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The Stone That Burns

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Delegations from Desert Bluffs were typically small-- just an envoy and her attaché, and maybe an expert in whatever field needed to be negotiated on that particular visit. Bringing servants and attendants of their own was considered ‘an inefficient use of resources’ in the eyes of the illustrious Strex family.

So Cecil was more than a bit surprised to find eight people proceeding into the throne room that afternoon.

Leann Hart stepped forward, resting one hand on her ceremonial hatchet and thrusting the other hand in the air.

“Presenting Her Excellency Lauren Mallard, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of Desert Bluffs…” Oh masters, this was going to go on forever, wasn’t it?

He leaned back in his chair, trying to look very attentive and interested while whispering out of the corner of his mouth: “The short version, please?”

“It wouldn’t kill you to pay more attention to people,” the Faceless Old Woman muttered in his ear. But since he was paying attention to her instead of the embassy, she indulged him: “Lauren and Daniel you already know. And no, I still haven’t learned Daniel’s last name. I’m starting to think he doesn’t have one. The one with the nice teeth is Carlos-- second youngest prince of the Strex family. No chance for the throne, unless the rest of his siblings wind up killing each other off… which isn’t entirely unlikely. The rest of the people in white coats are his entourage. The one who smells like he walked out of an illegal bakery is Dave Parson-- he’s a wizard, but he’s not very organized at all. He should really work on that. The one with a sinus infection is Rochelle Green, who-- Cecil? Are you listening to me?”

For a woman who couldn’t be seen by the naked eye, she took being ignored rather personally. Cecil would have to endure her wrath later, but at the moment, he couldn’t care less.

The man who stepped forward was… beauty, wrapped in perfection, wrapped in a long white coat. His hair was long, dark, and feathered with a dignified flash of gray at the temples. His jaw was square and proud, his voice-- ah-- Cecil could listen to that voice forever.

“I’m not here for political reasons,” Carlos said in those smooth, caramel tones. “So during my time in your city, I’d like for you to think of me as a researcher and an alchemist, not a prince. Night Vale is by far the most magically interesting community in the world, and my team and I-- we’ve come to find out just what’s going on around here.”

He grinned: absolutely, utterly, perfectly perfect.

Cecil fell in love instantly.


 

There was no banquet to herald the prince’s arrival-- banquets were yet another ‘frivolity’ looked down upon by the Strex family-- and so Cecil had to get creative about finding a way to personally introduce himself.

Carlos had formally requested access to a workshop outside of the castle, complete with barracks nearby where he and his team could sleep when they weren’t working, and Cecil granted it immediately. Sure, it was a little bit disappointing not to be able to accidentally (or not so accidentally) run into Carlos in the halls, but his work sounded very important and intellectual.  Besides, Sir al-Mujaheed assured him that sending a few palace guards to watch over the workshop wouldn’t be a problem.

Cecil had hoped to run into Carlos during meals, at least, but so far that hadn’t worked out. He could understand that Carlos was busy during those first few days-- the servants kept him informed about all the complicated equipment they’d helped the researchers unpack and how busy they were setting up their first experiments. So of course Carlos would eat those first few meals in his lab with the rest of his team. He was a busy man, after all.

But days turned into weeks, and Carlos didn’t stop being busy.

At one point he’d run into him entirely by accident; Cecil was on his way to an oversight board for the local schoolhouse, just in time to catch the alchemist hurrying in the opposite direction, staring fixedly on a swinging pendulum in his hand and muttering to himself.

“Oh! Carlos!” Cecil chose to interpret the other man’s insistence that he was ‘just a researcher in Night Vale’ at his word. He would use any excuse to say that beautiful name as often as possible. “How wonderful to see you!”

At first Carlos walked past him, intent and unaware. But then the pendulum changed its swing, pulling toward Cecil like a dog straining at its leash. The alchemist paused, jotting down a quick note on a clay tablet, and finally looked to see what had caught the pendulum’s attention.

“Oh!” he started, stumbling back a step. “Er-- Your Majesty. I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.”

“Please. Call me Cecil,” he said, flashing what he hoped was his most dashing smile. Maybe it was working, because Carlos swallowed, his eyes darting everywhere except for the king. “Did I catch you in the middle of your research? It looks fascinating.”

“Oh. Yes. I’m really just laying groundwork right now,” he admitted. “Mapping out the flow of magical energies in Night Vale-- it’s really incredible how they congregate around certain locations, and they don’t line up with the geographically adjacent ley lines at all, and--” He glanced back up at Cecil, and his words dried up. “Y-you know, magic. I’m sure you’ve got official duties to take care of. I should be going.”

“No, wait!” Cecil started, but Carlos was already hurrying away. “Do you have any plans for the--”

Carlos vanished around a corner.

“Dammit.”

“Would you like us to fetch him, Your Majesty?” asked one of the Sheriff’s Secret Police officers hiding on a nearby rooftop.

Cecil sighed. “Thank you, Jamal, but no. I’m sure he’s very busy.”

“Right,” Jamal said, but he didn’t sound convinced… and probably with good reason.

The next several times Cecil crossed paths with Carlos, it didn’t go much better. The meetings only lasted a few seconds before the alchemist hurried away, and never once did Cecil manage to find out if he had plans for dinner or the weekend. But Cecil was nothing if not resourceful, and not just because he was the king of Night Vale.

Though it certainly didn’t hurt.


