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Believer

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Carlos is trying hard to work out where it all went wrong.

It had certainly gone wrong by the time they got here: here, the First Infernal Plane. A hellscape beyond anything he could have imagined, and the home of the quintet of demons responsible for the abomination that was Strexcorp.

That could be Strexcorp again, if Derek Hartley gets his way. The man is a monster, and not just because he's a demon.

But he is a demon. And a frighteningly powerful one at that.

Then there's Kevin. Brave, brilliant, wonderful Kevin, whom Carlos loves so desperately, and who is now soul-bound to the same aforementioned monster responsible for this whole hideous mess. Who is now loyal to said monster, and back to being his fixer once again.

Carlos doesn't know how to save him. He knows it must be possible, because soul-binds can be broken, but he also knows it's not something he himself can do. All of this has long since left the realms of science. Now… now it's something else. Something primal. Something terrible.

And then… there's Cecil. Brave, brilliant, wonderful Cecil, whom Carlos also loves desperately, and who is now the target of the same aforementioned monster responsible for all of this.

And Carlos doesn't know how to save him, either. Not when Derek Hartley is hell-bent on having Cecil – with all his untold, scientifically-impossible powers – open a gateway back to Night Vale.

Not when saving the men he loves could mean damning the rest of the world.

Carlos is numb as he and Cecil are dragged back to the huge, crumbling amphitheatre at the centre of Derek Hartley's realm. He knows what's at stake here: knows that, if Cecil doesn't do as Hartley wants, there's every chance it will mean Carlos dies.

Carlos doesn't want to die. For so very many reasons. And not all of them obvious.

He doesn't want to die.

They stop in the middle of that amphitheatre, beneath a turbulent, red sky. Two of Hartley's three remaining demonic allies – Lilith Wallace and Hikaru Tachibana – have hold of Carlos and Cecil, whilst Hartley's third ally – Nina Belmonte – holds the former fifth member of their group – Aidan Outteridge – in her own grip.

Aidan tried to help them. It didn't work. And it's likely going to get him killed, too.

"This day will be remembered for a thousand aeons," Hartley starts out, in the voice of a man standing on the brink of perfect victory. "So begins the second golden age of Strexcorp; the dawn of a day on which the sun will never set. Now… where is my darling girl?"

"Right here, Dad," comes Lauren Hartley-Mallard's voice, as she approaches from the back of the amphitheatre. "Fashionably late, of course!"

"Of course," her father answers, with a fond expression in his eyes. "And where is my beloved fixer..?"

"I'm here, sir," Kevin says, pacing in just after Lauren. He looks up at Hartley, with a gracious nod. "And I have a suggestion."

Hartley regards him with interest; ethereal blue eyes unblinking. "Go on," he says.

"You can threaten Cecil all you want," Kevin starts out, moving closer. "It might work. It might not. You could hurt Carlos, or kill him – just as you said you would – but it will only strengthen Cecil's resolve. Thankfully, there's a much better option."

"And what is that, my boy?"

Kevin's dark eyes go to Cecil, full of hunger and want. "Soul-bind him," he says. "Just as you did to me. It helped me see the light, after all, and I'm sure the same would be true for Cecil. And then… well, then, sir… you'd have both of us."

Carlos goes cold as ice at the words, and he's clearly not the only one.

"I won't let you do it," Cecil declares; Hikaru having to hold him back as he tries to break free again. "I know enough about how soul-binding works to know that you can't make me. It has to be consensual. You had to trick Kevin into it, but you won't get that luxury with me. I will never be yours."

Hartley looks from Cecil to Kevin and back again, his smile brightening with every second. "Oh, Cecil, your double really is quite something. And he's right, and you're wrong. You will be mine. You will, because all I have to get you to do is say yes. Once. I don't need a complex ritual from you, no scope for deception or deceit. Just one little word, Cecil. And you'll say it. I know you will. I know you will, because Kevin would too."

"I won't," Cecil insists, though it's clear he's wavering, as the reality of the situation starts to set in. "I won't."

Hartley smiles all the more, like he's almost intoxicated by what he's hearing. "You will," he says, softly. Certainly.

And he snaps his fingers. How he's able to create a ritual circle immediately – without having to go through the usual process of drawing one out – Carlos has no idea. But there it is, blazing into being on the ground; a testament to Hartley's terrible, deadly power.

Carlos goes even colder. Surely this can't be about to happen? Surely there's a way out.

There's always a way out. Except… right now, he can't see it.

The circle that flares into life is a complex one, filled with sigils that Carlos doesn't recognise, even after so long around Kevin. It burns into existence but quickly fades back, looking – to the casual observer – as though it too has just been drawn out with charcoal.

Even though the truth is far more alarming.

"Bring him closer," Hartley says, meeting eyes with Hikaru, and his ally nods, dragging Cecil up towards where Hartley himself is standing, on the bottom step of that raised dais.

"I won't give in to you," Cecil insists, even though his voice is wavering with every word.

"We'll see about that, Cecil," Hartley replies. "You may be deliciously noble, but that same strength will be your undoing."

And now his eyes go to Carlos. And Carlos doesn't think his own blood has ever gone so cold.

"Bring the scientist, too," Hartley says, to Lilith. "Let's see just how much Cecil loves him."

It's like the whole world is going dark. Dark, but hinted with blood-red at the edges. Carlos' mind can't quite process what's happening; only that he'd give anything to make it stop.

He doesn't want to die. He really doesn't. He doesn't want to suffer, either. But worse than both of these things combined is the thought of Cecil falling under Hartley's will, the way Kevin has already.

Of losing him like that: not to death, but to an unspeakable hell.

Carlos' mind is still hazy with terror as he's slammed down on his knees close to the ritual circle. By this point, Cecil has been dragged to the centre of it, and he too is pushed onto his knees as Hartley advances on him. Cecil glares up at the man, the demon; his beautiful blue eyes full of defiance.

It isn't going to be enough. Carlos is slowly coming to understand this one terrible truth. It isn't going to be enough.

"Cecil," Hartley purrs, hand out to trace along Cecil's jawline. "Do yourself – and your scientist – a favour, and say yes when I ask. Otherwise… this is going to be rather more unpleasant than you're prepared for. And, Kevin?"

"Sir?" his fixer says, without hesitation.

"Hold Carlos. If Cecil doesn't do as I've told him… you can demonstrate just what pain looks like."

"Anything for you, sir," Kevin answers, graciously, and goes to take hold of Carlos; Lilith stepping back to let him. "Do you want me to keep him alive?"

"Until I tell you otherwise," Hartley replies. "I would much prefer it if he lives. But I'll do whatever it takes to get what I want. And I always do… don't I, my dear fixer?"

"Oh yes," Kevin says, with a smile that somehow makes Carlos' blood go colder still. "You do."

"I do," Hartley echoes. "And now you all get to see just what that means…"

He holds out his hands, and begins to chant. Carlos doesn't recognise any of the words but – given how spiky they sound – he's confident they're in Dzy-an-thyl, the language of the upper three Infernal Planes.

Hartley's native tongue.

The ritual circle begins to glow a bright, hot red; spirals of light filling the air. They rise up, shimmering all around, as the words of the chant grow more complex, more intense, building and building until…

Silence. The light fades at once, and Hartley holds out a hand towards Cecil, speaking – this time – in a language they can all understand.

"What say you, Cecil Palmer? Will you be mine? Will you bind yourself to me, subjugating your will to my own?"

Carlos closes his eyes for a moment.

"Never," Cecil gasps, though his own eyes are full of a horror beyond all telling: a man faced with the ultimate impossible choice.

Save a lover, damn a city. Or the other way round.

Hartley doesn't even look surprised. "Kevin," he says. "Teach Cecil the error of his ways."

"Yes, sir," Kevin breathes, tone full of fervour; raising his knife and turning it, clearly about to drive it into Carlos' shoulder.

Carlos can't make a sound; the horror too much. He presses his eyes shut once more, and for the first time in his life he wonders if it would be easier if they never opened again. And he braces; braces for pain beyond what he can imagine, or bear.

"Wait," Cecil cuts in, suddenly, sounding more agonised than Carlos has ever heard him. "Wait. I… all right. All right. Don't hurt him. Please. Promise me he lives, and I'll… I'll…"

He bites his lip, head down, unable to meet Hartley's eyes. "…and I'll do what you want."

There's a long, terrifying pause. "You have my word, Cecil," Hartley says, softly. "Say yes… and I'll let you keep him. I'll let you both keep him."

It's a moment that will haunt Carlos forever: the moment one of the two men he loves chooses to damn thousands to save his life.

Some terrible, guilty part of him is glad. He wonders what that means.

"Then… then yes," Cecil whispers, head staying down. "My answer is yes."

For a second, the air is still; and then it goes electric, light chasing down the lines of that ritual circle once more, converging on Cecil. A single burst of bright, hot red courses right through him, and then… then it all fades back.

And everything is silence; save for the thunder of Carlos' heartbeat.

Derek Hartley holds out a hand. He holds out a hand, just as Cecil Palmer looks up.

And takes it. And rises, slowly, smoothly, graciously, to his feet.

"Cecil," Hartley purrs; the voice of a man who has already won the world. "Are you ready to serve Strexcorp? Serve me?"

Cecil's eyes flash… and turn dark. Turn black. As black as Kevin's. It is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most horrifying thing Carlos has ever seen in his life.

"Yes," Cecil answers. "Yes, I am. Sir."

Hartley smiles; triumphant and loving it. And then he pulls Cecil in closer, hand on his hip, and Cecil doesn't resist. On the contrary, he goes willingly.

"My new secret weapon," Hartley breathes, and he sounds almost intoxicated as he does. "You're going to help me retake everything that was stolen from me… and then you're going to help me bring about the golden age of Strexcorp. The golden age of the Smiling God. Are you ready?"

"Yes," Cecil replies, tone full of fervour. "Oh yes, sir. I'm ready."

"I knew you would be," Hartley tells him. "And it's time. Time for you to open a gateway back to your plane of reality. Time for you to begin this glorious, great work that lies before us. It's all on you, Cecil. Can you do it?"

"Tell me how," is Cecil's answer. "Tell me how, and I'll see it done. For you. For Strexcorp."

And there's no way to stop it. No way, even as Hartley's legion of demons starts to amass in the vast space beyond the amphitheatre. No way to prevent the moment when Cecil steps forward, holding out his arms; vibrant purple light blazing through the air as he calls out the chant Hartley has given him.

The chant even Hartley himself could never use. That only someone as powerful as Cecil could.

In mere seconds, the air before him is rent in two; swirling and twisting, forming a portal back to Night Vale.

Carlos' mind has long since stopped processing what's really happening. It's like watching a movie, albeit a movie he wants to walk out of and can't. Kevin is still holding him, blade over his throat, and that ought to feel wonderful but it doesn't, because of what Hartley has done to the man.

What he's done to both of them. Both of the men Carlos loves. There is a Hell, and this is it.

"Our moment has come," Hartley declares; the glow of that rippling portal shining on his face as he watches it in delight. "A great task lies ahead of us: to return to Night Vale, to Desert Bluffs, and to see them restored to their rightful owner. Strexcorp. To see Strexcorp restored to its rightful owner. Me. And then… oh, then the real work can begin."

And, in groups, they approach the portal. Hartley leads the way, with Kevin on his left and Cecil on his right; Kevin still holding Carlos as they walk. It means he's one of the first to see what's waiting for them on the other side.

Night Vale. The sky is dark, and cloudy, and it's actually raining. And – unlike the last time Carlos was here – that rain is water and not blood.

The other side of the portal has opened up right where Cecil, Kevin and Carlos left this plane a day or so ago: the square just outside the Dog Park, where the second Bloodstone had been raised. The plan to destroy it – formed by Hartley's wayward daughter Naomi and her wife Darla, along with Steve Carlsberg and Frederick, one of Carlos' scientists – was clearly a success, and the square itself is still strewn with shards of red crystal.

Carlos wonders where the four of them are and hopes, above all hope, that they're far away from here.

Behind Hartley, the rest of the Management Board appears: Nina – still holding Aidan – then Lilith, Hikaru and Lauren. There's a moment when they're all staring at the square, at the world, in a mixture of strangely complex emotion, and then Nina breaks into laughter.

"We did it," she declares. "We did it!"

At the far end of the square, a number of figures emerge from the shadows. Night Valeans. Night Valeans who are about to be in terrible, terrible danger.

And, behind the Management Board, the square is still filling up with demons. Armed demons. Nina waves two of them closer, and all but throws Aidan into their hands. "Keep him under control," she orders. "I want him to see this. To see all of this."

"I'd rather die," Aidan hisses at her.

"You die when we say you can die," Nina retorts. "You betrayed everything we stand for."

"What about the scientist?" Lilith says to Derek. "He's a liability. Now you have Kevin and his double, we should do away with him."

Carlos is now so numb at what's happening that he hardly processes the words, and it's almost a shock when Hartley says, "No. No, the scientist lives. I did say that they could keep him, after all…"

Somehow, right now, this seems worse than the alternative.

There are shouts in the distance; the Night Valeans clearly realising that something has gone catastrophically wrong.

But it's already too late. The Strexcorp Management Board are back, with an army of demons behind them, and the voices of the Greater Metropolitan Area at their side.

And all is lost.

"Look around you!" Nina shouts.

"Strex," the army of demons chants, in unison.

"Look inside you!" Lilith calls.

"Strex," the demons echo.

"Go to sleep!" Hikaru continues.

"Strex," comes the terrifying refrain.

"Believe in a Smiling God!" Lauren declares.

"Strexcorp!" Derek Hartley shouts. "It is everything!"

And, right now… he's not wrong.

Chapter Text

THREE MONTHS LATER

Despite Hartley's threatening words about 'keeping him', Carlos is alone for weeks.

OK, this is not strictly true. Guards come to his surprisingly well-equipped little cell on a regular basis, bringing food or other supplies or – he soon learns is possible – books. Provided they're of the legal kind. The lack of a window makes regimenting non-existent time particularly difficult to do, but it doesn't exactly matter if he slips an hour here or there.

It's not as though he has many other constraints on his day.

To say he's content would be to imply some kind of acceptance of or happiness about the current situation. Neither is the case. His predicament plagues his thoughts during the day, and wracks his dreams at night. But, in between all of it, he keeps his mind busy, keeps himself busy.

Keeps trying to work out what in the name of all eleven dimensions he'll do when the inevitable reunion comes. To say he's merely scared would be to imply he has even the vaguest answer to this quandary.

But he doesn't.

***

It's late one evening when something out of the ordinary happens.

At a point in the day when he is always – always – left alone, Carlos is alarmed to hear the door to his cell swing open, seconds before a pair of particularly tall, particularly broad-shouldered Strexcorp enforcers come stalking in. Their knives aren't drawn, but somehow they manage to stand in such a way that the weapons are more obvious than usual.

Not that Carlos has long to muse on the fact, given that the enforcers go for him almost immediately, throwing him roughly into the wall and dragging his hands behind his back, cuffing them tight. He gasps in shock, mind racing, trying to work out if this means what he thinks it means.

Sure that it does. Terrified that he wants it to.

A dark hood is thrown over his head, and then he's pulled unceremoniously from the cell. Precisely where the corridors beyond lead, he doesn't know, but they certainly lead a long way because it feels like several minutes before the enforcers stop wordlessly hustling him forward. There's a sudden pause, the heavy clunk of a door lock, and then he's pushed into whatever space lies beyond the door in question.

And, after only a few more steps, he's slammed roughly down onto his knees. The hood is yanked from his head, giving him a slightly blurry view of a mixture of light and dark as he tries to refocus on the world, and the enforcers stalk from the room again, slamming the heavy door shut behind them.

Silence.

Silence.

But Carlos already knows he isn't alone.

"It's so good to see you again," purrs a familiar voice, from the shadows beyond the spotlight shining directly above.

"Oh yes," agrees a second, equally-familiar voice, from opposite the first. "It is."

Carlos doesn't know whether to be overjoyed or terrified. His mind somehow fixes on a rather heady amalgam of the two; at least until both speakers pace into view, at which point joy and terror reach saturation point and annihilate each other.

And, by one molecule, terror wins.

The two figures are, of course, Cecil and Kevin. It would be harder to tell them apart, given that Cecil's eyes are now as black as Kevin's, except for the fact that both men are still wearing their old colours of choice: purple and orange respectively. Their clothing is otherwise identical in style, right down to the half-rolled-up shirt sleeves that somehow set the intended tone of this little encounter rather more than Carlos would like.

He tries to find words for a response. He can't. After a moment, he can't even look up, and he drops his head; the sight of the two of them more confusing than he can process right now.

Kevin steps in close, slipping fingers under Carlos' jaw and tilting his head back again. The gesture isn't rough, but it is insistent, and Carlos opts not to resist.

"Did you miss us?" Kevin asks, levelly.

"Yes," Carlos can't stop himself from answering. Because he did. Every second of every day. Even though he knows what that demonic monster has caused them both to become. What he's made them do. What he's made them want to do.

Both men smile. "We knew you would," Cecil says. "We knew, because we know you. And we've been waiting for this moment for so long."

"You knew where I was," Carlos points out. "You could have come and found me any time you wanted. Or were you not allowed?"

It's Kevin who yanks him to his feet at that, knife drawn and pressed against his throat from behind before Carlos even has a chance to regret the sharpness of the words. He shivers at the touch of the cold metal, trying to push down on the memories it evokes. On the treacherous need that uncoils from deep inside his soul at the feel of it.

"We do as our leader bids," Cecil replies, as if not breaking stride. "It's why we waited for this moment. It's why we're here now."

He reaches out a hand and trails it down Carlos' cheek, and it is so hard not to lean into the touch. So hard not to let his eyes drift closed in pleasure.

So very hard.

"Whatever you want, I won't do it," Carlos manages, instead.

He braces himself for a reaction, but all he gets is a soft laugh from Cecil.

"Oh, Carlos," the man breathes. "You've never been able to resist either of us. Do you really think you can resist both of us?"

When the two doubles move, they move fast. Carlos sees the chains glinting on the far wall, in the light of a second spotlight, and before he knows it he's been slammed roughly into the wall in question, face-first. He's only held there long enough for the cuffs to be unlatched from his wrists, and then they flip him around and drag his arms high and wide, chaining him like that, up against the cold stone.

"Don't," he begs, the terror cutting through any attempt at resistance. "Please. You don't have to do this. You don't want to do this."

"Oh, but we do," Kevin replies, tilting his head back with the knife again. He and Cecil stay close, either side of Carlos, almost like the three of them are lying in bed. Except through ninety degrees.

And in a dungeon.

Carlos shuts his eyes for a moment. It would be so very helpful if all of this wasn't tripping at least half of the unadmitted fantasies at the back of his head. But it is.

And, what's worse, he knows they know. And he knows all of this is deliberate.

"Just tell me what you want," he whispers.

"We want you back," Cecil tells him, leaning in very close, tracing fingertips up the front of Carlos' chest. "We want you back very, very badly. But first… we need to ask you a few questions."

Carlos does his best to meet Cecil's eyes when he responds. It is not easy. "I have been in prison for weeks," he points out. "Even if I was willing to help you, I wouldn't be able to."

"You can help us," Kevin says. "We're sure of it. You can. And you will."

His voice is insidious, slipping into Carlos' mind, sliding deep, and Carlos finds himself tugging on the chains holding his arms, almost as if he's trying to surge towards the man.

He can't tell them a thing. Whatever they ask. Not a thing. And yet, his blood is already screaming for them to pull him apart.

Carlos knows that's at least partial explanation for why he was left alone for so long. So that any sense of anger, fear, resentment, resistance – all of which he is feeling – would be subsumed under an unstoppable, unbidden wave of need.

Which he is most assuredly feeling.

"I won't," he insists again, as firmly as he can.

"Cecil," Kevin purrs, lowering his knife and glancing across at his double, "why don't you show Carlos that delightful new trick of yours?"

"Anything for you," Cecil replies, graciously.

And Cecil, still tracing fingertips over the front of Carlos' shirt, suddenly flattens his hand against Carlos' chest. There's a brief, bright pulse of purple light – far more controlled than he could ever have managed a few weeks ago – followed almost immediately by a shockwave of sensation that runs through Carlos' whole body. He gasps out loud at the way it feels: a short, sharp sense of pain, followed by an alarmingly intense burst of very real pleasure.

"Oh," he manages, almost losing his footing. "That's…"

"Good, isn't it?" Kevin says to him. "I let him try it on me the first time."

"You let me try it on you a lot," Cecil points out, with a downright wicked grin.

"True," Kevin concedes, his own expression now mirroring his double's. Then he lifts his knife again, starting to trace it lightly up the edge of Carlos' neck. "So, dear Carlos… just how much of that do you think you could take? Would you like to find out? Or… would you prefer to co-operate?"

"I won't help you," Carlos insists, already tensing for the seemingly inevitable response. "And you haven't even told me what you want."

"We want everything," Kevin replies, which is somehow far more worrying than it is ridiculous. "You can start by telling us where the Night Vale dissidents have gone."

The question does two things to Carlos. The first is to fill him with the strangest spark of hope. People are still fighting back. People are still alive and out there and resisting. This isn't over.

The second is to make him turn his head to stare straight at Kevin, without thought for the knife against his throat, in something like incredulity. "I've been in prison for weeks," he points out, slowly, as if this is somehow something the other two could have missed. "I've been in prison since the day we got back from the First Infernal Plane. I've had as much contact with these so-called dissidents as you have. Probably less."

"Their first hiding place was one of your scientific facilities," Cecil says. "And at least one of your team is a key member of the group. So if you don't know for sure where they are, you must have a very good idea."

"None of our facilities are secret," Carlos adds. He knows they know this. He also knows they will have exhausted every possible location before coming to him. But that doesn't mean he has to make this easy. "If you think people are hiding in them, go check them out."

"We already did," Kevin answers, proving Carlos right. "No sign of life. No clue as to where half the town has gone. Nigh-on all of Night Vale's notables have just vanished and there's no trace of their whereabouts. Which leaves only two possible places they could have run to. They might be hiding out on one of the lower infernal planes – Naomi or perhaps even Steve could have gotten them there – but it would be extremely risky. It's more likely that they're in Nebolgorod."

Nebolgorod – the miniature city hidden under Lane Five of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex – would be Carlos' bet. Indeed, he's been considering it as an option should he ever find a way out of here. Plus – due to a series of rather complicated events – Cecil's long-lost brother, Hunter, still rules as something of a god-king down there, and Carlos knows the man would do everything in his power to help the people of Night Vale in their time of need.

"…If you think they're in Nebolgorod, why don't you have them already?" Carlos finds himself asking, in something like horror – even though the fact that they're even having this conversation suggests there's a key piece of information he's missing. "You… you could just get to them through the Fun Complex. Through the entrance in the pin retrieval area."

"A very good point," Kevin replies. "Unfortunately, before we could try… someone encased the entire building in amber. Someone so very well-versed in the many uses of mystical rocks."

This can only be Frederick, one of Carlos' team, and no doubt that aforementioned key member of the resistance. And now he's not sure whether to be horrified or proud.

"We tried cutting through it, too," Cecil goes on. "But, after all this time, we've barely gotten as far as the reception desk. At this rate, reaching the back of the bowling area is going to take years."

But neither of them look especially annoyed about this development. Which means they already have an alternative plan in mind.

"You already know how else to get to Nebolgorod," Carlos points out, voice shaking, because now he's confident as to where all this is going. What they want.

"We do," Cecil agrees, softly. "There's just one problem. The portal system that you and your brother designed to allow travel between here and there – the one hidden in that shack way out in the desert – has vanished without a trace."

"And you think I know where it is?" Carlos says. "Do I need to remind you again that I have been in prison for weeks?"

The sharpness of his tone is clearly a mistake. He barely has a chance to draw breath before Kevin presses his knife very firmly under Carlos' jaw, and then Cecil lays a hand on his chest again. The shockwave of sensation is stronger this time: a surge of pain chased almost immediately by a burst of intense, aching pleasure. Carlos has to fight to keep still – the threat of the knife at his neck leaves him no choice – and the effort means he certainly can't keep quiet.

"Please," he gasps, though even he isn't quite sure if he's begging for mercy or for more. "I…"

"Watch your tone," Kevin chides, lightly. "You don't want this to turn unpleasant, do you?"

Carlos bites his lip. He realises afterwards that this is so incredibly telling.

"Do you?"

"No." Yes.

Help.

"I don't know where they are," he insists, going for broke, and speaking rather too quickly. "I don't know where the portal is. I didn't know it had been moved. I can't help you, and nothing you do is going to change that because nothing you do can make me know things that I don't know, so–"

Cecil lays a finger over Carlos' lips, stopping him in mid-sentence. "Carlos," he says, soft and certain, sliding the finger to stroke over Carlos' cheek after a moment, "there are only two people left who know how that technology works well enough to dismantle it, move it, and reassemble it in a usable state. One of those people is you, and the other is your twin. And if Tomas has gotten involved in this – and we're confident he has – you know what he would do. You know where he would hide it."

"The best I could do is speculate," Carlos replies, heart racing in his chest, both at the thought of his brother being involved in all this, and the realisation that he's about to get himself hurt again. And… the other thing. "And I won't."

"You will," Kevin tells him, sounding so very sure. "In time… you will."

Cecil's fingertips go to play lightly over Carlos' chest again, and he closes his eyes, trying so very, very hard not to give into this. Not to want it. He knows he shouldn't. Knows he mustn't. And yet, the more he tries not to, the more that same want folds back on itself, and makes him want it more.

But he's always been so very susceptible to them. Falling for Kevin when it was clear the man had secrets. Falling for Cecil despite him being Kevin's double. Falling for both of them mere hours after almost dying in an actual battle with no idea as to where it was all going.

He loves them. Even now, he loves them. And they've turned that into a weapon.

And he's scared it's going to work.

No. He's scared he wants it to.

"Do you know how to contact your brother?" Cecil asks.

"I knew," Carlos says. "But I've been in prison for weeks. And if Tomas knows what's going on here – and, trust me, he works for the vague-yet-menacing government agency so he knows what's going on here – then any cell numbers I have for him will have undoubtedly been ditched. The guy has more burner-phones than Steve Carlsberg."

"You're saying you couldn't reach him now?" Kevin pushes.

"Not unless he wanted me to," Carlos answers. "Which, given my predicament, he doesn't. If you wanted to turn me into a spy, you shouldn't have left me in prison for weeks!"

It's possible he's more than a little wound-up about this. He's kept it under control the whole time – to stop himself going insane – but all his mental brakes are off right now, and there's no holding back the surge of emotion.

Cecil and Kevin exchange a look at the words, and then Kevin lowers his knife, right before Cecil flattens his hand against Carlos' chest. And now the torrent of sensation is stronger than ever: a flare of bright, hot pain that makes him cry out, followed by waves of intense, aching pleasure.

"Stop," he begs, desperately, even before the onslaught has started to fade; panic starting to hint his tone. "Please. I can't help you. I won't help you. You don't have to do this…"

He surges towards Cecil, as far as the chains will allow, making his shoulders ache in the process. "Please," he begs again. "I love you. I love both of you. We can still get out of this. Still make it right. I know we can. Please."

Cecil smiles, almost fondly, and traces his fingertips along Carlos' jaw, pressed in so close that they're almost nose-to-nose. "Oh, Carlos," he says. "You think I'm the good one here, don't you? I'm afraid you're wrong."

And Cecil kisses him. Cecil kisses him hard; so hard that Carlos finds himself pushed roughly back against the cold stone, unable to resist in the slightest. It's a firm, furious, possessive kiss; the kind that would blow his mind, were he not utterly terrified by it.

"Let me tell you how this is going to work," Cecil says, tone level and sure; breaking the kiss but not moving even slightly away. "You're going to answer our questions. You're going to help us. And then you're going to fall down on your knees and swear to obey our every word. Do you understand?"

"…I won't…" Carlos breathes.

"You will," Cecil counters, calmly. "You will."

Carlos realises now that Cecil has both hands on his chest. It's clearly something he's meant to realise, too, because – once he does – Cecil pauses just long enough to allow the ramifications to set in before he lets a double-pulse of that strange, otherworldly energy blaze through Carlos.

And kisses him, at the same time, so Carlos' rather more desperate cries are lost against Cecil's lips. As is any chance of him begging for mercy.

Though he doubts it would do any good.

When it ends, Cecil steps right back – breaking contact at last – and Carlos drops in the chains, a fresh jolt of pain chasing through him as his arms take his weight. He can't look up. Can't speak. Can barely breathe.

"Smiling God, that's hot," Kevin murmurs. "I really have missed watching you two. Although… it was never quite like this."

Now Cecil reaches over and grabs hold of Kevin, pulling him in close to kiss quick and firm. His double makes a soft sound of delight at the rough treatment, and seems to stagger just a little when Cecil lets go of him again.

"…OK, wow, it should be like this more often," Kevin manages, sounding borderline punch-drunk and highly approving.

"I know you too well," Cecil replies, clearly pleased with himself. "And we certainly know you too well, don't we, Carlos? Our beautiful scientist. This will be so much easier once you give in. We'll take care of you, I promise."

"I… n-no more… please," Carlos gasps.

Kevin steps in closer again, slipping the blade of his knife back under Carlos' jaw and lifting his head up. "Maybe I should try my hand at persuading you," he suggests. Threatens.

"I… thought Cecil was the bad one…" Carlos manages, even though he knows he's asking for it now.

Kevin laughs, soft and deadly. "He is," comes the reply. "I'm the very bad one."

He strokes the blade firmly over the front of Carlos' throat, and it's too much, and something inside him just gives way.

"I can't help you," Carlos whispers, not in defiance, but in resignation. "I can't. So… so if you're going to kill me, just… just do it. And if… if not, then…"

He can't drop his head – not with the knife right there – so he closes his eyes again. "…Mercy. Please."

There's a long, drawn-out silence. Without looking at the other two, Carlos can't be sure what they're doing, but he's confident it involves that trick whereby they can converse without speaking. Not literally of course – at least, he doesn't think so – but enough that they can understand each other without the need for words.

And then Kevin moves the blade from his neck, slipping it back into its sheath with a snap, and Carlos breathes out; for what feels like the first time in minutes. He drops his head again, hoping that the act of visual surrender will go some way towards placating the other two, when he knows full-well that he still hasn't told them anything of use.

Though this is as much because he doesn't know anything as it is a refusal to talk.

But the still-lucid part of his brain suspects they know that, too. Suspects all of this is more about breaking him than it is about gathering any kind of real intel.

Suspects this means it's working.

Cecil strokes a hand over Carlos' cheek, leaning in close again and pressing their foreheads together. And the counterpoint of that gentle, intimate contact somehow shorts out whatever resistance is left in Carlos right now.

"Would you like us to take care of you?" Cecil asks, softly.

"Yes," Carlos whispers. He feels terrible for saying it, but he can't stop himself. And he does, on some level, want them to.

He's been alone for so long. He understands why, now.

"Say please," Cecil pushes, though there's no threat to his tone.

Carlos bites his lip. "Please," he murmurs.

Cecil kisses him, light and gentle, and then steps back. There's a moment's pause – another instant of silent conversation between the two doubles, perhaps – and then their hands go to the chains holding Carlos' wrists, unlatching one side each and immediately taking hold of him, to stop him falling.

Which he would, without those hands on him. He's out of his mind and vaguely aware of it being a lot like it is when it's really, really good, but with an undertone of danger that stops him sinking right into it.

But only just.

"We've got you," Cecil says, softly. "We've got you."

And that? Well, that's the scary part, isn't it?

Chapter Text

When Carlos comes to, he's swathed in soft sheets and wrapped in warm arms.

And, for one glorious moment, it's as though he's waking from a bad dream. As though all of it was just the twisted imaginings of his sleeping mind.

Then reality kicks in, and Carlos sits bolt-upright in shock, finally aware of where he is.

The room in question is an impressively-large bedroom, styled with the kind of clean, ultra-modern lines that make it seem overly stark and corporate. There's a huge, floor-to-ceiling window off to the left, which is heavily-curtained; save for a thin gap at the very bottom, under which the glow of bright sunlight is shining.

Daylight. Carlos hasn't seen daylight in so very long. Although… is it daylight? It seems more orange than it should…

But this is a problem for later, because he isn't alone. Kevin is on his left, and Cecil is on his right, and Carlos doesn't quite remember how he got here. Or what happened after he did.

And that's a new kind of terrifying.

"Well, good morning, you," comes Kevin's voice.

Before Carlos can even fathom how to reply, he feels both of them take hold of him and pull him down onto his back again. The second he hits the sheet, they each tug one of his arms up above his head, pinning him in place.

Heart racing, Carlos stares up at the two doubles as they lean in over him. None of them are exactly wearing much – himself included – and the feeling of being skin-to-skin is intoxicating, especially after having been alone for so long.

"W-where am I..?" he manages, knowing the question is redundant but needing something to fill the silence whilst he tries to work out what the hell to do.

"In our room, of course," Kevin answers. "In our apartment, high up in the HQ building."

It's another moment before Carlos can get the next question out. Maybe they're expecting it, because neither Cecil nor Kevin speaks; waiting, instead, for Carlos to do so.

"…What happened last night?" he whispers. He wants to close his eyes, but he also knows he needs to keep watching theirs, so he can see how they react. So he can decide if he believes them or not. "Did… did you..?"

"…Take advantage of you?" Cecil completes, when Carlos can't. "No. No, we didn't. You were very out of it. We brought you back here and we let you sleep."

He sounds sincere. He looks it, too.

"So… so, you didn't..?"

"…Take advantage of you?" Kevin echoes, with a trace of a smile. "No. No, we didn't. Would you like us to?"

The question makes Carlos' heart race with renewed intensity. Because the answer is no. Of course the answer is no.

…Except that the answer is also yes. Yes. Yes.

And his hesitation alone is dangerously telling. Both doubles lean in closer, pinning him more firmly in place, and the attention makes his whole body thrum with need.

He should tell them to stop. He should tell them to stop and then hope to whatever good is left in the world that they do. He should not under any circumstances infer that he doesn't want them to stop. Or that some terrible, twisted part of him wants to find out what it would be like if he did and they didn't.

Merciful Einstein, what is he supposed to do?

Cecil strokes gentle fingertips over his chest, as if tracing out some unknown pattern, whilst Kevin leans in closer, speaking into Carlos' ear. "It's OK to want this," he says, in that low, seductive tone that Carlos has never been able to resist. "We love you. That has never changed. And I promise we won't hurt you… except perhaps in ways you'll enjoy…"

Carlos' breath catches at that, and it's several seconds before he manages to find oxygen again. And this is partly because he's aware that – on balance – he really doesn't want them to stop.

"Just relax," Kevin goes on, voice dropping to a whisper. "Just relax and give in."

"…All right," Carlos hears himself answer. "All right. I… just… "

"It's OK," Cecil interjects, softly. "It's OK…"

He presses in and kisses Carlos, slow and gentle, whilst sliding the hand on his chest lower, and the thrill of need that simple action elicits puts paid to any chance of Carlos calling a halt to this.

"That's it," Kevin murmurs, still in Carlos' ear, as Cecil pushes the last of his clothing out of the way and starts to stroke him. "That's it. Just let go."

It feels so damnably good. It always feels so damnably good, but coupled with the fact that he's been alone for so long, it's as though even the slightest touch is electric. He can feel the warmth of their breath on his neck, the weight of their identical, dark eyes watching him. The pressure of their off-hands pinning him down.

It's so wrong. So wonderfully, wonderfully wrong.

"Is that good?" Kevin asks.

"Y-yes," Carlos manages. It is. And the fact that it shouldn't be is just making him want it more.

Cecil leans in to kiss him on the jaw, still stroking him slowly and firmly. Kevin, meanwhile, runs his own fingertips over Carlos' chest, now; hand coming to rest over his heart.

"Your heart is racing," he remarks. "You don't have to be afraid. You can let go."

Some lingering trace of resistance in Carlos makes him shake his head. "I can't," he whispers. "I don't…"

Cecil kisses his jaw again. "It's all right," he says. "It's all right."

Every time they speak, their words lull him deeper, and Carlos is starting to feel as though the world is going black around the edges. And the pleasure, the gloriously-wrong, gloriously-right pleasure building between his legs is just pushing him further and further down.

The resistance is dropping out of him, too; bit by bit, second by second, as he slowly gives way beneath them. Which makes what happens next even more of a shock.

All of a sudden – no doubt initiated by one of those wordless looks between the two doubles that he's missed – Carlos finds himself yanked upright. There's a flurry of movement, and before he knows it he's on his knees in the centre of the (helpfully large) bed, with Kevin pulling his wrists behind his back.

"I wasn't resisting," he gasps, mind racing in sudden fear. "I wasn't, I promise, you don't have to–"

There's a sharp, metallic snap, and he can't stop himself whimpering in alarm as Kevin handcuffs his wrists together, before wrapping in close behind him and pressing his knife up under Carlos' jaw.

"Please," Carlos cries out, "I wasn't resisting, I won't resist, you don't–"

It's at this point that Kevin presses his free hand over Carlos' mouth, cutting him off in mid-sentence. For a second that lasts an eternity, he's utterly terrified, and then it's as though he's been taken hold of and slammed backwards into pitch-black water. And – even though his heart is still racing – his mind just gives, and slips under all at once.

Cecil moves in front of him again, hand up to gently brush the hair back from his face. "That's it," he says, soft and sure and deadly. "That's it. You know who you belong to, don't you?"

Carlos finds himself nodding without even thinking about it. Though not too firmly, given the blade still pressed against his throat.

"Yes," Cecil says, as if echoing the answer that Carlos can't say out loud. "Now… here's what's going to happen. I'm going to pull you apart. I'm going to pull you apart and then we're both going to have our considerably wicked way with you. And if you're good… we'll do it in that order."

Carlos nods rather more than he needs to at that, if only because the thought of what will happen if they start choosing to deny him is more than his mind can cope with right now.

"That's it," Kevin breathes, into Carlos' ear. "That's right. Surrender. Surrender to us, and it will all be OK…"

Cecil's hand moves between his legs and starts to stroke him again. And there's simply no way either of them will miss how easily he responds to that; not pressed so close to him. The world goes darker still, as if he's being pulled deeper and deeper into the black waters within his own mind.

Every shred of resistance is gone, now, and he lies in Kevin's firm grasp, whimpering softly against the hand over his mouth, as Cecil pulls him closer and closer to the edge of the abyss. He can't beg for mercy, or for more, and once his mind has accepted that, it makes him surrender even further; sinking completely under their will.

The world is quiet here. Quiet and still, and for the first time in months, it doesn't hurt.

He's right on the brink now, but he doesn't dare come without Cecil's permission. Which he can't even ask for. And that ought to terrify him too, but… it doesn't.

And, luckily, Cecil knows. "Should I let you come?" he says, with a trace of a smile.

Carlos makes a soft murmur of need and tries to nod again. And that makes Cecil smile rather more.

"I really have missed you," he says. "We both have. Come for us."

And Carlos does. Carlos comes so hard that Kevin has to try rather harder to hold him still – not because Carlos is trying to break free, but simply because the tidal wave of pleasure makes keeping still pretty much impossible. He cries out – in release, in need, in hope, in terror – and maybe it's for the best that he can't speak because mere words wouldn't be enough to express what he's feeling right now.

Hell, even a string-covered crazy-wall wouldn't be enough.

When it's over, and the last aftershocks are starting to fade, Carlos drops back in Kevin's arms, gasping hard and – suddenly – shaking bodily. Kevin moves the hand from his mouth, stroking over Carlos' cheek and guiding his head to let him rest it on his shoulder.

"We really did miss you," he murmurs. "So very much."

"Please don't hurt me," Carlos gasps, suddenly terrified again, and needing to speak whilst he knows he can.

"We won't," Kevin tells him, moving the blade from his neck and kissing him on the jaw. "We won't, I promise. It's all right."

Cecil moves in after a moment, pulling Carlos in closer and making enough room for Kevin to unlatch the cuffs from his wrists, rubbing them gently as he does. Once Kevin lets go of him, Carlos surges forward into Cecil's arms, desperate for the man to hold him. Cecil wraps him in tight, pulling Carlos' head down onto his shoulder, and Kevin curls in behind him.

And they both hold him. And it's like being able to breathe for the first time in weeks.

"That's it," Cecil murmurs, stroking through his hair. "That's it. Just relax. You're safe."

Carlos tries to say something else, but the words won't come. He's not even sure what those words are supposed to be, though they feel like words he needs to give voice to.

But he can't. He just can't. So he curls in even further.

It's another moment before Cecil pulls back from the embrace, cupping Carlos' jaw and meeting his eyes. "Lie back for me," he says, softly, and Carlos is still too caught in the moment to do anything but nod and acquiesce. Kevin moves to give him space, and Carlos turns to lie on his back in the centre of the bed; very much aware of the other two watching him.

When he's in place, they move in closer, slipping out of the last of their clothing and lying on either side of him again. And even without their hands on him, it makes Carlos feel caught, in a way he knows he enjoys too much.

And shouldn't be giving into, right now.

And is giving into, right now.

"Put your hands above your head," Kevin tells him, though there's no force behind the words – and, when he doesn't immediately comply, it doesn't get him a blade to the throat. Just gentle fingertips on his jaw.

"I promise we won't hurt you," Kevin says.

"Then… why..?"

"So that you don't forget who you belong to," Cecil breathes in his ear, and the sheer possession in his tone makes Carlos feel like he's been hit in the chest.

It also makes him comply, with barely a second's hesitation.

"That's it," Cecil says, oh-so-gently, as Kevin handcuffs Carlos' wrists together again; the chain looped around a bar in the headboard. "That's it. You're ours. You know that, don't you?"

"Yes," Carlos manages, nodding a little as he speaks, without really needing to think about it.

The two doubles stay either side of him for a moment, and then Cecil moves, slowly pushing Carlos' legs apart and kneeling between them. It's an act that makes him feel so open, so vulnerable, and it would really help if it didn't also fill him with a fresh stab of arousal; his breath quickening noticeably as Cecil traces fingertips over his skin.

"I know it's been a while," Cecil says, watching Carlos' eyes as he speaks. "I promise I'll be gentle. I want you to feel good."

Carlos doesn't stand a chance of replying to this, not with the rush of emotions it provokes in him, and it's no small wonder he even manages to nod. He jumps a little as Kevin starts stroking along his arm, watching with obvious pleasure in his eyes, and leaning in to kiss him on the shoulder.

"Just relax," Cecil breathes, reaching for the lubricant and slicking three fingers with it. "Just relax and let go…"

And he pushes the first finger into Carlos, slow and careful. Carlos can't help a gasp as he does, the pleasure of that simple act seeming almost too much, given how hypersensitive he is right now.

"Oh," he manages, trying not to immediately beg for more.

"How does that feel?" Cecil asks.

"Feels… good… Feels… I…"

All Cecil has to do is slide that finger slowly back and forth a couple of times, and Carlos cries out, unable to keep the desperation from his tone.

"Do you want more?" Cecil now asks, a very pleased smile on his face.

Carlos nods, rather a lot, and the other man's smile gets brighter. And suddenly deadly.

"Then ask me."

Not 'beg me'. Not 'plead with me'. Not even 'no'. And somehow, that gentle order feels like the other three combined.

"Please," Carlos gasps, voice shaking. "Please… more."

He's only just got the word out when Cecil slides a second finger in alongside the first, and Carlos can barely keep his hips still at that; the need spreading so fast and so unstoppably that you could be forgiven for thinking it's been a lot longer than three months.

"And what do you say?" Kevin chides, softly, right into his ear.

"Thank you," Carlos answers, quickly. "Thank you… I… ohyesyesyes…"

He's confident Cecil could undo him like this, even though he's already come. Even though it's just two fingers and a look of absolute power in the other man's dark eyes. But… he also wants more, and there's no hiding it. Instinct makes him tug on his wrists, though he has no idea what he'd do if he could move them right now.

It certainly wouldn't be to break free and run for it. Oh no. Anything but that.

"You're not going anywhere," Kevin reminds him. "You're ours. And we have you right where we want you…"

"Please," Carlos gasps, before he can stop himself. "Please… I'll do anything… I just need… I…"

"I know, I know," Cecil says, gently. "I'm not going to deny you, I promise. But I am going to render you completely incoherent…"

Which would be when he pushes the third finger in, at the same time as starting to stroke Carlos again, and the sudden burst of sensation makes the whole world go hazy.

"Oh," Carlos manages. "That's… I…"

"Tell us who you belong to," Kevin says, soft and deadly, in his ear.

They've said it a number of times, and he's voiced his agreement in nearly every one. But there's something so much more about saying it himself. And whilst it's been true for so very long… it's a scary truth right now.

Especially because he knows it's as true as it has ever been.

"…I belong to you," Carlos whispers. "To both of you."

Cecil smiles, a wicked look in his eyes, and gives a firm jolt with the three fingers still pressed inside Carlos, making him see stars. "Again."

"I belong to both of you!" he cries out. "I'm yours, I'm yours… mercy, please…"

That makes Cecil slow his attentions, letting the stroking fade to nothing, but keeping those fingers in place. "Mercy?" he repeats, in a tone of voice that would probably have Carlos on the ground, if he was standing at the time. "Do you want me to stop?"

No. Carlos doesn't want him to stop. Even despite his pleas to the contrary. He wants to plead and be denied.

What the hell is wrong with him?

The drawn-out pause gets him another firm, deliberate stroke. "Answer me."

"…I… want you to take what's yours," Carlos manages, voice nowhere near level.

That makes Cecil's smile brighten, and he looks over at Kevin. "And what do you think, my dear double?"

Kevin's eyes go from Cecil to Carlos, with a very predatory headtilt. "I think… you should make good on your promise and have your considerably wicked way with him. And if he resists…"

There's a decidedly ominous shiiiik, and Kevin presses the blade of his knife over Carlos' throat again.

"…I'll make sure to keep him in line."

The whole world goes black at that, oxygen seeming like a faraway thing, and Carlos knows the reaction will be impossible to miss. He's right, too, because Kevin leans in closer all at once, looking equal parts delighted and fascinated.

"How long have you wanted us to be this rough with you?" he asks, voice low and dangerous.

"I… don't know…" Carlos whispers. It's true. He doesn't. But he does know it's been a long time.

"But you do, don't you?" Kevin pushes.

He shouldn't. He mustn't. Maybe in another life.

But not here.

"Yes."

Kevin presses the knife in more firmly; enough that Carlos hardly dares breathe. "Don't struggle. Don't resist. If you do… I will hurt you. Do you believe me?"

Unable to get a word out, heart racing so fast he wonders if the other two can hear it, Carlos bites his lip and nods very slightly.

"Good," Kevin replies. "Now… ask Cecil again. Beg him."

"Please," Carlos manages, the word little more than a shaky breath. "Please don't stop."

Cecil leans in closer, meeting his eyes. "I meant what I said before," he says, softly. "I'm not going to hurt you. Not here and now. But… the time is coming when I will. When we both will. And when that time comes… you will want it."

Carlos gives another tiny nod; as much as he dares with the blade still pressed over his throat. And he wonders if he believes Cecil's words. And… he knows that he does.

Because some part of him wants it even now.

Cecil starts to stroke him again – a little more slowly, but just as firmly – and Carlos gasps in shocked delight. He tries to keep himself grounded, tries not to get completely lost in this, but he knows his mind is already teetering on the edge, and it doesn't take much more to make the world go hazy, right before all of reality just folds in two and drops.

"That's it," Kevin breathes, his voice so much softer again, but keeping the knife in place nonetheless. "That's it. Give in. Just give in. You're ours. You belong to us. We decide."

"Yes," Carlos murmurs, distant and drifting and utterly surrendered. "Yes."

Slowly, gradually, Cecil stops stroking him; sliding his fingers free and pouring out more of the lubricant, slicking himself with it. He moves into place over Carlos, waiting for the man beneath him to meet his eyes before he starts sliding into him.

And it's like he's in Carlos' head, as well as his body. It's like he knows the things that Carlos doesn't admit to. Like he knows the things he wants.

"Don't look away," Cecil tells him, softly. "I want to see how this makes you feel. I want to watch you understand that you are ours: body, heart, mind, soul."

The words hit Carlos like a whipcrack, but one that makes every inch of him thrum with pleasure, and it takes all his effort just to do as he's been told. He manages a tiny nod – not daring to attempt more with that knife still at his throat – and then has to fight to hold back a whimper.

"…I need you," he breathes, the words barely more than a whisper. "Please."

"I know," Cecil replies. "But it's OK. I have you. You're back where you belong."

He is. He is. And it shouldn't feel so good, but it does.

Cecil starts to move his hips, slowly at first, keeping himself braced over Carlos with one hand and using the other to stroke gently over Carlos' cheek.

"And you're going to behave yourself for us now, aren't you?" he pushes, with the kind of soft certainty that is much, much more dangerous than any open threat.

Carlos gives another tiny nod, and Cecil flicks his eyes over to Kevin, giving his double a nod as well. And, with a look of wordless acquiescence, Kevin moves the blade away from Carlos' throat. He has only a second to process this, however, before Cecil surges down to kiss him, firm and deep and possessive.

It feels too wonderful for words.

"Oh," Carlos gasps, as the kiss breaks. "Cecil… please…"

"Just let go," Cecil murmurs, against his lips, his voice guiding Carlos' mind further and further down. "Just let go…"

They've kept him surging this way and that: between gentleness and threat, between calm and fear, and Carlos knows it's about more than just pleasure and control. Knows they're making him sink gradually deeper, not just in the moment, but longer-term. Knows they're slowly, little by little, winning him over.

He has to fight it. He needs to fight it. He ought to fight it.

He doesn't want to fight it.

"Oh," he breathes, again. "Yes."

"That's it," Cecil tells him, so very gently. "That's it. Oh, Carlos, you feel so wonderful…"

And all he can do now, all he wants to do now, is lie beneath the other man, luxuriating in how this feels. In how long he's waited for it. In how much he needs it.

In the knowledge that he couldn't resist it if he tried.

Cecil's breathing is more ragged now, and he speeds up, chasing his own release. He comes after another moment, crying out in pleasure against Carlos' lips as the climax overtakes him; hips not stilling until the last waves fade back, and he curls in over the man beneath him. His dark eyes seem even blacker as he lifts a hand to stroke over Carlos' cheek, smiling fondly.

"We missed you," he says. "I missed you. So very much. And we are never letting you go again."

"I'm yours," Carlos murmurs, lost and found all at once. "Both of yours. I belong to you."

The words are terrifying. And dangerous. And true.

Cecil pulls slowly back, climbing off Carlos and lying beside him, whilst Kevin immediately moves to take his place. And it's only a moment before he has, sliding deep into Carlos until their hips lock together, putting a hand on his jaw and mirroring the position Cecil was in just minutes earlier.

"All ours," Kevin echoes, with a smile of his own. "Now… I want you to wrap your legs round my waist."

Carlos does as he's told, gasping at the way it makes him feel, and at the promise behind the other man's words.

"Good," Kevin tells him. "Good. That's it. You'll be lucky if you can stand by the time I'm done with you."

And that makes Carlos gasp all over again, right before Kevin starts to move his hips. Fast. Hard. He cups Carlos' face, kissing him just as firmly, staring down at him as the kiss breaks, clearly wanting Carlos to know that he's caught. That he's owned.

He is. And he does know it.

"Yes," Carlos whispers, as if in answer to an unspoken question, and Kevin smiles.

"You like that?" he asks.

"Yes."

"Good. Beg me for more."

"Please don't stop," Carlos gasps, fervour slipping into his voice. "Please. Oh, please."

That gets him a gloriously wicked look, and Kevin pushes a hand down between them, starting to stroke Carlos firmly. And, even though he's already come, he can feel himself responding to it. Can feel the whole world teetering on the edge of a pitch-dark abyss.

An abyss he'd throw himself into, if Kevin wasn't about to push him in first.

The fury of it, the force, the possession, shatters him after little more than a moment, and with a cry of shock he feels a second climax thunder through his body. There's nothing left in him, but it doesn't stop those waves of pleasure from breaking all over again, quicker and sharper than before.

It's enough to send Kevin over the edge too, gasping in bliss as he comes and somehow moving even faster as he rides out every last second. He kisses Carlos again as he does, curling over him and resting against his chest at last, so much gentler now.

"You really are amazing," he says, warmly. "And Cecil's right… we're never letting you go again."

"…Yours…" Carlos murmurs, distantly, right before he feels the world fold in two, and drop into the dark.

"Yes," Cecil says, softly. "Ours."

Kevin pulls back after a moment, reaching up to unlatch the handcuffs holding Carlos' wrists, and gently guiding his arms down. Then he slips off him, rolling Carlos onto his side and letting Cecil wrap him in tight, before spooning in behind him.

Carlos is distantly aware of all of it, but his mind is so far down now that it seems to be happening in another life, whilst he just drifts, here, in the glorious black.

"Just relax, now," Cecil tells him. "Just breathe. We've got you. You're safe."

He feels them both tighten their arms around him, possessive and loving.

And, for a moment, nothing else matters.

Chapter Text

Carlos isn't sure how long his minds drifts for. He thinks it might be quite a while, but it's hard to tell, on account of how out of it he is.

And on account of how time doesn't exist. But that is somehow less of a thing right now.

Eventually, he starts being able to think in whole sentences again, and stirs a little. The other two clearly pick up on it at once – they may have been quiet and still all this time, but he knows they've been watching him all the same – and they both stroke slowly over his skin.

"How are you feeling?" Cecil asks.

That isn't a question with an easy answer. "…Complicated," Carlos manages, hoping they won't take offence.

They don't. "That's understandable," Kevin says, kissing him on the back of his shoulder. "Give yourself time to process this."

Somehow, the two of them being highly reasonable is a lot more difficult to deal with than the two of them chaining him to a wall and asking him questions he can't answer.

"Speaking of time… if it existed, what time would it be?" Carlos asks, instead, because it's easier. And because he wants to know. "It was light when I first woke up, and that… well, that was quite a while ago…"

"It's still early," Cecil answers. "The light isn't so much of a clue as it used to be."

"It isn't?" Carlos says, and then his mind catches on. "I… oh. Oh. It's…"

"Maybe you should go see for yourself," Kevin tells him. "Borrow one of our dressing gowns and step out onto the balcony. That should begin to explain things."

There aren't words for how ominous this is. Carlos manages a nod, and then slowly extricates himself from the tangle in the bed; aware that he aches in ways that are so very good, and that's so very dangerous.

He locates one of their dressing gowns – which is orange, which means it has to be Kevin's – sliding it on and wrapping it around himself before pausing at the heavy curtain, taking a deep breath. Suspecting he knows what he'll see, when he looks out.

It's a moment before he can do it. A moment before he can pull back the curtain, and get his first glimpse of the world beyond. It's enough to make him want to drop the curtain immediately and retreat, but he takes another deep breath and forces himself to keep going: to slide back the glass door onto the balcony, and step outside.

What he's seeing right now is a view that defies description. Defies reason. And, given the things Carlos has seen in the last few years, that's a serious statement to make.

The sky overhead glows a vibrant, unnatural orange; just as it did during the latter days of the first revolution in Desert Bluffs, when Lauren invoked the Smiling God. It's clear the same thing has happened here, because hanging directly overhead is that ceaseless not-sun: the echoed presence of the Smiling God itself.

But it isn't truly here. Not yet. Which means – technically speaking – there is still hope.

Beneath the unmoving not-sun, the cityscape of Desert Bluffs stretches out and out… and out. Much further than it ever did before; so far that it's easy to believe it reaches all the way to Night Vale. That the two cities are finally, physically, connected.

In another world, that could have been a wonderful thing. Here, it is anything but.

The city itself looks as Desert Bluffs did the first time Carlos saw it: terrifying and blood-drenched, but with a golden edge that betrays the real world beneath. Or… something even more alarming. Several blocks away, he can see the vivid red glow emanating from the Bloodstone Plaza, and he realises – with a jolt of alarm – that he can hear the song of the Bloodstone just subtly, at the back of his mind.

How long has it been there? How long has it been there and he hasn't realised?

It's a horrifying thought. And, if the Bloodstone – or a bloodstone – is back, then that's going to be a problem. An immense, immense problem.

The first Bloodstone was problematic enough. It lay at the heart of Desert Bluffs for decades, keeping most of the populace enthralled and under Strexcorp's control by emitting a constant, psychic song. Even living near it was enough to hold people in its control, and touching it only made things worse.

Carlos has seen the effects close up. Seen how that thing had the power to make Kevin go so far as to murder someone he loves. And whilst the incident Carlos witnessed was undone thanks to the help of a time-travelling deer, he also knows that the same effect was responsible for making Kevin kill the first love of his life.

And that part couldn't be undone. And it's a wound Kevin carries, deeper than any physical scar, even if he surely isn't aware of it right now.

What's more, the raising of a second Bloodstone – once used by Strexcorp in a thwarted plan to seize control of both towns at once – in Night Vale was the catalyst that sparked off this latest series of events.

Those things are evil. Pure, absolute evil. And if there's one of them here – and perhaps another in Night Vale – then much of the population will be held in its control.

And that is a whole world of not good.

Plus… there's the part where Kevin happens to have the odd ability to push Carlos' mind under when there's any kind of bloodstone around. It's happened twice before, and it's vital Carlos doesn't let it happen again, for the obvious reasons.

Even if it would be such a relief not to have to… no. No. Don't think that. Not for a second.

Don't.

And yet, all of this somehow pales beneath the realisation of where Carlos himself is right now. The other two had said their apartment was 'high up in the HQ building' and so Carlos had been sure it must be near the top of the Strex HQ tower.

And it is. Sort of. Except, the HQ building is apparently no longer a tower. Oh no.

A vast, golden, blood-streaked pyramid lies at the very heart of Desert Bluffs. The footprint of its foundation must cover multiple city blocks, and Carlos doesn't even dare try to work out how high it is.

How the thing was constructed so fast, he neither knows, nor wants to know.

Breathe, he tells himself. Breathe.

"Impressive, isn't it?" Cecil says, stepping out onto the balcony beside him.

"That's… one word for it," Carlos manages. "It… How?"

Cecil smiles. "Efficiency is Strexcorp's watchword."

I thought oppression and mind-control were Strexcorp's watchwords, Carlos thinks, but is smart enough not to say out loud.

"You… live in a pyramid?"

"It's a twenty-four-seven office block and apartment complex but… yes," Cecil answers, easily. "It's all in a pyramid."

"Isn't that… you know… a little bit overkill?"

"I think it's just enough kill," Kevin says, pacing out onto the balcony to join them. "It sends a message. A very clear message."

A message heavy as an anvil, Carlos thinks, but – again – is smart enough not to say out loud.

"So… the Bloodstone is back?" he says, instead, as if this is somehow a safer line of conversation. Which it likely is not.

"It is," Kevin answers. "Or, it's not the same one, obviously, because that one… that one is gone. But this one is here now. And there's another in Night Vale. The way it was always meant to be."

Not good. Really not good. But… one thing at a time.

"I… OK," Carlos starts out, bracing himself. "I have a lot of questions."

"That's understandable," Cecil replies. "Fire away."

"So… the Management Board… are they back in human form?"

Cecil nods. "They are. I'm the one who did it. The ritual was incredibly complicated – I had to use the records left behind by Susan Hartley to work it out – but at the same time… oddly easy. I bound all of them in human form, along with quite a number of their enforcers from the First Infernal Plane. It meant we had a sizeable army to get things started, before people started flocking back to our cause."

Carlos goes cold. "Flocking back?"

"Oh yes," Kevin says, with a smile. "Once the two Bloodstones were in place, a large proportion of the population from both Night Vale and Desert Bluffs was quick to join us. Of course… there are many dissidents still fighting our rule, but they can only do so for so long."

"…Hold on," Carlos cuts in. "You said all of the Management Board are back in human form. What about Aidan Outteridge?"

Both Cecil and Kevin's eyes seem to darken even more at that. "Him too," Cecil answers. "Mr Hartley wanted him to die as a human, so he was included in the ritual. But then there was an… incident."

From the tone of his voice, it's clear that Cecil isn't at all happy about said incident. Which, right now, means that Carlos is. Which is still all kinds of wrong.

"An incident?" he repeats, carefully.

"Yes," Kevin says, with the oddly distant tone of a man whose mind is blocking rather a lot of the details. "An incident. Mr Outteridge is currently on the run."

Ah. Yes. Carlos is definitely happy about that. Though he's careful not to show it.

"I see," he says, instead. "But… wouldn't killing the Management Board in human form just make them snap back to the First Infernal Plane as demons again?"

Cecil shakes his head. "No. There's nothing in the records about how Susan Hartley was able to wind that particular effect into the binding magics. However she did it… the secret is lost."

"So… killing them in human form would actually kill them this time?"

"Yes," Kevin answers. "But don't get any ideas. They're quite capable of defending themselves. And we are even more capable of taking down anyone who tries to prove otherwise."

It's a shred of hope. But it's still hope.

And Carlos realises he should change the subject now, before he says something he might regret.

"What about Desert Bluffs' mayor?" he asks, instead. "What about Hiram McDaniels?"

It's a fair point. Carlos doubts that the five-headed dragon would have let Strexcorp back in without a fight. Especially considering that it was Naomi Hartley who made him Mayor of Desert Bluffs in the first place, in the aftermath of the revolution.

"Gone," Cecil answers, and Carlos feels himself go cold before Cecil clarifies. "Also on the run. He and the Faceless Old Woman both vanished when Strexcorp was returned to power. Well… Hiram vanished. The Faceless Old Woman wasn't exactly visible to begin with. But she's gone. Well. We think she's gone."

"…She's gone," Kevin adds, without elaborating. "Probably with Hiram. Those two… uh, six… always got on like a house on fire. Sometimes literally."

"And… the Smiling God?"

Carlos has to ask. This is not the same as wanting to.

"We invoked it," Cecil replies, gesturing to the ceaseless not-sun. "Its glowing echo shines down on the Greater Metropolitan Area, day and night. But… we have not yet been able to bring it to this plane in its true form. It is a god, after all, not a demon. It cannot simply be summoned. It must be let in."

Carlos feels himself go colder still. "You're looking for a door," he says, understanding. "An old oak door."

Kevin nods. "We are. And when we find one… we can finally let the Smiling God in. And all will be light. Ceaseless, joyous, light."

"Is this really what you want?" Carlos can't help asking.

Cecil steps in behind him, arms sliding around his waist, and it ought to be lovely. But right now, it's more alarming than anything. Even if Carlos can't deny the way it makes his heart race nonetheless.

"Yes," Cecil breathes, in his ear. "Oh yes. It's what we want. It's what Strexcorp wants. And when it happens… when we win… you'll see. Everyone will see. Everyone will believe."

"…What about your families?" Carlos whispers. "What about your friends?"

"Most are with the dissidents," Kevin answers, back to that tone which indicates he's repressing a great deal. "We can only hope that they'll see the light once we finally apprehend them all. Although… I don't know what will happen to Naomi. I don't know if her father could ever forgive her."

It's more than a little horrifying to hear Kevin talk about his oldest and dearest friend this way, and – still wrapped in Cecil's arms – Carlos tries to suppress a shudder in response.

"She's leading the resistance, then?"

"That's what she does," Cecil answers, with what might just be the slightest hint of bitterness.

"And… my brother?" Carlos asks, very carefully, hoping that the sudden change of tack will prevent the others from paying too much attention to the fact that this is what they were asking him last night, whilst they had him chained to a wall.

"There have been no confirmed sightings," Cecil replies. "But we know Tomas is here. No one else could have moved the portal to Nebolgorod."

He's not wrong. But Carlos doesn't dare push the matter any further.

"What happens to me now?" he whispers, instead.

Cecil's arms tighten around his waist, and there's something very possessive about the way he does it. "We have important work to do," he replies. "Technically, we're supposed to have you taken back to your cell at this point. But… I don't think that's necessary, is it?"

He turns them a little, so that Kevin can step in close; cupping Carlos' face in both hands.

"Because we could do that," Kevin says, continuing Cecil's line of thought. "Or… we could let you stay here, where you'll be safer, and more comfortable."

Carlos can't deny the appeal of the idea. Even with a view this terrifying, there's a lot to be said for not being sent back to a small, windowless cell again.

"But," Cecil goes on, "you have to promise us that you won't try anything. If we come back and discover that you've built a death ray from the contents of the kitchen…"

That isn't how you build a death ray, Carlos thinks, and then he remembers that he still doesn't approve of those. "…I won't, I promise," he says, instead.

"Good," Kevin replies. "Because if you do… there will be consequences." He leans in closer, hands sliding to rest on the curve of Carlos' neck, thumbs brushing over his throat. "Consequences even you might not enjoy."

Carlos shivers, managing to nod in response.

Wondering if he would still enjoy them.

…no, don't think about that…

Cecil kisses him on the back of the head, which brings Carlos' thoughts back to the moment. "We have to get ready and set out," he says. "We have an important meeting this morning."

"But we'll be back later on," Kevin adds, with a smile.

Carlos wonders when 'later on' is. And if it will be long enough for him to work out what in the name of Einstein he is supposed to do next.

He knew seeing the other two again would be difficult. But he already knows he significantly underestimated just how difficult it is.

This is going to be a long day.

***

"What are you going to tell him?" Kevin asks, as the two of them walk.

"The truth," Cecil answers, looking sideways at his double. "That it was the best course of action. And that it worked."

They round a corner, passing a pair of black-suited enforcers, who snap to attention at once. Kevin waits until they're out of earshot before he speaks again.

"It's more than that, though."

Cecil stops, putting a hand on Kevin's chest, and meeting his eyes. "Of course it's more than that. I love him. We both love him. And Mr Hartley knew this was the likely outcome when he agreed to let us near Carlos again."

"I know that," Kevin concedes, carefully. "I just don't want him to think…"

"What?" Cecil interjects. "That this in any way contradicts our loyalty to him? It doesn't, Kevin. It doesn't. Mr Hartley let Carlos live because he knows what he means to the two of us. And because he recognises the value he will be to Strexcorp once we turn him completely."

"You still think you can do it?" Kevin asks.

"I think we can do it," Cecil corrects him, more gently, putting his hand on Kevin's hip and pulling him in close. "And, like I said, it's working. And even if Carlos really can't help us track down that troublesome twin of his, it doesn't change the fact that he's brilliant. A genius. Once we're sure of his loyalty, it won't be long before he's running the entire Strexcorp Scientific Institute."

Kevin smiles. "That would be something."

"It would," Cecil agrees. "It will."

They keep walking again, and Kevin can't help thinking that he still finds this so odd. He spent so many years working for Mr Hartley alone, and now he isn't alone anymore, because he has Cecil, too. And it's good. It's really good, and it's very efficient.

But it's still odd.

They reach the entrance to Derek Hartley's office, here at the very top of the HQ pyramid. In the antechamber, at a broad desk of his own, Andrew Fletcher looks up.

Hartley's longstanding PA always seems slightly nervous around Kevin and – given their history – this is understandable. It's also something Kevin tries to encourage, on the grounds that he doesn't want the man causing him any more trouble.

Also because it's a tiny bit fun.

"Ah, there you are," Andrew says. "He's waiting for you. You can both go right on in."

"Well, thank you, Andrew," Kevin replies, in his brightest tone. "Always a pleasure."

"…Likewise," Andrew manages, in the voice of a man who will be checking over his shoulder for the next week.

Which is probably sensible.

Cecil and Kevin head on through the grand double-doors leading into Derek Hartley's office. Beyond, the huge space stands as it ever does, with Hartley's own, broad desk off to the left – and the exit to his balcony just beyond it – and that large, shimmering Strexcorp emblem in the centre of the floor.

Off to the right, three wide, shallow steps lead up to a slightly raised area. It's oddly reminiscent of the dais in the centre of the amphitheatre within Mr Hartley's realm on the First Infernal Plane, albeit rather more golden. And corporate. It seems like it should have a vast throne atop it, but of course their brilliant leader looks far more impressive behind a desk. Certainly far more efficient.

It's where he's seated right now, the light of the ceaseless sun shining on him through the huge window. Hartley looks up as they walk in, doors shutting behind them as they move to stand side-by-side in front of his desk, snapping to respectful attention.

"You sent for us, sir?" Cecil starts out.

"I did," Hartley replies, smoothly. "I understand the scientist was not returned to his usual accommodations following your session with him yesterday evening."

"No, sir," Cecil answers.

"Given how things went, we thought it best to–" Kevin starts out, but Hartley cuts him off with a raised hand, and a sudden smile.

"You can both relax. I'm not reprimanding you. I just want the details."

"I don't think Carlos will be able to give us much in the way of usable intel," Cecil says. "He's been out of the loop for too long. And – as he quite correctly pointed out to us – his brother is too smart to fall for him attempting to make contact."

"We know the dissidents want him back," Hartley remarks. "They have not been shy about reminding us as much."

"Quite," Kevin agrees. "But they also know he's been here long enough to be a dangerous liability to them. And they're not stupid."

"Alas not," Hartley agrees. "So what line are you playing?"

"I can turn him," Cecil says. "We can turn him. He'll be a valuable asset to Strexcorp."

"And to you," Hartley adds, with a knowing smile, as he rises to his feet. "As I understand it, he spent the night in your apartment. And the morning. And is still there now." A beat. The man is far, far too good at this. "Busy, were you?"

Even Cecil seems just a little cautious at their boss' tone. "It was tactical, sir," he answers, quickly. "We opted to–"

"Cecil," Hartley cuts in, pacing around the desk and stepping in close to him, hand on his hip. "I told you I'm not reprimanding you. I did say you could do as you wished with him. I know you have Strexcorp's best interests at heart."

"I do," Cecil clarifies, seeming to relax at the words. "I most certainly do."

Hartley nods, not stepping back. "That's all I care about. Now…" He holds out his free hand, gesturing Kevin in closer too, and Kevin moves at once. "…I still haven't had your report on that dissident cell from yesterday. I take it you were successful?"

"We were," Kevin answers. "Cecil shielded the entire building and then I took down the dissidents one by one. It wasn't difficult."

"Indeed?" Hartley replies, with a trace of a smile. He's still standing close, one hand on Cecil's hip and the other on Kevin's, and Kevin knows that – although Hartley has always been the hands-on type – it's also so they don't forget who they belong to.

Not that they ever would.

"They had no usable intel, however," Cecil adds. "Kevin kept one of them alive long enough for me to talk to, but it went nowhere. And their base of operations was pretty standard. Blasphemous drawings of the Bloodstones. That sort of thing."

"Nothing on the old oak doors?" Hartley asks.

"I'm afraid not," Cecil replies. "But we'll keep looking, sir. We'll find one. Sooner or later, we will find one."

"I don't doubt it," Hartley tells him, voice full of confidence. "And when you do…" His hand goes to Cecil's neck, to where he's wearing an old, familiar key on a chain beneath his clothing, for safekeeping. "…we'll finish this the way we were always supposed to. We three."

Cecil smiles. "Yes, sir," he answers, fervently. "We will."

"Good, good," Hartley purrs. "In the meantime, I can count on the two of you to keep order in the Greater Metropolitan Area. I know that."

"You can, sir," Kevin answers. "You always can."

Hartley smiles more, otherworldly blue eyes looking between the pair of them. "I never tire of this," he breathes. "The Smiling God isn't even on this plane yet, and I still feel as though I've already won."

"You have," Cecil says. "We have. That final flourish is just a matter of time."

***

Cecil and Kevin pace out of their boss' office, side-by-side, and Andrew looks up as they do. There's a hint of surprise in the PA's expression that he hasn't managed to hide fast enough, and Cecil wonders if Kevin will call him on it.

"Something wrong, Andrew?" Kevin asks, pleasantly.

"…No," Andrew lies, reasonably convincingly. But not convincingly enough for Kevin.

"You sure?" Kevin sits idly on the edge of Andrew's desk, deliberately looking down at him. Kevin will be an absolute darling to anyone who's loyal to Strexcorp, but he never quite stops trying to wind Andrew up. And Cecil understands that. Given the fact that Andrew knew about Kevin's relationship with their boss the first time around, it makes sense that he'd want to keep him in line now.

Plus there was the whole part with… the thing when they… OK, don't think about that. That's from before.

And they are now.

"Absolutely sure," Andrew replies, a little too quickly. "Something I can help you gentlemen with?"

"We're good," Kevin tells him, slipping straight back into his friend-to-all persona as if the moment never happened. "You have a pleasant rest-of-your-morning."

Cecil takes his arm and gently guides him out of the office before he can get any worse. Even if he is downright captivating when he gets like this.

"Feeling better?" he asks, with a sideways glance at his double.

Kevin beams. "Much," he replies. "This is a big deal for me, after all."

Cecil slides that arm down to Kevin's waist. "I know," he says.

"I mean," Kevin goes on, "the first time around… I couldn't find a way to make being with Mr Hartley and being with anyone else work. But now… it just fits."

"It does," Cecil agrees, with a smile. "Plus now you have me. And I have you."

"You do, Cecil," Kevin replies, his own expression now downright wicked. "You really do…"

The corridor they're walking along is quiet and empty: it's a route Cecil always takes when he has other things on his mind, and he knows Kevin never notices until it's too late. Or, he acts like he hasn't noticed.

Like he wants to be thoroughly taken advantage of. It was something of a surprise when Cecil first discovered just how much Kevin likes being taken advantage of, and it's certainly kept things especially interesting over the last three months.

He knows he shouldn't. They've spent half the morning thoroughly taking advantage of Carlos, and they're due at the radio station in a few hours.

It's the 'a few hours' part that causes the problem. Assuming you think of it as a problem, of course.

Which Cecil doesn't.

He pauses just long enough to make Kevin wonder if he's going to do anything, and then – with a glance to reassure himself that the corridor is still deserted – he grabs hold of his double and pushes him sharply into the nearest wall. And yes, if anyone other than Cecil – or their boss – did that to Kevin, it would nigh-on certainly lead to them getting a rapid knife to the gut from the man in question.

But it is Cecil, which means Kevin doesn't resist in the slightest.

"So, tell me, my dear double," Cecil starts out, his words a rough breath over Kevin's lips. "Precisely where shall I have you? The nearest empty office? The nearest balcony? Right here?"

"Oh," Kevin gasps, in positively delicious shock, his eyes going wide with delight. And that's all the invitation Cecil needs to seize Kevin's wrists and yank them up above his head, pinning them to the wall with one hand and using the other to cup his double's jaw.

"Answer me," he whispers, knowing full-well how much the incident last night will have wound Kevin up.

"…The nearest empty office?" Kevin manages. He's learned the hard way that, if he answers questions like these with an all-too-ingratiating 'anything', he's at risk of Cecil taking it literally. Their relationship with their boss may be something they don't flaunt, but their relationship with each other is hardly a company secret.

And Kevin's screams have a tendency to carry.

Cecil laughs softly. "Somewhere private?" he purrs. "What are you hoping I'll do to you..?"

"Lots," Kevin breathes.

He really is very good at this. Cecil allows himself a moment to enjoy the look in his double's dark eyes, and then promptly – roughly – flips him around, jamming him back against the wall but now face-first, wrists pinned above his head once more.

"Like what?" he pushes.

"Remind me just how powerful you are," Kevin answers.

"Powerful?" Cecil repeats, yanking Kevin's wrists just a little higher, so he has to stretch to keep his footing. "Are you asking me to be rough with you?"

Then he presses in even closer, so there's as much contact between them as possible. So that, when he asks the follow-up question, he can feel every last flicker of the tremor that runs through Kevin's body in barely-concealed delight. "Or are you asking me to hurt you?"

"Both," Kevin gasps.

Cecil doesn't move back; doesn't let up the pressure or the grip in the slightest. He also doesn't do anything else, because he knows the waiting will drive Kevin gloriously insane. "Beg me," he says, after a deliberately long pause.

"Please," Kevin whispers.

Cecil breaks the contact between them just enough to allow him to run his free hand down his double's body, slapping him soundly on the ass. "Again."

"Please, Cecil," Kevin manages, breathlessly.

That gets him kissed roughly on the ear. He really is so very delicious when he begs, and Cecil can't resist showing his appreciation for it.

"Much as I am tempted to find the nearest table and slam you down over it… I think you need something more than that, don't you?"

Another tremor of pleasure runs through Kevin's body at the question, because the other man knows full-well what Cecil is suggesting.

"Yes," Kevin gasps. "Please."

Cecil laughs softly in his double's ear. "So eager. So ingratiating. Let's see how well-behaved you're really feeling."

He gives Kevin another sharp slap to the ass, and then pulls him roughly away from the wall, leading him off down the corridor with a hand on his arm. "Come on, you."

And Kevin doesn't resist in the slightest. Of course he doesn't.

He knows where they're going.

Chapter Text

There are many dark and ominous rooms in the basement of the Strexcorp HQ pyramid. Most exist for the usual purposes that such rooms are put to in the basements of powerful organisations with decidedly flexible moral codes.

One, however, is out of bounds to everyone but Derek Hartley's fixer, and his chief enforcer. And Hartley himself, of course, because all of Strexcorp is his domain.

But that goes without saying.

Kevin stands in the centre of the room in question; stripped, arms chained above his head, and already thoroughly out of his mind. It doesn't often take Cecil long to get the other man like this, but it's telling just how quickly he's managed it today.

It's understandable. Kevin is one of those people gifted with the ability for both true control and true surrender, but for the last few months, he's only gotten the chance to indulge the latter. Which means that having Carlos back in their lives has suddenly given him the opportunity for both again.

Which in turn means that, after last night and this morning, the man is very, very wound up.

