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Every Version Of You

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Their love was simple, and unceasing. It lived in the warmth between their clasped hands, and their sleepy good-morning kisses, and the way they held each other. It overflowed, perfectly imperfect, even into the places where their comprehension or history or senses of humor did not form pathways into one another. It allowed the two to exist somewhere between these things, and to transcend them altogether.

 

Sometimes when Carlos talked, Cecil couldn’t completely follow what Carlos meant. Usually, that was because Carlos was breathless over some scientific concept, or trying to explain clouds to him again, even though to a non-scientist, clouds were not meant to be understood, only to be stared at, awestruck and pleading and worshipful. Cecil wasn’t even certain that scientists themselves were supposed to know a single thing about them. Despite this, Cecil would listen as best as he could, and nod supportively, grateful that Carlos was beloved enough in this town to get away with occasionally spreading cloud-based propaganda.

 

He did not understand much of science--although, he was obviously very into science these days, on a personal level--but Carlos always got such a look in his dark eyes as he chattered on, pouring a beautiful and often insightful stream-of-consciousness out between them in the kindest voice Cecil had ever known. Cecil loved those eyes, and that voice, and Carlos’ passion, and because of this, it didn’t matter that Cecil didn’t understand the performance of weird scientific magic, or what water is (other than drinkable, important and somewhat scarce in the desert), or what exactly a beaker does. At least, this gap in understanding did not stop Cecil from loving Carlos with every cell in his fragile, temporal body.

 

Carlos would listen, too, when Cecil talked. Carlos sometimes got distracted easily, but that was not because he didn’t care. Carlos cared very much, Cecil knew that. But Carlos was a scientist, which meant that he was interested in everything, even when he wasn’t sciencing directly, in a lab. Aside from that, Carlos was autistic, which meant that he sometimes went along with his thoughts, rather than the other way around. Cecil loved the way Carlos thought, even if he sometimes had no idea how the two of them had ended up discussing the scientific properties of bees again. Cecil loved every single thing about Carlos. How could he not?

 

And beautiful Carlos was always so patient with him, and so gentle, even when Cecil couldn’t imagine deserving it. Cecil knew that he, too, could go on for...well, for what might, to an objective bystander, be an unreasonable amount of time. This was partly because he was a radio host, and partly because he got on a roll easily, and also because he was not always the best at having two-sided conversations.

 

But after some time, he had stopped fearing that he had to justify that to Carlos, because Carlos would always shake his beautiful head, and look up at him with such softness, and tell him that it was okay. That Cecil was okay, and he loved Cecil so much, and even though he wasn’t always familiar enough with the shows Cecil kept up with to successfully beta Cecil’s new fanfiction, he promised he still wanted Cecil to tell him all about it.

 

And that was exactly what Cecil was doing tonight, sitting with Carlos on their bed.

 

“Okay, so, I know the coffee shop AU is, like, the most common AU setting--that is, other than high school and bloodstone ritual meet-cute AUs, of course, which are like everywhere--but there is just something so great about it!” Cecil said. “I’ve been thinking of writing one about Rymazian, from EOS 10. I mean, it’s not like a coffee shop AU would be an improvement on how they met, because that was just, like, wow.”

 

“Yeah,” Carlos replied with a small laugh, a grin spreading unevenly across his face. “It’s hard to imagine how that could have been more perfectly awkward. And besides, they’re already in space, which is a really cool setting! Like, can you imagine being in outer space--I mean, we already are, but I mean not on a planet or a moon, just in a ship--and being able to look around and see almost nothing except void and stars? I mean, yeah, we get half of that now, if the sky is clear, but there’s still the atmosphere, and those mysterious lights that pass overhead... ugh, that would be so beautiful, Ceec.”

 

“...Wow, that really is beautiful. Maybe...Hmm. I could keep them in space, so they can go on a date where they stargaze...oh my god, I have to write that.” Cecil finished his sentence wide-eyed, squeezing Carlos’ soft hands intently.

 

“I hope you do!” Carlos said, equally wide-eyed, squeezing back. “You’re so amazingly good with words!”

 

Cecil felt himself blush. “Oh, thank you, Carlos!”

 

“Of course! But...wait, you were saying something before that...your coffee shop AU?”

 

“Oh! Right! Umm...oh yeah. In this story they’re younger and in college--in space--and Ryan is a barista, and Akmazian is the guy who worked there before Ryan and stole, like, ALL the bagels one day--because they’re in space, so bagels are legal--so he’s banned, and it’s this whole thing. But then later, after Ryan finds out who he is, Akmazian explains what happened. But way before that,” Cecil said, shaking himself back on topic, “there is this moment when Akmazian comes in and places his order, and Ryan is just like, sweating, because oh my god, this is the most beautiful person he’s ever seen, with this long, dark, curly hair and teeth like a military cemetery, and--”

 

Ohhh my gosh, am I Akmazian?” Carlos cut in, laughing. Cecil had hoped he would pick up on that, and grinned back.

 

“Whaaaat! Noooo,” he teased. “This is, like, a completely different guy! He’s not even a scientist. I’m just, um, taking inspiration from your face, because you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.”

 

Carlos tried not to smile, but it wasn’t working. It was, however, really cute. “Stop,” he said warningly, but his eyes sparkled.

 

Cecil continued chattering about his fic for a long time, long enough that he started to notice that he was doing it. Sometimes he didn’t get that feeling until he had been going on for hours, so he suddenly paused in mild alarm, realizing not only this, but that despite Carlos’ intent interest, he had yawned several times already. He checked the watch Carlos had given him, and to his relief, only half an hour had passed. But Carlos was still incredibly tired from his latest series of experiments at the lab, which had only ended late last night. Should Cecil really keep him up?

 

“Babe?” Carlos asked, in Cecil’s silence.

 

Cecil reached for Carlos’ hands again. “I just remembered how exhausted you must be, after working so hard this week. I’m sorry I’ve kept you up, should we get in bed for the night?”

 

“Oh no, I don’t mind at all! I’m really enjoy--enjoying thi--” Before he could finish, Carlos broke into a particularly intense yawn. As it ended, he laughed. “Okay, I mean yeah, I am pretty exhausted. But this is something important to you, and I always love hearing about your writing!”

 

You are something important to me,” Cecil said gently. “I can tell you more once you’ve gotten some rest. I don’t mind waiting.”

 

Carlos shifted, looking down at their hands. He looked up at Cecil with a slightly regretful smile. “Okay, if you’re sure.”

 

“I’m sure,” Cecil reassured him, leaning in to kiss him.

 

He’s so warm, Cecil half-thought as they broke apart. Warm to the touch, and warm to everyone he knows.

 

--

 

That warmth only grew as they slipped under the blankets, with the exception of Carlos’ toes, which were (as usual) far colder than anything else about him. They turned off the lights and nuzzled as close as they could, Cecil’s head resting against the top of Carlos’, their arms around each other.

 

Cecil felt Carlos sigh deeply in contentment, stroking Cecil’s back with his thumb. Within himself, he felt a pleasant buzzing.

 

Although he knew that he, too, was close to succumbing to the peace of this particularly quiet and almost paranoia-free night, Cecil’s thoughts were still active. They went in several directions at once, some present here with his Carlos, some with his writing, and some dealing with that really ridiculously obnoxious earworm jingle he couldn’t get out of his head. He had been hearing “Eight hundred five eight eight, two three hundred, ThE sPiRe,” all day now.

 

He found himself almost wishing earworms were real worms, so he could physically prevent them from invading his skull. But as he recalled the last worm outbreak in town, and the last time the Faceless Old Woman had put something in his ear--his eyes widened, and he barely suppressed a shiver, tightening his embrace just so. On second thought, he was very glad that term was non-literal.

 

His thoughts, thankfully excluding the concept of Ear Worms, quickly meshed together, and he imagined himself meeting Carlos in different settings. What if they, too, had met in a college coffee shop? Cecil imagined himself behind the counter, angrily smashing coffee beans and chanting, surrounded by sugary syrups and hot water and whipped cream, and watching a beautiful stranger walk in. Their eyes would meet not as scientist and journalist, but as overworked communication major and overworked science major.

 

Cecil could only imagine his reaction to Carlos being similar to what it had been here, in their real lives. Carlos would have ordered something in his oaky voice, and then smiled up at Cecil through stray black curls, and Cecil would have fallen in love instantly.

 

Cecil continued imagining scenes like this one. What if Carlos had been his doctor? What if one of them was a secret operative? What if they had met in grade school, before they had even thought about love, and they had gotten to grow up together?

 

What if they had still fallen in love, despite their circumstances being so different? What if…

 

Well, what if they hadn’t? What might have happened between them, in other worlds?

 

Although Carlos had seemed tired before, he was still awake; Cecil could still feel his thumb moving on his back. So he spoke, softly. “Carlos?”

 

“Mmm?” Carlos replied drowsily.

 

“I keep thinking about what AUs of us might look like. I know that all we have is this world, and what is here now, and I am so, so happy with you, Carlos,” Cecil said, a soft smile breaking on his face. “But I’m still thinking about them.”

 

Carlos withdrew, just enough to pull himself up to eye level with Cecil. He blinked hazily. “What AUs are you thinking about?”

 

Cecil felt slight regret, starting another conversation this late. “Well...I didn’t mean to keep you from sleeping any longer. I can always tell you tomorrow, if…”

 

Carlos smiled. “I can’t sleep yet, anyway. I keep thinking about yesterday, and especially how if we’d just caught that falcon, like, four days ago instead of three, we would have found our missing data sooner, but we also might not have caught the mistakes we made in the first round of testing. In the end, they actually saved us a lot of work! And I don’t mind working, but I knew you were starting to miss me, and I was starting to miss you, too. So actually, thanks, data-stealing falcon!”

 

Cecil laughed softly. It came out as a hum. “I am so glad.”

 

“Me too,” Carlos said, stroking Cecil’s face with his thumb. “What AUs of us are on your mind?”

 

“Oh, well, I was thinking of the different ways we could have met, and what could have come of each one. Of course I thought of the usual coffee shop AU, because I’m already writing that Rymazian fic. And then I thought, what if I was sick, and you were my doctor? Or--”

 

“Wait, I’m the doctor?”

 

“Well, yeah! You’re already a scientist, and you already have a lot of labcoats, so I mean, it totally works.”

 

“Oh! Well, that is true. I do have many, many labcoats,” Carlos agreed. “And I guess in that world, I could have gone a more medical route!”

 

Cecil nodded. “Yes! And, compared to me, you’re already much more the doctor type. You did perform vocal surgery on yourself,” he said, brushing Carlos’ throat scars gently with the back of his fingers.

 

Carlos looked down, placing his hand over Cecil’s. “That’s true,” he conceded. “And you really can’t handle gore. It makes more sense for me to be the doctor, probably.”

 

“Oh, yeah. I also was thinking of one of us being some kind of secret operative, or maybe us meeting in grade school instead, or I mean, anything. Just...some situation where things start out slightly or even very differently, but we still meet, and hopefully, still fall in love.”

 

Cecil had looked away as he was talking, but his gaze met Carlos’ again. Carlos blinked a couple times. “Hopefully,” he mouthed, looking just to the side, as if he was dissolving the word on his tongue, and deciding how it tasted.

 

“I mean, if I wrote them we obviously would,” Cecil said, rolling his eyes, quickly trying to erase any doubt Carlos might have about that. “I just mean that under different circumstances, it might have taken longer, or looked different, or…” or, we would have missed out on this life together, Cecil did not say, but he half-thought it. “Or something,” he said instead, suppressing the idea as best as he could.

 

“That’s true,” Carlos replied thoughtfully, and maybe a bit sadly. He curled just a bit tighter against Cecil, and Cecil cupped his chin, a swell of emotion in his chest.

 

“Do you think you would have loved me, still? If things had been different? If we had been different?”

 

He spoke before he even thought about it, already knowing the answer. Cecil knew Carlos would have loved him, at least platonically, if they had still met; he loved everyone. Carlos was, by far, the kindest person Cecil knew. But Cecil wanted to hear it, to know Carlos’ thoughts as he thought them.

 

Carlos was silent for a long moment, longer than Cecil had expected. Carlos studied Cecil’s face intently as he ran his thumb over Cecil’s cheek, and then his bottom lip, fingers slightly cool to the touch. His kind expression flickered momentarily into sadness, but he smiled through it.

 

“It’s possible that things could have turned out differently between us,” Carlos said, now tucking Cecil’s hair behind his ear. “Many alternatives are possible, because time is…well, time is weird, and so is space. So are many other things. Maybe all things. But I can’t imagine a world where I know you, but have never felt love for you. Maybe…” he paused. “Maybe it wouldn’t look the same in every timeline, but I believe that every version of me, if he has met you and could still be called “me” at all, loves every version of you.”

 

Carlos’ words hung in the air; his eyes stayed locked on Cecil’s. As Cecil breathed in, then exhaled, he felt the world soften--or was it himself?--and he bit his lip. “Carlos?” he said, voice trembling.

 

“...Cecil?”

 

“I am so, so in love with you,” he confessed, voice succumbing to a whisper.

 

Carlos’ smile broke into a wide grin. “I really love you too, Ceec.”

 

“I know,” Cecil said, pressing his lips against Carlos’. He tasted like lavender toothpaste and felt like home, so he lingered for a long moment. When he withdrew again, he rested his forehead on Carlos’. “I know you do. I just...I never expect you to express it in such beautiful ways.”

 

Carlos laughed, looking down. “Well...” He kissed Cecil’s fingers, gently. “You’re a really beautiful person, so I’m glad I can say something beautiful to you.”

 

Cecil’s heart leapt again. “Thank you, Carlos. You’re always saying and doing beautiful things,” he said softly. “I think every version of me loves you, too.”

 

They lay in silence, taking each other in. Cecil felt he could stay here forever, just like this, and that even though the universe would one day end, he had found something eternal within it, in Carlos’ love...

 

“Okay, but what if I was the British butler in a murder mystery drama, and you were the detective assigned to the case, and you had to interrogate me? And I was like,” Carlos breathed deeply, and said in a strong accent, “‘Ey. I would never murder anyone!” He dropped it and exhaled, as Cecil felt his eyes widen in shock. He was sure that accent was not British, but--“But the thing is, you were like really sure I killed the guy, so it was, like, really unromantic?”

 

Cecil blinked, then laughed. “Well...I would still think you were just the cutest murderer to ever exist!”

 

Carlos laughed too, a little flustered. “Aw. So what...you would just let me go?”

 

Cecil ran his thumb over Carlos’ bottom lip, grinning. “Hmm...probably yes, but not before I got your number.”

 

Carlos shook his head, smiling. “You are unreal. I mean, scientifically, we are probably all unreal, but, like, wow.”

 

“Like I’d walk away without your number in any universe! Unless numbers didn’t exist there, I guess, which...hm, aside from not getting yours, I think that would be pretty cool!”

 

“Oh, no, Cecil.” It was Carlos’ turn to go wide-eyed, in semi-horror. “You wouldn’t want to live there. You need numbers. Being alive depends on it! You can’t have any sustainable form of existence as we know it without numbers!”

 

“Okay, but, consider this: nobody would have to take math classes,” Cecil countered. “It would be great.”

 

Carlos shuddered. “Nobody would get to take math classes,” he whispered, gaze shifting and fixed on nothing in particular. “It would be awful.”

 

Cecil realized he may have actually upset Carlos a bit, and backpedaled. “No, no,” he said, kissing his boyfriend’s forehead. “I was mostly teasing! I hope everyone in that world who likes math can get into a multiversal study abroad program, and take classes about it.”

 

“Well...okay,” Carlos exhaled. He still looked slightly worried, so Cecil tucked Carlos’ head back under his chin, with a surge of protectiveness.

 

“I’m sorry I even said that, Carlos. Let’s just pretend I didn’t. I love you, and I love that you love math.”

 

“I do love math! Math is a critical component of science,” Carlos mumbled into Cecil’s chest, trailing into a yawn. “It’s, like, really important.”

 

“I know,” Cecil said. He did not know, but he would take Carlos’ word for it.

 

“You need math for...for calculations, and like, for fun.”

 

“Oh, uh, yes. We’ll keep it, then.”

 

“Mmm...good.” Carlos moved his arm, so his hand was in the small of Cecil’s back. “That’s a really good thing.”

 

Cecil laughed softly. The room fell mostly silent, and he could feel Carlos drifting out of the waking world, in his arms. He was in Carlos’ arms, too, and that felt so much like home, in a way he would never have predicted he could feel with someone.

 

He lay awake for a long time, listening as the room settled, and as Carlos breathed. It almost sounded at one point like something was skittering out the door, but in the darkness, he couldn’t see it, and right now, in the warmth of this love they shared, he couldn’t care less.

 

When he finally slipped out of consciousness, he didn’t dream at all.

Chapter Text

Carlos peered into the street, from the porch. Someone peered back suspiciously, out of the windowless van across the road. He grinned and waved. They smiled back hesitantly, still suspicious but apparently satisfied, and went back to furious scribbling.

 

He wondered what they were scribbling about, but had long ago accepted that sometimes, people in this town just scribbled, and it wasn't worth worrying whether their scribbles ended up as public record or sketchbook scraps. Either way, people always seemed to know too much and too little all at once. Fortunately, due to his visibility in town--thanks especially to his wonderful, sweet blabbermouth of a boyfriend--Carlos knew he could get away with breaking more rules than the average person, anyway.

 

It was dangerous being a scientist anywhere, and perhaps particularly in a town like this, where knowledge was often fiercely kept but rarely spoken aloud. Even mountains were controversial, here, which he suspected had only become an issue after that Glow Cloud, all hail of course, had arrived in town. But it seemed to him that he usually stayed safe from the worst possible repercussions for his various infractions.

 

He supposed that perhaps, the powers that be had never had to deal with scientists, or had accepted after the revolution that the risk of keeping them around was worth the payoff. Or, maybe, they just didn't want to make an enemy of Cecil by doing something to harm Carlos or his team. Cecil really was not the kind of person you wanted as your enemy.

 

Either way, he smiled at the scribbler across the street with the confidence of someone who knew he had a lot to lose, but that it would not be lost easily.

 

“Ready to go, bunny?”

 

A familiar voice sounded from behind him, from a man he loved very much. It warmed him to hear it. As he turned, his eyes met Cecil’s, or would have if they weren't hidden behind vibrant purple reflective sunglass lenses that nearly exactly matched their hue. He could still feel Cecil's gaze on him, intent and soft all at once. He patted his pockets to make sure everything was in place--house key, phone, wallet, weirdness meter, small interesting rocks he’d found doing field research last week, notepad, two white gold rings (one with its own small interesting rock in it) in case today would be the day he got the nerve up to propose to Cecil, a (very illegal) pencil, etc.--and found that everything was there.

 

“Yeah,” Carlos replied, smiling again. The two intertwined their fingers together, and set off down the sidewalk in the afternoon sun.

 

As they walked, Carlos thought more about Cecil’s eyes. They were one of Cecil's most striking visual features, unique fashion sense included, and they had genuinely stunned Carlos, as Cecil had listened intently to Carlos’ first announcements to the town.

 

As his own gaze had crossed the crowd before him that day, it had stopped on someone standing close to him, wearing broadcast equipment and clothing Carlos couldn't recall specifically, other than that it had been dark and subtly elegant, but had included a pair of cat ears, perched atop this person’s long, iridescent, silvery hair. But when they had first made eye contact, Carlos had noticed their deep orchid eyes, somehow glinting nearly heliotrope at their brightest points, curious and intense, and...distant, but only to an extent. This person seemed like someone who had high awareness of everything around them, but perhaps saw too much to specifically choose one focus.

 

This person’s eyes were open, not just physically, but existentially, and as the two had made eye contact, their gaze had focused in on Carlos in piercing attention. In that moment, Carlos had felt intuitively that he was being seen, on a level he was unprepared for. This had affected Carlos deeply, but not unpleasantly. As he had finished his sentence--that Night Vale was by far the most scientifically interesting community in the U.S., and he had come to study just what was going on around here--he had grinned at the crowd, but mostly at the open soul before him. Those striking eyes of theirs had widened in response, and they had smiled back without hesitation. They had then ducked their head slightly and said something into their microphone, without looking away.

 

Afterward, Carlos had learned Cecil’s name and pronouns and phone number. He had left that interaction overwhelmed by its intense, almost hyperreal sensation. Cecil’s distinctive voice had been what threw him off most, after his eyes; he spoke beautifully, and almost hypnotically. It was oddly intoxicating, especially in combination with his existential expression, which made Carlos feel like he was standing directly under bright moonlight, soft and odd and curious and somehow familiar. It had been almost celestial.

 

Luckily, there had been something to offset the effects of Cecil’s formidably aesthetic features on Carlos, despite him looking and sounding the ways he did. This saving grace was that Cecil had been nervous, and even a little clumsy, when the two of them spoke. He had fumbled slightly with his phone, his already russet cheeks turning a bit darker as he said “uh” more times than Carlos expected, as he asked if they could exchange numbers. He had a radio show, he said, and, uh, he really, really liked science. He flushed even more at that, and Carlos couldn’t figure out quite how he meant that, but he was very happy to meet someone here with such an interest in science.

 

Carlos’ feelings about Cecil had been further complicated when he had turned on his radio that evening during dinner and listened to Cecil’s show, and the radio host had called him perfect, and said he had fallen in love with Carlos instantly, as Carlos had grinned--which had been during that first strangely visceral look they had shared with one another. At that, Carlos had nearly choked on his soup.

 

What could a person even say to that? How could Cecil have just...broadcasted that, on live radio? How could a person he had just met hours before be in love with him, instantly, without having idealized him beyond recognition? How could someone as beautiful as Cecil ever think that Carlos, who mostly viewed himself as a short, dorky workaholic with bad social skills, was anything close to perfect?

 

As the two of them walked down their street, now, Carlos squeezed Cecil’s hand tightly, as if to say, I love you so much, and looked up at him fondly. He loved all of their story together, but he was grateful to be at this chapter of it, now, and to have passed through that uncertain stage, and into a deeper state of mutual understanding and love for each other.

 

Cecil looked down, through purple sunglass lenses, and smiled down at him affectionately. He squeezed Carlos’ hand in return, as if to say, I love you too.

 

Carlos mostly felt peace in this moment. However, his heart sped up as he remembered the rings in his pocket. Was now...? Should he…? The fingers of his other hand brushed over them, pausing for a short moment. But something in him said that this moment, while acceptable, was not the one he wanted to fill with the moment he proposed.

 

He wanted to maybe do this in the Arby’s parking lot, at night, or as they watched Cat Ballou for at least the 40th time, or at the bowling alley, as he had fully intended to do two weeks ago at the end of Old Woman Josie’s birthday party, as the Erikas had set off alien and beautiful fireworks overhead, just outside. He was still so frustrated with himself over missing that opportunity.

 

He had gotten so far as to drop to one knee beside Cecil, heart pounding hard before the unspeakable beauty above him--Cecil, staring into the brilliantly illuminated night sky--only to be interrupted by Josie herself, who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere and had begun chatting with Cecil about some new ancient runes the Erikas had discovered in the sand wastes. Carlos had passed it off like he was retying his shoe, and by the time Cecil and Josie had finished their discussion, the moment had passed.

 

Carlos knew no moment could ever be perfect, but he wanted the proposal to be extra special. The two had already brushed on the idea of marriage before, with positive reactions on both sides, but Cecil deserved something really amazing, especially after spending such a long year apart. So his hand dropped back to his side, and he determined to think more about how to make that happen at some close future point. For now, they were walking together, and they were already in love. That was enough.

 

--

 

To be honest, Carlos thought that even just walking like this with Cecil was something so beautiful. Sure, on the surface it was just basic bipedal locomotion, driven by an ongoing cycle of relative unbalance, and compensation for it. But walking was actually such a scientifically interesting action, one he could really explore for a long time if he wanted to, and now, he was getting to do this scientifically interesting action with someone precious to him.

 

And it wasn’t just the physical movements that made it special, he mused, rubbing Cecil’s thumb with his own. It was that these movements represented so much more than themselves. The two were beside each other, hands intertwined like bonded atoms, in semi-constant motion in a common direction. They had chosen to walk together this far, and would continue as long as they kept making that choice.

 

As they traveled together in space and time, they were changing microscopically, little by little. Eventually, they would change entirely. They would never be able to return to the same place as before, as the people they had once been. Not exactly. But that was not something Carlos feared, with the two of them; he knew there would always be new beauty to replace the old, even in moments where they might ache for something past.

 

Another special thing about moments like this was that, for an impossibly long year, one that had ended not so long ago, Carlos had not been able to walk with Cecil like this. He had been terrified that he would never get to see Cecil’s face in its full, non-technological resolution again, or feel the warmth of Cecil’s arms wrapped around him, or smell Cecil’s aftershave as he burrowed his nose into Cecil’s neck.

 

He had never fully admitted to Cecil just how afraid he had been, then, but Cecil had known, and felt that fear, too. Too many times, Carlos had forced a smile as they’d hung up on skype, only to succumb to sensory overload moments later, unable to do anything but open his Tetris app and stare at the backlit patterns on his eternally-charged phone’s screen, through the distortion of tears. He had felt disconnected from these tears, even as he hadn’t stopped them; he had visually traveled through every pattern of these shapes he could, placing each one in different iterations next to each of the others, trying to find a way to eliminate them, to solve the problem in front of him.

 

He had felt that maybe if he could just get this one irrelevant, pointless thing exactly right, he would feel better. But this was not how Tetris worked, and though he refused to admit it out loud, he had also felt deep within that this was not how his life would work, either.

 

Sometimes, as he had sat outside his makeshift house under the stars, the last rays of sun slipping behind the mountain with the lighthouse, suspended tears in untouched, drying rivers on his cheeks, he would hear a lilting voice beside him, higher than Cecil’s. Sometimes, its owner would kneel down next to him, with much more softness than anyone would have predicted, from a person like him. “Carlos?” Kevin would ask--

 

Carlos bit his lip, blinking, trying by extension to bite back the memory of that voice and all it represented. He could not allow himself to think of the man it belonged to, not after leaving him alone in that strange and haunting desert otherworld. Not after learning that Kevin’s solitude would last so long and wear so deeply that his friend, who he had cared for so much, and who had shown so much kindness even after the horrific things he had been forced to do, would forget what his own name sounded like--

 

“Carlos?” Cecil was asking, now. “Are you all right?”

 

Carlos realized he was squeezing Cecil’s hand somewhat tensely, and that his face probably showed some concern. He shook it off as best as he could.

 

“Oh--yeah. Sorry, babe,” he apologized, glancing up at his boyfriend. “I was thinking about how much I love being able to walk with you, and then I thought about not being able to for all that time. I’m really glad I can, now.”

 

Cecil was quiet for a moment. Carlos felt his gaze on him, and looked at him again. Cecil’s expression was soft. “So am I, Carlos,” he said, in a bittersweet tone. “I’m grateful for that every single day.”

 

As Cecil’s hand squeezed his own, Carlos felt that the air he inhaled in response was made of something new, something colorful and whole. He became more consciously aware of his body’s movements, the depth of the sky above them, the sound of static buzzing emanating from a nearby home. He had not realized how stale he had felt a moment ago, or how alienated he had been from the present, but he was mostly here, now.

 

This, he thought with an unbidden and easy smile, was Night Vale. This, and Cecil, were home. The distance he had felt so long, from Cecil, and from this beautiful, messy, fascinating place, had closed. Carlos had known, in that desert otherworld, that there had been two separate points, on two separate planes of existence that were unwilling to touch one another, no matter how much Point A wanted to be reunited with Point B again, at least one more time, please, please, just one last time.

 

But then he had learned new information, and home had not been so far away, after all. He smiled, warmed by the thought, and drew closer, half-hugging Cecil’s arm.

 

The static buzzing grew louder as the two approached the house it was coming from. Carlos noticed that a hooded figure sat on the front porch, texting. As the two passed, looking in curiosity despite themselves, the figure raised their head and buzzed louder in dissatisfaction. Carlos turned to exchange a knowing look with Cecil instead, and they quickened their pace until the figure’s strange sounds had gone back to a quieter decibel.

 

Carlos still wasn’t quite sure what the hooded figures’ deal was with being acknowledged, if he was being honest. (He was usually being honest, when he was talking with others; lying by anything except omission had never come easily to him, even over small things.) There was a lot about this town he wasn’t quite sure about. But, that was exactly what made it so scientifically interesting!

 

He knew it had taken him much, much too long, in retrospect, to believe he truly belonged in Night Vale. That was one reason why, even after he learned how he could return here, he had hesitated, and even asked if Cecil would consider moving to that desert otherworld with him.

 

The other reason still lived there, alone and friendless, progressing further into thin, faded desolation with each new day.

 

But...he could not let himself think about that, not now. Carlos had been lost in that place, and had known that Cecil would have been too, so in the end, he had returned. And now, home was holding his hand, and just around the bend, and all around him.

 

He had left many things and people behind in his life, and sometimes his heart ached for them, of course it did. That was inevitable, as a human being. There would always be moments that stung to remember, people he missed. Voices he would have to try not to remember, no matter how bright and kind and familiar they had been, or how badly he wished he could hear them again, just to say hello, just to say anything at all. Just...just one last time. To tell him that it had left an aching vacuum in his chest to leave him behind, and how much he wished that things could have turned out differently...

 

As he crossed the street with Cecil, he pushed the thought down, as he had done many times before. He had long ago decided that he would have to silence those feelings, because scientifically speaking, he could not imagine how his feelings about Kevin could help anyone at all. Not Kevin, and not himself, either. And definitely not Cecil.

 

Carlos remembered, all too well, the moment when Cecil had collapsed into his arms, that day when those three Kevins had been on the radio. Carlos had felt the weight of Cecil’s simultaneous helplessness and regret pressing down, down, into his body, searching for answers no one, not even a scientist, could give. He had felt it in his own, too, as he remembered the Kevin he had known. He had determined in that moment that Cecil was hurting worse, and that he would not be adding to that hurt now, or ever.

 

Yes, of course he had cried, too. He had barely been able to stand from the pain in his stomach that day, when he heard Kevin’s future self speak in such broken tones. Unfortunately, he had needed some of Cecil's help to get through the weeks after, just as Cecil had needed his. And he had let Cecil comfort him--though only on a very limited and sterilized basis, and only in moments when he was completely certain Cecil could handle it.

 

Once, he had even let Cecil hold him as he trembled from that emotion. But after that moment, in which Carlos had come so dangerously close to breaking down into tears too painful to explain, Carlos had cut himself off from talking about Kevin entirely. He could not show Cecil how deep that pain went, or how long it was taking to fade.

 

He didn’t mean to keep Cecil at arm’s length. Cecil wasn't oblivious, and he probably felt on some level that Carlos was distancing himself. He was a bit cautious when he brought Kevin up, these days, and Carlos regretted that Cecil even felt the need for caution, though he supposed it might be for the best, if Carlos was going to effectively contain his feelings.

 

And though Cecil had not known what some of Carlos' recent nightmares had been about, he had been beside Carlos when he had awoken, having seen a face exactly like Cecil’s but marked with a different history. In these nightmares, so often, Carlos desperately tried to help his dear friend, but could never save him, and Kevin was left alone and broken and sad, and it was very directly his fault, and when he woke up, what was the difference between that, and reality?

 

After all, wasn’t a scientist supposed to help people? How good of a scientist was he, really, if he couldn’t help Kevin, even a little bit? If he couldn’t even save his friend, who had saved him with his encouragement many, many times during those long and painful months, which had stretched on for much, much longer than they had back in Night Vale? How could he have just left him there? How could he--

 

“Carlos?”

 

Carlos’ attention snapped back to the present, and he was walking still, next to the love of his life, their fingers still intertwined. He was gripping tighter than he meant to, again, and he realized his face must have looked particularly intense, with the level of concern in Cecil’s.

 

“Yeah, sweetie?” Carlos replied, in a brighter tone and with a brighter expression than he felt. He didn’t mean to mislead Cecil with the way he spoke and acted, but...

 

“You seem worried about something,” Cecil said. “Is there anything you want to talk about?”

 

Cecil’s voice was so kind, and Carlos loved and trusted him so, so much. But he didn’t have the heart to bring up everything Kevin represented to each of them, not on this day they had been enjoying so much. He sighed.

 

“No, there isn’t. I was just somewhere else for a minute. I was...well, just thinking,” Carlos said, with a half-smile. He looked away from Cecil, and back toward their path.

 

“'Thinking. It’s part of being a scientist,'” Cecil quoted. Carlos snorted at his reference to their first date. That phrase and “Neat!” were immortalized between the two of them, along with several others.

 

“It is,” Carlos said, laughing a little.

 

Cecil’s reciprocal smile was soft and warm, but dropped slightly as he spoke. “I love that you think a lot, Carlos. I also know that sometimes, you don’t want to explain what you are thinking about, and that’s fine by me. But you can talk to me about absolutely anything, okay?” He brought Carlos’ hand up to his mouth, kissing his knuckles, and paused. “Well, except things that are illegal to talk about, of course,” he added, in a conspiratory tone that made it clear that Carlos was, in fact, completely allowed to tell him any number of illegal secrets, and that they would be safe with him.

 

Carlos couldn’t help but grin. “Okay, Cecil. Thank you. I think I’m just tired, still.”

 

“I mean, that makes sense! You’ve worked so hard lately.”

 

“You are such a hard worker! So productive,” Carlos could almost hear. He blinked intently, trying to refocus.

 

“Yeah, that’s true! I’m glad you encouraged me to take a few days off,” he said. “I definitely needed it.”

 

“It’s good you did, then. Because of that, but also because I missed you this week,” Cecil said.

 

Carlos felt a rush of affection for him. “I always miss you when I’m out so long, too,” Carlos said. “I really, really love science, but I also love being with you!”

 

Cecil laughed softly. “I do too, Carlos.”

 

“I know,” Carlos sighed. “You always make me feel so loved, Ceec.”

 

“I’m so glad,” Cecil said, unlacing their fingers so he could put his arm around Carlos. Carlos rested his head on Cecil’s shoulder. Cecil hummed pleasantly in response.

 

They continued in a peaceful silence, which was only punctuated by the occasionally mystifying background noises of a place Carlos loved more than any other place he could imagine.

 

And then, he felt the strangest shudder move through his body.

 

His vision warped, and for a moment, his body felt unreal, wrong. He gripped Cecil’s hand tightly--

 

And then, nothing. Well--nothing more in terms of strange feelings. Only residual alarm, and similar mystifying background noises as before, and Cecil’s hand in his own, and the startled look they shared.

 

“What was--was that--” Cecil began.

 

“An earthquake, maybe?” Carlos finished.

 

“Yeah...yeah! That seems...right. Right?”

 

“I...think so? But that didn’t feel like earthquakes usually do, here. Which is, well, like nothing, mostly.”

 

“...Yeah.”

 

“Are you alright?”

 

“I think so, yes. Are you?”

 

Carlos inhaled, then nodded. “I think so too,” he said. After a pause, they shrugged it off, and began walking again.

 

Carlos thought out loud. He said, “This could be a scientific phenomenon of some kind, or it could just be another weird thing that happens only once, like that one thing nobody talks about anymore, which as I say it, I realize does not actually give you any context of what I mean.” He had been thinking of that “Well of Life, Well of Night” cult, which Cecil had entered for one day, along with most of the town; however, he was aware that discussion of that, in public spaces, was strictly limited.

 

“It sure doesn’t!” Cecil said lightly. “Maybe don’t ever tell me, especially not in some kind of code. That would be subversive in a way I just cannot condone!”

 

Carlos laughed. “Okay, Ceec.”

 

He tapped the rhythm on Cecil’s hand with his thumb. Da-da-dah. Da-da-dah.

 

“Oh! I, um, just thought of a good example. But I can’t say what that is, either. Oh well!”

 

Carlos laughed. “Oh well,” he echoed.

 

They rounded the last corner on their way home. Down the street, on the right-hand side, stood their house. It looked weathered, in a good way; it had been lived in before the two of them had moved in, but now, it was their home, their entropy wearing on every surface. Every wheelchair-accessible inch of it felt that way to Carlos, from the slightly-chipped turquoise trim, down to the lime green wind chimes they had inherited from the last owner, tinkling lightly in the warm afternoon breeze.

 

When they reached the front porch, Carlos pulled the key from his pocket, and went to unlock the door. As he slid the key into the lock, it caught halfway, and would go no further, no matter how he jiggled it.

 

After a long and frustrating moment, Cecil asked lightly, “Do you want me to...?”

 

Carlos bit his lip, determined, angling the key differently this time. “Just give me a second.”

 

Twenty seconds later, he sighed and handed the key to Cecil. But after a similar experience, Cecil also stood back, frowning.

 

“Well, that’s weird,” Cecil muttered. He handed the key back to Carlos. “I’ll just go out back and hunt the spare key, I guess.”

 

“Okay, sweetie. Oh--be careful not to scare it too much. The one time I had to use it, it would not stop squealing, and then it tried to bite me. I apologized and tried to feed it some apple slices, but it couldn’t get away fast enough, and it might still be skittish.”

 

“Oh, wow, okay. Thank you for the warning.” Cecil leaned in and kissed Carlos softly, warmly. He smiled. “Be right back.”

 

Carlos sighed, in some frustration but also in gratitude. “Okay.”

 

The last shimmer of Cecil’s hair disappeared around the corner, and Carlos heard the gate latch click. As it creaked, Carlos looked up at the purple wind chimes hanging from the porch ceiling. Or, he would have looked up at the purple wind chimes hanging from the porch ceiling, if his eyes were not telling him they were gold.

 

He blinked. That...couldn’t be right. Had he really remembered their color wrong? He had been pretty sure they were purple. Although, to be fair, for all he noticed, there was a lot he did not notice. Cecil was the artist, between the two of them, so Carlos usually let him pay more attention to that kind of thing. Still, though, he had really thought they were purple. He would have to ask Cecil, when--

 

The door began unlocking, and Carlos jumped. He had not been expecting Cecil that quickly; usually hunting a spare key took longer, he had thought. Or maybe, he was just really bad at it. That was possible, too.

 

As the door opened inward, Carlos said, “That was really fast! How did you do tha--oh wait. Was the back door unlocked? That would explain things. Also,” he said, pointing at the wind chimes, “have those always been gold? Because I could have sworn they were purple. Like, I specifically remember sitting out here one day and thinking about how I really liked the particular way they contrasted with the sky, and--” he stopped himself to take a breath. “Anyway, thanks, honey.”

 

Cecil stood frozen, mouth slightly agape. A strange silence passed. “Um...how did you get out here so fast?” he said, smiling a little, and his voice was...wrong…

 

No. It wasn’t wrong. It was…

 

It...couldn’t be. But...

 

“Did you change your mind, sunshine? I’d love it if you came with me!”

 

Carlos could only stand frozen, heart racing, breath stopped, as he finally understood what he was hearing, and what he was seeing.

 

This was not Cecil standing before him.

 

This was Kevin.

Chapter Text

Cecil unhooked the latch on the gate, and prepared himself to hunt the spare key. He knew they typically liked to hide in bushes, but he had not caught one in some time, and he had never had to catch the one that lived behind this house, so far. There was a first time for many things, he supposed. Not all things, but many. At least in this case, he had some idea of what to expect.

 

As he rounded the corner, however, he was not expecting to see Carlos on his knees, digging in their vegetable garden.

 

“Oh!” Cecil started, looking back and forth quickly between where he had come from and where Carlos knelt. Carlos looked up in mild surprise, and sat back onto his heels, wiping sweat off his forehead.

 

“Oh--hi babe!” Carlos said brightly. “Did you forget something?”



“Um?” Cecil’s voice came out much higher than usual. He continued glancing around. Something was...not quite right about this. There was no way Carlos could be here. He had just seen him. How could he have run around the other side of the house this quickly, without Cecil noticing?

 

He had just been walking with Carlos, right?

 

“Was it a kiss?”

 

Cecil’s attention snapped back onto Carlos. “Hm?”

 

Carlos laughed and stood up. He brushed the dirt off his gloves and approached Cecil, with the softest of grins.

 

“You are, like, the cutest thing. And yes, I am counting the tiny frogs we’re raising in the lab right now,” Carlos said, taking Cecil gently by the shoulders. Then he paused. “Are those new sunglasses? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear them before. Purple looks really good on you, Kevin!”

 

Cecil inhaled sharply. Carlos had never made this mistake before. He supposed it was not that offensive, considering that Kevin was (however disturbingly) his double, and that Carlos had spent a year with him and had probably called him “Cecil,” more than once. But he knew when Carlos realized, he would feel awful.

 

But after a beat had passed, his expression remained the same. Cecil remained frozen.

 

Carlos tilted his head, stroking just to the side of Cecil’s mouth with his thumb. “Hey, you okay, sweetie?”

 

“I’m…” Cecil shook himself, and offered a somewhat timid, apologetic smile. “I’m...Cecil...”

 

Carlos’ expression turned into disbelief, and he gasped. His hand withdrew from Cecil’s face, and he took a few unsteady steps back, covering his mouth.

 

Cecil winced sympathetically. “It’s okay! Easy mistake. I mean. Kind of. Not...really, but…” he looked again at Carlos’ face, stricken with shock. “No, you know? It is. It really is. It--it’s fine! Please don’t be too upset about it?”

 

Carlos lowered his hands, just slightly. He looked like he was about to cry. His breath shook as he inhaled. “Oh my god...what are you doing here, Cecil?” he asked, in an anxious voice. “How did you...how did you even get here?”

 

“Um…I walked?”

 

“All--all the way here? How did you get in?”

 

“I unlocked the gate?”

 

Carlos looked down toward Cecil’s chest, and his face filled with more confusion. “And your hair ,” he cried, getting louder. “It’s grown out so much! How long has it been for you?” he looked up at Cecil, even closer to tears than before. “Are you okay ?”

 

Cecil felt alarm rising in his chest. “I mean...I don’t know…”

 

Carlos burst out with a sob.

 

“Hey, hey! Come here!” Cecil instinctively hugged Carlos close, heart pounding with anxiety and vague but overwhelming dread. Carlos almost never acted like this, even in objectively horrible times, so Cecil knew something must be deeply, terribly wrong.

 

“Are you okay?” Cecil asked, pulling back to look at him again.

 

Carlos shook his head, biting his lip, and he looked more pained than Cecil had seen him in a long, long time. “...No, Cecil! Of course I’m not okay! Why would I be okay, when...” He trailed off, struggling to speak, and his face screwed up tight.

 

“Oh no, Carlos !” Cecil said, pulling Carlos close again, tucking Carlos’ head underneath his chin. His boyfriend felt so small in his arms, and he shook, suddenly pressing himself into Cecil with a desperately tight embrace, grasping at the back of Cecil’s shirt. Cecil rubbed Carlos’ back, and his shaking became punctuated by shuddering sobs.

 

“Oh, Cecil... Cecil …” Cecil felt Carlos’ hands begin to rub his own back, as if he were the most precious and fragile thing in all the world. “Oh god, Cecil ...I’m so, so sorry!” Carlos cried. “I didn’t want things to turn out how they did. You have to know that--”

 

Cecil’s heart dropped into his stomach, and he interrupted. “Carlos, you’re scaring me. What are you talking about?”

 

“I’m just...I’m sorry! I’m sorry...I’m so sorry…

 

Carlos trailed off, repeating himself, and Cecil instinctively rocked him back and forth, just slightly.

 

“I have no idea what’s going on, but it’s going to be okay, bunny,” Cecil said. He was unsure what else to say, because he was unsure of what Carlos was experiencing, but--

 

“Oh,” Carlos said brokenly, going still. He slid his hands just between them, gently. It felt like just the beginning of a push, without any of the force. “Please don’t call me that anymore, Cecil. You know that I…I can’t…”

 

Carlos trailed off again, and Cecil withdrew slightly at the sensation of Carlos’ hands, silently conceding to their apparent desire, even though he did not understand it. His heart squeezed painfully, and the only thing he could say was, “I...I don’t understand, Carlos...what do you mean?”

 

Carlos took a shuddering breath, and stepped back. He wiped his tears with the back of his hand, and attempted to gather himself. It looked unnatural, even forced, in a manner Cecil rarely saw from him. Cecil’s fingers trailed off of him, lingering in the air just between them. They were lost.

 

“I mean that I’m not your bunny, Cecil. I can’t... be that to you. You know I can’t.” He sniffed, and would not look at Cecil, instead staring sadly at a spot on the ground somewhere behind him.

 

Cecil froze. The world suddenly felt alien, and oddly hot and cold in all the wrong places, and he knew what he had just heard, but he struggled to say anything at all.

 

Was...was Carlos breaking up with him?

 

A painful silence passed.

 

“Wh…” Cecil began, then started again. “Why not?”

 

Carlos closed his eyes, as if he was choosing his words very carefully. After a moment, he spoke, and it came out like a torrent.

 

“I know how much you cared about me, Cecil!” he burst out. “And I care about you, too, and I am of course glad to see you again, and to see that you’re okay. I mean...mostly okay, but…but you can’t be here, Cecil. It’s not safe for you, and I don’t know how to make it safe, even with science!”

 

Cecil stared, lost and afraid and confused. “Carlos…” he interjected, but Carlos continued.

 

“And...I’m really sorry that I had to leave you like I did, Cecil,” Carlos went on, and his voice shook. “It was maybe the hardest thing I ever did, and something I might never forgive myself for...but like I said back then, there was nothing I could do that would make everyone happy, and not hurt someone! I couldn’t make my boyfriend sacrifice everything just for me, and I couldn’t lose him, either! No matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t think of another way than--” He stopped and swallowed hard, gulping for air. His next words came out in a wavering voice. “So Cecil, I’m sorry if this comes across like I’m angry with you. Really, I’m not angry so much as I am overwhelmed, and hurt. But why would you just show up like this, in my backyard?”

 

Cecil felt himself reeling. “I’m...I’m so lost, Carlos,” he choked out, and his eyes burned. As he bit his lip, one spilled over. His heart felt wrong, so so wrong. Just a few minutes ago, Carlos had been holding his hand, and he had been distant today, more distant than usual, but this was something else, something much worse. He...he would have remembered Carlos breaking up with him, right? He would have. His memory was not this bad, it couldn’t be...

 

Could it?

 

Carlos let out a sob. “I’m sorry, Cecil! I really am,” he said. “I...I don’t really know what to do.”

 

Cecil hugged himself reflexively, biting his lip harder.

 

Carlos suddenly jolted. “Oh, no, I just realized. We need to hide you, right away.”

 

Cecil was dizzy. “Wait, why?”

 

“You aren’t exactly allowed to be here, Cecil,” Carlos said, wiping his eyes again. “Come inside for a minute, and we can figure out how to get you home.”

 

“But--this is my home!” Cecil burst out, before he could stop himself. “This is our home, and you are my home, Carlos! What are you saying?

 

“I--oh, Cecil,” Carlos said again, sad and confused and full of urgency. “I know this is hard. It’s hard for me too. Just, please, come in?”

 

He began pulling Cecil after him, by the arm, toward the door. Cecil could only follow, stunned, tears blurring his vision. Why didn’t Carlos want to be with him, anymore? What did he mean, ‘get you home?’ When had this even happened?

 

... What had even happened?

 

They entered the house, and Carlos pulled out a chair for Cecil, gently pushing him into it. “Just wait here for a second,” he said, in a low voice. He paused, took a deep breath, and seemed to brace himself. His hand came up to his forehead and rested there, fingers absentmindedly splitting his curls at their roots. “Maybe Kevin can help, somehow…I’m pretty sure he would at least try, considering.”

 

Cecil stared. “ What? ” he half-whispered.

 

“I mean, I know things have been complicated between you, but I also know he doesn’t want anything bad to happen to you,” Carlos continued in the same low voice, staring at the table. “I’m going to check if he’s still here. Please just stay here for a minute, and keep quiet. We need to be careful how we do this, if we’re going to keep you safe.”

 

“Carlos, why do you keep saying that? And why would Kevin be here? Please , just tell me what’s going on!”

 

Carlos looked at Cecil in confusion. “Why wouldn’t Kevin be here?”

 

Cecil gaped. “What!” he exclaimed. Carlos shushed him hurriedly, then gave him an apologetic look.

 

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, “but just...shhh!”

 

Since when is Kevin in Night Vale? ” Cecil hissed fearfully.

 

“He...what? Kevin isn’t in Night Vale,” Carlos whispered, tilting his head in puzzlement.

 

“Then--what are you saying--!”

 

“Cecil, please just wait here,” Carlos interrupted firmly. “I’m going to see if he’s home.” He walked toward the beginning of the hallway, and called out, “Hey, Kevin? You still here?”

 

“...Ummm...Carlos?” a hesitant, sunny voice called back, and Cecil’s blood ran cold.

Chapter Text

Carlos was frozen. “Kevin?” he asked, or tried to. It felt like there was no air in his lungs, or like there was water in them instead, and like he couldn’t move at all.

 

“What is it, Carlos?” Kevin said, stepping toward him with mild concern in his voice.

 

He could not understand. How could this be real? Kevin was in the Desert Otherworld, not in Night Vale. And subjectively, Kevin was in the past, not the present. And in that time that felt like so long ago, but also like no distance had ever fully displaced it from now, Carlos had respectfully asked Kevin to keep it that way, as much as it had hurt that to make that request.

 

There were an overwhelming number of reasons that Kevin couldn’t just be standing here, in the doorway of the home he had made with Cecil. He just...couldn’t  be  here. But his observations were telling him something else.

 

Vision was not enough to confirm this sight, and neither was hearing, Carlos decided. He reached an unsteady hand toward Kevin’s shoulder, and jumped when his fingertips made contact with the pastel yellow threads of his shirt, warmed by the sentient heat of a person he had never thought he would touch again.

 

At that, everything rushed back, all at once. The pit of Carlos’ stomach burned, and his eyes burned, and the dull ache of everything he had been repressing suddenly seared back into his body, fighting its way out of his abdomen like a butterfly from a chrysalis. Kevin was here, right against his fingertips, in the place he least expected to find him, without any warning, and it was too much, and it was not enough, and…

 

“Kevin?” He tried again. This time, it came out louder but strangled, a confused solution of regret and hope and disbelief.

 

“Yes, sunshine?” Kevin reached out, anxiously brushing a curl of hair behind Carlos’ ear. “Are you alright?”

 

This was more than Carlos could take.

 

“No, Kevin! Of course I’m not okay! Why would I be okay? And--how are you  here? ” he cried. “Why are you here, Kevin?”

 

“I--I could ask you the same thing! How did you get out here? I was  just  talking to you, a minute ago!”

 

Sudden hot tears spilled from Carlos’ eyes, and words spilled from his mouth desperately. “What are you  saying ?” he cried again. “I haven’t seen you in  months , Kevin! I never thought I’d see you again, and now you’re just... here , out of all the places in the world that you could possibly be! Why are you in this house? Why are you here, after all this time?! After--”

 

“Carlos, wait!” Kevin interjected, looking more worried than ever, and he gently took Carlos by the shoulders. “Did you just say it’s been  months  since you’ve seen me?”

 

Carlos sobbed. “Yes,” he managed. “And I’m so sorry, I am so,  so  sorry! I didn’t want things to turn out that way, I did  not  want to leave you like that, Kevin, I don’t know how to forgive myself for it. But I couldn’t think of another way, and I couldn’t make myself talk to you again after it all, but it hurt and I know I hurt you too, so much, and--”

 

He realized that he was now talking into Kevin’s neck, and that strong arms were wrapped around him, and that warm, gentle hands were holding him steady, and that it was too much, he wasn’t talking anymore, he was just sobbing and clinging to his old friend as tightly and desperately as he could, because that was all he wanted to do, all he  could  do. He realized that a kind, familiar voice, like sugar and liquid sunlight, was telling him to come inside, that he was safe, that whatever had happened, he didn’t have to be upset with himself. He realized that Kevin was pulling him into the house where he lived with Cecil, and closing the door, and fervently assuring him that whatever had happened, he was not upset with Carlos, either, and--

 

Carlos pushed away, just slightly. “W-wait, Kevin,” he stopped him. “How did you even  find  this place? How are you even in this town? I thought you were--why are you  here , Kevin?”

 

Kevin’s gave him a strange look, a look that Carlos imagined would have been even more visibly full of alarm, if he were not wearing sunglasses. “I--why  wouldn’t  I be here? Carlos, you’re not making sense!”

 

Carlos slumped forward onto Kevin’s chest again with another sob. He straightened up again almost immediately and said, faster than he even knew how to talk, “No, Kevin,  you’re  not making any sense! And normally I am  so excited  when things don’t make sense, because that means something scientifically interesting might be happening, but—“ he gasped for air—“I  need  you to tell me how you even  found  this place! What are you  doing  here? I mean I am really  really  glad to see you again, but also I gave you that letter and then I heard what you said on the radio that day and I just thought I would never  see  you again and that that was going to  have  to be okay, but—!” He ran out of air again, and as he inhaled, Kevin spoke again, his hands moving to Carlos’ shoulders.

 

“Wait--how did I  find  this place?” Kevin asked. “Carlos, this is our house! We  live  here! Why would I have to  find  our house? I’m here almost every day, and it has been in this exact spot every day I have looked for it, as far as I remember!”

 

Carlos stared blankly, sniffing feebly. There was a long pause, as he struggled to understand what he was hearing. He finally managed, “Um...no.”

 

Kevin laughed nervously. “Ummm...what?” he said, his voice particularly high. “...Has it moved?”

 

“...No.” Carlos shook his head, still lost. “No, what I mean is, this is  not  our house. This is  my  house. This is--” he stopped in alarm, realizing that this was also Cecil’s house, and that he was probably still in the backyard, hunting the spare key. “ Cecil ,” he whispered.

 

Kevin caught Carlos’ attention again, rubbing his shoulders. “What about Cecil?” he said, suddenly very serious.

 

“Oh no, this is probably bad,” Carlos said, staring at the coathanger behind Kevin. Kevin glanced behind him nervously, then back to him. Carlos continued, “Cecil will be here any minute.”

 

“He  what?! ” Kevin nearly shouted. “Carlos, have you  seen  Cecil?!”

 

Carlos blinked several times, quickly. “Yes, of course!” he said, a little louder than he meant to. “I just saw him, like, two minutes ago or something! Well, maybe longer now, I don’t know. But it was within, like, five minutes, if minutes can mean anything.”

 

Kevin’s arms wrapped around him again, and Carlos felt one of Kevin’s hands in his hair, pressing him closer. Carlos felt more tears brimming over at the strangely comforting contact. Oh god, he had so badly wanted to hold Kevin again...but just as suddenly, Kevin was cupping Carlos’ face intently, with both hands.

 

“Where did you see him?” Kevin demanded. “Did he talk to you? Did he  hurt  you? Are you okay?!”

 

“N-no! Why would he  hurt  me?  I’m  the one who hurt  you !”

 

His words hung in the air, and he let out another sob.

 

“Carlos, what are you saying?” Kevin said, still alarmed, but speaking in a softer voice. He stroked Carlos’ cheek with even greater softness.

 

“You...you know it’s true!”  He couldn’t stop himself from saying more words, even though he hadn’t wanted to say them at all, and now was certainly not the right time. “And I know it’s not fair of me to feel this way, Kevin, especially after what I did to you, but I have missed you  so  much, and I have been so worried about you...but I couldn’t help you, Kevin. I didn’t know how do  anything at all , and I’m  so  sorry! I should have tried harder, I should have figured something out! I’m just so, so sorry!”

 

Kevin stood still, listening intently as Carlos finished. Carlos stared up at him in anguish, reaching his hands up, one resting on Kevin’s wrist, and the other pressing Kevin’s other hand toward his jaw. He gritted his teeth, closing his eyes, and took a shuddering breath.

 

"It's okay," Kevin was saying. "Whatever happened, it's okay."

 

And then, Kevin was kissing him. His hand slid around to the back of Carlos’ neck, and Carlos felt his fingers twist into his hair, gently. After a moment of shock, his own hand leapt to Kevin’s neck, instinctively pressing him closer. He kissed him back, hard, overwhelmed with emotion, and Kevin was here with him, and Kevin must not hate him as much as he hated himself for what he’d done. And Kevin was so soft, and warm, and kind, and oh god,  he never wanted to let go.

 

But then, they broke apart, and in the space between one kiss and what would have been the next, Carlos realized that yes, he did want to let go, actually, and that this was absolutely the wrong thing for him to be doing right now. He slid his hands between them and pushed Kevin back, as hard as he could manage.

 

Admittedly, that was not very hard at all under the circumstances. But Kevin clearly felt it, and withdrew as Carlos shouted.

 

“What the  hell , Kevin?!” he cried. “You can’t--you can’t just  kiss me  like that! Why would you  do  that?”

 

Kevin’s posture and expression communicated both shock and hurt.

 

“I-I’m sorry, Carlos!” he apologized quickly. “I just wanted to help! You look so scared and hurt, and I don’t know what’s happened to you, and you just said Cecil is coming here, and...how can I help, Carlos?”

 

Carlos covered his face, increasingly overwhelmed. “Not by doing  that ! You  know  I can’t kiss you!”

 

“Wait wait wait wait,  what?! ” Kevin exclaimed. “Why can’t you kiss me, Carlos? I’m your fiance!”

 

Carlos’ eyes widened. He peered up at Kevin through his fingers, lowering them slowly. He struggled to say anything, but he managed to choke out, “ What?

 

Kevin took an anxious breath. “I’m sorry if that was the wrong time to kiss you, but what do you mean, you  can’t  kiss me? And what do you mean, ‘what?’”

 

“I...wait, no, go back a second,” Carlos struggled. “Why would you think that you’re my fiance?”

 

“Because...you proposed to me?!” Kevin held up his left hand, and the ring on his fourth finger glinted gold and orange. “Carlos,  what is going on?   You are  really  starting to scare me!”

 

Carlos’ eyes darted back and forth in confusion, from the ring to Kevin’s face. His heart pounded harder, and he couldn’t find it in himself to speak--

 

“Hey, Kevin? You still here?”

 

The voice came from another room, through the hallway. Kevin inhaled sharply, visibly frozen to the spot, and the two stared at each other.

 

Who could be in their house? And why did they sound so familiar, but in a way Carlos could not place?

 

“...Ummm...Carlos...?” Kevin finally managed to call back, not looking away from him. Carlos suddenly realized that the voice really had sounded a  lot  like his own.

 

“Yeah!” the voice said. “Uh, can I...talk to you about something, before you go?”

 

Carlos’ heart skipped a beat, and he shook his head frantically. “That is  not  me, Kevin,” he whispered nervously.

 

“Then who is it?” Kevin hissed back, glancing back and forth between Carlos and the hallway.

 

“I don’t know,” Carlos said, fear spilling into his tone.

 

“...Um...yes! Sure!” Kevin said, pulling Carlos close and backing up, opening the door with his other hand. “Could you come out here, Carlos? There’s... something , kind of... weird . Yes. Weird. Going on out here, and, um...”

 

“Okay, coming!” The voice responded, perhaps anxiously. As he and Kevin backed away, Kevin pushing Carlos behind him instinctively, Carlos wondered what on earth whoever  they  were had to be anxious about, under the circumstances.

 

As the sound of footsteps approached, a shadow appeared in the hallway, and a silhouetted figure who had very curly hair, and who was wearing a long coat, came down the hall. Carlos realized Kevin had grabbed his hand, as Kevin’s grip tightened on it.

 

“Hey, Kevin! Don’t worry, but I  might  need your help with something, like, right away,” The person said nervously, as they crossed into the light of the living room.

 

Carlos gasped. They were beautiful, with dark skin and curly black hair and a strong jaw, and they were visibly very worried about something. They wore a pastel green lab coat, and it was the exact one he had very nearly worn today, until he had switched it out for his lavender one last-minute.

 

“We  might  have a little bit of a situation,” the familiar stranger began, and then they locked eyes with Carlos.

 

Panic rose in his throat. This was wrong. This was so, so wrong.

 

“...Carlos?” he heard Kevin ask.

 

“Yes?” he and the stranger both replied simultaneously. They shared a look of utter horror, and the stranger turned his head, as if he wanted nothing more than to look away, but their eyes remained locked.

 

“Kevin, that’s not me,” the stranger said, and his all-too-familiar voice shook. “Who  is  that?”

 

Carlos could only stand, taking shuddering breaths. This was wrong. Nothing had ever felt so wrong, and everything was already wrong, and he needed something desperately. He had no choice. He had to…run? No, that wasn’t it…

 

“Carlos? Carlos,  wait! ” Came another voice from down the hall. It was a deep, reasonably familiar voice Carlos would have been incredibly relieved to hear under probably literally any circumstances where he was capable of feeling relief. He heard more footsteps, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cecil’s form run into the room, and stop. Kevin’s hand gripped still tighter, his body tense with fear. The stranger was still staring at him, and his throat was closing, and oh god, oh  god , this was so wrong he could hardly take it. He desperately needed something, in this moment, but  what?

 

“Kevin,” Cecil growled.

 

“Cecil?” Kevin gasped.

 

Kevin! ” Cecil just about yelled.

 

“Carlos?” Carlos choked in horror, to the man before him.

 

“Y—yeah?” The man choked back.

 

Carlos knew what he desperately needed.

 

Yelling in terror, Carlos ripped himself from Kevin’s grip. He flung himself at the him that was not him, who also yelled, turning to flee.

Chapter Text

Cecil stared Kevin down. He could feel the adrenaline shocking his body, down to his fingertips. How could Kevin be here? How did he get in? What did he want?



What would he do?

 

“Kevin,” he growled, and he was afraid, but he was willing to do whatever it took to keep Carlos safe. His fingers clenched into a defensive fist.

 

“Cecil?” Kevin gasped, and he looked defensive and...absolutely terrified. He was not smiling, at all. This was...not what Cecil was expecting.

 

Still, he yelled, “Kevin!”

 

“Carlos?” said Carlos, but his voice came from somewhere near Kevin. Cecil started. Carlos was next to him, to his right. How did--

 

It was then that he saw another Carlos peeking out from behind Kevin, staring terrified at the Carlos next to him. Cecil started in shock, eyes darting between the two.

 

“Y-yeah?” the Carlos beside him replied fearfully.

 

Before Cecil had time to react, the other Carlos--who Cecil suddenly recognized as the one he had just been walking with--vaulted over the couch toward the Carlos beside Cecil, yelling in obvious terror, but with an expression closer to murderous than Cecil had ever seen on him. The other recoiled, complete horror written into his features. He stumbled backward before righting himself, and ran away, looking like a frightened rabbit.

 

“Carlos!” Cecil shouted, in unison with Kevin. The two Carloses ran past Cecil and down the hallway, shouting incoherently. Cecil tried to grab the one he was sure was his Carlos as he passed by, but his fingers just barely slipped off Carlos’ labcoat. He dashed after them, and heard footsteps behind him.

 

Cecil called after Carlos again, and he heard Kevin do the same.

 

“Carlos, no! And you! Stay back!” he threw the words fiercely back over his shoulder, toward Kevin.

 

“I will not!"  Kevin snapped in a scandalized voice, pulling Cecil backwards and frantically attempting to shove past him into the kitchen. They wrestled in the entrance to the hallway for a moment, until they heard another terrified yell.

 

“Oh my god!!” Carlos shouted, in a frightened and angry tone Cecil had never heard him use. “What are you?!”

 

“What am I??” Carlos shouted back, in a similar tone. “What are you?!”

 

“You know exactly what I am!” The second Carlos, the Carlos Cecil had just come inside with, almost screeched. “I’m the real me! So what—” he grabbed a plate from the dishwasher—“the hell— ” he wound up, as if to throw it— “are YOU?!”

 

He flung the plate at Cecil’s Carlos, who narrowly dodged it. There was a crash as it shattered.

 

Carlos!!” Cecil shouted, and instinctively ran closer, but the second Carlos raised a second plate threateningly. His eyes were as wide as Cecil had ever seen them, and there was desperation in every fiber of his being.

 

“Stay back!! That isn’t me!!” That Carlos shouted back menacingly.

 

Cecil stopped cold at Carlos’ tone. He heard a strained grunt, and a black object whizzed toward that Carlos, who ducked out of the way just in time, just before a thudding noise, followed by clattering. Cecil looked toward its source and realized it was a frying pan, and that his Carlos had just thrown it with all his might, directly at the other Carlos’ face, and dented the wall behind him. Cecil felt panic rise in his chest as he saw Carlos’ eyes, glinting with the same desperation as his double, and with something unhinged.

 

“No!” He heard Kevin shout, at the same time as he did--

 

“There can only be one me, and it is going to be me!!” his Carlos growled, grabbing a nearby pot and winding up again.

 

“Carlos, stop!” Kevin interjected--

 

“Oh, no way!” the other Carlos yelled, throwing his second plate, and taking another in hand. “You can eat it , pal!!”

 

Oho, NO . Screw you and the metaphorical horse you rode in on, buddy!! ” Cecil’s Carlos yelled back, launching the pot directly at the other Carlos’ face. Both kitchen items missed their intended targets. Cecil yelped anyways, both times, then shouted again, distraught.

 

“No! Don’t hurt him--!”

 

How do you know it’s not a literal horse?!" Other Carlos screamed, between rapidly throwing bowls. “You don’t know!” Crash. “Because you’re not!” Crash. “Me!!” Thud, crash.

 

The last one hit Cecil’s Carlos squarely in the stomach, and shattered on the ground in front of him. “Agh!” he cried, and Cecil hissed sympathetically. He had to act, but--

 

“Oh, Carlos, no!”  Kevin cried, trying to approach them and not to flinch at each crash. The two ignored him.

 

“I came to this town in a blue Toyota, you impostor!!” Carlos screamed back, grabbing a vase full of yellow and pink roses and launching them at the other. This hit Other Carlos in the shoulder, then smashed on the tile. It was Other Carlos’ and Kevin's turn to yelp, as Cecil gasped. “You know what? I bet you did too,  you copycat piece of—”

 

“Agh!! God!! Why do you know that?!” Other Carlos cried with a pronounced cringe. He grabbed a startlingly large knife from the dishwasher, and threw it ferociously in response. Carlos ducked out of its trajectory, crying out in fear, so the knife missed by over a foot, but it had been thrown with so much force that it stuck in the wall behind Carlos, piercing the wall by several inches.

 

Carlos’ expression turned from murderous to terrified as he saw it. Cecil felt his blood run colder than it already was. He felt paralyzed. He--

 

“STOP!” Kevin yelled desperately. Running past Cecil, he threw his own body between the two.

 

They stopped short. Kevin's back was to Cecil's Carlos, and he held up his arms defensively toward the other Carlos, as if protecting the one behind him from the other.

 

“Don’t do this, Carlos!” Kevin pleaded.

 

What are you doing?!"  Other Carlos’ eyes darted between Kevin and Cecil’s Carlos. “Stop! If I don't kill him, he’ll kill me!”

 

“No!” Kevin said firmly, shaking his head. “No one is killing anyone! You are not going to kill your double, Carlos!”

 

“That isn’t me !” Other Carlos pointed a shaking finger toward his double, his voice strained. “That’s not me!"

 

“No, no! He is you! A second you!” Kevin countered, with a somewhat calmer tone than Carlos’, but one that still betrayed fear. “And I will not let you hurt each other!”

 

Cecil saw his Carlos glance quickly at the knife in the wall, and then make eye contact with him. The instant that passed, then, terrified Cecil, because in Carlos’ eyes, Cecil saw several things. The first was terror. The second was self-preservative vengeance. And the third was a flash, it was a decision that Carlos was going to make, was making now, had just made, to take that knife and stab his double with it until he knew he could not hurt him ever again.

 

“Carlos, no!! ” he cried, lunging out of his paralysis toward the love of his life, who was yanking a knife out of a wall with the full intention to kill his double with it, who Cecil was grabbing by the collar, who was making a strangled sound at the sudden imbalance between his momentum and Cecil’s grounding force, who was dropping the knife, and who Cecil was pushing up against the pantry cabinet behind him with what he realized almost instantly was more force than he meant to.

 

Carlos gasped. “Cecil! Help me!!” he squeaked out, struggling, with significantly more strength than Cecil was used to from him. But Cecil’s fear, while certainly not matching Carlos’, was giving him more than enough adrenaline to counter that strength.

 

“He’s not me! He’s not me!! Please!! Oh my god--” Carlos cried.

 

“Carlos, I cannot let you murder yourself!!” Cecil insisted, as firmly and with as much composure as he could manage under the circumstances. Which, to be fair, wasn’t that much composure. But he had to stop him, because especially for a person as kind as Carlos, the alternative would be far too horrible to live with.

 

“You have to!!"  Carlos gasped, clawing at Cecil’s arms painfully. “If I don’t kill him, he’ll kill me , and replace me , and then how are we going to take that tropical vacation together?! I was really, really looking forward to that!” he sobbed, giving up and clutching at Cecil, and hiding his face in Cecil’s chest.

 

Up until now, Cecil had been mostly tuning out the scuffling and shouting in the background, but there was a sudden thud. As he turned, he saw Kevin on the ground, and an instant afterward, he saw Other Carlos slipping on the water pooled at his feet. He flinched sympathetically as that Carlos thudded backwards onto the floor. To Cecil’s alarm, Kevin scrabbled after the double, and took hold of him from behind as that Carlos reached his hands toward the knife, pulling him away. Cecil reached his foot back and kicked the knife away, then pressed himself back into his Carlos.

 

Nope! I do not think so!!"  Kevin shouted.

 

“He’s not me!!"  Other Carlos cried, struggling but failing to escape Kevin’s grip, his voice raw. “This is scientifically--agh! Impossible!!”

 

“Well there’s one thing we agree on, then!!” the Carlos in Cecil’s arms yelled right back, struggling again too.

 

“Well at least we have that in common, pal!"  Other Carlos nearly screamed.

 

“We sure do, pal!"  Carlos fully screamed.

 

“That’s real good!”

 

“Oh, it’s real freakin’ good!!”

 

“It sure freakin’ is!”

 

“CARLOS!” Kevin and Cecil both shouted, in unison, and the two turned and shouted back, “WHAT?!?”

 

In the aftershock of both pairs of doubles yelling in unison, there was only the sound of panting and gasping, and the sensation of Carlos grasping at Cecil and shaking. Other Carlos stopped struggling toward the knife, and instead pressed himself toward Kevin, clinging to him warily and knocking him back a bit.

 

“Please, please do not kill your double, Carlos!” Cecil begged, tucking Carlos’ head beneath his chin. “I know exactly how terrifying this is, but please!”

 

Cecil felt Carlos take a deep, shaky breath. He just barely registered Kevin’s and Other Carlos’ voices softly alternating, off to the side, but it worried him nonetheless.

 

“Oh, Ceec,” Carlos said hoarsely. “I’m really sorry. I...I shouldn’t have yelled.”

 

Cecil pulled back to look at him, still warily keeping his clutch on him. He lifted his sunglasses so he could make eye contact with his boyfriend, and touched their foreheads together, as Carlos had asked him to do many times before when he was scared.

 

“It’s all right, Carlos,” he said slowly, gently. “I know you’re afraid. If you feel anything like how I felt when I met my double...well, I know I was as afraid as I had ever been. I almost killed Kevin, remember?”

 

“I do,” Carlos whispered, and his fingers moved to Cecil’s shoulders. “I know.”

 

“And I am afraid of him still, sometimes.”

 

“I know, I know ,” Carlos repeated. His eyes darted toward Other Carlos, toward Kevin, and he nearly flinched at the sight. “I know,” he kept repeating, as he shifted and buried his face in Cecil’s neck. “I know.”

 

Cecil rubbed Carlos’ back, looking around the wreckage of their kitchen. There were shards of broken plates around them, and a puddle of water from the broken vase was being soaked up by the bottom of Other Carlos’ labcoat. He realized how relieved he was to be holding his Carlos again, the Carlos who had not just broken down crying at the sound of his voice in the backyard, or broken up with him at some previous point without his remembering. He was also relieved that both Carloses were beginning to calm down, because even having a terrifying double was better than killing him. He...well, he would know, unfortunately.

 

Speaking of...

 

Cecil kissed the top of Carlos’ head, and Carlos choked on more tears, continuing to repeat, “I know, I know.” Cecil let himself look fully at the two people on the floor across from him, and he glared as Kevin stroked Carlos’ hair. His face was far too close to Carlos’, in Cecil’s opinion, and he was being far too touchy. Kevin stroked Carlos’ cheek, and Cecil seethed. Cecil did not like that, not one bit--

 

But before he could speak, Kevin said, in a higher and more breathless voice than usual, “So, to both Carloses...could you please agree to stop trying to kill each other?”

 

Carlos tensed as Kevin spoke, but he nodded. “O-okay,” he mumbled into Cecil’s neck.

 

“That’s a yes from this Carlos,” Cecil reported. “What about…” he trailed off, but he looked at Other Carlos, who was still clinging tensely to Kevin and hiding his face in his neck. All Cecil could see was his mouth as he spoke.

 

“I...I…” he began, voice shaking, and Carlos shook too in response. “Yeah,” he choked out.

 

“All right, then!” Kevin said, in a particularly strained tone. “Thank you for your help, Cecil! We appreciate it! Now, if you don’t mind, you can let go of my fiance now.”

 

There was a long, tense pause. Cecil scoffed, chest tightening in dread. He had to have heard that wrong, right? Kevin had said some truly awful things in the past, but he couldn’t really be this delusional, could he?

 

“Uhhh…” he said flatly, looking up and back down at Kevin in confusion, “Come again?”

 

“Ha, ha ,” Kevin laughed joylessly, then gritted his teeth. “I said , you ...can let go of my fiance . Anytime now would be fantastic --” he looked directly up at Cecil, and jumped. “Cecil, your eyes!”   he gasped.

 

He glared down at Kevin, hugging Carlos tighter. “What about my--no no, no. Your fiance?"   he said, incredulous. “You wish . You know Carlos is my boyfriend! And no matter how much airtime you spend gushing about him on your fancy New Desert Bluffs radio station, or whatever , you can’t actually have him!”

 

“W-what!” Kevin sputtered. “What are you talking about?! And Cecil, why do you have eyes??”

 

“Um, I dunno!” Cecil dripped as much venomous sarcasm as he could. “It’s this super cool, hip new thing people are doing these days, it’s called, I was born with them? It is like, totally popular among kids these days, so I thought I’d try it out for myself, and I like it!”   he said, now gritting his own teeth.

 

Kevin gave him a withering look. “Well, excuse me! You didn’t exactly have them, when--”

 

“Don’t change the subject, Kevin!!” Cecil interrupted angrily, not processing what he was hearing whatsoever, and intentionally keeping it that way. “What is your problem?   Why would you think you have any chance with Carlos, and why are you here?   This is our house!   We live here, and we did not invite you in!”

 

Kevin shook himself, scoffing, but his face betrayed fear. He let go of Carlos and made to stand up, not looking away for a second. “Wow,” he said. “You are even less attached to reality than usual, Cecil, and I am very sorry to hear that. But Carlos is not your boyfriend! He is my fiance, and this is where he and I live together, and we are going to need you to leave.”

 

Before Cecil could respond, Carlos pushed away from him, shaking. “Kevin, Cecil is my boyfriend! I’ve been dating him for almost three years!”

 

Kevin’s face filled with hurt shock, and his hands flew up to his mouth. “What?" he gasped. He looked down at the Carlos next to him, and asked fearfully, “is that true?”

 

Other Carlos stared up at Carlos, wide-eyed. “You’re dating Cecil?”   He demanded. “Why are you dating Cecil?"

 

Carlos’ voice shook. “What? I--Because I love him! Don’t you?”

 

Other Carlos exhaled sharply, and his body moved almost like he’d had the wind knocked out of him. Cecil felt sick. “Cecil is my...he was a friend,”   Other Carlos managed, staring in Cecil and Carlos’ direction, but not meeting their eyes. “Of course I care about him. But…” he trailed off.

 

Cecil felt himself beginning to panic. His vision lost focus, and he couldn’t quite catch his breath. This was all too much, it was too much, he understood nothing, and every time he learned something new, it threw him further into chaos. What had happened, in this past...it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, could it? Why did this new Carlos look at him like he was dead, and Carlos was in mourning? Why was Kevin here, in Night Vale? Why was he, and this Carlos double, in the home he and Carlos had made together? Had Kevin really said the word fiance?  Why was Carlos not denying that? His head spun, and he felt his heart racing--

 

Ding-dong , intoned the doorbell, and he started. All four of them stayed silent, frozen. Who could be here, now? Cecil did not remember inviting any guests.

 

Ding-dong, ding-dong! The doorbell intoned again, more urgently.

 

“Ummm…?” Kevin said, hesitantly.

 

“I’ll--I can get that,” said the Carlos on the ground, scrambling to his feet.

 

“Are you--?”

 

“No, really, I’ve got it, Kev.”

 

Ding-dong.

 

Other Carlos brushed himself off and walked quickly out. Kevin watched him go, visibly lost.

 

In the temporary pause between Other Carlos’ departure and whatever came next, Carlos’ hands dropped from Cecil’s shoulders. Cecil saw he was staring at Kevin like he was seeing a ghost, and that Kevin was staring back, just barely open-mouthed. Kevin took a breath, as if to speak, but apparently thought better of it, glancing over at Cecil, and then dropping his gaze to where Other Carlos had just been. Cecil reached out for Carlos, coughing in distress and clutching his heart as it skipped. Carlos put a hand on his arm and looked at him in concern.

 

What the hell is going on here?   None of them asked out loud, because none of them had to.

 

“Wait! There’s, um, something going on!” Cecil very faintly heard Carlos exclaim from the other room, and then there were footsteps in the hallway. He tensed, but realized that maybe whoever it was could help get Kevin out of his house.

 

“It’s okay, Carlos,” came a deep, rich voice Cecil recognized instantly as Old Woman Josie’s. His heart leapt in relief, and then in new panic. “We already know, and we’re here to help.”

Chapter Text

“Josie!” “Josephine!” Cecil and Kevin called simultaneously, and shot each other a mutually annoyed and fearful look.

 

Josie strode in urgently, running her fingers through her curly gray hair, which looked wet. “Oh, no,” she said, taking in the sight before her in clearly self-directed frustration. “I’m late. I am so sorry, Kevin.” She turned to Cecil. “And, Cecil! Oh, Cecil! It is so good to see you like this!”

 

“It’s what?!”  Kevin nearly spat.

 

“What do you mean? And why are you sorry for him?!” Cecil demanded, then shook himself. “Oh my god, Josie, be careful! He’s dangerous!”

 

Josie laughed. “It’s all right, Cecil. And Carlos! Good to see you too. Are you alright?” Josie continued, walking toward Cecil. As she put a hand on his shoulder, looking at Carlos, Kevin flinched.

 

“Josephine, stay away from him! You know what he’s capable of!” Kevin cried, but Josie just smiled.

 

“Don’t worry, Kevin, I got this. Carlos?”

 

Carlos swallowed. “Hi, Josie,” he said. “I’m…well, a scientist is usually fine, so...” He looked behind her, and tensed. Cecil looked, and Other Carlos was standing in the doorway, wary.

 

“He said that too. But really, it’s okay, Carlos. Both of you,” Josie said, looking between the two. “You don’t have anything to fear in each other that you don’t already fear in yourselves, and in the things you are capable and incapable of,” she said kindly. “Other than that, you aren’t in any unusual danger.” She turned to Cecil. “And Cecil, I could almost say the same to you.”

 

Cecil’s tension was not relieved at all. “Josie--” he began, but she was already walking over to Kevin, and wrapping him in a tight hug. Cecil could only gape in response.

 

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t get here sooner, Kevin!” Josie apologized, pulling back. “When I got the news that Cecil and Carlos had arrived, I was in the shower. I came as soon as I could, and I sent someone to warn you, but obviously--” she glared out the window--“that someone got distracted!”

 

Something moved out the kitchen window as she said this. Cecil jumped. He had not noticed anything there before.

 

“Well, what are you doing out there? Come in!”

 

A ten foot tall, dark, radiant figure with a long face sheepishly slid the door to the backyard open and stuck their head into the kitchen, squatting awkwardly. Cecil pretended not to notice, but he did a horrible job of it, and he knew it. Sheesh, pretending angels didn’t exist--he meant, um, not noticing beings that were definitely not angels, because they were definitely not existent--was getting harder and harder lately.

 

“Uh...hi, Josephine!” said the definitely not-angel. “Is...is everything okay in there?”

 

Cecil suddenly realized that this was not the first time someone had called Josie ‘Josephine’ today. That was weird, he also realized. Josie had never gone by her full first name, and that name was Josefina, not Josephine. Wouldn't Erika of all beings (or...uh...non-beings) know that?

 

“Amazingly, yes,” Josie said. “It’s a real mess, but nobody’s dead or dying, so at least that’s something. No thanks to you, Erica!”

 

Cecil frowned in confusion. He was sure it was Eri ka , with a ‘K,’ not Erica , but the way she'd just pronounced that felt like Erica.

 

The super non-angelic being rubbed their neck, embarrassed, and their words came out quickly. “I’m really sorry! I got here, and I looked in, and Carlos and Cecil were already going toward the front of the house, so I went around to the front, but then they all ran back into the kitchen, and that’s when I realized I didn’t know how to start this super-awkward conversation with them about the specific ways their lives were being flung into chaos, so I stopped for a minute and went, ‘okay, how do I do this, but like, nicely? ’ but then I heard a lot of screaming, so I started crawling in, but then I was like, ‘no, I should probably come in through the backyard,’ so I ended up back there, and by then they had stopped fighting anyways, and then I saw you and I was like, ‘well, she’s here now, I guess I’ll just eat some tomatoes.’”

 

Josie just stared them down. “...They could have killed each other, Erica!” she finally said, exasperated.

 

“Wait, isn't it Eri--” Cecil started, but he was interrupted.

 

“It’s Kevin and Carlos!” the absolutely non-divine entity whined, gesturing at the two. “They were never going to actually kill their doubles, or whatever!”

 

“I mean, we definitely just tried to, though,” Other Carlos admitted. He was still watching Carlos suspiciously from just inside the hallway.

 

“Yeah…” Carlos said, in a small voice. “Oh, um...I’m...I’m really sorry I attacked you. I am just, like, absolutely terrified of you, and everything in my whole body was, and kind of still is, telling me that you can’t possibly be real, so...um…” he trailed off.

 

Other Carlos blinked, then nodded. “...Yes! That is exactly what I was feeling, and exactly the way I would have put it! That, and seeing you made me feel like maybe I was the one who wasn’t real, so I had to fight you and win to prove it. I mean, scientifically speaking, none of us can prove we are real, because the likelihood of anyone existing is so low, but I’m a little worried that you might somehow be more real than I am.”

 

“Yeah!” Carlos said, eyes wide in what Cecil saw was now mostly curiosity, rather than terror. Carlos let go of Cecil’s arm, and stepped cautiously around him, toward his double. “That’s definitely it! And I am also still afraid, but now that I know that you are too, and now that I’m thinking about it...I don’t know that we have to be.”

 

“That’s what I’m thinking, too,” Other Carlos said, taking his own cautious step forward. “You definitely are not going to hurt me, then?”

 

“No, I don’t want to hurt you, uh...Other Me,” Carlos said, shaking his head. “I just really don’t want you to hurt me .”

 

“I...I don’t want to hurt you, either!” Other Carlos crossed one arm over his torso, and half-covered his face with his other hand. “Agh, this is just really overwhelming!” he exclaimed, dropping eye contact with Carlos.

 

“It’s okay, Carlos,” Josie said. “You’ll probably have a while to figure this out, and I’m glad you’ve reached this understanding. But for now, we have to get moving. This is bigger than just the four of you; all across town, people have been experiencing chaos like this. But also, Cecil, we need to get you down to City Hall right away.”

 

“What? Why?!” Cecil asked. Actually, he demanded it, because he was still incredibly anxious, and understood even less than usual about the world he was experiencing, and even Josie was acting strangely, and had everyone just somehow forgotten that Kevin was in Night Vale, and more importantly, in his home??

