Carlos finds out about it over the radio.
He always listens to Cecil’s show when he works late nights at the lab, alone and unable to sleep and elbow-deep in the latest violator of the laws of gravitational physics. There’s something about the radio show host that makes him perfect listening material in an environment where Carlos wants to tear his hair at every calculation that doesn’t add up and explanations that make no sense whatsoever — it’s the way he describes things, Carlos theorises, because when Cecil can comment on dinosaur attacks and ritual summonings like they’re neighbourhood going-ons — because they are neighbourhood going-ons — it reassures Carlos that he doesn’t need to have an answer for everything. Like some things are just meant to be accepted and talked about for what they are, and it helps keep Carlos sane.
That, and the fact that Cecil could very well kill him if Carlos ever did actually tear his hair, but that's another thing on its own.
But it is the end of a week where they’ve had three Mondays and Thursday and Sunday have been switched around, and Carlos is in the middle of calibrating a Geiger-Müller tube when the clock shifts to seven and he flicks the radio on without bothering to configure the channel settings; Cecil’s programme is on every frequency, besides, even those technically far too high to broadcast radio transmissions with. The voice that floats out of Carlos’s portable radio, however, makes him pause and look up from his work, brows furrowed in confusion.
“Welcome to Night Vale,” the voice drawls, too slick, too light to come close to Cecil’s rich baritone. “Good evening, listeners. This is your stand-in host, Intern Jerry Broadrick. Cecil’s taking a break from the show — as of now, I’m not exactly sure how long, but you can rest assured that all of us here at Night Vale Community Radio will be holding the fort until Cecil returns from his, uh. Vacation. Yes, hmm. That’s what the letter I’ve just received from Station Management says, and as we all know: Station Management is never to be questioned. Rest up, Cecil, ole’ buddy. We’re all missing you here already.”
Carlos stares at his radio as the host rambles on to news of the ongoing doorknob strike sweeping the town and the Town Council-issued statement sanctioning violent use of sledgehammers to gain entry. Vacation? Cecil certainly didn’t mention vacation plans in any of the thirty-odd texts he sent the day before, nor did he say anything about taking time off when Carlos phoned him that morning to tell him to insert a PSA about avoiding the giant mushrooms at the convention centre into his show. Cecil tells him everything; it’s not like him to keep secrets from Carlos, not where his show is concerned, the only other thing his life ever seems to revolve around.
Fishing his phone out of his jeans pocket, Carlos slowly thumbs out a text to Cecil. You didn’t say you were going on vacation. He hits ‘send’, lays his phone onto his workbench, and goes back to fiddling with his equipment, waiting for the thrum of a new text alert. The longest Cecil has ever taken to reply to one of his messages is fifty-four seconds; Carlos knows this because this is something Cecil has painstakingly apologised multiple times for. Sometimes when they meet, Cecil will have a plaster over his cheek or a bruise on his forehead, and when he explains it’s because he injures himself on occasion scrambling to get to his phone because any text he receives could be from Carlos, it’s enough to make Carlos’s heart ache for him.
Minutes pass, the radio show moves on from the news into sports, and Carlos finishes up his Geiger-Müller tube with an infusion of argon before he checks his phone again to no new messages in the last half hour. When he starts to worry and calls Cecil, a child’s voice on the line informs him cheerfully that the number is no longer in service before proceeding to ask Carlos if he ‘would like to play a game’. Carlos hangs up without answering, his palms suddenly very sweaty, and decides to just try again in the morning.
Intern Jerry Broadrick remains on the show in Cecil’s place for a whole week. Carlos absolutely hates him — he’s smarmy and sarcastic and just about the furthest thing from mellow, his voice seeping out like toxic sludge from the radio to contaminate the airwaves with his cool, insufferable drawling. Intern Jerry Broadrick makes remarks about how much he abhors science and everyone who remotely has anything to do with the subject, confirms that he’s a dog person by devoting a good ten minutes of the show to go through a list of Khoshekh’s less flattering qualities, and implements a segment where all he does is dispense tips on good personal grooming and hair-care advice. He never directly mentions Carlos on the programme, but enough passive-aggressive allusions accrue for Carlos to infer that his feelings about Intern Jerry Broadrick are assuredly mutual.
