Several hours later, Shakeena wakes Cecil so she can try the vial treatment on Carlos once more. Cecil checks the time and realizes he'd have to get up soon anyway, since he'll need to be back at the radio station for his show's usual start in a few hours.
Carlos makes a faint, faint noise when Cecil pulls away, and his nose twitches ever so slightly when Shakeena dabs her liquid on him. He doesn't stir otherwise, even when his phone rings, its observation that every little thing she does is magic muffled by the layers of protective garments. Regardless, Shakeena looks satisfied with her work, even though all she'll say is "Maybe."
She's a little more expansive when Dr. Renegade gets back from escorting the other scientists upstairs to check on their labs and bees. The three talk over a lunch that consists of a random selection of stockpiled, shelf-stable foodstuffs. "He's looking better. Once he wakes up, though, he should probably steer clear of any hardcore magic for a while. He'll definitely need some extra protection if he's going to be getting into any magical fights any time soon."
"He made it sound like they really need him back," Dr. Renegade growls. "Dammit." As if her words were a cue, Carlos's phone rings again, this time noting that the magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away. Ignoring it, Dr. Renegade continues, "Half their staffing problems are probably the attrition from rushing the people they do have back out too soon and getting them killed."
"But that's just because they're already short-staffed," Cecil says, equally dissatisfied with the situation. "It's a vicious circle, which is one of the least suitable geometric shapes for domestic possession. I know Carlos tries to make sure his people have the time and the backing they need, but that just means he tries to do more himself, and —"
"And he ends up doing half his opponents' work for them, since he's stretching himself too thin," Dr. Renegade agrees. She stabs the peanut-butter knife back into the jar viciously. "They need more people. And since they have some kind of hang-up about mind-control drafts or resurrecting an army of darkness …."
Cecil belatedly realizes she's joking about those options when Shakeena snorts. He privately thinks the White Council takes their snobbery about dark magic a little far, since they're clearly hobbled without it, but when he tried to suggest a little more open-mindedness … well, Carlos didn't exactly appreciate the idea.
His thoughts along those lines flee like startled bats when he realizes Carlos is stirring. He abandons his salt-and-vinegar oat crackers and rushes over, heedless of the circle, though he regrets his haste when Carlos makes a soft, unhappy sound as the circle breaks. "Carlos? Can you hear me?"
Carlos makes a less pained, more agreeing noise, but it takes him several more seconds to open his eyes. He blinks several times, and once his eyes settle on staying open, he squints a bit in the light. "What —" he tries, his voice rough, but he abandons the question with a wince.
Dr. Renegade brings over a bottle of water. "We're fresh out of straws. And ice chips."
"Carlos, do you think you can sit up a little?"
Cecil can't tell whether Carlos has no confidence in the answer or does not, perhaps, fully understand the question. He slides an arm behind Carlos's shoulders and helps him sit up, mindful of his ribs. For a change, Carlos accepts the help without protest. Once he's finally mostly upright, Cecil helps him drink some of the water.
"How do you feel?" Cecil asks. He's immediately annoyed at himself for asking such a useless question. Carlos always gives the same answer.
"I'm … not sure," Carlos answers slowly, because of course he — what? "Headache, and my chest hurts, and my leg is sore." He looks more directly at Cecil. "But I feel much better knowing you're here with me," he says, with a smile of such simple pleasure that it takes Cecil's breath away for a few seconds before graciously yielding it back.
Cecil ignores the gagging noise Dr. Renegade makes.
Carlos doesn't even seem to notice her commentary. He's shifting his shoulders a little, as if he's not quite comfortable. "Where —?" he starts, looking around, but then he utters a little aha! as he looks down. Pushing his cloak aside carelessly, he extracts his lab coat and then tries to get it on.
Cecil helps him, because maybe Carlos feels cold without it — or maybe its spells work better when it's worn correctly. That's probably it.
Once Carlos has the lab coat on properly, Cecil expects the cloak to come next, but Carlos continues to ignore it. Instead he pats at the pockets of the lab coat until he finds the glasses. He puts those on and smiles at Cecil again. "There, that's better."
Putting the glasses on now makes no sense. Cecil checks Carlos's pupils automatically, but they look fine. Carlos isn't even squinting anymore. So he probably doesn't have a major head injury.
"I take it you can feel all your fingers and toes, then," Dr. Renegade says. "Do you remember what happened?"
Carlos carefully touches the welt on his cheek as he considers the question. "An unexpected exothermic reaction?" he guesses. "Science can be very dangerous," he adds apologetically to Cecil.
Cecil glances over at Dr. Renegade, concerned. When Carlos sounds this disconnected, he's usually very hurt or exhausted. Or both.
"What's the last thing you do remember?" Dr. Renegade asks. "Clearly."
Carlos has to think about that for many seconds. "I … made dinner?" he says finally. He looks up again, worried. "Cecil, tesoro, do you need to be at work? You don't want to be in trouble with station management."
"Not for a few hours yet," Cecil says. Carlos sighs with a rather excessive relief.
"So you don't remember a thorny-tentacled nightmare picking you up by the leg and playing 'Hulk smash' until you cleverly managed to sever the tentacle on the upswing?" Dr. Renegade demands.
Carlos greets the suggestion not with dismay, as Cecil chooses, nor with his usual insufficient regard for his own peril, but with an amused bemusement. "No, nothing like that."
"Or somehow managing to land on top of the thing and playing Jon Snow to its Karl Tanner, which just seemed to make it even more angry?"
"No," Carlos says, curiously unconcerned, but then his faint amusement slips into a mild frown. "Please stop, you're upsetting Cecil." Cecil is now clutching Carlos's arm, though he doesn't remember moving. Carlos reaches over with his other hand and pats Cecil reassuringly. "Don't worry, I'm sure it wasn't nearly as exciting as any of that."