 

“We need to take you to meet with Mayor Jay,” Josie explained patiently. “Erica has been saying that she and most of the rest of them over there should be willing to protect you, considering your particular situation, but the Sheriff’s Secret Police won’t be so kind if they reach you first.”

 

“What situation? Mayor who? Josie, none of this makes sense!” Cecil nearly cried.

 

Josie smiled sadly. “I’m sorry, Cecil. If it helps, a lot of people are confused right now. Before we go, let me just tell you all what I know, that you need to know right away.” She turned to Kevin and Other Carlos. “Kevin and Carlos, this is not the Cecil you know. He and the Carlos next to him are from a different world, where Night Vale is much more like Desert Bluffs, and Desert Bluffs...well, we are much more like Night Vale. That isn’t important right now. What’s important is that he is not dangerous.”

 

The six--or, legally, five--stood in silence. As Cecil felt his mind struggling to hold onto what Josie had just said, he noticed Kevin staring at him in apprehension. “A different world, you say?” Kevin asked, and it came out at a very nervous frequency. “Is that why he has eyes?”

 

Cecil’s heart pounded anxiously. He remembered Kevin’s earlier confusion about this, and felt a nebulous, as yet undetermined understanding slowly arriving, and although he did not know what it was, he felt he did not want to know.

 

“That’s one reason, yes. And look at his clothes. And his hair, and his teeth, and his expression. Notice any other differences?”

 

“Yes, actually, I do. Cecil...why aren’t you covered in blood?” Kevin asked, frowning.

 

Cecil stared him down, flabbergasted. “ Me?” he managed. “You’re the one who--!”

But then he looked, and he finally saw the things that Josie had been talking about, that he had missed in all the confusion before. Cecil could not see even a little blood on Kevin, not even in the form of stains on his pastel yellow shirt. But it was not only that. It was his hair, normally cropped up to his chin or even shorter, that now fell to his lower back. It was his expression, which was not a smile, and also was not a “smile,” and come to think of it, had not been either, not even one time in this series of interactions. How had he not noticed all of this?

 

“But you aren’t,” Cecil whispered. “You aren’t.”

 

“Yes,” Josie said, to both of them. “He is much more like you than you know.” She turned to Cecil and the Carlos behind him. “And, Carlos, Cecil? You aren’t in Night Vale. You’re in Desert Bluffs.”

 

“What!!” Cecil spurted out. “No no no, no, no. This is our house, Josie! We went for a walk in the neighborhood, and then we came home, and they were here!” He gestured at Kevin and Other Carlos, more wildly than he meant to.

 

“Actually--” Josie began, but she was cut off by Kevin.

 

“Excuse you! We’ve been here, in our house , all day!” Kevin snapped. “I was just going out for groceries when Carlos--” he pointed at the Carlos beside Cecil-- “showed up crying on our doorstep, and then you got in somehow!”

 

Cecil gasped, offended, but Other Carlos spoke before he could.

 

“I let him in!” Other Carlos said quickly. “I did! He came into the backyard, and I knew he couldn’t just be outside for anyone to see, so I brought him in.”

 

“Okay, seriously, why can’t I be outside?!” Cecil demanded. “What is--”

 

“Hey!” Josie said, much louder than usual. “All of you! We don’t have time for all of this right now. Cecil, you really are in Desert Bluffs, and you are considered a public enemy to the town, and if our lovely sheriff finds out you’re here before the mayor does, they’ll shoot first and ask questions never. So you and Carlos are gonna get in my car, and I’m gonna drive you to the people who are gonna keep you safe! Can you just trust me?”

 

Cecil felt frozen. He very much hoped he had not heard that right, but he had a nasty feeling that he had. The way Josie had said it made chills run down his spine. He could only nod.

 

“Okay! Kevin and Carlos, wait five minutes, and then come meet us at City Hall. If anyone sees you and Cecil together, they’ll know this Cecil is here, and he’ll be mistaken for our Cecil, and arrested. I’m sure Old Woman Josie would never forgive me if anything happened to Cecil, and for that matter, neither would I,” she said. Turning to Cecil, she added, “Oh, right. I’m sorry, I’m actually Grandma Josephine. I kept meaning to slip that into the conversation, but this has been my first chance. I’m still your friend, in many senses, though. I promise you that.”

 

Cecil’s heart skipped again, head spinning, and he coughed. Josie--no, Josephine--strode up to him, and took him by the hand, squeezing it reassuringly. He squeezed back, desperately.

 

“It’s going to be okay,” Josephine said firmly, and Cecil followed as she pulled him toward the hallway. He looked toward Carlos helplessly, just as Carlos took his other hand.

 

“I promise I’ll explain more on the way there. And Erica will fill you in, Kevin and Carlos,” Josephine called back over her shoulder. “Right, Erica?”

 

“Definitely!” Erica affirmed. “I got this one for sure!”

 

As the three of them passed Other Carlos, Cecil made eye contact with him, and something about that look made Cecil almost dizzy. Carlos looked like he wanted to speak, but couldn’t, and like he was shocked, and like he was afraid...no, pained, and even haunted at the sight of him. This was an expression Cecil never, ever wanted to see on Carlos’ face. He never wanted anything to be the cause of such hurt for Carlos, but especially not himself.

 

In this moment, which seemed to last much longer than it actually was, Cecil felt a wide, gaping chasm forming in his chest. Why did this Carlos look so haunted, so lost? Why had he wanted Cecil to leave, before? Why was Carlos looking at him like that?

 

What had he done, to make him feel this much pain?

 

What had he done?

 

Their eye contact was broken. He and Carlos and Josie--or not?--were in the living room, which according to now several people, was not their own. That blanket on the couch had been dark green, hadn’t it? But it was dark orange, instead. And as they all passed through the front door which had refused to let neither Cecil nor Carlos in, in what seemed like a more distant time than it could have actually been from the present, Cecil noticed that many other of the colors of things were different, too, and that the lamp in the corner was not even the same shape, and...

 

He heard Josie talking, but he looked to his Carlos again. They shared a vulnerable look. It was an anxious, fearful, deeply confused one, but it was unlike the exchange he and Other Carlos had had. It was warmer than that, it was reassuring, and although the hollow sensation in his chest persisted, it filled somewhat as Carlos, his Carlos, met his eyes with a familiar warmth. Carlos even tried to smile, tightening his grip on Cecil’s hand in what Cecil knew was reassurance, and Cecil inhaled, shuddering, his lips failing to make the same shape but trying their hardest.

 

“Cecil, are you listening to me?” Josie asked, and Cecil finally heard her.

 

“I’m--I’m sorry, Josie. No--Josephine,” he corrected himself. “I--I...um,” he tried to continue, but nothing would come out.

 

“I know you’re afraid, Cecil. There is so much you don’t know, and much more of that than normal. You’re afraid, and you can feel that way as long as you need to,” Josie-- Josephine-- said, opening the door. Cecil got in the back, sitting in the middle, next to a very tall being, and noticed another in the front seat. He wondered how they even fit, in a passing, detached way, as he buckled his seatbelt.

 

“Hi,” said Erika--or apparently Erica.

 

“Hi,” Cecil replied quietly. He turned to the Erica in the front seat. “And, uh, hi.”

 

“‘Sup,” Erica greeted him again, from the front. They were wearing three pairs of sunglasses, and chewing some kind of yellow bubblegum.

 

Carlos slid in next to him, a warm, comforting presence that Cecil was even more grateful for than usual. He heard a snap, and watched and felt Carlos pull him close, and did the same. It was incredibly grounding, in the middle of all of this.

 

“It’s going to be okay, Cecil, Carlos,” Josephine said, both kindly and sadly, as she got in and turned the car on. Cecil felt alien and distant, and as if he was fading, as the car pulled away from the house that was not their home.

 

“There are many things to fear, both in unknowing and in knowing,” Josephine said, “and I am not sure which will be worse for you. But no matter what happens, just know two things: you are not alone in this, and the angels are on your side.”

Chapter Text

The three stood in the kitchen. Well, Erica definitely slouched at best, and looked ready to give up on that endeavor pretty soon.

 

The evidence of the chaos that had just unfolded was everywhere, in the form of shattered porcelain and glass, and also in a puncture wound in one wall, and in an obvious dent in the opposite. Kevin noticed the knife which Carlos had thrown, and which the Carlos who had cried at the sight of him had later dropped, resting calmly on the floor in front of the stove.

 

All of these things were calm on the surface, but held the circumstantial evidence of violence in them, a violence Kevin had never quite seen in Carlos before today.

 

Kevin looked to Carlos, and saw his fiance still staring after his double, and after the Cecil who had eyes, and clothes with no blood on them at all. The front door had closed behind them and Grandma Josephine enough beats ago that he should have looked away by now, but he looked entranced by the echo of the sight, like something in him was being pulled after it, although his body remained motionless. There was something in his demeanor that Kevin felt outlasted the instant they were living by an eternity--a longing, stretching both forward and backward, a loss of direction, a helplessness Carlos did not usually show. That longing, viewed from the outside, pulled Kevin to Carlos with its own gravity, even as he, too, stood still.

 

He finally managed to speak.

 

“Carlos?”

 

Carlos blinked, and turned toward Kevin. Their eyes met, and Kevin ached at the expression in them. It was so clear how much Carlos hurt. He hurt, and Kevin could tell that this hurt ran deep, winding its way down everything within him, like water wound its way down from high places into low ones.

 

“Carlos...are you alright?” he asked softly.

 

Carlos remained still. He dropped eye contact, turning toward the mess on the floor. When he breathed, each breath held a suppressed shudder. Finally, he managed an “um,” but he got stuck, and stopped.

 

“Did he hurt you?” Kevin asked, meaning Cecil.

 

“My--my shoulder aches a little, but he missed me almost every time,” Carlos answered, meaning the other Carlos.

 

After a moment of confusion, Kevin realized that Carlos was answering a different question than he had asked, but one whose answer was equally important. “Oh,” he said. “I--um, that’s good. I’m so glad. But did...what about…” he trailed off, and after a moment, he saw recognition in Carlos’ eyes.

 

“Oh--Cecil,” Carlos asked, or said, or Kevin could not tell what. Kevin nodded. Carlos swallowed and shook his head. “No.”

 

“Are you sure?” Kevin asked, and found himself taking a step forward. “Because if he did , I--”

 

“No,” Carlos said, more firmly, but that firmness faded as he spoke, going soft and unreadable, and then pained. “He didn’t. I just...I didn’t expect to see him, again. Like this, I mean. Or...maybe at all?”

 

Kevin felt relief, then empathy, and then, not a small twinge of anger. Carlos had not been hurt badly, not physically, and for that he was grateful. But Carlos, his Carlos, light of his life, was in pain, and if Cecil had just... stayed away, like every reminder or iteration of him was supposed to, Carlos would not be hurting like this.

 

Carlos didn’t talk about Cecil much, for many of the same reasons Kevin didn’t, and for different reasons, too, Kevin imagined. Or, rather, he tried not to imagine those reasons, because thinking about Cecil usually left him unsettled, and strangely guilty. And it was not a guilt he knew how to solve--after all, what could he do to make any of this situation right? What could he do, now, after all of this?

 

Kevin knew it hurt Carlos to think about Cecil, too. He had been awoken by Carlos’ nightmares more than once, and especially in recent months, after...well, he didn’t like to think about it, much, so he brushed the thought away.

 

Kevin had had many of his own nightmares, too--other things he refused to acknowledge the memories of--and they had held each other tighter on many of those nights, sometimes knowing why, and sometimes not. But Carlos, beautiful, kind Carlos, had spent much more time with Cecil than Kevin ever had, and had actually become his friend.

 

How Carlos had ever managed to befriend a person like Cecil, Kevin had no idea. Kevin did not know, either, how close they had become, and he had long ago decided not to ask, and to let Carlos tell him only what he wanted to, out of respect and mutual trust. But the two had been close enough that it had hurt Carlos not insignificantly when their paths diverged, and learning more about Cecil later on had only made that hurt more unbearable, and now Cecil had shown up in person without warning. So Carlos was hurting yet again because of Cecil, and even though he knew Cecil was not directly responsible for all of the hurt he had caused, he was angry. Oh, he was so angry that Cecil would come here unannounced!

 

“How dare he just show up like this!” Kevin seethed quietly, even as he knew his anger was somewhat misdirected. He closed the distance between them, and gently pulled Carlos close, minding his shoulder. Carlos pressed into him, and Kevin could feel how hard Carlos was thinking, even as he hugged Kevin back. After a short moment, Carlos pulled back and looked at him intently.

 

“Are you okay?” Carlos asked. “I’m sorry it took this long to ask, I’m just…”

 

“No, no! That’s all right!” Kevin assured him. “I am more concerned about you! You just met your double, and saw an old...friend...? And they both said...some things …” Kevin said, remembering specifically the moment when Cecil had called Carlos his boyfriend. He felt a pang of anxiety. He remembered Carlos--the other Carlos--confirming that statement, with another, stronger pang.

 

“You know, to be fair,” Erica cut in suddenly, swallowing a large mouthful of something, “It’s really not either of their faults that they’re here.”

 

Kevin turned to face them, and Carlos turned with him. He saw that Erica was holding a half-eaten tomato.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Carlos said, blinking and shaking himself a bit. “Didn’t Josephine say other people are going through the same thing right now?”

 

“Yep!” Erica said, popping the rest of their tomato into their mouth. Kevin glared disapprovingly. Carlos took a lot of pride in the vegetable garden he and Kevin maintained together, and for that matter, so did he. If Erica had just asked, sure! They could have had one, or even two! To be fair, they had more than enough of those things. But no , they just--

 

“What is happening, Erica? Do you know?” Carlos asked, and his oaky voice held some concern, but more curiosity. Kevin was relieved to hear that, but too concerned himself to feel all that comforted.

 

“I mean, sort of,” Erica shrugged, still chewing. Just...chewing, and chewing . Kevin winced in irritation at the sound, but tried to take a deep breath. Nope, he was going to be the calm one right now, he definitely was. Carlos needed that from him; he could tell by the light but anxious touch of Carlos’ fingers fiddling with the hem of his sleeve.

 

“Could you...maybe be more specific?” Kevin asked, through slightly gritted teeth.

 

Erica’s several eyes widened, and they swallowed again. “Oh, uh, sure!” Erica said, with a look of sudden understanding. “Yeah, okay, so basically, like Josephine said, this isn’t just happening to you. Alternate versions of people have been popping up all over town, and they’re not the same doubles who showed up from the Sandstorm a few years back. We think they’re mostly, if not all, from the same world as each other, because a lot of them are like really weirded out when they hear that they’re not in Night Vale.”

 

“How is that different from the Sandstorm?” Kevin cut in. “They were all from Night Vale, right?”

 

“Well, yeah,” Erica explained, “but like, Lawrence Levine’s Night Valian double is Larry Leroy, right? Well, just yesterday he met a different double of himself, named Lawrence Levine, who was super confused to learn he wasn’t in Night Vale.”

 

“But...Lawrence Levine is from Desert Bluffs!” Kevin said, confused. How had he not heard about this before now?

 

“Exactly,” Erica said. “And he’s not the only person in that situation, either. We’re pretty sure from what we’ve heard that in that world that instead of Night Vale being absorbed into Desert Bluffs after their economy crashed, it was Desert Bluffs that got absorbed into Night Vale.”

 

Kevin suddenly felt very sick. His fingers tightened on Carlos. “Oh, god,” he whispered, gripped with quickly growing horror. Then, louder, he said, “StrexCorp won? And they took over Desert Bluffs, too? Oh my god, are they back??”

 

Erica waved their hands in frantic dismissal. “No, no, it’s nothing like that! StrexCorp was taken down in their world, too, that happened later.”

 

“Oh, thank goodness,” he said, and it came out almost as a sigh. Carlos squeezed his wrist reassuringly, and his heart pounded harder in residual fear. Nothing had ever quite terrified him as much as StrexCorp had, and the thought of that corporation still destabilized him more than he cared to admit.

 

Carlos was saying something to Erica now, but he had missed it. He felt himself slipping out of touch, but now was not the time for him to lose it, so Kevin took a deep breath and forced his anger at what had been StrexCorp to overwhelm his fear of them, for the time being. He’d be damned if he wouldn’t turn the energy of that fear into something he could use. He had already been doing something like that, ever since that other Carlos had shown up on his doorstep, and he would continue, even if StrexCorp were here.

 

His heart skipped at the thought, and he coughed, but he would be fine. They were not here. And he was fine, okay?

 

“...we’ve known there were passageways forming from this world to another for about a week now,” Kevin finally heard Erica saying, as he made himself settle back into the present. “Only Mayor Jay and a few others know about it, so far.”

 

“What! Why didn’t you tell me, so I could report it?” Kevin demanded.

 

Erica shrugged. “It wasn't going to end well if you'd reported it back then. So, we couldn’t tell you, yet, or everyone in town would have heard it.”

 

Kevin struggled to speak. “Wha--pff--they would not!” he sputtered, somewhat offended. “I could keep a secret if it was actually important!”

 

“Mmm, not this one,” Erica said, shaking their head. “No way, man. We peeked at that version of the future, and you definitely would not have. You would have told everyone, like, the second you had the chance, which would have been really bad.”

 

“Shouldn’t we be warning people, though?” Carlos asked, before Kevin could, now squeezing Kevin’s hand with his own two. “I mean, people could die!”

 

Erica shook their head again, more seriously than before. “No, not quite yet.”

 

If not now, when? Kevin almost asked, but Erica continued.

 

“I mean, you’re right, but right now we’re just breaking most things up ourselves. Trust me, people were like, way more likely to die if we’d told you before.”

 

"Oh," he said. The words faded from his tongue. He had no idea how to respond to that, and honestly felt sick again.

 

“It’s not your fault, Kevin! Your job is to tell everyone about things happening in town,” Erica said, apparently understanding his expression for what it was. “It’s like, who you are. You’re The Voice. But we have to wait for the right time, which is a little later, because--oh!” They said, with sudden realization. “Speaking of time, you should probably go to City Hall, now.”

 

Kevin checked his watch--which was, according to Carlos, the only working clock in Desert Bluffs--and sure enough, it had been just over five minutes. He touched Carlos’ shoulder gently. As he looked up, Kevin asked, “I’ll drive?”

 

--

 

The three sat in Carlos’ blue Toyota. Erica sprawled across the backseat haphazardly, but they were buckled in, at least, so Kevin guessed that was fine. It probably didn’t even matter, because they were an angel, and probably could not be hurt by something like a car accident. They were very gangly, and they were eating another tomato, one which Carlos had actually offered them this time. They rolled the window down and stuck their head out into the wind, smiling in contentment.

 

Angels may be very dangerous divine beings, yes, but mostly, they were just divine nerds.

 

Why he was in this car, driving a beautiful, cosmic, pure being and an angel named Erica (who could easily get there on their own) to City Hall, to meet up with his morally questionable double, Carlos Too and Josephine, Kevin really did not know, but he trusted Josephine enough to do it anyway. His chest was a bit tight, but he concentrated on breathing, and on driving, and on Carlos, who was stimming with a hair tie, looping it into different shapes and pulling each string taut, until it twanged when it was strummed.

 

Kevin was relatively calm, now, although he felt an energy almost humming inside him. It was the kind of energy that allowed his surface to stay mostly unperturbed. He wasn’t thinking about it very much; he was on autopilot, and Carlos was the first priority.

 

Carlos was clearly deeply unsettled and overwhelmed. Instead of asking scientific questions, he had begun distracting himself, which was unusual, and usually a bad sign. Stimming was not out of character, but Carlos almost never missed an opportunity to ask questions, or hypothesize what might be happening. Something was wrong. So, Kevin would just be the strong one until further notice. He had to be. He would not be letting this get to him. Nope! Absolutely not--

 

“Are you okay, Kevin?” Carlos asked, suddenly. Kevin jumped a little, and realized he was gripping the steering wheel more tightly than he meant to.

 

“Yes!” Kevin said, brightly. “This is...weird. I mean, really weird. But, I’m...mostly fine! Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah!” Carlos said, and Kevin knew Carlos wasn’t so much lying to him, as he was lying to himself. Carlos never liked to admit when he wasn’t all right. However, he apparently realized that an answer like that, looking and sounding like he did, probably held some contradictions, because he added, “I mean...it is definitely weird, though, I...I have a lot of questions, but maybe too many to know where to begin, just yet.”

 

Kevin swallowed. “Yes...I can relate.”

 

He was watching the road, but felt Carlos’ eyes resting on him. He turned to meet them, for just a moment, and smiled nervously, but he hoped reassuringly, before turning his attention forward again.

 

A moment of silence passed. Kevin could have said many things in that moment, and some of them might have been very fitting, or even poetic. He could have told Carlos that everything would be all right, and that the confusion of the present would eventually become the understanding of the future, and that Kevin would do whatever he could to keep him safe from harm. He could have asked about Cecil again, or about Carlos Too, or about the longing he had seen stretching out of Carlos, almost as if it had its own ghostly form, as he had watched Cecil leave, and he wanted to say all of these things at once, but none of them seemed enough, or right...

 

And then, at the next stop sign, Carlos rested his hand on the gearshift, facing up. Kevin knew what Carlos meant. I love you, I’m scared, I need you, I want you close, said Carlos’ hand, and as Kevin glanced at him again, his eyes said the same thing. He felt himself soften in response. And then, their fingers were intertwining, and their mutual grip was such an incredible comfort. It always was, every single time.

 

As he released the brakes and continued down the road, Kevin breathed deeply, and right now, he did not care that Cecil was back, or that Carlos’ double was apparently dating him, or that the look on that Carlos’ face had also been lost and afraid, or that there were things either Carlos or he might not be saying to each other now over the hum of the car’s engine. He knew the love they shared would be enough to get them through.

Chapter Text

Carlos held Cecil’s hand, in roughly equal parts because he wanted to help his boyfriend, and because he needed the reassurance himself. He would have liked it to be mostly out of kindness, and maybe an eighth or less because he personally was afraid, but Carlos figured that it was probably fair to get mutual comfort out of comforting Cecil, as long as Cecil came first. After all, Cecil was the one who was in apparent danger, whereas Carlos was just…

 

Well...was he in danger, too? He was probably a lot of things, right now, and he felt probably just as many things. He could not currently decide how many of those things there were, much less if the number of one was equivalent to the other. He could not even understand what all of his thoughts were, to begin with, because they were shouting over each other and creating an almost audial haze.

 

He had found Kevin in his house, which was not actually his house, but was apparently Kevin’s. And he had a double? That was both scientifically fascinating and completely jarring. And, they might have killed each other if Cecil and Kevin had not stopped them. He had never come so close to killing a person in hot blood, and the thought terrified him. And, despite not trying to leave Night Vale, and in fact, following a path they had followed many times before, he and Cecil had somehow traveled to Desert Bluffs!

 

And Kevin--

 

Carlos suddenly remembered the desperate kiss he and Kevin had shared, and Kevin's baffling insistence that they were engaged, and he stopped breathing for a moment. He stared past Erika’s--no, Erica’s --leg, at a magazine tucked into the back of Josie’s--no, Josephine’s--seat, held there by criss-crossed elastic. He understood nothing of what he saw on its cover, and only felt Cecil’s hand in his own, and the vibrations of the car, and the memory of Kevin’s lips on his, and a hot, sick ache in his chest which was both guilt and longing.

 

How had he kissed Kevin back so easily? Why had it felt like his only possible response, the only one that made sense at all?

 

The title of the magazine was pink, and in a font that tried to loosely mimic handwriting. Carlos could not read it. Carlos could not read himself.

 

The car slowed to a temporary stop. Josie--no, Josephine--turned back for a moment.

 

“Do you two bowl?”

 

It took Carlos a moment to understand the question. “Yeah,” he replied, blinking a lot.

 

“Oh, good! I hoped you’d say that,” Josephine said, turning back to the road. “You do here too, Carlos. We bowl together often.”

 

Carlos felt what she had not said, more than what she had. Cecil clearly did, too, because he looked up at her with a quiet anxiety.

 

“I don’t, do I?”

 

Josephine took a deep breath, and her exhale was a heavy sigh. “Oh, Cecil...no, you don’t.”

 

Cecil swallowed. Carlos did not like the implications of her words or of her tone, or the way Cecil looked right now because of them.

 

“Wish you did,” Josephine added, after a moment. “I think you’d be a great addition to the league. You’d be nice to have on our team, or an interesting opponent, if you played on a Night Vale team instead.”

 

“Why don’t I bowl, Josie?” Cecil asked. His voice was smaller than usual, and Carlos squeezed his hand tighter.

 

Josephine glanced back again, and her eyes were sad. “Cecil, there’s...something I have to tell you. I really don’t want to. If you’re anything like Kevin--” Carlos jolted at the name-- “which...well, you really, really are, then this will not be an easy conversation for you. But they’re going to ask you about it at City Hall, so it’s better to talk about it now.”

 

Carlos listened with growing anxiety. Carlos could feel it in Cecil’s body language, too, in the shallow way he was breathing. Carlos took a deep breath, intentionally loud enough for Cecil to hear, in the hope that he might take one of his own. Cecil thankfully mirrored him, but only halfway.

 

“Cecil, in your world, you and Night Vale were able to push StrexCorp out of town, right?”

 

It was Cecil's turn to jump. He nodded, and his fingers tightened more on Carlos’. “Yes, we were,” he said, and Carlos could feel his tension as a steady hum.

 

“And in that world, it was Desert Bluffs that eventually fell to StrexCorp?”

 

An unspoken “instead” hung at the end of Josephine’s sentence. Instead of Night Vale, she was saying. Carlos felt a pang in his chest for his place in the universe, for the place he called home. He looked to the man he called home and saw a color-draining fear in his eyes, fixed on Josie, and in the set of his jaw.

 

“Yes,” Cecil said defensively, and his voice held a dawning horror. “Josie, what are you trying to say?”

 

There was a pause. When Josephine finally spoke, it was with a deep sadness.

 

“Oh, Cecil...I am so very sorry to tell you what I am about to tell you.”

 

The car engine hummed. Carlos’ heart beat strangely, and he felt too much of everything, he knew that what Josephine was about to say would change something that could not be reversed. He could not stop her, because he already knew what she meant, and because it was only a moment before Cecil would realize, no matter if she continued or not, and because he could not speak.

 

“In this world…” Josephine stopped, and sighed. “In this world, it was Night Vale that fell, instead. And Cecil...you fell with them.”

 

Cecil stared ahead at her, eyes wide, jaw set, not breathing. Carlos could see something like a terrified cry in the shape of Cecil’s body, buried deep enough that it calcified him before it reached the surface. He felt something similar in his own, but he knew it could be nowhere near the same fever pitch in his heart as it was for Cecil. Still, his breath shuddered, and his mind, reaching out to her words to understand despite the fear he felt, struggled to carry their enormous weight.

 

“The reason we need to take you to City Hall is that in this world, your counterpart was The Voice of StrexCorp,” Josephine continued. “If anyone realizes you are Cecil of Night Vale, instead of Kevin, they’ll--”

 

“You are lying .” Cecil said it darkly, forcefully, but his voice shook. “I would never be their Voice. I would rather die than do that! Josie, please tell me that you are lying to me.”

 

There was another pause. Carlos rarely heard Cecil speak in this tone, or about his own death, and it sent chills right down to his bones.

 

“That’s how you felt here, too,” Josephine said, gently as she could, but with obvious heartache. “It was the last thing you ever wanted for yourself, or for your town--”

 

“No!” Cecil said, louder, and his breaths shuddered now, too. “Oh, god, no! No! I would never --!” He stopped, and Carlos could see Josephine’s words sinking into him like a needle into flesh and pushing in their poison. Cecil’s grip on Carlos’ hand tightened, and Carlos wanted so badly to do something, to say something , but even now, no words would come. All of this felt so unreal.

 

The car stopped at a light, and Erica put a hand on Cecil’s shoulder, gentle as could be. Cecil turned to look at them, and their gaze was soft. “It wasn’t your fault,” they said.

 

“I wouldn’t,” Cecil repeated, and it was sounding more and more like he was pleading. “I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t ...” he continued on, and Josephine began to speak again.

 

“You tried to resist,” Josephine said. “We heard you on the radio. We heard from a you who had not yet been consumed by the Smiling God’s power, who was quietly, subversively leading the resistance. We know now that the violence in you was not your own, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe here yet, even if you are a different you. You are still Cecil of Night Vale, and the sound of your voice still haunts many of our nightmares.”

 

Carlos squeezed Cecil’s hand tighter. As Cecil looked back to him, his eyes were distant, and Carlos could see the gravity of a deep abyss pulling Cecil out of touch with himself. Carlos had no idea how to pull him back from something with such strong and draining force as this understanding, one which he himself also feared falling into. But Cecil was so afraid, so lost, and Carlos could only hope that their eye contact could do something ...

 

“No,” Cecil half-whispered, brokenly, and Carlos hurt for him.

 

“But Mayor Jay has been notified of your situation, and is expecting this version of you. Some of the others who arrived before you have explained that you are more like Kevin than you are like your other self--”

 

“No, no, no, please, no! I am nothing like Kevin!” Cecil cried, tearing his gaze away from Carlos’. “Please, believe me! No, no, no!!” He also tore his hand from Carlos, burying his face in his own hands, and Carlos bit his lip at the loss. “Please, no, no, no, no…” Cecil kept repeating, over and over, and he bent forward, panting, his voice constricting until it was a shuddering whisper. His fingers ran through his hair and gripped it tight, as he begged for the universe to be something other than it was, for some alternative to the pain of this reality.

 

Josephine bit her lip, and Carlos saw a tear drip from her cheek onto her shirt. She really was Josie’s double, Carlos thought. She cared about Cecil, even though she had just met him, and although he had been...he had…

 

Carlos thought of Kevin, out in the Desert Otherworld. He remembered Kevin’s black eyes, his iridescent hair cropped short despite his wishes, the bloodstains on his clothing. He remembered Kevin’s voice like lemon honey, his desperation to please, and his true, soft smile--the one that came out when he stopped thinking about smiling, and just did . He remembered the so often unspoken violence that explained Kevin’s place in the universe, that had always been so jarring to catch glimpses of in a person so kind.

 

He thought of all these things, but he saw Cecil instead. No--not instead. He saw Cecil and Kevin simultaneously. He saw Kevin speak, but with Cecil’s voice, and even though their faces were so much the same, even though they had always been so close to the same person, there was a newly painful dissonance to the thought of Cecil suffering in that way.

 

Was this other Cecil alone, now, too, like Kevin was?

 

It was then that he realized his own vision was blurring with tears. He could not make himself move. He could only squeeze his eyes shut and shiver with tension.

 

Of course, of course he had thought of this before. He had seen this fear in Cecil before, too. Several times, Cecil had awoken from nightmares based on this exact scenario, where what had happened to Kevin had happened to him, instead. When he awoke, he had almost prayed his shaking, often tearless sobs into Carlos’ chest, gripping him tightly, quivering like the atoms that formed him and every other thing.

 

That memory moved something within him, and he filled with resolve. He opened his eyes, and looked back up at Cecil. Who cared if he was afraid right now? Cecil needed him to be strong right now, and that is what he would be. He would be fine . He was a scientist , and just as importantly, he was Cecil’s boyfriend. So he took a breath, and forced himself to speak.

 

“Cecil, I’m here,” Carlos interjected now, squeezing Cecil’s shoulder. “I’m here, and you’re safe. It wasn’t you, and you are with people who love you--”

 

“But it was,” Cecil gasped, lifting his head just enough to speak. “It was! Oh, god, oh god, it always could have been me, and it was! They won,” he said, and fear and pleading filled every single rise and fall of his voice. “I always knew this could have happened, but to visit a cursed world like this--oh, masters of us all, please, no, no... and Carlos, the way you look at me in this world! What have I done to make you to look at me that way? Oh, god, what have--what have I--I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!! I--”

 

Cecil’s words faded into choking gasps, and he curled tighter into himself. Carlos gently rubbed his back, and moved his other hand to Cecil’s shoulder, which heaved in panic.

 

“I don’t care what world we are in, Cecil,” Carlos said earnestly, with a steadier voice than he ever would have expected to come out of him right now. “And I don’t care what a different you might have done, here. I love you, and I will do everything I can to keep you safe!”

 

Cecil let out a sob, and his hand searched for Carlos’ again. Carlos gripped it tightly. “I love you so, so much, Cecil,” he whispered.

 

“And Cecil,” Josephine said, turning temporarily to face the two of them, “Those of us who know who you are won’t let anything like that happen to you, and we’ll protect you from other harm as best as we can, too. Mayor Jay is already committed to your safety, and so am I, and the Ericas are, too. You are still yourself. StrexCorp is now owned by Erica, and can’t force anyone to do anything anymore. It can only hurt you when you feel its memory as a present reality. You are safe.”

 

“And we’ll do everything we can keep it that way,” Erica said, touching Cecil’s back softly. “We promise.”

 

“Where am I now?”

 

Cecil had sat back up partway, and was staring at Josephine. “Where am I?” he asked again. “In my world, Kevin was thrown into the Desert Otherworld during the revolution, and...he is still there, and he has nothing left. Did the same thing happen to me?”

 

“I--” Josephine struggled to speak, and she gripped the steering wheel hard. “Oh, Kevin,” she said, and another tear fell down her cheek. Carlos felt his own forming again in response, and they fell onto his lap.

 

“Yes,” the Erica in the front seat said, softly, reaching over to Josephine and wiping the tear from her cheek. “I’m sorry. As far as we can tell, based on everything we’ve learned, a lot of what happened in your world is parallel to what happened in ours, except that the towns and their people, and a few other things, traded stories.”

 

As Cecil buried his face back into his hands, Carlos’ thoughts turned. He remembered the Kevin he had just seen, and it finally occurred to him fully that this Kevin was not the same one he had known. He couldn’t be, in the context of this new knowledge, and suddenly, the discrepancies he had noticed--or felt, rather than noticed--made so much more sense. Kevin’s shirt had not been stained at all, and his hair had not been short. There was something different about the motions of his mouth, too; his expressions looked even more like Cecil’s than usual, and less forced. And, he had seemed somehow warmer, hadn’t he?

 

Oh, god. If he was understanding Erica correctly, then…

 

“Wait,” Carlos said urgently. “Does that mean that this world’s Kevin was never forced to work for Strex?”

 

Erica nodded with a slight shrug, stroking Cecil’s back. “Pretty much? They bought out the DBCR station for a while, but Kevin and some others were able to take it back. I was with him at the time, actually, and it was a pretty amazing sight. He just carried his cat right in with him, and Cecil was announcing the whole thing as we came in, and he and Lauren ran away so fast after that, and...”

 

Carlos’ tears spilled over again, but differently. This world was...well, in so many ways, it was totally awful. Even just the idea of it was hurting Cecil, and was hurting him , so much. But he still felt his heart jump at this new thought, that his beloved, estranged, lost friend was only one of these things in this place, and had never had his life stolen from him. And they knew each other, here, and...

 

He thought once again of his own double, and saw the memory of him holding Kevin tightly on their kitchen floor. “Carlos is not your boyfriend,” Kevin had told Cecil. “He is my fiance, and this is where he and I live together.”

 

That couldn’t be true, could it? He couldn’t really be visiting a world where he and Kevin…

 

He really didn’t want the answer to that confirmed out loud, so he asked a different but related question, staring at Cecil’s hair, which was still somehow partly tucked behind his right ear.

 

“What about me?” he managed. “What happened to me? Who am I, here?”

 

“Well, from what people have said about you, your life has gone pretty similarly to your double’s,” Erica replied. “You’re Carlos the Scientist, and you came to a desert community a little over four years ago to study it, and ended up finding a life here and never left, except after the revolution when you couldn’t figure out how to get back for a while. You’re pretty much universally loved, and especially by--”

 

“Cecil,” Josephine cut in, “we’re almost to City Hall. How are you doing?”

 

Cecil made himself sit up all the way, and clearly it was a struggle. He gripped Carlos’ hand, still, and Carlos could easily read the fear in his body. But he swallowed, and nodded. “I’m...well...I’m here,” he said, in a slightly hoarse voice. He looked at Carlos, and he was still so distant and scared. Carlos felt a rush of affection for him in this vulnerable state, and squeezed his hand tighter.

 

“Hey,” Carlos said softly, “It’s going to be okay.”

 

“The universe doesn’t guarantee us anything like that,” Cecil said, and his eyes looked wetter than usual, “but when you say it like that…”

 

Carlos smiled as best as he could. “We are going to get through this,” he said, firmly. “We live in Night Vale. There were like four suns that one time, right? Scientifically, that should have ended, like, a lot worse than it did, but here we both are!”

 

Cecil nodded again, more surely this time, although he was clearly still not sure. “That’s true,” he said.

 

The car pulled into a spot, and as it stopped, Carlos stroked Cecil’s cheek. “We’re going to get through this together, ” he insisted. “Okay? I’m not going anywhere.”

 

“Okay,” Cecil nearly whispered. “I love you so much, Carlos.” He tried to smile as he pressed Carlos’ hand closer. Carlos leaned forward and touched their foreheads, and sighed into the contact.

 

After a moment, they sat back up, and simultaneously noticed the other three looking toward them softly.

 

“You guys are really cute,” the Erica in the front seat said. “And we really are going to do our best to protect you, okay? We love you a lot, and lots of other people love you, too.”

 

“I...thank you,” Cecil said, and he reached out hesitantly, just touching Erica’s wrist. “That means so much.”

 

“Anytime, Cecil,” they said, and smiled. “You are more precious to us than you know.”

 

Josie wiped her eyes, then turned around and put her hand on top of Cecil’s, nodding.

 

Cecil unbuckled himself and leaned forward, hugging both of them tight despite the awkward angle. “Thank you,” he repeated, and his voice shook.

 

It was then that Carlos noticed City Hall itself, out the window. It was almost identical to Night Vale’s, but he noticed that the skyline contained taller buildings, and the sign in front of it read, “Desert Bluffs City Hall,” in yellow lettering rather than Night Vale’s purple. There was no blood anywhere, as far as he could see. Although he felt immensely comforted by the conversation they had just had, his stomach turned at the sight. How on earth had they traveled so far from home?

 

But as he looked back to Cecil, he knew that home was still right by his side, even now.

Chapter Text

The walk into City Hall felt hyperreal. On the surface, nearly everything was identical to how it was in Night Vale, down to the layout and even the type of decor--bloodless except in certain doorways that required bloodletting, and vaguely and even overtly eldritch--but Carlos could feel a difference in the air, and he knew that the ground beneath his feet was new to him, even as he and Cecil walked hand in hand to the mayor’s office with almost complete confidence in their path.

 

The plan was this: Cecil would not say anything at all until they were in the mayor’s office, so his voice would not attract attention, and he would keep his sunglasses on, so that no one could see his eyes. His and Kevin’s looked different enough that someone might notice.

 

Not being interacted with, at least, was going very well for all of them, considering that most people in town knew them. But then, they bumped into John Peter--remember, the pharmacist?--in the stairwell.

 

“Oh, hey, Kevin, Carlos! And Josephine, and Erica?” John exclaimed, as he passed by the five of them. “What brings you all here?”

 

Carlos felt Cecil flinch at being called Kevin, and Cecil almost went to speak, but Josephine beat him to it.

 

“Hey, John!” she said, smiling brightly. “We’re just stopping by the mayor’s office for a life-altering conversation, is all. You?”

 

“Oh, I was just filing an application to order some more invisible ibuprofen,” John replied, and Carlos noticed just then that there was no blood on John’s clothing. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of red tape you have to go through to get the stuff. The visible kind is barely regulated, but I guess it’s easy to misplace the invisible capsules, and all. But some people swear by it, and they keep requesting it from the pharmacy, so here I am.” He looked at Cecil, and grinned. “Also, Kevin, nice sunglasses! And, nice outfit in general. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you in purple before, but it looks good on you!”

 

Cecil tensed again. Carlos froze, himself. Cecil probably needed to answer to avoid suspicion, but his voice would give away who he was for sure, so what could Carlos do to--

 

“Thanks, John!” Cecil whispered hoarsely. “I appreciate that.”

 

“Whoa there!” John said, concerned. “What’s with your voice?”

 

“I, uh, I dunno,” Cecil said nervously, shrugging. “I’m just...not quite myself today, you know?"

 

Someone's text ringer went off as they passed by, set to sound like a rimshot. "Badum-tshh," said the phone, and Cecil and Carlos both jolted, looking at each other in suppressed alarm. Erica snorted and covered their face, in a way that almost sounded like a sneeze. Josephine shot them a warning look, but Carlos could see her biting her lip in an effort not to smile.

 

"It’ll probably be fine,” Cecil continued, grinning nervously. 

 

“Bless you," John said, nodding at Erica. "But, Kevin, you should probably see a doctor just in case,” he said. “Especially if it’s been like this all day. You could have laryngitis, or a mild case of throat spiders. There’s been some of that going around lately, unfortunately.”

 

“I’m keeping an eye on him,” Carlos interjected. “If he gets sick, I'll take him in.” This was not a lie, exactly, but Carlos didn't like misleading him.

 

“You do that,” John said, holding up one finger seriously. “You don’t want that to get out of hand. Although, you’re the one who replaced your own vocal cords that one time to avoid it, so I probably don’t need to tell you that.”

 

Carlos’ hand reached up to his throat scars, and he felt them lightly with his fingers. He had definitely had some...concerns...about that illness, when he had learned about it. When he had realized he had all the signs of early-stage throat spiders, he had done his utmost to prevent it from progressing. While he knew he could just use sign language if he lost his voice, he had felt that science would take much longer if he had to use his hands to hold things and talk, so he had figured it was probably best to just surgically exchange his vocal cords, which...well, he’d rather not think about that right now. Seeing his own esophagus in that mirror had been super fascinating, but he had almost passed out, and if Nilanjana hadn’t been there to help, that could have been...kind of bad, you know?

 

“Yeah,” he laughed, shaking off the memory. “I’m going to make him some tea as soon as possible, and hopefully that will help a little.” This was also not technically a lie, but he hoped he could maybe tell him the whole truth at some future point.

 

“Good!” John smiled again. “Well, I’ve gotta run. See y’all later!”

 

“Bye!” Josephine called after him, as he power-walked away, hands stuffed in his labcoat pockets. “Erica, was that rimshot your doing?” she asked lightly. “And, could you please warn us next time we might run into someone like that?”

 

Both Ericas shuffled awkwardly, grinning. “Yes, and yes,” said the one who had sat next to Josie on the way here, who was still wearing three pairs of sunglasses at once. “I might have suggested to their friend to text them at this exact time, in exchange for a favor. But, we really are sorry we didn’t warn you about him. I was going to, but then we all had that cute moment in the car, and I forgot.”

 

Josephine sighed, rolling her eyes, and smiled. “All right. Well, no harm done,” she said, beginning to walk again. “It was nice to see him, either way.”

 

The rest followed, and as they did, Carlos squeezed Cecil’s hand in reassurance. Cecil let out a huge sigh of his own, and shook himself.

 

In front of the entrance to the mayor’s office, Cecil stopped, almost as if frozen. He turned around, and looked Josie dead in the eyes.

 

“Promise me you’re not walking me to my demise?” he whispered.

 

“I swear,” Josephine whispered back solemnly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I would never do that to you, ‘Kevin.’” She did finger quotes with her other hand as she said ‘Kevin,’ and winked.

 

Cecil laughed quietly, but he was obviously scared. “Okay.”

 

Carlos rubbed the back of Cecil’s hand with his thumb, and their eyes met. Carlos could tell that much, even looking through Cecil’s sunglass lenses. Cecil took a deep breath and pushed open the door.

 

“Hi, folks!” the receptionist said. They...she...? Looked very familiar, and fairly young. When they saw Cecil, they smiled brightly. “Oh, hey, Kevin!” they said, sitting upright. “How’s it going, man?”

 

“Hi, Renee!” Josephine interjected. “I’m so sorry to rush you, but can you let Mayor Jay know we’re here right away? She’s expecting us, and it’s about something fairly time-sensitive.”

 

Renee looked a little surprised, but nodded. “Oh, uh, sure. She said to let you right in when you got here, so like, go right ahead.”

 

“Thank you,” Josephine said kindly. Right as she turned toward the mayor’s door, it opened, and a tall figure appeared in it.

 

“I thought I heard you out here, Josephine,” said the mayor, in a deep, quiet voice. It also sounded familiar in its timbre, but Carlos could not place how so. They--she, Josephine had said--looked at Cecil with a curious, somewhat careful expression. “Hello! Wow...so, it’s really happening?”

 

“Looks like it,” Josephine sighed.

 

“Is Kevin all right?”

 

“He’s holding up okay,” Erica answered. “He doesn’t know much yet, and he--” they gestured at Cecil-- “hasn’t taken the news very well, so Kevin probably won’t either.”

 

The mayor sighed. “I’m not looking forward to him learning the truth,” she said. “I know I don’t have to deal with his life situation personally, but he’s such a close friend that it hurts to know he’ll be hurt. I’m sure you know what I mean,” she said, looking at Josephine and then straight at Carlos, and her eyes were so sad, for someone so young. Carlos suddenly realized that she reminded him of Dana, and that that was whose voice he had thought of when she had first spoken.

 

“It’s good to see you, Carlos,” she said to him, with the familiarity of people closer than acquaintances, but also with deep respect.

 

“Oh, uh, same to you,” he replied, with a different, misplaced familiarity of his own, and a little confusion.

 

Mayor Jay turned to Renee, who was clearly listening as they chewed on their pen. “Hey, Renee?”

 

Renee looked up casually, but also quickly. “Mhm?”

 

“What I’m about to tell you is classified until further notice. Can you keep a secret for a few hours?”

 

Renee set their pen down slowly, with a strong side-eye. “Oh, yes. Definitely.”

 

“Good,” the mayor said, and she strode to the office entrance and locked the door. “Please don’t be worried, Renee, but something is happening, and you’re going to find out anyway, so I’m just going to tell you now.”

 

“Okay…?” Renee said, their eyes shifting between the group and the mayor.

 

“Okay. Remember those people who came in a couple days ago, who were nervous and kept saying that they didn’t understand why they weren’t in Night Vale, and kept calling you Maureen?”

 

That was who she was! Carlos had known he knew her face!

 

“Mhm?” Renee said, with intense curiosity.

 

“Well, they were from Night Vale,” Mayor Jay said. “They were from a different world. And so are these two,” she said, gesturing to Cecil and Carlos.

 

Renee looked incredulous. “Kevin and Carlos?”

 

“Well, that’s the thing,” said the mayor. “This isn’t exactly Kevin.”

 

Cecil stiffened as Renee’s eyes landed on him, and Carlos felt it.

 

“Wha...what do you mean?” Renee asked, gaze unmoving.

 

Mayor Jay held onto the door handle behind her back. “I mean, he’s one of Kevin’s doubles,” she explained.

 

“Oh, okay!” Maureen--no, Renee--said, and leaned forward. “Sorry, man! You seriously look exactly like Kevin. What’s your name?”

 

Everyone in the room turned to Cecil expectantly. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Uhhhh,” he said awkwardly, “Hi! I’m Cecil.”

 

Renee gasped and leapt to her feet. “Oh my god, no way!” she almost shouted. “Oh--oh my god!”

 

“He’s a different Cecil, Renee!” the mayor said quickly. “Not the one we heard on the radio two years ago. He’s from a world where Night Vale's revolution succeeded. But, he is still Cecil of Night Vale, and--”

 

“How?” Renee demanded, rolling her chair in front of her as a shield. “Wait, is he dangerous?”

 

Carlos’ heart fell at her question, as Cecil made sounds next to him that communicated equal amounts of horror and offense. It occurred to him that the two of them would be hearing questions like this again, probably many times.

 

“No. He’s much more like Kevin than the Cecil we’re familiar with,” the mayor said. “Try to think of him like that. We’re going to take him in for an interview now, to get his full story and decide where to go from here. Please do not tell anyone until then, Renee. It could put an innocent person in serious danger.”

 

Renee stared at Cecil for another moment, then sat back down warily. Her gaze shifted to Carlos, then back to Cecil. “I...okay,” she agreed cautiously.

 

“Thank you,” the mayor said. “Now, please don’t let anyone in until Kevin and Carlos, Erica, and Leticia arrive. They should be here soon.”

 

Carlos tensed, and so did Cecil, and the two shot each other a worried look. Kevin and his double were coming? But the thought faded as the mayor continued speaking.

 

“When they get here, lock the door behind them, and ignore everyone else. If the Sheriff comes by…” Jay sighed. “If they come by, tell them I stepped out somewhere and asked you to stay behind and water the succulents, or something. Just shake them off somehow, okay? Do not let them in here.”

 

Renee nodded, still eyeing Cecil, but with much less fear than curiosity. Her eyes turned to the mayor. “Got it,” she said. “You sure this is okay?”

 

“Absolutely,” the mayor replied. “Erica, can you confirm?”

 

It took Carlos a moment to realize that a Desert Bluffs government official was acknowledging an angel, but that was in no way the highest priority mystery to solve right now, so he accepted it. Cecil did not appear to notice this at all, which worried Carlos a bit more.

 

“Yeah, he’s harmless,” Sunglasses Erica said, shrugging at Renee. “As harmless as any human being is, anyway, which actually isn’t harmless at all. But, he’s not about to murder anyone anytime soon, is what I mean.”

 

Renee looked mostly satisfied, though still alarmed. “Okay,” she said, in relative disbelief. “Sure thing, then.”

 

“Good,” the mayor said. “I’m counting on you. Come in, everyone.”

 

They followed her into her office, and as the door shut behind them, Carlos felt Cecil shiver.

Chapter Text

Mayor Jay was not short, but she felt small, somehow, Carlos thought. Or, not small, actually. The mayor filled the space she occupied with a certain gravitas that did not feel small at all. She just felt young.

 

If anyone here felt small, it was probably him. He was, after all, in a strange place, and he was already shorter than most people, and even slightly shorter than Josie--Josephine, he reminded himself for the who-knows-how-many-th time--who had about an inch on him, so everything felt bigger than he was for a couple reasons. Then again, smallness was not foreign to him. Considering the size of the universe, Carlos felt small often.

 

It was not unusual that he was small, and conscious of it. What was unusual was that he felt it in this particular way. When he examined it too closely, it felt less like smallness, and more like vulnerability. He normally loved to examine things, because that was a vital step in scientific research, but sometimes he did not like to examine himself, and now was one of those times, so he pushed the thought away.

 

He would be fine. A scientist is always fine.

 

He looked up to Cecil beside him, and could tell that Cecil felt vulnerable too. Cecil was shaking just slightly, and looked pale. Carlos wished he knew what to say, but Cecil was usually the one who was good with words, while Carlos had probably maxed out his reassuring abilities back in the car. So instead of speaking, he squeezed Cecil’s hand again as they walked into the mayor’s office. It was starting to feel like the only thing he could do, although as a scientist (who, again, is always fine ), he felt he should be doing more.

 

“Cecil, it’s so good to meet you,” Mayor Jay said, and Cecil jumped.

 

“Oh, um, thank you,” Cecil replied, more quietly than usual. He accepted the hand the mayor was outstretching. As the two shook hands, the mayor clearly read his anxiety, and smiled softly at him. She turned to Carlos.

 

“Have we met in your world, Carlos?” she asked.

 

“I don’t think so,” Carlos replied, although she felt so much like Dana, who he considered to be a good friend.

 

“Oh, well, that might confuse me a little,” she said, with a hint of a laugh in her voice. “We worked closely during the revolution--well, your double and I did--and it was an honor to do science with you.”

 

These parallels with Dana were definitely oddly coincidental. He didn’t know what to think of them, or what to say, so he just said, “Oh, thank you!”

 

As she moved to shake Carlos’ hand, she turned to Cecil and spoke again.

 

“I’m sure this is pretty overwhelming for you,” Jay said, and her hand was soft in Carlos’, but held a firm grip until it slipped away. “It has been for everyone I’ve spoken to so far, but your situation is somewhat unique.”

 

“You could say that, yeah,” Cecil said, and Carlos found himself nodding.

 

“I understand. Let me say a couple things first that might clear some of this up, and maybe put you at ease, as much as a person who is spontaneously visiting another world could be at ease. Please, sit.” Jay motioned to the chairs in front of her desk.

 

They all did, and Jay sat in the rather large chair behind it, one leg tucked beneath her.

 

“Okay. First, let me make one thing very clear, Cecil of Night Vale,” the mayor said, looking at Cecil intently. Carlos tensed as he did, but then the mayor continued.

 

“You are not our enemy, and we--well, at least I, and I hope many, many others, don’t want to cause you any trouble during your stay here, no matter what the duration of that stay may be,” she said, with a look that was both caring and fierce. “You are not from this world, and anything you might have done in yours is not under our jurisdiction. And on top of that, the actions your counterpart took here is his burden to carry, and not yours. I am committed to keeping it that way, Cecil.”

 

She just couldn’t be Dana’s double, Carlos felt more than thought. Her physical appearance was too dissimilar for that--she had a slightly hooked nose, whereas Dana did not, and her hair curled less tightly, and was longer. And she was definitely taller than him, while Dana was his height. But the look in her eyes was so much the same that it was almost eerie, and as he looked to Cecil, he could tell that Cecil wanted to trust her.

 

“Okay, Cecil said uncertainly, nodding, after an audible swallow. Carlos wanted to trust her too, but he was also uncertain. Of course he was. How could certainty be possible, at this moment?

 

“My deputy assistant, Leticia Hedge, will be personally watching out for you, along with Josephine and the Ericas,” Jay continued. “Between them, myself, and those in the Sheriff’s Secret Police who will soon see that you are not a threat to our town, you will be relatively protected from those of us whose fear and anger don’t care what world you are from, or whose blood might actually be on your hands--”

 

“I have never been the voice of StrexCorp,” Cecil interjected defensively. “I have never hurt anyone for them, or done anything for them that I was not forced to before or during the revolution. I would rather die than be their Voice.”

 

Carlos’ heart hurt. “Cecil,” he pleaded quietly, wishing so badly that he would stop saying that.

 

“I mean it,” Cecil said, squeezing Carlos’ hand, but not breaking eye contact with Jay. His voice shook. “And I haven’t missed the irony of the mayor of Desert Bluffs talking about what blood could be on my hands.”

 

The room fell silent. Carlos felt that Cecil had taken Mayor Jay’s words the wrong way, and perhaps forgotten that there was no blood in sight, but it was too late for the bite in Cecil’s words to be taken back, no matter how his understanding would change in the future. The mayor bit her lip, and sat back in her chair, looking away.

 

“You’re right, Cecil,” she said, somberly. “I did a terrible thing on Sandstorm Day, killing my Night Vale double. I was terrified of her, but that doesn’t take away my guilt, or my regret. I should have done what Kevin did, and just run away, and found the strength--no, the kindness to wish her well, when my terror had ended.” She looked back up at him. “I wish I could tell her I’m sorry, but I guess telling you that is the best I can do, for now.”

 

“I--I didn’t mean you,” Cecil said, and Carlos felt him backpedaling. “God, no. I wasn’t talking about you, specifically. I’m sorry. I just meant that Desert Bluffs as a town is the thing that’s covered in blood, not me. But, um, that probably sounded more accusing than it should have, especially considering how I’m, uh…kind of at your mercy.”

 

Cecil shivered again as he said that, and his voice was flat and gravelly. Carlos squeezed his hand yet again, useless but hopefully at least supportive.

 

Jay took a breath that looked somewhat painful. She looked even sadder, somehow, when she spoke next. “No, that’s all right. And I know this situation puts you at a disadvantage, but I don’t want you to have to think of it in those terms, Cecil. I would much rather that you weren’t at anyone’s mercy, especially not mine. But either way, please know that I have been trying for some time now to repair the relationship between Desert Bluffs and Night Vale, and the last thing I want is to damage it more, in this Night Vale and in yours, by failing to protect you.

 

“And furthermore,” she said, leaning forward in her chair with a glint in her eyes, “I don’t believe your counterpart is fully responsible for the things he did, considering that he clearly wanted nothing to do with StrexCorp in the first place, and was forced into his work there. He may be a dangerous person now, or he may not be. I have no idea how to help him, or if help is even possible for him now, but he was brave in the face of tyranny until his strength failed. That is all we can ask of anyone, isn’t it? And you in particular never lost yourself to them, so on what grounds can we possibly hold you responsible for StrexCorp’s violence? No. I won’t hold you at my mercy, Cecil of Night Vale. I will protect you as best as I can, because that is the right thing to do!”

 

The passionate and sincere way she spoke gave Carlos goosebumps. If he had doubted Mayor Jay before, he could not anymore. Jay’s words held a truth in them that could not be feigned, one that had haunted Carlos’ conscience ever since he had learned about Kevin’s story, now paralleled in his boyfriend’s. He was somewhat comforted that a person like her was in Cecil’s corner at a time like this.

 

“I...thank you,” Cecil said quietly. “Just, thank you.”

 

“Please don’t thank me,” Jay said, shaking her head. “It’s the least you deserve. Besides, you have the same face as a dear friend of mine, and I know I’d want the same for him. The sight of you is an undeniable reminder of that.”

 

Carlos’s chest tightened, and he bit his lip. He wondered if she realized that in his world, Kevin was receiving nothing of the sort.

 

After a pause, Cecil pulled his hand from Carlos’ and lifted his sunglasses, to rub his eyes. “Thank you,” he repeated. “You know, you remind me so much of my own dear friend, Dana.”

 

“I remind you of her?” she asked, much softer. “That’s...that’s very kind of you to say, Cecil. I hope I live up to that comparison. I…” as Cecil stopped rubbing his eyes, Jay trailed off, looking at him strangely. He looked back up at her and froze.

 

“Um, is something wrong?” he asked.

 

Jay shook her head, not looking away. “No, not at all,” she said, a little distantly. “I just...I never saw your eyes, in this world. I didn’t know they were purple. I guess I assumed they’d be gold, like Kevin’s.”

 

Carlos remembered when Kevin had told him his eyes were gold. “Oh, well, they used to be!” Kevin had corrected himself. “Sometimes I think I would have like them better that way. Other people sure seem to. I think maybe they scare people, now…”

 

Kevin’s eyes had never scared Carlos, though, and when he had told Kevin that, and that he thought they were fascinating and even beautiful, Kevin had seemed touched, somehow.

 

Carlos thought of the way this other Kevin’s face had changed in their kitchen, when he had seen Cecil’s eyes, and how his own double had looked. It was like they were seeing something that was both beautiful and sad, something that had been missing before.The two of them had looked lost. Cecil looked a little lost, now, too.

 

“Oh,” Cecil said. “I never knew that his were gold, before he...”

 

Jay’s own face fell, and she bit her lip. “Oh, Cecil. I wish I didn’t know what that ‘before’ means, but I think I do. I know your Kevin ended up...but is he...?”

 

“He…” Cecil began, and struggled to continue. “Kevin...he’s alive, but not well. I’m sorry.”

 

Jay looked down for a moment, then back to Carlos. Her eyes were so, so sad, and they pulled on something in him that he did not want to acknowledge. “Carlos...did you ever meet Kevin, in your world?”

 

Everyone turned to him, and he bit his lip again, heart thudding. He squeezed the fingers of his left hand with his right, too tightly.

 

“I did,” he said, and his voice broke. He cleared his throat self-consciously. “I did,” he tried again, looking down. “We were friends for a while, when I lived in the Desert Otherworld, which is where he also went after the revolution against Strex. But then, I eventually had to come home, and it’s not like we could really talk much anymore. It’s...probably better that way, in the end.”

 

There was an unspoken “but” at the end of his sentence. He was sure everyone could hear it, but he couldn’t continue, and sat, frozen. He would not break down right now. Not now. Maybe not ever, but especially not now, with Cecil looking at him with such a vulnerable expression.

 

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Jay said, and he looked up at her again. This was a mistake, because her eyes were too kind, now, and her expression showed too much sorrow. He looked away quickly, not breathing. He was afraid to right now. Jay could already see too much of how he felt, he was sure of it. That was already too much, in itself. But he had sworn to himself that he would never let Cecil carry his pain about this, too. It would be too heavy, especially now, and he loved Cecil too much to let him try, or let him begin understand its full weight. So he would control it. He would fight through this alone.

 

He had to.

 

After what felt like far too long, he swallowed it back down again. He could not look at Cecil.

 

“What do we do next?” he said, forcing himself to make eye contact with Jay again, to hopefully indicate that he was ready to move the conversation along.

 

“Oh,” she said. “Yes. Well, any moment now, Leticia should be arriving, and we would like to interview you, Cecil.” She looked at Cecil, now. “We want recorded proof of this iteration of you, to show to the Sheriff’s Secret Police, and the Sheriff themself, and the City Council, to name a few. It might put you in some danger to be around them, if we introduce you without any warning, but if we have you on the record, talking about your life and your experiences, we may be able to minimize that danger for you. Would you be willing to answer a few questions, Cecil?”

 

Cecil swallowed. “I mean, yes, of course. Do you think it will really make a difference?”

 

“Yes,” Jay said. “If our Kevin appeared in your town, don’t you think it would be safer for him to be able to speak for himself first, instead of meeting the town leadership without warning?”

 

“Mm,” Cecil said. “That meeting would not go over well.” He paused. “I certainly wouldn’t mind having the chance to defend myself, in a parallel situation.”

 

“Okay, excellent,” Jay said. “It would just be you, Leticia and myself, and maybe Carlos. We could do the interview right here. It wouldn’t take very long, and after this, we can figure out where you can stay, and where to go from here.”

 

Cecil nodded hesitantly. “All right.”

 

Carlos could tell that Cecil was still afraid. He still felt so useless…

 

“And after that interview, Carlos, would you be willing to do one, too? Those who wouldn’t listen to even this Cecil might listen to you,” Jay said.

 

“Yes! Of course,” Carlos agreed emphatically. “I want to help.”

 

Jay smiled warmly. “You always do. That’s part of what makes you a scientist, right?”

 

Carlos nodded. “Yes, exactly!” he said, and he felt somewhat hopeful, and possibly even helpful, for the first time in what seemed like hours. “I am a scientist, and part of that is helping people, and sharing knowledge with others. I’ll do whatever I can now, and after this, too. Speaking of,” he said, suddenly realizing something, “has anyone found out exactly what has been happening to make people from our world appear in yours, or even how it’s happening?”

 

Jay shook her head. “Not really,” she said. “We know almost nothing about any of this, Carlos. Erica warned us that something was going to happen, about a week ago. And then, a few days ago, people started showing up, insisting that they were from Night Vale, and that what they were seeing couldn’t possibly be right. When they had tried to go home, either they had been run off by people who looked like them, or their house had burned down, or there was blood where they did not expect it, or there wasn’t blood where they did expect it...the point is, based on the commonalities in their stories so far, we think your world, which parallels ours in a surprising amount of ways, is leaking into ours. But we’re going to need help discovering the hows and whys. We would appreciate your help with that, as a scientist.”

 

“Of course,” he responded, automatically. “I...I don’t actually know where my lab would be for sure, in this world, and my double is…” he swallowed. “I don’t know if being around him is such a good idea, right now. But I’ll do anything I can.”

 

“Thank you so much, Carlos,” Jay said, smiling again. “Just, thank you.”

 

The door opened, and an incredibly tall person who looked exactly like Trish Hidge strode in, with a bag over her shoulder.

 

“Hello there, everyone,” said Leticia Hedge, dropping the bag onto the mayor’s desk. She wiped sweat from her upper lip, and grinned distractedly at them, pulling out a tape recorder, a camera and a tripod. “I’m Leticia, if we haven’t met, and also if we have. Sorry if I’m interrupting.”

 

“You aren’t,” Jay said. “This is perfect timing. Cecil agreed to the interview, and Carlos was just saying he’d like to help us figure out what’s been going on.”

 

“That’s good!” Leticia said. She turned to Carlos, suddenly. “Wait a second, are you the Carlos I know, or a different Carlos?”

 

“Um,” Carlos said, “I just came here from Night Vale.”

 

“Wow!” Leticia said. “Okay! So there’s two of you in town, now. That’s good! We might need two of you to figure this situation out. And, Cecil?” she asked, turning to him now.

 

“Yes?” Cecil said, and Leticia’s eyes widened.

 

“Oh wow,” she said, again. “Hi. Nice to meet you, like this. Well, maybe not exactly like this, but you know what I mean.”

 

Cecil nodded, hesitantly. “I think so...”

 

The mayor stood, picking up the tape recorder. “I wish we could just use this, but considering the circumstances, maybe a visual of him would be better,” she told Leticia. “His appearance is definitely a factor.”

 

“That’s what I thought,” Leticia said. “I just took it anyway, as a backup.”

 

Jay took a deep breath, then exhaled, looking at Cecil. “All right, she asked. “Are you ready? Can I get you some water, or something?”

 

Cecil smiled a little. He looked tired.

 

“I’m never going to be ready,” Cecil said. “But let’s do this. I’ve been in radio long enough to talk through most things like this, ready or not. Also, yes, please, I would love some water.”

 

“Okay,” Jay said gently. “I’ll get that for you. Carlos, would you like to stay?”

 

“Yes, definitely!” Carlos began. Of course, he would have liked to stay. But then he saw how Cecil was looking at him.

 

“Carlos, are you sure you don’t want to wait in the other room?” Cecil asked, softly.

“What? What do you mean? I don’t want to leave you here by yourself,” Carlos replied, confused.

 

“It’s just…” Cecil reached out, stroking his cheek. “You’ve been through so much today, meeting your double, and seeing Kevin again...I know you’re a scientist, but even a scientist needs a minute to breathe sometimes.”

 

“I’m breathing,” Carlos insisted, a little defensively. “I’m fine , Cecil. A scientist--”

 

“Is always fine,” Cecil finished with him. “I know that, bun...bunny.” He seemed to struggle with that word, just a little. “I just really think you should take care of yourself, for a few minutes. We can talk again in a while. I’ll be fine, too.” He smiled, and Carlos loved him, so much, and just wanted to help…but this was so many things, all at once, and he could probably use a moment to himself, if Cecil was really able to handle this...

 

“Are you sure?” Carlos asked.

 

Cecil nodded, and he looked tired and afraid, but resilient. “It’s just an interview. I’ll be fine, Carlos. I promise.”

 

Carlos hesitated for a long moment, but then, reached for Cecil’s hand on his face, and touched it gently, sighing. “Okay,” he gave in, sensing that Cecil would worry less about him this way. “But if there is any reason you want me to come back in, let me know.”

 

“Of course,” Cecil said, rubbing his thumb over Carlos’ cheek. “I love you so, so much, Carlos.”

 

“I love you too,” Carlos said, and he gave his best half-smile.

 

Cecil stood and reached his hand out. Carlos took it, and Cecil helped pull him up with more strength than Carlos expected, into a tight hug that made Carlos feel a surge of warmth, even through all the chaos and pain of today. Cecil was always such a comfort to him, even when he was already suffering, and Carlos was so grateful for his presence. He squeezed Cecil back, and sighed. Then, remembering that there were other people still in the room, they let go.

 

As Carlos turned to the mayor, he saw her smiling softly at the two of them. She rounded the desk and went to open the door.

 

“Thank you so much, Mayor Jay,” Carlos said. Cecil nodded.

 

“Of course, Carlos, Cecil,” she said graciously, as the door opened. “And please, call me Vanessa.”

 

Carlos stopped short. She couldn’t be...was she…? He glanced back at Cecil, whose mouth had opened just slightly at the name.

 

"Are you  Intern Vanessa?” Carlos asked, wide-eyed.

 

Vanessa grinned, and her teeth were perfect. “I used to intern at the radio station, yes! Did Kevin talk about me?”

 

Carlos couldn’t help but stare at her, now. “Kevin always talked about you. I think you were his favorite intern,” he said, trying to smile. He did not say that Kevin missed her often enough that he pretended she was still his intern, even though she was long dead. That wasn’t something you just casually told someone as they held the door open for you. That wasn’t really something you usually could tell someone, he realized. He felt like he was seeing Kevin’s past, and a significant part of what Kevin’s future should have been, smiling at him with a sad affection. But then, he was walking through the door and into the slightly better lit waiting room.

 

“I’m honored to hear that,” Vanessa said, as Josephine and the Ericas exited, and she went to the water cooler. “He is a very important person to me.”

 

“Yeah,” Carlos said quietly. He decided to sit on the black loveseat to his left. It was more springy than he expected, and he put one of the crimson side pillows on his lap, examining its ridges carefully.

 

The water poured into Vanessa’s cup, and the sound rose in pitch. The science of water was fascinating, but right now, it existed only in the back of his mind, as he ran his thumb over the pillow’s edges. They were soft and ribbed, and he was thinking of Cecil, and of Kevin, and of his double, but his thoughts were leaping in different directions. He moved his thumbnail through one ridge, from one side of the pillow to the other. The shortest distance from point A to point B was always a line. This was curved, but viewed from above, the ridges looked like lines. They connected. Their pattern made basic sense.

 

“If you need anything, let us know,” Vanessa said, as a rattle, then a knock came on the other door, from which they had entered the waiting from. Who could that--

 

Carlos’ heart skipped. Oh god. He had completely forgotten. He had made a terrible error, coming out here, where Kevin was absolutely about to appear. But it was too late to go back into the Mayor’s office, wasn’t it? He hesitated, and immediately cursed himself for it, but remained still nonetheless.

 

Renee peered at her computer screen, and brightened. “It’s them,” she said, as she got up and strode toward the door.

 

“Yes, good!” Vanessa said.

 

This was not good, Carlos would have argued, if he could have spoken. But his only action, now, was inaction.

 

Renee opened the door, eyes wide. “Kevin!” she exclaimed. “Wait, you’re definitely Kevin this time, right?”

 

“Oh, hi Renee! And, yes...?” came Kevin’s lemonade voice, and as he walked in, beautiful and sunny and warm, and so strangely like and unlike Cecil, Carlos stopped breathing.

 

“Okay, cool,” Renee said. “Whew.”

 

“Kevin!” said Vanessa, and she set down Cecil’s water cup and strode over to him, taking him gently by the shoulders. He looked slightly surprised, and she said, “How are you?”

 

“Well, it’s been a pretty weird day, if I’m being honest. I’m sure you already know why, what with everything, and especially with...” Kevin began, and then he turned and looked right at Carlos, started, and finished, somewhat breathlessly, “Carlos!”

 

Carlos could only sit frozen, adrenaline in his fingertips, as subjectively speaking, the world stopped turning.

 

 

Chapter Text

As Kevin locked eyes with the Carlos that was not his Carlos, his heart leapt into his throat. He felt his Carlos’ hand in his own, but saw him sitting to his right, too, and the duplicity of his fiance was jarring.

 

What made it worse was the wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights expression on Other Carlos’ face. Kevin almost wondered if Carlos was afraid of him, but he had not seemed exactly afraid before. Carlos had cried at the sight of him, and held him so tightly, and apologized so many times for something Kevin still did not even understand. It had felt more like sorrow and guilt, then...

 

Before Kevin could do anything, this strange Carlos’ gaze shifted just to his left, and both Carloses tensed. His Carlos squeezed his hand tight. Kevin looked to him, and saw that the two had locked eyes.

 

“...Yes, the situation has been something else,” Vanessa said, fingers slipping off his sleeves. “Hey, are you two Carloses okay being together?”

 

“Um…” Both Carloses said at the same time. This accidental unison clearly alarmed them even more. Kevin swallowed, gripping Carlos’ hand tighter in case he was thinking of flinging himself back at his double.

 

“Oh! Uh…” his Carlos said, in a higher voice than usual, “I just realized, I need to go do something scientific in the bathroom.”

 

Kevin looked at him, with not a small amount of concern. “You what now?” he asked, wondering if that was a euphemism of some kind.

 

“I, um, should probably go and check that the sinks are obeying thermodynamic laws,” Carlos explained, still staring at his double, extracting his nervous fingers from Kevin’s confused ones. “That is very important to me right now, I think, and I'll go do that.”

 

“Oh,” Kevin said, realizing that this was almost definitely a euphemism, but perhaps just one that indicated that Carlos needed time to prepare for this interaction. “Carlos, wait! You don’t have to go, just stay here, and--”

 

“Nope, that’s really okay, Kevin!” Carlos said, backing away. “I’ll...I’ll just be a minute, okay? I just need a minute. I’m gonna go now. See you soon!” He began half-jogging down the hall.

 

“Oh, okay!” Kevin called, peering out the doorway and reaching his hand out faintly. “Text me if you need anything, I guess?”

 

“Okay, sweetie!” Carlos said quickly, already pulling the all-gender bathroom door closed behind him. It clicked, and Kevin turned back, feeling very lost. He knew how frightening having a double could be, so he understood his choice completely, but he really wished Carlos would stay.

 

He turned to Vanessa. “Um,” he said, “I think he’ll come back soon.”

 

“That’s all right,” Vanessa said. “I’m just glad you two are here.”

 

He looked into her dark brown eyes, searching. “Vanessa, what is happening?” he asked.

 

Vanessa shook her head. “So much, Kevin,” she said. “What do you know so far?”

 

“Erica said that people have been showing up from an alternate reality where Desert Bluffs became part of Night Vale,” Kevin said. “Also, Cecil of Night Vale just showed up, in my house, without warning, with another Carlos , saying I needed to leave because it was their house! and right before that, Carlos almost killed his double, and then you all showed up--” he gestured at Josephine and the Ericas-- “ aaaand now, I’m here. Please tell me there’s a good explanation for this.”

 

Vanessa looked to Carlos, who looked back at her and quickly away, biting his lip. Vanessa’s expression was soft. “I’m so grateful you’re both still here, Carlos,” she told him.

 

Carlos just nodded. Vanessa turned back to Kevin, and her eyes held an old regret he had seen in them so many times before. Sometimes, he worried about how much weight she carried in her heart.

 

“Well, we don’t know much,” Vanessa said. “Basically, what you said is right. There have been people arriving from a different world, where things turned out differently, and Night Vale was able to fight off StrexCorp before it destroyed their town. There have been appearances for a few days now, and in a while, once we have discussed this in greater depth, I want you to report on it.”

 

“Of course,” Kevin replied automatically.

 

“Good,” Vanessa assented. “Listen, Kevin. Do you think you can wait on that, for just a while longer? We have Cecil here now, and we’re about to question him and then Carlos.”

 

Kevin felt anxiety shoot through him at Cecil’s name, and also at the thought of waiting to report on something this important. But then, Vanessa gestured to Carlos, and Kevin saw that he had not moved an inch, and looked frozen in place. He felt for this strange Carlos, even as the sight of him, and this situation in general, stunned him so strangely speechless.

 

“After they’ve been questioned,” Vanessa continued, “we can decide how to move forward from here, but it’s very important to do this right, with all the necessary information. I don’t want people to panic because they only have half the story.”

 

“Cecil is...where?” Kevin asked nervously.

 

Vanessa gestured to her office door. “He’s in there with Leticia,” she said. “And soon, with me. We’re going to find out his story.” She looked at Kevin closely. “He’s not dangerous, Kevin. He’s a lot like you.”

 

Kevin scoffed lightly, but then he thought again of Cecil’s eyes, so strangely purple, and his long hair and bloodless clothes, and the absence of the usual, unnaturally wide smile Kevin had grown accustomed to seeing on his face. In the place of that “smile” had been expressions that had made much more sense for the situation, and frankly, looked more physically possible. This really could not be the Cecil he had known all this time. But that did not take away the anxiety of being near him, and hearing his voice, and hearing him calling Carlos his boyfriend, and this other Carlos confirming that fact...

 

How could that be? How could any of this be? He had so many questions, but before he could ask any of them, Vanessa was asking her own.

 

“Will you trust me on this, Kevin?” She said, intently. “I know it’s a lot to ask of you, considering who he has been to our town, and to you in particular, and I’m sorry I have to. But we need to keep him safe. This is partly because he’s the Voice of this other Night Vale, which is so much like us from what we have learned, and because letting harm come to him would be a terrible mistake that could drive yet another wedge between our towns. It is also because he has done nothing to warrant anything else.”

 

Kevin trusted Vanessa’s judgment on most things, and agreed with her in most ways. But still, he was afraid, and did not like keeping information from the public.

 

“I understand what you’re saying,” Kevin began. “And I do trust you. And, I don’t think you’re wrong, exactly, but it’s just…”

 

It was then that Kevin noticed that Carlos had sat up straighter, and was looking at him again, with a more anxious expression than before, one that held a clear desire for Kevin to wait to report. Although he was feeling not a small amount of confusion and fear, the look in Carlos’ eyes overwhelmed those. And as he looked to the other side of the room, Josephine watched him, pensive, and also clearly hoping he would agree to wait.

 

He looked back at Carlos again, and found it very difficult to convince himself to go against the wishes of two trusted friends and his fiance, especially if Carlos was so intent about this. He knew his horrifying double was in the room just next to theirs, but also that this strange Carlos clearly cared for him, and even loved him. And even if he did not understand why, or what world could have created all of Carlos’ tears upon seeing his face earlier today, or what any of this meant, he still trusted him. He had little reason not to, even if he and the Carlos of this world had almost...he didn’t want to think that through too much, actually. The point was, he trusted Carlos, and the man in front of him was very clearly still Carlos.

 

“I won’t stop you from reporting, Kevin,” Vanessa said resolutely. “You know that I won’t. But please--”

 

“I’ll wait,” he cut in, turning back to her. “You don’t have to worry about that. Just, please, don’t make me sit on this for too long.”

 

Vanessa looked relieved, and hugged him tight. “Oh, thank goodness,” she sighed as she pulled back, touching his arm softly. “I won’t, all right? And we’ll all talk more, as soon as these interviews are over. I promise .”

 

She smiled softly and a bit apologetically at him, then went and picked up a water cup, and walked past Josephine and Erica through her office door.

 

As the door clicked shut, Kevin turned to Josephine. “Hi again,” he offered.

 

“Hi, Kevin,” Josephine replied. “Thank you so much for coming.”

 

“What else could I do?” Kevin asked. “You all are the only ones who know what’s going on.”

 

He didn’t mean to sound as bitter as he did about being left out of the loop, but he still felt hurt that they had not trusted him with this information.

 

“I’m sorry, Kevin,” Josephine said, and the regret was clear in her voice. “I felt guilty not telling you something was happening, especially when the appearances started--”

 

“Carlos could have died,” Kevin said, fully realizing this as he said it, glancing between Josephine and the Ericas. He did not mind sounding bitter and even angry this time, although he probably sounded more distraught than either of those things. “Why couldn’t you have warned at least one of us about this?”

 

Josephine looked at a loss for words, and bit her lip. “I--we didn’t--”

 

“Warning you before it happened would have messed up the order of things too much,” one of the Ericas interjected, wearing three pairs of sunglasses at once. “We can see parts of the future, remember? The best case scenario that we could hope for was that things happened, here, along the same lines as they did. And also, we know Carlos, and we knew that in this situation he wouldn’t die, or end up actually killing his double, even though he was definitely going to attack him. He’s curious about everything , and even when he was afraid, he was asking questions still, right? That makes committing murder a lot harder.”

 

“Well, he threw a knife at himself, Erica!” Kevin exclaimed. “How is that not murder, about to happen?”

 

“He also has terrible aim, and you two were there to stop him,” the Erica who had eaten his tomatoes said, and at that, and as he remembered his stolen tomatoes again, Kevin was pretty sure he wanted to strangle them. He narrowed his eyes at them

 

“We mean this, seriously,” they continued. “We promise that we never would have let them kill each other. We might seem weirdly relaxed about the situation, yeah, but that’s because we’re angels, and also because so far, it’s actually going really well, all things considered.”

 

Kevin tilted his head, making a face full of exasperated confusion, and shrugging with his hands, fingers curled from stress.

 

“Don’t look at me like that, I mean it! This could already be so much worse, and because it’s going this particular way, things will suck a lot less in the future. And we really do know how much you love Carlos, and we do too. Literally everyone loves Carlos, except maybe Carlos,” they said, nodding in Carlos’ direction, “and we’re looking out for you and him, and for Cecil, too.”

 

Kevin did not feel totally comforted, particularly because he knew that last bit about Carlos’ lack of self-love was very true, but Erica was pretty reliable most of the time, even if it was in an awkward and seemingly incompetent way on the surface, so maybe he did feel slightly less horrified.

 

He ran the fingers of his left hand through his hair and looked over at Carlos, and Carlos looked away almost immediately, biting his lip. He looked embarrassed, and regretful, and sadder than ever. Kevin wanted so badly to say something to help him.

 

“Speaking of which, you two should probably check in with each other,” the Erica wearing three pairs of sunglasses said, and Kevin could see Carlos jump. Erica turned to Renee, and Josie did too, giving Kevin an apologetic grimace, much like Vanessa had. “So, Renee,” Erica said. “Have you listened to any new music lately that you liked?”

 

Renee and Kevin shared a glance. She struggled to tear her eyes from Kevin as she responded, but eventually, she did. “Um, yeah,” she said. “I’ve been trying some experimental recordings of insect wings flapping to the beat of songs, and I found one that was Chopin’s ‘We Will Rock You,’ and I jammed to that on repeat for like three hours last night. But like, don’t go around telling everyone about it,” she said. “I don’t want everyone to hear about it and end up overplaying it, especially before I tell Rochelle about it…”

 

Her voice, and the others’, faded to the back of Kevin’s consciousness as he looked to Carlos again. His mouth felt oddly dry. How should he approach him?

 

He took two steps toward Carlos, and Carlos jumped up quickly, eyes wide, looking cornered. Kevin instantly felt awful, and took half a step back.

 

“Um,” he began. “Hi.”

 

“...hi,” Carlos said, voice higher than usual. His body language was so tense. Kevin bit his lip. He wondered if…

 

“You know...maybe I should go,” he said, taking another step back. “I can wait in the hall, or--”

 

“No!”

 

Carlos took a couple steps forward, pleading. “I don’t...I don’t want you to go,” he said, and he was so sad. Why was he so sad?

 

“Oh--all right,” Kevin said, chest tight. “Then I’ll stay.”

 

The two stood there for a long moment, magnetized, frozen. Kevin desperately wanted to just hold him, but he was unsure if that would be a good idea.

 

“I just…” Carlos said. Was he holding back tears? “I didn’t expect to see you again. Like this, I mean. Or...maybe at all?”

 

Kevin remembered Carlos, his Carlos, saying the same thing in their kitchen, about Cecil. Between this, and his initial reaction to seeing him, Carlos was almost acting like he was Cecil. The parallel gave him chills.

 

“You said before that you hadn’t seen me in months,” he said. “Where have you...how? I don’t understand why--”

 

But he stopped, then, because Carlos’ hand had risen to cover his mouth, and his eyes had widened even further.

 

“Carlos?” Kevin said. He desperately wanted to reach out to him, but his wrist only twitched.

 

“They are gold,” Carlos said softly. “Just like you told me they were.”

 

“What do you mean…?” Kevin asked, lost. He looked behind him, and to the side. Was he missing something?

 

Carlos walked closer, staring as if into Kevin's soul, and stopped just in front of him.

 

“Your eyes,” he whispered, anguished. “They’re... beautiful.” He reached his hand toward Kevin’s face, but took it back, biting his lip, eyes darting away, and then back. Kevin's heart skipped at his words, and in the wake of Carlos’ almost-touch, and in confusion.

 

It was then that Kevin realized that he had just absentmindedly pushed his sunglasses onto the top of his head, and that he had been wearing them this whole time, including when Carlos first arrived. The two of them had not made true eye contact this whole time, until now.

 

But still, why was this Carlos’ reaction to seeing his eyes? He must have seen them before. This didn’t make sense, and it gave him a vague but powerful feeling of familiar dread that he couldn’t quite place.

 

He also felt the gravity of Carlos’ sorrow pulling on him, but he did not understand why it existed. It was haunting and alarming all at once. The expression on Carlos’ face was one that Kevin never wanted to see, especially not because of him. Why was Carlos looking at him like that?