Right now, Cecil is standing behind him, one hand wrapped around to lie firmly but not restrictively over Kevin's throat, and the other resting against Kevin's hip. That hand is still holding the flogger he's been using, which means that the leather tails trail enticingly over his double's skin.

Promising more.

"Beg me," Cecil says, softly; loving the way the order makes Kevin gasp before he obeys.

"Please, Cecil. Please don't stop. I need you. Smiling God, I need you."

Cecil lets the leather tails of the flogger swish lightly against Kevin's leg, not nearly enough to hurt. Just enough to make him wish it would.

It's certainly enough to make Kevin whimper, his body shivering deliciously in Cecil's grip.

"Again," Cecil tells him.

"Please," Kevin gasps out, desperation hinting his tone. "Cecil… I'll do anything… please…"

That makes Cecil laugh softly, half-warm and half-dangerous. "You really do need to be more careful with your anythings. Otherwise you might find yourself spending another company function with some very intricate ropework under your immaculately-tailored suit."

"Oh," Kevin breathes, swaying a little in the chains holding him up, and Cecil smiles. That particular memory never fails to get a reaction out of the other man.

"You were so very pliant that night," Cecil reminds him. "I can't help but think you're in a similar mood right now."

"What gave me away..?" Kevin asks, a hazy smile in his voice.

"One or two things," Cecil replies, with a smirk of his own. "Now… I believe you were begging me for more?"

"Yes. Yes. Please."

Cecil takes a wordless step back, breaking the contact between them. Timing is key in situations like this, and he pauses just long enough to make Kevin wonder what's going on, before starting to land a fresh volley of blows against his double's back with the flogger. The first rough snap of leather against skin makes Kevin cry out, his footing wavering again, and Cecil knows it won't be long before the other man goes under completely.

It's so easy for Cecil to lose himself too; in the rhythm of it, in the back and forth of the blows, and the way Kevin surrenders gradually more and more. The action comes easily now, though it was rather more challenging the first few times they decided to try this.

He's glad that they did. Cecil knows that Kevin is intoxicated by the pain, but Cecil himself is intoxicated by it in his own way. In the knowledge that he can make the other man feel so intensely, and in the gift that his surrender represents.

Cecil halts after another moment, running his hand over Kevin's back, where the blows have made his skin flush pink. The other man gives a tiny gasp at the touch, leaning into it like a drowning man towards oxygen.

"Does that feel good?" Cecil asks.

"Yes," Kevin breathes. "Oh yes. Oh… Cecil… I'll do anything…"

That makes Cecil smile. Much as he teases – and takes advantage of – the other man for his anythings, he knows what the word really means. Knows what a dangerous word it is to say to anyone, but especially to someone who has you stripped and chained up in a dark and ominous room.

Anything means absolute trust. And absolute trust is everything.

"Well, then," Cecil says. "Let's…"

He's interrupted by a sudden clunk, as the door to the room unlatches and swings back. And there is no one in the world who would dare walk in here, with one single exception.

Derek Hartley steps into the room, shutting the door behind him. He pauses, then; taking in the sight in front of him: Kevin, stripped and chained up, and thoroughly surrendered, and Cecil, topless and holding a flogger, standing close by.

A very pleased smile comes to their boss' lips, and he meets Cecil's eyes.

"Is there something you need, sir?" Cecil asks.

"Oh, no," Hartley answers, so very smoothly. "Don't stop on my account. You know how I like to be impressed."

They do. And both of them relish the chance to do it.

"Yes, sir," Cecil says, with a smile of his own, and then he steps in close behind Kevin again, hand wrapped around to lay over his throat, pulling him in. "Now, you… if I recall, you had just promised me anything."

Kevin shivers in renewed delight at that. And, perhaps, a certain amount of apprehension. Anything becomes an even more dangerous word when Derek Hartley is in the room.

"Yes," he answers. "Yes. Anything."

Cecil's fingertips stroke down from Kevin's throat to his chest. "How much more can you take?"

"A lot," Kevin breathes, and Cecil knows – from experience – that his double is telling the truth. But it's still so very good to make him admit it.

"What about your favourite little trick of mine?" Cecil pushes. He remembers the first time he worked out that he could channel planar energy to produce sensations in another person. How he learned to mix both pain and pleasure into it.

How Kevin nearly screamed the roof off when they tried it. And then begged Cecil to do it again. And again. And again. He was out of his head for ages afterwards, lying curled up in Cecil's arms, smiling in pure happiness.

"Yes," Kevin gasps.

Cecil smiles. "Good. Keep your eyes on Mr Hartley. I want him to see just how much you enjoy this."

It won't exactly be the first time, but Cecil knows their boss does like watching. And reminding Kevin of that; keeping him caught between his leader and his double, is surprisingly effective.

Cecil flattens his hand against Kevin's chest, feeling the other man's heart racing beneath his fingertips. "Scream for us," he whispers, and lets a long, drawn-out pulse of energy blaze suddenly outwards from his palm, chasing through Kevin's body.

And Kevin does scream, although there's no way you could mistake the sound for one of distress. He sounds pained, yes, but there's a heavy dose of bliss mixed in there too, and it's clear which of the two impulses is winning.

When it's over, Cecil lets go, and Kevin drops in the chains, gasping hard. Hartley flicks his eyes to Cecil for a moment, and then steps in closer, putting a hand on the side of Kevin's face and making him lift his head.

"I believe Cecil told you to keep your eyes on me," Hartley chides, lightly.

"I'm sorry, sir, I–" Kevin starts out, tone hazy, but Hartley lays a finger over his lips, stopping him in mid-sentence.

"Shhhh," he says, not unkindly. "Again, Cecil."

"Yes, sir," Cecil answers at once, and steps back in, arm wrapped around Kevin from behind. He and Hartley have Kevin caught right between them, and if the other man's heart was quick before, it's nothing to how fast it's thundering now. "Say please," he breathes in Kevin's ear.

"Please," Kevin gasps, like a man possessed.

And Cecil obliges, letting a second pulse of energy burst through Kevin's body. His double cries out at once, shaking in Cecil's grip, and there's a clear flash of pleasure in Hartley's eyes at the sight.

And, this time, when it's over, Kevin manages not to drop his head. He still sways in Cecil's arms, breathing ragged, clearly not daring to utter a word.

Hartley smiles, stroking fingertips over Kevin's cheek. "That's better," he says. "You always have been so intoxicating when you suffer."

He's not wrong. The only person who suffers as beautifully as Kevin does is Carlos. And… Cecil wonders what it will be like if… when… they bring Carlos down here.

A thought for another time.

Hartley steps back after a moment, and then nods to the flogger in Cecil's other hand. "Ten strokes," he says. "And you," he adds, looking at Kevin, "not a sound. Understood?"

Kevin bites his lip and nods, body tensing visibly. And yes, he shouldn't tense up before something like this, but it's clearly instinctive. After all, the man has many talents, but keeping quiet is not among them.

Cecil runs his hand over Kevin's ass, making it quite clear where he intends to land the blows. The top of his back is still pink from before, and Cecil wants to give him a fighting chance.

It's more fun that way. Just because you can break a person on the spot, it doesn't mean that you should. Although… no man has much of a chance when locked in a room with Cecil Palmer and Derek Hartley.

Even braced for it, the strength of the first blow clearly takes Kevin by surprise, and he staggers a little in the chains. A rough gasp slips his lips, but no more, though it's obviously taking all his effort to keep from crying out.

"Good," Cecil tells him, softly. "Good."

You can become an expert at wielding a flogger, or a knife, or untold extra-planar energy, but there is simply no weapon as deadly or incisive as hope.

The next few blows land in quicker succession, and – by the fifth – Kevin clearly thinks he's going to make it through this. He's trembling all over, but he's kept his footing, and his breathing isn't so sharp. Cecil smiles at the sight, loving the other man for it; for how determined he is, how strong, how loyal.

How fundamentally and utterly he's going to shatter in the next few moments.

"That's it," Hartley says, well-aware of what Cecil is doing, and clearly playing along. "That's it. Good."

Two more blows, three… so very close to the end now. Kevin's footing wavers just slightly, and Cecil seizes his moment, landing the last two strokes in very quick succession. To his credit, Kevin doesn't cry out until the final one, but he certainly cries out then; the shocked bliss clear in his tone. And then he drops forward, arms taking his weight, head down, gasping hard.

"Oh," he breathes, "s-sir… I…"

"Quiet," Hartley tells him, his tone soft but the word very much an order. "That was adequate. But we don't strive for 'adequate' in Strexcorp, do we, Kevin?"

"No, sir."

"No. What do we strive for in Strexcorp, Kevin?"

"Excellence, sir."

"That's right. So I think perhaps we need to try this again, don't we?"

"…Yes, sir," Kevin manages, voice little more than a whisper.

Hartley slips a hand under Kevin's chin and makes him lift his head. "You disagree?"

"I would never disagree with you, sir."

That makes Hartley laugh softly, tracing fingertips along Kevin's jaw. "You would," he says, almost fondly. "You have. More than once. But that's all right. It keeps things interesting…"

His eyes go to Cecil, and he nods. "Ten more."

Cecil smiles. "Yes, sir."

He moves back into position, pausing a moment with the flogger hefted, ready, before starting to land the blows. The pacing is deliberately different this time: a pause after each one, and Kevin's shoulders are shaking with the effort of not crying out.

The other man really is magnificent when he gets like this. When he becomes so overwhelmed with fervour that he can do anything – will do anything – the object of his fervour asks of him.

The tenth blow lands, the hardest of the lot, and Kevin's footing goes from under him again, his body swaying as the chains take his weight. But he doesn't make a sound.

And Cecil can't help another smile at the sight.

Hartley steps in again, hand on Kevin's jaw. "Very good," he says, approvingly. "That's more like it. I knew I could count on you to excel when it mattered."

"Thank you, sir," Kevin manages, his voice distant.

"You're welcome. But I'm not the only one you should be thanking, am I?"

"Thank you, Cecil," Kevin gasps at once, and Cecil steps in close, hand on the other man's hip.

"Anything, my dear double," he says, with a wicked grin, and kisses his neck.

Hartley watches them for a moment, and then his eyes go to Cecil. "Put down the flogger, and then come here."

Cecil feels his own heartbeat quicken a little at the order. "Yes, sir," he replies, and does as he's told, going to lay the flogger down on the table against the side wall, and then paces over to Hartley. The other man holds out a hand when Cecil gets close, and Cecil takes it, letting Hartley pull him in.

"I never tire of watching the two of you," Hartley says, a hand on Cecil's hip and the other on his jaw. "Or of joining in. I thought Kevin on his own was intoxicating enough, but the two of you together are simply breathtaking. And thanks to the soul-bind you each have with me, I know your loyalty will never waver. Not like before…"

"…S-sir, you know I wouldn't–" Kevin starts out, his voice shaking, but Hartley reaches to put a hand on his chest, keeping Cecil close as he does.

"Kevin," he says, gently, "you know I don't blame you for that. Not any more. You wouldn't be here if I did. Or… perhaps you would, but you'd be spending all of your time locked in a dark room like this one…"

"Oh," Kevin gasps, and the obvious arousal in his tone is fuel for the fire.

Hartley smiles. "You like that thought, don't you? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I've broken you in dark rooms such as this more times than you know. Though… that is rather the point of re-education. And now that you will never need it again… we can make this part a little more fun."

And he pulls Cecil in, kissing him hard. There's so much fire and fury in it, and Cecil can't deny feeling a little punch-drunk when Hartley lets go of him again; ethereal blue eyes glittering in the low light.

"Make Kevin scream for me," he says. His tone is easy, but his expression is full of hunger. "Make it good."

"Yes, sir," Cecil answers, at once.

Hartley's hand goes to the base of his back, and he draws his own knife, offering the hilt to Cecil. The mere sight makes Kevin gasp, and Cecil smiles as he takes the blade. He steps in front of Kevin straight away, brandishing the weapon for his double to see.

"I know what you want," he says, tracing only fingertips over Kevin's chest, knowing how much it will make him need. "Beg me."

"Please, Cecil," Kevin gasps. He's trembling all over, but it isn't from fear.

"You know I could make you scream without laying a finger on you," Cecil reminds him, lifting the fingertips from his skin, breaking the connection between them. "I could leave you here for hours, with nothing but the thought of my touch, until the need drove you so far out of your head that you really would do anything for the barest second of contact."

"I… C-Cecil… please… don't." And there is a sudden flicker of fear in Kevin's tone now, but it's still overwhelmed by the rather larger edge of need.

"Then beg me," Cecil tells him, again. "Beg me like you mean it. Beg me to hurt you just so that you get to keep feeling my hands on your skin."

"Please," Kevin gasps, staring at him imploringly. "Hurt me. I need you to. I need you."

He sounds so desperate. So full of the kind of need that exists beyond reason or common sense. A need that is as much an addiction as it is a logical want.

Cecil smiles, a hand up to trace over Kevin's cheek. "One day I really will deny you," he says, and Kevin shivers deliciously at the threat. "You'll be broken by the end of it, and yet you'll still beg me to put you back together and do it all over again. But right now…"

He paces around behind Kevin, and steps in, reaching to press the blade over his throat, and then lays his other hand against Kevin's chest.

"You're going to want to stay really still for this," he breathes, in Kevin's ear. "If you thrash about with this knife so close to your neck… well. I wouldn't, if I were you. Though I'm not going to make this easy. Not even a little. I'm going to give you the pain you enjoy so much, and I'm not going to stop until you beg me."

"Please, Cecil," Kevin whispers, but he clearly isn't begging for mercy right now.

And Cecil lets another burst of that planar energy course from his palm and into Kevin. He keeps the balance of pain and pleasure more or less level, wanting to drive up the other man's arousal, even as he's making him suffer. Wanting the two sensations to be inexorably linked, so much so that they become interchangeable.

He doesn't let up the onslaught; the air filled with flickering purple light as wave after wave of energy pulses through Kevin's body. And that same light glitters in Hartley's eyes as he watches, clearly relishing the sight; folding his arms as if he needs to be doing something with his hands.

Kevin holds off on the screaming as long as he can, but when the wall breaks, it breaks, and he howls in anguished bliss. The knife is so close to his throat that he has to keep very, very still, and the pressure of doing so echoes back through him, making his whole body tense.

"…M-mercy…" he gasps, after another long moment. And there's no denying that he means it, but even so… he could mean it more.

A very wicked smile crosses Cecil's face, and Hartley clearly notices it. And, when that same smile echoes on his face too, Kevin can see.

And now he surely knows he's in trouble.

"Please," he cries out, more desperately. "Mercy, please."

He's so brain-meltingly delicious when he begs. No wonder Hartley kept him around for so long. Cecil presses the knife in as firmly as he dares, and sends one last pulse of energy coursing into Kevin.

It works. He cries out and then goes quiet, and completely pliant in Cecil's arms.

"…Please…" Kevin murmurs again, distant and drifting.

Hartley smiles. "Cecil," he purrs, "who would have thought you'd be so good at this?"

Cecil grins, still holding onto Kevin. "I'm full of surprises."

"Yes, you are. I knew I'd enjoy having you around. Efficient and wicked. What more could a demon ask?"

"All for you, sir. All for Strexcorp." There is no greater honour, after all.

That makes Hartley smile again, as he unfolds his arms and paces in closer to Kevin. The man in question is now completely out of his head, drifting; knife still at his throat. Hartley looks him up and down, almost appraisingly, and then pushes a hand between his legs, starting to stroke him.

"Oh," Kevin gasps. "Yes… sir… please."

"I knew you'd like that," Hartley tells him, easily. "I'm going to pull you apart. But if you come without my permission… you will spend a lot longer chained up in this room. Do you understand?"

Kevin nods as much as the knife at his throat will allow, whole body shaking at the threat.

"You can do this," Cecil murmurs in Kevin's ear, switching tack so quickly that he's probably giving Kevin whiplash in the process. "I've got you too."

Hartley starts to stroke him harder, which makes Kevin whimper in need, pressing back against Cecil. And, once he can't go any further, Cecil seizes the opportunity to start stroking the blade up Kevin's neck, making the man gasp as he's faced with two separate, inescapable sources of stimulation.

"Yes," Kevin whispers. "Yes. Anything… do anything…"

Cecil smiles. "We know," he says, gently. "We know."

Kevin is clearly not going to last long like this; not after having been wound up so much, and certainly not when he's caught between the two of them. His only chance is the fact he's so far under, because that kind of unquestioning obedience can make a person capable of some astonishing things.

"Does that feel good?" Hartley purrs.

"Yes," Kevin breathes. "Yes… oh, sir… I'm so close, I… please…"

"Please what, Kevin?"

"Please let me come, sir…"

"No. Not yet."

Kevin's whole body shudders at the denial, and Cecil holds him a little closer, gently trailing the tip of the knife along his collarbone.

"Ohoh…" Kevin murmurs. "I… please… please…"

"That's it, that's it," Hartley says. "One more time."

"Please."

And a wicked, wicked smile crosses Hartley's face. "No," he breathes, and lets go.

Kevin cries out in desperation, instinct making him surge towards Hartley. Cecil – and the chains – put a quick stop to that, however, and all it really gets Kevin is a very firm knife to the throat.

"…please…" he whispers again, brokenly.

Hartley strokes a gentle hand over Kevin's face, watching him in obvious pleasure. "No," he repeats. "Not yet."

Then his eyes go to Cecil. "Give me the knife. And then… I want you to strip."

The order sends a rush of anticipation through Cecil, and he nods at once. "Yes, sir," he says, and hands over the knife – which Hartley re-sheathes – before stepping back and stripping off the last of his clothing.

Hartley gestures him in closer, taking his arm and pulling him in between himself and Kevin, so the two doubles are face to face.

"Now," he breathes in Cecil's ear, hands tracing over his shoulders and down his sides, "I want you to stroke him. I want you to stroke him hard and firm, like you mean it, but do not let him come."

Hartley pushes a hand around, between Cecil's legs. "Not until you do. And you don't come until I say so. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Cecil replies, a hint of a tremor in his own voice now.

"Good," Hartley says, starting to stroke him, which sends a shock of pleasure running through Cecil. "Good."

Cecil leans in a little closer to Kevin, resting their foreheads together as he starts to stroke his double. The renewed stimulation makes Kevin moan softly, and Cecil puts his free hand on Kevin's chest.

"That's it," he whispers. "You can do this. I know you can. I… oh…"

"But Kevin isn't the only one who has to hold back," Hartley purrs in his ear, stroking him harder. "Is he?"

"No, sir," Cecil replies, trying to stop his voice from wavering as he does.

"No," Hartley echoes. "Let's hope for Kevin's sake that you're feeling suitably obedient."

"I always am for you, sir," Cecil says, quickly.

Hartley gives a soft laugh. "Indeed you are. It's one of my favourite things about you. Now…"

And he starts stroking Cecil rather harder. "…pull him apart."

Cecil doesn't hesitate. He knows Kevin is almost at breaking point, but he also knows his double loves it more than he'd ever admit. Their breath is hot on each other's lips as they're both dragged closer and closer to oblivion, and Cecil can feel the world going hazy round the edges. He meets Kevin's eyes, not sure how much the other man is even processing right now, and then shuts his own.

"Please," he whispers. "Please, sir."

"Please what, Cecil?" Hartley pushes, with an audible smile.

"Please let me come. Please… let us come."

"And why should I do that?"

Cecil takes a deep, slightly shuddering breath. "We've both done everything you asked. Everything."

"Have you, now? And what if the last thing I want is to watch you both shatter under the weight of your own need?"

"Then… we will obey, sir. You know that." Even though the thought is crushing.

Hartley kisses him on the shoulder. "I do know that, Cecil," he says, a little more gently. "So… you can come. Just you."

And Cecil does, in no more than seconds; pleasure bursting through him so hard and sharp that he's glad of the two men around him, helping him stay upright. He cries out as he comes, forehead still pressed against Kevin's, and he can see the look of broken bliss in his double's eyes.

"Thank you, sir," Cecil breathes. "Thank you."

When the climax abates, Hartley holds him a little more firmly. "Now," he says, sounding extremely pleased with himself, "do you think Kevin deserves the same?"

The sudden, pleading look in Kevin's eyes at that is world-shatteringly beautiful. And, after all he's taken today, Cecil won't deny him any longer.

"Yes, sir," he answers at once.

"Very well," Hartley says. "Then break him for me."

It doesn't exactly take much more, and Cecil suspects the permission alone would have been enough. Coupled with the last few, firm strokes, his double doesn't stand a chance. Kevin cries out in wrecked ecstasy as he comes, leaning into Cecil and shaking all over as the bliss rips through him.

As the waves of pleasure fade back, Cecil can see Kevin's footing wavering again, and he manages to catch hold of him before he drops in the chains completely, pulling him in close and not letting go.

Hartley reaches to stroke over both their sides at the same time. "Now that was good," he says, sounding approving. "The two of you never cease to impress me."

"What would you like us to do for you, sir?" Cecil asks, and Hartley puts a hand on his shoulder.

"Reciprocation? That can wait until tomorrow. I want the two of you in my office, first thing in the morning. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Cecil answers at once, and Kevin gives a little nod, still way beyond words.

"Excellent," Hartley purrs. "You're both so good. So loyal. Whatever would I do without you?"

"We're yours, sir," Cecil says. "You know that."

"Yes," Hartley replies. "Yes, I do. Now… I will see you both tomorrow."

And he turns, walking calmly from the room, letting the door thunk softly shut behind him.

When they're alone, Cecil pulls Kevin in closer and kisses him. "You did so well," he murmurs, gently. "So very well. I've got you…"

Keeping one arm around Kevin, he reaches up to unlatch the chains, one at a time. It isn't easy, given that Kevin really can't stand up on his own right now, but after a moment his wrists are free. And then Cecil carefully guides them both down, curling into a sitting position on the floor with Kevin pulled tightly into his arms.

"That's it," he breathes, only wanting to be soothing, now. "That's it. Just let yourself drift. You can enjoy how good it feels. I have you."

Kevin murmurs something incoherent – but very happy-sounding – and curls in tighter.

And Cecil smiles. One way or another, it's certainly been a memorable morning.

Chapter Text

"…which is precisely why we don't advocate performing those kind of group summonings without a license. Or extensive preparation."

"Or plenty of plastic sheeting!"

"A very good point, Kevin. The whole block is still cordoned off whilst the enforcers comb through the wreckage, but limited traffic flow is being allowed through. Strexcorp is officially categorising the incident as a misadventure, but they have reissued the formal guidance on such activities, along with a reminder that you should never invoke something you can't control."

"Now isn't that the truth, listeners? Well, looks like we're coming up on the half-hour, so let's pause for an update on tomorrow's weather…"

Kevin hits the button to cue the pre-recorded report, and sits back. He still looks thoroughly spaced-out, and Cecil can't help grinning over at him.

"Feeling all right?" he asks.

"You know I am," Kevin replies, batting at him over the broadcast table. "You're just lucky I'm so good at this, or you'd be presenting today's show on your own."

"Whilst you sat and stared at me adoringly?"

This actually makes Kevin blush. "Something like that," he concedes.

Cecil reaches over the table and takes Kevin's hand. "You never cease to impress me."

"Between you and Mr Hartley, what chance do I have?" Kevin remarks, with a smile. "You both have very… high standards." He looks down for a moment, perhaps in deference, or perhaps because he's trying to hide his reaction to something. "Are we going after that dissident cell once we're done here?"

"Absolutely," Cecil answers, nodding. "Why? Are you looking forward to it?"

"I might be."

"Because of how much you enjoy upholding Strexcorp's will?"

"Partly," Kevin replies, meeting his eyes again. "And partly because I enjoy you watching me fight whilst I get to watch you do all those hyper-powerful things you can do. Because of how hot they are."

Cecil smirks. "Charmer."

"You love it."

"Of course I love it."

Cecil never tires of this. He has his radio show, he has his double, he has Strexcorp. And now… he has Carlos too.

What more could he possibly need?

***

Once the broadcast is done, the two doubles set off for the location in Night Vale's warehouse district, where – according to the latest intel – a small dissident cell has set up operation. There's nothing to suggest they're figures of any importance in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn't stop Kevin hoping.

Bringing in someone crucial would be the cherry on top of the cake that is today, after all.

But, even if they don't, it doesn't stop their mission being an important one. Strexcorp's enemies must be defeated, and who better to do it than Derek Hartley's fixer, and his chief enforcer?

They don't take backup. They don't need backup. Kevin remembers doing this kind of thing on his own, back in the day, and if he could manage it alone – and he could – then having Cecil here too…

Well. There's an argument for saying it's overkill. But it's also hot as hell. And hyper-efficient.

And more than a little fun.

They park a short way out, and head over to the warehouse on foot. There's no one around when they get close – or, not that they can see, at least – and the two doubles stand on the curbside, looking at their target.

"How do you want to do this?" Kevin says to Cecil.

Cecil holds up a hand, vibrant purple light glowing from his palm. "I'm feeling dramatic," he replies. "So… how about you bring Azzie into the mix? Have him encourage some of these dissidents out of the building… so I can watch you deal with them whilst I keep the whole area under lockdown."

"Now that sounds like a plan," Kevin agrees, beaming at his double, and he steps forward, holding up his hands at once.

He's been soul-bound to Merciless Azatothoth the Bloodthirsty – Seventeenth Adjunct to the Fourth Infernal Plane – for a great many years, and they've fought together more times than he can count. Usually against Strexcorp's enemies, but also…

…OK, don't think about that part. Think about now. Think about how Mr Hartley said they could stay soul-bound despite… certain incidents. Think about how efficient they can be.

Yes. That. Think about that.

Kevin starts to chant. The words are familiar, and easy, but he enjoys them all the same, letting them roll off his tongue as he invokes the entity in question. He can feel Cecil watching – and appreciating – and it's hard not to show off a little. The summoning circle blazes into life on the asphalt: an inverted pentagram with sigils between its five points, and the air floods with an electric sense of power. It builds and builds until the chant reaches its end and, in a blinding flash of unholy light, Azatothoth the Bloodthirsty appears in the very centre of the circle.

The eight-foot demon gives a stretch of his wings and looks down at them with his glowing red eyes. "Kevin. Cecil. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Kevin beams some more. Azzie is always so polite around Cecil. "We're after dissidents again!" he says, brightly. "And we thought you'd like to help."

"You know how I enjoy smiting your enemies," Azzie replies, drawing his huge sword from where it hangs at his side. "Just point me in the right direction."

Cecil nods at the warehouse. "In there. You flush them out, and Kevin will deal with them. And I will make sure none of them escape…"

It's hard not to shiver in delight at his tone. Kevin claps his hands together, trying to make the reaction a little less obvious. "It's my favourite kind of plan!"

The demon grins. "Consider it done," he says. "Promise me I can kill a few of them myself?"

"But of course," Cecil says. "The screaming can be so… motivational."

Seriously, stop it. Stop it now. Or they're going to have to put this on hold. And, given the morning he's had, Kevin might not be conscious by the end.

Azatothoth looks between the two doubles, clearly reading more in Kevin's reaction than he would prefer the demon to pick up on. But he nods, opting not to comment, and stalks off towards the entrance to the warehouse.

It doesn't look big enough for him. Although… that's rarely a problem for Azzie for very long.

As the demon thuds closer to the door, Cecil takes a step back and holds out his arms. "Brace yourself," he says, with a grin.

And if the air felt electric before, during the summoning, it's nothing compared to the way it feels now. To the sudden spiral of energy that flares up, as Cecil draws on his once-in-centuries level of power.

Once-in-centuries power that has emerged twice in the last hundred years. It really is quite a time to be alive. Doubly-so (pun intended) if you're in a relationship with one of the people involved.

Kevin watches happily as a beam of purple light suddenly shoots into the air from where Cecil is standing, arcing forwards and spreading out, to form a glittering dome of translucent light that grows all the way back to the ground, covering the whole warehouse and the space around it. And, although Kevin has no need to try, he's well-aware that attempting to walk through the barrier would not end well.

Yes. Oh yes. Those dissidents are sealed in here now. Sealed in with an eight-foot demon, his knife-wielding summoner, and the most powerful human alive.

It's going to be a good afternoon.

There's a loud thud as Azatothoth punches the front door in. Along with part of the wall. Once the entryway is more adequately sized, he stalks inside.

The screaming starts soon after. Kevin stands almost idly – aware of Cecil watching him – with his knife drawn, toying lightly with the edge of the blade. Thinking. Wanting. It's all fuel for the fire, after all.

Before long, someone comes running out of the smashed-open doorway. It's a young man, with a knife of his own, and he stops dead when he sees the two doubles waiting for him.

"…No," he breathes, brandishing the knife. A great many more of the dissidents have started using them since the rebirth of Strexcorp, given how prevalent they are among the enforcer division. But that's just fine. Kevin likes knife-fighting. It's one of his best skills.

"Yes," Kevin replies, lifting his own blade. "Enemies of Strexcorp deserve nothing less. Now… you want to go back in there with my enthusiastic demon, or you want to try your luck with me?"

It's tricky to say which is the less bad option. Possibly the latter. Much as Kevin will stab the man to death without batting an eyelid, it will likely be quicker and not so messy as however Azzie chooses to dispatch him.

The young dissident flips his knife and takes a combat-ready stance. "I'll try my luck with you," he says, obviously trying to sound brave.

And they launch at each other. Kevin can feel Cecil watching, and it makes him more showy: more inclined to draw this out, to give himself a chance to demonstrate just how good at this he is. It helps that the dissident he's fighting does actually seem to know one end of a blade from the other (some of them really don't) and manages to parry the first few attacks without too much difficulty.

Excellent. Kevin steps up the intensity, which clearly takes the young man by surprise, and once he's on the back foot it's much easier to toy with him. Of course, he doesn't want to draw this out too long. Just long enough.

Otherwise it looks like it's actually a challenge. And it isn't.

Left. Right. Turn. Deflect. Feint. Left. Unexpected kick up.

And the dissident goes down flat on his back, seconds before Kevin drops to one knee at his side, stabbing him squarely in the chest.

Oh, that feels good. He rises to his feet, blood-streaked and smiling; the light of the purple energy dome glowing on his face. And then he looks back, towards where Cecil is standing, meeting eyes with his double.

They're unstoppable. And it's the best feeling in the world.

Further screaming cuts the air, and three more figures come racing through the smashed-open doorway, weapons drawn, looking like they've just seen things they didn't enjoy. They stop dead as they realise who's waiting for them, glancing at each other in fresh horror before launching at Kevin.

Three-on-one is more of a challenge. But it isn't especially challenging. Kevin fights with the fire and strength of a man with the full might of Strexcorp at his back, and it isn't long before the latest wave of targets start to fall.

Inside the building, the screaming is beginning to subside, and Kevin suspects this means that Azzie has found everyone. Which in turn means that he really needs to keep one of these dissidents alive long enough for him and Cecil to ask a few questions.

Two more dissidents burst through the doorway whilst Kevin is still dispatching the last of the previous group. He glances over at them, quickly assessing which he thinks would be the best to keep alive, and promptly goes for the other.

Self-preservation clearly kicks in for the man in question, and – when Kevin goes for his compatriot – he himself opts to try running for it. He gets halfway between the warehouse and the edge of the dome before Cecil flicks out a hand, and the dissident is knocked straight onto his back by a quick blast of purple energy.

Smiling God, that is hot. Kevin kicks his own target to the ground and finishes him off, before turning to the floored man. Cecil is already advancing on him, so Kevin does the same.

One streaked with blood, and one with unfathomable power. This next part is always not so much 'good double, bad double' as it is 'bad double, worse double'.

"Ah, ah, ah," Kevin chides, softly, as the dissident tries to get back up. "I'd stay down, if I were you."

"Get away from me," the man hisses. "If you're going to kill me, just do it."

"You're going to have to pick one," Cecil points out, drawing closer and dropping to one knee at the floored man's side. "At least, if you're talking to Kevin, you are. I could stay away from you and kill you. Whereas Kevin prefers to do it up close and personal."

The dissident narrows his eyes. "Whichever of you does it, do it. I won't tell you a damned thing."

"See, now, that's really not true at all," Kevin remarks, kneeling on the man's other side and pressing his blade to his throat. "You'll tell us plenty. You might not want to, but… you will."

"Go to Hell," the dissident hisses. "You, and your maniac double, and your demon-boss."

Kevin looks faux-affronted. "Awwww, do you think I'm the bad one? That's cute."

It's at this point that Cecil slams his hand down on the dissident's chest, sending a pulse of energy blazing through him. Energy that – in this case – will be designed to cause only one sensation.

And that sensation is not pleasure. Quite the opposite.

It gets them a string of curses, and a wide-eyed look that is half-horror and half-rage. "Go to Hell," the floored man repeats, voice heavy with pain. "I'll never–"

"Quiet," Cecil says, sharply. "I am talking. Tell us where your leaders are. Tell us, and I'll make this quick. Refuse, and Kevin will make it slow."

"I don't know where they are," the man retorts, and something in his eyes makes Kevin certain he's telling the truth. "That's how this works. Discrete cells. We can't inform on each other, no matter what you might do to any one of us."

Despite it all, he smiles. "Don't you get that? You're terrible at revolutions."

"Good thing we're on the winning side, then," Cecil replies, unfazed. "Although… much as I do tend towards believing you when you say you don't know… I think perhaps we'd better make sure. Kevin?"

Kevin smiles. And obliges.

And the screams echo off the surrounding buildings for quite some time.

***

Carlos spends the day trying to work out what, in the name of bright, merciful Einstein, he is supposed to do when Cecil and Kevin get back.

He lingers for ages in their very lovely, very large shower. He spends some time enjoying the luxury of making his own breakfast (or is it lunch? Hard to tell when the sun doesn't move). He sits curled on one of their sizeable, comfortable couches and reads books until his brain starts to feel normal again.

None of this is normal. It's all an illusion. But it's an illusion he can't help wanting to sink in.

He finds the radio, and tunes in at their regular broadcast time… and listens. Listens to every word. Even though most of them terrify him, and none of them are good.

He listens.

It's late – he thinks – by the time the door opens, and the two men pace back into the apartment. The sound of the door catches him by surprise, making him jump and set down the book he's been reading.

What is he supposed to do? What is he supposed to do?

Where the urge comes from, Carlos isn't sure. Or… perhaps, doesn't want to know. But as he watches Cecil and Kevin pace closer, their dark eyes fixed on him, he finds himself overcome with the desire to do one thing. And the fact that he shouldn't do it somehow makes him want to do it more.

Carlos steps into the centre of the large, elegant living room where he's been sitting. And… taking a deep breath, he drops down onto his knees, as gracefully as he can manage.

And lowers his head at once, because he doesn't dare look either of the others in the eye right now.

There's a moment's pause, and then the two doubles pace closer. Their footfalls are slow and steady, but – without looking up – Carlos has no idea how they're reacting to what he's done.

Hell, he doesn't know how he's reacting to what he's done. It might be an extraordinarily bad idea, for so very many reasons. But… it's the only plan of action he could come up with that didn't feel even more unwise.

Carlos feels fingertips slip under his jaw, and his head is tilted back by the closer of the two doubles.

"Good," Cecil breathes, looking down at him with a smile. "Very good. You're learning…"

He paces slowly around Carlos, and Carlos is surprised when he feels Cecil kneel down behind him, pressing in close, arms slipping around his waist, locking hands with his.

It's hard not to let out a little gasp of pleasure at that. Hard, because it feels so lovely.

He remembers Kevin's question to him, earlier in the morning. How long has he wanted this? Carlos really doesn't know. But… he can't deny that he does, even though he knows that – right now, with things as they are – he shouldn't. He mustn't.

He does.

Kevin steps in closer, dropping down onto his knees in front of Carlos and putting a hand on his jaw. "Did you have a good day?" he asks, as if they were having a normal conversation over evening coffee, and not in a kneeling tangle on the floor.

"Yes," Carlos manages. He did. The state of the world hasn't changed, but he did spend a whole day out of that tiny, windowless cell, and that… well.

He knows why they did that. And why it worked. And knowing doesn't stop it in the slightest.

"I'm glad," Kevin says, warmly, still tracing gentle fingertips over Carlos' jaw. "So did we. Very efficient. Very productive. Although… we missed you."

"And what… ah… what happens to me now?" Carlos has to ask.

Kevin smiles, and Carlos is confident that Cecil is doing the same. "Well, that depends," Kevin starts out. "At this point… technically we are supposed to take you back down for interrogation."

Carlos feels his heart start to race. Pressed in close, Cecil must be able to feel it too, because he tightens his arms around Carlos, holding him more firmly, though it's hard to tell if the act is possessive or restrictive. Or both.

"You… you don't have to do that," Carlos manages, his voice shaking as he speaks.

"We do," Cecil breathes, in his ear. "Although…"

There's a strange little moment, and – judging by the look in Kevin's eyes – the two doubles are clearly exchanging a glance. And doing that thing they do where they talk without speaking.

"…Perhaps we should question you here, instead," Kevin goes on, picking up on Cecil's sentence. "After all, your receptiveness might increase in a setting that's more… intimate."

That word makes the whole world go black. Carlos gasps like he's been hit, head dropping back onto Cecil's shoulder, well-aware that any trace of resistance is gone from him.

"Please," he whispers. "Please… I…"

"Shhhhh," Kevin breathes, lifting his head up and stroking over his cheek. "It's all right. Relax. Relax, and the words will come without you having to think about it. Just let yourself give in to us."

"I… I can't… I…" Carlos tries, the last vestiges of common sense in his mind trying to make him act on them.

Cecil pulls his hands behind his back. "You can," he says, gently. "You can. We only want to know one thing. One little thing. And once you tell us… we'll take care of you. We'll spend all night taking care of you."

"All you have to do is answer a single question," Kevin goes on, leaning in closer. "We just want to know where your twin has moved the portal to Nebolgorod."

"I told you… I don't know… I've been in prison," Carlos manages, but his tone is far more desperate than it is defiant. "If I knew… if I knew…"

"…You'd tell us?" Cecil says.

"…I… don't know…"

The man behind him pulls his wrists a little more firmly together, pressing in close. "You'd tell us," he says. "Even if you tried to resist… it wouldn't work for long. You don't want to resist. You want to give us everything… don't you, Carlos?"

He doesn't. He can't. He mustn't.

"…Yes. Yes… I… what are you doing to me..?"

"You know what I'm doing to you," Kevin purrs. "I've done it to you before. With the Bloodstone close by, and with a certain amount of effort on my part… you know I can put you under. Right under. Don't fight it. Let your mind sink. Let it drift. Let yourself fall under my will… and everything will be OK."

Some part of Carlos knows he should have been watching out for this. Should have been ready for it. Should have fought it.

Some part of him didn't want to. Doesn't want to.

"That's it," Cecil breathes in his ear, so very gently. "That's it. Just let go. We've got you."

"Please," Carlos begs. "Please don't…"

"Just tell us," Kevin says, hand still on his jaw. "All you have to do is answer this one question, and we'll stop."

"I don't know," Carlos replies. "I can't tell you what I don't know. Even if I want to. I… I can't. The only thing I could do is speculate."

"Then speculate," Cecil tells him. "You're a smart man. A brilliant one, in fact. And you know your twin. If anyone could predict what he'd do… it would be you."

Carlos shakes his head. "I can't. I can't."

"You can't?" Kevin repeats. "Or you won't? Because I have a few solutions for that problem…"

Kevin's hand goes to the base of his back, drawing his knife, and Carlos' blood goes cold. And hot. Instinct alone makes him try to struggle free, but Cecil has firm hold of him, and he doesn't get far.

"Don't hurt me," Carlos gasps.

"Oh, Carlos," Kevin says, softly, "what kind of monster do you take me for? I'm not going to hurt you. Not when you're far more receptive to the alternative…"

That makes the world go hazy, and even more so when Kevin slips the knife under Carlos' jaw. "I… won't give in to you. Not this time. I won't."

Kevin smiles, making him lift his head just a little higher by pressing up with the blade. "Carlos," he says, "you already have. You're the one who fell to your knees when we walked in the room."

It's hard to deny the truth of this, on account of it being, in fact, true. Unable to drop his head, Carlos closes his eyes. "I won't tell you anything."

"You will," Cecil breathes in his ear. "Of course you will. Even if we have to make you. Although, from what you said this morning… perhaps you'd enjoy that just as much. There really is a lot you've never admitted to us, isn't there?"

"Stop," Carlos replies, half-plea and half-insistence, feeling his skin flush hot all over again at the insinuation. "I made a mistake this morning. I shouldn't have let you…"

"Shouldn't have let us what?" Kevin pushes, stroking the blade along Carlos' jaw. "Ravage you out of your beautiful mind? You didn't exactly resist for long."

"Is that what you want now?" Cecil asks, the threat in his tone sending a stab of arousal through Carlos that is a whole world of unhelpful. "Because we could."

"Don't," Carlos says, and now the word is entirely a plea.

Kevin moves in even closer at that; close enough to kiss Carlos suddenly, whilst keeping the blade against his throat. And it feels amazing. Of course it feels amazing. Even more so because – between the knife, and Cecil's firm grip – there's no chance of him breaking away.

What is wrong with him? Merciful Einstein, what is wrong with him?

As the kiss breaks, Kevin's free hand drifts to Carlos' chest, stroking gently over the fabric of his shirt and then starting to lightly slip open the top few buttons.

"Shall I do it, then?" Kevin pushes. "Strip you, tie you to our bed, and trace every inch of your body with my knife whilst Cecil watches? How long do you think you'd last before you told us everything?"

Instinct – and not common sense – makes Carlos try to surge towards Kevin at that, as if there was something he could do to make the man stop. But there isn't, and all it gets him is a firmer grip from Cecil, and that blade pressed so close to his throat that he hardly dares breathe.

"You have so much more fire in you than you realise," Kevin says. "It really is intoxicating. But it won't save you, Carlos. Come on, now… just give in."

Carlos closes his eyes. He wants things he shouldn't want. He also actively doesn't want those things. And the counterpoint of the two is making his mind short out.

And, the more it does, the more he starts to sink.

"That's it," Cecil says, softly, clearly feeling some of the tension drop out of him. "That's it."

Maybe it would be easier. Maybe he should just…

…no. No! He can't. It's true that Carlos doesn't know where the portal to Nebolgorod is, because he's been in prison the whole time, but… he also has a pretty good idea as to where Tomas would move it. And it's somewhere that Strexcorp simply wouldn't think to look.

And that means, if he gives it up and he's right, then what happens next is on him.

And this in turn means he can't give it up. No matter what they do.

And that sudden realisation near-enough breaks him on the spot.

Clearly catching the reaction, Kevin slowly traces the knife down over Carlos' throat, and over his chest; letting it slip under his partly-open shirt in the process. And it feels so damnably, damningly good that Carlos can't stop himself gasping at the sensation, bowing his head now that he can.

"That's it," Kevin echoes. "That's right. Let your mind sink. This will be so much easier if you just give in. We don't need to hurt you. We don't want to hurt you. Quite the opposite in fact…"

He lightly opens a couple more buttons, pulling back Carlos' shirt enough to trace the blade over his chest more fully.

"…oh…" Carlos gasps. "I… yes…"

It's like reverse quicksand. If he fights it, he can keep his head above the surface, but the moment he starts to give in, he just goes straight under. And the hardest part of all is that he's still aware of it, on some level, even as his mind surrenders. Even as he realises that it would be so much easier to just tell them what they want to know. And then… and then, whatever follows, it will be because they want it, and because he wants it, and not for any other reason.

"…Pine Cliff," he whispers, very softly. "I don't know for sure – I swear to you – but… it will be in Pine Cliff."

Kevin stares at him in surprise. "It could work from that far out?"

"Yes," Carlos answers. "Not much further out, but… certainly that far. We ran calculations. Out of interest. And… and it would be safe there, because only ghosts live in Pine Cliff and everyone knows ghosts can't teleport, and…"

He realises he's rambling, and falls silent, not daring to look up. He's lucid enough to know that he shouldn't have said anything, but not nearly lucid enough to have prevented it.

"Good," Cecil breathes in his ear. "Very good. See, now… that wasn't so terrible, was it?"

"I… I suppose this is the part where I end up back in my cell…" Carlos says, suddenly terrified by the possibility. Suddenly realising that they might have no further need for him.

Kevin strokes a hand over his cheek, gently urging him to look up. "Carlos," he replies, "do you really think we'd throw you aside like that? You're ours. If you think the last twenty-four hours were nothing more than an elaborate interrogation… you're wrong."

After all they've done, Carlos knows he shouldn't be so relieved by this. But he is.

"Then… what happens to me now?"

"What would you like to happen to you now?" Cecil asks him, and his tone sends a fresh shiver of delight running through Carlos. "We could be gentle with you. We could not be gentle with you. We could hold you in our arms and simply let you sleep."

"I'd like that," Carlos answers, with a little nod. "The last one. I'd… I'd like that a lot."

Kevin slips his knife away and leans in to kiss Carlos again, slow and careful. "Then that is what we'll do," he says. "We'll hold you all night. And you'll be safe, I promise."

Carlos nods again, and lets them wrap him in tighter. Lets them hold him. Lets them own him.

Sometimes the illusion of choice is more dangerous than the lack of it.

Chapter Text

The echo of the Smiling God shines down on the Greater Desert Bluffs Metropolitan Area.

He can feel its light playing over his face; its warmth permeating his physical form, and he sees it for what it really is.

A lie. A lie that in turn promises so much more, when the truth is finally revealed. A truth he'll show them all, and then they'll know, and then they'll see. Then they'll believe.

Soon.

That same light is heavy in the air, like rays of smoke, pouring through the huge office window and casting dark shadows over the floor. Shadows of the desk, and the chair, and – beyond it – of two kneeling figures, side by side.

Derek Hartley paces closer to the two men in the centre of the room. He can feel his wings as he walks, even though he's been back in human form for three months now, and they're the one thing he really misses about his true self. Although… sometimes he feels more human than demon, in the strangest way. Borderline-immortal human, but human nonetheless.

Even though he isn't. Not like them. They see the light, but they don't see the way it cuts through the world; the way it curls like smoke at the edge of reality. And they don't see the way reality in turn curls around them, around their power, around their will.

But it's a power and a will that he controls. And that, they see, but can never resist.

It's breathtaking, in a way. If he'd known it would feel like this, he wouldn't have waited so long before activating the bind between himself and Kevin. Although… maybe it's better that he did delay it. Otherwise, he might have missed out on the chance to claim them both.

They stare up at him as he paces closer, dark eyes shot with pleasure. How they're still coherent enough to keep wanting, after all he's done to them this morning, he doesn't know.

But they are, and that's perhaps the most intoxicating part of all. Although… the sight of the two of them, stripped and submissive, is pretty damn perfect too.

He really does love his job.

"Tell me again," he purrs, slipping a hand under Cecil's jaw. "Tell me again that you'd do anything for me."

"We would, sir," Cecil answers, without hesitation. "Anything. Anything you command."

This close up, Hartley can practically taste the power on the other man; a sense so strong that he's only ever experienced it in one other person. And it, too, is intoxicating.

How can one demon be so lucky as to find two humans with such power, in the span of a single century?

"Good," Hartley says, reaching to stroke over Kevin's cheek without letting go of Cecil. "Good. Now… I believe you had something important to tell me?"

He knows they do. He knows they were both excited to tell him, too, which is precisely why he's made them wait. And… perhaps why he's made himself wait, as well. Anticipation is a particular pleasure, after all.

"Yes, sir," Cecil says. "We believe we've narrowed down the location of the portal to Nebolgorod."

Oh. Now that is something. Hartley can almost scent the blood in the air already. The coming purge that will wipe out the dissidents once and for all. The heretics who dared stand against Strexcorp the first time. And… his own younger daughter.

Naomi. Naomi, who turned on everything their family stands for. Who murdered Nina's loyal twin girls. Who betrayed Strexcorp.

The air itself feels red.

"Tell me," he says, at once.

"Pine Cliff," Cecil answers. "Carlos doesn't know for certain, but he says that he and Tomas ran calculations to see how far the portal's range would go, and it would reach as far as Pine Cliff."

"And you believe him?" Hartley pushes.

Both men nod. "We do," Cecil replies.

Well. It seems the scientist was useful after all.

Hartley nods too. "Excellent work, both of you. Have our people go out there in teams and start sweeping the city. The search will take time but, if the portal is there, we'll find it. Make sure they take warding experts, too, in case the ghosts decide to make trouble."

"Understood, sir," Kevin answers. "We'll find it. We'll find them."

And that makes Hartley smile. "I know you will. I know I can always count on the two of you. My not-so-secret weapons. And… I think it's time."

They both look up at him, not yet knowing what he means, but he can see in their eyes that, whatever it is, they'll do it. For him.

This is what victory feels like. And it's about to get all the sweeter.

"Time, sir?" Cecil says.

"Yes," Hartley replies. "Get dressed. There's something I want to show you."

***

The centre of the Strexcorp HQ pyramid is built right over where the old HQ tower used to stand. And, although everything within the pyramid is new, there is a part of the sub-basement that is old; a part left over from the original tower.

There is only one way to get to it: the central elevator, which runs from just outside Mr Hartley's office at the very apex of the pyramid, all the way down beneath the regular basements.

The three men step out of the office and into the larger antechamber beyond. At his desk, Andrew suddenly jumps upwards, as if he's just had his head on the surface; though, from the look in his eyes, it certainly isn't because he was asleep.

Kevin opts to give the man his very sweetest smile, and Andrew looks ready to brain himself with a stapler. Which means he's no doubt been listening to their early-morning activities.

Again.

"Why, Andrew, you look so stressed-out," Kevin remarks, in the tone of voice he saves for good-copping dissidents and winding up his boss' long-suffering PA.

"Nope. Not stressed-out. Totally fine," Andrew insists. Which is the world's most unconvincing denial.

Before Kevin can push the man any further, Hartley cuts across them both. "Andrew, we're going down to the secure level. Please call ahead and let the security detail know."

"Yes, sir," Andrew answers, quickly, and immediately picks up his phone before Kevin can engage him in any further conversation.

Some people are no fun.

Hartley, meanwhile, leads the way over to the central elevator, and Cecil and Kevin follow him at once. All three of them step inside, and then Hartley reaches to lay his hand over the Strexcorp emblem at the top of the control panel. It immediately turns red and the doors close, and then the elevator car starts to descend rapidly.

"You know what our ultimate goal is?" Hartley says.

"Of course, sir," Cecil answers. "To find an old oak door and open it, and allow the Smiling God to finally cross over to our world in its true form."

Hartley nods. "Quite. Only when it does will we finally know true power, although having its echo in the sky is certainly a step in the right direction. And… we can make that echo stronger. We can give the Smiling God a true anchor in our world."

The elevator comes to a halt and the doors swish smoothly open. Beyond is a room that Kevin remembers from the time when Mr Hartley brought him down here, over a year and a half ago, during the first incursion into Night Vale: a wide, imposing hallway, carpeted in deep orange, with a line of three enforcers on either side. They all snap to attention at once, barely even blinking as their boss steps from the elevator, with his fixer and his chief enforcer at his heels.

"This is Strexcorp's most secure vault," Hartley says, mostly to Cecil, given that Kevin already knows. "It was once where I kept an old oak door that my people were studying, but as a result of my… absence… that door is now gone. However, I have something very important in its place…"

Kevin looks at Cecil, practically beaming with excitement. "I can't wait to see!"

Hartley smiles too. "I think you're going to like it. And I know it's going to change everything."

At the far end of the hallway is a pair of double-doors, and beyond them…

"…Smiling God, sir, you still have the shark pit?" Kevin exclaims.

"But of course," Hartley answers. "And this is my only one, now, given that the main one was lost when the dissidents attacked the old HQ tower. Perhaps I should invest in an upgrade. I can think of a few people I'd love to show it to…"

Kevin can't help a little shiver of delight at that.

They set out across the single walkway leading over the wide, circular room, which is entirely filled with water. And at least a few sharks. When they reach the far side, they come to another set of double-doors, which Hartley pushes open at once, leading them into the room beyond.

It's circular, like the previous room but smaller, with a dark-tiled floor and carvings on the stone walls. At its centre, hanging in a beam of glittering light, is a single object, and the sight makes Kevin's breath catch.

"Oh," he breathes, awed. "I didn't realise you still had it."

The object in question is a knife, a dagger, made of golden metal, with a straight blade and a curved hilt, and a stylised sun carved into the point where the two meet. It shimmers as they pace closer, radiating power and promise.

"It's beautiful," Cecil says, seemingly unable to take his eyes off it.

"This dagger belonged to my wife," Hartley tells them – though of course Kevin already knows. "My Susan used it in all her rituals, during her many years as leader of the Coven of the Sun."

The Coven of the Sun – a radical offshoot of the Smiling God's own Joyous Congregation – was the group formed by Susan Hartley herself, back in the early Fifties. It was that group – led by Susan, and drawing on her immense planar power – who brought Hartley and the rest of the Management Board to this world in the first place.

They were awesome in the truest sense of the word: to see them was to be filled with awe. The group itself still exists to this day, although since the death of Susan Hartley six years ago, they have never had the same level of power.

Stepping closer, Hartley reaches out and takes the hilt of the dagger, lifting it from the beam of light and holding it in front of him. There's so much memory in his eyes as he does, and Kevin knows their boss still feels the loss of his wife, even after so long.

"This blade is not simply a stunning and elegant weapon," Hartley goes on. "It is also a powerful extra-planar object; a gift from the Smiling God itself. It is imbued with a strength that the scantest few could ever make use of, because such power rarely arises more than once in an age. A power my Susan had in abundance. And… a power you also have in abundance, Cecil."

Hartley flips the blade in his hand and offers the hilt to Cecil, who looks a little stunned.

"I want you to have it," Hartley tells him. "In Susan's hands, it changed the world, and I know that – in yours – it could do the same. Are you ready, Cecil? Are you ready to become what you were born to be?"

"Sir… I don't know what to say," Cecil manages, staring at the blade like he's never wanted anything more in his life.

Hartley smiles. "The only thing I ever wanted you to say," he replies, smoothly. "Yes."

And now Cecil smiles too. "Yes," he answers, meeting Hartley's eyes, and then he reaches out, grasping the hilt of the dagger. As he does, for a second, the air fills with static; as if untold power was chasing down the ley-lines of the world, converging on this point.

"There's something more, isn't there?" Cecil now says. "Something you're going to ask of me. Something connected to this beautiful blade."

Hartley nods. "You're so very astute," he remarks. "I do much prefer people who can keep up. And yes, there is something I want to ask of you. Something I have never asked of anyone. Not even Susan."

"Name it, sir," Cecil replies.

"I want you to be soul-bound to the Smiling God."

Cecil stares at him in unveiled shock, and Kevin suddenly feels like he can hardly breathe. Not looking away from Hartley, Cecil reaches out and takes Kevin's hand with his own free one, squeezing hard, clearly needing the contact.

"You're… serious, sir?" he manages. "I mean… I've been loyal to you, I know I have, but… there is no higher honour than what you're offering. I never thought… never dreamed…"

"Is that a yes?" Hartley asks, with another little smile.

"Yes," Cecil gasps, not letting go of Kevin's hand. "I'd be delighted."

"Wonderful," Hartley says. "With you acting as an anchor for the Smiling God on this plane, your power will only increase further. Strexcorp's power will only increase further."

"Whatever it takes, sir," Cecil tells him. "You know I live to serve Strexcorp. To serve you."

"Please tell me I get to witness this," Kevin says, eyes wide with hope.

"But of course," Hartley answers, putting a hand on his shoulder. "The rest of the board will be there too, and no doubt the Coven of the Sun will be eager to attend as well. It's going to be quite an occasion."

"When?" Cecil asks at once. "When can it happen?"

Hartley smiles again. "Today. At noon."

And that makes Kevin beam, and meet eyes with their boss. "We'd better find my dear double some robes."

***

The ceremony is to take place on the south-facing grand balcony of the Strexcorp pyramid. It's a huge, wide-open space about two-thirds of the way up, bathed in ceaseless light. The attendees start to gather well in advance: the entire Coven of the Sun, all robed in orange, and a group of senior members from the Joyous Congregation, robed in yellow.

The rest of the Strexcorp Management Board are there too: Hikaru and Lilith looking intrigued, and Nina looking borderline raptured. She, Kevin knows, has always been particularly fanatical about the Smiling God – her fervour surpassed only by Mr Hartley's – and getting to be witness to something like this a second time is clearly a great delight.

It's the 'a second time' part that's causing a minor problem. Everyone knows that the last and newest member of the board – Lauren Hartley-Mallard – was once soul-bound to the Smiling God herself, during her brief tenure as Strexcorp's leader. She'd been strong enough to maintain the bind – her demon blood being essential in that respect – but not powerful enough to make full use of the connection. And, during her exile on the First Infernal Plane, her father had insisted on having the bind broken.

Apparently, he'd told her that soul-binds with gods were right out, and Lauren had accepted it at the time. So, now that he's happily encouraging Cecil to have precisely that type of bind, it's become clear that what Mr Hartley didn't approve of was Lauren having the bind, and not the bind itself.

As a result, Lauren is sulking. A lot. She's deigned to turn up, and is doing a very good impression of someone aloof and unaffected, but – if you know her as well as Kevin does – there's no missing how angry she is.

And that's a sad thing. Kevin has always been so fond of Lauren. And whilst he knows her father's decision isn't what she wanted, she should still take comfort in the fact that Strexcorp will benefit from all of this. Plus, she is the heir to the whole company, to say nothing of being the only surviving child of the Management Board who won't be killed on sight.

Oh, Naomi. Kevin wishes Naomi wasn't now Strexcorp's enemy number one. He wishes she was here – she and Darla both – to witness this wonderful moment with them. To celebrate Strexcorp's continuing victory.

To be a part of this family.

He does his best to focus on the good things. One should always focus on the good things, and this glorious event certainly calls for it.

And then, it's time.

Cecil has spent the last couple of hours studying the ritual in detail. It's something that can be performed by a group of people, for the benefit of one, or it can be done alone, if the person in question possesses a suitable level of power.

Few do. But Cecil does.

At the front of the crowd, an extraordinarily complex ritual circle has been drawn. It consists of two overlapped infinity-circles, with lines of sigils forming stylised rays radiating out from it. The overall impression is that of a curved, twisted sun, reaching out its awesome light to the world.

Kevin feels his heart race faster. He can't believe he gets to watch this. He certainly can't believe his beloved double gets to do it.

Hartley steps to the front of the group, and holds up a hand for silence.

"Everyone, thank you for coming. Today you are all invited to bear witness to an extraordinary event in Strexcorp's long and magnificent history. Today, my chief enforcer and loyal ally, Cecil Palmer, will perform the ancient ritual required to establish a soul-bind with the Smiling God itself. It is the will of the Smiling God that this should happen: I have communed with it, and I know. The bind will allow its power in our world to increase, and therefore allow Strexcorp's power to increase… and this will be essential as we begin the final drive to locate the dissidents and destroy them once and for all."

"I am glad to welcome the Coven of the Sun to this momentous event. Since our beloved and much-missed Susan founded that group, it has been Strexcorp's greatest ally, and I know that she would be proud – that she is proud – of all we have accomplished together. All we are still accomplishing."

"I am also glad to welcome our dear friends from the Joyous Congregation. Their longstanding and ceaseless adoration of the Smiling God – since well before the dawn of Strexcorp – made Desert Bluffs the ideal home for our great company, and it is an honour to have their most senior representatives share this moment with us."

Hartley holds out a hand, now; gesturing Cecil forward. It's time. He nods to Nina, who immediately begins to call out in Dzy-an-thyl: an acclamation to the Smiling God to open the proceedings.

There's such fervour in her voice. Such conviction. No one could doubt that Nina Belmonte is a true believer.

"Glory to the Smiling God: to the Ceaseless Light, the Unending Power, It-That-Devours, the Summer-Without-End. We acclaim you, we invoke you, Radiant and Most Joyful One. Let our hearts beat for you. Let our faces smile for you. Let our blood flow for you. Devour us in your eternal love."

"Devour us in your eternal love!" comes the shouted refrain, from everyone else.

And then… silence, heavy and electric, as Cecil steps into the centre of the ritual circle. He's robed in orange, with a golden amulet shaped like the sun hanging at his chest, and that beautiful dagger held at his side.

Kevin doesn't think his double has ever looked more wonderful, or more magnificent, and he shivers in delight. Cecil turns to face them all, and as he does he meets eyes with Kevin, and smiles.

He's so proud of the other man right now. Even more than usual. So very proud.

Cecil holds up his hands, knife still gripped in his right, and that makes Kevin shiver all over again, because he remembers seeing Susan Hartley do the same, so many times. Sunlight pours over Cecil, vibrant and glowing, as if the Smiling God is reaching out in reply, and there's a moment of silence before he begins to speak.

To chant. The words are in Dzy-an-thyl, and Cecil pronounces them beautifully. It isn't long before the sky itself seems to be responding to what he's doing; the ceaseless sun appearing to turn in his direction as he invokes the power it represents. As he makes his case for a connection between them.

And then… as he proves his worthiness for it. A beam of light courses down from the unmoving sun, shining right on Cecil, making his whole body glow, and shake like he's been hit. There's a gasp from several of the onlookers, and a raptured murmur from Nina, but Cecil himself doesn't falter; keeping up the chant without breaking stride.

His eyes are shining golden now, like the dagger in his hand, and the sun seems to brighten in response. The light shining down on him intensifies, the lines of the ritual circle glowing as if ablaze, and Kevin's heart pounds in his chest as he watches.

It's astonishing. Like nothing else. The last words of the chant come, and – for a second – the sky overhead fills with a spiral of light. Then Cecil shouts out the final binding incantation, and the heavens themselves glow orange, and then…

…silence. The light fades to its normal level; the beam disappearing all at once and the ritual circle dimming. Cecil stands unmoving, arms still raised, head back, breathing deeply.

Resplendent. Terrible. Beautiful.

No one dares say a word.

And then Cecil slowly lowers his arms, glancing around at them all. He looks as he usually does, his eyes back to their normal black, but there's something about his expression that suggests everything has changed.

"Cecil," Hartley says, finally. "How do you feel?"

And Cecil Palmer smiles. "Radiant," he replies.

***

Carlos knows something is going on. Something major. Something bad.

He's been alone in the apartment all morning – the other two having left particularly early – and he's spent the last howeverlong sitting on one of the couches, trying to lose himself in a book again.

Trying not to think about last night. Trying not to remember the part where he may just have handed the resistance over to Strexcorp. Where he might have set in motion a series of events that will lead to the deaths of nigh-on everyone he cares about.

He tries not to think about it. He tries very, very hard. But the thing about trying not to think about something is that you usually end up thinking about it more.

He wonders if he should try making a run for it, but quickly dissuades himself. His chances of getting out of the pyramid are slim, and if he gets himself caught… he doesn't want to think about what the consequences would be. It could well end in his death, and if it didn't… if it didn't, it might instead end in…

…OK, don't think about it. Don't. Especially because some part of him likes the idea.

It's just as Carlos is putting his book down for a moment, pressing his hands over his eyes and trying to make himself stop thinking unhelpful bad and wicked things, that he realises something is wrong with the sky. At first, he's sure it's just the aftereffects of him pressing the heels of his palms in so firmly, but then the rest of the haze clears and he realises he's still seeing what he thinks he's seeing.

The sky is wrong. More wrong than usual. The not-sun glows with a painful radiance, a beam blazing down from it and onto the pyramid. As he watches, he sees a flash that fills the sky with a spiral of light – eerily reminiscent of the way it looked for much longer, on the day of the Battle of Night Vale – before the spiral fades and the whole sky shines orange.

And, even as it all fades back, returning to what passes for normal now, the air still feels electric.

Something has happened. Something has happened, and it's undeniably bad.

When are things going to stop getting worse?

***

It's late evening when the other two get back.

Probably. Time doesn't exist. And non-existent or not, it's nigh-on impossible to regulate without a moving sun. Without darkness.

Carlos jumps up from the couch at once when he hears the door, mind racing. He has no idea what he should do now. He's already made himself promise that he won't immediately fall to his knees like he did last night, but that in turn brings problems of its own.

Although, they're problems that get pushed aside when he sees the look in Cecil's eyes. And then he realises that Cecil has a knife sheathed at his back, just like Kevin always does: a golden dagger with an elaborately-carved hilt.

Apparently this day is still getting worse.

"What happened?" Carlos asks at once, before fear can get the better of him.

The two doubles exchange a glance and then stalk closer. Carlos doesn't back away, but it's hard to stay still when they're advancing on him like that. He can't help a little gasp as Kevin steps behind him, putting both hands on his shoulders, whilst Cecil moves to stand in front.

They've got him caught between them again. And it really would help if he could stop enjoying it quite so much.

"Something wonderful," Kevin breathes in his ear, tone heavy with fervour.

"I have established a soul-bind with the Smiling God," Cecil says.

It's like the bottom has dropped out of the world, and Carlos is just falling. "You… what?" he manages.

"I have established a soul-bind with the Smiling God," Cecil repeats. "I am linked to its ceaseless radiance. I am the anchor for its continued existence in our world."

He smiles. "I am proven once and for all as the most powerful human alive. And I did it all for Strexcorp."

All Carlos can do is stare. He can't speak. This is more terrifying and horrifying than he can process all at once, which is really saying something, given the events of the last couple of days.

"It was amazing," Kevin says, tightening his grip on Carlos' shoulders. "Like nothing I've ever seen before."

"And now," Cecil goes on, renewed delight in his own eyes, "Mr Hartley has granted me permission to do something I've wanted to do for a long time."

"…Which is..?" Carlos manages, his voice shaking. Because doesn't that sound ominous?

"Something that will make everything right. Make everything all right." Cecil puts his hand on the size of Carlos' face, stroking gently. "After tonight… you won't ever have to be afraid anymore."

"What do you mean?" Carlos whispers.

And Cecil smiles. "I'll show you," he says, exchanging a look with Kevin. "Come on."

***

The two doubles lead Carlos from the apartment and into the corridors beyond. There aren't many people around, and those they do pass step immediately out of the way, with a look of deference in their eyes.

It's more than a little terrifying. Though it's nothing compared to Carlos' trepidation about where Cecil and Kevin are taking him.

They step into an elevator and start to descend, and descend, and he knows from the control panel that they're going back to one of the basement levels.

Maybe this is it. Maybe they're done with him. Although… why would they do this part themselves?

No. Something else is going on.

The dimly-lit passageways of the basement level they arrive on are eerie in the extreme. Enforcers at a security checkpoint snap to attention as they pass, and eventually they come to a door like so many of the others. Cecil pushes it open, leading the way inside.

The room beyond is – like the passageways – dimly-lit and ominous. There are brackets of flickering candles at all four corners, filling the space with strange shadows, and illuminating the open, empty floor.

Only… there's something here: a ritual circle, drawn in charcoal on the cold stone. Carlos is hardly an expert in these things, but he takes one look at it and panics, because there's no way he could ever forget that particular design.

"No," he gasps, as the door thunks shut behind them, and Kevin pushes him further into the room. "No. Don't do this, I'm begging you. Don't do this."

He knows what that symbol is. He knows what it means. He knows what it does.

It's the ritual circle for a soul-bind. The type of soul-bind that Cecil and Kevin have with Derek Hartley. The type of soul-bind that requires one person to completely subjugate their will to that of another.

They'll make him say yes. He knows it. They'll make him say yes and then he'll fall under their control – under Strexcorp's control – and he'll be lost. Maybe forever.

"It's all right," Cecil says, stepping in front of Carlos whilst Kevin holds him from behind. "I promise you, it's all right. It won't hurt, not in the slightest, and when it's done, you won't be afraid anymore. All the pain will go away."

"Please," Carlos begs. "Don't do this to me. Please. I gave you what you wanted. I'll… let you… anything you want… I…"

"Shhhh," Kevin breathes in his ear. "Sweetheart, it's OK. It's going to be OK."

Carlos can't even speak at that, the terror too much, and he jumps when Cecil puts a hand on his face. "On your knees," he says, softly.

But Carlos doesn't move. He's aware that there's no way he's getting out of this, but that doesn't mean he has to give in to it. Not completely. He stares back at Cecil, trying to look defiant and not – in fact – scared out of his mind.

Unfazed, Cecil steps away and gives Kevin a little nod and – before Carlos even knows it – he's been pushed firmly onto his knees in the centre of the circle. But Kevin doesn't stop there, keeping hold of him and flipping him down on his back, tugging his hands up above his head and pinning them to the cold stone.

Cecil, meanwhile, calmly waits for Kevin to go still – on his knees above Carlos, holding him in place – before dropping down too, straddling Carlos' hips and settling easily into place on top of him.

In another world, it could be mind-blowingly hot. But in this one… all Carlos feels right now is soul-deep horror.

"Relax," Cecil says, so very gently, stroking a hand over Carlos' cheek again. And that just makes his mind short out, because the gentleness really is too much.

He'd rather they weren't. At all.

"Don't do this," Carlos pleads, again.

"It's going to be OK," Kevin insists, leaning in to meet his eyes, albeit upside-down. "I promise, it's going to be OK. Just… make sure you say yes when Cecil asks. Neither of us wants to hurt you. But… we will, if you don't."

Somehow, the threat feels easier to deal with, but Carlos can feel a strange stillness lapping at the edges of his mind; the first vestiges of the dark water he can sink in when he surrenders, and he knows he can't let it take him.

Not this time. Not now.

Cecil reaches to draw the dagger sheathed at his back. It glitters golden in the candlelight, shimmering with an otherworldly radiance and – wherever it came from – Carlos knows it isn't good. And then, dagger in one hand, Cecil holds out his arms, and starts to chant.

It's perhaps a mercy that the words are in a language Carlos can't understand, so he doesn't know precisely what Cecil is invoking to make this happen. He's still staring up at the man on top of him, too horrified by the reality of all this to be caught by how powerful Cecil looks, and before long the ritual circle around them starts to glow vivid red, the air filling with light. It rises and intensifies, like the words of the chant – like the thunder of Carlos' heartbeat – building and building until it all fades in an instant.

And then Cecil leans in towards Carlos, stroking a hand over his cheek, and smiling. "What say you, Carlos? Will you be mine? Will you bind yourself to me, subjugating your will to my own?"

It's like the whole world has cracked in two, and there's nothing within but darkness.

"No," Carlos gasps, taking a deep breath, knowing he's asking for it now.

Cecil gives a soft, unsurprised little sigh, and leans in closer still, laying that golden blade over Carlos' throat. "Carlos," he purrs, "please don't make me hurt you."

"I'm not making you do anything," Carlos reminds him, as firmly as he can.

He knows there's nothing he can do to stop this. Knows that he'll cave under whatever Cecil does to him, and he'll say yes, and they'll win. And maybe he should just give in right now, and save himself from the pain, but…

…no. No. He won't. Not this time.

Cecil glances up at Kevin, giving him a little nod, and then presses his free hand against Carlos' chest, keeping the knife in place with the other.

And… there is pain. Pain, but without the slightest flicker of pleasure chasing in its wake. The sensation courses through Carlos' body, and Kevin tightens his hold, trying to keep him still. And Carlos can't stop himself screaming in response, the agony more than he can bear.

He wants it to stop. He needs it to stop.

There is only one way to make it stop.

"…yes…" Carlos chokes out, and the pain fades the instant he does. "My answer is yes."

Reality seems to hover on the cusp of an abyss for a second, and then the air fills with static, and renewed red light, glowing from the ritual circle. Carlos feels a single burst of that light course right through him, chased by a wave of strange heat, before it all fades back.

Carlos takes a deep breath, his mind racing, suddenly not quite sure what's going on. His heart is thundering in his chest, like he's been terrified, but he doesn't feel any of that fear now. He doesn't even know why he was afraid.

He looks up. Cecil is on top of him, pinning him to the floor, blade in his hand, and the man seems so utterly magnificent right now that Carlos feels breathless at the sight of him. Kevin is here too, holding his wrists down, and wow but this is a lovely situation to find himself in the middle of.

He knows it felt different before. But… he doesn't know why. How could something like this ever be anything but wonderful?

"How do you feel?" Cecil asks, still right in his face, blade at his throat.

"I… good. I feel good," Carlos tells him, with a smile. "Am I… is everything all right now?"

Because… it wasn't, was it? It wasn't, and they said it would be, and now…

"Yes," Kevin replies, leaning in closer too. "It is. Everything is just fine."

The feeling is such a relief, like sinking into a hot bath at the end of a long day, and Carlos is grateful for it. He looks up at the two of them again, and his heart starts to race a little quicker once more, but not in fear this time. Oh no. In anticipation.

"You… seem to have me at something of a disadvantage," he points out. It's a redundant observation, but one that needs to be made nonetheless.

Cecil and Kevin exchange another look. "Yes," Cecil agrees, smoothly. "It would appear that we do."

"I mean… a total disadvantage," Carlos pushes. "Both of you. Armed. Powerful. Pinning me to the floor in a dark and ominous room, where no one will ever interrupt. You could do anything you wanted to me, and I wouldn't be able to stop you."

He pauses, giving the words a chance to sink in. "Anything," he repeats, as if the clarification was somehow necessary.

Cecil smiles like he's just won the world. "That's very true," he agrees. "And remember… I told you yesterday that the time was coming when we would hurt you, and you would want it. So answer me this, Carlos… do you want it?"

Carlos' heart thunders in his chest. He does. He does want it. He's wanted it for a very long time – wanted a lot of things for a very long time – and the thought that he might finally get to experience them, with the two men he loves more than anything in the world, is terrifyingly wonderful.

"Yes," he gasps. "Yes. Please."

"Well, then," Cecil says, "I think it's time we showed you a few things."

"Like our dungeon," Kevin adds, beaming from ear to ear. "You're going to love it."

And this, it will soon become apparent, is the understatement of the century.

Chapter Text

The two doubles takes Carlos out of the room they've been in, and a little further down the passageway, before leading him through another door. The room beyond is walled and floored in the same cold stone, and dimly-lit, but it isn't empty.

There are chains hanging from the ceiling in the dead-centre. And, off to the side, against one wall, is a table laid with… quite a lot of things.

Restraints. Implements.

Carlos feels his heart start to race all over again, and anticipation alone makes his step falter as they lead him into the room and shut the door behind them.

"It's all right," Cecil says, standing in front of Carlos. "We're going to take this slow, I promise you."

"And it's OK to be afraid," Kevin adds, wrapping around Carlos from behind and holding onto him. "I was, the first time."

"You've… done this too?" Carlos asks.

"Oh yes," Kevin answers, easily. "I love it. Although… I've been looking forward to switching sides."

Cecil meets Kevin's eyes over Carlos' shoulder, smiling at him, before his attention goes back to Carlos. "Now," he says, "are you ready?"

"Yes," Carlos whispers. He is. He'd be lying if he said he wasn't nervous, but that's OK. It's OK to be nervous before something like this. Especially when you've wanted it for a very, very long time.

"Good," Cecil replies. "First… I want you to strip. Completely."

Carlos' heart races even harder, but he wants this, he needs this, and he knows he's safe with them. He knows. So he does as he's told, hands shaking a little, standing with his head bowed once he's done.

They both take hold of him at that, walking him over to where those chains hang from the ceiling, and lifting his arms to close the cold metal around his wrists, leaving him spread and open and helpless. And the pleasure of that sensation alone is absolutely dizzying.

Kevin steps in behind him again, arms wrapped around his waist, and Cecil moves in front, hand raised to trail over Carlos' cheek.

"Now," Cecil says, "before we begin, there are two things that need to be said. The first is this… you know that you're soul-bound to me, don't you?"

"Yes" Carlos answers, at once. He does. He knows he was scared of it before, but he can't think why. There's no need for him to be scared. Not of this. Not of him.

"Good," Cecil replies, smiling. "Good. And that means you'll do whatever I say, doesn't it?"

"Yes," Carlos tells him. "Yes. Anything."

"Good," Cecil says again. "But… I want you to promise me something. I want you to be honest about what happens here. Don't just say yes to everything because you think I want it. I am giving you the freedom to choose, and I expect you to use it. Do you promise me?"

Carlos nods. "Yes," he says. "Yes, Cecil, I promise."

"All right," Cecil goes on. "Secondly – and along the same lines – I think it's fair to say that you rather enjoy begging me for mercy, don't you? Especially when I don't show you any."

That makes Carlos' skin flush hot, and he can't quite meet Cecil's eyes when he answers. "Yes. I… yes."

Cecil slips gentle fingertips under his jaw, wordlessly asking for eye-contact again, and Carlos manages to acquiesce after a moment.

"Yes," Cecil echoes. "So… you need a safeword. Something you can say that will make me stop. We use 'red'. If at any time you want or need me to stop – any time – you say 'red', and I will. Immediately. Without question. I'll stop – we'll both stop – and we'll take care of you. But if you say anything else, anything at all… we don't have to listen. Do you understand?"

Carlos does understand. He might never have done anything quite like this before, but he has researched it. He nods.

"Yes. I understand."

"And do you promise me – promise me – you'll use that word if you need to? Regardless of anything else. Regardless of what you think I want. Do you promise?"

Carlos nods again. "Yes," he replies. The careful insistence is so reassuring, and it makes him feel safe. "Yes, I promise."

"Good," Cecil says, once more. "In that case… Kevin?"

It's at this point that Carlos realises the other two must have discussed things in advance. Things that come after the part where they chained him up, naked and helpless, in a dark and ominous room…

…this is all his fantasies come true, this is all his fantasies come true

Kevin steps back a little and runs a hand down the length of Carlos' body, firm and possessive, before – very suddenly – slapping him on the ass, quick and rough. The sound echoes off the stone walls, quickly drowned out by Carlos' shout of shock.