Dr. Renegade starts to reply but changes her mind. "We lost the closest cameras at that point anyway," she says offhandedly, though she's scrutinizing Carlos with eyes sharp enough to pierce the heart of a collapsed star.
Cecil finds the intensity of her attention unnerving, and he's not even the target, but Carlos just rubs soothing circles on the back of Cecil's hand.
Finally Dr. Renegade runs a hand over her mouth and gives Cecil a warning look before asking Carlos, "Do you actually remember who you are?"
"Sure," Carlos says. "I'm Carlos."
"And?" she prompts when he seems to intend to stop there. "What else? Come on, name, rank, serial number."
He shrugs slightly. "My name is Carlos," he says again, giving her a very familiar grin. "I'm a scientist."
Cecil glances around, but no one new has entered, so there's no reason for him to be using his cover identity. Carlos usually prefers more direct methods of handling secret surveillance, too — not that he would need to worry about that anywhere Dr. Renegade is in charge of. He does have an unusual sense of humor, but he always explains it's a joke whenever anyone doesn't realize he's made one.
"What else?" Dr. Renegade prompts, still giving him a chance to answer her question properly.
"I'm here in Night Vale because it's scientifically fascinating?" he offers, as if he's not sure why she's asking but wants to help. With an adorably flustered pride, he adds, "And I'm Cecil's boyfriend, of course."
"Oh, of course," she mutters. "Nothing else? You don't remember anything like blowing stuff up with your mind, or swinging around a glowing sword, or just generally doing a crap-ton of magic because you're, you know, a wizard?"
Carlos turns serious. "Oh, no, I'm definitely not a wizard," he tells her firmly.
Cecil runs his fingers through Carlos's hair with rather more urgency than before. Dr. Renegade hisses something about this not being the time, but Cecil is much more concerned with checking for bumps or sore points. "You're sure you didn't hit your head?" he asks.
Carlos tolerates the check patiently, but when Cecil is done, he takes one of Cecil's hands and squeezes it. "I don't think so. Don't worry. I'm really not very hurt at all."
"What do you mean you're definitely not a wizard?" Dr. Renegade sounds rattled. "Did you get fired or something?"
"No, I just mean I'm sure I'm not one," Carlos says. He sounds, of all things, amused for a moment, but then he wrinkles his nose. "Ugh, wizards. I mean, magic's fine — I suppose; I study science, not magic — but wizards are just so — so secretive and untrustworthy. All that dubious judgment and nefarious scheming. Who wants them around?"
The opinion sounds uncomfortably familiar, as if it's an old style Cecil outgrew and would rather forget but is now seeing in use as an unironic hand-me-down.
Shakeena snorts and then pretends it was a cough. Dr. Renegade is glaring at Cecil like she wants to set him on fire with her eyes, which he fervently hopes isn't a skill she's developed, but at Shakeena's interruption, she turns sharply. "You have anything here? Did we pick up some kind of — of clone or copy or something? It's not like this would be the first time there was more than one of him, but …."
Shakeena is already shaking her head. "He looks normal — well, as normal as he ever does." Carlos takes no offense, because he's ignoring the conversation in favor of settling his head on Cecil's shoulder. "He's definitely human and it's not someone else projecting an illusion. Something like that sandstorm a few years ago could have spawned a copy, but I didn't feel anything like that outside. That's all I can tell without digging around in his head, which is illegal, dangerous, and rude as hell. Can we stand him up?"
Cecil nudges Carlos to get his attention and helps him stand. His leg is able to support him, but he avoids putting more weight on it than he has to, telegraphing weakness in a way he normally never would.
Shakeena studies him for a while but doesn't seem to find anything particular. Clearly bracing herself, she sticks her hand out at Carlos. "You remember me, right?"
Carlos takes her hand automatically. "Sure. You're Cecil's friend. Shakeena Flynn, age 29."
Back before Cecil learned Carlos was a wizard, he introduced them to each other, and they both played along. It took him a long time to realize that they had already known each other since long before Cecil had met Carlos, though they weren't necessarily on the most friendly terms back then.
Shakeena doesn't look hurt at the denial now. She's staring down at their joined hands. "Okay, this is way above my pay grade," she says as she lets go.
Carlos looks down at his own hand a little oddly before flexing it a few times and dismissing the matter in favor of smiling at Cecil for no apparent reason.
"Maybe it's low blood sugar," Cecil suggests, a little wildly.
"It's worth a try," Dr. Renegade says. After Cecil guides Carlos over to the little eating area and gets him settled in, she grabs a bottle of sports drink and plunks it down in front of Carlos. "Hydrate, too. Can't hurt, probably. Meanwhile, we're going to have an emergency sidebar." She grabs Cecil by the shirt and drags him to the other end of the bunker, Shakeena following at a more reasonable pace.
Once they get there, Dr. Renegade releases Cecil and turns. "Whatever you did, undo it," she demands. It's a small bunker, so she keeps her voice low, but it's no less dangerous for being quiet.
"What I — I didn't do anything!" Cecil says. "I was at work when he got hurt. And after that I was here. And how would I — why would I —"
"Oh, please. You could go anywhere in the world, grab the first stranger you see, and set them down in front of the two of you, and within five minutes they would know the biggest problem between you is his wizard job. And now, suddenly, that's not an issue anymore, because suddenly, he doesn't think he's a wizard anymore. Suddenly he thinks he's exactly what he told you he was when you first met him, exactly what you rhapsodized about and pined for on your show, exactly what you thought he was and wanted him to be for years —"
"It was not years!" Cecil protests.
She scoffs. "It was more than one!"
"It was less than two!" he insists. Not much less than two years, admittedly, but still. He will fight for that technicality.
She waves the point off. "And all his attention is on you, like you've somehow attained the bizarrely hypnotic power of his hair. He's suddenly everything you could want, just when we've had a week of warnings not to make any wishes because a monkey's paw contaminated the water supply — which, by the way, is gross. You do see where I'm going with this, right?"
