dinner tonight? xoxo
Cecil grins broadly in his booth, and checks the timer on the soundboard: thirty seconds left. He taps out a quick response: yes, wonderful! come over, will cook. pasta ok?
The answer's immediate: yeah, amazing. see you later!
Cecil hums yesterday's weather as he browses the aisles at the Ralph's, waving thoughtfully over vegetables and sauce ingredients. The dates from the nearby farms had been said to be particularly sweet in comparison to their relations outside of Night Vale: he wonders whether Carlos might find them especially scientifically interesting, and takes two packs.
At home, he unloads, then tidies up a little. He chants the standard late afternoon incantations to the small bloodstone circle set up on the living room table, and puffs up the furry cushions on the sofa. Checks the sun - half an hour to go - and busies himself with washing up plates and setting cutlery. It's a tiny, cramped kitchen, but there's a small bar of a table that looks out to the living room, and it's bright and cheerful.
He thinks it'll be nice to cook together here this evening, and to maybe have breakfast tomorrow, and then, perhaps one day - but, well. He's getting ahead of himself. It'll be nice to cook dinner, here, tonight, and no-one can really be certain of what the future might bring, given that they all live, supposedly together, in a chaotic, random and merciless universe. He settles on the sofa with a book on seismology that the library had seen fit to provide him with the previous week, and waits.
It's three hours later that Cecil's phone finally buzzes with incoming texts: oh no, I'm so sorry, it's work, I completely lost track of the time - would you still like me to come over, would that be okay? I'm really sorry - are you there, love? can we reschedule?
Cecil is already asleep, sprawled out and half-buried in a pile of fluffy pillows, his almost-finished book having fallen onto the floor beside him.
During Cecil's lunch break the next day, Carlos comes over with coffee and muffins, still mortified and brimming with apologies. It was a particularly fascinating rock sample from Radon Canyon, he explains, it had started glowing and giving out this low buzzing and even, somehow, blowing papers around on the desk. Really unexpected, and Carlos hadn't yet seen any of the other samples behave like that, and he hadn't wanted to leave in case it stopped or he missed something. Cecil listens with interest, patiently sipping his coffee, until there's enough of a break in the flow for him to lean over and kiss Carlos' forehead.
"It's fine - really, it's okay, love, I know your work is important and, oh, fascinating" - he shivers happily, excited at the idea of Carlos describing more experiments to him in the near future, or even showing him around the lab - "and I'm sure I'll enjoy hearing more about it very soon. I have to get back, the interns needed a word: shall we reschedule?"
"Please. Tonight, my place? I could do a roast, if there's time - quiet night, just us?"
"Perfect", Cecil smiles, and gently pushes Carlos towards the door. "I'll see you later, okay?"
Carlos manages to finish up work on time, but he isn't prepared for the leakage from Big Rico's. He has long ago given up on trying to analyse the contents of the pizzas, or asking if he could look into the kitchens: the pizza itself seems ordinary, if a little saltier than he's used to, so he's prioritised other work. Now, however, there seems to be a cloud of piercing shrieks, coloured with a feeling of mild yet persistent despair, emanating from the kitchen and coming up through the lab.
He sends his assistants home - a couple mutter oh, what's the point on the way out - then digs out some thick earmuffs and makes to board up the windows. Cecil arrives just as Carlos is soundproofing the tops of the doors: he's already looking a little confused and listless, hands half-heartedly covering his ears.
"It's the leakage", Carlos shouts, stepping down off the counter to kiss him in greeting. "From downstairs, Big Rico's had to shut down two of the main ovens already."
"We should help! Looks like the feelings delivery service got mixed up with it, it's not safe to have this volume of unchecked despair floating around!", Cecil shouts back, digging around in his bag and producing earplugs and chocolate. "Here - this'll help with the despair at least, come on!"
Downstairs, it's even noisier: most of the customers have fled, and Big Rico himself is flapping a tea towel around the ovens, seemingly attempting to direct the screams towards an open window.
In the end, it's tea towels in combination with a spray of cocoa powder that does the trick. Carlos initially tries to aerosolise the powder using water and a spray bottle, but he eventually concedes to Cecil's more efficient (and, let's be real, more fun) method of throwing the stuff around by the handful. Big Rico's family help out, and once the majority's done, the smaller children waste no time in piling up onto Cecil, stuffing cocoa powder into his shirt and giggling.