 

More than anything, Kevin wanted to stop Carlos from hurting, and to obey the physics of what he felt, pulling him closer to the man he loved. But, he was unsure if Carlos would actually want that, considering how Carlos had responded to his kiss earlier. So, he asked.

 

“Carlos, I really don’t understand what’s happening,” he said. “But...could I please hug you? If not, that’s all right, but…” he shook his head. “It’s all I can think to do, right now, so I wanted to ask.”

 

Carlos blinked hard, and tears fell down both his cheeks. And then, he reached out slowly, resting his fingers on the front of Kevin’s shoulder, where he had touched him when they first saw each other. His gaze fell there now, and he bit his lip. And then, he leaned in, and slowly pressed his face into Kevin’s chest, tightly gripping the front of Kevin’s shirt.

 

“O-oh,” Kevin said in surprise and relief, and he rested his hands on Carlos’ shoulders for a moment before sliding them to Carlos’ back. The motions of this contact were so incredibly familiar and comforting, but so strange at the same time, because he was not sure if he actually knew this Carlos. Well...that was not completely true, because he was undeniably Carlos . Kevin could feel that in the motions of his body, and in hear it in his voice, and see it in his face. But their stories had not aligned, and Kevin felt an alien void between them where a common history could have been, no, should have been, even as he pressed him as close, subconsciously trying to fill it.

 

He rubbed between Carlos’ shoulders, as if to say, I love you, I’m scared, I need you, I want you close. Carlos let out a muffled sob, and gripped his shirt still tighter, as if to say...well, Kevin did not know what for certain, but he sensed, or maybe just desperately hoped, that Carlos felt the same way.

 

“Oh, Carlos,” Kevin whispered, gently as he could. “It’s all right. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”

 

Carlos tensed. Kevin wondered if that might not have been what he wanted to hear, until Carlos let go and shifted to press himself closer, sliding his own arms around Kevin’s chest in a tight embrace.

 

His warmth was home . Kevin had been in these arms, he had been the subject of this man’s love, so many times before. The dissonance between their narratives could not take that away, even as it felt so strange and heavy and wrong. He moved one hand up to Carlos’ head, clutching him tighter and burying his nose in Carlos’ hair. They stood for what felt like a very long time, suspended in this moment, the conversation behind them the only evidence of the passage of time.

 

“I’m so sorry, Kevin,” Carlos finally said, with shuddering breaths. “I’m so, so...sorry. I never...I never...”

 

“Carlos, listen to me,” Kevin said, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to hold him steady, “I don’t know what it is that you think you did to me, but whatever it is, I am here for you right now, and I want to help.”

 

“I don’t deserve that,” Carlos whispered.

 

Kevin held him tighter, full of resolve. “It’s not about deserving, Carlos. It’s that I want to be here for you when you’re hurting,” he said. “I know you’re from a different world, and that something awful must have happened there, but I still care about you!” He closed his eyes, and spoke again, more softly. “You are still Carlos, and I love you, no matter what.”

 

Carlos sobbed again, quietly. At this point, Kevin was unsure if Carlos was standing on his own, or letting him hold him up, but he could feel damp spots forming on his shirt, and it made his heart ache.

 

“Why don’t we sit down?” Kevin said, pulling Carlos gently toward the loveseat he had been on before.

 

“Okay,” Carlos whispered. He didn’t let go of Kevin’s shirt for even a second as they walked over, or as they sat down. He stared down at his hands, and bit his lip again, eyebrows knitting together.

 

Kevin rested his hand on Carlos’ shoulder. Carlos looked into his eyes again with a searching, lost gaze, and the hollow between them seemed to almost resonate. It was awful.

 

“I...I’m sorry,” Carlos choked, again.

 

Kevin shook his head. What for?” he searched, staring back into his fiance’s eyes (or, he guessed, not his fiance’s eyes, although he did not want to think about that just yet), needing to understand, but also increasingly afraid to learn whatever truth was making Carlos act like this.

 

Carlos’ eyes fell to his hands again, on Kevin’s shirt. He moved one, so that it rested lightly on the hand Kevin had put on his shoulder, and his gaze followed the motion. As their fingers touched, another tear fell onto his lap. He stayed there, motionless other than his breathing, which looked painful.

 

“Why haven’t we talked in months?” Kevin pleaded. “Why are you so sad to see me, right now?”

 

Before he thought about it, he leaned in, and gently wiped a new tear off of Carlos’ cheek with the back of his index finger. Carlos squeezed his eyes shut, tight, and another tear dripped onto it. Carlos would not look at him. Kevin suddenly second-guessed himself, unsure if he should be touching Carlos’ face, but Carlos’ fingers curled just tighter around Kevin’s, pressing them harder against his shoulder. It didn’t seem like Carlos minded, but he would try to be careful, either way.

 

“Please, Carlos,” he said softly. “What happened between us? Where am I, in your world?”

 

Carlos’ grip on his fingers tightened again, and he opened his mouth, as if to speak, but he just grimaced instead.

 

“Am I...am I dead?” Kevin asked, desperately. Carlos looked up at him, wide-eyed again. Kevin’s stomach dropped. “Is that why you’re looking at me like that?”

 

“No!” Carlos said quickly, horrified. “Oh my god, no. You’re definitely alive. Just, um...” he said, looking down again sadly, “...we don’t, um...we don’t talk, anymore.”

 

Kevin suddenly felt very vulnerable. It sounded like Carlos did not want this to be true at all, but that something had nevertheless come between them in his world, and that Carlos blamed himself for it. Kevin couldn’t even imagine what that might have been, because he thought he and Carlos had usually communicated so well, and that whatever problems they would run into, they could find a way to talk through it.

 

Had he hurt Carlos, somehow? Had Carlos hurt him , in some way, so much that he had left Carlos over it? But, what could that have been? How could they have not loved each other enough to figure out whatever had happened, in any world?

 

“Why don’t we talk?” Kevin asked, heart pounding. “Did I...did I do something to hurt you?”

 

“No,” Carlos replied immediately, voice breaking again. “That wasn’t it. You were always so kind to me.”

 

“That’s good,” Kevin said, relieved. “You deserve nothing less.”

 

Carlos bit his lip for the third time, and he looked like he was maybe about to cry again. Kevin could tell Carlos didn’t feel like he deserved anything at all, and it hurt Kevin to know that.

 

“I can’t even imagine knowing you, and not talking with you,” Kevin continued, softly. “And you look so sad right now...there has to be a way to fix whatever happened, right? I mean...” he trailed off as Carlos shook his head.

 

“I don’t think I can fix this, Kevin,” he whispered. “I’ve thought of so many ways to try, but I think at this point they would all just make things worse.” His fingers, still on top of Kevin’s, stroked them distractedly. In the back of his mind, Kevin registered the feeling of Carlos fidgeting with the engagement ring on his fourth finger, the one this Carlos’ double had given him just weeks ago at Josie’s birthday party, under the beautiful, alien fireworks the Ericas had set off at its end. Mostly, though, he just felt fear and regret without context.

 

“Try me,” Kevin said, squeezing his shoulder, pushing through those feelings. “I don’t think there is anything that could make me stop caring about you, and you obviously still care about me, so...what could possibly stop us from fixing this?”

 

Carlos looked back into his eyes, and Kevin felt the void between them again, but it was not a void now; it was something unspoken and terrible.

 

“I don’t know that I can make myself tell you,” Carlos said, shaking his head. “In this world, things are so different, and so much better for you, and I don’t want to change that by telling you what happened somewhere else.”

 

“I want to know. If that’s the only thing stopping you, then please, tell me,” Kevin insisted.

 

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Carlos whispered.

 

“Don’t worry about that right now,” Kevin said, rubbing Carlos’ shoulder softly. “Please, Carlos. Whatever differences we had in your world, no matter how awful they were, or what happened, I still love you, and--”

 

“You shouldn’t!” Carlos burst out, suddenly much louder, and Kevin jumped. “You needed me, but...but I left you to die!”

 

He broke down, sobbing into his free hand, clenching Kevin’s with his other. Everything felt like it had gone silent, other than him.

 

“I left you totally alone in that Desert Otherworld, forever,” Carlos moaned. “And I know that you told me that I should choose happiness, even if it makes someone else sad, but I left you so sad, Kevin! I left you without even one friend. You have nothing left, and you’re going to stay that way forever, until you die, and it’s because I’m not smart or good enough to save you from what happened to you, and I will never forgive myself for that!”

 

Kevin felt frozen in place, as Carlos dissolved into more tears. He could not understand what he was hearing, as much as his head spun trying to grasp it, and as much as his body felt the tension in the air and threatened to shake with it. “You...what?” He struggled to choose his words. “Why was I even in the Desert Otherworld? What do you mean , I have nothing left?”

 

“You lost everything,” Carlos choked. “They took everything from you.”

 

“They?” Kevin whispered, not knowing, but getting the nastiest feeling that he did.

 

“They took your town, your sense of self, your hair, your eyes ,” Carlos continued painfully. “They made you do things you never wanted to do, things that made you sick...”

 

What was he talking about? Who would--

 

Oh god, please, no.

 

He knew exactly who would, and the fear in his chest grew into a writhing horror. It twisted its way through every nerve in his body, a terrified cry buried deep enough that it calcified him before it reached the surface. It gripped every part of him and held it tight, leaving nothing free to move. After a long moment, he fought through its coils enough to speak.

 

“No,” he said weakly. “Please tell me you’re not saying that I…that they...”

 

He reeled from the thought that Strex had...that he was like Cecil, in a different world, that he had been forced to...to…

 

He remembered blood, so much blood . He could still smell Cecil’s studio, could still feel the sensation of blood beneath his shoes, could still taste his own fear in his mouth. He could still hear Cecil’s dark voice, a void full of song, dripping with honeyed violence, telling him that if he only allowed his imperfect self to die, to be consumed by the Smiling God’s awful, painful light, he would be so very, very happy, so much more productive, so much better. That they could be two voices, speaking together in harmony...

 

But that would never be. He would never do that, unless they broke him, which meant...

 

He stared at Carlos, pleading that he would say something that contradicted this terrible understanding. Carlos looked back up at him suddenly, face wet, and the truth was evident in his eyes.

 

“Oh, god. I never should have told you.” Carlos’ voice shook in horror. “I should have just shut up , and not hurt you any more than I already have. But now I’ve hurt you in this world, too, even though you never would have had to know that in mine--”

 

“Strex won?” Kevin said, feeling nauseous. “They won? We...failed?”

 

Carlos squeezed his eyes shut. “Oh, god, Kevin, I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid--”

 

Kevin felt panic rising, but he couldn’t stand to hear Carlos talk about himself like that, so he forced it down, forced himself to speak. He held onto Carlos’ shoulder tightly, because it felt like letting go would mean drowning.

 

“S-stop it, Carlos,” he struggled. “You’re not stupid. I begged you to...to tell me. Please don’t be angry with yourself. If anything, I’m the stupid one. You did…” he couldn't quite get enough air. “You did nothing wrong by--”

 

“I’ve done everything wrong!” Carlos cried, now clenching Kevin’s hand on his shoulder even tighter with both of his. “I’m so sorry I came here, I’m sorry I’m casting this awful shadow over you here, too! I--” he recoiled as Kevin touched his face-- “I don’t deserve that, I don’t deserve any of your kindness after what I did! I don’t deserve to be with you! I don’t deserve--”

 

He stopped, suddenly, and he tore Kevin’s hand from his shoulder in apparent realization, staring at it.

 

“What’s wrong?” Kevin asked, terrified at what could possibly be more wrong than what Carlos had already been saying, terrified at this entire situation, terrified of himself.

 

Carlos gingerly touched the ring on Kevin’s finger, turning it so that it glinted gold and yellow. Kevin watched his distraught expression morph into something much more like devastation.

 

“Is this…?” Carlos began, but could not finish.

 

“The engagement ring you gave me,” Kevin said softly, heart pounding hard. “At Josephine’s birthday party, two weeks ago.”

 

Carlos looked up from the ring and back into Kevin’s eyes, his own lighting up with shock. He glanced back and forth quickly, expression now oscillating between emotions Kevin could not quite read, lips twitching in and out of something that was both like and very unlike a smile.

 

“I...” Carlos began, shaking his head, eyes landing on the ring. “This...no, this doesn’t make any sense! How can everything have aligned like this?”

 

Kevin felt the void between them again, and his heart filled with intense longing.

 

“Because we’re in love,” Kevin whispered, lost but somehow smiling because of that thought, even as he felt so unsteady, and as his words left his lips as a plea. He squeezed Carlos’ fingers, still on his own, and reached out in desperation, across what felt like far too much space, to stroke Carlos’ cheek with his other hand.

 

Carlos met his eyes again as if he could do nothing else, unmoving, not breathing. He looked so incredibly vulnerable and afraid, like with one wrong motion he would break into pieces, and that feeling echoed into Kevin’s own heart. As Kevin’s thumb met Carlos’ cheek, Carlos squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away, and more of his tears fell onto Kevin’s hand. He breathed again, and it was a painful shudder.

 

This felt wrong, alien, devoid. Kevin realized he could not tell if this Carlos loved him in present or past tense, or if the love Carlos had felt for him had ever been the same kind of love it was in this world. Had this Carlos been in love with him, had they ever whispered sweet everythings into each other’s ears at night, had they ever held each other, had they ever kissed?

 

He suddenly wondered if when they had kissed earlier, that had been the first time, for this Carlos. Had that been part of why he had pushed him away so abruptly?

 

Kevin wiped a new tear off of Carlos’ beautiful cheek. It was only then that he noticed the tears running down his own.

 

“Carlos,” he began. “Carlos,” he whispered again, into the strange and terrifying grief between them. Carlos, he did not say again, but it was all he could have said, if he had spoken.



But then, the handle of the office door turned, and Carlos jolted away, tearing his hand from Kevin’s and wiping his eyes, turning toward the sound.

 

“Thank you Cecil,” Vanessa was saying quietly. “Like I said, there may be more opportunities for you to speak for yourself, but for now, we at least have this.”

 

“Thank you, Mayor Jay,” came Cecil’s voice, and Kevin felt a pang of adrenaline as his breath caught in his throat. He had somehow forgotten that Cecil was in that room. He wiped his own eyes, now, automatically.

 

“Of course. Also, really, feel free to call me Vanessa,” Vanessa responded, and a figure filled the doorway.

 

Cecil walked out, looking shellshocked. Kevin had never seen him so somber, or so afraid. He had almost never seen Cecil without his sharp teeth flashing violent white, farther up his cheeks than seemed possible, without even more violent crimson staining his skin and clothes and hair, without eyes an unreadable black. And yet, here he stood, clearly drained of color and of strength.

 

Carlos leapt to his feet. “Cecil,” he said, voice strained.

 

Cecil looked Carlos’ way, looking relieved. “Carlos!” he began, but then, he looked at Kevin, eyes so strangely bright and purple and full, and his posture stiffened, expression turning to fear. Kevin could feel a dizzy tension running through his own body, too, all the way through his fingers. This eye contact was...wow, much more intense than he expected it to be.

 

“Are you ready, Carlos?” Vanessa asked. “This shouldn’t take very long, we just need you to tell us a few things about your world, and about who Cecil is, so we can cross-reference your accounts.”

 

“I, um,” Carlos said, sniffing, glancing back at Kevin for a moment with what almost looked like longing, “Yeah. I...I think I am.”

 

“If you need a minute, you can--”

 

“No, I’m ready now,” Carlos cut in, turning away abruptly. He strode quickly toward Cecil, and as he did, Kevin reeled from all that had been said, and all that had not. As the distance between them grew, Kevin felt that Carlos was running away, stretching the abyss between them wider and more painful in his wake.

Chapter Text

The door had closed behind him, and he had sat in a black faux leather chair, camera pointed at him from an angle, a strange microphone in his hand.

 

“Can you say something?” Mayor Jay asked, handing him a cup of water.

 

“Oh, thank you. Uh, hello,” Cecil said, taking the cup but not drinking from it. “Is this working? Testing, one, two, three.”

 

A woman Cecil was struggling not to think of as Trish Hidge stopped filming, and pressed a few buttons. He heard footsteps, and then, voices. “Can you say something?” “Oh, thank you. Uh, hello. Is this working? Testing…”

 

“It’s working,” Trish--no, Leticia--said, pressing a few more buttons. “I’m rolling again. We can start anytime.”

 

Mayor Jay, who was apparently Kevin’s dead intern Vanessa, but who stood very much alive before him, pulled another chair closer, and sat in it, tucking one foot underneath her. She looked at him, and her expression was warm and sad and curious all at once.

 

“This shouldn’t take long, Cecil,” she said, in a voice that somehow reminded him so much of Dana’s, although it was definitely not. “Are you ready?”

 

Cecil scoffed in bewilderment, shaking his head. “As much as I can be ready for any of the maelstrom that has been this horrifying day,” he said. “Which is to say, not really. But as a Night Vale journalist, I’m pretty good at talking through maelstroms, so, uh, let’s get this party started, shall we?” He tried to smile.

 

Vanessa blinked, and the shadow of a smile appeared on her face, too. “That’s the spirit,” she said. “But also, I’m sorry. I know this must be...well, you just called it a maelstorm, so I probably don’t need to add anything, except that I’m just sorry this is happening to you.”

 

Oh, yeah. She absolutely reminded him of Dana. The sudden tightness in his throat was proof of that. “Thank you,” he managed.

 

“Speaking of which,” Vanessa said, suddenly intent, “Let me introduce you, and let you tell me about your situation. Viewers, you will almost certainly recognize Cecil’s voice, but in case you don’t, this is Cecil of Night Vale. He is here with me in my office not because he has returned from the Other Desertworld he was thrown into two years ago, but because he is a different Cecil than we know, with a very different history. He arrived here from a different world altogether, in the same way the others who have been appearing around town have appeared, and I am interviewing him now so that before you all discover he is here, and before you allow your fears about him to dictate your actions, he has the chance to speak for himself.

 

“Hello, Cecil,” she said, reaching for a handshake. “It’s good to have you here.”

 

“Thank you, Mayor Jay,” he said, taking her hand. “I really appreciate that.” The thought that apparently he and Carlos were not the only ones appearing here gave him both concern and hope. But when Vanessa smiled, squeezed his hand and let go, turning back to the camera, he was suddenly a bit overwhelmed. This was because as she spoke again, Cecil felt suddenly hyper-aware that he was being filmed. He self-consciously ran his fingers through the section of his hair that currently fell in front of his shoulder.

 

“Cecil, can you tell us about your world?” Vanessa asked. “I have spoken to Erica and several others, who also gave us interviews detailing what they know about your situation, but what can you tell us about your life?”

 

Cecil thought for a moment. “Well,” he began, “My name is Cecil Gershwin Palmer. I am a radio host, and The Voice of Night Vale, which is a friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and strange lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. I could tell you many things about our town, but I’m guessing I’m here because you want to know specifically about what happened between myself, our town and StrexCorp Synernists Inc., right?”

 

“Well, yes,” Vanessa admitted. “While your town is more than what StrexCorp did or did not do to it, most people here in the Bluffs associate Night Vale, and you in particular, with that corporation, so yes, we need to address that.”

 

Cecil barely suppressed a shudder. “Oh, god, does everyone here call it ‘ the Bluffs?’ Like, I knew Kevin did that, but I was hoping it wasn’t, like, a thing.”

 

“Uh, what do you mean?” Vanessa asked, tilting her head in confusion, and Cecil realized that perhaps right now was the wrong time to get into semantics.

 

“Oh, um...I’m sorry,” he said, though he was not sorry, because ugh, this town’s name was awful enough without an even worse nickname. “I probably...shouldn’t say that. I--” he stopped himself, and sighed, crossing one arm over himself, and resting his head in his other hand. “I guess I just have a kind of gut reaction to hearing the name ‘Desert Bluffs,’ or even ‘the Bluffs,’ because in Night Vale we think of you and we have visceral and terrifying memories of how, you know, StrexCorp forced Night Vale to become Desert Bluffs’ sister city, and tortured a lot of us, and almost worked the rest of us to death in work camps that one time. So it’s kind of a sore spot.”

 

Vanessa’s eyes widened. Cecil could practically feel an astral projection of himself shoving his foot deeper into his mouth with every word. But the way he saw it, he kept a metaphorical spare shoe stored in his esophagus just for moments like these, so he could be halfway closer to sprinting away from whoever he was talking to when they got angry. Besides, nobody should expect him to remain neutral on this subject, especially not the mayor of Desert Bluffs, not in any universe. But, still unsure if he had made some kind of terrible mistake, he breathed only shallowly as the tension in his body took hold.

 

“I’m…” Vanessa began, shaking her head. “Wow, I can only imagine. Well, that’s not completely true. I know that many people here in the Bluffs feel the same way about the name ‘Night Vale.’”

 

And, about the name ‘Cecil,’ he did not add, because the thought was dizzying and awful. The one she had spoken aloud was enough so, already. He watched as Vanessa laced her fingers together, and noticed that her nails were painted lavender and yellow.

 

“But, tell us, Cecil,” she continued. “What happened with Strex? Where did they come from, and where are they now?”

 

“Where did they come from?” Cecil repeated. “I don’t actually know where they came from, originally. All I know is that they appeared in Desert Bluffs first, and pretty much ruined the town, and then they came here next. Excuse me, they came to Night Vale. And when they did, they bought up everything, and started taking prisoners, and they bought out my radio station and started controlling what I could and could not say on the radio, too.

“Eventually, we staged a secret revolution, but that failed, because too few of us showed up to fight, and we were outnumbered. And...also maybe because of an accidental time-paradox-related catastrophe that I’m, uh, not even going to go into right now,” he said, a surge of guilt threatening to overwhelm him as he remembered that he was the bungling blabbermouth who had apparently forgotten that words spoken into the past still had consequences, and had accidentally given those dangerous words directly to StrexCorp’s Voice.

 

He still remembered Kevin’s words, which had come after an awful moment of realization. “Oh, don’t sound down about yourself! We all make mistakes, Cecil,” he had said, and Cecil had felt betrayed not only by his mirror image, but also by himself. So many things about their conversations that day had stung.

 

He shook himself, and continued. “After that, they put us in what they called a ‘company picnic,’ which was really just a forced labor camp, and we had a second revolution. Everyone in town fought as hard as they could. Tamika Flynn fought with her militia, Carlos figured out how to keep the light out of Night Vale with science, and my former intern Dana organized a masked army of giants to help us, and tall beings named Erika, who were definitely not angels , fought too, and they eventually bought Strex out and disarmed it, and the former Strex employees fled.”

 

“So, Carlos was there for the revolution against Strex, too?” Vanessa asked.

 

“Oh, yes! He’s a hero in our town,” Cecil nodded. “Although, he’s modest about it.”

 

“That’s fascinating,” Vanessa mused. “He did the same here, so he’s a hero in Desert Bluffs, too. Or, as he insists we call him instead, a scientist.”

 

Cecil felt both warmth and jealousy, thinking of the strange Carlos he had met helping to save Desert Bluffs. On the one hand, he was so proud of him, but on the other hand, that meant Carlos had not been there to help Night Vale. Had this strange, other Carlos even visited Night Vale before? His heart ached, but his pride for his boyfriend won out.

 

“That’s my Carlos,” he said, and smiled despite himself. “He is such an incredible scientist, and person. He always tries his best, and he has helped so many people. Even you, apparently, in this world. He’s...he’s always surprising me in new ways.” Cecil stopped, realizing that he was closer to tears than he would like.

 

“Are you two together, Cecil?” Vanessa asked softly.

 

“Ye--yes,” Cecil said, right as it occurred to him that maybe it would have been safer for Carlos if he had said nothing. He suddenly felt more afraid than before, but looking into Vanessa’s eyes, he saw nothing but the same softness she spoke with.

 

“That’s so interesting,” Vanessa murmured, and while her words communicated surprise he did not like, her tone was still kind. “Did you two meet in Night Vale?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“When did he arrive there?”

 

“A little over three years ago,” Cecil said, still nervous, but putting on a confident face. “He came to study our weird town and ended up making it his home. But I guess…” he tried not to sound sad. “I guess in this world, he came to Desert Bluffs, instead. Is that right?”

 

“It is,” Vanessa nodded. “He came around the same time, and the Strex Revolution was two years after that.”

 

“Huh,” Cecil said. “That’s...wow.” It was all he knew to say, considering how strange all of these coincidences were, and how careful he was trying to be about his words.

 

“So, back to Strex for a moment,” Vanessa continued, somewhat apologetically. “I know you already covered some of this, but can you tell me in what capacity you worked for them?”

Cecil took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Whew. Well, I definitely never wanted to work for Strex. At first, I guess I was pretty neutral about it when they bought the station, because I had no idea who they were, or what they were trying to do. I thought it was odd that they snapped up our station so quickly, but I didn’t think there was any danger. But I realized there was something wrong soon after, especially when all our ads started to be Strex-related, and when they started trying to control what I said. And, you know, when they, uh, started murdering people in town.”

 

“Ah. That would do it.”

 

“Ha, yeah,” Cecil muttered. “During our failed revolution, I locked myself into my studio, and locked my then-producer Daniel into the control room. They...uh...didn’t like that much, so they took me to their work camp and replaced me with Kevin of Desert Bluffs, who was their Voice. I...I never did anything for them voluntarily, and thankfully, they never permanently changed me, not like...well, not like they changed him. They didn’t win in the end, and...” he said, but he realized that Vanessa’s face had fallen. “I...wait, are you all right?”

 

Vanessa swallowed. “I’m...I’m fine. We already discussed this briefly, but...in your world, StrexCorp took over Desert Bluffs completely, correct?”

 

“Yes,” Cecil said.

 

“And...he...you just said it was Kevin who became their Voice?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Did he fight them?”

 

The question caught Cecil off guard. “Ye--What?” he asked.

 

Vanessa’s eyes were sad. “Did he try to fight them, in your world?”

 

“He did, yes,” Cecil said, and he suddenly realized he felt nauseous, but tried to push the feeling down. “He fought as hard as he could to keep Strex from buying his station, and when they did, he...he put his own body in the way, so they couldn’t take it. But…” he paused. “But they were too strong. They changed him, broke him, so he couldn’t…” suddenly, he couldn’t breathe… “so he couldn’t...fight back anymore. They made him do horrible things, and he...and he…”

 

His heart tripped on a beat, and it began to race. Panic blossomed through his torso, and he gripped one arm of the chair, clutching as his heart with his other hand, as if it would help, as if it had ever helped slow or stop his fall into an attack like this. “Oh god, not now,” he gasped, fingernails uselessly digging into his shirt. “Please, not now.”

 

“Cecil?” Vanessa asked, sitting forward.

 

“I--oh god, oh god,” he said, and as his heart sped faster and faster he wondered if his body could even take this, if he was going to survive this interview, if he was going to ever leave this room, if anything could ever fix the things that StrexCorp had broken in him and in Kevin. He could only imagine all of Kevin’s pain and fear and desperation, in that moment when Strex had taken him, and what kind of unspeakable things they must have done to shatter the man he had been, to shatter someone so much like himself. What had they done, to make Kevin love a sick violence that Cecil had always hated and feared, to make him ecstatic about spilling blood?

 

He knew his own life was equally fragile, and that his will to fight was maybe even weaker than Kevin’s had been. They could have broken him just as easily, they had broken him, in this world. Here, he had shared Kevin’s fate. Here, he had ripped out someone’s throat with his hands, and the blood had run through his fingers, and he had smiled, and smiled…

 

As he ran those same fingers through his hair, panting, Vanessa asked again, “Cecil? What’s wrong?”

 

“I can’t--” he gasped. “I can’t breathe.” He stood up, dizzy with fear, and took a few directionless steps, coughing and desperately trying to convince himself that no, this did not signal his death, he was not technically in danger, it was just the panic again. It was, it was.

 

Vanessa stood, too. “Do you need more water?” she asked, audibly concerned.

 

“No. I just--agh--I just need--to s-stop.”

 

“The interview?”

 

“No! No. I just--” he bent a little, then straightened again, biting his knuckles and gasping some more. He couldn’t stop shifting, squeezing his hands together, flexing and contracting them, covering and uncovering his face. If he kept moving, he could just--he could just--

 

“It’s okay if you need a minute,” said Trish, clearly worried.

 

“I don’t need a minute, I need--I need Kevin to have succeeded in fighting them!” he cried. “I need the two of us to have never worked for--for that horrible company, I n-need to have stopped them from winning in his life, too, I need to un-know the truth of this world! I need--” he stopped, frozen in an awful understanding he knew he would never escape. “I needed to be a better person, so this couldn’t have happened to either of us, but I ruined everything by not telling him something that could have helped him, and also by telling him too much, and oh, god, Cecil, you fool, you fool--!” he was overcome again by his body, racing with adrenaline, and began to pace in desperation.

 

The next few moments went the same way. Later, the memory would blend into one long white-hot moment of horrible and somehow also embarrassing breathlessness, and more almost-sobbing than he would have liked to admit. However, he would remember Vanessa’s kind eyes, looking as if into his soul, and her voice, telling him that it was going to be all right, that she would keep him as safe as she could. He would remember her hand on his shoulder, after she asked permission to touch him, more comforting than he had expected, and her hand squeezing his with cold and soft fingers as she said, “You’re going to be okay. I promise.”

 

He would remember thinking of Carlos in the other room, and wishing that Carlos’ pain surrounding Kevin could have been erased, wishing that he had somehow erased it when he had spoken into Kevin’s past…

 

Soon, but not soon enough, his heart slowed again, and he slumped back into the chair, shaking. It was silent in the room for a long moment, until Vanessa broke that silence.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I...I didn’t realize how painful that topic might be for you. I knew talking about your other self might be difficult, but I didn’t know that thinking of your world’s Kevin would cause this.”

 

“It’s...all right,” Cecil said, though nothing was more false. “I’ve been on the verge of this ever since Carlos first told me Kevin was here, earlier today, and more so since I learned that I...that another me shared his fate.”

 

“Still...I’m so sorry,” Vanessa said again.

 

There was another silence, and she sat back down, picking at her nails distractedly as she gazed at him, biting her lip.

 

“Cecil…” she began. “If you can answer one more question for me, it  would really help, I think. Are you up for it?”

 

“Yes,” Cecil lied. “Go ahead.”

 

“What happened to Desert Bluffs, in the end?”

 

Cecil shook his head, grimacing. “Well...our mayor Dana pushed for us to merge with them, following their economy’s crash. They became part of Night Vale, for better or for worse, even though many of them still walk around covered in blood, and some of them still have eyes like obsidian, and their smiles are...uh, let’s just say, different. I think most of them are relieved that Strex is gone, from what I’ve heard.” He sighed. “And they still have a Joyous Congregation in town, somehow. I don’t really understand how worship of the Smiling God outlived Strex, but I guess they did, sooooo...that’s certainly a thing.”

 

Vanessa shook her head. “Not to insert my opinion, here, but...obviously, this is horrible to hear. But it’s also just so weird . It’s like you’re telling the story of Desert Bluffs, but you reversed the names.”

 

Cecil made eye contact with her again, trying desperately not to fall back into panic. “Mayor Jay, was Night Vale really destroyed? Please, tell me that’s not what happened. Tell me I’m having a nightmare, and our town never really fell. Please, tell me I never...” he did not finish, because his eyes burned with unshed tears, and he could not say it without becoming a mess again.

 

Vanessa bit her lip once more. “I’m...” she began, and looked down. “I’m sorry. I can’t tell you any of those things.”

 

A long moment passed between them, and her words weighed heavy on his heart, now beating strangely, threatening to kick back into the turmoil it had just barely passed through, but thankfully staying at a steady, slower pace.

 

He finally forced himself to speak. “Do you have any more questions?” he asked, voice slightly hoarse.

 

“More than I know how to ask,” Vanessa said, “but I think this should cover it for now. Besides, I can see how difficult this is for you. I think it would be best if we stopped, for now.”

 

“Okay,” he said, sounding more relieved than he meant to. “Um, are you sure?”

 

“I'm positive,” she said, with finality, and turned to the camera again. “Thank you. I think you all can see that this is not the same Cecil we knew. Especially since he is from a completely different timeline, I believe that he should be treated as an innocent person, much like we would treat his double, Kevin.” She turned to Cecil once more. “Is there anything you'd like to add, Cecil?”

 

Cecil looked into the camera, suddenly feeling very vulnerable. The camera’s black eye stared back, unblinking, and he did not know who would be seeing through it, but he already felt their judgment and hatred burning a hole through him, even though it had not been explicitly directed at him yet.

 

“Desert Bluffs,” he said, his voice betraying the vulnerability he felt, “I...I don’t know what to say. I do not know what I have done in this world, but please, forgive me for it. I am sorry if my presence here causes you pain; I promise that is not my intention.” He paused, taking a difficult breath. “I don’t intend anything. I...don’t even know why I am here , to be honest. I will cooperate with you in any way that I can, and as soon as I figure out how to go back to my own world, I will. Please just give me that chance. Thank you.”

 

He looked down, and then back to Vanessa. Vanessa nodded to Trish--no, Leticia , to turn off the camera, and she did, with a beep. The camera’s eye contracted shut, and Cecil felt something that was almost relief pass through him. He took another, deeper breath, and exhaled, bringing his hand to cover his eyes.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I normally don’t get stage fright, so that was unexpected.”

 

“You did just fine,” Leticia said. “You may have had a panic attack, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing for us to have caught that on camera. Having a panic attack in response to talking about someone being brainwashed by StrexCorp doesn’t make you look like someone who supports StrexCorp.”

 

“That’s true,” Cecil said, more miserably than he intended. “But still, it wasn’t exactly professional.”

 

Leticia scoffed. “Screw professional. I don’t know the details of how your day has gone, but from the looks of it, it’s been horrifying. You’re allowed to be a little distraught after finding out that one of the worst things that could happen to you, happened to you.”

 

Cecil looked up at her, and gave her his best attempt at a smile. “Thanks, Tri--Leticia.”

 

“Anytime, Cecil,” she nodded. “Man, you really look almost exactly like Kevin, like this. Without the blood, and the eyes, and the smile, I mean. And, you don’t even really talk like the other Cecil, once the surprise of hearing your voice wears off. I feel like a lot of people are going to sympathize with your situation, and with you.”

 

Cecil felt a little sick again, at the thought of himself looking more like Kevin, and sounding more like him. He also felt sick imagining this other, strange Kevin who looked more like him than usual, because now that he thought of it, that Kevin was probably what Kevin had looked like when they had spoken a few months ago--or years ago, depending on whose perspective this was from--before his personality and appearance had been twisted into something much more horrifying.

 

“I hope so,” he said. “I really don’t want to cause any trouble for you.”

 

“Please, let me be the one to worry about that,” Vanessa said. “You didn’t force any of us to help you. Everyone who is helping you is doing it because we want to. We love Kevin, and at the very least, we care about you too by extension, Cecil. You deserve the chance to speak for yourself, and you will have more chances soon, too.”

 

Cecil felt a new lump in his throat, looking at her. He had thought a lot about Kevin as someone who had few connections, and had eventually lost all of them. But now that he was meeting the community Kevin could have had, and especially Vanessa, Cecil was starting to feel the weight of that loss differently, and more personally. Like Kevin had said, they really had been decent people, good people, hadn’t they?

 

“Thank you,” Cecil whispered.

 

“Of course,” Vanessa said, and she got up. “ Now, we should interview Carlos. Can I have you go wait in the other room with the others, until he’s done?”

 

“Yes, absolutely,” Cecil agreed, also standing.

 

Vanessa picked up his water, and handed it to him. He took it gratefully, sipping it as they walked toward the door, and bracing himself to act like he was all right, at least until Carlos had traded places with him. Carlos had enough to deal with, today.

 

As the two walked through the door, Vanessa said, “really, thank you, Cecil. Like I said, there may be more opportunities for you to speak for yourself, but for now, we at least have this.”

 

“Thank you, Mayor Jay,” he said, peering out into the more brightly lit office, hopefully to see Carlos.

 

“Of course,” Vanessa replied. “Also, really, feel free to call me Vanessa.”

 

He was about to respond, but then a strained, oaky voice called, “Cecil!”

 

He turned his head in the direction of the sound, more relieved than he had expected to feel, and his eyes landed on Carlos, who looked like he had just risen suddenly. “Carlos!” he said--

 

And then, next to Carlos, sitting on a small couch, he saw him. He saw Kevin, and he jolted, alarm suddenly coursing through him again as the two made eye contact.

 

And his eyes...oh, those eyes.

 

It was hard to look, but impossible not to. Before, he had never been able to tell exactly where Kevin was looking, since his eyes had been completely black and looked hollow, but now, he could see Kevin’s pupils encircled in gold irises, darting back and forth between his own, and the intensity of Kevin’s bright, wide-eyed gaze floored him.

 

He heard Vanessa asking if Carlos was ready, and just out of focus he saw Carlos shift to look at Kevin, and say, “I, um...yeah. I...I think I am.”

 

“If you need a minute, you can--”

 

“No, I’m ready now,” Carlos said, and Cecil tore his eyes away from Kevin’s as his boyfriend approached.

 

Something looked wrong about Carlos’ demeanor. He looked deeply disquieted, as if he had seen a ghost. Well--as if Cecil , in Carlos’ shoes, had seen a ghost. Carlos normally responded with so much curiosity in new situations that seeing even particularly aggressive ghosts didn’t seem to shake him much, but in this one, he seemed so afraid, and so much more fragile than he normally was.

 

Carlos stopped for a moment, putting his hand on Cecil’s shoulder and looking directly up at him.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked, eyes faintly wet, and Cecil realized there were tear stains on his face.

 

“Carlos, have you been crying?” Cecil asked, reaching out to touch Carlos’ cheek. Carlos let him, but looked away.

 

“I’m fine, Cecil,” Carlos said, and although Carlos often did not like to make eye contact, this time it felt different. It felt intentional, like Carlos was trying not to look at him, now.

 

“O-okay. Just...if you aren’t--”

 

“I’m fine,” Carlos insisted, still looking away, sliding his hand down Cecil’s arm and squeezing his hand. “What about you, though?”

 

The corners of his lips had turned up, and his expression was genuinely soft, but…

 

He was lying. There was no doubt about it. He was such a terrible liar, and it seemed to genuinely hurt him to do it, but Cecil could see that he wasn’t fine, and that it had everything to do with Kevin. Considering present company, Cecil wanted to believe that as soon as they had a moment to themselves, Carlos would open up to him.

 

He hoped.

 

He always hoped that, but Carlos could be so secretive at times, especially about his own feelings. He feared that the alternative would win out.

 

“I’m…” Cecil swallowed, squeezing Carlos’ hand in return. “I’m okay. At least, right now I am. Mostly. Sort of. I’m not, uh, actively spiraling or anything.”

 

“That’s good,” Carlos said softly, and he glanced up again cautiously, with a brighter smile that might have fooled someone else. “I love you, Ceec.”

 

“I love you too, Carlos,” Cecil said, and before he could say anything else, Carlos’ fingers were sliding out of his own, and he was walking through the office door, and he was gone. Cecil’s hand closed, already missing his touch.

 

Vanessa had already entered, and she peered back out, hands on the door’s edge.

 

“Thank you,” she said. “As soon as this is over, we can all talk together about what to do next. I appreciate your patience, but I’m sorry to make you wait.”

 

“That’s all right with me,” Cecil said. “I just really appreciate your protection. More than you know.”

 

Vanessa smiled, then looked past him. “You okay, Kevin?”

 

Cecil turned around, and saw Kevin staring back at her.

 

“I think so, yes,” Kevin said. His eyes darted back to Cecil for a moment, and then quickly back to Vanessa. His posture indicated tension, and Cecil felt anxious, too. He was almost too afraid to, but he was going to have to talk to him, wasn’t he?

 

“Okay,” Vanessa said. “Just hang in there, okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” Kevin said abruptly, and maybe a little defensively. He smiled, and it was not a real smile, but it was not the aggressively wide smile Cecil was used to seeing. It was a lie, still, but a nervous one.

 

Vanessa glanced back at Cecil again, nodded, and shut the door. As she did, Cecil braced himself with a deep breath, and turned to Kevin again on the exhale.

Chapter Text

As their eyes met again, Cecil realized, certainly not for the first time today, that he was completely out of his depth.

 

The person in front of him was so obviously Kevin . His voice, his face (sans a smile, though), a certain strange kinship Cecil felt for him, underneath all the horror of their shared experiences--all of these things were present. He knew he was not wrong to think of the person before him as Kevin of Desert Bluffs.

 

But all of these things felt so oddly different. Whenever this Kevin had spoken, it had sounded less icy, less restricted. His tone was more genuine, and more like the Kevin he had briefly spoken to before his life had been destroyed. His face, too, was not the same. Cecil was so used to seeing smeared blood on his cheek, and hollow eyes, and that desperate, hungry scream of a smile on his lips, baring jagged, broken teeth. That was what the name Kevin represented to him, but he was seeing something else.

 

And his energy felt less...well, less haunting . Despite the look on his face, and the tension so clear in his body, he felt warmer. And not only that, but he felt more solid, somehow. And sitting on that couch, looking up at him with a wide-eyed expression and with piercing eyes, smile nowhere to be found, he seemed downright vulnerable.

 

As Cecil nervously squeezed his own thumb, holding his breath, he realized that for the first time, seeing Kevin in person, they might truly be sharing an emotion with each other. He was almost certain of that, but he was unsure of exactly why, or what to think of any of this.

 

He guessed it was his turn to speak. And, speak, he would. He was a radio host! He could think of a way to communicate with him--his own double, might he add!--even in a situation like this. He was sure of it.

 

He inhaled silently. He could do this. He spoke.

 

“Um…hey there!”

 

Wow, great start.

 

Kevin blinked a few times in rapid succession before he replied. “Hello, Cecil,” he said stiffly, unmoving, except for his intent gold eyes, still darting back and forth between Cecil’s own. The sound of his voice shook Cecil, somehow.

 

Cecil tried to speak again, but when his mouth opened, all that would come out were the beginnings of words not even he could begin to guess . Beyond this conversational context, he was unused to the feeling of knowing quite where Kevin was looking, usually picking up on that based purely on body language and where his face turned. But now, Kevin’s gaze was so intense, and so personal, and so real . He struggled for a moment, and then clasped his hands together, pressing them against his lips and turning his eyes away to the floor.

 

“Oh my god,” he mumbled through his fingers.

 

“What?” Kevin said, and when Cecil looked back at him, he somehow even looked more nervous.

 

“Oh, uh, nothing,” Cecil began. “I just…” he swallowed. “This is just really weird, seeing you.”

 

Kevin scoffed incredulously. “I could say the same,” he said, still just... staring .

 

“Whoo,” Cecil exclaimed, looking down again. “Yep.”

 

“Mm,” Kevin intoned in agreement, and in an even higher voice than usual.

 

They remained like that for a long, silent moment. Cecil could feel Josephine and the Ericas watching, but he did not look at them. The diamond designs on the carpet were suddenly much more appealing.

 

He felt like he should leave, but he really couldn’t, at the moment. He wondered if there was some way, nonetheless, that he could leave--

 

Inspiration struck. He looked back up, lowering his hands from his mouth. “Oh! There’s a bathroom just down the hall, right?” he asked. “I can leave, and go there instead. Instead of being here, I mean.” He bit his lip, regretting letting himself speak for as long as he had, and prepared to walk away--

 

“Ah--Carlos is doing science in there,” Kevin said apprehensively, shifting and raising his hands. “I wouldn’t.”

 

Cecil froze, then leaned back to his previous position. “Oh.”

 

“Yes,” Kevin said. “He’s...what did he say? He’s ‘checking to see if the sinks are all obeying thermodynamic laws.’”

 

“Oh,” Cecil said again. He would never put it past Carlos to perform science, but he wondered if that had been Carlos code for ‘hiding from an overwhelming situation,’ or using the bathroom in a more traditional sense. So he asked, “Is he, um, okay?”

 

Kevin crossed his arms, suddenly looking resentful. “Actually, no. Not since you got here.”

 

His tone set Cecil on edge. Cecil remembered the other Carlos’ lost, haunted expression, and how he had clung to him so tightly in their garden, somehow wounded by his presence. He remembered these things, and it hurt.

 

But his Carlos had also seemed upset just now, and deeply so. What had Kevin said to him, in the space of Cecil's interview?

 

Before he thought about it, he defensively retorted, “Well, I could say the same thing.”

 

“I’m sorry?” Kevin said, incredulous.

 

“When I last saw Carlos, he didn’t look like that ,” Cecil said tersely. “Then you showed up, and now he can barely look at me.” He paused, staring Kevin down, also feeling resentment building. “What did you do to him, while I was in there? Why was he crying?”

 

Kevin sat up straighter, face turning equally defensive. “I didn’t do anything to Carlos,” he said shortly. “All I did was try to comfort him!”

 

“Well, maybe you should have left him alone!” Cecil said, anger bubbling up. “Because come to think of it, he seemed pretty upset to see you in the first place, today.”

 

“It’s not my fault you two showed up at my house, Cecil!” Kevin snapped. “Excuse me for living , I guess!”

 

“You still upset my boyfriend, just now! Don’t change the subject!”

 

“I’m pretty sure you’re the one who changed the subject...”

 

I’m the one who--? Oh, just shut up and tell me what you did to hurt Carlos!”

 

“I can’t exactly do both of those things at the same ti--” Kevin began, confused, but then stopped himself. He frowned--actually frowned! --and started over. “No, you know what, Cecil? You don’t get to tell me to shut up! I’ve never shut up once in my entire life, and I’m not about to start now! And I’d really appreciate it if you stopped accusing me of intentionally hurting the man I love, when in reality, you--”

 

Knock knock knock.

 

The two jolted in unison, and turned to the door.

 

“Hey, it’s me,” came an oaky, muffled voice from the other side. Kevin leapt up, but Erica was already on their way to let Carlos in, and Kevin stopped, seemingly not knowing what to do with himself. Cecil’s throat tightened at the thought of speaking to this Carlos again.

 

Erica pulled the door partway open, and Carlos peered in cautiously underneath their arm. He seemed nervous, but also like he was pushing through those nerves as best as he could.

 

And then, his gaze landed on Cecil, and he inhaled sharply, tensing up, as Cecil did the same.

 

No one seemed to know what to say. Even Kevin was silent, as Carlos’ eyes betrayed a frozen pain that he seemed to be trying and failing to contain. Carlos pulled his gaze away, and it darted back and forth between the two of them. He seemed too shaken to speak, although he was trying to. He looked away, inhaled and raised a limp hand, as if in a final attempt, then turned sharply to leave again.

 

“Carlos, wait!”

 

Kevin rushed to the door, slipping underneath Erica and into the hallway. Carlos’ footsteps stopped.

 

“Where are you going?” Cecil heard Kevin softly ask.

 

“I--I think my previous tests weren’t as conclusive as I’d hoped,” Carlos said. “I need to run another series.” His voice was strained. He sounded like he was restraining himself, and just wanted to be as far away as possible, and quickly. Cecil could tell that he was the reason why, and felt awful.

 

“Oh,” Kevin said, and he sounded lost.

 

It took Carlos a moment to speak again. “I’ll come back soon,” he said, and he sounded sorry. “I just need more time.”

 

“Are you all right?” Cecil barely heard.

 

Carlos did not reply, or if he did, it was too quiet for Cecil to hear. Cecil made accidental eye contact with Josephine just as a vague but powerful sense of regret passed through him, and her expression softened as it did. He knew she could see it, but that didn’t scare him. She was so much like Josie that their degrees of separation felt like nothing in a moment like this. He welcomed her understanding and her empathy.

 

It was just that this was a look you would give someone at a funeral, a look that communicated sorrow. It was a look that may have equally meant “I’m sorry for your loss” and “I’m sorry for the loss of you.” She still saw him, he thought, but she also saw through him, like he was a placeholder for another self, a haunting presence left in the wake of a foreign history.

 

He did not like the sadness and even fear in people’s eyes when they looked at him. He did not like the echoes of the man he had apparently become. He did not want to know why not-Maureen was afraid of him, or why even Kevin looked shaken to see him.

 

He did not want to know why, when this strange Carlos had first heard his voice, he had not been able to stop his tears.

 

Kevin walked back in, looking lost and defeated, and oddly stiff.

 

“I’ll go make sure he’s okay,” Erika--no, Erica, said gently, and they crouched down and climbed through the door like a parent trying to navigate their way through their child’s blanket fort. “Just, hang tight, okay?”

 

Kevin scoffed, but it had no heart in it. “Okay,” he said, and he looked more worried than Cecil had ever seen him. “Thanks.”

 

“It’s going to be okay,” Erica said. “I know how that sounds, but we’re all going to figure this out. Together.”

 

Kevin took a deep breath, and nodded. “Okay,” he assented. “Okay.”

 

The door clicked shut, and Kevin looked up at Cecil again, with a glint of recognition.

 

“Sorry, what were you saying before?” he asked bitterly, in a clipped tone. “About what I might have done to Carlos, to upset him?”

 

“I…” Cecil had no bite left to put into his words, so he gave up trying to defend himself. “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what is hurting him this much about seeing you, so I’m afraid. And I don’t know what is hurting him this much about seeing me, either, and that makes me even more afraid.”

 

Kevin’s bitterness shifted into something less pointed. “You are afraid?” he asked, as if this genuinely surprised him.

 

Cecil laughed, but it came out as a breathy shudder. “Kevin. I just found out that in your world--a world I have no idea how to leave--my worst fears of what Strex might have done to me came true. I am being treated like a protected war criminal right now. And when I look at the man I love in this world, he looks back at me like I’m already dead.” He shook his head, not breaking eye contact with Kevin, even as his emotions spilled over, and as he felt himself shaking again. “Forget afraid. I am terrified.”

 

Now, Kevin looked deeply unnerved. The two stared each other down for a moment, Cecil realizing he was closer to tears than he was comfortable with Kevin seeing, and Kevin looking like he was barely containing something, himself.

 

Kevin took a breath, and seemed to somewhat push past whatever that was. “Then you’re even less like the Cecil I knew than I thought. I never saw or heard him anything like this.”

 

“I never saw you like this,” Cecil said, and as the words were leaving his mouth, he already regretted them. This Kevin almost definitely didn’t know about who he had become, and Cecil desperately hoped he would not find out, but if he did and it was his fault…? Please, no . He had already done enough damage in his own timeline.

 

He thought he saw Kevin’s jaw quiver slightly, just before he swallowed. “I suppose you probably wouldn’t have, would you? If I became...what I became…” Kevin’s words got lost, and as he looked back up at Cecil, his eyes said everything.

 

Oh, god, no. He knew, didn’t he? How did he know?

 

“Oh, Kevin,” Cecil whispered, horrified. “I am so sorry.”

 

Kevin looked at him with that same fragile expression for another moment, now laced with some confusion, and then turned, closing his eyes on an inhale as if bracing himself. He exhaled, looking back again, and Cecil felt sudden resistance from him.

 

“Don’t be,” he said, a little more brightly than seemed appropriate. “Don’t you worry about me , Cecil. That’s not a top concern for me right now. What does concern me is that apparently our universes have decided to start bleeding into one another, and that I am not already reporting it. People do need to know, sooner than later.”

 

Cecil felt a twinge in his chest as Kevin spoke. Kevin sounded determined, and a bit irritated, but not quite as afraid. On the other hand, Cecil’s insides felt wrong, and he felt anxiety buzzing in his veins like exposed electrical wires, and clouding his head. If someone lightly pushed him, he would probably fall over. He wished he was as fearless and confident as this Kevin seemed, and even as the Kevin on the radio had seemed so long ago, as he went to fight Strex.

 

That bravery had done nothing to save him, in Cecil’s world. But Cecil sometimes wished he had done the same, or at the very least, that he could put on the same face more often.

 

He supposed that was ironic, considering that they already shared a face. But then, what Kevin had said struck him.

 

“That’s true,” he assented. “Now that you mention it, why aren’t you already reporting on that?”

 

Kevin sighed deeply, looking more irritated than before. “Because Vanessa asked me to wait until your interviews were over, and we all have a chance to talk ,” he said. “I agreed, because she said I only have half the story. But the moment I have all the necessary information, I am reporting everything.”

 

Cecil swallowed. “Everything?”

“Everything I need to report to keep Desert Bluffs safe,” Kevin said firmly.

 

“Are you going to tell people I’m here? That Carlos is here?” Cecil demanded, fear twisting his gut. “Oh, god. If people here think of me like Night Vale thinks of you...oh, god.”

 

“I...I haven’t decided exactly what I’m going to say yet,” Kevin said, crossing his arms, staring Cecil down. “It depends what I hear when Vanessa and Carlos come out of that room.”

 

“Kevin, please don’t tell Desert Bluffs that we are here,” Cecil said, fighting back the fear in his torso. “Please. I see the way you all look at me. I have no idea what horrors I have brought to your town in this world, but please, just let us go home. I just want to go home, and try to forget that we ever visited this awful place.”

 

Kevin took another deep breath, then exhaled, eyeing him suspiciously. “You don’t seem to be acting anything like your counterpart would act,” he said. “You don’t have any blood on your clothing. Your eyes look different. Even your voice sounds different. And Carlos, or at least this Carlos--” he nodded to Mayor Jay’s shut door-- “seems to trust you. I’m not going to throw you to the wolves, Cecil, but your presence here needs to be addressed, and for me to be able to sleep at night, I need to do my job as the Voice of Desert Bluffs. So, we will see.”

 

Cecil felt incredibly vulnerable, meeting Kevin’s eyes. He hated how he always seemed to end up at Kevin’s mercy, having to defend himself and his loved ones from harm. But he set his jaw, and spoke.

 

“If you let anything happen to Carlos, I swear to the lights in the sky that I--”

 

“I would never put Carlos in harm’s way!” Kevin snapped. “How dare you!”

 

“From where I’m standing, that is not a given!” Cecil retorted fearfully. “I’ve only ever known you with blood on your hands, and violence on your tongue! Wherever your voice goes, destruction follows! So whatever you say about me, whatever you do to me, keep Carlos’ name out of your mouth!”

 

The room was dead silent, and he felt everyone’s eyes on him. Cecil realized that he had yelled that last part, and that Kevin’s expression was one of horror. He also realized he was shaking.

 

And then, he could feel everyone’s energy shift somewhere behind him. He turned, and saw Vanessa and Carlos.

 

Carlos did not look well. When their eyes met, Carlos’ betrayed a kind of lost fear Cecil had not often seen in him.

 

“Carlos!” Cecil breathed. “Are you all right?”

 

“What is going on?” Carlos asked anxiously. “Why are you yelling at Kevin?”

 

“He thinks I’m going to put you in danger by reporting the situation truthfully,” Kevin answered quickly, voice wavering just slightly. “I never said what I plan to report. I said I haven’t determined what needs to be reported, yet.”

 

Carlos’ gaze had moved to Kevin instead, and his breaths were uneven. “Kevin,” he said, “I don’t want anything bad to happen to Cecil, just because a different version of him was...” he trailed off, shaken. “Just, please, be careful.”

 

Cecil turned, and Kevin was gazing back at Carlos, also shaken. “I...I will.”

 

“And Cecil.”

 

Cecil turned quickly. “Yes?”

 

“I know you’re scared,” Carlos said, reaching out his hand to Cecil’s shoulder. “We all are. He is, too. But I really don’t think anyone in this room wants to hurt us, even so. If they did, I think we would already be in serious trouble.”

 

“Exactly, ” Cecil whispered through his teeth, clasping Carlos’ hand nervously. “They could do anything to us, right now!”

 

“We are not going to harm you, Cecil.”

 

Mayor Jay’s voice held a tone of finality. “Like I have said before,” she said, as he looked back up into her dark, kind eyes, “I fully intend to keep you safe. That’s why I had everyone come here, as soon as you arrived. Right, Josephine?”

 

“Yes. I won’t speak for everyone, but Erica and I are here for you, Cecil, and I am under the impression that none of us want you to be unsafe,” Josephine said. Sunglasses Erica nodded.

 

Cecil still felt stiff with anxiety, and questioned again if any of this were real. He questioned that often, for a multitude of reasons. But the expressions on everyone’s faces were not hostile. They ranged from compassion to muted wariness, which was better than one could expect from most groups of people, in his experience.

 

He turned to Kevin once more, who looked the wariest of all, and who stiffened also as their eyes met. Kevin gave a curt nod in agreement.

 

Cecil made himself take a breath, and let it out in a shaky exhale. He felt Carlos squeezing his hand tighter, and looked at him, once again.

 

Yes, this was Desert Bluffs. Yes, he had traveled to a timeline where his story and Kevin’s had traded places, and where he had apparently committed crimes he could only plead with his subconscious not to invent for him in his nightmares. But Carlos was here with him, still. Beautiful, perfectly imperfect Carlos was holding his hand, and trying to smile up at him even now, though his eyes still held unspoken fears of their own.

 

“Okay,” Cecil said, exhaling again, and rubbing his thumb over the back of Carlos’ hand. “Okay.”

 

He and Carlos had made it through so much, already. Maybe they would make it through whatever hell this was, too. If nothing else, the man he loved with all his heart, and felt closer to than nearly anyone he knew, was by his side...

 

Knock knock knock.

 

Everyone turned to the door.

 

“It’s me and Carlos,” said Erica. Renee jumped up to answer them.

 

“Oh, god,” Carlos barely whispered. Cecil could feel Carlos’ grip tighten once more, and his own did, too, as if to simultaneously say, “It’s alright,” and, “I’m scared, too.”

 

Renee opened the door, and a different, distant Carlos walked in, one whose heart he did not know.

Chapter Text

Carlos shut the bathroom door behind him for the second time. As soon as it clicked shut, he locked it, then slumped against it, gasping for air, and slid down its cool surface until the floor stopped him.

 

It was the law of inertia. An object in motion will stay in motion with the same speed, and in the same direction, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. It made sense, this series of motions. Gravity pulled him down, past the minimal friction of his clothing upon the smooth door, until the floor prevented gravity from pulling him further.

 

These motions also made sense from a subjective, personal point of view. The force of what he had just seen had acted upon his body, and now, his body needed to catch its breath, and to collapse. This situation was not something he could have ever anticipated, and while he really wanted to be strong right now, it was not easy. So he would rest now, behind this door, away from his estranged friend, his still deeply unnerving double, and his fiance who already knew too well how shaken he was, and he would pull himself together, so that when everyone needed him back in that room, he would be something other than a mess.

 

He stared at the tile beneath him, checkered yellow and dark orange, and imagined its pattern as diagonal lines composed of the same colors, then as horizontal with alternating ones. He saw orange diamonds clustered together like bonded atoms, with the yellow squares as the space between, and then shifted his perspective so that the orange squares were the background instead, and the yellows formed a lattice around them.

 

He always liked to challenge his perspective, and to see things from different ones. Seeing something from multiple points of view gave a scientist a more complete understanding of that thing. Besides, the first perspective he saw was not always accurate, especially in a town like Desert Bluffs.

 

Neither pattern was more correct than the other. Each was a different way of viewing the same thing, a way that gave it more depth and dimension and order. He normally loved seeing new perspectives on his own reality, too because it revealed the fundamental beauty of that reality, and imbued it with more potential meaning.

 

But Carlos did not love the shift in perspective that he had experienced today. He feared it. He feared the potential meanings that could be derived from meeting this strange Cecil, and his own double, and of the apparent romantic relationship the two had with one another.

 

Seeing Cecil at all had done something to him, or maybe, undone something in him. He already had no idea how to handle seeing his lost friend, one he had already been silently mourning for.  It had already been so painful to accept what had happened to Cecil, and the future Carlos had left him to face alone, without Cecil visiting unprompted. But when he had realized it was Cecil standing in his backyard, wearing bloodless clothing and uncut hair, next to the garden he and Kevin had made together, he had felt himself all but unravel.

 

He had long ago decided that he would have to silence his feelings about Cecil, because scientifically speaking, he could not imagine how they could help anyone at all. Not Cecil, and not himself, either. And definitely not Kevin. But when he had heard Cecil’s voice again today, he had not been able to hold back his tears, and had quite literally clung to Cecil and sobbed his regrets into his chest.

 

He had known that it would be difficult, if not nearly impossible, to recover from this loss, and especially to do it without involving Kevin, who was closer to him than anyone. He had known that, but he also knew that whatever the weight of what he would have to feel through this, it would be beyond selfish of him to ask Kevin to help him carry it. Keeping himself contained was the only option that saved Kevin from even more pain than he already felt about Cecil--pain that already ran much too deep.

 

Seven months ago, three iterations of Cecil had come on the radio during one of Kevin’s broadcasts. Each had spoken from different points in Cecil’s life, revealing who he once had been, and who he had become, and who he would become in the future, and it had been horrifying. Carlos had felt the pain of Cecil’s haunting words in his stomach, twisting in his abdomen like the kind of grief he would expect from a death.

 

But Kevin, too, had been extremely affected by it, much more than Carlos would have expected.

 

It had been so painful for Kevin that when Carlos had finally pulled himself together enough to call him, Kevin had not answered his phone. After a couple more calls, Carlos had decided he should drive to the station, first, instead of their house.

 

He had walked in, and when he had asked Kevin’s then-intern, Olive, where he was, they had told him he was still in the studio.

 

“Is he okay?” Carlos had asked.

 

Olive had shaken their head. “He’s…” they had struggled for words. “I don’t know. I’m not sure how to help.”

 

He had thanked them, and walked down the hall to the studio.

 

He had heard a muffled sound behind the door. When he had pushed it open, Kevin had been slumped forward on his desk, sobbing. The sight of him had made Carlos ache anew.

 

“Kevin,” he had said softly, and Kevin had raised his tearstained face and turned to him, looking devastated. He had pushed himself up, shaking, and moved toward him. The two had met in the middle of the room, Kevin clutching him tight, unsteady and shivering with helplessness and regret and wracking sobs.

 

Carlos had never seen Kevin as hurt as this. It was like he was feeling the fear and pain of being stranded in that distant desert, and being broken by StrexCorp. Carlos wondered if some of the intensity of Kevin's feelings stemmed from being Cecil's double; from what Carlos understood of that kind of connection, it was perhaps more personal than any other, like having a twin, but more immediate and less familial. But either way, Kevin was crying for Cecil when Cecil could not, and Carlos could sense the wrenching agony in Kevin’s body, and hear it in his voice as he wept brokenly for what could have been.

 

Carlos had held him tightly, and his sorrow had seared through his own body, but he stood straight and held Kevin up as best as he could, even as they both cried. Kevin needed him, right now, and he would not fall apart when Kevin needed him. He was fine. A scientist was--

 

“Always fine,” Carlos whispered now, pressing his arms into the painful hollow in his stomach, and curling into a tighter ball. “A scientist is always fine.”

 

He couldn’t move, just yet. He intended to, as soon as he was able. But he felt almost gutted by this immediate series of events, as if someone was reaching into him and pulling him apart. Seeing Cecil again had made him feel like he had felt like the night of that terrible broadcast, all over again.

 

Oh, god, how he wished that he was a better scientist, and a better man. He wished with all his heart that he could have saved Cecil, that he could have done anything to help him, but wishing did nothing, and he knew that there was still nothing he could do for the Cecil he had known.

 

The resurgence of this cold and unrelenting fact had already been more than enough to paralyze him, but what had really unbalanced Carlos today was the sight of the Cecil he had met today who, judging by his stunningly purple eyes, had clearly escaped his counterpart’s fate, and the knowledge that Carlos’ double was in a long-term relationship with him.

 

“Cecil is my boyfriend! I’ve been dating him for almost three years!” his other self had told Kevin, and something about that had hurt. It had hurt to see the two of them clinging to each other, to see the way Cecil held him. It was a future he could never have, that he had not consciously known he wanted to see. But now that he had seen it...

 

“I love him! Don’t you?” his other self had asked him, and he had felt something in him shift into an understanding he had never allowed himself to acknowledge out loud.

 

I do, Carlos had felt more than thought. I do, with all my heart, and I don’t know how to save him, and I don’t know how to save myself.

 

He shook on the bathroom floor, aching with a love that could never be fulfilled or even spoken aloud, a love he would have to keep trying to kill, to preserve the one he already had. He shook on top of patterned yellow and orange tiles, and he cried.

 

--

 

When he managed to stop his tears, he stood unsteadily and went to blow his nose. He tossed the toilet paper into the garbage, and took a deep breath, bracing himself.

 

He had said that he was going to check if this sink was obeying thermodynamic laws one more time. He had been weeping into his sleeve more desperately than he wanted to think about, but he was a scientist still, so he would be doing exactly that.

 

Checking thermodynamic laws, that is. Hopefully, the crying part was over, for now.

 

He walked to the sink and splashed his face with cold water. As he looked into the mirror, he sighed. His eyes were puffy, and he looked like a mess. His shoulder still ached from when his double had thrown that vase at him, full of the roses Kevin had brought in from outside last week and surprised him with.

 

That was quite the metaphor for the effect this strange other him was having on his life, he supposed. His other self had come in, attacked him, hit him with a symbol of his love for Kevin and shattered both that symbol and the fragile balance he had strained so hard to create, by openly saying that he, who was also Carlos, loved Cecil, and was shocked that Carlos did not.

 

Carlos had thrown a knife at him, and hit him with a plate, so physically, they were probably equally indebted to each other. Maybe they were emotionally even too, judging by how shaken his counterpart looked. He was still upset that the man had come here at all, but this was probably terrible news for both of them, finding out they were dating different people who knew each other, and who had a complicated relationship with each other, to put it lightly--

 

Oh, god. Where was Kevin, in this other world, if Carlos’ counterpart was with Cecil instead? Erica had said that in the world those two had come from, Night Vale had absorbed Desert Bluffs instead, after their economy had collapsed. Either their economy had collapsed for different reason than Night Vale’s had, here, or it had collapsed for the same reason, which was that Strex had ravaged their town.

 

Carlos’ eyes widened, and he tensed. If that had happened, had Kevin been in town? Had Desert Bluffs been taken over by Strex? If so, that meant that Kevin...Kevin would have been…

 

No. No. He had nowhere near enough evidence to make that leap, and he was already too anxious as it was. But the thought of Kevin’s golden eyes, turned black, and his clothes covered in blood, and his voice breathier and more distant--

 

He shook himself, and turned the hot water on.

 

Maybe it was not perfectly accurate to say he was checking if thermodynamic laws were still functioning. It was more that he was doing things that reminded him that they still existed, although in Desert Bluffs, reality regularly broke. He used to use clocks to remind himself of scientific consistency, but living here had taught him that time was subjective, and was not required to affect either timepieces or any one person the same way. So now he used other scientific concepts, in its place.

 

“The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics: If two systems are in thermal equilibrium with a third system,” he muttered, “they are in thermal equilibrium with each other.”

 

The water became hot, and he turned the pressure down, and turned the cold on, too, running the resulting warm water over his fingers. He adjusted the balance of hot and cold until he could not feel a difference between the water’s temperature, and the temperature of his hand. At least vaguely and imprecisely, this could be a placeholder for the concept of thermal equilibrium between three systems.

 

He had already done this physical action and thought of this concept, before trying to go back to Vanessa’s office, seeing Cecil again, and returning. This time, though, he thought of it differently. He thought of himself as a system, now, and of Kevin and Cecil as two others.

 

He and Kevin had been arriving at thermal equilibrium again, after a long time of being apart, and then again, after Cecil’s story had opened new wounds in them. Cecil was a third system, one who was not in equilibrium with Kevin, but who Carlos’ system seemed to seek equilibrium with, almost as if physics demanded it. His friendship with Cecil had come automatically, as had his care for him, and a surprising level of ease and comfort in his presence. The same had been true of Kevin, of course, after the initial awkwardness of their relationship had subsided.

 

The problem was that because of the shape of the reality he found himself in, he had to choose just one double to reach equilibrium with. If Kevin was the hot water, Cecil was the cold, and his own skin was both the sink and the source of heat in his relationship with each of them. It was always moving toward the temperature of one, but always being pulled back to a different thermal state with the other when he was near. When he had been with Cecil in that Other Desertworld, he had spent so much of that time missing Kevin, but when he came back home to Kevin, he could not forget Cecil, either, even as he tried as hard as he could to accept that loving a man who was as good as dead could only cause grief for him, and everyone around him.

 

Kevin was the hot water, and Cecil was the cold. He bit his lip, harder than was strictly necessary, and turned the cold water down, bit by bit, until it was as hot as he could stand it. He found that under this faucet, he was technically able to turn the cold water completely off, but that he missed it badly when it was gone, to the point where it just barely began to sting, even after he had had time to adjust to the difference. He felt upset by this, by the fact that even this physical metaphor reminded him of the feelings he could not allow to exist.

 

“The First Law of Thermodynamics,” he said, forcing himself to move past that for now. “When energy passes into or out from a system, the system’s energy changes in accord with the law of the conservation of energy.”

 

The heat of the water warmed his hand, and he thought of Kevin, beautiful and bright, who had awakened such love in him over these past few years. Unlike the water, which could potentially burn him if it got any hotter, Kevin’s warmth never stung. It was one of the most beautiful things in his life. When his energy passed into Carlos, it brought him to a place of vibrance and inspiration, and sent him spinning into laughter and shared joy. The energy the two created together transformed into so many beautiful things, and although neither matter nor energy were created or destroyed in the process, it was passed back and forth in a wonderful equivalent exchange.

 

It had been so much the same with Cecil. Some of the forms their energy had taken had been the same; Cecil had a way of inspiring Carlos, too, and of course, always encouraged him in his work, and had brought him happiness. But in a distinctly Cecil kind of way, Cecil had calmed him. Carlos would pour his fears out before him, and he would take them and speak them into something less anxious, often referencing the vacuum of space, or the eventuality of death, expanding the walls of the world until Carlos stopped feeling claustrophobic. Cecil’s voice had been a sink on the heat of his worry, and his touch had made Carlos’ breath come more easily, and made him feel depressurized, like there was room for air in his lungs again. And he knew he had been able to help Cecil find peace at times, too, and alternately, transform Cecil’s words back into energy.

 

He still missed the way he and Cecil had conserved energy together, even if he shouldn’t have. The Cecil he had met today had made him ache with the memory of it, and his presence had pulled on Carlos’s heart, as if telling it that there really was somewhere for its trapped love to pass into.

 

But Carlos could never release that energy without harming Kevin. So, he would have to keep Cecil’s system from affecting his, anymore. He could not turn the cold tap back on, no matter how badly he wanted to. Equilibrium was more important.

 

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics: in a natural thermodynamic process, the sum of the entropies of the interacting thermodynamic systems increases.”

 

He was still unsure how to physically represent this law to himself, by running water over his hands, but he knew it meant that it was impossible to have a perpetual motion machine that spontaneously turned temperature into motion. In a more personal context, entropy acted on all systems, and got stronger as thermodynamic processes happened. In that Desert Otherworld, entropy had seemed to stop on a physical level--the roller coaster that had been built just kept running, and his phone had remained charged in perpetuity--but in the end, there had been entropy taking place between him and Kevin, and also between him and Cecil. Energy had to be added back into those relationships to keep them in motion, even in a world where perpetual motion was on the table.

 

But before today, it had been months since Carlos had even heard Cecil’s voice, and while he had hoped his longing to change things would slow, that longing must have been a machine with very high efficiency and low entropy. It had continued on for much longer than Carlos had expected, so far, and he was unsure if it had lost any speed or intensity at all, or if he had just been ignoring it better.

 

Either way, seeing Cecil again had restored what had either been lost from entropy, or obscured by denial, and he could feel that longing deep in his stomach, and tight in his throat. Perpetual or not, it was more than he knew how to handle.

 

But, he would handle it. He was a scientist, and just as importantly, Kevin’s boyfriend.

 

He would be fine . Or else, Kevin would not be. The choice he had made was simple, but “simple” was not always the same as “easy.” And especially now that Cecil was here, the pressure was almost unbearable.

 

He swallowed. “The Third Law of Thermodynamics: the entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches absolute zero.”

 

Entropy could be almost frozen, literally. The less motion that took place on the atomic level, the less entropy could happen. He was reaching with this interpretation, and he knew it, but if he viewed his relationship with Cecil as a system, and did the metaphorical equivalent of freezing it in place, then its entropy would be taken almost to zero, but so would its motion. If he prevented it from moving into his life again, it would be preserved, and it would not lose its energy quickly, but it also could be stopped from transferring its energy where it did not belong--into his relationship with Kevin.

 

He shut his eyes, swallowing through a lump in his throat. He would continue doing exactly what he had already been doing for months. He would compartmentalize this, no matter what it took. He had no clear way to transfer its matter or energy elsewhere, so until it lost its power, he would have to contain it, for as long as it took.

 

He would not let this harm Kevin. Not if he had even a single ounce of strength left to prevent it.

 

The water rushed over his hands, and its slow hissing was almost hypnotic as he drifted into numb detachment.

 

He did not know how long he had been standing in that spot when he heard Erica knocking on the door.

 

“Hey! It’s me, Erica,” they said, muffled through the door. “You okay in there, Carlos?”

 

Carlos slowly reached forward, and twisted the knob. The stream stopped, and a few residual hot drops fell into the sink.

 

“Um, yeah,” he called out weakly. “Just a minute.”

 

He dried his hand on his lab coat, and looked into the mirror again. He still looked disheveled, but he thought his eyes looked less swollen. He tried smiling at his reflection, and noticed, somewhat pleased, that it at least offset how much of a disaster he looked like.

 

“There’s not a huge rush, but I do want to talk with you for a minute before you go back into Vanessa’s office,” Erica said. “Not about anything especially stressful, just like, I care about you and want to look you in the face and tell you it’s going to be okay, and stuff.”

 

Carlos opened his mouth, and then closed it. He inhaled, then spoke. “A scientist--”

 

“Is always fine,” Erica finished with him. “I know, man, but you can still have rough days, and I’d say this qualifies, so I’m here.”

 

“Oh,” he said, crossing his arms self-consciously. “Um, thank you.”

 

“No worries,” Erica said.

 

Carlos walked over, took another breath, and opened the bathroom door. Erica was sitting in the hallway, gangly and cross-legged, elbows on their knees, their chin resting on their forearms. They smiled at him softly. “Hi,” they said.

 

“Hi,” he repeated, smiling back as best as he could, which...yeah, probably wasn’t convincing.

 

“How are those thermodynamic laws doing?”

 

“I mean, they seem okay,” Carlos said. “A thorough analysis would involve more complex test instruments, and experimentation. And I left my thermodynamic measuring devices in my other lab coat , which I cannot believe I did! I don’t know what I was thinking, not transferring them over before starting the day. I might as well have forgotten my keys.”

 

“Do you have that danger meter on you? Or your weirdness meter?” Erica asked.

 

“Gosh, um…” Carlos patted his pockets, sniffling. He felt one in his left front pocket, and the other just below that, in one of his coat’s many internal pockets. “Yes! Whew. Should I use them?” He grew nervous, thinking about taking measurements of either of those things at this time. “I’m not sure I want to look at those readings just yet, but as a scientist I will, anyway, if--”

 

“Oh, no no,” Erica said, straightening up a bit. “I was just making sure you had them, and wondering if you might be willing to lend them to Kevin, next chapter. He’ll almost definitely appreciate having them when chapter seventeen or so rolls around.”

 

“What? Erica, have you divided your understanding of time into chapters?” Carlos asked, head spinning with the potential implications of that, but he brushed them aside. “Also, at some point I’d really like to sit down with you and discuss the means by which you see the future, if you wouldn’t mind.”

 

“Sounds good, my friend,” Erica said. “But as for right now, you should probably focus on the immediate present. It’s best if you get back in there with Kevin and everyone soon. Your other self is getting interviewed, but that should be finishing up in a minute, and--oh, yep, other me is seeing him walking out, into the middle of an argument.”

 

Carlos realized again that he had just left Kevin alone with Cecil, and that he had heard Kevin’s raised voice just before he had knocked, and that Kevin had seemed particularly anxious. Clearly, this was not going well.

 

“Oh, geez,” he said, nervous. “Is it Kevin and Cecil?”

 

“It is.” Erica nodded. “They stopped when you--Other You, that is--showed up.”

 

“What are they fighting about?”

 

“Cecil is scared that Kevin is going to broadcast that he and Other You are here, and put the two of them in danger. Cecil and Kevin are both pretty wary of each other right now, which is definitely understandable, but Other You is calming them down pretty well. He and Kevin talked for a while, earlier, so they have some mutual trust going, even though that conversation was really hard for both of them.”

 

Carlos felt so guilty to have left Kevin behind in those situations, but his only two possible responses had been to run away, or to let all his emotions come tumbling out at once like before, and he had decided on the first one. He would have to apologize to Kevin whenever he got the chance.

 

He wondered what his other self had said to Kevin, and felt a sudden surge of anxiety. What kind of world was he from? What had he, who had apparently been dating Cecil for years, potentially exposed to Kevin about Carlos’ own feelings for Cecil?

 

What had he told Kevin about Kevin? Had his other self even met Kevin before? It had seemed like they knew each other, based on the way his double had been holding Kevin’s hand when he came into the living room. It had looked like it came naturally to him; what did this mean?

 

“Hey, Carlos?”

 

Carlos shook himself. “Yeah?”

 

“We should probably get back in there, now,” Erica said. “Your cue is coming up.”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Carlos said quietly.

 

He took a deep breath, and began walking back toward Vanessa’s office. Erica followed, still crouched.

 

“Someone should really find a way to make these buildings more accessible for angels sometime,” Carlos said, watching them struggle with some degree of regret, although he had certainly not designed the building. “You’d think what with all the eldritch beings walking around, they wouldn’t cap the ceilings off at nine feet.”

 

“Hey, this is better than most houses,” Erica replied. “Plus, I don’t technically have to walk through buildings, most of the time. I can teleport, remember? I’m just walking with you now because I don’t want you to feel alone.”

 

Carlos felt strangely warmed by this, and smiled softly at them in gratitude. “Thank you for that, Erica. I’ll really be fine, though, okay?”

 

“Yes, you will be,” Erica said, as they reached the door. “You’re Carlos the Scientist, and you’re smart, and kind, and beautiful, and weirdly awesome at figuring out unique solutions to problems. But when you’re not fine, try to remember that you don’t have to pretend.”

 

Carlos looked at them for a moment. “Thanks,” he said, feeling that he deserved none of their kindness, but touched all the same.

 

“No problem, dude,” Erica said, nudging his shoulder softly. “You ready?”

 

“Definitely not,” Carlos said. “But I’m a scientist. I’ve got a weirdness meter, a copy of a poem Nilanjana wrote about bees, two foldable sets of goggles, some twine, a lighter, and a piece of chalk I found last week, to name a few things I remember putting in just one of my pockets this morning. That, and the power of science, of course. So let’s do this.”

 

“Brace yourself,” Erica said, and they knocked on the door. “It’s me and Carlos,” they called. Carlos held his breath.

 

The door opened, and he saw Kevin, and Cecil , and his double, holding Cecil’s hand. All their eyes, and the eyes of the others in the room, were on him as he stepped inside without allowing himself to think about it and freeze up first. It was time to be brave. It was time to be a scientist.

 

“Based on my observations, the laws of thermodynamics seem to be working, still!” he announced.

 

No one seemed to know how to respond for a moment, although he saw the beginning of a soft smile on Kevin’s lips. But then, his double spoke. “You know, it’s good you checked,” he said, stroking his chin. “If people are traveling here from my world to yours, it might be important to monitor how the physical laws of the universe are operating, considering how unstable a process this could prove to be. It could become a very serious problem for, like, existence, if the strain prevents physics from functioning.”

 

Carlos blinked, realizing that his other self was absolutely right. “Oh. That’s true!” he said, still incredibly unnerved by him, but impressed with how quickly he had managed to respond to what he was now realizing was a nearly contextless statement for everyone in the room. “That has happened before. I’ll text our team and let them know.” He pulled out his phone and searched for the scientists’ group chat, and--

 

“Wait!” Vanessa exclaimed. “Before you do that, we all need to get on the same page on how to approach this. I do think you should talk with them soon, though. We’re going to need as much scientific wisdom as possible to deal with this situation, I suspect.”

 

“Hmm, that makes sense,” Carlos said. “But it’s usually better to start sooner than later, so please let me know the second I can text them.” He clicked the group chat and typed a single space, so that later he would see a draft in progress and remember to actually text them, turned the screen off, and put the phone back in his pocket, walking over toward Kevin, and toward, oh god, his double, and Cecil of Night Vale.

 

“Of course,” Vanessa said. “I think it should only be a few minutes.”

 

Kevin took a few steps sideways toward him, and they reached their hands out to one another, meeting in the middle and sliding their fingers through each others’.

 

“Hi,” Kevin said quietly, eyes searching him with concern.

 

“Hey,” Carlos said, squeezing his fiance’s hand in determination and offering up a partially defensive smile, which he really hoped did not come across that way.

 

Kevin smiled back, but Carlos could see the fear in his eyes, and feel the shiver in his grasp. He felt himself tense at what Vanessa said next, and knew Kevin could feel that, in return.

 

“All right, everyone,” Vanessa said. “First, let’s make sure we’re all caught up to speed. And then, let’s talk about what we are going to do with Cecil.”

Chapter Text

“The very first thing we need to do is make sure everyone is up to speed with the facts,” Mayor Jay said. “Anyone can feel free to chime in if I get something wrong, but for now, I’m going to summarize things as best as I can.”

 

As she spoke, Cecil squeezed Carlos’ hand tighter. When Carlos looked up at him, he saw Cecil watching Kevin and Carlos’ double with a lost expression. Other Carlos was sharing a meaningful glance with Kevin, and holding his hand with a loving familiarity that Carlos recognized in his own relationship with Cecil.

 

It hurt to watch. Carlos squeezed Cecil’s hand, too, trying to draw his attention away, but as Cecil turned, his eyes held more questions than Carlos knew how to answer, and not a small amount of confused jealousy. He felt a surge of anger toward his double, for just holding Kevin’s hand like that in front of Cecil, but then realized he had done the reverse, and first. That had probably hurt Kevin to see, too.

 

He supposed it was unfair to expect a couple not to hold hands, particularly in a time of crisis, especially because right now, the sensation of Cecil’s hand in his own was very much keeping him grounded. Especially after that interview he had just had, where he’d had to tell Vanessa on camera that his boyfriend was definitely not a murderer, and had described his love for Cecil and Night Vale, as well as for Desert Bluffs as he knew it, and had struggled and failed to talk about Kevin without choking up, especially in the soft glow of Vanessa’s kind gaze. He broke eye contact with Cecil to look at his double again, and could not help but clench his jaw, pulling Cecil’s hand just closer as Mayor Jay spoke again.

 

“Based on the interviews we just performed, Cecil and Carlos from the other world,” Jay said, “You were out for a walk, experienced a strange sensation, and then when you returned home, you found Kevin and Carlos, from this world, in what you thought was your house, right?”

 

The two agreed.

 

“Okay. So far, we aren’t sure of exactly the means by which people are arriving here, but you are not the first, although you are somewhat close to the first,” Jay continued. “We have interviewed several others, already, who have confirmed the same experience, and a lot of the same basic facts you’ve told us about your world, and said that something similar happened to them. From what Tish and I have gathered, the new arrivals seem to be from the same place. All of you have said you are from a Night Vale that managed to defeat Strex, in a world where Desert Bluffs...well…” she paused, looking to Kevin. “We weren’t so lucky.”

 

Carlos could not help but look at Kevin, and as he did, he read a stiff fear in Kevin’s body language as he stared back at the mayor. But he did not flinch; he only swallowed, blinking. At his side, Other Carlos’ eyes widened.

 

“Essentially, that Desert Bluffs is to that Night Vale as our Night Vale is to our Desert Bluffs,” Jay continued. “There may be parallels that are non-exact, but in general, that has been the pattern so far. In their world, Cecil never became the Voice of StrexCorp. Desert Bluffs is the town that fell to StrexCorp completely, and whose economy crashed after Night Vale defeated Strex, and who recently merged with Night Vale as a result.”