Cecil glances over to see that Carlos is, in fact, watching him contentedly. Carlos brightens when they make eye contact. Cecil smiles at him automatically before turning back to the conversation.
He scrubs a hand over his face wearily. "I am not an amateur, Dr. Juliet Soon-Hee 'Renegade' Kwan." He's usually careful to address people the way they indicate, but his indignation requires a full name. "I haven't made a wish in weeks. The surveillance logs will back me up on that. I've been screened three times that I know of to be sure I haven't been exposed, because station management isn't likely to take chances after what happened the last time there was a Wish Event and I don't want to give them any excuse to cancel me. Or my show. And the water probably wasn't contaminated."
He explained all this already, but apparently some people don't pay full attention to his show.
"Yes, there was a leak at the Unwise Magical Artifact Strategic Reserve, and there was a chance the monkeys' paws leached into the groundwater. But there hasn't been any confirmation that actually happened, much less that it got all the way into the city water supply. The wish restriction is just a standard, precautionary, knee-jerk municipal overreaction. I ran all the faucets at home for half an hour more than the Water Department suggested to make sure the lines were clear anyway. I even looked into installing a ritual purification filter on the line into our building, because I didn't want Carlos to get home and detect traces of dark magic in the faucet. I don't see enough of him as it is — I don't want him tied up in the three weeks of sacrifices and chanting needed for a permit to exorcise more than an arm's length of plumbing."
Dr. Renegade keeps glaring at him for a while, but eventually she shakes her head. "Okay, fine. I thought that whole thing was weird anyway. Isn't water supposed to cancel out magic?" She makes a face. "And wait, if so, how would a magical water filter even work?"
"It was a scam," Shakeena sighs. "Jae just got their flim-flam license and they're a little too enthusiastic. I had a chat with them. But yes, running water usually cancels out most kinds of magic. Which doesn't mean there isn't water-based magic, or that magic can't be used on water at all — our Warden there, he does water magic all the time. It's complicated."
"Then … could the paws have leached into the water in the first place or not?"
Shakeena and Cecil share a look — outsider magical education is tragic — before Shakeena answers. "They could. Let me guess, you've heard the 'curse' version? Well, whatever they teach you in your fancy science school, a monkey's paw is the preferred lair of a certain type of chaos spirit whose numbers are legion and whose forms are tiny."
"Like eyelash mites," says Cecil. "Except with fewer incendiary devices."
Shakeena nods. "They're so small that even if parts of the paw break or rub off, the fragments can still be corrupted with dozens or hundreds of spirits — it's more possession than enchantment. The spirits are what listen for wishes and make them happen. It's possible a few could hang on to small particles in the water system, and you really wouldn't want to ingest them. But it's unlikely, unless you're drinking directly from a stagnant well after someone tossed a decaying paw into it."
"Which is why stagnant wells require a permit and three character witnesses," Cecil points out.
"What, possessed wheat products weren't enough?" Dr. Renegade asks. "Remind me to have somebody look into just how many things can be expected to have evil spirits in them around here." She gestures towards Carlos. "So what's wrong with him? What was the handshake about?"
"I have no idea what's wrong with him. I was actually hoping it was a wish thing." Shakeena shrugs when Cecil gives her a betrayed look. "It would explain a lot. More than I can, anyway. The handshake … for most practitioners, shaking hands with a Warden is usually like grabbing the business end of a second-grader's Taser."
"And that just now?"
"Like grabbing the business end of a second-grader's malfunctioning Taser. You can tell it's fully loaded, but it doesn't discharge when it should and you can't be sure it won't just blow up in your face." Cecil nods, remembering that year and the resulting PTA outrage well, as Shakeena continues, "It felt like his power was still there, just … all folded in on itself somehow. If you want more than that, you'll need a psychomancer — and good luck finding one, because most of what they can do tends to get them beheaded."
"That's just great," Dr. Renegade mutters. "So what now? Should we insist? Try to force him to remember?"
"How?" Shakeena asks. "Even if he could use his magic right now, and I have no idea about that, you can't do magic you don't believe in. As long as he's convinced he's not a wizard … he basically isn't. And considering the state of his psyche, if this is something imposed and you make him try to fight it off …."
"He might go Scanners on us," Dr. Renegade concludes.
"Could it be reeducation?" Cecil suggests. If anyone would want to get rid of Carlos-the-wizard without risking the public reaction to losing Carlos-the-scientist, it would be public officials, if any of them made the link. And … "Maybe it's someone's revenge for our sting operation last month?"
Dr. Renegade looks dubious, but not at the suggestion of revenge itself. "Who's left to want revenge?"
She has a point. Carlos was not happy about Cecil acting as bait to draw out the latest dark-magic practitioner to infiltrate the reeducation staff. Oh, he agreed that Cecil had every right to risk himself if he wanted to, and he didn't try to forbid Cecil from participating or anything like that, but he was in an absolutely foul mood the entire time. Cecil actually had fun with all the intrigue and code words, and he thinks Dr. Renegade enjoyed her role, but Carlos chose to express his far less positive feelings through the medium of particularly determined enforcement. Cecil scored himself a nice forced vacation but then spent most of it alone as Carlos tracked down every tendril of the barely formed coven.
"Doesn't fit," Shakeena says. "If he had been reeducated with dark magic, especially something this thorough, it'd be a really obvious hack job unless they had months to do it. Maybe years. He's a mess, but not that kind of a mess."
"And wouldn't something have shown up before now?" Dr. Renegade adds. "He's been wizarding up a storm lately, and he was fine when he headed out for Valentine's Day. It's not like anyone could have done it then, either — we can account for his movements for pretty much the entire day, and he checked in a few times, too. There were a few coverage gaps, but nothing more than a few minutes at a time."
"That wouldn't be nearly long enough," Shakeena confirms.