It'll be a long cleanup: two of Rico's older siblings are already working on tidying up the kitchen and starting food prep for tomorrow's day of business, and Carlos doesn't hesitate in offering to help. It's not quite the date they'd planned, but Cecil still seems delighted to sit opposite him in a booth, both of them working their way through a pile of fresh tomatoes, onions and garlic.
Rico comes over with bowls piled high with baked aubergines, melted cheeses and thick sauce. Carlos is just fielding a sudden surge of nostalgia for Boston's crowded-together Italian restaurants, cycling to the district with colleagues from Cambridge to share enormous pastas and rich house reds, when Cecil squeezes his hand to bring him back and notice they've been joined by Rico's family.
Their tidy corner of the pizzeria is soon noisy and crowded, shouted anecdotes flying back and forth about threats to the restaurant and to the radio station, from unexpectedly large rainstorms sent by the mighty Glow Cloud blocking up the door, to signal disruption via clouds in Radon Canyon that had cleared just in time for the main broadcast. Carlos listens, grinning, and shares the story of the explosion of sawdust and paint that had filled the lab on the scientists' first day, before they'd known (obvious, really) that the building needed a light stroking over the door frames and light switches first thing each morning. They're down there late, in the end, sharing ever-more-raucous laughter and limoncello shots.
Cecil's day has been rather quiet, and he's just thinking cheerfully that he might even be able to pre-record a closing statement and surprise Carlos early, when intern Ana bursts into the studio.
"It's the old oak door, the one out by the orange grove", she gasps out, doubled over from running. "John Peters - you know, the farmer? - he rang and said it's started rattling, and the light around it, that it's bending into weird shapes, into blues and greys like water, as though some great aquatic mammal's gone past and thrown off the whole sky, shifted it sideways, made us all question our base expectations of how air and dimensions should behave - can we go? Can we take the mobile studio?"
Cecil doesn't hesitate: it's a story, it's important to tell the community as soon as possible if anything's amiss. He and Ana load up the back of the car with radio equipment and snacks, and as she starts up the engine, still chattering excitedly, he sends off a quick text to Carlos. will be late, not sure when, will text when back in town. exciting news maybe! sorry, don't wait up, followed by several kitten emojis he'd recently found online.
At Cecil's house, Carlos fixes some toast and curls up on the couch with Netflix. It's not ideal, but the house smells like Cecil, all candy floss and rosemary and desert lightning, and it's good to be here; the neon-coloured sofa cushions are silly and comforting and nothing like the battered, impersonal beige couches that had come with the flat above the lab. Cecil will be warm, much later that night when he slides quietly in to bed, and Carlos will roll up against him and come in close, and mumble something about sharing breakfast in the morning.
The Glow Cloud is having an off day. It's something to do with an argument with the Brownstone Spire, Carlos hadn't quite caught the details, and he's now far too preoccupied with herding all civilians out of the area onto which the Cloud is now raining large-to-medium-sized, pointier-than-usual animal corpses, in stark contrast to the usual downpours of small, and really rather fluffy (or otherwise practical) animals.
As a coyote bursts open on the kerb, scattering entrails and (for some reason) thousands of tiny dead spiders everywhere, Cecil and the NVCR interns, standing in a circle under a shop awning, intensify their keening cries, begging for mercy and understanding in ever-more-elaborate language. Carlos can't keep up - he runs between the gory piles on the asphalt, bicycle helmet flattening down his hair, attempting to take readings and shouting to the Cloud through a megaphone.
He's not quite sure, but he thinks the Cloud's eventual calming down has something to do with the clock tower: he feels a tooth-shaking dong and the air under the Cloud shimmers for a moment, and then the tower has teleported onwards and the colours with which the Cloud is flashing have muted somewhat. One more mountain lion hits the pavement with a stomach-churning crack, and all is still.
"Didn't the interns do well?", Cecil says brightly, brushing splatters of gore from his work trousers. "Two hours of it, and they didn't even hesitate - I'm so very proud of all of you, you know, why don't you take the rest of the afternoon off?"
The interns wander off in a muddled group in the direction of the White Sand ice cream shop, and Carlos makes as if to hug Cecil, then remembers the mess on his lab coat and reconsiders.
