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you smiled (and then the spell was cast)

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Carlos likes his morning routine. He has found that Big Rico's makes an excellent cup of coffee, and that having a pizza-scone along with it fulfills his weekly quota, and it's right next to his lab anyway. Pizza-scone, he thinks, taking a bite and keeping a firm lid on the ever-rising panic. It is not the strangest thing in Night Vale. It does not even make the top one hundred.

The tomato sauce is surprisingly tasty in the morning. Surprising even though he eats them at least once a week.

Carlos is always alone in the morning, except for Big Rico himself. So it's startling when the little bell over the door tinkles, and two figures walk in. Carlos hunches behind the potted cactus to the left of his table, because his quiet breakfast is the only normal part of his day. Old Woman Josie and her angels, or the Sheriff's Secret Police, are not welcome.

The cactus hums at him, giggles, and seems to say that he's embarrassed, all while still being a cactus.

“Why would I be embarrassed?” he hisses at it.

The cactus shrugs, somehow, and a tinny voice quietly mocks, “It's your booooyfriend.”

This is the voice of one of the sunglasses-clad men who is always following him, emanating from a small speaker lodged in a branch of the cactus. It's not the way the cactus itself seemed to judge him, and Carlos scowls at the speaker. As if he doesn't know too many personal details about his handlers. He knows what they listen to when they think he can't hear them. It's Ke$ha.

And then Carlos registers what the man said. His boyfriend. And he hunkers down behind the cactus in earnest.

Cecil is at the counter, talking to the other, smaller figure. “I know you have to turn in your Glock,” he says, reasonable as always. “But do you really want to walk home without it? With Valentine's Day just around the corner? I think not.”

“But I hate the way it screams at me,” the smaller figure says. Carlos squints from around the cactus and sees that it's a child, wearing an overstuffed blue backpack and a black leg holster. The child is standing close to Cecil, actually leaning against his side a bit. He's got hair the same shocking white as Cecil's.

“The screams of the metal detector are perhaps less frightening than the slow death of unrequited love,” Cecil says, and Carlos feels his stomach twist uncomfortably. It's not—he never said date, only a crazy person would think that meeting up to get the number of the police was a date, he's not here to socialize, and certainly not with some—obsessive, all-seeing radio host. The Voice of Night Vale.

“Daaaaad,” the child whines, and Carlos jerks, makes his pizza-scone drip wildly all down his lab coat. The red of the pizza sauce stains the white fabric. Maybe, if he's lucky, someone will think it's blood and the locals will think he's acclimating.

Dad? Cecil has a kid?

“Sebastian,” Cecil intones back. He's exchanging money for paper plates at the counter, Big Rico handing over two slices of pizza. Cecil hands a plate to—his son. Sebastian.

At least this explains why he was at the PTA meeting when the dinosaurs came.

“You're supposed to warn me if you're going to mope,” Sebastian says, as if this is a conversation they have all the time. “I've been told stories. Horror stories. Stories that make that portal to another time or universe seem like Happy Fun Time.”

Carlos is starting hear the capital letters when people talk. He looks down at his sad, gnawed-on scone and tallies up how quickly he could get to Los Angeles, or San Diego, or anywhere that isn't here.

But those places don't have time that doesn't work correctly.

“The divorce left you mostly psychologically and spiritually undamaged, despite what you may have heard about the period of your infancy, and the angels who live with Old Woman Josie only tell lies,” Cecil says. “I'm not moping. And you're not old enough to know about Happy Fun Time. Pretend you don't until you're twelve.”

“Okay,” Sebastian agrees, voice muffled. He's wolfing down his pizza. “Are you moping, though?” he asks a minute later.

“I am only half moping,” Cecil says. “I will presently not be moping. Do you have your anti-love repellent?” He reaches down to touch Sebastian lightly, on the top of his head, and Carlos forgets to slouch, just stares.

This isn't what he thought. He didn't think Cecil could be—well, sincere. About anything.

“We're too young to have Valentines,” Sebastian says. “They don't count until high school.”

“You kids are all doing things so young, lately,” Cecil says, and Carlos can hear the worry in his voice. He reaches down to tug at Sebastian's clothes, twitching them straighter, neater, the way Carlos's mother used to do to him and his sisters before church.

