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in the dining room, with the ring

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Cecil stood at the front of Old Woman Josie’s dining room in an outfit of clean lines and matching colors. The outfit was, in the strictest sense, a costume. He raised his arms to throw back his cloak, and grinned.

“Welcome back,” he proclaimed, “to tonight’s mystery dinner theater!”

He clasped his hands back over his chest, a gesture that was all fluttering red silk and black velvet settling around him.

“Unfortunately, trying to hold a murder mystery dinner theater would have led to a severe fine and jail time for misusing emergency services, so it was just a regular mystery dinner theater.” He opened his hands, peacemaking, apologetic, and soothed, “But as you have learned tonight…. There are other crimes. Arson. Fraud… oh, and of course, theft.”

He allowed himself another moment of silence, both for the pacing and to luxuriate in the stir that passed through the players.

Josie Ortiz tapped the arms of her chair, grinning a challenge back at him from under her deerstalker hat. No detective was pluckier, but perhaps she had claimed a prize beyond a puzzle that night.

Abby Palmer, one half of the ominous housekeeper couple, folded her arms over her chest. Did the pastel iridescence of her tuxedo hide beneath it a different kind of shine?

Dana Cardinal in a double-breasted coat, medals gleaming, did her best to maintain governmental solemnity. It was a good effort, but she could not quite stop smiling. Maybe it was because she had not had such a good time in quite a long one, or maybe she was eager to share a secret which would, ultimately, harm no one.

And the beautiful heiress, strung with pearls and draped with feathers over the simple silhouette of a black dress. Carlos’ eyes were bright, attentive; his teeth pressed into his lower lip with anticipation. What did he know? So much. Maybe because he had never lost his family heirloom, after all.

All eyes were on their host, who offered his most decorous smile. “Yes, something terrible has happened tonight. No, not merely happened - it was an act of willful malice. A crime, indeed, has been committed-” He ducked down to whisper quickly into a nearby potted plant, “But not for real, guys, okay? We’re totally just pretending - Ahem. Yes, a crime! The prized jewel of a noble family has been stolen!”

“Oh, darling, no!” Carlos exclaimed, and swooned in his seat. He sobbed desperately, “It’s just too terrible!”

Maggie Pennebaker fanned him with the book she was carrying. Tamika Flynn leaned over the table, and offered, “Ooh, hey, I’ve got real smelling salts in my emergency kit! You wanna try some?”

“…Honey? Are you okay?” Cecil started around the table, unable to curb an instinctual response to his boyfriend’s distress.

Carlos lifted his head just enough to wink at him, and then fell against the chair again, this time pressing the back of his hand to his forehead. Tamika smirked, and sat back down. Maggie fanned harder, and nudged a glass of wine toward Carlos with her free hand.

Cecil reclaimed his place at the front, and gathered their attention by spinning into place and swirling his cloak around him. He went on, “Yes! And it happened tonight! Right. Under. Your. Noses. No one has come or gone from this house since the jewel vanished. Even now, the criminal… is among you! Among us! They must be, and their ill-gotten gains must be, as well.

"Now, the time has come.” He pushed back his sleeve, and made a show of fiddling with his watch. “You have had two hours to sniff them out. And I have here what exists nowhere else in Night Vale. The truth of two hours.” He smiled at Carlos. “Have any of you solved this mystery, or will the criminal and their treasure escape justice, as well?”

Carlos’ faint gasping caught, and then he was laughing, still with his head thrown back. A high, dramatic sound; intentional, delighted syllables. When he deigned to sit up, everyone was staring at him. He set his chin in in one hand, and twirled the end of his feather boa slowly in the other.

“Oh? What’s so funny, зайчик?”

“Why, darling… Of course, I’ve solved it. I know who the thief!”

“Oh, my. Did you all hear that?” Cecil placed his fingertips just so over his heart. “Does anyone have anything they wish to say before, perhaps, their true nature is revealed?”

He let silence settle again, as complete as it could be in a crowded room.

“No? Well, alright.” He offered Carlos an exaggerated bow, beckoning him to continue. “Go ahead, зайчик.”

Carlos stood up, but his movements were deceptively demure. He batted his eyelashes, and crossed the ends of the feather boa over his chest. He began to pace around the table, stopping by each seat as he spoke.

“It could have been any of us. At first, I thought it must be…  the housekeepers! Between the two of them, and their access to the house, well, who else could it be?”

Steve clapped his hands to his face, the very picture of indignation, nowhere near the reality. “Oh, but we’ve served this family for generations!”

“Mhm. We would never,” Abby agreed. She tipped her head onto the shoulder of Steve’s matching tuxedo, and smiled easily up at Carlos.

“But did they?” Cecil suggested in a stage whisper. “Maybe… they did.”