"Why don't we both get cleaned up, and then have a bit of a quiet night?", Cecil offers, and not wanting to face cleaning the car, they walk to Cecil's apartment.
Two showers and a huge round of laundry later, Cecil's collapsed across the sofa while Carlos pokes through the fridge. "There's not much - look, we could pop up the road for some bits and pieces, but to be honest, I'd be happy to order in. It's been a busy day."
They end up ordering pizza, and eating in a cosy heap on the sofa, watching a rerun of some old Western. Cecil watches rapt, pointing out inaccuracies in their rendering of the desert landscape every few minutes, while Carlos yawns quietly and rubs his back.
Cecil keeps one eye on his phone as he's chopping vegetables and simmering a stock: earlier that day, six of the secret police officers on duty had vanished in action near the hole in the vacant lot out back of the Ralph's. The Sheriff had said that it was probably nothing, but he'd promised to text Cecil as soon as they were found, anyway. Cecil had accompanied several of their family members up to the Sheriff's office, only leaving once one of them had pushed him out of the door and towards a waiting helicopter, knowing full well (along with the rest of the town) that Cecil had plans that evening.
Cumin, garlic, thyme, extra chile - water, stir, cover - he's preoccupied, too, with waiting to hear news from the children out in the Sand Wastes. No concern for Tamika, of course - she and hear lieutenants are more than capable of taking care of an army - it's just that Dana had mentioned some odd rock formations earlier that week, ones he thinks he's seen in the south-east, and he wonders if she might cross paths with the army at all.
He worries for Dana, too, but not too much - he stirs the beef and savours the rich steam emanating from it, grins as he imagines the telling-off she'd give him if she knew he was worrying about her, as though she couldn't look after herself. She appears sometimes in his dreams these days, but she's smiling there, reassuring him, not crying or staring stonily at him like the other interns, or like Carlos' lost assistants, or the residents of that building that had collapsed in Old Town before he could get to the studio, or those strange images of himself, just younger-
-enough. Chop, stir, shake in oregano, chipotle pepper, inhale, taste - and yes, that works. Checks his phone, and it's already half an hour since Carlos had said he'd arrive, and no messages from either him or the police.
Cecil wonders: he must have been tied up at work, that'd be it, something new and exciting or particularly urgent. He understands: of course he wouldn't want to get in the way of important scientific discoveries. He hopes Carlos is at work, and hasn't fallen prey to the lost harpies that had appeared and taken up residence near the grocer's. Or to the ever-moving pit of void on Main Street: he'd warned his radio audience of it just that day, but the thing could be so very difficult to spot, especially at sunset or when preoccupied with important scientific things, and, oh - he hopes Carlos is just busy at work.
It's five minutes later, while he's performing pre-peeling incantations over the butternut squash, that it occurs to Cecil that he could just call him.
Carlos answers on the third ring, letting out a despondent wail. "Cecil! Cecil, I'm so sorry, I was going to call and then we had to chase this thing all over the lab, Rin's got it trapped in the corner with a broom but I didn't want to leave her alone with it, and I need to go and find a box or something - look, we think there might be more, and they could be breeding. I don't want to panic anyone, but I'm worried we might see something on a level with - " his voice drops lower "- the puppy infestation of a few months back. I'm so sorry, but I really think I need to stay, it's not fair of me to ask the team to be here alone. Love, I'm sorry, I should have called earlier, is that all right?"
Cecil's smiling, now - Carlos is safe, and he's working, and he might sound panicked but Cecil can hear by now the undercurrent of excitement in his voice, this thrill at the novelty of something completely new, at being able to explore and understand and do science to it. "Of course - best of luck to you and the team, and you'll let me know immediately if there's something the town should know about, all right? If - if there's danger, or any mysteries to be explored, they need to know, it's essential. Ring any time, and I've got intern Ana covering up at the station, in case you can't get through to me - "
"Of course. I know - of course we will. Look, thanks. I'll - I've got a key, I don't know how late we'll be done, but if it's all right - "
"Yes. Of course. Late as you like. Good luck!" Cecil hangs up, then looks at the prepared food and the stock and the bowl ready for mixing up sauce, and he thinks for a moment, and then he picks up his phone again and dials Dana's family.