They're turning, getting ready to head out of Big Rico's, and Carlos scrambles to hide himself behind the cactus again. He didn't realize how far he'd leaned forward, trying to get a better look.

Somehow, Cecil doesn't see him flailing. He doesn't even glance away from his son.

It's—strange. Carlos feels like an asshole even thinking it, but—he's always the place where Cecil's attention is. He's never been in a room with Cecil without feeling the weight of eyes, of open adoration, of expectations and, perhaps, of a joke that he's not in on.

He would have thought that Cecil would mention a kid. On the radio, that is. He talks about everything else. It doesn't make sense.

Carlos requires more data.

----- 

It's only in the evening of Valentine's Day that Carlos allows himself to process what he's seen, and he promptly vomits, goes online to book a plane ticket, stares at the button asking him to confirm, closes his browser, and decides to go out for a drink.

Drink, and forget.

There's blood on his shoes, this town makes no sense, not even the laws of physics make sense here, and he doesn't know if the slowing down of time is affecting his aging process.

He stumbles into Rico's—and the interior seems to change, depending on the time of day, how has he never noticed that before?--and settles onto a stool at the bar. There isn't a bar in the mornings. In the morning it's a tiny bistro, with charming black-and-white tiles on the floor. At night it's a dark family joint, all red and wood panels, with cracked leather booths and the wafting smell of spices in the air.

And a bar. A lovely, lovely bar.

Carlos is on his third glass of wine when someone plops down on the stool next to him. It's Old Woman Josie, flanked by two angels. But he's not supposed to acknowledge that the angels are there. Carlos feels hysterical laughter start to bubble up out of him, and takes a generous swig of his wine to forestall it.

“I hear,” Old Woman Josie says severely, “that you've stood our Cecil up.”

At first Carlos thought it was a grandmotherly thing—our Cecil. But then he noticed that everyone said it that way. Our Cecil. The same note of pride and possession in every voice, possession that Carlos was definitely not included in, no matter what Cecil said on the radio. The people of Night Vale respect the Voice, and Carlos knows how many paths it has smoothed for him, to have Cecil pledging eternal love every other day. But the town is not convinced. Not yet.

“Where did you hear that?” Carlos asks. Is that what Cecil is telling people? It doesn't seem like a thing he would do.

“If you hadn't, he would be gushing about it,” Old Woman Josie says. She's right. Carlos knows that she's right.

“It wasn't a date,” Carlos says into his glass. He can feel Old Woman Josie glaring at him. “It wasn't,” he repeats. “I didn't ask him out. I don't want to go out with him. He's—he's crazy.” He wouldn't be saying this if he hadn't drunk so much, and he's aware that he's digging a hole he may not be able to climb out of, but the words keep spilling out, and he doesn't even mean them, not all of them, not really. “He's obsessed, and he's insane. He had the barber driven insane because he didn't like my haircut. Who knows what he would do to me? He's dangerous.”

There is a small noise behind him, and Carlos whirls on his barstool to confront whatever or whoever made it.

Sebastian is standing there, armed with only a slice of gluten-free pizza. “He's not dangerous,” the boy says. He has a small, pale face, and gangly arms and legs. There's too much of Cecil in his face for this moment, this raw and open moment, where he's looking at Carlos like he's something awful, like he's the monster in this Lovecraft-reject town.

“Sebastian,” Carlos says stupidly. He hasn't even met the kid yet. He's still holding his wineglass. Clutching it, actually.

“He would never hurt you,” Sebastian says quietly, fiercely, a note of fire in his eyes. “He loves you, not that you care. And he—he doesn't want anything from you, he doesn't expect you to do anything about it. He wouldn't have cared if you never called him.”

Sometimes people don't call, and that's okay, Carlos hears in his brain, from one of the replays of the show. They're on late at night, sometimes, in the hours between midnight and dawn. Carlos listens to them when he's got insomnia, lets Cecil's voice lull him to sleep.

“I don't like you,” Sebastian says simply, and turns on his heel. He marches away, back to his booth, where Steve Carlsberg is sitting, waiting, with a frown on his face. Carlos can't even begin to think about that.

“Oh dear,” Old Woman Josie says. And Carlos has to agree.