Carlos held up a hand. “No. You wouldn’t. I didn’t want to believe it, so… I didn’t. And I started thinking about other possibilities. Once I had opened my mind to them, it seemed so obvious… My little cousin! Ever since she arrived last night, she’s been so sweet. Opening doors, fixing things, laughing at everyone’s jokes - even those which were not scientifically accurate. So, maybe a little too sweet. Very suspicious, darling.”

Cecil mused, “And even the sweetest faces can hide dark secrets…”

Tamika fluttered her eyelids right back at Carlos. “What? Me? But I was going to have a share of the estate, anyway. Unless you think I wanted more? Oh, how could you ever suggest that?”

Carlos stopped, once again teasing the end of the boa between in his fingertips. “I didn’t. Actually, I was really confused about what your motivation would have been until just now - it didn’t make sense. So, I mean, I know it’s not you. But that’s really useful information, thank you, darling. I’ll keep it in mind.”

Tamika folded her arms, and settled back into her chair with a firm nod. “Oh. Good. Glad we’re on the same page.”

Carlos moved on. “Professor Pennebaker… I thought you might be interested in studying the gem. Then I remembered that you’re a professor of geology, rock-based divination which is not a real science at all, as opposed geonomy, which is legitimate earth science. Major Cardinal might have wanted the gem to decorate her pocketwatch, so that she could at least have one that was pretty, even if it was still completely useless…”

“Oh, um. But I-” Dana coughed, and tried again, lowering her voice and speaking gruffly. “I forgot the pocketwatch that went with the costume. Sorry.”

“Aww, it’s alright, darling. These things happen. And it means you couldn’t have done it. Neither could Josie, because she has a dog, and everyone knows dog owners are morally infallible, because dogs are so precious that their inherent goodness rubs off onto their owners, a little more with each pet. Mhm. Scientific fact, darlings.”

Erika, standing beside Josie’s chair in a dog-ear headband, said, “Woof.”

“And that leaves…” Carlos whirled, and pointed across the table to a dour figure in an eye patch and rain slicker. No one knew her relationship to the family, only that one Janice Palmer had shown up late last night, storm-drenched, with the appropriate invitation and enthusiastic glower for everyone involved. “The mysterious stranger!”

Janice glowered harder, but this resulted in a strained expression that was more like a pout. She said, “Aye! It was me!”

“Oh! A confession!” Cecil exclaimed. “But why did you do it?”

“Yes, darling, you must tell us why! None of us have any idea who you are!” Carlos insisted.

Janice pulled a card from the pocket of her slicker, scanned it, and proclaimed, “It’s because I am the descendant of your long-lost cousin, Reginald, who your parents left stranded on a desert island! But over the years, the island became a popular vacation resort and got its own airport! I just flew in last night for my revenge and… boy, are my arms tired…?”

She looked down at the card again, then gave Cecil a dubious look. He nodded encouragingly behind Carlos’ back. Tamika caught Janice’s gaze, and rolled her eyes in solidarity.  

“Oh, no! My dear mamà and papà!” Carlos gasped. “And that explains the greatest mystery of all - why you arrived storm-drenched when we live in a desert that averages less than twenty-five centimeters of rain per year!”

Cecil pressed a hand to his chest, and declared, “Ooh, what a twist!”

“Yes! But you know what? If I can’t have the jewel, no one can! I’ll never tell you where I hid it!” Janice cleared her throat, and cackled distinctly, “Mua-ha-ha!”

“Hmm. I wouldn’t be too sure, darling.” Carlos smiled slyly, and waved away any concerns with a flick of his wrist. “I solved that mystery, too. I know exactly where the jewel is!”

Janice huffed. “Impossible! My hiding spot was perfect!”

“Oh, but of course, it’s possible. In fact, not only is the jewel here, in this house, it is in this very room!”

Cecil pivoted, and threw out one arm, holding the cloak so that the lush, crimson lining spilled forth as an invitation. “Then reveal it to us, зайчик.”

“I will. Just you watch, darling.”

Carlos crossed the dining room. No one else made a sound; the click of his heels echoed and died as he swung aside a framed landscape on the wall. Behind it, Josie kept her fine porcelain, as was typical, and under the gravy boat on the bottom was a panel, the usual storage space for the dining-room beehive. Josie’s, however, did not contain a beehive, nor even a few final segments of honeycomb. Instead, Carlos pulled out a plain, wooden box with a gilded latch. He spun to show them.

“Behold! The stolen jewel is inside of this box! My stolen jewel. It’s been in my family for all eleven years of recorded history!”

This time, it was Carlos who paused to absorb the reactions. Gasps, a collective shift forward in seats, even polite applause from Maggie.

“You’re right,” said Cecil, once everyone had settled again. He had to wait. He spoke much more quietly than before, as though he would cry out if he did not keep his voice low. He held out a hand. “It is yours, зайчик. Come here, and let’s have a look, shall we?”