It hurts, yes, but it isn't the pain that makes him cry out. The pain flares, abrupt and sharp, leaving something else in its wake: an intense, insidious pleasure, and a craving that doesn't fade away.

Cecil smiles, speaking once more to Kevin but without taking his eyes off Carlos. "Again," he says. "But several this time."

"Ohyes," Carlos gasps in anticipation, right before more of the blows land, in fairly rapid succession. He almost staggers in shock, the heady mix of pain and pleasure rolling through him like nothing he's ever felt, and the whole world seems like it's vibrating when Kevin finally stops.

"Does that feel good?" Cecil asks, stepping in close, resting his forehead against Carlos'.

"Yes," Carlos manages.

"Do you think you're ready for something a little more involved?" Cecil pushes, with a smile that promises so much.

"Yes," Carlos says, again. "Yes. I need it. I want it."

"And soon I'll make you beg for it," Cecil tells him. "But first… I want you to see what you've been missing."

He steps back, and holds out a hand to Kevin, who paces around to join him, where Carlos can see them both.

"I know how much you enjoy this," Cecil says to Kevin, pulling him in close, and merciful Einstein but that is hot to watch. "I know you've wanted to do it like this for a long time, and I'm not going to deprive you of that. But… you remember who's in charge here, don't you?"

"You, Cecil," Kevin gasps at once, dark eyes full of delight.

"That's right," Cecil replies. "Me. Now… are you ready?"

"Yes. Oh yes."

It's at this point that Carlos realises Kevin must not have done this before; not from the controlling side, at least. If he and Cecil have been trying it out, it's obvious that Kevin must have been the one in the chains.

So this part is new to him, too.

Cecil puts a hand on Kevin's jaw. "Go and pick up the short-tailed flogger. The one you're so fond of. Let's see if Carlos likes it as much as you do."

Carlos' heart thunders even harder at the words, and at the way Kevin smiles. "What an excellent idea," Kevin says, and turns to do as he's been told; pacing over to the table against the wall and lifting an object from it.

Now, it is true that Carlos has researched this kind of thing before. It had all been academic at the time – he'd had no idea how or if to suggest it to his two boyfriends – but he'd been intrigued enough to look into it. And, consequently, very careful about clearing his browser history afterwards. But there is a big difference between looking into something online, and being faced with it in reality.

He wants this. He knows that he wants this. That he's wanted this for a long time. But that doesn't stop the world going hazy when he realises it's actually happening.

The object Kevin is carrying is, indeed, a short-tailed flogger, with a wooden handle and a number of soft, black leather tails each about a foot in length. He lets it swish lightly as he walks back over, and Carlos feels his breath catch at the sight. At the sound. Kevin deliberately stands where Carlos can see before pacing slowly around behind him, a hand on his body as he does, stroking from chest to back.

"Are you ready?" Kevin asks, leaning in close.

Carlos nods. "Yes," he manages, not sure he could say any more right now.

Kevin presses the flogger against Carlos' back, between his shoulderblades, as if to prepare him. Or… no, to prepare himself. To take aim.

The world stops.

"Remember to breathe," Kevin says.

And the first blow lands, suddenly, against Carlos' back: a swoosh of air and a snap of leather and the most astonishing sense of shock. Not pain. There is pain, oh yes, but it isn't what he processes the most. On the contrary, it's the reality of this that he feels, before anything else.

"Oh," Carlos gasps, swaying in the chains. "I–"

The second blow lands before he can get another word out, and this time another blow follows right after it. And another. And another. For the first few, Carlos somehow realises that he isn't breathing and – heeding Kevin's words – tries to focus on doing so. And that in turn makes him more aware of the physicality of all this, drawing it back from the imagined possibility it's always been, to the visceral realisation beneath.

And that's when the pleasure kicks in: a kind of electric rush that spreads over his back and chases down his limbs. It makes him gasp all over again, some of the tension dropping out of his shoulders as a result, and that makes it all feel even better.

He's not sure how many blows Kevin lands – ten at least, perhaps fifteen – but after a moment the man behind him stops, tracing fingertips over Carlos' skin instead, making a strange heat flare where he touches.

Having watched all this with a smile on his face, Cecil steps in close again, gently slipping a hand under Carlos' jaw.

"Did you like that?" he asks, looking pleased.

"Yes," Carlos answers, without the slightest pause. "Yes. Please. Please."

It's like a craving. A craving that wasn't there before, and is now, and only gets stronger the more he becomes aware of it. A need, like the need for release, but less immediate and more… pervasive.

"Please what, Carlos?" Cecil pushes. "More? Harder? Both?"

"Both," Carlos gasps, shaking a little as he hears himself say the word, and knows how much he means it.

Cecil doesn't answer straight away; pausing, letting that word sink in. And then he steps back, his eyes going to Kevin.

"Ten more," he instructs, and there's something painfully hot about that; about how easily he says it, so precise and almost detached.

"Gladly," Kevin purrs, and obeys at once, starting to land another flurry of blows against Carlos' back.

They're quicker. Sharper. Harder. The pain flares across Carlos' skin like a mixture of hot and cold, and he staggers again, losing his footing midway through. He drops in the chains, gasping in shock, and Kevin doesn't even break stride; keeping up the strokes against his back until the tenth impact lands, and he holds off.

Carlos is hardly aware of it. He feels pain, he feels pleasure, but most of all he feels the line between the two, where they blur into each other. He manages to keep breathing but little more, swaying in the chains, head down.

And there's something else, too. He can feel the darkness rising up inside his head, the sense of surrender, of the need for it, of the bliss it represents, but without the usual accompanying sense of sinking. The world stays sharp, his senses firing on overdrive, and this is new, this is something: a surrender, but a hyper-conscious one.

He can feel what it means. To give in. To be theirs. To submit to their will.

Cecil grips Carlos' chin and lifts his head, a little rougher now. Not harsh, not cruel, but certainly insistent.

"And how was that?" he asks, once more sounding very pleased with himself.

"Amazing," Carlos whispers, his voice cracking.

"Good, good," Cecil says. "Now… tell me something, Carlos. Do you want us to be rougher with you, or shall we keep things as they are?"

The whole world wavers on the edge.

"…I… please…"

"Say it."

"…rougher."

All of a sudden, Cecil steps in very close, the hand on Carlos' chin sliding up to lace through his hair and tug his head back.

"Beg me," Cecil breathes, over Carlos' lips.

"Please," Carlos gasps at once. "Cecil, please."

There's a moment when none of them are moving, and then Cecil lets go of Carlos all at once and steps away.

"Keep going," Cecil says to Kevin. "Make the blows harder. And don't stop until I tell you to."

"Yes, Cecil," Kevin answers, so much fervour in his tone. So much pleasure.

When the first stroke lands, Carlos can't stop himself from crying out; the intensity of it leaving him reeling, and he's barely started to wrap his mind around the sensation when the next stroke lands. And the next. And the next. And this time… they're not going to stop. Not until Cecil gives the word.

And Carlos can't help thinking the other man will draw this out as long as possible. It's a heady realisation, and it ought to be a frightening one too, except… he knows that he's safe. He knows that he wants this. And the more he tries to relax into it, the easier it gets.

The feeling is like nothing else in the world: a snap, a thud, a shock of pain and a rolling wave of pleasure; all four sensations on constant repeat, intertwining, echoing each other, over and over and over. At least until there's surely a signal between the two doubles that he's missed, because Kevin switches tack, going from quick-fire blows of similar intensity to a volley of slower, harder ones.

"Oh," Carlos gasps, in shock, not prepared for the sudden rush of very much stronger pain, and he sways in the chains once more, not daring to lift his head. A little scared by the look that must surely be in Cecil's eyes right now.

And by the third stronger blow, the pain is starting to become overwhelming, and a rush of desperation consumes him. "Please," he whispers. "Mercy, please."

But the onslaught doesn't stop, and the realisation kicks in… they don't have to listen if he begs. Which pretty much means they're not going to listen if he begs.

The thought is a strange, heady kind of terrifying. Carlos makes himself raise his eyes, and fights to meet Cecil's, and he realises at once that he's right to be scared, because the look that greets him pretty much breaks him on the spot.

"Mercy," he gasps, again, a little more desperately. "Cecil… please."

The other man doesn't reply. He merely folds his arms and keeps watching, and the shock of the next blow makes Carlos drop his head again. But it isn't just a physical drop, it's a mental one too, and all of a sudden he goes under.

He's aware of a tangle of emotions, sensations, sounds. Of further pleas for mercy slipping his lips. Of pain, that hits over and over, slow enough to be felt each time, but not so slow that it ever fades. The world goes dark, and he's distant, and he's drifting…

…and then the pain is less. Still there, still just as sharp, but somehow no longer insistent. Somehow so incredibly, incredibly good.

When it all finally stops, he doesn't process at first that it's gone. He hangs in the chains, arms aching from the pressure of holding him up but this, too, barely registers in his mind. The world is distant, the soft sounds echoing like he really is underwater, and then…

…reality sharpens as he feels a hand on his jaw, careful and soft, making him look up.

Cecil smiles at him, and kisses him on the forehead, before gently stroking the hair back from his face. "That's it," he whispers. "That's it. Just breathe. You're doing so well, Carlos. So very well."

"…please…" Carlos murmurs, his mind still speaking on autopilot. "Mercy… please…"

"It's all right," Kevin says, softly, wrapping around him from behind, helping him regain his footing. "We've got you, it's OK, I promise. Carlos… that was incredible. I mean… I knew you'd like this, but… wow."

Is that good? It sounds good. It sounds very good.

"Yours," he whispers, needing to say it. Needing them to know.

"Yes," Cecil tells him. "Ours. And I think it's safe to say we've proven that you definitely enjoy flogging. So, Carlos, the question remains… what else do you like?"

Those words make the whole world sharpen again, and Carlos looks up at Cecil, the understanding dawning in his eyes… and getting him a very bright smile in response.

"Oh, sweetheart," Cecil says, "did you think we were done? We're just getting started."

Carlos suddenly can't breathe; the mixture of terror and delight simply too much for him to process at this point. Cecil gives Kevin a nod, and there's a brisk, rough shiiiiik sound, right before Carlos has Kevin's knife pressed up under his jaw.

His heart starts to race.

"Now… we already know you like this," Kevin purrs in his ear. "That part isn't exactly a secret, is it? But, given that we know how much you like it, we'd be remiss if we left it out, wouldn't we?"

All Carlos can do at this is give a soft whimper, pressing back against Kevin as much as he dares.

"Yes," Kevin says, echoing the answer that Carlos hasn't given out loud. "Yes."

"And I bet I know what else you like," Cecil goes on, tracing fingertips over Carlos' chest. "You've already experienced the little trick I've learned, where I can make you feel pain and pleasure all at once. Or… just pain on its own. Or…"

He flattens his hand against Carlos' chest, and there's a burst of bright purple light… followed immediately by ripples of intense, aching, glorious pleasure that roll through Carlos over and over. He cries out in shock, not at all prepared for this to be just pleasure, and it's like the waves of bliss just before climax, but again and again, without ever breaking.

The sensation is wonderful and maddening in equal measure.

"…P-please," he gasps. "I… Cecil… I feel… so close… I…"

"Oh, I could make you come like this," Cecil tells him, and he makes the words sound like a threat, which in turn only ratchets Carlos' arousal higher. "I could. Isn't that right, Kevin?"

"Yes, Cecil," Kevin answers at once, in the tone of voice of a man who knows. "Oh yes, you could."

"But," Cecil goes on, stopping the onslaught of pleasure all at once and dropping his hand, "I'm not going to. You don't get to come until this is over. And even then… only if I'm satisfied with your performance. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Carlos whispers. "Yes, sir."

He's not sure where the title comes from. It just… slips out. It certainly gets him a reaction from Cecil: an arch look, and a dangerous little smile. "'Sir'?" the other man repeats. "I think I like that."

There's a heavy pause, and then Cecil's hand goes to his back, drawing that shimmering golden dagger. He lifts it up, where it can be seen, and then starts to stroke the edge over Carlos' chest, whilst Kevin still has his own knife pressed up under Carlos' jaw.

Two of them. At once. Carlos feels like his mind is shorting out again, and he can't stop himself whimpering as Cecil moves the blade over his skin, brushing it over a nipple. The action sends a renewed spark of arousal racing through him, and Carlos murmurs in delight.

"Now, Carlos," Cecil says, after a moment, still tracing the blade along the contours of Carlos' chest, "tell me: are you ready to try something else?"

The knife at Carlos' throat is the only thing stopping him from nodding emphatically as he says, "Yes. Yes. Sir."

Cecil looks pleased all over again, and his eyes somehow darken further, as if he's coasting a significant power high. He pauses a moment, seemingly contemplating, and then lowers his dagger, slipping it away before stepping back.

"Kevin," he says, smoothly. "Come here."

The other man obeys at once, sliding his own knife back into its sheath and going over to Cecil. His double pulls him in close, one hand on Kevin's hip and the other on his jaw, and Carlos can't help a little gasp at just how beautiful the two of them look.

"Now, Kevin," Cecil starts out, "I do like how respectful Carlos is being. I think perhaps you should try the same."

"Yes, sir," Kevin gasps at once.

Cecil's hand on his hip tightens, and he holds Kevin firmly, speaking so close to his lips. "You want to fall down on your knees right now, don't you?"

Kevin nods, perhaps not trusting himself to speak.

"I thought so. And I'm going to let you. But first… I want you to bring me something."

"Anything, sir," Kevin breathes, and that makes Cecil smile, and pull him in closer still, whispering something in his ear. Carlos can't hear what it is, but it gets a smile from Kevin in return, and then Cecil lets go of him, leaving him free to do as he's been told.

And that involves going over to the table in the corner again, which makes Carlos' heart race with renewed intensity. Kevin takes an object from the table and then walks back to Cecil, dropping down on his knees close by with his head bowed, holding up the implement in question.

It's a cane: about three feet long, thin and straight.

Carlos' heart thunders even faster, both at the implications, and at the way Kevin looks right now. He's only ever seen the other man surrender once before, and never like this, and it's breathlessly beautiful to witness.

Cecil moves closer to Kevin, taking the cane from his outstretched hands and swishing it lightly through the air away from them both, as if testing it. And then he slips the tip of it under Kevin's jaw, making him lift his head.

"I want you to watch," Cecil says, softly. Firmly.

"Yes, sir," Kevin answers, staring up at him.

There's a moment when neither of them move: Cecil looking down at Kevin, and Kevin meeting his eyes, hardly blinking, utterly rapt. And then Cecil paces over to Carlos, whose breath catches as he realises he's about to be in a lot more pain.

It terrifies him. And he craves it. And the two things are true at precisely the same time.

"Now, Carlos," Cecil starts out, standing behind him and pressing in close, one hand wrapped around to lie firmly – but not restrictively – over his throat. "I'm going to be honest with you: this will hurt. This will hurt in a way the flogging never did. I'm going to take it slowly, and I'm not going to land the blows as hard as I could. And I want you to understand that I could choose not to make either of those concessions. And will, in the future."

Carlos gasps at that, trying – and failing – to suppress a little whimper. "I understand," he whispers, trembling. Needing.

"Good," Cecil tells him, letting go and taking a step away. "Good."

He lays the cane against Carlos' ass, leaving it in position for a moment… and then he draws back and lands a single stroke. The sound is so much less than it was with the flogger: a soft swoosh and a light crack, but the pain is like nothing else. Carlos cries out in shock, the world going black for a second; a rush of cold spreading through his body as though he's just been dropped into icy water.

"Please," he gasps, shaking all over, "Cecil… sir… I…"

A second blow lands before he can get any more words out, and he howls all over again. The pain is exquisite beyond belief, and his mind can't quite process it.

"That's it," Cecil tells him, stroking the cane over his ass once more; the contact sending fresh sparks of pain through him as it brushes against tender skin. "That's it. Just breathe. You suffer so beautifully."

"…p-please…" Carlos hears himself murmur, but he's speaking on autopilot already; his mind starting to sink even deeper. "Please… I… oh..!"

The third blow cuts him off again, and he shakes even harder, still trying to wrap his mind around the pain and finding it nearly impossible.

"Mercy," he gasps, unashamed, desperate. "Mercy… please… I'll do anything."

Cecil traces the tip of the cane down his spine, making him shiver under the contact. "Two more," he replies, soft but firm. "Two more, and I'll stop."

Carlos bites his lip and nods, tensing, trying to hold himself together.

The fourth blow almost breaks him on the spot, and he howls as loud as he can… and that's when the dam inside his mind comes down, and suddenly the words just trip out with no filter.

"Mercy… please, sir… no more, I'm begging you, I'll do anything, I'll do anything… just don't… don't make me… please don't make me… I can't, I can't, I–"

And he's cut off one last time as the fifth blow lands, the feeling so strong that he nearly goes supersonic when he screams, every inch of his body aching from how tense he is. The waves of pain radiate through him once more, and he just drops: mentally, physically, emotionally.

Cecil lets the cane fall to the floor and steps in at once, wrapping both arms around him from behind and holding on. "That's it, sweetheart, that's it," he says. "Just breathe for me now, just breathe. You did so well, so very well…"

"'m sorry…" Carlos murmurs, not really aware of what he's saying now.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," Cecil insists, fierce and loving. "You were amazing. You are amazing."

The words feel so good. So very good. Actually… everything feels good. Even the lingering pain. It feels… wonderful.

How is that even happening? Carlos has no clue right now. But he knows that it is.

Without letting go of him, Cecil turns a little and holds out a hand to Kevin; Kevin, who is still on his knees, watching like he's out of his own mind in wonder.

"Come here, you," Cecil says, gently, and Kevin gets up at once, going straight over to them and wrapping his arms around them both. And, for a moment, they don't move; standing in a tangle of limbs, with no sounds cutting the air save for their breaths, and the light clank of the chains.

Eventually, Cecil pulls back enough to meet Kevin's eyes. "I think it's time we rewarded Carlos, don't you, my dear double?"

"Yes," Kevin answers at once, smiling.

They switch places; Cecil moving in front of Carlos, and Kevin going behind him again, both arms wrapped around him. It's so lovely when he does that, so very lovely, and so supportive, and good, and…

…Carlos is definitely out of his mind now. Completely.

"It feels wonderful, doesn't it?" Kevin murmurs in his ear, hands stroking over his skin. "Every inch of you, thrumming with heat, and so hypersensitive that the slightest touch just seems electric…"

"Yes," Carlos gasps, so very distant. "Yes."

Cecil traces his fingertips over Carlos' cheek, and slowly downwards, over his neck and onto his chest. "Now, Carlos," he says, "tell me… how would you like to be made to come screaming? A hand between your legs… rough and primal… or… a hand on your chest, and more of that delicious planar energy to throw you right over the edge..?"

The words make Carlos' head go dizzy again, and it's a moment before he can reply. His whole body aches with arousal, with need, and both of Cecil's suggestions sound like a wonderful idea right now.

But one sounds better. "The… the planar energy," he admits, not quite able to look up.

There's an audible smile in Cecil's voice as he replies. "I thought as much. You really do have quite a fondness for being given no choice, don't you?"

All Carlos can do is nod, feeling his skin flush hot at the insinuation… and knowing that Cecil is entirely correct.

The other man slips his fingers under Carlos' jaw, gently lifting his head. There's nothing harsh about his movements now, and he smiles as he says, "…and that's all right. We want you to be happy. I want you to be happy."

He slides his hand back down to Carlos' chest, and then his eyes go to Kevin. Something passes between them; something unspoken but clearly understood, and Carlos feels Kevin nod, and hold onto him a little tighter.

And then the air floods with purple light, as Cecil finally allows more of that untold otherworldly energy to flow into him. It's an energy Carlos couldn't possibly explain; one that defies science, defies thermodynamics, on an epic scale. And yet… there it is. Not that he has more than a few nanoseconds to muse on it, of course, because the onslaught of sensation is suddenly, utterly overwhelming.

Carlos isn't even sure if what Cecil is doing to him this time involves just pleasure, or a mixture of pleasure and pain. The feelings are so huge, and so blurred, and so all-encompassing that it all simply reduces down to stimulation; two sides of the same equation, with something breathlessly wonderful waiting just beyond the equals sign.

He cries out in shock; shaking in Kevin's arms, as wave after wave of ecstasy builds in him, more and more and more and more… and it doesn't break, it isn't breaking, it just ratchets higher and higher…

"Please!" he gasps, desperately. "Please."

Cecil smiles, triumphant, and kisses him firm and fierce… and then there's one last push of energy, and completion nigh-on explodes through Carlos so hard that the world goes hazy. He screams in wrecked bliss, caught in a climax more furious than his mind can process, until all the energy fades at once, leaving him shuddering under the aftershocks.

And then Carlos falls back in Kevin's arms, shattered, exhausted, shaking, and absolutely thrumming with happiness.

"I've got you, sweetheart, I've got you," he hears Kevin say, as if from a great distance. "Just relax, it's OK."

Everything is so far away now. Everything. Sight. Sound. Physical contact. All of it. Carlos is vaguely aware of Cecil stroking over his cheek, and then of Kevin moving around in front of him when Cecil steps to the side. The next thing he knows, Cecil is behind him, wrapping a soft, voluminous blanket around his whole body as the two of them carefully unchain his wrists.

Then he drops back in Cecil's arms, and the world slips away.

***

When Carlos comes to, the first things he's aware of are sensations.

Warmth. Happiness. Aching, but aching that feels so good.

He tries to work out where he is. It isn't easy to begin with, but slowly the world starts to return. He's lying in bed, curled into Cecil's chest and wrapped in his arms, with Kevin spooned in tight behind him. And he does ache – oh yes, like nothing ever before – but it's all just incredible, and blends into the lingering pleasure thrumming through his whole body.

"Hey there, you," Kevin murmurs in his ear. "How do you feel?"

"I… wonderful… really… like wow, but… more."

Kevin laughs warmly, and kisses the back of his neck. "It's good, isn't it?"

"…yeah…" Carlos manages, still so very distant. "So good."

Cecil leans to kiss him on the forehead. "We thought you'd like it."

"I did," Carlos says. "Lots. Very lots."

That makes Kevin laugh again, and curl in tighter. "You're adorable when you're out of your mind. Even more so than usual."

He runs his hand down Carlos' side, stroking it gently over his ass, and that sets off a whole range of sensations of its own: pain and pleasure, gloriously intermingled, and so very much memory. Carlos murmurs in bliss, shivering as the feelings roll through him.

"I thought that might get a reaction," Kevin says, sounding pleased. "You're going to be a little sensitive for a day or two… and every time you move you'll remember."

"Oh," Carlos gasps.

They both tighten their arms around him at that, and he's more than happy to be held as firmly as they want. Maybe forever. Or… at least all night.

"So tell me, Carlos," Cecil starts out, "would you like to do that again sometime?"

"Yes," Carlos replies, at once. "Yes. Please. It was…"

"…everything you ever imagined?" Kevin suggests, with a knowing air.

"…everything I ever imagined," Carlos echoes. "And more."

Cecil kisses him on the forehead again. "Consider it a promise. Now… sleep. Rest. You certainly earned it. And tomorrow is going to be a big day…"

It is? Carlos thinks, vaguely wondering what Cecil means. But that's for tomorrow. Right now… he feels better than he has in forever, his two wonderful boyfriends have him in their arms, and everything is looking up.

Thank the Smiling God for that.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Carlos still feels incredible.

Really incredible. He hurts more than a little when he tries to do complicated things like move, but it isn't a problem in the slightest because it all feels so good.

He doesn't want to be alone, though. He knows it's probably inevitable, because Cecil and Kevin have important work to be getting to, so he's surprised when – after breakfast – Cecil says, "We'd like you to come with us this morning."

"You would?" Carlos replies. "Where to?"

"I think it's time you met Mr Hartley," Cecil tells him. "Properly, I mean. Now that you're with us, and on our side, where you belong."

Derek Hartley. Carlos has to admit to being more than a little scared of the man. He is the founder and CEO of Strexcorp, after all. And a pureblood demon.

"Is… I mean… Will he want to see me?" he asks, nervously.

Kevin takes his hands at once, pulling them into his own chest. "Of course he will," he insists. "He's the one who recruited you in the first place, back when you first came to Desert Bluffs. He knows how brilliant you are. And… he's going to be so pleased when he sees just how loyal you are now."

"But… I don't have to go on my own?"

Cecil steps in behind him, hands on his shoulders. "Of course not. We'll be right there with you. There's nothing to be afraid of."

Carlos nods, still a little nervous. "All right," he agrees, softly. "So long as I don't have to go alone."

"Carlos," Cecil says, "you won't have to be alone ever again."

***

It's a short time later, and the elevator doors swish open, allowing the three men access to the antechamber outside Derek Hartley's office. It's a wide, airy space, with huge, angled windows offering a stunning view out over the Greater Metropolitan Area.

At its centre is a desk, behind which sits a dark-haired man… a man Carlos recognises. It's Andrew Fletcher, Hartley's longstanding PA, and someone whom Carlos has met before, three months ago, when…

…when…

…before all this. Before now.

Andrew, for his part, looks more than a little surprised when he sees all three of them step out of the elevator. "This… is unexpected," he says.

"But wonderful!" Kevin replies, brightly.

"I… see," Andrew manages, eyes on Kevin, but flicking over to Carlos several times, as if he doesn't quite know what to make of him.

"Is Mr Hartley available?" Cecil asks.

"Oh… yes, of course," Andrew replies. There's a hint of nervousness in his voice when Cecil speaks to him, and Carlos wonders why. And… suspects he knows, all at once. "You can go right in."

"Well, thank you, Andrew!" Kevin says, even more brightly, and Andrew immediately becomes very interested in his computer again.

Cecil leads the way to the huge double-doors, pushing them open to allow access to the office beyond. It's… impressive. Really very impressive. Huge, and corporate, with a massive Strexcorp emblem in the centre of the floor, and a desk to the left, and some kind of dais to the right, and…

…it's like something out of the Big Book of Villain Lairs. Except for someone who is clearly and decisively not a villain. Obviously.

Derek Hartley is at his desk. Carlos hasn't seen him in human form for a long time, and he's struck by how the man doesn't seem to have changed in the slightest. He looks as imposing and impressive as he ever does, everything about him impeccable, the lines of his suit immaculate.

And those eyes. Those ethereal blue eyes that cut Carlos to the core. No wonder the other two are so in awe of him.

"Well, well," Hartley says, rising to his feet as they walk in. "Now this is something I never thought I'd see. Carlos. Welcome."

Cecil and Kevin both stop a little way back from the desk – as if out of habit – and Carlos finds himself between them but an extra step forward. He's grateful for Cecil's hand on his shoulder, keeping him grounded as Derek Hartley paces slowly around the desk and draws closer.

He radiates power, and it's almost intoxicating… and Carlos finds himself dropping to his knees, staring up at the man as he speaks.

"Thank you, sir. I'm… glad to be here at last."

The act makes Hartley smile, seemingly pleased, and he steps in closer, slipping his fingertips under Carlos' chin and tilting his head back a little more.

"Indeed?" Hartley replies. "It certainly has taken some time to get us to this point. Did Kevin tell you that I'm the one who recruited you, years ago? That I'm the reason you came here in the beginning?"

It sounds so heady when he phrases it like that. As though he was the spark-point for so much. All of this. Destiny.

Scientists don't believe in destiny… unless they've lived in the Greater Metropolitan Area for some time. Then it's hard not to.

"Yes, sir," Carlos answers. "I'm… just happy to finally have the chance to serve Strexcorp. Properly, this time."

Hartley smiles again. "And we are happy to have you. The Strexcorp Scientific Institute is desperately in need of someone of your brilliance. I'll have you installed as its leader at once. You'll have all the resources you desire, and you'll report directly to me. How does that sound?"

Carlos smiles too. "It sounds wonderful."

"Good," Hartley purrs. "Good."

He steps back, his eyes going to the other two. "Anything to report?"

"The first search parties have been sent out to Pine Cliff," Kevin replies. "So far, they've found nothing, but they'll keep looking."

Hartley nods. "Excellent. We can afford to be patient, I think. It's only a matter of time before we locate the portal to Nebolgorod and then… then it's over for the dissidents. Forever."

He pauses on those words for a moment, letting them sink in, and then looks to Cecil. "And what about you, Cecil? How are you feeling?"

"Incredible, sir," Cecil answers. "I can sense the power of the Smiling God in my blood. At my fingertips. It's breathtaking. And… there's something I want to share. Something important that the Smiling God in turn shared with me, down the bond between us."

That clearly piques Hartley's interest. "There is? And what is that?"

"It's something important," Cecil says. "Something the whole board needs to hear. Something that will affect all of us, going forward."

"I see," Hartley replies. "Something good?"

"Oh yes," Cecil answers. "Something very good."

"Well, then," Hartley goes on, with a nod. "I'll have Andrew call the rest of the board in. And then you can tell us all what the Smiling God has to say."

***

It doesn't take long to gather the other four together. Nina arrives so fast, you could be forgiven for thinking she'd been standing outside the door the whole time, and both Lilith and Hikaru aren't much further behind.

Lauren is the final one to arrive, sweeping into the office with the air of somebody who knows how to make an entrance, and seeming more than a little surprised to find Carlos here.

"So, you brought the scientist in at last?" she remarks, pacing over to where Carlos is standing at Kevin's side, and Carlos can't help but feel that Lauren Hartley-Mallard still does not like him one bit.

"We did," Kevin tells her. "I'm so happy. Now we're all here and it's just how it was meant to be."

"Hmmm," is all Lauren will allow in reply, and she doesn't sound convinced. She looks Carlos up and down, and then turns without a word, pacing over to where Nina is standing.

"Well, Cecil," Hartley says, "we're all here, and we're eager to find out what the Smiling God has to tell us."

"Did it really speak to you?" Nina cuts in.

"It did," Cecil answers, levelly, taking a step forward and looking around at them all. They're dotted around the room: Hartley standing up on his dais, as if to not-so-subtly remind them who's in charge, with Kevin and Carlos off to his left, Lilith and Hikaru off to his right, and Lauren and Nina closer to the desk.

Cecil himself paces further into the centre of the room. "It's… hard to describe what it was like. The Smiling God doesn't converse in words, but rather in… impulses. Thoughts. Feelings. Desires. But it conveys what it wants in a way that cannot be ignored, or misread, and I am sure of every part of it."

He starts to walk closer to where Hartley is standing, such reverence in his pace. Such respect. Hartley smiles as he sees it, obviously pleased.

"It spoke in particular of you, sir," Cecil goes on, now addressing Hartley directly. "You, who have led Strexcorp since the beginning. It sees all that you have done. It loves you for it. Because of you, thousands more have flocked to its banner. Thousands more have come to believe. And now… now it wants you to take the next step. You… me… Strexcorp… we're instrumental in what is to come."

By now, Cecil has walked right up onto the dais, close to Hartley, starting to circle around behind him. The other man seems almost amused by the pacing, and intrigued by whatever Cecil is about to tell him.

"And what is that, Cecil?" Hartley asks.

What happens next does so very quickly. There's a sudden, rough shiiiik sound from behind Hartley, and then the man jolts roughly forwards… with the tip of a golden dagger erupting from his chest, vibrant red blood blossoming over his shirt. The shock in his eyes is raw and unveiled, and it gets even stronger as the reality of the situation sets in. As Cecil Palmer leans around him, dark eyes wide with pleasure, smiling for all to see.

"A change of leadership," Cecil replies, smoothly. "I'll take it from here, Derek."

He yanks the dagger back, and Hartley drops immediately to his knees, gasping.

"You… how?! The… s-soul-bind…"

Cecil paces slowly around in front of him, every step resonant with power, slipping the tip of his blood-streaked dagger under Hartley's jaw.

"The soul-bind?" he repeats, softly. "The soul-bind with you? What can I say? The Smiling God doesn't share."

There's a sudden jolt of movement, a fresh rush of blood… and Derek Hartley falls sideways.

Dead.

Carlos can't believe what he's seeing. Cecil just killed Derek Hartley.

Kevin gasps like he's been hit, one hand on his chest and the other going to Carlos' shoulder, as if for support. Carlos puts a hand over his, wanting to help, utterly lost for words.

"Murderer!" Lilith howls, drawing her own blade. "You just killed the greatest demon ever to walk the Infernal Planes! I don't care if you speak for the Smiling God… I won't stand for that!"

"Neither will I," Hikaru concurs, drawing his knife too, stepping up to Lilith's side. "Derek was our leader. We won't let you get away with this!"

Cecil turns to them both, looking thoroughly unaffected. "As you wish," he says.

And he launches at the pair of them, blade bared, the air suddenly flooding with static. Hikaru goes for him first, eyes wide with rage, and Cecil has him on the ground in seconds, driving his dagger into the man's chest as if it was the easiest thing in the world.

"No!" Lilith shouts, and goes for him at once. Cecil needs only a second to yank the dagger out of Hikaru's body, and then he and Lilith lock blades, parrying blows a couple of times before he manages to get his free hand on her arm. There's a burst of purple light and Lilith drops, and – seizing the moment – Cecil stabs her in the midsection the instant she hits the floor.

And… silence. It's all happened so fast, Carlos still can't quite process everything.

Cecil rises to his feet, blood-streaked and radiant, turning his eyes on Nina and Lauren.

"And what about you?" he asks, levelly. "Are you still loyal to a dead man? Or… are you ready to believe in something more?"

Nina takes a step forward. She looks shocked, oh yes, but not angry. Not like her fallen allies were. "I have been devoted to the Smiling God since my earliest days," she declares. "I would sooner end my own life than betray it. If you speak for the Smiling God, Cecil Palmer, then I will follow you."

"Do you swear it?" he pushes, keeping the dagger down.

Nina Belmonte nods. "I swear it. In the name of the Smiling God, the Summer-Without-End, I swear it."

Cecil nods too. "Very well," he says. "Your support will be crucial if I am to rally Strexcorp under my leadership."

"I will see it done," Nina promises. "For Strexcorp. For the Smiling God."

"Good, good," Cecil replies. "And… what about you, Lauren? I just killed your father, after all. Am I to take it that's going to be a problem?"

Lauren Hartley-Mallard smiles, taking a step forward. She certainly doesn't look like someone who just watched their father die. On the contrary. She looks like she just won the world.

"Oh no, Cecil," Lauren answers, smoothly. "It won't be a problem at all. My father was a great man, yes, but… his day had been and gone. He didn't recognise the extent of your power. He didn't recognise the extent of mine. So… if you are ready to be a wiser man than he was, I am ready to follow you."

Then she beams like the sun. "Plus, we've worked closely together before. We'll be just great!"

Cecil nods. "I don't doubt it. It's done, then. We will bring about the true golden age of Strexcorp. We three."

And that's when he turns, his attention focused on the two men on the opposite side of the room. By now, Kevin is standing in front of Carlos, a hand on his hip, and it really is lovely how quickly the man will leap to his defence.

It isn't necessary though. Carlos isn't afraid. He knows Cecil won't hurt them.

"And what about you, Kevin?" Cecil asks, advancing on his double. "You might not have been part of the Management Board, but you've been instrumental to it, to Strexcorp, for decades. Hartley's Fixer. And right now, your mind is racing. I know you. And I know that the soul-bind between you and our former leader is broken with his death. Perhaps you're considering actions you would come to regret…"

Kevin doesn't answer, but it's clear his heart is racing, and he seems frozen to the spot.

"…But, you are my double. And I love you. And I think, perhaps, you understand what I'm trying to do. Even without a soul-bind… with nothing but the song of the Bloodstone in your ear… I think you could truly be a part of this."

Kevin still doesn't answer, and Cecil steps closer.

"You could stay with me. Stay with us. You could be my fixer."

And that makes Kevin's breath catch audibly. "…Call off the searches in Pine Cliff," he says, softly. "Let the dissidents live. Once we bring the Smiling God to this plane… all of them will have no choice but to believe. Let them live, and I'll swear myself to you. I'll do whatever you ask. Anything."

Now Cecil's breath catches audibly too, and he holds out a hand. "You have my word," he says.

Kevin takes his double's hand, and drops down onto one knee. "And you have mine."

Cecil stands over him for a moment, eyes unblinking, and then he slips his dagger back into its sheath and traces his fingertips along Kevin's jaw. "That's all I need to hear," he says, softly, and gently pulls the other man back to his feet.

"So what happens now?" Lauren cuts in, from somewhere behind them.

Cecil turns to look at her, a smile coming to his lips as he does. "This is a momentous day, and the people of the Greater Metropolitan Area need to know what's happened here. So… I think it's time to do what I do best of all."

"A radio broadcast?" Carlos says.

And Cecil nods. "A radio broadcast," he agrees.

***

"…and that, citizens of the Greater Metropolitan Area, is why I am speaking to you today. Derek Hartley was a great man and a great leader, but the time had come for the Smiling God to take him into its eternal and joyous embrace. In his wake, I, Cecil Palmer – once the Chief Enforcer of Strexcorp – have taken up the role of CEO of this fine and magnificent company."

"We have much still ahead of us. Stability must be maintained within our two twinned cities. Productivity and efficiency must remain our watchwords. And… we must prepare. The day is coming when we will be in the presence of the Smiling God, not as an echo, but in its true and magnificent form. And when that day comes, when we finally see ourselves reflected in its radiance, each and every one of us needs to be able to say – without hesitation – yes. Yes. I am my most perfect self. My most efficient self. My most joyous self."

"Only then can the Summer-Without-End break upon us. Only then can we truly be what we were born to be. But, I swear to you, citizens of the Greater Metropolitan Area, as I take my place at the helm of Strexcorp itself, I will see this noble work completed. I will see our joy made eternal. I swear it to you."

"And now… the weather."

***

It's late in the afternoon, and Carlos still can't quite believe the whirlwind that the last few hours have been. With Nina and Lauren off rallying the workforce, out in the city, and numerous other notable figures coming to the HQ pyramid to swear their allegiance to Cecil, Carlos feels as though he's just spent all day caught in the wake of it.

He isn't sure where Kevin is. After they got back from the radio station, Kevin and Cecil spent some time talking in what is now Cecil's office. Some time. Carlos doesn't know what was said, but – from the look in Kevin's eyes when he'd seen the man afterwards – the two of them clearly did more than just talk.

And then, seemingly in something of a hurry, Kevin had said something about liaising with the enforcer division, and off he'd gone, leaving Carlos with Cecil. Although, Cecil has had so many meetings today that Carlos has spent a lot of his time sitting on the couch in the antechamber outside, reading a book and trying to ignore the very odd looks Andrew Fletcher keeps giving him.

Andrew himself was very quick to swear allegiance to Cecil. Very quick. And right now, he's buried in his work, trying to pretend he isn't as nervous as he seems.

But even Carlos, who hardly knows the man, can tell otherwise. And that's odd. Why would anyone be nervous now? All is well. Everything is fine.

And that's when Cecil – his latest meeting over – finally calls Carlos back through. And… much as he thinks no one needs to be nervous, Carlos can't deny the way his heart starts to race at that. Though perhaps it's a different kind of anticipation, in his case.

He steps through into the office, letting the door click shut behind him. Cecil is here, seated in the rather impressive throne he's had installed up on the dais. Right where he stabbed Derek Hartley to death, mere hours ago.

There's something oddly apt about that.

"Carlos," Cecil purrs, a smile on his face. "Come here."

Carlos doesn't hesitate to obey. He walks over, and up the three shallow steps, and then falls to his knees right in front of Cecil, head bowed. It feels so good to do it. So right. The man is draped in power and glory, capable of things no other living human is, and Carlos belongs to him. Totally. Utterly.

Cecil slips a hand under Carlos' jaw and lifts his head. "Good," he says, softly. "Very good. You look so beautiful on your knees. You look beautiful all the time, but… even more so right now. And I love you for it. You know that, don't you?"

"Yes, sir," Carlos gasps.

"There's that title again," Cecil remarks, with a pleased look in his eyes. "You do seem fond of it. I know I am. And I'm so very glad you're here with me now."

He leans down, cupping Carlos' face more fully and then kissing him, gentle and careful, resting their foreheads together as the kiss breaks. And then he takes hold of Carlos and pulls him up and into his lap, so that Carlos is more or less on top of him, straddling his hips.

But still utterly his.

"Hands behind your back," Cecil tells him, so very softly, and Carlos obeys at once, the act making his mind slowly start to sink. "That's it. That's it…"

His hands stroke slowly up Carlos' thighs, coming to rest on his waist, keeping him close. "I know how much you want right now," he goes on. "I can feel it radiating off you, like heat from the sun. You want me to take you, to claim you. To own you, all over again. Perhaps you want me to hurt you as well. Because… you enjoyed it when I did. Didn't you?"

"Yes," Carlos gasps at once. He did. And every time he moves, he still feels the aftereffects of it.

"Yes," Cecil echoes. "And whilst it's important that I don't push you too hard for a couple of days… it doesn't mean I can't do it a little. Last night was only the beginning."

"It was amazing," Carlos breathes. "I want to feel like that again. I want to feel like that a lot."

Cecil smiles again. "And you will, my beloved Carlos. You will. And that's why I'm not going to give into the desire to slam you down on your back right here and take everything from you. I'm going to make you wait. At least… until tonight. And, tonight… oh, Carlos, tonight you'll surrender like never before."

The words make Carlos gasp in delight, trying to stop himself from shaking in anticipation. "Oh, sir… please."

That gets him pulled in close, and kissed rather harder this time. When the kiss breaks, Cecil runs a hand down Carlos' chest, eyes full of promise. "I have one more meeting and then I'm done for the day. Go back to the apartment and wait for me."

"Yes, sir," Carlos answers at once.

He just has to hope that Cecil won't keep him waiting for long.

***

Carlos walks the corridors of the Strexcorp HQ pyramid in a slightly blissed-out haze.

He feels great. Better than great. Wonderful. And his heart is still racing with anticipation in the wake of Cecil's promise to him.

Lost in his thoughts, he follows the route back towards their apartment – vaguely aware that this is the first time he's walked these passageways alone – and he's hardly thinking about his surroundings until something unexpected happens.

Something very unexpected. As he passes an intersection in the corridors, someone darts out of the shadows, grabs hold of him, and yanks him to the side, slamming him firmly against the wall.

It's Kevin. Carlos' heart starts to race even harder. Maybe he and Cecil have been plotting this all along, and that's just a lovely thought.

"Kevin," he breathes, happily. "I'm so glad to see you."

There's a very odd look in the other man's eyes. Very odd. Kevin hesitates a moment, without a word, and then draws his knife, pressing it over Carlos' throat.

"Oh," Carlos gasps. "Should… do you want me to resist? Or…"

"No," Kevin says. "No. Don't resist. Just… I need you to come with me. And I need you to be quiet. Can you do that for me?"

"I'll do anything you ask, Kevin, you know I will," Carlos tells him. The other man looks more than a little agitated, and Carlos wonders if he's had a hard time with the enforcers. If he needs distracting. Maybe he doesn't know about Cecil's plan. Maybe… that will make this even more enjoyable, when Cecil finds them.

"Good," Kevin replies. "So… just come with me. And I'm serious about being quiet. Especially if anyone sees us. Don't say a word. You promise?"

"I promise," Carlos answers, and then falls silent.

Kevin lowers his knife after a moment, slipping it away, and then starts to lead Carlos off, a hand on his arm as they go. And, wherever they're headed, it clearly isn't the apartment. Part of Carlos wants to question it, wants to ask where Kevin is taking him, but he's promised to be quiet and he doesn't want to go back on his word so soon.

Not until they're someplace where the repercussions might be more fun.

Eventually, they head into an elevator, descending down and down until they finally step out into what is revealed to be a huge underground lot, lined with hundreds of cars. Clearly the main parking garage for the employees who work at the HQ building, and the ones who live here.

Kevin leads the way over to his own car, and – as they get closer – a mixture of curiosity and confusion comes over Carlos, and he can't stay silent any longer.

"Kevin," he says, softly, "what's going on?"

"Carlos… look… I am really, really sorry about this," Kevin replies, and Carlos can see how agitated the other man is right now. How afraid he seems.

Something else is going on. Something bad.

"…Kevin?" he pushes, voice shaking a little.

The other man pops open the trunk of the car. "Get in," he says, his own voice full of resignation, not quite able to meet Carlos' eyes as he speaks.

"Wait… what?" Carlos exclaims, shocked. "What's going on?

"Just… please don't make this difficult," Kevin nigh-on begs him. "I promise I'll explain everything when I can. And apologise for most of it, and… merciless Azatothoth, Carlos, just do as I say."

Carlos stares at him in horror. "You," he breathes. "You've gone dissident. Haven't you? After all we've been through… all Cecil has done for us… and you… you swore to follow him!"

Kevin sighs, more than a little exasperated. "I lied, Carlos. It's what I do. I'm really very, very good at it, especially when fighting to save my hometown from…"

He slaps a hand against the side of the car, clearly needing some kind of grounding for all the nervous energy flooding through him. "…This is not happening again. How is this happening again?" Another sigh. "Carlos. Get in the trunk."

Now Carlos glares at him. "You betrayed Cecil. Betrayed Strexcorp. How could you?"

This gets him Kevin's knife pressed under his jaw again, although the other man seems agonised at having to do it.

"…fine," Carlos retorts. "Fine."

And he does as he's told. The instant he's in, Kevin slams the trunk shut, plunging Carlos into darkness, and all he can do is lie there, heart racing, as he feels the other man start to drive them… somewhere.

Somewhere they shouldn't be going.

***

The sun beats down on the Greater Metropolitan Area, though it's actually quite late, and the roads are already quiet. Kevin drives in a haze, trying not to think, trying not to let his mind focus on any of his raging thoughts for too long, knowing that he'll fall apart if he does.

He just has to hope he's doing the right thing. He knows he's still in shock, and he knows it won't go away until he gets himself somewhere with room to breathe, and there's only one place left in the world where he could do that.

And he doesn't even know how to get there.

But he has an idea that might work. So he drives, along the empty streets, hands gripping the wheel so hard his fingertips hurt, heart racing so hard his whole chest aches.

The song of the Bloodstone is roaring in his head, and he can feel its power tugging at him, clawing at him, trying to pull him under. Trying to make him surrender, to make him go back to Cecil and beg for forgiveness, and…

…no. No.

He keeps reliving it, over and over: the moment Cecil killed Hartley. The moment Kevin felt something give inside his own chest, when Cecil struck the deathblow, as if someone had yanked out an old, familiar blade from a long-forgotten wound. He understands what happened in that instant; understands that it was when the soul-bind between himself and Hartley shattered, but he still can't quite engage with it. With any of it.

With the horror of that bind ever having existed in the first place. With the things he's done over the last three months; things that make his previous twenty years in Strexcorp pale in comparison. And… with what he and Cecil have done to Carlos.

In many ways, that hurts most of all. To leave the man in prison for so long and then quickly and decisively break him down… even to win him over, it was unspeakably cruel.

And now, to make matters worse, he's had to abduct the man – to force him, again – in order to get him away from Strexcorp. From Cecil. If there had been time to take action, time to attempt breaking the soul-bind between Cecil and Carlos, he would have done it.

But there wasn't. All he could do was bundle Carlos into the trunk, and run off with him.

Well… no. That wasn't all he did, was it? But the less he thinks about that part, the better.

A lot of things are happening that he'd longed never to repeat.

Kevin drives. And drives. He hurtles out into the desert to the east, beyond the city limits, hoping against hope that this plan will work. And then… suddenly, feeling sure that it is.

Now he just has to hope that the resistance doesn't kill him on sight.

The sun is still beating down, but a rough wind is whipping up, as he turns off the main road and drives out into the scrublands. On and on he goes, until he's in the middle of nowhere, and then… then he stops.

Deep breath. Very deep breath. Silently pray that this isn't where he dies.

He gets out of the car, making sure to keep his hands where they can be seen, so anyone watching knows he doesn't have his knife drawn. So they don't worry – or overreact – when he goes to open the trunk.

Carlos glares up at him as he does, and a renewed wave of guilt hits Kevin hard. But… no. No. He can't worry about this now. Later, yes. Not now.

"Where are we?" Carlos asks.

"In the scrublands," Kevin answers.

That makes alarm flood the other man's expression. "Why? What… what are you going to do to me?"

"Nothing," Kevin insists, at once. "Nothing, I swear to you."

"You swear to me? Like you swore to Cecil?"

"Carlos, please, just get out of the trunk. And keep your movements slow. I don't want to spook them."

"Them?" Carlos repeats. "Who?"

Kevin sighs and glares at him in resignation, and Carlos glowers back, doing as he's told.

Outside, the breeze is getting stronger, and perhaps there's whispers of an incoming sandstorm in it. That would be… painfully appropriate, actually, and Kevin can't help wishing the universe would give him a break for five damn minutes.

He keeps a hand on Carlos but makes clear not to draw his knife, walking them away from the car and into the open.

"I know you're out there!" he calls, and he does. "You're good, but I'm not an idiot. Now, come on, show yourselves!"

How they do it, he doesn't know. The figures seem to melt out of the desert, out of the haze: a whole ring of people, all of them noticeably short and slight.

The Youth Militia.

They're dressed in outfits that seem to be an amalgamation of the old Night Vale and Desert Bluffs scout uniforms, but with emblems that are definitely Nebolgorodian thrown into the mix. All of them are hooded and masked, with nothing visible but their eyes.

All except their leader, who throws back her own hood as she steps forward; dark, intelligent eyes fixed on Kevin.

It is not normal to be alarmed by a teenager. Except for this teenager.

"Well, well, well," says Tamika Flynn. "This is a surprise. To what do we owe the honour?"

"Tamika, look," Kevin starts off, as levelly as he can. "I know you don't like me. I know you've never liked me. But right now I need you to hear me out."

"I liked you just fine when you were fighting for freedom, justice, and literacy," Tamika retorts. "But you going back to Strex didn't exactly sit well with me."

"I didn't go back to Strex," Kevin insists. His whole plan is founded on the belief that someone – most likely Naomi – will have worked out that he and Cecil were soul-bound to Derek Hartley, and that the resistance will therefore know they weren't acting of their own free will. But if they don't know that, and they think he really did turn, then he might be about to be very dead.

"Sure looked that way to me," Tamika throws back, brandishing a pair of throwing-stars with the kind of flair that – as a fellow fan of bladed weapons – Kevin can't help being impressed by.

"I know it did," he says, desperately. "But I didn't. I was soul-bound to Hartley. So was Cecil. Neither of us wanted any of this!"

"And, what, exactly?" Tamika pushes. "You woke up this morning a changed man?"

"I… take it you don't get our radio show down in Nebolgorod, then?"

"We don't have your propaganda station, no. But we do have people on the surface who listen in and report back."

"So… do you even know what happened today?"

Maybe she doesn't. All of this would look a lot more suspicious if Tamika thought Hartley was still alive.

"I know," Tamika says, flatly. "But I want to hear it from you."

"Cecil is soul-bound to the Smiling God," Carlos cuts in, suddenly. "He's the new leader of Strexcorp, and Derek Hartley is dead. And apparently Kevin thinks that's an acceptable excuse to betray Cecil, abduct me, and run off."

For the first time, Tamika looks surprised, and her eyes go back to Kevin, who can't help another little sigh of resignation. "Carlos is soul-bound to Cecil. He wasn't so happy when I absconded with him."

"So… hold on," Tamika says. "Wait. You're telling me that, right now, you're the good one and Cecil and Carlos are the bad ones?"

"Yep," Kevin answers, in what might well be the wryest tone he's ever used in his life. "Welcome to the Mirrorverse, I guess."

There's a long, awkward silence.

"Please, by merciless Azatothoth, take us to Nebolgorod," Kevin pleads, finally. "Blindfold us, knock us out, whatever you need to do, but… take us there, before Strex finds us. Please."

Tamika appears to consider this for a long moment, and then she holds up the hand that isn't still gripping the throwing-stars.

"Sam!" she calls.

A second ring of figures – rather taller ones – suddenly erupt from the shadows, and before Kevin even knows it, a flurry of blowdarts have hit both him and Carlos. He drops to his knees, the world going hazy, and blackness overtakes before his head hits the sand.

Chapter Text

When Kevin comes to, it's with a rough jolt of shock: the kind that is accompanied by a rapid re-living of everything that came before. He sits bolt-upright, hand instinctively going to where his knife should be – but isn't, right now – and then looks around frantically, trying to work out where he is.

He recognises it at once. He's in one of the grand guest rooms in the Cathedral of Huntokar – the palace at the centre of Nebolgorod – lying on a bed.

And he isn't alone. Naomi Hartley is here too, sitting off to the side, head in her hands. She jumps up when he does, her otherworldly blue eyes finding his at once, full of pain and hope.

Kevin and Naomi have been friends for more than two decades. Though she is Derek Hartley's younger daughter – and Lauren's sister – Naomi has always been the odd one out in the Hartley family, given her lack of fondness for mind-controlling people and a general sense that it's better to be decent than to be a megalomaniac.

She's easily the best friend he's ever had, and – now he can think clearly – he can't put into words how much he's missed her.

"Kevin?" she says, softly. Her expression is heavy with the weight of the last three months, and he can't help but think she doesn't quite believe this is real.

"Naomi," he whispers, standing up slowly, not knowing how to begin. "I…"

Maybe she can see it in his eyes. Maybe she's already sure. But, for whatever reason, Naomi just leaps to her feet, grabs hold of him, and pulls him into a fierce hug.

And that's weird. They've always been close, but Naomi Hartley is not the hugging type. And the moment she wraps him in, Kevin feels a wave of guilt and grief hit him, cold as ice, and he instinctively tries to pull away.

She doesn't let him. "Don't you dare," she insists, her voice cracking. "Don't you dare, or I'll hex you into next week. Just… just…"

She loses it at that, and holds him tighter, and for several moments they don't move. It takes all Kevin's strength not to break down completely, and he's still shaking when Naomi finally pulls back from the hug, hands on his shoulders.

"I thought I'd never see you again," she says. "I… is it true? Is my father dead? Did Cecil really kill him?"

Kevin nods, going numb as the memories hit anew.

"And… you… you were soul-bound to my dad. Weren't you? That's why you…"

He nods again. "I'm sorry. I am so sorry. I–"

"Don't you dare apologise," Naomi insists, her tone suddenly full of anger, but anger that's clearly not directed at him. "Don't you dare. That man was a monster. I'm glad he's dead. And what he did to you… what he must have done to you…"

Kevin knows his own eyes are hollow at that, and he wishes he could stop it being so obvious, and he can't.

"So… Cecil was soul-bound to him too?" Naomi asks. "Only then… then he was soul-bound to the Smiling God as well, and…"

"I don't think it was 'as well'," Kevin says. "I think the Smiling God broke Cecil's soul-bind with your father. Cecil said… he said the Smiling God doesn't share. I think Cecil has been out of your father's control since the ritual took place, and then he made his move, and…"

A deep breath. "Your father isn't the only one Cecil killed. Lilith and Hikaru are dead as well. Nina swore herself to Cecil without blinking because her real loyalty is to the Smiling God, and Lauren…"

"She's still alive?" Naomi pushes. She and her sister never really got along to begin with, and ending up on opposite sides during the first revolution in Desert Bluffs solidified that irrevocably.

Kevin nods. "Yes. She swore herself to Cecil as well. I don't think she and your father had been on good terms for a while."

"Sounds about right," Naomi remarks, wryly. "And once my father was dead, you got your free will back?"

"Yes."

"And… you did what you always do, of course. You rebelled."

"…I did. I grabbed Carlos the first chance I got, and I ran for it. Which wasn't easy, believe me, because Carlos is currently soul-bound to Cecil, and wasn't exactly pleased by my switching sides. Is he..?" Panic hits, suddenly. "Where is he? Where is Carlos right now?"

"He's fine, Kevin, I promise," Naomi says at once. "I left his twin to keep an eye on him."

"So Tomas really is here?"

"Oh yes. He has been since very early on. And, before you worry, he's well-aware that Carlos isn't himself right now. Speaking of which… we're going to need to address that."

"Yes," Kevin agrees. "Please. But… how?"

There are three ways to break a soul-bind. Killing either party will do it – that, after all, is what freed Kevin from Hartley's control. Alternatively, if both parties choose, they can perform a ritual called the Rite of Severance, which will tear the bind apart, but it only works if the two participants consent to it fully.

And there's the third option, which involves invoking a planar administrator to break the bind. That can be done against the will – and even without the knowledge – of one of the participants. But… as far as Kevin is aware, the other participant has to be in favour.

"The only option we have," Naomi answers, wryly. "We invoke an administrator and strong-arm them into doing it."

"Against the will of both participants?"

"Yes."

"Is that even possible?"

"If we find the right administrator, it will be," Naomi says, determined. "Someone inclined to like us. Or… someone afraid of someone inclined to like us. Are you and Azatothoth still soul-bound?"

Kevin nods. "Yes. I somehow managed to talk your father into letting me keep the bind. Which – given that Azzie is the one who killed him the first time – is really saying something. And…" He suddenly dares to hope. "…I bet Azzie knows a guy. I bet he has a guy. Someone we could get to break the bind between Carlos and Cecil."

"Then that's what we do," Naomi says. "You summon Azatothoth, and we take it from there. First, though… I need you to come with me. I need you to speak to the other leaders of the resistance. To let them see that you really are on our side at last. Then we can help Carlos. And then… then we try to figure out what comes next."

"All right," Kevin agrees, a little numbly. "Is… who else is here? Who else made it? Is… did my sister..?"

"She's here," Naomi tells him. "So is your niece. Kirsten and Gillian were the first people I went to find, once I realised everything had gone wrong on the First Infernal Plane. Cecil's family are safe, too. Steve, Caitlin, Janice… they're all here. They're all OK."

The relief at this is palpable, and Kevin very nearly has to sit down again. "And… Darla?"

Darla Hartley – Naomi's wife – is another close friend of his. He's the one who introduced her to Naomi in the first place, and he was Darla's best man at their wedding.

"She's here too," Naomi confirms. "She's desperate to see you. I can't promise she won't slap you before she hugs you, but I know for a fact that she will hug you."

"Now that will be something," Kevin remarks, managing a little smile. Naomi hugging him was unusual enough. Darla doing it will be practically unheard of.

"Come on," Naomi says. "We'll go and speak to the other leaders, and then we can get started on freeing Carlos."

Kevin nods. "That's the best idea I've heard in forever."

By quite some margin.

***

Carlos awakes with a sudden jolt. He's lying in near-darkness, with no idea where he is, and his mind races as he tries to remember what… what he was…

…oh. Oh. That's not good.

He sits up quickly – perhaps a little too quickly, judging by the rapid headrush – and looks around, taking in his surroundings. He's in a small room, which contains nothing but the single bed he's lying on, and he'd be concerned it was a prison cell were it not for the fact that the door is ajar, letting light spill in from whatever is beyond.

"…Hello?" he calls.

"Out here!" comes the response, in an all-too-familiar voice.

Carlos feels his stomach sink. He staggers to his feet, taking a deep breath before he pulls the door open wider and steps through it. Beyond… is a lab, and being in it makes him long for the chance to do some science again. But he doesn't have much time to muse on how lovely that would be, because he has a far more immediate issue to deal with.

A man stares over at him: a man in a labcoat, dark hair artistically tousled, a smile on his face. A man identical to Carlos himself.

"…Tomas," he says, in resignation.

"Little brother!" Tomas exclaims, brightly. "You're awake!"

Carlos sighs. "We're twins, Tomas," he says, not for the first time. "Three minutes and fourteen seconds does not make me 'little'."

"Oh, you, it so does," his twin insists, unfazed. "Now, come on, give me a hug before I start thinking you've stopped liking me again."

Carlos doesn't move. "You're a dangerous dissident," he points out.

"Oh, I see this is going to be just as much fun as I imagined," Tomas remarks, with a little sigh. "All this evil really is contagious right now, hey?"

"I am not evil," Carlos insists. "I am a loyal member of Strexcorp."

"Yeah," Tomas says, flatly. "Evil."

"What are you even doing here?" Carlos asks, changing the subject.

"Helping the resistance," Tomas replies, holding out his hands, as if this was obvious. Which… OK, it is, but that's not the point. "I came here when I heard what had happened. Had to. Had to help. I took a leave of absence from the agency, and–"

"What, so you're not working for your vague-yet-menacing bosses right now?" Carlos cuts in.

"Nope. I'm working for the resistance. It wasn't exactly a hard choice to make. I had to come save you. You're my brother. My twin. My family."

Carlos glowers at him. "Do you even know how much trouble you've caused for Strexcorp? Moving the portal to Nebolgorod? Weeks of searching, all for nothing!"

"Oh, dear brother, you're going to be a lot more fun once your currently non-evil boyfriend sorts your head out."

"Sorts my… what exactly do you mean by that?"

Tomas gestures in his direction; a wave of the hand that is clearly meant to encompass the whole situation at once. "This soul-bind that you have. However those work. The one that's making you, as I said before, evil."

"I am not evil!"

"Carlos. Dear brother. Right now you think Strexcorp is a good idea."

"So?!"

"So? Evil!"

Carlos folds his arms and scowls.

"It's OK," Tomas tells him, "I'm not mad. I know it's not your fault. That scientifically-implausible demonic maniac screwed with Kevin's head, and then Cecil's head, and then they screwed with your head, and…"

That makes Carlos' skin flush hot with memory, and the reaction clearly shows in his eyes because Tomas holds up a hand at once. "Whoa. Overshare! They really did do a number on you, didn't they?"

Carlos gives his twin a flat look, trying not to betray in his expression any of the other memories suddenly surging through his mind. "Am I a prisoner here?"

"Not a prisoner. Just a guest."

"So I can leave?"

"…No. Not right now."

"So I am a prisoner, then."

"Semantics, Carlos!" Tomas exclaims. "Just… seriously, just cool it for a while. It won't be long before we can get your head sorted out, and then all of this will be moot."

And at this, all Carlos deigns to do is scowl some more.

This is not how this day was supposed to go.

***

Kevin follows Naomi into the central throneroom of the Cathedral of Huntokar.

He won't deny he's nervous. He's trying not to let it show, but the truth of the matter is that he's about to be reunited with a number of very important people from his life, who have – for all intents and purposes – seen him as the enemy for the last three months. And he still feels raw from the events of the last day: everything he's been through, everything he's done.

Beyond the vast double-doors lies a place he hasn't been in some time. The chamber itself is cavernous, their footsteps echoing as they walk through it. Huge pillars rise up on either side of the central aisle, which itself leads to an open space at the very front: a space where there is a raised dais, hung with banners showing the emblem of Huntokar.

The first time Kevin was here, it had been when Cecil finally found out that he had a long-lost brother: a brother he and everyone else had been made to forget by an unknown, otherworldly entity, which had tried to kill Cecil when he was fifteen, and which his brother had saved him from. As a result, his brother had eventually ended up here in Nebolgorod, the miniature city under Night Vale, which was itself founded centuries ago by a highborn demon called Huntokar.

Who the locals immediately assumed had returned to them, in the form of the young man who appeared in their cathedral and revealed his name as Hunter K Palmer. Huntokar.

They know the truth now, more than two decades later, but that doesn't stop them from continuing to follow the lead of their god-king from the Overworld. Although… some of them worship Cecil instead, on account of it having been his bowling ball that bounced down here over three years ago, revealing the existence of the fabled Overworld in the first place.

…they're going to be really confused when they find out what Cecil is doing right now. But… that's a problem for later.

Hunter himself is here, robed in purple and silver, and deep in conversation with Dana Cardinal, Steve Carlsberg, and Darla Hartley. Kevin sees the four of them and then he just sort of stops dead close by, not knowing what to do. Though, judging by the looks on their faces, none of them are quite sure either.

Well. All except for Darla, who advances on him immediately, slaps him lightly across the jaw, and then yanks him into a fierce, crushing hug.

"You scared us to death," she gasps, not letting go of him. "By Anubis, Kevin… are you all right?"

"No," he answers, holding onto her. "No, I'm not. But I'm here, and that's a start."

It's a long moment before they finally step back. The instant they do, Steve launches himself at Kevin and wraps him into a hug as well, and Kevin is a little stunned that they're all being so accepting, even if he can't deny that it helps.

"Thank goodness you're here," Steve says. "You and Carlos both. These last weeks have been hell."

"I know," Kevin tells him, as the other man lets him go. "I'm sorry. I am so sorry."

"You have nothing to apologise for," Dana says, in that soft, sure voice that Kevin can't doubt, not even for a second. "We're just glad to have you back with us."

"We are," Hunter concurs. "Once Naomi explained the soul-binds to us; once we knew that you hadn't turned on us of your own free will, we did all we could to try to rescue you, and Cecil. And we've demanded Carlos' release in nearly every statement we've made. But… I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you saved yourself, in the end."

"Hardly," Kevin replies. "I'm only free because Cecil killed Mr Hartley. If he hadn't… I'd still be back there, doing Strexcorp's bidding. I…"

He trails off, falling silent, and Steve puts a hand on his arm. But before Kevin can try to speak again, another voice cuts the air.

"Derek really is dead, then?"

Kevin's breath catches, and he has to fight the urge to take a step back as the newcomer paces in from where they've been lurking out of sight.

It's Aidan Outteridge, the former fifth member of the Strexcorp Management Board.

He'd been loyal to Hartley and the others for years. As committed to their plan as the rest of them were. And then… shortly before Strexcorp's first incursion into Night Vale, he'd found out that his only son, Callum – killed many years previously – hadn't been murdered by dissidents.

Oh no. He'd been murdered on Derek Hartley's orders, for his part in a dissident plot.

But that isn't the difficult part. The difficult part is that he'd been involved in the dissident plot because he'd been trying to save his boyfriend, and it was his boyfriend – under the control of the Bloodstone – who had struck the deathblow.

And that boyfriend was Kevin.

From what little Kevin knows of the events that transpired on the First Infernal Plane, three months ago, he's aware that Aidan tried to kill Derek at the Battle of Night Vale. And then he tried to help Cecil and Carlos kill him again, on the First Infernal Plane itself. And then he'd been re-bound in human form, so that he would be denied the right to die as a demon.

Only… there had been an incident, and he's been on the run ever since. Or, more accurately, it would seem, he's been here.

"Relax, Kevin," Aidan says. He has those same otherworldly blue eyes as the rest of the Management Board – and their surviving children – and Kevin can't help a little shiver of concern as they meet his own. "You know I don't blame you for my son's murder. We're both well-aware it was Derek's doing. So tell me… is he really dead?"

Kevin nods, carefully. "Yes. Yes, he's really dead. Cecil killed him. I saw it happen."

"And… there was nothing in the binding magics that will have caused him to snap back to the First Infernal Plane as a demon again?"

"No. When Cecil made you all human… he wasn't lying when he said he couldn't work out how Susan did that part the first time. Derek Hartley is really dead."

Aidan sighs softly, hands clasped at waist-height, and he looks down for a moment. "All right," he says, finally. "All right. Good. That's one piece of good news."

"It is… and it isn't," Kevin replies. "Mr Hartley is gone. Mr Tachibana and Ms Wallace too. Cecil killed all three of them. He's soul-bound to the Smiling God and he's taken over all of Strexcorp as a result."

All of them look a little horrified at this, even though they already know, and Kevin feels bad for inflicting it on them again.

"We have to work out what to do," Naomi cuts in. "This could well be a sign that the Smiling God is moving into its endgame, and if that's true… we may not have long left."

"It can't get through without an old oak door," Dana points out. "And so far, there haven't been any more sightings of them. Not even rumours."

"Very true," Naomi agrees. "But we have to be ready to move as soon as one appears."

"And we will be," Hunter insists, levelly. "Project Sigma is almost completed."

Kevin stares at him. "Project Sigma?" he repeats, confused.

"We'll get to that," Hunter replies. "A lot has happened since the first refugees tumbled through the portal from the Overworld and asked for sanctuary. We may not have been making many gains on the surface, but… we're stronger than Strexcorp knows."

"How have you even managed to survive down here?" Kevin asks. "How have you stopped yourselves from..?"

He trails off, something insisting on his mind all of a sudden: something he's been aware of since he woke up, but hasn't engaged with.

"…wait. Wait. We're right underneath Night Vale. Why can't I hear the song of the Bloodstone? Of both Bloodstones?"

Steve smiles. "Because Frederick is a darned genius, that's why. He–"

As if on cue, the main doors suddenly thud open, and a figure comes racing towards them: a man in a labcoat, running briskly up the central aisle of the hall and skidding to a halt close by.

"Sorry!" Frederick the scientist exclaims, bent almost double, hands on his knees as he catches his breath. "Sorry. Had to keep an eye on Sigma whilst Tomas was with Carlos, and then I realised I was late so I had to run all the way here, and…"

He trails off, straightening up at last, and then claps Kevin on the shoulder. "So glad you're back. So glad you're OK. Did I miss anything?"

"I was just about to tell Kevin how you saved us all from going Bloodstone-crazy," Steve explains, and Frederick's expression lights up at once.

"Oh!" he says. "Oh, that's a good story. Maybe even my best ever project." He bounces on his heels, still full of energy. "So, Kevin, you remember how we destroyed the first Bloodstone in Desert Bluffs, back during the first revolution?"

"How could I forget?" Kevin replies, trying to focus on the fact that they did, and not on the fact that Carlos ended up re-living that whole day twice as the result of a timeloop, and as a result of the fact that – the first time around – almost all of them got killed. Horribly. "You and Carlos built a device to nullify the effects of the Bloodstone by creating a counter-song."

"Exactly!" Frederick says. "And… you remember what our first plan was? The one we didn't use because… you know, because we didn't?"

Kevin nods. "Yes. An inverter, which… was supposed to turn the song back on the Bloodstone itself?"

"Got it in one!" Frederick answers. "So… long story short, I found a way to combine the two. A device that projects an inversion field and a nullifying field at the same time. It wouldn't be enough to flat-out destroy either of the Bloodstones – we'd need to get close to them with a full-blown nullifier and a resonator to do that – but… it was enough to create a defensive dome over Nebolgorod. The song is still there, but you can't hear it. None of us can."

He gives a little laugh, headtilting back towards the main doors. "It's out in the central courtyard. The locals call it the Obelisk of Silence. Neat, huh?"

"That's… I'm not even going to pretend to understand how it works, but that's kind of brilliant," Kevin says. "Carlos is going to be so impressed when he…"

The reality of the situation kicks back in. "Carlos," Kevin repeats. "We have to help Carlos. Before we do anything else."

"Do you know how?" Steve asks. "I mean… Naomi said that these soul-binds are hard to break. That if both people involved want it – or think they want it – your options are limited."

"That's very true," Kevin says. "But… there might be a work-around. Specifically, we need to get one of the planar administrators to do it for us anyway."

"You'll be lucky," Aidan points out. "They're only supposed to break a bind if one of the bindees requests it, and even then sometimes they're reluctant to do it because it's seen as bad form."

"I know that," Kevin replies, a little more sharply than he intended, and he gives Aidan an apologetic look before he goes on. "I know. But… I know a guy. Or, I know a guy who knows a guy. I think."

"Azzie?" Steve says, with a trace of a smile.

Kevin nods. "Azzie."

***

Carlos is sitting in the corner of Tomas' lab – steadfastly refusing to talk to him now – when the door opens and someone else steps in. He looks up, and his chest aches as he realises that it's Kevin. Kevin, who he loves desperately, but who has turned on him. And Cecil. And Strexcorp.

Tomas looks up too, breaking into a smile. "Kevin," he says, and flings his arms around the man, hugging him tight.

"Hey, Tomas," Kevin replies. "It's so good to see you. I don't know how to thank you for… you know. Everything. If you hadn't come back here when you did, Strex might have wiped this place out by now."

"You don't have to thank me," Tomas tells him. "I couldn't abandon you. You guys are my family. And all these other people needed my help too."

"From what I hear, they'd have been done for without you and Frederick both."

Tomas beams. "Oh, he is so much fun to work with. We have really compatible science-styles."

"How many death rays has he built now?" Carlos interjects, from the corner. "You two are as bad as each other!"

This makes Tomas give Kevin an apologetic look. "Carlos is still being super-weird. Please tell me you have a plan to fix him?"

Carlos rises to his feet at once, suddenly defensive, and trying to give Kevin his very best betrayed look.

It doesn't work. "Yes," Kevin answers. "I'm not certain, but we're going to try."

"You have no right to do this to me," Carlos insists, his heart starting to race. "None at all."

Kevin sighs, rubbing a hand over his forehead, and then paces closer. "Carlos. I love you. I love you desperately. But right now, you are not thinking clearly."

"I am thinking just fine."

"You are not fine! You have been brainwashed by Strexcorp!"

"…Mind-controlled," Tomas cuts in, suddenly. "Mind-controlled. Brainwashing is when you undo conditioning. And this isn't conditioning because that's a whole drawn-out process."

Carlos scowls at him. "Semantics," he says, pointedly.

"Oh, brother, you'd be telling us exactly the same thing if you weren't mind-controlled right now."

"…We should do this before you two get any worse," Kevin interjects.

"Agreed," Tomas says, though he's grinning.

Kevin takes a deep breath. "All right. Tomas… just… just try not to overreact for this part."

"Since when do I–?" Tomas starts off, and then Kevin draws his knife, which makes Tomas change tack in mid-sentence. "…Right, of course, not overreacting…"

Carlos, meanwhile, continues to give Kevin his very best betrayed expression, whilst trying to push down all the mental images that spring to the fore at the sight of that blade. Smiling God, it's like trying to think through fog.

"Carlos," Kevin says, softly. "I need you to come with me."

"Kevin… please don't do this," Carlos replies. "I don't want the soul-bind breaking. I don't. Just… just let me go. Or, better yet, come back with me. Cecil will forgive you. He loves you. He loves us both. We can make everything right."

Kevin looks agonised. "We're going to make everything right," he insists. "We're going to free you. And then… then we can work out how to save Cecil. Now… please, just come with me."

Carlos folds his arms. "No."

He wonders if part of him still wants to provoke the very reaction he gets. If he wants the other man to push him into the wall, the way he does right now, blade to his throat, dark eyes determined.

…it would really help if Tomas wasn't watching, though.

"Carlos," Kevin says, pointedly. "Come with me."

And, before Carlos can argue, he's been pulled away from the wall and walked out of the lab, Kevin's knife held at his throat.

And part of him still enjoys it.

***

The lab, it turns out, is in a new complex very close to the Cathedral of Huntokar. Seeing the vast building brings back so many memories, although they're memories from before, so Carlos tries not to engage with them for too long.

Kevin leads him up towards the central palace, with Tomas following along behind. Carlos' mind is racing as they go, trying to work out a way out of this, and starting to realise that there isn't one.

And then they make it to one of the more secluded courtyards, where Naomi and Darla Hartley are waiting.

"I told everyone else to give us space," Kevin says to Tomas. "Carlos may not be happy now, but he's going to be much worse once this bind is broken. But… you're his brother, so you can stay if you want."

Tomas nods, a flicker of genuine concern in his eyes. "This is… safe, right?"

"Probably," Naomi says, as she and Darla pace over to join them. "What we're asking is technically against the rules, but even if the administrator overreacts quite a lot, we should be more than a match for them. Especially if we have Azatothoth here too. I'd summon Ozhen'ipleth as well, but I'd really rather not have anyone blipped out of existence today if I can help it."

"I… meant for Carlos," Tomas clarifies.

"No one will hurt your brother," Kevin insists. "No one. Ever again."

"Except you," Carlos cuts in.

Kevin sighs, sounding agonised once more. "Carlos… just… you'll understand when all this is over. I'd like to say everything will be fine, but it won't be. It… will just be better than it is right now."

Carlos doesn't deign to respond to this. In any way.

"…I need to summon Azzie," Kevin says, resigned. "Someone please keep an eye on Carlos."

And Carlos is so sure that it will be Tomas who agrees to do this that he's rather taken aback when Naomi and Darla both draw their own knives and step up either side of him. And they don't even have to lay a finger on him to make him suddenly very, very determined to stay still.

Kevin, meanwhile, takes a couple of paces forward, holds up his hands, and begins the chant to summon Azatothoth the Bloodthirsty. The ritual circle blazes into life on the tiled floor, light dancing into the air as he invokes his longtime demonic ally; everything burning brighter and brighter until – in an unholy flash – Azatothoth himself appears in the centre of the circle.

"Ah, Kevin," he starts out. "Are we–?"

And then he pauses. "…Dread Father, we're tiny right now. Aren't we? You're back in Nebolgorod! But why would you be in Nebolgorod? It's where the dissidents… oh. I…"

And the demon actually clears his throat, a little nervously. "…Hello, Ms Naomi."

"Azatothoth," Naomi says, smoothly. "So lovely to see you. How have you been?"

"Ah… well… working for Strexcorp again, actually, because Kevin…"

Azatothoth trails off, giving Kevin a suspicious look. "…You're back to normal, aren't you? As much as you could ever be called 'normal'. How did you do it?"

"Long story short… Cecil killed Mr Hartley," Kevin explains. "So my soul-bind with him broke, and I was instantly back to being myself."

"And then he lied to Cecil and abducted me and ran off to these dissidents," Carlos cuts in.

Azatothoth the Bloodthirsty actually gapes at him. "…How long since you last summoned me?"

"Uhm… a little over two days?" Kevin tries. "I think. Nebolgorod works on different time to the Overworld so I still have whatever you call jetlag when there's no jet, and plus I was unconscious for a while because of the blowdarts, and… look, Azzie, I'll explain everything properly later. I promise."

"But… you're definitely not working for Strex any more?" the demon pushes.

"No. No. Definitely not."