 

“You’re absolutely certain there are more trees than there were yesterday?” Carlos asked.

“Exactly two more,” Gretchen affirmed. “I’ve been hiring locals to carve marks in all the trees along the forest’s southern border, and this morning there were two unmarked trees in the middle of the rest.”

“Are you sure they didn’t miss any?”

“I checked the marks myself,” she said. “And what’s more, yesterday two of my tree-markers didn’t come back at the end of the day. I think they might have become those two trees.”

“Could be a coincidence,” he said. “Correlation doesn’t necessarily indicate causation.”

“I know that,” Gretchen grumbled. “But I’ve gotten similar reports from the locals.”

Carlos raised an eyebrow.

“One local, anyway,” she conceded. “Juanita Jefferson of the builder’s guild. She insisted that…” She checked her notes. “Ahem. ‘Treeeeeeees. They. Are. Us.’”

The words hung in the air between them for a long while.

“...Okay then,” Carlos said. “Look into it, but follow where the evidence leads. Speaking of which, have we gotten anything new on that thing in Grove Park?”

He pulled open the front door of the workshop, but stopped short. A voice like dark honey stretched through the crack and lapped at the open air.  “...is there a chance this dragon jar thing just isn’t working properly? I can always send for another.”

“We’ve sent for half a dozen already,” Rochelle said. “And they all give the same results. By all means, Night Vale should be completely leveled by earthquakes, but we haven’t felt any of them. It’s going to need further study.”

“Please, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

Shit, King Cecil was here. Carlos peeled his hand off of the doorknob; already his palm was moist with sweat.

Gretchen caught his eye. “I can make a distraction while you get away,” she whispered. “Go investigate those lights in the sky or something.”

“In the middle of the day?” Carlos whispered back.

“Say you’re looking for the clocktower, then,” she hissed. “That should keep you busy for the rest of the day at least.”

Carlos appreciated her effort, he really did, but he knew deep in his gut (that is to say, with all his faculties and reason) that it wasn’t going to work. The palace guards and the Sheriff’s Secret Police had already spotted him at the door-- and even if they hadn’t, he kept hearing about this faceless old woman who nobody had ever seen but apparently everyone could describe consistently.

That was just weird.

No, there was no way he could get away without the king finding out about it, and then the king would feel slighted, and that could put this whole project in jeopardy.

“Thank you, Gretchen, but I can’t keep running from this.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and braced for the worst. “But see if Rochelle can’t start casting runes about whether the king is going to show up unannounced again.”

He schooled his expression into blank composure and pushed through the door.

“Hi, Carlos!” The king didn’t say his name, he practically sang it.

Immediately Carlos’ cheeks reddened and his stomach dropped to his knees. He was a prince, dammit. He could do this.

“Hello, Cecil.” Did the other man's face have to light up like that when Carlos said his name? It was really distracting. “Is something wrong?”

“Oh no, not at all,” the king gushed. “Just having a look around. All these projects your team has going on, they’re so interesting. Rochelle was just telling me about the earthquakes we haven’t been having.”

Just behind the king, Rochelle gave a nervous shrug-- sorry, I had to, was written on her face.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying our work here,” Carlos said, donning his brother Sergio’s fluid grace. “But we should really be getting back to it.”

“Of course, of course,” Cecil said. “But while I was here, I was wondering if you… had any plans for dinner. This evening.”

Carlos decidedly didn’t glance back at the door. He knew the Sheriff’s Secret Police were out there, along with who-knew-how-many other witnesses to his and Gretchen’s discussion earlier. It had been whispered, but that hadn’t ever thwarted anyone who really wanted to overhear a conversation and was ready to put some effort into it.

“I-- I think I can make some time,” Carlos said weakly.

Cecil’s big bright eyes lit up like a child’s at a pony petting station. “Really? That’s fantastic! I’ll have someone come and get you-- at eight? Would that be okay?”

It was hard to look at him like this. “Yes. That’s fine.”

“Neat!” Immediately Cecil’s mouth snapped shut, apparently mortified by the exclamation. “But I should let you get back to work. Wouldn’t want to interrupt all these important experiments!” Dear sun and stars, he was practically giggling. “See you at eight!”

And finally, finally, he disappeared.

Carlos waited for the sound of footsteps to fade before he slumped down into the nearest chair.

“I thought you said you weren’t going to do that,” Rochelle said softly, recalibrating the earthquake detector. There was no surprise in her tone-- she had known this would happen.

Damn seer.

“What was I supposed to do?” Carlos asked.

The rest of his team had no answers for him.

It wasn’t like King Cecil was particularly frightening-- just the opposite. His eyes were clear and bright, his smile warm and soft, rather than the toothy leers that were so common back home. Hell and damnation, he was cute.

That was the problem.

 

 

Chapter Text

Cecil bounced on the balls of his feet as he waited for the last of the preparations to be made. Anticipation danced in his veins and crackled at his fingertips. It had been too long since he'd done something like this, and it showed. Gone was the grace and composure he'd spent a lifetime cultivating. Instead he fumbled, he stuttered, he paced away long, sleepless nights-- and he loved it.

It felt like a fog had lifted and he could finally see the world clearly, with all its sharp edges and crisp lines and brilliant colors. He basked in the feeling, drank it in. He could absolutely sing--though he wouldn't, because then he'd have to explain to Carlos why all the palace windows had shattered.

How embarrassing.