 

“Ugghh,” Kevin and Cecil both shuddered, more than said. The two shot each other simultaneously confused and miffed looks, then shifted uncomfortably, looking back toward Vanessa. Their mirrored synchronicity was all but perfect in each of these actions, and Carlos felt mesmerized by the sight.

 

He had always known they were incredibly alike--they quite literally shared a face, and most mannerisms--but he had only seen them physically next to each other today, and on a very limited basis in the Desert Otherworld, mostly in passing. But as they stood here, now, both with bloodless clothing, and the same kind of eyes and facial expressions, it was somehow even more clear that they were two iterations of the same person, and this increased clarity stunned him anew.

 

“Wait,” the other Carlos interjected, concern written onto his face. “If Desert Bluffs fell in that world, then…” he paused, as if bracing himself, turned to Kevin, and nervously asked, “What happened to Kevin?”

 

Silence fell for a moment. And then, Kevin laughed joylessly, and it came out only as breath. He inhaled, and quietly said, “Well…” his eyes held a distant fear, as if his gaze rested on something that existed just past the walls of this place. He looked to the Carlos who had spoken, looking a bit unsteady.

 

“No,” Other Carlos barely whispered, and his face and shoulders went slack in a terrible understanding, one that Carlos knew all too well as of today. He shook his head. “No,” he repeated, with a broken expression. “Oh, Kevin…”

 

Kevin smiled fearfully, and it looked like he was shaking a little. “It’s alright, Carlos,” he said, clearly lying, reaching his hand out to touch his boyfriend’s--no, his fiance’s--shoulder.

 

Other Carlos shook his head in heartbroken disbelief, and pulled Kevin close, wrapping his arms around Kevin’s waist and burying his face in Kevin’s neck. Kevin held him, too, eyes shut, reaching his hand up to rest gently on Other Carlos’ head. Carlos could hear his double say a very muffled “oh my god,” and his heart ached, both for the two of them and for Cecil, shuddering next to him.

 

He reached with his free hand to Cecil’s, so he could clasp it with both. He bit his lip and stared at the back of Cecil’s hand, resting his head on Cecil’s shoulder as he tried to stay strong in the face of what must have happened to Cecil in this world. Cecil shifted beside him, and rested his other hand on top of Carlos’, as if to say, thank you.

 

“I’m sorry, Kevin,” Vanessa said, and Carlos could hear the regret in her voice. “And I’m sorry to you too, Cecil. This understanding is not easy, and I wish that none of us had to have it. I wish that Strex had not harmed anyone, and especially, in this moment, I wish the two of you had been safe from them in every world.” She sighed. “And Carlos, I can’t imagine how you must feel, having known and cared for both of them in different ways. I’m just very sorry to all of you.”

 

Not for the first time today, Carlos could not stop thinking of the Kevin he had known, and of Cecil. Their identities blurred, and their histories, reversing as if before his eyes, crossed into one another. He stood at their intersection, feeling love, and loss, and longing, and misplaced hope...

 

“In a broader sense,” Vanessa said, “like I said, these reversals of stories extend from at least several individual people all the way up to the towns themselves, and for an unknown reason, people from your timeline--” she nodded at Cecil and Carlos-- “are arriving here suddenly. We don’t know why, or how, but Erica guesses that this will continue for some time, and has notified us of several more arrivals even while we have all been here.”

 

“Yeah,” Sunglasses Erica confirmed, nodding. “Seven more have shown up, that we know of, so it’s speeding up. Two of them are still fighting each other, but...oh, they just stopped, actually. That’s good. Nobody looks seriously hurt, although in some cases both people already had blood on them, so it’s a little hard to tell.”

 

Seven? Carlos struggled to imagine the combined chaos of all of that, and his mind went back to Sandstorm Day, years ago. He had been among the lucky minority in town who did not meet his double, but he still remembered hearing Cecil’s chilling words on the radio. “Kill your double,” Cecil had quoted, and then he had instantly been distracted by a cat video, which was simultaneously adorable and horrifying , because as Cecil had gushed about Box Cat, Carlos and Nilanjana had been watching several fights break out on the street, through a window in the lab. He did not like the idea of that situation repeating itself, and hoped that this time, less people would view murder as an option.

 

He thought back to less than an hour ago, when he himself had viewed murder as an option. He looked at his double, and although he still felt uncanny to look at, Carlos very much regretted attacking him. He had never done something like that, before, and he had never thought he would, even after living in Night Vale and facing its scientifically fascinating horrors...

 

“That’s definitely good, Erica,” Vanessa said. “So, now that we’re all here, and the interviews are through, my main concerns are as follows: figuring out what is going on as best as possible, getting that information out to the public, and keeping all the new arrivals safe. I want to keep Cecil safe, in particular, because he is at unique risk, and also because he is Night Vale’s Voice, and is perhaps the best equipped to represent the people of his world, of anyone here.

 

“So, with that in mind: Kevin,” she said, turning to Kevin intently, as he looked back up at her. “As soon as we’re done here, I want you to go on the air and report on everything that has happened today.”

 

Beside Carlos, Cecil tensed.

 

“All right,” Kevin said intently. “I can do that.”

 

“Wait,” Cecil said anxiously, “Everything?”

 

Vanessa nodded. “Yes. And I want you on the air with him.”

 

“What?!” Kevin exclaimed loudly. “No. We are not putting Cecil of Night Vale on my show, on purpose!”

 

“You want me to go on the radio with him?” Cecil said, even more anxiously. “Wouldn’t that be dangerous?”

 

“He’s right! That is dangerous!” Kevin said, letting go of Other Carlos and glancing back and forth from Cecil to Vanessa. “If the people of Desert Bluffs hear his voice on the radio, it will probably create panic, and aside from that, we don’t know what he will say when he has a public platform!”

 

“I’m thinking that--” Vanessa began, but then Cecil interrupted.

 

“You’re worried about what I’ll say?” Cecil said, indignant. “You’ll be able to say whatever you want about me, and everyone will listen to you, and if you’re not careful, you could get me seriously hurt, or even killed!”

 

“Actually--” Vanessa tried to interject, looking a bit frustrated.

 

“Absolutely I am! I’m also a little worried about what you might do, honestly. The last time you were in my studio, Cecil, you threatened my family, and tried to make me a second Prophet of the Smiling God!” Kevin snapped. “Not to mention that I had to replace the carpets after your stay there, because the puddles of blood and entrails you left behind had soaked so far into them! Oh my god, there was so much blood. And I kept finding bits of skin, and hair, and so many teeth--” Kevin looked like he was ready to gag.

 

“Stop, stop stop!” Cecil cried, letting to of Carlos’ hand, and waving both of his defensively. He gasped for air. “Stop! Just-- please stop. I cannot handle gore, and I especially can’t handle it when you talk about it. I need you to stop.”

 

Kevin straightened and stared at him, mouth slightly agape. Carlos shared a horrified glance with his other self.

 

“Hey!” Vanessa said loudly. “You’re both talking over me right now, but if you’d let me continue, I have something to say that will help both of you!”

 

The two of them turned to her, as if suddenly reminded of her existence.

 

“I’m--I’m sorry, Vanessa,” Kevin apologized, a little embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I just have some... concerns,” he said, gritting his teeth slightly as he looked toward Cecil again.

 

“I’m sorry too,” Cecil agreed, with a similarly uncomfortable expression. “Please, go ahead, Mayor Jay.”

 

Vanessa sighed. “Thank you,” she said, returning to her previous, softer tone. “What I was trying to explain is this. Kevin, I want Cecil to go on the radio with you precisely because I don’t want people to panic. Word will eventually get out that Cecil is here, and we need people to understand that he is not the same Cecil as before, and that his presence does not present the same dangers as everyone might assume. If he is able to go on the radio with you, and explain himself, people are far less likely to panic than if they saw him without warning.

 

“And Cecil,” she continued, “this helps you, too. If the people of Desert Bluffs understand who you are, and more importantly, who you aren’t, you will be safer. I think it’s even likely that people will actively sympathize with you, and be willing to help protect you from harm. And furthermore, the people who are appearing here from your world probably need to hear a familiar voice right now, too, to reassure them not to panic. Basically, you two,” she said, “If both of you appear on the radio together, it will be best for the people of both worlds. It will also be best for Cecil, who should not be put in pointless danger, and without whom dialogue with the other world will become much more difficult.”

 

Kevin looked nervous and uncertain, but did not speak, instead crossing his arms uncomfortably. Cecil did not speak either. Carlos wondered if maybe Kevin would listen to him, if he said something--

 

“Kevin…” Other Carlos said, and everyone turned to look at him. “I think she’s right. We should definitely not keep people ignorant of something that’s this important, and I agree that the people who need Cecil right now, and Desert Bluffs, should hear his voice, and his explanation of things.” He paused, and Carlos intuitively new, more than saw, that his other self was struggling to continue. “And...this might keep him safe.”

 

Everyone’s focus shifted to Kevin. He kept looking at Carlos, who met his eyes with an apologetic, searching gaze.

 

“I know,” Kevin sighed, after a long, tense moment. He reached his hand down to Other Carlos, who instantly took it, blinking. He inhaled, then exhaled, and the quiet anxiety in that breath was palpable. “I’ll do it,” he said flatly, looking at the ceiling as if praying for support. “But Cecil, I swear upon every strange light in the night sky, if you spend even one second gushing about productivity or your Smiling God, I will physically pick you up and throw you out of my studio. My brother-in-law already did that, once, and this time, I’m not afraid to do it myself.”

 

His eyes, fiery with defensive anger, had landed on Cecil, who tensed again in response, straightening his back and giving Kevin what Carlos knew was an equally-matched glare. But, Carlos could tell that Cecil was afraid.

 

He did not like the two of them interacting like this. It felt mutually fearful and upsetting, and he himself felt his heart pounding from anxiety.

 

“My god is not a smiling god,” Cecil said, in a tone that evoked memories of the revolution. He gritted his teeth and muttered, “and for me, that was more of your thing, so…”

 

“Cecil. Kevin.” Josephine cut in, as Kevin’s posture grew even more defensive. “Neither of you were ever made into the Voice of Strex, or a Prophet of the Smiling God, in your timelines. You’ve both been talking past each other a lot today, to versions of you that aren’t even here, which isn’t doing you any good. I think you’d both feel better if you assumed the other is not out to hurt anyone.”

 

“She’s right,” Carlos managed, through the swirling of his anxiety. “Kevin, this Cecil isn’t like what you’re describing at all . And Cecil, I don’t think Kevin wants to hurt you. I think he’s just trying to protect himself and the people he loves, within a situation that is really intensely weird and scary, even for Night Vale. I mean...we’re in Desert Bluffs, I guess. This seems weird for Desert Bluffs, too, though.”

 

“I can confirm, as a Desert Bluffs scientist, that this is very weird,” his double said, and Carlos’ attention snapped toward him with a start. “I don’t even need my weirdness meter to measure that, although if you give me a second--” he rifled through one of his pockets, and took out a device that looked identical to Carlos’ own weirdness meter-- “yes, it’s just as I thought. The dial is showing that weirdness has passed red. Most of the time, red is the most dangerous color, but in this case, it just indicates the second weirdest color.”

 

“Which color is the weirdest?” Renee interjected, from behind her desk.

 

“Oh. Objectively, that may be up for debate, depending on preference and context, but on this meter, it’s double-yellow,” Other Carlos said. “I used to have a meter with the basic green, yellow and red color system, but when I moved to Desert Bluffs, I had to adjust the dial to include significantly more weirdness, and the only color I could think of that fully represented the extent of that extra weirdness was yellow, again. So, I made it yellow, again, but this time, it’s double-yellow, and...”

 

Carlos had followed the exact same logic with his meter, which gave his weirdness meter a purple setting. It was strange to think about all the small things that must have turned out differently, here--

 

“Carlos,” Vanessa interjected, “I love and appreciate everything about science a great deal, but I’d like to get all of us back on track, since we don’t have much time.”

 

Carlos’ focus returned to her, and Other Carlos’ eyes lit up in recognition, too. “Oh, that’s true. Go ahead!”

 

Vanessa smiled affectionately. “Okay. So, Kevin and Cecil, you’re going to broadcast together. Kevin is going to tell us what’s going on, and not to panic, and Cecil is going to tell us about his world, and address the new arrivals from Other Night Vale, and also encourage them not to panic. Does that sound good to you?”

 

“Not at all,” Kevin said begrudgingly. “But unfortunately, it makes sense, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

 

Cecil nodded. “I couldn’t agree more,” he said flatly.

 

“I’ll take that,” Vanessa said. “Now, moving on. Carlos--” she turned and looked at the two of them-- “I would like to ask both of you, as scientists, to please begin gathering data, and trying to understand why and how people are traveling here from a different world, and how to allow the people of the other world to return home. Would the two of you mind working together on that issue? Both of you have expressed interest in getting to the bottom of this, and I imagine that your combined effort could really help us.”

 

“Yes,” Carlos’ other self responded, instantly. “I’d like to begin work on that as soon as possible.”

 

“I agree,” Carlos said. “There is really a lot going on here, and I think it’s important to learn everything we can, sooner than later. Because--”

 

“I’m a scientist,” they said together. Other Carlos continued, “and science, by definition, is about--”

 

“--not knowing, but trying to find out.” they finished together again, and looked at each other in confusion, but also in a strange, shared excitement at having said exactly the same thing, and also having said it about science.

 

Vanessa blinked, then grinned. “Okay, good! I know meeting each other has been an ordeal, but I hope you can find common ground.” She turned to Josephine, and to Erica, Erica and Erica. “Are we still on track?”

 

“Yep!” Sunglasses Erica said, giving a thumbs up.

 

“Okay. And you’re going to meet up with Carl after this?”

 

Josephine nodded. “He already knows we’re coming.”

 

“Good! I’m sure he’ll be a big help.” Vanessa turned to Leticia. “And have you checked with Lucille that the police van is go?”

 

“Yes! The police van is go,” Leticia confirmed. “Well, it will be go. I guess technically, right now, it’s stop.”

 

“Ayy,” Renee said, somehow toeing the line between sardonic and appreciative, and snapping finger guns. Vanessa bit her lip and rolled her eyes, which glinted with a hint of amusement. Leticia looked very self-satisfied, and Carlos felt she’d earned it.

 

“Anyway,” Vanessa said pointedly, “We were thinking that Leticia and Lucille, who’s a secret police officer, could drive you two--” she pointed at Kevin and Cecil--“down to the radio station, so that you have a cover from the rest of the secret police, and that you two--” she motioned to Carlos and his double-- “could take your car to the lab.”

 

“Or, I can drive the two of them to the lab, and meet you all at the radio station,” Kevin quickly interjected, as Cecil shivered again, and as Carlos felt another pang of anxiety. “Wouldn’t that make more sense? Carlos and...Carlos Too haven’t been alone together before, and Cecil and I shouldn’t be seen together, right?”

 

Tomato Erica shook their head. “Things should go all right if I go with them.”

 

“Are you sure?” Kevin looked at the Carlos at his side. “Are you okay to drive?”

 

“I’m fine, Kevin,” Other Carlos said, putting a hand on Kevin’s arm. “I’m still unused to the idea of having a double, but the two of us have been in the same room for a while, now, and it seems to be going okay.”

 

“The probable future says he’s safe to do it. And…” Erica hesitated. “Well, no offense, but you’re probably the one who shouldn’t drive right now, Kevin. You’ve kinda got the shakes.”

 

Carlos looked at Kevin again, and realized that Erica was right. Kevin quickly crossed his arms, and he scoffed, saying, “I most certainly do not!” But the shuddering in his frame was obvious, and looked a bit stronger than Cecil’s shuddering felt. Carlos bit his lip on behalf of both of them.

 

“You can reach out your hand in front of you and check, if you want,” Erica suggested.

 

Kevin opened his mouth indignantly, then closed it again, looking up with a haughty expression. His tone sounded defensive. “That’s...that’s fine. I don’t need to do that. Clearly you’ve all thought through this plan already, which is fine, I suppose. Let’s just get this over with.”

 

Cecil turned to Carlos with a lost expression, and squeezed his hand nervously. Carlos reciprocated both actions, but tried to smile back comfortingly. Cecil tried the same, but it looked like the beginning of a grimace.

 

“Okay,” Vanessa said, “I think we’re good to go. Just in case, Kevin and Cecil, I’d like to be safe, and send each of you out separately with the Carlos from the world you’re not from. This is partly so that if you run into anyone, one of you can cover for the other, and partly because if Cecil and this Carlos--” she motioned to Other Carlos-- “go out together, Carlos can get into his car, and Cecil will be hidden from view, faster. You can split off in the parking lot toward your respective cars, and after that point, if the cameras see both pairs of you together, it won’t matter much.”

 

Cecil’s hand squeezed tighter around Carlos’, and Carlos’ heart was in his throat. Thinking about having another conversation with Kevin was overwhelming, and he worried for Cecil, right now. But he agreed that this plan was probably safer, in the end, so he said nothing.

 

Cecil met his eyes with a look that asked, is this going to be okay? Carlos responded by standing up a little straighter in determination, with a look that tried to say, we can do this.

 

Vanessa looked at each of them in confirmation. A lot of hesitant, uncomfortable nodding answered her unspoken questions.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said, and Carlos could tell she meant it. “I wouldn’t suggest any of this, if...I know that it’s probably...I did weigh the other options, too, and I’m sorry if this is...” she looked down, biting her lip, and faced her hands toward the ceiling in a half-shrug. She spoke the next part carefully, fingers contracting. “I won’t assign words to your experiences for you. I just want to acknowledge that I care about them, and to assure you that the well-being of all of you does matter to me, and I’m sorry you’re in...well, a situation like this one, whatever that means for you.”

 

She looked back up at all of them kindly, and a bit regretfully. Carlos’ other self quietly replied, “Thanks, Vanessa,” and Kevin tried to smile at her. Cecil nodded slowly. Carlos was not entirely sure what his own face was doing.

 

“Alright,” Vanessa said. “So, in a minute, Cecil and Carlos, you can go with Leticia. And then a few minutes later, Kevin and Carlos Too, you can follow. Thank you for coming, and please know that if any of you needs anything, I’m in your corner, and if I can’t help you myself, I’ll still do my best. For now, I will deliver these interviews to the Secret Police and City Council, and do all I can to persuade them to protect you.” She scanned the room again to make sure there were no more questions, smiled, and disappeared into her office again.

 

Leticia followed behind her, and Josephine walked over to Kevin, putting her hand gently on his shoulder.

 

“You’ve got this, Kevin,” Josephine said, with a soft yet determined expression. “And you can always call me to talk.” She turned to Other Carlos. “And you, too, Carlos, of course.”

 

“Thank you, Josephine,” Kevin said, quietly but with meaning. Josephine smiled, and moved to Cecil and Carlos.

 

“And you two can call me, too,” she said. “I can give you my phone number, although I’m not sure if your phones can call mine. Either way, you can always ask Erica to contact me for you.”

 

The two of them agreed to take her number. It was a different area code than Josie’s, and some of the letters and symbols were switched. They both sent her an experimental text, and Josephine’s phone lit up and buzzed, twice, just a moment later.

 

“I just got ‘hi Josephine, this is Carlos,’ smiley-face, and a progressing series of preening cat emojis from someone else,” Josephine said.

 

“Um, the cats were from me,” Cecil confirmed, and Carlos especially loved him in this moment.

 

“Okay, perfect,” Josephine said, walking away. “Catch you both later! Take care.”

 

“You too, Josie!” Carlos called after her, as she walked out the door. “Sorry, I mean, Josephine!” He turned back to Cecil. “It’s really good that our phones still work, here,” he said, typing out ‘ I love you so much’ in the box under his conversation with Cecil. “It might be a lot more stressful, otherwise.” He pressed send, and looked up at Cecil, waiting.

 

“That’s true,” Cecil said. “I’m at 60 percent, so it should be fine for a while.”

 

“I’m at...oh, I’m at 23,” Carlos said. “But I’m on my way to a laboratory, so I’ll figure it out.”

 

“Carlos, before I go,” Cecil began, as his phone buzzed, “I really, really love you.” He pulled Carlos close, and for a moment, as he wrapped his arms around Cecil in return, Carlos closed his eyes, and in Cecil’s arms, even in the midst of the other quietly effervescent conversations taking place around the two of them, with voices in them that reminded him of just how many things he was unprepared to deal with, it almost felt that everything was really going to be okay.

 

“I love you too,” he whispered, and oh, god, how he did.

 

Cecil pulled back, and checked his phone. His face lit up. “Oh,” he said, laughing softly. “I guess we’re on the same page.”

 

“We are,” Carlos said, full of affection. “With that? Always.”

 

Leticia came out of the office, with keys. “You ready, Cecil and Carlos?”

 

She was not looking at him, but his double.

 

“Yes,” Cecil said, putting his sunglasses back on. “As a warning, I’m just going to casually fake laryngitis again if anyone talks to me.” He looked at Carlos. “I guess I’ll see you in awhile. Take care of yourself, all right?”

 

“Thanks,” Carlos said, already a bit anxious as Cecil and Other Carlos walked toward the door behind Leticia, but trying to keep it from showing. “You too, Ceec.”

 

“I love you, Carlos,” Kevin said to Other Carlos as Cecil disappeared around the corner, and Carlos’ stomach twisted into strange knots.

 

Other Carlos paused in the doorway and turned, saying, “I love you, too. Text me when you get there safe, okay?”

 

“I will,” Kevin said, as Other Carlos also disappeared, and Erica climbed out behind him. Carlos saw Kevin stuff what looked like Other Carlos’ danger meter into his pocket.

 

“Leticia, I speak on behalf of all Ericas when I say that I really love you and your terrible puns,” Erica called after her. “I just thought you should know that.

 

“Thanks!” Leticia said, muffled. “I try!”

 

The door closed behind all of them, and Kevin turned to face Carlos again.

Chapter Text

Carlos and Kevin stood a few feet apart, and Kevin looked for a moment like he longed to come closer, but did not know if he should. Carlos felt exactly the same way.

 

“How are you?” he asked, knowing the answer, but wanting to express concern.

 

Kevin exhaled, wringing his hands with a nervous smile and darting golden eyes, which landed on Carlos’ as he tried and failed to speak. “I...” he began, then laughed in disbelief. “That’s…I can’t quite say. But...I will be okay,” he said, nodding, as if trying to convince himself, too. “How are you?”

 

Carlos still ached at the sound of Kevin’s voice, but of course, he could not tell him so. “Well...I’m a scientist,” he said softly. “And a scientist is usually fine.”

 

“Right!” Kevin said, equally softly. “But, also, if there is something I can do to make this easier for you, somehow, please tell me. I know seeing me is painful, and I’m sorry. But I care about you, and if I can help, I will.”

 

“No, I…” Carlos trailed off. He did not want Kevin to feel that his presence had hurt him, but he also could not pretend that Kevin was not at the epicenter of the surging, self-directed violence in his heart. He could not pretend that grief was not blossoming in waves through his stomach, at the sight of someone who he had loved and lost, or that he was not continually haunted by the spectre of the joy they could have found in one another, now made manifest in this world.

 

“Thanks, Kevin,” he finally said, looking at the floor, and hugging himself in response to the aching he felt at Kevin’s kindness. I care about you, too, he did not say, but wished with all his heart that he could.

 

“Of course,” Kevin said, and when Carlos’ gaze flickered back to him, his expression showed a level of concern and care that shot a new twisting sensation through his stomach. He wanted to apologize for telling him what he had told him before, about who his other self had become, but he could not imagine speaking.

 

Carlos noticed movement behind Kevin, and saw that Renee was getting out of her chair. Kevin turned to look at her, and she came to stand next to him.

 

“Hey,” she said.

 

Kevin gathered himself a bit, and replied, “Hi, Renee!”

 

“So, I know a lot is going on right now, and this isn’t a super great moment, so we can talk more later, but before you go... listen to me, you monster,” she nearly growled, pushing her red-rimmed glasses up her nose, expression changing from friendly to accusatory in startling swiftness. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing to Akmazian in that latest chapter of yours, but I don’t like it, and I don’t trust you.”

 

“Oh!” Kevin started, in mock offense. “I swear to you that there is a good explanation!” he said, throwing his hands up.

 

“Yeah yeah, there had freakin’ better be!” Renee retorted. “I was promised I’d be beta-ing a hurt-comfort fic, but there is a lot of hurt, and not much comfort. I’m beginning to think that you like inflicting emotional pain, or something.”

 

Kevin still looked very anxious, but despite that, a grin slowly broke out on his face. “What can I say?” he said innocently. “I warned you it would be a slow burn!”

 

“God,” Renee said, shaking her head. “You and your angst writing can just...well, all your writing can live in my bookmarks and recs list forever,” she said begrudgingly, rolling her eyes. “It’s beautiful, and I love every torturous word, and blah blah blah, you evil destroyer god of a writer. Just promise me you’re going to fix my son’s broken heart, somehow?”

 

Kevin laughed quietly, and it sounded like an old, nearly-forgotten melody. “You of all people should know that I can’t resist happy endings!” he said. “But, I so love to tell stories about sad things! Because by telling people all the sad parts of a story, I prepare them to truly enjoy those happy endings when they come.”

 

Carlos had never known that Kevin had been a fanfiction writer, and would have thought of him as someone who would be more into fluff, which was what a lot of Cecil’s oneshots turned out to be. But Kevin’s explanation made sense, and sounded like something the Kevin he had known would say.

 

Renee held up a hand between her mouth and Kevin’s eyeshot, turned to Carlos and mouthed something he didn’t quite catch.

 

“I can’t read lips,” he whispered apologetically, shaking his head. “You know ASL?” he asked, signing along with his question, and hoping his hands were not shaking too obviously.

 

Renee’s eyes widened. “Not much, but it’s cool that you do!” she said, the sarcasm in her voice disappearing. “I do eventually want to learn. A friend of mine is losing her hearing, and a few others go nonverbal sometimes, but can still sign, and I’m realizing how useful it would be to know it.”

 

“It is very useful, in both of those contexts!” Carlos said.

 

“Yeah!” Renee said. She then whispered loudly, “Also, just now I called Kevin a sadist.”

 

Kevin scoffed at her, and then waved, and when Carlos looked, he signed, ‘Currently, I’m learning ASL! You are my teacher!’ His grammar was imperfect, and he bit his lip and stared into space for a moment as he had to think about the sign for ‘teacher,’ but it worked. It was obvious this thought gave him joy.

 

Carlos felt a pang in his chest. He was Cecil’s teacher too, kind of, and whenever the topic came up he would sometimes teach him useful signs. He wondered if he and Kevin had the same dynamic. He swallowed back a lump in his throat. “Oh, that’s neat!” he said.

 

“Yes,” Kevin said and signed, tilting his head. He only spoke the next part. “And I like that word, ‘neat!’”

 

“So do I,” Carlos said softly, a little breathless, signing ‘same’ in much the same way.

 

Renee nodded with the air of someone who did not so much agree as they wanted to acknowledge the conversation. After a pause, she turned to Kevin again, and said, “I’ll let you get back to it, but I’m watching you,” she said in a mock-threatening tone, holding up her fingers in a V and pointing them toward her eyes, and then to his. “Keep my son and his boyfriend safe, got it?”

 

Kevin smirked, and returned the gesture, except when he pointed his fingers at her eyes, he held out four, instead. “Gotcha!” he said cheerfully.

 

Renee gaped in mock offense. “A four-eyes joke?” she exclaimed. “Do you do that to your boyfriend, too, or am I just special?” She gestured to Carlos as she said “boyfriend,” and Carlos stopped breathing.

 

“Hello? Fiance!” Kevin exclaimed back, holding up his left ring finger adamantly. “And I--” he froze in realization, turning to Carlos with his mouth agape. As an afterthought, he clasped his hands together, covering his left hand, and looked back at Renee helplessly. “Oh. Um…”

 

Carlos still didn’t breathe. His head swam a bit.

 

Renee turned to Carlos, raising her hand apologetically. “Sorry,” she said. “I forgot you’re the other Carlos. It’s kinda automatic…”

 

Carlos shook his head, and found his breath again, and tried very hard not to think about what it would be like to be in such a close relationship with Kevin. He did not quite succeed, and found himself remembering that instant when he had pressed back into Kevin’s kiss earlier today, and wondering what the euphoria of that kiss would have felt like if it had not instantly been tainted with guilt, and had instead been something they could have softened into, smiling together--

 

Carlos inhaled, shaken by the intrusive vividness of that image, and clasped his hands together. “It’s alright,” he said in a higher voice than he meant to. “Easy mistake.” He swallowed, and he felt concern about how that might have sounded to this Kevin, obliquely referring to the labels of “boyfriend” and “fiance” as a mistake. He did not look at him to see.

 

“I think that’s my cue to sit back down,” Renee said. “But, nice meeting you, again, I guess!” She went back to her desk.

 

“You really look exactly like your double,” Kevin said to Carlos. “Which, now that I think of it, is not only incredibly obvious, but also, a sentence I have never enjoyed hearing, myself. Wowza, I am really putting my foot in my mouth today, in every possible way!” He stopped, and raised his fingers to his mouth thoughtfully. “Hm, well, not every possible way. I’m not entirely sure I can do that physically, although today would certainly be the appropriate day to check...okay, new plan!”

 

Kevin grabbed his foot, balancing awkwardly, and raised it toward his waist, bending down as if to bite it. Carlos noticed he was wearing bright yellow sandals, and that his toes were painted a shimmery orange. “Want to help?” Kevin offered, looking up and grinning sheepishly. “I might have some trouble fitting the whole heel in, but with the help of science, it may be possible!” He returned to ungraceful straining, with vocalizations to accompany it.

 

This absurd and strangely charming sight before him, especially in the unfitting context of this chaotic, tense day, combined with a surge of bittersweet affection for Kevin, made Carlos burst out in unexpected laughter.

 

“What are you doing?” he asked between giggles, with mild concern. He stepped forward, and made as if to reach out and stop him. “You don’t have to do that! If anyone needs a foot in his mouth, it’s me.” He bit his lip, suddenly remembering everything Kevin knew now that he would have been better off knowing, and also would not have known if Carlos had not spoken them aloud.

 

Kevin put his foot back on the ground, smile fading to concern, and shook his head. “Oh, Carlos. Please don’t be angry with yourself about anything you’ve said to me,” he said, softer. “It’s your truth. Speaking your truth is not wrong. You don’t have to feel bad about any of this!”

 

Carlos managed a smile that was sadder than he intended, and looked away quickly. “That’s really not true,” he said. “But thank you, Kevin. That’s really kind of you to say.”

 

“I mean it,” Kevin insisted. “This?” he gestured helplessly. “This isn’t your fault. And, again, whatever happened between us in your world, really, I want you to know…” he trailed off, then started again. “If I can help, somehow, then please, tell me how?”

 

Carlos felt very fragile, all of the sudden. Kevin had offered that twice, now, during this conversation, and had tried to make him laugh, and very clearly cared for him. And on top of that, laughing with him had brought back memories of his Kevin, who was so very much not his Kevin, anymore.

 

Really, he never had been at all, had he?

 

“Thank you,” Carlos said, trying very hard not to lose his composure yet again. He was very unused to letting this much negative emotion out at once, and was beginning to feel a bit of embarrassment about that. He did not return Kevin’s sentiment out loud, because he could barely see himself handling interacting with Kevin at all, much less engaging in a longer conversation, but he felt fondness for him, and if it came down to it, would at least want to help him, too. But, that thought was too long to explain at this time, so he did not say that, either.

 

“Alright,” Tomato Erica said, after a pause. “You two ready to go?”

 

Carlos nodded.

 

“Okay,” Erica said. “Let’s do it!”

 

They set off, and Carlos followed behind Kevin. As Kevin’s face turned, and his hair obscured it, Carlos was struck yet again by just how strongly Cecil and Kevin mirrored one another, and by the undeniable beauty of both of them. The man before him felt like an amalgamation of the Kevin he had known, and of Cecil, and Carlos felt his familiarity doubly for it, even as he knew the two of them had technically never met before today.

 

He knew exactly what it would feel like to press his hand into Kevin’s, or to link their arms together, or to sigh into his neck after a long day, from his relationship with Cecil. And he knew some of that from his previous relationship with Kevin, too. They had never been a couple, or done specifically romantic actions--Carlos could not have done those things without Cecil’s permission, which he did not feel he could fairly ask for, and Kevin had respected that fully--but they, too, had developed patterns of touch, over the long years.

 

He remembered how Kevin had sometimes taken him into his arms and rubbed his back, when he had asked. He remembered how they had sometimes leaned onto one another’s shoulders, late into the night, as Kevin had watched Carlos read over the day’s work on his computer, in one case trying to explain to Kevin that a factorial, although it contained an exclamation point, was sadly not just a very excited number. He remembered shaking distantly one cold night, numbly playing Tetris with silent tears falling down his face, and he remembered Kevin asking if now was an okay time to touch his shoulder. He remembered saying yes, because he did not always like touch when he was upset, but something about Kevin’s was comforting--it was gentle, but strong enough that it usually did not cause him sensory irritation. He remembered Kevin helping him inside, and he remembered hugging Kevin in gratitude, just for a moment, as Kevin had made him lemon tea.


He remembered wanting to take Kevin’s face in his hands, and brush his hair away, and kiss his forehead, and then the sometimes yellow-shadowed lids of his eyes, and then his biomechanically enhanced smile. He remembered looking down at him, sleeping in the moonlight beside him on those nights when the years had worn them too thin not to share their warmth, and aching, because Kevin looked like Cecil, and he missed Cecil so much , but also because somehow, he missed Kevin too, even as he lay beside him and did not kiss him, not even once (even though sometimes he had let Kevin kiss the top of his head, and did not think Cecil would have necessarily minded if he had returned that.) He remembered feeling guilty even thinking of Kevin in that way, because this was his friend, and he was committed already, but to be fair, he really looked almost exactly like Cecil sometimes...

 

He remembered telling himself that that was all it was. He remembered knowing that was not completely true.

 

As he followed Kevin outside, he did not remember any of these things specifically, but he felt them all at once, and tried not to look at Kevin again.

 

--

 

As Leticia, Sunglasses Erica, Carlos and Cecil from another world left Mayor Jay’s office, five minutes before, Carlos texted the scientist group chat, ‘If you aren’t already at the lab, please meet me there ASAP. Something big is happening. Maybe Sandstorm 2.0. If you see someone who looks exactly like you, please do NOT kill them! I’ll be there in about 15.’

 

As he pressed send, Leticia turned to him, and asked, “So, what do you think of all this, Carlos?”

 

Carlos turned the phone’s screen off, but did not stop looking at it as he walked. “I don’t know what to think, yet,” he said. “I’m not sure what the cause of this could be, or the possible effects, so it’s hard to say. We’ll have to gather data, and press a lot of buttons on machines, and make a lot of liquids bubble in beakers. Right now, I am mainly concerned for everyone who doesn’t know about this, and for the people who might hurt themselves, or others, or the, um, intersection of those two identities of self and other, even once they hear Kevin’s report.”

 

He sighed, and bit his lip, trying not to think about it too hard. He also tried not to think about Cecil, walking beside him, too hard, but his mind and heart raced.

 

“So am I,” Leticia said. “I think when Kevin and…” she cleared her throat. “I think when that report comes out, it will do a lot of good. Sometimes, for people to be safe, you need secrecy and denial and all that, but when it’s something like this, you kind of can’t do that.”

 

“Yes, exactly,” Carlos said. “As a scientist, I would agree that there are times that secrecy can be detrimental...although, of course, with that statement, I’m not challenging any secrets in particular,” he backpedaled carefully. “I just mean that if people don’t have the necessary information to face the dangers they will encounter, they are more likely to, um, lose themselves in fear, and act in ways they regret. And I hope that this will help everyone to not do that.”

 

He glanced at Cecil, to his right, who was again wearing his reflective purple sunglasses from earlier, and caught him looking away quickly. He looked away too, but then back again, and noticed Cecil’s fingers nervously twiddling the hair in front of his left shoulder, and saw that his nails were painted the same purple as the rest of his outfit. They matched his eyes, which of course Carlos could not see. He wished he could see them, again, but he also knew himself, and guessed that he either would be entranced by them, just as he was before, or would be unable to look at all. The second option was more likely, but he was more afraid of the first.

 

Carlos looked forward again and anxiously spun the engagement ring on his left finger. Just then, his phone buzzed. He turned the screen. Louisa had written back, ‘Most everyone is here. Mark is calling the others.’ It showed an ellipses as she typed, and then a new bubble popped up. ‘Wait, we didn’t have doubles on Sandstorm Day. Are you saying we do now?’ And after that, a confused potato emoji.

 

He sent back, ‘Good.’ And then, he began to type, ‘I did. Still do, thankfully,’ and he realized that he really was very thankful for that. He winced, thinking about throwing that knife at his double. He had apologized, but he would really need to apologize again. And then, he typed, ‘Yes, it is very likely. Please take care and stick together.’

 

“I’d say more specifically about this,” Leticia said, as they went down the stairwell, “but instead, I’ll say more generally. Nobody knows what’s happening, but scientists and journalists are very important right now, so it’s good we have all of you.”

 

Carlos slipped his phone back into his pocket. He was just realizing that he would, in fact, have an opportunity to apologize to his double, very soon, specifically when they were in the car together, when he nearly ran directly into his friend John Peter--remember, the pharmacist?

 

“Woah!” John exclaimed. “Hey again, you two! Wow, and right in the same place!”

 

Carlos froze for a moment, trying to figure out if he had forgotten running into John with Kevin before, or if John was talking about his double and Cecil.

 

“Oh!” he said, surprised, and smiled automatically. “Hi!”

 

“I think I forgot my sunglasses in the room up there,” John said, gesturing. “I got halfway home before realizing why I was squinting so much.”

 

“Ugh, that’s the worst,” Cecil croaked, sounding like a cross between a sputtering engine and a settling house, and Carlos’ eyes widened.

 

John’s did too, and he shook his head. “Wow, again, please keep an eye on that, friend. Carlos, I’m glad you’re gonna watch out for him. This is one voice we really can’t afford to lose to throat spiders.”

 

“...definitely not,” Carlos managed. “If anything ever happened to Cecil’s voice, I would be really sad about it. Or, you know, him in general, because I love him, but that’s already obvious, I think,” he said, gesturing to Cecil, and trying very hard to think of him as Kevin.

 

Everyone stood still, and stared at him. He had no idea why, but he felt like he’d missed something.

 

“What?” Carlos said, with a sinking feeling.

 

“That’s Kevin,” John said, nodding toward Cecil.

 

Carlos tilted his head. “Right…?” he asked. “Didn’t I say that?”

 

“You said Cecil,” Cecil whispered, with a smile that looked sad.

 

Carlos gasped softly, looking to the others for confirmation. They all gave it, and Erica nodded, very slowly pushing up one of their pairs of sunglasses. He looked to Cecil and sputtered, “O-oh, my god. That came out wrong. I did not mean to call you that, Cecil.”

 

This time, he realized just after he said it, and clapped one hand over his mouth, grabbing the side of his neck with the other and staring at the ceiling. The nightmare scenario of calling Kevin “Cecil” by accident had already played out in his mind countless times, though he had avoided it so far, and that was sort of playing out, but also, in this moment, he was completely blowing Cecil’s cover, and the combination of those feelings was a lot to handle.

 

“It’s okay, Carlos,” Cecil creaked, reaching out, but seeming to stop himself. “We were just talking about him earlier today, and you’re still very tired from this long week, right?”

 

Carlos looked at him and managed a stiff nod.

 

“I honestly figured you’d eventually call me the wrong name, at some point,” Cecil grated hoarsely, but still kindly. “I’m actually a little surprised you didn’t, before now. You did know each other, and he and I are doppelgangers. Easy mistake.”

 

His double had met Kevin in his world, then, he realized. He wondered if they had also met in the Desert Otherworld, and shared something like his history with Cecil, and the thought hurt, badly.

 

He lowered his hand from his mouth, just enough to speak. “I’m really sorry,” he half-whispered, trying to go along with Cecil’s cover-up. Somewhat redundantly, he said, “I really didn’t mean to say that.”

 

“I know,” Cecil reassured him, sounding really very ill. He repeated, “It’s okay, Carlos,” and Carlos so wished he could believe him, in general.

 

“If it helps, things like that happen to me all the time,” John said. “Once, I called Lawrence Levine ‘Josephine,’ and they don’t even look alike.” He shrugged, moving further up the stairs. “Well, seriously, Kevin, take care!”

 

“Thanks!” Cecil’s broken voice ground itself into a fine dust, and everyone winced sympathetically.

 

The group finished going down the stairs. When Carlos hit the bottom, he began walking slightly faster than everyone else. He could not believe he had just said any of that, and his ears burned with embarrassment. His phone buzzed, and he realized that it had been buzzing the whole time, and he had sixteen new messages from the scientist group chat, most asking if he was alright.

 

He answered them as best as he could, considering that he had no idea if he was alright after that faux pas, and he and the others behind him made it outside without any further trouble. When they reached the edge of the parking lot, they stopped.

 

“We’ll be over there, uh, Kevin, ” Leticia said, nodding toward a parked secret police van. “Where are you, Carlos?”

 

“Just over there,” Carlos said, gesturing toward the other side of the lot. He was not looking at anyone, because he just couldn’t . He felt the ridges of his phone in his hand, and found the string of his phone charm (a miniature Erlenmeyer flask, filled with turquoise liquid, and capped off at the top), and wrapped it around his finger clockwise, then counterclockwise, then back, then again.

 

“Alright, then,” Leticia said. “Kevin, you should probably get in the van sooner than later, just in case. Carlos, you should probably wait for Carlos, Too, so he can find your car.”

 

“Probably,” Carlos said, still wrapping and re-wrapping his finger. “He does have the same car, but he doesn’t know where this one is.” He forced a smile, and forced himself to look at Leticia, then Erica, and then, briefly, Cecil. Turning and giving a half-hearted wave, he said, “Well, okay! I’ll be going. I’ll catch you later.”

 

He began walking to his car, biting his lip and continuing to stim with his very scientific phone charm. It reminded him that he was a scientist, and right now, that was exactly what he needed to remember. But before he got far, he heard several quick footsteps behind them, and as they stopped, Cecil called softly, “Carlos, wait!”

 

Carlos stopped, heart pounding hard. He hesitated to turn around, but then, he did.

 

“Yes?” he asked.

 

“...uh…” Cecil seemed to freeze. “Carlos, I just...I’m so sorry.”

 

Carlos double-blinked, and his mind felt blank. “What for?” he said, more flatly than he meant to.

 

“For all of this,” Cecil gestured helplessly. “I can tell that it hurts you to see me, and I am just so sorry for whatever my other self might have done to cause you pain in this world, and for the pain my presence is causing you now. If I am able to help you ease that pain, then please, just say the word, Carlos. I will do it.”

 

As Cecil said all of that, and especially Carlos’ name, Carlos felt a lump forming in his throat. “Oh,” he said, and he couldn’t help but sound sad. “Thanks, Cecil.”

 

He wanted to tell Cecil that it wasn’t his fault, it was only his own. He wanted to tell him so many things, and he suddenly badly wanted to hold him close, just for a moment, but instead, he stood, and searched Cecil’s face.

 

“Hey...take care, okay?” he finally said, very softly. His eyes burned, and he swallowed. “I mean it.”

 

“I know you do,” Cecil half-whispered. “You, too, alright?”

 

He looked so sad, and Carlos could feel their mutual desire to move closer to each other, but he could not act on it. He could feel the ocean of sorrow in his body threatening to spill over, and he focused on making himself numb to it. This did not work at all.

 

He nodded, smiled as best as he could manage, and turned away to finish walking to his car. He heard Cecil’s footsteps growing more distant, and bit his lip again, tense with the effort it took to keep walking and to hold himself together, at least until he reached his car. He looked over his shoulder, once, just in time to see Cecil do the same, and he quickly looked away again, gripping his phone tightly.

 

He unlocked his car and sat down inside sideways, leaving the door open. When he was out of eyeshot of the van, he let out a heavy sigh of something that was not quite relief, but more like despair. His vision blurred, for a moment, and he closed his eyes. He could watch for his double and Kevin after a few deep breaths, breaths that shook, and only felt like cruel reminders of the ache that bloomed again in his lungs.

 

--

 

Carlos, Kevin and Erica made their way out of City Hall without much of a problem. The one thing Carlos noticed was that John Peter stood very still when he spotted the three of them, and waved with a very confused expression, although he did not come over. Carlos made a mental note to ask his other self for John’s number, later, and properly introduce himself, and explain some things.

 

He and Kevin spoke very little on their way out, although Carlos stole several glances in his direction, looking away whenever he thought Kevin might be noticing. He also tried texting his own scientist group chat, back home, to see if the message would even be delivered. This situation felt very real, but also very unreal, and Carlos was unsure of which feeling was more intense. The feeling he felt with greatest intensity was a persistent longing that all but made him tremble, and he could barely feel anything else.

 

When they reached the parking lot, Leticia waved Kevin over to the van, which started running, and pointed Carlos toward the other side of the lot, where he saw his double waving to him. He felt a wave of anxiety upon seeing him again, but this time, he thought he could handle that conversation.

 

Well, maybe. At least, he really did not think he would attack his double again.

 

“Hey, Carlos?” Kevin asked tentatively.

 

Carlos looked back toward him, realizing with a somewhat fearful confliction that for now, this was goodbye. “Yes?”

 

“Do you maybe want my number?” Kevin asked. “In case you need to contact me, and Carlos--um, my Carlos--isn’t there to do it for you?”

 

Carlos felt surprise, but agreed. He took down Kevin’s number, and put in his contact information as “Kevin Again.”

 

“Hey, we should really get going,” Leticia called.

 

“She’s right,” Carlos said, turning toward his--well, technically his car, but also not his car. “A car in a quantum-state of belonging and unbelonging,” he whispered to himself. “Shroedinger’s car.” The pun was solid and scientific, but it gave him no joy. He felt too heavy.

 

“Sorry?” Kevin asked. “What was that?”

 

“Nothing,” Carlos said, swallowing back his emotions and shaking his head. “But, hey...take care, okay? I mean it.” He did mean it, very much. He meant many other things, too, things he had no idea how to say.

 

“You too,” Kevin said, looking very lost. His expression softened a bit, into a sad smile. “And, I know you do, Carlos.”

 

Carlos wanted very badly to hold Kevin close again, just for a moment. But he knew that Cecil and his other self were watching, and also that if he did, he would break down again, so he did his best to smile back, and he walked away before he could change his mind. He looked over his shoulder, once, just in time to see Kevin do the same, and he quickly looked away again, regret already stretching out behind him.

 

--

 

The doors closed behind both Carlosi--that would be the plural of them, they both figured, and would later vocalize--and they sighed in the exact same way. Neither knew how to feel about this shared sigh, but they looked at each other and made eye contact that froze them in place, and made each of them lean away from each other, just so, feeling wary. The symmetry of their existence, although scientifically very interesting, still felt very uncanny. But thankfully, it no longer filled them with the same degree of fearful adrenaline as it had earlier today. Erica sprawled across the backseat, watching them carefully, but looking mostly relaxed.

 

As the two looked at each other, they noticed each other’s lips twitching into confused smiles, and they let out slightly different breathless laughs. Their symmetry was just barely broken, but it felt staggered, almost, and bound to align again soon.

 

The Carlos in the driver’s seat, the one who lived in Desert Bluffs, spoke first.

 

“I’m just gonna say it. This is super weird,” he said, grinning very awkwardly, even sheepishly. It might have been a grimace, actually.

 

“Oh, yeah,” said the Carlos in the passenger’s seat, the one who was currently alive in Desert Bluffs, but did not live there in the same sense. A similar expression spread across his features. Both of them wondered if that was really what they looked like, existing in space. Both of them thought that confusion looked more endearing on their face than they had previously imagined, and didn’t know how to feel about that thought.

 

Carlos of Desert Bluffs laughed again in disbelief. “Wow,” he said. “Just...wow.”

 

“You said it, pal,” Carlos of Night Vale said, also laughing. He crossed his arm over his abdomen, and brought his hand to his chin. “And by extension, from a certain perspective, so did I.”

 

Carlos of Desert Bluffs took a deep breath, laughing again, and put his keys in the ignition. “There will be plenty of that kind of statement to analyze, soon.” He pulled out, and managed to get them out of the parking lot.

 

The lab was not far, thankfully, but as he drove, a loaded silence fell between them. It got worse as Carlos of Night Vale pulled out his phone, glancing at him tentatively before proceeding to tap out a text. He very clearly hesitated to send it, biting his lip, and Carlos of Desert Bluffs had to ask.

 

“Who’s that?” he asked. “Are you thinking of texting your team, to see if they get anything from here?”

 

“No, although I did send a text like that earlier,” said Carlos of Night Vale. “Actually, um, I’m texting Kevin, so he has my number. Your Kevin, I mean. Not the one I know.” He paused. “The one I knew,” he corrected himself, and he sounded sad. “He gave me his number in case of an emergency.”

 

Carlos gripped the steering wheel tight. He did not like the idea of having known his fiance, but not knowing him anymore. He also realized that he did not have this new Cecil’s number, or this Carlos’ number, but that took a backseat to the other, more existential problem, which was that according to all the evidence, this new Carlos did not speak to the Kevin of his world, anymore.

 

He did not want to ask, but he needed to.

 

“Erica, could you please give us a moment?” he said.

 

“Gotcha,” Erica said. “I’ll be chilling on top of the car. Before I go, let me just remind you to please not attack each other. I’ll pop back in if I see you about to do that, but still, it’s better if you don’t at all.”

 

Carlos nodded. “We won’t.”

 

“Good. Alright, peace,” Erica said, and they disappeared with a small pop , feathers wafting down through the air in their wake.

 

“I have to ask you a question,” Carlos said, already dreading the answer. He did not take his eyes off the road.

 

“Oh. Um, okay,” Carlos of Night Vale assented hesitantly.

 

“Why aren’t you with Kevin?”

 

There was a long pause until his double responded, long enough that he glanced over to check if his double had heard him. Judging by his distant, haunted expression, he certainly had, and the pit of Carlos’ stomach dropped empathetically.

 

“Why aren’t you with Cecil?” Carlos of Night Vale asked, and his voice sounded harder than before, out of bitterness, or maybe out of self-defense. Carlos of Desert Bluffs backpedaled.

 

“That wasn’t entirely a rhetorical question. I realize it probably sounded accusatory, and I’m sorry,” he said. “But I cannot imagine a world where I know Kevin, but have never felt love for him. And when I first saw you, I saw the way your hands intertwined, and I see the way you look at him, like you miss him more than you can say.” He swallowed. “I am going to repeat your own words back to you. ‘I love him. Don’t you?’”

 

Carlos of Night Vale seemed to struggle to speak. But then, he did, and when he did, Carlos of Desert Bluffs wished he had not.

 

“And what about you?” he asked, distantly. “I saw your face when I asked you that, and I knew you did. It was so obvious , and yet, Cecil is nowhere to be found. Not only that, but then, I learned that in this world, it was Cecil. Not Kevin, but Cecil, forced to work for Strex, and thrown into the Desert Otherworld. Kevin said that his brother-in-law threw him into that place, right?”

 

“I…” Carlos struggled, frozen, but his double, voice straining with a painful emotion Carlos recognized all too well, continued.

 

“I didn’t know why you hurt so much, when I asked you that question, but I think I do now,” his double pressed forward, laughing sadly, as the car pulled to a stop at a red light. “You met him in the desert, after the revolution, didn’t you? You thought he was your boyfriend, at first, but his eyes were black, and his smile felt unnatural, and his voice was not the same, but he was so kind to you, wasn’t he? So kind, for all that time, and you could tell that he thought you were just everything...”

 

“Stop...” Carlos whispered.

 

“You learned his name,” Carlos of Night Vale continued bitterly. “‘Cecil,’ you said, so many times, as I was saying, ‘Kevin,’ and it became the name of someone you cared for. And as the years--it was years for you, too, wasn’t it?--they stretched on, and on, and you learned his every movement and quirk of speech, just as you had learned his double’s, and you loved him...”

 

“Stop it.” Carlos of Desert Bluffs gritted his teeth, and he realized he was shaking, and that his vision was blurring with tears.

 

His double was in tears, too, and his voice wavered in anger and regret. “And then, you left him alone, too! Didn’t you? Isn’t that exactly what happ--”

 

“I said stop it!” Carlos of Desert Bluffs cried, much louder than he intended to.

 

“How could you?” Carlos of Night Vale cried back. “It’s bad enough, knowing what I did to Kevin, but now I have to watch myself doing it to Cecil, too!” He let out a wrenching sob, burying his face in his hands and curling into a painful ball exactly like the one Carlos of Desert Bluffs had curled himself into, more times than he could count. “I’ve done this to both of them! I didn’t do anything to save them, in either world, and I left both of them to die!”

 

His double broke down, and there was nothing Carlos could say to him, because the violence of that statement tore at him in the exact same way. Everything his double was saying was true, and it was what he already felt. If his double had not said it, he definitely would have. He felt heartsick tears dripping into his lap as the light turned green.

 

As the car sped up, Carlos of Desert Bluffs, shaking quietly, spoke again.

 

“Did you tell my Kevin that you’re in love with him?”

 

His double lowered his hands, just a bit. “What?” he whispered.

 

Carlos repeated himself. His double slowly shook his head.

 

“He can’t know,” Carlos said flatly, distantly. “He can never know. We are living parallel lives, and if he thinks you love him, he will know…” he trailed.

 

“That you’re in love with Cecil,” his double whispered again, finishing for him. “That you can’t forgive yourself, and you can’t forget, and also, that you were in the desert for much longer than you ever told him. And even if he doesn’t feel betrayed by that love, he will have to know those things, and feel what you are feeling now. It would drag him into even more lost despair than he already feels for his double, and for you, now, too. And you can never do that to him. It would solve nothing, and harm everything.”

 

After a long pause, Carlos of Desert Bluffs nodded. “You understand,” he said, a million miles away, and his voice cracked like a dry bone, in that it spoke of death. “So, don’t you dare let on. And I won’t tell Cecil, either. And we clearly will not tell our fiances.” He pulled into the lab parking lot.

 

Carlos of Night Vale shook his head quickly. “No. Never.” he gulped, obviously in pain. “I’ll die with this if I have to.”

 

“So will I,” Carlos of Desert Bluffs replied, and more of his tears fell. He shuddered as his own stomach twisted agonizingly. “‘Til death do I part from grief for you, Cecil, but ‘til Kevin’s death, do I bury that grief.” He swallowed, hard, and his vision blurred again. “And I bury your memory, too,” he choked, “even as the ghost of you walks through my garden.”

 

He parked, and as he took the keys out of the ignition, he slumped onto the wheel, gripping it again, bracing himself as he shuddered. His heart skipped from stress, and he gasped. To his right, he could sense his double weeping quietly alongside him, with a chiral grief that spun into all things and seemed exempt from entropy, a grief that, despite all their words of finality, had been unburied, and was pulling the two of them down, down, into the ground beneath, to lay beside it in its broken coffin.

Chapter Text

Cecil watched as Carlos walked to the car, and Kevin turned toward the van. He saw them both look over their shoulders in sync, and that Carlos looked away faster than Kevin did. He did not know what to think of their body language, or of their apparent exchange of phone numbers, so, he tried not to think about it much at all. He tensed as Kevin approached the van door, took a deep breath, and pulled it open.

 

“Hey, you made it!” Lucille said, from the front, next to Leticia in the passenger seat. She was a secret police member, and her face and most of her head were concealed, but based on the short introductory conversation the two of them had just had, Cecil was pretty sure he recognized her voice, maybe from the PTA meetings he had attended on Janice’s behalf, when neither Steve nor Abby could make it.

 

Ugh. Steve .

 

“Yes,” Kevin affirmed, taking a seat cautiously, and Cecil’s attention returned to his double in full as they looked at each other warily.

 

“Cool beans!” Lucille said, twisting around in her seat, presumably to peer at both of them through the criss-crossed lattice between the front and back of the van. “I’m Lucille, and I’ll be your chauffeur today, you three!” She nodded to Erica, who was in the far back of the van, and they waved. No sirens went off as she acknowledged them. “Mayor Jay and Leticia have explained your situation to me, and I just want to reassure both of you, Kevin and Cecil, that I am very committed to your safety, just as the two of them are,” she said.

 

She turned directly to Cecil, now, and her voice became tinged with something cautious, although it was still congenial. “Also, Cecil, I know the Desert Bluffs police hasn’t always been friendly to Night Vale citizens, but I don’t approve of that at all, and I promise that I won’t be treating you worse on that basis, or on the basis of your personal identity.”

 

“Thank you,” Cecil said quietly.

 

“Of course,” Lucille said. “And Kevin, if I can do something to help you, too, let me know.”

 

“Thanks for that. I think for now, what would help me the most would just be getting to the station as quickly as possible,” Kevin said, in a polite but strained tone.

 

“Gotcha,” Lucille said. “I’m on it.”

 

Kevin buckled himself into his seat, clearly leaning away from Cecil. Cecil realized that he, himself, was also sitting in a very guarded position. The van pulled out of the lot, and into the street.

 

Cecil’s mind spun with the events of the day, but especially with the sight of the familiar man sitting just to his left, just an arm’s length away. So much of this day felt unreal, but perhaps the most unreal thing was seeing a Kevin who had escaped the worst of Strex’s destruction. He looked at Kevin now, and watched as he looked out the window with a worried frown. He tried to understand this vision, and to really see him, even through his own fears about him, and about his awful world.

 

He had had dreams, before, of a Kevin like this one, who did not smile like a skull smiled, baring his teeth because that was all he knew how to do. He had not known for sure what Kevin had looked like, before Strex, so usually, in these dreams, he was just a voice on the radio, or over a phone. Sometimes, Cecil was able to say something to save him. Sometimes, his words caused even more destruction than before. But also, only a few times, the backdrop of Strex and of its awful violence had not been there at all, and he had dreamt of just talking with Kevin, like friends. Their consciousnesses had reached out to one another, and it had felt less like getting to know each other for the first time, and more like reconnecting with someone long-lost only to the dual distances of time and space.

 

Once, when that Kevin from the past had appeared in his dream, they had simply sat together in a field of sunflowers. Kevin’s eyes were still black like obsidian, and his hair was still cropped short, unlike the Kevin currently before him, but he had smiled, and smiled, and it had been nothing like any smile he had ever seen on Kevin’s face before. It had not unnerved Cecil at all. It had come from a genuine, peaceful, untwisted happiness, one he had never seen in the Kevin he had spoken with most often, and that happiness had filled his face, and his body, and when Cecil had breathed in, he had felt it, too.

 

They had sat together, saying very little, only laughing together at things Cecil could no longer remember. They had sat together under the sun, low in the sky, casting long shadows over them between rays of golden light, which danced back and forth across Kevin’s face as the stalks moved in the breeze. As the sun had begun to dip lower, Kevin’s face had filled with a sudden sorrow, and he had looked to Cecil.

 

‘I don’t want to go,’ Kevin had whispered.

 

Cecil had known that in this moment, Kevin was afraid of loss, and of ending. Cecil felt a strong, bittersweet sorrow for him, too, and he had known that Kevin was not wrong to fear these things, although this had felt more existential than circumstantial, and Cecil had not remembered quite why Kevin had to go, at all. But he had reached out and taken Kevin’s hands in his own, and he had smiled, tears streaking strangely sideways on his face, and he had whispered back, ‘Don’t be afraid.’

 

He had woken up with a wet spot on his pillow. He had left Carlos sleeping in their bed, to make himself tea and stare into the void behind the starlight, with that feeling in his chest that he knew would never quite sit right with him again, the same one he had always felt for his double, but had been fully realized upon that day when those three Kevins had come on the radio, and upon meeting the person Kevin should have been, however briefly.

 

The Kevin from this strange new world looked up at him, now, and Cecil quickly looked toward the seat in front of him, heart pounding faster. He lowered his head just a bit, and anxiously intertwined his fingers in his lap. Cecil may have been incredibly curious about him, but this Kevin was still Kevin . Even without a wide, gaping smile and bloodstained clothing, and even considering whatever longing Cecil possessed to have known this version of him, their actual history still existed, and any iteration of Kevin, especially in person, still made him nervous.

 

Still staring down the seat in front of him, Cecil saw Kevin cross his ankles and shift uncomfortably, out of the corner of his eye. He suddenly felt a strong urge to sit the same way, but he resisted it, with some difficulty. He waited until he was pretty sure Kevin was looking away again, and stole another glance.

 

Kevin was picking at his nails, now. They were the same color of his eyes, which stared down at them with a bright intensity. His feet contracted and relaxed restlessly, and Cecil noticed that his sandals were a bright yellow, and more importantly, that they were sandals. He had never imagined Kevin to be a sandals type, since they weren’t very business-casual, but he supposed that business attire probably had not really been part of Kevin’s personality, per se, so much as something he had to start wearing, after…

 

Yes. That made sense. But he did remember Kevin wearing very colorful clothing, under all the blood. Which, oh god, right now was a bad time to think about that, what with Kevin right next to him. Nope! He would not be thinking about that, right now. What had he been thinking about before that? Right! Kevin’s sandals, and the fact that they definitely fit in with what his Kevin might have worn.

 

His eyes flickered back to Kevin’s face. Was this how he would be labeling the Kevin he had known? His Kevin? Was that the right way to express the concept that they belonged to the same world? That implied a familiarity, and maybe a connection which did not quite exist between them. It felt more like talking about a friend, or--

 

All the outward minute motions of Kevin’s body stopped, and his gaze darted back up to Cecil’s. Cecil looked away again immediately, but he could feel Kevin staring at the side of his head, still, so he looked back at him again. Their eyes locked. Cecil’s breath caught in his throat.

 

“What?” Kevin asked defensively, crossing his arms in obvious discomfort.

 

“Noth--nothing,” Cecil stammered, looking at the ceiling. He anxiously crossed his ankles and extended his arms out straight, so that his palms pressed down into his thighs.

 

“Well--you keep looking at me,” Kevin said, in the same tone as before, still looking at Cecil intently. “It doesn’t feel like nothing, so, what is it?”

 

Cecil felt anxiety rising in his chest. He turned and spoke toward the window, just in front of Kevin’s face. He could not make himself look directly at him again, yet. “I--I mean,” he said, feeling an immense pressure to explain himself properly, “It’s just weird, seeing you, again. Kind of again. Except not really, because we just met, technically. But we-- ” he gestured between them, toward some wispy, intangible, complicated thing that lived there-- “have met before. And I am thinking about that, and about you, and about him. And I don’t know how to feel, because I look at you, and I think of him,” he said, feeling himself beginning to ramble, but not knowing how to stop. “And I don’t know how to feel about either of you, or really about any of the yous I have met, and--”

 

“Well, I’m not him,” Kevin cut in abruptly, sounding even more defensive than before, “so--”

 

“Well, I’m not the horrifying Cecil of Night Vale, you all seem to have met,” he said, in a dramatic tone, “but that doesn’t stop you from talking about all the blood and teeth and entrails I apparently left on your studio carpet, so all I’m saying is that maybe we’re both having the same problem.”

 

“You don’t have to snap at me about it,” Kevin said, in a tone that wavered slightly, with something unsteady.

 

“You’re the one who’s interrogating me about why I was looking at you!” Cecil exclaimed. “It’s making me anxious, okay?”

 

“Me, make you anxious?” Kevin said incredulously, voice now tremulous with nervous laughter that spilled out after his words like marbles from a bag. “Ohoho, hoo, yep, that doesn’t sound backwards at all!” He continued laughing, but it sounded more like he was shaking. His voice, higher than usual, sounded strained, and he seemed to be having trouble catching his breath.

 

Cecil thought again of his other self, and his fingers contracted, digging into his thighs. He took his own shaky breath, and looked back at Kevin. “To me it’s...” he began. “Not,” he would have finished, but as Kevin looked back at him, eyes filled with a vulnerable, frightened, distant expression, Cecil realized that something was very wrong.

 

Kevin gave a shuddering gasp, looking somewhere in front of Cecil, and clutched at his chest with both hands. “Oh god,” he said, gasping again for air. “Oh god,” he repeated, breathing even faster than before, moaning anxiously with each breath.

 

“Kevin? Are you okay?” Cecil asked, his own anxiety rising, though not nearly to the same extent as Kevin’s.

 

Kevin squeezed his eyes shut, shuddering, and groaning louder in response. He opened them and leaned back, and then, he raised his hands to his face, suddenly looking very dizzy. He was breathing shallowly, but quickly, almost panting, and his eyes were unfocused. His fingers were limp, but restless.

 

Leticia twisted around in her seat to face the two of them. “Kevin?” she asked. When she did not get a response, she glanced at Cecil and Erica, and then back to Kevin. “Hey, Kevin? You’re gonna be okay. Could you please try to take a few deep breaths?”

 

Kevin breathed more slowly, gasping, but then, he shook his head violently, breaths returning to their previous speed. “I can’t,” he panted. “I can’t. Oh god, oh god.” He covered his face with his hands. “Oh god,” he said again, as if pleading.

 

Cecil watched in horror, chest empathetically filling with tension. He had never seen Kevin in a state like this before, and it was worse than he could have imagined. Or, perhaps, it was worse because he could imagine it, and could guess exactly what sensations Kevin might be feeling. After all, he had just had a panic attack earlier in Mayor Jay’s office, thinking of Kevin and the terrible, unimaginable things that must have happened to him, and of who Cecil himself had become in this world.

 

“Oh, Kevin,” Cecil half-whispered, heart in his throat, lost for words. He almost wanted to reach out, but he thought better of it, for a litany of reasons he did not even begin thinking through.

 

“That’s okay,” Leticia said. “Just try, if you can, and remember that you are safe right now.”

 

Kevin curled tighter, wrapping his hands around the back of his neck, and let out more peals of laughter that was not really laughter.

 

“Safe?” he gasped, and Cecil could see his distant expression again, full of terror. He laughed again, and that terror was laced in every syllable. “Hahahaaa! Tell that to the me...in...in...in the other...in the other world! He...he isn’t safe...is he? No! He lost! I lost, and StrexCorp won! Oh, god, oh god! What did I become? What did I do?! Oh god, it could have been me, and it was!”

 

Cecil watched him, chest tight with emotion, and although he shared the agony of that knowledge, and could relate to it very personally, it was seeing Kevin this way that hurt most in this moment. He had dreaded being able to see his world’s Kevin in the moment when he realized his fate, to the point where he had given him false hope of winning, when he had had the opportunity to warn him.

 

And now, he realized, he was seeing something almost exactly like that. He felt the pain of this sight in his stomach, and he trembled, sudden tears springing unbidden to his eyes. He covered his mouth with his hand, but found himself unable to look away.

 

“They changed me, just like they changed you,” Kevin continued, still panting. “They...they won, and I...I’m in the Other Desertworld…” he took an even more shuddering breath. “And Carlos!” he moaned. “The way he looks at me! Oh, what they did to me...what they must have done!”

 

“Kevin,” Cecil said, nearly choking on his name, “It’s going to be okay. You are safe, here and now, and they cannot hurt this you, the way they hurt him.” Cecil could see Kevin’s fingers digging into the back of his neck, and he panted harder as Cecil spoke. “StrexCorp is not--”

 

“Please, stop! Just stop!” Kevin cried, sitting up and looking at Cecil with a terrified expression. “Stop talking! I can’t--I can’t! Stop!” On the last word, he broke down into shaking, gasping sobs. He covered his face, and cowered into himself, shuddering with grief and fear.

 

Cecil suddenly realized that his voice, and even his very presence, were too much for Kevin. Yes, he understood these same emotions, very intimately, but he was not as afraid as Kevin was, right now; he had had the chance to release some of these feelings earlier, when Josephine had told him what happened, and then during his interview with Mayor Vanessa.

 

Mainly, he felt a new, burning guilt, for having made things so much worse for Kevin in this moment. He had not thought before he had spoken. He never seemed to think before he spoke, and right now, he desperately hated that trait in himself. But what he hated most, even more than his thoughtlessness, was how helpless he was to do anything at all for his double.

 

As Kevin wept with painful sobs into the stunned silence of everyone else, Cecil felt his own sorrow spreading through his torso, his eyes and face burning. He curled into the door next to him, and covered his face, too.

 

“I’m so sorry,” he choked, in a whisper, and he could not stop his tears, or his own shuddering.

 

After a moment, Erica leaned forward gently in their seat.

 

“Kevin,” they said softly, “this won’t fix everything, but remember, you have Carlos’ danger meter in your pocket.”

 

Kevin let out another muffled sob, and Cecil heard him move, not enough for him to have taken the meter out, but enough to have touched it through the cloth of his pants.

 

“I do,” he half-whispered, and his breathing seemed to be a little slower, now that he was crying, but it was still fast. “But do I...do I even want to know what it says?”

 

“Sometimes, science tells us things we can’t see on our own,” Erica said. “Either way, it’s Carlos’, and it might help just to hold it.”

 

Cecil watched out of the corner of his eye as Kevin sat up, and shakily took the meter out of his pocket. He seemed to struggle to look at it, and then, to give up, pressing it against his heart and squeezing his eyes shut, still panting. But before he did, Cecil caught a glimpse of the dial, and he felt the world go still.

 

“Would you like me to check it for you?” Leticia offered, after a moment.

 

Kevin swallowed, hard, and held it out toward her with his left hand, which shook violently. “If it’s...if it’s in the red, don’t tell me where in the red it is,” he said, but it felt like he was pleading. “I don’t want to know.”

 

Leticia squinted, reached over and opened the hatch between the front and backseat, and took the meter from Kevin’s hand. He took a few breaths, more rapidly than before. Leticia turned it on its side as if to examine something, nodded, and handed it back to him, the corners of her mouth turning up softly.

 

“It’s set to ‘personal,’” she said, as his fingers closed around it again, “and it says you’re in the low end of yellow, bordering on green.”

 

Kevin looked flabbergasted. “What?” he said, turning the meter so that he could see its dial. Sure enough, it was just as Cecil had seen, and as Leticia had said.

 

“That...that can’t be right,” Kevin scoffed, but then, his expression softened, and his breathing began to slow. “But Carlos...Carlos is a...is a brilliant scientist, and he...and he made this, so…”

 

Kevin began to take deeper, slower breaths, and although they were still much too fast, Cecil could see him coming down from his panic, and felt relief at the sight.

 

“This is a dangerous time for the town, Kevin,” Erica said, “and you are dealing with a lot of new and terrifying information right now. You have every right to feel everything you’re feeling, and then some…”

 

Kevin nodded. “But…” he gasped, then exhaled, then inhaled again. “But according to science...I’m technically safe.” He wept, but it was quieter, and grew less panicked with each breath. He clutched the meter to his chest again, eyes shut, as if it were precious, and Cecil felt strangely touched by Kevin’s love for Carlos, made so clear in this simple motion of Kevin’s body.

 

“Yes,” Erica said gently. “Exactly.”

 

A moment passed. Kevin leaned against the window beside him, breath slowing. He reached up, limply wiping tears from underneath his eyes, and smearing a bit of eyeliner onto his knuckles as he did. He looked a bit wrecked, but Cecil could feel that his fear was fading, and realized that he, too, was starting to breathe a bit easier. Kevin seemed mostly focused on catching his breath, at this point, and Cecil was very grateful for that, although now, his own tears would not quite stop.

 

Lucille, from the front, let out a small, sympathetic sigh. Leticia followed suit. Cecil muffled his shaking breaths as best as he could, turning away to stare, through unfocused and water-blurred vision, at the handle of the door beside him.

Chapter Text

Everything that had happened, just now, hurt. It just hurt , and Cecil was not sure where to put those feelings. But sitting beside this Kevin, who experienced visible anger, and grief, and fear, and love, he could finally see him. This was a Kevin who was crying, actually crying, in the seat opposite him, and he felt so much closer to him, and less afraid, for having seen those tears.

 

He understood those tears, and the kind of person who would cry them. The two of them were clearly still unable to communicate without...well, fairly extreme emotions, but the man beside him had the ability to express emotions other than incomprehensible eldritch “ happiness ,” thinly veiled bloodlust and aggression, and perhaps most painfully, sadness for himself. With that understanding, finally sinking in, Cecil no longer felt sick with the anxiety of trying to speak with a warped human puppet who seemed unable to hear the meanings behind his words, or to understand the gravity of suffering.

 

Perhaps selfishly, Cecil realized that he infinitely preferred to see this side of Kevin, even if both of them were currently in tears in the back of a Desert Bluffs police van. That being said, they were currently in tears, in the back of a Desert Bluffs police van, and he still felt an overwhelming combination of guilt and fear. But beneath that, he still felt the wispy, intangible, complicated thing that lived between them like an almost physical connection, or perhaps just the fragile, desperate hope for one. He was overcome, now, with a sudden and powerful awareness of this sensation, and something in his stomach flipped at the strength of it.

 

Kevin’s breath had evened out almost completely, now. He said, “Sorry...for that. I…” he trailed off. “I just...I panicked.”

 

“I don’t think any of us are judging you for that,” Leticia said, shaking her head. “Everyone has at least one thing that gets to them. I’m just sorry you’re dealing with one of those things.”

 

“You and me both,” Kevin sighed. His hand covered his eyes, and he went still.

 

Leticia turned in her seat, to look at Cecil. He wiped his own tears away, and looked up at her. “Hey, what about you?” she asked, a bit quieter. “Are you doing okay?”

 

Cecil took a deep breath. He recalled the panicked way in which Kevin had begged him to stop talking, and thought better of speaking aloud. Speaking felt insufficient now, anyway, and as he looked into Leticia’s eyes, he felt that the lost, almost apologetic shrug and grimace he gave in response had communicated his answer. If that had not, his poor attempt to hold back tears almost certainly would have. He looked away as he realized that attempt was failing.

 

He saw Lucille glance back, too, just for a split second. “The good news is,” she said, “We’re almost to the station.”

 

Sure enough, as Cecil looked out the window, he recognized the shapes of these streets, and some of the landmarks, very well. There were enough differences to make him feel a bit unsettled, but he could tell that they were only a few blocks away from his station.

 

No... Kevin’s station. Oh, god , he was about to go into Kevin’s radio station . He felt a moment of horror, but quickly tried to push the awful memories of Sandstorm Day out of his mind. This Kevin had expressed horror at the thought of blood in his studio. This Kevin was wiping tears from his eyes.

 

Cecil’s head swam with all he had just seen and heard, and thinly connected thoughts formed, all at once. But he could not piece the painful shards of information in each revelation together, into any greater truths they might reveal as a whole. Instead, he was overwhelmed with a familiar sorrow that could have easily been either his or Kevin’s. The boundaries between where one sorrow ended, and the other began, seemed elusive, and it occurred to him that maybe distinction between them was unnecessary, considering that they were doppelgangers, and that the shapes of their universes had placed them in eerily similar narratives.

 

There was much that he did not know, but he did know that they both hurt, and that he wished there was something he could do to help.

 

He also knew that he longed to help his boyfriend, and the Carlos who was not his boyfriend. He resolved that as soon as he got a spare moment, he would text his Carlos, and offer to talk when they were both free. Most importantly, he would tell Carlos he loved him again.

 

A sentence that contained the words “I love you” was one of the last things Cecil had said before he and Carlos had parted, but he knew that when it comes to expressing love, redundancy becomes something beautiful. A love that is iterated twice, or three times, or four times over, is not diluted by that reiteration; if anything, it is made more whole, because it is expressed more completely. And so, he would tell Carlos the reiteration of love that he felt now, and as always, he would welcome Carlos’ own loving reiterations, whenever and however they came.

 

The van pulled behind the Desert Bluffs Community Radio station, and Lucille parked. Kevin inhaled, then sighed deeply, sitting up with a suddenly intent expression that was directed toward Lucille and Leticia.

 

“You should be fine to go in together,” Lucille said. “I’ll stand guard out here, and if anything goes down, I’ll tell you all right away.”

 

“All right,” Kevin said. “Thank you for the ride, Lucille.” He nodded shortly, and got out of the car as Leticia did, leaving the car door open and walking briskly toward the station’s. Erica disappeared, then re-appeared next to the two of them, as Kevin dug in his pocket for his keys.

 

Cecil realized he had not moved, and unbuckled himself as Lucille got out, sliding toward the exit. As they shut their doors, Cecil turned to her, and abruptly asked, “Hey, seriously, why are you helping me?”

 

“Uh...what do you mean?” Lucille asked, confused.

 

“I mean, don’t get me wrong,” Cecil said quickly, as they walked in after Kevin, Erica and Leticia. “I appreciate your protection more than you could possibly know, but we haven’t even met. Why are you, a Desert Bluffs Secret Police member, risking your position over this?”

 

As the station door shut behind them, Lucille stared him down. “Because you’re a person who’s at risk in the current social order,” she said. “Because no matter how much institutional power you, or should I say your, uh, other self--and not even him, really, but the company he was forced to serve--” she had tilted her head and looked away, during that aside, but looked back at him now. “No matter how much power Strex had over this town at one point, as things stand now, anyone who was ever even vaguely associated with Strex is now vulnerable in our system. Most Night Valians are treated with unfair suspicion at best, and open hostility and violence at worst. I refuse to contribute to that inequality.

 

“Of course, if a person originally from either town still supports what Strex was doing, I would have no qualms about doing what I had to, to stop anyone like that from harming others,” she said, and Cecil felt just how deadly serious she was. He would have desperately hated to be on her bad side, and felt grateful that he was not.

 

“But, all the evidence says you, and the vast majority of Night Valians, don’t. So,” Lucille said, “as someone with more institutional power than an average Desert Bluffs citizen, it is my responsibility to protect people like you, in the name of the town I serve. If I am unwilling to protect the vulnerable among us, then I am someone who is willing to support even more systematic oppression than there already is in this world.

 

“Desert Bluffs is just as capable of inflicting the kind of violence upon Night Vale that StrexCorp has already inflicted on both of our towns,” She concluded, eyes suddenly softer, and full of painful memory. “And after what I saw in those Strex labor camps, I cannot ever let myself become a mechanism of that violence. Not even toward you, Cecil.”

 

Cecil felt mesmerized, listening to her. Her words, and the determined tone she spoke with, stunned him. He realized, with a burning shame, that he had never been willing to extend the same mercy to Desert Bluffs as she was extending to a Night Vale which, by all accounts, seemed to be in the exact same position. He wanted to speak, but he was unsure of what to say, so he nodded in acknowledgement, as Kevin beat him to it.

 

“So...before we get to work, how long do you all plan to stick around?” Kevin edged in, looking at everyone but Cecil. He looked anxious, still, and tired.

 

“Lucille and I were planning to stay through the broadcast, and until we get confirmation that everything is clear, and everyone is safe,” Leticia said. “I don’t know about Erica, though.”

 

“I was just gonna chill,” Erica shrugged, pushing up their pink pair of sunglasses. “But I can stay, or go. It’s up to you and Cecil, really.”

 

“Okay, good,” Kevin sighed. “You are all welcome to stay. I have food and snacks in the pantry, if you want them, and there’s a couch over there.” He gestured to his left.

 

“Awesome! Also, do you happen to have five dollars on you?” Erica asked.

 

Kevin scoffed, but the corner of his mouth turned up. “I do!” he said, more brightly than Cecil had expected. “But angels are billionaires, several times over, so you aren’t getting a single penny from me!” As he said ‘penny,’ he raised his index finger in mock sternness.

 

Cecil tensed, automatically expecting the sirens that indicated someone had acknowledged the existence of angels to start blaring, but yet again, they didn’t come. They never seemed to go off, in this world. Even Mayor Jay had acknowledged angels! He frowned as this began to really sink in, eyes darting from person to person.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Erica said, their face going slack in realization. “We totes are billionaires.”

 

“Mhmm,” Kevin said slowly, nodding. “And I’m middle class! So, between the two of us, you should be the one giving me five dollars. And everyone else, for that matter, to help even out the issue of wealth disparity in our town!” His tone communicated that he was somewhat serious, but his expression was open and friendly, with a hint of a smile, and it was clear in both Kevin’s and Erica’s posture that there was no significant tension between them. Cecil was torn momentarily from his confusion about angels, as it occurred to him that Kevin-- Kevin! --was describing wealth disparity as an issue .

 

“Geez,” Erica said, wide-eyed. “That’s...probably true. I kinda want to give you, like, twenty dollars, just for the callout.”

 

“Oh? I wouldn’t sneeze at that,” Kevin said, all irony draining from his countenance.

 

“Then it’s a deal,” Erica said. “I’ll go grab that for you, right now.”

 

Kevin snorted quietly, eyebrows raised, and obviously pleased by this turn of events. “Alright! Knock yourself out, rich people.”

 

It was such a relief to see Kevin feeling a little better, Cecil thought, as Erica vanished in a puff of stray feathers. And it was definitely weird to hear Kevin talking like this, but it filled him with a sudden sensation of warmth, and familiarity. This was so clearly the Kevin from the past, who he had spoken to months ago! Well--no, he was not that Kevin, but he was definitely a continuation of that Kevin. Cecil regretted, as he had so many times before, that the circumstances of their meeting were what they were, and wished that he could find the right words to say.

 

He did not know if the apology currently fighting its way out of his throat qualified as the right words, but they were all he could think, and he struggled both to say them, and to hold them back--

 

But before he could, Kevin inhaled, crossing his arms uncomfortably. “Well,” he exhaled, looking a bit lost, “I’m going to go get the studio ready, and start preparing a report.” He paused, looking at Cecil carefully, and Cecil tensed. “Cecil...we should probably talk about what you’re going to say when you join me on the air, before you actually do. I’ll come back and get you in a few minutes, so that we can discuss that.”

 

Cecil nodded silently. It seemed like Kevin wanted verbal confirmation, now. He quietly offered, “Okay. I’ll just...be here,” gesturing vaguely and awkwardly, and immediately regretting it.

 

“Yeah,” Kevin whispered, nodding back, and his expression, though suddenly blank, betrayed a thinly restrained concern at that thought. He smiled politely, as if to conceal his discomfort, but it was false and did not reach his eyes, and it fell before he had turned completely to walk away. Cecil felt his throat tighten as he watched his double’s nervous figure disappear into the shadowed hallway.

 

--

 

The moment he pulled the the studio door closed, Kevin faced it and leaned against it, with weak knees, and with a heavy, shuddering sigh. He pressed his forehead against the cool metal with wide, unfocused eyes, and felt how his tensed shoulders and thighs shook, and desperately wished that he could stop that shaking.

 

He thought of the way he had broken down on the ride over, and squeezed his eyes shut, cringing at his own helplessness. Not only had he just cried in front of a secret police officer, a government official and an angel (though that, on its own, was perfectly understandable), but he had all but fallen apart completely in front of Cecil .

 

Even as Cecil had stood in this very room and tried to convert him into a second mouthpiece of Strex, Kevin had not done what he did today. Even as he and Cecil had met, and fought nearly to the death in a vortex so unfortunately connecting their two studios, with blood soaking into their shoes and all over their clothing, he had not cried, or begged Cecil to stop. He had only frozen in place, in the first case, or shouted in fear and self-preservation in the second.

 

But in that van, just now, it had felt like he was drowning.

 

He had seen the other world’s Carlos, weeping apologies into his chest again and again. He had seen the look on his Carlos’ face as he stared after Cecil, in their kitchen, and he had felt that those two things were connected, but he could not connect them. All he could understand was that the man he loved was distraught, twice over.

 

Sitting on the loveseat in Vanessa’s waiting room, he had seen the Carlos in front of him cry, “I left you to die!” Moments later, he had seen this strange new Cecil, fearfully and angrily shouting at him, “I’ve only ever known you with blood on your hands, and violence on your tongue! Wherever your voice goes, destruction follows!” And he had seen Cecil of Night Vale standing in his studio, a year and a half ago, all smile but no joy, covered in death and pain, blissfully proclaiming to a town under horrifying and violent subjugation, “Oh, don’t you see, friends? The unspeakable elation of all of us together, living in submission to a Smiling God’s jealous, entropic, eternal love?”