Azatothoth seems to exhale at that. "Thank the Dread Father. You know how I hate those guys. Now… what exactly did you summon me for?"

"I need your help," Kevin tells him. "Carlos is soul-bound to Cecil, and Cecil is soul-bound to the Smiling God. And I realise you can't help with the second part, but you can help with the first part."

"Kevin, you know I can't break soul-binds. For that, you need an administrator."

Kevin nods. "Yes, I do. Trouble is, I also need an administrator who will break a soul-bind without the consent of either party."

Now Azatothoth stares at him. "…One of these days you are going to get me killed. Do you ever follow the rules for anything?"

"I do," Kevin insists. "Sometimes I do. But right now… right now I need someone to break this bind. And I figured, if anyone has a guy who could do that, it would be you."

Azatothoth facepalms. "…Fine. Fine. I'll put you in touch with my guy. But he is not going to like this."

"I realise that," Kevin replies. "So you're going to have to persuade him."

"You want me to rough-up an administrator?!"

"I want you to… encourage an administrator. Firmly."

The demon sighs. "All right. All right. I can't believe I'm agreeing to this, but… fine. I can give you a location sigil for my guy on the Fourth, but you're going to have to open a planar gateway to get him here."

"I… can do that," Kevin says, taking a deep breath. "I mean… the Fourth is manageable, right?"

"You can do it," Naomi tells him. "Darla and I could help you if you want, but… you can do it on your own. I know you can."

"Or you could just not," Carlos points out, which makes Azatothoth look at him in surprise.

"Seriously, you're actually evil right now, aren't you?" the demon says.

"He's not evil," Kevin insists, before Carlos can reply. "He's just… mind-controlled. And I would very much like to put a stop to it. So… give me this sigil, and let's see if I can actually open a planar gateway to the Fourth."

Apparently, he can. It takes Kevin a few moments to draw out the right kind of ritual circle, and for his over-tall demon to show him what he calls a 'locus sigil', so that the other end of the gateway will open in the right place. And then… Kevin performs the ritual.

And it works. And it's very impressive. Really, very impressive. And, under different circumstances, Carlos would find it extremely hot.

Just… not right now. (OK. Not much.)

"Djarn!" Azatothoth calls, into the swirling vortex. "Djarn, come on, I'm waiting."

There's a pause, and then a figure steps through the gateway: a demon, around Carlos' height, with a ring of horns on his head, amber eyes, and an outfit that seems to consist mostly of buckles.

"…You yelled?" the newcomer says, giving Azatothoth a pointed stare.

"I did," Azatothoth replies. "Djarn the Administrator, may I present Kevin, of the Greater Metropolitan Area, and Naomi and Darla Hartley, of the same. And… Carlos the scientist."

"…I'm… familiar with the names," Djarn the Administrator says, looking at Naomi in particular with a nervous flicker in his eyes. "News travels fast on the Infernal Planes."

"Hopefully not too fast," Naomi says, pointedly, with a little smile.

"Oh, I won't breathe a word of this," Djarn clarifies, hastily. "Whatever this is." It's at this point that he looks at Azatothoth again. "What is this?"

"We need you to break a soul-bind for us," Azatothoth tells him.

Djarn looks perplexed. "I do that sort of thing a lot. It's perfectly normal, and you know that. But you are clearly up to something, so… what's the catch?"

Kevin takes a step forward. "The catch is that both parties involved want the bind to stay in place, but we need you to break it anyway. I need you to break it anyway."

The smaller demon looks him up and down. "I'm not allowed to do that. It's against the rules."

"I know," Kevin pushes. "But I need you to do it nonetheless. It's a bind between Carlos and Cecil Palmer."

Djarn stares at him like he's lost his mind. "Cecil Palmer?" he repeats, voice hollow. "The new head of Strexcorp? The man who killed Derek Hartley?! I am not messing with anything involving him! Also… wait. This is a soul-bind between two humans? So it's a master-slave bind?"

"Don't call it that!" Azatothoth exclaims. "I have to work with Kevin after you've gone!"

"Which is an issue because..?"

"Because I had the same kind of bind with Mr Hartley," Kevin cuts in, evidently deciding to save Azatothoth from having to say any more. "But he's dead, so… let's try to worry about one thing at a time, shall we?"

Carlos, meanwhile, is now unable to stop thinking about the name Djarn just used to describe his bind with Cecil. Because that… wow, that's all kinds of hot…

"I'm not allowed to break a bind without one of the two parties consenting," Djarn says, flatly, but evidently also in favour of keeping things on track. "Especially when one of them is the most powerful human alive and soul-bound to a very dodgy deity. It's more than my life's worth."

Azatothoth sighs, and – without a word – picks Djarn up with a single hand on the back of his buckle-covered outfit and lifts him three feet into the air like he weighs nothing.

"…This is unacceptable!" Djarn exclaims, somewhat high-pitched. "You can't threaten me! I'm a planar administrator!"

"You're a squishy mortal, is what you are," Azatothoth rumbles. "And I'm an adjunct. And if I tell you to break this soul-bind, you break this soul-bind. Or I break something else you're more fond of. Like your head."

"By the Dread Father, be reasonable!" Djarn retorts. "I want to help! I do! I'm just not allowed!"

"Djarn," Naomi cuts in, smoothly, "this is important. Carlos was coerced into accepting the bind."

"You have to consent to it," Djarn points out. "He must have said yes."

"He said yes because Cecil was torturing him at the time!" Kevin nigh-on explodes, and everyone goes quiet.

Even Carlos feels odd at this. Cecil was… what? Why would Cecil do that?

"…If my bosses find out what I've done…" Djarn says, slowly.

"…Refer them to me," Naomi tells him. "I'll talk them down. I promise you. And none of us will breathe a word about your involvement."

There's another awkward silence.

"All right," Djarn agrees. "All right, I'll do it."

And Azatothoth lowers him mostly-carefully back to the floor. Djarn pointedly brushes himself off, glaring at the taller demon for a moment, and then he turns to Carlos, expression a little hesitant.

"You're… going to need to…" he starts out, and Kevin – apparently understanding – immediately goes to take hold of Carlos from behind.

Carlos wishes it didn't feel so wonderful when he does that.

Djarn nods. "…I… good. All right, then…"

And the smaller demon approaches Carlos, looking at him carefully.

"Don't," Carlos insists. "Don't you dare."

Djarn sighs. "Your associates really aren't giving me much of a choice. So… just hold still. I promise this won't hurt."

"…People keep telling me that," Carlos murmurs, though he isn't sure why.

And Djarn reaches out, laying one hand on Carlos' head and the other on his chest. He pauses a moment, and then starts to chant something in a language Carlos can't identify. Seconds later, there's a burst of red light, and a sensation like pressure running all the way through him, leaving him cold, and…

…Carlos gasps. And gasps. He feels as though he's just had a knife yanked from his chest, and his knees almost give way at the sensation, and…

…and he remembers. Remembers Cecil making him say yes. Remembers going under. Remembers everything, as if through a haze.

He remembers further back. Remembers a cell. Remembers threats in a dark room. Remembers that morning when…

…when…

He jumps so violently that Kevin lets go of him, and immediately backs away, holding up his hands, heart racing so fast that he wonders if they can all hear it.

He's in Nebolgorod. He's in Nebolgorod, and they've just… and he's just… and…

Somehow, Carlos meets his brother's eyes, and sees that there's very genuine alarm in Tomas' expression. The other man looks like he's about to speak, but Carlos shakes his head.

"Don't," he whispers. "Don't…"

Kevin takes a step towards him, his own expression filled with agony. "Carlos…" he starts out.

"Don't," Carlos says again, shaking. "Just…"

He can't. He can't. He can't.

An old instinct flares in his chest, and Carlos turns.

And runs.

Chapter Text

Cecil Palmer stands on the balcony outside his office, bathed in the light of the sun.

He takes a deep breath, fighting the urge to draw his dagger; fighting the urge to blast the man standing close by with a quick burst of planar energy. Enough to knock him off his feet. Enough to leave him reeling.

It would be fitting.

"Both of them?" Cecil pushes, softly, in the kind of voice people are going to learn to be wary of.

"…Yes, sir," Andrew Fletcher replies, sounding truly nervous. "Both of them. After Carlos left your office… there were several sightings of him and Kevin in the building; the last of which were down in the main parking lot. After that… after that there are a couple of captures of Kevin's car on the traffic cams, and then… nothing."

Cecil grips the edge of the balcony until his knuckles turn white.

"Both of them?" he repeats. "Both of them are gone?"

"I… yes, sir. Yes. Both of them are gone."

Cecil turns at once, and Andrew takes a marked step back, looking more than a little scared for his life. Which is good, because he should be.

"I want them found," Cecil says, firm and level. "Redouble the search efforts in Pine Cliff, and step up the visible enforcer presence here in the Greater Metropolitan Area. I want them found and I want them brought here and I want them on their knees at my feet, begging for mercy. Do you understand me, Andrew?"

"Yes, Mr Palmer," Andrew answers, very quickly.

"Good. Now get out."

The other man does not need telling twice. When he's gone, Cecil turns back to the cityscape, lifting his head, letting the light of the sun – of the Smiling God – play over his face.

This is not what was supposed to happen. Not at all. But… he'll get them back. And then they'll learn that you don't run from Cecil Palmer.

Not when you know what the consequences are.

***

Carlos doesn't even know where he's running to.

Partly because he doesn't know where he could go, and partly because it's been months since he was last here and he can't quite remember where he actually is. So… he's a little taken aback when he rounds a corner close to the palace and finds himself skidding into another open courtyard.

There's no one here, and that's a good thing, because the instant he sees it he has to lean on the nearest pillar. He's been here before. This is the courtyard where, during their time in Nebolgorod last fall, he watched Cecil and Kevin summoning things together.

It was adorable. Mind-blowingly, heart-meltingly adorable. And when the memories hit, and he remembers just how happy he'd been, Carlos drops to his knees, tears in his eyes.

How? How did they go from that to… to… this?

He can't think. He mustn't think. If he thinks, if he remembers, the mental images swell up like a tidal wave and threaten to overwhelm him.

"…Carlos?"

He jumps a mile, leaping to his feet and turning at once, to see Kevin standing a little way off. The other man looks like he's right in the middle of the worst day of his life, and academically Carlos is well-aware of why that is…

…because he's not soul-bound to Hartley anymore, because Hartley is dead, so now Kevin will be thinking clearly again for the first time since that awful, awful day on the First Infernal Plane, and…

"Don't," Carlos says, again, holding up a hand, fighting back fresh tears. "Just don't. I can't."

Kevin looks like he's going to drop to the floor himself at that, and it's clearly taking all his energy not to. "Carlos… please… just let me talk to you. That's all. I'm not… I won't…"

Carlos gasps out loud as a fresh wave of images hits him all at once. He remembers the things he wanted. The things they made him want and… and the things he did want. Remembers the things they did to him… things that tripped all the unspoken fantasies at the back of his head. Things that made some of those fantasies come true.

He shivers at the memories. At the imagined echoes of hands on his skin. At the surge of need that rises unbidden, colliding with everything else he feels right now, leaving him cold.

He wants to be angry. He wants to be angry so very, very badly, but he can't be, because the person he's angry with is dead, and the man in front of him is just as much a victim too. Maybe even more. But, at the same time, Carlos can't just switch off the memories of what happened.

"I can't," he insists, again, his voice cracking. "The things you did… I…"

"I was soul-bound!" Kevin exclaims. "My free will was buried so deep, I still don't even know if I'm thinking straight now! And… Carlos… I would never have hurt you if I didn't… if I wasn't… I…"

"Don't you think I know that?!" Carlos explodes, suddenly; all the walls in his head going down, as his emotional mind races to catch up with his rational mind. "Don't you think I know that you'd rather have died than go back to working for that monster? I know. I know. But it doesn't change the memories. It doesn't change the fact that I spent three months alone, with no idea what had happened to everyone in my entire world, and then you and Cecil just waltzed back into my life and overwhelmed me so utterly that I could barely work out which way was up!"

"I had no control over any of that!" Kevin retorts. There's a trace of heat in his tone now, but no less agony. "I was soul-bound! Mind-controlled! Again! Sometimes I don't even know who I am anymore…"

He trails off, dark eyes wide with horror, and then paces up to the nearest pillar, slapping both hands against it and then rocking his head against the cold stone for a long moment.

He had no control. He had no control. Carlos knows this is true, and it only makes everything hurt more. And… something else, too.

"I am sorry," Kevin says, finally, stepping away from the pillar and facing Carlos across the courtyard again. "I would tell you as much every day until my last if I thought it would help."

Carlos rounds on him at that, closing much of the distance between them as he does. "I don't want you to apologise!" he exclaims, with all the fire he's got left. "You said it yourself… you were soul-bound! Don't you think I know that too? Don't you think I know that none of this was your fault?!"

Kevin stops dead. "Carlos… wait, are you actually angry with me or not? Because… because you should be."

"Yes, I am angry with you!" Carlos answers at once. "But I'm not angry with you for what happened. I'm angry with you for not telling me that we can fix it!"

It's too much. It's too much. Carlos falls to his knees, choking back a sob, and something clearly snaps in Kevin because he closes the rest of the distance between them all at once, throwing himself down on his knees in front of Carlos and grabbing hold of him, pulling him into a firm, furious hug.

Carlos tries to push him off. Hard. Not because he wants to, but because he needs Kevin to stop him. Needs the other man to fight back. It works this time, and Kevin just keeps hold of him at every turn, until Carlos goes still and collapses against him, sobbing brokenly.

"…We can fix it," Kevin chokes out, very softly. "I… I don't know how yet, but… but we can. I got you back, didn't I? I got you away from… from… from all that."

"I thought I'd lost you both forever," Carlos gasps, and the words are a strange kind of relief to say, even though every one hurts like a knife to the gut. "And now… now you're here and you're you… and… and if you can be saved then Cecil can be saved, and… Kevin, tell me we can fix this!"

"We can fix this," Kevin says, again, a little more firmly. He's still shaking almost as hard as Carlos is, but he doesn't let go. "We're here. We're with the resistance. We're safe. And whatever it takes to save Cecil… we'll do it, Carlos. We'll do it. You and me. I promise."

"And… what about us?" Carlos pushes. "Here and now. What about us?"

Kevin pulls back, meeting his eyes, looking suddenly like Carlos has punched him in the gut. "I won't… I won't do anything you don't–"

Carlos cuts him off in mid-sentence, slapping Kevin across the jaw, eyes full of fury. "Stop holding back," he gasps.

And that makes the other man stare at him. "Don't push me down this road," Kevin says, and his tone is suddenly dangerous. "You're in shock. And let's not forget that you're the one who ran from me."

"To make you chase me," Carlos retorts. "You know, like you didn't the first time."

That is a low blow, and Carlos hates himself for it the moment he hears the words slip his lips. It certainly makes Kevin glare at him, fury creeping into his own eyes now.

"So what, then?" Kevin demands. "Instead of playing this carefully, what would you rather I did? Pin you to the ground and kiss you senseless?!"

"Maybe you should!"

"Well, maybe I will!"

"Go on, then."

And Kevin launches at him, bowling them both to the tiled floor and grabbing Carlos' face in both hands, kissing him bruisingly hard. There's a second when the memories of recent events make a fresh wave of panic rise in Carlos' chest, and then he pushes through it, seizing hold of Kevin and pulling the other man in against him.

Kissing him. And kissing him. And not letting go, no, not now, not again…

It's a long time before the kiss breaks enough for Carlos to breathe, and he's dizzy as he stares up at Kevin, his heart racing so fast his whole torso hurts.

"I love you," he gasps. "I l–"

Kevin kisses him again, wrestling for his wrists and slamming them down on the ground, holding him in place. It makes Carlos cry out against the other man's lips, the shock in his eyes clear and unveiled. And, when the second kiss breaks, Kevin stays in close, almost nose-to-nose with Carlos; staring at him intently and not letting up the pressure in the slightest.

"Tell me to stop," he whispers.

"I don't want you to stop," Carlos retorts.

"I am a dangerous killer who is alarmingly susceptible to being mind-controlled and very good at lying," Kevin pushes. "Tell me to stop."

Carlos meets his eyes, expression firm but no longer harsh. "No."

And Kevin kisses him again, still holding him down; pushing his hands up above his head so as to grip them with just one of his own; leaving the other free to grasp the side of Carlos' jaw, keeping him close even as the kiss finally breaks once more.

"Please tell me they gave you a room in this place," Carlos gasps. "Because I woke up in the back of my brother's lab."

Kevin stares at him, so intent now. "They gave me a room," he replies.

"You know how to get to it from here?"

"Given that I recognise this courtyard… yes. I think so."

"Good. You think maybe you should take me there?"

Kevin holds his jaw more firmly. "Is that what you want?"

"You think I'd suggest it if I didn't?"

That gets him kissed again, deep and passionate, and then Kevin scrambles to his feet, yanking Carlos up too and pulling him in close.

"Come on," he says.

Carlos knows this is insane. Completely insane. He's only been back in his right mind for moments at best, and there's a strong argument for saying that – whilst he's definitely free of the soul-bind – he's not yet in his right mind at all. And the logical, sensible part of him says he should stop, and take a breath, and talk about this some more.

And the rest of him, the parts of his being that came to life when he first moved to this insane place and met the two astonishing men who changed everything forever… those parts of him are crying out for something rather less complicated.

He doesn't want to talk. He wants to have three months' worth of fear and pain pushed squarely out of his head, even if only for a short time. He wants to remember what it's like to just breathe.

He wants.

Kevin leads him through the palace, a hand on his arm, and it's probably for the best that they don't run into anyone because the two of them must make a worrying sight right now. Eventually they reach a door, and Kevin jams his hand in his pocket and tugs out two keys, using one of them to unlock the door and let them into the room beyond.

The bedroom in question is grand and impressive – like everything else in this place – with a large central bed, a door to the adjacent bathroom, and various other furniture that Carlos barely notices because his brain gets as far as bed and then stops seeing everything else. He's vaguely aware of Kevin kicking the door shut and dropping those two keys onto the nearest table, and then the other man grabs hold of him and kisses him again.

It's so good. So very, very good. Carlos holds on tight, pressing in as firmly as he can, needing the contact more than oxygen.

When the kiss breaks, Kevin puts both hands on his face, keeping him close. "Tell me what you want," he says.

"I want you," Carlos replies. There is, of course, a much more complicated answer, but in the end it all boils down to this.

"But… how?" Kevin pushes. "Do you want me to be gentle? Or… or not gentle? Or–?"

"Kevin," Carlos interjects, firm but soft, "I want you to be you. Whatever that means right now. Whatever you need."

The other man stares at him, suddenly very intent. And intense. "I need to fix you."

"Good," Carlos replies. "Because I need to fix you. So let's start with that."

He knows what Kevin also needs. He needs to take charge. But he clearly doesn't quite dare, because of everything that's happened. But… the incident in the courtyard is proof that he can do it. It will just take a little… encouragement.

So Carlos pushes the other man back on the bed, and climbs swiftly on top of him, pulling off his own shirt as he does. The action seems to take Kevin somewhat by surprise, but he recovers quickly, wrapping his arms around Carlos and dragging him in close, so that they can kiss again.

"Oh yes," Kevin gasps, dark eyes shot with pleasure.

"I know what you want," Carlos tells him, in between kisses. "I know. Now stop holding back. I'm not afraid of this. I'm not afraid of you. I love you."

For a moment, all Kevin seems able to do is stare at him, and Carlos can feel how fast the other man's heart is racing. And then… then he just reacts; grabbing hold of Carlos and flipping them both, so Carlos is flat on his back with Kevin on top of him.

And now it's Carlos' turn to feel his heart racing. Instinct makes his mind react with fear first and foremost, but he stamps it down almost at once. He doesn't need to be afraid. He knows that. He's safe.

Kevin kisses him again, bruisingly hard now; hands lacing through his hair at the same time as pushing a knee between his legs. Carlos gasps at that, unable to hold back a little whimper, his blood suddenly burning with need.

"Come on," he pushes, when the kiss breaks. "You have me. You brought me here. You've got me in your room and in your bed. Do what you want with me."

That makes the other man grasp the side of his face, still staring down at him. "I won't hurt you," he says; a refusal, not a reassurance.

"I don't want you to hurt me," Carlos replies, and this is true. He's not sure he could handle it right now. "I want you to own me. I want you to see that you still can. I want you to see that I still want you to."

Kevin kisses him so very hard again, drawing it out as long as possible and then breaking the contact with a breathy gasp, pushing up enough to tug off his own shirt and toss it aside. And then… then he meets Carlos' eyes for a moment, as if trying to read the truth in them.

He must feel reassured by what he sees, because now Kevin pulls back enough to facilitate grabbing hold of Carlos and flipping him firmly over onto his front, curling in on top of him. It makes Carlos' heart race even harder, and it helps that Kevin is now pinning him down because it means he can't run.

He doesn't want to run. Not anymore.

"Do you even know what you're asking for?" Kevin growls in his ear.

"Yes," Carlos retorts, firmly. "I know exactly what I'm asking for."

"Well, then…" Kevin says, deliberately letting the sentence trail off, and leaning to kiss Carlos roughly at the base of his neck. And then he starts to slide slowly down Carlos' body, kissing all along his spine as he goes, and it feels so good that Carlos can't help gasping out loud.

And then Kevin starts to strip him – given that he's still fully dressed from the waist down – tugging everything off quickly and efficiently and tossing it all off the bed, not stopping until the man beneath him is completely naked. He pauses a moment to do the same to himself, and then starts to slowly kiss his way back up the length of Carlos' body, starting from his ankle and working all the way up to the base of his neck again.

It feels amazing, but Carlos can't stop himself shivering at the attention. At the way it feels when Kevin curls in over him once more, taking his hands and pressing them into the pillows either side of his head.

"Oh," Carlos murmurs, mind going a little hazy.

"Does that feel good?" Kevin asks him.

"Yes," Carlos gasps. It does. It makes his heart race thunderously hard, but it doesn't make him want to put a stop to this. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Kevin's hands tighten over his. "You know I could hurt you, don't you?" he pushes, softly. "I already have you pinned. It wouldn't take much to get you tied to the bed, face-down and helpless. I could do anything I wanted to you, and you wouldn't be able to stop me."

"But you won't," Carlos replies, barely more than a whisper, but so very sure. "Not unless I ask you to. Not unless I beg you to. And if I don't… I know you won't."

And I'm going to prove it to both of us. Prove that you're not the man that monster made you. Not now, and not ever again.

There's a moment of silence, and then – very suddenly – Kevin pushes up, takes hold of Carlos, and flips him back over, before curling in once more, now face to face and hardly blinking.

"Why do you trust me?" he asks, voice cracking a little.

"Why shouldn't I?" Carlos whispers in reply.

Kevin kisses him at that; kisses him hard and deep, pushing a hand down between them and starting to stroke Carlos firmly. The contact makes Carlos gasp in pleasure, and – now that his hands are no longer pinned – wrap his arms up around Kevin, keeping him close.

"I love you," Carlos says. His voice is cracking as well, and he should not be this nervous, but none of it will stop him.

"I love you too," Kevin tells him, resting their foreheads together. "I thought… I thought I might lose you. Thought you might never…"

Carlos meets his eyes. "…you have me. You see?" He takes a deep breath, and then lets his arms drop, slowly moving his hands up above his head. The action sends a fresh jolt of nervous energy racing through him, and he can't stop shaking. But it doesn't stop him doing this. Not one bit.

Kevin kisses him again, more gently this time. "I want you," he whispers. "I want you badly."

And, despite it all, Carlos manages a smile. "Then maybe you should see if there's lube. The people who give us these rooms invariably leave some. That, or the universe wants to make sure we never stop having amazing sex…"

The words come from a different place and time, but they're also an anchor back to that place and time. Or… forward to it. Proof that it isn't gone. Proof that three months of hell can be temporary.

Proof that this – they – can be fixed.

Kevin smiles too, and kisses him once more, and then leans over to the side, reaching out to the nightstand and tugging open the drawer and…

…settling back into place on top of Carlos, with a bottle of lubricant in hand.

"You see?" Carlos says, almost shyly.

"I do," Kevin replies. "You're… sure?"

"Yes. I am sure."

He is. Carlos won't deny that he still feels terrified, but at the same time… this is the most normal he's felt in three months. And they both need to see that this is all right.

Carlos isn't confident of much right now, but he is confident that neither of them could make it through this on their own.

And he doesn't just mean the sex part.

Kevin keeps staring at him for a long moment, his dark eyes seemingly searching for something, and then he nods, and pours out a little of the lubricant, slicking two fingers. Then he nudges Carlos' legs apart, kneeling between them, and slowly starting to slide the first finger into him.

"Oh," Carlos gasps, his own fingertips curling into his palms. "Oh… yes."

It's only been a few days – two? three? – since the last time they were intimate like this, and yet somehow, right now, it feels a lot longer. He shivers at the gentle intrusion, murmuring in pleasure as Kevin starts to slowly slide that finger back and forth, feeling need sparking anew through his blood.

"Please," he whispers, after a moment.

"More?" Kevin asks him.

"More," Carlos answers.

Kevin obliges at once, slipping a second finger in alongside the first, and making Carlos cry out in bliss, rocking his hips up, trying to give the other man all the access he can.

"Is that good?" Kevin asks, with another little smile.

Carlos nods rather a lot. "Yes," he says. It is. It's so good, he feels like it might break him, but not in a bad way.

Kevin dips down and kisses his chest. "Do you want me to keep going?"

"…I want you," Carlos whispers.

And something about that makes Kevin move fast; pulling his fingers free and reaching for the lubricant again, slicking himself with it and then curling over Carlos, pushing into him all at once.

"Ohyes," Carlos gasps, instinct making him lift his hands from where they've been up above his head and wrap his arms around Kevin. Needing to hold him. Needing to keep him here. "Yes… yes, like that… Kevin, please."

The other man doesn't stop now, hips moving quick and firm, and Carlos feels like every thrust is pushing them both out of their minds. He pulls Kevin in closer, kissing him over and over, gasping against his lips.

"Oh, Carlos, you feel so amazing," Kevin breathes, cupping his jaw. "I need you. I love you. I love you."

"I love you too," Carlos whispers. "I don't know what I'd do if you weren't here. And I don't just mean the obvious."

"I'll protect you," Kevin tells him, not slowing the movement of his hips as he does, and the sudden intensity of it is dizzying. "I promise. I won't let anyone hurt you again. You hear me? Not anyone."

Carlos nods, shakily, and pulls him in to kiss once more. "I know," he says, softly. "I know you won't." And he holds on tight. "I won't let anyone hurt you, either."

And Kevin just loses it at that, kissing Carlos so hard he can barely breathe, whilst pushing a hand down between them, stroking him quick and sharp; enough that, within a moment, they both go right over the edge at the same time, bliss breaking through them with thunderous force, crying out against each other's lips.

As it fades back, the final aftershocks shuddering through them, Kevin takes hold of Carlos and rolls them both onto their sides, arms wrapped tightly around him, not letting go.

They lie still, tangled together, locked together, breathing hard.

"…please tell me this isn't the part where you throw me out…" Kevin whispers, his voice shaking.

Carlos pulls him in even tighter. "Never," he manages, horrified that Kevin would even think it, and feeling sparks of old guilt when he remembers why. "If you don't stay right here, it might kill me."

That seems to make Kevin relax a little, though neither one of them lets go even slightly. Carlos is still shaking from head to toe, and he can feel the terror rising up again, but the warmth of the other man's touch somehow keeps it at bay.

"…We're going to fix this," Kevin says, very softly. "I promise you."

"Yes," Carlos agrees. "Yes, we are."

"I'm so sorry," Kevin tells him. "You know that, don't you? I'm so very sorry."

"You don't have to be," Carlos replies, shakily. "What happened… it wasn't your fault. I know that. I knew that."

Kevin curls in tighter, shaking so hard that Carlos tries to wrap him in more. "…the things he made me do…"

And suddenly, Kevin just breaks; tears coming fast and hot, and it's even more awful than it otherwise would be because Carlos knows Kevin never cries. He'll come apart inside, but he doesn't cry.

And now he is. Carlos holds onto him with shaking hands, stroking through his hair, trying to soothe him. "It's all right," he whispers, feeling on the verge of breaking down himself, and desperately trying to resist it. "It's all right. We're safe. You saved us. You saved us, Kevin."

"This is all my fault," Kevin gasps, like every wall in his head has not just come down but shattered into a million pieces. "This is all my fault. If I hadn't let that monster seduce me in the first place, none of this would have happened!"

"None of this is your fault," Carlos insists, firmly, pushing Kevin onto his back and staring down at him. "Don't you dare think otherwise. Not for one second. It's that monster's fault, and he's dead now. He's dead, and soon his god will follow, and we'll get our Cecil back. You hear me?"

Kevin looks up at him in shock. "How can you be sure?"

"Because I am. Because I believe it."

The air itself seems to shiver at that word.

"We are going to fix this," Carlos insists, again, after a moment. "You and me. We're going to fix this, we're going to fix everything, and then you'll see."

The soft surety in his voice seems to make Kevin relax a little, and he nods slowly. "All right," he says. "All right. And… we don't have to do it alone. There's a lot of people here, and the ones I've spoken to so far were surprisingly pleased to see me."

Carlos nods shakily. He, of course, has seen some of them too, but under rather less pleasant circumstances. "Because they know this wasn't your fault," he says. "Or… or mine. And… are your family here? And… Cecil's family?"

He feels guilty for not having asked sooner, but… he was somewhat distracted.

Now it's Kevin's turn to nod. "Yes. Yes. All our family is here."

Carlos breaks a little at that, and rolls them both back onto their sides, curling in tight. "Good," he says. "That's good. We… should probably go and find people. Soon, I mean. Not… not yet."

"No, not yet," Kevin agrees. "Right now, I just want to lie here with you."

And that's something Carlos is more than content to do. He knows that the world waiting outside their bedroom door is a frightening one, and what comes next will be even more terrifying than what's gone before.

He knows their Cecil is still in terrible danger, still in the thrall of the most powerful being ever to threaten the place they call home.

He knows there's still so much he hasn't engaged with; so much still lurking in the shadows, waiting for its moment to intrude upon his thoughts.

He knows things are a long, long way away from being fixed.

But they're closer than they have ever been before.

Chapter Text

It's a while before the two men finally decide to move. Although, the first place they move to is the shower, which means they're still mostly wrapped in each other's arms.

Once they're finally presentable, they head out in search of people. Kevin still feels more than a little guilty about having run off on Naomi, Darla, Tomas and – indeed – Azzie, the way he did. He just… didn't have a choice.

Hopefully Azzie managed to placate Djarn. And… oh, hopefully Naomi was able to close the gateway to the Fourth Infernal Plane.

…Kevin really wasn't thinking straight back then, was he?

He wonders if he is now. He walks with Carlos next to him, the other man holding his arm, staying very close, and that definitely helps. He'd been so terrified that Carlos wouldn't even speak to him after what happened, so given how things actually went… he's definitely doing better.

He still feels raw, though. Raw and emotional, with all of it writ large across his face, and he's more than a little nervous about interacting with other people right now.

Plus, he knows Carlos is repressing more than he should be, and he's scared what will happen when the other man engages with it. But… they can deal with that, when it arises.

They can.

Kevin opts to lead the way to the central throneroom first, expecting to find someone there, and being rather taken aback when he pushes the door open and finds quite a few someones.

"There you are," Naomi says. She looks more relieved than anything else, her eyes flicking between them as they walk closer, obviously trying to work out where things stand.

"Here we are," Kevin replies, approaching the group gathered near the main dais.

Other than Naomi, Darla is also here, as is Hunter. At his side, looking both concerned and relieved, is Earl Harlan, who has been living in Nebologorod himself since the incident at Night Vale's first Eternal Scout ceremony, and who has been dating Hunter since what happened last fall.

Along with them are Steve, and Dana, and Aidan. And…

"…Vanessa?" Kevin whispers.

She's here. Dana Cardinal's double. The brave, brilliant young woman who was his intern at the radio station in Desert Bluffs for years. Who he watched die, over and over, only for her to come back the next day every time, as though nothing had happened. Who he thought was dead, for a whole year.

It was news of Vanessa's survival that had sparked off the events that led to the First Infernal Plane in the beginning. The last he'd seen of her, she'd been running from the square outside the Dog Park in Night Vale, going to warn Naomi what was happening. And then…

…then he'd been lost.

And now she's here. She moves in closer, almost nervously, and – clearly understanding – Carlos lets go of Kevin's arm for a moment, so that Kevin can wrap the young woman into a hug.

"I'm so glad you're here," he tells her. "So glad you're OK."

"Thanks to you," she replies, as she steps back. He does the same, pulling Carlos in close again, needing the contact.

"Vanessa has been with us since all of this started," Dana says, with a smile. "We make a good team."

"I don't doubt it," Kevin answers.

They saved her. That has to count for something.

"It really is a relief to have you here too," Earl now says. He's holding Hunter's hand at his side, and seems more than a little shaken. "I'd hug you both, but I don't dare make you let go of each other again. Are you..?"

"…all right?" Kevin finishes, when Earl can't quite. "No. But… we're better than we were. And we're here. And… please tell me Azzie isn't really, really mad at me?"

Naomi smiles. "Oh no, he was surprisingly understanding. Apparently he has to take Djarn for 'all the drinks' to make up for what happened. So… everything considered, we got lucky."

"We have two of you back," Hunter says. "We got really lucky. Now… now we just need to work out how to save Cecil."

"How do you even break a soul-bind to a god?" Steve asks. "I mean… that's what he's got, right? So if we can free him from it…"

"It depends on the god," Aidan replies. "With the Smiling God… it won't be easy. But it is possible. I know that Lauren was soul-bound to the Smiling God for a while, and I know that Derek made her get the bind broken when they were still on the First Infernal Plane. So it can definitely be done, and without causing harm to the person involved. We just need to work out how."

"Shame Djarn can't do it," Darla says.

"I know," Naomi agrees. "But he can't. Soul-binds between humans and demons are one thing… but a soul-bind with a god is something else."

"I know how to do it," Carlos cuts in, suddenly, and everyone looks at him – not just because of the assertion itself, but because this is Carlos, and soul-binds really aren't his speciality.

"You do?" Earl says, looking hopeful.

"Yes," Carlos answers. "And whilst I won't pretend to understand any of this sort of thing, because it isn't science, and it defies science, and so on… there's one way to break a soul-bind that always works. Regardless of the type. You kill one of the bindees."

Everyone stares at him. He obviously isn't suggesting that they kill Cecil, which means the alternative…

"…you want us to kill the Smiling God?" Kevin manages.

Carlos nods. "Yes. Whatever this thing is… it's done more damage to our two towns than can possibly be measured. We kick it out, we kick Strex out, but sooner or later… they come back. It comes back. So if we want to win this, we focus on the real enemy."

"But… how would we even do something like that?" Hunter pushes. "I mean… it's a god."

"I don't know," Carlos replies. "Like I said, this really isn't my area of expertise. But… I'm currently standing in a room whose occupants include a demon, a half-demon, and a necromancer. Not to mention my boyfriend who summons things for fun. If you can't work it out… no one can."

"So… no pressure, then," Steve says, with a little smile; clearly trying to defuse the tension in the room.

Kevin's heart is racing. With the exception of the last three months, he hasn't worshipped the Smiling God for a long time, but he remembers what it was like. Remembers the festivals and the ceremonies; the joy and the laughter and the blood. And the very idea of taking on the entity that was the source of all that… it's terrifying.

"We'll start looking into options," Naomi replies. "I have a sizeable portion of my old library down here, so there could well be something of use in one of the books. And… I have something else, too…"

Her eyes go to the others; to Hunter and Dana especially, and there's a moment of silent consideration before the other two nod.

"…Journals," Naomi goes on. "Journals I inherited after my father was presumed dead the first time. Journals kept years ago, by my mother."

"You think there might be answers in them?" Kevin asks. "Surely the last thing Susan would have wanted was to kill the Smiling God?"

"Oh, I doubt they will help in that respect," Naomi agrees. "But… there is something you need to see, Kevin. You and Carlos."

Kevin meets her eyes. "Should we be worried?"

"It's… complicated," Naomi replies, carefully. "But it can wait. We need to give the two of you time to recover, before you launch back into the revolution business."

Kevin doesn't want to wait. Kevin wants to act, because if he acts… he doesn't have to think.

"To that end," Naomi goes on, "you should know: your sister wants to see you. Your niece too. Kirsten wanted to give you space when you first got here, but she says she can't wait much longer."

"Caitlin said the same," Steve chips in. "She and Janice are desperate to see you. Both of you. They've been… we've been… so worried."

Kevin feels his heart race all over again. He wants to see them. Desperately. But, at the same time, he's a little terrified to do it. Carlos grips his arm tight, clearly understanding.

"They're… they're not mad at me?"

"Of course not," Steve insists. "All of us know that what happened… it wasn't your fault. We know."

"We made sure everyone knows," Hunter tells them. "We knew that we'd eventually get you back, and we wanted your homecoming to be as smooth as possible. Yes, some people might be a bit wary for a while, but… I won't stand for anyone rejecting you. Not after what you've been through. Not my family."

Kevin can't help being ridiculously grateful for this, and he manages a nod.

"Go see Kirsten and Caitlin, and the girls," Naomi says. "Then we can take it from there."

***

So Steve leads Kevin and Carlos off – leaving the others to continue their discussion – and deeper into the palace. When they're alone in one of the grand corridors, and well out of earshot of any of the red-and-purple-liveried guards, Steve stops, and looks at Kevin and Carlos, and then promptly hugs them both.

At the same time.

"I really am so glad you're back," he says, his voice shaking more than a little. "I wasn't sure how long we could all keep going, knowing that… knowing that you were out there, in that place, but… it all feels better, now you're with us."

"How… how did you all even end up down here?" Kevin asks, because he's not quite sure how to engage with the rest right now.

"Wow, that's a long story," Steve tells him. "I guess the short version is that, when Naomi and Darla and Frederick and I finally made it back to our own plane, we–"

"…hold on," Kevin interjects, staring at him. "'Back to our own plane'?"

"…Oh, you don't even know that part, do you?" Steve says, realising. "Three months ago, when you all… when you got sucked onto the First Infernal Plane… the four of us went after you. After we'd destroyed the Bloodstone in Night Vale, using that brilliant tech Frederick and Carlos built – and after Naomi had taken out those two crazy half-demon twins – we met up with Vanessa and she told us what had happened to you. So… Naomi summoned Azatothoth, and–"

"…Naomi summoned Azzie?!" Kevin exclaims. "Why?"

"To get him to help, of course!" Steve explains. "He was super well-behaved, too. I think maybe he's scared of her."

"She's half-highborn demon," Kevin points out. "Of course he's scared of her."

"Well, then she and Darla and I managed to open a gateway to the Fourth Infernal Plane," Steve goes on, and all Kevin can do is stare. "I mean, it was really weird and I didn't even think I could do it, but apparently that distant demon blood I have makes me better at this stuff than I thought. So we got onto the Fourth – us and Frederick and Azzie – and started making our way to find you."

"…Wait, the planes are connected?" Carlos cuts in. "That's… oh, I don't even know why I'm trying to make sense of it anymore…"

Kevin pats him gently on the arm. "Some of them are. The Infernal Planes, certainly. But they're connected in sequence, which means you can only go up or down the line, and you have to cross the planar bridges, and… it isn't safe."

"Kind of neat, though," Steve says, way too calmly. "Between us, we eventually made it to the First, and to the part belonging to… you know, belonging to him. But… we were too late. You were gone. We had to make our way back to the Fourth before we could find a point where we could open a gateway to Night Vale."

"…Hold on," Carlos cuts in, again. "It took all three of you to do it?"

Steve nods. "Yep. Naomi says opening a full-on gateway is really high-level stuff. Much more difficult than just summoning something. But you can make it easier if several of you do it together. We considered risking a gateway to the Third, but… Naomi said it was safer to stick with the Fourth, and plus it meant we had Azzie watching our backs because boy, that place sure is messed-up, and…"

"…Kevin opened a gateway to the Fourth," Carlos says, before Kevin can stop him. "Earlier, when he was… you know, when he was getting my soul-bind broken. He opened a gateway to the Fourth on his own, like it was… like it was nothing."

He lets go of Kevin and takes a step back, and Kevin feels a fresh wave of guilt at the way the other man looks at him.

"Just how powerful are you?" Carlos asks, softly.

"I… don't even know," Kevin admits, not quite able to meet Carlos' eyes. "I mean… I'm not Cecil. I can't do… you know, all those things he can do. But… the more I push myself… the more I realise there's a lot I can do."

Carlos takes his arm and curls in close again, and that's quite a relief. "Don't be scared of it," he says. "We can't win this without you."

Kevin looks down. "You can."

Not letting go of him, Carlos turns, and rests his other hand on Kevin's cheek, gently urging him to look up again. "We can't," he says, careful and sure. "I know it."

"Carlos is right," Steve interjects, softly. "Everyone knows it. When word got out that the two of you were in Nebolgorod, that you were free… the mood in the city went through the roof. People finally think we can win this."

Kevin takes a deep breath. "We'd better not let them down then, hey?" he says, trying to smile. Trying to see himself the way everyone else apparently does, as opposed to… whatever he really is.

This. The half-broken double of a man who will always be stronger than him.

"You… were telling us how everyone ended up down here?" Kevin pushes, deliberately changing the subject.

"I… oh, yes, yes," Steve says, eyes lingering on Kevin, but evidently letting himself be distracted. "So, we got back from the Fourth, and Night Vale was in chaos. The Management Board and their army… they moved fast. Quite a lot of people…"

He looks down. "Quite a lot of people didn't make it. But quite a lot more, plus all the ones who had been hiding out over at the seismic monitoring station… they made it. We regrouped with them, and we spent a day and a night frantically trying to work out what to do, and then…"

Steve's eyes go to Carlos. "Then your twin showed up."

Carlos stares. "That fast?"

Steve gives a little chuckle. "Well, I mean, he is part of the vague-yet-menacing government agency. So they must have known straight away that something was going on. And… and whilst the rest of them didn't seem to care, Tomas, he… he came here as soon as he could. Took a leave of absence. And by 'leave of absence', I think what he means was that he walked out and told them he'd be back when he was back, and if there was still a job for him then that was good, and if not it wouldn't stop him going anyway."

Carlos looks touched at that, and he clearly isn't sure what to say.

"He probably saved all your lives," Kevin points out, because it's true, and he knows it for a fact. If they'd stayed somewhere in the Greater Metropolitan Area, Strex would have found them. He would have found them. And…

…don't think that, don't think it, don't think it.

"We were already contemplating a retreat down here to Nebolgorod," Steve goes on. "We just didn't want to put everyone at risk when it was so easy for Strex to find us. So… Tomas worked out where to move the portal. Genius idea. And then Frederick said we needed to make sure they couldn't get down here the old-fashioned way, so he snuck out that night with Hayley and Donna, and he ambered the entire Fun Complex."

"He really is brilliant," Carlos says. "Insane, but brilliant. Although I'm still worried about the fact that he and Tomas have had unmoderated access to each other for three whole months. I'm surprised they haven't built some kind of superweapon."

Steve goes a little pink, and Carlos facepalms. "Just don't tell me," he says. "I can only take one thing at a time right now. Just… carry on with the story."

"That's pretty much it," Steve replies. "Hunter agreed to take us all in, so we sent everyone down here in waves, and then Tomas moved the portal on the surface, and… here we are. Most of us haven't been topside since. I mean… Tamika and her militia go all the time, and some of Sam's people as well. And we've got runners who communicate with the resistance cells on the surface, but… it's been a long time since many of us saw the sun."

"You're not missing much," Kevin points out. "The echo of the Smiling God has been hanging in the sky since very early on."

"So I'm told," Steve says, with a shiver. "I have no desire to see that again."

He stops beside a door, and gestures to it. "Here we are," he says. "This is my place. Kirsten and Gillian should be here too, by now."

And Steve opens the door, leading them into the room beyond. Kevin only has a moment to take it all in before a pair of identical women launch at him and Carlos, wrapping all four of them into a firm, fierce hug.

"I thought you'd never get here," Kirsten – Kevin's sister – gasps, as they all finally step back. "Don't you ever do this to me again. Once was bad enough."

"I'm sorry," Kevin insists. "I'm so–"

"And don't apologise," Kirsten insists. "I know what that maniac did to your head. It's sick. It should be outlawed."

"It is outlawed on quite a number of planes," Kevin points out.

"What about my brother?" Caitlin – Cecil's sister – asks, taking Steve's hand as he steps in closer, now that the first round of hugging is over. "Is he..?"

"Physically, he's fine," Kevin answers. "Mentally… he's entirely under the control of the Smiling God. So… that's not good."

"But you can fix it, right?" Caitlin pushes.

Kevin looks at Carlos, remembering all the words they said earlier, and then he meets Caitlin's eyes, nodding. "Yes. Yes, we can fix it. It won't be easy… but we will."

"Good. Just… you do that. You get my brother home."

"We will," Kevin says again, trying to let himself feel more sure of it. "Now… where are our nieces?"

"Right here, Uncle Kevin," comes Gillian's voice, from the door to a side-room that he guesses must be Janice's bedroom. She and Janice emerge, looking cautiously over at them, and then at their mothers.

Both of whom nod, nigh-on in unison, and it's clearly all the two identical young women need to make them hurry over, wrapping their uncles in a hug of their own.

"You're… really here to stay?" Janice asks, as the hug breaks.

Carlos nods. "We are. We're with you now. And we're glad to be."

"But… are you OK?" Gillian pushes. "You were gone for so long. It must have been…"

She trails off, biting her lip, looking worried. She and Janice aren't adults, but they're old enough – and bright enough – to understand a lot, and they must surely be aware of more than they're letting on.

"We will be," Kevin says. "We're certainly better for being here, and for seeing all of you again. It really is a relief, to know you've been safe all this time."

"We have," Kirsten says. "As much as any of us is at the moment. Hunter and his people have been so generous in letting us all stay – a lot of us right here in the palace. I… honestly don't know what we would have done otherwise."

"So… what happens now?" Caitlin pushes.

"Now… we figure out how to put a stop to all this," Kevin answers. "The quickest way to do it… if not the easiest… would be to kill the Smiling God."

"Is that even possible?" Kirsten asks, staring at him.

Good question. "We don't know. But, if it is… it would break Cecil free of the soul-bind. He'd be himself again. And, given that he's currently in charge of Strexcorp… putting a stop to their activities would then be much easier."

"So… you just need to work out how to kill a god?" Caitlin says.

"Yep," Kevin manages. "So, you know… no pressure."

"If anyone can do it, it's you," Steve chips in, softly. "Or Cecil, of course, but… you know, not so likely in his case right now."

"Where do you even start trying to work out how to do something like that?" Kirsten asks.

"Good question," Kevin replies. "I'm hopeful that Naomi might have an idea. She's got Susan Hartley's journals, and… I think there might be something in them."

There might be a lot in them. Though, much of it, he doesn't ever want to see.

"You should go find out what," Caitlin says.

"We will," Carlos answers. "But… later. For now, both of us just want to spend some time with all of you."

And they do. They sit, and they talk, and even though they're talking about life in exile, in a miniature city under a bowling alley, beneath a sky ruled by the echo of a malevolent god… it feels so gloriously normal.

And that helps. That helps so very much.

***

They end up spending the rest of the afternoon together. When evening comes – and Carlos really needs to get a grip on what time it is supposed to be down here (or would be, if it existed) – Caitlin and Kirsten lead the way to a huge central dining room, where a large number of people are gathering to eat.

And that's a welcome thing, because Carlos really isn't sure when the last time he ate even was. Plus Nebolgorodian cuisine is surprisingly good, once you get past the part where they don't have coffee.

Just uncoffee. Which he finds he likes more than he remembers.

Finally, Caitlin, Kirsten and their daughters head off, leaving Carlos and Kevin to walk back to their own room, and Carlos' heart starts to race anew as they do so.

He knows that being around their family has helped him and Kevin both. As has how vehemently the key leaders of the resistance have insisted on accepting them back. But…

…he also knows there's a lot still unsaid. A lot he's hiding from. A lot Kevin is hiding from.

The air feels heavy when they make it back to their room. The door closes behind them, and Carlos paces further in, suddenly aware of the break in contact. He and Kevin have hardly let go of each other all day, and now…

"We should talk," he hears himself saying, but he doesn't turn.

Kevin sounds very far away when he answers. "What about?"

"About… about what…" Carlos starts out, but then he trails off. Maybe he shouldn't have said anything at all.

But he has, and he can't take it back.

There are footsteps behind him, and then he feels hands on his shoulders. He lets Kevin turn him gently, meeting the other man's eyes after a moment.

"…What happened before," Carlos manages. "If I… I mean, I know I…"

Deep breath. Very, very deep breath. "I… pushed too hard. I shouldn't have."

"You think you could make me do a thing I don't want?" Kevin asks him, softly.

"Kevin… this morning… if I'd asked you to bring me the moon, you would have found a way to do it. You… you were still…"

He can't say it. He can't. He has to.

"…you were still looking for someone to obey, and I pushed you into… into…"

"No," Kevin insists. "You… you wanted to show me…"

"I wanted to show you that I trust you," Carlos whispers. He did. He does. "I wanted to show me that I trust you. But I… should never have provoked you…"

Guilt makes him try to pull away, and Kevin grabs him by the shoulders before he can. "Don't," he begs, softly. "Don't run. I'll do anything. Just…"

Carlos doesn't want to run. Not really. Part of him wants to hide from everything, but more of him wants to fix this, and that instinct is definitely winning out. But the way Kevin is falling apart… it's terrifying. It's so terrifying, it's making Carlos forget how scared he is about the rest of it, because this is so much worse.

He pulls Kevin in with shaking hands, and the other man lets him, and only when he's holding on tight does Carlos speak again.

"Tell me. Tell me the things you aren't saying. Tell me all of it. Nothing you can say will hurt more than the silence."

"…the things we did to you…" Kevin manages, after a moment. "They were… They were unforgivable."

"If you had done them in your right mind… yes… but… you didn't. You weren't. You were soul-bound. I know that. And, now that you're free… I know that I'm safe with you again."

Kevin pulls back a little. "Do you? What if something else makes me turn on you? What if there's some other factor in play that I don't even know about yet? I had a dormant soul-bind with Mr Hartley for years, and I never knew. And then he activated it, and… Carlos, do you even know how far I would have gone, if he'd asked? I would have hurt you. Or worse. I was ready to. I remember what it felt like."

"He's dead, Kevin," Carlos whispers. "He can't hurt you any more. He can't hurt either of us."

"No," Kevin agrees, softly. "No, he can't. And maybe… maybe that will start to sink in eventually. But it doesn't change what I did. It doesn't change what Cecil and I did to you. And you… you should be angry with me."

Carlos puts a hand on the side of Kevin's face. "Why? You were just as much a victim as I was."

"That isn't how it feels. That's not what I remember."

"Well… part of what I remember is you and Cecil fulfilling two of my deepest fantasies, so…"

Carlos stops dead. He did not mean to say that out loud. Not because it isn't true, but because… because this is not the time.

But he's said it. And now he's left a little cold as he realises he's going to have to deal with this a lot sooner than he'd hoped.

Kevin stares at him. "I know," he whispers. "Why do you think we did it? Both of us had suspected for a while that you wanted something more, and when we discussed it… we realised we had the same thing in mind. And we knew… we knew that, with the song of the Bloodstone in your ear… you wouldn't resist it quite so much, and…"

"I… the song? I… oh…"

Carlos' mind goes a little dizzy as he remembers. The song. The song that was in his head, and he hardly even knew it, but it was there, insidious and controlling, and it…

"The Bloodstone doesn't make you go completely under unless you touch it," Kevin reminds him. "The rest of the time, it just makes you a lot more suggestible. Compliant. It makes you inclined to obey, where you might otherwise have resisted. That's why it works so well. You want what you're told to want, and the desire feels real. And in your case… the desire was real. We just needed to make sure you didn't resist long enough to see that."

And it worked, didn't it? They lulled him so far under that he didn't even want to resist.

"That was the plan, in the beginning," Kevin goes on. "We were going to keep seducing you until you went under completely. Until the Bloodstone and our will were enough to make you obey. But… when Cecil was soul-bound to the Smiling God, he changed the timescale. No doubt he'd already decided to kill Mr Hartley, and wanted to get you under his control as soon as possible."

A wry look. So very, very wry. "He should have done it to me, too. But… that's a whole different issue. The point is… The… The point is, what we did to you…"

And he trails off, pacing away, looking like the whole world is breaking apart around him.

"Kevin," Carlos says, very softly, "both of us weren't in our right minds. Maybe… maybe we should just accept that. You… you took advantage of me, and I… I let you do it, rather than fighting back."

"You're not in the wrong for not resisting!" Kevin exclaims, horrified. "You had no way of knowing what we'd do if you did. I won't let you blame yourself for this. Not for one second."

"Then you don't get to blame yourself either," Carlos tells him, as firmly as he dares. "You were a victim too."

There's a long, heavy silence.

"You… really aren't angry with me?" Kevin asks, voice barely more than a whisper.

"No. I am really not angry with you. And I hope you can forgive me for what happened earlier. For pushing you like that. I… was so scared…"

Carlos feels suddenly like his knees are going to give way, and luckily Kevin can tell because he grabs hold of him at once, wrapping him into a firm, tight hug.

"I forgive you," Kevin whispers. "Sweetheart… I forgive you. Maybe I needed it. Maybe I needed reminding that…"

He doesn't so much trail off as simply stop in mid-sentence, pulling back just enough to cup Carlos' jaw, staring at him. Wondering at him, perhaps, and then kissing him, firm and deep, and so intense that Carlos suddenly feels dizzy with it.

"Tell me what you need," Kevin says, as the kiss breaks.

"I need what you need," Carlos replies. "Whatever that may be."

There's a moment when Kevin is clearly hesitating, and then he nods. "Right now… all I want is to hold you in my arms. To know that you're safe there. To know that you know that you're safe there."

"I already do," Carlos tells him, gently. "But… I wouldn't say no to being reminded."

And soon, they're curled up in bed together, skin to skin and just holding each other close, and Carlos feels better than he has all day. He knows this is just the start of it. Knows they still have a long way to go.

But at least they're on the right road.

Chapter Text

Naomi and Darla Hartley have a suite of rooms at the back of the palace. Carlos isn't surprised that they're a little removed from everyone else, and nor is he surprised – on entering the first of their rooms, late the following morning – to discover that it contains a large, long table, of the sort one could hold board meetings at.

Or make breakfast for a lot of people.

Right now, Naomi is seated at the table in question, surrounded by books. Darla is nearby, engrossed in a book of her own; a book with pages so black, it feels like the thing is actually absorbing light.

Best not to ask. Darla is a necromancer, after all.

"There you are," Naomi says, looking up as Carlos and Kevin step into the room. "How are you both this morning?"

"…Better than we were," Kevin answers, softly. "And now that we're here…"

He glances at the pile of books on the table, and then looks to Naomi again. "…you've found something, haven't you? Something we need to know about."

Naomi gives a soft sigh, and Darla closes her own book, getting up and pacing over, standing with a hand on her wife's shoulder.

"Yes," Naomi answers. "I… look. Sit down, and I'll explain."

So Carlos and Kevin settle at the table too, opposite Naomi. Carlos finds Kevin's hand under the table and holds on, still not quite able to let go of him for long.

"Something has you rattled," Kevin says. "Really rattled. And that's no mean feat."

"No," Naomi agrees. "No, it isn't. Let me start at the beginning. When we evacuated down here, I brought as many of my books as I could. I realised what must have happened to you, and I was trying to find a way to break a soul-bind remotely. But… you can't. You have to have at least one of the bindees physically present. So… then I started trying to find other things that might help us. Lore about the old oak doors. Ancient stories of the Smiling God. And eventually… I realised I was going to have to consult the journals of one of the Smiling God's most devoted advocates."

"Your mother," Kevin says, carefully.

Naomi nods. "My mother, yes. I don't know what made me bring all of her journals when I came down here, but… I guess on some level I knew I'd need them. I've had them in my possession since my dad died. The first time. But I'd never really looked at them. I couldn't. My mother was…"

Darla's hand tightens visibly on Naomi's shoulder, and Naomi lifts her own hand to lay it over her wife's for a moment.

"…she was dangerous. She was the most dangerous human to walk the Earth in a very, very long time. The things she could do… I suppose we should be grateful she was content to live the way that she did, because if she'd wanted… there's no telling how much devastation she could have wrought. But… there is something about her that very few people know. Something I wasn't aware of the extent of, until recently. My mother was prophetic."

"…I know," Kevin says, softly. "I didn't realise it until late on, but… right before she died…"

"She called people to her, yes," Naomi answers. "She called people to her, and she told them things, you included. It was only after I faced down the Belmonte twins that I realised she had told them everything they needed to do. Their plan – raising the second Bloodstone, luring the three of you in – was her plan. Her revenge, on those who thought they'd killed her husband. But it was more than that. She didn't know who would do it, but… she knew someone would."

Naomi takes one of the books and opens it, turning it so they can both see. Inside are page after page of handwritten notes, in a narrow, curving script: some in English, and some in a language that Carlos guesses is Dzy-an-thyl. He's seen that script often enough in ritual circles to have an idea of what it looks like, even if he can't read a word.

"Her earlier journals are much more like a diary," Naomi explains. "She talks about her life, about her family. It's… not so shocking to me, because I lived through a lot of it, but I imagine most other people might be horrified by what she had to say. But this journal – her final one – is different. Interspersed among the discussions of her life, there are… interludes. To the untrained eye, many of them look like bizarre attempts at poetry, but… that's not all they are. They're prophecies. I don't know if my mother did something to make herself see these things, or if it just happened, but she started writing them down."

"And she was… accurate?" Kevin asks, shakily.

As if in answer, Naomi spins the book back around and leafs through to a particular page, beginning to read from it.

"And the heavens themselves will spiral,
But beneath it will rise a new sky,
As the sire of the slighted seeks vengeance,
So will the last moment pass by,
An old wound by silver struck open,
Then the lord of the desert will die."

Kevin pretty much stops breathing at that, and Carlos can only grip his hand as hard as possible.

"That's… she's describing the Battle of Night Vale," he manages, when Kevin clearly can't. "This… how? Your mother really wrote all this years ago?"

Naomi nods. "She died five years before that battle took place. And yes, she wrote every word. And… there's more."

She turns back a page, revealing an intricate drawing of a ritual circle, with words surrounding it, and slowly, she starts to read again.

"North where the angels lie,
South where the truth can't hide,
East where the lawman goes,
West where the farmer grows,
And at the heart, to lead the fight,
The first of five, the voice of night."

Now Carlos can't speak either. This is all insane. This is all insane, and impossible, and true.

"This is the prophecy Strexcorp had, when they first moved into Night Vale," Naomi says, softly. "This one, at least, my mother must have chosen to share."

"That's…" Carlos tries. "It's…"

"It's what led Strex to go after the five people on the list," Kevin says, voice barely more than a whisper. "Josie, Steve, Larry, John… and Cecil. But… that drawing, in the journal… Naomi, is that even possible?"

"What do you mean?" Carlos asks, lost. "It's a ritual circle. But…"

And then he looks at it, and at the words around it. And he remembers a day long ago: a map on a wall, with crosses at its cardinal points, and one at the very centre…

"…hold on. Wait. Are you telling me that they were all some sort of… living ritual circle?"

"Brilliant, isn't it?" Darla says, and there's awe in her voice despite everything. "No wonder they managed to do the things they did. And Susan 'World's Most Powerful Human' Hartley foresaw all of it half a decade earlier."

"I'm not telling you all of this to scare you," Naomi goes on, carefully. "Or to impress you, for that matter. I'm doing it so you can see that the things my mother prophesied had a tendency to come true."

"What else is in that book?" Kevin whispers, and Carlos feels cold as he thinks precisely the same thing at the same moment.

Naomi glances up at Darla, and then back down at the book, turning several more pages before coming to one at the very end.

"This is the last thing my mother wrote," Naomi says, softly. "She had this journal with her in hospital when she died. So this… this is Susan Hartley's final prophecy."

On that page is another drawing: this time, a triangle, filled with a stylised drawing of a sun, with lines radiating out from it. And, beneath the symbol, is a passage written in shaky but clear script.

"One hundred days will come and go,
Before the Smiling One finds perfection,
And the radiance will spill out to show,
The sealing of the soul's final connection.

Blood, to mark the golden pact,
The greatest sacrifice of all,
And in the wake of this true act,
The loyal heart at last must fall.

The noblest gift, to pay the cost,
As the herald takes the lead,
But all our hopes could still be lost,
If none my warning choose to heed.

Three to five, and five to three,
All now searching for the door,
But victory tilts to those who see,
Three still key forever more."

Naomi falls silent, and in the wake of her words, neither Carlos nor Kevin can speak. Carlos himself can hardly breathe.

"…'Three still key'," he manages, finally. "That's… that's us. Or… or not us? Or…"

"It's hard to say for sure," Naomi replies. "That's the tricky thing with prophecies like this. They're tediously vague."

"That middle part isn't so vague," Kevin points out. "I mean, it's not clear as glass, but… 'The loyal heart at last must fall'? Did she realise she was foreseeing her own husband's death? Why didn't she try to warn him?"

"Maybe she didn't know," Darla says, oddly softly. "Or… maybe she did. Maybe that's why she wrote this. But… he didn't see it. Which… OK, we're not going to shed any tears over that."

"No. No, we aren't," Naomi agrees. "It's the fourth verse that scares me. Those words again. Fey's words. 'Three still key forever more'."

"It's supposed to be a warning," Kevin points out. "But… perhaps not one for us. Perhaps one about us. But…"

"…we aren't three," Carlos says, unable to keep the grief out of his voice as he does. "Not right now. So… what? We can't win without Cecil?"

"Perhaps neither side can," Naomi replies. "Strexcorp is down to three leaders now: 'five to three'. Cecil, Nina, and Lauren. But Cecil… he's the lynchpin. The tipping point. If he's with them, they're three. If he's with you, you're three."

"But… he's with them," Carlos points out, shakily.

Naomi nods. "Yes. Right now, he is. And that's a problem. Except…"

She looks down. "There's one more page. One more verse. You… might want to brace yourself."

And Naomi turns to the very back page of the journal, where there is a single symbol drawn: three interlocked triangles, and beneath them, one final verse of script. And as she reads it, the whole world stops.

"To those who wish to see the day,
When all is bathed in ceaseless light,
Hear now the final words I say,
Keep the scientist from the fight."

Carlos jumps up from the table and backs off, heart racing, eyes wide. "No," he says. "No. All this 'three still key' business is bad enough, but this? You can't put this on me. You can't."

Kevin leaps up too, going over to him and pulling him into a hug, and flatly resisting Carlos' attempts to push him off. Carlos goes still after a moment, when it becomes clear that Kevin isn't going to back down, and drops his head on the other man's shoulder, shaking.

"I know this isn't easy to hear," Naomi says, gently. "I know you've been through hell, and I know you didn't ask for any of this. But… you're crucial to how all this plays out. And if my mother was right – and she seems to have been right about everything else so far – then you're the one who can stop the Smiling God. You're the one who can save Cecil."

"But why me?" Carlos exclaims, pulling back from Kevin's arms at last, though letting the other man keep hold of him. "Why me? You're talking about taking on a god. I don't take on gods! I'm a scientist! I take on… science! And… I mean, look at you all! There's seemingly no end to the number of you with demon blood or untold powers or extra-planar allies, and… and I'm the one who's supposed to save everybody?!"

"Why not you?" Kevin asks him. "You're Cecil's greatest weakness. You always have been. You have a power over him that no one could break."

"So… what, I talk him down and it magically frees him from the Smiling God's control?!"

Kevin shakes his head. "No. Oh, no, that will take rather more. But you can get closer to him than anyone… and that's an advantage we must be able to use. I don't know how, yet, but… I know it's our way in."

"Kevin… all he has to do is look at me and I'll fall to my knees…" Carlos whispers.

But, at this, Kevin shakes his head again. "I don't think that's true. In fact… I know it isn't."

Carlos looks down, not exactly feeling convinced. It's… complicated. Even knowing that Cecil is the enemy right now; even knowing the things he's done… some part of Carlos is still drawn to him. To his power, his control, his certainty.

"What if it is?" he asks, very softly. "What if we try to do this, and… and I'm the one who messes it up?"

"Carlos," Kevin breathes, pulling him in again. "That won't happen. I know it won't. I know none of this is easy, but I also know that, when the moment comes, you'll do whatever it takes to save Cecil. Sometimes… I think you forget just how much you're capable of."

And at that, Carlos meets his eyes, with a sudden, wry look in his own. "Right back at you," he says, gently. Because that whole conversation is still coming.

"For the moment… we have two main issues to deal with," Naomi cuts in, carefully. "We need to work out how you kill a god. And… we need to find a way to stop Cecil letting it in, if one of the old oak doors appears. Which–"

"I… uhm… I may have some news on that second part," Kevin says, letting go of Carlos all of a sudden.

All three of them stare at him. "You do?" Naomi asks. "You…"

And then she stops, clearly understanding; a moment before Carlos, too, finds himself understanding the same. Not meeting anyone's eyes, Kevin paces back to the table, reaches into his pocket, and pulls out an object… and object he lays on the polished wood with a strangely resonant little sound.

No one moves.

It's a key. An old, worn key, made of dark metal, with a long barrel and a looped end.

Carlos realises he's seen it recently; that it was the other key Kevin had when he was letting them into their room yesterday morning. But… he'd been distracted at the time, and didn't question it even a little.

He questions it a lot now.

"Kevin… where did you get that?" Carlos breathes, his voice shaking.

"Where do you think?" Kevin replies, his own voice shaking far more. "I did the same thing I did last time. I seduced the most powerful man in the world, and I…"

He trails off, anguish in his tone, pacing away with his arms wrapped around himself. Carlos looks over at Naomi, seeing the pain in her eyes, and then throws caution to the wind, going across to Kevin and wrapping both arms around him from behind.

Kevin doesn't even try to push him off. He just… curls in on himself.

They've never talked in clear terms about how Kevin stole that very same key the first time. It was back during the initial occupation of Night Vale by Strexcorp and – realising how crucial it was – Kevin had managed to switch the key, Hartley's key, with one that looked identical, but lacked the profound extra-planar power that this particular one possesses.

He's never said out loud how he did it, but it doesn't take a genius to tell.

"…After the broadcast," Carlos says, very softly, and still not letting go of the other man. "When we got back to the pyramid, you and Cecil… you were alone in his office. That… that was…"

"That was when I did it, yes," Kevin answers. "I knew I only had a very limited window of opportunity, so I… I couldn't overthink it. I managed to get hold of one of the less powerful keys, and I went to him, and he… he was so very high on power, and I…"

"You don't have to say it," Carlos tells him, holding on tighter. "Kevin… you do realise this could be crucial? A game-changer?"

"It certainly was last time," Naomi points out, level and soft. "If my father had still had that key when he tried to open the door… it would have worked. The Smiling God would have broken forth into Night Vale. All could well have been lost, there and then."

"That's why I knew I couldn't wait," Kevin says. "I should have gotten Carlos somewhere safe before I put us at risk like that, but… I had to act. Immediately. It was the only chance I had. If Cecil had realised I was betraying him…"

"He wouldn't have hurt me," Carlos replies, his own voice shaking again as he remembers. "I was soul-bound at that point."

Kevin turns at that, meeting his eyes, with such fear in his own. "Carlos," he breathes, "you really think he wouldn't have tortured you to hurt me?"

oh.

"You… you really think he..?"

"I know it," Kevin whispers. "And some part of you would have wanted him to…"

Instinct – horror – makes Carlos let go of him at these words, though only for a second. Only long enough to realise Kevin isn't wrong, and then Carlos pulls him in again, holding on tight, not sure which part scares him the worst.

"But it's OK," he says, softly. Pleadingly, almost. "You didn't get caught. And you got me out. You got us both out. We're both here, and we're safe, and that's because of you."

"You should listen to Carlos," Darla cuts in, with an unusually serious tone. "He's smarter than you."

"He's smarter than everyone I know," Kevin says, his tone still shaking, but managing a smile as he meets Carlos' eyes again. "Except maybe his brother. And in that case it's a tie."

Carlos can't help giving him something of a look at that, though it's hard to argue right now given that Tomas did pretty much save everyone by hiding the portal to this place.

"Well," Naomi cuts in, carefully. "One way or another… we have the key. Which means, even if an old oak door does appear, Cecil can't simply open it. And he won't even know that until he tries."

"Which should buy us some time," Darla adds.

Naomi nods. "Yes. Time to work out how we kill a god. And given what my mother's final prophecy said… I think the answer might not necessarily lie in any of these old books. I think it might lie in the hands of our scientists."

Now Carlos looks at her. "Scientists… plural?"

And Naomi Hartley puts her hands on her hips. "Carlos," she says. "Go see your brother."

***

Carlos is not flat-out avoiding his brother. He isn't. He just isn't quite sure what to say to the man. They haven't spoken since before his soul-bind was broken, and he knows that the relatively brief time they spent together prior to that was rather more fraught than even Tomas would want to admit.

He knows his brother loves him. Yes, OK, sometimes Tomas has an odd way of showing it, but… Carlos knows he does. And he knows that what happened before genuinely rattled his twin, in a way he'd never admit.

And so, leaving Naomi and Darla to continue searching for answers in Naomi's salvaged library, Carlos and Kevin head out of the palace and down to the large, sprawling scientific facility nearby. Science in the city has really taken off since the events of last year, and that's certainly good to see.

Right now, the facility is also serving as home to pretty much all of Carlos' own team. They've made it their base of operations in exile, and have – no doubt on Hunter's orders – been given a generous amount of lab space.

Although, for a building that has played host to Tomas and Frederick for three months, the place does look suspiciously not on fire.

Perhaps mercifully, it's Toby who greets them at the door. He's one of Carlos' oldest friends, and usually serves as 2IC for the team when Carlos is caught up in some kind of world-changing calamity. Or on vacation. (Which can, of course, be the same thing.)

"Carlos," Toby says, a flicker of nervousness in his tone. "Kevin. So glad you made it. And… so glad you…"

He seems to lose it at that, and moves to give Carlos a hug, before freezing when he comes to Kevin and opting to shake his hand whilst giving him a warm – if careful – clap on the shoulder.

"I'm so glad you all made it," Carlos says, because he means it, and to save Toby from freaking out any more. "I've been so worried, and then I find out you're all here, and all… as OK as you can be in the circumstances, I guess."

"Oh, we're not so bad," Toby replies. "I mean… it hasn't been easy, but we've stuck together. And of course we've had plenty of science to keep us busy. You want to come see everyone?"

"I do," Carlos tells him. "Although… I need to talk to my brother first. Is he here?"

Toby gestures down the corridor. "He's in the main lab with everyone else. Usually comes to join us when he's not working on Sigma."

"Sigma?" Carlos repeats, confused, which makes Toby give him a very odd look.

"Oh, I heard that mentioned a few times," Kevin chips in. "Frederick said something about it when I first ran into him. But… no one's said what it is."

"You… need to ask Tomas about that one," Toby says, looking like he wants to take a step back, and like he wishes he hadn't mentioned it. "Sigma… Sigma's his project."

Opting to just accept this for the moment, Carlos nods. "All right. Just… take us to see everyone."

So Toby does. He leads them down the passageway and through a set of double-doors, into a huge, open-plan lab. As they step in, Carlos has to stop and stare at it for a moment, because wow, this place is impressive. It's filled with benches and cabinets and glassware and chalkboards and…

Kevin waves a hand in front of Carlos' eyes, which jolts his mind back to the here and now. "Would you two like some time alone?" the other man says, with a little smile.

"I… sorry," Carlos replies, with a slightly sheepish grin. "It's just…"

"You've missed this?" Kevin surmises, softly.

Carlos nods. "Yeah. I've missed this."

There should be numbers. Are there numbers? Numbers he could… OK, no, focus…

And he needs to focus right now, because – all around the lab – conversations have gone quiet, and faces are turning in his direction.

"Carlos!" Arlene exclaims. "You're here!"

They all converge on him and Kevin, and suddenly there is a lot of hugging going on – of Kevin too, even if some of them are a little wary of him – and it's all rather overwhelming, if reassuring at the same time. Eventually Tomas breaks through the crowd, waving his arms and trying to get everyone to take a step back.

"Hey, hey, easy there, give the two of them some space!" he says, and the other scientists do so at once.

And it helps. Though Carlos is still smiling as he looks around at them.

"Carlos… are you OK?" Arlene asks. "We've all been so worried."

"I'm… We're… I guess we're getting there," Carlos replies, glancing at Kevin as he does, and letting the other man take his hand again. "It hasn't been easy, I'm not going to lie to you. But seeing you all here… that helps. And… you, all of you… are you OK?"

"We've been better, but we get by," Toby answers. "It helps that we're together, and we're safe enough down here in Nebolgorod that it's given us room to breathe. Plus Hunter's people got us set up in this amazing lab."

"It's possible we're going to end up being written into the insanely complex religious lore down here, though," Donna chips in. "Given that we're all known associates of the Demon of the Upperworld…"

Carlos can't help a slight facepalm at that. It had been something of a shock to discover – on coming here last fall – that his initial appearance in Nebolgorod, at full size, had led to him being semi-deified by the locals as the mystical Demon of the Upperworld. It certainly made his time here decidedly odd, even if people did seem to relax around him once they realised he wasn't terrifying.

"…but hey, if it gets us more funding…" Toby says, with a grin.

"Somehow I don't think you have to worry about that," Carlos replies. "What are you all even working on, anyway?"

The scientists exchange a series of careful glances; the way they do when they have a reason to feel guilty.

"…OK, now I know you're up to something," Carlos says. "So… come on. One of you has to tell me."

"Just… just don't freak out?" comes a voice from the crowd, and Frederick steps to the front.

Carlos gives him a suspicious look. "You know that tone of voice has the opposite effect on me, right?"

"Yes," Frederick admits, though of course he doesn't sound remotely guilty. "But… try not to anyway. So… we heard how you told the Council of Three that–"

"…Hold on, the 'Council of Three'?"

"Oh. Yes. You know, the three leaders of the resistance? Hunter for Nebolgorod, Naomi for Desert Bluffs, and Dana for Night Vale. That's what they're called. The Nebolgorodians are very good at naming things."

"So I've noticed. OK. The Council of Three. Go on."

"So you told the Council of Three we need to kill the Smiling God."

"Yes," Carlos replies, carefully. "We do. It would instantly free Cecil from its control, and it would stop this whole mess from happening again."

"Oh, yes, we know that," Frederick goes on. "Only… no one really thought it was possible before, and any attempts to come up with an endgame plan have been focused on ways to push it back, in case it gets through to our plane. But… we've been thinking the same as you for weeks. And even though the Council thought it might be impossible… we've been researching it."

Carlos stares. At his side, Kevin stares.

"…You're working on ways to kill a god?" Carlos breathes, not sure whether to be delighted, mildly horrified, or both.

"Yep!" Frederick answers, brightly. "Several of us have been looking into different possibilities. It isn't exactly easy, and research is still ongoing, but it has been a little easier since we managed to get into the Otherworld Desert, and–"

"What?!" Kevin cuts in, and he is clearly more than mildly horrified now. "How?"

"I snuck a small team up to the surface," Tomas says, calmly. "We got into the house that doesn't exist, and from there – eventually – we managed to get into the Otherworld Desert."

"Are you insane?" Carlos breathes.

"Probably, a little," his twin concedes. "We didn't stay long. We couldn't risk it, given that the Smiling God has access to that plane and has a tendency to exist there quite often. But that's why we went. We hid at the foot of the mountain, and we observed the Smiling God for a short time."

"…You have empirical data on the Smiling God?" Carlos manages.

"Yep!" Frederick replies, beaming now. "It's pretty bizarre, all things considered, but… it's a start. And once we got back… and the Council were done telling us off for going AWOL like that… we started trying to interpret it."

"But… but why do they suddenly think trying to kill it is a good idea?" Carlos asks, which is probably not the first question he should ask at this point, but it's the only one his brain will actualise.

Frederick shrugs. "Because it's you, Carlos," he says, as if this should be obvious. "I mean, they would've come around to us eventually, once we gave them the numbers, but with you… when you say these things are possible, people are inclined to believe you."

"Because you're such a good leader," Toby points out. "And a good scientist. And you've been pivotal in saving us all more than once."

"So… so you're actually researching ways to kill this thing?" Carlos asks, trying not to worry about the rest.

"Yes," Frederick answers. "It's fascinating! I mean… most of what we've come up with is basically impossible, but sooner or later we're going to work something out!"

There's an odd edge to his tone that makes Carlos confident Frederick is hiding something. But he doesn't quite dare push the matter – not yet – and instead just nods. "I see. You're… aware of the irony of a bunch of scientists trying to kill a god, yes?"

"Irony in the colloquial sense!" Tomas points out.

Carlos facepalms again. "Semantics," he says, and his twin laughs.

Frederick gives another little shrug. "It keeps us busy. And if we can find something that will help… I mean, that's got to be good."

"You're not wrong about that part," Kevin says.

Carlos looks around at everyone. "So… all of you are involved in this?"

"Most of us are," Toby replies. "Some of us are focusing on other things that might help the resistance, or the people here in Nebolgorod."

"And that just leaves…" Carlos' eyes go to his brother.

Tomas nods. "Me, yes."