Carlos, however, had been waiting all night. Perhaps the heiress, languid even in triumph, could have waited a moment longer, but the heiress was not real and Carlos was, and he was a scientist. Curiosity was deep in his nature. He opened the box, and looked inside.

And then he looked up.

“Cecil.” He said, and then he thought he should say something else, but nothing came to mind by the time his voice came out. He just repeated, “Cecil!”

“Oh, Carlos, wait! You- Well.” Cecil took a breath. “Well, you can open it. If you want to. It is yours.”

Over Cecil’s shoulder, Steve was already crying. Abby dabbed under his eyes with a handkerchief, and Dana leaned forward to see around her. Josie gave Carlos a thumbs-up.

Carlos wore an odd expression. At once reserved and bursting, and he, too, spoke gently. “No. No, I was thinking. I mean, I’ve been wondering. You were the one who got everything ready. Even when I wanted to help, you were very insistent, and normally you are so eager to do things together, so. I mean. Scientifically speaking, so.”

He passed the box back to Cecil, and looped the feather bow over his elbows, hands clasped over his stomach. “I want to hear you say it.”

Cecil accepted the box, and pulled another, smaller box from inside of it. He set the former down on the table, and held the latter clasped in both hands, and already there were tears in his eyes but he wanted to say it as much as Carlos wanted to hear it. He pushed the cloak out of the way, so he could get down on one knee without stomping on the fabric.

He offered up the little box on his palm, his eyes squeezed shut as his fingers found the seam. His heart was hot in his throat and his throat itself was tight around it so he didn’t know if he would be able to speak, after all. But he flipped open the box, and he looked up in the same instant into Carlos’ dark and delighted eyes, and Carlos was bouncing at the knee because he could not rock up and down on his heels, Cecil’s зайчик for the evening and his bunny always.

Cecil said, “Carlos. Clever, beautiful, imperfect, oh, I had so much I wanted to say, but it’s all running out of my ears, but, but you said you wanted to hear something and I know what you meant! Carlos, will you marry me?”

“Yes! I absolutely will!” Carlos shrilled. “I will do this because, personally speaking, I love you!”

“Oh…” Cecil nodded back, almost unable to express himself beyond a thrilled grin. “Neat!”

“It is! It is neat! It is the most neat, oh, honey-voiced honey!”

Cecil slipped the ring out of the box, and Carlos offered his hand to his fiancé. Cecil slid the ring on, and then just held Carlos’ hand, and they both stayed there, breathless, until finally Cecil kissed the ring and then up to Carlos’ knuckles. Then Carlos dropped to his knees and threw his arms around Cecil, catching him in a kiss. Cecil rested his hands on Carlos’ hips, wrapped in silky fabric, and Carlos slid his arms down to hold Cecil under his cloak.

The moment broke when they separated, but beyond its crystalline fragments waited the rest of their lives, which would be one life, joined where they chose. In that beyond, their family and friends congratulated them. Cheers and hugs in a confetti-shower of noise and contact. Erika trumpeted, and Josie nudged them with her elbow, as everyone had to wait for their ears to stop ringing. And then there were decorations to take down, false mustaches to remove. Carlos finally reclaimed the wine Maggie had offered him, and Cecil found some, too, as she shared a small toast with her friend and his fiancé.

At the end of the evening, Cecil held Carlos’ feather boa as he slid into his lab coat. Cecil tugged the lapels straight over the silky black dress, and murmured giddily, “Oh, you look just so… so scientific. Beautifully scientific. Scientifically beautiful. Hey.”

Carlos beamed. “Yes… darling?”

Cecil offered him the boa. “Have I told you that I love you recently? Because I do. I really do.”

Carlos took the boa back, and ran it through his hands. He spun one end thoughtfully. Then, he swished it up and over Cecil’s neck, and tugged downward. A suggestion, absent any real force, but Cecil bent so quickly that their lips smashed together. Neither one of them had any complaints about this. Carlos felt the cloak slide heavily around his shoulders, and lifted his arms around Cecil inside of it.

“Mmm! Oh…” Cecil broke off the kiss without pulling away.

“Thank you, Ceec. Tonight was… Oh, it was wonderful! I had such a good time!” Carlos said, his breath soft on Cecil’s lips. “I could not have asked for anything more, which means…”

“What does it mean, Carlos?”

“It means it was perfect, scientifically speaking. Nothing to be added, or taken away. People can’t be perfect,” Carlos whispered, running his hands through Cecil’s hair. “It’s just not scientifically possible. But maybe some things can be. Some nights.”

“Then, every night I spend with you.” Cecil leaned his forehead against Carlos’. “Every one. Good, or bad. Because I wouldn’t change any of them.”