 

He had seen these things like waves passing over his body in rapid succession, and for a terrifying several moments, he had really understood the narrative they told. His world was touching one where he had been broken, brutally, by the thing he most feared, and he was sitting next to the person who represented that fear, and being seen by him, and hearing his voice. And then, he had been pulled underwater.

 

Even now that he had mostly caught his breath, the thought of all of this stole it again. How was he going to face the town, this evening, with a silent scream building in his chest at the knowledge of who he had become?

 

He straightened up, and turned, looking at the spot where Cecil had stood, nearly two years ago, opening an old mahogany door and beckoning him to step into the cold light falling through it. He looked toward his desk, where he would broadcast from soon, next to a Cecil who had never visited this studio before.

 

He looked back toward the door, anxiety rising again to a fever pitch, and he remembered that this room was soundproof. And with that knowledge in mind, he stood in the dim, familiar, blinking lights of his studio, and he let the scream trapped in his body escape.

 

It took more than one to do the job, and as he screamed his voice raw, he was all too conscious of how much fear lived in him, and of how unstable this situation felt. How could Vanessa, and Leticia, and even Josephine be so calm about this?! He shouted several helpless curses into the neutral, silent air, into the foam on these walls that held so many secrets, aimed at whatever force had brought Cecil back into his and Carlos’ life, and back to Desert Bluffs in general. And then, he sat in his chair with a final, momentarily exhausted slump, as he caught his breath.

 

He stared listlessly at the buttons and knobs before him, allowing his vision to blur. He had struggled to report many things, over his many, many years of being Desert Bluffs’ voice, but this story was personal. This was a new version of his double, who seemed afraid of what he might do, for reasons that made Kevin dizzy to consider. This was a Cecil who seemed so much like the one he had met on the radio, the Cecil who had advocated against Strex, and who had seemed so certain that Night Vale was going to survive what was being done to it.

 

He had never wanted any harm to come to Cecil, not even when Cecil had terrified him the most. He realized that even now, even as he dreaded almost every potential aspect of this upcoming broadcast, he really did hope that this new Cecil would be safe.

 

If nothing else, he wished that for Carlos’ sake.

 

His eyes, focusing again, found the photo of himself and Carlos that he currently kept on his desk. In taking this photo, he had been trying to take a selfie of the two of them, when Carlos had reached up and around his face, and pulled Kevin’s head toward his own, pressing his lips into Kevin’s cheek. Carlos’ glasses had gone slightly askew, and he was clearly still smiling; Kevin’s expression registered soft surprise and delight. It was one of Carlos’ favorite photos of the two of them, and one of Kevin’s as well. He also kept three other photos with Carlos in them tucked away behind that one, though, in case he ever wanted to switch them out.

 

He reached out, flipped the lamp beside him on, and took the frame into his hands, stroking the glass over Carlos’ face and tracing the outline of his jaw. He thought of the love and warmth the two of them had shared over the years, and of the danger meter in his pocket, and of the ring on his finger, and of how Carlos’ hand had felt in his own, earlier in Vanessa’s office. He was so grateful for the evidence of his shared life with Carlos, present in these items, and in these memories; even now, they comforted him.

 

He suddenly realized that he had not yet texted Carlos to let him know he had arrived safely. As he scrambled to pull his phone out, it vibrated with a text from a number he did not recognize, even by the area code.

 

It read, ‘Hi Kevin. This is Carlos. The other one, I mean.’ He blinked at it, and then quickly saved the number, under, “Carlos Too,” because, well, he was Carlos, too.

 

He switched over to the conversation with his Carlos, and typed, ‘Hi, love. I got here safely. Is everything okay on your end?’ He sent the text, and then switched back over to Carlos Too.

 

He felt slightly unsure what to say back. He simultaneously felt that he did and did not know Carlos Too, and that contradiction was very confusing. He very much wanted to ask him if he was okay, but he already knew the answer was no. After a difficult moment of deliberation, he wrote, ‘ Thanks!’ and sent it. But then, he felt he should add something else.

 

He knew he had already told Carlos this before, but he wrote, ‘Like I said before, if you need anything at all from me, please let me know.’ He sent that, too, hoping it wasn’t too redundant, but suspecting that this was something he probably could not easily say too many times.

 

As he was about to put his phone down, it buzzed again. His Carlos had written, ‘Okay, good. We’re here safe and making introductions. Gtg, sorry. I love you.’

 

‘I love you too. Please let me know if you need anything,’ Kevin wrote back, feeling slightly more redundant now, and wondering how Carlos’ team of scientists was responding to seeing both Carloses at once. He hoped they were both all right. He added, ‘Also, I’d like to interview you about the scientific perspective on today’s events, even if you don’t know much at the time of the broadcast. Would that be okay?’

 

A moment later, Carlos’ response came: ‘Yes! We’re gathering data on Carlos 2 now.’

 

Nothing came from Carlos Too. While Kevin assumed this was due to ongoing science, the distance between them still felt strange and painful.

 

Kevin put his phone away, glad at least to have confirmed that his fiance was sort of okay, and that an interview was in order. He would have to ask Vanessa, and possibly the Secret Police, for their perspectives, too, but he would give Vanessa more time to talk to the Secret Police, first.

 

He took a deep breath, and pulled out his notebook. “Alright, Kevin,” he muttered, “time to be a radio professional.”

Chapter Text

Cecil sat on a black leather couch--one he recognized as nearly identical to the one Larry Leroy had given him some years ago--and squished himself into the corner as far as he could, crossing his arms and legs. He did this to leave plenty of room for Leticia and Lucille, if they chose to sit here too, and also to feel more secure. He exhaled heavily, letting his eyes close for a moment, only registering snippets of a quiet conversation between the two women beside him.

 

He still couldn’t think as clearly as he would have liked. Thoughts swirled like clouds, and jumped from concept to awful concept, from fear to awful fear, but he knew that if he could just stop thinking so much, a great plane of smooth numbness lay somewhere just behind his browbone. He tried to find its still waters, but it remained out of reach, behind the storm. That being said, it did help somewhat just to sit, and to keep his eyes closed.

 

He leaned forward and pressed his face into his hands. There was something he had wanted to do as soon as he arrived, but what was it? What was --

 

His eyes snapped open, and he sat upright, quietly exclaiming, “Carlos!”

 

“Hm?” intoned Leticia.

 

“Oh, nothing,” Cecil said apologetically, pulling out his phone. “Just talking to myself.”

 

He opened his phone, and went to text Carlos. ‘Hey, sweetie, I got here safe. How are things at the lab?’ he typed, and sent it. As he had decided to do in the van, he followed that with ‘I love you,’ and sent that, too.

 

He waited a few minutes, staring at the familiar room before him, at first thrown off by the obvious differences, and then stunned by the similarities to his own station’s counterpart, back home. There were far more yellow and gold and orange themes in the decor, but the ambiance was still rich and dark and full of mystery, in a way that felt very familiar, and, strangely, even a little nostalgic. It was Desert Bluffs, but instead of light, and transparent, and cold...it was ebony, and solid, and warm.

 

This wasn’t home, per se, but it felt like maybe a friend’s home, and Cecil realized with some surprise that he liked this room. He preferred to accent rooms with purples and the occasional pinks, but if he had chosen yellow, he felt he would have come up with something very similar to this. Most everything felt like it belonged exactly where it was--from the wallpaper trim with jellyfish print, to the nicely-arranged succulents on the black table next to him, to the haphazardly-folded, fuzzy-looking black and gold blankets draped over the opposite arm of the couch, to the Radium Gulch poster on the wall behind him--partly because Cecil had put many of their equivalents in almost the exact same places.

 

Although this place gave off a familiar and likeable vibe, he also felt a bit miffed that Kevin had ripped off his style. There was no way this was intentional, and Cecil knew this on some level, but sometimes, when he was uncomfortable, it helped to be miffed at something he knew was petty.

 

His phone buzzed, and he jumped to check it.

 

‘That’s good. I love you too,’ Carlos had written. There were ellipses underneath that message, that lasted for longer than Cecil had expected--he wondered, for a moment, if everything was all right--and then: ‘Things are ok. Currently being studied as a scientific anomaly. Gtg, sorry.’

 

Cecil smiled at that, despite everything. ‘Okay, good,’ he typed. ‘Text me anytime. I think we’ll probably want to interview you later, too, so heads up.’

 

He read over Carlos’ last text, and added, ‘P.S.: you are the cutest scientific anomaly I have ever seen.’

 

There were more ellipses, and then, ‘Stop. <3’

 

Cecil sent back a ‘<3’ of his own, and his mind wandered to the broadcast ahead of him. He pulled his notebook out of his pocket, sighing. “Little Reporter’s Book of Big-Boy Note Taking,” it was titled, as it had always been titled. He flipped it open, skimming the last few pages, and sure enough, it was all there--dialogue from his walk with Carlos and through all of today’s events, and descriptions of things he had specifically noticed. He saw the section where he had been interviewed by Vanessa, and noted that he could probably re-use some of that when he spoke to Desert Bluffs.

 

...Oh, god, he was going to talk to all of Desert Bluffs. The thought was deeply unpleasant, but the point stood; he at least had something to refer back to. He decided to organize his thoughts, and reached for the small pencil inside of the book’s pocket, but remembered that although Lucille was hiding him from the other authorities, she still might not like him having a writing utensil. As he did not want to betray her confidence, he went for the stick of eyeliner he kept in his pocket instead.

 

(He had never had a stick of eyeliner confiscated by the Secret Police, even when he took furious notes with it in full view of them. This was because technically it was not a writing utensil, but also because while confiscating a pencil or pen was considered a social good in Night Vale, anyone with any sense of decency knew that confiscating a man’s makeup was a social evil, and one worse than writing could ever be.)

 

Erica (whose name’s spelling was still really throwing Cecil off, and just felt wrong to think) re-appeared suddenly, holding several items, and Cecil jumped more violently than he felt was strictly necessary, upon immediate reflection.

 

“Hey, Kevin, I’m back with your twenty--oh, he’s in the studio, huh?” Erica said. “Well, Cecil, I brought you a few things too. First of all, Josephine insisted I give you this.”

 

They handed Cecil a small container, which was stuffed to the brim with white chocolate macadamia cookies.

 

“We made approximately 400 of these two days ago,” Erica explained, as Cecil blinked. “We figured they wouldn’t last more than two hours between all of us, but turns out, since we all share each other’s thoughts and experiences, when we hit the 150th cookie, we realized we were in way too deep. We’re distributing the rest around town to the new arrivals, and also to the lab to Carlos, Carlos, and their team.”

 

“Oh,” Cecil said. He felt unsure of what to do. He was still anxious to just... acknowledge an angel, just like that, but apparently it was legal, so he looked into Erica’s seven eyes, and swallowed, holding back strange tears that welled up despite himself. “Thank you,” he said, and one of those tears fell down his cheek, as his jaw quivered.

 

He felt a little self-conscious, but he figured it was probably the...non-angelic--no; definitely angelic--influence. Like, yeah, he’d had a particularly bad day, and he was grateful for the cookies, but geez, he wasn’t that emotionally fragile right now.

 

...Okay, no, he definitely was. But Kevin, and the Carloses, were the main catalysts for that, and neither of them were here, so he was going to blame the fact that--

 

“You still aren’t used to acknowledging us, huh?” Erica said, smiling a little. “It’s illegal in Night Vale still, right?”

 

Cecil shrugged, biting his lip, then shook his head. “Well, yeah, but mainly, I just really love white chocolate macadamia cookies,” Cecil joked, giving a half-smile and choking on a sob. Erica laughed, sitting down next to Cecil on the opposite side of the couch.

 

The two shared a thoughtful look with each other, and Cecil raised his hand to his mouth, trying to keep himself from blubbering too much. This, unlike everything else that had happened in this past hour or so, felt like something that should have happened long ago. He felt strangely fulfilled by acknowledging Erica, and by their presence beside him. And yet, the feeling had come on so suddenly that it made him slightly uncomfortable, so he pushed it aside for now.

 

“Do you know what you’re going to say?” Erica asked, after a moment, seeming to read his current conflicted emotions.

 

Cecil sighed deeply. “Oh, god, Erica,” he said, trying and failing to fight off despair. “What can I say?”

 

--

 

Kevin skimmed the page before him for any glaring errors, and decided that what he had was acceptable. All he had were bullet points, and quotes from the conversations he had just been in. But no one knew what was going on yet, so this, including a probable interview with Vanessa and whatever Carlos and Carlos’ double had to say, would probably serve its intended purpose, for now.

 

It would be fine. He had gone on the air with far less. Once, he had gone on with nothing but a single cashew and a note signed off with “--the Secret Police” that had said, “Tell Lorraine we said, ‘cashew later!’ No, really, we will catch you later, so don’t even think about what you’re planning to do, Lorraine .” A few other times, he had gone on with only the vaguest sense of dread. At least his current dread was specific.

 

He stood again, took a breath, and worked up the strength to go get Cecil.

 

To invite Cecil, who he... wanted ...kind of...to interview on live radio.

 

To intentionally bring Cecil into his studio, and purposely put him on the air, and ask him to talk to the whole town.

 

Great . This was just so great, and not stressful at all, and having Cecil on the air with him had just always gone so well in the past. What could there possibly be to worry about??

 

That being said, he knew that both Carloses were for this, and so was every single other person he had spoken to about this, as of yet. And, if he were being honest with himself, he was, too. He was very nervous, still, but if he had a real chance to protect Cecil from harm, and missed it, he knew he wouldn’t forgive himself. He also wouldn’t forgive himself if this interview caused harm to Cecil, but he couldn’t let himself think about that, right now.

 

And so, fueled by equal parts anxiety, duty and spite, he forced himself to walk back down the hall to get his double, and future interviewee, before he second-guessed this potential fool’s errand again.

 

“What can I say?” He heard Cecil say, in a quiet, resonant voice that made his chest tight. He paused in the hall to listen. “The whole town associates my voice, and my entire identity, with StrexCorp, and I’m a wanted man in this timeline. And, I will be totally at the mercy of the Secret Police, and worse, the public opinion of Desert Bluffs . What if they arrest me? What if they…what if they kill me, Erica? What then? And what would happen to Carlos?”

 

Kevin’s chest felt even tighter, thinking of Carlos Too. He realized how worried this new Carlos must have felt, at that moment; if he were in the same position as Cecil, his Carlos would certainly be very afraid for him, too.

 

“I fear what the future holds for me, and for my boyfriend, and for all of us from Night Vale who are arriving here. What can I possibly say to all of these people, to make them hear me, and not my other self? What can I tell them, that will make them understand that I did not choose to come here, and that I am horrified by all I have learned, and that I just want to take everyone from my world, and myself, and go home?”

 

Cecil’s words, and the frightened tone he spoke them in, left Kevin feeling shaken again. He could feel Cecil’s fear, and it felt just like his own, though it took a different, larger shape. But knowing, for certain, that Cecil was more afraid than he was, allowed him to push past that fear, enough to walk out from the shadows.

 

“I think you should--” Kevin said, and Cecil choked on a gasp and jumped violently, and Kevin accidentally mirrored him.

 

“Son of a librarian,” Cecil cursed under his breath, looking not at Kevin, but at the floor.

 

“Sorry,” Kevin said, wincing sympathetically. “Didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

 

“It’s fine,” Cecil said, shaking himself and looking at Kevin again. “You were saying?”

 

“Oh. Just that I think you should say something a lot like what you were saying just now. Your counterpart didn’t typically show much range of emotion, or real concern for others. I think that if people hear you talking like this, and showing emotions other than--” he took on a sing-song tone, and gave a cheesy grin and two thumbs up-- “ ‘happy, happy, happy, work until you die,’ they’ll be a lot less afraid of you, and probably feel for you.”

 

As he reverted out of the impression, Cecil looked both confused and alarmed. Kevin knew why, but he did not want to think about it much, so he tried not to.

 

“Uh- huh,” Cecil said, speaking and nodding very slowly, with wide eyes.

 

“Well, you get the point,” Kevin said. “Honestly...yes, you sound like your other self, in that you are definitely Cecil. But when you talk like this , you sound a lot more like--” he stopped himself from saying, ‘the you I met, from before Strex,’ and said, “You sound more like a regular, not-dangerous person. Once people get past the fact that it’s you, I think they’ll see that you’re...not Cecil. Or--you know what I mean.”

 

Cecil’s eyes searched his. Kevin could see him thinking, and hard, about something. He could also see how lost Cecil felt, and something within him clicked into place, in response. He stood up a little straighter, and decided that for now, he would take control of this absurd and anxious situation as best as he could.

 

“Come with me,” Kevin said, motioning for Cecil to follow. “Let’s get you set up.”.

 

--

 

Walking into a dimly lit radio studio with Kevin of Desert Bluffs was certainly not how Cecil had intended to spend the later part of this afternoon and early evening. But here he was, standing just to the side of the entrance, as Kevin, visibly reluctant, held the door open for him.

 

“After you,” said Kevin, in a hesitant tone, but one that held no particular animus, and Cecil swallowed.

 

He took a step closer, but found himself frozen in place. He braced himself, attempting to override this sensation, but he could not quite shake the feelings he associated with Kevin’s old studio, or with the other Kevin. But Kevin was watching him intently with sharp gold eyes, and expecting him to go inside, and everyone was insisting that he do this. He had to, but he feared every aspect of the upcoming series of events, and of the immediate future.

 

“Cecil?” Kevin asked.

 

“I’m trying,” Cecil apologized faintly, anxious emotions building in his chest, and worse, his face.

 

Kevin sighed. “I can imagine how you feel,” he said. “I think I feel somewhat the same way.”

 

Cecil looked at him directly, and although the shadows fell heavy on Kevin’s face, he could see the unsteady concern written into its lines. As the two made eye contact, Cecil felt his expression telling Kevin everything. It was vulnerable, but far less frightening than he was expecting. Kevin’s energy did not feel threatening, nor did his observation.

 

Kevin looked away, shifting, hands still gripping the doorframe. Then, he looked back. “What are you afraid of, right now?”

 

Cecil scoffed quietly. “I mean, a lot of things.”

 

“Okay, here’s a better question,” Kevin replied. “What do you need to hear right now, to be less afraid?”

 

For a moment, Cecil struggled to reply. And then, he said, “Tell me what’s in that room. I can’t make myself look.”

 

Kevin looked inside. He seemed resigned, but not specifically impatient. “Hm. Well, there’s the desk, my broadcasting equipment, a small lamp, a jar of bloodstones, some photos, low ambient lighting, some low-grade but decent carpeting that I’ve mostly covered with a softer rug…” he looked back expectantly. “Want me to go on?”

 

Cecil struggled to find the words to respond. But then, embarrassingly, he blurted out, “Am I going to see blood?”

 

Kevin looked taken aback. “What? No! No,” he said, looking at Cecil very seriously. “No. Cecil, listen to me. The only blood that will be in that room will be mine and yours!”

 

“Ugh!” Cecil reacted automatically, taking a step back.

 

“No! It--” Kevin sighed in self-directed exasperation. “All our blood is going to stay inside of us, where it belongs,” he said, pointedly. “I just mean that we’ll be in there, broadcasting, and that is the only blood there will be.” Eyeing Cecil carefully, he added, “Unless one of us gets a nasty papercut, or something, we really shouldn’t see any.”

 

Cecil did not appreciate Kevin’s previous phrasing one bit, but nonetheless, he felt reassured enough to peek around the corner into the studio. When he did, he sighed in relief, body slouching in a much more pronounced way than he would have liked to show Kevin. But it was just as Kevin had said; it looked like a normal studio, like his studio.

 

“Whoo, okay,” he said, laughing nervously. He straightened up. “Okay. This is okay,” he said. “All right.” And then, he walked in, glancing back at Kevin, who gave him an uncomfortable smile that seemed to try to be reassuring.

 

As Cecil looked around in a slow circle, trying to process what he was seeing, and realizing this studio really was exactly like his own, the door clicked shut behind the two of them, and with a start, Cecil realized that he was completely alone with Kevin, in a dark room. And then, another click sounded, and warm light flooded a section of the floor between them from the desk lamp. That light spilled onto Kevin’s strangely familiar face from below, and gently diffused out, stretching itself into the darkness, until the darkness overwhelmed it again. They stood still for a long moment, in the light and the shadows, shrouded in the gentle whirring of machinery.

 

“You know, Cecil,” Kevin said, watching his fingers still resting on the lamp’s switch, and speaking as if he were divulging a secret, “This studio, like any good studio, is completely soundproof. When you are in this room, unless you’re broadcasting, even if you scream as loud as you can, not a soul can hear you.”

 

Cecil suddenly felt almost dizzy, as Kevin looked back at him, about to speak again. “Oh, god. Don’t make me fight you, Kevin,” he interrupted in a low, unsteady voice, heart in his throat. “ Please .”

 

Kevin took a couple steps back in alarm. “What?” he whispered. And then, his eyes registered understanding. Then, in a matter of seconds, Kevin’s expression seemed to travel through denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance--hitting five of the seven stages of grief, as Cecil understood them, but skipping steps three and five, ‘undulating’ and ‘emulsifying’--and then finally landed on ‘apologetic.’

 

“Wow, that came out way more threatening than I intended,” Kevin backpedaled, laughing a nervous laugh and raising his hands defensively.

 

“Oh, did it?!” Cecil demanded, in a much higher voice than usual, slightly less horrified, but not fully convinced that it had not actually been a threat. “Ya think?!”

 

“Ah, I’m so sorry!” Kevin exclaimed. “Kevin, you birdbrain,” he muttered to himself, squeezing his eyes shut in a pained way. “Ugh! I’m starting over. Cecil: sometimes, I come in here to scream, before reporting something particularly stressful, because I know no one will hear me in here, and because, well, sometimes, you’ve just gotta scream! And…well, to be honest, I may have done exactly that a few minutes ago, before I came to get you,” he admitted, clearly embarrassed. “I know you’re having a very bad day, so if you need me to give you a moment of privacy, to scream the vibrations of your fears into these silent walls that will keep them safe for you, I can step out for a minute.” He wrung his hands awkwardly, giving Cecil a toothy grimace.

 

Cecil stared at him, mouth agape. Well, if he hadn’t needed that before , then he certainly did now. Nonetheless, he felt relief wash over him as Kevin explained, and as he read Kevin’s body language, which seemed uncomfortable and guarded and apologetic. Cecil felt a pang of regret for continually assuming the worst when this Kevin spoke, even if that response made the most sense.

 

“Oh, he said helplessly.

 

Kevin nodded. They stood in silence again, for a moment, and Kevin inhaled through his teeth, looking distantly at a spot just past Cecil. It occurred to Cecil that even though Kevin had had that panic attack in the car, he was obviously trying to help him. And not only that, but he was offering to leave him alone in his studio , despite his obvious fears about having him here at all. The kindness involved in this gesture made his heart ache, and made the apology that had stuck in Cecil’s throat earlier come unstuck.

 

“Kevin--” Cecil began.

 

“So--” Kevin began, simultaneously. “Oh--no, you go ahead.”

 

Cecil looked to him for confirmation. “Oh, are you sure?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah,” Kevin said, nodding and gesturing for Cecil to continue. “Go for it.”

 

“Okay. Um…” Cecil began, hoping this would not also come out the wrong way. He met Kevin’s eyes, and said, “I just wanted to say that I am so sorry.”

 

Kevin blinked, and frowned. “What?” he asked. “What for?”

 

“I mean, for this,” Cecil explained. “For the situation you’re in right now, because of me.”

 

“That’s…” Kevin sighed. “That’s not ...technically your fault.”

 

“Okay, but... I scare you ,” Cecil said.

 

Kevin’s jaw set, but his expression confirmed Cecil’s point, and Cecil felt a wave of regret.

 

“I’m just sorry that my presence here is causing you pain,” he said softly. “And I’m sorry I assume the worst when you speak. I’m sorry I am reminding you of what could have happened, and of what did happen.” As Kevin looked back at him, he could only stare back, feeling incredibly vulnerable. “I’m sorry, Kevin,” he whispered.

 

Kevin looked at him for a long moment, processing what he had said, also looking fairly vulnerable, and more than a little conflicted. But then, he finally nodded. “I’m not quite sure what to say,” he said. “But, thank you, Cecil.”

 

Cecil still feared what Kevin could do to him. A fear like that could not be erased in just one conversation, especially with a history like theirs. But for the first time in that history--or rather, in an inverted, mirrored, terrifying, alternate-universe history--the two of them shared a time and space, and their frequencies had matched, and dialogue was possible, and dialogue was happening . After so many near-misses, he and Kevin stood together in a bloodless studio, and, Glow Cloud be willing, All Hail the Mighty Glow Cloud , perhaps this time, their meeting would not result in disaster.

 

...Or, it totally would, and one or both of them was about to wind up super screwed because of this. He still had to talk Desert Bluffs, the town he had cursed in his bloodstone circle more times than he could possibly remember, and essentially beg them for mercy, in front of Kevin, knowing that Carlos would be hearing every word, and that unknown and unfamiliar danger lurked everywhere, and that he might end up being tried for terrible crimes he had never committed.

 

He felt a bit dizzy again, and leaned on the desk for support. “You know...I think I’m actually going to have to take you up on the whole screaming thing.”

 

Kevin nodded. “Right,” he said. “Um...I’ll step outside. Just, please don’t touch anything, or... do anything. I am very serious; do not .” He said this with wide eyes, holding his hands up defensively in a gesture that said, ‘for the love of god, please just stay put.’ Cecil would have been insulted--he was a radio professional, not some inane dial-twisting button-pusher--but considering the context, he let it go.

 

“I assure you, I won’t,” Cecil promised.

 

Okay ,” Kevin assented, hesitantly making his way to the door. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I’ll knock first.”

 

“Thank you,” Cecil sighed, nodding. “I’ll, um, make it fast.”

 

“Gotcha,” Kevin said, and with another attempted smile, he left.

 

The door shut behind him. Kevin took a few steps down the hallway, away from the door. And then, he paused. The two of them stood on either side in anxious silence, Cecil still leaning on Kevin’s desk, Kevin staring blankly toward the light at the hall’s end, both of them processing the weight of what they were about to do.

 

Kevin would go out and get some water from the pantry, and collect 20 dollars from an angel, who would press a small container into his hands, and insist that he and Cecil please eat at least one cookie each before broadcasting. When he returned to the hallway a moment later, hands full, he would peer in through the glass on the door first, to ascertain whether Cecil needed more time. And just before deciding with an empathetic wince that the answer was yes, Kevin would catch a glimpse of his double’s backlit, cowering frame in profile, eyes filled with existential terror, fingers gripping his hair helplessly, mouth opening wide into a muted, desperate scream.

Chapter Text

Carlos of Desert Bluffs had pulled himself together enough to face his fellow scientists, and so, he pushed open the door to the lab. Carlos of Night Vale hung back behind, as they had decided upon before entering.

 

Everyone was gathered in the center of the room. Luisa sat on top of one of the empty workstations, swinging her legs back and forth, and Nilanjana leaned against it from beside her, texting. Mark and several others stood in a semi-circle around them. It looked like almost everyone was here. This lined up with his expectations; when he had checked the group chat a moment ago, he had read that Mei would be arriving soon, but Travis was unaccounted for.

 

As he walked in, the group turned to him. Luisa spoke first. “Carlos!” she called. “You made it!”

 

The others chorused and nodded their own greetings, and Carlos realized just how relieved he felt to see all of them.

 

“Hi everyone!” he said. “I’m so glad you’re all here. Hopefully Travis will show up soon, too…”

 

“He still hasn’t replied, but I called and texted him,” Mark said. “But in the meantime, what’s happening? That first text of yours was a little concerning.”

 

“You said we could have doubles?” Nilanjana asked. “Why would we have doubles during Sandstorm 2.0, if we didn’t in Sandstorm 1.0? Also, there’s almost no wind today, and definitely no reports of a sandstorm.”

 

Carlos said, “There’s a lot going on, and it’s not clear why. The short version is that new versions of people’s doubles are beginning to appear, all over town, at a rate that seems to be increasing. These doubles are from an alternate world, where history has played out very differently.” He paused, remembering what he had learned about that world’s Kevin with a feeling of dread, but pressed on. “I have been asked to elicit your help in studying why and how this is happening, and in coming up with potential solutions to accommodate this influx of people.”

 

The scientists murmured in concern. Mark said, “Okay, I’m sold,” and the group nodded in agreement. “So, that’s the short version. What’s the long version? What else do we know?”

 

“...Well,” Carlos said, stepping back toward the door, and placing his hand on the handle. “First things first, I need to introduce you to someone.” He opened the door and met his double’s eyes, in a way that still felt just absolutely electrifying in its surreality, and he nodded.

 

“You might recognize him,” he managed to joke, and Carlos of Night Vale stepped inside.

 

A wave of shock passed over everyone’s faces. Some of them gasped, while others took a step back.

 

Carlos of Night Vale shifted a bit uncomfortably, and smiled weakly, waving half-heartedly. “Um, hi,” he offered.

 

“Ohoho, my god, what?! ” Luisa laughed, breaking the stunned silence that had fallen over the room. “Well, hi!”

 

“Hi, Luisa!” Carlos of Night Vale said. “Wait, that is your name here, right?”

 

“Yeah! Yeah it is!” Luisa exclaimed. “And do you go by Carlos?”

 

“Yeah, I do. And so does he,” he seemed to realize, gesturing to Carlos of Desert Bluffs, who now stood just to his left. The two shared an appraising look. “This could get confusing,” he said.

 

“We should probably figure out how to distinguish between each other,” Carlos replied. “Similarly, we should probably create terms to distinguish between your world and mine.”

 

His double nodded. “That’s true! Hm,” he said, stroking his chin thoughtfully.

 

Carlos struggled not to mirror him for a moment, but then joined him. “Kevin called you Carlos Too,” he said, “but that could make it sound like I am Carlos One, and I did not come first, nor do I want to imply that you are ranked number two.”

 

“I guess for now, you could just say Carlos of Night Vale, or Night Vale Carlos,” his double said, “because that’s where I just came from.” He turned to Carlos with an expression that Carlos found surprisingly difficult to read. “Which would make you Carlos of Desert Bluffs.”

 

Hearing the name “Carlos of Night Vale” made Carlos of Desert Bluffs feel almost wistful, but he nodded. Before he could reply, Nilanjana asked, “Wait, you went to Night Vale, in your world?”

 

“Yes,” said Carlos’ double. “All of us did, actually.”

 

“Woah,” Mark said, eyebrows raised. “ That sure would’ve been something...”

 

“It really is! Night Vale is the most scientifically interesting community in the U.S.,” Carlos’ double said, and a smile broke across his face. “When we heard of it, we had to come here to study its incredible weirdness. Wait, no; not here , to Night Vale . This is Desert Bluffs.”

 

Carlos felt a deep twinge at Night Vale Carlos’ words, and a rush of what felt like hot poison as he looked at him. He could not decide whether it was anger, or horror, or some terribly misplaced regret. Whatever it was, he believed that it, like many of the feelings he had experienced today, was toxic, and did not belong in his body.

 

“I don’t know about all of you,” Mark said, looking to the other scientists, “but I have so many questions.”

 

“So do I,” said Carlos of Night Vale. “This has been a very confusing day.” He laughed nervously.

 

“Well, welcome, Carlos of Night Vale!” Nilanjana said, stepping forward. “I almost feel like I should offer to shake your hand, or something. It’s fine if you don’t want to, though.”

 

“Oh! Well, I wouldn’t mind that,” he replied, smiling again as he stretched his hand out. “It feels weirdly formal, since I already know you, kind of, but then again, we’ve technically never spoken before today.”

 

Nilanjana took his hand and shook it, with a suddenly confused expression. “God, you’re right,” she said, and she looked between Carlos and his double, as if examining a spot-the-difference picture, and trying to find the places where their understanding did not intersect. “Pleased to meet and/or partially know you, though.”

 

“Back at you,” Carlos’ double laughed quietly, as their hands slipped apart. “It’s really good to see friends right now, actually. This world is very different from the one I just left.”

 

Nilanjana hopped back onto the table, and the two Carlosi became a part of the circle everyone was standing in. Watching his double, Carlos of Desert Bluffs suddenly realized that he felt strange and alien, or maybe it was just the surreality of the situation kicking in. He knew he was real, but he was watching himself from the outside, as himself.

 

He had had dreams like this one, not in their content, but in their sensations. He wondered; if he spoke, would any sound come out? Was his own physical reality, well, real ?

 

“How is this world different?” Nilanjana asked, and his throat tightened.

 

His double explained the basic situation to the other scientists. He did not mention Cecil, nor did he mention anything the two of them had discussed in the car, but he told them that, of course, he had just come from Night Vale, which had recently absorbed Desert Bluffs in the fallout of Strex’s ruination. He also explained that Strex had come to Desert Bluffs first, and that no scientists had been there to help stop them. When he said this, Carlos could feel the heavy implications of this idea weighing upon the others, for many of the same reasons it weighed upon himself, especially when they spoke their thoughts aloud.

 

“Oh, god. Is everyone okay?” Luisa asked. “Well...god, probably not. Does everyone in Desert Bluffs walk around wearing blood, now, like Night Valians tend to here?”

 

Night Vale Carlos’ face fell. So did his own, for mirrored reasons.

 

“Oh...I knew that wearing blood became a cultural practice for Desert Bluffs, after The Incident, but it is still sobering to hear you say that,” Night Vale Carlos said. “Yes. And I guess the same thing happened here, to Night Vale.”

 

“Wait, The Incident?” Desert Bluffs Carlos finally managed. “Is that what we called our version of The Episode?” The fact that his double and the other scientists seemed to hear him was very helpful in making him feel more like himself, again.

 

Night Vale Carlos considered this with some obvious concern. “The Episode,” he repeated, grimacing slightly at the way that word held the promise of a terrible story, but stopped itself before revealing the details of that story. Carlos knew for certain this was the reason his double was grimacing, because he felt similarly horrified by the nature of the word “incident” in this context.

 

“I don’t know who originally called it The Incident,” his double finished, “but that’s what everyone calls it now.”

 

The scientists murmured. And then, Mark asked, “Wait. If Strex came to Desert Bluffs first, instead of Night Vale, then what happened to Kevin? Did you know him?”

 

Night Vale Carlos’ breath caught in his throat, and his eyelashes fluttered as he looked down, trying to brace himself, awash with sorrow. Desert Bluffs Carlos did not see this. He did not have to, because he also found himself looking elsewhere, unable to breathe.

 

“Um…” Night Vale Carlos said, voice high and dripping with sadness, “Well…”

 

Carlos could feel everyone in the room reading tragic meaning into his and his double’s silence.

 

“I knew him, once,” his double continued painfully, “but not anymore.”

 

“Oh, god,” Mark said quietly. “Carlos, I am so sorry for your loss.”

 

Carlos of Night Vale looked up at him, clearly shaken by Mark’s choice of words. “What…?” he whispered, and then, his eyes widened. “Oh--oh, no, I--to be clear, he’s not dead. But...he is lost,” he said, looking very lost, himself.

 

Carlos of Desert Bluffs felt very much the same, but he was also horrified at how obvious his double’s sorrow really was. For one, he was letting on that he had loved Kevin. For two, if that sorrow was so obvious on him, it probably would looked very similar on himself if someone were to ask him about Cecil. And for three, Carlos had reacted in ways he had not expected earlier , when Cecil had arrived, and realized now that he might already have let a fraction of that sorrow slip into Kevin’s awareness without meaning to. He felt out of control, and frozen in this understanding, but he knew he needed to do something to conceal the nature of his double’s feelings, or else, everyone might discover his own...

 

“Oh…” Mark said, nodding, with concern in his face. “Well...I’m still sorry.”

 

“I am, too. He was a dear friend of mine,” Carlos of Night Vale said quietly.

 

This caused some confused glances among the other scientists, but at least his double had not admitted romantic feelings for Kevin that could be extrapolated to himself. Nilanjana looked right at Carlos of Desert Bluffs, and he looked away, trying to look unaffected by the absence of Kevin in his double’s life. He had no idea what his face might be communicating to the world, but he hoped it was saying very little.

 

“Who else has shown up, so far?” Luisa asked. “You said there were more.”

 

Just then, the Erica who had eaten one of his tomatoes earlier appeared in the corner, casually leaning sideways on one of the chairs. A few feathers floated to the ground listlessly next to them.

 

A chorus of “Erica!”s came from the scientists. Carlos saw that his double looked slightly startled by this, and then thoughtful.

 

“‘Sup!” Erica said cheerfully. “I bet you’re wondering who else has shown up in town, so far?”

 

“Seriously, how do you do that?” Luisa exclaimed. “That’s like the third time you’ve done this to me!”

 

“I keep saying we should interview them to understand the extent of their omniscience,” Nilanjana said.

 

“I’m with you there,” Carlos agreed. He met Nilanjana’s eyes, and made the ASL sign for ‘same’ between them. Nilanjana looked pleased, and nodded.

 

Erica shrugged. “Just to warn you all in advance, I can only tell you so much without seriously altering the future and causing problems. There is some stuff I can tell you, but other things have to stay unknown.”

 

“Like earlier today, when you didn’t warn me that my double was going to show up in my living room?” Carlos asked, with a mock sternness that concealed deeper feelings of betrayal and anxiety, particularly with regard to Cecil’s appearance.

 

“Yeah, exactly,” Erica said, apologetically. “I really did feel too awkward to come in at one point, like I said before, but if I had warned you before it happened, things might have gone differently, and the other futures were...not quite as good.”

 

Carlos of Desert Bluffs had no conceivable idea how today could have gone worse. That being said, the idea that he was not actually in the worst future made him feel sort of better.

 

...Actually, no. He felt like he was dangling over a precipice of potentially worse and worse things, and that did not make him feel better at all .

 

“Hey, um, Other Me, I know we kind of already went over this,” said his double, “but I’m really sorry about all the yelling, and vase-throwing, and generally aggressive things I did, earlier.”

 

Carlos saw that his double was grimacing, and he made a similar expression back. “I’m sorry too,” he said. “I actually was meaning to apologize to you again, too. I have never thrown a knife at somebody before, and it was not my best moment.”

 

“Woah, what ?” Luisa interjected. “ You threw a knife ?”

 

As Carlos looked around and saw the shock on everyone’s faces, he felt his face burning.

 

“In his defense, I fully intended to throw it back at him, before Ce--” his double choked on Cecil’s name, and quickly pushed forward, “before I, um, got interrupted. Honestly, seeing my double was scarier than I ever thought it would have been. I now personally understand why so many people in town got into fights on Sandstorm Day, and even why there were so many deaths.”

 

“And that is why I warned all of you ,” Carlos added. “I had always imagined myself responding to a situation like this one with curiosity, but something instinctual kicked in when I saw him, something that felt unreal and wrong. It felt like looking at a paradox, but more personally, like he was here to replace me,” he said. He met his double’s eyes again, and it was still eery.

 

“Again, I assure you that I am not here to replace you,” said his double, raising his hands defensively. “I still have no idea why I’m here, or even how I got here. That being said, I totally assumed the same thing. Again, I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s okay,” Carlos said. “To be fair, we’re even. I hit you in the stomach, you hit me in the shoulder, we both at least attempted to throw a knife, and we yelled a lot , but we made it over here alive, so I’ll take that.”

 

His double nodded. “Is your shoulder okay, by the way?” he asked.

 

“I mean, it’s probably going to bruise a little,” Carlos said sheepishly, “but I’ll be fine. How’s your stomach?”

 

“Same here, probably,” said his double, “but I’m okay, too.” The two continued to share a regretful look.

 

“Carlos, I can’t believe you got into a fight. And with another Carlos !” Mark exclaimed. “Like, I get that you were very afraid, but still, it’s you .”

 

Exactly ,” Carlos said. “He was me, again .”

 

“Do you two need ice, or anything?” Luisa said.

 

The two of them shook their heads in unison, and said, “no thanks, Luisa, I’ll be fine.” It was a creepy feeling, but they also supposed, in unison, that it was pretty interesting.

 

“Woah,” Luisa said, eyes wide, like everyone else’s.

 

“Huh, that’s--” the Carlosi said, again in unison. “Oh, no, you go ahead,” they said. “Wait, you--oh, geez.” They stepped back at identical distances and at the exact same second, and turned their heads in just the same way, and then shuddered. “Wow,” they whispered. “We’re really syncing up.”

 

Horror began to set in. as they realized that this could go on indefinitely. “Oh, god, this is really, really weird. How are you doing that?” they demanded to each other. “I don’t know; it’s not on purpose! Sorry! It’s okay, it’s just-- agh! How do we stop ?!”

 

“Carlos!” Nilanjana interrupted, and they turned to look at her.

 

“Yes?” the two of them replied as one, louder than they meant to.

 

“I think I know how to help. Carlos of Desert Bluffs,” she said, pointing to him, “you say something.”

 

“Uh...like what?”

 

“That works,” she said, smiling. “Now, Carlos of Night Vale, say something else.”

 

“Something else,” Carlos of Night Vale said. The two of them looked at each other, then sighed in relief, simultaneously, which made them tense up again. “Oh, no,” they both whispered, and that alarmed them even further.

 

“Hm,” Nilanjana mused. “This is fascinating .”

 

Carlos continued staring at his double. “Maybe so, scientifically,” the two said, suppressing a shared shiver, “but I’d prefer to stop. This is a very creepy experience to have subjectively.” They shared a suspicious look. “Ugh, seriously, how are you replicating every word I say?!”

 

“Wait, wait, I’ve got this!” Mark said, searching his pockets. His face showed that he had found what he was looking for, and he pulled out a coin and held it up, high above his head. It glinted underneath the light.

 

“You’re heads,” Mark said, pointing at Carlos of Desert Bluffs. He pointed at Carlos of Night Vale. “And you’re tails.”

 

He threw the coin into the air. It oscillated rapidly, and everyone waited with bated breath as he caught it. As he did, Carlos of Night Vale’s phone buzzed.

 

“Heads,” he said.

 

“Mark, I like this idea too,” said Carlos of Desert Bluffs, “but how is it different from Nilanjana’s?”

 

“I mean, it’s derivative of it,” Mark said. “But if nobody else is around to ask one of you to talk first, you could use a coin to decide.”

 

“That’s true. Whose coin would we use, though?” Carlos of Night Vale said, as his phone buzzed again. The two of them shared another glance, and went to sigh again, but thought better of it.

 

“I was going to say Carlos,” Mark said, gesturing to Carlos of Desert Bluffs. “Well--Carlos of Desert Bluffs. Because this coin toss landed on him.”

 

Carlos nodded. “Okay. I’ll make sure to have at least one coin on me at all times. And I’ll keep being heads.”

 

His double nodded back. “That sounds good. Although, if this keeps happening, it might get kind of tedious to keep flipping coins.”

 

“That’s true,” Carlos agreed.

 

“Hmm,” the two of them said together, and then looked at each other again with an exasperated “oh, my god.”

 

“Wait!!” Luisa exclaimed. “I’ve got this!!” She ran to her desk, pulled open a drawer, and held up a fist-sized potato, much as Mark had held up his coin. It did not glint underneath the light, because it was a potato.

 

“What you two need is a Talking Potato!” Luisa said, walking over and proudly holding it out to Carlos of Desert Bluffs. “It’s like a Talking Stick, except it’s a potato. Whenever you get stuck, you can pass it off to each other until you’re not stuck anymore, and then next time, whoever currently has the potato goes first.”

 

Carlos took it. It looked like a nice potato. Offhandedly, he realized that he had not eaten in a while. What time was it, anyway? Speaking of the time, when was the broadcast going to happen? Had Kevin gotten to the studio safely?

 

He shook himself back into the present. “This works for me,” he said. He looked at Carlos of Night Vale. “What about you?”

 

His double reached for the potato, and he dropped it into his hand.

 

“I’m fine with this,” Carlos of Night Vale said. “And now we have three possible solutions, so thank you, everyone.” He turned to Carlos of Desert Bluffs. “And, just because I’m curious: what number am I thinking of?” He handed the potato back to him.

 

Carlos looked at him nervously. Part of him did not want to guess any number at all, but he did want to know if this was possible. But, did his double actually think it was? It occurred to him that it might be one of his favorite numbers, if it was anything at all. “Uh...tau?”

 

As he dropped the potato back into Night Vale Carlos’ hands, not fully letting go, his double gave him a cautious look. “No; I wasn’t thinking of a number at all. I don’t know if this would even work. I probably would have initially wanted to pick something like tau, just because I like it, but I realize that this would create a bias, and so I would have ended up using a more unguessable number, like 16.42.”

 

Carlos smiled back weakly, fingers still splayed on the potato. “My first thought was that you might not really think this could work, and then that you would have thought of tau. I realized your third point right as you said it.”

 

“Ah...” said his double, also not moving the potato. “Well...would you have guessed 16.42?”

 

“I don’t know,” Carlos said, “but that would be a very interesting experiment, to see if doubles come up with the same ‘random’ information more often than the average person. Either way, um, Carlos , I may be very creeped out right now, because this situation still feels very much like a paradox, but to be honest, I am also totally and completely fascinated .” He could barely stop a grin from spreading across his face, as excitement overrode his fear.

 

“And back at you, Carlos ,” said Night Vale Carlos, with what was very clearly the same feeling.

 

“If the timelines don’t collapse from the strain of this collision, think of all the unique scientific research we might be able to do,” Desert Bluffs Carlos said, wide-eyed.

 

“Think of all the new scientific terms that will arise from this situation!”

 

“And of all we can learn about cause and effect by comparing timelines!”

 

“And, think of this! If we can discover how this is happening--”

 

“--Then we can not only reverse it--”

 

“But learn more about the fundamentally weird nature of time!” The two finished together, clutching the potato with two identical sets of hands, and grinned at each other. Carlos felt a strange mutual energy almost buzzing between them, as they recognized the potential positive effects of this situation for the first time.

 

“Oh, god,” Luisa said in a slightly joking tone that also held genuine awe. “Folks, watch out. We are witnessing a bona fide scientific anomaly. There really are two of Carlos now.”

 

Nilanjana hopped down from the desk again. “Yes, there are. And there might be two of everyone, soon. Carlos,” she said, to both of them, “I think all of us are excited to begin studying this. Can we ask you some more questions, Carlos of Night Vale?”

 

“Yes, you can,” he replied, taking the potato again. As it slipped from Desert Bluffs Carlos’ hands, he felt a bit breathless.

 

“Okay,” Nilanjana said, grabbing a clipboard and a pen. “So, let’s go over this again. You were on a walk, by yourself, and then you felt a strange sensation, right?”

 

As Nilanjana said “by yourself,” Night Vale Carlos’ eyes widened. He stuck the potato in his pocket, and fished his phone out of another.

 

“Um, actually,” he said, “That’s not completely accurate. I was walking with someone.” He looked at his phone’s screen, and then sighed in obvious relief, with a hint of a smile on his face. “I’m sorry, please go ahead; I just have to reply to this really fast,” he said.

 

As his double tapped out a message, Carlos was stunned again at how obvious his emotions were, to an outside observer, and privately felt very self-conscious. He also realized that Kevin had not texted him, yet, and felt a tinge of worry.

 

“So, your phone works here?” Nilanjana said. “That’s good.”

 

“Yes, it is!” Night Vale Carlos said, still typing. “So far, it seems to message people from this world, and other people from my world, just fine. But I have not been able to contact my own team of scientists, as of now.”

 

“Interesting,” Nilanjana said. “So you’ve texted someone from your world! Who was it, if you don’t mind me asking?”

 

“Um,” Night Vale Carlos said, pausing in the middle of his message. “He’s…” he stared off into space, looking very frozen, and then looked back at Nilanjana. “Um...you know, I actually do mind,” he said, grimacing. “ Just for right now. It’s not that I don’t want you to know; it’s just a complicated situation. But I will tell you that he is the same person I was walking with.”

 

Carlos noticed the scientists’ confused gazes shifting between himself and his double.

 

“Oh,” Nilanjana said, tilting her head. “I mean, okay. Um...” she tapped her pen on her clipboard, clearly unsure why this would be the case.

 

“You’ll find out who it is very soon,” Desert Bluffs Carlos said, and as he did, he realized that they would probably find out his double’s relationship with Cecil, soon enough, too. “Just, not yet.”

 

“So you know who it is?” Luisa asked, side-eyeing him.

 

“Um...yes,” Carlos replied. “But there are other concerns to address right now. Kevin is going to do a broadcast about current events, and I’m sure he’ll want to interview us to see what we’ve found, and I’d like to have something to tell him.”

 

Nilanjana returned to asking Night Vale Carlos questions, as he finished texting. He appeared to consider his screen very uncertainly for a moment, before he pressed the send button and put his phone back into his pocket. As he did, Desert Bluffs Carlos remembered the thought he had just lost in their mutual dancing around the subject of Cecil, which was that Kevin had not texted him, yet.

 

He could assume that the messages his double had replied to had been Cecil’s, judging by the timing in which his double had pulled out his phone to check, and the degree of relief in his face at receiving them. He pulled out his phone, and sure enough, there were no new messages, still.

 

Kevin and Cecil should be at the station by now. If Cecil had spoken to Night Vale Carlos, then why hadn’t Kevin--

 

Just then, his phone buzzed, and a message from Kevin appeared. It read, ‘Hi, love. I got here safely. Is everything okay on your end?’

 

He sighed in relief, just as his double had. He wrote back, ‘Okay, good. We’re here safe and making introductions.’

 

He paused, listening to the conversation happening before him. His double was explaining the strange sensation he had felt as he had traveled from one world to the next--his vision had warped, and for a moment, his body had felt unreal, wrong--and decided that he should turn his attention back to the present as much as possible. He and Kevin could talk more later.

 

‘Gtg, sorry. I love you,’ he finished, and sent the message.

 

The scientists’ next hour would go much like this. Erica would sit with them all, and occasionally contribute, and sometimes give Carlos a reassuring smile that he could not help but doubt, even though they were possibly omniscient. Carlos would text Kevin back again and agree to a possible interview, and they would all gather as much information as possible, while carefully and somewhat awkwardly avoiding the subject of Cecil.

 

Carlos’ stomach would twist into knots, thinking about what might happen to Cecil. He could only imagine how much more so his double’s stomach would be twisting right now, and how much fear must exist within his double, if this much existed within him.

 

He would hope that Kevin would be all right. He would hope that Desert Bluffs, his home, would be all right.

 

Carlos the scientist was not the kind of man who prayed. He could not pray, because communication with deities--beings that did not even exist, in his paradigm of thought--was impossible. But something in him would feel like it was pleading into the void where such a being might live anyway, as he desperately hoped that Cecil would please be kept safe from harm, if only just this time.

Chapter Text

Vanessa Jay strode into the Secret Police’s meeting room with fire in her chest, and determination carved into the set of her jaw. Followed by a few of Erica, who held the interviews from the other world’s Cecil and Carlos, she walked straight down the middle, toward the still somewhat recently appointed Sheriff Max, who leant on the front podium, examining their nails.

 

Halfway there, Sheriff Max met her eyes with a steely expression, standing upright. The room began to quiet, until the soft thudding of her steps on the floor became audible.

 

She stepped up next to Max with a smile, which they half-returned to her.

 

“Hi, Max. Thank you for gathering everyone,” Vanessa said. She turned toward the Secret Police, and nodded. “And, thank you for gathering, everyone.”

 

“Right. You said you knew something about the new outsiders who came in,” Max said bluntly. “There have been even more arrivals since you called, and honestly, I am beyond ready to get to the bottom of just what the hell is going on here.”

 

“You and me both,” Vanessa said. “But I do have information for all of you, and beyond that, I’ve asked Carlos the Scientist and his team, Erica, and Kevin to learn as much as they can, and report back.”

 

“Oh great. Ask an interloper to help stop the other interlopers from swarming in,” Max muttered. “That’ll go splendidly .”

 

“Carlos the Scientist has been a great help to Desert Bluffs in these past years, and especially during the revolution against Strex,” Vanessa replied evenly. “And I would say the current issue isn’t ‘stopping’ the interlopers. None of them know why they’re here, and all of them who I am aware of so far would like to return home.”

 

“That sounds great, if we can believe people who claim to be from Night Vale,” Max said.

 

“I do believe them,” Vanessa said brightly, staring Max down, resisting the urge to get into an argument with them over their intolerance. “I know that if I found myself in a strange world without warning, it would be my first priority to return to Desert Bluffs.”

 

“Well, we can definitely agree on that!” Max said, smiling again, but their eyes still held suspicion. They stepped down, and sat in the front, motioning for her to continue. “Right, then. Please, tell us what you’ve found.”

 

Behind Vanessa, Erica and Erica were still setting up the first video, which was Cecil’s interview. Vanessa looked out over the gathered officers. Most of their faces were partially hidden, and she could not fully tell what expressions they had, but she could feel growing tension and concern in their body language, and in the air of this room. She knew that soon, everyone in town would be feeling this, too, and that if what she was about to do went wrong, panic might break loose, and cause great harm to people she loved.

 

She took a deep breath, and sighed. Then, she stood as tall as she could, and began.

 

“Secret Police officers, thank you for being here. I have requested your presence so that I can share with you all some very important information regarding the immediate future of Desert Bluffs.

 

“According to Erica, as of a few minutes ago, there have been twenty-one arrivals in town from a different world, where history took a much different path for us. Most of these arrivals seem to be appearing very close to their counterparts in this world, and all of them believe themselves to be in Night Vale, until they are informed otherwise. The rate of these arrivals seems to be increasing, and according to Erica, they are unlikely to stop. No one knows how to reverse this process, yet, but our best minds are working to understand it, and to create short and long-term solutions.

 

“So,” she continued, among worried murmurs, “As of right now, we are facing an imminent influx of hundreds of, if not thousands of, confused and scared people, and the people of Desert Bluffs are very likely to feel the same way. There is going to be some chaos, but it is important to remember that these people are innocent, and have no way to get back home--”

 

“Wait, wait,” Sheriff Max interrupted. “You’re telling me that hundreds and maybe thousands of Night Valians are going to be invading our town, and we don’t already have plans to deal with that?”

 

Vanessa exhaled slowly, focusing on keeping her cool. “First of all, Max, this is not an invasion. It’s a lot more like a natural disaster. Nobody we know of has chosen to come here, and--”

 

“There is nothing natural about this situation,” Max scoffed, uncrossing their arms and leaning forward.

 

Vanessa smiled pleasantly, and also leant forward, onto the podium, as more uncomfortable murmurs spread through the room. “I’m so sorry, Max,” she said. “The middles of my sentences just seem to keep interrupting the beginnings of yours, and that’s got to be a little frustrating. I’m so sorry for being inconsiderate.”

 

Max’s eyes widened, as everyone else’s turned toward them. They looked more intimidated than Vanessa had expected them to, which came as a nice surprise.

 

“Oh, I...sorry. It just...this is just very alarming news,” they insisted, gesturing wildly, and looking to the officers sitting nearby. “I just think we need a solid plan, is all.”

 

Vanessa had not expected them to apologize, but she was pleased that they had. “No, I really do hear you, Max,” she said. “This is definitely an alarming situation, which is why you’re all here, and why I’ve asked everyone who already knows about it to help us figure out what to do.

 

“Needless to say, everyone is going to be alarmed by this,” she continued. “So I have asked Kevin to make a broadcast in about an hour’s time, so that people will know what to expect, and how to avoid the double-on-double violence that happened on Sandstorm Day.” She gestured to the Ericas. “Erica has successfully broken up many of the fights already, and once everyone has calmed down from their initial panic, it has been surprisingly simple to convince everyone to cooperate with each other. Right, Erica?”

 

“Yes,” the Erica behind her confirmed. “You really just have to get them to talk, and tell them that nothing bad is going to happen to them, and nobody there actually wants to kill anyone. De-escalation is super effective, and so is just being prepared, and knowing to say these things and explain the situation to your double, when they arrive.”

 

The officers shifted in even greater discomfort than before, seeming to realize for the first time that this was going to affect them directly.

 

“Yes,” Vanessa said. “So, after this meeting, it will be very important for you all to do your part in keeping things contained. And for the love of the Glow Cloud--”

 

“All Hail the Almighty Glow Cloud,” everyone droned--

 

“--please do not kill any of the newcomers,” she exclaimed. “If there is one way to put people into a hostile state, it’s by killing their friends and neighbors. We are going to need to negotiate with them, and we cannot do that with their blood on our hands.”

 

Sheriff Max cleared their throat, and raised their hand.

 

“Is this about the phrase ‘blood on our hands?’” she said. “Because most of the newcomers aren’t wearing blood, except for those who are originally from Desert Bluffs.”

 

A ripple of muted conversation swept the Secret Police. “I’m sorry ?!” Max burst out, incredulous.

 

“Their history is very, very different,” Vanessa said, and she could not keep the sadness out of her voice. “You’ll see what I mean in a moment. Erica, is the video ready to go?”

 

“Yep,” Erica nodded. Vanessa turned around, and as the screen came on, she saw Cecil and herself sitting in her office, frozen on a frame where Cecil’s hair covered his eyes. God, there really was no turning back now, was there? She pressed forward, desperately hoping that she could protect Cecil, as she had promised she would.

 

“Just before I came here, I interviewed two of the arrivals,” Vanessa said. “These interviews will likely be painful to watch, but please, watch them all the way through, and listen to what these two have to say.”

 

She paused for a moment, and took a deep breath, trying to think of how to preface this.

 

Max cleared their throat, and Vanessa looked at them. “Yes?” she asked.

 

“Are you telling me that’s not our Kevin?” they asked, gesturing to the screen.

 

“That’s right,” Vanessa said.

 

“So it’s the Kevin from the other world?”

 

Vanessa turned to Erica. “Are we at 0:32?” She asked them. They nodded. She turned back to Max.

 

“Max,” she said, “the man you are looking at is going to be absolutely critical in terms of keeping things under control. I consider him to be the other world’s ambassador, because he is the Voice of their town, and it is crucial that we treat him with all the respect that position deserves, and protect him in particular from harm. If we don’t, we will have a disaster on our hands.” As she spoke, Max’s expression registered the beginning of disbelieving horror. “I know this is asking a lot of you, in particular, but please, watch this, and try to keep an open mind.” She took a deep breath. “I think you will see that he acts nothing like his counterpart in this world does.”

 

She turned to Erica again. “Let’s do this,” she said.

 

The video began to play, and the image of Cecil moved his face, so that his eyes glinted heliotrope. The officers whispered in confusion. Max remained frozen.

 

‘Speaking of which, let me introduce you, and let you tell me about your situation,’ the image of Vanessa said. ‘Viewers, you will almost certainly recognize Cecil’s voice, but in case you don’t, this is Cecil of Night Vale.’

 

Several of the officers gasped, eyes going wide in dismay. “What?!” Max demanded, gripping the arms of their chair and craning away.

 

‘He is here with me in my office not because he has returned from the Other Desertworld he was thrown into two years ago, but because he is a different Cecil than we know, with a very different history,’ Vanessa’s image explained, as Max’s breath quickened. ‘He arrived here from a different world altogether, in the same way the others who have been appearing around town have appeared, and I am interviewing him now so that before you all discover he is here, and before you allow your fears about him to dictate your actions, he has the chance to speak for himself...’

 

“No, no, no !” Max yelped, jumping to their feet. Several of the officers around them pulled them back down, shushing and trying to comfort them. Vanessa bit her lip, as sympathy for them washed over her. She knew that their experiences during the Revolution had left them particularly scarred, in ways that might never fully heal, and that there was perhaps nothing that frightened them more than the sound of Cecil’s voice.

 

Vanessa paused the video, as Cecil was about to speak. “Max, I’m really sorry,” she said. “I know how much our world’s Cecil scares you, and you are not alone in that. But this Cecil, from the other world, was never the Voice of Strex, and the thought that he ever was, in any world, terrifies him.”

 

“Are you stupid ?” Max cried. “You just sat there and casually interviewed Cecil ? What were you thinking ? He could have killed you!”

 

“I felt perfectly safe sitting there with him,” Vanessa said, strangely touched at their concern despite the way they’d expressed it, “because he is just like Kevin.” She gestured behind her. “If you keep watching, I promise you, you’ll see what I mean.”

 

Max panted for air, and put their head in their hand, squeezing one yellow-gloved hand of the officer to their left with their other. They leaned into the hands of the officer to their right, who was wearing very heavy mascara and gently squeezing their shoulders, and mumbling something into their ear. Max shook their head in disbelief, eyes shut.

 

“Fine,” Max said weakly. “Fine! But if I heave up my lunch,” they said, moving only the hand on their forehead to point at Vanessa, “ you’re cleaning it up.”

 

“Deal,” she sighed apologetically. “Okay. I’m pressing play, again.”

 

‘Thank you, Mayor Jay,’ said Cecil’s image, shaking her image’s hand. ‘I really appreciate that.’

 

“Oh, god,” Max moaned in pure, barely-stifled dread. Many others had similar reactions. Some covered their mouths, and others flinched. No one seemed unaffected.

 

‘Cecil, can you tell us about your world? I have spoken to Erica and several others, who also gave us interviews detailing what they know about your situation, but what can you tell us about your life?’ Her image asked.

 

‘Well,’ said Cecil’s image, which really was almost an exact mirror of Kevin’s, ‘My name is Cecil Gershwin Palmer. I am a radio host, and The Voice of Night Vale, which is a friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and strange lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep…’

 

Vanessa looked out over the audience of officers. As the Cecil from the recent past continued on, she carefully watched their fearful body language, and what she could see of their expressions. For a solid moment, she was all but overcome with apprehension that no one here would be receptive, and that she had effectively thrown Cecil, and his Carlos, into peril.

 

But despite their deep and very justified unease, as Cecil began to describe his world’s history, the officers listened intently. As they processed Cecil’s words, Vanessa saw many of their guards begin to drop, ever so slightly. And then, the subject of Carlos came up.

 

‘That’s my Carlos. He is such an incredible scientist, and person. He always tries his best, and he has helped so many people. Even you, apparently, in this world. He’s...he’s always surprising me in new ways,’ Cecil’s image said, almost breathless with loving pride.

 

‘Are you two together, Cecil?’

 

‘Ye--yes,’ Cecil’s image said, suddenly anxious, as if he did not know if he should have disclosed this. Vanessa felt guilty for having asked him that question, but the officers before her registered surprise, and she could feel them processing the understanding that a man such as Carlos the Scientist apparently loved this strange Cecil, and that this was raising more questions than fears. It could only help him to say this, if all went well. Aside from that, it would explain a lot about Carlos’ following interview.

 

As Cecil went on to describe his unwanted relationship with StrexCorp, and the actions he took against them, there was another shift in the air, which felt sympathetic to him. But an even greater shift happened when Cecil described his world’s Kevin as Strex’s voice. There were gasps, and quite a few whispered “no”s.

 

‘They changed him, broke him, so he couldn’t...so he couldn’t...fight back anymore,’ Cecil said. ‘They made him do horrible things, and he...and he…’ he clutched his chest, looking terrified. ‘Oh god, not now. Please, not now.’

 

As Cecil began to panic, several of the officers leaned forward in their seats. They watched in concern as Cecil began to hyperventilate, and as the interview dissolved into Vanessa and Leticia trying to help him calm down again.

 

‘I need Kevin to have succeeded in fighting them!’ Cecil’s image cried, and Vanessa saw the blue, heavily mascara-ed eyes of the officer to the right of Max soften in sorrow. ‘I need the two of us to have never worked for--for that horrible company, I n-need to have stopped them from winning in his life, too, I need to un-know the truth of this world!’

 

In the following moments, Cecil’s distress, which evolved from pacing to him kneeling on the floor and all but sobbing, seemed to have exactly the effect Vanessa had hoped it might. Even Max was tentatively peering out from between their fingers. She did feel skeevy showing her good friend’s double’s panic attack to a group of strangers, but according to Erica, this interview had been all but vital to protect his world’s people, and his own life. Now, she supposed, she could see why, and she hoped Cecil would forgive her for not finding a better way to help him.

 

When Cecil said what had happened to Desert Bluffs after the fact, in his world, Vanessa felt sorrow sweep through her, again, and through everyone else, too. And then, he looked into the camera, orchid eyes filled with vulnerability and fear, and finished.

 

‘Desert Bluffs,’ he said, ‘I...I don’t know what to say. I do not know what I have done in this world, but please, forgive me for it. I am sorry if my presence here causes you pain; I promise that is not my intention.’ He paused, taking a breath that seemed hard for him. ‘I don’t intend anything. I...don’t even know why I am here, to be honest. I will cooperate with you in any way that I can, and as soon as I figure out how to go back to my own world, I will. Please just give me that chance. Thank you.’

 

He looked away, and the video stopped. After a long moment of silence,Vanessa swallowed, and stepped back up to the podium. She struggled to speak, but found her voice again.

 

“Secret Police officers,” she said quietly, “you are not looking at someone dangerous. You are essentially looking at the equivalent to Kevin, who has a different name and a different voice. He has agreed to be interviewed in Kevin’s upcoming report on this, so that the people from his world can hear a familiar voice and know that he is safe from harm, and that they will be, too. He is also going on the air,” she said, amongst concerned mutterings, and another yelp of protest from Max, “so the people of Desert Bluffs know he’s here, and don’t have to experience more fear than they need to about it.” She swallowed. “I realize this is all very sudden, and that hearing his voice will be unpleasant and initially horrifying for a lot of people, but this truly seems like the best option, to me, and also, to Erica. He can help us, and in doing so, also protect himself and his world’s people.”

 

The person with heavy mascara raised their hand. Vanessa gestured toward them.

 

“If he talks like that,” they said softly, “I don’t think most people will stay afraid of him, in the way they’re afraid of the other Cecil. He doesn’t sound the same.”

 

Vanessa looked at Max, whose head was in their hands. “I’m glad you feel that way,” Vanessa replied, equally softly. “I know that will not be universal, but I think the amount of fear in everyone, on the whole, will go down by announcing his presence, and letting him reach out to his fellow Night Valians.”

 

Max raised their head, and looked straight at her. Their eyes held so much fear, but that was just it: fear . Their overconfident facade had come down just enough for her to look past the anger and bitterness that so often swirled on their surface, and to see the way their fingers shook in front of their lips, which also trembled.

 

“You want to put him on the radio? On purpose ?” they said, in a strained voice. “And you actually think that will help ?”

 

They looked betrayed, and horrified, and wounded. It hurt to see them like this. But they also were not shouting at her, or at anyone else, and as their eyes darted between hers, Vanessa believed that on some level, Max might actually be considering what she had said.

 

“If there was a better way,” she said, to them directly, “I would offer that solution first.”

 

Max turned to Erica with a pleading expression. “Erica, tell me this isn’t happening, and that this isn’t really your actual solution. There has to be a better way.”

 

Erica looked at Max with a kind expression, then nodded slowly. “I’m sorry. This is definitely happening, Max. And as far as there being a better way...I mean, there are other ways. In fact, there are many other ways. But Max, we have followed the ever-branching tree of time, and it really seems that this course of action will be most effective in saving people from unnecessary suffering,” they said.

 

“It seems that way,” Max repeated. “But you aren’t positive .”

 

“Nothing is ever a hundred percent,” Erica said. “There are many factors to consider. Any person can take action that will change the future, at least in some small way, and we’re factoring in thousands of people, including you, and the wide influence you have. But I can say this for sure: if the Voice of Night Vale is silenced, or harmed in any way, Night Vale and Desert Bluffs alike will suffer for it. And there are far more positive futures that could result from putting him on the air, tonight.”

 

Max thought for a long moment, shaking their head, looking very unsteady. Then they looked up at Vanessa.

 

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Max said, “But who the hell is your second interviewee, if you started off with... him ?”

 

“Carlos the Scientist,” Vanessa replied. “The one from the other world.”

 

“Oh, brilliant ,” Max spat. “The one who’s dating him. I’m sure he’s not biased at all .”

 

“Wait, though. I really want to hear him out,” interjected the person with mascara, and the group behind them nodded and spoke their assent. “I mean, yeah, he’s an interloper, but I know our Carlos is a good person, and this one might be the same way.”

 

“Besides, we all know he can’t lie for crap about things that are important to him,” said the officer on Max’s left, who wore yellow-tinted glasses and matching gloves. They shrugged. “At least not directly. I’ve probably monitored him the most of anyone here, and I can confirm that he lies by omission only , because it is the only kind of lying he can do, that he doesn’t immediately take back and apologize for.”

 

Quiet, fond laughter echoed through the room, but Max scoffed. “Okay, maybe so, but he is really good at lying by omission. The sheer amount of omissions he makes means we still have nothing on his entire past. If he doesn’t want you to know something, the man is a sealed vault that apparently nothing except ‘his sugar-voiced sweetie’ can even come close to prying open.” They made half-hearted air quotes, and a face that said, ‘ew.’

 

“Aw, that’s so true,” said the officer wearing mascara. “God, they’re so sweet together. I’m so glad they got engaged.”

 

The room echoed again, this time with excitement.

 

“Ugh,” Max said, rolling their eyes. “Whatever. Just...play the damn video, I guess, if you’re all so in love with him.”

 

Behind Vanessa, Erica had changed out the video, and as she turned, she saw the still image of Carlos where Cecil’s had been. He looked shaken and slightly disheveled, and Vanessa recalled that he had needed a few minutes to gather himself before beginning, but as always, his hair was undeniably, irrevocably perfect.

 

“This interview was conducted very shortly after the last one ended,” Vanessa said. “He confirms that his and Cecil’s history--by which I mean the history of their world, and also their personal history--are what Cecil said. He also talks about Desert Bluffs, and...well, I’ll let you listen to him, directly, and decide how you feel.”

 

She began the video.

 

After the Vanessa from the past had introduced Carlos, he told the story of how he and his boyfriend Cecil had arrived, or at least, what he knew of it. As he spoke, the Vanessa of the present watched the officers before her, who seemed mesmerised.

 

“It really is him , again ,” whispered the yellow-gloved person, in awe, during a pause in which Carlos took a drink of water. “Man, what a day I chose to try and go home early.”

 

‘Carlos, can you please tell me about your world?’ the Vanessa onscreen asked.

 

‘Sure,’ Carlos said. ‘Um, is there anything in particular that you would like to know?’

 

‘Well, pretty much anything. What town you just came from, what you do there, just, anything relevant to this situation.’

 

‘Oh! Well, I just came from Night Vale,’ Carlos said, smiling a little, and the officers rustled in their seats. ‘I’m a scientist there. I am still a scientist here, too, because I am always a scientist.’

 

“You sure are, Carlos,” the yellow-gloved officer whispered, a smile touching their eyes. Vanessa smiled too, with a similar fondness. Max shot them a disgusted look and scoffed quietly, earning themself some disapproving glances.

 

‘Can you tell me more about Night Vale, and specifically, what happened with StrexCorp?’ Vanessa’s image asked. ‘And can you tell me about Desert Bluffs’ place in your world?’

 

‘Oh,’ Carlos’ image said, looking very serious. ‘Yes, I can...’

 

Carlos told the story of Night Vale’s revolution against Strex, and described the roles everyone played in taking them down. He described tall beings named Erika--no, Eri ka , with a K--and Tamika Flynn and her militia, and Dana Cardinal, who was Cecil’s old intern, and who had become the mayor. And then, he said that he had been honored to help Dana, from within the Desert Otherworld.

 

‘Cecil’s intern, Dana, became the mayor?’ Vanessa had asked, intrigued.

 

Carlos had nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘She wasn’t even running, but after everything she did organizing the Masked Army to save the town, the results came from Hidden Gorge, and she was chosen. Which makes sense! I think most people agree that she has totally earned that level of respect.’

 

‘Wow,’ Vanessa had said.

 

Standing here, she experienced the same feelings that her past self had experienced, which were two-fold. The first was that she could not believe how similar her story and Dana’s had been. The second was surprise that someone from Night Vale, other than Cecil, was talking about Dana in the present tense.

 

‘Cecil says you’re quite the hero,’ Vanessa’s image said. ‘But if you’re anything like your counterpart, you probably don’t like that term.’

 

Carlos smiled, rolling his eyes. ‘Cecil is too kind. Honestly, I think of him as more of a hero than myself, in that situation. Everyone who could participate in the Revolution did, but he was its voice, and without him, without his reporting, and the platform he gave to Dana and to Tamika, and his words of inspiration, I don’t know if Night Vale would have made it through.’ His expression softened. ‘But between everyone’s efforts, we did.’

 

The love in Carlos’ voice was palpable in this room, too, just as it had been in Vanessa’s office. It sounded just like the way he spoke about Desert Bluffs, and about Kevin, in this world. Vanessa glanced at Max. They stared at Carlos’ face in in unblinking apprehension, mouth hanging slightly open in what was unmistakably existential dread.

 

‘Have you ever been to Desert Bluffs?’ Vanessa’s image asked, and Carlos’ image blinked a few times, slightly taken aback.

 

‘Well...I’ve been to the part of Night Vale that used to be called Desert Bluffs,’ he replied. ‘East Night Vale, we call it now. But it’s only been recently that I’ve been able to. I never saw Desert Bluffs until after the Revolution. Actually, my team of scientists and I initially debated going there, too, but partway through the decision-making process, we heard that there had been an Incident, and that it had become extremely unsafe to travel there.’ He paused. ‘That’s all anyone would tell us. No one wanted to talk about it. And, I mean, Night Vale wasn’t exactly known for being the safest place, either, and we were very curious about what might have happened in Desert Bluffs, but based on what little information we received, we really got the feeling that Desert Bluffs would have been nearly unsurvivable, at that point. And so, we came to Night Vale.’

 

Vanessa’s image leant back in her chair, weighed down with dread. ‘How awful,’ she said quietly.

 

‘I know,’ Carlos said, somberly. ‘I have heard wonderful things about Desert Bluffs, before all of that happened. I would have loved to see a Desert Bluffs that Strex never destroyed.’

 

That sentence hung heavy in the air. Vanessa’s image tilted her head at Carlos, and after a pensive moment, he sat up, and his eyes went wide.

 

‘I am in a Desert Bluffs that Strex never destroyed,’ he breathed. ‘I...I do get to see that, after all.’ He smiled, but his eyes were wistful, and his lips trembled, and fell flat. He looked at the ground, and it looked like the air was pulled from his lungs.

 

‘Carlos?’ Vanessa’s image asked softly. ‘Are you all right?’

 

Carlos looked up at her, and then away again. Although the camera did not capture its intensity, the Vanessa of the present remembered the grief in his gaze.

 

‘It’s just...the friend who told me the most about Desert Bluffs isn’t here to see it, too,’ Carlos said quietly.

 

Vanessa’s image leaned forward. ‘You know,’ she offered, ‘we have had newcomers from East Night Vale, so it’s possible that if your friend isn’t here already, they will be.’ She paused. ‘I would be honored to show them our town, if they come.’

 

Carlos closed his eyes and swallowed, seemingly even more pained by her words. ‘Mm...I don’t think he can,’ he said sadly. ‘But I’m sure he would have loved that...’

 

Her heart ached, as she finally understood what he had been saying. ‘Oh,’ she half-whispered. Then, less quietly, but still gently, she said, ‘Carlos, I hate to make you say it, but...could you please tell our viewers who you’re talking about?’

 

Carlos’ face twitched, as if it were trying not to screw up. And then, after what looked like a very difficult breath, he said. ‘I’m talking about Kevin.’

 

“Oh, my god,” breathed the yellow-gloved officer, looking devastated. The whole room rustled with similar emotion.

 

‘You said before that he now lives in the Other Desertworld, right?’

 

Carlos nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he whispered. He went to speak again, but his words caught in his throat, and he bowed his head and squeezed his hands tightly together, in what almost seemed like physical pain. ‘Sorry,’ he managed after a long pause, bracing himself. ‘What other questions can I answer for you?’

 

‘You don’t have to apologize,’ Vanessa offered, shaken by his demeanor, and by the truth he had just spoken to. ‘It’s a very painful subject, and I am so sorry. But yes, I do have a couple more questions. The first one is this: do you trust the Cecil of your world?’

 

‘Yes. Absolutely,’ Carlos said, with much more resolve than before, looking up toward her again.

 

‘Why?’

 

Carlos was silent for a long moment, looking away and frowning in contemplation. ‘I think that that is a complex question, with even more complex answers. There is a myriad of reasons why I trust Cecil Palmer, and it is difficult to express any of them fully in a single answer. I guess the simplest answer is that whenever I have trusted him, I have been very glad that I did, and I have never regretted it.’

 

Then, he looked back toward her. ‘I don’t know how to express in words what being able to trust him has meant to me, over the years, or how to specifically defend his trustworthiness in positive terms that will translate to this particular situation. So I guess I’ll use negative terms, instead, and just say that in all the time he and I have shared, he has never given me any reason not to trust him.’ He paused. ‘Cecil is a good person. He is someone who is willing to stand up for what is right, even in the face of terrible danger, and who deeply cares for his town, and his friends, and his loved ones. Sometimes I tease him about being a little bit of a blabbermouth, on his show, but as far as his character goes, I would trust Cecil with my life, no questions asked.’

 

In this room, many of the officers’ body language communicated openness. Some even nodded. But Max turned away at this, body bent in a pain Vanessa had never seen them reveal so clearly.

 

On the screen, Vanessa’s image looked at Carlos for a moment, and smiled. ‘It may be difficult to express something like that, but I think you expressed it beautifully,’ she said. ‘I would be very honored for someone to describe me that way.’

 

‘Oh, well, thank you,’ Carlos said, also smiling a little. ‘It’s just the way I feel.’

 

‘I guess my last specific question is this: is there any reason for Desert Bluffs not to trust the Cecil of your world?’

 

Carlos bit his lip thoughtfully, then shook his head. ‘I really don’t think so,’ he said. ‘He has every reason to cooperate with you, especially because you’ve given him the chance to defend himself like this. And to take that a step further, while Night Vale and Desert Bluffs have a complicated and painful history in both of our worlds--one that is strongly linked with Strex and its terrible violence--I don’t think he resents Desert Bluffs itself for what Strex did. Especially not after...well, after we learned more about how Desert Bluffs initially resisted Strex. So, no. You don’t have any reason to distrust him.’

 

‘All right,’ Vanessa replied. ‘Before we stop, is there anything you would like to tell the Secret Police, directly?’

 

She gestured toward the camera. Carlos’ eyes followed, and he looked directly at the lens, and then away again. The Vanessa of the present knew that Carlos was not always comfortable with eye contact, even if it was theoretical eye contact, and she really hoped that the officers would understand his hesitance to stare into the camera’s eye in the context of neurodivergence, rather than assuming he was lying. Most people in Desert Bluffs were good at telling the difference, but if there would ever be a bad time to misjudge something like that, this was it. Vanessa glanced at the officer with yellow gloves, who was leaning forward on the edge of their seat.

 

‘Um…’ Carlos began. ‘Yes. The main thing is that, like I’ve said, neither I nor Cecil wants to cause any problems by being here. I know that while I am here, I will do everything I can as a scientist, to help as many people as possible with this situation. And when it comes to Cecil…’ he trailed off, looking directly into the camera again. Please don’t hold him responsible for...whatever his counterpart has done, in your world. He is one of the kindest and most loving people I have ever known, and I--’ He shut his eyes, and when he opened them again, they looked wetter, and he was looking just down and away. ‘I just love him, with all my heart.’ He took a breath to steady himself, and gave a short nod. ‘Thank you.’

 

‘And thank you, Carlos,’ Vanessa’s image said. She nodded, and there was a click as the video ended.

 

Silence hung over the room, and Vanessa breathed shallowly, and did not move. Watching the officers before her, she was all but certain that they would take mercy on Cecil, but the space between her certainty and her fears began stretched wide in this final moment of decision. It was imminent. It was happening, now , and she could not stop any of these people from making the decision they were going to make.

 

“Well...he was definitely telling the truth,” said the yellow-gloved officer, finally. Everyone turned to look at them, and they continued, “He definitely trusts Cecil, on a level similar to how our Carlos trusts our Kevin, and he seems to genuinely care about Desert Bluffs, even in a world where we, um...went the Night Vale route. Which isn’t all that surprising, considering that in this world he’s friends with John Peters, and some other people from Night Vale.”

 

“Wait, who?” asked the person with heavy mascara.

 

“John Peters? You know, the farmer?”

 

“Ohh, right,” the person with mascara replied, nodding.

 

Sheriff Max rose to their feet, and the room turned to look at them. They wobbled a little, staring at the wall and blinking rapidly, and then, after a difficult breath, they slowly walked up to the podium. As they stepped onto the platform, with far less grace than usual, Vanessa realized that Max was shaking. She moved to let them stand beside her, and they did, gripping the podium so hard their fingertips and knuckles turned white. They did not look at her, and instead closed their eyes and swallowed.

 

As Vanessa watched, with a tight feeling in her chest, she very much wished that she could have given Max more of a warning, before exposing them to something involving Cecil. The two of them already had a very tense relationship, particularly since that day a few weeks ago, when she and Night Vale’s mayor, Vance James, had agreed to officially merge Night Vale into Desert Bluffs. Max had taken it upon themself, and upon the Secret Police as a group, to try and drive the former Night Valians out of their own homes, and Vanessa had taken a government vehicle and driven it into the fray, creating a one-person barrier between the terrified people of West Desert Bluffs and all the wrath of the City Council and the Secret Police.

 

It had felt like a scene in an old Western, staring Max down. It had felt like bringing only the element of surprise and her official title to a gun fight, because as she had processed what she was doing, and eyed Max’s golden gun holster with a dry mouth and a racing pulse, she had realized that this was exactly the situation.

 

But she had spoken anyway, and had held her ground, and defended West Desert Bluffs.

 

We will drive these people out of our town,” Max had said, and she had responded with many words. But it was when she had crossed her arms, and held her head high, and landed on “I won’t let you,” that their striking hazel eyes, lined with perfectly symmetrical eyeliner wings and remnants of mascara that had clearly been cried off earlier and wiped off incompletely, had become unreadable, shifting between hers. They had said nothing, and after one of the longest moments of Vanessa’s life, had only turned and left, pushing up their circular yellow-tinted lenses, and glancing back again and again as they got in their car and drove away.

 

She stood beside them, now, as they pushed a loose brown curl behind their ear, and opened their eyes again. She did not breathe, and only tried to stand tall and confident, as she had that day. This was part of the same conversation, even if it was evolving in ways no one could have predicted. She would stand her ground again.

 

“My first instinct,” Max said, “would be to drive down to Kevin’s station immediately, and stop Cecil from going on the air, at any cost.”

 

The room held still, as they took another breath, and slowly spoke again.

 

“That being said...based on everything we’ve heard today…” they swallowed. “I’m uncertain that my first instinct is right.” Their jaw quivered, as they looked across the room. “Do not get me wrong. I don’t like this, not one bit, and at the very least, I want several pairs of eyes and ears on that…that... man , if you can call him that, at all times. But if, as Erica says, this is really what will keep Desert Bluffs the safest…” they trailed off, shaking their head and squeezing their eyes shut again. “Erica, Mayor Jay, you really aren’t giving me a proper time frame to make my choice about this, and that really seems like an intentional decision.”

 

Vanessa stood frozen. She knew this was not completely untrue, but what else could have kept Cecil safe, what else was as certain to keep Desert Bluffs from descending into chaos?

 

“Without doing things this way,” she said, “without making a space for Cecil to explain and defend himself, I can only imagine what you all would have done to him. And I was not about to look on and watch those horrors take place, and risk having to live with another innocent person’s blood smeared on my conscience. But I am truly sorry, Max.” They turned to look at her, and quietly, she finished, “I don’t like putting you in this position, and I wish there had been a better way.”

 

Max’s expression was clouded with a tincture of betrayal, fear and anger, along with that unreadable something that she recognized from before. They seemed divided, as if part of them were here, fearing and resenting her actions, and the other half were somewhere else entirely. And then, they turned back to the other officers again.