There's an instant caginess to Tomas' voice, which reminds Carlos a little too much of what his brother was like back when he first joined the vague-yet-menacing government agency.

"So just what is 'Project Sigma'?"

"It's… something I can't talk about yet," Tomas replies, carefully.

"Can't, or won't?"

"Can't. It… Carlos, just trust me on this one. Please."

Carlos sighs. "It's not a superweapon, is it? If it's a superweapon, you have to tell me, and it could be because it's you, and you've been around Frederick all this time, and…"

Tomas takes a step forward, a worryingly serious look in his eyes. "Brother. I promise you, it is not a superweapon. And Frederick has been focused on the god-killing project. This one… this one is on me."

"Do the council know?" Kevin pushes, when Carlos can't quite. "They mentioned Sigma, but do they actually know what it is?"

"Yes," Tomas replies. "Yes, they do. And the whole thing has their approval. It isn't some crazy scheme."

"Yeah, crazy schemes are more Frederick's thing," Arlene points out, and she's not wrong.

"All right," Carlos says. "All right. But you're going to have to tell me sooner or later."

"I know," Tomas replies. "And I will. Just… trust me for now."

Carlos nods. He'll try. But it isn't easy, because something is going on, and he doesn't like not knowing. But… he also knows why Tomas is being so cagey, and he likes that even less.

After all… if Carlos doesn't know what Sigma is, he can't give it up if he's captured.

Kevin clearly understands the same, because he puts his arm around Carlos at that, and there's something especially defensive about the way he does it.

"So… what can you show me?" Carlos asks, instead.

"Plenty," Tomas promises. "Although… can I speak to the two of you alone for a moment?"

Carlos nods, and the three of them head to the corner of the lab, whilst the other scientists start to disperse, going back to their work.

"Look… don't get upset with me about Sigma," Tomas starts off.

"I'm not," Carlos replies. "I… know why you're doing it. I just wish…"

"I know," Tomas says, softly. "I know. How are you both?"

"Better than the last time we spoke," Carlos manages, wryly. "I… really am sorry about…"

Tomas puts a hand on his arm. "Don't be. You were mind-controlled. I knew that."

"Well, I'm sorry for just running off and leaving you," Kevin says.

"Seriously, it's OK," Tomas insists. "You were both going through hell. I was just relieved to have you here. These last three months have been so very difficult."

"I know," Carlos tells him. "And… Tomas… you know I can't thank you enough for what you did. For coming here, for saving everyone. I…"

"Carlos," his twin interjects, softly, "you don't have to thank me. I didn't think twice about it. I just came here and did what I could."

Carlos reaches out and takes his brother's hands, and holds on. "Tomas," he replies. "I do have to thank you. Everyone I care about is alive and safe, because of you."

Tomas actually seems to blush a little at that. "Well, you're welcome," he says, smiling.

"What about Dad?" Carlos asks, suddenly. "What did you tell him?"

Their father, Atilio, lives several states away, and is really not used to the weirdness that seems to come as standard round here. Although, he was in town during the incident last fall, and was one of the group who ended up in Nebolgorod, so he knows enough to be aware of how weird things can get.

"I told him something had happened, and I was going to help fix it," Tomas answers. "I also told him it might take a while, and that both of us might not be contactable, and… to try not to worry. And I said he should stay away from the area until I got back in touch. I didn't want him coming after us and getting caught up in all this."

Carlos nods, feeling relieved. "That's good," he says. "I mean, he'll be worried, but at least he'll be safe."

"Exactly," Tomas replies.

At this point, they're interrupted as one of the other scientists comes over, and Carlos feels a fresh wave of surprise when he realises who it is.

"Bill?" he says.

"Hey, Carlos," Bill replies. "Hey, Kevin."

The man in question is another member of Carlos' team, except that – due to a deep-seated belief that the clouds are out to get him – he's spent some years living down in the underground seismic monitoring station outside Night Vale. It was that very facility that the people of Night Vale first fled to when this latest series of calamities kicked off, and it was Bill who took them all in.

"It's good to see you," Carlos tells him. "I guess our current circumstances are more to your liking than they are to most."

"I am definitely fond of this place," Bill answers, smiling. "Getting here was a little stressful, but it was worth the effort. And now we're all safe from the clouds. And… you know… the things worse than the clouds. It's good to be able to work directly with the team, too."

"Funny, the things that bring us together, hey?" Tomas remarks, with a smile of his own.

"Brother, you're not wrong," Carlos concedes. "Now, Bill… for the love of Einstein, let's do some science."

So off they go.

And, oh, it helps so very much.

Chapter Text

It's late when Carlos and Kevin finally make it back to their room.

Carlos knows there's something Kevin isn't saying. Since they set off to come back here, the other man has had a quiet air about him; like he wants to give voice to a question or… or a concern… but he can't.

And Carlos' instinct is to try not to push the matter. Except that hasn't worked so well of late, and he realises maybe ignoring it is a bad idea.

He dwells on it for a while though, whilst they get ready for bed, and when Kevin finally comes back through from the bathroom – and there's no time left to dwell on it – Carlos realises that he's going to have to say something.

Perhaps they both need him to.

"You… want to talk about it?" Carlos pushes, softly.

Kevin looks over at him. There's a moment when he's clearly contemplating a quick denial, but then he too seems to realise that it's not going to help.

"I… wanted to ask you something, actually," Kevin starts out. "I just wasn't sure if you were ready to talk about it or not."

Carlos holds out a hand, gesturing for Kevin to come and sit next to him on the edge of the bed. The other man accepts at once, settling at his side, and reaching to stroke fingertips over Carlos' cheek. The touch makes a wave of warmth run through him, and he leans into it, watching Kevin's dark eyes before he speaks again.

"Then ask me," Carlos tells him.

"These things that you want," Kevin starts out, speaking a little quickly, as if to make sure he doesn't lose his nerve in the middle. "How long have you known?"

It's hard not to jump back at that, not in anger – oh no – but definitely in fear. Carlos feels his heart start to race, not having expected it to be this conversation, and it's a moment before he realises he ought to answer the question.

"I… I don't know for sure," he says, trying not to look down, or away. Or to run for it. "I… I mean… I figured out early on that I liked it when you were rough with me. But… but I don't think I even considered anything more than that until… until that night you pinned me to the floor and traced your blade all over my chest. It… was like nothing else, and… and it made me start to think… and right after that was the night you and Cecil decided to handcuff me to the bed, and… it was like this need had woken up inside me, but I didn't know what to do with it. I guess it slowly developed in my mind from then. And… and eventually I started… you know… I started researching it. Online. Just… just to see."

Kevin nods, seeming to take this in. He definitely doesn't look surprised.

"I'm not certain how it started for me, either," Kevin says, and Carlos jumps as he processes that the other man wants this too. Because he does, doesn't he? It wasn't just the soul-bind making him surrender, the way he did. "My memories from before I came to Night Vale are… OK, you know they're all back, but they're still somewhat disjointed in places. But I know the idea had occurred to me before the revolution. The first revolution. What does it even say about us that we need to number our revolutions?" He shakes his head, a wry look on his face. "Well. Before then. Of course, in my case… I want to do it both ways. The urge to be the one doing it definitely came first, but the other side… the other side is just as strong now."

"So… so you want to do it to me, and you want Cecil to do it to you?" Carlos asks.

Kevin nods again. "Yes. Is that… Does it bother you?"

"No," Carlos answers at once, grabbing Kevin's hand and holding it tight. "No, it doesn't. I mean… I have no desire to be the one in control, but… Kevin… you looked so beautiful on your knees, I–"

That gets him kissed, very suddenly; Kevin using the hand Carlos is holding to pull him in closer, kissing him firm and deep. There's a lovely rough edge to it too, and Carlos can't deny feeling just a little punch-drunk when the other man lets go of him.

"Tell me we can save this," Kevin says, staying pressed in close. "Tell me that… when we fix things, when we get Cecil back, when we make everything right… tell me we might be able to pick this up. Explore it properly. Because… because after what happened…"

"…It scares me," Carlos admits, softly, without looking away. "It does. It would scare me if it hadn't happened whilst I was out of my mind, one way or another, and the fact that it did… it isn't easy. But I know I wanted the things you did to me, even if the circumstances weren't good. I know I still want them. And I know… I know I won't let anything take them from me. Or from you."

Kevin kisses him again, even harder this time, and Carlos wraps his arms around the other man, giving in to it. Wanting to get lost in it, in him.

Wanting.

oh.

The kiss breaks, and Kevin cups Carlos' jaw, suddenly staring at him with intent. "What if… we took it back, right here and now? The start of it, at least. What if I offered to do it to you tonight? But please say no if you're not ready, because the thought of pushing you into it when–"

"I'm ready," Carlos cuts in. "If you are. But don't do it if you're not ready, because–"

Now it's Kevin's turn to cut him off in mid-sentence, grabbing his face in both hands and kissing him furiously hard, and with such force that it bowls the pair of them back on the bed. Neither man lets it slow them down, though, and it's a long moment before the kiss finally breaks.

"You're sure?" Kevin pushes, half on top of Carlos now, and with a look in his eyes that is more like himself than he's ever seemed since they got here.

"I'm sure," Carlos answers. He is. He's scared, but he's sure.

They can both be true.

And Kevin nods. "All right. You remember the word to say, if you need me to stop? The word I'll always listen to?"

Carlos gives a shaky nod of his own, as his mind processes the fact that this is about to happen again. "Yes," he answers. "Yes. 'Red'."

"Good," Kevin tells him. "And you promise me you'll use it, if you need to?"

"Yes," Carlos replies. "Yes, Kevin, I promise."

The other man smiles, and there it is. There. The spark that's been hidden under three months of hell. The spark that isn't lost.

Kevin kisses him again, deep and drawn-out, pinning him to the bed a little more firmly in the process. When the kiss finally breaks, he stares down at Carlos, that same spark still in his eyes, and then he just moves. Before Carlos even knows it, he's been yanked up from the bed, pulled into the middle of the room, and slammed down onto his knees, roughly enough to leave him reeling.

He doesn't resist, though, and the idea of just letting this happen – of welcoming it – does some truly intense things to the inside of his head. He wants it. He doesn't have to be scared of it. Or… not scared in a bad way, at least.

Carlos keeps his head down, wanting the other man to see his surrender clearly, and he jumps when Kevin suddenly slides a hand under his jaw and lifts his chin, surging in to kiss him once more and then staring him right in the eyes.

"Do you think you're ready?" Kevin asks, in that voice which does things to Carlos that make a lot more sense now he knows what he wants.

"Yes," Carlos gasps in reply. He is. He'd be lying if he said he wasn't scared. Or if he said he wasn't terrified. Or, indeed, if he said he didn't enjoy it.

Amazing how a few extra factors make the whole equation make sense.

Kevin smiles. "Really? I wonder if that's true. Well. We're somewhat under-equipped for this part… but don't you worry. I'm very resourceful. I can improvise…"

He lets go of Carlos and turns, staring at the room for a moment, his mind clearly considering options. And then he paces over to the far wall, where there's a flat, open stretch with a heavy-set light fixture bolted into the stone, some distance up. He reaches up to it – being just tall enough to do so – and tugs on the metal appraisingly.

"Oh yes," he murmurs, as if to himself. "That's not coming down any time soon."

And then he turns. "Stand up and come here."

His voice nearly has Carlos on the ground, but somehow he manages to enact the opposite; rising to his feet and pacing over to where Kevin is. And this, oh, this is new… not being manhandled into a situation but walking straight into it, of – as much as is possible right now – his own free will.

He stops close by, staying on his feet but keeping his head down, and Kevin seems caught by the sight. "Merciless Azatothoth, Carlos, you're so beautiful," he says, putting a hand out to stroke over his cheek, and through his hair.

A hand that tightens, suddenly, and pushes Carlos back down onto his knees; letting go of him without another word, and evidently expecting him to stay where he is. Not that Carlos would dare move right now, without being told to.

Kevin leaves him there and paces off again, going over to the dresser in the corner, which – in clear anticipation of their initial arrival – is well-stocked with fresh clothes. A moment of searching, and he obviously finds what he's looking for; coming back over with a tie in hand.

"Hold up your wrists," he orders, and – once Carlos does – he binds them firmly together. Carlos can't help gasping at the way it feels, at this oh-so-visceral reminder of what it means to give up control, and it's like the world is folding in on itself; shrinking down, and down, until this moment is all that exists.

Then Kevin yanks him to his feet, turning him to face the wall, and pushing him against it. He drags Carlos' arms up above his head, looping the other end of the tie around that – thankfully robust – light fixture, before knotting it firmly in place.

"Oh," Carlos gasps, at the way it feels, and at the very real sense of vulnerability that washes over him as the other man steps back, leaving him pressed face-first against the wall, arms bound above his head.

Kevin laughs softly and runs fingertips down Carlos' spine. He's topless – they both are, given that they're dressed for bed – and the sensation makes him cry out in need, and in awareness that the other man has him completely at his mercy.

Of which he may not have much, right now.

"You like that, don't you?" Kevin purrs in his ear, stepping in close, hand sliding to his hip. "You like that a lot."

Carlos manages a shaky nod. "Yes," he whispers.

"I should have worked it out so much sooner. You've always enjoyed that sense of helplessness. Of being caught. And why shouldn't you? It's intoxicating."

"I'll do anything you say," Carlos hears himself gasp, almost entirely on autopilot, and Kevin gives another soft laugh at that.

"Oh, I know you will," he replies. "I know. So, tell me, my brilliant, beautiful and oh-so-obedient scientist… how much pain do you think you can take?"

The whole world goes black.

"I…" Carlos tries, but he can't get another word out.

Kevin laces fingertips through his hair and pulls his head back, leaning in to speak right beside his ear. "Answer me," he says, low and deadly.

"As much as you want me to," Carlos gasps, quickly.

That makes Kevin laugh softly again, running his free hand over Carlos' side. "That's better," he replies. "That's it. You know I have you right where I want you. And you know it won't take much to make you beg me… for this, for more, for anything I choose to do to you…"

The words make Carlos' skin flush with heat; and he can feel that craving creeping into his blood. "Oh," he breathes, the world going hazy.

Kevin leans in and kisses him between his shoulderblades. "You stay right there," he says, with a wicked grin in his voice, and then he paces off again. And Carlos risks glancing back, because he hasn't been told not to, and because he needs to know what Kevin is doing.

The other man goes first to the nightstand, retrieving his knife – still in its sheath – and then he turns to the chair near the dresser, where his clothes are neatly draped and folded, picking up his belt.

And at that, Carlos turns back to the wall with a trembling breath, trying to work out how to brace himself for this… and trying to fight the urge to beg for it before Kevin has even started. He's suddenly hyper-aware of his whole body; of how open he is, how caught, how target-shaped.

"…please…" he whispers, need getting the better of him.

"What was that?" Kevin asks him, pleasantly. Carlos hears the tap of metal on wood as the other man sets his knife on the table nearby, followed by the clank of the belt, and then Kevin is right behind him, both hands on his waist.

"Please," Carlos says again, closing his eyes and pressing his head against the wall.

"Please what, Carlos?" Kevin pushes, just as pleasantly, even as his hands are slipping into Carlos' pyjama trousers, starting to slide them down. Kevin drops onto one knee to finish the task of stripping him, setting the clothing aside once he's done, and then rises to his feet again, pressed in close.

"…I need this," Carlos whispers. The words are hard to say, but not because he doesn't mean them, or because he doesn't want the other man to know. It's just… a lot to admit. To invite. And… to understand that he can have.

"I know you do," Kevin tells him. "I know." His hands stroke lower, over Carlos' waist and down to his ass, teasing and maddening all at once. "Beg me again."

Carlos feels a shiver run through his body at the words. "Please, Kevin."

The other man kisses between his shoulderblades once more, and then steps back, going to pick up the belt from the table. Carlos can hear the soft creak of leather as Kevin winds one end of it around his hand, and then there's a sudden stillness, a sudden silence; the calm before the storm.

And then there's a rough, quick crack as Kevin lands a single strike of the belt against the top of Carlos' back.

"Oh!" he cries out, in very real shock, at the rush of pain that blazes through him. It's not like anything else he's tried so far – more focused than the flogger, but not nearly so sharp as the cane – and he leans into the wall even more, trying not to lose his footing.

And… then comes the craving, the pleasure, and he gasps out loud all over again, an instant before Kevin – clearly understanding – lands a second blow against his back.

It hurts like nothing else. And it's glorious.

"Please," Carlos begs, without thinking about it. "Please, more."

"Oh, don't you worry," Kevin growls, stepping in close and speaking right into his ear. "I meant what I said before. I'm going to find out just how much you can take."

And Carlos is still reeling from this when the next blow lands… and the next, and the next; some up between his shoulderblades and some across his ass. He closes his eyes again, leaning on the wall, crying out with every strike but always craving the next. The sensation is just astonishing: pain, and pleasure, and a heat that chases straight to cold in the carefully-measured pause between each crack of leather against his skin.

It feels like a long time before Kevin finally pauses. When he does, all Carlos can do is stay as still as possible, trying to keep breathing, a fresh tremor running through him as he senses the weight of the other man's attention on him.

Then fingertips touch his skin, making renewed heat flare beneath them, and he gasps out loud as if he'd just been struck again, the gentle pressure seeming so much more in the wake of what he's experienced.

"Does that feel good?" Kevin purrs.

"Yes," Carlos gasps, his voice cracking, his whole body blazing with need.

"I thought as much. So what do you say?"

"Thank you. Thank you."

Kevin kisses his shoulder. "That's better. That's right. Now beg me for more."

"Please don't stop," Carlos manages, before his nerves can get the better of him. "Please."

And Kevin immediately launches into a second wave of blows; harder and rougher this time, and each one makes Carlos cry out in very real shock, right before the pleasure chases after it and braces him for the next. The world starts to go black, and he can feel the strangest disconnect between thought and physical sensation, and his footing wavers again.

Clearly understanding, Kevin gradually slows the strikes to nothing, stepping in once more and running his hand down Carlos' side. "Easy there, you," he says, softly. "I'd better change tack for a moment. I don't want you passing out on me too soon, do I?"

"I'll… d… do anything you…" Carlos tries, but his mind is rapidly losing its grip on coherence, and the rest of the words won't come.

Kevin laughs softly, half loving and half wicked. "I bet I know the best way to distract you," he says, and steps back, setting the belt down and – judging by the sounds – picking up his knife instead.

A long, slow shiiiiik sound proves this assumption right.

"Oh… I… Kevin, please…" Carlos murmurs, the threat and the promise cutting through the fog in his mind.

"Is this still your favourite?" Kevin asks him, almost academically, as he steps in once more and starts to trace the tip of the knife down Carlos' spine.

Amazing how that sharpens the mind. No pun intended. (Well, not much.)

"…Yes," is Carlos' reply, almost immediately. "It's… you. Us. And it feels so good… so dangerous… so… everything."

That makes Kevin laugh again, warmly this time, as he starts to trace out a strangely intricate pattern over Carlos' skin. "And yet," he says, that academic edge still in his tone, "you know I'd never hurt you with this. Or… not in a way that caused any kind of damage, at least."

"I do. And… that's also why it's my favourite. Because… I have to give you all my trust…"

"You do," Kevin agrees. "And it's such a precious gift…"

He strokes the blade up Carlos' spine, and then lifts the knife away, kissing slowly between his shoulderblades.

"I think it's time to see how much you can take. How far into the black I can make you fall. Are you ready?"

"Ohyes," Carlos gasps, need flaring anew in his blood. "Yes. Please."

There's the soft chink of metal on wood again, as Kevin sets down his knife, and then the sound of him picking up that belt once more. The first blow lands a second later, with no additional warning, and it's followed immediately by another, and another.

And another.

Carlos cries out, in pain, in bliss, in something that is an inseparable combination of the two. He shivers under the intensity; the physical, the emotional, the sense of a great wave bearing down on him when he has nowhere to run.

He doesn't want to run. Not even a little. He wants to be here.

"…Mercy…" he murmurs, knowing he'll be denied. Wanting to be. Wanting to feel the strength of Kevin's will cracked against him, harder and more intense than any physical implement.

"No," comes the reply, firm and level, and he feels the weight of it in his chest.

"Please," Carlos begs, a hint of desperation creeping into his tone, as he processes the knowledge that he can't stop this.

"No," Kevin tells him, again, in between two blows.

He can take it. He can. He can take it if he just keeps breathing… if he… if he just…

And Carlos' mind just falls, like reality has opened up beneath him, and dropped him straight into blackness. He feels dizzy under the force of it, though only for a few seconds, and then everything goes still, and slow, and it's that wonderful sense of being underwater, in the dark, but not remotely breathless or afraid.

Carlos isn't even sure when the blows stop landing. He's vaguely aware that he doesn't process the last few as anything other than pure bliss, and then it all goes still. And seconds later Kevin's hands are on him, warm and supportive; sliding around his waist and holding on.

"That's it, sweetheart, that's it," he hears the other man tell him, from so very far away. "I've got you, it's OK, just relax."

I love you, Carlos tries to tell him, but all he manages is a soft murmur, his head dropping back on Kevin's shoulder as the other man holds him close.

"You were amazing, Carlos… amazing," Kevin breathes, sounding almost awed, and for a moment or two he doesn't move, keeping Carlos half in his arms and half propped against the wall. "I'm going to let you down, now… it's OK…"

He reaches up to where Carlos' wrists are held above his head, yanking on the knot, and he clearly knows what he's doing with those because it only takes a second to free him. Kevin catches him as he drops back, turning him around and gathering him into his arms, and then folding him in tight, nigh-on carrying him over to the bed.

Still in a haze, Carlos feels the other man lie him back in the very centre, head on the pillows, before his still-bound wrists are tugged gently up above him and tied in place against the headboard.

His heart starts to race all over again, but Kevin moves quickly, sliding off his own pyjama trousers and then curling in next to Carlos – half beside and half on top – slipping a knee between his legs and resting a hand on his chest.

"It's all right," he says, softly. "It's all right, I'm not going to hurt you anymore, I promise. Just relax. Just relax…"

The gentle reassurance is enough to make Carlos' mind go back to drifting, and he's aware of Kevin reaching over to the nightstand… and then he hears the snap of the lubricant bottle, and a moment later Kevin is right on top of him, slowly sliding into him, and Carlos gasps at how good it feels.

"You're amazing," Kevin tells him, free hand on his cheek, staring down at him in something like wonder. "You're even more amazing than I knew. And I knew a lot."

"…L've y…" Carlos tries, but the words are distant. Everything is distant. And wonderful.

"I know," Kevin says, softly. "I know. I love you too. I love you so much…"

His hips start to move in earnest, chasing quick release, and the sudden intensity pushes Carlos right out of his head again. He feels Kevin press in to kiss him, and he tries to respond, to kiss the other man back. To show him how incredible he is.

And Carlos can feel the edge now, not so much creeping up on him as dragging him closer, promising an even deeper abyss. "…please…" he manages, a little desperately. "Please… let me…"

"Don't hold back," Kevin tells him at once. "I want to feel you break. Just remember that I've got you…"

His words are all it takes to throw Carlos right over the edge, and suddenly he's coming so hard that he nigh-on screams in wrecked bliss. Kevin follows him a moment later, crying out against Carlos' lips as he comes as well, and not stopping the movement of his hips until both of them are shuddering through the final aftershocks.

And then… Carlos finds he can't stop shaking. The world is distant and slow and wonderful but he feels strangely cold, and he doesn't know why. Kevin is clearly ready for it, though; reaching up to untie Carlos' wrists and then down to get hold of the blankets, pulling them up and around them both, before rolling them onto their sides and wrapping Carlos in so very tightly.

"I've got you, I've got you," Kevin tells him, softly. "You're amazing, Carlos, so amazing I don't have the words for it…"

Carlos just curls in tight, holding on, needing the other man not to let go even a little. He can't speak, so he stops trying, and just lies in Kevin's arms, starting to drift again, and the more he does, the more he feels even better. He's not sure how long he lies like that, with Kevin keeping him close, stroking gently over his skin, but it's so very good that he doesn't want it to stop.

Eventually, the words start to come back, though they still feel a little distant as he tries to give them voice. "That… that was incredible, Kevin…"

The other man smiles. "You're telling me," he replies. "The way your mind just drops like that… Carlos, it's stunning to watch."

"It's… like nothing else. I crave it. Once you start, I just…" Words are still hard.

"I know," Kevin tells him, in the voice of one who understands. "But I'm still blown away by how far you let me go. I kept thinking I'd have to stop, and yet you never… You would have let me go further, wouldn't you?"

"I… don't know. Maybe." A pause. "…Probably."

Kevin smiles, and strokes over Carlos' cheek. "So… am I to take it you'd like to do this again sometime?"

Carlos nods rather a lot. "Yes. Please. It's…"

"…everything you didn't know you were missing?"

"Yes. That. Please."

Kevin laughs softly against his lips, and kisses him. "Then it's a promise. Even if you might think twice in the morning when you wake up and realise just how much you ache."

The thought makes Carlos shiver in happiness. "It will just remind me how wonderful you are. And how wicked."

"You love it," Kevin points out.

"I do. And I love you. And… did I say thank you before? Because… because thank you."

Kevin smiles. "You're welcome. Now… let your mind sink again. Let yourself sleep. You're safe here in my arms, I promise."

It's all the encouragement Carlos needs, and he lets the welcome darkness rise back up to claim him, and the most restful sleep he's felt in three months finally overtakes.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Carlos does ache. Quite a lot. But it feels so good, he doesn't mind in the slightest.

It's still pretty early when they get up – their sleep cycles not yet totally adjusted to the different time Nebolgorod runs on – so they have a while before breakfast. And when Kevin says that he'd like to get in a little practice with his knife whilst they wait, Carlos only has one question.

"Can I watch?"

Unsurprisingly, Kevin agrees, and the two of them head out into one of the more secluded courtyards around the side of the palace. And, before long, Carlos is standing at the edge of the open space, close to one of the pillars, whilst Kevin moves to the centre, drawing his blade.

And then he just moves. Carlos has seen the other man do this so many times, and of course he's seen it put into more practical use on quite a number of other occasions, but it never stops his breath catching a little at the sight.

Or a lot. Kevin's mind seems to sink into a place of perfect focus when he's like this: controlled and sure and hypnotically precise. And yes, some of it is down to him having spent twenty years working for Strexcorp, but some of it is also down to him having spent a great deal of time training and a great deal more time putting his skills into use without getting killed in the process.

He darts about the open square, sometimes working through katas and sometimes clearly facing down enemies in his imagination, cutting this way and that, and Carlos wonders who it is the other man sees in his mind's eye, when he does this. Faceless adversaries? Or… someone in particular…

Kevin's movements start to bring him closer and closer to Carlos, and all of a sudden he comes to the end of a sequence of forms, dropping to one knee with a flourish; knife held flipped back and slightly to the side. He really does look stunningly beautiful like this, and Carlos can't help taking a step closer, hand out to stroke lightly over Kevin's cheek as the other man meets his eyes.

There's so much fervour in them right now, and it's all directed at Carlos. That realisation alone is a heady one, and Carlos already feels a little breathless when Kevin rises smoothly to his feet, stepping in closer.

The proximity is dizzying.

"Did you like that?" he asks, softly.

Carlos nods, without looking away from Kevin's eyes. "Yes," he answers. "You really are impressive to watch."

"I like to make it worth your while," Kevin replies. "And you know I love having an audience."

He lifts his free hand, pushing Carlos gently back against the pillar, and then steps in to kiss him. And wow, but that feels so very good. Especially because Carlos is still more than a little sore from last night, and the sudden pressure makes him remember.

There's something else on his mind, though, and the sense of the other man's presence – of his power – makes it impossible to ignore.

"Can I ask you something?" Carlos starts out, softly, as the kiss breaks.

"You just did," Kevin replies, with a little grin, kissing him lightly on the jaw and then stepping back. "But you can ask me something else as well."

Carlos takes a deep breath. He knows the question is one that Kevin doesn't actually want to hear – not again – but he can't work out why. And that, perhaps, is more of a mystery to him than the question itself. "Just how powerful are you?"

Kevin looks down at once, slipping his knife back into its sheath with a snap. "Why are you asking me?" he counters, his own voice soft, more alarmed than accusatory.

"Partly because I want to know," Carlos replies. "But mostly… mostly because I'm not even sure if you know."

That makes Kevin sigh just a little, still not meeting Carlos' eyes. "I'm not Cecil," he points out. "I can't do all those things he can do, and I–"

"Kevin," Carlos interjects, softly, putting a hand on the other man's jaw and trying to make him look up. "I know that. I also know that the things you can do are extraordinary. Science-defying, yes. But extraordinary. And I think… I think either you're hiding from the full extent of it, or you don't actually know the full extent of it."

Kevin finally meets his eyes, and his own are so full of memory. "I worked for Strexcorp for twenty years, Carlos," he points out, very carefully. "You rapidly learned to be careful about drawing too much attention to yourself… and it was a tricky line to begin with in my case, because of my radio work, and what I did for Mr Hartley. I… always suspected I could have done more, but I never dared try. It was safer that way. So… so I guess you're right on both counts. I'm hiding from it, and I don't know the full extent of it. But… but the point is moot, because I'm certainly not as powerful as Cecil, and the things I can do… I'm a summoner at heart. Maybe that's part of why Naomi took it upon herself to teach me, all those years ago. Maybe she could tell."

"You ripped a hole in the planes like it was nothing," Carlos says. "Even Naomi, by her own admission, couldn't do that on her own."

"Well, I'm…" Kevin starts out. "I mean…"

"You shine like the sun," comes a voice from behind them both.

They turn at once, to see that they're not alone. There's a person standing a little way off, watching with a mixture of curiosity and understanding.

It's Fey.

Once the sentient computer programme who ran Night Vale's own numbers station – WZZZ – Fey turned out to have the gift of prophecy, and she was instrumental in their first defeat of Strex: both in freeing Night Vale from its control and then in bringing the company down altogether.

She's no longer trapped in a fixed physical form, however: an odd turn of events during the revolution in Desert Bluffs led to Fey's mind and consciousness ending up in the robotic body that once belonged to Kevin's longtime radio producer – and general thorn-in-his-side – Daniel. And to Daniel ending up as the new voice of WZZZ.

Since that time, Fey has lived quietly and happily in Night Vale, though since Strex's second takeover, it seems she's been here in Nebolgorod.

Physically, she's hardly recognisable as the body that used to be Daniel's; her femininity (and significant quirkiness) shining through. There's a crown of flowers on her head, and a pendant shaped like the moon hanging around her neck, and at first glance you might be inclined to think you were looking at a person who has just stepped out of the mid-Seventies.

But when she speaks… it's clear there's a lot more to her. And the fact that she's here now – not here in Nebolgorod, but here in this very courtyard – has to be relevant.

"Fey," Kevin starts out. "What… what did you mean by that?"

Fey paces closer. She's barefoot, and her steps are almost silent as she moves towards them. "I mean what I said," she replies, sounding almost confused by the question. "You shine like the sun. You've always shone like the sun, but it's brighter now… like the light is growing and growing until all the darkness is gone."

Kevin seems a little taken aback by this, and it falls to Carlos to ask, "Did you foresee something? Like before? Something that could help us."

His words make Fey break into a bright smile. "Yes!" she exclaims. "Yes. Something. Something wound into the fabric of the universe, like a golden thread through a tapestry. Pull the thread… and everything unravels."

Everything unravels. Suddenly Carlos feels his breath catch. "What did you see?" he asks.

Fey holds out a hand to each of them. They both lock their fingers with hers, and all at once the young woman begins to speak, in a strange sing-song voice, as though reciting an old poem or nursery rhyme that has just taken on new meaning.

"One, two, three, four, five… watch the Smiling God arrive,
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten… see the world undone again,
One at the door,
Two who are sure,
Three who are key,
Four knocks to say,
Five lead the way,
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six… everything at stake to fix,
Five, four, three, two, one… believe, believe, and see it done."

Both men let go of Fey's hand with a jump, staring at her in shock. "Is… is that..?" Kevin tries, his voice shaking a little.

"That's what I see, when I think about you," Fey answers, levelly. "So many numbers, here and there and everywhere, like bees making honey from the universe. Except… something isn't right… as if there's a mirror, and you fell into the mirror, and now it's all strange and disjointed."

She looks at Kevin, now; her bright eyes unblinking. "You were supposed to break the link," she says, softly. "But you didn't know it was there. You didn't know, and it pulled you down into the dark. But you shine like the sun, and soon everyone will see."

"You… you're saying there's something I have to do?" Kevin asks, voice still shaking. "Or… be?"

"You have to be you," Fey tells him, putting a hand on his arm. "A shining sun. A shining sun who opens doors."

Then she reaches to touch Carlos' arm too, and – as she does – more words suddenly spill out.

"One to open,
And one to find,
One with words,
And one with mind,
One to smile,
And one to see,
Bring forth the door,
And set it free."

They both stare at her some more. It's hard enough to know what to make of Fey's prophecies at the best of times, and this is most assuredly not the best of times.

"I… I don't understand," Kevin says. "Do you know what those words are supposed to mean? What we're supposed to do?"

Fey smiles, and pats his arm again. "You're scared," she replies, softly. "But that's OK. It's OK to be scared. It's OK to be scared when you want to be free, and you're not free. But you can be. You can. Forever. But you can't face your fear unless it's here."

And Carlos understands. On some level, he's always understood, but he hasn't been able to engage with it, because the truth is simply too terrifying.

"Are you saying… we have to let the Smiling God in?"

"Yes!" Fey exclaims, clapping her hands together. "Yes. Let it in. Bring it to the world. The rules are different here. The bees know. Bring it here and let death shine down on it. Or… no… not shine… a different word…"

She trails off for a moment, seeming lost in her own thoughts. And then she takes their hands again. "I need to show you something. Something that will help. Something that will make the pain inside go… not away, but down. Like a medicine, but without a strange taste. Come with me! Come and see an important thing…"

Carlos and Kevin exchange a glance. "Fey's never been wrong before," Carlos points out. "I mean… all this prophecy stuff defies science… unless it doesn't because it's just a different way of understanding time, which doesn't exist, and…"

"Carlos," Kevin says, looking a little shell-shocked, "we should follow her."

So they do. It takes longer than either of them expected, as Fey leads them away from the palace and through the city; block after block after block, on and on until, all of a sudden…

"…oh," Carlos gasps.

They're standing at the entrance to a broad avenue leading between several city blocks: a pathway that has clearly been carved out by something smashing through it. And, though the buildings around have been repaired, and the space between them re-paved, it's obvious that this particular feature wasn't part of the original plans.

At the far end, lying where it finally came to rest, is a huge, spherical object, part-embedded in the ground. Both men already know what it is, having had this particular bombshell dropped on them the first time they came here.

It's a bowling ball. It looks vast, because Nebolgorod is so tiny, and it sits in the middle of what is now an open square, shimmering iridescent purple in the light. On one side, three large holes form the shape of a triangle, and beneath them, marked in silver, are a set of initials.

CGP.

To the people of Nebolgorod, this is the Overball: the first conclusive proof that another world – the Overworld – exists up above them. And, to the Acolytes of the Overball, the initials CGP signify the Sender of the Overball, their god.

CGP. Cecil Gershwin Palmer.

They must be in the middle of a doctrinal crisis right now. Their god is the enemy. How do you even begin to deal with something like that?

Fey leads the way down towards the Overball itself, and as they get closer they can see that there are quite a few people here. Kevin reaches to grip Carlos' hand at once, and he immediately realises why.

The Acolytes were quick to accept that their god has a double. But… what will they make of that double now?

The square around the Overball is covered with candles, and tributes, and makeshift shrines, and both men stop on the edge of it, staring. More than a little lost for words.

"Look!" Fey says, to one of the people here; one of the Nebolgorodians. "Look. I found them."

People turn and stare, and Carlos feels his breath catch. Surely Fey wouldn't have brought them here if they weren't welcome? So what is going on?

"It's you," a woman exclaims, softly. "His Other. The Sender's Other. And… the Demon of the Overworld. We heard you were here. That you escaped. That… that…"

She trails off, looking lost for words.

"…that you've come to save us," an older man chips in. "Is that true?"

"We hope so," Kevin answers. "We want to save everyone. Nebolgorod, Night Vale, and Desert Bluffs. All three. But… why would you trust us? Why would you trust me?"

"You're his Other!" another man says. "The Sender's Other. We have had many discussions since your first appearance here as to what your role in all this is, and we understand now."

"You do?" Carlos asks, when Kevin seems unable to.

"Yes," says the first woman. "You're the Sender's Other. Which means you can save him."

"Why would you believe that?" Kevin pushes, softly.

"Why wouldn't we?" another woman asks. "Since the first time you came here, you have always fought for what is right. You helped bring peace to Nebolgorod. You helped us heal the rift with the Followers of Huntokar."

"You like to fix things," Fey chips in, with a bright smile. "Fixing things is what you do."

Kevin tightens his hold on Carlos' hand, and Carlos squeezes back, trying to reassure him.

"And the Demon of the Overworld has an Other too!" a child adds; a young boy holding the hand of an older woman. "An Other who also wants to save us!"

"Tell us stories of the Overworld," the older woman asks. "Please. Tell us what has been happening up there."

And that's how Carlos and Kevin end up spending their morning sitting in the shadow of the Overball, sharing stories – good and bad – with a small crowd of Nebolgorodians. It's certainly an odd experience, but in the midst of it all, Carlos starts to understand something.

What's happened hasn't shaken these people's beliefs, or their faith. It's strengthened them. And even in the face of overwhelming odds, they haven't lost hope. They still hold on.

They still believe.

***

When Kevin and Carlos finally make it back to the palace – Fey still with them – they have a plan in mind. It's Naomi who they find first, and Kevin is glad of that, because he knows she'll listen to him.

"We need to call everyone together," he says. "As many of the key figures in the resistance as we can. Something happened this morning, and I… Carlos and I…"

"We have an idea," Carlos completes. "But it's going to shock people."

So they gather in the central throneroom: Hunter, Dana and Naomi, as well as Earl, and Darla, and Vanessa. Steve is there too, along with Aidan, and Fey, and – for the first time since their meeting out in the desert – Tamika. The last to arrive is Tomas, giving Carlos and Kevin a nod and a smile as he takes his seat at the table that's been set up for them all.

"Thank you for gathering at such short notice, everyone," Hunter starts out. "I'll start by turning this straight over to Kevin and Carlos, who have something to tell us."

Carlos grips Kevin's hand tight, and Kevin is glad of it as he looks around at them all, hoping that what they're going to suggest won't go down as badly as he thinks it should.

Because it's a little insane.

"We've already decided that the best way to put an end to all of this is to kill the Smiling God," Kevin starts out. "We're still looking into ways to do that, but it's only a matter of time before we find something. And then… then we have to make it happen, and to do that… to do that, the Smiling God has to be here."

Silence.

"You want to let it in," Aidan breathes. "Kevin, you… you do realise how dangerous that would be?"

"Of course I do," Kevin answers, softly. "It would be the most dangerous thing I've ever done, and I worked for Strexcorp for twenty years. But we can't kill this thing unless we can get to it, and we can't get to it unless it's here."

"What about the Otherworld Desert?" Dana asks. "The Smiling God often exists there. I should know. Can't we cross over and face it down on that plane instead?"

"We could try," Kevin replies. "But the Otherworld Desert is an odd place. You know that better than any of us. But what I know is that it fixes people. It healed me, once… maybe twice, through you. And I fear that the Smiling God is well aware of this, and that it can't be killed when it's there. But if it was here, if it thought it had won… we might have a chance."

"So… you're seriously suggesting we let that thing cross over?" Earl asks, looking genuinely alarmed by the prospect, and glancing sideways at Hunter as he speaks.

Kevin nods. "Yes. But only when we're ready to take it on."

"We may not have a choice in that regard," Tamika points out. "As soon as one of the old oak doors appears, no doubt Cecil will go right to it."

Kevin looks down, and Carlos takes his hand again, and he's glad of that. "You're right," Kevin says. "But he can't open it."

And Kevin pulls out the key – the key – and lays it on the tabletop, feeling cold at the sight of it.

There's a very long silence.

"That's…" Steve starts out, looking at Kevin in alarm.

"This is the key that once belonged to Derek Hartley," Kevin says, going for broke. Deciding they all need to hear it. "The one I stole from him during the first revolution. The one I stole again, from Cecil this time, before Carlos and I came here. This is the only key powerful enough to let the Smiling God through one of those doors."

"And you have it," Darla breathes. "You're brilliant, you know that?"

"You might not say that if you knew what I did to get it," Kevin replies, looking down. "But… what matters is that I have it. That we control how this plays out, now. Not Cecil. Not Strexcorp. Us."

"You open doors," Fey says, softly, and everyone looks at her. "But… you make them too. Shining, shimmering doors in the fabric of the universe…"

The room goes silent, as everyone stares from Fey to Kevin.

"…Are you saying I could summon an old oak door?" he asks, not sure whether the words are insane or revelatory.

Fey smiles. "Yes! You make doors. It's what you do. You make doors, and fix things."

"Is it even possible?" Vanessa asks. "I mean… we all know Kevin is a brilliant summoner, and Darla says he can even open planar gateways, but… the old oak doors are something else."

"Different… but the same," Fey replies. "All doors. Only doors. Except… the old oak ones can appear by themselves. But… you could make one appear. You could choose when and where."

"There might be a way," Naomi says, clearly deep in thought. "It's not something I'd considered, because the old oak doors have always been seen as natural, but… I might be able to work something out. And if I can, I know Kevin will be able to make it happen."

"So… no pressure, then," Kevin remarks, trying to sound offhand and confident he's failing.

"Kevin, the other day I watched you open a gateway to the Fourth Infernal Plane without breaking a sweat," Naomi tells him, evidently going for broke. "I've wondered for a while just how much you are actually capable of, and after you told me all about how you and Cecil summoned Huntokar the first time you were here, I started thinking you must be stronger than I'd realised."

"Cecil did that," Kevin replies. "We didn't know it at the time, but… it must have worked because of him."

"It worked because of both of you," Naomi counters. "You know how group summonings operate: they pool the power of the participants. If you weren't up to it, you would have reduced Cecil's strength. That's why you have to pick your associates very carefully when you do this sort of thing, because a weak link breaks the chain. And it made me wonder, and I've been trying to find a safe way to bring the question up… and then the other day you were so distracted by what had happened to Carlos that you didn't stop to doubt yourself. You knew what you needed and you just did it."

Kevin can't help wishing they weren't having this discussion in front of an audience.

"Why does everyone keep insisting that I'm more powerful than I think?"

Naomi smiles. "Because you are. You opened a planar gateway like it was nothing. I had to get Darla to help me close it, and I have demon blood. Now stop letting yourself be scared of it, and start realising the truth of what you're capable of."

Carlos grips Kevin's hand again. "I told you," he says, softly.

Are they right? Really? Or are they all trying to build him up in the hope it will be enough?

Kevin does not like this sense of doubt. Not at all. He doesn't have room for doubt, but right now it won't go away.

"Maybe what you need is proof," Naomi goes on, and she reaches under the table, lifting up a book. She turns to a page near the centre, and then slides the book over the table, across to Kevin.

He stares down at it, not quite daring to believe the words he's seeing.

"…This is a summoning ritual," he says, softly, following the lines of cursive Dzy-an-thyl.

Naomi nods. "Yes."

"This is a summoning ritual for H'ygragagogoth."

Naomi nods again. "That's right."

H'ygragagogoth. The Herald of the Smiling God. A powerful demonic deity. And one who you most assuredly do not invoke when it isn't one of his festival days.

"Naomi, you need a whole coven to invoke this thing."

"Yep," Naomi replies. "I know. I've done it."

"So… what, you want all of us who can to join together and do it?"

"Nope. I want you to do it."

Kevin stares at her. "…I love you, but you know you're insane, right? You have to have the kind of power your mother had in order to perform this ritual alone. And I don't. I'm not Cecil, remember?"

"You may not have all the abilities Cecil has, or all the abilities that my mother had, but I am confident your summoning powers are equal to either of them," Naomi answers, levelly. "And I think it's time you learned that."

"Naomi. Even if I could do it, I'm not summoning H'ygragagogoth in Nebolgorod. People will die."

"Very true. So you don't do it here. You do it in the centre of Desert Bluffs. At the main enforcer station. You strike right at Strex's heart and you show your double what he's up against."

"This is the attack you were planning?" Dana cuts in, looking a little alarmed, and clearly they've been discussing something like this before.

"Yes," Naomi replies. "We need to show Strex that we're stronger than ever. And this is how."

"So… you're going to send Kevin to unleash untold demonic horror on them, and just hope it works?!" Carlos exclaims.

"I'm going to send a whole group to unleash various horrors on them," Naomi clarifies. "Myself included. I wouldn't send either of you topside without significant backup. Everyone knows you're how we win this."

"…All right," Kevin cuts in, speaking before he can change his mind. "All right. I'll do it. And hey, if it doesn't work, I can just summon Azzie and start knifing people to death. So it won't be a total loss. Assuming H'ygragagogoth doesn't manifest anyway and kill us all…"

"That is not reassuring!" Carlos exclaims, turning to him, eyes wide with alarm. "Kevin… don't do this if you don't want to. I can't bear the the thought of you putting yourself at risk like this if it isn't what you do want."

Kevin takes his boyfriend's hands. "It is," he answers, softly. "I mean… I won't pretend I'm not scared, but… maybe I do need to do this. Maybe I don't know the extent of my power. Maybe I need to find out."

Either way, this will leave no room for doubt, and doubt is what's poisoning him right now.

"Are you sure?" Dana asks him. "If you aren't, we can find another way."

"No. No. I'm sure. I'll do it."

And Naomi nods. "All right. We'll put a team together, and we'll go topside through the portal tonight, when it's still the middle of the day up there."

"I'll rally the militia," Tamika adds. "We can run interference for you. Make sure those Strex drones don't stop you performing this ritual."

"Thank you," Naomi says. "There's no one I'd trust more."

"We're going to have to be careful, though," Kevin points out. "Cecil knows the portal is in Pine Cliff, and the city will likely be crawling with enforcers, and–"

"Pine Cliff?" Tomas cuts in. "The portal isn't in Pine Cliff."

"Wait, what?" Carlos exclaims. "But… but it must be! Strex searched everywhere for it, and then… then they tried to get me to work out where it would be, and…"

Mercifully, he's vague about this part.

"And you thought it was in Pine Cliff?" Tomas says. "Wow. You were way off the mark."

"But… all those calculations we did!" Carlos replies. "We proved it could reach that far!"

"And there's nothing to suggest we were wrong," Tomas tells him. "And, OK, yes, I considered it as an option when I was planning where to move the whole setup. Would've worked well, too, because of how ghosts can't teleport, and only ghosts live in Pine Cliff, but I didn't want to risk bringing Strex to their town. So… I found an alternative."

He grins. A lot.

"Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like this?" Carlos asks.

His twin grins even more. "It's in Radon Canyon."

"…You're insane," Carlos tells him, without skipping a beat. "Radon Canyon? Only you would think an entire canyon filled with radiation constitutes a safe place for something."

"No, no, it is," Tomas insists. "There's an old base there, that used to belong to the vague-yet-menacing government agency. They abandoned it years ago because it was way too expensive to run, but the infrastructure is still intact. A fully-shielded base, built inside the walls of the canyon, where it's almost impossible to see. And… an underground monorail – in an unshielded tunnel, but with shielded cars – that lets you access it."

Carlos stares. "That's… well, it's brilliant, of course, but it's also insane."

His twin shrugs. "The science is sound. And no one has died or grown any extra limbs. And I have a twenty-four-seven radiation meter linked up to a console in my lab, so I can make sure nothing goes wrong with the shielding."

"So… let me get this straight," Carlos starts out. "You want to send my boyfriend and a group of other highly important people through the portal into a canyon filled with radiation, so they can sneak into Desert Bluffs and invoke a demonic god in the middle of the main enforcer base as a way to prove to Cecil that we're a serious threat?"

"Yep," Naomi says. "We've done worse."

"Not recently!"

Kevin takes Carlos' hand again and turns to look at him. "I won't go if you don't want me to."

"You have to," Carlos replies. "I'd never try to stop you. I know you need to do this. Just… Kevin… please don't get killed. Or captured. I don't know what I'd do without you here."

"I'll be all right," Kevin insists, trying to make himself believe it as much as he wants Carlos to. "I promise you."

"You shine like the sun," Fey chips in, softly. "You shine like the sun, and soon everyone will see."

Kevin looks from Carlos, to Fey, and then takes a deep breath.

"When do we leave?"

Chapter Text

Cecil is working alone in his office when he hears the explosion.

His mind doesn't process it to begin with, not really, but then a second blast follows the first, and he leaps to his feet at once.

What exactly is going on?

He opens the door to the balcony and steps out, feeling the light of the ceaseless sun fall across his face as he does. But he only has an instant to enjoy it, because he rapidly sees that something is happening, and it is not good.

Some blocks away from the base of the pyramid, smoke is rising, and Cecil knows it's coming from the central enforcer station. He can hear distant screams, and see flashes of light, and there's simply no way that some of it isn't extra-planar in origin.

He curses under his breath, and stalks back into the office, in time to see the doors spring open, and Lauren Hartley-Mallard come hurrying in.

"We appear to have a teensy problem," she says.

"So it would seem," he answers, dryly. "What's going on? From up here, it looks like the central enforcer station is under attack."

"Oh, you bet it is," Lauren replies. "From what we've heard so far, it seems a whole swarm of those nasty dissidents erupted out of nowhere."

"Do we know who they are?" Cecil asks, his heart sinking as the inevitable truth starts to insist upon him.

From her own expression, Lauren feels the same way. "One of the enforcers managed to call in a report before they were cut off," she says. "It was garbled, but there was clear mention of a man with a knife, with a ridiculous bat-winged demon at his side. And… mention of my sister."

Cecil sighs. And turns. And slams a hand down on the desk, trying to find some grounding for the wave of emotion rushing through him. "Kevin," he growls. "He's here."

"Looks that way," Lauren replies. "Is there no end to the trouble that man causes?"

"Clearly not," Cecil points out, tone still dry as the desert.

This should never have happened. Never. Kevin shouldn't be out there, nigh-on literally raising hell. He should be here, at Cecil's side, where he belongs. With the man he belongs to.

Carlos as well. They're not here. And it hurts.

It's at this point that the doors burst open again, and Nina Belmonte comes stalking into the room. "You know?" she asks, without preamble.

"We know," Cecil replies.

"What about what your maniac double has summoned?" Nina pushes, and Cecil feels his stomach sink a second time. "You know that part?"

He's summoned something other than Azatothoth the Bloodthirsty?

"Just tell me," Cecil pushes, flatly.

Nina looks halfway between sickened and awed. "H'ygragagogoth," she answers. "He's invoked H'ygragagogoth. Took out a whole unit of enforcers like that." And she snaps her fingers.

"That's impossible," Lauren says. "H'ygragagogoth can't be invoked by one person on their own, unless that person is my mother, or – you know – Cecil. I mean, Kevin's a good summoner, but… he must have had help?"

"Not according to the reports," Nina replies. "Your lovely sister and her lovely wife are both there, but it looks like they didn't participate in the summoning. They just kept the enforcers at bay along with the other dissidents."

"Kevin invoked a demonic god?!" Cecil finally exclaims, his mind half-caught on the implications, and the other half on sheer disbelief.

"Yep," Nina confirms. "Under different circumstances, I'd be impressed."

"I'm going out there," Cecil says, trying to fight the urge to go for his dagger. "I'm going to find him, and I'm going to face him, and then he will pay for what he's done. Painfully. Extensively."

"He'll be long gone by that point," Lauren reminds him. "They can't risk being in the open for any length of time. Once the invocation concludes, they'll retreat, before our people overrun them."

Cecil glances at her. "You sound awfully sure."

"You forget that I was head of Strexcorp, once," Lauren says, levelly. "And for years before that, I was a key member of the administration. The daughter of its founder. I know how these things work. How to deal with dissidents."

"Lauren's right," Nina concurs. "Much as I wish she wasn't. Our best option is to let the enforcers deal with this, and decide on a clear and decisive response for the aftermath."

"Oh, I'll be clear and decisive," Cecil declares. "People are going to die. And if this happens again… more people are going to die. And when I finally have Kevin kneeling at my feet… he'll know it's all on him."

And he stalks out of the office – the other two following at once – to the room beyond, where Andrew is at his desk. The man looks up immediately, clearly concerned by what's going on, and by the perceived risk to himself.

He needn't worry. Cecil has every reason to keep this one alive. But… that's not to say the fear is a bad thing.

"Have the on-duty pilot prep my helicopter," he orders. "I'm going to the radio station. It's time for a broadcast…"

***

In the midst of an open square, near the central enforcer station, Kevin stands bathed in the light of the ceaseless sun. His hands are still raised skyward, and he's covered in blood – none of it his own – and right now he feels higher than the heavens.

Overhead, the inter-planar rift finally seals; the last of H'ygragagogoth's appendages vanishing through it. With the roaring gone, the other sounds gone, and Azzie having already returned to the Fourth – for safety reasons – everything seems so quiet. The last of the surviving enforcers have scattered, and all is suddenly still.

Kevin drops his hands, and breathes. And breathes. And then he falls gracefully to his knees, eyes still raised, staring defiant and elated at the echo of the Smiling God hanging overhead.

His body is thrumming. His blood is thrumming. He hasn't felt like this in years, and never so strongly, and it's as if something has unlocked inside his head, and let the bright power spill out.

He feels radiant. Resplendent. Terrible. Beautiful.

"Easy there, you," comes Naomi's voice, and there's hurried footsteps behind him as she and Darla come running over. "That was really something, Kevin. I mean, I knew you could do it, but…"

"…wow?" Darla suggests, a similar awe in her own voice.

"Yes," Naomi agrees. "Wow."

They pick him up between them, Naomi slinging one of his arms over her shoulder, and Darla – being rather shorter – leaning in against his other side instead.

"We need to get moving," Darla points out. "Before the reinforcements arrive. Or… before Cecil decides to come out here and face us."

"Let him," Kevin gasps, vaguely aware he's out of his mind on power, but not coherent enough to care. "I'll show him."

"I don't doubt it," Darla replies, a grin in her voice. "But maybe wait until you haven't just invoked a god on your own?"

"…it was only a minor god…"

"Kevin," Naomi cuts in, firmly, "it was still a god."

It was, wasn't it? That's really very cool.

A helicopter roars overhead, but it's quickly obvious it isn't one of the Strexcorp choppers, and Naomi waves up at it, signalling the pilot to land. As it touches down, someone inside yanks the door open, and Kevin can see that Tamika Flynn is in the pilot's seat, with two young Nebolgorodian scouts in the space behind, armed with slingshots and satchels of rocks. And beside them is the once and – hopefully future – sheriff of Night Vale's secret police.

"Sam!" Naomi calls, over the roar of the rotors. "Help us with Kevin."

Sam leans out to assist, and they all manage to scramble inside the helicopter. Once they're in, Sam slams the door shut again and then claps a hand to the back of Tamika's seat.

"We're in!" they call. "Go, go, go!"

"Way ahead of you," Tamika replies, and the helicopter hurtles skyward at once, racing away from the enforcer station.

Racing away from the most damaging dissident attack in Strexcorp's history.

***

Carlos paces. And paces. And paces.

"Brother, come on, take a breath," Tomas implores, looking up from the experiment he's working on. It isn't related to Sigma – which has its own lab – but he still seems deeply engrossed in it. Carlos is confident it shouldn't be that colour, however, though he's too distracted to comment.

"I am breathing," he insists. "I am breathing just fine."

"You're also wearing a hole in my floor," Tomas replies. "It's going to be OK. They'll be back soon."

Carlos stops and meets his brother's eyes. "They should be back already."

Tomas sets down the beaker and walks over to where Carlos is standing, putting a hand on his twin's shoulder. The contact makes Carlos jump somehow, despite the fact it doesn't exactly come as a surprise.

"It's going to be OK," Tomas insists again, softly.

"Is it?" Carlos counters. "You don't know that for sure."

"No," Tomas replies. "I don't. But I believe it."

Carlos gives him an odd look. "You're a scientist. You're supposed to believe in what you can see. What you can prove. Rationally."

"Well, I'm also a vague-yet-menacing government agent. Or, I was. Not sure if I still am. But when you do that kind of thing, you learn to think with your gut."

"That's not where your brain is."

Tomas laughs. "Oh, brother, you're so adorable when you're stressed. But seriously, it's going to be OK. They'll be back soon, and then you'll–"

"They're here!" comes a shout from outside.

Carlos runs. He runs out of the lab – Tomas following along behind him – and out of the science complex, into the huge open square between the complex and the Cathedral of Huntokar. On the far side is the facility where the Nebolgorodian end of the teleportation portal is now housed, and he's in time to see a group come walking out of it.

And on some level, he processes that they're all here. That everyone has made it back. But his brain is barely aware of the fact, because his attention is fixed on one person.

Kevin steps out in the middle of the group. He's covered in blood – though from the way he's moving, none of it is his own – and he looks elated. He and Carlos meet eyes across the square, for a second that lasts an eternity, and then they both charge towards each other, meeting somewhere in the middle and flinging their arms around each other, holding on so tight it almost hurts.

"You're OK," Carlos gasps, like he just found oxygen for the first time in hours. "You're OK. Did it work?"

"It worked," Kevin gasps back, not letting go of him even a little. "It worked! Carlos… I invoked a god!"

And before Carlos can even reply, Kevin has grabbed his face in both hands and kissed him. Hard. It's so mind-blowingly wonderful, Carlos almost loses his footing under the force of it, and the two of them stagger a little.

When they break apart, Kevin is beaming.

"You really did it," Carlos says, smiling too. "I knew you could. I…" He catches his brother's eye, and Tomas grins. "…believed it."

"The whole thing was something to see," Naomi chips in. She's standing nearby, an arm around Darla, and they both look pretty elated too. "We got in, launched the attack, and then Kevin performed the invocation without a hitch."

"And then we made it out before they could catch up to us," Sam adds. "Those enforcers of theirs may look imposing, but they lack the training of my secret police. If we had the numbers, they wouldn't stand a chance."

"Well, they have slightly less numbers now," Kevin points out, still beaming like the sun. "We should do that again. And again. And–"

"Seriously, you, take a breath," Naomi cuts in, firm but not unkind. "That kind of invocation is not one you should perform too regularly. Even if you are you, or Cecil, or my mother. But you did brilliantly, and you can bet that Strex will be reeling from this one. For now… I'll go and report back to the rest of the council on our victory. You need to rest."

"But I don't want to rest," Kevin insists, fired up like never before. "I want…"

His eyes linger on Carlos, and Carlos understands, and it's clear enough in his own expression that he also agrees. A lot.

"…yes," Kevin goes on, unconvincingly. "Rest. Rest is good. Lots of… rest."

From the look on Naomi's face, she isn't fooled either.

"…we'll see you all later…" Carlos manages, as he and Kevin turn, and nigh-on run back to the palace.

***

"People of the Greater Metropolitan Area. This is Cecil Palmer, CEO of Strexcorp Synernists Inc, and Voice of the Smiling God. You are no doubt aware that, this afternoon, a group of dissidents launched an attack on the central enforcer station in Desert Bluffs. Whilst minor attacks are commonplace, given the threat we face from those who refuse to embrace efficiency, productivity, and obedience to the cause, this attack was far more significant."

"It brings me great pain to tell you that H'ygragagogoth, the Herald of the Smiling God, was invoked and used against us. Power such as this should never be misused, but those who stand in opposition to Strexcorp have always shown a great disregard for the rules. For the way things should be."

"There will be consequences. As of right now, I am invoking executive privileges, and placing the entire Greater Metropolitan Area under lockdown. Enforcers will be deployed en masse, to ensure that the citizens of our united sister-cities are kept safe. And… to ensure that anyone who defies the law is punished."

"In addition, as I speak, multiple known dissident hideouts within the area are being stormed by overwhelming numbers. We may not yet have the main dissident base, but many of their outstations are falling here, today, right now. Strexcorp will triumph. The might of the Smiling God will rule supreme. And those who stand against us will soon be kneeling in surrender… or falling in death."

"Look around you. Look inside you. Go to sleep. Believe."

"…And now, the weather."

***

Carlos collapses against Kevin, gasping hard; the last aftershocks of pleasure still running through him as he tries to catch his breath. It's not the first time he's come tonight – on the contrary, it's the third – and he's still a little out of his mind by how all of this has gone.

He'd known, before they even got back to their room, that Kevin was fully intent on ravaging him for as long as possible, and Carlos was definitely in favour of the idea. But he'd insisted on directing the other man into the shower first – given all the blood – and Kevin had insisted on Carlos joining him, and it was around about the time he found himself pushed up against the cool tile that Carlos realised things were about to get involved.

Turns out he wasn't wrong. From the shower, they'd only made it as far as the table in the main room, although after that he'd managed to make the somewhat delirious case for bed. And, when they got there, Kevin had made the very convincing case for Carlos riding himself senseless in Kevin's lap.

And now they're curled in a tangle on the bed, trying to remember how to breathe, and Carlos – certainly – not feeling at all sure which way is up.

"Thatwasreallygood," Kevin murmurs, without the spaces.

"Yeah," Carlos manages in reply. "Really, really good."

They lie in comfortable silence for a few moments, just enjoying the contact, the closeness, and the lingering heat of the last howeverlong it's been. And then, Kevin's hands start to stroke gently over Carlos' back, tracing very deliberate lines. "You still have marks, you know," he says. "From last night."

"Well, that will happen if you tie me up and beat me," Carlos points out, shivering at the touch, and at the memories.

The other man holds him a little tighter. "Does it bother you?"

"What, that you tied me up and beat me? You remember the part where I've been fantasising about this stuff for months, yes?"

Kevin laughs softly, but keeps holding him tight. "I know," he answers. "I meant the marks."

"They won't last," Carlos answers. "And… they make me remember. And I like to remember."

The other man moves suddenly at that, flipping them both so Carlos is on his back, and then flipping Carlos again so he's flat on his stomach, before curling in over him. It happens so fast that it makes Carlos' heart race anew, but not in fear. Only in anticipation.

"Oh, you do, do you?" Kevin purrs in his ear, taking hold of Carlos' hands and pulling them up above his head, pressing them into the pillows. "So what if I was to do this..?"

And, still pinning Carlos down with one hand, he strokes the other firmly along one of the marks across the top of Carlos' back. It sends little sparks of pain running through him: nothing severe, but enough to leave pleasure chasing in its wake.

"Oh," Carlos murmurs, his mind just dropping straight down at the touch. "Oh… Kevin… please…"

"I'm not going to do anything involved tonight," Kevin replies. "But that doesn't mean I can't give you a little reminder…"

He leans in, kissing along another of the marks, and Carlos feels like the world is folding in on itself. "Yes," he gasps. "Yes… like that… ohplease…"

It feels so good. So damnably, wonderfully good. His eyes drift closed in pleasure, which means he's taken a little by surprise when Kevin speaks again.

"I bet I know what else you'd like," the other man purrs, stroking a hand down the length of Carlos' body, slapping him on the ass: firm enough to make him shudder with delight, but not nearly hard enough to cause him any real pain.

"Oh," Carlos gasps, somewhat desperately this time. It's just a mercy he's so exhausted, and sated, or he'd be flat-out begging already, and he knows it.

"Is that good?" Kevin asks him. "Shall I do it again?"

"Yes," Carlos answers. "Please."

Kevin laughs softly, right in his ear, stroking over his ass some more – where he's also marked – before slapping him a second time. And, even though it's comparatively light compared to anything they did a night ago, it still makes Carlos feel like he's falling deeper into the black.

And that's wonderful.

"You know how much I love you, don't you?" Kevin says.

"Of course," Carlos replies at once. "I love you too. I love you so much, sometimes my brain can't compute it."

Kevin lands a third slap to his ass, and then curls in closer. "Even when I do that without warning?"

"Especially when you do that without warning," Carlos tells him, with another shiver of pleasure. "And when you charge off to invoke demonic evil to further our cause. Or when you scare me half to death in the process. And… when you hold me close, and I know I'm not alone, and I know I don't have to do this alone, and–"

That makes Kevin let go of his wrists, and roll them both on to their sides, wrapping him in tight. "You never have to do this alone," he says, voice suddenly full of fervour. "And neither do I. And that's how I know we'll win."

"You know?" Carlos pushes, softly. Loving how sure the other man sounds, now. How bright and certain and free.

"I know," Kevin answers. "I believe."

***

It's mid-afternoon, two days later, when Kevin gets word that Naomi needs to see him and Carlos. They head over to her rooms as soon as possible, and when they step inside, it's clear something major is going on.

The central table is now entirely strewn with books, many open at particular pages, and a number visibly not in English. What's more, there's a chalkboard set up at one end, with a series of bizarre arcs drawn on it in three colours of chalk, and – at Kevin's side – Carlos gasps audibly when he sees it.

Naomi looks up as they enter, quickly rising to her feet. "There you are. Good. I've found something. Something that might signal the end of all this."

Kevin feels his heart start to race, and Carlos grips his hand. "Tell us," Kevin says, softly.

"Do you know what this is?" Naomi asks, pointing to the chalkboard.

"It… looks like some kind of bizarre series of orbital alignments," Carlos replies.

Naomi smiles. "You're half-right," she says. "So… OK, how much do you know about the structure of the planes? Not just the Infernal Planes, but all of them."

"I know they're supposedly impossible for the mortal mind to comprehend in their truest sense," Kevin answers, his own mind whirling as he tries to work out where all this is going. "But that they exist in a kind of multidimensional… space… sort of…"

Carlos stares at him. "Are you saying there's some kind of… planarverse?" he asks.

"Yes," Naomi replies. "And Kevin's right about it being impossible to comprehend fully, but the best way to think about it is… disks of reality, in three dimensions, but existing in a multi-dimensional space where they move around, and sometimes intersect or layer over each other without actually interacting with each other."

"Oh," Carlos murmurs, "you mean like some sort of pan-dimensional tesseract?"

"…if I nod and say yes, will you believe me?" Naomi says. "Because this kind of thing really isn't my strong suit."

"So… this here," Carlos goes on, looking at the chalkboard, "this is some kind of… alignment map? Of some of the planes?"

"Merciless Ozhen'ipleth, you got that from a short explanation and two minutes of looking at it? This took me a day and a half to work out!"

Carlos grins sheepishly. "Scientist, remember? Though all of this extra-planar stuff really isn't my strong suit, either. Even if it does sometimes feel like string theory if you squint and turn your head…"

"But… how does this help us?" Kevin pushes. Much as he could happily (if confusedly) listen to Carlos waxing lyrical about science all day, he knows that Naomi has discovered something significant, and he needs to know what it is.

"You see this?" Naomi says, pointing to the chalkboard. "This is a diagram showing the alignment of three key planes: our world, the realm of H'ygragagogoth, and the plane we refer to as the Otherworld Desert. Now, these three move through the planarverse with remarkable regularity. I think that's why we find so many connections to the Otherworld Desert… and it could even be why the Smiling God forged an alliance with H'ygragagogoth in the first place. The three planes align in different ways as they move, and I think they do so with a complex but regular pattern."

"Like the orbital resonance in a planetary system," Carlos replies, nodding. "Go on."

"If you track back the alignments, and compare the dates with known appearances of old oak doors in and around Night Vale, there's a pretty stark correlation," Naomi explains. "They're not random. The pattern is just so obtuse that it's hard to spot unless you know what you're looking for. But if you do… I think you can predict when the doors might appear."

"'Might'?" Kevin repeats. "It isn't a certainty?"

"No," Naomi answers. "The doors don't always manifest every time. I have no idea why. But… I think it might be possible to make one manifest. To summon it. If you were in the right place at the right time, and if you were suitably powerful enough… I think it could be done."

Kevin can't help staring at Naomi more than a little. What she's suggesting is… revolutionary.

"How?" he whispers.

"I don't know," Naomi admits. "The power needed to make something like this work… very, very few people could do it. And I don't think it's the kind of ritual that could be carried out by group invocation, because you're not actually invoking anything. I think it's more primal than that. I think… your strength of will has to make it happen, and if you're at a manifestation point, at the right time, and you're strong enough… you could do it."

She meets his eyes. "You could do it."

"But… how?" Kevin asks, again, his mind reeling at the suggestion. "I mean… I know I invoked H'ygragagogoth, yes, but… I had a clearly defined ritual for that. Words. Actions. But this… you're saying there are no words?"

"You've seen people do things without chanting," Naomi reminds him. "My mother, and Cecil. And… my father, on occasion. And, Kevin, you're a summoner. This is what you do best. You pull things from one plane onto another. And this… this is like that."

A little overwhelmed, Kevin turns, and paces off. He's aware of the other two watching him, and he feels guilty for breaking contact with Carlos when they've just had this news dropped on them, because he knows Carlos will be shocked by it too.

But he needs the space. Needs to breathe. Needs a moment to process what Naomi has just told him. He knows that what she's suggesting is theoretically possible. A person of sufficient power can perform rites through what essentially comes down to force of will. It's similar to the way Cecil is able to channel planar energy the way he does. No words are needed; he just wills it to happen.

And Kevin can't do that… but recent events have proven that he can summon far more than he ever realised. Which – again theoretically – implies he could do what Naomi is suggesting.

Carlos, meanwhile – perhaps wanting to give him space – walks closer to the chalkboard, examining the diagram on it carefully. "If I'm reading this right… you're about to tell us there's an alignment coming up, aren't you?"

"Yes," Naomi answers, softly, clearly aware of the weight of all this. "In two days from now. I mentioned manifestation points before, and I think it's safe to say that the manifestation point on this plane is in or around Night Vale. That's why the doors appear there. So if you were to go up into Night Vale, on the morning after next…"

"…I could summon one of the doors," Kevin says, turning to look at them both. "If I'm strong enough."

"Kevin," Naomi replies. "You're strong enough."

There's a very heavy silence.

"And what then?" Kevin asks finally, his voice cracking a little, and it makes Carlos go over to him and take his hand again, holding on tight. For which he is somewhat ridiculously grateful.

"Then we let the Smiling God through, and we kill it," Naomi answers. "Except… not just like that. We have to be certain we can make this work, and we have to be certain Strex can't stop us. And…" A soft, almost guilty sigh. "There are plans in motion. More… more than we've told you so far."

Kevin looks down. "I figured as much," he replies, quietly. "I wouldn't have told us either. Not everything."

"But if you want us to be part of this… you're going to have to," Carlos adds, almost defensively, and Kevin finds himself feeling somewhat ridiculously grateful for that, as well.

Naomi nods. "I know. I'm going to call a full council meeting for tomorrow morning. We'll tell everyone about the doors, and then… we'll tell you about Project Sigma. And… about how we're going to kill the Smiling God."

"You already know?" Carlos exclaims.

"We… think we do," Naomi answers, a little guardedly. "Truth be told… they might need your help tomorrow afternoon, to finish things off."

"'They'?" Carlos repeats, sounding surprised. "Who do you mean? Surely this is more Kevin's field of expertise? Unless… oh…"

"Yes," Naomi says. "After all… if you want to kill a god, what would be the most ironic way to do it?"

"…Science," Carlos breathes, in obvious understanding.

And Naomi Hartley smiles. "Science," she agrees.

Chapter Text

Darkness.

It starts with darkness.

Darkness that resolves into a scene, into a moment, into images; swirling, forming, solidifying…

Carlos blinks. The room feels cold. Or… maybe that's just him?

He's been stripped to the waist, arms chained above his head, and everything is still so hazy, and distant, and…

He blinks again, and sees Kevin standing a little way off; also topless, also with his arms chained above his head, and Carlos' chest aches at the sight and he knows something is wrong.

There are footsteps, over to the side, and…

Then they both see him. Cecil. There's a smile on his face, and a knife in his hand, and he paces towards Kevin like a predator closing in for the kill.

"You betrayed me," Cecil says. "You defied me. You abandoned me."

He sounds hurt, and it hurts in turn to hear it. Carlos blinks again, trying to make his mind focus on the moment, not quite sure why he can't.

"I had no choice," he hears Kevin answer. "I was trying to save you."

"I don't care for your excuses," Cecil retorts. "You're going to pay for everything you did. Everything, three times over."

"No matter what you do to me… I won't give in."

Cecil smiles all the more. "Oh, you will. But I know what will speed things along. I know what will really make you suffer…"

And he turns to Carlos, and Carlos feels his stomach lurch; the whole world shrinking down as Cecil advances on him, stepping in behind him, so that they're both where Kevin can see.

The implication is clear.

"…Don't," Kevin whispers. "I'm begging you."

"You can't stop me," Cecil replies. "Neither of you can stop me. And now, Kevin… you're going to watch Carlos pay for your mistakes…"

Carlos hears Kevin pleading through the haze still surrounding him, and then he feels pain… and he can't quite process what's causing it or what's happening but it's there and it hurts and it's so good and so terrible all at once, and he needs it to stop, and he doesn't want it to stop, and the counterpoint is ripping him apart…

…and Carlos wakes up screaming, his heart thundering so hard he feels like his chest is about to explode, sitting bolt-upright and staring around at the dark bedroom, trying to work out what in the hell just happened.

"Carlos? Carlos!" Kevin gasps, waking with a jump of his own and immediately sitting up, wrapping both arms around his boyfriend from behind and holding on. "It's OK. It's OK. You're safe."

Carlos' mind is racing. He knows, now, that he was dreaming, but the images are so stark and real inside his head that it's hard to think straight. For a moment he can't move, and then the horror starts to kick in and instinct makes him want to run.

Luckily, Kevin already has firm hold of him, and pulls him back before he can get very far. "Easy, easy, it's OK," he says, soft and firm, staying pressed in behind Carlos and wrapping him in tight. "You're safe. I promise you're safe. You're in Nebolgorod with me. Just breathe, just breathe, that's it…"

"I… Kevin… I…" Carlos tries, but he can't. He can't.

"It was a nightmare," Kevin surmises – correctly – not letting go of him. "It wasn't real. You're here, and you're safe, and I won't let anything hurt you."

It was a nightmare, yes. But… it was more than that, wasn't it?

"I… I know…" Carlos manages. "It… I…"

Kevin strokes gently over his arm, obviously trying to soothe him. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asks. "It's OK if you don't, but… sometimes it helps."

Carlos does not often have nightmares. He remembers having very messed-up dreams – some bordering on nightmares – back when he first moved to Desert Bluffs, and he remembers Kevin calming him after a few of them. But he didn't talk about them so much because, at the time, he was convinced they were just bizarre dreams, and not the giant cursed crystal at the centre of town trying to seize control of his mind.

He had nightmares after the revolution in Desert Bluffs too – they all did, though Kevin's were the worst. Those made rather more sense, given what they'd all been through, and – in Carlos' case – given that at one point he had literally watched one of his boyfriends murder the other whilst under the control of the Bloodstone, and undoing it via time-travel did not remove the memories.

And now… this. Which feels different, again, and he's not sure why.

"I… dreamt we'd been captured," he starts out, softly, feeling almost guilty about inflicting the idea on Kevin, even though the other man has offered to listen. "Cecil had us both chained up, and he was angry with you for running away from him, and he…"

Deep breath. Just say it. "…he said he was going to punish you, by torturing me and making you watch."

Kevin's arms tighten around him at that, and he rests his head on Carlos' shoulder. "I put that idea in your mind," he replies, guiltily. "I shouldn't have."

"It isn't your fault," Carlos insists. "I know you're right. I know that… if Cecil did catch us both… it's what he'd do. I knew that as soon as you first suggested it. Nothing hurts you more than watching the people you love suffer. But… that isn't the part that scared me the most."

"Tell me," Kevin pushes, softly.

"In the dream… Cecil, he… he started hurting me. I don't know exactly what he was doing because my brain didn't process it properly, but I did feel as though the pain was real, and I…"

He can't say it. All of a sudden, Carlos can't say it. He drops his head, fighting the urge to run again.

"It's all right," Kevin insists. "Whatever it is."

"…I enjoyed it," Carlos whispers, before he can lose his nerve again. "I mean, I was scared of it too, and I wanted it to stop, and I certainly didn't want it to hurt you, but… on some level, I know I enjoyed it. And that… that's just messed-up, and…"

Horror makes him try to pull away, but Kevin has firm hold of him, and he doesn't let go. Carlos struggles against him for a moment and then goes still, trying to curl in on himself, mind flooded with guilt.

"…am I broken?" he says; finally, quietly, desperately. "Because… because OK, yes, it's fine for me to enjoy the pain when it's being caused by someone I love and trust implicitly, but… there's a big difference between that and… and…"

"Carlos," Kevin replies, gently, "it was a nightmare. The things you want and feel in dreams aren't always what you would want or feel in real life."

"Yes… I know… but… this isn't the first time I've considered the possibility that… that I am broken. That I want these things because…"

"Because of what we did to you?" Kevin surmises. His tone is level and careful, but there's guilt in it too, and Carlos hurts all over again when he hears it.

"Yes," he answers. "Between what you did, and the Bloodstone, and the soul-bind, I…"

The suggestion alone is agony to voice.

"I might have worried that it was," Kevin replies. "And I know it didn't exactly help. But, Carlos… by your own admission, you've wanted these things for a great deal longer. And I've known that you wanted them as well. I worked it out back when we were first dating."

Carlos turns at that, staring at him. "You… you knew then?"