----- 

The next time he sees Cecil is awkward, in that it's not awkward at all. Carlos is expecting awkward. He's expecting hurt feelings, and to have to stammer apologies when he shouldn't have to, because this entire town is behind Cecil, the Voice of Night Vale, and Carlos is tired of having people kick him in the shins or hiss at him.

Carlos was actually planning to just go into the radio station tomorrow, to find something that could be announced on the radio, but this week has been rough. There's been a time traveling hero from the future, which Carlos only really remembers because he wrote it all down with an illicit pen. And now the Children's Science Museum has somehow wrangled him into guiding a tour of their new show.

Frogs: Truth or Legend. For Christ's sake. Carlos occasionally wants to curl up and pretend this place is a dream. But at the same time, it's so interesting. Interesting the way nothing has been in years, maybe since he was a kid.

So when he sees Cecil again, for the first time since the not-date, the first time that isn't at a distance, he's prepared. Or so he thinks.

“Oh,” Cecil says, warm and open and fucking cherishingly, “Carlos.” He's standing by a wall, his hands in his pockets. It's staggering, the way he looks at Carlos, the way he says Carlos's name. Nobody has ever looked at him like that before.

It's unsettling. Carlos is unsettled.

“Hello, Cecil,” Carlos says. Cecil—just melts. Not literally. Carlos is learning to be precise. “Are you here to see me?” It's not an unreasonable assumption. Whenever Cecil turns up in a place where Carlos is, he's there to see Carlos.

Carlos is starting to expect this devotion, and that is unacceptable.

“No,” Cecil says. “It's free admission day. The frogs looked interesting.” He smiles when he talks. He has a lot of teeth, Carlos notices. Maybe too many for one mouth, but he can't be sure.

Oh, right. Cecil is probably here with his kid. Carlos wants to bring up the coffee incident, where Cecil smiled at him, bashful and excited and strangely beautiful, until he slowly realized that this wasn't a date, was never a date, and his smile dimmed and eventually disappeared.

But instead Carlos asks, “Why didn't you tell me you had a son?”

Cecil just looks at him, confused. “Why would I?”

Carlos is at a loss. “Well, because people usually talk about their kids,” he says. He's got a few friends with kids, and they barely talk about anything else. Carlos actually gets sick of it.

“Do they?” Cecil asks, sounding amazed. “Why? The Sheriff's Secret Police will know right where to press if they go around talking about it.” He's using the voice from the radio, the voice he has when he says something simple and ridiculous and profound, something that makes Carlos catch his breath and look up at the sky. Like it's a mystery that has been revealed, and it's Cecil's job to let everyone in on the truth.

Carlos can't fathom what Cecil has said, though, that all the parents are quiet about their children because to do anything else is dangerous. He thinks about the radio, all the things Cecil says, the way that he questioned the wisdom of the hooded figures, and the way he refuses to stop acknowledging the existence of the Dog Park.

And Carlos thinks that if he had a son in Night Vale, he would hide him away as well as he could. Or just shut up and spout the party line.

Cecil is not what Carlos thought he was, that much is becoming clearer.

Cecil doesn't seem to notice that Carlos is just staring at him, or if he does notice, it doesn't bother him, because he says, “Would you like to come over for dinner?” He sounds like he always does: hopeful, a little shy, his voice like smoke and warm things, like slow-moving honey and mercury.

Carlos knows his line, knows to say no, that he has other plans or hasn't eaten his Rico's this week, or that he has experiments to do. He knows that Cecil will deflate slightly, but he won't stop smiling in that incandescent way.

He's about to open his mouth and say one of those things when Sebastian comes skidding up. He's covered in frogspawn, and there's a lily pad plastered to the side of his head. He's dripping pond water everywhere. Carlos tried to tell the museum curator that it was a bad idea to have an open frog pond available for viewing, to prove that frogs were not real, but only an elaborate myth. But the curator insisted that the hands-on room was an essential part of the exhibit.

“I fell in the pond!” Sebastian tells Cecil, delighted. Cecil—just turns away from Carlos, turns it all around. It's startling. Carlos can't catch his breath for a minute, it's like he's been plunged into the murky chill of the frog pond himself, having Cecil's regard taken away all at once like that.

How messed up can he get? Carlos doesn't even like Cecil, not like that. It's just flattering, that's all, and Carlos is maybe more removed from normal life than he thought, if he's going to even think this way. Maybe he has to get out of Night Vale. Take a week away.