He was busy blushing over hypothetical humiliation when Dana rapped at the door.

"Cecil?”

He sprang to his feet, overturning the chair he’d been sitting on. “Is he here?”

“Not yet.” She poked her head inside, her dark curls bouncing. “Chad’s bringing him over right now. Are you ready?” She grinned, sardonic, and tipped her head at the mound of clothes he’d thrown onto his bed. “Or did you want to try changing outfits again?”

Cecil started for the closet again. “Do you think I should? I mean, I wasn’t entirely sure about this-- the color isn’t quite right, is it-- that’s the problem with not having mirrors, really, I mean, I never thought I’d miss them, but--”

“Cecil!” She tugged at his forearms, dragging him back to the doorway. “Cecil, you look great. Really. I was just making fun.”

“Right. I knew that.” Calm. Composed. He was going to be fine. “You mean it?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “Now, did you want to meet him in the throne room, or--”

“Oh Masters, no! That would be entirely too formal. I want this to be just… you know. Friendly. Not the dining hall, either-- I wouldn’t want him to think I was waiting up on him or anything. The hallway, maybe? No, that would just look ridiculous…”

He continued debating the best place for their meeting while Dana dragged him through the halls. At some point she said, “I’ve got an idea,” and “trust me,” though he wasn’t entirely sure what other words went along with it. He did trust her, after all-- but that didn’t give him a regular pulse or keep his palms from sweating. He just wanted this to be perfect.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been lost in thought, but by the time he found himself again, he was outside, inhaling the sweet aroma of scarlet poppies while stately mullein bobbed their yellow heads in the shade-cooled breeze.

“How’s this?” Dana asked once his eyes regained their focus. “It’s casual but pretty, and when he arrives it looks like you were just enjoying the garden.”

“It’s perfect,” he breathed. He’d never even considered the garden. It was always just there, so ordinary and mundane. But it wasn’t, was it? With all those flowers and trees and colors and smells and birdsongs-- it wasn’t just beautiful, it was downright romantic. He lunged forward and wrapped his servant in a tight hug. “Dana, you’re a genius. An absolute genius.”

She grinned. “If only. My brother has a crush on the Glow Cloud’s kid, and he’s been agonizing about the best way to approach them forever. I’m just stealing his best ideas.”

“A top-notch thief, then,” Cecil declared fondly as he detached himself.

“And every good thief knows when to make herself scarce. Don’t want your guest to catch you in the arms of another.” She winked, smoothing his clothes. “There. You look perfect. Good luck!” She gave him a little wave and darted from the garden, disappearing behind a tall hedge of arborvitae.

Cecil squeezed his eyes shut and tried to steady himself. He was good for the moment-- but already he could feel the buzz of anxiety building up again in his chest. A bloom of stonecrop stretched at his feet, and he crouched to squeeze the plump, squishy leaves between his fingertips. The Faceless Old Woman would scold him for pinching the plants if she saw, but she avoided the outdoors when she could help it. That was another advantage of this locale-- she still hadn’t exacted her revenge, and he wasn’t looking forward to dealing with her passive-aggressive punishments in front of Carlos.

Speaking of which--

“Your Majesty?” that caramel voice called from the front of the garden. “I-- er-- they said you’d be here?”

Cecil sprouted like a dandelion among the flowers, hastily patting himself down. What was he thinking, crouching in the dirt like that? Stupid Cecil…

“If you’re busy, I can come back another time…”

“No!” He ran headlong into a magnolia as he rushed to meet the visiting prince, and a cascade of petals showered down around him. He brushed himself off and tried again, more dignified this time. “No, I’m here. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”

The sight around the corner took his breath away. Carlos stood framed by the garden’s bloodstone archway, surrounded by golden spirals of ranunculus, a carpet of violet ice plant frothing around his feet.

“Oh. Right. You’re fine.” The alchemist swallowed, running a hand through his perfect hair, and Cecil couldn’t decide whether to keep his eyes on the movement of that lovely throat or the way those tresses cascaded around his shoulders.

Oh. He’d been staring. Ahem.

“Of course. Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “Have you seen the garden? It really is lovely this time of year.” He swept an arm out, indicating they should walk together-- and then he kept his arm out a second longer, just in case Carlos wanted to take his hand.

“No, not really,” Carlos said, walking past the invitation.

Had that been too forward? It was too forward, wasn’t it. Or maybe Carlos just hadn’t seen it? He was fidgeting-- was he nervous about this, too?

“Of course not,” Cecil said quickly, hoping to put him at ease. “I imagine you’ve been very busy with your research.” He waited for Carlos to respond, but the alchemist seemed to have gotten caught up examining a patch of jonquils. Okay. He could work with that. “We have plants from all over the world. I imagine they might make for interesting study.”

“What?” Carlos suddenly returned to the present. “Thank you, but no. I’m an alchemist, not a botanist or an herbalist. But I’ll see if Gretchen wants to take a look,” he added, almost as an apology.

“I’m always happy to help.” Not quite what Cecil had been going for, but that worked, too. “How has your research been coming? I notice you’ve been keeping busy.”

“Very busy.” The alchemist hesitated, biting his lip, but allowing a few more words to escape. “I knew Night Vale was fascinating, but I never realized just how much you have going on here. We’d need months-- years-- to properly study all the things we recorded in our first day alone, and we’ve been recording additional phenomena all the time. You could dedicate a lifetime to exploring this place, and barely even scratch the surface of its mysteries.” Sometime between the first couple of words and the last he’d built up momentum, the entire accolade coming out in a rush that left both men breathless for entirely different reasons.

