"And as always, good night, Night Vale. Josie was beautiful and angels are real! Good night."
Cecil signed off, and sat tapping his fingers on his desk. The roguish energy which had carried him through much of his broadcast had no other outlet now. It was exciting, really, to speak in defiance. It was a thrill, electric and uplifting. This did not make it an enjoyable experience.
He stretched, and doubled checked that all of the equipment was off. Gathered up the papers on his desk. Tapped them into a neat stack. Texted Carlos, "sorry hunbun i won't be home for dinner tonight."
He stepped out of his studio, into a waiting cluster of Secret Police officers.
He smiled at them, and said, "Hello, officers. What can I do for you this evening?"
One of them, a leader, although perhaps not the leader - their names and ranks were classified information, and so indistinguishable even amongst each other - said, "Cecil Palmer, you are under arrest for acknowledging the existence of angels, which do not exist, and their hierarchy, which is privileged information."
He accepted this with the professionalism expected of a respected journalist. He had, after all, broken the law. Consequences were only natural. The arresting officers escorted him from the building. No other station staff saw them go. Everyone had better things to see. As they walked past the front desk, Lance was busy turning the answering machine off and on.
The officers were quite accommodating, even providing transportation. They brought Cecil to City Hall. They stopped ten feet away from the Council Chamber, and prodded him toward the doors.
"I'm going," he said, although he was not yet going. He repeated, possibly to them, "I'm going. Relax."
He went in alone. He kept his gaze carefully on the carpet. There was movement in front of him, which he understood through the groan of tortured wood, skittering, several glops .
The City Council spoke, "There you are. Let's make this quick; we have other business to attend to, you know."
"Don't worry. I'm sure you'll be in time for your flight."
They hissed. Some throats hissed. Others gurgled, and none of the sounds should have been speech. "You just don't know when to keep your mouth shut, do you?"
"Oh, but I do."
Something like laughter. Like laughter. Cecil tasted bile, and the Council said, "Oh, good, we are glad to hear it. Use that knowledge wisely."
"I have been. But there is much that should be said. I will say it."
"No, you will not. We will not abide this. You may be the voice of this town, but… Well, that. You represent the interests of this town. You can't just say whatever you want, and you will not go on telling dangerous lies to innocent citizens."
"It's the truth." He folded his arms over his chest, although with his head bent, it looked more like a defensive gesture than a defiant one. "I am telling the truth."
The Council roared, and the roaring echoed, and so the entire world was volume, "Not on the air, you're not!"
"I am only telling them-"
There was an awful, wet slithering just in front of him, and he saw the undulating shadows of their body crossing the floor, closing in. He stopped breathing, and shut his eyes.
They went on, "In fact, you will not be allowed on the air again until you have completed an intensive reeducation program. Your mind must be scrubbed of these traitorous… ideas about angels."
"Right, of course, but." He pinched his own arm and held it, just long enough to let one, physical sensation overcome his body's awareness of its surroundings. "But also, what if that didn't happen, and instead, you go attend to your other business, and while you are doing that… Well, you can just take it easy, right? Things will be fine here. I will keep everyone informed of what they need to know, and no more."
"And no more," the Council echoed. "Tell us, Cecil. Tell us what you consider to be 'no more' than what people should know. In your opinion, what does that mean?"
"I have said what I mean."
"That's what we thought. You have said it already, and you were wrong."
"Maybe. I have been wrong about many things-"
"Obviously, you are ready and willing to learn, aren't you? Obviously, you are a citizen in good standing. Obviously."
"...I have been wrong about many things, but Josie was right." He fought an urge to look up. An inexplicable urge for eye contact, which he normally preferred to avoid, and which would now be deadly, anyway.
"I see. Well, then. You have heard our decision, and it is generous, all things considered. Now, we have other business to attend to. Get. Out."
"If you would just listen to-"
" Get out! "
Cecil turned and ran. Outside, the Secret Police were waiting for him again. He did not make it home for dinner that night. He did not make it home that night at all.
But the night after, Carlos met Cecil at their door. Carlos exclaimed, "Oh, Ceec!"