"I didn't know it all, but I could see the signs. The first time I pinned you down… Carlos, you looked like I'd just shown you all the secrets of the universe. And much later, when I first took a chance and traced my knife over your skin – something I'd had done to me but had never dared try myself – it was like watching a door unlock in your head. And the more I pushed – the more Cecil pushed – the more I could see that I was right. I knew what you wanted. I knew, because I wanted it too."

"But… but what if I want it because I'm broken? What if I've been broken a lot longer than I realise?"

Kevin makes him turn more fully at that, pulling him in close and taking his hands, meeting his eyes. "Carlos" he starts out, "do you think I'm broken?"

The question makes Carlos' head reel in horror. "No," he insists at once, and he means it. "Of course not."

"No?" Kevin repeats, softly. "I spent twenty years murdering people at the behest of the demon who ruled my hometown. For a significant amount of that time, I was also his semi-secret lover. Until Cecil, he was the only man I'd ever surrendered to, and that was because the strength of his will was so intense that you couldn't not surrender to him. I let him do things to me that you do not let someone do unless you trust them implicitly, and on some of those occasions I did not trust him implicitly."

All Carlos can do is stare at him for a moment. "Yes, but… that doesn't mean you're broken. I mean… it could, but… it doesn't."

"How do you know?"

"I just… do. Because I know you. I know the person you are."

Despite it all, Kevin smiles just slightly. "And I know you, sweetheart," he points out, still so very softly. "Do you think I would have done what I did the other night if I didn't think it was what you genuinely, rationally wanted?"

"Well, no, but… just because I want rational things, it doesn't mean I don't also want irrational things."

And that's the crux of it. Carlos isn't scared of the things he wants. He's scared that he might want other things too.

"Then let me ask you this," Kevin pushes, putting a hand on the side of Carlos' face. "Suppose – and I'm not going to, I promise, but just suppose – I dragged you out of bed right now. Suppose I tied you up again and whipped you like I did the other night, but harder. Longer. Suppose I told you that I wouldn't listen if you safeworded. Suppose… I threatened to hurt you worse if you tried. Now… we know you like being overwhelmed. We know you like being threatened. We certainly know you like being pushed. So tell me, Carlos… would you enjoy that?"

Carlos stares at him, heart racing. His knee-jerk reaction is to say yes, but he catches himself before he gives it voice, thinking. Because… OK, part of that scenario does appeal to him, but other parts of it…

"…No," he answers, at last.

"No," Kevin echoes. "Tell me why not."

"Because I wouldn't be able to trust you. Because it wouldn't be something we both wanted. Because…"

He trails off, a little lost in the horror of the hypothetical scenario.

"Say the word," Kevin pushes, firm but gentle.

"…it would be assault," Carlos whispers.

Kevin pulls him in closer, resting their foreheads together. "Yes," he replies. "And you know that. And even if there were parts of it that you could enjoy, that you did enjoy… you wouldn't. Not really. Not overall. Because you would know you didn't want it. And I…"

The other man pauses, closing his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them again, he looks – for the first time since this conversation started – genuinely afraid.

"Maybe… maybe it's time I told you…" Kevin says, finally.

"Told me?" Carlos pushes, suddenly scared all over again.

"I don't know if I could ever tell you the story of how I stole the key from Mr Hartley, back during the occupation," Kevin starts out, and Carlos feels his stomach lurch as he realises where all this is going. "You know enough to have an idea, and that… that's as far as I could go. But… maybe I need to tell you what happened when I stole that same key from Cecil. Maybe, if I tell you what happened that afternoon… it might show you what I mean. And… it might lift this weight off my heart in the process."

Carlos pulls him in closer. "Then tell me," he says. "Maybe I do need to hear it."

"All right," Kevin replies. "All right."

And he starts to talk. And as Carlos listens, through the horror… he starts to understand.

***

Five Days Ago…

Kevin follows Cecil into the office.

His office, now, Kevin realises with a little jump. Cecil's office. The other man is actually, truly, the new Head of Strexcorp, and all of this isn't a terrible dream.

It's happening.

Kevin's head is reeling, and he knows he's in shock, and he's fighting to keep it hidden. It's hard to pin down what's the most difficult part to process: the part where Cecil killed Mr Hartley, or the part where it means Cecil is now the Head of Strexcorp, or…

…or the part where Kevin knows he's now the only one of them thinking clearly.

Cecil is soul-bound to the Smiling God. Carlos is soul-bound to Cecil. And right now Kevin is having to lie with every fibre of his being in order to prevent Cecil realising that what he really, really ought to do is soul-bind Kevin as well.

Why the other man hasn't, yet, Kevin isn't sure. Maybe he's building up to it. Or maybe he wants the greater victory of winning him over without it.

Kevin's hand closes over the object in his pocket for a moment – when Cecil isn't looking – still so very relieved that he managed to get hold of one so quickly. Still all too aware of what he's really come here to do.

Again.

Why do the worst moments of his life seem to play on repeat?

"What is it you wanted to discuss?" Cecil starts out, turning to look at him. The other man radiates power like the sun, and being around him is absolutely intoxicating. Even being around Mr Hartley at his most intense wasn't quite like this, and Kevin has to fight to keep his head clear.

"This. Us. Everything, really."

Cecil smiles. "You're going to have to narrow it down a little, my dear double."

Every word, every look, is like a firm hand on the back of Kevin's neck, making him want to fall to his knees. He takes a deep breath, struggling to focus.

"Us, then," he says. "How do you want this to work, now that you're in charge?"

"I told you: I want you as my fixer. The one I rely on above all others. I want you to help me maintain control here in the Greater Metropolitan Area. And…"

Cecil steps in closer, and the proximity is almost dizzying. It dials up to at least twelve as he puts a hand on the side of Kevin's face, meeting his eyes. "…You know you're mine. You know Carlos is mine. Both of you belong here, at my side."

Some part of Kevin can see it, the way Cecil sees it. He can see himself foregoing any resistance, and falling into line at Cecil's side without hesitation. He can see himself being to Cecil what he was to Mr Hartley, except closer, except more, and part of him knows he would enjoy it.

How could he not? How could he not want to be the ally, the fixer, the lover, of the most powerful person in the world?

He's fantasised about far less.

But it's wrong. Cecil is under the control of absolute evil, and if Kevin truly pledges himself to the other man… he's complicit in it.

And, unlike Cecil, Kevin actually has his own free will right now.

"I know," he answers, softly. He has no intention of letting that happen, but he has to make it look as though he does. This is, after all, likely his only chance to tip the scales against Strexcorp.

Against Cecil.

The other man seems to study his expression for a moment, and then he paces off, away from the desk they're standing beside, and over to the dais where – mere hours ago – he stabbed Derek Hartley to death.

Kevin is still in shock about that, too.

There's something on the dais, now: an actual throne, golden and imposing, and if Kevin needed any further proof that Cecil has gone off the deep end, this would be more than sufficient. The other man paces over to it, sitting down, and then he holds out a hand.

"Come here."

This is it, then. And Kevin knows he has to make it good.

Again.

He can feel his blood thrumming as he walks closer. Somehow he keeps his steps level and measured, but it isn't easy, and he has to hope that Cecil will assume it's all out of anticipation, and not something else.

The trouble is, some parts of it are anticipation.

Kevin approaches the foot of the throne and drops gracefully to his knees, upturned palms at his sides; the very picture of supplication. He remembers doing this exact same thing to Mr Hartley, during the occupation of Night Vale, and the counterpoint isn't helping.

Only… it also kind of is. Because that day was the day he stole the other man's key and – though he didn't realise the extent of it there and then – the day he saved Night Vale from the Smiling God.

The first time.

Cecil leans in, putting a hand on the side of Kevin's face once more, and gently making him look up. "You look so beautiful like that," he purrs, smiling. "You know it's where you belong. And… it's where you want to be."

He's only half-wrong. And that's the difficult part.

"You know I'd do anything you say," Kevin replies, giving himself over to this, knowing it's his only choice. "Anything. Sir."

Mr Hartley always enjoyed it when Kevin used that honorific. Apparently Cecil likes it too.

"I do," Cecil says, his fingers sliding back into Kevin's hair, tightening just a little. "And I'm going to remind you of it. And all those lingering doubts I can see in your eyes – don't think you can hide them from me, because you can't – they'll go away. They'll go away and you'll know where you belong, and who you belong to. And why."

This is harder than Kevin ever imagined. Harder than the day he did it to Mr Hartley. Because, when all is said and done, he loves Cecil. Loves him truly, madly, deeply. And, whilst he may have adored Mr Hartley at times… it wasn't love. Not like this.

"Please," Kevin whispers. "I want you to. I need you to."

Cecil smiles, and pulls Kevin up, into his lap, so he's straddling his double and looking down at him just slightly. "Put your hands on your head."

Kevin does as he's told, fingers locked together at the base of his skull. It's a position that won't be easy to hold long-term, and one that leaves him so very open, and exposed, and…

His heart is racing, his breaths quickening, and Cecil strokes a hand over his chest in response.

"I know how much you need," Cecil says, voice suddenly low. "How much you want. And I'm going to give you everything, I promise. I'm going to give you everything and I'm going to take everything… and when I'm done, you'll thank me for all of it."

"Yes, sir," Kevin gasps. The world is going hazy round the edges, and he has to fight to maintain even the slightest focus.

Cecil's hands keep stroking over his chest, and then he starts to unfasten Kevin's clothing, bit by bit, slowly pushing it back to trace fingertips across his skin. The touch is light, but it makes Kevin shiver with sudden need, and he knows the other man won't miss the reaction.

He's right. "Does that feel good?"

"Yes."

Cecil's smile is suddenly wicked. "Yes, what?"

"Yes, sir."

"That's better. I am the Head of Strexcorp, after all. You showed such deference to my predecessor. I expect the same."

Kevin also did other things to said predecessor. Possibly Cecil should be careful what he wishes for.

"Yes, sir," he says, again. "Anything."

He knows what that word does to Cecil, and right now it's extremely deliberate.

"I wish I had more time to take you up on that," Cecil replies, wicked smile unfading. "Maybe one day soon, we'll see just how much you can take. Just how far you'll go for me. Because… I don't know yet, do I?"

"No, sir." And that much is certainly true, in so many ways.

"For now… I'm sure we can still find something to occupy our time…"

Cecil grabs him by the half-opened tie, and pulls him down to kiss, firm and rough and possessive. Kevin gives in to it at once, unable to stop himself loving how it feels, and he's more than a little breathless when Cecil breaks the kiss and lets go of him.

"Drop your hands and stand up," he orders. "I know just what to do with you."

Mind racing, Kevin does as he's told, and then Cecil rises too, taking hold of him and all but marching him back across the office, past the desk and up to the window. He pushes Kevin in close to it, standing behind him, holding his wrists together.

"Look at that," Cecil purrs in his ear, as they both stare out at the view; at the sun-drenched cityscape. "Just look. The Greater Metropolitan Area. Night Vale and Desert Bluffs. United, as they were always meant to be. Just like us. And now they're mine. Every building, every street, every person. Mine. This is how we win, Kevin. This is how we make it so no one, no power, no demon, ever threatens our hometowns again. Imagine it: no more danger. No more revolutions. No more fear. Just… light. Ceaseless, beautiful, wonderful light."

"If anyone can do this, Cecil, you can," Kevin manages, and the scary part is that he knows it's true. Not even Derek Hartley could do it, but Cecil… Cecil might.

"I know," Cecil whispers, sounding raptured. "And it will be perfection. Now…"

He pulls Kevin quickly away from the window, flips him around, and pushes him up against the edge of the desk, pressing in close so that they're little more than a breath apart.

"…I think you know what comes next. Beg me."

"Please, sir," Kevin gasps, and part of him does want this, and it's terrifying. "Please. I'm yours. I belong to you. Do what you want with me."

Cecil kisses him fiercely at that, gripping his face in both hands, and the sheer intensity is overwhelming. Before the kiss even breaks, his hands have moved to Kevin's chest, starting to tug his already-opened clothes off, and as soon as he's topless – clothing tossed aside – Cecil pushes him onto his back on the desk. Kevin can't help a gasp as it happens, followed by another as Cecil nudges his legs apart and steps in between them, so he can curl down over Kevin, taking his wrists and pinning them against the smooth wood.

"Oh, my dear double, I intend to," he purrs, right in Kevin's face. "I hope these walls are thicker than we always imagined, because we both know you're a screamer. And right now, you're wound up so tight you'll scream the roof off long before I'm done with you…"

"Yes," Kevin gasps.

"Yes what?" Cecil demands again, his eyes somehow darkening.

The correction just pushes Kevin's mind deeper.

"Yessir," he cries out. "Please. Please. I'm yours. I'll do anything."

Cecil holds the – surprisingly effective – glare for a moment, and then he smiles again. "I know you will," he purrs, letting go of Kevin and standing upright. "I know."

He starts pulling his own clothing off at that, tossing it over to the side as well. And, last of all… he tugs off the key he's wearing on a chain around his neck, letting it drop lightly to the floor on top of the pile of their clothing.

Just like he always does.

Then his hands go to Kevin's waist, stroking over his skin – lingering oh-so-deliberately on his left side – before starting to unfasten his trousers, stripping him quickly and efficiently, and not stopping until Kevin is completely naked.

And then Cecil pushes a hand between his double's legs, starting to stroke him, and the whole world goes black.

"Ohyes," Kevin gasps. "Please… Cecil… sir… please…"

Cecil laughs, soft and gratified, curling in over him again. "Look at me," he orders, softly, and Kevin obeys at once. "That's it. That's it. Who do you belong to?"

"To you, sir."

"Yes," Cecil breathes. "Yes. All of you is mine. Body, mind, heart, soul. All of you. You belong to me. You belong with me. And together… we are unstoppable."

They could rule the world, and Kevin knows it. If he truly fell into line, if Cecil pushed, if they tried… they could do it. And Kevin would be one of the two most beloved of the master of everything

…and a single day of it would leave more blood on his hands than twenty years in Strexcorp. And he has to hold on to that truth, or he's going to sink under.

And he might never come back up.

"I'm yours," he gasps, still meeting Cecil's eyes. "All yours. And Cecil… sir… I need you."

Cecil kisses him furiously hard at that, still stroking him quick and rough, and Kevin can't help moaning against the other man's lips. He's left crying out all over again when the kiss breaks, and Cecil lets go of him, but it's only to facilitate stripping off the last of his own clothing.

When he's done, he curls in over Kevin again, pinning his wrists either side of his head, eyes full of intent.

"I think it's time for that aforementioned screaming," Cecil says, with a smile. "Keep your hands where they are, or there will be consequences."

Kevin manages a nod at that, not quite daring to speak. Cecil holds his eyes for a moment, and then leans down to the bottom drawer of the desk, tugging it open and pulling out the bottle of lubricant that they both know is there. He slicks himself with some of it, back to watching Kevin's eyes as he does, and then he steps between his legs again, pushing slowly but firmly into him.

It's rough enough to make Kevin gasp, and for a few seconds he feels like he can hardly see. And then Cecil curls down over him, hands going back to pin his wrists, expression full of pleasure.

"Smiling God, Kevin, you feel so good," he says. "And you know I love you for it. And now I'm going to show you just how much…"

Cecil starts to move his hips in earnest, and Kevin cries out as he does. It feels amazing. Of course it feels amazing. It shouldn't, but it does.

"Please," he gasps. "I need you, sir, I need you, I…"

"I know you do," Cecil breathes, against his lips. "I know. And you have me. And I have you…"

All of this is driving Kevin insane. Gloriously, utterly insane. The position, the roughness, the repeated declarations of ownership… and he feels as though all of reality is shrinking down to this, to this moment, to this place. To the hands holding him down and the lips that brush so lightly against his; a counterpoint he can't quite process.

He loves this man. Loves him. And yet, when this encounter is over… he has to turn against him.

"Yes," he whispers. "Please. Please don't stop."

"Oh, I won't," Cecil tells him. "Don't you worry. I won't stop until you see stars…"

Or… just one; haloed by the light pouring in through the window behind, making him glow, and part of Kevin breaks at that. Whatever Cecil reads into the reaction, he certainly catches it; letting go of Kevin's wrists and pushing a hand down to start stroking him again.

And Kevin cries out, full of desperation and need, only just managing to keep still. "Yes," he gasps. "Oh… sir… I'm so close, please… please let me…"

Cecil's smile is suddenly wicked again. "Not yet," he says. "Not until I tell you."

"You're… you're going to break me… I…"

"I know," Cecil replies. "I know. But I promise I'll put you back together afterwards…"

Every thrust is pushing Kevin further and further out of his mind, and closer and closer to the edge, and the mixture of the two makes him cry out again, staring up at Cecil in desperation. His whole body is alight with pleasure and need and he doesn't know how much longer he can hold back.

"Please," he whispers, brokenly, and Cecil's smile suddenly becomes much more fond.

"I do love how obedient you are," he says, in reply. "Come for me."

And Kevin screams as completion hits him all at once, little more than seconds after Cecil speaks. His whole body shakes in the other man's grasp, as the orgasm rips through him relentlessly hard; pleasure and release claiming him in equal measure. It sends Cecil over a similar edge a moment later, and the other man cries out too, kissing Kevin furiously hard as his own climax blazes through him, hips not slowing until the onslaught starts to fade.

When it does, Cecil takes hold of Kevin and pulls him upright, wrapping him in close and not letting go.

"Oh, that was good," Cecil breathes. "Just relax, now. I've got you."

"I love you," Kevin murmurs, and for a moment there's nothing else. No world-ending threat, no terrible plan, no imminent betrayal. Just this. Just the brave, brilliant, wonderful man who saved his life in more ways than he'll ever know.

"I know you do," Cecil replies. "I know. I love you too."

It's another few minutes before they finally start to move; Cecil pulling back after one last kiss, and helping Kevin up. And… looking all too happy when Kevin goes to start retrieving their clothing, passing him things, as the two of them slowly tidy up and dress as best they can.

In the middle of it all, Kevin holds out a key, on a chain, smiling as he does. "You don't want to forget this," he says, as Cecil takes it and slips it around his own neck. "It's crucial to how everything plays out, after all."

"Indeed it is," Cecil agrees.

And he doesn't notice when Kevin pushes a second key, on a second – identical – chain, into his own pocket. Nor does he notice that the key Kevin has given him is not the one he had at the start of all this.

And, at the end of it all, Kevin smiles, and betrays not a thing in his eyes.

The only thing harder than doing this once was doing it twice.

***

Five Days Later…

In the low lighting of their room in Nebolgorod, Carlos stares at Kevin in shock as the other man's story comes to its end.

He doesn't quite know what to say.

"You… enjoyed it?" he manages, finally.

"Yes," Kevin answers. "I enjoyed it. And of course I didn't resist it, because I had to make it totally convincing. But if there had been another way… believe me, I would have taken it."

"Kevin… I… I don't…"

"I didn't tell you all that to scare you," Kevin cuts in, gently. "I didn't do it for sympathy. I did it because that's how I know the difference between what you enjoy, and what you want. And that's what I wanted you to see."

Carlos pulls him in close and holds on. Both of them are shaking now, and for a moment he just strokes his hands over Kevin's skin, trying to soothe him, and feeling more than a little guilty for all of this.

"So, tell me, Carlos… am I broken?"

"No," Carlos whispers. "And… neither am I."

Kevin kisses him at that, soft and gentle. "When all of this is over… when we win, when we save Cecil… I'll prove it to you for sure. To you, to me, to Cecil as well."

And, despite everything, Carlos smiles. "You said 'when'. Not 'if'."

"I did," Kevin answers. "And I meant it."

When. Not if.

One way or another, the end is coming.

Chapter Text

The leaders of the resistance gather the following morning.

In the central throneroom of the Cathedral of Huntokar, at the large table set up for them all, they slowly take their places: Dana, Hunter, Naomi. Kevin and Carlos. Steve, Aidan, Darla and Earl. Vanessa and Tamika. Tomas and Frederick.

The latter grins over at Carlos as he sits down a few seats away. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't seem half as affected by the weight in the air as everyone else, and there's a flicker of excitement in his eyes that leaves Carlos a little worried.

But, whatever the other scientist has been up to, he knows he's about to find out. And he's still more worried by what Tomas has been up to.

Project Sigma.

"Thank you for coming, everyone," Dana starts out. There's a smile on her face as she looks around at them all; a warmth that three months of hell haven't diminished, and Carlos certainly feels a lot better for having her here. "This could well prove to be the defining moment in our fight to liberate all of the Greater Metropolitan Area, and I know that our chances are better now than they have ever been. After discussing matters with Naomi and Hunter, we think that the best way to do this is for us to put all our cards on the table, to make sure everyone knows everything, and then to put together the pieces of the plan we have all been working on."

"The plan in question is threefold," Naomi goes on. "We need an old oak door. We need to kill the Smiling God. And… we need to make sure we're in a position to take down Strexcorp no matter what happens."

"And we believe we're now able to do all three," Hunter continues. "Let's start with the door. Kevin… perhaps you'd better explain this part."

At Carlos' side, Kevin grips his hand, and then he starts to speak. "It was Naomi who worked it out," he says, nodding over at her. "She theorised that the appearance of the old oak doors is caused by intersections between three of the planes: ours, the Otherworld Desert, and the realm of H'ygragagogoth. The doors don't always appear during every intersection, but we believe that it would be possible for someone with enough power to make one of them manifest, so long as they were in the right place at the right time. The place, obviously is Night Vale, and the next time… is early tomorrow morning. Night Vale morning. Afternoon for us."

There's a sudden wave of murmuring amongst the others, most of whom haven't heard this part before.

"This is happening tomorrow?" Steve says, the words heavy with realisation of what this means for them all.

Kevin nods. "Yes. This is happening tomorrow. I'm going to go up into Night Vale – to just outside it, actually – and I'm going to attempt to make one of the old oak doors manifest."

"To summon it," Vanessa adds, with a little smile.

Kevin nods again. "Yes," and there's determination in his voice, and Carlos is more glad than ever to hear it. "Yes. If it works… when it works… we'll be able to open the door with the key I took from Cecil, and once we do… the Smiling God will come through."

"And then we kill it," Tamika says, and it isn't a question.

"Yes," Naomi agrees. "Then we kill it. But the plan is… rather more complicated than that."

"Why am I not surprised?" Carlos asks, with a wry look.

Frederick grins. "Because this isn't your first revolution?" he suggests.

"For one thing, if we just open that door, the Smiling God will manifest fully, all at once, and there's a very good chance it will devour us all on the spot," Darla cuts in. "Luckily… Nay has something that might help."

Naomi lifts a book from beneath the table, and opens it to a particular page. "There's one person who will be in a unique position to help us hold back the Smiling God," she says, and she slides the book over to Kevin. He stares down at the words – which look to be in Dzy-an-thyl, meaning that Carlos doesn't have a clue what they say – and then looks up at Naomi, staring in shock.

"Is this real?" Kevin whispers.

"It's real," Naomi replies. "Can you do it?"

"I… I have no idea, but… yes, I think so. I mean, if I can summon an old oak door…"

"You can do it," Naomi says. "I'm sure of it. And once you do… we'll have a chance to kill that thing."

"And… Project Sigma is how we kill it, right?" Carlos asks, looking at his twin.

And Tomas smiles. "Oh, brother, no. No, Sigma isn't how we kill it. Sigma is how we make sure we win this, once we do. Though… we're going to need quite a diversion to pull it off."

Carlos looks at Kevin. Kevin looks at Carlos. And then, both of them look back at Tomas.

"Tell us," Carlos says.

So Tomas does. And it's like the whole world has inverted.

And that is the moment the great and terrible plan is formed.

***

It's early morning in Night Vale.

Allegedly. Time is hard enough to fathom here, and with the ceaseless not-sun hanging perpetually overhead, it could technically be midnight and no one would really be sure.

But, on paper, it's early morning. And on the outskirts of the city, beyond the warehouse district; where concrete and asphalt meets scrubland and sand, a figure steps into the light.

Kevin stares upwards: defiant, unafraid. Or, on the outside, at least. On the inside, he's not sure he's ever been so terrified. But he can do this. He can do this.

He isn't alone, but the group he's come topside with is staying out of sight, out of range, until this is over. He's insisted on it. He has no idea how this is going to work or what the risks are, and he doesn't want anyone getting hurt – or worse – as a result.

He can feel the song of the Bloodstone roaring away in his head. It pulls at him, claws at him, trying to make him back down, trying to make him stop.

Things would be so much easier if he stopped. If he surrendered. If he went to Cecil, and begged for forgiveness, and promised to obey his every word, and…

no. No, no, no.

Kevin was done listening to that song a long time ago. And this, this broken encore? It won't stop him.

Nothing will stop him. Nothing, and no one.

He closes his eyes, and lets the song fade into the background, and then he holds up his arms. He has no idea if you're supposed to hold up your arms or not, but he's used to performing summonings like this, and – in lieu of any actual guidance – it's what instinct makes him go with.

And then he feels it: a thread of power, running through the world, running beyond the world. He's not sure he could put it into words if he tried, but it's there, and it's so bright, and the more he focuses on it, the more it starts to feel like something physical and solid.

He reaches out, not physically but internally, trying to take hold of that thread. Trying to pull it, to drag it closer, to make it real, to…

The air goes electric. Kevin certainly feels that, and it fills him with hope, with confidence, with power, and he reaches out again – more firmly this time – trying to focus on the door between the worlds. Because it's there. He knows it's there. The perception of it is suddenly so visceral, he can almost sense the grain of the wood, the glint of the brass, and rationally he has no idea how any of this is happening and irrationally, he knows that it is.

Reality shakes. It isn't like a quaking in the ground, but rather a rumbling, in every fibre of being, and Kevin reaches out, and reaches out, and finds the point where the glowing lines collide, and he pulls.

And it just happens. One second, there's nothing, and the next…

…there's a door. An old oak door, standing unsupported by any other structure, with a rounded top, and slightly burnished brass fittings.

Kevin stares at it, and he gasps, and he smiles.

And then he closes his eyes, because he knows what comes next.

***

Cecil Palmer is at his desk, in the midst of reviewing reports on the continued cleanup at the central enforcer station, when the door bursts open and Andrew Fletcher comes running in.

"Did my predecessor not teach you to knock?" Cecil growls, and he's about to blast the impudent little man off his feet when Andrew holds up a hand, eyes wide with shock, and he realises something has happened.

"I'm sorry, sir, I'm sorry, but this is too important to–"

"Out with it," Cecil insists, rising to his feet at once.

"There's been an incident," Andrew says. "On the outskirts of Night Vale, beyond the warehouse district. Mr Palmer… sir… there's a door. An old oak door."

Cecil feels a wave of euphoria hit him all at once. "You're sure?"

Andrew nods. "Oh yes, the initial reports were very clear. But that's not the most significant part."

"It isn't?"

"No, sir, it isn't. The door didn't just appear. It was summoned."

Cecil stares. "That's impossible. You can't summon an old oak door."

"Apparently you can. There are several eyewitnesses who can attest to it. And after it happened… a small group of dissidents surrounded it, and the nearest enforcer unit was dispatched to deal with them, and…"

Now Cecil sighs. "Let me guess. I need to hire a new enforcer unit?"

"No, sir. They won. They won… and they're enroute here now with a prisoner."

"Indeed? Now that is quite a development. Have multiple other units sent to secure the site where this door is… and have the prisoner brought straight to my office when they arrive. Do we know who it is?"

Andrew shakes his head. "Not yet, sir. But it won't be long until they get here."

Cecil nods. He can wait. He's waited long enough for this day, after all, and right now he wants to savour every last moment, both of anticipation and of payoff.

He smiles. "Send word to Lauren and Nina. Make sure they both know what's going on."

"At once, sir," Andrew replies, and hurries from the room as fast as he entered.

This is it, Cecil thinks, turning to the window once he's alone; eyes raised to the ceaseless sun. This is it: the start of his final victory. This is when he does what he was born to do.

All for Strexcorp, he thinks, eyes still on the sun. All for you.

***

It isn't long before the door bursts open again, and Andrew hurries back in, and Cecil is really going to have to speak to the man about boundaries

…but later, because if Andrew seemed like he was in shock before, it's nothing compared to how he looks now.

"The enforcers are here," he manages. "They have the prisoner. Sir… it's…"

"Just send them in," Cecil insists.

Andrew steps back, waving several other people in through the door: a group of four particularly tall enforcers, who are dragging a fifth figure between them: a man with his hands cuffed in front of him. And Cecil realises at once, though his mind doesn't engage with it until the enforcers have thrown their prisoner down on his knees at Cecil's feet.

The world stops.

It's Kevin.

He looks like he's been in that rarest of things: a fight he actually lost. His dark eyes are defiant, almost fierce, but if you know how to tell – and Cecil knows – there's no question that the man is genuinely terrified.

Rage erupts in Cecil's heart, and he backhands Kevin across the jaw without blinking. The other man turns to look at him again almost at once, but he still doesn't speak, and the silence is starting to weigh heavy.

"My dear double," Cecil nigh-on growls. "What a distinct pleasure to see you again."

"I can think of places I'd rather be," Kevin retorts. He's trying to sound brave, of course he is, but the fear in his voice is almost overwhelming. "Nearly made it work, too. Apparently I misjudged something along the way, because…"

And he trails off, the silence obviously meant to signify this whole little scene.

Cecil grips Kevin's chin, a dark smile on his face as he looks down at his double. "You messed up," he says, soft and deadly. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Anyone arrogant enough to invoke H'ygragagogoth in a public place must have a few crossed wires. And now, at last, here you are… on your knees at my feet, where you belong. Where I can make you pay for everything you've done."

"I am not scared of you," Kevin insists.

Cecil smiles. "Yes, you are. And with good reason."

He lets those words hang in the air for a moment, and then turns to the enforcers. "Has he said anything since he was arrested?"

The leader of the group gives a shake of the head. "No, sir. And he had nothing with him, apart from this…"

And the enforcer holds out Kevin's knife, still in its sheath. Cecil smiles again, taking it with a nod, and then glancing at Kevin once more before he gives the inevitable, long-awaited order.

"Take him down to my personal Room of Questions and chain him up. I will conduct his interrogation myself. And much as I realise you had to fight to subdue him in the first place, see to it that no one else hurts him unless he resists… because that particular pleasure is all mine."

"I won't tell you anything," Kevin retorts.

Cecil laughs, soft and deadly. "Of course you will."

And as Kevin is dragged from the room once more, Cecil finds Andrew Fletcher still staring over at him, his eyes wide.

"This might take some time," Cecil says, and Andrew seems to shiver at the words. "See to it that I am not interrupted unless absolutely necessary."

"Of course, sir," Andrew manages, and hurries out at once.

Cecil pauses a moment, turning back to the window, to the sun, taking a deep breath. This is it. This is what he's been waiting for. He'll get the truth out of Kevin, find out precisely what happened with that door, and then… then he can open it.

At last. At last.

***

The scene is such a familiar one.

Deep within the sub-basements of the Strexcorp HQ pyramid, in a dark and ominous room with cold, stone walls, Kevin stands with his arms chained up above him. He's been stripped to the waist, but no more, and his head is down.

He looks up the instant Cecil steps into the room, though, and there's renewed defiance in his dark eyes when he does.

Good. That's good. Cecil doesn't want the other man to give in easily. He wants Kevin to resist. Wants him to fight. That way, what's coming will hurt so very much more.

He takes a few paces closer, watching his double's reactions. Slowly gauging how best to play this.

"You got caught," Cecil remarks, softly. "That's unlike you."

"I didn't come to the surface alone," Kevin replies, clearly seeing no reason to deny this part. "I had to make a choice: them or me. I chose them. I don't regret it."

Cecil headtilts. "Nor would I expect you to. For a man with such a violent history, you do seem to have developed quite the hero-complex."

"This had nothing to do with heroics. I was just doing what was right."

"Indeed? It's of little matter now. You might have decided their lives were worth more than yours, but – Kevin – there is no one I would rather have here in this room than you. You just handed me precisely what I want. Well… half of what I want. Where is our beloved scientist right now?"

"Far away from you," Kevin hisses, and Cecil knows he's touched a nerve.

"I can wait," he remarks, idly. "Eventually, we'll find him too, and my enforcers will bring him here. And then… tell me, Kevin, what should I start with? Hurting you whilst he watches? Or… no, no, hurting him whilst you watch."

Kevin closes his eyes, and doesn't deign to answer.

"It's almost a shame I don't have you both," Cecil goes on. "This whole process would go rather faster if I did, wouldn't it? If I had him chained up right here, right there, so you could watch helplessly whilst I tortured him out of his brilliant mind. Do you think he'd break before you did? I'm not so sure myself. He does the whole vulnerable-scientist thing, but deep down, Carlos is easily as fierce as either of us. Maybe more so. Whereas you… oh, Kevin, there is no hell deeper for you than the one in which you have to watch someone you love suffering, and know that you're helpless to stop it."

That makes Kevin's eyes snap open, and he manages a surprisingly vicious glare as they do. "Must you start off by monologuing?" he hisses. "At least open with the torture. That way I can have a moment to breathe in the middle whilst you're revelling in the sound of your own voice…"

A wave of anger hits Cecil at that, and he launches himself at Kevin, grabbing hold of the man and slamming a hand against his chest, sending a violent burst of planar energy coursing through him and making Kevin scream out loud. Cecil doesn't relent in the slightest, keeping the onslaught going, and before long Kevin is cursing a blue streak in Dzy-an-thyl. But then, he does have a tendency to switch languages when he gets overly stimulated.

When Cecil finally allows the energy to fade and lets go, the other man drops in the chains, head down, gasping hard.

"Do not push me again," Cecil tells him. "Because, believe me, that was only the beginning."

There's a moment of silence, of stillness, and then Cecil reaches out once more, running fingertips over Kevin's chest, over his sides, and his double seems to shiver somewhat at the far gentler touch.

"There's no way out of this," Cecil goes on, more softly now. "I'm going to take my time with you. Hours, days, weeks… whatever it takes. The old oak door can wait. They endure for months once they appear, and I'm not going near that thing until I know precisely what you did to it. I'm not an idiot, Kevin. But don't you worry… once I find out exactly what's going on, I'll be sure to give you a front-row seat for the moment that the Smiling God finally crosses over. Until then… we have so much to talk about. So many transgressions to correct. And maybe it's best that–"

"…Seriously, Cecil, monologuing," Kevin cuts in, staring up at him again, defiance unwavering. "Just get to the torturing part before I lose the will to live!"

Cecil hits him at that. Hard. Kevin sways in the chains, head down for a moment, before he looks back up once more.

"Better," Kevin says. "If you're going to do this, at least do it right. I worked for Strex for twenty years, remember? I know an amateur when I see one."

His impudence is astounding, and Cecil has to fight the urge to strike him again. He manages not to – for the moment – and takes a deep breath, stepping in and gripping Kevin's jaw instead.

"And I know fear when I see it," Cecil retorts, as levelly as he can. "And for all your posturing and provoking, Kevin… I know you're terrified right now."

That gets him a very different look. Not open fear, oh no, but… honesty.

"Of course I'm terrified right now," Kevin replies. "One of the two men I love is threatening to torture me. Just did torture me, in fact."

"You could always surrender," Cecil suggests. He doubts Kevin would even consider it, but the words are worth saying nonetheless. "Surrender, and tell me everything. I'd still have to punish you for betraying me… but it wouldn't have to be like this. It might even be good for you, in the end…"

"Don't," Kevin whispers, a tremor in his voice now.

"Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" Cecil purrs, turning Kevin's head a little so as to speak right into his ear. "Have you missed submitting to me? You always were so very fond of it…"

The other man shivers visibly at that, and doesn't deign to answer. Cecil steps in closer, increasing the points of contact between them, and stroking his fingertips across Kevin's chest again. "I know the things you want, after all. The things you need."

"What I want is to save one of the two men I love from the grip of absolute evil," Kevin retorts. He manages an impressive glare as he speaks, but it's clear he's shaken by what Cecil is suggesting.

"I don't need saving," Cecil replies. "I'm right where I'm meant to be. And you haven't screamed in a while…"

He slams his hand into Kevin's chest again, sending another blaze of planar energy racing through him. It does indeed make the other man scream, dropping his head back and crying out over and over, but the shock ratchets up tenfold when – without warning – Cecil lets a certain amount of pleasure slip in to temper the onslaught of pain.

And that makes Kevin howl in alarm, clearly fighting the instinct to beg for mercy. He's so close to it, Cecil can practically taste the words, and the sense is just intoxicating, and he wants it and he needs it and he will have it.

When Cecil finally lets the energy fade and steps back, Kevin drops, so there's nothing holding him up but the chains, and Cecil knows that's going to hurt a lot all on its own. He reaches to stroke a hand over his double's cheek, light and gentle.

"Was that good?" he asks, with a smile.

"Go to Hell," Kevin hisses, struggling to regain his footing so he can try to back away from the touch. Though he can't exactly get very far.

"I thought so," Cecil replies. "You scream just the same way you always did. Now… much as all this is very enlightening, if you're not going to be sensible and surrender to me willingly, we'd better get to the point."

Kevin finally meets his eyes. "You're not going to start monologuing again, are you?"

Difficult though it is, Cecil fights the urge to backhand the other man. "If you don't want to listen to me talk, you can do it yourself," he says, flatly. "Tell me what you did to the old oak door."

"I didn't do anything to it."

"Kevin, we have multiple eyewitness accounts that say otherwise. What did you do to the door?"

"I summoned it."

Despite already knowing this part, it is hard not to stare at the other man at this. "That's impossible."

"Nope. Just really difficult. Apparently you can do it if you're a very powerful summoner. Which…"

And Kevin smiles. "…it turns out, I am."

"So I gather," Cecil answers, wryly. "Why else would I have had this room warded so heavily?"

"I noticed that," Kevin replies. "Sensible move. Otherwise Azatothoth would be hammering you into the floor right about now. Non-lethally, of course, on account of the part where I'm going to save you. But it would still hurt quite a lot."

Cecil laughs. "You really think I'm scared of an adjunct from the Fourth Infernal Plane?"

And Kevin laughs too. "Cecil, seriously, do you remember what happened to the last man who said that? 'Cause I think you do."

Cecil does. But he's stronger than Derek Hartley ever was.

"The point is moot," he says, more or less calmly. "You can't pull any of your little tricks in this room. So how did you do it? How did you make that door appear?"

"I wanted it really badly."

Cecil sighs. "Evidently you need another round of pain," he says.

His hand goes back to Kevin's chest, and the air goes vibrant purple as he sends fresh waves of energy coursing into the other man. Kevin screams, and he screams, and he's obviously so close to pleading and Cecil wants to make him do it.

But somehow, Kevin doesn't. He drops in the chains once more, when Cecil steps back, though as soon as he starts to catch his breath, he laughs.

"The sad part is, that wasn't a lie," Kevin gasps.

"You 'wanted it really badly'?" Cecil echoes.

"Yep. And it worked. Neat, huh?"

"Quite," Cecil answers, dryly. "Now tell me why."

"Why what?"

Cecil grips Kevin's chin and lifts it, staring him in the eyes. "Why you did it. Why you summoned the door in the first place. Don't you realise you've given me precisely what I want? You might as well have gift-wrapped it."

"Well, I mean, I'd've brought a giant bow, but Nebolgorod was fresh out…"

"You really do want me to hurt you, don't you?" Cecil growls.

"Badly," Kevin retorts. "Over and over, until the fact I won't tell you anything useful drives you out of your mind, and all you can see is me. Not broken."

And Cecil laughs. "Oh, you poor, foolish boy. Don't you see? I broke you weeks ago. And now… you're going to give me everything…"

This time, he doesn't slam his hand to Kevin's chest, but lays it on gently, stroking over his skin before letting the energy flow. And this time, it's different.

This time, there's no pain. Only pleasure.

Kevin screams in horror, and in desperation; dropping his head back and shaking bodily under the onslaught. Cecil knows all too well how to pace it; how to make him enjoy this without pushing too far, and precisely when to stop.

But when he does, even though Kevin can barely stand, the other man still manages another rough laugh. "Thank you for that," he gasps. "Now I don't feel even slightly guilty about what's coming."

"'What's coming'?" Cecil echoes, staring at his double with an unimpressed smile. "You actually think you have the upper hand, here?"

In the distance, there's a sudden, low rumble. It only lasts for a few seconds, and Cecil barely processes it, but he knows it's there.

"Cecil… Cecil… I love you, really, I do, but the truth of it all is… you're terrible at revolutions."

"I may have had some shortcomings when it came to running them," Cecil replies, "but when it comes to crushing them, I appear to be doing rather better."

A second rumble in the distance, and Kevin smiles, and Cecil suddenly feels all the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. But he doesn't let it show. You don't let it show.

"Better?" Kevin repeats, with another rough laugh. "You call this 'better'? You really don't get it, do you? You were so eager to drag me off down here and torture me – or worse – that you didn't even stop to think about what was really happening."

A third rumble. They're coming faster now.

"'What was really happening'?" Cecil echoes, emotion starting to get the better of him. "You got yourself caught. You messed up, and you got yourself caught."

A fourth rumble, the loudest of the lot, and all of a sudden it feels like the whole world is hanging on the edge of a precipice.

And Kevin smiles. "I 'got myself caught'? You really think I'd let something like that happen? I didn't 'get myself caught'. I'm the diversion, you idiot."

Cecil has just long enough to flood with rage, and then there's a thunderous roar, accompanied by an earthquake that's almost – but not quite – strong enough to knock him to the ground. Mercifully, it only lasts a few seconds, and he regains his footing as rapidly as he can, glaring at Kevin, who looks like a man who just won the world.

"What did you do?" Cecil demands, tone cold as ice, briskly drawing his dagger and fully intent on using it. "What did you–?"

He's cut off in mid-sentence as the door bursts open, and a wide-eyed enforcer stumbles in: a young man who looks stunned out of his mind.

"Sir," he gasps, "forgive me for interrupting, but… there's a situation…"

"Out with it," Cecil hisses.

"It's… Mr Palmer… sir… I know this sounds insane, but… it's Nebolgorod. The miniature city."

"What about it?"

"It's on the surface. And… it isn't miniature anymore!"

And as the shock hits him like a tidal wave; as the enforcer backs away nervously, as the world shrinks to this one pivotal moment, Cecil meets eyes with Kevin, and his double's smile is unfading.

"What can I say?" Kevin remarks, triumphant. "We call it Project Sigma, and I guess – in this case – that old line of Strexcorp's is true. It is everything."

Chapter Text

Cecil stands on his balcony at the top of the Strexcorp pyramid, and stares.

And stares.

He can't quite believe what he's seeing. Off in the distance, where once there was open scrubland between Desert Bluffs and Night Vale, there is now a vast city; built predominantly of dark stone, with many spires stretching skywards.

Nebolgorod. Cecil would know it anywhere. But he shouldn't be knowing it here.

"This… is insane," Nina murmurs, standing nearby. "Even by their standards, this is insane."

"It's par for the course where those troublemaking scientists are concerned," Lauren counters. "We should have wiped them all out during the first occupation of Night Vale, only Dad didn't want to. Probably thought it would upset his secret boyfriend, and–"

"Lauren, those thoughts are outside your head," Nina reminds her, carefully.

"I had noticed," Lauren replies. "So what do we do now? That not-so-miniature city is apparently filled with armed guards and – from what we've heard so far – they're preparing to march on the entire Greater Metropolitan Area."

"There's only one thing we can do," Cecil says, level and sure; understanding that this is it. "We go to the old oak door, and we open it, and we let the Smiling God show these tiny people what they're messing with."

"What about Kevin?" Lauren asks.

Cecil looks sideways at her. "I'm taking him with us."

"You think that's wise?" Nina pushes.

"Yes. I want him to see this. I want him to be there when we win."

Because that's what's about to happen. They're going to win. They're going to win, and all will be light, and everything will be fine. This whole stunt with Nebolgorod might look impressive, but it's too little, too late.

This is it. Summer is coming.

***

So it all comes down to this.

In the desert, the old oak door stands alone – unsupported by any other structure – in the light of the ceaseless sun. To one side: Night Vale, silent and still. To another: Nebolgorod, impossible and real.

People are gathering. Some by command. Some by choice. They form a wide, unplanned perimeter: black-suited, orange-tied Strexcorp enforcers; red-and-purple-liveried Nebolgorodian guards. And… the people of the original Greater Metropolitan Area, of Night Vale and Desert Bluffs; so many of them drawn here, to this moment, to this showdown.

The air hangs heavy, and hot; full of menace and threat. No one dares move, not given that they can all see the small group gathered at the very centre of it all, close to the door.

Cecil Palmer. Nina Belmonte. Lauren Hartley-Mallard.

And… on his knees, close to Cecil… Kevin.

And that alone is reason for Carlos to make his move. He is equal parts utterly terrified and completely calm, and the counterpoint of the two is heady indeed. He knows what comes next; knows what he has to do, and he knows this is it.

One way or another, it all ends here.

In the crowd standing at the head of the Nebolgorodian side, Steve puts a hand on Carlos' arm. "You know you can do this, right?" he says, softly.

And Carlos takes a deep breath. "Yes. I know I can do this. I believe it."

He does. He's a scientist, and he trusts in reason and evidence and empiricism… but he's a scientist who lives here, in this insane, wonderful place; in a world where demons and angels and gods are as real and tangible as metal and stone.

Steve smiles. "Good. Go save him."

Yes. Yes.

Carlos steps forward, away from the people surrounding him, into the light. He can feel the ripple of surprise that runs through the watching crowd as he does; so many of them not knowing what's going on. Not understanding why one, lone, labcoated scientist is suddenly making his way across the open ground, towards the group at the door.

The déjà vu is palpable.

"Carlos," Cecil purrs, as their eyes meet for the first time. "I missed you."

"I missed you too," Carlos replies, because he did, and it's true, and there's no reason to deny it.

"Why did you leave?"

Carlos shrugs. "Kevin abducted me. Stuck me in the trunk of his car and everything. He's such a fan of the classics."

His eyes go to Kevin as he says this, and his heart aches at the sight of him; at how beaten-up he looks. He's still reeling from the moment when the other man had suggested using himself as a diversion – to make sure Cecil wouldn't be able to stop them activating Project Sigma – and the fact that it worked doesn't make this any easier.

"You could always come back," Cecil suggests, with a smile that would leave Carlos dizzy, were he not ready for it. "You belong at my side, just like Kevin."

"I belong with both of you, that is true," Carlos replies. "I haven't doubted it since the moment I realised it, on a night after a day so alarmingly like this one. But right now… I stand against you. Against Strexcorp. Against the Smiling God. And I will not allow you to unleash that thing on my adoptive hometowns."

"You can't stop me," Cecil counters. "You can stand there, beautiful and defiant and beg me to reconsider, but it changes nothing. I am going to open that door, Carlos. I am going to open it, and ceaseless light will fill the world; ceaseless light and ceaseless joy. And the Summer-Without-End will come to pass."

Carlos meets Cecil's eyes. "I won't let that happen."

Cecil slides a hand under the collar of his shirt and lifts out a key, on a chain; unclasping it from around his neck and holding it up. "You can't stop me," he replies. "No one can. Not you, not Kevin, not my brother and his army, not the whole Greater Metropolitan Area. This is happening. And this time, there isn't going to be a big dramatic battle, or an epic showdown. There's just me, and this key, and the day the world changes forever."

He starts to pace forward, closer to Carlos, closer to the door, and Carlos has to focus hard in order to stand his ground. The whole amassed crowd seems to be holding its breath: those that know what's happening doing so in anticipation, and those that don't doing it in horror, or in hope.

Carlos doesn't blink. He could play his hand right here and now, but… he doesn't.

Kevin made him promise.

"I really am glad you're here," Cecil says, as he approaches the old oak door. "I want you to be. This was always about the three of us, after all."

"It's about so much more than that," Carlos whispers in reply. "Cecil… don't do this."

He knows there's no changing the other man's mind, but he still has to ask. If nothing else, it looks good.

"This is a crucial moment in the history of our two great cities," Cecil now calls out, addressing everyone. "A moment that will live in our hearts until the end of days. And I for one am delighted to have you all here for this: for the day when Strexcorp's first and greatest purpose is fulfilled at last. A purpose we in the Management Board – past and present – have always believed in. This is our time! This is what everything has been building towards. Look around you! Look inside you! Go to sleep! Believe! Believe in a Smiling God. Believe in the Summer-Without-End. Lift your eyes and know that you are standing on the brink of a new age."

No one moves. No one breathes. Then Cecil looks down at the key in his hand, and he smiles. "This is for you, Derek," he says, though only Carlos hears this part. "I did what you couldn't."

Cecil Palmer steps up to the old oak door, sliding the key into the lock and turning it. He pauses, as if savouring this moment of seemingly perfect victory, and then he tugs on the door handle.

And the door doesn't budge. Cecil stares at it in shock, his dark eyes wide first with horror, and then with understanding; an understanding that breaks over him like a tidal wave, sudden and unstoppable.

"Funny that you equate yourself with that monster," Carlos whispers, half in triumph and half in terror, as he holds up a key of his own. The key. "Because you fell for the exact same thing he did."

Cecil looks ready to launch at him in anger, but then realisation dawns, and he turns from the door and rounds on Kevin instead. "You," he growls. "You did this. You did this again. You betrayed Strexcorp and handed the most powerful key in the world over to our enemies. You betrayed me."

"You're damn right I did," Kevin replies. He stays on his knees as he speaks, a strange kind of tranquil acceptance in his voice, and it reminds Carlos of what he was like before the Battle of Night Vale. "It was an agony beyond words… and I'd do it all again without hesitation."

By this point, Cecil has closed the distance between them, rage in his eyes, and even Nina and Lauren seem to retreat a little as Cecil grabs hold of Kevin, drawing his arm back, and–

"Don't you touch him again!" Carlos shouts, feeling a strange fearlessness descend on him, too.

Still holding Kevin by the front of his shirt, Cecil turns, and looks right at Carlos. "Or what?" he growls. "What can you possibly do that would stop me?"

Carlos takes a deep breath. He does not like this part. He hasn't liked this part since he first heard it in yesterday's council meeting, and he still doesn't. But the old adage is true.

Desperate times. Desperate measures.

Carlos reaches under his labcoat, and pulls out something that's been holstered at the base of his back: a single object. A weapon. A device that looks like a prop from a Seventies sci-fi movie.

"…I'm sorry, did you just bring a gun to a knife-fight?" Cecil says, drawing his gleaming golden dagger and still not letting go of Kevin. "This is the Greater Metropolitan Area, Carlos. The one with the gun is going to lose."

"This is not a gun, Cecil," Carlos replies. "This is a death ray."

And it is. The death ray mark three, to be precise, and Frederick's most compact version to date.

There's a moment of silence and then Cecil lets go of Kevin and turns, breaking into cold laughter. "A death ray?" he repeats. "You've done nothing but bitch about those things for two years and now you have the audacity to turn up with one?"

"Yep," Carlos says, wryly. "Don't get me wrong, I still hate the idea, and Frederick is still one cape short of a supervillain. But desperate times call for desperate measures. And hey, this one is actually powered by a shard of the Bloodstone – one of the bloodstones, the first one from Night Vale, as it happens – so you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that being this close to even a small piece of it is giving me a thunderous headache."

"And you're going to do what, exactly?" Lauren cuts in. "Kill us? I mean… it might work, but it's a little dark for you, isn't it? You've always been the goody two-shoes type. All shiny and noble and heroic. Heroes don't go around wielding death rays, Carlos."

"I'm not a hero," Carlos replies. "I'm a scientist."

"Are you telling me you actually came here to kill us?" Cecil asks, and there's the tiniest tremor of concern in his voice, along with the strangest shot of pain, and Carlos is sure that – even through the soul-bind – some part of Cecil does still genuinely care about them.

"To kill you?" Carlos repeats. "No, Cecil, I didn't come here to kill you. I came here to save you."

"And for that you need a death ray?" Nina retorts. "Did you hit your head when you fell into whatever magical rabbit-hole you've been down?"

Carlos smiles, despite everything. "This thing isn't for Cecil," he says. "Or for you two."

He brandishes the key again. The key. The key to it all. "It's for the Smiling God."

"You blasphemous heathen!" Nina roars, yanking her knife from its sheath and leaping at him all at once.

Panic hits Carlos immediately, because this is not part of the plan, and he shouts in alarm, hardly processing that, as Nina goes for him, so too do both Cecil and Lauren. He fights to keep the wretched death ray down – because he really could kill one of them with it – and there's an awful moment when the four of them collide in a tangle of rage and limbs and, in both Nina and Cecil's case, glinting blades.

It's only when Nina doesn't manage to get hold of him that Carlos realises this isn't a case of three on one. There's a moment of confused, frantic scrapping, and then he finds himself yanked out of the group and flung to the side by Cecil, which makes everyone take a breath and freeze.

Carlos backs away even further, death ray still down and clutching the key to his chest, infinitely relieved to have kept hold of it.

"He's mine, Nina," Cecil hisses. "I told you. I told you both. Carlos is mine. Kevin is mine."

"You're letting your feelings cloud your judgement!" Nina exclaims, now pointing her knife at Cecil. "Under normal circumstances, you can do what you want with them and you can rest assured that I don't care, but your cute little scientist just threatened the Smiling God, and I will not stand for that!"

"Nor will I," Cecil replies, lowering his own dagger and clearly trying to get Nina to calm down. "But he's mine to deal with."

Nina glowers. "Then deal with him," she hisses, pointedly.

Cecil gives her a we-will-discuss-this-later look, and then turns to Carlos. "Drop the weapon and give me the key," he says.

"Not a chance, Cecil," Carlos replies. "I'm going to open that door, and I'm going to kill the Smiling God, and you want to know the best part?"

"I'm on tenterhooks," Cecil answers, dryly.

"You're going to help me."

Cecil laughs. "Carlos; dear, sweet Carlos, I love you, but I think you've finally lost it. I am soul-bound to the Smiling God. I am its closest, most beloved ally. I would sooner end the world than let you kill it."

"Right now, maybe," Carlos replies. "But–"

"…You know, all of this is really cute," Lauren cuts in, from a little way off.

Something about her tone is infinitely more worrying than usual, and even Cecil turns to see what's going on.

Lauren smiles, clearly knowing she's got their attention now. "I mean, honestly, I could watch you do your little angry bickering thing for hours. Bickering, flirting, same difference. Even through a soul-bind to a god, some things really don't change, do they? But you see, this – all of this – doesn't matter. None of it does. None of it ever has. Certainly none of it will."

"Get to the point, Lauren," Cecil says, shortly.

His tone doesn't seem to put Lauren off in the slightest. "Oh, Cecil, you really are something," she goes on. "So like Kevin in many ways. It really has been interesting working with you again, especially whilst you were soul-bound to the Smiling God. Just like me…"

"Just like you were, you mean?" Cecil retorts. "You couldn't handle it. You needed help to establish it and you never had the strength to live up to its potential. That's why your father made you break the bind, and why he later let me have it instead."

Lauren laughs; cold and amused and so very like her father that Carlos feels a chill run down his spine. "Cecil, Cecil… you really don't know, do you? I suppose the Smiling God wouldn't feel the need to tell you everything, would it? Not when you're such a liability, soul-bind or no."

"What are you saying?" Cecil breathes.

And that's when Lauren brandishes a key. The key. And Carlos looks down at the key he's still holding – the key he hasn't let go of since he got here – as a terrible realisation dawns.

"I swapped this out on you weeks ago," Lauren breathes. "And then I waited, and I waited, until my moment came."

"It won't work," Cecil replies. "Having that key isn't sufficient on its own. You need something more. You need to be powerful enough to will the door to open on the Smiling God. And we already know that you aren't."

"Smiling God, you are as insufferably arrogant as my father," Lauren retorts. "Or my mom, come to think of it. You're so sure power is a simple matter of being able to blast people or summon things, and you forget it's so much more than that. Sometimes… all it takes is patience, and a lie."

Cecil glowers. "And what lie is that?"

Lauren beams like the sun. "I never got the soul-bind broken. I just told dad that I did. Why would I give up the greatest thing ever to happen to me?"

And she holds up the key. "What can I say?" she goes on, the whole world hanging on a precipice. "I've always been a believer…"

It's too late. Too late to stop it. As shouts of horror and alarm ring out through the watching crowd; as people start to scatter, as chaos erupts, Lauren turns to the door, and slots in the key, and turns it.

And then, with a smile Carlos knows he'll never forget, Lauren Hartley-Mallard yanks on the handle, and pulls the old oak door open.

And there is light; a cold, insistent, agonising light, that comes spilling through the open doorway like blood from a wound. It courses through the air, blazing outwards, accompanied by a rumbling that seems to shake every atom of reality with a dizzying, almost sickening intensity. The sky goes dark, as the echo of the Smiling God that has hung there for three months suddenly vanishes all at once, as easily as if someone had switched it off.

The darkness only lasts a few seconds, and then the sky lights up again… but it's different this time. This time the light hanging overhead appears not as a glowing orb, but as a single point, albeit one brighter than the sun ever was. The sky fills with a glittering spiral, a jagged line that swirls from horizon to heavens, dotted with sharp triangles…

…no, not triangles. Teeth. Fang-like teeth, as though staring upwards into the open maw of some terrible otherworldly creature…

…which might actually be what's happening right now. Carlos isn't sure. The shock and the terror is too much. They were supposed to stop it in the doorway. This was never supposed to happen!

The rumbling gets louder and louder, the earth shaking under the force of it, as a hot wind whips over the open ground, and the panic in the air is like nothing Carlos has ever experienced before.

And – in his case – it's a high bar to meet.

"Yes!" Lauren cries out, in triumph, in ecstasy; eyes on the terrible sky. "Yes! Believe, Night Vale! Believe, Desert Bluffs! Believe in the Smiling God!"

"You did it!" Nina howls, looking absolutely raptured. "You surpassed them all! Behold the Summer-Without-End!"

"Lauren, we will be having words about this!" Cecil calls out, but he too looks like all his dreams have come true.

"Oh, shut up and revel in it!" Lauren retorts. "And brace yourself for the arrival of the Devourer!"

The lore was very clear about this part. Carlos had made Naomi explain it to him three times before he accepted that it wasn't some horrible trick. He had also made her promise that the plan would prevent it from manifesting.

And it should have. They were supposed to stop the Smiling God in the doorway.

"Plan B!" he hears Naomi call, from the far side of the crowd, and a whole group of black-robed figures leap up onto the rocks, arms held high. "Hold it back! Hold it back!"

The group – Naomi's own coven – all start to chant, and the air resonates as the unstoppable force hits the immovable object. It will buy them a few moments, but – by Naomi's own admission – no more than that.

Then reality shakes again as, a little further out in the desert, something huge and hideous bursts out of the ground, roaring like nothing Carlos has ever heard before, and raising way too many limbs into the air.

The lore calls it 'the Devourer'. But, to a scientist, the creature is clearly some sort of giant centipede, and it might just be the most horrific thing Carlos has ever seen in his entire life.

People are screaming, and running; the sky overhead glowing with a light that makes every atom of reality ache, and Carlos can feel all that raw power bearing down on him, pushing at him, making him want to kneel, to surrender, to give in and revel in the ceaseless radiance…

To believe.

But no. No. No. They can still do this. They can. They can, because Carlos does believe.

He believes in them.

He looks at Kevin, a shared second of horror and certainty, and then Kevin – who has been silent and still through all this – leaps suddenly to his feet and claps both hands against Cecil: left on his chest, right on his back. He shouts three words in Dzy-an-thyl, and a wave of raw power blazes through the air; different to the way the Smiling God feels. Something vibrant and primal and unstoppable.

And Cecil gasps, dropping his arms and staggering, staring wildly at Kevin like a man waking from a nightmare.

"Kevin?!" he manages. "What… what happened? What..?"

"Cecil," Kevin exclaims, grabbing his double in both hands and holding on. "Cecil, sweetheart, listen to me. You're still soul-bound to the Smiling God but I've blocked it temporarily. I'll only be able to maintain this for a few minutes at most and it will figure out how to stop me if I try this a second time, so I need you to listen."

Carlos feels like he's been punched squarely in the chest. The horror in Cecil's eyes at essentially waking up in the middle of all this is like nothing else, and it's clear his whole world is broken into a million pieces inside his head. Carlos races over, grabbing hold of him too, trying not to lose it completely.

They might very well be about to die. But, if they are, at least he got to see Cecil one last time. Their Cecil. Not the monster the Smiling God made him.

"What have I done?!" Cecil cries, instinct making him try to back away, though neither of his boyfriends lets him. "I don't… I can't…"

"Cecil!" Kevin shouts, more desperate than Carlos has ever heard him. "Cecil, please, just listen to me. We can't win without you. You're the only one powerful enough to do this, and I can't keep you lucid for long! And if we don't kill this thing now, it will destroy the world!"

Cecil stares at him, wide-eyed and terrified. "Tell me… tell me what…"

"Muster up all the power you've got and throw it at the sky," Kevin tells him. "At the same time, Carlos is going to shoot the door with the death ray, and between you, you might still be able to do this."

"To do what?!" Cecil exclaims.

"To kill the Smiling God!" Carlos and Kevin reply, in unison.

"Cecil, this is our only chance!" Carlos pleads. "We wanted to do it whilst the Smiling God was still bottlenecked in the doorway, but this will have to be enough. Please, please, just trust us!"

Off to the side, there's a fresh bout of roaring, as a wave of Nebolgorodian soldiers go up against that hideous giant centipede, backed up by a pair of Youth Militia helicopters and a whole bunch of terrified but angry citizens who are going to end up dead if they don't stop this thing soon.

"…All right," Cecil gasps. "All right… I…"

"Oh no, you don't!" Lauren howls, and makes to launch at them… only to be suddenly bowled to the floor as a figure erupts from the screaming crowd, blade bared.

It's Aidan Outteridge, a blur of vengeance and redemption all at once.

"Traitor!" Nina yells, and races to intervene.

"For Strexcorp!" comes the voice of Andrew Fletcher, and he bursts from the far side of the crowd, knife bared, moving in to help Nina.

But, even with three on one, Aidan is fighting like – well, a demon – and he's holding his own.

It will only buy them seconds, but it might be enough. "We have to do this," Carlos pleads. "We have to do this now!"

"I'm ready," Cecil manages. "Just give the word…"

"And quickly," Kevin adds, "because I don't know how much longer I can keep this bind suppressed…"

Overhead, the light is getting brighter, pushing them down, pushing them under, and Carlos knows it's now or never. He taps the two-way radio earpiece hidden in his ear, taking a deep breath.

"Tomas!" he shouts. "Now!"

What happens next does so very quickly. The terrifying giant centipede rears up on many of its hideous, spindly legs, roaring again, and as it does a vibrant beam of red light shoots from one of the tall spires on the outskirts of Nebolgorod, accompanied by whooping and cheering down the two-way radio line that Carlos knows is Tomas and Frederick having the time of their lives. The death ray mark four that they most assuredly were not allowed to build fires straight and true, striking the giant centipede and making it roar even louder, but this time in pain.

A second later, Cecil lifts his hands and throws all the power he can muster at the horrifying sky. Vibrant purple light blazes upwards, on and on, and the air rings with a roaring that makes the cry of the giant centipede seem minor in comparison; the roar of a being that transcends place and time and reality, an entity cloaked in a lie of joy that conceals a core of the purest hate.

Existence hovers on the edge of an abyss; a point from which the future could spring, or cease to be, in little more than a breath.

They have to win. They need to win. They're going to win.

Carlos believes it.

He points the death ray mark three at the old oak door, and he fires. The beam hits the light in the centre of the doorway, as if it was something tangible and solid, like a pane of glass, and for a moment that lasts an eternity the two seem caught in perfect balance.

"No more!" Cecil shouts, eyes raised in defiance to the Smiling God overhead. "No more. This ends now!"

There's a near-blinding burst of purple light; a light that courses through the heavens, seconds before an echoing burst of red light cracks through the old oak door. Every atom of reality seems to stop as though it's hit a wall, caught on the edge for one final second.

And then the sky explodes.

***

Carlos comes to with a ringing in his ears. The air tastes of copper and static, and bitter ash, and he scrambles to his feet in shock as realisation kicks in all at once, staring around wildly.

The scene is one of devastation. The old oak door is gone. The giant centipede is gone… although, given all the ash, Carlos suspects 'dead' and not 'gone' is more appropriate in its case. And the sky…

…the sky is blue; the sun shining to the south-west, and Carlos feels a wave of renewed shock hit him as he realises it's the actual sun.

The crowd of people are all crouching where they took shelter; some behind obstacles, and some simply curled on themselves with their hands over their heads. There are murmurs of alarm, and relief, and confusion, as everyone tries to work out what's happened.

Cecil and Kevin are both on the ground. Kevin jumps upwards as reality kicks back in, looking wildly at Carlos and then at Cecil.

"Are you all right?" he gasps.

"I think so," Carlos manages. "Is… did it..?"

"Murderer!" Lauren howls, but it's a moment before Carlos processes that this isn't directed at them.

On the contrary. Nina Belmonte is on the ground, with Aidan Outteridge half on top of her, and there's a knife in her chest. Andrew Fletcher is standing a little way off, looking like he's not sure whether to try running for it, and when Aidan pulls his knife free and rises to his feet, Andrew looks decidedly alarmed.

"I should kill you!" Lauren keeps going, drawing her own knife. She's doing a good job of sounding powerful and enraged, but it's clear something is wrong. Something is very wrong. "I'll kill you, and then I'll kill them, and then I'll kill everyone who committed this blasphemy against the Smiling God, and–"

"The Smiling God is dead," comes Cecil's voice, and he rises to his feet. "It's gone. I know it, and so do you. So… stand down, or…"

"No!" Lauren yells. "I will kill you all!"

She launches herself at Aidan. But, just as Andrew – seemingly throwing caution to the wind – tries to jump into the fray to help, Kevin swipes his own knife from where it's been hanging all this time, at Cecil's side, and leaps at them both.

A flurry of blades lock, as the four combatants go for each other, and there's a moment when Carlos is utterly terrified

…and then two blades stab into Lauren Hartley-Mallard. At once. Kevin's and Aidan's.

She gasps, mortality hitting far harder than any weapon; ethereal blue eyes glittering one last time.

"I'm sorry," Kevin whispers.

Lauren smiles. "I'm not," she declares.

Then both blades are pulled free, and she drops to the ground, dead.

"No!" Andrew howls, baring his own knife and making to leap at Kevin… whereupon he's immediately hit in mid-step by a blast of purple energy, which sends him flying a good ten feet onto his back on the rough earth; alive but decidedly floored.

"Enough of this," Cecil Palmer gasps. "It's over."

Then he drops to his knees and curls in on himself, as three months of horror hit all at once.

"Cecil," Kevin cries, racing over to his double and throwing himself down at his side, knife dropped to the ground, flinging his arms around Cecil and holding on. Cecil tries to push him off; tries and tries but it's no use, because Kevin won't let go, and after a moment he stops resisting and breaks down into wracked, anguished sobs in his double's grasp.

People come running, but all of them are a blur to Carlos right now, and he's suddenly terrified that they're here to finish Cecil off. Horrified, and caught in a wave of delirium and adrenaline, he swipes up Kevin's knife from the ground and swings it through the air.

"Stay back!" he shouts. "Stay back! I won't let you hurt him. I won't."

"It's OK, it's OK," comes Naomi's voice, as she bursts through the encroaching crowd. She looks exhausted – physically and emotionally – and she's got Darla at her side, holding on supportively. "Carlos, relax, we talked about this. No one's going to hurt Cecil, I promise. Put down the knife, it's OK."

"I… I won't…" he keeps going, on instinct, whilst his mind races to catch up.

"You did it," Steve says, slipping through the crowd on Naomi's other side, staring at Cecil with relief like nothing else shining in his eyes.

They did? He… did?

Carlos turns and drops the knife, and then falls onto his knees next to Cecil and Kevin, wrapping his arms around them both. Cecil is still sobbing brokenly, though he's not fighting Kevin's grip and is just collapsed in his double's arms, shaking so hard you could be forgiven for thinking he'd just been pulled from a frozen lake.

"Call in the chopper," Naomi says, though Carlos isn't sure who to. "We need to get them out of here. Then get word to Hunter, and tell him to send the army into both cities. We have to take back control before the rest of Strex rallies under someone else."

"It's mine," Cecil gasps, suddenly, and Carlos feels a fresh wave of terror before he realises what Cecil really means. "Strex is mine. I'll… make them stand down… make them…"

"Someone get this man a radio!" Steve shouts.

"Way ahead of you," comes a voice from the side, and Vanessa hurries over, carrying the radio station's mobile broadcast rig along with her. "I already hooked it into the public address system."

"Best intern ever," Kevin breathes, smiling up at her without letting go of Cecil.

And, some kind of instinct taking over, Cecil lifts the microphone and begins to speak.

"People of the Greater Metropolitan Area… this is Cecil Palmer… current CEO of Strexcorp. It's over. The fight is over. The Smiling God is dead. All Strexcorp personnel will stand down and surrender to the Nebolgorodian forces. Failure to do so will be considered breach of contract. I repeat… stand down immediately…"

Then he hands the microphone to Kevin, and curls in on himself again.

"Night Vale, Desert Bluffs… this is Kevin. What my double has told you is true. It's over. Stand down. As I speak, soldiers from Nebolgorod – led by Lord Hunter – are moving into the Greater Metropolitan Area. No one will be harmed unless they attack first. Furthermore, teams of scientists are en route to the two Bloodstones, to destroy them, so please – for your own safety – avoid those areas."

And then he sets down the microphone and wraps Cecil in tight.

The next few minutes are a blur. Carlos is aware of things going on around them; of voices and movement and actions, but it's all so distant. He's only pulled back to the moment when the roar of a helicopter cuts the air, and the crowd hurries out of the way to make space for it to land.

"Come on," Kevin says, over the noise. "Let's get out of here."

Cecil can hardly move, so Kevin and Carlos sling his arms over their shoulders, and pull him to his feet, leading him over to the helicopter. They scramble inside, and someone slams the door shut, and then the world falls away as they race skywards.

And it's over. It's over.

And they've won.

Chapter Text

As the helicopter races over the no-longer-miniature city, Cecil tries to pull away from Kevin and Carlos again.

"Don't," he begs, "don't. The things I've done…"

"It's going to be OK," Kevin insists, his voice shaking so hard, it's obvious even over the roar of the rotors. "Just breathe. We're taking you somewhere safe."

They are. And this is as much a part of the plan as anything that's gone before. Carlos is still more than a little in shock about the fact that they actually won, and now his mind is racing as he starts to think about what comes next.

He's known – distantly – all along, but being faced with it in reality is wonderful and terrifying in equal measure.

Mercifully, the journey doesn't take long, and soon they're touching down in the open square outside the Cathedral of Huntokar. And it is intensely weird to be here in the sunlight, with the sky overhead, and Carlos can't quite wrap his mind around it.

As the rotors slow to nothing, Kevin pulls the door open, and he and Carlos guide Cecil out of the chopper. In the square beyond, a group of Nebolgorodian guards all snap to attention, and Cecil gasps in alarm.

"They're here to protect us," Kevin insists, though Cecil doesn't seem convinced. "We knew we'd need somewhere safe to bring you once this was over. Where better than this?"

"Plus now we're inside the range of the Obelisk of Silence," Carlos adds. "Which means we won't have to hear the song of the Bloodstones."

Ever again, if they can help it, given that – all being well – both of them will have been destroyed by the end of the day.

"Now," Kevin says, "come on, and we'll… Cecil," he gasps, suddenly, and Carlos realises why at the same instant. "Your eyes. They're blue again!"

Cecil stares at him, and it's true: his eyes are that deep, wonderful blue that they always used to be. And he isn't the only one.

"…Yours are blue as well," Cecil manages. "Just… just like mine were. Are. I… how?"

"We're free," Kevin says, his voice cracking. "We're finally free."

It's going to take a long time to sink in.

With four guards escorting them, they lead Cecil back to their room inside the palace. They're quiet as they walk, but Carlos knows – as the three of them step into the room and shut the door – that there's a great deal unsaid.

And a great deal to say.

The door closes; the guards keeping watch outside. And… it's the first time. The first time they've been alone – just the three of them – in a week.

It would almost help if it wasn't in a bedroom, because this is not about… about any of that. Not really. But both Carlos and Kevin knew from the start that they'd need to take Cecil somewhere he could stay for however long is necessary, which made this the best option.

Plus it's neutral. And it's removed. And they're safer here than they would be anywhere else.

Carlos doesn't have long to think about it, though, because as soon as the door is closed, Cecil pulls away from them both and backs off, holding up a hand. His newly-blue eyes are wide with horror and grief, and he looks ready to drop to the floor again.

"Don't," he begs. "Please don't. I can't. And you shouldn't. And I…"

"Cecil," Kevin says, softly. "Cecil… please just take a breath and listen to us."

"I can't," Cecil gasps again. "The things I've done… the things I did… don't you dare say you forgive me. Don't you dare, because those things… those things are unforgivable, and I–"

"Cecil," Kevin cuts in, more firmly this time. "You were mind-controlled. None of it was your choice."

"That's… that's not how it feels to me," Cecil replies. "It… I… I remember doing all of it. I remember wanting all of it…"

"I know," Kevin tells him. "Until my mind was freed, I wanted it too. I remember all the people we killed. I remember enjoying it. And–"

"The things we did to Carlos," Cecil gasps, interrupting, the horror in his eyes growing even stronger. "The things I did to you… they're…"

"You were mind-controlled," Carlos says, softly; trying to keep his voice level as he speaks. "I knew that. I know you would never… of your own free will…"

"But I still did," Cecil breathes. "I hurt you. I manipulated you. Both of you. And I let… let that monster…"

That's when renewed shock kicks in, and he drops to his knees, curling in on himself. Kevin moves at once, so fast he's almost doing it before Cecil has even fallen, throwing himself down beside his double and wrapping him in tight. Cecil tries to push him off, but there's no strength in the man right now, and after a moment he stops and just collapses in Kevin's arms.

Carlos hurries over too, kneeling on Cecil's other side and curling around him as well, and Cecil seems to gasp in surprise at the contact, as if he hadn't expected Carlos to initiate it. And the mere thought of the other man believing something like that hurts almost as much as what he's going through right now.

Carlos holds on tighter. He's fighting not to break down himself, because he knows Cecil needs them both to be strong, but it isn't easy.

"I know, sweetheart, I know," Kevin whispers. "I know exactly what that feels like, twice over. Just… just remember what you said to me, that night right back at the start of all this, when I told you and Carlos everything."

It had been a few days before the chain of events that landed them on the First Infernal Plane, three months ago, when Kevin first admitted that he'd been involved with Derek Hartley for years, during his time working for Strexcorp. Carlos remembers how horrified Kevin had looked when he finally told them the truth, and he aches to think that – given Kevin spent most of the intervening three months mind-controlled – he must still be reeling from that initial admission.

And now, here he is, trying to help Cecil deal with the same.

"You remember?" Kevin pushes, softly, when Cecil doesn't speak. "You said I could tell you anything, because nothing I could say would make you love me any less. And it didn't. And this is the same. I know it hurts. I know… it will hurt for a long time. But it does not make us love you any less."

"Kevin's right," Carlos chips in. "Even when you… even… even then… I never hated you. I never stopped loving you, not even a little. I just wanted to save you."

"You did save me," Cecil whispers. "Both of you. I almost killed everyone I've ever cared about. Not just the two of you, but my family… my friends… everyone. They're all alive because of you."

"It was a group effort," Kevin says, resting his forehead against Cecil's, gently urging the other man to meet his eyes. "But I can tell you this, Cecil… we would have done just as much if it was only to save you."

"You… killed a god," Cecil replies. "How did you even manage it?"

"Long story," Carlos answers, wryly. "The short version is… Frederick, and my brother. And a secret field trip to the Otherworld Desert. And… two death rays. And… I hope I never have to do any of this again…"

This is an understatement. He would like the universe to give him – to give all of them – a break now, please.

"But I mean it, Cecil," Carlos goes on. "I don't blame you for anything that happened. I'm not saying it doesn't hurt… because it does… but I don't hold you responsible for a thing. You were a victim too. We… we all were. All three of us. Of… of Hartley, and the Smiling God…"

"And they're both dead now," Kevin adds, softly. "They're dead, and we're not. And I know it doesn't feel like it yet, but… we won. We actually won. And I… we're…"

There are tears in his eyes at this, and Kevin pulls Cecil in tight again, reaching to hold onto Carlos as well.

"We're together," Kevin goes on, his voice shaking. "Like we're supposed to be. So you… you just remember that… and the rest will follow."

He's certainly right about the first part. They are together again – and no longer in danger – and that's a monumental improvement on where they were mere hours ago. And though they have a long way to go from here, and it will hurt – just like the memories hurt – none of them have to face it alone.

"But this… this is all my fault," Cecil whispers. "I should have been stronger. I… I should never have said yes to him in the first place…"

"Cecil," Carlos breathes, desperately; cupping the other man's face and meeting his eyes. "You didn't have a choice. He would have killed me. He would have made Kevin kill me."

Cecil doesn't look convinced. "And how many people died as a result of my weakness? I condemned two entire cities to three months of hell."

"That was Hartley's doing," Carlos replies. "Not yours. Not Kevin's. And I know that the people of those cities would tell you the same."

"How?" Cecil pushes. "How do you know?"

Carlos gently presses his forehead to Cecil's. "Because I know them. Because I saw how they reacted to me, to Kevin, when we joined the resistance in Nebolgorod. They all knew who the enemy was… and who it wasn't."

Cecil seems lost for words at that, and he lets Carlos wrap him in tight. Kevin curls in behind him, and for a few moments they don't speak; just staying in a close tangle, letting the contact say what they can't right now.