 

“Let’s put it to a vote,” Max said distantly, and murmurs spread across the room. “If you all are convinced that we should stand down, as you seem to be, then for now, we will. Raise your hand if you want to stop Cecil from going on the air.”

 

Six hands shot into the air. Two more followed, a bit slower. Max raised their own, half-heartedly, and then dropped it to the podium with a thud.

 

“Now, raise your hand if you want to stand down, and let this nightmare progress uninhibited.”

 

The officers indicated their protest at the loaded phrasing of this option, but what looked like about eighty hands reached toward the ceiling, anyway. Vanessa gasped quietly, heart pounding. The officer with heavy mascara, and their neighbor with yellow gloves, held their hands high, with determined expressions. The yellow-gloved officer nodded.

 

Max’s lips twitched, and they nodded too, in horror. “Okay,” they said. “That settles it. We leave him be, and he waltzes into Kevin’s studio again, and we watch and listen, and make sure he doesn’t go out of line. But if he does anything,” they said with gritted teeth, “and I mean anything , to threaten us in any way, then we stop him . Do you all understand me?”

 

There was a chorus of affirmation, and the yellow-gloved officer said, “Absolutely.”

 

Max turned their attention to that officer. “Sage,” they said, “you had better watch that other Carlos very carefully, and collect every scrap of information he leaks. Leave absolutely nothing, of any significance, unreported.”

 

“You have my word,” Sage said. “My schedule is cleared.

 

“And Cameron?”

 

The person with mascara tilted their head.

 

“You, Valencia and Elliot are assigned to watch Cecil. Do it very thoroughly, and do not let him catch you off guard. If you do, any blood he sheds will be on your hands.”

 

“We won’t let you down,” Cameron said, softly but with firmness, and two other officers nodded.

 

“Everyone else, go out and de-escalate whatever encounters you see,” Max finished. “Keep Desert Bluffs safe. You’re all dismissed.”

 

As the room erupted into loud conversation, Max stood still. After a moment, they said, “I need to be alone.” They unsteadily let go of the podium and stepped off the platform, and without looking back at Vanessa, walked down the center aisle toward the exit.

 

The amount of relief Vanessa felt was staggering. She took a few gulps of air, and as she glanced at Sage, they lifted two yellow fingers to their forehead, and saluted her, with a half-smile. She smiled back with a sigh, but then, she looked to Cameron, who was watching with a look of concern as Max made their way through the crowd.

 

And even through her relief, Vanessa felt the same concern for Max, and also, although less so, for what they might do next. It was this concern that moved her feet to wordlessly follow their path, past the clamoring Secret Police officers and through the double doors, and into the hallway, where Max was already twenty yards away, and just about to walk outside.

 

“Max, wait!” Vanessa called, and they stopped. She began jogging toward them, and they threw their head back in exasperation.

 

“Ugh!” Max cried, in what seemed like equal parts anger and pain. “What else could you possibly want ?!”

 

She caught up to them, stopping about six feet away. Her heart ached for them, and for just a moment, she let her guard down.

 

“I stand by what I just did,” she said, voice holding the beginnings of a tremor. “I can’t live with myself if I don’t. But if there is anything I can do to help you, or to make things easier, please tell me.”

 

Max’s jaw set, and their stare could have burned a hole through her. For a moment, Vanessa felt certain that they were going to scream at her, and that they were very thinly restraining themself from attacking her. But then, their face began to twitch, and though they tried to hold themself together, their expression changed to something far more heartbreaking. To her shock, she saw a tear fall down their cheek, and then another.

 

“You want to help me?” Max asked, in a soft, broken voice, shaking their head. They let out a short, humorless shudder of a laugh. “Can you bring my Sean back from the dead?”

 

Vanessa felt the air leave her lungs, and something in her stomach tightened. Max’s eyes searched her own, in unmuted desperation. Hers began to burn, too, in response.

 

As Max abruptly turned and walked out the door, Vanessa could not stifle the harsh sob that preceded her tears.

Chapter Text

“The plan is go,” came Vanessa’s voice, tinny from the phone. “The Secret Police have approved your broadcast, although the Sheriff isn’t exactly happy about it.”

 

Kevin breathed in, and as he sighed in conflicted relief, he made eye contact with Cecil, who shared that sigh with him. Cecil looked away quickly, and Kevin could viscerally feel the worry that constricted Cecil’s movements.

 

“Alright, then,” Kevin said. “We should start in ten minutes.”

 

“Okay,” Vanessa replied. “Take care, okay? Both of you.”

 

“Thanks,” Kevin said. He saw Cecil inhale again, nodding.

 

“Really, thank you,” Cecil said, in a subdued tone.

 

“Of course, Cecil. I’m going to call the Carloses now. You two let me know if you need anything.”

 

A click, and then, silence. The two shared another look, and then, Cecil looked away again, more slowly, as if seeing something in the space between Kevin and the buttons and dials before him.

 

“This is really going to happen,” Cecil stated. There was no waver in his voice, but there did not have to be, for Kevin to hear it.

 

Kevin nodded slowly. “Mhm,” he said. “Yep. It certainly is…”

 

He went to put his phone down, but just before it reached the desk it buzzed, as a message lit its screen. ‘I love you,’ it read.

 

“Oh,” he said, smiling softly despite everything.

 

Cecil looked at him, questioning.

 

“Oh. Um, it’s...”

 

“...Carlos?” Nilanjana asked.

 

Carlos of Desert Bluffs jumped a little, tearing his eyes from the clock on the wall. ‘11:03 am,’ it read. It was not 11:03am. Or, maybe it was, in this exact spot. Carlos was still unsure as to how time worked in Desert Bluffs.

 

“Hm?” he replied distantly, as his double paced nervously on the other side of the room, running his hands through his hair.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“I, uh…” He looked to his phone again, checking for a reply that Kevin almost certainly had not had time to type yet. “5:50pm,” read the time on its display, which seemed more accurate. But who knew how long that last ten minutes before the broadcast might take, or what might delay it, or what might come to light before then? He did not.

 

God, how he missed the comforting tick, tock of a clock that actually ran in a way that made consistent sense. He was normally fine without it, these days, but in tense moments like this one, he had once found the standardized rhythm of clocks soothing. In place of a real clock, he called upon the memory of one, and listened to it, shutting his eyes. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick--

 

“Is there something we can do to help?”

 

He opened his eyes and looked at Nilanjana, and felt a surge of fondness for her, beneath a layer of undulating anxiousness on his surface. He saw Mark and Luisa, to Nilanjana’s right, also looking at him, and felt something similar.

 

“I...I don’t know,” he said softly. “I don’t think so.”

 

Luisa blinked a couple times, and then, furrowing her brow, she asked, “This is about Kevin, right?”

 

“Um, yeah,” he said, squinting a little at her. “How did you know?”

 

“Nothing else makes you this nervous,” Luisa replied. “You and your double have both been pacing and staring at clocks, on and off, for a pretty long time now. He’s too anxious to even answer questions anymore, which is partly why we’re talking to you.”

 

“The other reason is that we’re a little worried about you,” Mark said. “Something is actively going on, and you’re very clearly not saying something.”

 

“I can’t,” Carlos said. “At least, not until…” he looked at the clock on the wall again, pleading. ‘11:01 am,’ it read. “Seriously?” he demanded, in an incredulous whisper.

 

“Kevin should be broadcasting soon,” Nilanjana said. “Is that when?”

 

Carlos turned back to her, looking down at his hands, wrapping and unwrapping the string of his phone charm around his finger. He thought for a moment about whether he could say. “Yes,” he decided, nodding.

 

“Okay,” Nilanjana said. “Well, again, if there is anything we can do, then please--”

 

Carlos’ phone rang, and he jumped. He looked at the name of the caller. ‘Vanessa Jay,’ it read. He gasped, and picked up immediately.

 

“Yes, hello?” he said, louder than he meant to. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed his double had stopped pacing, and was staring.

 

“Hi, Carlos,” came Vanessa’s voice. “The plan is go. The broadcast has been approved, and should start in a little under ten minutes. Can I talk to your double, and tell him the same?”

 

“Yes, of course,” he said, breathless, as he strode quickly toward his double, holding the phone out.

 

Carlos of Night Vale took it, with a shaking hand. “Hello?” he asked, as Carlos of Desert Bluffs leaned against one of the workstations, with a confusing rush of relief and new anxiety.

 

As the distant sound of Vanessa’s voice spoke, Carlos of Night Vale sank to the ground, in what his counterpart recognized as the same emotion. “Oh,” he sighed, lowering his head into his hand. “Uh-huh. Mhm. Okay.” Vanessa’s voice spoke again, and he nodded. “Thank you so much.” He hung up, and sighed again, slumping forward into both of his hands.

 

“Is everything okay?” Nilanjana asked. “Who was that?”

 

“It was Mayor Jay,” Carlos of Night Vale responded, before Carlos of Desert Bluffs could. “She said the plan is go.”

 

“What plan?” Mark asked.

 

“In a few minutes, Kevin is going to broadcast,” Carlos of Desert Bluffs said, “and he is going to have an unexpected guest.”

 

Nilanjana and Luisa exchanged a glance. “Who?” Nilanjana asked.

 

“Carlos of Night Vale,” Cameron said quietly, from their police car. They looked into the rearview mirror, and for a moment, they caught their own bright blue eyes, framed by black, spidery mascara. They looked back to the road. “Can you believe this?”

 

“It’s scary,” came Valencia’s voice from the separate car she and Elliot were taking, over the radio dispatch. “I mean, I know he’s not the same one, but god. In a few minutes, we are going to hear a lot of screaming across town.”

 

Cameron nodded. “Yeah,” they said distantly. They fell silent, as a painfully vivid memory returned to them.

 

Cameron could still hear the agonized sound of Max’s voice that night, as they muffled their screams into a pillow during the 1:30am bedtime announcements of that horrific company picnic. It had been only hours since Sean’s murder had been casually announced, as if it were a matter of course. And now, the cruelly detached voice of the man who had used the body of the man Max loved as a macabre form of decoration, a voice which had so often called violence beautiful, had returned again, and was tearing Max to pieces, too.

 

The raw terror and grief in Max’s own voice had seared through Cameron’s chest, and glancing around for any sign of the picnic overseers, they had tried their best to hold Max, rubbing their shuddering back, speaking to them to try and drown out Cecil’s awful drone.

 

“Max, I am right here with you,” Cameron had said, in a wavering tone. “I am here, and this will be over soon.”

 

Max had screamed into their pillow again, and it had come out as a sob. Their body had contracted toward Cameron, as if to draw them closer, and Cameron had obliged, pulling Max toward themself and covering them in a protective embrace.

 

“You are safe right now. I’m here, and I’ll keep you safe,” Cameron had said softly into the straggled curls of Max’s hair, realizing their own face was wet. “I know it hurts, god , I do, Max, but please, please , try to stop screaming. I’ll cover for you as best as I can, but it’s safer if they don’t notice you at all.” They had rubbed Max’s back, as Max choked on a painful cough. “We just need to make it through this, and then, we can scream as much as we need to.”

 

Max had turned and let out a quiet, anguished wheeze of a sob, face contorted. “I don’t want to make it, Cameron,” they had whispered brokenly. And then, their voice had become louder. “I just want it to stop. Please, let this be over! Please, please , just let me have died with him--!”

 

Cameron snapped back into the present with a sharp inhale, heart aching, gripping the steering wheel with helpless desperation. They glanced down at their phone, and saw no new messages.

 

“Hey, Valencia, Elliot?” they said. “I’m taking a quick detour. I need to make sure Max is okay. They haven’t been responding to my texts.”

 

“Okay,” Elliot said. “We’ve got it covered until then, but are you sure they’d want you to do that?”

 

“Nope,” Cameron said. “They’ll be...upset about it. But that will be my problem to deal with. You both take care.”

 

They turned off their radio, and turned left, as Valencia and Elliot kept going forward. They dialed Max’s phone.

 

“God, Max... please tell me you went home,” they whispered.

 

The phone began to ring.

 

Inside their kitchen, lit only by lamplight--ever since the labor camp, fluorescent lighting made them feel vaguely sick--Max held their phone as it buzzed with an incoming call from Cameron. Cameron, their right-hand officer and their most trusted friend, who had just voted to allow Cecil of Night Vale into the Desert Bluffs community radio station to perform a broadcast, knowing better than anyone what that would do to them.

 

They stared distantly at the screen and muted the call, sliding their phone into their skirt pocket. Automatically, their hand reached for the bottle of whiskey in front of them, and began to pour it into a regular water glass.

 

They felt almost numb with fear, but not nearly numb enough. Their heart fluttered like a trapped bird, and their eyes glazed over, replaying the scene that had just taken place, and understanding just how easily it had happened, as if they were not even really there, as if the title of Sheriff, as if history itself, had meant nothing in the face of Cecil of Night Vale , as if nothing in their life ever had been safe from him, and never would be--

 

The whiskey spilled over, and they caught themself. It occurred to them, as they wiped up the excess with a paper towel, that this might be enough whiskey to drown a librarian. It also occurred to them that even this much of it would not be enough to help.

 

They began to drink anyway.

 

After several gulps, Max put the glass down, and took a deep breath. Warmth spread through their ears, and they wished that the sharp edges of reality would soften.

 

They realized they would be no good to anyone like this, but they didn’t care. It was too much to take. Even the mayor, even angels and the secret police, and even Cameron had fallen prey to Cecil’s manipulation, this time. There would be no help for Max, in the unstable reality they suddenly found themself in. They took another trembling swig, replaying the image in their mind’s eye of Cameron raising their hand in support of Cecil, as they had done not twenty minutes ago.

 

As they put down the glass, their hands shook, their body shook with anger, and betrayal, and absolute, abject terror. Their head swam. They had to do something, they felt they absolutely must , but what could they do, now? What could stop a man like Cecil of Night Vale?

 

They imagined themself driving down and storming the station, kicking open Kevin’s studio door to save him from Cecil. They imagined the obsidian eyes of a soulless murderer, staring back at them with his eldritch smile, and jagged, flashing teeth. They imagined that it was too late for Kevin, torn to pieces behind him.

 

They imagined drawing their gun. They did so here, too, in their kitchen, trying to stand tall and fearless before Cecil’s ephemeral, imaginary form. But as they did, their stomach dropped at the violence with which their hand shook.

 

They repeated this action again, and again, and again, trying to get it just right, but their hand refused to stop its awful shaking. Dizzy with panic, they imagined Cecil’s smile, widening even more, as he turned to face them.

 

“I’ll miss the Seans,” they heard Lauren Mallard say, as she had said that awful day when Sean had died.

 

“I’ll miss them, too,” they heard Cecil reply.

 

“No, no, no…!” Max pleaded, trying to stop the scene from playing through again, as it already had so many times before. It wasn’t real, but they felt themself spiraling even further, into that moment when their heart had been torn from them, into the moment that had made them realize the fragility of life, and of love, and of all that was precious, into the moment that had spilled its blood upon all other moments since.

 

And still, Cecil continued on. “But just look how much more beautiful this room is, now!” he crooned, almost breathlessly. “You can see the Seans’ decorations, all over the desk!” He gestured, and Max imagined what Sean’s lifeless face might have looked like, dripping with blood.

 

“No! Stop !!” Max cried. “ Stop it !!”

 

“And running down the walls,” Lauren said. “Yes! So much nicer.”

 

Max cried out in anguish and fired instinctually into the empty space before them, shattering their kitchen window into shards.

 

Glass cascaded to the ground around Diane Crayton, and she screamed, too, as a woman with her face kicked her through her sliding glass door.

 

She fell to the ground, crying out again as a shard sliced her arm, but staggered back to her feet as soon as possible. As she regained her focus, fighting off her doppelganger, she watched as a rabbit bounded downstairs, ears upright, looking frightened.

 

The rabbit turned into a panther. “Mom!” the panther yelled.

 

“Josh, run !” she shouted desperately. “Get help! That’s not me!”

 

“Jacob, don’t listen to her!” her doppelganger cried, scrambling to pick up a large, jagged piece of the shattered door. “And you! You stay away from my son!”  She prepared to lunge at Diane, and Diane shouted in terror.

 

And then, a bright, black glowing appeared over the two of them, freezing them in place. A tall figure, who absolutely couldn’t have been an angel, because angels did not exist, manifested between them, one hand on each of their shoulders.

 

“Erica?” Diane’s doppelganger gasped.

 

Diane said nothing, because she could not acknowledge angels, but she stared, heart racing.

 

“Actually, it’s Eri ka , with a K,” Erika began. “And I’m here to tell you that--”

 

“It’s going to be okay,” Erica finished.

 

In her office, Vanessa looked up at Erica, whose hand rested gently on her shoulder. She looked very tired, and very sad, but maybe, just a little hopeful at those words. “Are you sure?” she asked quietly.

 

“No,” said Erica, “I’m not. But even when we don’t know, it’s better to choose hope than despair.”

 

Vanessa bit her lip. “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt,” she whispered. “But that’s already happening. I know that I’ve really hurt Max.”

 

Erica rubbed Vanessa’s shoulder with a soft look. “Vanessa, please listen to me, and know something: Max still would have been hurt by Cecil’s appearance, no matter what you did. That existed in every timeline we can see. By introducing the idea this way, yes, you have hurt them in a way you could have maybe avoided. But you have also protected Cecil, and both towns.”

 

“I guess I know that,” Vanessa said. “And I don’t regret my part in protecting Cecil, not at all. I just wish I could help everyone. I wish I hadn’t had to make the choice between Cecil’s safety and Max’s well-being.” She looked up again. “Erica, when Max’s double arrives, can you swear to me that you’ll be there to stop the two of them from hurting each other?” She choked on the end of her sentence, looking close to tears. “Please?”

 

“I will,” Erica said, hugging her tight. “I swear.”

 

“Are they safe, right now?”

 

Erica closed their eyes, and followed the branching tree of time along its current path. One of their many bodies saw Cameron, driving past with a concerned expression, and rounding the bend toward Max’s home, and they nodded in assent.

 

“They will be with a friend soon,” Erica answered Vanessa. “I would go to them myself, but it can’t be me, at this point in the timeline. They don’t trust me, right now, and it would just make things worse.”

 

“I see,” Vanessa said somberly. “I imagine they don’t trust me, either. Not that they ever have, but...” she sighed, leaning into Erica again. “I so wish that we could see eye to eye. Is that ever going to change?”

 

“Vanessa, you’re very kind,” Erica said. “But I think for now, you’d be better off focusing on yourself. Maybe just sit and breathe, for a sec--oh, never mind.”

 

A knock came on the door. “Come in?” Vanessa said, quickly wiping her eyes. Renee walked in.

 

“Hi,” Renee said. Eyeing the two of them, and noticing Vanessa’s downcast expression, she added, “Uh, sorry if this is a bad time.”

 

“No, no, you’re fine,” Vanessa said. “What’s going on?”

 

“I just saw the time, is all,” Renee said. “The broadcast should be starting soon, right?”

 

Vanessa looked at the clock, just as it turned to 3:04pm. It was not 3:04pm. Or, maybe it was, in this exact spot. Vanessa, like everyone else, was unsure as to how time worked in Desert Bluffs.

 

“Yes, it should,” she breathed. She leaned over and switched on her radio. Only the faint sound of static broke the silence.

 

Renee walked tentatively to one of the chairs. “Uh, Vanessa, can I stay in here during the broadcast?” she asked. “I’m...ugh, do not tell him I said this, like some sap, but I maybe am a little worried for Kevin.”

 

“Of course you can,” Vanessa said, smiling softly, despite everything. “And for the record, I’m worried too, Renee.”

 

“Too bad neither of us is there to accidentally spill lukewarm, stupidly sugary coffee onto his lap right before he starts,” Renee said.

 

Vanessa snorted. “Oh, god. Is that a personal anecdote?”

 

“Who knows?” Renee shrugged dismissively, rolling her eyes. “But he’s had some real gems as interns before. There was this one named Vanessa--” Vanessa’s eyes widened-- “and you wouldn’t believe what she did to the fridge, on her second day--”

 

“Hey, wait, that’s not fair!” Vanessa interjected, laughing. “That fridge was literally cursed to explode at the touch of anyone whose name started with the letter V! Which, I might add, is a curse that Kevin put on it, to protect it from an intern from years ago, named Vincent.”

 

Renee crossed her arms, eyeing her suspiciously. “Wait, really? Kevin never told me about this Vincent. If that’s true, he just left you out to dry, my dude.”

 

Wow ,” Vanessa said, with a great deal of mock offense that was betrayed by a fond smile. “ Et tu, Kevin? I’m going to have to have a really stern talk with you, after...” she trailed off, looking at the radio. The smile faded from her face, and the static, and her unspoken fear for her close friend, felt somehow louder than whatever words she would have chosen.

 

“It should be any minute now,” Erica said into the static. “They’re getting ready as we speak. In fact, Kevin is just about to turn to Cecil and say…”

 

“...Alright, Cecil. Let’s do this,” Kevin finished, looking at Cecil with a determined expression. Cecil nodded, and returned that look as best as he could, which, subjectively, felt like a bad lie.

 

“Hey,” Kevin said, in a surprisingly comforting tone. “Don’t look so scared.”

 

Kevin’s sudden kindness threw Cecil, but it was strangely emotional to be on the receiving end of it, especially at a moment like this one. Cecil stared back at him, and for a moment, as Kevin reached over to the ‘emergency broadcast’ button, he felt strangely connected to--

 

“Oh, wait !” Kevin exclaimed loudly, causing Cecil to jump. He pointed at Cecil, with a wide-eyed, conspiratory expression. “Do you want a cookie?”

 

Cecil’s face went flat in confusion. “Do I what ?” he asked, equally flatly.

 

Kevin bent down and picked up a container, opening the lid and sliding it toward him. Cecil peered inside, and realized that the contents were the cookies Erica had tried to give him earlier, which he had left in the other room.

 

“They are angel-made, and radio-host approved!” Kevin announced brightly, enunciating each syllable more particularly than he had to, in a way Cecil was sure he had heard his world’s Kevin do before, although he could not place when. “At least, that is what Erica said. Well, in fairness, they really just said that we should each eat one before going on the air, and I may have just remembered that they existed. The cookies, that is. Angels definitely exist.”

 

Kevin reached over and took a cookie, and bit into it, shrugging. He stopped, and held up his hand, shaking his head. “Oh, they’re divine ,” he said, regarding the bite he had taken. He frowned, and tilted his head. “Figuratively, and perhaps literally…”

 

“God, who are you?” Cecil blurted out, and it was Kevin’s turn to jump.

 

“I don’t know !” Kevin said defensively, speaking quickly. “Who are you ? Who are any of us, really, in the great, expanding cosmos, whose meaning is unknown? Now is not the time to give me an identity crisis, Cecil !” He paused, gesturing helplessly to the cookie container. “Just please , eat a cookie!”

 

“Ah! Okay!” Cecil exclaimed, and quickly grabbed a cookie, feeling very intimidated. He paused, and looked at it for a moment, pondering. “I mean...on the one hand, I am vaguely nauseous,” he said. “But on the other, they are white chocolate macadamia, which is objectively the best kind of cookie.”

 

“Oh, no question,” Kevin agreed.

 

“You understand! That’s what I keep telling people. But also, if, say…” he shrugged in an exaggerated way… “Say I die tonight, or whatever , it’s better to do it with the recent memory of a delicious cookie.” He grimaced, and took a morose and very anxious bite.

 

Kevin raised an eyebrow, but his expression was soft. “Don’t joke about that,” he said quietly.

 

“Ha,” Cecil said. “Who said I was joking?” But then, the flavor of his cookie finally registered. “Mmm, oh my god , these are incredible.”

 

Kevin nodded vigorously, chewing on another bite, and then swallowing. “You see ?” he exclaimed. “Like I said: divine .”

 

The two finished their cookies. Kevin dusted the crumbs of his onto the carpet below. Cecil did not dare do the same.

 

Kevin turned to him. “Are you ready?”

 

Cecil wondered if there was any way he could possibly end up not regretting this. He also wondered if he would survive in this town long enough to regret anything, ever again. But despite that, he nodded.

 

“Yeah,” he said. “As ready as I will ever be.”

 

“Alright, then,” Kevin said, in a tone of finality. “We’re going live in three...two...one…”

 

Kevin leaned over, and pressed the emergency broadcast button. The “on air” sign illuminated, casting an unnerving, blood-red glow across his familiar features. Cecil did not move, or breathe. The music began to swell, and Kevin turned to face him, eyes filled with a powerful something that Cecil recognized completely.

 

“Do not fear for the future,” Kevin said, in his golden and lilting voice. “Do not fear for the past, either. Only fear for the present, because that is the only place, in all the interwoven threads of time, where that swarm of angry hornets we are concerned about actually exists.”

 

Cecil could only watch and listen, heart pounding, transfixed by the hypnotic sight and sound of his double, as Kevin said:

 

“Welcome to Desert Bluffs.”

Chapter Text

As Cecil gazed, dumbstruck, into the almost luminescent eyes of a Kevin unlike any other he had seen, the swelling music arrived at its main melody. And oh, how it arrived .

 

Cecil had been expecting the suspended C note, rising in volume, with faint drums beginning to thump in the background, to resolve into the typical sunny guitar music that it always had. But instead, a piano spoke the melody, in a way that Cecil had never quite heard it played.

 

It was rhythmically the same, except played in a harmonic minor key, which Cecil thought gave it more gravitas, and more nuance. The chords, playing with their own percussive rhythm beneath it, became a driving force that pushed the song forward with vigor, allowing that melody to tell a passionate, dramatic story that felt familiar and new all at once.

 

Cecil could not stop himself from giving a small gasp, stunned by its haunting beauty, as Kevin, this strange and uncorrupted Kevin, gazed back into his wide eyes, sitting tall, and proud, and whole before him. Cecil searched Kevin’s face, heart suddenly aching so very much, shaken by the totality of this moment, and by what it meant to him to see Kevin in this way, to know that in a world he could actually touch, Kevin was so wonderfully himself.

 

Kevin’s eyes darted between Cecil’s own, as if he, too, were searching, and unsure of what he was seeing in them. Finally, he gave a nod, and turned to his notes as the music began to fade.

 

“Desert Bluffs, you may have noticed that your radios have switched on, and that you cannot turn them off. That is because this is an emergency broadcast, containing information that may prove vital to both your imminent and long-term survival.” Cecil could have sworn he saw a faint, golden glow pass through Kevin’s eyes, just as he shut them in concentration. “Lorraine Heart, you specifically may have noticed the distant smell of smoke. This is unrelated. That spicy-hot chili you were making is now so temperature-hot that it has caught fire, just in the other room. Today’s news doesn’t even seem to have affected you, yet, so...looks like it might be a rough night for you, in particular! Good luck, Lorraine!”

 

As Kevin spoke, Cecil was awestruck by the understanding that right now, his double really was the Voice of Desert Bluffs. Even in meeting his world’s Kevin, he had never met another Voice, in the way that Cecil was a Voice. He had felt his Kevin channel the strange, sick, false energy of Strex, with an icy tone and eyes like the void, and he had known that something was deeply wrong. He was undeniably a Voice, but one whose ability had been warped and twisted upon itself, and now unnaturally reflected a different energy than that of his town.

 

But Cecil could feel that this Kevin before him was deeply connected to Desert Bluffs, like a tree with many winding roots, reaching deep within the earth. This connection was the same kind that Cecil had with Night Vale, and felt warm. It was breathtaking to experience that kind of connection, and as Cecil now realized, it was just as breathtaking to witness from the outside. He would later be unsure how much of the emotion he felt stemmed from his own experience as a Voice, and how much was because this was Kevin in particular, but either way, the effect on him was undeniable, and visceral.

 

“Listeners, something strange is happening, something that is likely to affect each and every one of us,” Kevin said, pressing a button so that softer, vaguely unnerving music began to play. “If you are like me, it will shake you to your core, but if you listen to my words, you will be more prepared for it...”

 

Cecil continued to watch Kevin, as he described the appearances around town, and explained that the newcomers were from a Night Vale that never fell completely to Strex. He excluded Cecil’s and Carlos’ particular story for now. Cecil’s mouth felt dry, and his heart beat hard and desperate, torn between his fears and the strangely intense emotion of watching Kevin broadcast.

 

He would have to speak, soon, and reveal himself to a town that would reel in horror at his voice. He could only follow this thought with, ‘what then?’

 

“Desert Bluffs,” Kevin continued, leaning forward intently, “I have begged this of you once before, and I am begging you again, now: please, do not kill your doubles! I can assure you that taking only defensive measures, and explaining that you mean no harm, and offering to help your double in the frightening moment of their arrival, is the best course of action, which will lead to the least violence.”

 

He paused, looking at Cecil, and Cecil could sense both sorrow and something else in his double, something he could not quite identify, although it was strangely soft, and searched for something.

 

“There is something I have not yet told you, listeners, something that will make your heart ache,” Kevin said, a bit distantly. “There is no way to say this, without feeling a great, spiraling sense of loss inside my ribcage, but as a reporter, I must tell you the truth...

 

“It is wonderful to see the echoes of a Night Vale that escaped the clutches of Strex, before it was fully taken under,” he said, still looking directly at Cecil. And then, he looked away. “But there is also a great sorrow in this strange world of theirs.

 

“Desert Bluffs...in their world, our beautiful town was where Strex rose to power, first. In their timeline, we were all but entirely consumed by it, despite our best efforts. It was Night Vale that finally took its power back, and which incorporated the remains of Desert Bluffs into its boundaries, after our economy collapsed. And on a personal level, I am especially horrified at the fate of my other self…”

 

Cecil’s heart was in his throat as he watched Kevin brace himself, and continue. “I have learned today that in their timeline, it was me who became the Voice of Strex. It was me, and not Cecil of Night Vale. Along with the histories of our towns, my history and his have been reversed, in ways that--” Kevin paused. “In ways that terrify me to think about. In ways that are heartbreaking, and that make me feel powerless before the whims of fate, and before the ephemeral, haunting cruelty of that monstrous corporation, even though it has been rendered harmless for years.”

 

Kevin sighed, and shut his eyes. Cecil still felt spellbound by everything about this broadcast, but he was especially moved by Kevin’s tone, and his choice of words, which spoke to a sensation of painfully acute helplessness that also lived in his own body. Had there been anything that either of them could have done, to save themselves? Had anything they had done, in either timeline, meant anything, under the shadow of what had happened to the other?

 

Cecil saw a quiver in Kevin’s jaw. But Kevin pressed on, and as he did, Cecil noticed that the small, bright blue light of Line One illuminated, indicating an incoming call. ‘Vanessa Jay,’ the caller ID read.

 

“But through these fears, and through all of yours that are like it, I again encourage you to welcome these new doubles of ours, rather than to act with violence toward them. And to all you newcomers, who can hear my voice, I implore you to do the same.

 

“In just a moment, people of Night Vale, you will hear the voice of someone from your town, who will speak to you directly. But before that can happen,” Kevin said, as the music stopped, “I am bringing on Mayor Vanessa Jay.” Kevin picked up the call. “Mayor Vanessa, you are on the air.”

 

“Hello, Kevin,” Vanessa said, “And hello, Desert Bluffs.”

 

“Vanessa, can you confirm what is going on?”

 

“Yes, I can. And people of Desert Bluffs, as Kevin said, I encourage you to open your arms, and even your homes, to your new doubles. Do not fear your doppelgangers; if anything, fear for them, and allow that fear to awaken your empathy. As someone who thoughtlessly killed her double on Sandstorm Day, I am very personally pleading with you to extend them your mercy. If nothing else, do this so that later, you can extend it to yourself with confidence, and without fighting yourself at every turn.”

 

The sound of Vanessa’s voice, filled with a haunted, familiar quality, made Cecil suddenly miss Dana terribly. Would he see her, soon? Would he ever see her again?

 

“Yes. I couldn’t agree more,” Kevin said, nodding. “Now, can you confirm that my next guest has your permission to be on the air?”

 

“I can,” Vanessa replied, with firmness. “The guest you are all about to hear from has permission from myself and from the Secret Police to appear on Kevin’s show. Additionally, Erica has confirmed with me repeatedly that, although this may frighten many of you initially, it will actually make this sudden transition much safer, not only for the new Night Valian arrivals, but also for the residents of Desert Bluffs.”

 

Kevin nodded again with closed eyes, inhaling. Through an almost dizzying anxiety, Cecil processed Mayor Jay’s words, and realized how close he really was to his terrifying debut. As he understood this, that anxiety drowned all but the most immediate and fearful of thoughts. He only breathed shallowly, not moving.

 

“Thank you, Vanessa,” Kevin said.

 

“Of course. I’ll be in touch,” Vanessa replied. “Good luck to everyone, and to the people of this new Night Vale, know this: I, and many others, welcome you into our town. If you need anything, feel free to call, or to stop by City Hall. And please take care, Desert Bluffs. Take care of yourselves, and of all your neighbors, as if they were yourselves.” she paused. “In this case, they are.”

 

The call ended, and Kevin looked directly at Cecil again, as if to say, ‘this is it.’ Cecil’s heart pounded even harder than before, somehow.

 

“Desert Bluffs,” Kevin said, “I have a guest here with me in the studio. Before I tell you who he is, I want you to take a breath, and maybe sit down. I want you to remember what I told you a moment ago, and that this person is from a timeline that spared him. I want you to understand that no matter how you feel about the sound of his voice, no matter what existential fear it awakens in you to hear it, he is not the man you remember.”

 

Cecil’s head swam a little, and he gripped his chair tightly, as the anticipation of introducing himself reached a fever pitch. Kevin watched him carefully, with some concern.

 

“I fear many things, today,” Kevin continued. “I fear for my place in the cosmos, and for what the truth of his world means for my life. I fear what he has represented to me in the past, and even what he represents to me in the present. But sitting beside him now, I realize that I don’t fear this iteration of him, at least not in any way he has earned.

 

“He sits beside me, clearly fearing for his own future, and just as shaken by me as I am by him. In fact, I think he is probably more afraid, sitting in my studio, in my town, in my world, in a history that left him with nothing except his memories, and a lifetime of regret…”

 

He finished that sentence painfully, and paused. Cecil felt an awful surge of hurt and longing in his gut, as he saw that pain in Kevin’s face, and as the haunting words of a long-lost Kevin replayed in his mind’s ear.

 

“I think about what I could have been if I had never encountered Strex,” Kevin had said. “I imagine an entire life without them. It makes me happy. I picture every detail, I try to live it in real time, but it is only a slight, sweet fiction, and dissolves like sugar into water.

 

“Oh, Cecil! I wish you had known me before…before Strex. Before it all, when I was just a dedicated community radio host like you. I wish you had–”

 

Cecil felt the air leave his own lungs sharply, as he fully understood that while this world was his nightmare, it was something his Kevin could only dream of, in wavering and desperate fantasies. Everything his Kevin could ever hope for existed right in front of Cecil, staring at him with sad and concerned and bright golden eyes, as Cecil’s body tensed in a wave of empathetic sorrow.

 

“You don’t have to be afraid,” Kevin said, more strongly than before, and as if only to him, another soft glow in his eyes. “I will be here with you,” Kevin promised, “and I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Cecil nodded, speechless and shaken. His own eyes suddenly felt wet, and he looked away. Something about Kevin felt incredibly warm and familiar, like...like a friend, or like something beyond that, something indescribable. Through all the fear in his body, Cecil could still feel this warmth, and its effects created the same kind of emotion in him that he had felt before, talking with Erica, as if this should have happened long ago, as if something had been missing before this exact moment. As if he were suddenly overflowing, and could not pinpoint why.

 

“Are you ready?” Kevin asked, and Cecil looked at him again. It was time, and so, though he was not, he nodded slowly.

 

“Listeners,” Kevin said, reaching over and turning on Cecil’s microphone, “here in the studio with me, like we have never heard him before, is Cecil of Night Vale.”

 

The moment had arrived, and tension hung in the silence between Kevin’s statement, and the imminent sound of Cecil’s confirmation. And then, still staring into Kevin’s golden eyes, Cecil took a breath, and in a full and orchid voice, he changed the course of his life, for better or for worse:

 

“Hello, Desert Bluffs.”

 

--

 

Across Desert Bluffs, thousands of people stared at their radios, hardly moving, hardly breathing. Some gasped, and some screamed, and some cried when they heard his voice. But as they listened, many realized that while that voice possessed many of the same qualities, it felt warmer, and more genuine, and less distant.

 

Cecil addressed the people of his world, and encouraged them to reach out to their doubles, rather than acting in fear. Then, Kevin asked Cecil to tell the story of his world in his own words, and Cecil did.

 

As Cecil told the story of the revolution, and of his part in it, Diane Crayton, and her doppelganger, Diana Grayson, sat transfixed. Diana paused from bandaging Diane’s arm, somewhat fearful, mouth agape, as Diane had just before. A panther and a leopard sat beside each of them, and the two women looked to their sons in concern, and then, to one another.

 

In Sheriff Max’s kitchen, Cameron had stood, dismayed, as they took in the sight of Max’s shattered window, their radio on at minimal volume and stuffed under several blankets. Their body was curled into a desperate ball, their back against the cabinet under the kitchen sink, their headphones turned up to full volume and blasting a song Cameron recognized as ‘Go’ by Grimes, audible even through the hands that pressed over Max’s ears. But then, Max had looked up long enough to notice their presence, jumping slightly at the sight of them, and Cameron had moved as if to sit beside them, questioning with their eyes whether that would be alright.

 

Now, they sat in place of Max’s one-third drained glass of whiskey, not quite knowing whether to touch Max, or just to stay put.

 

Why ?” Max croaked. “Why did you all vote for this?”

 

“All of us wanted to fight against Strex,” Cecil’s voice said, “But for a long time, all we knew how to do was watch with dread as they took what we loved from us piece by piece, claiming person after person into their labor force, slowly, and then quickly, appropriating all the town’s resources into its capital.”

 

“Why would you ever want a monster like him to broadcast, ever again?”

 

“I eventually helped facilitate a revolution, organized by Tamika Flynn, but it failed, and I was dragged from my studio, by Lauren Mallard and...and by you, Kevin.” Cecil paused, and his voice held a slight shake when he spoke again. “I have never been more afraid than I was that day.”

 

Max looked up at Cameron, makeup-smeared eyes full of betrayal and agony, ears full of intense and haunting music. “How could you?” They whispered. “I trusted you.” Cameron could smell the whiskey on their breath, but it did not make their words sting less.

 

“But I guess I was the cause of that same fear for you, in this world,” Cecil’s voice continued. He sounded pained. “For all of you. And, I’m not technically him, but...I am still so sorry.”

 

Cameron felt guilty, even though they had made the best decision they knew how to, a decision that had protected an innocent person, and probably many others. As Cecil apologized, they bit their lip, shutting their eyes.

 

“Thank you, Cecil,” Kevin said, in a tone full of confliction. “I’m sorry, too. Really.”

 

“Please, Cameron,” Max said, as Cecil continued. “Tell me I can trust you. Tell me that next time, you’ll stand by me.” They removed one hand from their ear, and reached it toward Cameron, trembling. “ Please ,” they begged brokenly, as the song in their ears faded into its ending strings, which spoke to a sorrow Cameron knew always lived in Max’s body, though they rarely revealed it in this way.

 

Cameron reached back, and clasped their hand tightly. “Of course I will,” Cameron said, heart aching, and they pulled them into their arms, tucking Max’s head under the crook of their neck. Max may have been several inches taller than Cameron, but they felt very small right now, folded as they were.

 

As Cameron held them close, filled with a soft and protective affection, Max choked on a sob, and squeezed their hand tighter. Cameron ran their thumb over Max’s knuckles, heart pounding hard.

 

“I’d do anything for you,” Cameron whispered into Max’s hair, which, not for the first time, unknowingly took and hid within its curls a powerful and long-unspoken love, a love that had slowly bloomed in Cameron’s heart for years, and that had secretly let its petals fall upon every moment and glance and touch the two of them had shared since.

 

In West Desert Bluffs, as each heard the voice of their respective prophet of the Smiling God, Darryl Ramirez, standing beside his doppelganger Davyn Rodriguez, listened without breathing, with stars in their eyes. They spoke quickly in hushed tones, in the spaces between Cecil and Kevin’s sentences.

 

“I can’t believe this,” Davyn breathed. “He’s not the same Cecil, but...it’s really him.”

 

Darryl nodded, equally transfixed. “I haven’t heard Kevin speak since the revolution,” he said quietly. He paused, and waited for Cecil to finish what he was saying. “Even in such awful times, he helped me believe that happiness could be possible again.”

 

“That’s how I felt, too,” Davyn whispered, nodding. “I even prayed for the Smiling God to devour Strex, though Cecil never went that far.”

 

“Maybe he didn’t believe that. Maybe he couldn’t,” Darryl whispered back. “But that’s what I chose to do, too.”

 

Davyn said, “And in its own way, it did, didn’t it?”

 

“We insisted that our god was not a smiling god,” Cecil’s voice said, and Davyn started, blinking. “And it’s true. Most of us in Night Vale have never worshiped the Smiling God, and wouldn’t dream of it. I certainly have not. I know some people do, but I don’t know how I could personally feel positively about that religion, after everything. Especially after learning of my fate in this world.”

 

Darryl recognized the same conflicted set of emotions in himself, as Kevin said, “I understand the feeling. I know that the Joyous Congregation and StrexCorp haven’t viewed the Smiling God in the same way, but still, I...I just don’t know.”

 

The two stood quietly, feeling a sense of loss they could not quite put into words. And so, for now, they did not try.

 

“Yeah. Well...the point is, we fought our hardest...” Cecil’s voice said, as John Peters--you know, the farmer?--sat upon the coffee table in his West Desert Bluffs home, hand covering his mouth, eyes squeezed shut, heart pounding, as Cecil went through a long list of those he knew who had fought Strex, in his timeline.

 

“...John Peters, you know, the farmer, my then-intern Maureen, my old Intern Dana--who is now the mayor--she organized the Masked Army of Giants to come help us, and Tamika Flynn fought with her militia, and there were beings who were, uh...probably not angels, but, yeah. They may have allegedly helped too. Theoretically. I’m, uh, not totally comfortable saying on public radio. But everyone came together and fought for Night Vale, for our lives,” Cecil said. “And then, Strex retreated, which meant...we won .”

 

As Cecil finished his sentence, John opened his obsidian eyes and dropped his hand from his scarred mouth. He let out something between a sob and a laugh. “We won,” he repeated, as something in his chest ached for Night Vale, for the sound of his old friend’s voice, for this blessed world that now touched his own, where his town, and Cecil, had not been permanently altered for the worse.

 

“That’s wonderful,” Kevin said softly, after a long pause, and John could tell that he meant it.

 

“It is,” Cecil said, just as quietly. “I know that here, we weren’t so lucky. But in the world I come from, Night Vale carries on just as it did before, beautiful and weird and full of life.”

 

Cecil’s voice held a love for his town that John remembered well in him, an untainted love that he had not heard from him in years. And as he listened, bathed in the last dredges of the red-orange light of sunset that still came in through his window, the wide, gaping smile carved into John’s face was overshadowed by his own bittersweet one, as his eyes filled with tears, spilling onto his bloodstained plaid shirt.

 

“I’m glad, Cecil,” Kevin said, voice wavering with a fragile, wistful emotion that Carlos shared completely as he sat and stared at the lab radio, next to his Night Valian double. His team of scientists surrounded them, and listened intently with the two of them, in another heavy moment of radio silence.

 

Carlos did not know if anyone else had felt the depth of Kevin’s grief for Cecil, when he had learned his story. Even Carlos, who had known Cecil for all those years, out in that desert where time ran so fast, so heartbreakingly, painfully fast-- even he could not know what it was like to share such a close bond with Cecil.

 

Even if Kevin didn’t say it, and even if he felt very conflicted about Cecil, Carlos knew that Kevin cared deeply about his double. It had truly broken Kevin’s heart that night, when Cecil had slipped through his fingers again, when even with access to three separate points in Cecil’s timeline, Kevin could not find a way to help him. So when he spoke, now, Carlos could see what his love’s face must look like, and knew that he must have been looking right at Cecil, feeling very lost, and struggling to contain himself.

 

He heard something very similar in Cecil’s voice, as he said, “Thank you. I’m really glad for you, too, and for all of Desert Bluffs. But to hear that here, Night Vale...”

 

He trailed off, exhaling painfully into another moment of shared silence. Kevin sighed, too, clearly affected by this thought, and the thought of the other Desert Bluffs, which shared the same painful narrative. But finally, he pressed on.

 

“Cecil, my next question is, how did you arrive here?”

 

“...I don’t know, honestly,” Cecil said, voice tinged with concern, as the scientists shifted intently. “One moment I was in my world, and then, everything felt very strange, and then we walked home, and you were there instead.”

 

“Can you tell us that story, in its entirety?” Kevin asked.

 

“Yeah, sure!” Cecil said. “Um, okay, to start, it was a relatively normal day. It was just earlier today, actually...wow, it feels like way longer ago than that. But we were just in Night Vale, and it felt like any other day, except that it was very relaxed, and even peaceful. It was one of those lazy, warm days, when there is no pressing work to do, and no particular rush to accomplish anything, and when all you are concerned with is the people you love. A day that is perfect in its imperfection.

 

“It was beautiful outside, so my boyf--ahem, my scientist. No--my Carlos. Car-Carlos the Scientist!” Cecil exclaimed loudly, clearly flustered. “I was walking with Carlos the Scientist.”

 

Everyone in the lab had turned to look at Carlos of Night Vale. He raised his hand in a half-hearted wave, with a sheepish, nervous grin.

 

“Uh- huh ,” Kevin intoned dryly, in a high voice. Carlos of Desert Bluffs felt a surge of adrenaline kick in, as he imagined Kevin’s suspicious and tense expression, and as he realized that now, the whole town could probably guess that his doppelganger was involved with Cecil.

 

“Um, yeah,” Cecil said nervously. “So, Carlos and I were... walking , and then we both felt something. I felt the strangest shudder move through my body. My vision warped, and for a moment, my body felt unreal, wrong ...and then, nothing.

 

“We wondered if it had been some new kind of city-planned earthquake that we had both forgotten about, but we didn’t know what to think. And then, we tried to go back home. The key to the front door didn’t work, so I left Carlos out front and went around to the back, to hunt the spare key. I found Carlos in the backyard, again, which was really confusing. Especially because of how he reacted...”

 

“This makes so much more sense now,” Kevin breathed. That’s why you said it was your house, later on…” he trailed off, clearly processing the thought that Carlos’ double lived with Cecil.

 

“Yeah…” Cecil said slowly, as Carlos shared an anxious look with his double, feeling the other scientists’ eyes still on them both.

 

“And, that’s why you came in through the hallway.”

 

“Yeah. But first, like I said, I found Carlos in the backyard. Um... your Carlos, that is,” Cecil said, with some difficulty, in a tone that communicated jealousy. “He was fine until he realized I wasn’t you, and then, he got very worried, and very sad.” Cecil sounded sad, too, at that thought, and Carlos bit his lip at the memory. “Um, ‘overwhelmed and hurt,’ were the words he chose.

 

“And then, he dragged me inside, talking about how I couldn’t be here, and it wasn’t safe, which didn’t make any sense. And then he called for you, and...you answered , which made even less sense, and was also deeply unsettling, since in my world you’re, you know…not around, and, um...a lot less friendly, in general. And then, he went down the hall, and I followed, to find you standing next to my Carlos--holding hands for some reason, and--”

 

“Okay, Cecil, to be fair , I thought he was my fiance,” Kevin interjected, more defensively than Carlos would have anticipated. “It was automatic. It was basic boyfriend muscle memory of all the other times I’ve held a Carlos’ hand , or--or whatever! I didn’t know you existed, and if I had, I wouldn’t have done something like that. I’m not some homewrecker!”

 

“I...uh...”

 

There was a very awkward and very confused pause. Carlos looked to his double, whose eyes were wide, and who had crossed his arms, hand pressed over his mouth, looking as if he were remembering something, or felt guilty, or both. This was, of course, about the kiss he and Kevin had shared, and that he had forgotten about up until this moment, but Carlos of Desert Bluffs, along with Cecil and the rest of the town, did not know that.

 

It was also about the fact that Carlos of Night Vale was not also Cecil’s fiance, and that he knew Cecil was probably thinking about that again and potentially feeling inadequate for it. Carlos of Desert Bluffs did not know this, either.

 

As their eyes met, Carlos of Desert Bluffs shot him a wide-eyed, intent look of his own, which said, ‘keep your mouth shut.’ His double looked away almost instantly, visibly anxious.

 

More anxious than he, himself was, for some reason. Carlos knew this was uncomfortable--god, it really was--but this still seemed like a weirdly strong reaction on both his double’s part, and Kevin’s. Especially to something as simple as holding hands, and particularly considering that, at least on Kevin’s end, it had clearly been based on a misunderstanding.

 

He wondered, for a brief instant, if there might be a story here. But it could just have been his double’s nerves at being even loosely associated with Kevin, in a romantic light. And then, he remembered that in a few moments he would be calling in, and the thought disappeared in a flash.

 

“Um...nevermind, just...go ahead,” Kevin said, much too lightly.

 

“...Right,” Cecil replied, audibly unsure of how to respond. “After that, Carlos and Carlos almost fought to the death, which was pretty terrifying, and the two of us had to pull them apart.” The other scientists made quietly horrified sounds, still clearly concerned about this.

 

“Um, they’re okay, though, at least physically, and they can be in the same room now, at least. They just had never met a double of theirs before, and weren’t ready for it. And after a ton of confusion,” Cecil continued, “Grandma Josephine and, uh...well, there was...you know? The, uh...” he snapped his fingers.

 

“...Angels?” Kevin suggested slowly.

 

“Mm!” Cecil said.

 

“Are you okay, Cecil? You look really concern-- wait a second,” Kevin demanded. “I remember this anxiety. Do you not acknowledge angels, in Night Vale?”

 

“It’s, like, super illegal,” Cecil whispered, still completely audibly. “I know it’s not here, but I’d rather be cautious.”

 

Kevin made a sound of discomfort. “That’s unfortunate,” he said lightly, but with a disapproving edge. “Angels are very real, and we do acknowledge them, here in The Bluffs.”

 

It was Cecil’s turn to make his own sound of discomfort, at the phrase, “The Bluffs.” This was another connection that only Carlos of Night Vale made, and he gave a slight sympathetic grimace for his boyfriend, although he personally thought that phrase sounded nice.

 

“Well, angels have helped you a lot today, so I hope you feel comfortable acknowledging them sooner than later,” Kevin said, maybe a little condescendingly. “But, like you were saying?”

 

“Right,” Cecil said uneasily. “Well, Carlos and I came to City Hall, and then, you and Other Carlos followed. By Other Carlos I mean, the Carlos everyone here knows. Mayor Jay interviewed us, and then had me come to the station with you, while the Carloses work together to scientifically understand what is happening, and to come up with solutions to help things run more smoothly in the wake of this...whatever this is.”

 

“This unexpected convergence of worlds,” Kevin suggested.

 

“Yeah, that,” Cecil said.

 

“Well, listeners: I can confirm most everything Cecil just said, except of course the parts I was not there for. This brings us to our next segment, where Carlos will explain what science has found so far.”

 

Carlos of Desert Bluffs took a deep breath, and exhaled. Then, he dialed the DBCR number.


The phone rang as Kevin continued. “He and his team haven’t had very long to figure things out yet, but as always, science is a valuable tool with which to understand the universe, and even the beginning of a scientific investigation can be helpful--ah, yes, there he is now! Hello, Carlos! You’re on the air.”

Chapter Text

“Hi, Kevin!” Carlos of Desert Bluffs said. “I’m here with my team of scientists, and with my doppelganger, who is also named Carlos.”

 

“Hi,” Carlos of Night Vale said, sounding slightly farther away. “Carlos of Night Vale, here.”

 

“And I’m Carlos of Desert Bluffs. You can also call us Desert Bluffs Carlos or Night Vale Carlos.”

 

“Yes. That being said, we also have a useful acronym we’re going to introduce to everyone in a minute, along with some other terminology to help everyone keep things mentally organized.”

 

“Yes! It’s very important to have specific, scientific words for our experiences, especially in such a confusing time.”

 

Cecil and Kevin exchanged a glance, as it sunk in that Kevin was conducting a radio interview with two completely identical-sounding people.

 

“Um,” Kevin said, “Okay! That sounds good. We’d like to hear that, and also any information you have about what is causing this, and how to deal with the sudden influx of people, which according to my sources, by which I mean Erica--” he glanced down at his phone-- “is still increasing, and now includes 150 new arrivals. Oh, no, I’m sorry; it just rose to 153. Hello, newcomers! Please do not be alarmed; the official position of Desert Bluffs is that we welcome you, and are trying to help you. So...welcome to Desert Bluffs, I guess!”

 

“Yes, citizens of Night Vale; you heard that right,” Cecil added. “You are in Desert Bluffs . I, too, am in Desert Bluffs. And as deeply concerning as that may sound, please do not panic! I know many of you would rather eat a pair of sponge-clogs than even think about this. Or, maybe that’s just me.”

 

Kevin raised his eyebrows at that, and Cecil quickly backpedaled.

 

“Uh, the point is, please try to keep it together, and if you feel like you should be attacking and strangling your double, consider giving those clogs a good wring instead! They make good stress balls in a pinch, I’ve found.”

 

“And perhaps more usefully,” Kevin interjected, “remember that neither of you actually wants blood on your hands, metaphorically or literally. From what I understand, it can be hard to ever feel clean again, after something like that.

 

“Anyways,” he continued, “Carlos! What has science been able to tell you so far?”

 

“Well,” said Desert Bluffs Carlos, “we do not have enough information to determine what is causing this, yet. We only have direct access to three anecdotal accounts, so far, and two of them, Cecil and Night Vale Carlos’, are interlinked, and should be counted as one. It looks like this other Night Vale is leaking into our world, but we currently know next to nothing about how or why. To study this, we’ll need people to either call in or come over to the lab, so we can gather data about their experiences, and try to draw conclusions. So if you’re one of the 153 people who have come here from Night Vale, please contact us.”

 

“Yes!” Kevin agreed. “Listeners, Carlos and his team have helped us through many difficult situations before, and with your input, they will only be that much more empowered to understand what is going on, and maybe even find a way to reverse this. Carlos, can you tell everyone the number for your lab?”

 

Desert Bluffs Carlos gave it out, and Cecil and Night Vale Carlos quickly took it down.

 

“The lines might be full at first,” Desert Bluffs Carlos continued, “But again, you can always come by in person, or call again later. We appreciate any data you are willing to share.”

 

“Thank you, Carlos,” Kevin said. “Now, what else have you found?”

 

Desert Bluffs Carlos explained that he, his double and his team were still coming up with ways to accommodate hundreds of new people, but that for now, they recommended that the people of Desert Bluffs take in their counterparts, if possible.

 

“Hotels might be an option,” he explained, “but most of the people arriving here have limited or no cash on them, and even if they have a card, it probably can’t transfer any money. And even if that wasn’t an issue, it’s likely that the rooms will fill up quickly. We are brainstorming possible long-term solutions, to make things easier on everyone, but if you have any room and any will to house people, that would probably be best, for now.”

 

“Oh, also,” Kevin interjected, “I’ve just been contacted by Sara Shah, the president of the Desert Bluffs Community College. She says the gym is currently being converted to a crisis center, and can probably take a couple hundred people. It is primarily open to any students’ doubles who can’t find somewhere to stay, and to their families. So if you’re a student and really can’t take your double in, or maybe if you’ve arrived here and can’t find your double, but you’re related to a student, that could be a backup option.”

 

“Okay, that’s good,” Carlos said. “And if any other institutions or people have spare room, please let us know too, so we can direct people to you.”

 

“City Hall has a spare ballroom, too,” Kevin added. “Mayor Jay has just notified me that she is making arrangements to open that, too, and that it should be available in about an hour.”

 

“That’s really good!” Carlos replied. “We at the lab hope everyone can find a place to stay tonight. We don’t have a ton of accommodations here, but we do have a waiting room and lots of coffee, and we’ll do what we can.”

 

“Thank you, Carlos,” Kevin said. “Please keep us posted about what you find, so we can spread the word. Is there anything else you have in terms of solutions, yet?

 

“Not a whole lot, as of now. Our current conclusions are that it would be good to take typical energy-saving measures, like using less water when necessary, and carpooling. And there will be some strain on Desert Bluffs’ infrastructure, so we might need some support from neighboring towns. Luckily, Desert Bluffs is super good at bouncing back from weird phenomena, so we have that going for us!”

 

“These events could also mean that reality is breaking again,” Carlos of Night Vale added, reaching for the Talking Potato and lightly resting his fingers on it. “But that does not mean that things will be the same as they were during the revolution. Past performance is not an indicator of future results.”

 

“And because of that, we can’t assume everything will turn out fine, either,” Carlos of Desert Bluffs said, pulling the potato closer to himself. “But we all have a better chance if we work together.”

 

Kevin nodded. “And with that, both the government and science have confirmed that it is better to help each other. So, if you are listening to my voice, please try to take a deep breath and act on that. Now, Carlos; you said you had new terminology for us?”

 

“Oh! Yes !” Carlos exclaimed. “We do have that!”

 

“Can I start this one?” Carlos of Night Vale asked.

 

“Oh...sure,” Carlos of Desert Bluffs said, handing him the Talking Potato. Kevin and Cecil noticed that he sounded a little disappointed.

 

“Okay, hi! This is Night Vale Carlos. My doppelganger and I, and our team of scientists--well, technically his team, I guess, except that he and I are just slightly different versions of each other. Huh. The point is, there’s a lot of different kinds of doubles that are likely to appear, and we thought it was important to name them, and to name each timeline. Nilanjana and I, and my doppelganger, came up with the majority of these terms, and wrote them like this.

 

“First of all,” he said, “we’re calling this timeline the ‘Desert Bluffs Victory Timeline,’ because this is the timeline where Desert Bluffs took Strex down. We thought about calling it the Desert Bluffs Timeline, but that would be pretty confusing for the people of East Night Vale, who are used to thinking of themselves as Desert Bluffs citizens. So, ‘Desert Bluffs Victory Timeline’ it is! The acronym for that is ‘DVT,’ because saying ‘DBVT’ is kind of a lot.”

 

“Okay,” Kevin said. “So, would it be right to say, ‘We’re in the DVT timeline?’”

 

“I mean, yes,” Carlos of Night Vale said. “It’s a little redundant, because the ‘T’ stands for timeline, so you could also just say, ‘we’re in the DVT.’ But it’s probably better to go with what you just said, so people know what you’re talking about.”

 

“Hm,” Kevin said. “Could we call it the ‘DBV’ timeline? That would take care of the redundancy.”

 

“Mm…” Carlos of Desert Bluffs replied hesitantly, placing his hand on the Talking Potato. “We thought about that, too, and it’s not a bad idea, but the other timeline’s equivalent term is the ‘Night Vale Victory Timeline,’ which has two ‘V’s. And it’s slightly more of a mouthful to say ‘NVVT,’ or ‘the NVV timeline.’ So unless someone comes up with something simpler, we’re calling this timeline the ‘DVT’ timeline, and the timeline that people are coming from is called the ‘NVT’ timeline.”

 

“Alright, that makes sense! People from the NVT timeline are coming here, to the DVT timeline,” Kevin repeated thoughtfully. “So far, it’s been simple for me to just say, ‘my world,’ and ‘your world,’ but I guess things do need names.”

 

Carlos of Night Vale gently pulled the potato back toward himself. “Yeah,” he said. “If there weren’t so many doppelgangers involved, we might be able to get away with that long-term, but eventually it is going to get really confusing if we have to describe each world every time. And, on top of that, the DVT/NVT distinction also helps us differentiate between people .

 

“For example, Cecil, if someone were to have a conversation about you and the Cecil of this timeline, they can call you ‘NVT Cecil,’ and the other you, ‘DVT Cecil.’ Which is useful, because both of you are Cecil, and you’re both from Night Vale, so the name ‘Cecil of Night Vale’ can be applied to both of you. Saying that he is ‘Cecil of Desert Bluffs,’ or saying that you are not ‘Cecil of Night Vale,’ doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

 

“Yeah, that’s true,” Cecil said. “I mean, I am Cecil of Night Vale. That is my name, and the name of the town I’m the Voice of. I don’t really like the implications of how people say it, here, but it’s not wrong.”

 

“Exactly!” Carlos said. “Differentiating by town doesn’t really work, because here, Desert Bluffs absorbed Night Vale, and in our world, in the NVT timeline, Night Vale absorbed Desert Bluffs. So a lot of people from both timelines identify with a town that has also existed in the other one, even if legally there is only one Night Vale, and only one Desert Bluffs.”

 

“This is good!” Kevin said. “Now, you said you had words for the different kinds of doubles?”

 

“Yeah, we do!” Carlos said. “Okay, I’m going to read off what Nilanjana wrote. To start with, someone with your face is your doppelganger, so if you’re not sure what to call them, that’s a good umbrella term. And then, your double is whoever you met on Sandstorm Day. So, for example: Kevin, your double is the Cecil from this timeline, or, ‘DVT Cecil.’ And Cecil, your double is the one from the NVT timeline, or, ‘NVT Kevin.’”

 

“Oh,” Kevin mused. “Wait, though, does that mean the Cecil sitting next to me is not my double?”

 

He and Cecil stared at each other, very much feeling that they were doubles, and that to say otherwise would remove something between them that should not be removed. Neither of them said this, or realized how strongly the other felt it.

 

“Hm...well, he kind of is, because he’s still your Night Valian counterpart,” Carlos replied. “You met a Cecil that day, and he met a Kevin. But you’re not traditional doubles; you’re more like doubles, once removed by time and space. Second doubles, I guess? I’m getting a lot of vaguely satisfied nods from my fellow scientists, and from my doppelganger, so it looks like that’s what we’re going with, if that’s okay with you. But, there is another term for what the two of you are to each other, too.”

 

“Second doubles sounds fine to me,” Kevin shrugged. “But, what’s the other term for us?”

 

“Okay, well, here’s the thing,” Carlos said, as his doppelganger borrowed Nilanjana’s clipboard and furiously jotted down the words ‘second doubles! Ex: DVT K + NVT C’ in scratchy, almost unreadable lettering. “In each timeline, a lot of people’s, um, second doubles, traded histories with each other. Like, in this world, you’re serving as the Voice of a Desert Bluffs that absorbed Night Vale, but in the NVT timeline, the Cecil next to you is doing the same thing, except for a Night Vale that absorbed Desert Bluffs. Based on that, and, uh, some other personal details, the two of you are living almost identical lives, and playing a very similar role in society.

 

“All of this to say,” Carlos summarized, taking back the clipboard, “Someone who shares your history is called your parallel . We call it that because your personal timelines align very closely, if not identically, so they’re like parallel lines.”

 

“So,” Kevin asked, “Cecil here, or ‘NVT Cecil,’ is my second double , because he’s my double, but from a different timeline? And, he is my parallel , because the story of our lives is the same?”

 

“Yes!” Carlos exclaimed excitedly. “That is exactly right.”

 

“Okay, good!” Kevin exclaimed back, also enthused. “What else?”

 

Before that Carlos could reply, Carlos of Desert Bluffs, or DVT Carlos, interjected, “Wait, could I explain counterparts, and the stuff about overlap?”

 

“Oh, sure,” said NVT Carlos, handing him the potato. “Go ahead.”

 

DVT Carlos perked up, and began. “Okay, hi! It’s DVT Carlos, or in my particular case you could still say Desert Bluffs Carlos, since there’s only two of us, instead of four. So, now we know that the people we met on Sandstorm Day are called doubles , and the version of your double who exists in another timeline is called a second double . And a doppelganger who shares your history is called a parallel .

 

“But there is one more relationship, which is between you, and the person who shares your exact identity, in another timeline. That person is called your counterpart . So, to use Cecil as an example: the Cecil we are on the radio with, NVT Cecil, is the counterpart of DVT Cecil, the Cecil of this timeline.”

 

“So, Carlos,” Kevin said, “would that make Carlos Too, by which I mean NVT Carlos, your counterpart?”

 

DVT Carlos laughed a little. “Well, that’s a bit of a can of worms. We’re a weird case. We, and our team of scientists, are new in town, so we don’t have traditional doubles. But the two of us have ended up sharing oddly similar histories, and also share an exact identity. Like, we have the same face, and the same name, and everything. We’re practically the exact same person, except that one of us went to Desert Bluffs, and the other went to Night Vale.

 

“So basically: yes? The two of us, who are both Carlos the Scientist , are counterparts. But because we share almost identical histories, we are also parallels. And, because we look exactly alike and are different versions of each other, we also fall under the doppelganger umbrella, which, again, includes anyone who has the same face. The only thing we are not is doubles.”

 

“I see,” Kevin said. “Okay, I think I get that!”

 

“Fantastic!” Carlos said. “So, just to reiterate: this is the DVT timeline, and the timeline people are traveling here from is the NVT timeline. A doppelganger is anyone who is another iteration of you. Your double is the person you met in the Sandstorm. Your second double is your double, but from a different timeline. Your parallel is someone who shares your history, or fills the same role in society. And finally, your counterpart is the person in another timeline who shares your identity exactly.

 

“Like we touched on earlier,” he added, “there are a lot of different ways these relationships could play out. If your counterpart shared your life story, then they’re your parallel, too. Also, it’s possible that your parallel is not your second double, or even your doppelganger, if someone else ended up filling your social role. All of that isn’t super important to get into, right now, even though I think it’s really scientifically interesting and could lead to some very satisfying and weirdly-shaped Venn diagrams. We just mainly wanted to give everyone words for our experiences, and point out that it’s not going to look the same for everyone, and that’s okay.”

 

Kevin and Cecil were both silent for a moment. Cecil broke it by saying, “Wow. Carlos, that’s really well thought-out. You came up with all of that just since we last saw you?”

 

“Well, again, Nilanjana contributed quite a bit to these terms, too,” NVT Carlos interjected, and this time, DVT Carlos handed him the potato easily. “She came up with the ‘Victory Timeline’ naming method, and the term ‘parallel.’ She has also drawn some very helpful square diagrams, and nodded excitedly when my doppelganger said ‘Venn diagrams,’ just now. Also, this is unrelated, but thanks to you, too, Luisa. And Mark too, but especially Luisa. The Talking Potato method is really helpful.”

 

“I’m sorry, the what now?” Kevin asked, tilting his head.

 

DVT Carlos took the potato back. “Oh! Okay, so, the two of us started syncing up earlier,” he explained. “It was intense. I mean, we were saying full sentences at the same time, with the same inflection, and we didn’t know how to stop, which was deeply unnerving. So Luisa gave us a Talking Potato, which is just a potato, except that if we get caught mirroring each other and can’t break out of it, whoever has the potato gets to talk.”

 

“Oh, wow,” Kevin said. “I’m glad you found a way to stop. That does sound unnerving...maybe our listeners should do something similar, too, if they get stuck like that.”

 

“Yes, I highly recommend it! It has made us a lot less anxious, which is key. Also the Talking Potato can be anything, so don’t be alarmed if you can’t find a potato. That being said,” Carlos said, turning it over in his hand, “I like the potato thing a lot.” He looked up as Luisa grinned, and gave him a thumbs up. “And Luisa, our resident Potato Scientist, approves,” he said, audibly smiling.

 

“Excellent!” Kevin said. “Well, thank you, Carlos, and Nilanjana and Luisa! Um, is there anything else that you and your team wants to tell us, before you go?”

 

“Um, I’m looking at Nilanjana’s clipboard, and it looks like we’ve covered everything for now. We’ll keep you posted on our progress, though.”

 

“Okay, that sounds great! Both of you take care, okay?”

 

“We will. And you too, Kev--”

 

Wait !” NVT Carlos burst out, causing his doppleganger, the surrounding scientists, and the two radio hosts to jolt. “There is one other thing. Can I borrow the phone?”

 

“Um, sure,” DVT Carlos said, sounding hesitant. But there was a rustle on the airwaves, as he handed him the phone, and of course, the potato. It occurred to both of them that during this interview, they could have just used the phone to decide whose turn it was to talk, but again, there was just something about that potato that seemed right .

 

“Cecil,” NVT Carlos said, as Cecil sat more upright in his seat, “This is the Carlos you came here with. And before I go, I want to say something. Which is: I know how unsettling this situation is. I know that you and I have somehow traveled to a strange world, and that we don’t know how to get back home to Night Vale. We don’t know what the future holds, even more so than usual, and you in particular are facing the reality of your counterpart’s life. I can’t imagine what that is like for you, considering what we have learned about him, or how much courage it must have taken you to come on the air, knowing how you’ll be seen here in Desert Bluffs.

 

“But you are going to get through this,” he said, sounding as strong as he could for his boyfriend. “Because you have courage, and because you are not alone. And no matter what happens, I love you , Cecil.”

 

It was not only Cecil who felt the power of these words, spoken into a world where they had remained unspoken, and buried so deeply, for so long. It was also Carlos of Desert Bluffs, whose breath caught in his burning chest, whose heart felt the calamity of its own denials, all but collapsing under their own thermodynamic pressure. It was also Kevin, who felt a jealous surge in his gut, but who strangely, simultaneously, felt that this Carlos’ love for Cecil was not really offensive at all, and even that--in a jarring, aching way--it was beautiful. It was also hundreds of people from this world, who heard these words, and understood that they had heard the same depth of love in their Carlos’ voice many times before, when he had spoken to Kevin.

 

It was not only Cecil who felt the power of this love. But it was Cecil whose voice trembled, and whose tears fell into his lap, as he said, “I love you too, Carlos. More than I can say.”

 

Carlos’ voice did not tremble, but it became softer, as he replied, “Call me later, okay?”

 

“I will,” Cecil promised. Kevin was struck by how incredibly vulnerable he looked, and how desperately in love.

 

“Okay. Talk to you soon.”

 

“Alright.”

 

Carlos hung up, and pressed his fingers to his lips, squeezing his eyes shut. He took a deep, shuddering breath. The hand that held his doppelganger’s phone shook, as he opened his eyes, staring straight forward, and offered it back to the other Carlos.

 

Desert Bluffs Carlos did not quite snatch it from his hand, but his jaw was set, and the way he performed this motion communicated that he was working very hard to restrain himself. Both of them felt almost dizzy with the tension of the other’s reality, pressing into them at all sides.

 

From just beside the two of them, Nilanjana watched each Carlos with deep concern. On a surface level, she read their mirrored body languages as a sign that they were uncomfortable that they were not dating the same person. But she could also sense that it went much deeper than that, in some way she did not understand.

 

The Carlos she had known rarely showed anything close to anger, but there was something volatile in his demeanor, now, as he twirled his phone charm around his finger, tighter than he usually did. There was something subtle but deadly in the air, something that seemed to explain why he and his double had attacked each other so viciously, something that seemed to go far beyond the shock of seeing someone with his own face.

 

In this moment, Nilanjana could feel the divide between Carlos and Carlos, and it spoke to a strange and self-directed violence that made her blood run just colder, one that felt alien and wrong in such a kind man. And in this moment, she began to fear for him.

Chapter Text

“Listeners…” Kevin began, watching as Cecil wiped the tears from his face. “I feel almost speechless. Almost, but not quite. Here is what I can say.

 

“I have never seen Cecil like I have today,” he said. “When I have seen him in the past, he has been drenched in blood, and death, and the warped energy of a force he could not shake. He has almost always been a puppet of a monstrous entity, with a voice that acts like slow poison, and a smile that is not his own.”

 

Cecil met his eyes, unguarded, and Kevin, feeling the same, did not look away.

 

“But as I sit beside him in my studio tonight, I feel that he is really himself ,” Kevin said. “I see no trace of a smile on his face, but I do see emotions in him that I have never seen in him before. I see fear, and sorrow, and love in his eyes. I also recognize these feelings in myself, although I am probably feeling them to lesser degrees. Had we traded places, and had I found myself in a Night Vale that thought of me only as Strex’s Voice, I am sure that I would be terrified.

 

“But looking at Cecil, now, and meeting those strangely vibrant purple eyes of his, and listening to the tremors in his deep and moonlit voice, I do not feel fear for myself, beside him. If anything, I fear for him, that our town will not see and hear what I see and hear, and will treat him as an enemy. And worse, that we will treat everyone from this other timeline as our enemy, as well. I hope that in having that fear, I am as wrong as wrong can be.

 

“It is with that hope that I take you to the weather.”

 

A short silence hung in the air, as Kevin pressed play on his cassette player.

 

There was a strange whirring sound, and then, nothing.

 

Kevin frowned, and pressed pause, then play again.

 

The whirring began again, then slowed. It sped up again, then became very strained. Finally, there was a soft ‘pop,’ followed by unexpected, muted movement of some kind.

 

“The hell?” Kevin muttered under his breath.

 

He leaned forward and opened the cassette player, intending to check the cassette for damage, but instead, somewhere between thirty and forty small cockroaches poured out of the player, skittering across the desk.

 

Kevin and Cecil both yelped, and scrambled away, backing into opposite corners of the room as the roaches ran over their journals and notes.

 

“Listeners!” Kevin called. “We are having technical difficulties! It appears that the cassette I was going to play, which was supposed to be a Gregorian chant-based rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” has been replaced by a small swarm of cockroaches, which are running over the desk, and...Cecil, look out!” he shouted, as the cockroaches ran toward Cecil’s feet. “Listeners, the roaches are headed toward Cecil!”

 

“Agh, are you kidding ?!” Cecil cried, backing away frantically in Kevin’s direction, then ducking a little behind him.

 

Cecil ! Don’t bring them to me !” Kevin exclaimed, sounding incredibly betrayed.

 

“Well, where else am I supposed to go?!” Cecil snapped fearfully. “There’s only two corners to back into, and--oh, um...okay, so they’re actually crawling onto a lumpy bag in the corner, now.”

 

“Do you mean my guitar , Cecil??” Kevin demanded. “Because that’s my guitar!”

 

“Well, it’s inside of a lumpy bag! What do you want me to say?!”

 

“I don’t know! ‘Sorry for making my weird bugs crawl onto your guitar, Kevin,’ would be a good start!”

 

“I’m not--they aren’t my weird bugs! ” Cecil said, scandalized. “If anything, they’re your weird bugs, because they came from your studio !”

 

“Do you really think I’d put cockroaches into my own radio equipment, and make them skitter all their little insect feet over my guitar, just for funsies ?” Kevin spat. “That’s sick ! And not in the cool sense of the word!”

 

“How should I know what your hobbies are?!” Cecil demanded, throwing his hands into the air. From inside the guitar’s bag, they heard a small ‘tink,’ as if the cockroaches were crawling onto its strings.

 

“Oh, great. It sounds like the cockroaches have made it inside the bag, now,” Kevin said, walking toward it cautiously and peering at its surface, which in the dim red studio light, moved just visibly with insect life. “Okay, listeners! Let’s try this again, cassette or no cassette. ‘And now... the weather! ’”

Nothing happened.

 

Kevin cleared his throat. “I said ,” he declared, “ And now, the weather!

 

There was only silence, and the faint skittering of roaches. Kevin looked back toward Cecil, fearful.

 

“I don’t understand,” he said, fainter. “Why can’t I give the weather report? Even without equipment, I have always been able to invoke the weather...”

 

Cecil blinked. “Um...well, I have, too. Would you like me to try?”

 

“I…” Kevin stared at him apprehensively. “I guess so?”

 

Cecil nodded and cleared his throat, then announced, “And now, the weather!”

 

There was still nothing, except a slightly a ‘twang’ from the guitar’s high E string.

 

“I said the weather!

 

The G string let out its own twang, which was slightly louder.

 

“I can’t do it either,” Cecil breathed, staring back at Kevin with the same fear. “Oh, god...am I still a Voice, in this world?”

 

After a pause, Kevin tore his eyes away, and looked back toward the guitar. “Well,” he said helplessly, “I could try to make my own weather report, but I’d want to use the guitar, and it’s covered in cockroaches, so…wait, what? ” He fell silent as he stared at the sight before him.

 

“Listeners,” Cecil narrated, “The cockroaches have begun to spill out of the bag, and back onto the floor. They are surrounding the guitar in a loose half-circle, and have slowed their movements. If I didn’t know better, I would say that they feel...almost expectant. But that can’t be right.”

 

Kevin stared at the guitar, unmoving, for a long moment. And then, he carefully stepped toward it, as the bugs on the floor retreated from his feet.

 

“I am picking up the guitar,” Kevin said, as he did so. “I am very gingerly unzipping the bag, in case any cockroaches are still inside it. And, now, it’s out! It looks like there are no bugs on my guitar, but there is no guarantee that none are inside it. I suppose I will just... live with that fear, for now. Well, um, either way, I guess that I’m the weather, today.”

 

He stepped back carefully from the cockroaches and sat back in front of his microphone, as the cockroaches began to swarm toward Cecil again.

 

“Oh, no, come on! ” Cecil cried, jumping over them, and precariously onto his chair. “The roaches are coming for me, and--oh. I have jumped back onto my chair, but they are not climbing onto it toward me. They are only forming a slow, shimmering oval around the base of my chair, and around Kevin’s. Oh, thank the lights in the sky,” he concluded, sighing heavily. He crouched back down, still very wary.

 

Kevin strummed his guitar’s strings one by one. “It looks like it’s in tune,” he said, anxiously eyeing the cockroaches. “But...we have a problem.”

 

Cecil snorted. “ A problem?”

 

“Okay, fine; we have a lot of problems!” Kevin admitted. “Like, really, a lot! But my current problem is that, as I am on the spot, I have currently forgotten every song I have ever heard.” He perked up for an instant, but then seemed hesitant. “Oh, nope; I just thought of one, but it’s not ideal.”

 

“I mean, it’s probably better than nothing, right?” Cecil said, watching the bugs out of the corner of his eye. He racked his own brain for another song, but could only come up with ‘I’m A Little Teapot, and, accursedly, that earworm jingle for The Spire, that he had so blessedly forgotten as he slept last night.

 

“...I guess so!” Kevin said, uncomfortably. “Okay, well, the only song coming into my head right now is ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider!’ Just my luck; more bugs .” He inhaled deeply, then exhaled, committing himself to the idea. “Okay, then. Here we go, I suppose...” He strummed an A chord, cleared his throat, grimaced, and very awkwardly began, “The itsy bit--”

 

“Wait!” Cecil burst out, causing Kevin to jump. “Do you know ‘You Are My Sunshine?’ Because that is the only real and not completely terrible song coming to my head, other than ‘I’m A Little Teapot.’ Which is only marginally better than your idea.”

 

“Oh, thank goodness,” Kevin sighed. “That is... much better. Um, I genuinely despise the second and third verses, though, so I’m just going to sing the main chorus twice, and drop the first verse into the middle.”

 

“That’s probably best,” Cecil agreed. “I’ve never understood why you’d put the line, ‘you’ll regret it all someday,’ into a love song. Like, how creepy are you, guy ?”

 

“No kidding!” Kevin exclaimed. “Forget that! And the ‘you have shattered all my dreams’ thing? Totally over the top. I mean, I get the feeling of that one a lot more, but by that point I'm just thinking, ‘after threatening this person, I sure hope they left you!’”

 

“Yeah! At least the first verse is just, you know, super sad.”

 

“Exactly. Just, surprisingly and painfully sad , which is a perfectly reasonable way to feel!” Kevin insisted, earnest.

 

“Yeah,” Cecil breathed, suddenly emotional that he had heard that sentence in Kevin’s voice.

 

“Thank you, Cecil. I was not looking forward to singing ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider’ in a dark room, as roaches circle our feet, and chaos breaks out all across town. It wouldn’t be the most jarring thing that has happened on this show, not by far, but still .” He strummed an G chord, and cleared his throat. “Well, finally, listeners, I really do take you... to the weather.

 

Cecil watched as Kevin began to pluck the strings, slowly and steadily, looking down at the guitar’s neck as he did. His fingers moved with confidence, but not quite expertly; they knew where to go, but Cecil could see that it took a bit of focus. And then, after a gentle intro, Kevin began to sing the chorus, in a lemonade voice that stirred something deep in Cecil’s chest:

 

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.

You make me happy when skies are grey.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you;

Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

 

As he sang the word “happy,” Cecil’s heart beat just faster, with a tincture of anxiety and awe. Kevin continued picking, and the cockroaches swarmed faster. Kevin looked up at him, questioning, and suddenly understanding, Cecil nodded. He sang this verse alone, of course thinking of his beloved Carlos, but also looking into Kevin’s bright eyes. This moment felt vulnerable, but he also felt somehow safe in that gaze, as he trembled with the echoes of his dream, where he and Kevin had sat in a sunflower field, at peace, until their inscrutable, meaningless ending had come.

 

“The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping,

I dreamt I held you in my arms.

But when I woke up, I was alone, dear,

So I hung my head and cried.”

 

Cecil’s voice faltered on the last line, and Kevin felt its tremor in his own body. He thought of Carlos, his own sunshine, and how lost and shaken he had seemed today. But his attention was on Cecil, now, singing with his moonlit, violet voice about longing and grief, singing to Kevin, almost as if this were about him.

 

Caught up by the strength of this moment, he nodded again to Cecil, to indicate that he should continue singing, even as he took a breath. They sang the next verse together, and Kevin took the higher part. As the vibrations of their voices intertwined over the airwaves, much of the town, even many of those viciously fighting their doubles, fell still and rapt, spellbound by the interaction of these two Voices, singing in harmony.

 

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.

You make me happy when skies are grey.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you...

Please don’t take my sunshine away,

Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

 

--

 

As the last vibrations of Kevin’s guitar faded into the ether, the two Carlosi stood before the lab radio, aching with the beauty of what they had just heard.

 

Neither had ever expected to hear those two voices, those dearest and most beloved of voices, singing together . Oh, they had heard Cecil sing, and they had heard Kevin sing, and they had been moved by each one, in their own way. But the combined sound of those voices transcended what either could create alone.

 

But it was not just that which froze each Carlos still, as tears traveled unevenly down the left side of one’s face and the right side of the other’s, and dripped off his jaw, uninterrupted and unhidden. It was that in this harmony between Cecil and Kevin, he heard the whispering of his heart’s most secret of desires, a desire he dared not even think to himself, even now. It was that he had heard the sound of the men he loved, singing a love song together, and doubtlessly, to him .

 

It was that he understood, for a brief instant, that his greatest joy would have been to love and be loved by both of them at once. It was that he understood, simultaneously, agonizingly, that he could never have this. He could never. He could never.

 

Why was he so selfish? Why was Cecil, why was Kevin, not enough, somehow? The man he loved was everything he had ever wanted in a partner, and so much more than he had ever dreamed. Why couldn’t he just let go? Why was he such a stupid, selfish, desperate person? Why was he crying, like he was the one who deserved to feel sorrow, like he needed something, like he deserved to want both of their loves, despite having betrayed one by abandoning him, and the other by staying in that Desert Otherworld for so long, even after he had learned how to come home?

 

The ugliness of this, in the wake of the beauty of Cecil’s and Kevin’s voices, felt harshly dissonant, and each Carlos felt himself fading into a contradictory fog of grief and guilt and self-hatred, and worst of all, absolutely worst of all, an awful, enduring, unkillable longing .

 

--

 

Cecil and Kevin gazed at each other, suspended within a moment that had overtaken them both. Neither wanted to break the stillness between them, broken only by the rustling roaches below. But after a breathless pause, the roaches dissolved from their circle, running to hide behind the cabinet, and Kevin, not breaking eye contact with Cecil, bent over and placed his guitar gently onto the ground.

 

He sat up again, and leaned toward the microphone again. He took a breath, and spoke first.

 

“Just now, listeners, my fiance from another timeline told Cecil he loved him,” he said. “Earlier today, I saw that love demonstrated over and over, in the way the two of them held each other’s hands, and in the way they looked at one another, and in the way they spoke. It is a fact of their lives, just as in this world, it is a fact of my life with Carlos. But when this other Carlos looks at me, I feel a great distance between us, a painful alienation that my mind struggles to accept, and that my heart does not understand at all.