“You’re welcome to stay for as long as you like,” Cecil said. Like forever. Forever would be nice. Please stay forever. Oh, but that would sound clingy and weird. “But surely you had just as much to investigate in Desert Bluffs.”

“If there is, I wouldn’t know it,” Carlos said, fidgeting with a white crown of yarrow. “My family doesn’t exactly leave much time in the day for intellectual pursuits. I’m sure you can relate.”

Actually, he couldn’t. His brother-in-law Steve was a complete jerk, but he kept mostly to himself, staying out of Cecil’s way except to complain and share his ludicrous conspiracy theories, and Janice was kept so busy between her lessons and her training with the Scouts that he barely got to see her anymore. Beyond that, his memories of his family were shrouded by fog, clarified by a few thin shafts of light.

But Cecil wasn’t the only one in a fog at the moment. “I like Night Vale. Really like it.”

“Well, you are the kingdom’s favorite alchemist,” Cecil said cheerfully. It was meant as a compliment, but Carlos ducked his head like he’d been scolded.

Hastily Cecil changed the subject. “I had meant to ask, how is your brother’s recovery? I understand he was injured?”

“Santiago? He’s as well as can be expected.”

“Was it Santiago?” Cecil frowned. “I thought for sure his name was Sergio. Or was it Caesar…?” He flushed. “I apologize. You would know. It’s just, normally I’m better with names.”

“Sergio and Caesar are both fine,” Carlos said with the dry patience of someone who’d had this conversation entirely too often. “People get the three of them mixed up all the time.”

“That explains it,” he said. “That must be awkward for you.”

“It works fine for them.” Carlos said. “Caesar managed to avoid an assassination once because the assassin got him mixed up with Sergio-- which is funny, because they look nothing alike. As I said, there’s not much time for study in Desert Bluffs.” He flashed a weak smile-- politics, am I right?-- but something dark and protective swelled in Cecil’s chest.

Was Carlos in danger? Was that why he’d come to Night Vale?

He’d have Nazr’s guards on high alert. He’d have the Sheriff double the officers following the alchemist. And the Faceless Old Woman-- it wouldn’t take much to bribe her to keep a particularly close eye on him.

If anybody so much as daydreamed about hurting Carlos, Cecil would know.

The thought brought with it its own flock of fantasies of catching the foul assassin, heroically vanquishing them while Carlos swooned--

“Cecil?” Carlos was watching him oddly-- expectantly. Probably waiting for him to say something.

He’d been staring into space again, hadn’t he?

“That certainly sounds… exciting,” he said, donning a blankly cheerful smile. No-- wait-- that was wrong. That was the don’t-mind-me-I-don’t-know-what’s-going-on face that he used when the City Council thought he was getting too nosy for his own good. And sure, it helped when they thought he was dumb-- but not Carlos!

Oh Masters, how was he supposed to fix this? “So you have three brothers…?”

“Ten,” Carlos corrected, still distracted. “And two sisters.”

Oh, the mental images that brought on.

“Are all of them as good-looking as you are?” Cecil asked. If they shared even a fraction of their brother’s beauty…

“Don’t let them hear you say that.” Cecil had never seen anybody’s face go pale and darken at the same time, but that’s exactly what Carlos’ did. “As soon as I announced I was heading to Night Vale, they started pressuring me to court you.”

“Oh?” Remind me to send them a fruit basket. A dozen fruit baskets. Each.

“I know, it’s ridiculous.” There was no humor in his voice. For a long moment he shifted his weight anxiously back and forth, like he wanted to run but couldn’t decide which way to go. He stilled, took a deep breath, and ran his hand through his hair. “Before I left, I caught my brother Diego plotting out potential succession lines if I married you.”

The word ‘married’ buzzed cheerfully in Cecil’s ears, but a cold wind stirred the hairs on the back of his neck.

If he died, his husband would act as king dowager until the crown went to Janice.

Unless Janice didn’t survive long enough to claim it.

“They would never challenge Night Vale directly-- they wouldn’t dare-- but the chance of a legal way to take the throne has most of them salivating, and I... I want no part of it. I left home to get away from them.” Carlos started to pace as his words snowballed, unwittingly crushing the red balsam at his feet. “Them and their politics and their schemes and their backstabbing. You have to understand, the last thing I’d ever want is to give them a chance to fight over another kingdom.”

Meaning the second-to-last thing he’d ever want was Cecil.

Which made sense. It was… rational. Pragmatic. Of course Carlos wouldn’t want to be with him. Not when it would put him in the center of his siblings’ machinations. And Cecil-- Cecil shouldn’t want to be with Carlos, either. For Janice’s sake. For Night Vale’s.

He shouldn’t.

But he did.

Cecil’s insides seemed to crystallize, brittle and too tight and spiked with the ozone taste of deja vu.

If something happens--

He cleared his throat-- it felt lined with shards of glass. “That must have been very difficult for you.”

“Well, it’s over with now,” Carlos said. “They’ll be keeping their distance while I’m here. They won’t want to spoil my chances with you. So this is me, spoiling my chances.” He extended his arm, as though to invite a hug-- or a blow. “You should know, though, the rest of my team isn’t involved in any of this. Their interests have always been purely intellectual.”