Could it be someone manipulating Carlos, the way Violet used Cecil to protect Dana? Considering how carelessly Carlos willed possession of himself to Cecil, when Cecil was right in the middle of hiding from corporate justice atop the radio station, it's entirely possible he could have lost or even handed control over himself to someone unsuitable.
The prospect is horrifying.
Then again … when Cecil was being controlled, he apparently left what he was doing, saved Dana, went back, and remembered nothing of the interruption. As soul-crushing as that was to experience, he at least understood the superficial purpose even at the time. Who would take control of Carlos just to have him forget his wizard self and — yes, continue to watch Cecil, as peacefully as if he's watching a sunrise that bothers to show up and isn't all that loud?
Even if this is all due to some perfectly natural kind of inexplicable dissociation or existential realignment, Cecil can't help wanting to bundle Carlos up in blankets and Kevlar and spirit him away for safekeeping.
"Should I just take him home?" Cecil asks. "Maybe being there would help him remember himself more naturally. But I really do have to go to work, so he'd be alone for hours."
Dr. Renegade makes a derisive noise. "He's still an adult, and he may be profoundly confused but he seems approximately coherent. He can probably manage a few hours alone. He shouldn't be a particular danger to himself, even now." She hesitates. "Well, any more than usual. Hmm … I'll see if I can find someone to go along. Or he can always just stay here."
"It might not be a bad idea to get him out of here," Shakeena says. "He just changed these wards, and they irritate you like an itch you can't scratch until you get used to them. The protections at your place are better anyway. But you have to figure out how to get him home safely — and I don't mean from the aftermath of Valentine's Day, either. He's an interlo— he didn't grow up here. He does pretty well for an outsider, but if you take him outside with no protections when his defenses are down …." She trails off ominously.
Cecil contributes to the conversation by trying not to hyperventilate.
"So he basically needs, what, a post-psychic-concussion helmet?" Dr Renegade asks. "Can't you do something? I know he's worked with you before when he needed local help."
"And you helped ward our place," Cecil adds desperately. She's mostly friendly with Carlos now. Surely she'll help protect him.
Shakeena looks tired. "Our whole chapter put those wards up. I guess I can try, but I didn't bring any blank crystals or pendants. I'd need something he'll keep with him, preferably something he'd wear. Nothing with spells already on it, obviously."
So not the cloak — which Carlos doesn't seem likely to be willing to wear anyway — or the lab coat. "He has a couple of charms he usually wears," Cecil offers. "His father's dog tags and a religious medal from his mother of a woman offering free hugs."
"No. Not anything with that kind of personal significance. Let me think about it."
They head back over to Carlos, who picks up the oat crackers and holds them out to Cecil. "Hungry?"
"Not right now, but thank you." Cecil's stomach is too busy twisting in anxious knots to be concerned with food. "Are you feeling better?"
"Well, less hungry," Carlos says agreeably. He sets down the crackers and tangles his fingers in Cecil's. "I must have been so distracted by science I forgot to eat. Thanks for reminding me."
He seems so content. Cecil is consumed with worry, of course, because he doesn't want any part of who Carlos really is to just be forgotten or erased, but if Carlos is so much happier now, does that mean he's usually unhappy? What if he would prefer to stay as he is now instead of trying to go back to being a wizard? What would that mean for — for everything? But how can he make an informed choice if he doesn't know he has a choice — and they can't tell him without hurting him? Does he have a choice, or is this permanent? If it's permanent, is it better for him not to know after all? Is anything permanent? Can they ever truly know anything?
Carlos's happiness turns to concern as he registers Cecil's distress. Luckily, Shakeena distracts him just then. "Carlos, let me have your glasses for a minute."
Carlos draws back slightly. "I need them."
"No you don't," Dr. Renegade says. Carlos again doesn't seem to notice, and she raises her voice. "Shakeena just needs to adjust them for you. She can … optimize their refractive properties. She'll give them back, right?"
"In just a few minutes," Shakeena agrees.
"Oh! Oh, sure." He hands over the glasses with only a little obvious reluctance. Without them, he's squinting slightly again, even though the glasses are fake and do nothing to his vision.
Shakeena takes the glasses over to the sleeping area to work on them. Cecil thinks it might be best to keep Carlos distracted from magic-working, even if he so far claims to dislike only wizards in particular, so he steps closer and pets Carlos's hair. Carlos relaxes into the gesture, closing his eyes and allowing his head to rest against Cecil's abdomen.
When Shakeena actually starts chanting quietly, Carlos twitches and then reaches up a few times to rub at the back of his neck, as if he feels spiders sneaking their way up it. Cecil checks to be sure, but he can see there aren't any, unless of course they're too small to see. So that seems like a good sign, right? That even if Carlos doesn't remember, he still seems to be able to feel magic being done? Or, no, she seems to have made a new circle, so maybe he can't feel the magic but the chanting reminds him of it anyway?
Cecil doesn't get any answers, but he does get an effective distraction from the questions when Shakeena finishes her chant, breaks the circle, and then topples over.
Dr. Renegade gets to her before Cecil can untangle himself from Carlos. "Are you okay? What happened?"
Shakeena waves a weary hand. "I'll … be okay," she manages. "But I'm out."
Dr. Renegade grabs a pillow and shoves it under Shakeena's feet before picking up the glasses and bringing them over. "Let's hope these work," she says, handing them to Cecil. Cecil passes them to Carlos, who is clearly relieved to put them back on.
"Carlos, do you want to try to go home?" Cecil asks. "I can get you all settled in before I have to go to the radio station."
"Oh, that would be nice," Carlos says, beaming up at Cecil. "But — I don't know if I can —" He looks over at Dr. Renegade. "Is that allowed, or do I have to stay?"
"What am I, your mother?" says Dr. Renegade.
"No, ma'am, I'm sorry. I just mean — I don't know if I worked a full shift," he clarifies.