“--and I think that you're being rude, to remind me of your other parent like that,” Cecil seethes when Carlos tunes back in. Sebastian looks mulish, and crosses his arms over his thin chest with a squishing sound.

“Other Dad isn't that bad,” Sebastian says, but he says it to his muddy shoes, not to Cecil.

“Steve Carlsberg,” Cecil growls, in a tone that promises pain on a level Carlos refuses to consider, his mind skittering away from it, from the yawning void that Cecil's voice opens in his brain. Carlos almost chokes—Steve Carlsberg? That's the guy that Cecil hates, the one he hates irrationally.

“I'd love to come to dinner,” Carlos blurts, and refuses to twitch under the combined gazes of father and son.

Cecil is beaming, nearly glowing with happiness, shimmering with some sort of optimism that Carlos cannot even begin to comprehend, not in this town, where some things don't exist that should, and more things exist that never should, and the local government looms menacingly over all thought and action.

Cecil is a sort of impossibility in this place, but he's standing right there, with all the other things that shouldn't exist, that can't exist, and yet somehow insist on existing, maybe just to spite Carlos.

----- 

Dinner is hamburgers, or something very similar to hamburgers that Carlos doesn't want to examine too closely. Cecil sits with his head propped up on his hand, staring at Carlos, moonstruck, and responding to every statement and question with a resounding “Neat!”

Sebastian tears his meat apart with his hands, now free of frogspawn, and glares steadily at Carlos throughout dinner. Carlos—has never been good with children, he doesn't understand how to talk to them, how to talk to anyone except other researchers, really.

“So, what grade are you in?” Carlos asks, venturing out from the comfortable bubble of conversation about the endless oddities of Night Vale. Although it's difficult to call it a conversation, when Cecil couldn't seem to talk back, and Sebastian was just stabbing his plate repeatedly with a knife, which, on second inspection, might actually be a dagger. There are runes carved into the handle, and they glow whenever the blade hits the leftover juices of the burger.

“The fifth,” Sebastian says from beneath gritted teeth. “Why are you here?”

“Your father invited me,” Carlos says, and resists the urge to squirm. He's not this thing that Cecil thinks he is, this perfect, beautiful man, and it's impossible to know why Cecil thinks this way in the first place.

I fell in love instantly, Carlos remembers, but that's not how things work, that's not how reality or life works, not even in Night Vale. It can't be.

“But why did you say yes?” Sebastian asks, raising his voice to be heard over Cecil's breathy sigh.

Carlos takes a sip of his water to delay answering. It's—he's not perfect, okay, not the way that Cecil thinks he is, he's just this crackpot scientist who's going gray in his thirties and never knows what to do with his hands.

“I wanted to,” he ends up with, and Sebastian stabs his plate so hard it cracks in two.

“Okay,” Sebastian says, still a threat, more disturbing than anything else Night Vale has to offer because this isn't sinister, this isn't supernatural, this is just a boy protecting his father, and it is terrifying in a way that the hooded figures are not.

“Okay,” Carlos agrees cautiously.

“If you make him sad again I'll curse you,” Sebastian says. “Do you want ice cream?”

----- 

After the awkward, disastrous dinner, which ended in Sebastian setting Cecil on fire to snap him out of his haze while Carlos ran out the door and refused to look back, Carlos stops thinking about it for awhile. Cecil is infatuated. He'll get over it .

He talks to Cecil, now and again. He always makes sure to start his call by saying “This isn't for personal reasons.” He's learned, after the mix-up with the first meeting, and then from Sebastian's frankly terrifying gaze.

For a few days Carlos lives in terror of hearing about the dinner on the radio, but that moment never comes. And he tries to resume living in terror of other things, like the Whispering Forest that has suddenly appeared and seems to be eating souls, or the Scout Master who apparently wanted to date Cecil, but he can't quite get back into the swing of it.

And now Cecil comes in to Big Rico's in the morning more often, and smiles at Carlos, but doesn't do anything else, and sometimes Sebastian waves. Once Steve Carlsberg is the one bringing Sebastian in, and Carlos feels how wrong it is, somehow, even though apparently Steve Carlsberg is Sebastian's other father.