He was covering for them-- in case what? In case Cecil decided to retaliate? Was that what people did in Desert Bluffs?

The thought made him nauseous, but it regurgitated that same protective anger from before.

“I-- I appreciate your honesty.” Cecil tried to put on a reassuring smile. He wasn’t sure he’d succeeded. “I hope Night Vale can continue to be a safe haven for you and your entourage.”

Carlos blinked, wary and confused. “Thank you for your mercy, Your Majesty,” he said, wrapping his voice in tones of neutral formality.

“Please. Call me Cecil.” The brittle thing inside him cracked-- but it was a hairline fracture. He’d live. “I’m familiar with family members overstepping their bounds-- not so extremely as in your situation of course, but I can sympathize.”

Carlos had said it himself: so long as his siblings thought the two of them had a chance together, Carlos would be left alone. Safe.

Cecil could arrange that. It wouldn’t exactly take much acting on his part.

Another breath rattled through the shards in his throat. “But I’ve been letting myself get carried away. I invited you for dinner, didn’t I?” He tried smiling again, and this time it felt a little more natural, a little less like broken glass was carving into his cheeks. “Now please, you must tell me what sort of projects have been keeping you so busy.”

 

Chapter Text

“I could say I told you so,” said the Faceless Old Woman while Cecil paced the length of his bedroom. “But you didn’t ask.”

If Cecil had known where she was, he would have thrown something at her. “Well, how was I supposed to know--”

“Because you’ve been through this before,” she snapped. “You’re a grown man, Cecil. At the very least you could try to learn from your mistakes. Like if another man is going out of his way to avoid you, then maybe it isn’t wise to force the issue.”

That stung. “I wasn’t forcing the issue.

“You certainly weren’t taking a hint.”

Cecil scrubbed a hand across his face. “Then how do I fix this?”

“I’m your spymaster, not your mother,” the Faceless Old Woman muttered. “You could ask Earl. He never made things uncomfortable between the two of you. You did that yourself.”

With a soft gust of air, she was gone.


 

Carlos kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but… it didn’t.

Cecil had every right to get vindictive and angry after everything Carlos had admitted, but if he was, it never showed.

If anything, he was more helpful and friendly than before, always asking if there was anything he could do to help advance the team’s research. And Carlos had expected that: what self-respecting king wouldn’t want to keep tabs on wizards and alchemists from a potentially hostile neighbor? It only made sense to keep his ear to the ground.

But the more Carlos spoke to Cecil, the less sense it made. It was increasingly obvious that Cecil didn’t have a clue what they were doing, beyond the broadest strokes. And Carlos explaining his work to the king didn’t seem to interest him so much as it seemed to make him happy. Cecil’s brows lifted, his lips parted, his eyes gained that strange glaze where they seemed simultaneously focused on minute detail and taking in the big picture all at once.

And damn it all, Carlos couldn’t resist seeing that look on the king’s face. It didn’t help that Cecil kept making those noises-- those high-pitched little ‘uh huh’s and ‘go on’s and ‘okay’s that had absolutely no right to be so appealing.

Carlos had quietly hypothesized that that was Cecil’s revenge-- that he’d seduce Carlos and then throw him out when it would hurt the most-- but the evidence didn’t fit the alchemist’s projections. For all of Cecil’s sex appeal, he never made any first moves, never left any unspoken invitations, never said or did anything that could be construed as romantic by any but the most debauched observers.

Unfortunately, Carlos was apparently one of them, and that had a bad habit of getting in the way of his experiments.

Like this one, for example.

Carlos made the last few adjustments to his equipment, flitting from the scrying mirrors to the magnesium flares to the massive water clock like an indecisive butterfly. Unlike the lab, which had gotten crowded and difficult to navigate within the team’s first week in Night Vale, the sand wastes were expansive. There was plenty of space for each of the researchers to work comfortably, and more room still for their audience to stretch out on a rug just out of the way, where he could watch them all from a safe distance.

And Carlos could do the same to him.

"Rochelle is using the mirrors to speak to our contacts in Pine Cliffs and Desert Bluffs," he explained, pointing to the mirrors that were facing decisively away from the king. "Dave's flares will be visible from both vantage points as soon as they're lit, and our contacts will tell us when they see them. That's how we'll know there's no lag in our communication. And Gretchen has the tally for the week."

"Ten thousand seventy-five," she said.

"Thank you, Gretchen. That’s how many minutes have passed since our last contact. It’s been exactly one week: seven days, twenty-four hours each day, sixty minutes each hour."

"Ten thousand seventy-six…”

"It's all so scientific," Cecil murmured, his eyes wide with admiration.

"Well, yes," Carlos said, hoping to the Smiling God his cheeks weren't as red as they felt. "We're using the scientific method to confirm our findings, prove our hypotheses, and replicate our results. It's the single best way to determine the nature of Night Vale’s natural laws."

"It's a revolutionary approach to the field," said Dave, who had no sense of propriety, because then Cecil's eyes got even wider and his lips parted just so and he made this breathy, excited noise that did ungodly things to Carlos.

"We have Pine Cliffs..." Rochelle said. "...and there's Desert Bluffs."

"Light the flare," Carlos commanded with perhaps a little more verve and dramatic gesturing than was strictly necessary.

It was just a simple experiment. It wasn't even new-- just a repetition of last week’s results to see if they were consistent-- but Cecil kept looking at him like he was the smartest man in the world, like this mundane little experiment could unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Sun and stars, Carlos could get drunk off that look.