Carlos certainly respects Dr. Renegade, but their relationship has always appeared to be one of friendly equals who communicate in insults. Now, though … he's strangely deferential, in a way Cecil has only ever seen with the older members of Carlos's family or overheard in work conversations on the phone — and even then, only briefly.
Dr. Renegade looks unsettled, though Cecil can't tell if that's by the attitude or the question. "Oh. Yeah, you're benched," she says. "Standard, um, post-incident protocol. Check in tomorrow or something. Just … go away for now. I mean — wait a few minutes first. I need to go talk to the others. I'll get one of them to take you all." She turns and leaves abruptly.
Cecil takes another sports drink and goes over to check on Shakeena. "Are you sure you're okay?"
She sits up carefully and accepts the bottle. "Yeah. I just can't do that again anytime soon. I hope it'll be enough." She takes several slow sips. "Even if it is, you have to make sure he keeps those glasses on whenever he's not inside his own wards. And keep him away from powerful psychic influences."
"How will I know?" asks Cecil, panic rolling in. "I'm no practitioner —"
"You know, whenever you hear the screaming inside your head that's not yours," says Shakeena. "Just like you learned in high school. Those glasses should be enough to protect him against the normal crushing weight of doom, but they're not going to hold up against much more than that."
"I'm sure you did a great job," he says weakly.
"Oh, honey." She pats his shoulder in sympathy. "You'll do fine."
Several minutes later, after Shakeena has managed to climb to her feet, Dr. Renegade comes back into the bunker carrying Carlos's duffel. "Okay, Kate — that's 'Dr. Rochelle' to you," she tells Shakeena, "— is going to take you all. Head on up, but don't leave the building just yet. I'll be up in a minute." She just watches as they all turn away.
Shakeena is a little shaky but manages the stairs on her own. Carlos doesn't seem to need Cecil's steadying hand, but he accepts it without complaint.
Upstairs, the other scientists are all in the larger lab, and as soon as they see Carlos, they stop talking in favor of staring at him. After an awkward silence, Dr. Renaissance ventures, "So, Carlos. It's good to see you up. You're feeling better, I hope?"
"Oh, sure," Carlos says. "I'm sure I'll be fine by tomorrow."
"Good!" says Dr. Renaissance. "Good."
There's another awkward silence.
Master Rawhide coughs. "So how's the, um, the science going?" he asks. When Dr. Rochelle jabs her elbow into his ribs, he shifts away and adds, "I mean, what was it you were experimenting with, again?"
Carlos's sheepish grin is amazing. "Well, apparently I had a setback," he says, "but I'm sure I'll work it out soon. A scientist is persistent."
Master Rawhide gives Dr. Rochelle a significant look, she frowns, and Dr. Reliant coughs pointedly.
"Everyone ready?" Dr. Renegade demands from behind Cecil. "Or is it gawk-at-the-bachelor's-candidate time already?"
The younger scientists startle and hustle off to various tasks. Cecil reminds himself not to have a heart attack because she doesn't mean that kind of bachelor.
Dr. Renegade pulls Cecil aside and hands him the duffel. "I put all the magic stuff I could find in here. If he does remember soon, he'll want it close."
Cecil shifts the mobile-broadcasting equipment bag to make room for the duffel. "That's very thoughtful. Thank you."
"Look. No accusations, just … are you sure you didn't do anything that could have caused this? Even accidentally? I got the impression you didn't take the news he was leaving again well, and the timing …."
Cecil knows she's only pushing because she cares about Carlos, too, but it's still frustrating. "No, I didn't take it well, but we talked. And yesterday I was actually relieved that his leaving meant he was at least safe from Valentine's Day because I didn't know he wasn't," he reminds her.
"Okay." She doesn't sound convinced, but she doesn't really sound suspicious either, and Cecil has to settle for that. She raises her voice. "Kate, they're all yours."
Dr. Rochelle finishes uprighting a piece of equipment and dusts her hands. "Everyone ready? They're still cleaning up out there, so look sharp."
She's probably the only one of them truly able to obey that instruction at the moment. Carlos is injured, entirely without his magic, and apparently uninterested in any of his surroundings that aren't Cecil himself. Shakeena's magic is temporarily spent, and while she's lightly armed and keeping herself upright, she keeps swaying whenever she can't use a wall for support. Cecil is tired, weighed down with equipment, and alarmingly unarmed, and the scientists have neglected to establish the common "take a weapon/leave a weapon" tray that is standard at most walk-in businesses. He just hopes Dr. Rochelle is as quick with the sidearm she's now wearing as she was with the flamethrower earlier.
Cecil goes over to Carlos and immediately has his full attention. "Listen, I know you think you're all right — or mostly all right — but you might feel worse outside. If you do, tell me, okay? Right away."
"Sure," Carlos says easily. Too easily.
"I promise," Carlos assures him.
Cecil is pretty sure he's just being humored, and he still isn't confident in this plan, but it's probably worth trying. He bites his lip and nods.
Dr. Rochelle eases the door open and checks both ways before motioning for them all to follow. Cecil goes out next, so he can keep a better eye on Carlos as he passes through the wards.
Carlos steps out the door with confidence but pauses after only two steps, wincing. "Cecil? I … um … I need a second," he says, pressing a hand to his head.
Cecil rushes back to him. "Carlos?!"
Carlos breathes deeply a few times, his eyes closed. "It's okay," he says. "It's just … really loud." There are multiple emergency sirens wailing across the city, but those were clear as soon as the door opened, so Cecil doesn't think that's what he means.
"We can go back in," Cecil says. "Is it the normal screaming, or extra screaming?"
"No, it's okay now." He blinks and shakes his head carefully, gently dislodging some kind of discomfort. "I just had to get used to it. I'd rather go home."
He's pale but steady now. When Cecil looks to Shakeena for guidance, she nods wearily.
"I'm sorry," Carlos adds. "I thought you were worrying too much. I didn't take your warning as seriously as I should have. I don't mean to seem dismissive. I really do respect your experience and opinions."