That must be the source of Cecil's incredible hatred for Steve Carlsberg. Carlos can't imagine how badly the divorce must have gone. If Cecil loved Steve Carlsberg at all the way he says he loves Carlos--and he must have, and probably more, because he married Steve Carlsberg and they had a child, and Carlos won't even tell Cecil that he thinks his eyes are fascinating—then the divorce must have been very bad indeed.

There's no way that Cecil's love for Carlos is actually once-in-a-lifetime.

So Carlos is doing his best not to think about it. His success varies day by day.

And then comes the day that Cecil comes to the lab. It's at lunchtime, and he's holding a lavender envelope, and looks besotted and slightly breathless, like he's been running.

“Carlos!” Cecil says, and that's all, at first.

“Hello, Cecil,” Carlos says, and watches the way a dreamy smile crosses Cecil's face, just at hearing Carlos say his name.

“It's been almost a year since you came to Night Vale,” Cecil says, thrusting the envelope at Carlos. “And I've—well, will you come? To the celebration?”

Carlos takes the envelope. It's slightly damp from Cecil's hands, he must have been sweating. “Thank you,” Carlos says, inanely, because that's not even an appropriate response to Cecil's question.

But Cecil beams at him, looking at Carlos like he's the sun itself. Carlos struggles for something to say, something that will shield him from the intensity of Cecil's regard.

“I haven't seen Sebastian around this week,” he says.

Cecil's smile disappears, for an instant, and then returns, but it's manic, desperate. “Oh,” Cecil says. “All children are missing this week.”

That's all he says, and Carlos's heart skips a beat. Figuratively. “All the children?” he asks. “Where are they?”

“Missing!” Cecil says, adamantly cheerful. “I'm sure they'll be back next week, this sort of thing never lasts long. Except for the time that it did.”

Carlos wants to reach out and touch Cecil, wrap him in Carlos's lab coat, where everything is clean and calm and makes sense. Or it did, before Night Vale. Now, there might not be a place like that at all.

“I'll be there,” he says instead, and when Cecil's smile doesn't change, doesn't shift away from that horrible grin, he says again, “Cecil, I'll be there. I promise.”

And Cecil—shifts, minutely, back into someone like the strange, impossible man that Carlos is refusing to think about all the time. Strange, impossible Cecil who has always lived in this place, this awful place, and still believes in things like beauty and love at first sight and the importance of being alive, being organic, Cecil whose voice is like the desert itself—vast and terrible and beautiful.

Carlos catches his breath and thinks, Oh. Dear.

----- 

And then the thing with the tiny city under the ground happens, and Carlos is lying there listening to Cecil try not to cry over the City Council-mandated radio loudspeaker of the bowling alley, and thinking about Cecil's impossible, all-consuming love, and how maybe nothing is impossible if he's been attacked by people living in a miniature city under a bowling alley.

And then the Apache Tracker saves him, and Carlos has a bloodstained lab coat but no lasting damage, and he's pulling out his cell phone and dialing #3 on his speed dial—and when did Cecil become #3 on his speed dial, he doesn't remember, but it was even before he found out about Sebastian—because he wants to see Cecil. Just wants to see him.

And Cecil is beautiful under the lights above the Arby's, beautiful in the way Cecil thinks Carlos is, and he's impossible. He's the Voice of Night Vale, he's in love with Carlos, and he's a father with a child who is simply missing this week, and he's not falling apart. It's impossible, but then, this is Night Vale.

Carlos is willing to accept the impossible, if he gets to have Cecil with it.

----- 

Sebastian is back three days later. Carlos sees him at Big Rico's at lunchtime, alone for once. His hair has all been buzzed off, and his backpack keeps shifting, like there's something alive in it.

“You're back,” Carlos says, and Sebastian scowls at him. But it's a fond scowl, Carlos thinks. At least it's not actively menacing.

“I was receiving training for my paramilitary group,” Sebastian says. “I learned to field strip seven new types of automatic weapons. And to knit.”

“Ah,” Carlos says.

Sebastian looks at him from under very dark eyebrows. They're charming on Cecil. Alarming on a child. Most things about Sebastian are alarming, actually. Cecil was probably alarming as a child, too.

“My dad really loves you,” Sebastian says. “So don't mess it up. Or I'll knit you something.” And he scurries away, cramming his mouth with gluten-free pizza.

Carlos just stands there for a minute. Then he goes back to work.