A secret part of him wished his teammates would suddenly find some mystery to explore very far away, so he could crawl onto Cecil’s lap and kiss him until he forgot how to breathe. A less secret part needed them to stay, if only to keep that first part from acting on those ideas. Another part entirely pointed out that if they left, the experiment would be a complete failure and a week’s worth of work would be wasted, so could he please try to keep it in his pants for a few more minutes?

As usual, Carlos chose to listen to that third part. It usually knew what it was talking about.

“Desert Bluffs and Pine Cliffs are both seeing the flare,” Rochelle said. “They’re giving their time. Thank you both for your participation.” She bowed to the mirrors, then rubbed them both counterclockwise and covered each with velvet. “Eleven seven seventy-eight from Pine Cliffs, eleven seven eighty-three in Desert Bluffs.”

“They’re not the same,” Cecil observed.

“A five-minute difference falls within an acceptable margin of error,” Carlos said. “Maybe somebody lost track of counting, or a measurement was just slightly off. But that’s roughly--”

“It’s seventeen hundred minutes off of ours,” Gretchen said. “That’s more than twenty-eight hours.”

Ooh, it was even more than last time!

“That’s more than a full day longer,” he said. “An entire day that passed in the outside world but didn’t happen in Night Vale!”

Cecil’s whole face lit up. He inhaled deep, like he was about to make a grand confession, only to squeak out, “Neat!”

Carlos nearly bounced in the air, squealing “I know, right?”

But he didn’t. Because that would be unprofessional and unscientific and unattractive. And that last one shouldn’t even matter unless he was trying to impress Cecil. Which he totally wasn’t.

Instead, he said, “It definitely warrants further investigation.” That sounded smart, right?

Er… professional. And scientific. That.

“We haven’t tracked down the scale of the anomaly yet,” Gretchen said. “The next step will probably be to break down the week into smaller segments-- hours, days, minutes, so forth. Then we can find out exactly where the extra time is coming from.”  While she kept Cecil distracted, Carlos took the opportunity to compose himself.

He wasn’t usually like this. Ever.

A hypothesis: maybe he was just unused to having this much attention from one person.

When foreign dignitaries visited Desert Bluffs, they’d inevitably gravitate toward Divina’s wit or Diego’s confidence or Luciano’s enthusiasm, leaving Carlos to pursue his own interests in relative peace. He’d embarked on a few romances over the years, but those had never gotten past stolen kisses in back rooms-- by then, his paramours usually decided a relationship wasn’t worth the scrutiny of the Family Strex. The breakups always stung for a few days, but it was only a matter of time before they were forgotten. Relationships had never really mattered all that much before, not when there were mysteries to be solved and experiments to be done and wonders to behold. If anything, Carlos’ lack of romantic attachments had given him more time to dedicate to his field. Observation had taught him that those sorts of entanglements merely competed with his academic pursuits for already limited resources.

Except his resources weren’t limited anymore.

His lab had never once been sabotaged since he’d arrived (though there’d been a few false alarms when his team hadn’t conducted the proper chants on Thursdays). No matter how thoroughly he tested his food, it was never poisoned. Nobody dragged him into meaningless political squabbles or endless council meetings. Whenever Carlos asked for anything, Cecil was always eager to provide, and the only favors he’d ever asked in return were shared meals and walks through the gardens, and even those lacked the subliminal pressure of anticipated sex. For the first time, the only constraints on his work were his own attention span, his need to sleep, and time itself-- and evidence suggested that time didn’t work properly in Night Vale.

Another hypothesis: with all this free time to dedicate to his craft, Carlos finally had the emotional energy to diversify his interests.

Another: this stupid crush was overinflated gratitude for Cecil letting him have this opportunity.

Another: maybe Carlos was just vain enough to fall in love with anyone who consistently called him brilliant.

Another: whatever magic permeated Night Vale also made its king obscenely attractive.

He had more-- plenty more. He could come up with hypotheses until he went blue in the face. But they’d never be more than pet theories, because King Cecil was one subject he would never allow himself to investigate.


 

I’m a lousy king, Cecil thought to himself, blinking the glaze out of his eyes for the eighth time that hour. I admit it. Somebody take away my crown now, because I’m just awful.

Technically speaking, he didn’t have to listen to Mayor Pamela Winchell listing her favorite vegetables in alphabetical order, or demonstrating how to fold papercrafts, or waxing poetic on the proper way to churn butter. Technically speaking, he could tell her that enough was enough and she should leave his presence immediately so he could get on to less soporific duties.

But she was the outgoing mayor, and she’d served the community well over the years. He owed her this much, at least.

Though he didn’t owe it to her to stay awake for all of it.

“Careful,” the Faceless Old Woman muttered in his ear, just as he started nodding off. He could hear the grin in her voice. “Don’t fall asleep here, Cecil. There’s no telling what sorts of dreams you’ll have. You don’t want them to be inappropriate.”

His fingernails dug into the armrests of his throne.

Okay, fine. He could find other ways of distracting himself. His eyes glazed over again as he let his stare drift over the courtroom. The last time he’d counted, there were seven hundred and thirteen stones in the far wall-- seven hundred and twenty-six, if you counted the bloodstones that framed the doorway. But that was subject to change. And Carlos had stressed the importance of repeating tests for accuracy.