 

“I feel that I should be jealous of Cecil. I feel that I should resent him for taking my place in his timeline, regardless of who I became within it.” He searched Cecil’s eyes, shaking his head. “But...I don’t resent him. I just want him to be safe. I just want everyone to be safe. I understand that this may seem like an unachievable goal, but if we are to live with ourselves, we must strive toward it.

 

“Looking into Cecil’s eyes, Desert Bluffs, I am imploring you: do not kill your double . When your double arrives, look into their eyes, if that is something that helps you connect with people, and tell them this…”

 

As Kevin spoke, his voice took on a powerful quality. Cecil watched his double’s eyes illuminate again, and he knew that Kevin was speaking as a Voice, now.

 

“I see you,” Kevin declared, “and I don’t want any harm to come to you. I don’t.” He stopped and took a difficult breath. “I want you to be safe in my world, and I will do my part to make it so. We can work through our issues, and our jealousies, and our preconceptions, later. For now, I just want both of us to make it.”

 

Cecil felt a shift within himself, now, and he took a breath that felt full, and deep, and more than himself. He was a Voice, too, and he would speak now for Night Vale, as well as for himself. The tendrils of his consciousness reached through the void, toward whatever existed here of the town he loved. Kevin’s eyes went wide, and he inhaled, mouth just agape, as he saw the physical signs of Cecil’s ability, made manifest in a way he had never seen in anyone but himself.

 

“And Night Vale,” Cecil said, from just beyond the boundaries of himself, “I ask the same of you. When your Desert Bluffs doppelganger tells you these things, and even before they do, if you must, tell them this:

 

“I don’t want any harm to come to you, either. I do not know why I am here, or how I can leave. I know my presence must be hard for you, as yours is for me, but please don’t make me your enemy. If you help me, I will do whatever I can to help you, too.”

 

He paused, and spoke again, more as himself than as Voice, with an honesty he feared he may regret, but could not stop himself from giving.

 

“Kevin,” he said, “I am still afraid. I am afraid of all that has become before this moment, and of all that may come after. But sitting beside you now, I don’t want to fear you .”

 

Kevin gazed back at him, and then, turned completely to face him. “Cecil, I see your fear. I see it, and I feel the same way. But you don’t have to be afraid of me. I promise.”

 

Cecil took a breath, trembling with the emotion of this moment. Their eyes, still Voices’ eyes, remained locked.

 

“Thank you,” Cecil said, his voice full. “And, I don’t want you to fear me, either, Kevin. I don’t want anyone to--”

 

Cecil stopped, as both of them noticed that the small, bright blue light of Line One had illuminated again, indicating a third, unexpected call. ‘The Sheriff’s Secret Police,’ the caller ID read.

 

“Listeners,” Kevin said, “it looks like we are receiving a call from the Secret Police. So, I’ll just…” he reached over, and accepted the call privately, raising the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

 

“Howdy. Sheriff Max,” came a tense, thinly-restrained voice on the other end of the line. “Put me on the air, right now .”

 

--

 

Cameron watched, heart pounding, as Max stared fiercely through the jagged edges of their shattered window. Max gripped the edge of their kitchen sink for support, phone held just below their mouth, illuminating their face with a sickly yellow glow that the lamplight did not quite reach.

 

Max had let Cameron hold them for the last several moments, as they had struggled to collect themself. But then, they had sat up, and torn out their earbuds. They had flinched at the sound of Cecil’s voice, but had risen to their feet, wobbly and agonized, and pulled their phone out of their skirt pocket with a face of stone, and eyes like fire. And then, they had started a call.

 

Cameron, still sitting on the floor, had not realized that Max was calling the radio station. If they had, they would have tried to stop them. They should probably try even now, they realized, but their body would not move.

 

“Oh, Sheriff! ” Kevin said. “This is quite the surprise. Listeners, for the first time on this show, we are hearing directly from--”

 

“I don’t have all night, Kevin,” Max interrupted. “Don’t waste my time.”

 

“Sheriff Sam?” Cecil asked, surprised.

 

“Who…? No , and my name is none of your business,” Max spat.

 

“Oh, I’m sor--”

 

You shut your vile mouth and listen to me,” Max said, in a trembling and absolutely deadly tone.

 

Silence fell, and Cameron stopped breathing. The energy coming from Max’s body felt warped and poisonous, and Cameron felt their heart in their throat as they watched them, wide-eyed.

 

“You may have manipulated your way onto our airwaves again, Cecil, but make no mistake: the Secret Police are watching your every move,” Max continued. They pronounced Cecil’s name ‘sessil.’ “We are watching all of you outsiders. We may not have figured out how to access the hellish dimension you hail from, yet, but we will, and when we do, we will throw you right back where you came from. In the meantime, if any of you do anything out of line, if you even breathe wrong, we will put you under immediate arrest.”

 

Their voice echoed faintly, just slightly behind, on their radio. It gave the atmosphere of the room an even more surreal and chilling quality, one that made them seem almost frighteningly powerful, even as the phone shook in their fingers.

 

“Oh, and Cecil? I would say that you, personally, will only be able to harm Desert Bluffs over my eviscerated corpse. But I realize that image probably doesn’t deter you, and in fact probably gives you some sick pleasure to imagine, so instead, I will put it this way: if you even think about harming our beautiful town, in any way, I will come after you myself, and make it absolutely certain that you won’t.” They enunciated this phrase with terrifying precision. “Is that clear?

 

The airwaves were laced with palpable fear, as Cecil struggled to reply. “Sheriff, please,” he begged, horrified. “ I don’t want--”

 

Shut up !” Max snarled, as Cameron flinched. “Say yes, or no!”

 

“Yes! Yes !” Cecil insisted desperately, and Cameron’s heart pounded harder.

 

Good ! And, Kevin?”

 

“Yes?” Kevin replied, tense.

 

“I do not like how easily you have allowed Cecil onto your airwaves, or how friendly you seem toward him in this moment,” Max said. “Do not forget who you are really dealing with, or which town you are the Voice of. That being said, I also imagine that you must have come under quite a lot of political pressure, to have ever done this.

 

“Perhaps the other factions of city government are not on your side, but I am . Whatever support you need, consider it given to you already, the moment you ask for it.” They paused. “Consider no issue too small to bring to me, Kevin. Your safety, particularly as our Voice, is the Secret Police’s priority, and we are fully prepared to give you protection. Just say the word.”

 

As Cameron watched, part of them wondered if Max could even help themself, inebriated and terrified as they were. But their tone held an undeniable conviction, and the threat of their full authority. Cameron shuddered to think of how it must feel to be on the receiving end of their ire, but they felt an undeniable rush in watching Max confront Cecil directly, with so much determination. Cameron also felt that rush in knowing that they would never be the object of that ire, and that if any danger arose, it would be used to protect them.

 

It was Kevin’s turn to give pause, and the static on the radio seemed almost to surge with tension. And then, he carefully replied, “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. I don’t feel unsafe right now.”

 

Max’s jaw set, and they swallowed. Cameron could see that they did not believe Kevin. Cameron thought of the frightened man they had seen panicking on Mayor Jay’s videotape, earlier, and was unsure what they, themself, believed.

 

“It might be that you have to say that,” Max said intently. “But the moment you communicate otherwise, understand that you have the full power of the Secret Police at your disposal.”

 

“...I appreciate your concern,” Kevin said, a little tersely. “But like I said, Sheriff, I really am fine. Is that all?”

 

“Just one more thing,” Max said, standing straight, with a fierce expression. “Desert Bluffs, do not let yourselves be swayed. You are not obligated to accept any Night Valian influence, or to hear Strex or Strex-sympathizer propaganda on your radios. Here in Desert Bluffs, we do not--

 

“Pardon me, Max,” Kevin cut them off, “but there has has been no Strex propaganda on my show since we won the revolution, and to be clear, that has not changed during this broadcast. Now, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to let you go, and finish my show.”

 

Max stood silent, seemingly unsure if Kevin was being made to say this, or if he had snubbed them. Their eyes narrowed.

 

“Hmmph. We’ll be in touch, Kevin. And to all of Desert Bluffs, remember: I am on your side, no matter what happens.”

 

Max hung up.

 

Another thick silence fell. Cameron still had not moved from their place on the floor, and watched from below as Max let out a shuddering exhale, dropping their phone into the sink and gripping its edges tighter. Max blinked a few times, hard, panting for air for a moment before managing to slow their breath.

 

“That was...certainly something,” Kevin finally said, from the background. Max picked their phone up and turned the music back on, just loud enough to drown out the broadcast. When Kevin spoke again, his voice felt far away, as Max turned to look directly at Cameron.

 

“Are you alright?” Max asked.

 

From Max’s perspective, Cameron looked very small. They also looked stiff, and their wide blue eyes, searching Max’s own, held fear and uncertainty.

 

“Are you?” they half-whispered.

 

Max did not answer that, and instead, reached out a hand. Cameron took it, and Max pulled them to their feet. Max held onto their hand tightly, and Cameron could feel the shake in Max’s fingers, even as their jaw set. The voices on the radio continued, but as they were obscured by the sound of a synth-pop song Cameron did not recognize by name, neither they nor Max registered what they were saying.

 

“I’m going to the station,” Max said firmly, through what was visibly a lot of fear. “You should rejoin Elliot and Valencia.”

 

“You’re what? ” Cameron asked, incredulous, and somehow even more concerned than before.

 

“My town needs me. I intend on being there.”

 

Cameron shook their head feverishly, gripping Max’s hand tighter than before. “Max, you are in no state to be going anywhere .”

 

Max laughed humorlessly, nodding just enough to communicate, ‘I know.’ “Who cares?” they asked. “The universe has never waited on us to be alright, and it certainly won’t start now.”

 

“That’s not the point,” Cameron said, shaking their head again. “Max, listen to me. You saw a video of Cecil, and you immediately drove home, downed about four shots worth of whiskey, I’m guessing shot a bullet through your window at something--” they gestured toward it with their free hand-- “and then blasted music and curled into a ball on the floor, which is where I found you. Which there is still some glass on, that needs to be cleaned up. And then, you went on the air, and threatened Cecil to his face. Or, his ears , I guess.” Max went to speak, but they continued, insistent. “ Also , you are visibly not sober, so driving is out of the question , and even if I gave you a ride, you can’t just show up at the station like this!”

 

As Cameron finished, a little breathless, Max looked affronted, but they could not argue. “Okay,” they said, hesitantly. “You do have a point. But Cameron, we need to do something, to stop this! Desert Bluffs is being invaded by Night Valian outsiders, and I won’t just stand by and watch it happen again! I can’t !”

 

Cameron understood the horror in their voice well. They took a breath, then exhaled, standing as tall as they could.

 

“Okay,” they said. “Here’s what we do. First, you get some water, and go sit down, and try to get sober. You can’t help anyone if you’re drunk. Second--”

 

“I’m not drunk ,” Max insisted, defensive. “I’m just...tipsy.”

 

“Alright, tipsy . Either way, that’s not sober, and you shouldn’t go near the station until you are,” Cameron replied firmly, still holding onto Max’s hand, and gently placing the other on top of it. “The point is, if anyone needs you, let them call you. You’re still the Sheriff over the phone, and you don’t need to physically be anywhere, right now, except here with me.”

 

This last sentence hung in the air, and Cameron wondered if Max could feel the weight it held. It seemed to give Max pause, as they searched Cameron’s face.

 

“I... suppose that’s true,” they said, begrudgingly, but they squeezed Cameron’s hand, in what could easily have been either affection or desperation, or maybe both. They also squeezed their eyes shut, gritting their teeth. “Dammit, I should not have had a drink.”

 

“Maybe not, but I’m personally a little more concerned about your window,” Cameron said. “The next step is cleaning that up. But first, please get yourself some water?”

 

Wordlessly, Max slipped their fingers out of Cameron’s, and obliged. Cameron went around the corner to get the broom and a dustpan, and for a moment, they leaned against the side of the cabinet for support. After a couple deep breaths, they braced themself, and walked back over.

 

“Here,” Max said, gesturing for the broom. “Please, let me get this.”

 

Cameron paused, then handed it to them, and watched as Max began to sweep.

 

Though it was difficult, they managed to ask, “Max, what did you shoot at, outside? I didn’t see anything out there, when I looked.”

 

Max paused their sweeping, not looking at Cameron. They struggled to reply.

 

“Neither did I,” they finally said. “I just...I couldn’t get that announcement out of my head. The one where…” they trailed off, distant, gripping the broom tighter. “You know the one.”

 

“Oh,” Cameron said helplessly, as the implications sunk in. “A flashback…?”

 

Max looked back up at them. “Cameron, no one can know this happened,” they said, voice wavering. “Especially not now that we are under siege. No one was supposed to...to see me like this.”

 

They were a mess, half-bathed in gold lamplight, with several curls escaping their low ponytail, and glasses tucked haphazardly into their shirt’s collar, and makeup smudged underneath their eyes. Their expression held fear, mixed with poisonous anger at a world that had allowed their history to take its brutal course. They had not said what they said as a question, but Cameron understood that this was not so much an order, as it was a plea to a friend.

 

They were a mess, but so was Cameron, and so were the other survivors, and so was the world, which had found so many ways to shatter around them, and through them. And amidst the now-jagged shards of the life they had held dear, Max had found their way back to their feet, again and again, sometimes unsteady and terrified, but more often resilient, and charismatic, and protective, and fierce.

 

They were a mess. But in Cameron’s eyes, there could be no mess more beautiful than Max was, and none that they loved more. And so, even though they feared what tonight’s events could mean, Cameron nodded.

 

“I wasn’t planning to tell anyone,” they said. “I just came here to help my friend.”

 

Max swallowed, restrained, but clearly trying to hold themself together. “Thank you, Cameron,” they managed, voice hoarse.

 

“Of course,” Cameron replied softly. And then, the two of them returned to cleaning.

 

--

 

“That was...certainly something,” Kevin said tensely, after the Sheriff had hung up.

 

As he stared at the blue light on Kevin's phone, and watched it blink back into darkness, Cecil realized just how right he had been to fear the outcome of this broadcast, and to reveal his presence in this awful town. It was paralyzing to think of all the Secret Police, monitoring his every move, and waiting for an excuse to strike, a many-eyed, hungry entity that stalked him through unfamiliar terrain.

 

It was just as paralyzing to realize that, with one request, Kevin could now bring that chase to a horrifying close.

 

Kevin, still bathed in the blood-red light of the “on air” sign, gazed at him in concern, as Cecil gripped the sides of his chair for support.

 

“Are you alright, Cecil?” he asked softly.

 

Cecil heard him, but found himself unable to respond. He felt the Sheriff's threats like a hand tightening around his throat, and his head swam with the dizzy fear he had felt at the start of the broadcast. The space around him felt distant, but all too real, and the understanding that Kevin was waiting for an answer slipped in and out of his awareness, as the walls of his world dripped with impossibility and futility.

 

“Cecil?” Kevin said again, more seriously.

 

“Huh?” Cecil said, jolting just slightly and turning toward him. “Yeah?”

 

“You look like you’ve seen a librarian,” Kevin said. “Are you holding up okay?”

 

Cecil felt a vibration in his pants pocket. He wondered if it were Carlos.

 

Oh, god. Carlos. Would he be safe? Would the Secret Police bother him, on Cecil’s account? Would--

 

“I guess that was a silly question,” Kevin said. “Well...that was Sheriff Max, listeners. Despite the tone that call took, all of what I said before still stands. I truly believe that there can be peace between ourselves and our doppelgangers. Before today, I never would have thought that I could sit in the same room as Cecil, and have a conversation like this, but here we are, figuratively and literally capable of creating harmony with one another.

 

“I encourage you not to allow your fears to overtake you, Desert Bluffs. Remember that your doppelganger is loved by many others, and maybe even by the doppelganger of someone you love. Remember how precious your life is to you, and then, treat your double’s with the same care.

 

“Because we are alive, Desert Bluffs, and Night Vale, you are alive, too,” Kevin said, speaking as a Voice one final time. “You are alive, and here with us twice over. Our histories are interwoven in complicated and painful ways, but tonight, we have a new chance to face one another, and, I hope, to show each other mercy.

 

“And Cecil,” he said, looking directly at him, “ you are alive, tonight, and I am glad that you are.”

 

And as Cecil’s heart pounded, and his head swam, and his body trembled, he realized that Kevin was right. His heartbeat, and his awareness, and the vibrating energy that filled him were deeply unpleasant to feel at the moment, but they all proved that he was alive, still. And even in the wake of the Sheriff’s words, and the newly-charged imbalance of power that existed between himself and Kevin, Cecil knew that Kevin really meant what he was saying.

 

As his heart pounded, he found his voice again.

 

“Thank you,” he said. He paused, and then, spoke to his town. “Night Vale, or whatever of Night Vale exists in this world, please be safe tonight. And, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but...I think you should give Desert Bluffs the chance to surprise you.

 

“In my world, the Kevin I knew once described the Desert Bluffs of our past as ‘decent people, good people, sharing what we have.’ And although I have only been here for a few hours, and although those few hours have been nothing less than existentially horrific for me, in nearly every aspect of my life, I can already see the truth of his words, in this world. Your mayor has shown me mercy I never would have expected, before I even asked for it, and I met a Secret Police officer earlier who did the same. And here I sit, next to your Kevin, who found it very difficult to invite me into his studio, but who did anyway, and allowed me this chance to tell you my history, and to speak to all of you. And there are many others, too, who have showed me kindness.

 

“I mean, don’t get me wrong; my existential horror remains,” Cecil said. “Like, oh my god, there is an ocean of it. I have no idea where to even begin , or how to keep my head above those waters long-term. But things would be significantly worse for me right now, without the help I have received from Desert Bluffs.” He shook his head. “Again: I cannot believe I am saying that sentence, but there you go.”

 

“Thank you, Cecil,” Kevin replied, as Cecil sat back from his microphone. “Night Vale, I second what he has said. Please do take care.

 

“Thank you for joining us, everyone, even though it was not by choice, and under difficult circumstances. Stay tuned next for a repeat of this broadcast, which you will be able to turn off this time, and for a future brimming both with our fears, and our hopes.”

Cecil leaned forward, questioning. Kevin nodded, and Cecil said, “Goodnight, Night Vale. Goodnight.”

 

“And until next time, Desert Bluffs,” Kevin finished. “Until next time.”

 

Kevin reached over, and pressed the emergency broadcast button again. As it shut off, the “on air” sign did too, casting the two of them back into shadow.

Chapter Text

For a moment, Cecil and Kevin sat still, in the dim background light of the studio. And then, in unison, they inhaled, and let out two long, heavy sighs.

 

As Cecil exhaled, he lowered his head into his hands and shuddered. Although Kevin felt for Cecil, who looked deeply spent, and for good reason, he also felt a strong sense of relief.

 

“Well...we did it!” he offered.

 

“We sure did. And now I have been publicly threatened by the Sheriff of the Desert Bluffs Secret Police,” Cecil said distantly, from behind his hands. “And all of Desert Bluffs knows I’m here, and a lot of them probably want me hung, too. So, that’s great.”

 

Kevin paused, wishing there was something he could say to make him feel better, but realizing there probably was not. “Well, I don’t,” he finally said, softer.

 

Cecil looked up at him, seemingly touched, searching his eyes through the diffused darkness for reassurance. He opened his mouth, as if still deciding what to say, and then looked away.

 

“Well, if you change your mind, the Sheriff has a whole spool of rope waiting for you,” he said, grimacing and giving an awkward thumbs up.

 

“Yeah, no thanks!” Kevin replied, in a high voice, with more than a little concern. “That is a horrible thought.”

 

“Mhm!” Cecil said, nodding quickly. “Yep!”

 

Kevin leaned over and turned on the lamp, then looked back at him again, frowning a little. “Are you okay?”

 

“Nope! Absolutely not,” Cecil said brightly. He rose to his feet, looking lost. “Anyways, I’ll just be in the bathroom, trying not to think about any aspect of my current situation.” He turned to go, but paused, glancing back at Kevin. “But, you know...thank you.”

 

Kevin stood too, and said, “Of course ,” sounding a little more earnest than he meant to. But by this point in this increasingly stranger and stranger day, he no longer really cared how he sounded.

 

It looked like Cecil needed to hear it, anyway, as he swallowed nervously and averted his eyes again.

 

As the two approached the studio door, Cecil looked at the floor, and jumped a little.

 

“Ah! Our friends are back,” he noted anxiously, stepping back and motioning to the roaches lining the floorboards.

 

Kevin moved past him and opened the door, and the two of them watched apprehensively as the bugs streamed out into the hall.

 

“Oh, I…” Kevin said helplessly, realizing he had just released a swarm of strangely hive-minded, nearly unkillable bugs out into the rest of his station. “I don’t know what I was expecting. Um, bye, friends!” he called after them, as they scurried off. He brought his voice down to a whisper, and leaned just closer to Cecil. “I kind of hope they see themselves out. They seem weirdly sentient…”

 

“Mm,” Cecil said half-heartedly, and began to follow them.

 

“The bathrooms are just around that corner, by the way,” Kevin said, pointing down the hall and to their left.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Cecil said, not turning around. “I know.” He turned the knob to open the bathroom door, and disappeared inside.

 

“Oh, o...okay,” Kevin replied, as the door shut behind Cecil.

 

He frowned as he walked past the bathrooms. He and Cecil had certainly had a difficult history, but still, seeing Cecil so anxious and unhappy made him unhappy, too. He would have been much happier being happy, and seeing Cecil happy.

 

It occurred to him, not for the first time, that he had never actually seen or heard Cecil happy, except maybe in that broadcast from Cecil’s past, when he had spoken about Night Vale and cats. Sure, Strex had called a lot of things “happy,” and by extension, Cecil had too, but none of that had been real. Kevin despised the way they had warped language, and tainted the very concept of happiness.

 

No, Kevin thought, as he walked out toward the waiting room. Cecil was not happy at all , and though it was better than watching or hearing him pretend otherwise, it still made Kevin sad to see him like this.

 

Ahead, he saw Leticia Hedge peering down the hall, a bit anxiously. When Leticia saw him, she smiled, though her anxiousness remained.

 

Kevin entered the waiting room, and immediately spotted two new Secret Police officers standing beside Lucille, in front of the pantry sink. A burst of adrenaline shot through his body, as he wondered if they were here to apprehend Cecil, or otherwise intimidate him.

 

“Hey, Kevin,” Leticia said lightly, if a little tense. “I have some good news, and some, uh, other news. The good news is, Erica says the broadcast de-escalated a lot of conflicts, especially during the weather section, and what came immediately after.”

 

“That’s good,” Kevin said, uneasily eyeing the officers, who had now spotted him.

 

“Yes! And in other, so far neutral news, we have guests who say they want to confirm your safety.”

 

“Mm,” Kevin intoned, as one officer motioned him over. “Excuse me for a minute.”

 

As he approached, Lucille nodded to him, almost imperceptibly. The bottom of her balaclava now covered her face, and her eyes were unreadable. She said nothing to him.

 

“Kevin,” said the taller of the other two officers. Their voice was high and clear, and held a tone of authority. They stuck out their glove-clad hand, as if for a handshake.

 

Kevin took it, a bit warily, aware of the strength of their grip.

 

“Hello, officers. Is everything alright?” He asked.

 

“Well, that’s what we wanted to ask you ,” the tall officer said. “You’ve just had quite the guest on your show, after all, and rumor has it that he’s still in the building.”

 

“Rumor being us, carefully monitoring his location,” the shorter officer said, with a deeper but quieter voice. “Rumor is pretty reliable, in this case.”

 

“Yes,” the tall officer said. “So, Kevin, is everything alright?” They motioned to Leticia and Erica. “You don’t have to pretend for their sake. As the Sheriff said, we are willing to do whatever we need, to protect you.”

 

The officers watched intently for his response. He met the chestnut eyes of the taller officer, and though his heart had begun to beat faster, he calmly replied, “Thank you. I’m fine, though.”

 

“You sure?” asked the shorter officer. “You look pretty stressed.”

 

“I am stressed. It’s been a long day, and people from another timeline are suddenly traveling here, and I have a lot on my mind,” Kevin said. “But at the moment, I’m doing alright.”

 

“That’s good to hear. I can only imagine how long today has felt for you,” the taller officer said, “because the two of us haven’t had the chance to catch up on all the specifics of that day, yet. But Cecil waltzing into your studio again can’t be an easy thing to handle.”

 

“Well, I really wouldn’t call it waltzing. I sort of had to coax him inside through his apprehension, which makes a lot of sense, considering how I…” Kevin trailed off, feeling a little ill. “Well, I’m sure you’ve heard what befell me, in his timeline.”

 

Allegedly ,” the taller officer said pointedly. “None of that has been proven yet, Kevin. It’s entirely possible that’s a fabrication.”

 

Kevin remembered what Night Vale Carlos’ face had looked like, as he had told Kevin the awful truth, and he shook his head, swallowing. “No. Based on what I have seen and heard today, I’m certain it’s true. There are some things that can’t be faked.”

 

“Cecil is a liar, and he is very good at what he does,” the officer replied. “He’s--”

 

“Cecil didn’t tell me,” Kevin interrupted, shaking his head. “It was the Carlos of his world, and I know he was telling the truth. And I appreciate you trying to reassure me, but to be honest, now is not the moment for me to try and process this.”

 

“...I see,” the taller officer replied. “We can come back to that later, then. Regardless, Kevin, my point stands. Cecil is a manipulative liar, and he can’t be trusted, no matter how convincing his stories may sound on the surface.” They glanced around him, a little on edge. “Is there a reason he isn’t out here with you, now?”

 

“He’s...taking a much-needed break,” Kevin said, anxious about their assessment of Cecil’s character, and also about their question. “That broadcast was very difficult for him.”

 

“Hmph. Well, we want to talk to him,” they replied evenly. A little too evenly for Kevin’s liking.

 

He remembered how terrified Cecil had looked just moments ago, after Sheriff Max’s threats, and shifted uncomfortably, crossing his arms. “Oh,” he said. “Um, okay…”

 

“Is that a problem?” asked the shorter officer, suspicious.

 

“No,” Kevin sighed. “Just, he’s already anxious, after what Sheriff Max said to him.”

 

“If he truly hasn’t done anything wrong, then he has nothing to be anxious about,” said the taller officer. “We just want to ask him a couple questions. So if you could go get him, that would be great.”

 

Kevin did not like their implication that anxiety was an indicator of guilt. If that was true, then he was perhaps the guiltiest person in the room, in most rooms, at most times, and particularly right now. And besides, what person would not be anxious, after the sheriff of a secret police organization threatened them in front of an entire town?

 

The officer stared him down, unblinking, and he felt his only choice was to say, “Okay.”

 

Tensely, he turned to go. He looked helplessly at Erica as he walked past, and they gave him a subtle nod, as if to say, ‘you are not leading Cecil to his untimely end.’ Or so he hoped. Leticia looked more nervous than Erica, but also nodded.

 

Kevin’s heart was in his throat by the time he reached the bathroom door. This anxiety was compounded by the realization that Cecil had gone into what used to be the men’s room, which was of course the one that contained his beautiful, floating cat. As a new surge of concern passed through him, he took a deep breath, and braced himself to enter.

 

--

 

“Cecil, you fool!” Cecil hissed to himself, under his breath. “You hopeless, hapless fool !”

 

The frightening predicament he found himself in was, to put it simply, ridiculous and unnecessary. This could have been avoided, had he engaged in one iota of planning, or been even slightly aware of his surroundings, but nope! Why would he have done that , when instead, this terrible option existed, where he found himself pressed up against the bathroom wall, with useless, soapy hands?

 

It had all started when he had walked in distantly, submerged in a numbing, throbbing fog. He had only glanced up at the sound of a familiar, beautiful snarl.

 

Khoshekh ?” He had gasped, turning to where his beautiful cat and his kittens usually floated. But instead, he had seen a much fluffier cat in Khoshekh’s place, with similar coloring, but with significantly longer whiskers, and much shorter spines.

 

“Oh,” he had sighed, as the cat had spun himself onto his side, as if flopping over. The cat was undeniably adorable, but he was not Khoshekh. “Hi, Not-Khoshekh,” Cecil had whispered, suddenly realizing with an anxious pang that he wouldn’t be able to care for his cat from here in another timeline. He had hoped Intern Kareem would remain behind, and would remember to feed him.

 

He had hoped he wouldn’t be gone long enough for it to matter.

 

Awash with another wave of worry, he had entered a stall, and sat on the toilet, head in his hands.

 

After relieving himself, he had remembered feeling a vibration in his pocket earlier. Looking at his phone, he had seen Carlos’ text, which read, ‘Are you okay? I can step away if you need to talk.’

 

Cecil had swallowed back a powerful lump in his throat, and replied, ‘That would help. I’ll call in a few, if that’s okay.’

 

Almost instantly, Carlos had replied, ‘That is definitely okay,’ and Cecil had felt a surge of relief at the thought of hearing his boyfriend’s sweet, oaky voice on the other end of the line.

 

When he had opened the stall door to leave, though, his current problem had begun.

 

On the way in, he had not noticed the mirror in front of the sink, but from his stall, it hung menacingly, in full view. He had recoiled in fear at first, but with a spurt of courage, he had sprinted toward the wall it hung on and pressed himself flat against the tile, beside the soap dispenser, hoping to escape the sight of whatever horrors lay beyond the mirror’s terrible face.

 

This had not been his mistake. No; his mistake had come when he had foolishly used that soap dispenser, right into one of his palms, and then rubbed his hands together like some kind of soap clown, who probably hadn’t even graduated from Soap Clown School .

 

Why had he done this? Why? As he stood here, silently cursing, heart pounding in fear, he was unsure if it had been habit, or a cursed optimism about his ability to face his nearly lifelong (he assumed) fear of mirrors, if common courtesy was at stake. Either way, he could not leave this bathroom until he forced himself to rinse his hands, in a sink that lay directly in front of an uncovered mirror.

 

He saw no other way, except through means he did not want to explore. He could try to open the door, but he feared that his hands would slip off the knob before he could escape, and either way, he would be leaving a soapy slime in his wake. He could wipe the soap on his pants first, but, ew , and also, that would still leave his hands dirty. He would have used a paper towel and figured something else out later, but no , Kevin’s bathroom had air dryers , of all sensible and eco-friendly things. And, to use toilet paper, he would have to re-enter a stall, which would expose him to the mirror’s eldritch range of vision.

 

...Not that it necessarily saw anything, but he did not want to give it, or anything connected to it, the chance.

 

He couldn’t even use his phone to call for help, partly because of his blundering, sudsy error, but also because no one he could currently call was close enough to do anything.

 

And so, horrible though it was, he decided that the only way out was through, and that he must carefully, quickly stick his hands under the faucet, from off to the side. He could not be exposed to that mirror for any longer than was strictly necessary, or...or, he shuddered to imagine what. And so, as flat against the wall as he could possibly make himself, he edged closer, closer to that sink, shivering in horrible anticipation. He crouched just under the soap dispenser and, barely biting back a terrified whimper, prepared to strike--

 

“Cecil!” came an urgent voice, as the door burst open behind him, and he yelped, jumping so that he banged his head on the soap dispenser. The impact sent him to the floor, hissing in pain, and he lifted his hand to his head without thinking, getting soap in his hair. Pressing back up against the wall, he turned and saw Kevin standing in the doorway with a very startled expression.

 

“Cecil, are you okay?” Kevin asked in bewildered concern.

 

“The mirror!” Cecil blurted.

 

“What?”

 

“Get back! It’s not safe !” Cecil gestured at it frantically, and waved Kevin toward the wall with him.

 

Kevin quickly joined Cecil on the floor, clearly very alarmed. “ What isn’t safe?” he demanded, wide-eyed.

 

The mirror! ” Cecil cried again.

 

What about it?? ” Kevin demanded again, more insistently.

 

“It’s a mirror , Kevin! Everything about it is bad , on its own horrific, reflective merit!! God, I hate these things,” he moaned, through clenched teeth.

 

Kevin stared at him blankly for a long, confused moment. Oh, masters of us all, why didn’t he understand? Why wasn’t he reacting whatsoever to an uncovered mirror with the horror it clearly deserved?

 

“...Cecil,” Kevin finally said, slowly and deadly serious, “Are you afraid of mirrors ?”

 

“Uh, yeah! Of course! They are abominations , and bad luck, and only evil things can come from leaving them uncovered like this!”

 

Kevin blinked. “So...nothing is currently wrong with this mirror, except that it’s...a mirror…?”

 

“I--!” Cecil started. “No, but I’d say that’s a big enough problem!” he exclaimed fearfully.

 

“And you’re hiding from it, because you’re scared ?” Kevin concluded, realization dawning fully on his face.

 

“You have to cover them, for protection!” Cecil insisted. “If you don’t, the flickering will come and kill you, just like it killed me !”

 

“...Cecil, what?

 

“Okay, not me me, obviously, but it definitely killed other me super dead that one time! The point is, let’s please just get out of here!” he begged. “I’ve been stuck in here, because of these stupid, soapy hands!” He held them out in front of him helplessly.

 

Frowning and tilting his head, Kevin considered Cecil’s sudsy hands carefully, looking back and forth between them and Cecil’s face. Then, swiftly, he rose to his feet, and walked directly in front of the mirror, peering within its awful depths with the casual air of someone checking inside a cabinet for a can of soup.

 

“Oh, don’t !” Cecil cried, recoiling.

 

“There is nothing here,” Kevin announced, standing up straighter. “No flickering, no nothing, except for the bathroom, and my own charming reflection.” He looked back at Cecil. “I’m honestly very confused, but let’s just get you out of here.”

 

“Okay!” Cecil said, panicked. “Just, please , get away from that thing!”

 

Kevin obliged, though he gave him a slightly weird look. “Okay. Well, there’s a sink in the pantry, so you can wash your hands there.”

 

“Oh, thank the lights in the sky .”

 

Kevin reached out a hand to help Cecil up, looking very cautious, but Cecil was not about to give his double a handful of goop, so he scrambled up on his own.

 

“...The bad news is, there’s a couple of Secret Police officers out there, who say they want to talk to you,” Kevin said.

 

Cecil froze, as a new wave of horror passed through him.

 

“I already told them I’m fine with you being here,” Kevin continued, “and Erica and Leticia are still there, and Lucille is too, though she’s being pretty quiet. And, I’ll go out there with you, and if things get too tense, I’ll try to work in some comments to emphasize how harmless and non-threatening you are.” He eyed Cecil appraisingly. “Which, despite your reputation, shouldn’t actually be a very tough sell, based on your current state.”

 

Cecil was unsure whether he should feel insulted, but he appreciated this, nonetheless. “Okay,” he said hesitantly.

 

Kevin went and opened the door for him. After a deep breath, Cecil darted out, stopping in the hallway to gasp in relief. Kevin followed, waving to the cat and his kittens.

 

“Buh-bye, Mister Whiskers!” Kevin called, in what was unmistakably a doting cat owner’s voice. “I wuv you!”

 

Cecil gaped, unable to process this combination of sight and sound, and to decide on a response. Finally, as his double pulled the door closed behind them, he landed on, “You named your cat Mister Whiskers ?”

 

“Um, yes ,” Kevin replied, a bit defensively. “Have you seen those fancy whiskers?”

 

“Okay, yes ,” Cecil exclaimed, more enthusiastically than he meant to. “You’re right, they are super fancy! He’s a really beautiful cat.”

 

“Isn’t he?!” Kevin replied, equally enthused. “He’s just the prettiest kitty!”

 

But then, Kevin seemed to remember who he was talking to, and looked away, unsure of himself, quietly leading Cecil toward the pantry sink, and toward the officers before it. Cecil’s throat felt tight as they all turned to look at him. He glanced at Leticia, who gave him a subtle thumbs-up. This did not assuage his many intense existential fears, but he was grateful anyway.

 

“Cecil of Night Vale,” said the taller of the two new officers, in an appraising tone. It was less a greeting than it was a statement, dripping with a restrained malice that made him stop in his tracks.

 

“Hi, officers,” he said, a little breathless. “Um, I’d offer to shake your hand, but they, uh, have soap all over them.” He held them out before him apologetically, feeling very awkward. “Sorry about that.”

 

“Hm. No thanks, anyway,” said the taller officer, unblinking.

 

Cecil’s anxiety surged, as Kevin politely asked, “Excuse us, would you mind letting us over to the sink?”

 

The officers moved aside. Cecil looked toward Lucille, but she averted her eyes as he and Kevin passed.

 

“We didn’t come here for pleasantries, Cecil,” said the officer, and he froze in fear, as the water ran over his hands. He looked over to them, but they nodded toward the sink. “Go ahead,” they said evenly, and he quickly obeyed, ducking his head a little as he did.

 

“Cecil,” they said, “I’ll put it simply for you. If I were you, which, thankfully, I am not, I would be very careful in my actions, and watch my mouth. We know what you’re capable of, and like Sheriff Max said, if you even consider doing something stupid, we are prepared to stop you.”

 

As Cecil began drying his hands, he turned and said, “Officer, I don’t--”

 

Hush ,” the officer commanded, holding up their hand, and Cecil fell silent, adrenaline shocking his system. He sensed Kevin standing close beside him, in a way that felt intentional, and suddenly felt very thankful for that fact, despite his very confused feelings toward him. It was not enough to stop his fear, but it held him back, as he teetered on the edge of the abyss.

 

The officer continued, “That was a very persuasive performance you gave, just now. In fact, you gave two of those today, one of which was specifically for us in the Secret Police. I must say, that 'panic attack' you had when Mayor Jay asked you to talk about your world’s Kevin was a very nice touch…”

 

He felt Kevin’s eyes land on him, as Kevin shifted almost imperceptibly. He also felt his heart in his throat.

 

“But we aren’t convinced. Frankly, the only reason I’m not arresting you myself, and handing you over to the Sheriff directly, is that the other Night Valians from your world are supposed to be more docile if they hear from you, and know you’re safe. So far, that seems to be the case, but we’ll see how long that lasts. For now, though, our agreement is as follows.

 

“Keep your head down,” they said, “and do not even think of causing a scene. Do not incite violence. Do not break our laws. Keep your people in check, and cooperate with authority. Especially do not engage in any pro-Strex propaganda. In exchange for your full submission, we will allow you to stay in our town without arrest, until other arrangements are made. Otherwise, we will do whatever is necessary to neutralize you.” They stared him down, sending a chill down his body. “Do you understand those terms, Cecil of Night Vale?”

 

“Yes,” Cecil replied hoarsely, again feeling as if a hand was tightening around his throat. “Officer, I really don’t want to give you or Desert Bluffs any trouble.”

 

“You say that,” they replied, gesturing toward him, “but you’re already here , aren’t you?”

 

Cecil knew this was not his fault, but the accusation in their voice still sucked the air from his lungs. They really did not believe him. They really thought he was an evil person, here to harm them and the people they loved.

 

What could he possibly say or do to change their mind, to convince them that he was just very, very lost, and more afraid than he had been in years?

 

They turned to Kevin, and said, “If he starts anything, just holler for us, okay?”

 

“Thank you, but I doubt I’ll need to. I just caught him in the bathroom, somehow being bested by hand soap,” Kevin replied in a clipped tone, as Cecil’s head swam. “Will that be all, officers?”

 

“...Is that why he has soap in his hair?” the shorter officer said. Cecil reached up automatically, and cringed as he found a gloop of it.

 

The taller officer shook their head. “Tsk. He really is committed to playing innocent,” they said. They turned to Lucille, and said, “We’ll be outside. You can join us if you’d like.”

 

Lucille nodded. “Thank you. I think I’d rather stay in here for now, and help you keep an eye on things,” she replied. “Just to be safe.”

 

The taller officer looked mildly suspicious, but accepted this. “Well, stay off the streets for the night,” they said to everyone, turning to go. “It’s bound to be chaos out there, and we’re recommending that people stay indoors. Besides, I assure you that you wouldn’t want to get yourselves mixed up in anything worse,” they said, giving Cecil one more dizzying glare. And then, the two officers walked away together, leaving their awful, insidious judgment to hang in the air behind them, just over Cecil’s head.

Chapter Text

As the door closed behind the officers, Cecil sank to his knees and curled into himself, gasping for air. He had only been breathing shallowly this entire time, and holding himself together during that interaction had taken most of his strength.

 

Faintly, as he stared at the tile below him, he heard Kevin’s concerned voice exclaim, “Cecil!”

 

And then, he heard Lucille’s voice, as she knelt close beside him. “Hey, you’re okay,” she said, gently but firmly.

 

“I’m going to die here,” Cecil gasped, trembling. “They’re going to kill me.”

 

“No, they are not. That officer was just trying to scare you,” Lucille insisted. “She’s very good at intimidating people, which I’m sure is why she was chosen to watch you. But the Secret Police is not about to risk inciting a civil war, no matter how tough we talk.”

 

“And what will happen to Carlos?” Cecil continued, unable to believe her. “Oh god, not Carlos. Please, not Carlos!” He gripped his hair tight, shaking harder.

 

He felt Lucille shift beside him. “Carlos is very loved in Desert Bluffs, and no one would dare hurt him,” she said. “Also, if it helps, a good friend of mine in the Secret Police is usually assigned to watch him, and will almost definitely be responsible for monitoring your world's Carlos too. They genuinely like him, so you can trust them not to heckle him.”

 

“My Carlos texted me a couple minutes ago,” Kevin interjected softly. “He and his team are currently taking calls from the newcomers. He also says your Carlos is asking about you, which means that he’s safe right now.”

 

Oh ,” he breathed, in simultaneous relief and new anxiety. He had said he would call...how long ago? He scrambled to his feet, shaking badly, and pulled his phone out of his pocket, glancing around in a haze at the alarmed people next to him. “Um, excuse me,” he said frantically, dialing Carlos’ number, already halfway toward the waiting room, where Leticia stood next to the couch, and Erica perched on it. “I said I’d call him before. He’s probably worried.”

 

Hand in his hair, on the non-soapy side, he said hi to Leticia and Erica, and paced back and forth across the rug, cursing under his breath as the phone rang. Nodding at him, Leticia got up and walked toward Lucille and Kevin. And then, blessedly, he heard a click, and an oaky voice said, “Cecil!”

 

“Carlos!” Cecil nearly yelled, and then cleared his throat and started again, a bit more restrained, but still very emotional. “Carlos, oh my god, it is so good to hear your voice. Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine. A scientist is always fine, especially when they’re with their team. Are you okay?” Carlos asked anxiously. “You sounded really scared before, when the sheriff came on.”

 

Cecil partially choked back a sob, and held the phone gently against his face, imagining that it was the side of Carlos’ cheek. “Um, well...I’ve definitely been better,” he offered, not wanting to make Carlos any more worried than he doubtlessly was.

 

“Cecil, I’m so sorry,” Carlos said. “I can’t even imagine what today has been like for you. Are you still safe at the station?”

 

“I...yeah,” Cecil said, glancing back at the pantry, just as Kevin began walking in his direction. “I, uh, did just meet some of the officers who’ve been assigned to watch me, but they haven’t, like, dragged me to my death, or anything.”

 

“Oh, Cecil,” Carlos whispered. “Are they still there?”

 

“No, they left,” Cecil said, as Kevin passed by, clearly very focused on whatever he was thinking of. “But they’re outside, and, you know, I can assume they’re watching and listening to my every move, and waiting for me to mess up, and all. So...there’s that .”

 

“Mm…” Carlos intoned sympathetically. “That sounds so awful. Is there anything I can do to help?”

 

Cecil swallowed, shutting his eyes and trying to catch his breath. “Just knowing you’re safe is enough for now,” he said. “Just, stay that way for me, okay? Please?”

 

“I’ll do my best,” Carlos said gently. “I promise.”

 

Good ,” Cecil said. “Because I love you with all my heart. I really wish I could come there now, but the officers told us to stay put, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to do that.”

 

“That’s totally okay. Take your time, and you be safe, too, okay? And I love you too, Cecil,” Carlos said, and Cecil felt more fondness for him than he could describe.

 

“I know,” he said. “You just told me so, in front of all of Desert Bluffs.”

 

“Well, it bears repeating. And I’ll say I love you in front of the whole universe. I’ll say it in front of the town, and the sheriff, and the officers watching you. I’ll yell it on top of a mountain, and in the middle of a cloud!”

 

Cecil snorted through tears. “Mountains aren’t even real ,” he laughed, touched.

 

Carlos laughed, too. “Oh, no. I guess my love is going to cause a paradox, then. Whoops!”

 

“Whoops, indeed,” Cecil exclaimed. He knew how seriously Carlos took paradoxes, and to hear him joke about one so flippantly was weird. He expected that soon, Carlos would clarify that no, he did not actually want to cause one. But this still made him feel better. Carlos was so good at that, and he was so grateful for him.

 

“In all seriousness, I do not want to create a paradox, because that would be very bad,” Carlos said, like clockwork in a world where clocks worked, and Cecil smiled.

 

“I know, sweetheart,” he said. “That doesn’t sound like something you’d do on purpose. But like, the mental picture is super romantic!” In a conspiratory tone, he muttered, “I’m kinda into it...”

 

Carlos laughed again. “Oh, geez. Sorry, babe, but I am not going to be able to help you work out that particular fantasy.”

 

“Aw,” Cecil said, in a fake-disappointed tone, but then, he returned his voice to normal. “Okay, I was mostly kidding, but--

 

Just then, Kevin walked back in, holding two pillows, and plopped them on the chair. “Excuse me,” he said, looking from Erica to Cecil. “I wanted to make up the bed?”

 

“Oh, okay!” Cecil replied, backing away toward the pantry, as Erica moved toward the hallway. “Um, do you want help?”

 

“Nope!” Kevin said, waving him off dismissively as he took off the couch cushions. “Please, keep talking. Also, do you want tea in a few minutes? I’m already planning to make some for myself.”

 

Cecil blinked. “Oh, that...that would be really nice. What kind?”

 

“Lemon, most likely,” Kevin said, setting down the last cushion, and not looking up. “But feel free to look through the cabinets for something else.”

 

“Lemon tea sounds pretty good, actually. Thanks...”

 

“Of course,” Kevin said, going over to the side of the couch, presumably to release the bed.

 

Cecil nodded, feeling a bit awkward, and went into the pantry again, acknowledging Leticia and Lucille with another nod. “Sorry about that, Carlos. Kevin wanted to make the bed, and I was in the way, and then he offered me tea.”

 

“Lemon tea?” Carlos asked distantly.

 

“Yeah,” he replied. “I feel like I liked it, last time I tried it, but I can’t remember when that was, so…”

 

“I’ve liked it, too. It has a bright flavor, and feels a little bit like you’re drinking the color yellow,” Carlos said. “It’s...kind of bittersweet.”

 

Cecil could not place what he was hearing in Carlos’ voice, but he wondered if Carlos was maybe feeling something bittersweet, too. After a pause, Carlos spoke again, hesitantly.

 

“Um, how is Kevin?”

 

Cecil watched as Kevin pulled the bed out of the couch, with a determined, set expression that revealed very little about his feelings. Cecil could tell from his body language that he was a little anxious, still, but he seemed satisfied as he set the bed on the floor, and began to smooth out the pastel yellow sheets, which had been folded in with the mattress.

 

“I don’t know,” Cecil answered. “He seems less afraid of me than he was earlier, especially during the drive over, and we’re getting along... decently well? I’m not worried he’s going to murder me in my sleep, so I’ll take that, I guess.”

 

“That’s good...but, what happened on the drive over?” Carlos asked, sounding a little concerned.

 

“He, um...he had a panic attack,” Cecil said quietly, wincing at the memory.

 

“Oh no!” Carlos said, sounding even more concerned. “Is he okay?”

 

“He seems a lot better now. What happened to him in our world just seemed to hit him, all at once, probably because he was sitting next to me. Which I can definitely understand, although it was really hard to watch.”

 

Carlos was silent for a long moment. “Oh, I should not have told him,” he finally said, in a voice filled with regret.

 

Cecil’s eyes went wide. “Wait, you’re the one who told him? When?”

 

“During your interview with Vanessa,” Carlos said miserably. “I didn’t mean to tell him, but he was so confused, and he just wanted to know what was wrong , and I tried not to tell him, but then it just spilled out. And then I saw his face , and oh god, I feel awful.”

 

“Oh, Carlos,” Cecil sighed, feeling very much for him. “That’s not your fault. He would have found out either way, and if it hadn’t been you, it probably would have been me, with my big old blabbermouth, about five minutes after.”

 

“Mm. I guess you’re right,” Carlos said, unconvinced. “It would have been really hard to keep something like that from him, based on the nature of our world. But I still feel like by telling him, I’ve hurt him worse than if I hadn’t. You know?”

 

Cecil felt those words in his stomach, as he watched Kevin fluff up a pillow and place it at the head of the bed, then walk his way. As Cecil passed him on his way back into the waiting room, just close enough to barely feel the air move between them, he remembered the night he had lied to his Kevin, and told him that Desert Bluffs would defeat Strex. He felt a visceral response to that memory, particularly in light of Kevin’s physical proximity, and the degree of connection he had felt with him during the weather, and just after.

 

“Yeah, I kind of do know,” he said, a little breathless.

 

But Carlos ...Carlos had known Kevin, too, and gotten closer to him than Cecil ever had. It must have been even more painful for Carlos. And...that would also explain...

 

“Wait...is that why you were crying, when I came back out from the interview?” Cecil breathed, when he was out of Kevin’s earshot. “Not because he said something that upset you?”

 

Carlos paused, but then said, “No. Well...the conversation did upset me, in some ways, but not because of anything he did. Just because he’s Kevin , and I never thought...I didn’t expect to be seeing him anytime soon.”

 

Cecil had known that Carlos had cared about Kevin, when the two had met in the Desert Otherworld, and that Carlos had taken it hard, too, that night when Kevin came on the radio. He never pressed Carlos to talk about this, because the subject always seemed to make him so sad and distant, and because, like in all things, he wanted Carlos to come to him when he was ready. But seeing Carlos so wrecked today, and hearing him sound so sad just now, hurt , and he was very worried about how much pain he had seen today in the eyes of his boyfriend. He was also worried about the lost, pained expression of the other Carlos, when their eyes had met, and about what all of this could mean, and about what kind of weight Carlos might be carrying in silence.

 

It was good to know that this Kevin, at least, had not meant to upset Carlos. He felt a little guilty for shouting at Kevin, earlier, in light of this. But by far, he was much more preoccupied with Carlos’ well being, no matter what the details were.

 

And so, he asked, “Carlos, are you okay? And please, don’t just say ‘a scientist is always fine,’ this time? I know that’s true, but I really don’t just want to know about scientists in general. I want to know about this scientist, who I love, and who has been through just as much as I have today, and who deserves whatever support he needs.”

 

Carlos sighed heavily. “What have I ever done to deserve someone like you, Cecil?” he asked, voice full of affection.

 

“God, I don’t know, but it must have been terrible ,” Cecil said. “I can’t cook, I’m afraid of mirrors, I sometimes sleep in leather pants, and I don’t even know the difference between an Erlenmeyer burner and a Bunsen flask!”

 

Carlos giggled. “Oh my god, stop . You are a wonderful boyfriend, and I know you know what a Bunsen burner is, because you once sent me a text that read, ‘am I a Bunsen burner? Because you have set my heart on fire.’ Which was very romantic, and scientific!”

 

“I mean, what’s the difference?” Cecil asked, in a low voice that bordered on sultry. Carlos laughed again, and Cecil chuckled softly, too.

 

But Carlos still had not answered his question. Not wanting to move the pillows from their place on the chair beside the couch bed, he sat on a bottom corner of the mattress, which let out a slight squeak of protest. And then, he pressed, “Really, though, Carlos. How are you feeling right now?”

 

For a moment, there was only silence, and Cecil could practically hear him biting his lip. “Well,” Carlos said hesitantly, “I am fine, in that a scientist is always fine...but this situation is pretty overwhelming, and it's especially unnerving to have traveled to a different world again, especially so soon after the last time. I don’t really know how to feel about this, and about being separated from Night Vale again.”

 

“Oh, Carlos , I hadn’t even put that together yet,” Cecil said, covering his mouth. “Oh, bunny .”

 

“I am not saying that I’m glad you have to deal with everything you are dealing with,” Carlos said, his voice shaking a little. “And, I know this might be selfish of me to say. But on some level, I am so glad we at least came here together, if either of us had to. You know?”

 

“I do know,” Cecil replied. “Like, I wouldn’t wish this on you, and if I could send you back home to keep you from dealing with this, I would. But--”

 

“Don’t!” Carlos pleaded. “If you somehow get that chance, don’t you dare ! I never want to be a world apart from you, ever again. That was the worst thing about that long year, and yes, I am counting the time I shattered my glasses, a la that episode of The Twilight Zone, and sat there reeling for the longest time, before I remembered that things that break in the Desert Otherworld don’t stay broken.”

 

“Oh, god, ” Cecil said, horrified. “You never told me that story!”

 

“Oh, yeah, I guess not,” Carlos said, a bit awkwardly. “Oops…”

 

“Carlos, I am so sorry. That sounds awful . Wow. Okay, well, I will not send you back to Night Vale without me, then,” Cecil said. “Also, hey...you’re right. We did come here together, along with a lot of Night Vale. This isn’t happening to only you, and so you can be sure this time that it’s not about you in particular. You and Night Vale have traveled together, and that connection is still there.”

 

“...Yeah, I guess that's true,” Carlos said, voice breaking a little. “Hey, Cecil? I really, really wish I could hug you right now.”

 

“Carlos, you’d better believe that the second I can get over to that lab, I am going to scoop you into my arms, and I am not going to let go until you tell me to,” Cecil said, his own voice trembling. “At which point I will let go immediately, because that is what a respectful partner does, no matter how much emotion is bursting in his body like dying stars.”

 

“You are so wonderful,” Carlos sighed. Then he whispered, “I also want to kiss you, you know.”

 

Cecil glanced at Erica, who was sitting in the corner with their eyes closed, seemingly focused elsewhere, and quietly replied, “oh?”

 

“I can’t get into all the specifics, because I’m in a room full of people, but god, yes ,” Carlos said. “For a long time. Like, a really long time, Cecil. Also, I almost just said, ‘it feels like just last night I was tasting the chai tea on your lips,’ but it literally was last night, and that is super weird to think about. Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that just happened yesterday?”

 

“If not, then I’m not sure what to call what I’m feeling,” Cecil said softly. “Oh, but, hey! Here’s a fun fact, that I don’t think I’ve told you yet. Before you, I didn’t even drink chai tea very much.”

 

“What! Isn’t that, like, one of your favorite flavors, right after black coffee?”

 

“Well, yeah! I’ve always liked it, and it definitely is a favorite now. But it all started in a coffee shop, on our third date, when you ordered a cup of chai tea and offered me a sip. And then, you kissed me, and said it tasted even better on me, and an entire flue of butterflies passed through my stomach all at once. And honestly, to this day, that is the best cup of tea I have ever had.”

 

“Cecil, that is the sweetest thing,” Carlos said, clearly touched. “Except for you. You are the actual sweetest thing, except maybe for science. But science is not a person, and you are a different kind of sweet, so it would be difficult to perform an experiment to scientifically determine which is sweeter. Otherwise, I definitely would have performed that experiment already. Just out of scientific curiosity, to be clear! And I don’t know if I would even tell you the results. I don’t want to pit you against each other, and I especially would not want you to feel bad if science won, or for science to...well, not feel bad if it lost, because science doesn’t have the capacity to feel bad, unless you are defining all things as science, in which case, you are also science, and so am I, which in one sense, would be so exciting! But I do not think that all things are science, even though it’s a nice thought, because I know that many things are unscientific. Anyways, I don’t need to compare you to science, because I love you, and I love science, and those two loves exist at once, and I have chosen to act on both.”

 

About halfway through Carlos’ very sweet tangent, which Cecil was less focused on than he was on Carlos’ even sweeter voice, Cecil had registered a growing, loud hissing behind him, and a familiar click. He had glanced behind him, toward the partially-closed pantry door, and realized that Kevin must have finished boiling the water, already.

 

“Carlos,” he said now, “I love you so much. And I think if you do somehow design that experiment, you’ll find that you are actually the sweetest thing, and science and I don’t stand a chance.”

 

“Oh, now that is a pretty smooth hypothesis,” Carlos said, and Cecil could tell that he was smiling.

 

“I do my best,” Cecil said, smiling a little in response. “Also, I have another hypothesis, which is that my tea will probably be ready soon.”

 

“Oh! I’ll let you go, then, unless you need to talk some more. Things are also picking up at the lab, and I should probably get back to work and try to do actual science, instead of just thinking about science in general. But if you need me, please text me, and I’ll call when I can.”

 

“I mean, I could talk with you forever,” Cecil said. “But I know you have other things to do, and although I’m not exactly feeling settled about any of this, I feel much better than I did before. Hearing your voice always seems to have that effect on me.”

 

Carlos laughed softly. “I’m glad. And I could say the same to you. I am saying the same to you, actually.”

 

Cecil smiled longingly at the succulents on the table next to the couch, though of course, they were not the intended recipients of that smile. “I really, really love you, Carlos.”

 

“I love you too, Cecil. Please take care, and seriously , text me if you need to talk again?”

 

“Okay,” Cecil said. “And you too. But please, don’t worry about me too much. Go ahead and do all the science your heart desires, and unless something important comes up, I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

 

“You are always important,” Carlos said. “But, okay. Talk to you at some undetermined future point, but definitely by tomorrow morning.”

 

“Okay. Love you,” Cecil said, already missing him terribly, as the door behind him opened.

 

“Love you too. Goodnight.”

 

“Goodnight, Carlos.”

 

--

 

As Cecil and Carlos spoke, Kevin stared at the electric kettle intently, watching as the bubbles began to rise. Lucille and Leticia stood in the corner, having a hushed conversation which was mostly drowned out by the kettle’s hissing. They were not looking at him, and he much preferred it that way, considering what he was about to do.

 

Just to the right of the kettle, he had taken some bloodstones, and arranged them in a circle around Cecil’s cup, which contained a bag of lemon tea, a squeeze of actual lemon juice, a small dash of sugar to neutralize its bitterness, and a spoon. His cup contained these things, too, but sat outside the bloodstone circle. It would not be the object of this ritual, after all.

 

Earlier today, he had feared Cecil’s presence, and all it represented. But in the time since the two of them had arrived at the station, that fear had been overshadowed by a deep concern for his double.

 

It seemed that Cecil was even more afraid than he was, based on everything Kevin had seen. Cecil demonstrated that fear in countless ways, and in particular, Kevin had seen the deep, existential terror seep into Cecil’s familiar features as he was publicly and privately threatened.

 

Also, Cecil had panicked at the sight of a mirror, and complimented his cat. Sure, Kevin had watched this man’s counterpart smile as he all but dripped with gore, and fought him nearly to the death once, but the person he had just spent the last few hours with was more a danger to himself than to anyone else, particularly if soap was enough to render him helpless. If, as the taller officer from before had said, Cecil was somehow faking this persona, then Kevin would be far less upset than impressed, especially considering that Night Vale Carlos would have to be in on it.

 

As often happened in overwhelming situations, when Kevin had realized just how lost and fearful Cecil was, something within himself had shifted. He knew he would have to deal with his own feelings, and he was prepared to do that later. But as he had watched Cecil sink to his knees, just now, and say that he feared death, Kevin had consciously made a decision.

 

So many times, he had not been able to help his double, but now, he would, however he could. He would continue to refuse Sheriff Max’s personal invitation to smear Cecil, and he would continue to use his influence as Voice, and help reduce the stigma surrounding him. As for immediate actions, he had already pulled out the couch, so that Cecil could sleep comfortably, and was making him tea, and once that was done, he would cover the bathroom mirror by nailing a towel over it.

 

He would protect Cecil, he had decided, and as the kettle clicked, he channeled that protective feeling into the motions of pouring water into Cecil’s cup, and then, into his own. He focused this intention into the clockwise stirring of Cecil’s spoon, and in cupping his hands around the mug.

 

As the water in Cecil’s cup spun slower, Kevin felt the heat radiating outward from it, and spoke quietly into the bloodstone circle, and beyond it, into the void. “May the warmth of this tea be warmed further by my intentions,” he said, closing his eyes, and trying to emit his own warmth back into it. “May it restore peace to he who drinks of it, and protect him from harm. May this world treat him with kindness, rather than cruelty.”

 

He took a deep breath, with a surge of emotion that he did not expect to feel, and exhaled, concentrating on infusing Cecil’s tea with his blessing. In the background, silence had fallen, and he heard only the occasional, low voice of his double. He did not notice the two cockroaches that watched him from atop the cabinet door.

 

He was not sure how exactly prayer or magic translated into action, when it came to the atoms spinning in the universe, or other things that were provable by science. He was doubtful that praying over a cup of tea would, say, directly make that officer or Sheriff Max hate Cecil any less, or change most anyone’s mind about him. But he did know that performing this ritual was changing his own heart, and bringing him to a place of goodwill, rather than fear.

 

In that way, he knew that he was changing the universe, even if only within his own mind and body. And he knew, both from Carlos’ explanations of science, and from his own experiences, that one person’s actions were always cosmically significant.

 

He allowed the tea to steep for a long moment, as he allowed kindness and good intent to steep within himself. And when the ritual was complete, he opened his eyes, scooped the bloodstones back into their jar, picked up his tea and Cecil’s, and left the pantry, filled with new resolve.

 

--

 

As Cecil hung up the phone, full of emotion, Kevin approached, holding two coffee mugs, one in each hand.

 

“For you,” Kevin said, leaning down a bit to hand one to him, indicating that he should take the handle. “Be careful; it’s still a little hot.”

 

Cecil reached out to take it. As he did, his fingers momentarily pressed up against Kevin’s, and something about that gentle touch felt so strangely personal that it left him slightly stunned. Maybe it was just that, all at once, he could feel the reality of Kevin, just beside him. It might also have been that he was struck by the simple softness of this action. After all, the only times he and his Kevin had ever touched each other had been when Kevin had helped Lauren drag Cecil from his studio, as the first Strex revolution failed, and of course, the first time they’d met, when Kevin had attacked him, and he had almost choked Kevin to death.

 

He tried not to remember the details of those memories, but he still felt a sudden tension take over his body, as Kevin’s hand slipped past his own.

 

He made himself look up to thank him, and saw a similar tension in his double’s body. Kevin leaned back just so, switching his mug into his left hand, and holding it between himself and Cecil, as if creating a barrier with his arms. He looked guarded, but also like he was trying to give Cecil space.

 

“...Thank you,” Cecil managed, still feeling a little frozen.

 

“Of course,” Kevin responded automatically. “I hope it helps.”

 

His sincerity caught Cecil off guard. Cecil realized he hadn’t been breathing, and made himself inhale deeply. “Well...the thought definitely does,” he replied.

 

“Good,” Kevin said, nodding quickly, with a concerned expression.

 

Cecil would have expected Kevin to walk away, at this point, but Kevin stood still, looking uncertain, as if he wanted to say something, but was struggling.

 

Finally, Kevin said, “Um...I understand that you might need space right now, and if so, that’s fine. But would you mind if I sat with you for a minute?” he raised his hand defensively. “If you say no, I’ll totally understand, and I will not be offended.”

 

“...No, I don’t think I’d mind, for now. Go ahead,” Cecil replied, a little taken aback.

 

“Okay,” Kevin said lightly, nodding again. “Please let me know if that changes.” He sat on the opposite corner of the bed, half-facing him, and giving Cecil a decent amount of space.

 

Cecil watched as Kevin stared down into his still-steaming tea, and noticed that his feet were contracting and relaxing restlessly, as they had earlier, on the drive over to the studio. He looked a bit uncomfortable and awkward, but thankfully, not like he was about to panic again.

 

Then, Kevin took a breath, and looked up at him again. “Cecil...if there is anything I can do to make you more comfortable, or make this easier, I want you to tell me so,” he said. “Even if it’s not under the most ideal of circumstances, you are my guest, tonight.” His feet moved a little faster, and his fingers rubbed his teacup, as if they needed something to do. “So, if you need something, please feel free to tell me.”

 

Cecil still felt anxious, but he could tell, again, that Kevin was sincere. Kevin’s genuine kindness made him ache, somehow, and as Cecil looked at him, he felt a wash of conflicted, exhausted gratitude.

 

“Thank you,” he said, because it was all he could say.

 

“I mean it,” Kevin insisted.

 

“I know you do,” Cecil replied. Then, gripping his tea just tighter, he confessed, “That really means a lot.”

 

Kevin’s expression softened, and some tension seemed to leave him. “Of course,” he replied again, but it was not of course, Cecil thought. Kevin did not have to treat him this way, particularly considering how difficult this must be for him .

 

“Is there anything I can do, for you?” Cecil asked. “This can’t be easy for you, either, and I don’t want to be any more trouble to you than I already am.”

 

Kevin frowned. “Well, first of all,” he said, “you’re no trouble.”

 

Cecil also frowned, confused. “Uh... yeah I am.”

 

“I don’t agree,” Kevin shrugged. “None of this is your fault.”

 

“Me being here makes you uncomfortable,” Cecil pressed. “I scare you, and you were basically forced to invite me into your studio, and I know how much that bothered you, and--”

 

“I wasn’t forced , Cecil,” Kevin interjected matter-of-factly, shaking his head. “Vanessa wanted me to do this, based on evidence that it would be best for the town, and so did several other people I love and trust, and I trusted their judgment. Also, if it helps, Vanessa had made it clear to me that she wouldn't have stopped me from going on the air alone, or making another choice. So, while I was under a lot of pressure, and it wasn’t exactly pleasant , I don’t want you to think I was coerced.”

 

“...Oh,” Cecil said quietly, unsure of how to respond to that. He offered, “I’m... really glad to hear that.”

 

“And you’re also afraid of me ,” Kevin continued. “I feel like if I sneezed loudly at the wrong moment, someone would have to bless you , because your soul would have left your body!”

 

“...Okay, well, that doesn’t negate how you feel about me. Also, I’m in your space , and that has to be hard.”

 

Exactly !” Kevin exclaimed. “You’re in my world ! I have the option to sort of walk away if I need to, whereas you’re really not in Kansas anymore. I certainly wouldn’t want to trade places with you .”

 

“Okay, fine,” Cecil assented. “I might technically be in the worse situation. But I still don’t like that you’re in this position because of me, and I’m sorry.”

 

Kevin searched his eyes. He looked affected by Cecil’s words. “Well, thank you, Cecil. I do appreciate that. But there’s nothing you could have done to avoid it, so...here we are.”

 

He looked away, and took a small sip of his tea, as if to say, ‘and that’s that.’ Cecil decided not to add anything, and instead, to look down into his own teacup. For whatever reason, Kevin seemed set on forgiving him for upsetting the order of his life, and Cecil would not refuse his good graces, even if he felt bad for needing them. He already had enough enemies.

 

“...I’m sorry too, though,” Kevin added. “I probably could have handled a few things better, during all of this.”

 

“You really don’t have to be sorry,” Cecil said, waving his hand. “I get it.”

 

“What, so you get to apologize for something you had limited control over, and I don’t ?” Kevin said, looking fake-affronted, and taking another sip of tea. “ That’s a real double standard.”

 

Cecil might have worried that he had actually offended him, except that he had said it without any vitriol, and there was the faintest hint of a smirk on his face.

 

“...Touche,” Cecil said, caught off guard again. “It really is okay, though. You’ve done more for me today than I ever could have expected.”

 

Kevin didn’t blink as he replied, “It’s the least I can do.”

 

Cecil was unsure of what had changed, since earlier, but it really was kind of weirding him out that Kevin was being so nice to him. He would take it, but he still wondered if the other shoe would drop. He wondered that about a lot of things, in this world. That being said, he felt weirdly guilty expecting it from his double, who, for all intents and purposes, had stuck out his neck for him today, and was trying to engage in civil conversation with him, despite everything.

 

“Oh!” Kevin said, and Cecil started a little. Kevin rose to his feet, and set his teacup on one of the tables next to the couch. He picked up the black and gold blankets on the couch’s back, and held them out, one on each arm. “Which one do you want? Black or gold?”

 

“Um,” Cecil said hesitantly, “Black…?”

 

“I figured.” Kevin jerked his head to the side, tossing the gold one onto the couch cushions on the floor. “Here, let me put it on the bed.”

 

Cecil stood awkwardly and watched as Kevin shook the blanket out, and flung the far ends over to the other side. It billowed out like a boat’s sail, and slowly came to an imperfectly-flattened rest. Cecil pulled the corners on his side a bit more taut, smoothing out its folds.

 

“Perfect,” Kevin said, going back to pick up his tea again, and sitting back down. “So, Cecil, a few things before I excuse myself. First of all, I’m sorry I can’t offer you a real dinner, but you can feel free to eat or drink anything in the pantry. Second, I’m going to go cover the bathroom mirror after this, so that you don’t have to worry about getting trapped, or eaten, or whatever you’re afraid of. Third, this will be your bed for the night, and Lucille can have the chair, or you two can trade if you want to. And fourth--”

 

“Wait, where are you going to sleep?” Cecil interrupted, still standing.

 

“...Probably in my studio,” Kevin said lightly. “Don’t worry about it.”

 

“Kevin,” Cecil said seriously, “I don’t want to make you do that. I really wouldn’t mind sleeping on the floor.”

 

“I would never let my guest sleep on the floor while I use the bed, like some inhospitable monster !” Kevin exclaimed, scandalized.

 

“But Kevin--”

 

“I won’t hear of it!”

 

“I just--!”

 

Nope !” Kevin interjected, pointing at him with a wide-eyed, very serious expression. “ Not happening ! You get the bed, and that’s that! I wouldn’t sleep a wink if I knew you were sleeping on the floor, when you didn’t have to.”

 

Cecil backed down, but stared at him helplessly.

 

“I will be fine, Cecil,” Kevin insisted, reassuringly. “I’ve slept in there before, many times. You really don’t have to worry about it.”

 

Cecil knew that sleeping in his own studio was hardly comfortable, which was why he had initially wanted a couch. But it really sounded like Kevin had made up his mind--

 

“I mean, if there’s only the one bed, you could just share it,” Erica said suddenly, from the corner. “It’s definitely big enough for you both to fit.”

 

Cecil and Kevin looked at each other, with what Cecil felt were identically incredulous and slightly appalled expressions.

 

“...Ha! I think not ,” Kevin finally exclaimed. “What kind of ridiculous fanfiction trope scenario do you think we’re living in?” He turned to Cecil. “Can you even imagine ? I mean, no offense, but...”

 

“Oh, none taken ,” Cecil said, lifting his free hand defensively. “I am right there with you.”

 

“Whoo-hoo-hoo!” Kevin half-laughed, grinning uncomfortably and pressing his free hand onto his cheek. Cecil gave his own nervous shudder of a laugh in response.

 

“Okayyy,” Erica said, in a sing-song voice, leaning their head back against the wall. “Just saying ...”

 

The two of them were silent for a moment, and Kevin’s face held a perplexed expression. Cecil had no idea what his own face was doing. But then, Kevin looked back at Cecil.

 

“Um, well, on that note, I’ll leave you be,” he said, standing up. “If you need anything at all, again, please feel free to ask. I’ll just be in my studio. Don’t be afraid to wake me; I’ll probably be up late, anyway.” He went to pick up a pillow, and tucked it underneath the arm that held his tea.

 

Cecil nodded quickly. “Okay! Thank you again. Really.”

 

“Don’t mention it,” Kevin replied, glancing back at Cecil as he picked up the blanket and slung it over his shoulder, and then a couch cushion, holding it in his free arm. He smiled politely, and turned to go, but then paused, turning back.

 

“Cecil,” he said, “Before I leave, I just want to say that I think what you did earlier, coming onto the radio, was really brave.”

 

“Oh,” Cecil said, surprised. “I, uh, didn’t really have much choice, so I’m not sure if it really qualifies as brave , but thank you.”

 

“You still did it,” Kevin shrugged. “Watching you, I could see how much strength it took, even to come into my studio. And I can see how much today’s events have taken out of you.” He looked at Cecil with an expression that was both soft and intent. “Being brave in the face of fear doesn’t mean any less just because you see no other way through it.”

 

As Cecil met Kevin’s eyes, processing his words, he felt strangely touched, and even more strangely seen . He took a deep breath, unable to look away, and exhaled heavily. “I needed that,” he admitted. “Thanks.”

 

“Of course, Cecil,” Kevin said softly. He paused, as if deciding whether to say the next part, and then, in a stronger voice, continued, “Also, I truly meant all of what I said to you after the weather. I truly don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” He lowered his head, just a bit, and his expression softened. “You don’t have to be afraid that I do.”

 

Cecil’s face twitched with emotion, and he nodded, swallowing. “Thanks,” he said. “And I meant what I said, too.”

 

“I know,” Kevin said, with undeniable sincerity. He searched Cecil’s face, again, and after a long pause, a strange, soft hint of a smile that Cecil had never seen on him before passed over his face. It was bittersweet, and communicated less happiness than it did care, and concern, and kindness, and something else that Cecil could not place. His eyes flickered momentarily, with something like sadness.

 

“Take care,” he said, as if he were asking Cecil to be safe.

 

“You too, Kevin,” Cecil said quietly, promising him nothing, struck by Kevin’s expression, and suddenly filled with a depth of emotion that threatened to choke him up.

 

Finally breaking their gaze, Kevin turned again to go. “Goodnight, Cecil,” he said.

 

Kevin had walked a few steps before Cecil impulsively decided to respond with, “Until next time.”

 

At this, Kevin turned around halfway, one eyebrow raised, as if appraising him again, as he had earlier in the bathroom. For a moment, biting his lip, Cecil wondered if he had made a mistake. But then, the corner of Kevin’s mouth lifted, as if he could not hold it back, and he turned one final time, raising his hand into a casual wave.

 

“Until next time,” Kevin said, with a tone that failed to hide his smile, and he disappeared into the shadows of the hallway.

 

--

 

The night slowed down quickly, after that.

 

His head still spun with the events of this horrifying day, and with the potential ramifications of what was happening to his town. He worried for everyone at home, and everyone who had come here, to this strange Desert Bluffs. Who would feed his cat? Who would report on the situation, from Night Vale? Would Kareem do those things? Old Woman Josie had not texted him; would she be coming here, too? What would happen to Janice, if she came to this world, or if Abby and Steve came here, and she did not? Would everyone find somewhere to stay, tonight, or would there be people trapped outside, in the haunting Desert Bluffs night?

 

Would Carlos be alright?

 

He had received many frightened texts from Night Valian citizens, who were asking if he was okay. He had done his best to respond to them all, but then, looking at his phone’s battery, which was now at 30 percent, had decided to mute everyone except his closest loved ones for the night.

 

Cecil had texted Carlos another ‘I love you,’ and had said thank you and goodbye to Leticia Hedge as she left, entrusting Erica and Lucille to watch the situation, and making sure that Cecil had her number and Vanessa’s. She had smiled softly at him before leaving.

 

Cecil had tried to offer Lucille the bed, but she had absolutely insisted upon having the chair, saying that she had had her eye on it ever since they had arrived. He had not been sure whether to believe her, but she had curled up into a tiny ball with a couch pillow and smiled pleasantly, looking so satisfied that he would have felt guilty asking her to trade places with him.

 

Kevin had quietly passed through a few more times, once to take the other couch cushions with him into the studio, and once with nails in hand, and a large towel slung over his shoulder. After that, he had disappeared into the bathroom, and Cecil had heard the sound of nails being hammered through a towel and into the wall, just above the mirror. As the door had opened, an eldritch meow had followed Kevin, who had turned back in, affectionately saying, “Oh, what is it, little poofball?” before the door had closed again.

 

He curled against the couch’s back, and finished the last dredges of his tea, which had been the perfect temperature and flavor, and had warmed him in ways he had not expected it to. He made himself take deep breaths, and found that although he was still afraid, he could find comfort in his current degree of safety, and in the sounds of the station, which were familiar enough that, when he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that he was still in Night Vale.

 

He was hungry, but he did not trust his stomach with food, and the tea had done enough for now. So instead, he put down his cup, got up and turned off the light, leaving the pantry light on, and the door cracked just open. He returned to the bed, which gave one final squeak, and he curled tight around his own pillow, burying himself in the surprisingly soft black blanket.

 

His phone vibrated. He checked it, and saw that Carlos had texted, ‘I love you too, SO much. Is everything okay?’

 

He texted back, ‘I’m doing okay. Are you? And thank you for your love, sweet Carlos. You are so precious to me.’

 

He squeezed his eyes shut, still clutching his phone. It vibrated again, with a text that read, ‘Good. I’m okay, too. And back at you, poot.’ After this, he had sent Cecil a sparkly heart emoji.

Cecil smiled sadly, and then bit his lip, wishing so much that he was in Carlos’ arms. He sent back a purple heart, and then hugged his pillow harder, and pulled the blanket around him.

 

He soon realized that he was completely exhausted. Nonetheless, sleep did not come to him easily, as he lay still and fought off chaotic, disorganized waves of fear and worry and sorrow. He felt small, and vulnerable, and terrified of the fragile balance his life seemed to hang in.

 

He was not alone, though, and he was more grateful than he could possibly say for the people ensuring his safety, who had looked upon him with kindness today.

 

After what seemed like an eternity, the thoughts in his head finally began to organize into three separate patterns, corresponding with his emotions. The first was fear of the Secret Police, and especially of Sheriff Max, and that tall officer he had met earlier. The second was worry for Carlos, after all he had been through today, especially as it seemed to pertain to Kevin. And the third was an undulating, deep ache at the thought of Kevin himself, and all the associations he had with him.

 

As he drifted in and out of tenuous, anxious sleep, he dreamt of being chased, and of pleading for his life, and of eldritch hands around his throat, and of blood on his hands that he did not remember spilling, and that made him dizzy to look at. He dreamt of beautiful Carlos, who clutched him and sobbed, his dark eyes containing an awful sorrow that Cecil did not understand. He dreamt that the earth split between their feet and cracked itself apart, in a wide, gaping, shattered smile, and the abyss of separation between them was made visible and cavernous, and all he could do was call desperately for the man he loved, as Carlos turned, with one final, broken look, and ran.

 

And then, most of all, he dreamt of a Kevin who flickered before him, like something in a mirror, between two separate states of being. Sometimes, he was one Kevin , and then again he was the other, and sometimes, he was both at once. Sometimes, his eyes were golden, and Cecil could feel the kind, lemon-tea warmth in his gaze, and in the slight curve of his lips, and in his voice.

 

But then, he would shift, and an alien coldness would warp his frame, and there was no getting through to him, no matter how much Cecil pleaded for him to stay, to listen, to please, please stop walking into the vast desert wasteland beyond. To stay just a while longer, and to sing with him again, and to sit together in a rustling sunflower field, and to be something more to him than a friend who never was, but could have been, if only, oh god, if only...

 

And then, although he tried to chase after him, although he cried out after Kevin’s flickering frame, although he reached into the growing space between them, aching for him with all his heart, he could not move fast enough, he could not shout loud enough, he could not touch him.

 

In dreams, as well as in life, he could not stop Kevin from disappearing into the horizon, lost forever to him and to the world, lost to the empty desert sands.

Chapter Text

Everything was fine. Everything was always absolutely, completely fine, up until that exact moment when he remembered it wasn’t.

 

It was circular, this way of living, and he knew it. He knew it never lasted, could never last, and that what he was doing could not truly be called living. He was only acting his way through a series of sweet lies, so that the sharp edges of his truth would not cut him as deeply, and the sensation of the person he was, slowly disappearing into this desolate wasteland, became just a background hum.

 

But his fantasies always, always faded too quickly, even when he timed them just right, so that he fell asleep in the middle, and his dreams would carry him through until morning. It seemed the old saying was true; it was always dawn. And no matter how long he spent imagining each perfect, unspoiled, saccharine moment of the life he could have had, the spaces between those moments would always be bitter.

 

In those spaces, he might as well be dead already. So he tried again, and again, and again, to make their ends meet.

 

--

 

Kevin’s eyes opened slowly, and shut again quickly as he reflexively curled into his pillow. But, oh! It did not have to be just some old pillow ; it could be shoulders, a torso, as it was last night! This morning, he decided, it was still Cecil’s neck he buried his nose into, and whose arms were, absolutely not fictitiously, pulling him closer in response. It was Cecil who would keep the light from swallowing his fragile body, this morning. It was.

 

“Good morning,” Kevin mumbled, managing a tiny smile, but he sensed the illusion weakening. His heart was already so heavy, this morning.

 

“Hi, Kevin,” Kevin replied to himself, in a lower voice than usual.

 

This is enough, he told himself.

 

Kevin squeezed Cecil tighter, and breathed in deeply, imagining what Cecil might smell like. They probably smelled similar, right? But maybe Cecil smelled faintly of something else, too, like spice, or like night-blooming jasmine. He was sure it smelled nice, whatever it was, and oh, Smil--no; he meant to say, oh, goodness , it was wonderful.

 

This has to be enough.

 

He imagined--no, he saw , with shut eyes, Cecil’s own orchid ones. Kevin remembered that he had eyes just like Cecil’s, except that his were gold. He loved the symmetry between himself and Cecil, so very, very much. He loved that of all the people in this world, or any other, who could have been his double, it had been Cecil. How beautiful and fortunate it had been, to find Cecil in his own, fragile life!

 

But at that thought, the illusion began to break completely. Kevin could feel it slipping through his fingers like desert sand, and so he kissed those fingers, imagining Cecil’s cheek in their place. He was not alone. He was not. Someone else was here , someone else’s warmth was filling the hollow places in his chest, the ones that ached so painfully right now, and it was enough, it was enough--!

 

It was not enough. It was not enough to pretend, and this morning, he really could not make it seem like it was.

 

Kevin opened his black eyes, loosening his grip on his pillow. His body felt poisoned, rotting. He stared listlessly, as dust particles danced in the cruel light pouring through his window.

 

He was so undeniably, irreversibly, excruciatingly pathetic.

 

He thought of imagining Carlos in his arms instead. He would be able to imagine that much more clearly; after all, they had held each other before more than a few times on lonelier nights, when the void behind the stars had almost threatened to drown their light.

 

Kevin remembered that Carlos’ beautiful, dark brown eyes had held a soft and undeniable kindness. He had often smelled like lavender, and when he had slept he had occasionally snored, and his perfect, springy hair had been soft, and it had sometimes been so awfully tempting in those moments to brush it out of his face and kiss him.

 

Kevin had not kissed Carlos, though, except on the top of his head, and when Carlos was awake, and when he had asked first.

 

He had instead held his dear friend tight, feeling strangely warm and soft, and safer than he had in many years. He had sworn to himself with vengeance that nothing would ever hurt Carlos the Scientist, not without going through him first.

 

But those memories were sometimes as painful as they were beautiful, because they were real. Often, they comforted him. Today, however, even an impressionistic mental picture of his old friend’s kind smile was enough to put a violent tightness in Kevin’s chest. He found himself clutching at his pillow tighter, trying to forget reality, trying to press himself into safety and warmth, into his beloved friends’ arms. But he could not help but feel exposed, caught in the pathetic act of stealing their absent visages for comfort.

 

“No, no no no…” he whispered quickly. He kept repeating that word, muffling it into his pillow. He tried imagining Cecil again, cupping his own face to make it feel like Cecil was doing it. This would be what it would feel like, wouldn’t it, since they had the same hands, the same everything?

 

All either of them really want is to be away from you, something cruel in his heart said, and he pushed himself up, overcome by shame, and frantically shoved the pillow away. It thumped softly on the floor as he threw his blankets off, nearly jumping out of bed. His feet hit the cool stone ground, and he walked unsteadily to his closet, avoiding looking in the mirror or behind him. Stars and strange colors wriggled in his vision, and he panted for air, holding his head.

 

He would have to forget about what he had just tried to imagine, for now. It had been foolish, as it always was. It would be humiliating if either of them actually found out about this, and about just how desperately he still missed the two of them, and wished they both lived here, like they had planned to so long ago.