Despite this, Carlos continues to listen to the show every night, gritting his teeth through half-masked taunts and obnoxious personal opinions of a man who isn’t Cecil, if only for the held-out hope of any announcement that Cecil would be returning to the show the next day, but no such thing happens. His calls to Cecil are met with static, and none of his texts garner a reply. Seven days, four hours and thirty-six minutes since the text he sent the first night Cecil failed to come on air, Carlos can’t help but think that someone’s going to have a hell lot of apologising to do once he comes back.
That is, if he does come back.
(Of course Cecil will come back. He has to.)
A week turns into two, and two more stack atop those to form a month of radio hosted by one Intern Jerry Broadrick. Still no word from Cecil. Carlos tries going down to the radio station on one of his off-days to ask around, but a perimeter has been set up around the building and the armed guards won’t let him through for some reason. He’s willing to bet an arm that Intern Jerry Broadrick has had a hand in this one way or another, but without any proof nor the means to do anything about it, Carlos has little choice but to leave and try to come up with a better plan.
“And in traffic,” Intern Jerry Broadrick says one day over the watery rattle of Carlos’s shower, “it seems a certain visiting scientist has run into an accident at the end of Forks Road this afternoon! Now, listeners, I’m not allowed to name names — confidentiality policies at the station and all — so let’s just call him Carlo, shall we? According to sources, Carlo was last seen being escorted from the scene covered in a thick blue goo from head to toe after the sentient blue blob inhabiting the junction at the end of Forks Road exploded unexpectedly at around two-twenty pm today. Witnesses say the scientist was closest to the sentient blue blob at the time of the accident, to which he was holding a long, shiny tube with wires and blinking buttons.
“I’m no fancy scientist with poofy hair, listeners, but even I know better than to approach any amorphous resident of Night Vale with anything that remotely resembles a loaded weapon; I’m quite sure that all of you do, too. Common sense is what science sacrifices in the name of knowledge, I’ve always said. Well, we can only hope that Carlo has learned a valuable lesson from all of this, and in the meantime, let it be known that all of our hearts here at Night Vale Community Radio unreservedly go out to Carlo. May he be goo-free in the morning, and wake up stronger and wiser and with less ridiculous hair than ever before!”
Watching the water swirl and turn blue around the shower drain, Carlos closes his eyes and tries to pretend that he’s heard nothing, nothing at all.
It takes very little time for the weather to become Carlos’s favourite part of the programming hands-down, because it’s the only segment where Intern Jerry Broadrick shuts up and Carlos can pretend that Cecil is still there at his seat, leaning back comfortably and sipping coffee to the sound of weather playing. Did he pick the weather himself when he was hosting back then? Or was it something else outside his control, an executive decision made by Station Management? Regardless, it’s the only thing about the show that hasn’t changed for the worse, a reminder of better days when Carlos would listen for Cecil and only Cecil, and is thus easily his favourite part of the show as it stands.
That is, of course, until Intern Jerry Broadrick replaces the weather segment with a five-minute loop of various species of dogs barking, to which Carlos gives up on the whole show altogether. Snippets of the programme still find him in diners, convenience stores, on streets where Community Radio zepplins carry out town-wide broadcasts overhead, but as conscientiously as he can, Carlos tunes it out. It’s already difficult enough to recall what Cecil sounds like without Intern Jerry Broadrick’s simpering sneer of a voice in his ears, and when Carlos thinks about Welcome To Night Vale all he wants to picture is Cecil, calm and comforting and adoring, speaking a verbal caress into the microphone.
Carlos has had thoughts of leaving Night Vale, would be lying if he said he didn’t still return to them every once in a while, but he’s been considering it a lot more often than he thinks he should. His work is far from done and there are still multitudes to understand about the little desert town where just about everything has to operate in a different fashion from the rest of the world, but lately he can’t get himself to focus on any of that. He’d come for the science, no question about that, but staying is a whole different ball game he's never really quite known the rules to, although Carlos is pretty sure that subtracting Cecil from the equation has decidedly skewed the playing field way against his favour in that regard.