He was in the middle of repeating said tests when he spotted the alchemist in the back corner, fidgeting with the hem of a heavily-censored tapestry that more or less portrayed The Time of Knives, though most of the details had been covered up by elaborate stitchings of cacti.

The sight of Carlos sent a jolt through Cecil. He looked… upset? Frightened? No, concerned. Just concerned. Not in immediate danger, then.

Good. In the six months since Carlos’ confession in the garden, Cecil had been walking a metaphorical tightrope, keeping things as platonic as humanly possible while making it appear to outside observers that romance was at least a possibility.

Even though it wasn’t. And would never be.

And he was absolutely okay with that. Yep. One hundred percent.

Their eyes met, and Cecil’s mouth went dry.

He scrambled to his feet in a poor imitation of dignity. “Mayor Winchell, this is all very interesting and I implore you to continue. But there’s something I must attend to. Right now.”

The outgoing mayor gave him a bemused stare, but she shrugged and continued with her list while he made his exit.

Carlos followed him into a side hall a few moments later. He looked surprised to see the king waiting for him, alone.

“Cecil.” Oh, the way Carlos said his name still made shivers run down his spine. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your meeting. I should come back later.”

“No,” he said too quickly. “No, I’m sure it’s very important!” Much more important than alphabetized vegetables, anyway. “What danger are we in? What mystery needs to be explored?”

Carlos opened his mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. Wow, his teeth were perfect.

“I-need-your-help-with-science,” he said in a rush, his face red.

He needs me needs me needs me needs me! Despite his internal flailing, Cecil kept his face impressively impassive. “Oh?”

“Yes,” Carlos said. “I-- I mean-- Gretchen usually handles this sort of thing, but she came down with a stomach bug.”

Cecil’s eyebrows raised in concern. “A stomach bug? Is that anything like throat spiders? Is it serious?”

“No! No. She’ll be fine. She just needs to rest for a few days, and…” He trailed off, staring helplessly at Cecil. “You know what, nevermind. You’re very busy, and I shouldn’t be--”

He turned away, but Cecil grabbed his sleeve. Just his sleeve. There was absolutely no intention of his fingers sliding down and brushing Carlos’ wrist. And that feeling of sparks where they made contact-- that was unanticipated, if not unappreciated.

And the fact that Cecil’s “Wait!” was nearly inaudible had everything to do with him whispering and nothing to do with the fact that he suddenly couldn’t breathe.

To his credit, Carlos did wait.

“I really don’t want to go back in there,” Cecil mouthed.

Carlos followed his nod back to the door, where Pamela could be heard making a faint declaration: “But definitely not turnips!”

Cecil donned his most puppyish pout-- the one that had always worked on Old Woman Josie-- and Carlos reddened.

“We’d better hurry, then,” the alchemist said. “She’s already three quarters of the way through the alphabet.”

 

They snuck out through back ways and servants’ corridors, Cecil sending a furtive “shhh!” at the Secret Police officers who spotted them on the way off the palace grounds.

“Are you sure you’ll be all right?” Carlos asked after they passed the third officer, who nodded at them from the roof of the Moonlite Tavern.

“Don’t worry about them,” Cecil said. “They’re usually more interested in watching things happen than getting involved, unless there’s an emergency.” Speaking of emergencies-- it was better to let someone know what they were doing, just in case. “So what kind of science did you need help with?”

“Sci--? Oh.” Carlos averted his eyes back to the road for the moment. “Yes. That. I wanted to do some further investigations into the Whispering Forest-- see if the trees there are unique, or if they share any properties with the specimens in your garden and in Grove Park. They might not necessarily, I mean, they seem normal, but given everything that I’ve observed in this kingdom, there’s a significant chance that they’re not.”

“You know, Richard from the kitchens wandered into the Whispering Forest not too long ago,” Cecil mused. “You haven’t seen him, have you?”

“Not that I’ve noticed,” Carlos said. “But then, people seem to disappear in there all the time.” He blanched, his eyes growing wide with a sudden realization. “N-not to say that it’s dangerous or anything! Gretchen figured out that people are safe so long as they stay in groups of two or more-- it’s only lone wanderers who seem to become one with the forest. I would never put you in harm’s way--” His mouth kept moving, but his lungs seemed to have chosen that moment to stop cooperating, and he made no more sound.

Cecil touched his shoulder fondly. “And that’s why you needed my help, right?”

The color returned to Carlos’ face in a maddening flush. “Right. Yes. That’s right.” And in a smaller voice: “Thank you. For coming.”

“Thank you for asking me to come,” Cecil murmured. They walked on in a companionable silence for a while longer.

The Whispering Forest unfolded before them like a great green curtain, the shadows of its canopy fluttering up to the edge of the road. Beyond it, the ground became oddly dark, where Night Vale’s sandy soil was overcome by the spontaneous trees and covered in a blanket of detritus. The air tasted different here-- cool and moist and as full of life as the desert night, subtly perfumed by oak and evergreen.

His hand hung mere inches from Carlos’. It would be so easy to reach out and take it. He could even call it an accident. But before he could try, the alchemist had moved on, stepping easily between the thick foliage.

“It’s beautiful out here,” Cecil said, following close behind him.

The wind rustled through the leaves, oddly loud, like movement. Like voices.

Very much like voices, in fact.

You’re so polite,” the forest seemed to whisper. Yep, those were definitely voices. “And so handsome.

You have lovely eyes,” said another voice.