 

He had really thought Cecil had agreed to that, after Carlos had shown so much excitement about it. But as Carlos had explained in his letter, that beautiful reality could never be.

 

He pulled a light orange, slightly bloodstained sleeveless shirt and dark red pants from the closet, and began to change into them. He was very unsure about Cecil, but maybe Carlos wouldn’t think he was pathetic, if he knew. Maybe Carlos wouldn’t turn away in total disgust, even though Kevin certainly did sometimes, when he looked too closely at himself and the half-life he lived. Carlos had always been so very kind to him, had always told him that the things he felt, even those he did not like, only made him who he was.

 

Carlos had shone brighter than the sun, brighter than the light of the Smiling God, but his light had never glared or burned at all. Just seeing his smile had made Kevin feel human again. How wonderful it had been, to feel valued by a person like Carlos! Just being near him had been indescribable.

 

It had made him remember what he had once known happiness to be, before Strex made him understand that it was something that seared through his body, and twisted him, and bent him to its will. Before happiness left him dizzy and gasping for air, and somehow begging for more, oh please, more, even as it hurt so very, excruciatingly much.

 

But Carlos was gone, now. Seven years ago last week, Carlos had left without warning, and now, Kevin was more alone than he had ever been.

 

He was not angry with Carlos for leaving, or with Cecil for being the reason for that leaving. Not at all! He really, really meant it when he said that, unlike many of the other things he said, and tried to think. As Carlos had said, he had needed to go home, and his home was in Night Vale, as was Cecil’s. Of course Kevin understood that; he still wanted to go home, too, more than anything in the world. And Carlos had apologized so many times, in the letter he had given Kevin that day, and told Kevin that he cared for him, and wished him all the happiness in the world. He had said so many kind things, and Kevin knew with certainty that he had meant all of them. That was just who Carlos was.

 

He even understood why Carlos had asked him not to call. The leadership in Night Vale monitored pretty much every form of communication between people, and they would absolutely notice if Carlos had contact with him, and would certainly not allow it. He had, after all, been the voice of StrexCorp, and Strex hadn’t been received so well in Night Vale, to put it lightly. Carlos couldn’t talk to him, as things stood.

 

He just wished they could talk with each other, somehow, even once more. He just wished Carlos’ leaving had not been so final, and that he could have been spared the sting of losing not only Carlos, but Cecil, too, within the same ink-scrawled sentence.

 

Carlos had done nothing wrong, and Kevin was so glad that Carlos was happier, now. He must have been; after all, he had not returned, or found a way to contact him. But Kevin was now without the closest thing he had had to home in years. Kevin was without Carlos’ light and warmth, now, and worse, without the light and warmth of anyone he had ever loved. Because of this, he rarely felt anything at all, anymore. And when he did, it was either that heady, ecstatic, sharp happiness of the Smiling God, or it was a different pain, one that ached and echoed on through what he feared would become eternity.

 

He ached now, as he put his shoes on. He ached as he put on his sunglasses, and slung a bag full of gardening tools over his shoulder. He ached as he walked out his bedroom door, and he ached as he stepped outside, and the sunlight swallowed his body whole.

 

--

 

It must have been almost eight, he realized, as he arrived at his and Carlos’ garden, near but not quite at the mountain’s base. StrexCorp would have punished him severely, oversleeping like this for so many hours. The collar they had surgically attached around his neck did twinge a bit, now that he thought of it, but he pushed the thought away fiercely. He picked up two large watering cans, and went to the reservoir to fill them.

 

In the Desert Otherworld, things like water and food were not strictly necessary for survival. Death, or even sustained injury, were very difficult in this place, unless someone were explicitly killed--like members of the Masked Army, who would sometimes die in combat, or like the occasional animal corpse that would pop up every so often, with evidence of severe damage due to a fallen rock on top of it, or deep bite marks in its neck. Things that were destroyed here tended to reform quickly, unless the pieces were kept apart through some other means, like being placed far away, or incorporated into something else.

 

Ultimately, starvation and dehydration did not seem to be enough to kill a person, here. But still, there was something deeply unpleasant about never eating or drinking. While Kevin and Carlos’ bodies had eventually adjusted to the difference, and previously non-negotiable things like hunger and thirst had both become less need than suggestion, these were still uncomfortable, empty sensations, even if their severity and urgency faded over time. As a result, the two of them had decided to create this garden, and the reservoir beside it.

 

Carlos had been the one to suggest making the reservoir in this location. From down below, standing beside Kevin one early morning, he had pointed to the shape of the mountain. Tracing his finger along its ridges, he had said that it did not rain much in the desert, of course, but there was where the most water would run down its slopes and collect at the bottom, when it did. In the following days and months, the two of them had dug a pit for the reservoir, and installed mechanisms that encouraged even more water to run toward it. Carlos had even designed a filtration system to ensure that it would stay clean, and that he and Kevin could clean whatever other water sources they could find, as well.

 

Kevin had worked hard alongside Carlos, during this process, all the time marveling at his efficiency and passion. Carlos did not work because he had to; he worked because he wanted to, because the thrill of scientific creation and discovery gave him joy. It was beautiful to watch Carlos in this state. It was beautiful to watch Carlos in any state, because Carlos was beautiful.

 

And he knew so many things, things Kevin would never expect a scientist to know! He knew why plants grew, why the sky changed colors at sunset, why blood tasted like metal. He knew how to build things, and how to discover how they worked in the first place.

 

And just as importantly, Carlos the Scientist knew how to really listen , so that a broken radio host who so often talked, but rarely felt listened to, felt more heard, and more real, than he had in decades.

 

It was just the weirdest thing, Kevin thought, returning to the greenhouse and beginning to water the bluish-purple hydrangeas climbing the right wall. He used to hate scientists. They had seemed so high and mighty, and like such painful realists who were always speaking ugly truths into everyone else’s hopes and dreams, just so they could shatter them, and have the ability to say, “look how right we were, and how wrong you were!” Kevin had just hated that, and thought they were so terribly negative and hopeless, and that all those equations floating around in their heads were just obscuring their vision of the world as it actually was. He had thought they probably looked at flowers and saw little atoms and diagrams, and abstracted each petal until there would be no beauty in them anymore, neither for scientists, nor for anyone who listened to their awful words.

 

But not Carlos.

 

Beautiful Carlos had looked at flowers, and his eyes had lit up when he talked about photosynthesis. He thought every vaguely rectangular cell in their stems was fascinating, and spoke of each part of them like a wonder of both form and function. Carlos saw the glory of each Morning Glory, and the cosmos in every Cosmo, and by the time he had finished talking about them, Kevin had not only remembered how much he used to like flowers, but found even greater beauty in them than he had known before.

 

He had been speechless, listening to Carlos, until Carlos, digging in the dirt next to him, had broken the spell by asking, “What’s your favorite flower, Kevin?”

 

Kevin had blinked. “Um…? I always liked sunflowers,” he had replied.

 

Carlos had gasped, and looked up at him. “I love sunflowers!” He had exclaimed, grinning. “Heliotropic flowers are, like, the coolest ! I can’t believe some flowers literally follow the sun through the sky like that, except obviously I do, because there is scientific proof of that. Isn’t that just the most ridiculously awesome thing??”

 

Yes ! I always loved that about them!” Kevin had said, with more naturally-occurring enthusiasm than he had expected to feel. “It seems so efficient ! And, well, aside from that...I think, when I was small, I used to believe that they were in love with the sun, and that was why they were always gazing at her. And she loved them, too, which is why she always came back the next morning to see them again!” He had shot Carlos a glance, and looked away in slight embarrassment, half-expecting Carlos to correct him. “I guess that was silly and wrong, though,” he had added, stroking the petals of a yellow daisy, to try and protect that memory from the inevitable, scientific truth. He peeked back up hesitantly.

 

But Carlos’ smile had softened. “I don’t think it’s silly at all, Kevin. I think it’s sweet,” he said. “And, I don’t think it’s technically wrong, from a certain perspective! It would make sense for flowers to love the sun, if they had consciousness and were capable of love,” he had continued thoughtfully, as he turned over his shovel in his hands, twisting and untwisting the string on its end around his index finger. “It would make sense because the sun gives them sustenance, and even life itself, and it’s hard not to love what gives you life, at least a little bit. And although the sun is definitely not alive, and is actually a massive ball of gases undergoing nuclear fission, the sun is what makes all life possible, and by extension, makes all love possible. So, the sun is technically an integral of the derivative that is love!”

 

Kevin had not understood the mathematic aspect of Carlos’ last sentence, but he had understood everything else. He had been relieved, and then delighted at Carlos’ words. He had smiled, despite not completely understanding, and it was a strange, soft smile, not at all the smile StrexCorp had given him. It had blossomed from him on its own, in response to Carlos’ soft solar energy, and as it had, he had felt a fluttering, breathless, blooming sensation turning in the pit of his stomach to face it.

 

The memory ended, as in the present, Kevin moved on to water the first row of spinach. Kevin felt the faintest echo of that soft smile on his face, even through his aching, and although this memory was tinged with Carlos’ absence, as well as his beautiful memory.

 

Maintaining this greenhouse took significant and consistent work. Kevin was very grateful for that, even when he really, truly was not in the mood for it. Without that motivation driving him, there were many days that Kevin knew he might not be able to get out of bed at all. That happened anyway, sometimes, and he shuddered at the thought of an even lesser world, where his and Carlos’ garden did not exist. He might have given up on doing anything at all, were it not for this sanctuary.

 

Many times, though, he had more anxious energy buzzing through him than he could possibly manage, without some kind of project to keep him occupied. It was one of the more frustrating side effects of having worked for StrexCorp, and wearing a permanently attached brainwashing collar that allowed the Smiling God to manipulate his emotions, that he was constantly haunted by the thoughts that he could be doing more, that he could be more efficient, and that he could be perfect if he just worked harder, instead of being lazy. He struggled to guess whether those thoughts were true or not, or whether they were even fully his, but he refused to let them dictate his entire life anymore.

 

If nothing else, he was , occasionally, inefficient on purpose, just to hypothetically ruin Lauren Mallard’s day. That was good enough reason to do just about anything, right?

 

--

 

At around noon, Kevin finished his work in the greenhouse and garden, and returned to his house to eat lunch, carrying with him a tomato to put on his sandwich.

 

He realized, as he pulled out the last of the bread from his pantry, that he would have to make more, either tonight or tomorrow. As he sliced it, he remembered how enjoyable it had been to bake bread with Carlos. Specifically, he remembered the time that Carlos had stopped him partway through, reached up to his face, and asked, “May I?” and then, at Kevin’s bewildered but trusting nod, had rubbed flour off of his nose with an intent expression.

 

Kevin’s heart had sped up at the contact, and it had taken him a moment to understand what was happening. But then, Carlos’ cool thumb retracted from his face with a just-off-white smear, and he had laughed. “That was bugging me,” he had said, and then he had turned to put the dough into the oven. Kevin had thought about that moment many, many times afterward. It was such a simple thing, but it had made him feel so important, and maybe even loved ...

 

Kevin realized that he had been staring at his half-sliced bread for a while, now, so he shook himself and finished.

 

He began slicing the tomato. As its juices spilled out, he thought about Cecil, and how excited Carlos had been when he realized that Cecil would be able to make bread with the two of them, too--unlike back in Night Vale, where flour was banned. As he put a tomato slice on the left slice of bread, Kevin thought about how simultaneously excited and jealous he had become at that thought. Excited, because Cecil was an old friend, and it would be wonderful to see him often, and to work with him on something. Jealous, because this was something that he and Carlos did, something that had created the wonderful possibility of Carlos touching his face, and more often, his shoulders, and his hands.

 

If Cecil were there, Cecil might become the only one who received those small moments of affection from Carlos, Kevin had thought, with a strangely tight stomach. But then again, maybe if Cecil were there, something like that could happen between himself and Cecil, too. Maybe their hands would bump into one another, or, squeezed into this relatively small kitchen together, Kevin could find an excuse to press into Cecil’s side, and maybe just for a little while, rest his head on Cecil’s shoulder.

 

Carlos had done this to Kevin, many times. The time Kevin remembered now was the first one, when Carlos had laughed too hard at the concept of beakless toucans to stand up straight, and he had sought Kevin’s frame for support. When he had recovered, he had still lingered a moment longer, his almost perpetually cold fingers softly cooling Kevin’s upper arm.

 

Overall, Kevin had looked forward to Cecil’s eventual presence, much more than he had worried about its consequences. He had looked forward to it so much that he had built a radio tower, up near the lighthouse, with Cecil in mind. It had two studios in case they wanted to broadcast separately, decorated to the best of Kevin’s ability, and it was outfitted with the most up-to-date broadcasting equipment available, and even a large waiting room with large picture windows, which they could spend time in when they weren’t actively on the air. Back then, Kevin could not wait to show Cecil his work, and to impress him with the best technology he, with extra help from Carlos, could recreate.

 

He had so wanted to broadcast with Cecil, and to bond with him over their mutual passion, and to become more to Cecil than he was now. He had been so excited for their future together, for the incredible connection a person was certain to have with his double, and to have neighbors, plural! It would have been...well, even better than a dream, to have two wonderful loved ones, who lived so close!

 

But he supposed a dream was all that would ever be.

 

The pit of Kevin’s stomach felt the deep wrongness of his timeline, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to eat, anymore. He finished making his sandwich anyway, adding basil and some hummus, and made himself try.

 

He didn’t know what it was about today in particular that made him miss Carlos so much. Maybe there was no reason. He was tempted to try pretending again; sometimes he could pass many hours that way.

 

Yesterday, he had invited Vanessa over for dinner, and told her all about the time he broke his forearm back when he was in middle school, and several other stories that mostly involved blood and violence to his own person, and Vanessa had told him the most clever joke about radio waves, which he was unfortunately having some trouble remembering now. That conversation had carried him through the entire evening, and then, when she had left, he had fallen asleep next to Cecil. They had both been tired after a long day, and Carlos had been out working on a scientific discovery, and it had just made sense to sleep next to each other, right?

 

But something was holding him back from talking to any of his loved ones, today. He had the nasty feeling that their silence would be louder than usual, if he tried. He considered going to the radio station, to see if Vanessa would at least listen, but he was not planning to broadcast today, and if he did, he wouldn’t want to until later in the afternoon.

 

He sat for longer than he cared to admit, staring at the DBCR logo he had long ago painted in blood, on the wall over his fireplace. It did not technically need a fresh coat--blood, like everything else in this world, did not deteriorate--but he hoped the Masked Army would return someday, and that if they did, they might be willing to donate some of their blood to the cause. They usually had been, before.

 

Sometimes they had laughed at him for being so happy to see blood, but they had also seemed to think it was a little endearing. Alicia especially had taken a liking to him, and sometimes had carried him around as he sat in their hand, or sprinkled the blood from a recent wound in through his window. Sometimes, they had caught and killed lizards that, to him, were the size of alligators, so that he could scatter the lizards’ bones and blood and make his house or station feel a little more like home.

 

He had once confessed to Alicia that he knew he probably shouldn’t like blood quite so much, and was embarrassed about it. They had listened, and nodded, and offered that they saw the appeal, even if they weren’t so fixated on it. They had added that they thought it was cute when he got so excited, no matter why, and he had become even more embarrassed, but very much appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.

 

Even the Masked Army was gone now, though. Kevin had never quite known when they would return, or if they would make it back alive, but then, five years ago, they had gone off to battle again, and never returned. He hoped they were well, and had just decided to relocate, but he also knew that this was not the most likely outcome, and his heart felt heavy when he thought about it too long.

 

Doug and Alicia had seemed to miss Carlos, too. Sometimes they had asked about him, but Kevin never had any news for them.

How he wished he had.

 

He just wished he could see Carlos again, that he could hold him close, just for a moment. He wished he could turn back time, far enough to somehow stop everything in his life from going so wrong. He wished he had made Carlos happier, and had the chance to try and make Cecil happy, too. He wished Desert Bluffs had never fallen to StrexCorp, he wished he had been strong enough to stop them, he wished he could go home again. And yes , he was in New Desert Bluffs, and Desert Bluffs was home. But deep down, he knew that a town was so much more than a name.

 

He wished his home could be Desert Bluffs as it used to be, and that Cecil and Carlos lived nearby enough that they could all visit each other sometimes, and that he could eat and laugh with all his friends and loved ones in this life. He wished that when the sun set, it didn’t feel like the true state of things, like he was in the sunset of his life, like he was a sunflower craning its neck into the disappearing light, fearing that the sun would never return, or that the night would be too long for it to matter if she did.

 

He hid his face again, trying to shut out this feeling, but it lived in his chest, hungry in places where hunger should not exist. He could not understand how to feed that hunger, except with the presence of people who were nowhere to be found. He sat like that for a long time, thinking of nothing, feeling only bitterness toward those who had stolen his life from him, and longing for that life, in equal measure.

 

Finally, he lifted his head and stood again. He wanted to stop by the Night Vale Junk Pile soon to scavenge for cans of food or other items that could be useful, but the trip there and back would take up most of the day’s light, so he had better go now, if he were going to make it there today.

 

--

 

On the way to the junk pile, he passed by Carlos’ old house. Or, he meant to pass by it. In reality, he stopped in his tracks, and looked at it for a long moment, aching again.

 

A breeze went by, creating a sound like static through the sand below. The house, minimalistic but somehow very cozy inside, rested just to the other side of his and Carlos’ garden, a bit lower down than his own.

 

He could have continued on his path down the mountain, but then, his feet were on the path to Carlos’ house instead, and he found himself at its entrance. After a moment of hesitation, he turned the knob, and walked inside.

 

As he breathed in, he could still just catch Carlos’ familiar scent, even after so many years. Kevin supposed that this was due to the Otherworld’s strange physical properties, which Carlos had said slowed, or even halted, entropy. The lavender was the strongest; Carlos had scattered quite a bit of it throughout his room, and over the years, Kevin had come by many times to replace it, though that was not strictly necessary.

 

Carlos had once said that lavender was his favorite smell, and so when Kevin had found some growing on the other side of the mountain, he had gathered an armful of it and brought it back as a gift. Carlos had been delighted, and had planted some in the garden just after. Carlos had always had plenty of it after that, and used it in all sorts of unexpected ways.

 

The room still smelled just like Carlos himself, too. The scent had remained in part because of Kevin’s efforts to preserve this place in time by not disturbing it too much, and leaving it almost as a sacred space. It was just so unmistakably Carlos , and Kevin closed his eyes for a moment, letting it take him back through the years, back to when his friend was still by his side.

 

“Oh, Carlos,” he whispered. As he opened his eyes and walked in further, moving his sunglasses to the top of his head, he realized on some level that this was a sad thing for him to do, and that maybe it could be seen as a little invasive, or even creepy. Carlos had always welcomed him in before, so he didn’t think Carlos would be too upset with him for this, or maybe at all. But sometimes he stayed for a while, and even talked to him, carrying on conversations like he was here. Sometimes, he would spray some of Carlos’ perfume or cologne on himself, to take back with him on his sleeve. Sometimes, he would open Carlos’ armoire and feel the old shirts he had left behind, or sit on the chair in the corner, or try to read one of the books on his dresser shelf in the dim light of the window.

 

A few times, he had even fallen asleep on Carlos’ bed. Even fewer times, he had slept there all night. Despite feeling a little pathetic for it, he had felt so safe , each time he had burrowed into those blankets and pillows. It always made him miss Carlos’ soft warmth just a little less, resting in the memories of when the two of them had slept here together, before Carlos left (though more frequently, Carlos had been the one to come to Kevin’s house for a cup of lemon tea, and to accept Kevin’s offer for him to stay over).

 

The other issue, aside from his conflicted feelings about staying here, was that if he slept here too often, Kevin feared it would stop smelling like Carlos at all, and would just smell like him instead. For that reason, too, Kevin kept that to a minimum.

 

Today, he walked to the armoire, and opened it.

 

“I’m sorry I keep coming here like this,” Kevin said softly. “I don’t know if you’d mind. I really hope not. I just miss you, today, even more than I usually do.”

 

He stroked one of Carlos’ flannel shirts, purple and black and thin enough to not keep in much of the desert heat. It was soft to the touch.

 

“I keep remembering the things we did when you were here,” Kevin continued. “I remember your kind eyes, and your perfect hair, and your smile like sunshine. I remember every bit of kindness you gave to me, Carlos…”

 

He choked on his words, and held the arm of Carlos’ flannel tight as his chest felt so strangely tight itself, so horribly empty.

 

“I...I still miss you so terribly, even after all these years,” he said, and his eyes burned, but he was not going to cry. He would not. Instead, he loosened his grip on Carlos’ sleeve, and gently pulled the shirt off its hanger. He gathered it in his hands as something hot and wet dripped from his right eye that felt partly disconnected from him, but also like something inevitable, and shameful, and pitiful.

 

“I wish I could see you again, without just imagining it,” Kevin said, brokenly. “I wish that you didn’t just live in my dreams, that I could hold you in my arms. Like...like this .” He pressed the fabric against his chest, folding the collar over his wrist, and pressing his face into it. His breath shuddered with something painful, but something about this helped, too, and made him feel less alone, even as Carlos’ absence, as everyone’s absence, hung over every aspect of his life. Standing here, with the evidence of Carlos’ existence surrounding him, he could almost pretend that Carlos was still in this plane of reality with him, and had maybe just gone out for a while, for some kind of scientific purposes...

 

He went and curled into Carlos’ chair. It was soft, too, and creaked under his weight as he tucked himself into it, still holding Carlos’ shirt. He laid on the chair sideways, facing into it, using one armrest as a cushion, and buried his face again in the cloth in his hands. The side of his nose that was closest to the ground stuffed, just a little.

 

He could hear birds chirping outside, and the uncharacteristically steady ticking of a clock, and occasionally the sound of wind rustling through the mustard plants that had popped up recently. There had been more rain than usual, this winter, and the local plant life showed that. It had rained just a couple days ago, too, and the smell of it had just finally faded.

 

Right now, he didn’t care if this was pathetic. He felt strangely comforted by this place, and by Carlos’ past, strewn around him, and underneath him, and pressed against his nose.

 

He lost track of time, laying on Carlos’ chair, face wetter than he wanted to admit. He was unsure of how long it had been, when he imagined soft footsteps on the floor, coming closer, that stopped just behind him. Time was meaningless, as he imagined Carlos brushing the hair out from over his eyes, and mimicked the motion. Time did not exist, as he imagined Carlos pulling up the footrest, sitting on it, and stroking Kevin’s hair, which he also mimicked, and saying, as he whispered it himself, “I’m glad you came to visit, Kevin.”

 

Kevin sighed into Carlos’ ghostly touch, almost able to forget that it was his own. “So am I, Carlos,” he choked, more tears spilling over, and curled up tighter than before, smiling faintly.

 

Time meant nothing, nothing at all, and neither did place. He stayed curled, Carlos’ echo above and all around him, and with that thought in mind, he drifted into something almost like peace.

 

--

 

When he finally opened his eyes again, the shadows of Carlos’ house were much longer. He realized he must have dozed off like this. For a brief moment, he forgot that Carlos was gone, and his heart leapt--

 

But then, he remembered why he was really here, and it dropped back into suspended sorrow.

 

After a moment, he pushed past that and sat up, cracking his neck loudly. Despite that momentary false hope, he still felt...strangely better than he had when he arrived here. He still felt hollow and rotting, but more vaguely so. It seemed the pain of this half-life had dulled, for now.

 

He inhaled again, and forced himself, with closed eyes, to imagine Carlos’ face. He hated that he could not get the image perfect in his mind, without looking at photographs of him. But thankfully, he still had some of those, mostly on his phone, but also some in a smaller polaroid collection that he and Carlos had made together.

 

One blessed day, Carlos had found an old polaroid camera in the junk pile, in a bag with backup supplies, and they had taken all but the last few photos available. Kevin now kept the results, and the camera, in an old shoebox.

 

There was one photo of Carlos in that second collection that Kevin loved more than all the others. In it, Carlos was looking up from a giant, strangely clean lizard skull he and Kevin had found out in the wastes, and positively beaming. His goggles were pushed back onto his head, and a few messy curls had escaped from behind them, and his eyes had captured the stars themselves.

 

He had gotten Carlos’ attention, and then tried to snap the photo at the exact moment that Carlos realized he had the camera. However, by the time it went off, Carlos’ expression had moved past surprise and into recognition, and his smile was perfect, and gleaming, and overflowing with affection. Kevin normally got upset with himself for running late or making mistakes, but he was so glad he’d just barely lagged behind, this time.

 

He opened the duplicate he’d taken of it on his phone without a second thought. Sure enough, it was every bit as beautiful as he had remembered, and more. He bit his lip, hugging Carlos’ shirt closer, and sighed.

 

After a moment, he shook himself, looking out the window again. The sun was definitely too low in the sky for him to make it to the junk pile today. But, maybe that was fine. He could go tomorrow, first thing.

 

He went to hang up Carlos’ shirt again, but halfway through putting it on the hanger, he realized he could not make himself let go of it. Or, perhaps he could have, but nothing in him actually wanted to. So instead, he shrugged it on--it had been very oversized on Carlos, but fit him just a little loosely--and walked out, wearing it.

 

“Thank you, Carlos,” he whispered. “For everything .”

 

He could almost make himself feel Carlos walking out with him into the beginning of sunset, and he welcomed the delusion fully.

 

--

 

As he--no, he and Carlos, quiet and vague beside him--walked past the greenhouse, the clouds in the Desert Otherworld took on their first shade of pink. They looked absolutely stunning, Kevin thought, even though they represented the loss of light, and the ending of something so beautiful as day.

 

It was then that Kevin felt the strangest shudder move through his body. His vision warped, and for a moment, his body felt unreal, wrong--

 

And then, nothing.

 

“What on earth?” he said aloud, to no one. “Carlos, did you feel that?” he also said aloud.

 

Unfortunately, he realized, he said this to no one, too. But he would try again to see Carlos in the present. He could do this. He was even wearing his shirt!

 

“I’m sure there’s some scientific explanation for this,” Kevin said in a gentle voice with different inflections, walking a few steps to the right and looking back at where he had been standing. “Science can tell us so much, Kevin! Well, actually, not that much, because we can’t ever know anything completely, but it can show us more than we knew before, and it is wonderful.”

 

He stepped back to the left, trying to smile. “Carlos, I so love it when you talk about science!”

 

But the illusion broke again, and hard . Everything suddenly felt so vividly, disappointingly real, and he was suddenly all too aware of what he was doing. He hid his face in his hands, trying to recapture that feeling, to rewind, to replay that interaction over, to get it right--

 

But in the end, sighing, he looked down at the sand at his feet, hollower than ever. “Oh, forget it,” he said quietly, this time to himself, rubbing his lavender-scented sleeve sadly. “You’re...you’re gone.”

 

He looked up toward the lighthouse, pushed his sunglasses back over his eyes, and continued home, the ache in his body even stronger than it had been before. Whatever that sensation had been just now, there were no scientists here to figure it out, and there would never be again.

 

There would probably never be anyone here again, except for him.

 

--

 

When he reached the door of his house, something felt wrong about the way it opened. He stopped, and realized the handle was on the right side, instead of the left.

 

“Well, that’s odd,” he muttered. But what was even odder was walking into a living space that was an exact mirror image of what he was expecting, and furnished with various purple and fuschia knick-knacks, instead of the yellow and orange ones he’d gathered over the past decade and a half. He looked to his left, and took a step back, shaken.

 

Was that…was that the Night Vale Community Radio symbol, painted above his fireplace in blood?

 

He did not remember painting that .

 

“... What the hell ?” he exclaimed, in bewilderment.

 

Something fell over in the other room, and he heard a sonorous, frantic voice shout, “Hey! Is someone...is someone there ??”

 

Kevin froze, heart pounding in anticipation, and in hope. It was...it sounded exactly like Cecil! That was, unmistakably, Cecil’s voice! Cecil…was in his house? But how? Why??

 

Oh, why did it matter? Cecil had come to see him, he was here!

 

“Cecil? Oh, Cecil!!” he cried, equally frantically, filled with an anxious, bubbling, pleading hope. “Old friend! It’s me! It’s Kevin!!”

Chapter Text

“Old friend! It’s me! It’s Kevin!!” Kevin cried.

 

“Wha--Kevin?!” He heard footsteps, and then, a frantic figure that looked just like his own ran out of his room--which was still definitely on the wrong side of the house--and stopped short. “Oh! Kevin!” the familiar silhouette gasped.

 

Cecil!” Kevin breathed, vibrating with anxious, unprepared delight at the sight of him, though he was backlit and cast in shadow. “Wha..what are you doing here?”

 

“I...what do you mean ? I live here!” Cecil exclaimed tremulously, taking a few tenuous steps closer. “Wh...what are you doing here?!”

 

Kevin’s heart pounded almost painfully, as he also stepped closer. “Wait...what do you mean, you live here? Cecil, I thought you were living in Night Vale!”

 

“Well...technically, I am!” Cecil said. “This is New Night Vale! I named it myself, and currently I live here, uh, by myself--but oh, Kevin,” he continued, almost rapturously, “I am so, so unbelievably glad to see you again!”

 

As confusing as Cecil’s words were, Kevin had never heard Cecil so glad to see him, and his heart soared. “O-oh!” he said. “And I am also glad to see...you…” he trailed off, because Cecil stepped into the light from the front door, and Kevin finally saw him clearly.

 

At first, he struggled to understand what his vision was telling him. There was something different about Cecil’s face, something that was not there, that should have been. Kevin looked more closely at his eyes, and…

 

And…no. No, no, no. He had seen eyes like that before, and knew precisely what kind of stains those were on Cecil’s shirt. His joy at seeing Cecil felt suddenly throttled, in his own throat.

 

“Uh, is something wrong?” Cecil asked tentatively.

 

They’d come for Cecil. They’d come back, and they’d--oh, god, oh Smiling God .

 

Kevin struggled to breathe. How had Strex returned? He had thought they’d been bought out! He had thought that Lauren had run away, that that corporation would never be able to turn anyone, ever again. But here stood Cecil, with hair chopped far shorter than he’d had the last time Kevin had seen him, and bloody clothing, and eyes black like obsidian--just like the ones Kevin pretended he did not see in the mirror each morning, and covered with sunglasses whenever he had the chance, so that if anyone did visit, and saw him, they would not recoil.

 

“Your eyes,” he half-whispered. “Cecil, who did this to you?”

 

Cecil straightened, and his smile, so strange on his face, fell completely for a moment. “Okay, I’m confused. What do you mean, who did this to me?” The corners of his mouth turned up again, and as Cecil spoke, Kevin noticed that his voice sounded a bit more airy and breathless than he had remembered. “Wait, are you making a joke right now? Because if so, oh, my gosh, I have super missed the strange, hard-to-read jokes you sometimes make! But, I have to admit, I really don’t get this one at all.”

 

“I’m not joking,” Kevin said, and he felt his voice straining. “When did this happen, Cecil? Is Strex back? How did they get to you, after all this time?”

 

“Wait...what?” Kevin could see the fear in Cecil’s body. “What do you mean, are they back? Why would they be back?”

 

“Because...your eyes!” Kevin exclaimed. “Your eyes never looked like that, before now! And your smile is different, too. It’s like…” Kevin hesitated to admit it, but… “It’s like mine!”

 

“Kevin, what are you talking about?” Cecil asked suspiciously, his smile turning anxious. “My eyes have looked this way since before we even met on Sandstorm Day, years ago!”

 

“ No!” Kevin insisted. “No, they have not! Your eyes looked like mine used to, before--” he realized he felt a little sick. “Oh, Cecil!”

 

“What do you mean, used to--wait,” Cecil said, as if realizing something, and his smile fell again. “Take off your sunglasses.”

 

“Wait, why?” Kevin asked, tense, and also slightly wondering how he had forgotten to take them off in the first place.

 

“I need to see your eyes,” Cecil said, and his voice trembled, just beneath the surface. “I just had a thought that I don’t think I like very much, but if I see your eyes, it might help. Please,” he motioned, “take them off?”

 

Kevin hesitated, then reached up. “Sometimes people don’t like my eyes,” he said, feeling an anxious smile creep onto his own face. “ You usually don’t seem to, either. Are you sure you want me to?”

 

Cecil nodded, then shook himself. “What do you mean, I don’t usually like them? Of course I like your eyes! They are so striking !” He looked instantly sheepish, as he finished.

 

“I…” something in Kevin’s chest ached so much to hear that. “Oh...thank you, Cecil! That’s so kind of you to say! Well, if you insist...”

 

Despite some embarrassment, Kevin pulled the glasses off, hoping beyond hope that Cecil would keep wanting to see his eyes, once he actually had. He looked up at him, heart throbbing, questioning...and he felt a deep surge of betrayal in his gut as Cecil stepped back, horrified.

 

“Oh, god,” Cecil whispered helplessly. “Strex got to you, too...”

 

Kevin scoffed, offended and vaguely nauseous, and forced a defensive smile as he folded his sunglasses with a snap. “What do you mean, ‘got to me?’ As if they hadn’t before? Don’t act like this is the first time you’ve ever seen me,” he said, too-cheerfully, hating his own tone.

 

“What are you talking about?” Cecil asked, taking a hesitant step back. “I don’t...I don’t understand!”

 

“I’m sorry, don’t you remember?” Kevin said brightly, so much more brightly than he wanted to, but he was hurt, and in response to his fear for Cecil, residual  happiness was edging into his periphery, and he didn’t feel like he could help it. “I’m the person who helped take over your radio station as the Voice of Strex? Who your brother-in-law physically threw into this Desert Otherworld, so long ago? Who you almost moved in next to, but then didn’t, and who looked after your sweet, wonderful boyfriend Carlos for all the years that you...couldn’t...” His voice wavered at that, and he froze.

 

If Cecil had been…then what had happened to Carlos?

 

“Cecil,” he said seriously, “where is Carlos?”

 

Cecil stared back at him, mouth slightly open. “...Did you just say he was my boyfriend?”

 

“Yes,” Kevin exclaimed, impatiently and a little resentfully, “your boyfriend, Carlos the Scientist, who is deeply and irrevocably in love with you. Okay? Are you happy? Is Carlos all right?”

 

“…What are you talking about??”

 

“Cecil, please tell me Carlos is safe!”

 

“...I wish I could, but I haven’t exactly seen him--you know, no, why don’t you tell me, Kevin!” Cecil nearly spat again, crossing his arms. “We both know you’re his boyfriend. And I’ve always respected your place in his life, so honestly, I don’t think this is a very nice joke!”

 

Cecil’s voice betrayed obvious jealousy. Kevin could have spit, himself. If this was one of Cecil’s jokes, it bordered on cruel. He smiled, and said, “Excuse me? The last time I saw Carlos, he was leaving me a goodbye letter so he could go home to Night Vale and be with you ! So, where. Is. He?” He barely held back a frantic snarl, as he took a few steps toward Cecil.

 

Cecil flinched at his approach, but then, he looked back at Kevin, black eyes widening. His shoulders went slack, and he uncrossed his arms.

 

“Kevin…” he said, in a low voice. “Ohh, Kevin.”

 

What?!” Kevin cried, heart pounding in a buzzing, artificially happy fear for Carlos.

 

“I just thought of something,” Cecil said slowly, standing more upright, and approaching Kevin tentatively. “What if...no, how could that be?”

 

“Does this have to do with Carlos or not? Please just tell me he hasn’t been taken by Strex, Cecil!” Kevin pleaded, all too aware of the vulnerability in his voice.

 

Cecil’s eyes somehow widened even further, and he shook his head vigorously. “Oh, no no, I haven’t heard of anything like that! Have you?”

 

Kevin exhaled in desperate relief, although he still felt anxious that Cecil was acting like he had not seen Carlos. “No,” he managed. He did not have time to ask any of his own questions, before Cecil continued.

 

“Oh, lights in the sky. Okay, good,” Cecil sighed, too. “But... Kevin. If you don’t know where he is, and you think I’m his...his boyfriend, and you’re telling me that you were the Voice of Strex, which is impossible…” he paused. “Kevin, what if you aren’t the Kevin I know?”

 

Kevin stared him down, a confused smile again creeping onto his face unbidden. “Uh, excuse me?”

 

“Everything you have said about yourself is something that I have done, or that has happened to me,” Cecil said darkly. “What if you are a you who turned out like me?”

 

“...What do you mean?” Kevin asked in a small voice, once again considering the many possible implications of Cecil’s words, and unsuccessfully fighting the sick fear that Strex might have returned.

 

“I do not think you are the Kevin I know,” Cecil said slowly, ominously, stepping closer, a hint of a nervous smile on his lips. “I think you are a different Kevin. A Kevin like me, who fell to the power of the Smiling God and became The Voice of Strex, and learned to destroy with hands meant to heal, and lie with a mouth meant to speak words of comfort.”

 

As Cecil spoke, Kevin’s smile faltered, and he could not make himself speak. There was something unusually chilling about his double, something he had never heard in that voice before. He did not like it, not one bit, and he liked what Cecil was saying even less.

 

“You were Strex’s Voice?” he whispered. “When?”

 

“Until a little under two years ago, I’m guessing, from the perspective of the outside,” Cecil said, in his strangely breathless voice. “But for me, it has been seventeen years. I was their Voice, until Desert Bluffs managed to defeat Strex--or, more specifically, until I was tossed like so much salad through an old mahogany door and into New Night Vale. Or, as it was called then, the Other Desert World.” He shook his head, and his tone lightened as he shrugged. “Quite a dramatic way to lose your job, if you ask me! I was pretty upset about it for a while, but then again, I don’t have to talk to my old boss anymore. She was just...well, way too good at her job for words, and it was pretty overwhelming sometimes. You know?”

 

Kevin knew this felt different than when he usually talked to Cecil, because he could see him much more clearly, and he was saying things Kevin really was not expecting him to say. For example, Kevin was sure the door that he had been tossed through had been oak, and that Cecil usually called this place “The Desert Otherworld,” not “The Other Desert World,” and especially not “New Night Vale.”

 

And, Cecil usually outright said when he thought things were bad, rather than delicately stepping around them. Kevin secretly found this very endearing, even though it could also be considered a rude and even grumpy thing to do, and was definitely not happy or productive. But despite these things, Kevin was slightly concerned that he was having some kind of vivid hallucination, because Cecil was essentially just repeating his own history back to him, mirrored, as if it were Cecil’s instead.

 

This did not feel like a hallucination. Still, he struggled to tell for certain, and feared that his mind really was inventing all of this. Actually, he realized that he feared either scenario, because if this were real, he had no idea what to do in response.

 

“I...I know exactly what you mean,” Kevin said, shaking himself back into the conversation. “My boss was very motivated, and sometimes, she was so…” he blinked rapidly, gritting his teeth. “She was so efficient ...that I just couldn’t handle it.”

 

Cecil nodded somberly, with a twitch of a smile, and Kevin felt him reading between his words. “Yeah. I can really imagine,” he said, tensely. He paused, seemingly choosing his words carefully. “Kevin...I’m not like the Cecil you knew, either, am I?”

 

“I mean...” Kevin’s throat still felt tight. “You still seem a lot like Cecil, in some ways. But you look different, and you sound different, too. And you keep saying things that I don’t understand, and that as far as I know, never happened.”

 

Cecil nodded again, looking suddenly vulnerable. “It’s the same for me. You said that in your world, Carlos is with me?”

 

“Yes…?”

 

“Carlos has never been with me, in that sense. He has only been with me in the sense that we both lived here together, on this…” he gestured aimlessly… “mountain-ish thing, for ten years. And then, seven years ago last week, he left, to go home to you.”

 

A thick silence followed. Cecil sounded much more like the Cecil Kevin had known, at the moment, but Kevin didn’t quite like this tone of his, either. He sounded sad, and also bitter, but Kevin felt--or perhaps just hoped--that this bitterness was not quite directed at him. Either way, Kevin was stunned to hear this.

 

“What?” he whispered.

 

Cecil sighed, and shifted, crossing his arms again. He took a long breath before he spoke.

 

“Unless there is something I do not know, Carlos is safe. He’s with another you, in Desert Bluffs—a Desert Bluffs that successfully cast out StrexCorp. He’s...he is very in love with you, Kevin, and with your town. You make him very happy.”

 

Although Cecil’s voice grated with something painful that Kevin knew all too well, Kevin’s heart skipped a beat at that thought, and especially at hearing it from another person, from Cecil-- !

 

“He and I were friends, and we cared for each other very much,” Cecil said softly. “But his life here with me was not the life he wanted or deserved. I knew that, but I begged him to stay anyway. I told him all the...well, all the lies I tell myself, and then I said, ‘Carlos, I really think we can be happy here, together!’ And he grinned, and everything about him was perfect, and he said, ‘I think so too, Cecil.’ And it really seemed like our shared belief would make it so.

 

“And you! You were going to come live here too, Kevin!” Cecil continued, his voice wavering. “Oh, I was so unbelievably excited! I…I even built a radio tower, just for you and I! We would have done such wonderful broadcasting together, Kevin. I know we would have. But…” he stopped, with a searching, fragile expression. “You never came. And then, he was gone too, and...” he stopped, breathless. “But now...now, after all these years, you are here, somehow!”

 

Kevin found himself trembling. How could this be? Was he really talking to a Cecil who had lived the same life as him, a Cecil who had also been stranded in a strange land, separated from the only people left alive that he could have called friends?

 

And, had Cecil really just said that Carlos had been in love with him?

 

But he saw Cecil’s helpless expression, and understood the desperation in his double’s voice was just like his own. And now, something Cecil had just said finally registered.

 

“You... you built a radio tower for me?” he gasped. “But…I did that for you, Cecil! I wanted you two to stay here with me, to be my neighbors and my friends, and maybe even my—” he stopped, looking away, a hand over his mouth.

 

“You did that?” Cecil asked, still breathless. “You really wanted that?”

 

Kevin nodded, squeezing his eyes shut, and he felt, he felt so many things, and so many of them hurt. But as much as he wanted to protect himself from that pain, to pretend he was fine no matter what as he had so often done, he could not make himself lie to Cecil right now.

 

“More than anything,” he choked out, and regretted the vulnerability of it instantly, even as he knew he couldn't have avoided it.

 

There was a pause, but then, he continued. His voice trembled, speaking their mutual story aloud, and the awful words began to spill out of him, despite himself.  “I built that tower for you, for us…but then, Carlos left. And that future with you was gone, too…and I can’t blame him at all. And I can’t blame you, either, Cecil. This is no way for a human being to live, out in these endless sands, day after day, night after long night, in an isolated wasteland. Who wouldn’t want to leave a place like this, to go home?”

 

“But you can’t go home,” Cecil said, as if he was realizing it as he spoke, and it seemed like he couldn’t stop either, like the awful truth had overtaken his ability to spin it into something that sounded nicer. “You can never go home, because your home has been destroyed, and everyone you have ever loved is dead to you...”

 

“...And, so…you just pretend a life for yourself, instead,” Kevin finished distantly, speaking for both of them. “You pretend until you feel sick, and after that, until you don’t completely realize you’re pretending anymore, until Carlos and Cecil really are your friends or lovers, or…” he shook himself, brushing past that slip. “You all invite Vanessa over for dinner on Thursdays. You pretend, until the sands of this place are the sands of your beloved town, and you really can walk through all the streets just like you used to, and take the two of them to all the places you used to love with all your heart, until they were destroyed. You picture every detail, you try to live it in real time...” he trailed off, shaking a little from the intensity of his words, and from his painful, embarrassing, accidental honesty, and met Cecil’s eyes again.

 

“But,” he said softly, “it is only a slight, sweet fiction, and dissolves like sugar into water.”

 

Cecil’s gaze looked so fragile. It was obvious that he knew this feeling intimately, and that hearing it spoken aloud had the same effect on him that it did on Kevin. He was silent for a long moment, crossing his arms harder underneath his ribcage, and biting his lip.

 

Kevin felt his heart in his throat. Had he upset Cecil in this world, too? Had he already alienated him, all over again?

 

“Why did you come here, Kevin of Desert Bluffs?” Cecil finally asked.

 

“I…I have no idea. I thought this was my house,” Kevin replied weakly.

 

“Well…it’s not,” Cecil said. “I mean, you’re technically not even in the right world.”

 

“Was I ever?” Kevin asked sardonically, though it mostly just came out sad.

 

The corners of Cecil’s lips twitched, and he uncrossed his arms, squeezing one of his wrists tight with his other hand. “You know...it doesn’t sound like it.”

 

A long pause followed. Kevin still wondered if he had said something wrong, but mainly, he reeled from the conversation they had just had, and all its horrifying and wonderful implications. A Carlos who loved him? A Desert Bluffs that had managed to keep Strex at bay, and that some version of him apparently still lived in, with Carlos ? A Cecil with black eyes and bloody clothing? Who looked actually happy to see him, and who had built him a radio tower as a gift, years ago? Who maybe knew exactly what it was like, to live like Kevin did?  It was too much to take in, and he didn’t know where to even begin...

 

“You would probably like this world, or at least the one I came from, much better than yours,” Cecil said, with an expression Kevin could not quite read.

 

They stood in silence for a long time. The way Cecil said that…it almost sounded like a subtle invitation to stay, and there was nothing in his posture or his expression to indicate anything else. Kevin suddenly realized how much he had missed having real conversations, even when they were not happy, or productive. Even when they hurt, like this one did. Did this other Cecil feel the same way?

 

There were too many thoughts in Kevin’s head, too much heaviness, too many years of awful sadness. And he was being far too honest; lying to himself was all he had, and he was currently doing...well, not that, not at all. It was a dangerous game to play, speaking unfiltered, feeling unfiltered.

 

But somehow, looking at this version of Cecil, dead to a voiceless town and in love with someone—or someones? No; Kevin would not let himself hope something so self-indulgent—in love with someone he would probably never see again, Kevin felt more ill-equipped to lie about his situation, or to spend another night alone, than he had in a very, very long time.

 

So he took a breath, and asked, “Do you have any plans for tonight, Cecil?”

 

Cecil’s gaze returned to Kevin’s, incredulous at first, but then, struck by realization. “You know…I think I actually might.”

 

“Oh?” Kevin’s heart fell, fearing that somehow he had already overstayed his welcome.

 

Cecil paused and bit his lip. And then, unexpectedly, wonderfully, he said, “I’m thinking…since it’s getting dark out, and all...would you like to stay for dinner? And…” he looked sheepish again… “maybe for the night, too…? Only if you want to, I mean.”

 

Now, Kevin’s chest tightened, almost painfully, at the hopeful look in Cecil’s eyes. Was he really talking with Cecil that wanted to have dinner with him, today, right now? Was he dreaming?

 

Did whether he was dreaming matter, in a life like his?

 

“Of course I would,” he finally blurted, all too eagerly.

 

“You would?” Cecil said nervously, obviously trying to hide his own delight.

 

Kevin nodded quickly, heart pounding at Cecil’s enthusiasm. “I really, really would! I mean—” he brought his hand to his mouth again, but forced it back down, instead clasping his hands together. “To be honest, I’ve always wanted to have dinner with you!”

 

Cecil’s face filled with delight. “Oh, wow! Okay!”

 

“Is this really okay with you?” Kevin asked, barely holding back his own delight. “Do you want to have me?”

 

“Yes!” Cecil exclaimed loudly, and then he grinned widely with anxious excitement, and with jagged, broken teeth. “Of course I want you!”

 

Kevin felt a strange fluttering in his stomach at that phrase, and inhaled sharply. He bit his lip, clasping his hands tighter, smiling a fragile, ecstatic smile. “Okay!” he managed.

 

“Please, sit down!” Cecil said, motioning toward the dining room table. “I'll...I’ll make us something!”

 

Cecil darted into the kitchen, glancing back over his shoulder one more time before disappearing through the saloon-style doors. As he watched them gently wobble shut, Kevin could faintly hear Cecil muttering excitedly to himself through the sounds of opening and closing cabinets, and the clang of what might have been some kind of baking tin. Stunned, Kevin pulled out a chair, unable to stop staring toward the kitchen, and managed to sit down.

 

When he finally dragged his eyes away, he noticed that everything in the house was set up backwards from his own, as if he was seeing it through a mirror, or a front-facing phone camera. But it was not a literal mirror-world; text still read forward, as he could see by reading the half-empty coffee mug to his left. It read, “Got Milk? No? That’s Probably Good. Milk Is Supes Nasty, Fam.” He had not seen that catchphrase in probably twenty-five years, since that specific Desert Bluffs PSA had gone out of vogue. Apparently some things had stayed consistent, even across worlds.

 

He struggled to believe that he was really in a different world, but the evidence before him really seemed to indicate that. He still felt stunned at the thought that Cecil could be here, at all, but he could hear him, actually hear him, in a seemingly non-imagined way, in just the other room, making dinner for him, and...oh, dear. If this were real, shouldn’t he be offering to help?

 

“Cecil?” he called, suddenly self-conscious.

 

“Yeah?” Cecil called back, a little frantically, and Kevin heard something being put down, then the sound of quick footsteps. As Cecil poked his head back out, Kevin felt struck again by his presence, his actual presence. When Cecil’s eyes landed on Kevin, his expression filled with relief, almost as if he had feared that Kevin would not still be there.

 

“Do you need anything?” Cecil asked quickly. “I can--I can get you water, or…” he gestured at nothing, trying to decide what to say.

 

Kevin shook his head. “No, no, nothing like that!” he said, in a slightly timid voice. “I was just wondering if you needed help?”

 

Cecil looked surprised. “Oh! That’s so generous! But it’s alright. I mean, you’re my guest!”

 

“An unexpected guest!” Kevin added. “And I wouldn’t want to put you out, without at least offering to do something.”

 

As Kevin spoke, Cecil shook his head. When Kevin finished, he insisted, “Just you being here is wonderful! This is no trouble, not at all. I’ll be right back out with table settings, and things like that; just stay right where you are, and please, don’t go anywhere!”  He held up his hands, wide-eyed, as if that would help Kevin stay put.

 

Kevin smiled a fragile, soft smile in response, sitting back sheepishly in his seat. “Alright, I won’t,” he managed. “If you change your mind about wanting help, though, let me know!”

 

“I won’t, but thanks!” Cecil said, grinning again, before disappearing back through the doors.

 

“ 'Wonderful,’” Kevin repeated to himself in a soft whisper, gazing after him, overwhelmed by strange, new delight. “‘Just you being here is wonderful …’”

 

As the blessed sounds of human life continued to travel to him from Cecil’s kitchen, his soft smile remained, though he covered it with trembling fingers. And with a confused, desperate, hopeful sensation in his body, he realized that he felt exactly the same way.

Chapter Text

For dinner, Cecil had put potatoes in the oven. While the two waited for them to cook, he had set out salads dressed only with balsamic vinegar, two glasses of water, and significantly more blueberries than Kevin could have possibly anticipated.

 

Cecil looked slightly embarrassed, now, as he sat down at the table, across from Kevin.

 

“I’m sorry I don’t have more to offer you,” he said, sheepishly. “I haven’t stocked up much else from the garden, recently. And, uh, sorry if I end up baking the potatoes wrong. I literally had no idea you even could bake them until Carlos got here, and to this day, I still don’t quite know if I’m doing it right.”

 

Kevin swallowed. “You don’t have to be sorry,” he said, a strangely warm feeling spreading in his chest as he looked at his double. “I’m just happy to be here.”

 

And he was, he realized. He was not only saying that because it was the right thing to say. He was saying it because he was genuinely delighted to see Cecil, to see anyone again after so many long years.

 

But seeing another person, especially this person, right in front of him, also made him fidgety, and somewhat self-conscious. He tucked his hair more securely behind his left ear, not for the first time tonight, and smiled wider, leaning on the hand he had used to do it. Beneath the table, his feet contracted and relaxed restlessly.

 

“Well, like I said before, I’m happy you are, too,” Cecil said. His smile became wider, too, and he interlaced his fingers and set his elbows on the table, leaning forward and resting his chin on his hands. “Like, wow!”

 

Kevin laughed, still far too self-aware for comfort, and looked down at his salad, partly concealing his smile behind his fingers.

 

“The food really does look good to me,” he offered. “Especially because you’ve made it! I appreciate even just the work it took to put it together.” He reached for a blueberry, and popped it in his mouth.

 

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t very hard work,” Cecil admitted. “I wish I’d had something that would have taken more to put together, for an occasion like this. But, I haven’t restocked the cabinet in a few weeks, and I wasn’t expecting company, like, ever again, so it didn’t seem very pressing. Not that having you here is at all an inconvenience!” he clarified, sitting up straighter. “It totally is not. It is, like, such a happy surprise! I just, um, wish I’d been ready, I mean, more ready, for you to show up here and eat my food, and everything. Because then you could have had more of it, or--!” Cecil shifted in his seat, furrowing his brow. “I really feel like this isn’t coming out right. Sorry, I’m just not super used to conversations happening in real time anymore…”

 

He seemed flustered, and it was just disarmingly adorable. But Kevin didn’t like the thought of Cecil worrying on his account. The last thing he wanted to do, right now, or really ever, was to make Cecil unhappy on his account.

 

“It’s all right, Cecil!” he cut in, smiling his friendliest smile as he reached for another blueberry. “No one has made me dinner in a very long time, and I certainly never imagined you would. This is a wonderful surprise! If anything, I’m sorry I came on such short notice. But then again, neither of us are responsible for this fortunate meeting, or could have prepared ourselves or each other for it!” He popped the blueberry into his mouth with finality.

 

“I guess you’re right,” Cecil said, grinning back. “I certainly never would have expected any of this to happen, but I am so glad you’re sitting here with me!”

 

Kevin inhaled at those words, and his heart beat harder. He stopped chewing. “You are?” he asked, hopeful.

 

“Yes! Of course I am!” Cecil exclaimed, leaning forward again, this time with more energy. “I’m thrilled! I never thought I’d be able to have dinner with you, either, and especially now that you’re here, I know I would have really missed the chance.”

 

Kevin laughed again, then managed to swallow the blueberry, somehow. Then he said, “Oh, Cecil, that’s so kind of you! I can’t imagine that I’ve done anything to have been that good of company, so far, but I appreciate the thought, all the same.”

 

“You are perfect company,” Cecil insisted. “You don’t have to do anything. Like I said earlier, just you, being here, is enough for me. I...I never thought I’d see you again,” he said, and his smile fell suddenly as his sentence ended, as if he had just realized the weight his words carried. “I’m so glad I was wrong.”

 

Kevin swallowed, his own smile faltering before Cecil’s intent gaze. “We were both wrong,” he said, with a tight chest and an expression that was definitely not a smile, but faintly tried to be. “I am very glad about that, too, Cecil.”

 

They sat like this for a longer moment than Kevin expected. He felt vulnerable, looking into Cecil’s black eyes like this, and admitting to Cecil’s face not only that their current, shared reality made him happy, but implicitly, that if it had not happened, he would have been sad .

 

But Cecil had just done the same. He did not know how to feel about that, but something about sharing an emotion like this, without words, made him less wary of whatever it might mean, and whether or not it was a positive or productive feeling to have.

 

But then, Kevin broke eye contact, and tried more successfully to smile again. He picked up his water glass, to propose a toast. “To happy surprises?”

 

Cecil smiled a soft, tentative smile of his own. “To happy surprises,” he said, raising his glass too. The two clinked their glasses together, and drank.

 

Over the rim of his, Kevin looked into Cecil’s eyes again, matching his expression. They both set their glasses down simultaneously, and Kevin realized that even after meeting him several times now, he was always stunned by how much he and Cecil mirrored one another.

 

“I do kind of wish we had wine to toast that with,” Cecil said, reaching toward the blueberry bowl, “but I don’t know how to make it, and not much ever makes it into the junk pile.”

 

“Mm, that is a bit unfortunate. But, then again, I just like being able to make a toast at all!” Kevin said, shrugging. He also reached to take another blueberry, but his fingers brushed something warmer, just as a high-pitched ding! sounded in the kitchen. He looked over to the basket, and saw Cecil’s fingers next to his own. He jumped as if shocked.

 

“Oh, sorry,” Cecil said, withdrawing just so, apparently to pick up another blueberry. But instead, both he and Kevin lingered. Kevin’s hand felt magnetized, even suspended, beside Cecil’s.

 

God, he...he hadn’t touched anyone in years. Not since Carlos. Before him, Kevin hadn’t remembered how much he used to enjoy touch like this, touch that was soft and devoid of violence.

 

He was hesitant, but...what if he just…?

 

He stretched his fingers across the space between his and Cecil’s, and closed it. The world seemed to stop as they made contact, and as his fingertips cautiously ran over Cecil’s knuckles. He could only stare, barely breathing, as Cecil slowly, carefully turned his palm upward, cupping Kevin’s fingers with his own, and then sliding his hand up to take them into his soft grasp, running his thumb along their backs.

 

Kevin squeezed back, also gently, but vibrating with something he had not felt in a long time. This felt...it was such a full sensation, like something was going to spill out of him! Cecil was holding his hand. Cecil was holding his hand! His hand, of all the hands in the world!

 

He looked into Cecil’s black eyes again, and this sudden connection between them paralyzed him. He was so rarely wordless, and yet, when he opened his mouth, no words at all would come. A weight seemed to lift from his chest, but even so, he felt it ache...

 

They stayed like that for some time, silently running their thumbs over each other’s fingers. The touch was almost electric, and as Kevin looked back down at their intertwined hands in awe, he found himself unable to focus on anything else. This felt... good. Overwhelming, yes, and unexpected, but wonderful, because it was real. He was really, actually touching Cecil, and the warmth of his fingers felt like sunrise, and also so much simpler than that, so tangible, so human.

 

His eyes burned, and his vision began to blur. He swallowed, trying to contain this strange reaction to something so beautiful.

 

He looked back into Cecil’s eyes, and as he did, he tried to stifle a strange, almost sad laugh, one that came more naturally than any he had recently experienced.

 

“Is this okay?” Cecil asked, voice a little hoarse.

 

Kevin nodded, biting his lip. “Absolutely,” he insisted. “I don’t mind at all. It’s been a long time since, um...since I could reach out to actually touch someone. I almost forgot what it was like.”

 

Cecil’s fingers squeezed just tighter. “I understand that feeling,” he said quietly, and Kevin felt the gravity of that understanding in his tone.

 

Kevin realized he could feel Cecil’s pulse in his fingers, and that strange, full sensation he had felt before threatened to overwhelm him. He shut his eyes, focusing on that pulse, and on this incredible experience.

 

What must have been minutes passed, and he felt himself softening into Cecil’s touch. He breathed strangely, and something about this breathing felt so much fuller than it had felt just before. He held Cecil’s hand tight, but also carefully, as if it were fragile and could break if he held on too hard. He did not understand what had transpired to make this happen, or why he was even here with Cecil right now, but he was certain that he could have stayed here for hours, just like this, in this shared, magnetic, eternal moment, edging closer and closer to unbidden tears...

 

“Oh!” Cecil jumped, and Kevin jumped with him.

 

“What is it?” Kevin asked, slightly anxious.

 

“The potatoes,” Cecil said ominously, looking him squarely in the eye, voice and expression full of dread. He quickly slid his fingers out of Kevin’s, standing up and dashing quickly to the kitchen.

 

The ghost of his touch lingered, and Kevin closed his fingers around it reflexively as his double disappeared through the doorway. His heart must have been all the way up in his throat, and he was suddenly aware of a deep longing for the moment that had just passed, and to feel Cecil’s hand in his own again.

 

He was also suddenly aware of the shuddering breath he was taking, and the two hot tears that had escaped from his lashes, and were now traveling down his face. He wiped them away quickly, blinking.

 

He was stunned. He was sure this had been real, that this Cecil actually existed. Nothing he had daydreamed had ever affected him in this way, and lasted for so long, and caused his body to feel so many strange sensations. Even the rare dreams he experienced at night had never been so intense or vivid, or anywhere near so soft.

 

And those dreams and daydreams never truly surprised him, not beyond the normal levels of nonsense a dream could be expected to provide. He knew the things he wished for, and the things he feared, and the themes that repeated themselves in his imagination, based on both. But he felt shaken by this, at least as shaken as he had felt earlier, when that strange sensation had overcome him as he walked back home.

 

Speaking of which...what had that sensation been? Had that been how he had arrived here, in this stranger, softer world?

 

As he heard clattering and clinking noises sounding from the kitchen, he wondered at everything he had seen. Had he really traveled between timelines? Was he truly with another person right now, and specifically Cecil? Could he trust his senses, which were all crying out and saying the same glorious thing: that yes, he really, really was?

 

And then, Cecil’s figure appeared in the door, sheepishly holding two plates, and Kevin inhaled sharply at the sight.

 

“So…” he said hesitantly, “I might have possibly overcooked these a little. I’ll take the more, um, blackened one.”

 

He strode to the table, and set a heavily toasted potato in front of Kevin. Upon inspection, it did look fairly overdone, but still edible. But when Kevin looked at Cecil’s smaller potato, across from him, he gasped, and had to cover his mouth to prevent himself from laughing.

 

“Cecil!” he choked out, looking at something that was still recognizable as a potato, but looked a bit more like a singed rock. Cecil really was his double. “Oh, no, Cecil!”

 

Cecil rubbed his neck, showing all of the teeth you would expect in a smile, but in a very uncomfortable way. Kevin had mostly been able to remember the difference between that and a true smile, over the past seventeen years, though he could not always.

 

“I left them in too long,” Cecil admitted. “I also may have turned the oven up too high. I just wanted them to cook efficiently, but, um, I’m not...uh... good at cooking, exactly? I probably shouldn’t have done it like this. But you don’t have to eat yours, if you don’t want to. I can make another one, if you would like…?”

 

“No, no,” Kevin said, unsuccessfully suppressing a giggle. “I truly appreciate your efforts, Cecil! It’s just that yours looks a bit…” he turned away, shuddering with silent laughter. “I’m sorry! I don’t mean to poke fun at your cooking in the least. It’s just that your potato is so much more affected than mine!”

 

Cecil looked down at his potato again, and his maybe-smile turned into a definitely-smile. He laughed, too, and oh, it sounded musical. “No, it’s okay. It’s pretty far off from what I wanted. The amazing part is, this is an improvement from the past. If Carlos hadn’t taught me basic cooking skills when he did, I probably wouldn’t have managed to burn these, but also, we would probably be eating them raw.”

 

Kevin laughed again, louder this time. “Oh my, that’s really something!” he said. “I don’t know if I can relate to that exact statement, but if it makes you feel better, I am a menace in the kitchen, and not in the fun way. I almost always manage to set things on fire, or spill them, or sometimes, both!”

 

Cecil snorted. “Both?” he asked incredulously.

 

“Both,” Kevin affirmed, with an embarrassed grin. “Like I said: a menace. I’m very lucky that Carlos made me an oven, and taught me how to build fire extinguishers out of old cans, magnets, flour and the concept of propulsion, because I singed myself quite a few times trying to cook over open fires before that.”

 

Cecil’s smile softened. “I’m glad we were both lucky enough to meet Carlos,” he said, and Kevin could hear how much he missed him in his tone.

 

“So am I,” Kevin said, feeling some of the ache in his chest from earlier today. “He’s...he was beautiful in every way.”

 

“He really was,” Cecil said quietly. He picked up a knife and a fork, but did nothing with them, staring distantly down at his burnt potato. He swallowed, and readjusted his fork just so. “I still miss him,” he confessed, and his voice sounded raw.

 

Kevin gazed at him softly, thinking about how much this Cecil must have cared for Carlos, and that in yet another way, Cecil must have understood how Kevin felt.

 

“So do I,” Kevin said, and he felt vulnerable saying it, but he could not stop himself. “I think I might know just how you feel, Cecil. I can’t shake that feeling, even after all these years.”

 

Cecil set his utensils down, and looked up at him softly. “Kevin...you still loved him, even in your world, didn’t you?”

 

Kevin opened his mouth, but could only exhale, turning his gaze away from Cecil as he did and squeezing his hands together in front of him. Of course he had. Carlos was his friend! It seemed like it should have been such a simple sentence to agree to, but he had never actually said it out loud, not in those words. And in the echo of his absence, in the absence of almost everything, those words hung heavy in the air.

 

“I’m sorry. If it helps...my Carlos loved you dearly ,” Cecil offered, and although he sounded a little sad, and maybe a bit jealous too, he seemed like he was trying to be kind. Kevin looked back up at him, hanging onto every word, despite himself.

 

“He would talk about you, so often, and he was sad because you weren’t here, but he was also so happy because of you, because you existed at all. I was…” Cecil paused. “I guess I was a little jealous of that, sometimes. But he was always so kind to me, too, and when you said you’d move out here, I was happy, even if it meant he’d spend a lot of time with you, and maybe not as much with me. I was happy because I would get to see you, too. I hoped that we could both be there for him, and get to know each other better, and maybe even become close.”

 

Kevin looked back at Cecil, feeling strange, and sad, and somehow very understood, all at once. He was unsure exactly how Cecil meant that last part, and the ambiguity of Cecil’s words awoke a hope in him he did not feel he could quite express, even to himself. But he agreed with that sentiment, in all of the ways Cecil might have meant.

 

“You keep saying exactly what I’ve felt,” he said. “I’m not sure if it makes me happy, exactly, but just knowing that you understand is…” he trailed off, shaking his head.

 

Cecil took a deep breath, and exhaled. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not being a very good host, bringing up something unhappy before you’ve even started eating. I just…I never thought I would have the chance to tell you any of this, Kevin, and now that you’re here, it’s all spilling out at once, and I’m not sure how to stop it. I’m really sorry,” he repeated.

 

“Please, don’t be!” Kevin said, holding his hand up. “I haven’t said as much as you have, but that’s only because it is exactly what I would want to say, if you hadn’t already. Our conversation may be about something unhappy, right now, but seeing you is still a very happy thing for me, Cecil. I always wished we could sit and talk, just like this, about anything and everything. And here you are!” he said, smiling again, in a strange, overwhelming way that was somehow happy and sad, all at once.

 

“Here we both are,” Cecil said, smiling back in a very similar way. Suddenly, he looked determined. “I’m...I’m going to try to eat this potato, now, I think,” he continued, picking up his utensils again and slicing it open, struggling a bit with the skin. “If I can just, uh--” he sawed at it tersely-- “get this to open.”

 

“All right,” Kevin said, stifling another laugh, picking up his own fork and knife, and doing the same to his own potato, with much less trouble. He mashed it up, and after a moment of contemplation, poured some of the balsamic vinegar Cecil had left out onto a corner of it.

 

“Oh!” Cecil said, pausing and watching him curiously. “Is that, like, a common thing to put on mashed potatoes?”

 

“I actually have no idea,” Kevin admitted. “I’ve never tried it before, but it just occurred to me, and it seemed like a nice idea. I guess we’ll see if it turns out well!”

 

“Oh, okay. I almost thought it was some weird Desert Bluffs thing,” Cecil said. “Not that Desert Bluffs is weird in a specifically bad way, or anything, just that a lot of your customs are...different than what I’m used to.”

 

Kevin looked back up at Cecil intently. “Okay, speaking of customs, Cecil, I am very curious to know more about what your customs mean, and how they even work,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in Night Valian culture, ever since I first heard of it, but when I lived there, I have to admit, I was totally lost. Like, for example, what exactly do you all have against wheat and wheat by-products, of all things?”

 

Cecil had almost just put a small, nearly black square of potato skin in his mouth, but he paused, wide-eyed. “Oh. Okay, so here’s the thing about that: we actually used to love it. But, um, one time, everything made of wheat turned into snakes, and then into ghosts. It’s a little more complicated than that, but the government outlawed wheat after that.” He lowered his voice into a conspiratory tone. “But a lot of us still eat it anyway, recreationally. Like, yes, I get it. There are concerns floating around that it’s a gateway substance into other, more dangerous substances, sometimes literally, but that snake-ghost business happened, like, one time, and you can’t live in fear, you know? It’s not the only time things have suddenly and dangerously transformed, and while I never would have said this on the radio...the government’s response really felt like an overreaction to me.” He finally put the square of burnt potato into his mouth, and cringed.

 

“Wow, that is so interesting!” Kevin said. “I never knew any of that!” He took a bite of his own potato, and was pleasantly surprised by its tangy flavor and warmth, but felt some concern for Cecil, who seemed to be struggling. “Um...are you all right, Cecil?”

 

“Mmmm,” Cecil intoned unconvincingly, his displeased expression betraying exactly what he thought of his dining experience. “It’s...nice and hot, so I guess it could be worse!” He swallowed almost painfully, and paused for a moment, gathering himself again. “Is yours okay? You, uh, really don’t have to say yes if it's not.”

 

Kevin nodded quickly. “No, it actually is! I’m not really eating the skin, anyway, and the vinegar is an interesting addition!” He scooped up another forkful, and motioned to Cecil. “Would you like to try some of it?”

 

“Oh, I could never take your food!” Cecil exclaimed. “You should eat as much as you like!”

 

“No, it’s alright!” Kevin insisted. “I want you to enjoy your dinner, too, and I don’t mind sharing something with you, especially something you made!” He scooted the plate toward the middle of the table, leaning on his elbows expectantly, and Cecil tilted his head in consideration.

 

“Are you sure?” he asked.

 

“Positive as protons!” he said, borrowing a phrase he had heard from a certain scientist before he could stop himself.

 

Cecil blinked in surprise, clearly recognizing that phrase, and then smiled. “Okay,” he said. He gathered some of the outer bits of Kevin’s potato into his fork, and took the bite tentatively. After a moment, his eyebrows shot up. “Oh, that’s not bad at all,” he said, mumbling slightly through his mouthful.

 

“Right? But, Cecil, I don’t think you got very much vinegar,” Kevin said thoughtfully, an idea forming as he did, one that he couldn’t really do, could he? But, oh, maybe if he just…

 

“Oh, maybe not,” Cecil said, laughing. “The flavor was pretty faint.”

 

“Here,” Kevin said, suddenly deciding that he was going to just do it. If Cecil wanted to refuse, he could, and Kevin could maybe play it off as a joke, because it was a silly thing to do. And so Kevin took a forkful of potatoes from the center, where the vinegar had soaked in the most, and leaned forward, reaching it across the table and stopping a few inches away from Cecil’s mouth. “Try this,” he said, as casually as he could, considering that this action felt actually very forward, now that he thought about it.

 

Cecil’s eyes widened, and he blinked again. The corners of his mouth turned up just slightly. “Oh! Okay,” he laughed, and after a slight moment of apparent hesitation, leaned toward him to accept the bite.

 

It was then that Kevin realized he had made a terribly wonderful mistake. Maybe it was vain to think this, since they looked so much alike, but he had always thought Cecil was beautiful. He felt this was true even when he did not consider himself to be. And, as silly as the trope of an indirect kiss was, he couldn't help but realize that this moment fell under that category.

 

And there was something so breathtaking about the way Cecil dipped his head, now, and how he was clearly trying to do this delicately in general, and how Kevin could imagine his tongue moving in his skull as the fork moved in Kevin’s hand. Oh, he had not thought this through fully before he did it, or anticipated just how attractive Cecil would look, not at all. He barely stifled what would have become a small gasp by holding his breath.

 

He was watching Cecil’s eyelashes, when Cecil’s black eyes met his own. Cecil hummed a bit in satisfaction, and smiled a little. Kevin smiled back automatically in response, holding himself as still as he could and hoping that Cecil wouldn’t notice that he had stopped breathing, and was suddenly trying so hard to hold himself together. He did not want to ruin whatever this was by making this Cecil uncomfortable. His double usually ended up on edge around him, but he did not like or want that.

 

Cecil looked down for another moment, seeming to focus intently on his bite of food again, and finally withdrew, sliding the fork’s tines back out of his mouth. Kevin tried very hard not to think of all of Cecil’s wonderfully sharp teeth, but as he felt and heard them just barely scrape against the fork, he imagined how sharp they might feel on his skin, and gave an accidental but pleasant shudder in response.

 

“Huh!” Cecil remarked, after swallowing, and nodded quickly. “...Yeah, that was better. I like it!”

 

Kevin sat for a moment, unsure of what to do with himself and hyper-aware of that fact, until he spotted his glass of water. He automatically reached for it and took a few deep swigs, facing just away from Cecil and avoiding eye contact. He was almost sure he wasn't blushing yet, but he felt the ghost of his blood beginning to haunt his face and ears, and knew if he looked directly at Cecil just now, its spectre would manifest.

 

He set his glass down harder than he meant to, and finally let his breath go. “I'm glad to hear it!” he said lightly, if a bit breathlessly, carefully watching his fork as he dug it back into his potato. “You're welcome to more of it, if you'd like!”

 

As he raised his fork again to take another bite, he realized that now, he was sealing an indirect kiss. He glanced back up at Cecil again, despite himself, and caught Cecil leaning forward onto his elbows, watching him with a small, cautious smile. The warmth in his face surged, and even his ears burned, as Kevin slowly put the fork in his mouth. He felt even more strangely connected to his double than usual, even by such a simple action as temporarily sharing a fork. Hoping beyond hope that Cecil could not see the blood that had rushed into his face, he smiled back brightly.

 

“Well, if you’re really fine with sharing, then okay. Thank you, Kevin,” Cecil said, and oh, how Kevin loved the sound of his own name, on those lips he suddenly could not stop thinking about. He realized he was staring at them, swallowed his food and dragged his gaze back to Cecil’s dark eyes.

 

“Oh, absolutely! Please, go ahead!” Kevin said emphatically. He was fairly hungry today, as he had been eating less than usual recently, but if it came down to it, he could just eat his salad, and more of the frankly astounding amount of blueberries on the table, to make up for it. Besides, he could always eat again tomorrow, and--

 

“Okay, thanks!” Cecil said again, and as Cecil reached for another bite, Kevin suddenly realized that tomorrow, he might be here, still. Given, of course, that this was still not a dream, or a temporary glitch in the universe. He wondered what the next day would hold, now that Cecil, beautiful Cecil, was here. Or, now that he was here, he supposed. After all, he was in Cecil’s home, at Cecil’s invitation.

 

For a few moments, the two of them ate without speaking much. But, after a while of them eating in relative silence, occasionally glancing at each other and sharing a mutually hesitant, confused and delighted expression, Kevin had to acknowledge the wonderful strangeness of all of this again.

 

As the two finished the potato, Kevin set his fork down. “Wow,” he said, shaking his head. “This is just…” he laughed. “This is surreal.”

 

“What?” Cecil said, feigning surprise and grinning softly. “Eating slightly burned potatoes with vinegar? Or, being in a different dimension, which you traveled to from another dimension, that was already a sub-dimension within a town that is a mirror image of your own?”

 

“...Well, that, and eating those slightly burned potatoes across from an alternate version of my double from that mirror town,” Kevin replied. “A mirror of a mirror of me, who has lived so much of my life, instead of the life I found him in.”

 

“Here he sits,” Cecil said, softly. “And he looks at you with eyes so much like yours, and a smile that tells a story you do not like, but that you understand well. His hands are warmer than you expected.” He reached out to Kevin’s hand again, resting his fingers gently on top, and Kevin inhaled, enraptured at the sensation. “And his voice is like lemonade and sunshine, a voice that makes you hopeful whenever you hear it.”

 

At that, Kevin looked back to Cecil, and his heart ached with longing, and with hope of his own.

 

“Here he sits,” he echoed, searching Cecil's face for the end of his kindness, and sensing that its depths were nowhere near what he had felt so far. He turned his hand so it faced up toward Cecil's, and pressed them together, and its warmth seeped into every crack in his skin. He could feel a shake forming in his voice. “And as he sits with you, you feel so much warmer, so much more real, hearing his voice like moonlight and the void behind, full of song,” he continued, as Cecil's expression filled with the same wonder he was feeling. “Here he sits, so like you, and so delightfully different. And this time, meeting him, your histories have aligned, and when you speak, he hears your meaning. He might even hear the words you always wished you could have spoken to him, but never did.”

 

“And he offers you his food, and his hands,” Cecil almost whispered, still looking right into Kevin's eyes. “And the kind words on his lips drip down like honey through sharp teeth, but you feel they are not meant to harm you, although they could.”

 

“You never want your words to harm him, ever again,” Kevin said, and in his voice, a muted but desperate apology laid itself bare. “They have before, and you regret speaking every single one that did. You wish, more than you can say, that your words could bring him happiness. The happiness he deserves, the kind that leaves someone opaque, and unshattered.”

 

“He...he is not the one who heard those harmful words, in his world, but the one who spoke them,” Cecil replied, and in his voice was the same apology, and also forgiveness. “And so are you. So each apology misses its true intended recipient, and moves through the other like blood moves through cloth. You are marked by its passage, but cannot stop its seeping. But unexpectedly, wonderfully, his hand is still in yours, and you are so grateful for that.” He squeezed Kevin’s hand tight, trembling.

 

“Yes! Yes. Unexpectedly, wonderfully,” Kevin repeated, leaning forward, voice wavering, “he is here at all. You can barely contain yourself for the joy of it, after such a very long time without him, and despite all the ugliness that came before.” His breath shook as he stroked Cecil’s knuckles with his thumb. “You want to preserve this moment forever, so that it cannot turn to memory, and so that its beauty will not be scattered like the sand of this eternal desert.”

 

“Kevin,” Cecil said with emotion, clasping Kevin's hand tighter with both of his own, “nothing could scatter the beauty of your presence here. Even if my life, filled and overflowing with more regret than I can say, ended at this exact moment…” he inhaled, shuddering, and his voice broke. “I am still so grateful to have seen you again, one last time.”

 

“Oh, Cecil,” Kevin whispered, quivering with emotion. Saying his name felt almost sacred. It was sacred in a way that Kevin had never felt for Strex or the Smiling God, but that he had felt for Carlos. It was an ardent love, full of longing, but devoid of the shame and pleading he had learned to feel in the face of something unequivocally divine. He felt whole, saying Cecil's name. And, unbelievably, he felt that his longing was returned, that he might even be as precious to Cecil as Cecil was to him, and at that understanding, he could barely contain the longing he felt to be closer to him, to feel more of Cecil's warmth seeping into his body.

 

Cecil laughed a fragile, wavering laugh, and stroked Kevin's hand, still holding it tight, but also gently, with no force at all.

 

“Can I...can I please sit next to you?” Cecil asked, looking both terrified and hopeful. “And actually, if it’s okay, I would really, really like to hug you, but only if you want me to. Could I--?”

 

Please! I’d love that!” Kevin cried, and their hands slipped from each other’s grasp as they both rose to their feet, Cecil quickly rounding the corners of the table and reaching out, Kevin taking a few steps toward him and doing the same.

 

And then, they pressed into each other’s embrace, Cecil’s arms finding their place around Kevin’s waist, and Kevin’s wrapping around Cecil’s shoulders, pressing him closer as he gasped, then sighed into the sensation. Cecil buried his face in Kevin’s neck, and oh, he was so warm, and touching him felt like it used to feel to sink into a hot bath, in that it was almost too much, but also exactly what he needed, and sent the most delightful sensations through his body.

 

Kevin heard and felt Cecil’s vulnerable laugh, in hot breath against his skin, and he laughed, too, and found that he could not quite stop. It almost sounded like he was sobbing, and he realized that he was, considering the sudden overflowing wetness of his eyes, and the way his fingers were contracting on Cecil’s back, pleading for him to stay just like this, just for a moment longer, just for as long as possible. Kevin was sobbing, and he could not find it in himself to feel even a little bad about it.

 

Cecil sobbed, too, clutching him as close as possible. The two stood, trembling, just barely rocking back and forth, until Cecil lifted his head just enough to speak.

 

“I’m sorry if this is too much,” Cecil gasped. “I just--”

 

“It’s not!” Kevin exclaimed, trembling just as hard. “Oh, no, not in a million years, Cecil! This…” he choked. “This makes me so happy!”

 

“Me too, Kevin,” Cecil whispered, voice full of emotion, and they collapsed closer to one another, Kevin’s heart pounding, his body a livewire of desperate joy. They held one another, sporadically laughing and shuddering and sniffling, for a long while.

 

Finally, Cecil pulled back to look at him, keeping his hands on Kevin’s waist. His smile looked sad, somehow, but in a way that Kevin completely understood, and that made Kevin feel very cared for.

 

“I don’t know if I can eat anymore right now,” Cecil said softly.

 

“Me either,” Kevin agreed.

 

“If you want, we can sit outside together under the stars,” Cecil offered. “I’ll light a fire, so we don’t get cold?”

 

Kevin’s heart leapt. “That sounds wonderful, Cecil!” he said, stroking Cecil’s right shoulder with his thumb. “I do want that, very much!”

 

“Come with me, then,” Cecil said, gathering Kevin’s fingers, and pulling him toward the front door. Kevin followed him into the cool night air, holding Cecil’s beautiful hand tight.

 

--

 

As the stars above Cecil’s dwelling sparkled, so did the fire’s embers. It crackled pleasantly, and bathed the two of them in warm, flickering light.

 

They had only let go of each other long enough for Cecil to set the wood ablaze, and to sit comfortably against the log behind them. After that, they had linked arms, and Kevin’s fingers had found the gaps between Cecil’s, and he had leaned his head on Cecil’s shoulder. The two were now pressed into each other’s sides, watching the flames dance.

 

“Didn’t you have a fireplace?” Kevin asked suddenly. “Or am I just remembering my own house?”

 

“I do,” Cecil confirmed. “I just thought this would be nicer.”

 

“Oh! Okay. It is very nice.”

 

He sighed, and curled tighter against his double. They listened to the sounds of wood being devoured by combustion for the next several minutes, and Kevin could not stop thinking about how beautiful it felt to actually touch Cecil, and for such a prolonged time. It reminded him of when Carlos had been here, and particularly of the first time that Carlos had fallen asleep on Kevin’s shoulder. But for once, the present did not have to remind him of anything to bring him happiness. This felt distinctly new and different, although it made his heart ache in a similar way, and for the first time in years, he was very, very glad to be exactly where, and when, he was.

 

Cecil gently pulled back, just so, adjusting to face Kevin. He did not let go of Kevin’s hand. “Can I ask you a question, Kevin?”

 

Kevin felt a small wave of anxiety, but he turned to face Cecil, too. “Um...yes! What is it?”

 

“Okay. Well...earlier…” Cecil began, slowly, carefully. “Earlier, you said that in your perfect, pretend life, Carlos is your friend and your lover.”

 

“I did say that, didn’t I?” Kevin said, eyes darting back to the fire, tone sounding sadder than he meant it to. He was so happy right now, and he didn’t want Cecil to think otherwise, because honestly, this was just as positive an experience as holding Carlos in his arms used to be--

 

“And…” Cecil trailed off.

 

Kevin tore his gaze from the fire, and looked back at him. “And?”

 

Cecil looked like he was about to speak, but he closed his mouth, and swallowed. His dark eyes almost seemed to burn, and he reached out his hand to brush Kevin’s hair behind his ear, then rested it on Kevin’s cheek, softly, sending pleasant tingles down his whole body. Kevin closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, covering Cecil’s hand with his own. Oh, god, no one had touched him this intimately in…well, it had been seven years since Carlos had left, and even then, Carlos had never touched his face in quite this way. It was so unspeakably wonderful.

 

“And you also said…”

 

Kevin’s eyes opened. Earlier, Cecil must have picked up on it when he had called Cecil and Carlos his friends or his lovers, and was talking about the second part. He also realized Cecil’s hand was shaking slightly. Oh, god, he knew Kevin had that kind of feelings for him, didn’t he?

 

Cecil knew, and Kevin would have been so anxious about that...except that Cecil was stroking his face, as if it were the most precious thing in the world, and looking at him with such vulnerability, as if maybe he felt the same way. Almost as if…

 

As if he loved him.

 

The thought stole Kevin’s breath.

 

“You said that...that I…”

 

“I did,” Kevin whispered, and in a sudden brazen moment, he did exactly what he wanted to, and returned Cecil’s affection by reaching out, and gently brushing Cecil’s cheek with the backs of his fingers. Cecil inhaled.

 

“You don’t have to do anything about tha