"…the things I did…" Cecil starts out, finally, and so very softly. "When I… when we… were they… were they things you really wanted? In… in different circumstances, yes, but… were they?"

"Yes," Carlos answers.

"Yes," Kevin echoes.

"…oh…" Cecil manages, clearly not quite sure what else to say. "So you… both of you… you… oh."

"It's something we should talk about," Carlos replies, carefully. "But… not yet. I think… I think there needs to be a gap. A pause. To separate all of that from… from what it could be, in the future."

"You're right," Cecil agrees. "If it's something you might want again one day… we need to distance it from what happened."

"We do," Kevin concurs. "We have to focus on this part first. On dealing with what we went through. And then… then we can think about other things."

"I still don't know how you could ever trust me again," Cecil whispers. "The things I did… the darkness that woke up inside me…"

"I remember it too," Kevin says, gently. "I used to feel the same way back when I worked for Strex. I killed people and thought nothing of it. Or I enjoyed it."

"How did you even move on from that?" Cecil asks, suddenly, turning to look at Kevin; his newly-blue eyes full of desperate hope.

Kevin strokes a gentle hand over his double's cheek, and smiles a little, despite it all. "Two incredible men risked everything and brought me home," he answers, almost shyly. "And they kept me. And in their arms… your arms… even the deepest wounds started to heal."

That seems to be more than Cecil can cope with, and – eyes welling with tears – he presses in close to Kevin and buries his face in his double's neck, holding on. Kevin wraps him in, pulling Carlos in as well, and – again – they're all a little lost for words.

"We're going to get through this," Kevin says, finally. "You're going to get through this, because you're not alone, and you will never be alone. I… I don't know if you realise how utterly you saved me, back then, but you can be damn well sure I plan to return the favour. You made me realise I was worth saving… and I swear I will prove the same to you. And, what's more, I don't think there's a soul in the resistance who would disagree."

He kisses Cecil on the forehead. "And, if there is, I'll hex them into next week."

Cecil meets Kevin's eyes after a moment. "Did you really summon that door?"

Now Kevin looks oddly shy again. "Yes," he answers, with a little nod. "Yes, I did."

"How?"

"Turns out I'm more powerful than I thought. It was… something of a shock. I mean… I can't do all those things you can do, but… when it comes to summoning, and certain other invocations…"

"Did I hold you back?"

"No," Kevin insists at once. "No. I held me back. And… you know, our former employer held me back too. But when I started letting myself try… I realised I could do things you usually need a whole coven for."

"Will… will you show me?" Cecil asks, cautiously. "Not now, but… when we're all feeling better?"

Kevin nods. "Of course," he answers.

And Carlos smiles. "You said 'when'. When we're all feeling better. Not 'if'."

They have a long way to go, but it's definitely a start.

***

Kevin isn't sure how much time has passed since they first made it back to the room, but he knows it must be several hours.

He eventually manages to get Cecil to move from the floor, and the three of them end up curled in a tangle on the couch instead. Cecil is still swinging between lucid moments and moments of sudden, soul-deep grief, and all of it hurts so very much to witness.

Especially because what Cecil is saying resonates so strongly with Kevin. He remembers feeling the same way, both a year and a half ago, and a week ago. He knows he did terrible things, too, and the pain may be a little duller in his case, given that he's had a whole week to start coming to terms with it, but that pain is still there nonetheless.

He hasn't even mentioned the physical pain, because he doesn't think Cecil will cope if he thinks about it too much. But the fact of it is, Kevin was roughed-up by the enforcers when he let himself get captured, and he was roughed-up rather more significantly by Cecil shortly afterwards.

Thinking about it is still a very distinct kind of agony, and he understands now, a little better, what Carlos must have felt like when the two of them were trying to seduce him. Having someone turn your fantasies on their head like that…

…it isn't easy. Though maybe it's slightly less of a challenge in his case, given that he'd never want Cecil to be so cruel.

It's definitely a good thing they've decided to put that side of things on hold. He worries that he should have pushed for it between himself and Carlos from the moment they first got here, but he didn't, and he has to hope that in the end it did more good than bad.

He thinks it did. But that doesn't mean he's not in favour of the pause.

For now, Kevin just wants to keep the other two close. Every time he closes his eyes, he sees the old oak door, radiant with cold light, and he knows he just watched one of his deepest nightmares come true.

He defeated it, though. They did. That's taking a long time to sink in, too.

But they're here, they're all here – alive, and safe – and the rest will follow.

It will. He knows it. He's seen it before.

Eventually, after a long period of silence, he strokes a hand through Cecil's hair, and grips Carlos' hand. "I think I should go and check on what's happening out there," he says.

"I… can't…" Cecil replies, shakily. "Not yet. I…"

"I know," Kevin tells him, gently. "Stay here with Carlos. I promise I won't be too long. I just want to make sure everything is still going according to plan."

Cecil locks their fingers together, meeting Kevin's eyes. "Don't be gone long?" he implores.

"I won't," Kevin promises. "I'm going to check up on what's happening, and then I'll come right back."

He will. He doesn't want to be apart from either of them for a second longer than necessary. But… he needs to know that the world really isn't falling to pieces beyond the walls of their room. He doubts that it is, but the reassurance would definitely help, and the long-ingrained urge to fix things is impossible to ignore.

So he rises from the tangle on the couch, bending to kiss first Cecil, then Carlos, on the forehead, before heading out of the room and into the passageway beyond. As he steps through, those four guards snap to attention and salute, and he sort of wishes they'd stop doing that. Then again… having such fervour in the people protecting them is definitely a good thing.

Not at all sure where anyone will be right now, he paces out of the palace and into the square beyond… and stops, stunned, as he realises that it's raining.

It's raining in Nebolgorod.

Even knowing that the city is on the surface now, it is still impossibly weird to watch the water falling in torrents from the sky above. That same sky is overcast and grey, and gradually darkening, and Kevin is sure it must be approaching sunset.

He steps back into the shelter of the palace's grand porch, staring out at the rain for a few minutes, lost in thought. He's pulled from it as someone else paces into the oddly cool air behind him, moving to his side.

"Kevin."

"Hunter."

The Lord of Nebolgorod is wearing a heavy, hooded purple cloak, and – given how damp he looks – he's clearly been out in the rain.

"Amazing, isn't it?" Hunter remarks, after a moment. "I haven't seen rain since I was a child. The few times I've been topside in the last year, it's always been typical Night Vale weather. Hot and dry. But this…"

"I take it the Bloodstones have been destroyed," Kevin says, and it isn't a question.

Hunter nods. "Yes. You can tell?"

"This is what happened the last time one of those things was destroyed," Kevin answers. "It's as though the world realises a little rain is called for."

If nothing else, it works wonders on all the blood.

"I see," Hunter replies, and he stares out at it again, clearly somewhat caught in wonder. "How is Cecil?"

"He's in shock," Kevin answers, softly. "We've talked a little, but I don't know how much of it he'll even remember by tomorrow. This is going to take time."

Hunter nods again. "I know. And this is what we expected." A beat. "But it isn't easy."

"No. It isn't easy."

That makes Hunter turn to look at him. "What about you and Carlos?" he asks. "I know you've had time to start recovering from what happened to you both before, but the events of today… they will surely have taken their toll."

"They did," Kevin answers. "The plan worked perfectly – at least up until the point where it turned out Lauren had the real key – but it still hurt."

"Do you want me to send for a doctor?" Hunter offers, tone careful.

Kevin shakes his head. "I'm fine," he insists. "Physically, at least."

This is not entirely true. Physically, he got roughed-up, and hit more than a few times. But he's had far worse over the years, and experience has proven that he's very robust.

Physically is not the problem. But they both know that.

"All right," Hunter replies, softly, and then he pauses for a moment. "Is my brother going to be OK?"

The strange thing about Hunter is that, for the most part, he's every bit the fearless god-king who has ruled an entire city for decades. But under it all, where few people ever see, some part of him clearly still feels like that frightened eighteen-year-old who was whisked away from everyone and everything he knew and left to face the world alone.

It's an odd combination. And… one that Kevin can relate to in ways most people do not expect.

"Yes," he answers. "It's going to take time, but yes. He will be OK. Right now, he needs space to process what happened, and…"

Kevin trails off, feeling the weight of the words.

"And?" Hunter pushes, gently.

"…and to let himself see that we really do still love him."

Hunter looks horrified. "He thinks you don't?"

"Part of him worries that we don't. That we couldn't, after what happened. But the more we show him otherwise, the more he'll start to believe it."

"If there's anything you need," Hunter says, "anything at all… you know you only have to ask?"

"I know," Kevin replies. "And I can't thank you enough for that."

"You don't have to thank me, Kevin," Hunter insists. "You just saved my brother's life. Saved everyone's life. And you're family."

They grip hands at that, and Kevin realises he's fighting back tears. He turns to watch the rain once the moment passes, trying to hide it.

"What about your people?" he asks. "What about Nebolgorod?"

"You know that the decision to develop Project Sigma – to take our place up here – was overwhelmingly supported by the public vote," Hunter reminds him.

This much is very true. When Kevin and Carlos had found out what Sigma really was, they'd been just as stunned to learn that the whole city knew about it, and that the idea of moving Nebolgorod to the surface had actually been put to a vote weeks ago, when Tomas first announced it might be possible.

"I do," Kevin replies. "And I'm certainly glad about that. But… it must still be quite a shock."

"Quite a shock," Hunter concurs. "The Acolytes of the Overball are collectively overjoyed. The Followers of Huntokar… they're a little more cautious, but not unhappy. And the Emissaries of You are already trying to reach out to the Joyous Congregation. To help them deal with what they're no doubt going through."

"What about Night Vale and Desert Bluffs?" Kevin now asks.

"So far, everything has been quiet," Hunter tells him. "With the Bloodstones gone, people are starting to go home, and the remaining Strex personnel have all stood down. A few tried to make trouble to begin with, but Naomi dissuaded them. She's good at that."

Kevin smiles a little. "She is. Where is Naomi, anyway?"

"Rounding up the demon-enforcers," Hunter answers. "They're going to be offered immunity if they agree to return to the First Infernal Plane."

"It's certainly better than the alternative," Kevin says.

It really is.

"We're having a council meeting in the morning," Hunter now tells him. "You should be there, Carlos too. And Cecil, if he feels up to it."

"I'll do my best to persuade him," Kevin replies. "I think it would help."

Hunter nods. "I think so too. All of us want to see him. For now… you should go back to him and Carlos both. Everything out here is as stable as it can be. Let us look after it and you… you go look after my brother."

Kevin nods as well. He certainly feels better for knowing that the world beyond the palace walls hasn't fallen into chaos, and now he can focus on helping Cecil. And Carlos.

And maybe himself, as well.

***

When Kevin makes it back to their room – having gone via the palace's main dining hall, to find them something to eat – he finds the other two still on the couch: Carlos propped up against one side, with Cecil half-curled over him, head on his chest.

They look so utterly adorable, and his heart aches a little at the sight. "The cities are all stable," he tells them, softly. "Everything is going well out there. And I brought… whatever meal we're up to. No idea how you're supposed to tell. Nebolgorod was ahead of us, chronologically-speaking, but now they're on the surface I think they're switching to our time, and…"

"…I really hope they're careful with all those clocks," Carlos murmurs, looking alarmed.

This is, after all, a valid concern.

They opt to stumble into the shower first. With the exception of Kevin's little excursion, they've barely moved since they got here, and they were all in or near rather a lot of fighting earlier in the day. And it's probably best not to even think about the Devourer…

So they shower. Together. But there's nothing sexual about it, and they certainly don't do anything beyond stay close, needing not to be alone. When they're done, they try eating, and it probably helps even though none of them feels particularly hungry.

And before long, with a shared awareness that they're all tired, they climb into bed together: Kevin on his back in the middle, propped up on the pillows, with Cecil curled against his chest and Carlos wrapped in behind Cecil, so that they can both hold him.

The closeness feels so wonderful. They're here. They're all here.

"I love you, you know," Cecil says, very softly. "Both of you. You're more amazing than I could ever put into words. And if I had to do this alone… I couldn't. It would break me."

"But you don't have to do this alone," Carlos reaffirms, stroking over Cecil's arm. "You have us. Both of us. And we have you."

"And you're safe," Kevin reminds him. Reminds them all. "You're safe. We won."

They really did, didn't they? They actually won.

"What happens now?" Cecil asks. He sounds so very nervous at the question, like he's been psyching up to it.

"I think we should stay here for a while," Kevin answers. "I think the neutral ground will do you good – will do us all good – and we can concentrate on helping you deal with all this. But eventually… we can go home."

That will certainly be an odd experience; to return to a place that is a time capsule of a life before all of this. Before the second Bloodstone, and the First Infernal Plane, and three months of hell. But… it's also a life they can take back, if they choose.

That they will take back. Their life.

"I'd like that," Cecil says, seeming reassured by the words.

"Me too," Carlos agrees. "I miss it. I miss my lab. And our bed. Though… this one's not so bad, especially now."

He curls in tighter.

"I'm so very tired," Cecil whispers. "Despite the tagline, Strexcorp really isn't big on sleep."

"I remember," Kevin says, wryly. "But now you can rest as long as you need to, and we'll be right here with you."

"I know," Cecil replies. "It's just… when I close my eyes…"

"…you see things," Kevin answers, understanding completely. "And you remember things. I know. I know. It isn't easy. You just have to remember that you're here, and you're safe, and the people you care about are safe. And… we won."

He never tires of saying it. They won. They won. It's real, and it's wonderful, and it's such a balm against the pain.

"I can't thank you enough for this," Cecil whispers. "I owe you my life. More than my life."

"You don't owe us a thing, Cecil," Carlos insists. "We love you. And we'll remind you of that over and over until all the fear goes away."

"And it will," Kevin adds. "It will. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen eventually."

Cecil goes quiet for a moment, and then he says – very softly – "I can still feel the power thrumming through me. It's terrifying."

"I know," Kevin tells him. "I'm going to help you with that. Like I did before, but… better. So you come to realise what a gift it is. What a gift you are."

"I don't know what I'd do without the two of you," Cecil whispers, and they both hold him tighter at that.

"And you'll never have to find out," Kevin and Carlos reply, in unison.

And that's the crux of it, in the end. The nightmare is over.

And the morning light is just starting to shine.

Chapter Text

When Carlos wakes up, the memories flood back.

Some of them hurt. Many of them terrify him. But then there's the ones that remind him why he and Kevin have Cecil wrapped between them, warm and safe and here.

He tightens his hold, letting himself remember all over again that they won. Even if he'd rather not dwell on how. They won, and it's all still real.

Cecil himself jumps awake a few minutes later, and Carlos can feel how fast the other man's heart is racing. The jolt wakes Kevin as well, and he immediately puts a hand on the side of Cecil's face, trying to soothe him.

"Easy, easy," he says. "You're safe. You're with us. Just breathe."

"I… I was dreaming," Cecil manages, still shaking. "It… it wasn't…"

"It wasn't real," Carlos reminds him, gently. "This is real. This. Us. Here."

"…oh…" Cecil murmurs, as his mind slowly catches up.

Carlos doesn't dare ask the other man what he was dreaming. He knows from personal experience that it likely wasn't pleasant.

"…what happens this morning?" Cecil asks, hesitantly.

"That's up to you," Kevin replies. "There's a gathering of key members of what was the resistance, to look at what comes next, and I know they'd all be glad to see you, if you came along."

"You… you're sure they won't…"

"Cecil," Kevin interjects, gently, "I know they want to see you. They've spent weeks, months, trying to save you."

"…to defeat me, at least…"

"No. No. To defeat Strex. To defeat the Smiling God. To save you."

Cecil curls in very tight at that, face buried in Kevin's chest, and he's quiet for a long moment.

"…all right," he says, finally. "So long as I don't have to go alone."

"Of course you don't," Carlos replies. "We'll be right there with you. And you'll see. You'll see how happy they all are to have you back."

And Carlos knows it will help. He remembers how much of a difference it made to him – and to Kevin – when they first got here. Nothing soothes the soul like a little empirical proof, after all.

***

Cecil's heart is racing in his chest as they push open the doors to the grand throneroom of Nebolgorod, and walk inside.

The place itself is familiar, though it's a while since Cecil was last here, and the vast chamber has lost none of its impressiveness. The huge columns, and the smooth floor, and the way everything echoes with an almost otherworldly resonance…

But Cecil only has a moment to think about it, because as they draw closer to the large table set up at the far end, near the main dais, he's aware that there are quite a lot of people here, and they all go silent as they see the three men enter.

As they see him enter. Maybe they are all glad he's here, glad to have saved him, but it doesn't change the things he did, and he's sure it can't be easy for them.

Seeing all their faces again – many for the first time in a long time – is so very strange too; like walking into a movie theatre long after the main feature has started, and not quite knowing how much story has gone before.

His brother, Hunter, is here, with Earl at his side, and then there's Dana, and her double Vanessa, and Naomi and Darla, and then Tomas, and Frederick, and Aidan, and…

"…Steve?"

Cecil's brother-in-law smiles, taking a step closer, his eyes full of relief. "Cecil," he starts out. "I–"

And, without even thinking about it – or anything that has gone before – Cecil closes the distance between them and wraps Steve into a tight hug. Steve makes a soft sound of surprise at that, but recovers quickly, hugging Cecil back, and it's a long moment before they let go.

"I'm so glad to see you," Cecil says, once they do. Because he is. Almost destroying the world – even against your will – works wonders for making you realise the things that matter.

"Right back at you," Steve replies. "We're all happy you're here."

And before Cecil knows it, several of the group have converged on him. It's Hunter who hugs him next, looking more than a little shaken, and then Earl and Dana both do the same, one after the other.

The contact feels strange. Unsettling, but good at the same time, and Cecil accepts the attention even though part of him badly wants to retreat and hide. He's oddly relieved when they all move to take their seats, though, and he sits between Kevin and Carlos. They each grip one of his hands, holding on under the table, and he's glad of that too.

What would he do without them?

Fall apart. Fall down. And never get back up.

But they're here. And he's here. And he can do this.

"So we won," Hunter starts out, softly, eyes still on his brother. "I'm not going to lie to you… I'm still a little in shock."

"You're not the only one," Dana replies. "We all knew the plan was sound, but seeing it work so brilliantly… it was something."

"Project Sigma was a complete success," Tomas adds, with a smile that's as much in relief as it is in pride. "The entirety of Nebolgorod was transported to the surface and scaled to match the rest of the world. There were no glitches, and everything actualised correctly."

"How did you even come up with something like that?" Cecil has to ask, because he's still more than a little stunned by it all.

"It started with an offhand remark, way back when we ended up underground in the first place," Tomas explains. "Naomi saw the size of Nebolgorod's army, and said what a difference it would make if they were all bigger. And I said we could do it, but it would take ages, because the old teleportation portal could only hold a few people at once. And then I started wondering if it would be possible to build a larger version."

"And then he suggested it to me," Hunter chips in. "And I told him he was insane. Only, Tomas is apparently used to being told he's insane, and doesn't pay attention to it. And three days later he turned up with a full-blown proposal for what became Project Sigma."

"And none of us could say no," Dana adds. "So Hunter had it put to a vote. All the citizens of Nebolgorod."

Cecil stares. "They voted on it?"

"They did," Hunter replies. "It was the first popular vote in our history, and support for the plan was overwhelmingly high. It had to be. I wasn't willing to change – and risk – the lives of everyone in the city without their approval."

"Plus, as things stand, it's a one-way process," Tomas adds. "Making an entire city grow to the scale necessary was surprisingly difficult. And science-defying."

"Very science-defying!" Carlos concurs, sounding halfway between alarmed and impressed. "I mean… thermodynamics! And… and conservation of mass!"

He's so adorable when he gets emotional about science.

"So… Nebolgorod is staying on the surface?" Cecil asks.

Hunter nods. "Yes. Tomas made sure it appeared in the desert, on top of what was open land, and it borders both Night Vale and Desert Bluffs." He smiles. "We're the newest member of the Greater Metropolitan Area."

"We already have plans for how relations between the three cities are going to work," Dana adds. "Although, Hiram was a little shocked when–"

"…Hold on, Hiram McDaniels is back?" Kevin interjects.

Dana actually grins. "He is. We got something of a surprise when a whole bunch of dragons turned up, late last night. Apparently, the reason Hiram – and the Faceless Old Woman – disappeared was so that they could travel to the realm of the dragons, and recruit some to help defeat Strex. Only… they were a little late."

"Hiram got very shouty about having missed the big showdown," Darla adds, with a grin of her own. "Well… Gold and Green did. Blue tried to convince them it was still good that we'd won because of statistics, and Grey did his usual trick of sulking all the way through. And as for Violet… Violet mostly seemed pleased that we were all OK."

"Plus, we got to meet Hiram's sister," Vanessa adds. "Hadassah. She's really cool. She and several of the others decided to stay for a while, to help protect all three cities."

"They were alarmingly fond of the pyramid, though," Naomi points out. "I can't help but think Hiram wants to keep it."

"Yeah," Darla agrees, grinning. "Also… we have a pyramid now."

This is a good point. "Has anyone from the state government questioned that?" Cecil asks. "Or, you know, the part where a whole extra city just appeared from out of nowhere?"

"Nope," Tomas replies. "And they won't, trust me."

Steve gives him something of a look at this, half-impressed and half-concerned, though doesn't comment out loud.

"There's something else we need to discuss," Naomi now says. "Word of what happened yesterday has travelled fast. The Smiling God was killed, with a weapon built by mortals, and that's had quite an impact."

"Should we be worried?" Kevin asks.

"It's more that everyone else is worried by you," Naomi replies. "I was contacted last night through Strexcorp's Planar Relations department. Several times, in fact. Representatives from a number of the planes – and not just the infernal ones – have all made overtures to us."

Kevin looks concerned. "What do they want?" he pushes.

"They know that the human world has developed some form of god-killer. They're genuinely afraid of us. Most are trying to shore up hasty interplanar treaties and non-aggression pacts. You certainly made quite an impression."

"So… we're not in danger?" Cecil now asks.

"I don't think so," Naomi tells him. "I don't think anyone would dare try anything. This world is already protected by multiple accords, and the fact that they're convinced we now have a god-killer is going to make us even more difficult to attack."

"They don't know the death ray was specially tuned to work on the Smiling God, do they?" Frederick asks, with a grin. "They think we could go on some sort of rampage through the heavens…"

"Frederick, no," Carlos interjects, firmly.

"I'm not saying we should," Frederick clarifies, quickly. "Or even that we could. Because we can't. The mark three and the mark four were designed based on days of observations of the Smiling God in the Otherworld Desert. The way they work is very specific. But… I guess other people don't need to know that."

"Quite," Naomi agrees, with a smile of her own. "For now, we'll let the other planes have a reason to be scared of us. And… speaking of the other planes, there's one more thing you should know. One of the envoys I spent the night talking to – or otherwise communing with – wasn't trying to make sure we aren't planning to invade. It was a dynastic lawyer from the First Infernal Plane. To cut a long story short… with my father dead, and Lauren too, I've just inherited my dad's whole estate. I apparently have a sizeable realm on the First, and I'm a High Countess of it."

"So hot," Darla breathes, shamelessly.

Kevin stares. "Just like that?" he says.

Naomi nods. "Just like that. Law on the First Infernal Plane is very clear: in the absence of a will, the closest heir inherits everything automatically, provided they're at least half-demon."

"Your father didn't leave a will?" Cecil asks.

"Oh, he did," Naomi answers. "He left everything to Lauren. It's Lauren who didn't leave a will. So… now I have to work out what to do with a large chunk of demonic real estate."

"You may not be the only one," Aidan points out. "Nina, Lilith, and Hikaru all died without heirs as well. Untangling lines of succession will take the dynastic lawyers a great deal longer in those cases, but it may well be that their estates pass to the control of the company they were sworn to. Strexcorp. Which means… they may end up belonging to Cecil."

"What?!" Cecil exclaims at once, his mind reeling at the words.

"He's not wrong," Naomi says. "You are technically still the head of Strexcorp. Which means you may well inherit three highborn baronies."

Cecil stares at her, unable to keep the alarm from his eyes. "…Could I maybe not?"

"Well, given that they'd pass to the head of Strexcorp, rather than you personally, you could turn over control of the company to someone else," Aidan points out.

"You thought I wasn't going to?" Cecil asks, sounding as nervous as he feels.

"I… didn't want to presume," Aidan answers, with a strange look of deference that is all kinds of confusing.

"I have no desire to keep running it," Cecil clarifies, quickly. "So I can turn it over to someone else?"

Naomi nods. "Of course."

"Good," Cecil says, shakily, and very much relieved. "Then… then I'll give it back to you. It's been yours since the revolution in Desert Bluffs. It was just fine when it was yours."

"If you're certain," Naomi answers. "I'm willing to take it back, but only if you want me to."

"I do. I want you to very badly. I want nothing more to do with it."

"That's understandable," Naomi agrees. "All right. We'll make the arrangements. And then, if these other estates do fall to the company, they'll fall to me, and I'll make sure they're used for something positive."

"I… thank you," Cecil manages. "That would be good. Thank you. And… what are you… we… even going to do with Strexcorp now?"

"We mobilise it," Kevin suggests, softly. "Use its resources to aid in the recovery operations. Turn it back into a force for good."

"Plus, it is still the majority employer in Desert Bluffs," Naomi points out. "And somewhat crucial to the economy."

Cecil still feels – and looks – worried. "Do I… do I need to be part of that? To begin with?"

"No," Naomi tells him, carefully. "Let me worry about Strex for now. Aidan and I can keep it stable. You need to concentrate on your own recovery."

That's certainly a relief to hear, and Cecil nods, feeling ridiculously grateful.

"You should come spend some time with us, if you're up to it," Steve chips in. "With me and Caitlin and Janice. And Kirsten and Gillian too. It'd do you good."

Cecil's heart starts to race at this, but he nods. "I'd like that," he says, and he means it. But he's still more than a little scared about seeing them again.

But… so far everyone has been very supportive, so perhaps it really will be OK.

"Steve's right," Hunter says. "Your wellbeing is paramount right now."

"Come on," Steve urges, rising to his feet. "These brilliant people can keep the world turning. You need to think about yourself for a while. All three of you."

"Everything is stable," Dana adds, gently. "You don't have to worry anymore. We'll look after the Greater Metropolitan Area, and you look after you."

And so, perhaps mercifully, the three of them decide to head off with Steve. He leads the way out of the grand throneroom, and into the passageways beyond. And that's good, because much as Cecil is very glad to see the others, and very glad to have proof that they don't all hate him, it isn't easy to be around a lot of people right now. Even if he is about to go off and be around several different people.

They're his family. They're his family, and he needs to see them. Even if he's scared to do it.

"We're still living here in the palace," Steve explains, and Cecil realises this must have been home for a number of them for three whole months. "We're going to go back to our place eventually, but… I thought it was best to stay here for now. Just in case."

"We know the feeling," Kevin concurs. "We did the same. Even on the surface, Nebolgorod feels very safe."

He's right, it does. It's odd, but it does.

"So… how are things?" Steve asks, pausing a moment now the four of them are alone, and looking a little nervously at Cecil. "I mean… I know that's kind of a dumb question, but…"

"It isn't dumb," Cecil tells him, softly. "It's… hard to answer, but it isn't dumb. I… don't exactly know how I am. Sometimes I feel like the clouds have lifted, and sometimes I still feel like I'm in the grip of the storm."

And everything hurts. Not physically, but emotionally.

"You… you know you can take your time with this, right?" Steve says. "Everyone's here for you. I'm here for you."

"I know," Cecil replies, and he does. And he doesn't feel even the slightest desire to snark at the man; not because he doesn't have the energy, but because he doesn't feel it. He's just glad his brother-in-law is OK.

Eventually, they reach one of the suites of rooms within the palace's extensive guest quarters, and Steve opens the door, leading the way inside. Kevin and Carlos both grip one of Cecil's hands each, just before they step in, and he's grateful for that too.

He couldn't do this without them here.

The instant they walk into the room beyond, Caitlin Carlsberg leaps to her feet in shock. "Cecil?" she exclaims. "Oh, thank the stars…"

And his sister hurries over and wraps both arms around Cecil, hugging him tight. At first, the contact almost takes him by surprise, even though he can see it coming, and he's not really sure what to do. But then the relief hits, and he holds on, and tries not to cry.

"Cat," he breathes, not letting go. "I'm so glad you're OK."

"So glad I'm OK?" she repeats, incredulous but gentle, not letting go either. "We thought… thought we might…"

Perhaps mercifully, she doesn't finish that particular sentence, and instead holds onto him a little longer, finally pulling back enough to meet his eyes.

"It's so good to have you with us again," Caitlin says. "Janice will be so relieved too… Janice! Janice, honey, your uncle's here!"

One of the side doors opens almost immediately, and Janice peers out. The moment she sees Cecil, she gives a little whoop of triumph and hurries over, and Caitlin steps back so her daughter can hug Cecil next.

He holds her tightly as she does. His family is everything, and knowing they're all here, all safe… it helps. It helps a lot.

"I missed you so much," Cecil tells her.

"I missed you too," Janice replies. "And… and you're here to stay, right?"

"Yes. Definitely. I'm not going anywhere."

Ever again, if I can help it.

"We… came to spend some time with you, if that's OK," Cecil now says, as he and Janice break apart.

"Of course," Caitlin insists. "Come sit with us. Steve, be a darling and put the uncoffee on."

"Sure thing," Steve agrees.

"Shall I go find Kirsten and Gillian?" Kevin asks, looking at Cecil. "Or… do you not want too many people around at once?"

"They're family," Cecil replies, softly. "Of course I want them here."

Kevin nods. "All right. I'll be quick. Carlos… you keep an eye on our Cecil whilst I'm gone."

Carlos takes Cecil's arm again and smiles. "I will," he promises.

They're even more wonderful than usual when they get all defensive like this.

It helps. It helps so much.

***

It doesn't take Kevin long to locate his sister and his niece, and soon Cecil is getting a fresh round of hugs from Kirsten and Gillian, before they all settle on the couches in Caitlin and Steve's room.

And they talk. And though it's hard to think of them all having to hide underground for three months, away from home, it's clear to Cecil that things have been better than expected. Safe in Nebolgorod, they've gotten on with their lives as best they could and it's reassuring to know. Plus it means they were spared from everything that was happening on the surface, and…

…OK, no, don't think about that. It's over. This is what matters.

They've been talking for some time when there's a knock at the door, and Steve goes to see who it is. The new arrivals turn out to be Hunter and Earl, and Steve waves them in at once.

"We came to see how you're all doing," Hunter starts out. "Can we join you for a while?"

"Of course," Cecil insists. This doesn't mean he's not nervous all over again at the prospect, but he still wants them here. "How's… you know, everyone?"

"The people of Nebolgorod are slowly getting used to the surface," Hunter says, settling in a free spot on one of the couches with Earl at his side. "It's certainly something of a shock, even though they knew it was coming. All that rain yesterday came as quite a surprise!"

"I can imagine," Cecil answers.

"And we need more windows," Earl adds. "Nebolgorodian buildings tend not to have many, given that all the light underground was artificial anyway. But now…" He gives a wry little laugh. "Funny, the things you don't think of. We spent ages preparing the citizens for a life open to the world and all it entails, but not things like double-glazing. Or better roofs."

"How are the religious groups taking it?" Kevin asks.

"The Acolytes of the Overball are practically in rapture," Hunter replies. "I mean, they're in the Overworld now. But the Followers of Huntokar are happy too. We wouldn't have done all this without their support. And as for the Emissaries of You…" He grins. "Those guys are just kind to everyone. They're very invested in the rebuilding initiatives."

"It's good that they're all so positive," Cecil says, softly. "I guess none of this would have worked otherwise."

"But it did," Hunter reminds him. "And now we've won, and we have you back."

They do. And there's nowhere Cecil would rather be.

***

The extended Palmer-Carlsberg family ends up spending much of the day together. Hunter has to duck out a few times to deal with matters of state, but he's quick to return, and Cecil can't help being ridiculously grateful for that, because it says a lot that Hunter – who is dedicated to Nebolgorod – still wants to hurry back.

It's late in the evening, and they're all sitting around talking again, when there's another knock at the door. Steve goes over to open it, and it's Naomi Hartley who he waves into the room.

"Good evening, everyone," she says, looking around at them. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I need to borrow Kevin for a moment."

There's an odd expression on her face at this, and Cecil can't help a fresh wave of worry. It makes him hold onto Kevin's arm without even thinking about it, and Kevin – obviously understanding – stays where he is.

"What is it?" he asks.

"I've been contacted again through Strexcorp's Planar Relations department," Naomi starts out.

"By whom?"

"…By Azatothoth the Bloodthirsty," Naomi says, and there's a trace of amusement in her voice now, and Cecil realises all of this maybe isn't as ominous as it looks.

"Azzie?" Kevin replies, clearly surprised.

Naomi nods. "Yes. Needless to say… you should summon him. Tonight. The two of you have some talking to do."

"Should I be worried?" Kevin asks, like he genuinely isn't sure.

"Kevin, your soul-bound demon had his bosses call me via Planar Relations," Naomi answers. "So possibly the answer is yes."

The general consensus is that Kevin had better do something about this sooner rather than later. He offers to go off and deal with it alone, but Cecil really doesn't want the three of them to be apart any longer than necessary.

Plus… he's sort of curious as to what's going on.

So Cecil, Kevin and Carlos bid everyone else goodnight, and after a long round of hugging they set off for the secluded courtyard at the side of the palace. It still feels so strange to step outside and have it be outside. By now, it's night, and the sky is awash with stars, and…

…and it's the first time Cecil has seen them in three months. He stands and he stares, realising that the other two are doing the same.

"I missed those," Carlos says, quietly, and Cecil holds him tighter.

"Me too," he replies.

"And me," Kevin adds. "And you know how much I love the sunshine. But…"

…what they had for three months wasn't sunshine.

They linger a long moment before pacing into the courtyard. As they do, Kevin finally lets go of Cecil's arm, and even the slight separation hurts.

"You two should stand back," Kevin says. "If Azzie's in a bad mood, this might be a little… fraught."

"You're sure this is wise?" Carlos asks, looking concerned.

"Oh, it'll be fine eventually," Kevin answers. "You know Azzie. Sometimes he gets a bit wound-up. But I can always talk him down."

"If… you know… if you need help…" Cecil adds, softly, and Kevin smiles.

"He'll probably behave better the moment he sees you're here," he points out. "Azzie's always so polite around you. Must be those insanely wonderful powers you have…"

Cecil can't help blushing a little at this, even if said powers don't feel so insanely wonderful right now.

He and Carlos stand back – Carlos gripping Cecil's hand tight as they do – and Kevin moves into the middle of the courtyard. He takes a deep breath, and then holds up his hands, starting to chant. Before long, the flaming ritual circle has blazed into life on the tiled floor, and the air is heavy with power. The chant reaches its conclusion, and – as Kevin shouts out the final three words – there's a blazing flash of unholy light, and Azatothoth the Bloodthirsty appears in the middle of his summoning circle.

The demon gives a stretch of his wings and stares down at Kevin. And then he folds his arms.

"So," Azatothoth starts out. "You're not dead, then."

"Of course I'm not dead," Kevin replies, a hint of caution in his tone. "You'd know if I was dead. We're soul-bound, and I know you can tell when one of your clients dies."

"Hmmm," Azatothoth rumbles, unimpressed. "Well. I hope you have a good alternative explanation."

"For..?"

"For not summoning me to one of the most epic battles in modern planar history!" the demon explodes. "I'm your demon! I'm supposed to be by your side for these things!"

"I know," Kevin replies, quickly. "And under normal circumstances, I would've summoned you straight away. But there was a plan and I was trying to act subdued in order to stay close to Cecil, so I could temporarily block his soul-bind to the Smiling God, and–"

"You did what?!" Azatothoth exclaims, clearly caught between annoyance and shock.

"I temporarily blocked Cecil's soul-bind to the Smiling God," Kevin repeats, now sounding at least a little proud of himself. Which he should be, because that was a game-changer. "I knew I'd only be able to make it work for a few minutes at most, and not more than once, and we wouldn't have been able to win without his help. So… I had to avoid drawing attention to myself, and having Merciless Azatothoth the Bloodthirsty at my side is not a good way to do that."

"'Azatothoth the Bloodthirsty'…" the demon himself says, shaking his head a little. "More like 'Azatothoth the Long-Suffering' where you are concerned! I didn't know what had happened to you! The last we talked, I was going back to the Fourth so you could try summoning H'ygragagogoth, and then nothing!"

"I know, OK? And I'm sorry, but–"

"…Do you know how hard it is to concentrate on paperwork when one of your most senior summoners is about to take on a god and you have no idea what's actually happening?! Dread Father, Kevin, I knew you weren't dead but I had no way of knowing if you were worse than dead, and–"

"…Hold on," Kevin interrupts. "Were you worried about me?"

Azatothoth stares at him for a good five seconds and then loses it. "Yes! Yes, OK, I was worried about you!"

And then he just stops, like he thinks he shouldn't have said anything, and there's something very, very weird about an eight-foot, blood-drenched demon looking genuinely reticent and more than a little emotional.

"You were worried about me!" Kevin exclaims, in genuine delight. "Oh, Azzie, you do care! I knew it!"

"If you tell anyone about this, there will be consequences," Azatothoth insists, but no one is fooled. "And… OK, seriously, you blocked a soul-bind?"

"Yep!" Kevin tells him. "Naomi found the invocation in one of her really old books, and apparently I was powerful enough to make it work. So I did! And then Cecil blasted the Smiling God with his even-more-amazing powers, and Tomas and Frederick shot it with a huge death ray, and Carlos shot the old oak door with a smaller death ray, and… and we won!"

"And you're all back in your right minds now?" the demon asks, glancing over at Cecil as he does.

"We are," Kevin answers, more levelly. "So… you don't have to worry. I'm fine. We're all fine. Or… we will be, at least."

"Hmmmm," Azatothoth rumbles, again; like he's trying to sound unaffected. But he isn't exactly convincing. "I still missed an epic battle, though."

"I'll make it up to you," Kevin promises. "Just… with slightly less peril."

"You'd better," his demon replies. "I don't suppose you have any enemies for me to smite now?"

Kevin shakes his head. "No enemies. All our enemies are dead. Or in prison."

Azatothoth sighs. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Just… don't do this to me again, OK?"

"Here's hoping I never have to," Kevin answers, a little wryly. "We'll talk soon."

"See that we do," Azatothoth says, pointedly, and then gives him a nod. "Tereta."

And – with another nod to Cecil and Carlos – the demon vanishes again in a burst of unholy light.

When he's gone, Kevin turns back to his boyfriends, clapping his hands together. "He cares!" he exclaims. "He actually cares!"

And, despite everything, Cecil smiles. "Kevin," he says, "no one ever doubted it."

***

It's a little while later, and the three of them are finally curled up in bed together. They still haven't done anything beyond stay close, but the contact is definitely a good thing.

"How are you feeling?" Kevin says to Cecil, who is lying against his chest again, with Carlos wrapped in behind him. He feels safe when they hold him like this. Safe and wanted, and it's hard for his mind to try suggesting that they don't mean it, because it's so very clear that they do.

"…I don't know," Cecil answers, softly. "Sometimes I feel like the world is coming back. And sometimes… I feel like an imposter, walking where I don't belong…"

"You do belong," Carlos tells him, very gently; more in reassurance than correction. "You belong with us. And with your family. You're taking back the life that was always yours to begin with."

Cecil knows, rationally, that Carlos is right. But rational thought isn't easy when irrational thought keeps intruding.

"It's still early days," Kevin adds, stroking a hand over Cecil's arm. "But you'll get through this, Cecil. I know you will. You're the strongest man I know. And… you have us."

Carlos curls in tighter. "And we love you. We love you so very much."

"I love you too," Cecil whispers. "Both of you. You saved me."

"We're just returning the favour," Kevin tells him. "You saved both of us, after all."

"I… did?"

"Of course you did," Carlos says. "You loved us. When we needed it the most. You loved us."

Cecil can't speak at that, and he closes his eyes, fighting back tears. But, even through all the fear, and the self-doubt… he knows they're right.

And that? Oh, that helps. Like nothing else.

And though he still has such a long way to go, right now… he's the luckiest man who ever lived.

Chapter Text

It's midway through the following morning when Carlos says he wants to go see his brother.

He does. He saw Tomas briefly the day before, at the council meeting, but they haven't really had a chance to talk since prior to the showdown at the old oak door. And whilst he knows Tomas will be fine – and not just because he's a scientist – it would still help to talk to him.

When he suggests it to Cecil and Kevin, they're both quick to say they'll come along, and that's good. It's been two days since they got Cecil back, but being apart still hurts, and Carlos knows it will for a while longer.

Tomas is still based at the Nebolgorodian science facility. A number of other members of Carlos' team are there, too, whilst efforts are ongoing to restore the Night Vale Scientific Institute to working condition.

"There you are," Tomas says, looking up from a bench strewn with notes, as the three of them walk in. "How are you all feeling?"

"We're doing OK," Carlos answers. People still ask this a lot, but he knows it's because they care. "I wanted to check in with you."

"And I wanted to thank you," Cecil adds. "What you did… coming back here and saving everyone… it was amazing."

Tomas smiles. "Don't mention it," he says. "I'm glad I could help. And I got to do some amazing science along the way."

"You and me both!" comes Frederick's voice, as he paces over to join them. "It was quite an experience. And Carlos finally approves of my death rays!"

"I do not approve of them," Carlos insists, though he knows he's fighting a losing battle now. "I just… couldn't disapprove of them. The mark three and four, at least."

"They were neat, weren't they?" Frederick enthuses. "When we fired the mark four at the Smiling God… oh, that's a moment I'll never forget! I mean, how many people can say they actually took on a god and won?"

"In present company, or in general?" Kevin says, with a little grin, and Frederick looks around at them all, smiling too.

"Fair point!" he replies. "But even so."

"Just promise me you're not about to embark on a career as a supervillain?" Carlos interjects. "First death rays, then god-killers…"

Frederick grins some more, holding up his hands. "I promise, I promise, no supervillainy. Even though I'd be really good at it. I could have a cape and everything…"

"No, Frederick," Carlos tells him, firmly.

"Awwww," Frederick says, pouting at him. "Ah well. You can't blame a guy for trying."

"When it comes to supervillainy, yes, you can!" Carlos retorts.

"Anyway," Frederick goes on, unfazed, "I really must get back to my experiment. Otherwise it might explode."

And, where Frederick's concerned, you can be confident he means it.

"So," Tomas says, after Frederick has gone back to whatever he's doing that Carlos feels it's best not to know about. "I'm glad you're here, actually. I… have some news."

"You do?" Carlos replies, intrigued.

His twin nods. "Yes. I've decided to leave the vague-yet-menacing government agency."

This is quite a statement to make, given how much Carlos knows his brother has enjoyed working for them. "Seriously?"

"Seriously," Tomas answers. "It's something I've been considering since not long after I got here – I mean, I wasn't even sure they'd take me back after I just walked out on them, though they eventually said they would – and then yesterday evening, Hunter came to see me, and asked if I'd head up the Nebolgorod science division. And I said yes."

Not so long ago, Carlos wouldn't have known how to react to news like this… but now, after all they've been through, it's a very different matter.

He smiles. "You're staying," he breathes. "You're finally staying."

Tomas smiles too. "Yep. I'm going to move to Nebolgorod. I'm founding a new centre here called the Sigma Institute."

"That's… kinda perfect," Kevin says. "And then we can have science symposia for all three cities and Carlos will get super-adorable about it…"

Carlos reaches around Cecil and bats at Kevin. "Stop it, you!" he insists, sheepishly.

"He's not wrong, though," Cecil chips in, and there really is no arguing when it's both of them.

"What made you decide to do it?" Carlos asks Tomas, trying to get the conversation back on track.

"I guess spending three months here reminded me what it's like not to be running all over the place," Tomas answers. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed doing that, but I realised I enjoyed staying put too. And I wanted to be closer to you. I guess that thought has been in my head since what happened here a year ago. So… I decided it was time to do it."

"I'm glad," Carlos tells him, and he is.

"Good, because… I wasn't sure what you'd think," Tomas admits. "But, this way, we can do joint projects, though we don't have to all the time and you can still have your space. Although I might ask to borrow Frederick occasionally because wow, we work well together…"

"So long as you promise me you will not let him try to become a supervillain," Carlos pushes.

"I'll do my best," Tomas agrees, with a grin. "So… you're definitely OK with this?"

Carlos nods. "Of course," he replies. "You know I always wanted you to stay put."

He wonders if part of it is Tomas wanting to keep an eye on him. On all three of them. But it's hard not to be touched by that.

"I called Dad, by the way," Tomas goes on. "I told him things were OK now, but not the whole story, because that's just not something you do over the phone. He's going to come see us when things have settled down."

"I'm still not entirely sure how we're going to explain this one," Carlos says, though he's pleased nonetheless.

And Tomas grins again. "Given what happened last year… it might be easier than you think."

***

They stay in Nebolgorod for another four days.

Around them, life starts to go back to normal. Or, to the new normal, given everything that's happened. And then, eventually, the three of them all come to the realisation that it's time to consider going home.

So they do. And Carlos feels so very strange, as Kevin drives them through the streets of Night Vale, back to their own house. They stand staring at it for a moment, after they climb from the car, as if not quite sure that this is real.

It's been so long. So very long. The last time they were here, they were going off to Desert Bluffs to spend a weekend with Naomi and Darla, not realising that it would lead them down the darkest path they've ever walked.

And, in the strangest way, coming home feels like a triumph. Like a reclamation of something lost.

The rather more mundane practicalities are welcome in their own way, too. Cleaning. Tidying. Going out for groceries. Cautiously opening the refrigerator to see if it now contains a miniature city of its own. (Mercifully, it doesn't.)

And coffee. Oh, coffee. That one is a special kind of victory.

***

Night comes. Night is still a novelty, after three months of nothing but day.

They all get ready for bed, the same as they did every night in Nebolgorod, but, as they go to lie down together, Cecil hesitates.

"I…" he starts out, but immediately trails off. "Do you want..?"

Carlos understands at once, and Kevin clearly does too, because he quickly steps in close to Cecil, putting a hand on his hip. "What do you want?" he asks, gently.

"I… I want the two of you," Cecil says, softly. "But… if you don't… if you're not ready, or…"

"Cecil," Kevin interjects, full of desperate adoration, "you know we want you. But we'd never push you into anything."

"Kevin's right," Carlos adds, stepping in as well; to make it clear that this is a decision they're all making. "We're ready. So, if you are too…"

"I am," Cecil whispers. "But… this has to be about what you want, because–"

"Sweetheart," Kevin cuts in, a little more firmly but no less adoringly. "This has to be about what all of us want. That's how you'll know it's right. How we all will."

"I just… how can you even..?" Cecil starts out, trailing off, and there's so much fear in his eyes; not fear of them, but fear of himself.

Carlos takes a deep breath, and lays a hand on the side of Cecil's face. "How can we even trust you?" he surmises, understanding. He's done this part once before, after all, though he can't help but think he's doing it rather better this time around. "Cecil, how could we not? We know you. We love you. And what happened… we know that wasn't you. Not really. We know that the man we love would never hurt either of us. So… let us prove it to you. Let us show you how right this is."

Cecil seems almost stunned by the words. He hesitates a moment, looking between the two of them, and then he nods. "Please," he whispers. "Help me feel like me again."

Kevin presses in to kiss him at that, slow and deep and loving, and Carlos can't help a little gasp of pleasure at the sight. He never gets over how beautiful they look when they kiss, and right now it seems even more wonderful. Like a victory all of its own.

"Oh," Cecil breathes, as the kiss breaks; still staring at Kevin as if he doesn't quite believe this is real.

It gets him quite a smile in return. "Was that good?" Kevin asks.

"Yes," Cecil answers.

Carlos smiles too. "My turn," he whispers, and gently pulls Cecil in to kiss him as well, lingering over it. Loving the way Cecil feels; the way he melts into the contact, the way he hardly even blinks as they break apart.

His eyes are so beautiful. So blue. So right.

They all move after a moment, going over to the bed. Kevin nudges Cecil into the middle, lying on his left, whilst Carlos lies down on Cecil's right. As soon as they're all in place, Kevin curls in over his double, kissing him again, and Carlos watches the two of them in open delight; fingertips trailing over Cecil's chest.

The need to keep touching him is so strong. But it isn't out of a desire to cause physical pleasure – though he knows Cecil will enjoy it all the same – but rather out of a need to maintain the contact between them. To show Cecil how much Carlos means what he's said.

He does trust him. He trusts them both. And he knows that, their free will restored, he's totally safe with them. Utterly safe.

Kevin finally pulls back from the round of kissing, meeting Cecil's eyes again. "We love you so much," he says, soft and heartfelt.

"We do," Carlos agrees. "And having you here with us means everything."

"I nearly lost you both," Cecil whispers, clearly caught in the thought and trying to break free of it.

That makes Kevin press their foreheads together, resting a hand on Cecil's cheek. "A lot of things nearly happened," he replies. "But they didn't. This did."

And he kisses Cecil again, a little more firmly. It makes Cecil murmur softly against his lips, the words lost but the sentiment obvious. He needs them. He wants them. And… he needs to see that it's OK.

It is.

"You trust us, don't you?" Kevin asks, very gently, and Cecil seems to jump at the words.

"Yes," he answers, quick and urgent, as if he needs them to know. "Of course I do. I trust you with everything."

Kevin smiles. "Then relax. Relax, and let us show you how much we love you. That's… what you want, isn't it?"

"Desperately," Cecil breathes.

Carlos leans in to kiss him at that; the lingering pain in Cecil's voice almost too much for him to bear. He wants to chase it away. Needs to. Needs Cecil to realise that all of this is OK. More than OK.

"Then we will," he says, as the kiss breaks. "We'll show you. And you'll know that, no matter what happened, it doesn't change how much we love you. Not even a little."

"And we meant what we said the other night," Kevin adds. "You saved both of us. So… let us save you this time."

And, despite it all, Cecil smiles at that. "I think maybe you already did."

"Who said we could only do it once?" Kevin says, with a smile of his own, and he kisses Cecil again; deeper and firmer this time, stroking a hand over his chest as he does. The touch makes Cecil gasp against his double's lips, the pleasure in his tone unmistakable, and Carlos decides to take it as an invitation to stroke a hand across Cecil's chest too.

And… to push it lower, sliding down to slip Cecil's pyjama trousers off, before sliding back in to kiss him again as Kevin – clearly approving – reaches to start stroking his double, slow and firm.

"Yes," Cecil gasps in response, his eyes going a little hazy. "Oh… masters of us all… I missed you."

"We missed you too, sweetheart," Kevin breathes. "So very badly. But you're back with us now. Where you belong. And we will never let anyone take you from us again."

"You… you really mean it, don't you?" Cecil manages. "You… you actually…"

"Of course we do," Carlos tells him, gently, tracing slow circles over and around one of Cecil's nipples, just for how good it will feel. "We're yours. And you're ours."

"Ohyes," Cecil gasps, a hint of desperation in his tone. "Yes… yours. Both of yours. I love you so much, I don't even have the words…"

"And that's saying something," Kevin points out, with a gentle laugh. "But that's OK. You don't have to say it. We already know."

Kevin slows the stroking to nothing – getting another murmur of desperation from Cecil in response – and he quickly presses in to kiss his double again. "Don't you worry," he adds. "I won't keep you waiting…"

He reaches over to the nightstand, pulling open the drawer and finding the lubricant. Then he quickly pours some out, and starts to stroke Cecil with it again, harder and firmer this time.

"Oh… Kevin… that feels so amazing…" Cecil says, his voice rough with need.

"Good," Kevin replies, with a flash of his wicked-but-adoring grin. "Because I'm just getting started. We're just getting started."

His eyes go to Carlos. "Climb up onto him and ride yourself out of your beautiful mind."

It really is a good thing that Carlos is lying down, because that is a tone of voice which makes standing hard. Amongst other things. Finding himself a little lost for words as a result, Carlos manages a very enthusiastic nod, and then does as he's told: quickly slipping his clothing off and then climbing up onto Cecil, straddling his hips and carefully sinking down onto him.

"OhCecilyes," Carlos gasps, and merciful Einstein, he missed this. "You feel so wonderful…"

He starts to lift himself up and down, riding the other man slowly to begin with. The sudden rush of sensation, of pleasure, makes Cecil gasp in delight; his hands going to Carlos' hips, holding on.

"Yes," he whispers, staring up at Carlos as if caught by the sight of him. "Yes… like that… oh please…"

Kevin smiles as he watches for a moment, and then he pushes up onto his knees, moving in to put a hand on the side of Carlos' face, turning it to kiss him where Cecil can see. And Carlos can feel how the man beneath him reacts to that; how it makes him need more. Want more. It's clearly what Kevin is trying to provoke because, after a moment, he lets go of Carlos and curls in close to Cecil again, now starting to kiss him.

"Do you like that?" he asks, as the kiss breaks; stroking gently over Cecil's cheek.

"Oh yes," Cecil replies. "I missed you both. I missed you both so much. The way you make me feel… it's like nothing else. Nothing else."

"We know," Kevin breathes, gently. "And you know we feel that way too. Now… how's about we watch Carlos undo himself, before I take his place and do the same?"

It's hard to say whether Carlos or Cecil gasps more at this, but there's no denying that they both do. "Yes," Carlos manages. "Please." He's already close, and he knows the pleasure alone will send him over the edge all too soon.

And that's doubly-good, not just because he needs it so badly, but because it will also be the first time with Cecil in far too long. Certainly the first time since the incident he'd rather not think about right now.

Even if it did wake something up inside him that hasn't gone away.

Kevin lays another kiss on Cecil's lips, and then pushes back up onto his knees, pressing in close to Carlos and stroking over his chest, feeling his whole body move in the process. "And you know how much I enjoy watching you fall apart," he murmurs, wicked and loving, and the tone of his voice is enough to kick Carlos right over the edge all at once. He feels a rush of pleasure hit him quick and sharp, and then he's coming hard, not slowing his movement until he has to; until he gasps in completion and drops down against Cecil, shaking through the last of his climax and then just lying there.

Cecil's hands go to stroke gently over Carlos' back, and he feels Kevin do the same; both of them just touching him softly for a moment, letting him catch his breath.

"That was amazing, Carlos," Cecil manages, equal parts lost and found. "So amazing. I missed you. I love you."

"I know," Carlos whispers. "I know. I love you too. I love you both."

He manages to lift himself upright after another moment, and Kevin's hands go to help him at once, holding him close, as the other man lays soft kisses against his neck. "I've got you," he says, gently. "I've got you."

Carlos is in no hurry to move, because Cecil feels so wonderful, and Kevin's touch does too, but eventually he climbs slowly off Cecil and lies down beside him again, curling in close and kissing his shoulder.

"I love you," he murmurs. "I'm so glad you're here."

"So am I," Cecil whispers.

Kevin strips off his own pyjama trousers now, and climbs smoothly up on top of Cecil, sinking down onto him with a gasp of renewed delight. "Oh… Cecil… you feel so good," he says, as he curls in over his double so as to kiss him once more, whilst slowly riding him at the same time.

They look incredible like this, and Carlos watches happily; pressed in against Cecil's side, where he can feel both of them move. Kevin sits back again after a moment, taking Cecil's hands as he does, and something electric seems to pass between them; something that even Carlos can feel. The air is suddenly heavy with power, like a circuit closing, and it's impossible to miss.

"Whoa," Cecil gasps. "That… you felt that too, right?"

His double smiles. "Yes. I felt it. And that energy… that power… it's us, Cecil. Together. Like we're meant to be. And you don't have to be afraid of it. Neither of us has to be afraid of it."

"Kevin's right," Carlos chips in, voice still a little hazy with pleasure. "What you are, what you can do… it's in your blood. It's who you are. Both of you."

And, even though it defies science, it's undeniable.

"…also, it's really, really hot," Carlos adds, not quite able to stop himself.

That makes Cecil smile as well. "I love you both so much. I couldn't do this without you. But… I know I can do it with you."

Whether or not the double entendre is deliberate, Carlos isn't certain, because at this point Kevin leans in to kiss Cecil once more, before starting to ride him with renewed energy. It makes Cecil arch back against the bed, gasping roughly, staring up at Kevin with a hint of desperation in his eyes.

"I'm so close," he breathes.

"I know," Kevin replies. "I know. Just… hold out for me? I want to fall over the edge with you."

Cecil grips his hand again, and there's a flicker of fervour in his eyes at that. "Anything," he whispers, and Kevin smiles, and the air seems to go electric once more.

And all Carlos can do right now is watch, not because he doesn't think he should be doing something, but because he's so caught by the sight of them. By the devotion in Cecil's eyes, and the adoration in Kevin's, and the way the rest of reality seems to go dark around them… because nothing shines as brightly as they do.

And this is one light Carlos is happy to revel in forever.

It isn't long before Kevin's breath is ragged, and he's clearly right on the edge. "Come with me, Cecil," he gasps, curling down over him once more. "I want you to. I need you to."

"Anything," Cecil manages, again, and that word snaps them both on the spot. Cecil cries out as he comes, shuddering with pleasure, though his cries are quickly stifled as Kevin kisses him hard, climax overwhelming him too. For a moment, they're caught in it, shaking in bliss, and then they both gradually go still.

As they do, Kevin collapses against Cecil, and Cecil wraps his arms up around his double, holding him tight. "I missed you, too," he whispers, and Kevin gives a little murmur of joy, holding onto Cecil just as hard.

It's a moment before either of them can move, and Carlos is in no hurry to make them, given how stunning they look right now; tangled together, catching their breath, both desperately adoring the other. Eventually, Kevin lifts his head enough to kiss Cecil once more, before leaning over to kiss Carlos as well. And then he climbs carefully off Cecil, curling in on his other side, so that Cecil can wrap them both in tight.

And they're here. They're all here, and they're all free and they're all safe and Carlos suddenly has tears in his eyes. But they're good tears, and he hides them against Cecil's shoulder, and just lets himself revel in the closeness.

They're right. They're all right.

"I love you both so much," Cecil gasps, finally, and he too sounds like he's on the cusp of breaking down. But not in a bad way, oh no. Not in a bad way at all. "You saved me."

"We saved each other," Kevin replies, gently. "It's a thing we do."

"It actually is," Carlos agrees. "Although… if we could avoid any more world-ending calamities for a while, that'd be especially awesome."

"Seconded," Cecil says. "I… want my life back. My nice, normal, regular Night Valean life. With the two of you, obviously."

There is nothing normal or regular about Night Valean life, but the sentiment is hard to ignore.

"Obviously," Kevin echoes, with an audible smile. "And you can have it."

"And… and this… us… this really is OK, isn't it?" Cecil adds, as if it's something he can finally, truly accept. "We're… OK?"

"Was the mind-blowing sex not convincing enough?" Kevin asks, nuzzling at him. "Because, you know, if you wait a little while we could do it again. To make sure."

"Yeah," Carlos concurs, with a hazy smile of his own. "For science."

Cecil holds them both tighter. "I love you," he whispers. "Both of you. So much."

"We know," Kevin replies.

"We love you too," Carlos says.

And there they lie: three men, in a bed, in a house, in a town, and all of it pulled back from the brink. All of it saved. All of it safe.

And that's a victory which will never fade.

***

SIX WEEKS LATER

A lot can happen in six weeks, and it does.

Rebuilding and restoration work continues apace in Night Vale and Desert Bluffs. With the help of the repurposed and once more non-evil Strexcorp, things move swiftly, and – the more that they do – the more that life really can start becoming what passes as normal once again.

People return to their homes, to their lives, to their jobs. The first day that Cecil and Kevin go back on-air, the mood in the towns seems to lift even higher, as if everyone recognises that things are finally back the way they're supposed to be.

Or, that they're closer to that point, at least. There's a lot of healing to be done, physically and mentally, and it takes time. But, with every step, it's obvious things are getting better.

Naomi Hartley takes control of Strexcorp once more – which is a great relief to Cecil – and Aidan Outteridge announces that he's going to stay in Desert Bluffs, at least for a while longer, to assist in running it. And that's clearly not because he thinks Naomi can't do it alone, but because he still feels a sense of responsibility for so much of what happened.

And… maybe there's some healing in it for him, too. An old, deep wound, that never quite went away.

Hiram McDaniels – still sore over having missed the final showdown with the Smiling God – resumes his position as Mayor of Desert Bluffs, and there's no objections when he opts to turn the giant pyramid at its core into the new City Hall. He's able to run so many useful outreach programmes from it, after all, and if he also happens to enjoy curling dramatically around the apex and occasionally shooting fire at the sky, no one really argues.

Not more than once, anyway.

Over in Nebolgorod, the newest citizens of the Greater Metropolitan Area slowly adjust to life on the surface. Overjoyed to have reached the Overworld at last, the Acolytes of the Overball are particularly eager to explore all that the new world has to offer. And, when Frederick manages to de-amber the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex, some of their members actually get the chance to do something they've never done before.

Go bowling. And, one thing's for sure, league nights are going to be quite an experience from now on.

Tomas does indeed leave the vague-yet-menacing government agency, and soon he's established a new scientific centre in Nebolgorod: the Sigma Institute. They hold a huge scientific symposium to mark its opening, and Carlos can't get over how much fun it is. Or how glad he is that his twin really is here to stay.

It's quite a moment for Nebolgorod, though perhaps not so life-changing as the day when a group of baristas from Night Vale move into the city and establish the very first Nebolgorodian coffee shop.

The world will never be the same again.

***

Cecil stands in the doorway to Carlos' lab, at their house

He's trying to be quiet. He is not lurking, per se, but he is hoping the other two won't spot him if he stays just off to the side, and doesn't move too much. And he certainly isn't not-lurking for any untoward purpose.

He just… wants to watch.

Carlos is in his lab – and has been all afternoon, even though it's a Saturday – and right now Kevin is trying to persuade him to pause the experiment he's in the middle of so that the three of them can curl up on the couch and watch the next part of the documentary series they've been working their way through together: a well-constructed (but ultimately futile) attempt to prove the existence of mountains.

And oh, but the two of them look utterly adorable. Carlos is trying to be firm and science-y but there's no way he isn't going to cave sooner or later, and Kevin is doing that thing he does where you can't be sure if he's forgotten he isn't conducting an interrogation right now, and no doubt in a moment or so they'll be kissing up against one of the benches, and…

…aha, there they go.

Cecil loves them. He loves them so much his chest aches, and sometimes he still doesn't dare believe that all of this is real. That they saved him. That he's home.

But they did. And he is. And though he still carries the memories of what happened during those terrible three months, every time he sees a moment like this, more of the pain goes away.

And he wants them. Not just in the way they've been together so many times since that first, wonderful reconnection six weeks ago, but… more.

More.

And that's when Cecil knows.

It's time.

Chapter Text

Kevin knows that Cecil has something on his mind.

It isn't exactly hard to tell, especially when you know how to look. He's concerned when he first notices, but starts to relax when it becomes obvious that Cecil isn't wound-up, or worried. He just… has something on his mind.

Under normal circumstances, Kevin wouldn't hesitate to ask what it was, but – given everything they've been through – he's a little more cautious. So he doesn't question it when they all curl up on the couch together to watch the next part of their current documentary series (Mountains: Ascent to Truth). Nor does he question it whilst they make dinner. Or eat dinner. Or tidy up after dinner.

But his self-restraint is wavering, and his need to know is starting to get the better of him.

Which means it's a pleasant surprise – at least, he hopes so – when, a little while later, Cecil suddenly says, "There's… something I wanted to ask you both."

It's late evening now, and they're all sitting on couches in the living room: Kevin and Cecil each reading books, and Carlos making notes in his lab journal. At Cecil's words, both Kevin and Carlos look up, and Kevin catches the flicker of anticipation in Carlos' eyes before he turns his own to Cecil.

"What is it?" he replies.

Cecil seems… not reticent, no, but certainly cautious. And maybe hopeful too. "I wondered if the two of you wanted to try something tonight. Something… you know. A little more involved."

Kevin puts his book down at once, moving closer to Cecil on the couch and taking his double's hand. "What do you want?" he asks, gently.

"I think I'm ready," Cecil answers. "Ready enough that I want to try. But… only if the two of you are completely in favour. If you aren't… I couldn't. I wouldn't want to."

"I'm in favour," Kevin tells him, with a little smile. "Very in favour." He is. It's important to keep taking this slow, yes, but he doesn't want to undersell just how in favour of it he really is.

Cecil nods. "All right," he says. "Carlos?"

Carlos has always been shyer when it comes to talking about this kind of thing, which is not a surprise, but Kevin knows – having seen proof of it – that under the surface he's craving it with remarkable intensity. Even so, Kevin finds himself a little surprised when Carlos sets down his lab journal and paces over to the two of them, dropping to his knees in front of Cecil and reaching to take his other hand.

"I'm ready," he answers, soft and sure. "I want to do this."

Cecil grips their hands tight, smiling in obvious relief. "All right," he says, again. "Then… we will. I have something in mind. Something that might be a good place to start. Or… to re-start, at least."

"What is it?" Kevin can't help asking.

"It's a surprise," Cecil answers. "It's… well, it's something you and I have tried. But it will be new to Carlos. And I think you'll both enjoy it."

Now Kevin has a sneaking suspicion he knows what it is, but he doesn't say anything. If nothing else, he doesn't want to spoil the surprise for Carlos.

After all, if he's right, Carlos is going to do more than just enjoy it…

***

It isn't long at all before the three of them become very much in favour of getting ready for bed. Cecil goes first, and then he lets the other two go off as well.

"When you're done, wait for me in the bedroom," he tells them.

And it isn't long before they're ready too, and there's a strange moment as Kevin and Carlos are both standing in their bedroom, both clearly caught in anticipation of whatever Cecil has planned. And both very much aware that they've never done something quite like this before, with the two of them surrendering at the same time. Not fully, right from the start.

Kevin meets Carlos' eyes, and wonders if he should say something, or ask something, to make sure he's OK with it… and, without a word, Carlos takes his hands, and smiles, and kisses him.

And all the lingering doubt goes away.

The two men turn, so they're facing in the direction of the door, and – still without a word – they drop to their knees, side by side, each keeping hold of the other's hand.

Inhale. Exhale. Anticipation is normal. Apprehension is normal. It doesn't mean anything is wrong.

Cecil doesn't keep them waiting long. He steps into the bedroom a few moments later, and Kevin can see the precise instant where the lingering doubt in Cecil's eyes just vanishes; the second he looks at them both.

They must make quite a sight: kneeling in the middle of the bedroom floor, beyond the foot of the bed, dressed only in their pyjama trousers, still holding hands. Cecil paces slowly closer, reaching to stroke over Carlos' cheek, and over Kevin's.

"You both look so beautiful," Cecil tells them, soft and sure. "I can't tell you what it means to have you here, like this… but I can show you. And I want you to know that I'm not going to hurt either of you tonight. Not even a little."

Kevin isn't surprised by this, because they do need to take things slowly. And because now he's even more confident he knows what Cecil has in mind.

"Nevertheless," Cecil goes on, "if either of you need me to stop, at any point… I want you to tell me. You don't have to safeword. You can just say it. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Kevin answers.

"Yes," Carlos echoes.

"Good," Cecil says. "I love you both so much. Now… wait there…"

He goes over to the closet on the far side of the room, opening it and retrieving a bag from the very bottom. He brings it back with him, setting it down and starting to take out what's inside.

And Kevin can't help a smile, because it's good to be right. Especially in this case. Though his reaction is nothing compared to the audible gasp from Carlos when it becomes quite clear what Cecil has planned.

He sets a number of neatly-coiled lengths of rope on the edge of the bed. They're brightly coloured – some purple, some orange – and Kevin can't help approving of that, too. And then the anticipation dials up as he remembers the few times when he and Cecil tried this before and – despite everything else that was going on back then – recalls just how much he enjoyed it.

Cecil turns back to them, and holds out a hand. "Carlos," he says, smoothly. "Come here."

The other man is shaking visibly as he stands, though there's no mistaking it for any kind of reluctance or fear. Oh no. Cecil pulls Carlos in close, kissing him firmly, and the soft sound of need Carlos makes in response is impossible to mistake.

"Now, I know you've never done this before," Cecil says, stroking gentle fingertips over the back of Carlos' neck, and even that is so very, very hot to watch. "I'm going to take it slow, and I meant what I said about not hurting you. Are you ready?"

"Yes," Carlos gasps, and he sounds so desperate, so in need, so adoring, that Kevin feels his heart ache a little in the best way possible.

And Cecil evidently does too, because he pulls Carlos in closer, wrapping both arms around him and holding on tight. "You want so very much, don't you?" he whispers in Carlos' ear. "We're going to have to talk about that later. Soon."

"Oh, Cecil, please," Carlos manages.

"Consider it a promise," Cecil tells him, stroking down his back. "Now… let's see what you think of this…"

He lets go of Carlos and gently turns him around, so he's facing Kevin – so that Kevin can watch – and then strips off the last of Carlos' clothing. "Put your hands on your head," Cecil now tells him, and Carlos does as he's told, and – merciless Azatothoth – he looks so beautiful.

And then Cecil reaches for one of the coils of purple rope, smoothly unravelling it before starting to tie it over and around Carlos' chest and shoulders, slowly forming a firm, careful pattern. It seems random at first, but it quickly becomes obvious that there's an order to it, a structure, and Kevin wonders if Cecil has had to read up on it again or if he just remembers from before.

The more the intricate harness starts to take shape, the more all Kevin can do is stare. He knows how good this part feels, and it's amazing to watch Carlos experience it for the first time. The other man's eyes are already hazy with pleasure, and he gasps softly whenever Cecil pulls the rope a little tighter.

And if he looked beautiful before, he looks stunning now: rope criss-crossing his body, over his dark skin; lines of possession and love.

When Cecil is finally done, he steps in and takes hold of Carlos' wrists, gently tugging them down from his head and pulling them behind his back, before pressing in close. Every touch will be sending sparks of pleasure through the other man right now, and Kevin can tell just how fast Carlos is going under.

"Does that feel good?" Cecil asks him, softly.

"Yes," Carlos gasps. "Oh… Cecil, thank you, I…"

"Shhhh," Cecil murmurs, holding him tighter. "Just let yourself enjoy it."

He runs his free hand over Carlos' chest, tracing the lines of the ropes, and that makes Carlos shake with pleasure, another gasp slipping his lips.

Cecil smiles. "Our Carlos looks so beautiful right now, doesn't he, Kevin?"

"He does," Kevin manages, suddenly finding it a lot harder to speak than he expected. "You both do."

"I know how much you want," Cecil tells him. "And I promise… I won't make you wait much longer."

"I'll do anything, Cecil," Kevin breathes, and he means it. Anything, to prove his love and his trust.

"I know you will," Cecil replies. "And I love you for it. But first… I think perhaps I should let Carlos lie down, before he drops straight to the floor."

"Please," Carlos whispers.

So Cecil carefully guides Carlos over to the bed, lying him down on his back in the middle. "I'm not quite done with you yet," he says, with a smile, and he picks up another coil of purple rope, taking hold of one of Carlos' wrists and pulling it up above his head and out, towards the edge of the headboard of the bed. And then, using the rope, he binds Carlos' wrist firmly – carefully – in place, with a slightly twisting pattern to spread out the pressure, so he won't lose feeling in his fingers.

And then he repeats the same process, and the same pattern, with Carlos' other wrist, so he's bound spread-eagle on his back; totally caught, totally helpless.

He must feel like he's in heaven right now.

"At last I have you right where I want you," Cecil says, with a smile, as he leans in to kiss Carlos slow and firm. "But first… it's your turn to watch."

He rises to his feet and paces back to the foot of the bed, eyes suddenly on Kevin. And, even having known this moment was coming, even having spent every second wanting it, Kevin feels suddenly breathless with anticipation.

Cecil holds out a hand. "Stand up," he says.

Kevin obeys at once, though his whole body is crying out to stay on his knees at Cecil's feet. The other man pulls him in close, kissing him softly – teasingly, almost – before slowly stripping him, and then turning him to face Carlos.

Their eyes meet, and Kevin can tell just how incredible Carlos feels right now, and it's a particular joy to witness.

"You know what comes next," Cecil tells Kevin, voice low with promise. "Put your hands on your head."

That makes Kevin gasp, though he doesn't hesitate to do as he's told. He's suddenly hyper-aware of his body, of the coolness of the air and the warmth every time Cecil touches him. And oh, he needs this. He needs this so much. He hasn't had the chance to surrender in so long, and the last time he did…

…well. This time is better. So much better.

Cecil takes one of the coils of orange rope, and starts tying it around Kevin, across his chest and back and shoulders. It's similar in design to the harness he's tied for Carlos, but not quite the same, and Kevin enjoys watching it take shape.

And it feels so very good. There's something remarkable about this, something different to anything else he's tried so far. The control is there, but it's so much gentler, devoid of any harshness or firmness, and yet his mind sinks quickly all the same. Maybe even faster. But it's the ritual of it that he loves most of all. Perhaps that's because ritual has been such a huge part of his life for so long… or perhaps it's something deeper. Two sides of the same coin, that speak to a desire deep in his soul.

The rope across his skin is firm, but not tight, and it doesn't hurt. But even the slightest breath or movement makes him hyper-aware of it, and the more he is, the more in turn it makes his mind sink further under, without so much as a word.

No one but Cecil has ever done this to him, and it works because the trust between them is absolute, because Kevin knows he's safe. Because he is safe. And that fundamental knowledge means he's free to let his mind sink, free to give himself over to the other man.

He doesn't have to be afraid. He isn't afraid. And it's a very special kind of liberation… which is a lot to say for a man who is more and more tied up with every passing moment.

"Stay with me," Cecil says, gently; his words pulling Kevin's awareness back to the moment, making him realise just how much he's been drifting. "Does that feel good?"

"So good," Kevin breathes. "Oh, Cecil… I love you…"

"I know you do," Cecil tells him. "I know. I love you too. I love both of you."

He finishes the last of the rope harness, leaving Kevin with a beautiful pattern across his chest, and lines that pass down between his legs, with a couple of well-placed knots that feel all kinds of wonderful when he moves even a little.

"Now," Cecil says, "I'm going to let go of you for a moment. Are you OK standing on your own?"

Kevin nods. "Yes," he replies, hoping that he is.

So Cecil slowly lets go of him, and Kevin wavers just slightly, but manages to keep his footing. Once it's clear that Kevin isn't about to drop to the floor, Cecil steps away, going over to the nightstand and finding the lubricant. He pours some out, and then settles next to Carlos on the bed, starting to stroke him with it and getting quite a gasp of delight for his trouble.

"I thought you might approve of that," Cecil tells him, with a smile. "I think you'll enjoy the next part too."

Kevin is confident he will, given that he suspects he knows what it is.

After a moment, Cecil rises to his feet again and goes over to Kevin, gently taking his wrists and lightly tugging his hands down from his head. "I want you to climb up onto the bed now, so you're straddling Carlos," he says, kissing Kevin on the neck. "I'm going to help you."

And, though Kevin's hands aren't – yet – tied, he's glad of the support as he does as he's told. Once he's in position, Cecil guides him right where he wants him, so that Kevin can – finally – sink right down onto Carlos, letting the other man slide deep into him. He gasps at the feeling, crying out a little in sudden pleasure, and getting himself an echoing cry of bliss from Carlos in response.

"Oh, now that is something to see," Cecil tells them both, approvingly. "But don't you move just yet. Not until I tell you. No matter how much you need."

"Yes, Cecil," Kevin gasps, with a sudden, shuddering breath.

"Good," Cecil murmurs in reply. "Good. Hands behind your back."

And that makes Kevin feel as though all the oxygen has vanished from the world for a moment, right before Cecil climbs onto the bed behind him, straddling Carlos' legs. He unravels one last coil of rope, and uses it to bind Kevin's wrists together, winding it around and around to hold him securely.

Leaving him caught. Helpless. Certainly just as helpless as Carlos is, even though he's on top of the other man right now.

When the binding is secure, Cecil wraps around Kevin from behind, fingertips stroking over him, and although the touch is light and gentle, it feels so much more; like the presence of the rope has dialled everything up to maximum, and even a breath across his skin is ecstasy.

"You both look so incredible," Cecil tells them, his own voice heavy with emotion. "Are you ready?"

"Yes," Carlos gasps.

"Please," Kevin breathes.

He can hear the smile in Cecil's voice at that. "Good," he says. "Well then, Kevin… I want you to ride yourself out of your mind. Assuming you're still in it, of course… But don't come until I tell you. Either of you. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Cecil," the two of them answer, in unison.

Kevin doesn't hesitate to do as he's told. He's more than a little reliant on Cecil for support, but there's something incredibly hot about having the other man wrapped around him; holding him as he starts to move his hips, as he gasps at the way it feels. At the ropes that criss-cross his body, making him hyper-aware of his own surrender, of his choice – his desire – to give himself over to Cecil.

And of Carlos' choice to do the same, and oh but it's incredible to get to do this at the same time. To look down at Carlos' pleasure-shot eyes and know just how utterly happy he is, and how that joy reflects Kevin's own.

"Ohyes," Carlos breathes. "Please. Please."

"You feel amazing," Kevin tells him, his voice already cracking a little.

"And you both look stunning," Cecil breathes in his ear, which is enough to make the two of them cry out in delight, and in need. "I have you… and your trust means the world to me. It means everything."