Carlos hugged Cecil before he had a chance to close the door behind him. Then he forgot about it. He did not have a free hand, anyway. He was preoccupied with texture; the crisp fabric of Carlos' lab coat and the gloss of his hair. The house smelled like boiling pasta, and the scientist smelled like laundry detergent and formaldehyde.
"Hi, honey!" said Carlos. It sounded like he was restraining himself, holding back from expressing his delight completely, but it was the opposite. His delight would not fit completely in his voice, restrained by the limits of mere vibration. "I missed you. How are you feeling?"
"Oh. Fine," Cecil's hands went still against his husband. He said, "I'm sorry it was so sudden. Um. Let me tell you now, I have to go back tomorrow."
"Oh. Mmm, okay. Well," Carlos said. He stepped away, but only enough so that he could stretch up to kiss his husband. "I was just making dinner. I didn't know when you would be back, but I made enough for two, just to be safe."
Cecil kissed Carlos again before answering. "Thank you, Carlos. That sounds… amazing. You are amazing, and I love you."
Carlos rocked up onto his toes, and took Cecil's hand when he set down. "You, too, though! This applies to both sentiments: you are also amazing, and I love you, too."
They went to the kitchen holding hands, but Carlos left him at the threshold, hurrying to check on the food. Cecil took a more leisurely approach, dropping his purse into a chair.
"I really enjoyed your show yesterday. Just so you know." Carlos was peering intently into the pot, but he glanced back at his husband, and smiled. His gaze landed on the table. The smile dropped.
"Oh, but, um, there's some mail for you there. It's from the Secret Police. It doesn't say that, but it was slipped under the door after I came home today. It has your name on it in magazine clippings and it wasn't sealed properly, so it had… I think it is a clipping of your hair that fell out as a kind of 'you can't stop us from getting to you' message, which is super creepy but not for the reason they wanted it to be."
"Did you? Well, thanks. I'm glad someone approves." Cecil picked the letter up, and turned it over in his hands. He teased the edge of it, but instead of unfolding it, he put it back and joined Carlos at the stove. Cecil had priorities. He kissed Carlos on the cheek, and leaned forward with one arm lightly hooked around his husband's waist. "Thanks for grabbing that, dear. Mmm, that smells great!"
Carlos allowed the subject to change. "Thank you. I skinned it myself."
"Ooh, I can hardly wait!"
Carlos nodded, and turned his head; Cecil took the invitation and kissed his husband.
Alright. Enough putting it off. He returned to the table and slipped the letter from its crudely marked envelope. It read: THIS NOTICE IS FOR CECIL PALMER. YOU HAVE BROKEN THE LAW. YOU MUST REPORT FOR REEDUCATION AT [black smudge] ON [black smudge] at [black smudge] AM.
"Seriously?" Cecil muttered.
Frankly, the letter was a graceless tactic. He understood what was expected of him. There was no need to provide such crude reinforcement. They didn't even give a reason, but he did not need that spelled out. He doubted that the Sheriff would have approved, but they were doubtless too busy to personally review every threatening letter from the department. It made no difference to Cecil. He had no intention of changing his plans on their account.
It was just, he didn't need this right now. He really did not. That it was inevitable didn't help. He held the letter limply for a moment, then let it fall back onto the table and settled into a chair with a dramatic sigh.
"I guess they just didn't have enough magazines to spell 'acknowledging the existence of angels.'"
"Mm-hmm. You know, maybe not everyone approves, but I like it when you are a passionate voice for truth and journalistic integrity," Carlos said. He absentmindedly smacked the "angel acknowledged" alarm above the stove. This was not supposed to turn it off, but theirs had a wire loose. He added, "It's hot."
Cecil folded the letter again, then stuffed it away into his purse. "As long as you are satisfied, my dearest listener."
"Sure, babe. So... I know how that went, but how are you doing? Was work okay, otherwise?"
Cecil sighed again. This was less dramatic, not a matter of intention but of overfull lungs. He said quietly, "I'm okay. Work was okay. No. No, work was good. How about you?"
"Fine. Neat, actually, but-" Carlos paused for a clanging of pots as he pulled a colander from the cabinet. "That isn't what you want to talk about, though. Is it? It's not really what I wanted to know, either. I was trying to be sensitive by using work as a buffer, but I am more interested in the part about you."