Dana's been texting with her brother as well, Cecil knows: not as much, and she'd spent her internship staying at the radio station all hours, but still, some. He wonders, even, if their texting each other from far apart has them communicating more than they had before: there's distance there, and it's useful. It's easy to come towards familiarity from a far-apart place; less so when cohabiting, pushing up against all the spiky edges. He can understand: he'd lived with family too, once.
Cecil muses on this as he drives carefully to the house, enormous stockpot sloshing with uncooked stew strapped in to the seat beside him. Inside, Dana's mother sets the mixture to simmer and fixes him up with hot tea. They catch up: it's been too long, and he thinks this every time, but it's especially true now: with Josie gone and the majority of the children out with Tamika's army, she's not seeing people quite so often. She reminds him that he hasn't yet even introduced her to Carlos properly, and as they gossip and laugh together over enormous bowls of stew, Cecil promises to bring him over the very next weekend.
"How about this", Carlos suggests. "If we both put our phones in this drawer, and we can check them again in an hour. In the meantime, they've all got the landline number: if there's anything really urgent, they know how to reach us. Sound good?"
It all feels rather interesting, this, Carlos reflects as he opens several cupboard doors, searching for a mixing bowl. They bump up against each other, uncoordinated and messy in Cecil's tiny kitchen, but he can already feel the two of them settling into a routine, their muscles learning and remembering each others' movements even before their conscious minds catch up, the shared language of the space sending them clicking into place together.
It's not the first time he's experienced this - goodness knows there've been plenty of partners and housemates and family members to get used to, but it's been a long time. There's something about the familiarity of coming to a routine, learning this new partner, that's comforting. There are butterflies and nervousness, more so perhaps than even dealing with the lab's infestation, but it's at least a more ordinary kind of scary, one he knows.
Cecil pours out invisible cornflour and salt and water and shows Carlos what he's looking for: palms press out the dough into a round, and fingertips push down the edges, dozens of impressions appearing and vanishing along it. It takes Carlos a few minutes to get used to working by touch alone, but he's soon piling up a stack of fresh tortillas at the bar, glass of wine at his elbow.
Cecil, in the meantime, fries up tofu with beans and vegetables and works over a sauce in a pan. Carlos had been living on Rico's pizza and instant noodles all that week in the lab, spending so much time inside his own head, gazing at computer models, that he wouldn't even register his aching eyes or creaking back until he stopped. This, here: this is a welcome change. Burying his hands in the dough, flattening it out: it's physical, visceral, immediate, and he realises it's so much needed.
Cecil chatters as they cook: news from the station, the new intern that had signed on that week, Khoshekh's kittens growing. Small things, everyday things, and Carlos finds himself, too, talking about his colleagues and their days (one's recently become fascinated by the Whispering Forest, one's just been granted permission to sit in on a meeting of the Fear Scouts, one seems to be permanently in thrall to the Brownstone Spire but still comes in to work most days), and the projects he's working on: the earthquakes, the constellations, Radon Canyon.
Carlos' phone rings once: one of the creatures escaped their box, Rin reports breathlessly, and he thinks about it and then advises her to lock up the lab doors and windows and go home. They can deal with it in the morning.
Cecil gets several texts from the interns: Khoshekh's kittens are wailing, and the vending machine's been possessed again - "nothing to worry about, they just need to refresh the charms around the perimeter and top up the main bowl with kitty snacks, the little ones are usually like this around the full moon", he reports airily as he taps out a reply. "Tell me more about those rock formations! Out to the south-east, you said?"
They eat crowded together at the bar, legs tangled and the steam and spice-scent filling the room. The food's warm and heavy and it's so good, Carlos thinks again, to take time over it. He's calmer now, full of tortillas and good wine - he thinks that perhaps they could take a slow morning together, tomorrow: no need to rush straight in to the lab.
They end up curled on the sofa, lights dim and Cecil running soft fingers through Carlos' hair, still talking quietly about small things around the town, little bits of local gossip and long-ago recollections of life at the high school and community college. Carlos thinks that perhaps, it might be nice to one day think about doing this more - maybe in a regular way, or even, one day, in a shared home, and he smiles up at Cecil, catching his palms between his hands to kiss them. They decide that the washing-up can wait until the morning.