Kevin knows. They all do. This is as much about reaffirming their trust on this deeper level than it is about anything else, and it makes Cecil's decision to start out here seem even more wise. And, indeed, sensible. It leaves them all free to become totally aware of that trust, without distraction; able to become certain of it, and to enjoy it.

Because it truly is something to enjoy.

"Is that good?" Cecil purrs in Kevin's ear.

"Yes," Kevin replies at once. "Oh yes. Oh please."

"Good," Cecil says, and he sounds so happy, and that alone is wonderful. "Carlos?"

"Sogoodsogooddon'tstop," Carlos manages, clearly falling right out of his mind, though that's obvious enough from the blissed-out look in his eyes.

Cecil's arms tighten around Kevin, fingers playing along the lines of the ropes again. "How long do you think you can draw this out?" he asks, just a little teasingly.

"As long as you… as long as…" Kevin tries, and apparently full sentences are harder than he realised. "Aslongasyouwant," he manages, finally; opting to forego the spaces too.

That makes Cecil laugh, soft and gentle and adoring. "I'm not so sure," he says. "I think you might fall apart soon. In fact…" And he reaches to start stroking Kevin, slow and firm. "…I think I might help with that."

"Oh," Kevin gasps, the world going black around the edges. "P-please…"

"It's all right," Cecil murmurs. "I told you I wouldn't hurt you. I just want you to feel amazing…"

"I do," Kevin says. "I do… I… ohIloveyoubothsomuch…"

"C-Cecil… please… I'm so close…" Carlos cries out, suddenly. "Please… please let me…"

"Soon," Cecil tells him. "Very soon. Kevin… I want the two of you to come together. Can you do that for me?"

"Yes," Kevin gasps, in answer and in agreement. "Anything."

Cecil kisses his neck. "Good," he says. "Good. Then come for me. Both of you. Come for me."

And pleasure seizes Kevin all at once, running through him in waves for a few glorious seconds before the feeling breaks, and he comes hard; caught and overwhelmed and feeling the whole world go black as he shatters in bliss. At the same moment, Carlos' hips arch up beneath him, and the other man cries out as he comes as well, shaking in the ropes holding him down.

It's a long, long moment before the pleasure starts to fade, and they're left gasping deeply, shivering through the last few aftershocks and then going still. As they do, Cecil kisses Kevin's neck again, and then gently – oh so gently – lowers him forwards, so he can curl in over Carlos' chest. And that in turn makes Carlos murmur in pleasure, obviously completely out of his head but very, very happy.

"I love you both so much," Cecil tells them, very gently, stroking his hands over Kevin's hip, and over Carlos'. "Just lie still for me, now. I promise I'll take care of you."

But, even so far out of his own head, Kevin suddenly knows something is missing. "Cecil… we… for you…" he tries, though the words are so very hard to find.

Cecil seems to understand. "Don't worry about me," he says. "This is about the two of you. About how much I love you."

"But… Cecil… love you too…" Kevin manages, and Carlos murmurs in agreement.

"I know you do," Cecil whispers. "I know."

"Please," Carlos manages, though it sounds like he's had to take quite a mental run-up to get the word out.

Cecil pauses a moment at this, and then he gently reaches to lift Kevin up again – which makes him feel all kinds of wonderful – and wraps around him, holding on. "There is something we could try," he says. "But only if you're sure. Don't just do it to please me."

Kevin leans back against him all the more. "Anything," he replies.

"Do you think you could take both of us at the same time?" Cecil asks.

The world goes black, and Kevin gasps at the suggestion, his heart suddenly racing with renewed need. "Yes," he answers, in agreement and approval. It's not something he's ever tried, but the moment the idea is in his head, he wants it. Even though he's already come.

"All right," Cecil agrees. "But I'm going to do this slowly, and if you need me to stop at any point, you tell me. You promise?"

"Yes, Cecil, I promise."

Cecil gently lowers him forwards again, so he's curled over Carlos' chest, and Carlos gives another murmur of happiness. And then Cecil starts to slowly untie Kevin's wrists, freeing his hands, so that he can support himself.

And so that he can hold on to Carlos, which he does as soon as he can; stroking gently over the other man's skin, tracing the lines of the rope, though without lifting his head from Carlos' chest.

"Ohhhyes," Carlos whispers. "Loveyouboth."

As the two of them lie curled in a blissful tangle, still locked together, Cecil moves back enough to slip his own pyjama trousers off before he reaches over for the lubricant, pouring some of it out. A moment later, he presses in closer once more and slides two slick fingers down to where Kevin and Carlos are coupled; slowly, slowly pushing one of those fingers into Kevin.

And that makes the whole world go hazy all over again, and Kevin feels like every inch of his skin is hypersensitive. He can feel the ropes with a renewed awareness, and the increase in stimulation makes him cry out, shaking a little between the two of them.

"Is that good?" Cecil asks, softly.

"Yes," Kevin gasps, the craving starting to spread through him. "Oh, Cecil, please… please more…"

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Yes. Please."

Cecil draws his finger back and forth a few times before he carefully slides a second one in alongside it. Kevin flat-out whimpers in need at that, curling even more tightly around Carlos, who murmurs in happiness and kisses the top of his head.

He feels wonderful. So utterly wonderful, and good, and right, and the craving flares brighter in his blood, and he knows he can do this.

"…so unbelievably hot…" Carlos whispers.

"You're not wrong," Cecil says, drawing those two fingers back and forth a little more and making Kevin shiver in renewed pleasure. "Can you take three, Kevin? Or…"

"You," Kevin gasps, without thinking about it. Without needing to think about it. "Please. Please. I want to."

Cecil traces his free hand over Kevin's back. "All right," he says. "But slowly."

He gradually slides his fingers free, and Kevin feels his anticipation dial up beyond the maximum. He hears Cecil pour out more of the lubricant, slicking himself with it, and then he feels the other man move into place and…

…and start to push into him, oh-so-slowly; hand braced on Kevin's hip as he does.

Carlos gasps in delight – because it must feel amazing for him, too – but it's nothing compared to the rough cry of bliss that slips Kevin's own lips as he feels Cecil gradually, carefully, slide deeper inside him. At the same time.

"Is that good?" Cecil asks, not yet moving.

"Yes," Kevin manages, about an octave higher than usual.

And that's when Cecil moves his hips, and even slow and careful it makes the whole world explode with colour; like someone has grabbed all the sliders on reality and dragged them up to maximum. Kevin cries out again, but there's no coherence in it now, and he's just aware of sensation and joy and need.

"Ohwow," Carlos gasps. "You… both… I… wow."

He's so cute when he's out of his mind. And all the other times.

Kevin feels higher than the sky; like he's adrift above the world, caught on a slow slipstream of bliss that lifts him higher still. Cecil's hands on his skin are almost electric, as though he can feel the power in the other man and he's wrapped in it, lost in it, held by it.

"You feel phenomenal," Cecil whispers after a moment, in rapture. "Is that still good?"

"So good," Kevin breathes. "So… yours."

"Yes," Cecil replies. "Yes. Both of you are mine. And I love you so completely."

By the tremor in his hips, he's rapidly getting close, and he isn't going to last much longer. And Kevin is hazily glad that he's already come, because if he hadn't he thinks he might be going a little insane right now.

"D-don't hold back," he whispers. "I need you."

"You have me," Cecil tells him. "And I have both of you. And I won't let anything keep us apart again. Anything. Ever." A beat. A breath. And then, "…Do you trust me?"

"Yes," Kevin and Carlos gasp in unison, without hesitation, and there's no questioning how much they mean it. Kevin knows he does. Utterly. Absolutely.

"Good," Cecil breathes, and puts a hand on Kevin's back, and the other on Carlos' side. "Good."

And with one last – careful – jolt of the hips, Cecil comes hard. The instant he does, the whole room goes purple, as he sends a sudden burst of planar energy into both of his lovers at once; energy that is all pleasure, which somehow kicks both of them right over the edge a second time. And there isn't a word for how good it feels, because Kevin has long since gone past 'ecstasy', and whatever comes next exists in a world beyond words.

There's a moment when all three of them are crying out in this purest bliss, and then Cecil goes suddenly still, letting the energy fade as he does, before collapsing against Kevin and trying to find something resembling breath.

Kevin can't speak. Or move. Or anything, really, except try to re-acquaint himself with oxygen. He's drifting in absolute happiness, high above the world, and he's confident he's never felt this good in his whole life.

And that's saying something.

"I love you both so much," Cecil murmurs, sounding distant himself. "So very much. I'm the luckiest man in the entire planarverse."

What Kevin wants to say at this point is that possibly it's a tie between all three of them, but what he manages is a tiny, tiny little murmur that makes Cecil laugh so very softly and hold on tighter.

"I don't know what I did to deserve the two of you but it was a really good idea," he says. "Just lie still for a moment. I've got you both."

He has. He really has. And it's wonderful, and it's right.

Cecil is clearly in no hurry to move, but eventually he starts to pull back – slowly, carefully – and then pauses, running his hands over the two of them again. "I'm going to start untying you both now," he says. "Kevin first. I'm not going to rush it, because I want you to feel good for as long as possible, so just let yourselves keep drifting."

He slides his arms around Kevin, lifting him slowly upright again, with Carlos still buried deep inside him. And, keeping him there as long as possible, he starts the process of unbinding the ropes from Kevin's body. It feels almost as good as the initial binding did, and Kevin feels his awareness surge to wherever Cecil is touching him, his mind still hazy and distant and so very, very happy.

"I love you so much," Cecil tells him, as he slips the last of the rope free and tosses it lightly aside. "So very much. I want you to lie down next to Carlos now, so I can untie his wrists. Stay close to him."

Kevin is more than happy to do as he's told – with a little help when it comes to complicated things like moving – and he lets Cecil finally lift him off Carlos and guide him to lie down next to the other man. And Carlos himself is clearly completely out of his head, with a rapt look in his eyes that is all kinds of wonderful. Kevin curls in next to him, a little lower down, wrapping an arm around him whilst he can.

As he does, Cecil staggers slowly to his feet, and goes to unbind Carlos' wrists, one at a time. It takes a few moments, given the intricacy of the ropes, and as each wrist is freed he kisses it softly, before guiding Carlos' arm in against his own body.

Once both arms are free, Cecil needs to lift Carlos up in order to start unbinding the ropes from his chest. And, understanding – even though his mind is still hazy – Kevin moves in to help, lifting the other man into a sitting position and holding him upright, curled in alongside him.

Plus it means he can see close up as Cecil unties the ropes, gently undoing the intricate pattern, and it's so very lovely to watch him work. When the last of the rope is gone, and both men are free, Cecil climbs back onto the bed with them, gently moving into the middle where he can wrap them both in, one on each side. He hooks the bedcovers up with one foot, tugging them in, and snuggling them all into a warm tangle.

"That was incredible," Cecil whispers, after a moment. "I mean it. So completely incredible."

"Seconded," Kevin agrees, hazily.

Carlos holds on tighter, head on Cecil's shoulder. "So… yes…" he murmurs. "That… wow…"

He really is so very cute when he's out of his mind. And, judging by the way Cecil wraps them both in more firmly, he agrees.

"Thank you," Cecil tells them. "For that. For everything. For letting me…"

"You don't have to thank us," Kevin insists. "What you just did… Cecil… it was…"

"…soverygood," Carlos says.

Cecil kisses them on the forehead, one then the other. "You're both so beautiful when you surrender like that. It's… amazing."

"…promise me we can do this again?" Carlos now asks. "Because… the rope… I mean…"

"…wow?" Kevin suggests, with a smile.

"Wow," Carlos agrees.

"I promise," Cecil says, with a smile of his own. "For now… sleep. I'm surprised either of you are still conscious."

"Sleep, yes," Kevin murmurs in agreement, his mind starting to slip deeper. "Love you both."

And the glorious darkness rises up, and he drifts off in moments.

Chapter Text

It's a few days later.

Or, more specifically, a few nights later. Cecil wakes with a jump, sitting up with his hand instinctively raised as if to defend himself, and he feels suddenly cold as the surge of memories hit.

This is not the first time he's woken from a nightmare, shaking and terrified. Some of those times, he's managed not to disturb the other two, and to get himself to go back to sleep – eventually – and other times he's found himself having very frank discussions with one or both of his lovers in the dark of their room.

And, though it always helps, he still feels so very guilty for all of it. For what he put them through, and for making them re-live parts of it like this.

Right now, he knows he's not the only one awake, and he feels Kevin sit up beside him, wrapping an arm around his waist and curling in against his shoulder.

"It's all right," Kevin says. "I'm here. It's all right."

"I'm sorry… I didn't mean to wake you…"

"You really must stop apologising," Kevin chides, very gently, stroking along the top of his arm over and over. "You know I'm here for you. All I want to do is help."

"We both do," comes Carlos' voice, sleepily, as he sits up too and wraps in against Cecil's other side. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Cecil tugs his knees in closer, resting his head on them. He doesn't want to talk about it, though he knows it generally helps if he does. "I was hurting you," he whispers, shakily. "Both of you. It… was so vivid. It felt like it did back then. Like I wanted it. Like I…"

"Like you enjoyed it?" Kevin surmises.

All Cecil can do is nod, not lifting his head.

"You know we don't blame you for any of it, don't you?" Carlos says.

And Cecil does know, but sometimes the reminder helps. He knows they don't blame him, and he knows why, and – rationally – he knows he isn't to blame at all. But it's hard to turn the feelings off, because he remembers everything so graphically, and because – at the time – he felt like he wanted every part of it.

"Yes," he whispers. "But sometimes I don't know why. I don't know how you can just… turn it off…"

"We aren't turning it off," Carlos insists, resting his head on the back of Cecil's shoulder. "It isn't there at all. We know you aren't to blame."

"But… but what if I am?" Cecil now says, still so very softly. "What if some part of me wanted to do all those terrible things and the soul-binds just enabled it..?"

"Cecil," Kevin cuts in, firm but gentle. "We know you. And we know you would never have done anything to hurt us – to hurt anyone – if the choice had been yours."

Sometimes Cecil feels like his mind gets caught in these loops, because he goes through the same set of thoughts, over and over, from fear to doubt to reassurance and then – sooner or later – back again. And even in the times when he's able to accept that none of it was his fault, some part of him knows the certainty won't last.

And again, rationally, he knows the whole thing is an ongoing process: that the certainty will start to last longer and longer whilst the flipside shrinks, but that doesn't help when he's caught in that very flipside. When he's unable to stop considering the possibility that the darkness really did come from within him.

That he wanted to hurt the men he loves. And not in the ways they enjoy.

"Do you think we would ever have trusted you again if we thought you had any choice in what happened?" Kevin pushes. Kevin is good at having this conversation, on account of having been on the opposite side of it before, and that helps too. "Do you think we would have let you do what we did the other night if we didn't trust you completely?"

That really was an incredible experience. The way they'd both looked after Cecil tied them up, and the way they'd both gone so far under that they could barely speak… it was even more amazing than Cecil had hoped. And for that to work the way it did, Cecil knows the other two had to trust him utterly. Had to trust that he wouldn't hurt them when they were physically and mentally helpless to resist.

It really is the most precious gift of all; to trust someone that much. And Cecil doesn't doubt that they mean it.

He just wishes he could reconcile why.

"I know you did," he answers. "I know you do. I just…"

He drops his head onto his knees again. "…I wish I felt worthy of it. I wish I could switch off all this doubt…"

"I know," Kevin tells him, wryly. "Believe me, I know. I often feel the same way. Remember, most of the things you're feeling guilty about… I did them too."

"So how do you deal with it?"

"Practice. And… by being with the two of you. By letting myself see that you love me. That you trust me. It will get easier, Cecil, I promise. It just takes time. And regular proof."

"Just remember," Carlos adds, "those nightmares in your head aren't real. This is real."

"I know," Cecil replies. "But… some of them are also memories. And the memories are real. And I… I remember what I did to you. I remember enjoying it."

"Cecil," Kevin says, soft and serious, "there are two reasons for that. Partly it's because the soul-binds made you think you wanted things. And partly… it's because you did want them. And–"

"…so I am to blame…" Cecil cuts in, horrified, and Kevin immediately slips a hand under his jaw, and lifts his head.

"Sweetheart, just hear me out," he says, gently. "I don't mean that you wanted to hurt us in a bad way. I don't for one second think that you ever would, or ever could. But… I think it's safe to say that you rather enjoy it when we let you take charge, don't you?"

Cecil knows that he does. It was something of a surprise when he first worked it out, but he can't deny it now. "Yes," he answers.

"Yes," Kevin echoes. "I know. I like doing it too. I know how good it feels. And that in itself isn't wrong. The circumstances were wrong, but that part isn't your fault, or mine."

"And if those circumstances were different, Cecil," Carlos chips in, "then I would have enjoyed a lot of what you did to me."

The words make Cecil jump back a little, turning to look at Carlos in alarm. "You would have enjoyed it?" he repeats.

Carlos nods. "Yes. Being utterly overwhelmed and owned by the two men I adore? You know I've fantasised about far less?"

Cecil feels like his mind has hit a wall. "I… don't…"

"I mean it," Carlos says. "The circumstances weren't good. The motivations weren't good. But what happened that first morning… or that night after you soul-bound me… if you did those things to me now, safe and loving and all of us in our right minds… Cecil, I'd thank you for every moment. And probably beg you for more."

"That's what makes all of this complicated," Kevin adds. "And… perhaps less complicated at the same time. Because part of what you're feeling… under good circumstances… would be all right."

Cecil drops his head again, and tries to think about this. "But it wasn't all right back then, because they weren't good circumstances."

"No," Kevin agrees, gently. "No, they weren't. And I'm not disputing that. I'm just trying to help you understand why you're feeling the things you're feeling. Why you don't have to be afraid of the impulse, even if the situation wasn't right."

"I still can't stop blaming myself for all of it," Cecil whispers.

Kevin strokes a hand gently over Cecil's back, and he leans into the touch, loving it. Not quite sure he's worthy of it. "Let me ask you something, Cecil," Kevin starts off. "Do you blame me for the things I did?"

Cecil jumps at once. "No," he insists. "Of course not."

"Why am I any different to you? If you can absolve me of blame so quickly, so surely, why can't you do the same to yourself?"

"…The things I did were worse."

"Why? You ran Strexcorp for a week. I was its hitman for twenty years."

"But you were mind-controlled," Cecil insists.

"Yes. Yes, I was. And so were you. Worse, in fact, because the control of the Bloodstone wasn't always absolute, whereas that soul-bind was. So in every way possible, I am more blameworthy than you."

"…but I still don't blame you…" Cecil repeats, softly.

Kevin takes his hand. "I know. And I can't thank you enough for that, because it's helped me in more ways than I can say. And now I hope it helps you, too, because if you don't blame me… you can't blame yourself."

Cecil bows his head again. He knows his double is right. It's just hard to switch the feelings off.

"I'm sorry," he whispers. "I know I do this over and over…"

"You have nothing to apologise for," Carlos insists. "We want to help you. No matter how many times you need us to. If you need us to tell you every single day, we will. We want you to be happy… and to know that you make us happy."

"And you do make us happy," Kevin adds. "Now… lie back, and let us hold you until you drift off again."

So Cecil lets them lie him down again, curled in against Carlos' chest, with Kevin wrapped around him from behind. He feels so safe with them. So safe, and so wanted, and it does help to chase back some of the fear and doubt.

And the rest… the rest he just has to hope will fade with time. Even if it means they have to have conversations like this more often than he would like.

As he thinks about what they've said, as his mind slowly starts to let go, one particular part keeps coming back to him: the amazing gift that their trust represents. How wonderful it was to see that, clear and undeniable, a few nights ago.

And Cecil can't help a little smile, as he drifts off… with an idea in his mind as he does.

***

It's the following evening.

The day itself has been pleasingly normal – as much as is possible in Night Vale – and Cecil is glad of that. The normalcy certainly helps.

And now it's late, and they're getting ready for bed again, and Cecil still has the idea in his head. The idea that's been there since the previous night, and hasn't gone away all day.

The idea he's going to act on.

He waits until the three of them are about to get into bed before taking one of Carlos' hands, and one of Kevin's, looking between the two other men.

"There's something I want to do," Cecil starts out. "Something I need to do."

His heart is racing in his chest. Is that normal? He isn't quite sure. But there's no way he's going to let it stop him.

"What is it?" Kevin asks, softly.

Deep breath. Don't overthink this. He's spent the whole day overthinking it. Now is the time to do it.

Cecil lets go of their hands, takes a step back, and drops smoothly to his knees. He hears a soft gasp from Carlos as he does, but he bows his head before he can see the reactions in their eyes, more than a little scared as to what those reactions might be.

Perhaps mercifully, Kevin responds almost at once; stepping in close and stroking his hands through Cecil's hair, before oh-so-gently pulling his head in against his own stomach. "Tell us what you need, sweetheart," he says.

"I need to surrender to you," Cecil replies. "To both of you. What you did the other night… the trust you gave me… it really was the most precious gift. So I want to return the favour. I want to show you how much I trust you."

"You don't have to prove anything to us, Cecil," Kevin tells him, still holding him close. "We both know you're more than worthy of our trust."

"I… still want to show you," Cecil says. "So… please… let me?"

There's a moment of silence, during which he's sure the other two are meeting eyes, and – perhaps – wordlessly considering this.

"You're sure it's what you want?" Kevin pushes, gently. "I meant it when I said you don't have to prove anything. Or… earn anything. It's already yours."

"I know," Cecil breathes, his heart aching suddenly at just how much he loves them. "But it works both ways. I'm yours. And I want to reaffirm that."

There's another moment's silence at this, and then Carlos drops to his knees as well, wrapping his arms around Cecil and pulling him in close. "We love you so much," he says, and holds on… and then Kevin puts a hand on each of them and tugs them both in against his stomach again, and wow, that really does feel good.

And strange. But not bad-strange. Not in the slightest. Cecil knows that he doesn't feel the urge to surrender the way the other two do, and he knows there's nothing unusual about that, just as there's nothing unusual about Carlos not feeling the urge to be the one on top. So the motivation behind what Cecil is doing right now isn't about the act of surrender in itself, but about him having the chance to demonstrate just how much he trusts his lovers. How certain he is that he's safe with them.

Because he is, and there isn't the slightest doubt in his mind. And he knows they must feel the same way, or they'd never have let him be in control of them, and it really is such a precious gift to give.

So he wants to give it to them.

It's a moment before Kevin lets go, though he doesn't break contact altogether. "Carlos," he starts out, "are you ready to help me with this?"

Carlos looks up. "Of course," he answers, at once. "Anything."

And he rises to his feet, keeping a hand on Cecil, as if he too doesn't want to break contact. There's a moment of quiet closeness, and then Kevin takes a step back, holding out a hand.

"Stand up," he says, softly.

The order, even so gentle and careful, makes Cecil feel so strange inside. Not bad, or unhappy – oh no – but… strange. Like a pressure in his mind, pushing him slowly down. He does as he's told all at once, and Kevin pulls him in, wrapping him into a firm embrace.

"I'm going to take this slowly," Kevin says. "And I'm not going to hurt you, not even a little. I just want to help you give in, the way you once helped me: by showing you that it's OK. That you're safe. That you're loved."

"Please," Cecil breathes. "I want to do this. I need to do this."

"I know," Kevin tells him. "I know. I know how it feels, remember? The night you first did this to me… the night I told you everything… that was the night I finally understood I didn't have to be afraid of what I wanted. And I'm going to do all I can to make sure you feel that too. That you know you don't have to be afraid of what you want. That we aren't afraid of it either."

He strokes his hands over Cecil's chest, slow and gentle, whilst Carlos moves behind him, wrapping his arms around Cecil and resting both hands against his stomach.

"I know I'm not afraid of it," Carlos adds, kissing Cecil on the shoulder. "The two of you showed me that. And when the time comes… I'm ready for you to show me more."

"Oh," Cecil whispers, letting Kevin pull him in as well, so they're both holding him. "I love you so much. And I'll do anything you ask."

He understands that word so much better now. 'Anything' means absolute trust. It means putting yourself into the hands of another person – or people – and knowing that they will never hurt you, never betray you, never use you. That what you want and what they want are aligned. They they would never ask what you couldn't give, and that you could always give what they do ask.

Anything.

"Lie down on the bed for me," Kevin says. "On your back, in the middle. And then… put your hands above your head."

The words hit hard. Not in a bad way, or an unwelcome one – oh no – but Cecil certainly feels the weight of them. He nods as they let go of him, and does as he's been told, going over to the bed and lying back.

And… lifting his hands up above his head, resting them against the pillows, and taking a deep breath as he feels just how exposed it leaves him. It makes his heart race a little, though he wonders if some part of it is anticipation rather than fear.

Maybe all of it, because he isn't afraid. Not of them. Perhaps of letting them down.

Kevin, meanwhile, steps in close to Carlos – where Cecil can see – and puts a hand on the scientist's face. "Lie down next to him," he says, soft and gentle. "I want you to watch at first, but I promise I won't make you wait for long."

Carlos smiles. "You know I'd happily watch the two of you all night," he says, and leans in to kiss Kevin before doing as the other man asks. He slips onto the bed at Cecil's side, pressed in close, and stroking gentle fingertips over his skin whilst he waits for Kevin to join them.

It feels so very good, and Cecil smiles a little too. "I love you," he whispers.

Carlos kisses his jaw. "I love you too."

Kevin climbs onto the bed now, slipping up on top of Cecil so he's straddling his double, laying two objects on the bed close by. And Cecil can see what they are, but his mind doesn't quite process them, because he's suddenly very aware of how real this is, and what it means.

Leaning in over him, Kevin starts to kiss Cecil softly, gently, but gradually building up the intensity of it, until the final moments leave Cecil breathless, and he gasps a little as the kiss breaks. "If you need me to stop," Kevin says, "at any point… just tell me, and I will. Promise me?"

"I promise," Cecil replies. "I trust you."

He does. And he knows the thunder of his heartbeat is mostly anticipation, not fear.

And anticipation is good.

Kevin takes the first of the two objects he's brought with him – a pair of handcuffs – and leans in, closing one end around Cecil's left wrist. Then he loops the chain around the headboard of the bed, before closing the other end around Cecil's right wrist.

And he's caught. The reaction must show in his eyes, because Kevin leans in again, resting a hand on Cecil's jaw. "Just breathe," he says. "Let yourself relax. I have you now. We have you. And I promise you're safe. You will always be safe with us."

"Enjoy it," Carlos adds, speaking soft and low in Cecil's ear. "Because… it feels good, doesn't it?"

"It does," Cecil whispers, and he means it. He can feel what it means to give in to them. To put himself in their hands. To be theirs.

"Good," Kevin purrs, and it's clear from his voice that he's certainly slipping into a more controlling mindset. "Now… remember what I told you. Remember that you're safe."

And he reaches for the second object he's brought over. And, even having known what it is, and what it means, Cecil still feels his breath catch as Kevin lifts the item in question.

It's his knife.

"I want to show you how wonderful this is," Kevin says. "Why it changed everything for Carlos. Why it changed everything for me. And I promise you, my dear double… I'm not going to hurt you."

"I know," Cecil whispers. "I trust you."

He can't deny the allure of this. He's seen the way it makes Carlos react, and the way it makes Kevin react, and he wants to know what it feels like. And that isn't just out of some kind of academic interest. He wants to know what it feels like because he's sure it's going to be amazing.

Kevin slips the knife from its sheath, foregoing the usual ominous shiiiiik sound that he knows how to make it do when he wants to wind someone up. The blade glints in the low lighting, bright and dangerous, and Cecil can't quite take his eyes off it.

And then Kevin puts his free hand on Cecil's jaw. "Ask me nicely," he says, and quite how the other man is so good at doing this from either side, Cecil isn't sure. But he is.

"Please," he whispers, softly; eyes still following the blade. "Kevin… please."

Kevin smiles, and touches the blade to Cecil's skin… and then he starts to slowly stroke it over the top of his chest. And, for the first few seconds, Cecil's heart is racing so fast that he doesn't quite process anything else.

Only, then he does. He feels it, properly this time, and the sensation is so unexpected that he gasps out loud.

"Is that good?" Kevin asks, looking delighted.

"It… yes," Cecil manages. "Oh yes."

"Good," Kevin tells him. "Good. Just relax into it. I won't hurt you. So you can let yourself enjoy it."

Cecil finds himself nodding at this, slower and slower, as Kevin carries on stroking the blade over his skin, following the contours of his chest. And it really does feel good. A little scary, yes, but not in a bad way. In fact, it's a good way, because that edge of fear makes him more aware of what he's letting Kevin do, and of how much he trusts the other man to do it.

"How does that feel?" Carlos asks, softly. There's a captivated edge to his tone, and Cecil knows the other man is enjoying watching this.

"So good," Cecil breathes, and Carlos smiles.

"I'm so glad," he replies. "It's still my favourite. So… I'm happy you get to see why."

And Cecil understands it better now: the undeniable physicality of it, mixed with that undertone of danger, and he can see why it intoxicates them.

It's intoxicating him more than a little right now.

"Don't stop," he whispers. "Please don't stop."

"I won't," Kevin reassures him, lifting the blade to touch one of Cecil's wrists, before starting to slowly trail it along his arm, back towards his chest. "I won't. I want you to feel amazing. I want you to know that you're ours."

"I do know," Cecil says, needing them to hear it. "I am."

Kevin smiles again, tracing the blade across Cecil's chest and slowly up his other arm. And the more that blade moves, the more Cecil can feel the world starting to go a little hazy around the edges, as if he's sinking slowly beneath Kevin's will. And it's good, so he lets himself slip deeper, and the more he does, the more every sensation starts to feel as though it's been turned up to maximum. As though the intensity of it – the strength of it – is increasing, despite nothing else having changed.

"That's it," Kevin tells him, sounding pleased. "That's it. Let your mind sink into that place. Let it wrap you up, fill you up. You're safe there."

"You look so beautiful right now," Carlos says. "Both of you. I could watch you forever."

"You're going to do more than watch in a minute," Kevin now says, and that makes Carlos look up at him in surprise. "Are you ready for that?"

He hasn't said precisely what he means, but Cecil is sure he knows and – judging by the way Carlos seems to have briefly stopped breathing – the other man knows too.

"…Yes," Carlos says.

"Good," Kevin replies. He lifts the blade from Cecil's skin, and shuffles back a little, so he's still straddling the other man but slightly lower down. "Then come up here and join me."

Carlos seems to freeze for a second, as if processing that Kevin does mean what he's implying, and then he does as he's told; climbing up onto Cecil as well, so he's straddling him with Kevin curled in close behind.

And oh, having both of them up on top of him at once is all kinds of wonderful, because it's them, and he's theirs, and he loves them.

Kevin wraps his free arm around Carlos, pressing in close to him and stroking over his skin. "Are you ready to try doing this?" he asks, and Cecil can see the moment when Carlos' mind processes that this is real.

"Yes," he whispers, again.

"Good," Kevin tells him, and takes his hand, pressing the hilt of the knife into it. "You know what this feels like. You know what's good. So… just take it slow. I'm right here."

Carlos stares down at the knife, and then meets eyes with Cecil, and he looks so caught between nervousness and longing. Like he wants to do this – really wants to do this – but isn't sure if he dares.

"Please, Carlos," Cecil breathes.

And that seems to help. A lot. Cecil knows from experience that it is hard to worry about doing something when the person you're about to do it to is begging you to start. And he wants Carlos to do this so very badly.

Which is when Carlos, clearly seeing that it's OK, lowers the blade to Cecil's skin and strokes it slowly, slowly, over the top of his chest.

And oh, it feels so good.

"That's it," Kevin purrs in Carlos' ear. "That's it. Keep going."

So Carlos does, and the look in his eyes is all kinds of wonderful, and Cecil feels as though the sheer joy of it is going to break him. That, or the sensation of the blade as it traces over his skin, moving a little more surely as Carlos starts to become more confident.

"Is that still good?" Carlos asks.

"Ohyes," Cecil whispers, and where did the space between the words go? "Yes. Yes. Sogood."

Carlos smiles, and Kevin's arm tightens around him, and oh but the two of them look magnificent right now. Utterly magnificent. And Cecil adores them for it. For this.

He can feel his mind sinking deeper with every stroke of the blade, and he's slowly losing himself in it. In them. The rest of the world has long since fallen away, and everything that is is right here.

Eventually, Kevin kisses Carlos on the shoulder. "I think it's time for what comes next, don't you?" he says, softly.

"I couldn't agree more," Carlos says, his own voice a little distant.

He hands the knife back to Kevin, and the two of them climb off Cecil, slipping out of their pyjama trousers and then moving to slide Cecil's off as well. As soon as they do, Carlos starts to stroke him, which makes Cecil cry out in sudden desperation, starting to realise just how much all the previous attention has wound him up.

"Please," he gasps, a little taken aback by the intensity of it. The craving. "I need you. Both of you. I need to be yours."

"You are ours," Kevin says, moving back in with the lubricant in hand. "And you know it. But… I'm sure we can remind you…"

He gently nudges Cecil's legs apart and guides Carlos in between them, then takes his hand and pours some of the lubricant onto it. "Now," he says, pressed in close, so he's speaking into Carlos' ear, "I want you to stroke him, and I want you to slide fingers into him, and I don't want you to stop until he begs you. Do you understand?"

Carlos gasps at that, almost as much as Cecil does, and Cecil can feel the world going hazier still. "Yes," Carlos breathes. "Yes, I understand."

"Good," Kevin tells him. "Good. Remember how it felt, when you had the knife in your hand. Find that feeling again."

So Carlos leans in closer, and starts to slowly push a finger into Cecil whilst stroking him slowly with his other hand. Cecil can't help another gasp of delight at the attention, and instinct makes him tug a little on his bound wrists, jumping slightly when he remembers that he can't move them.

"We've got you, Cecil," Kevin tells him. "Don't forget that. We've got you. You're ours."

"Yes," Cecil breathes. "Yours. All yours. Always."

The pleasure starts to build all at once, increasing all the more when Carlos slides in a second finger, still stroking Cecil as he does. It feels so desperately, wonderfully good, and he feels as though he's sinking deeper with every moment, and only the undeniable need keeps him tethered to the here and now.

"Is that good?" Carlos asks, with a smile on his face that makes it clear he already knows the answer.

"Ohyes," Cecil gasps. "So good. So good. Loveyou."

He can feel the other man dragging him closer and closer to the edge, and he's nigh-on certain there's no way either of them will let him come just yet. But the more the sensation builds higher and higher, the more Cecil can feel his own desperation starting to increase.

"…please?" he whispers, finally, unable to keep the word in any longer.

"Please what?" Carlos pushes, gently.

"…I'm so close…"

"So tell me what you need."

The other man clearly has a better grasp on this side of things than he realises. Or, at least, admits.

"…pleaseletmecome," Cecil gasps. "Carlos… please…"

"Not yet," Carlos tells him.

"…please…"

That's when Kevin presses in closer to Carlos, half-wrapped in behind him. "He comes when you come. And you don't come until I say. So… I think you know what to do now."

Carlos looks almost relieved to hear Kevin give him permission, and he gently slides his fingers free before moving into place and starting to slowly push into Cecil. And it feels so very good that Cecil gasps again, trying to arch his hips up to give Carlos better access, and losing his mind completely when Kevin slips in behind Carlos and pushes him down over Cecil.

And, by the sudden jolt of Carlos' hips, it's clear that Kevin has just pushed into him. He wraps around Carlos once he's in place, so the three of them are locked together, and Cecil cries out in need at the sight of both his lovers, and at just how much he adores them.

"Please," he begs. "I'm yours. Both of yours. I love you. I need you. Please."

The other two both start to move at that, and Cecil can tell just how tightly they've wound him up by how rapidly he feels as though he's losing his mind. Reality feels distant, and hazy: everything but this, but them.

"Ohyes," Cecil gasps. "Don't stop. Please don't stop. I'll do anything."

"We know," Kevin replies. "We've always known. And you never have to prove anything to us, Cecil, because we know you, we see you, through and through."

"I love you," Cecil manages, again, as his grip on the world starts to go entirely. "Please. Please."

"We love you too," Carlos tells him. "Forever and always. And we'll protect you, the way you protect us. I promise."

Cecil knows they mean it. He'd never doubt a word, not for a second. But seeing it, feeling it, so clear and undeniable, soothes something deep inside. And nothing, not demons or gods or three months of hell, can take that away.

This is what he believes in. This. Them.

"Please," he whispers. "I'msoclose."

"I know," Kevin says. "Carlos?"

"Yes," the man caught between them gasps. "Please. Let us come."

"I never could deny you for long," Kevin tells them. "Come for me. Both of you."

The permission is all Cecil needs, and he feels pleasure suddenly rip through him furiously hard, and only the presence of the two men on top of him stops him lifting off the bed entirely. Carlos follows him over the edge a few seconds later, crying out in release and curling in over Cecil, lost in bliss as he falls apart. And he's still shaking as Kevin cries out too, right before he comes as well, riding out his own pleasure for as long as he can.

When the three of them finally go still, Kevin curls in over the other two, reaching to touch them both wherever he can. And right now Cecil feels hypersensitive all over, so even the gentlest contact sends sparks of echoed pleasure chasing through him.

He tries to say something, just a simple 'I love you', but finds the words are gone. And it's odd, because he can't work out why – because they're right here in his head – but when he tries to give them voice, all he manages is a little murmur.

It makes Carlos hold him tighter, though, so it's still a good thing. "I know," he says, softly; a man who understands. "I know. We've got you. Just relax. It's OK."

Kevin moves after a moment, slowly pulling back and then wrapping his arms around Carlos, lifting him upright, kissing gently along his shoulder. Carlos himself pulls back after another moment, and then they both curl in next to Cecil – one on either side – stroking over his skin and watching his face.

"How do you feel?" Kevin asks.

"…really good…" Cecil manages, after something of a mental run-up.

The other two both smile. "I'm glad," Kevin says. "We love you so very much. And you never had to prove anything to us… but that doesn't mean we don't adore you for doing it."

"Thank you," Cecil whispers, the emotion hitting him now. "For this. For everything. I…"

"We know, sweetheart," Kevin tells him, so very gently. "We know."

He strokes gently up Cecil's arms, to his wrists, before starting to unlatch the handcuffs, freeing him. As soon as he has, he rolls Cecil onto his side and pulls him in close, and oh but that feels good. So very good. Carlos spoons in behind him, wrapping him in tight, and Cecil curls up between them, warm and safe and loved.

"Just relax now," Carlos tells him. "We have you. Let yourself drift off. I promise… it will be the best sleep you've had in a long time."

And he's not wrong. It is.

Chapter Text

Carlos sits on the couch in the living room, cross-legged, a large book balanced on his knees.

The book in question is an anthology of scientific papers published in the last year, and right now he's having a lovely time flicking through them, choosing the ones he wants to read because they look fascinating, and the ones he wants to read because they're quite clearly wrong and need to be disproved.

He has a notepad next to him, on which he's scrawling down a few things to check later, using a pen that he's managed to get the City Council to class as legal. This only worked because the ink substitute is technically designated as a low-level hallucinogen, though it's perfectly safe to use for writing so long as no one eats the paper afterwards.

They found that part out the hard way, though Vincent swears it was fine and he liked hallucinating all those antelopes.

Lost in his thoughts, Carlos jumps a little when his mind suddenly processes the fact that he isn't alone. Glancing up, he sees Cecil and Kevin both standing in the doorway from the hall, looking over at him, and there's something very deliberate about the way they're doing it.

"Can we talk?" Cecil starts out.

"Of course," Carlos replies, slotting a page-marker into his book and closing it. "Should I be worried?"

"Oh no, no, not at all," Kevin tells him.

This is a relief, though Carlos is still a little worried regardless; partly because it's one of his default states, and partly because – under the right circumstances – it turns out he enjoys it.

In retrospect, this explains a great deal.

He sets the book and his notepad on the central table, as Cecil and Kevin pace over, sitting either side of him on the couch. And now he's sure they've got something particular in mind.

"So what do you want to talk about?" Carlos asks.

"I wanted to talk about you," Cecil says. "About some of the things we did… you know, back then. And it's not something I'd push if I didn't think it was a good idea, but you've said that there were parts you enjoyed, or would have enjoyed under better circumstances. Things you've fantasised about."

He puts a gentle hand on the side of Carlos' face, oh-so-lightly turning him to meet his eyes, and Carlos feels his breath catch, at the touch and at the words.

"Oh," he whispers. "I…"

"We don't want to push you into anything," Kevin adds, curling in closer against his other side, a hand on his arm. "If you're not ready to think about it… even if you're not ever ready to think about it… we won't make you."

"But," Cecil goes on, "if you do want to… we're ready."

Carlos' heart is racing, though he already knows it isn't in a bad way. Or, not really. Yes, there are bad connotations to what they're talking about, but… there is also good. A great deal of good. They've taken back their lives, piece by piece, and this is a part of that.

And he wants it.

"I'm ready," Carlos answers. His voice is shaking a little, but he's not going to let lingering fear take this from him. If Strexcorp and the Smiling God and three months of hell couldn't, his own fear certainly won't.

Cecil strokes gently over his cheek. "All right," he says. "Then… tell me what you liked."

The directness of the question helps. As does the fact that Carlos can't easily look away right now. "I… uhm… well… if I'm being honest… and if you take what happened out of the context of what was going on around it… I… liked most of it. I mean… I mean that's why you did it, right? Because… because you knew it would work… and you weren't wrong… and you… you already know I like it when you take charge and when you overwhelm me, and I…" just say it, just say it, just say it, "…really, really liked the idea of belonging to you and being completely at your mercy, especially when you don't always show me any, and… and I'm going to be quiet now because this sentence has gone on for too long…"

He drops his head at that, cheeks flushing hot, scared he's said too much. The instant he does, Kevin curls in closer beside him, still just gently stroking his arm, and Cecil slips fingers under his jaw, oh-so-lightly urging him to look up again.

"It's all right," Cecil tells him, softly. "I promise you it's all right. We know enough not to be surprised… and both of us are in favour of making this happen. In a good way, this time. In a very good way."

"…oh…" Carlos manages. And, even knowing what he does, it's hard not to be a little taken aback by how easily the other two have responded. Maybe it's because it makes Carlos realise that these things might actually happen.

"You don't have to be afraid of what you want," Kevin says. "We're not. So… tell us. Tell us the things you imagine. The things you like."

Carlos' heart is still racing. "I… I mean… the night you took me to your dungeon… that was incredible. The way it felt when you chained me up, and when… when you hurt me, I…"

He trails off, nervousness getting the better of him again.

"You enjoyed that part?" Kevin pushes. "All of it?"

"You know I did," Carlos manages, very softly. "We… we did it again, that night in Nebolgorod, and I…"

This time, he trails off with a guilty look up at Cecil, but Cecil just strokes gently over his cheek once more. "It's all right," the other man says. "I know what happened that night. Kevin told me. But we both wanted to make sure that you don't regret it, with retrospect."

"I don't regret it," Carlos answers at once. "I liked it."

"Tell me why," Kevin says, and Carlos glances back at him.

"You… you like it too, don't you?"

"Yes," Kevin answers. "But I want you to tell me why you do."

"…because it feels good," Carlos answers. "Because… because it's you and it's safe and it's right, and… and under those circumstances my brain processes the sensation as pleasure as much as it does pain, and… and it's like a craving in my blood; like I want more even when it hurts, and that's…"

Kevin holds him a little tighter, kissing the back of his neck. "It's all right," he insists, gently. "I promise. You don't have to be afraid of it, or of us. If you want it, and we want it, then…"

"…it's all right?" Carlos says, very softly. Hopefully. He wants it to be, but he doesn't quite dare accept that it is until he's sure. Until they're sure.

"Yes," Cecil tells him, slipping fingers under his chin again. "And we do want it. All of it. So tell us, Carlos… tell us how you imagine this happening. And then we'll find a way to make it real."

It really is a very good thing that Carlos is sitting down right now, because he's confident he'd drop straight to the floor at that. He stares at Cecil, utterly caught by his words, and shivering in delight as Kevin runs a hand down his arm once more.

They could do it, and he could enjoy it. Totally, freely, completely. No lingering danger or distant threat. Nothing. Nothing but them.

"…Take me by surprise," he says, before he can let his nerves get the better of them. Because… that is something he's fantasised about. Quite a lot, as it happens. "And… and then… do what you want with me."

Cecil and Kevin meet eyes over Carlos' shoulder, and then they both lean in close to him. "Consider it a promise," they say.

***

The days start to pass.

For the first few, Carlos is very much hyper-alert. He has no idea precisely what the other two are going to do, or when, but he's confident it will be at a point where there's nothing stopping them from taking their time. So… post-broadcast one day, definitely, and likely after he himself is done at the main lab and…

…beyond that, he has no idea.

The anticipation is equal parts wonderful and maddening, and – for those initial days – Carlos can hardly concentrate whenever he remembers it. Even when he's at work, or grocery shopping, or something else normal and everyday when he knows nothing is going to happen, the possibility is still there in his mind.

And then there are more days. Enough days that he starts to wonder if something has gone wrong. The other two seem perfectly fine, but there's no sign that they're planning to do… whatever they're planning to do.

Carlos starts to relax about it, not because he thinks his boyfriends have forgotten, but because the alternative is getting very, very wound up, and he wants to avoid that. So he tells himself that nothing will happen in order to prevent himself overthinking what it will be like when it does.

In retrospect, this makes him complacent. Possibly this is the point.

***

It's late one afternoon. Carlos has been in the lab all day, having got there pretty early in order to set everything running before the others arrived. And, the experiment a complete success, he's finally headed off home, looking forward to a quiet evening. Maybe something nice for dinner. Maybe even some snuggling on the couch.

Yes, that sounds good.

When he gets back to the house, Cecil's car isn't there, which likely means he and Kevin are still at the radio station. Carlos paces inside, dropping his bag by the door and kicking off his shoes, intent on heading into the kitchen to put a fresh pot of coffee on.

He paces through the living room and into the kitchen… and stops dead.

There's something in the kitchen that wasn't here before. Where once there was simply flat wall… now there's a door. And, whilst it's a relief that the thing certainly doesn't look old, or oak, it's still not supposed to be there.

"Merciful Einstein, what the–?" Carlos starts off.

And then, without warning, he's grabbed from behind. One second, he's about to cry out in alarm, and the next he feels a wave of heat pass through his whole body.

And, before he can even try to process why, darkness overtakes.

***

Carlos comes to with a sudden jump.

His heart is racing. His mind is racing. He tries to work out where the hell he is and what the hell happened, and his breath catches in shock as he quickly processes three things.

He's blindfolded. He's been stripped. And… he's chained upright by the wrists, arms spread wide; open, exposed, helpless.

His brain doesn't catch up with what's going on; not until he feels someone grab hold of him from behind, pressing a knife up under his jaw and – at the same time – making it possible for him to find his footing.

"Well, hello, you," Kevin purrs in his ear.

A wave of relief hits him, followed by a second wave of shuddering anticipation, and Carlos suddenly finds his breath catching all over again.

"…What's happening right now..?" he manages, voice somewhat high-pitched.

Kevin laughs, soft and low and deadly. "Isn't it obvious? You wanted us to take advantage of you. So now you get to experience the full extent of what that means…"

Even having asked for this, it's hard not to be a little terrified. Or to enjoy being a little terrified. "Please," Carlos whispers. "I… I'll do whatever you want… just…"

Kevin brings his free hand up, pressing it firmly over Carlos' mouth, and the whole unseen world goes hazy. "Shhhh," he purrs. "Begging isn't going to get you very far. You're here, you're caught, and you're at our mercy. Except right now… we don't have any. And I think you know that, don't you?"

Unable to speak, Carlos gives a shaky nod; his heart racing and his whole body thrumming with anticipation.

"Yes," Kevin says, softly, as if echoing the answer Carlos can't voice. "Yes. So you just be good, and maybe this will end well for you. Or… maybe it will end with you learning precisely what it means to belong to us."

His words are so heady, Carlos feels his footing waver, and if the other man carries on like this it's hard not to imagine that Carlos could break from those words alone.

There are sudden footsteps in front of him, and he feels a second figure step in close.

"And you do belong to us," Cecil says, just as soft, just as sure. "Don't you?"

Carlos nods. A lot. He does. He does.

Cecil's hands stroke over his skin, firm but not rough; running along his waist and across his stomach. "Good," he breathes. "Good. Now…"

He lifts his hands to just below Carlos' chained wrists, one on each side, stroking a single fingertip along his forearm… and, without warning, Carlos feels as though both fingers are stroking pain over his skin. It's similar to what he can do with the planar energy, but… so much more localised and focused, and…

…he's been practicing.

Cecil strokes those fingertips down Carlos' arms, to his chest, brushing them over his nipples and then sliding lower, and all the while it's as if he's drawing two bright lines of pain as he goes. Carlos cries out, shaking in Kevin's grip, his heart thundering as he processes just how caught he really is.

It feels wonderful. So agonisingly, terrifyingly wonderful.

Kevin gently moves the hand from Carlos' mouth, stroking over his jaw as he does. "Is that good?" he asks.

"Yes," Carlos gasps, head dropping back a little, feeling his mind already starting to slip sideways. "Yes… yes… please… I'll do anything…"

"We know you will, sweetheart," Cecil tells him, stroking those fingertips lower. "We know."

"…w-where am I?" Carlos now manages, unable to keep the tremor out of his voice.

"In the basement," Kevin answers, which makes Carlos' heart race even harder.

"We don't have a basement…"

Cecil gives a soft laugh. "We do now. Kevin knows a guy who knows a guy. Well. A demon who knows a demon. So we had a tiny little alteration made to the fabric of reality, which is apparently something you can get done if you're hyper-powerful and everyone is convinced you know how to kill gods. So… now we have our own basement. And you're all chained up in it…"

"…oh…" Carlos gasps, caught by the audacity of it. And by the reality of it.

"And that means we can take our time with you," Kevin murmurs in his ear. "Plenty of time. No interruptions. No way for anyone else to hear you screaming…"

"Please," Carlos begs, his heart racing thunderously hard. "Please."

The blade over his throat is pressed in tighter again, and suddenly Carlos is hardly breathing. "Don't you worry," Kevin purrs. "We'll pace ourselves. We don't want you passing out on us too soon, do we?"

Carlos can't even speak at that, his mind completely overwhelmed by the heady mixture of fear and delight. He wants this. He wants this so badly. But that doesn't mean it doesn't scare him.

On the contrary. That's part of the point.

"Now," Cecil says, "where was I? Oh, yes…"

He starts stroking a fingertip from each hand down Carlos' sides, and once more it feels as though he's drawing a bright line of pain as he does. Carlos cries out in shock, the sensation so intense, trying to brace himself. Trying not to lose his mind too soon.

Because it feels good. So good, even though it hurts.

"Do you like that?" Kevin purrs in his ear. The man is clearly in affable good-one mode, which is absolutely intoxicating at the best of times, and thoroughly deadly as a result.

"Y-yes," Carlos manages. "Yes."

"Good, good," Cecil says. "So now, Carlos, tell me… what else do you like?"

The unseen world goes hazy. "I…"

"Come on," Cecil pushes, just a little, and there's an argument for saying he's in affable bad-one mode. "You know you're going to answer me one way or another."

"I… I mean I… well, I haven't done a lot yet, but…"

"Then what's your favourite thing so far?" Cecil counters.

"Apart from the knife," Kevin adds, in Carlos' ear, before he can give that exact answer. Because it is his favourite, but Carlos knows that's not what Cecil is really asking.

The knife is different, after all, given their history. But Carlos doesn't need long to work out what his other favourite is.

"…the flogger," he whispers, and that makes Kevin hold him tighter.

"Good choice," he murmurs, approvingly. "Tell us why."

"Because… because it hurts but… if you pace it right, it isn't completely overwhelming. So… so I can take a lot. And the sensation itself… it's just… it's so good, and it sets off the craving in my blood like nothing else, and the constant onslaught… it makes me feel like I really do belong to you…"

Cecil steps in closer at that, putting a hand on Carlos' cheek. "There's that word again," he says. "You like that one, don't you? You like the thought of being ours."

"Yes… yes… because… because I am. Utterly and completely. Yours."

Kevin lowers his knife at that, slipping it back into its sheath with a snap, before stepping in close once more with his arms wrapped around Carlos. "You are," he says, softly. "So perhaps it's time we affirmed that…"

There's a silent moment, during which Carlos is sure the other two are meeting eyes, and speaking without words. And then, Cecil steps away, just for a few seconds. When he comes back, Carlos can feel the sudden weight in the air, and he wonders what's going on.

"We have something for you," Cecil starts out, his voice level and careful, as if this is too important to act otherwise. "But… this part, you have a choice about, even here and now. A free choice. And… if you're not ready to say yes… if you don't ever want to say yes… it won't change anything else, I promise."

Now Carlos' heart is racing in a very different way. "What is it?" he whispers.

In answer, Cecil lifts something in his hands, laying it over Carlos' throat and holding it there; close, yes, but not rough or harsh: a thin strip of soft, carefully-shaped leather. And, the instant he does, Carlos is infinitely grateful for the chains, and for Kevin's hands, because without them he knows he'd drop straight to the floor.

"Do you know what this is?" Cecil asks.

"Yes," Carlos manages, somehow finding his voice. "Yes. It's a collar."

"Do you know what it means?" Kevin asks.

"Yes," Carlos whispers.

"We're only suggesting it for here and now," Cecil says. "Though… there can be other heres and nows in the future, if you want them. So… do you accept? Or would you rather–?"

"Yes," Carlos cuts in, need getting the better of him. Need and desperate love. "Yes. I accept."

So Cecil carefully fastens the buckle at the back of Carlos' neck, and he gasps all over again at the way it feels. At that intensely heady reminder of just how utterly he's theirs.

"Is that good?" Cecil asks.

"Yes," Carlos breathes. "So good…"

Kevin holds him tighter. "Well, then," he says, with an audible smile, "I believe you were telling us how much you enjoyed it when we flogged you. So… let's open with that…"

And he breaks contact, pacing off to the side, and Carlos realises that not only have the other two somehow had an entire basement installed under their house, but they've stocked it as well.

No wonder all of this took a little time to arrange.

"You remember what to say if you need us to stop?" Cecil asks, still right in front of Carlos.

"Yes," Carlos answers, unable to keep the anticipation from his tone.

"Good. And you remember that it's the only thing that will make us stop for sure?"

A shaky nod. "Yes. Oh yes."

"All right, then."

And Cecil lets go of him, stepping away, leaving Carlos suddenly vulnerable again in what he imagines to be the centre of the room. There's soft movement off to the side, and then he hears Kevin step in behind him once more, seconds before he feels the other man press the tip of a flogger to the centre of his back; the leather tails swishing softly against his skin.

"Are you ready?" Kevin asks.

"Yes."

"Then ask me nicely. Beg me nicely."

"Please. Please, Kevin."

The first blow lands almost at once, hard and firm, and the shock of it knocks the air from Carlos' lungs. But he remembers this, from before. He just has to find his breath, and coast out the sensation, and…

…the wave of pleasure hits, an instant before the second blow does, and the two feelings collide, making him gasp out loud. He's about to beg for more, but then a third blow lands, followed by a fourth, and Carlos drops his head under the growing onslaught. He knows he's losing his mind in it, and right now he can't think of anything he wants more.

And the collar around his neck feels so heavy, all of a sudden; the urge to fall to his knees so very strong, even though he can't. He's theirs, all theirs, and he can enjoy it, and he doesn't have to be afraid of it, and that really is the best feeling in all the world.

Because he loves them. Because he trusts them. Because he believes in them.

The volley of blows comes to a sudden halt, the final snap of leather against his skin echoing in the still-unseen room. Carlos drops down in the chains, gasping hard, and he's so lost in the sensation that he jumps as he feels a hand on his cheek.

"Was that good?" Cecil asks, softly.

"Yes," Carlos gasps. "So good. So good. Please."

"Are you begging me for more already?" Kevin now says, stepping in close behind him.

"Yes," Carlos whispers again. Because he is. And he doesn't have to hide that.

"We do still need to pace this," Kevin points out, and isn't that ominous? "Besides… I think it's Cecil's turn."

Cecil has never done this to him. Other things, yes, but not this. Though… he knows that Cecil has done it to Kevin. The two men switch places, and Kevin steps in close once they have, resting his forehead against Carlos' for a moment. "Cecil is so very good at this," he says, in the voice of one who knows. "So very good. You might want to brace yourself…"

He's not wrong. The first blow lands without warning, and – the instant it does – Carlos can feel the edge of precision that can only come from having done this rather a lot more than Kevin has. The reaction must be obvious on Carlos' face, because Kevin stays close, stroking a hand over his chest.

"He really is good, isn't he?" Kevin remarks, with a half-appreciating, half-academic edge to his tone that is a very, very weird kind of hot. "I like that you obviously thought I was, but don't forget that I'm still just learning. Whereas Cecil… Cecil has had a little more practice."

As the new volley of blows start to land, Kevin stays close to Carlos – making sure to keep his hands where they won't accidentally get caught by flogger – pressing their foreheads together again. Perhaps he's simply enjoying the reactions, every last gasp or murmur of need, or perhaps he wants to be comforting, if only because it makes Carlos' mind short out all the more.

It does. When the last blow lands, and Cecil presses in against his back, Carlos tries to say something and finds he can't. Not quite.

"How was that?" Cecil asks, a smile audible in his voice.

Carlos tries to speak again, and only manages a soft murmur.

"Stay with me, now," Cecil says. "We're just getting started."

"I…" Carlos tries, his mind hazy with bliss. "I… anything… do anything…"

"We know, sweetheart," Kevin breathes, gently. "We know."

There's a moment's pause; a moment of soft contact, though one in which Carlos is sure the other two are speaking without words again. And then, Kevin cups Carlos' face in both hands. "I think perhaps we should let you see for this next part," he says, before slipping the blindfold from Carlos' eyes.

He blinks at the sudden light, even though the room around him is dimly-lit. He's in the centre of a roughly-square, stone-lined room, with a staircase off to the left – no doubt leading back up to the kitchen – and a table to the right. A very well-stocked table, it would seem.

They let go of him now, and Cecil paces around so that they're both standing where Carlos can see them. The other two are still fully-clothed, and though Carlos already knew as much, given how close they've both been to him, there's something so very hot about the sight of them. About the idea of them being this focused on him.

"Are you ready for more?" Cecil asks, as he slides an arm around Kevin's waist.

"Y-yes," Carlos manages. He is. Even if speaking is still a challenge.

The two doubles smile at that, and then Cecil turns, pulling Kevin in and kissing him. Hard. The other man doesn't cave, though; giving as good as he gets, and looking thoroughly wicked as the kiss breaks.

"You read my mind," he says, which is perhaps a little alarming, given that neither of them has actually said anything.

But they both clearly know what comes next, and they turn, going over to the table at the side. Cecil sets down the flogger, and then both men each pick something else up, before pacing back to Carlos; Cecil standing behind him, and Kevin in front once more.

And now Carlos can see what the other man is holding. It's a riding crop, which he lifts at once; slipping the broad leather tip under Carlos' jaw…

…and just as he's gasping in shock, he feels something identical touch the centre of his back, and realises that Cecil has one too.

"Oh," Carlos manages, in delight. And in heady anticipation.

"Now, we know this is going to be new to you," Kevin says. "But that doesn't mean we're going to make it easy. On the contrary… we rather think that this might be the part where you break…"

"…you always say such lovely things…" Carlos murmurs, without thinking about it, and he feels a sudden heat in his cheeks when he realises the words were out loud.

Kevin laughs softly. "Oh, you like that thought, don't you? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised…"

Slowly, slowly, he strokes the tip of the riding crop down Carlos' chest, and then over to toy with one of his nipples. "Beg me," he says, with just a hint of firmness in his tone.

Carlos fights to meet the other man's eyes. "Please," he gasps.

Kevin smiles, and traces the tip of the crop higher, stroking it oh-so-lightly along Carlos' jaw. "Again," he pushes.

"Please," Carlos says at once.

And that's when the blow lands: not from Kevin, but from Cecil; a single strike against Carlos' ass that makes him cry out in shock. It hurts, oh yes: sharp and bright, though not as intensely as a cane, and Carlos is confident he could take rather more of this than he managed of that.

Which, given his current predicament, is likely going to help.

"Was that good?" Kevin purrs, stroking the tip of his crop along Carlos' jaw again.

"Yes," Carlos gasps. "Please. Please don't stop."

That makes Kevin laugh, soft and wicked, right before another blow lands. And another. And another. They're all from Cecil, and there's obvious pleasure in Kevin's eyes as he watches his double work. And then, the instant Cecil holds off, Kevin himself takes over, striking the crop against Carlos' hip and the top of his thigh.

And then, without warning, they're both doing it at once, and Carlos' mind just shorts out completely. He's been crying out in pain, and in bliss, but at that he howls in shock, dropping in the chains and bowing his head.

"Mercy," he whispers, as it starts to get too much. As they start to push him precisely as hard as he needs them to. "Mercy, please…"

Both men land another blow before they stop. Once they do, Cecil steps in close behind Carlos, wrapping one arm around him and tracing the tip of the crop lightly down his leg with the other.

"Mercy?" Cecil repeats, soft and deadly, in the tone of voice he picked up during his time in Strexcorp; a tone that makes Carlos want to curl up on his knees at the other man's feet, no matter how much he tries to fight it. "You think you deserve that?"

Carlos keeps his head down, suddenly not sure he dares reply.

Keeping the crop against his leg, Cecil uses his other hand to lift Carlos' jaw from behind, pressing in close enough to speak into his ear. "Answer me," he pushes, in that same tone, and Carlos shudders in response.

"…yes…" he whispers, closing his eyes.

"Why?"

"Because… because I've done everything you've asked…"

"So far, you have," Cecil replies. "But we're not done with you yet. And we told you at the start that you were going to find out what it means to belong to us. To be ours."

He traces his fingertips along the edge of the collar that lies against Carlos' throat, and the whole world seems to fold in on itself, even at so simple a touch.

"Now," Cecil pushes, "what should you be saying?"

"I'll do anything you want," Carlos gasps.

Cecil kisses his neck. "That's right. Kevin?"

"Gladly," the other man purrs, clearly understanding.

And, whilst Cecil keeps hold of Carlos from behind, Kevin traces the tip of his crop down Carlos' chest, before landing several more blows to his side, to his hip, to his thigh. Carlos cries out at each one, shaking in Cecil's arms, not daring to say a word, and with every passing moment he can sense his mind sinking deeper and deeper and…

…that's when he realises, albeit hazily, that he can't feel the pain anymore. Or, OK, he can, but it doesn't feel like pain. It just feels good, like a bright, thrumming heat that barely fades between strokes.

"That's it," Cecil whispers, clearly understanding. "That's it. There you go. We've got you, sweetheart. We've got you. Just let go completely…"

"…I'll do anything…" Carlos murmurs.

Kevin holds off at that, stepping in close and stroking his own free hand over Carlos' hip, right where he's been landing several of the blows; the touch sending renewed sparks of pleasure through Carlos all at once. "We know," he says, gently. "It's all right, we know."

"You're doing so very well," Cecil tells him. "Let your mind sink deeper. Don't fight it."

"…oh…" is all Carlos manages, soft and distant. He wants to say more, but he can't, and strangely that's OK, because he knows they know.

Kevin steps in, kissing him softly, and resting their foreheads together. "Let's try something else, shall we? Something a little less intensive. Something to keep you drifting in that lovely faraway place."

He steps back, and Cecil hands him the second crop so that Kevin can pace off with both of them, setting them down on the table and coming back with something different. Cecil himself stays close, holding onto Carlos, stroking gentle fingertips over his skin.

It feels good. Everything feels good.

"Now," Kevin says, "this next one is new. We haven't tried it before. I mean, I tested it, so I'd know just the right amount of pressure to apply, but as far as using it in the moment goes… this is the first time. So we can find out together just what it's like." And he smiles. "You're a scientist, you should totally get that."

And he lifts the object he's holding: a small, delicate silver pinwheel, with a slender handle. And whilst Carlos knows that the item in question was designed for medical applications, he also knows that, in situations like this, it can be used to produce some very interesting sensations.

…and he's not wrong. With another little smile, Kevin lifts the pinwheel and rolls it lightly over Carlos' chest. The feeling is like nothing else: tiny sparks of pain and pressure, flaring and vanishing as the pinwheel moves; intense but not overwhelming.

"…ohyes…" Carlos murmurs, because wow it feels incredible.

"Tell us what that's like," Cecil pushes, gently.

Words are hard. Words are distant and faraway, and getting them to actualise out loud is not easy. But Carlos tries.

"Feels… good," he says. "Like… sparks, rolling all over… hot and cold… it's… I… oh…"

It's at this point that Kevin rolls the pinwheel around one of Carlos' nipples, and the sensation is so intense that he can't stop himself from crying out; the whole world going hazy as a wave of bliss hits him.

"Oh, you do like that, don't you?" Cecil purrs. "We thought you might."

"I do… I do… pleasedon'tstop…"

Kevin rolls the wheel over to Carlos' other nipple, circling that too, and it makes Carlos cry out all over again, shaking in Cecil's arms. "Please," he keeps on whispering, hardly aware that he's doing it now, his mind so far under. "Please… please… please…"

"Shhhh," Kevin says, gently. "That's it, that's it… Now… tell me, are you ready to fall apart completely?"

"Ohyes," Carlos gasps.

"Well, then," Cecil says, right in his ear. "Let's return to your favourite, because if you think it felt good before, you really will fall apart from how good it feels now…"

Kevin finally lowers the pinwheel and hands it to Cecil, and then Cecil paces over to the table at the side, setting the wheel down and coming back with something else. It's a flogger, but a different one to before: one with much longer tails, made of suede instead of leather.

Both men step in front of Carlos, each slightly to the side; Kevin stroking fingertips along the line of that collar, and Cecil letting the suede tails of the flogger swish oh-so-lightly against Carlos' stomach.

"Now," Cecil says, "here's what's going to happen. I'm going to flog you, and Kevin is going to stroke you, and neither of us is going to stop until you come hard enough to see stars. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Carlos whispers, utterly enthralled by the thought. "Oh yes."

"Good," Cecil purrs, and kisses Carlos on the jaw. "Good."

He paces around behind him again, whilst Kevin moves more closely in front, pushing a hand between Carlos' legs. "Beg us," Kevin says, softly, his words a breath across Carlos' lips.

"Please," Carlos replies at once. "Please. I'm yours. I'm all yours."

He is. And he can feel what that means. And it's wonderful.

Kevin smiles, adoring and deadly in equal measure. "You are," he agrees. "And you always will be."

And he starts to stroke Carlos, slow and firm. It feels so damnably good that Carlos can't help a murmur of bliss, which turns to a sudden cry of shock as Cecil brings the flogger crashing down between his shoulderblades. And oh, it does feel different: the suede lacking the slight sharpness of the leather, and meaning he feels the overall impact more, rather than the criss-cross of the tails.

"Ohyes," Carlos gasps. "Yes. Like that. Like that. Please."

Once they've started, they don't stop, and the counterpoint of the two sensations quickly begins to push Carlos out of his mind… although it's questionable just how much he was in his mind to begin with. And the feelings blur fast, rapidly ceasing to be pleasure and pain and becoming simply stimulation; overwhelming and maddening and wonderful.

And too much. Much, much too much. Perhaps that's part of why Carlos likes it so intensely. But even he can't take it forever.

"…Please," he gasps, finally, because he can't hold the words back any longer. "I'm so close. So close. Please."

"No," both doubles say, in unison.

Carlos bites his lip, trying so very hard to keep going, but managing only a couple more blows before he cries out, "Please," rather more desperately.

"No," comes the unified reply again, and Carlos drops his head, feeling the weight of the words… and, as he does, it's like the whole world drops with him.

And everything is still.

"…please…" Carlos murmurs once more, but soft and distant; so much so that he's hardly even aware of it… and how long has it even been since the blows of the flogger stopped landing..?

The world hovers on the brink. And then…

"Come for us," both doubles breathe.

And Carlos does. Completion hits him hard and fast, and he cries out as he comes; Kevin still stroking him, and Cecil holding him from behind. The pleasure blazing through him seems to last an instant and an age all at once, and then slowly it starts to subside. As it does, Carlos drops down in the chains, distantly aware of Cecil supporting him, of Kevin's hands on his skin, and it all feels so unbelievably good.

"That's it," Cecil breathes in his ear, so gentle now. "That's it. We've got you. You did so well, sweetheart, so well."

Everything is a haze. Carlos is distantly aware of a slow, quiet moment where both doubles are just holding him, kissing him, and then he feels Kevin pull him in closer so as to take over supporting him. Cecil steps away, and Carlos tries to murmur at him not to go, but he can't get the words to actualise. And it's OK because, after a moment, Cecil is back behind him, wrapping him in a soft blanket whilst Kevin unchains his wrists.

"Just relax now," Cecil says. "We've got you."

Carlos is only half-aware of what comes next: of the two of them holding him, and then gently carrying him up the stairs, through the house, to their bedroom. They guide him down onto the bed, still wrapped in the blanket, and then curl around him, holding him close.

Their hands on him are everything. They are everything.

And he drifts. He has no idea how much time is passing; only that he feels so mind-blowingly wonderful and doesn't want it to ever stop. The whole world is still and calm and quiet and his two incredible lovers are holding him and right now he could just lie like this forever.

It's a long time before Carlos even tries to speak. When he does, the words just end up as a soft murmur, and Kevin laughs gently in response, kissing the back of his neck.

"How do you feel?" he asks.

Carlos tries the words again. Still nothing. Nothing but a murmur and a desire to curl even deeper into their embrace.

Perhaps in understanding, they tighten their arms around him. "You did so very well, sweetheart," Cecil breathes, lovingly. "I hope it was everything you wanted…"

This makes Carlos nod. A lot. He may not be able to speak yet, but he can certainly emote.

Now it's Cecil's turn to give a soft, gentle laugh. "I thought so. I'm glad." He strokes fingertips over Carlos' cheek, and even so simple a touch feels electric right now. "You're so amazing when you surrender like that. I mean… you're always amazing, but it's a special kind. And the fact that you let us take over… that you let me… it means the world, Carlos. The whole world. I hope you know that."

Carlos nods rather more, and tries to hold on even tighter. "…I love you both…" he manages, though it takes some effort to get the words out.

"And we love you," Kevin says. He strokes his fingertips over Carlos' chest, and up to where that slender collar still lies around his neck. "I… take it you liked this part especially?"

"Yes," Carlos gasps. "You… can definitely do that again." And then he gives a soft, hazy little laugh. "You made us a dungeon…"

"We did do that, yes," Kevin replies, with a very audible smile. "We thought you might like that, too."

'Like' is an understatement. Carlos laughs softly again. "Yeah. I really did."

He lies in their arms for another few minutes, just revelling in how good everything feels. In how much he loves them.

"You're going to be sore for a few days," Kevin reminds him. "We'll have to take extra care of you."

"Well, I won't object," Carlos points out, happily. "I like it when you do that. Makes me feel safe."

"You are safe," Cecil says, gentle but serious. "You will always be safe with us, I promise."

"I know," Carlos replies, and he does. Because he is.

"Speaking of taking care of you," Kevin adds, "soon you need to drink something. And maybe eat something. I can start dinner if you're hungry."

All of this sounds like a very good idea. But… "…Just a few more minutes?" Carlos asks. "I… don't want to move yet."

Kevin kisses the back of his neck again. "Anything for you," he whispers.

And so there they lie, curled in a tangle, and Carlos can't remember the last time he felt so happy. They're here, and they're together, and everything is right. Everything is all right.

And he smiles. About time, really.

Chapter Text

It's been three months since the second fall of Strexcorp.

It's odd. Strex held the Greater Metropolitan Area in its grip for three months, and it felt like forever, but the three months since it all ended have passed in a haze. Christmas comes and goes and, as the new year sets in, life really does seem to have gone back to normal.

Or, a new normal, at least. The Greater Metropolitan Area is now three cities large, and the people of Nebolgorod quickly embrace their place in it. And, just as elements of the once-Overworld filter into it – the influx of baristas being only the start – so too do elements of Nebolgorod filter outwards.

In particular, Night Vale is swept by a sudden craze for uncoffee, which Carlos finally learns is called 'uzvar', and which becomes very popular once a clan of Night Valean baristas learn its secrets.

And Carlos can't help an enduring fondness for it, especially when paired with a helpfully wheat-free Nebolgorodian dessert that comes to be known as 'victory cake'.

Sometimes the little things make all the difference.

Once the new year really has got going, Naomi Hartley raises the idea of holding a memorial event in honour of those lost during Strex's three months in power. She brings it up with Cecil, Kevin and Carlos first, obviously more than aware of what it represents to them.

"If you're not in favour, I won't take it any further," she reassures them, one evening when the three men have come to join her and Darla for dinner. "But if you are…"

"I am," Cecil says, soft but sure. "It would be right. We need to acknowledge what happened."

Seated either side of him, both Kevin and Carlos take one of Cecil's hands each, and hold on. "You're certain?" Kevin asks, gently.

Cecil nods. "I am. I want to do it. I want to be a part of it. So long as both of you do as well."

"I do," Kevin agrees. "I know it won't be easy, but… it's important."

"It is," Carlos concurs.

Very important. Both for looking back, and for looking forward.

***

The event itself takes place a week later, in Desert Bluffs. A sea of candles covers what was once the Bloodstone Plaza, and – with members of all three cities present – the fallen are honoured.

In the midst of it all, and at his own request, Cecil stands up to speak to the crowd. He's been nervous about it for days, but when the moment comes, it all just falls away, and he feels like he does when he's on the radio: certain, and level, and sure.

"I thought it was important to say something to you all," he starts out. "I know I was your enemy for three whole months, and I know the weight of that is not something that can just be ignored. And even though I had no choice in the matter… it's been hard to fight the guilt. I remember everything, after all. I remember thinking I wanted it. But I also remember all of you fighting back. I remember the brave and brilliant resistance standing up for what was right. I remember the two men I love risking everything to save me."

Cecil pauses, looking over at them for a moment, knowing he'd never have made it without them. Knowing he did make it because of them.

"And in the end… they did save me. All of you saved me, and I can't ever thank you enough for that. You saved me. You made me feel worth saving. But not just me. You proved that the bond between our three cities is stronger than ever. That not even a god could tear us apart. And that? That's something I will always believe in."

***

"You really are good at that," Kevin remarks, leaning in close to Cecil, a little while later.

"Good at what?" Cecil asks.

"Knowing what to say," Kevin tells him.

"You really are," Carlos agrees, on Cecil's other side.

Cecil pulls them both in closer, and Kevin puts a hand on his double's chest, over his heart. "We love you, you know," Kevin says. "So very much."

"I know," Cecil replies. "I love you too. Both of you. I don't know what I would have done without you."

"And, Cecil," Kevin replies, "you will never, ever have to find out."

After all… not even a god could tear them apart.

***

It's later that evening.

The memorial event over, the three men are back home. They've had dinner, and – once they're done tidying up – Cecil looks suddenly intent.

"Come join me in the garden for a moment?" he says, sounding oddly hopeful. "There's… something I want to show you."

Carlos and Kevin exchange a look. "What is it?" Kevin asks.

"It's a surprise," Cecil answers. "A good one, I promise."

So the three of them step outside. The sun is rapidly setting; the air cooling, and the sky lit with streaks of orange and indigo. Cecil paces onto the lawn, and Carlos wonders what the other man is planning.

"I've been thinking a lot," Cecil starts out, turning to meet their eyes. "About everything. About us. About what we went through, and what it took to get here. And… there's something I want to ask you both. Something important. Maybe… the most important question I'll ever ask."

The truth dawns on Carlos all at once, an instant before Cecil drops down on one knee, slipping a small, black box from his pocket and snapping it open. Inside are two identical rings, gold spiralled with silver, and set with a triangle of three glittering diamonds.

The whole world stops. And, at Carlos' side, Kevin suddenly grasps his hand in shock.

"Will you marry me?" Cecil asks. "Both of you. And each other, obviously."

"Yes," Kevin answers at once, gripping Carlos' hand tighter, and sounding very much like he's trying not to cry.

"Oh yes," Carlos says, at the same time, feeling like he is going to cry.

Cecil looks overjoyed. "That… wow, that was easier than I expected, I…"

And they both pull him to his feet, so that all three of them can wrap into a fiercely tight hug; none of them wanting to let go in the slightest. When they finally do, Cecil slips one ring onto Carlos' finger, and the other onto Kevin's, and then pulls them both in close again. He's shaking a little as he does, and it's a long time before they break apart once more.

"Is… how do you even do a three-way wedding?" Carlos wonders out loud.

"I have no idea," Cecil admits. "But we'll find out. And we'll do it. And… if it isn't technically legal yet, I'm sure it will be soon. Very soon. We are good friends with both the mayors, after all. And the god-king of Nebolgorod. So…"

"…It will be possible," Kevin agrees, smiling, still holding onto them both. "And then we'll be married. All of us. To each other. That's… I mean, that's amazing…"

"Yes," Cecil agrees. "Oh yes. It is."

And there they stand: three men, all wrapped in close, watching the sun set. It's been such a long road to get here, and Carlos knows what they've been through will be with them forever. But, in the end, they made it: they endured, they triumphed, and not even a god could tear them apart.

There's so much still to come in life. So much lying ahead. And it's a thought that used to scare Carlos – because the unknown can be a frightening thing – but it doesn't scare him anymore.

Oh no. He has his home, and his science, and his family, and the two most wonderful men in the whole world, and – with them – anything is possible. Everything is possible.

And that? Well, that's one thing he can always believe in.