Well, of course he does. Why would he fear that one instance of underestimating his own level of injury might make Cecil doubt that? "I — thank you, Carlos," Cecil says, too startled for anything else. This is getting just too weird. Shakeena has to poke him to get them moving again.
Dr. Rochelle lets Cecil and Carlos draw up even with her. "See, you've already got this," she whispers on Carlos's other side. "That was great partner communication." Carlos looks equally puzzled and pleased as she moves away again, picking up speed so she can unlock the car.
They're just a few paces away from Dr. Renegade's Prius when Cecil hears a faint rustle. In a flash — metaphorically — Carlos is knocking Cecil back protectively with one arm and whipping one of his knives through the air with the other hand. The knife flies past Shakeena's nose, neatly spearing something midair, and continues a few more feet before clattering off the support pole of the nearby no-ennui-zone sign.
A lace heart flutters weakly, too weighed down by the knife to rise.
Dr. Rochelle lights a match and drops it on the heart. Once the heart has flared up into ash, she picks up the knife and hands it back to Carlos. "Quick, in the car," she says, heading for the driver's door.
"I never saw it," Shakeena says, shaken. "Thanks."
"De nada," Carlos says, watching carefully for any more straggling hearts. "It's all in the physics." He gestures for the others to get in the car first. As soon as Cecil is in, he reaches to pull Carlos in after him.
Once his door is closed, Carlos puts the knife back into its sheath in an inner pocket of his lab coat and then looks Cecil over thoroughly. "You're okay?"
Cecil nods. He's relieved they all got into the car safely, even if he's now slightly squished by equipment bags. He's also relieved that, whatever else may be wrong, Carlos at least still has his lightning-fast reflexes to protect him.
But Cecil's heart is pounding from the close encounter. He's tired physically and exhausted emotionally. He still has an entire show to get through later. He doesn't understand what's wrong with Carlos.
He doesn't want to admit that this version of Carlos has a lot of appeal.
"It's been a long weekend," he finds himself saying. "And it's not really over yet. I'm … worried." He suspects it's not safe to tell Carlos most of the things he's worried about, but has so little practice holding anything back from Carlos — which adds the worry that he'll make things worse by letting the wrong thing slip.
Carlos doesn't press him for details. He just reaches over and carefully extracts one of Cecil's hands from all the equipment so he can hold it as he watches Cecil with concern.
Cecil just relaxes into the devoted attention. He can feel guilty about it later.
Dr. Rochelle drops off Shakeena first, making sure she gets all the way inside safely, and then parks at Carlos and Cecil's building. She accompanies them inside.
"Standard post-incident protocol," she says breezily when Carlos is puzzled by her presence. "Monitoring for the first twenty-four hours — well, more or less, depending on how the clocks feel that day."
Cecil is starting to wonder just how much of this "standard protocol" is being invented on the spot.
"So I'll just hang out here while Cecil's doing his show," she continues. "I can take off for a couple of hours now if you guys want some privacy before the show, though."
Cecil would love some privacy, almost as much as he would love a nap, but there's not enough time. "No, people should stay off the streets except for necessary travel," he says, unlocking the door of their apartment. "You should come in. Thanks for staying."
"No problem! I'm happy to help. I don't really get many chances to return the favor, you know?"
Carlos sighs with obvious relief the moment the door closes behind them. "It's good to be home," he says. Cecil suspects the wards are an important factor too, since a little bit of color is finally starting to tiptoe back into Carlos's alarmingly pale cheeks, but … it is good to be home.
Not that he can stay long. "Please, make yourself comfortable," he tells Dr. Rochelle as he sets the mobile-broadcasting equipment bag next to the door. He takes the duffel of magical equipment and stores it in the closet; one of them can go through it later. "I need to shower and change." He's coming off a day and a half of bunkers and napping in his clothes and stress, with a full day of work before that. He's firm about his current priorities.
Carlos looks down at himself. He changed clothes at some point since he left the apartment so abruptly, probably at the labs, because he's wearing dark fatigues under the lab coat. Which really ought to make him think, actually, since he's always been surprised that no one in Night Vale ever questions the combination when he has to go undercover in a hurry, but now he either doesn't notice or ignores the discrepancy. "I think I need a shower, too," he says. "Want to shower together?"
Carlos is usually a little shy about certain topics in front of certain people, but he's showing no sign of shyness at the moment, and Dr. Rochelle certainly isn't the sort of person to judge them for talking openly about the idea. Unfortunately — "I don't really have time for anything except actually, you know. Showering."
"That's okay." Carlos doesn't sound disappointed, shyly or otherwise. "It'll still be more efficient if we share."
Carlos once tried to explain something about sharing a shower for the sake of efficiency being a joke, but his explanation was very confusing and they managed to distract themselves thoroughly before Cecil ever quite understood what he was trying to say.
Right now, Carlos is entirely sincere.
Cecil hesitates a moment longer, because his boyfriend is almost, but not quite completely, himself. Somehow, this specific situation never came up in their discussions or in their official relationship paperwork. But just seeing each other without clothes is far within their mutual "don't even need to ask" boundaries, and Carlos has never objected to the idea of showering together unless he's covered in something he doesn't want to expose Cecil to, so if he's the one suggesting it now, it should be fine. Probably.
Then Cecil imagines having been outside, on Valentine's Day, actually fighting, and there's no way he's asking Carlos to wait even a second longer than he has to for a shower after that. There could be chalk heart dust, or rose petals, or even chocolate — "Okay." It's not like they'll get up to anything more interesting anyway.
Dr. Rochelle settles herself on the couch and waves cheerfully as they head for the bathroom.
One advantage to showering together is helping each other undress, which in this case is not about arousal but about preventing strain on Carlos's sore ribs. They set the lab coat carefully aside but pile the rest of their clothes together to be washed — at a minimum, and possibly purified or burned — later.