The scientist flicked the dial on the stove, pulled the pot off, and turned to face Cecil with an expression heartbreakingly kind and inquisitive. Cecil sighed a third time, this one lovestruck, and let chin rest on his palm. Even for such simple gestures, he thought, Carlos moved like a dancer. Like the perfected ideal of a dancer.
Cecil smiled tightly. "I am okay. That is to say, not great, but… you know. Yes. I am… you know."
Carlos thought it over, then nodded. "I do know. I may not understand perfectly, because everyone experiences these things differently, but I know. I miss her, too."
"Everyone does that , too, I think. Everyone here."
Carlos went on preparing dinner, and Cecil went on voicing his thoughts.
"I just want her wishes to be respected. Everyone misses her, so why can't they do that much?" He straightened up and brought his palm down hard on the table. "She was a pillar of the community! And… and a friend to many of us..."
His hand curled into a fist, knuckles rapping anxiously on the false-lacquered plastic. It was not as if it was simple for him. He did not expect it to be simple, but it hardly seemed anyone else was trying. Well. He had to try. Somehow, in the privacy of his own home, it was more difficult than it had been on the air. This was personal; this was opinion without the shield of journalistic duty.
He stood abruptly, unable to just sit any longer, and made his way to the cabinet to gather up plates and silverware. He set the table as he continued.
"The angels helped her do it. They helped her be herself, these last few years. She could keep at it because of them - what if she'd fallen off the porch changing that lightbulb? I didn't even know, Carlos, how close we came before. I didn't know."
The angel alarm wailed. Carlos bopped it again. Cecil dipped a few cups into the hot milk drawer, and set them on the table, then arranged the cups they would actually drink out of.
Carlos said, "I do understand that. I didn't know, either, but I thought about it… often, once I learned. I would not have gotten to know her at all, possibly, except for the angels."
Angel acknowledged! Angel acknowledged!
Cecil placed a fork on top of a napkin, and growled, "I am not above removing that thing."
Carlos placed the pasta, now sauced and resting in a dish, in the center of the table. He leaned in to kiss Cecil's cheek. "Fair enough. But let's have dinner first, okay? I'm starving!"
Cecil slowly scooched his chair closer to Carlos' as they ate, so that by the end of the meal, he was resting his head on the scientist's shoulder. Carlos toyed absently with Cecil's curls as he now told his husband about the life at the laboratory. Cecil was quite content to let the scientist's oaky voice wash over him, to let himself sink into it as he pressed his face into Carlos' lab coat and occasionally kissed his neck.
"So I told Luisa to check and see if any of the variables had changed, because that's what variables do in science, while I made sure that the equations were still balanced, and she said…"
"Mhmmm?" Cecil almost purred. He really wanted Carlos to go on. He opened his eyes halfway, peering up at the scientist through his lashes and fully intent on kissing him again.
"Well, you know, I was out a few days ago, so she had to get me up to speed. It was nothing complicated, but it turned out that some of them had changed and some of them hadn't , so I actually took a look to make sure I understood them all. And she checked the variables."
"Oooh… I'm glad you got it sorted out," Cecil said. He pulled away, and stood up to clear the table. While he stood at the counter, he continued, "You know, she loved science, too… She always said, 'science is a gateway to terrible and forbidden things. That's why we have scientists to keep what we shouldn't know away from us.'"
"That is not what scientists do at all," said Carlos. "So she was wrong about that. But she did love science."
He met Cecil at the counter, and ran his hand over his husband's hair, down his cheek. Cecil caught it, and kissed the palm.
"I'm sorry you had to miss work. She loved science, so she would have understood, if you had decided not to do that."
"What?" Carlos laughed, but he had not found Cecil's statement funny. He squinted at his husband. "Why would I not have gone? It was important to honor Josie's life, and even if I had not personally been close to her, I would have absolutely been there to support you."
"Oh. I thought… I mean, I was just thinking… I don't know."
Cecil dumped their hot milk down the drain, where it swirled into pearlescent streaks. He mouthed the words pearlescent streaks to himself. Carlos thought he hadn't heard what Cecil was trying to say, and leaned over to read his lips.