Often when Carlos isn’t burying himself in work and numbers and miles and miles of data that crunches in all the wrong ways, he finds himself looking through his inbox and rereading some of Cecil’s old texts:
Hello! I realised I haven’t welcomed you to Night Vale via text just yet, so here goes nothing: Welcome to Night Vale! Do tell me if you ever need anything. =) ~ <3, Cecil
Don’t forget to put some wolfsbane in your pocket; there’s going to be a full moon tonight. ~ <3, Cecil
Fantastic show later, tune in to find out what about! (Hint: It’s about something you told me to tell everyone this morning. Go on, guess!) ~ <3, Cecil
I just found the most adorable picture of a cat in a tie on that cheeseburger-having-cat website you told me about and I thought you’d like it! <imgqtcat320459.png> ~ <3, Cecil
Dinner, my place, eight o’ clock tonight, what do you say? =D ~ <3, Cecil
Did I mention that I think you’re neat? Because you are, really. Khoshekh says that we would be neat together, you know, and cats are markedly intelligent mammals. ~ <3, Cecil
I just wanted to say hi is all. ~ <3, Cecil
Lying awake in his bed, Carlos keeps on reading through them, all eight hundred and forty-six instant messages he’s always meant to clear out but never got around to doing so, until the sun comes up.
It’s a Friday night at an Albertson’s and Carlos is standing in the check-out line, grocery bag and Aztec sacrificial cashier talisman in hand, when the opening music to Welcome To Night Vale starts piping in through the ceiling. Before Carlos can get his earpieces out of his jacket and his iPod shuffled to a playlist of necessarily loud rock ballads, the host is giving the introduction, and it’s not Intern Jerry Broadrick’s voice on the air.
“The wheels on the bus go round and round, just like the Earth going round the Sun. But where are we going? And when will we get there? Welcome…to Night Vale.”
Carlos nearly drops his groceries.
Later, in his car with the radio turned all the way up and the engine running idle, Carlos rests his hands on the steering wheel and leaves his foot off the gas and listens, just listens with tears in his eyes because it’s Cecil talking and he needs to hear him speak, needs this now more than anything in the world and he’s not going to let a crummy drive back to headquarters get in the way, not if he can help it.
“We here at Night Vale Community Radio would like to apologise for the events of these past two months,” Cecil says, a world of sheer sincerity in his voice. “With deepest regret, I must inform all of our viewers that what you have been listening to in that time period was the product of an illicit coup led by our newest and now most deceased intern, Intern Jerry Broadrick. Several senior staff of Night Vale Community Radio, including Station Management, remain trapped on the nether plane, where we were all banished to by rebelling interns at the beginning of the uprising. Rest assured that our programming will continue as normal whilst we retrieve our staff and summarily execute rebels as quickly as we can, but delays are to be expected. And without further ado, the weather.”
A snatch of indie pop filters through the radio as Carlos falls back into his seat, covering his mouth and shaking with relief. He plucks his phone from the glove compartment and phones Cecil, anxiously listening to each ring until Cecil picks up on the fourth one.
“Cecil,” Carlos blurts, and there’s that soft little noise of pure delight he hasn’t heard in two months.
“Oh, Carlos,” Cecil sighs. “I knew I should have switched to the interdimensional mobile plan, but the premiums cost a bomb and this job doesn’t pay all that much, not really —”
“No, no, it’s fine, it’s, er. I’m just glad that you’re alright. I — I was worried something had happened to you.”
“I got trapped on the nether plane alongside other staff members in an intern-instigated coup d’etat of the radio station.”
“I know,” Carlos laughs, hand pressed to his eyes to keep himself from crying. “I’m listening to your show now.”
“That Intern Jerry Broadrick made a dreadful mess of everything,” Cecil complains primly. “Especially with my desk. He got rid of all of my kitten photos. I found them in the shredder. Asshole.”
Hearing Cecil swear is just about the best thing Carlos has heard in his life, so he doesn’t bother to stifle the snigger that rises from his throat, a second of hysteria apropos to the moment. “He was terrible,” he tells Cecil. “Worst radio show host ever.”
“And ever,” Cecil chips in.
“Forever,” Carlos confirms, unable to resist, and Cecil giggles like he’s just been told a mildly amusing joke. Carlos’s heart softens a little. It really has been too long, and he's saying on a complete and utter whim, “Look, Cecil, do you want to, I don’t know, maybe meet up for lunch tomorrow? We could go bowling afterwards.”
There’s a long second of silence for how much of a non-question that is to sink in. “Like a date?” Cecil asks, his voice fluttering.
Carlos smiles. Oh, really, why the hell not? “Sure. It’s a date, then?”
Weather petering out on both their ends, Carlos can hear Cecil swallow on the other side of the line. “That,” Cecil finally says, like he's about to explode with excitement, “would be neat.”