Carlos is again reluctant to take off the glasses and leaves them until last. Cecil almost gives in and tells him he can keep them on, which under other circumstances might have potential and right now just seems easier, but then he realizes that might mean literally rinsing all of Shakeena's hard work down the drain. He persuades Carlos to take off the glasses.
The bruising across Carlos's chest is already vivid and will be lurid within a day or two. The mark on his cheek is starting to fill in its own sullen colors. Both his hands have been scratched and spot-burned. Cecil hates to see the injuries, but Carlos has been in much worse condition than this. Many times.
They wash up quickly, Cecil taking care of washing Carlos's hair both because it's faster and because it's a comfort for both of them. Cecil then applies disinfectant to the scratches and the welt before they head to their bedroom.
Cecil throws on the first clean garments he finds so he can help Carlos into a comfortable pair of pants. He picks up the shirt Carlos selected. Then he starts to shake.
"What's — hey. Hey. It's okay." Carlos gets him to sit on the edge of the bed and then just holds him.
Cecil didn't know. For years he didn't know. Carlos could have died out there, right in the middle of the worst of everything Cecil was reporting on, and Cecil still wouldn't have known.
And worse, if Carlos died in Night Vale with his hood up, would Cecil ever have known? Would he have thought Carlos just disappeared forever?
This year, the scientists would have told him, eventually, once they realized he didn't know. They wouldn't have left him wondering forever. But before this year, and before last year when Carlos wasn't even able to get to Night Vale, Valentine's Day could have claimed Carlos with no trace.
Cecil knows Carlos is regularly in danger and has faced death numerous times, before and after they met. Carlos has explained at least vague details for many of those occasions, when they've come up. The one time he won't talk about, Cecil knows enough about bite scars to make some pretty good guesses. All of that is safely in the past and can't take Carlos away from him now.
But Valentine's Day — the thought of losing Carlos to that fills him with a visceral horror.
Part of Carlos still hasn't come back from that fight. What if he never does?
A numb corner of Cecil's mind thinks that's why he can't just accept the passage of his current terror into the usual mix of regret and relief. Until all of Carlos is back with him, Valentine's Day hasn't ended, and he can't consign it to the happily faulty realm of memory.
The part of Carlos that did come back holds Cecil until the shaking passes. He doesn't pry, and he doesn't insist everything will be fine or try to gently distract Cecil with humor. He's just quietly supportive. It's nice, yes, but it's … strange.
Cecil shifts to return the sort-of-hug briefly, because he is grateful. "I need to get to work," he says.
"Okay, sweetie," Carlos says, with no reluctance. He kisses Cecil on the side of the head and releases him. "Help me get my shirt on?"
Cecil does, smoothing the fabric down carefully when he's done. "Stay here, please, until I come home?"
"Of course! I wouldn't want to miss your show."
Has Carlos forgotten he can't miss Cecil's show, even if he tries? Sure, he might sleep through it, or he might not be able to hear it clearly over the noise of battle or especially enthusiastic science, but he'll never be able to escape it, thanks to the curse laid on him all those years ago. That particular doom has nothing to do with wizardry, either; the City Council used to use it against anyone they wanted to destroy. Though wizards always were some of their favorite nemeses.
Carlos is regarding Cecil with fond tolerance. "I promise I'll take it easy. I'll just listen to your show and then make us a nice dinner. All right?"
"You don't have to cook," Cecil protests. Though dinner may be challenging if he doesn't. There probably aren't enough leftovers, especially if Dr. Rochelle stays to eat, and Carlos isn't as willing as Cecil is to just grab and reheat something. And food establishments won't reopen until tomorrow at the very earliest.
"I like to cook," Carlos reminds him.
That is true, despite the perils of food preparation. "We'll see."
They head back out to the den and get Carlos settled on the other end of the couch from Dr. Rochelle. Cecil sets the radio to a comfortable volume. It sounds like they've pulled in a feature contributor for the early-afternoon coverage, but even as Cecil listens, the contributor breaks off in the middle of an update to argue with an intern about the correct way to burp development names.
"Go on," Dr. Rochelle urges when Cecil groans. "We'll be fine here. I'll call if anything comes up. Have a good show!"
Carlos tugs Cecil down for a goodbye kiss, which lasts a little longer than Cecil really intends. Then Cecil grabs the mobile-equipment bag and hurries out the door.
Then he goes back in and borrows the keys to Dr. Renegade's Prius, since his own car is still at the radio station.
A radio show is more than just sitting in front of a live microphone and talking, and today Cecil has done none of his usual prep. When he happens to mention that Carlos was hurt, though, the interns rally and help him dig up enough material to fill most of the spaces between post-disaster updates. He finds himself philosophizing in the rest of his time, which is normal enough, but he prefers to work these things out ahead of time, because he doesn't always like conclusions he reaches unplanned. He may have long practice, but philosophy is still a hazardous endeavor.
(As opposed to Philosophy, which is merely an obnoxious endeavor.)
No unpleasant revelations overtake him, fortunately, and he's able to wrap up his show at the usual time. The emergency crews have made good progress, and the overall citywide threat level is officially all the way down to Wary Dread, so Cecil is even able to end the continuing coverage and pass the airtime over to the next installment of their popular new home-embalming series.
When he gets home, the den is dark even though he knows Carlos is home — a familiar combination. Cecil's heart leaps at the thought that the power might have been knocked out by the vagaries of a wizard's magic, but then it awkwardly ducks back into place when he sees that most of the lights are just turned off. Carlos is asleep on the couch and Dr. Rochelle has moved to the kitchen table, where the lights are stubbornly bright.
"He fell asleep during the weather," she whispers as she gathers up her papers. "His phone rang a couple of times, but he didn't notice. I think he's about the same, sorry. Maybe he just needs more sleep, though — real sleep, I mean, not just being knocked out. He gets a little weird when he's tired."
"He's never completely forgotten he's a wizard before," Cecil says, a little more sharply than he intends. He takes a deep, shaky breath. "Sorry."