Cecil started at his husband's face just below his. "No, uh. I was just thinking that… It's my…"
Carlos kissed him, and said, "It is yours, but it is not just yours. We all miss her, like you said, which means that you are not alone, Cecil."
"...Well. Thank you."
It had barely been two days, but Cecil missed her. He couldn't help thinking about those years - years, but how long, really? That time when he hadn't spoken with her much. He had missed her then, too, but it had somehow never been enough to get him to pick up the phone, or write, or lasso a carrier pigeon and send her a letter.
Now, he just wished that any of those things would have let him speak to her. He felt that he was in a place more hollow and closed-off than wherever she had gone. He missed her, and she would never know the depth of that grief, even when she was at the center of it.
But she was not all he had. They would move on. The town would stay standing, even without Josie, as difficult as it was to believe.
Cecil kissed Carlos on his temple, just under where the gray spiraled out into black again. Cecil repeated, "Thank you. I don't know what I'd do without-"
A flash of movement by the window caught his attention, and then speared it and dragged it away into the darkness when it didn't stop - when it kept going and going and there was harsh, heavy rattling all around them.
There was a train outside of the window.
Cecil dropped the glass, and covered his ears. The sound of the train, banging, rushing, shrieking over tracks that had never been there before, hammered into his skull. He saw Carlos, too, covering his ears, moving his lips to shout. Cecil heard Carlos, but it was like he was low on oxygen. He heard the scientist calling his name, not as if from a distance or even, as it should have been, over noise. As if he was on a terrible precipice of consciousness.
"Ceec? Cecil? What's wrong?
Cecil spun around. Without realizing it, he had moved toward the kitchen window, toward the noise. And then there was - silence, not silence, the absence of volume before other sounds could filter back in, and then , there was Carlos' shouting his name, which startled him away from the window.
"I…" Cecil began, compelled to answer, compelled to reassure Carlos, but found nothing further to say. "I'm fine? There was a train. Outside? You heard it, too. I saw you… Right?"
"A train?" Carlos' brow furrowed. "No, I did not see or hear that. I saw the kitchen, as-is, and heard normal nighttime noises. Until you dropped the glass suddenly, seeming very upset. Then I saw you staring out the window, Cecil. That approximately represents the sensory input I experienced over the last few minutes."
"Ah. I see. Well, that was… That happened. Or not. Um. I'm sorry. I'll clean that up."
Cecil crossed the kitchen to grab a broom, but Carlos took his hand to stop him.
The scientist adjusted his glasses. "It happened for you, sweetie. That means it happened. Our experiences don't have to match exactly to be real. Scientifically speaking, people experience different things all the time. If you tell me more about it, maybe I can help you figure it out? Like, what kind of train was it?"
"No. I don't know." Cecil was thinking about getting a broom. He would need to clean that up. He needed to let go of Carlos' hand, he thought. He held on tighter.
"Was it a steam train? Oh!" Carlos held up an index finger. "You saw a steam train before, right? Did you see any people-"
"No!" Cecil shivered. He squeezed Carlos' hand, and let go. "I'm sorry. No, I don't know, as far as any of that goes, but I'm alright, I think. So it's fine. And I'm fine."
"Okay. Okay, good. I'm glad you're fine…" Carlos curled his hand around his chin, pressed his thumb against his lip. "Hmmmm. Something like this did happen before, though. I don't remember it, but you said it did, and I trust you. But you were on the train, at that time, right? Do you think it could be-"
"No! No, I do not think anything about it. Or want to talk about it. It's just been a long day. A long week. That's all."
"Okay. I won't pressure you. I'm sorry if I was pressuring you. You're right; it's been a long week. We should clean that up, but then, do you want to a watch a movie?"
"No, no. It's fine. It's-" Cecil smiled, and heaved a relieved sigh. "Yes. Please. Let's watch a movie. That sounds… relaxing."
Carlos smiled back. "How does Cat Ballou sound?"
Cecil clapped his hands quietly. "Oh, Carlos, that would be perfect!"
While Carlos set up the movie, Cecil went to get the broom. He didn't understand what had happened, so it may as well have not happened at all.
He was sure it wouldn't come up again.