mon, Jon, use your head. Cecil's in radio. I'm on television."
So everyone was probably seeing him the same way, then. Which did not necessarily mean "how they saw him" was the same as "what he actually looked like."
And Jon didn't miss how Stephen was avoiding denying the rest of it.
"Stephen, please, you've gotta just come clean with me," he pressed. "Don't I have a right to know? And I get why you might be self-conscious, but I was cool with the eye, right? I think I've been pretty calm about everything here, as long as it isn't, like, an imminent threat to my life. Haven't I shown you yet that whatever else is going on with you, no matter how weird it is, I can handle it?"
Stephen squirmed and fidgeted for a bit. Finally he said, "You really want to know everything."
Jon's heart kicked up a notch in anticipation. "Yeah. The whole package."
"Okay." Stephen let out a long breath against his collarbone. "I'll show you. But, again, keeping in mind the financial penalties of damaging the house, we should probably do this outside."
Everyone had their own little post-coital rituals. Sometimes it was having a cigarette, sometimes it was running to the shower, sometimes it was rolling over and falling asleep. Carlos' just happened to be naked science, okay?
(He did have a sheet thrown over his legs, and the laptop itself was resting on a cooling pad. Just because he wasn't getting dressed didn't mean he didn't respect basic safety procedures.)
Cecil was collapsed in a blissed-out heap next to him, wearing nothing but Carlos' lab coat. Every couple of minutes Carlos would look away from the Report clip he was casually analyzing to enjoy the view.
He hadn't found any conclusive incidents of Stephen using the full power of the Voice yet, so, just for kicks, he had moved on to get some comparative readings on other members of the show's staff. It was tricky; they didn't seem to last long. Intern Meg died from sampling poisoned water. Stage Manager Bobby...the official line was that he resigned, but it looked suspiciously as if Stephen had barbecued and eaten him.
("Bobby tendered his resignation," explained the host in the recording, with an irrepressible grin over his steaming plate of ribs. Carlos groaned under his breath: "Stephen.")
Intern Jay, in particular, got into all kinds of hazardous situations in the service of late-night TV. He had apparently survived each one, because there was always a more recent clip that followed, but he was bound to lose his life any episode now...
...and that was the point when Carlos caught himself, because hold the phone, what was he thinking? Sure, you had to get used to intern death at NVCR, but the Report was in New York! Had his sense of normality really been that warped by life in Night Vale, that he couldn't even recognize a near-100% death rate as a horrible, tragic loss?
He'd been staring at the screen too long; he was giving himself a headache. Carlos put the laptop aside again and massaged his brow, trying to bring the pressure down.
Stephen's studio isn't located in Weird America itself...but that's where he's from, and it shows. Vicious mutant styrofoam cups. Rings that turn you invisible. A visitor straight out of Weird Europe. Dimensional anomalies. High death counts.
"Mmm," sighed Cecil, sitting up on his elbows, the lab coat slipping down to bare his shoulders. "Carlos, are you all right?"
"I...don't know," said Carlos, though the fact that he wasn't being distracted by the delicious sight in front of him probably meant that no, he wasn't all right. "I don't know. Cecil? Where's your nephew with the tentacles? He was one of the kids wrestling with you yesterday morning, and I haven't seen him all day."
"Carlos, I don't know if you've noticed, but people in my family tend to have a fair amount of children," said Cecil gently. "You can't expect me to keep track of them all."
"Right," murmured Carlos. "Lots of children. Except...except for you."
A violet blush rose on Cecil's cheeks. "It isn't that I don't want them — to be perfectly honest, I've always dreamed of having a large family — but of course it would depend on what my partner wanted, too, once I and that person got to a point where we were discussing —"
"Not what I meant!" snapped Carlos. He felt bad the instant Cecil cringed. "Sorry — I'm not mad, it's just the headache, I'm on edge — and I do want to ask you about...things like that, at some point, but not right this second, okay? All I mean is...lots of big families, and this reunion is full of your cousins, but you, you don't have any brothers or sisters here. Or siblings of any other genders."
"This is true," said Cecil carefully.
"Were you an only child? Did you just happen to have parents who bucked the trend?"
"I was the second youngest of five," said Cecil, and, whoa, how did Carlos not know that? He only had a little brother himself, and he'd been talking about Mike just the other day. Cecil had four siblings, and not one of them had ever come up? "There are photo albums back home. I can show you, if you're interested."
Carlos dug his fingers into his temples. "But none of them are here." None of Stephen's siblings were with this group either, but in their case, it didn't feel like they'd dropped off the face of the earth. He'd seen even a couple of them on the show itself: a lawyer brother, a sister who ran for Congress. "So where are they?"
He could almost hear Wanda's voice yelling in the back of his mind. C'mon, you weaselly wimp, figure it out already!
But echoing along with it was Arnold's: You really should've stayed home today. And pretty much every other day. Never should have left home in the first place, frankly.
And right behind that one, Shirley's —
— no, that wasn't right. When had he known a Shirley?
"You should lie down." Cecil was breaking into the dulcet tones of the Voice again: soothing, a wonderful relief to Carlos' pounding head, but not having the full effect he was probably aiming for. "I'll turn off the lights and get you some water. And something for the pain. Aspirin, that's the one you take, isn't it?"
"No. Thank you. But no." Carlos waved a hand for Cecil to lie back down. "Right now, before I do anything else, I have to...."
He stood up. The sheet slipped off of his legs.
"...put some pants on," finished Carlos. "But after that, and before anything further, I have to go do some...scientific inquiry."
Cecil looked like he was struggling not to wrap a surplus of limbs around Carlos and keep him from going anywhere. (Again.) With an effort he held still, saying only, "I will be right here when you get back."