She hasn't taken offense, fortunately. "Is a hug okay?"
"Yes …?" Cecil doesn't understand what seems to be a non sequitur at first. It's only when she wraps her arms around him that he realizes she was asking permission and not simply, if randomly, categorizing concepts.
He might be a little out of it himself.
Her hug is supportive, friendly, and brief. "You'll get through this. I'm not going to offer my subjective assessment of the strength your relationship as a way of predicting how you'll do or anything like that, but I have confidence in you. Both of you."
That makes one of us, Cecil thinks dismally, but that's not fair. He and Carlos have gotten through a lot and they're getting pretty good at it. Dr. Rochelle's optimism is usually contagious; he hopes exposure to their prior relationship successes has lowered his resistance. "Thanks. Would you like to stay for dinner?"
"Oh, thanks, but no. I've got plans, and if you're trying to stick to familiar routines for Carlos, me being around wouldn't help with that. You need anything before I go, though?"
Cecil doesn't, and he sees her out before going back to Carlos.
Carlos is sitting up, mostly, his head turned a little to the side against the back of the couch. The angle is setting his glasses slightly askew. A quilt from one of his innumerable relatives is tucked across his lap.
Cecil loves watching Carlos sleep. He looks so defenseless, but Carlos has demonstrated many times that's only illusion, so it's less panic-inducing than it is charming. The constant crushing responsibility that tightens his expression most of the time melts away, making him look peaceful and content. The tiny bit of drool — even in this position, which is pretty impressive — is adorable.
Carlos … doesn't love being watched in his sleep. He tolerates it in small doses, but he always feels it if he's in anything but the deepest sleep, and he calls it creepy as he wakes up fully.
Now, even though Cecil sits on the arm of the couch right next to him and watches for far longer than he ever has before, Carlos doesn't wake or even stir. Cecil suspects he could watch as long as he wanted.
The thought isn't as appealing as he would have expected. He reaches over and strokes Carlos's hair. "Carlos?"
Carlos wakes slowly. "Cecil?" He blinks in confusion at the darkened den. "Oh, did I miss the end of your show? I'm sorry. I really wanted to listen to the whole thing." He yawns. "Were you watching me sleep?"
"Yes," Cecil admits, but Carlos doesn't proceed to call it creepy. He just smiles and shakes his head a little, as if he thinks it's silly but harmless.
Cecil has to ride out a wave of unease. (On their Christmas trip, Carlos took him for a very brief and very heavily armed trip to the ocean to experience surfing, as if the ocean itself wasn't unnerving enough, so Cecil now has a greatly expanded reference library of unpleasant sensations.) Once it releases him, he asks, "Do you just want to go to bed? You really do need to rest." So, for that matter, does Cecil.
"No, I promised dinner," Carlos says around another yawn.
As they're foraging for something simple, Carlos's cell phone starts ringing. It turns out to be in a pocket of the lab coat, which turns out to be hanging next to the front door now. Unfortunately, by the time Cecil locates it, the caller has given up, and Cecil doesn't remember Carlos using a ringtone that demands to know what's going on? for anyone. The display has gone back to sleep.
Carlos doesn't know who it was either, which isn't much of a surprise when it turns out he didn't even know it was his phone ringing. He doesn't bother to check the call history when Cecil hands him the phone. "They'll call back if it's important," he says, putting the phone on the counter so he can go back to studying the contents of the fridge with Cecil.
The phone rings again a minute later, this time asking what's the matter here, which Cecil wouldn't have guessed was to Carlos's taste. Then again, Carlos often expresses bewilderment at his own ringtones. Personal technology has been a steep learning curve for him.
Carlos checks the display impatiently. "It's just gibberish," he says, silencing the call and putting the phone back down. "It's probably some kind of marketer. Sorry."
A couple of minutes after that, just as Carlos is agreeing with surprisingly little reluctance to a skimpy dinner of microwave-reheated enchilada leftovers with store-bought tortilla chips, the landline rings. Cecil sighs and answers, being closer, but in response there's just silence and then a soft click.
"Looks like they hung up, Cecil," the surveillance officer says. "Sorry. The number's blocked, but it was an outside line."
"Maybe it was a wrong number, then," Cecil says, because that does happen sometimes. "Thanks."
But he's not really surprised when his own cell phone starts ringing about ten minutes later. He answers around a mouthful of food, because he is hungry and he is tired and he doesn't have the energy to deal with this, and if some ethereal spirit is haunting the phone system as a prank again, he is prepared to be very rude indeed.
"Hi, Cecil," says Dr. Renegade. Cecil swallows hastily and sits up. "Look, you should know Carlos's boss is trying to check in. I covered for him. Well, I told her he's technically conscious but not in any condition to report for duty, which is has the benefit of being accurate, so with any luck he won't have to deal with any kind of quasi-military baloney later. Any chance I was too hasty and you guys already found the pocket watch?"
Cecil has been working on his Science fluency for a few years now, but it's a subtle language, and some of its idioms clearly elude exhausted amateur speakers. "He's about the same," he tells her, because that probably answers whatever she's asking. He would make an apologetic gesture to Carlos for talking about him to someone else this way, but Carlos hasn't noticed because he's starting to nod off. "Maybe after we get some — after he gets some sleep. Some more sleep." Great, now his English fluency is trying to flee as well.
"Makes sense. Insofar as any of this does. Right, I won't keep you. Just … call sometime tomorrow if you get a chance. We need to figure out whether actually telling his boss what's really going on is a very good idea because she might be able to find someone who can fix it, or a very bad one because this sort of thing might start heads rolling. Non-metaphorically. Anyway. Good luck." She hangs up without waiting for a response.
Cecil shakes his head. Dr. Renegade makes him even more tired. He considers the dishes, decides he doesn't care, nudges Carlos awake, and stumbles to bed with him. He has no idea which one of them falls asleep first.