You are a very responsible person,” said a third. “You deserve rest. You deserve peace.

A hand closed around his shoulder, and Cecil startled.

“You can hear it, can’t you?” Carlos asked, his eyes bright with excitement. “The whispering.”

So that’s where the forest got its name. Huh.

“It’s very polite,” Cecil said.

“And sea sirens are beautiful, until they catch you,” Carlos said. “Gretchen and I have been theorizing that the forest and legendary sirens are related in some way. We can’t do much with that hypothesis until we actually get our hands on a siren, of course, but it’s still an interesting idea to play with in the meantime.”

Cecil made a mental note to ask about procuring a siren. It couldn’t be all that hard, he was sure. Maybe Marcus Vansten had one lying around somewhere. The Faceless Old Woman would know.

“This one looks good,” Carlos continued, pointing to a tree. “See where it’s been marked? Gretchen assigns a new symbol to the trees every month-- that way she can track how the forest’s been expanding, and in which directions.” He sank to his knees and began pulling little glass bottles out of his satchel. “I should only need a few minutes to collect samples. Cecil, if you could make sure I don’t start spontaneously growing branches?” He smiled up at him through the fringe of his hair, and Cecil was struck once again by how lovely that face was. His square jaw, the earnest set of his mahogany eyes, the way those perfect locks framed that dark, delicate skin…

You’re beautiful,” the trees whispered, echoing Cecil’s thoughts.

You’re so very smart. And you say so many smart things.

Your skin looks so soft.

Carlos looked so intent, completely lost in whatever complicated tests he was conducting, whatever samples he was taking, whatever alchemy or science or whatever he was doing.

Cecil found himself leaning forward, closing the distance between them an inch at a time.

You are merciful and kind. You deserve to be happy.

You deserve to be loved.

Cecil’s fingertips brushed Carlos’ cheek. How much would it take to turn his head, just slightly?

As focused as Carlos was, did he even register the touch?

Would he notice if Cecil kissed him?

Cecil leaned forward. His lips parted. His mouth was dry.

“It isn’t your fault,” the trees whispered, and Cecil froze.

You have such a lovely Voice. He wouldn’t want it to be silent.

You aren’t meant to be alone.

What happened to him was not your fault.

Cecil yanked his hand away like he’d been burned.

Carlos glanced up, his concentration broken by the sudden movement. “Is something wrong?”

Cecil’s heart pounded in his throat. Earl. The trees knew about Earl. And they-- they were wrong. They were lying, and they were wrong.

“N-nothing,” he said, blinking away tears. “I thought for a second-- but it was just a shadow. You’re fine.”

The wind felt uncomfortably cold and clammy against his skin.

He remembered what had happened the last time he’d used his Voice carelessly. The last time he’d let affection override boundaries.

Earl was gone because of him. And now Carlos was counting on Cecil to keep him safe, and all he could think of was this ridiculous crush.

“Are you okay?” Carlos asked, packing away the samples he’d taken. “You’re starting to look a bit green. Are the voices getting to you? You’re not having any thoughts of joining them, are you?”

“What? No, I’m fine,” Cecil said hastily. The scent of sweet loam on the air had soured into something sickly and rotting.

He wanted to run, to leave the unnatural cool of the forest behind, but his feet were rooted to the floor--not literally, according to a quick glance down. He wanted to grab Carlos and wrap him in a cloak and keep him safe forever. He wanted to lock him somewhere warm and far away from murderous princes and cursed kings. He wanted to cling to Carlos and let the alchemist tell him that everything would be all right.

He wanted a lot of things he couldn't have.

A wave of heat slammed into him as they emerged from the shade of the forest, and the sudden change left Cecil dizzy.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Carlos asked, steadying him.

“Just tired, that’s all.” Cecil stepped out of Carlos’ touch as casually as possible. “I’m sure I’ll be fine after I lay down.”

Carlos laid the back of his hand against Cecil’s brow, and the king nearly melted into the touch. “Maybe Gretchen isn’t the only one feeling ill. Let me walk you back to the castle.”

“That’s not necessary,” Cecil said hastily. “The Sheriff’s Secret Police can give me a ride. Really. And you still had all those other samples to take. I wouldn’t want to get in the way of your research.”

Carlos worried his lower lip between his perfect teeth. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.” Cecil flashed his warmest smile, and the alchemist finally relented.

“I did want to do some more tests on that thing in Grove Park,” he admitted.

“Go. You can tell me all about your findings when you’re finished.”

They parted ways, Carlos heading toward Grove Park and Cecil toward the officers waiting at the Moonlite Tavern.

He didn’t look back.

He’d looked back enough for one day.

Chapter Text

The king’s eyes were unfalteringly focused on Carlos. His smile was soft, tender. Beautiful.

Carlos could worship that smile.

He averted his eyes, pretending to study the bark before him. It was bark. Tree-ish. Brown. Not mossy. That was as detailed as his brain could get with that lovely face so close.

And it was moving closer.

A hand brushed his cheek, sending a ripple of sparks under Carlos’ skin. They buzzed through his veins, leaving him frozen in place like he’d been struck by an electric current.

Cecil leaned closer. His eyelids fluttered shut. He exhaled, and Carlos gasped in the breath like it was a stolen token.

Memory told Carlos that this was the part where Cecil pulled away, wide-eyed and frightened, but memory could be ignored. Instead, Cecil completed his arc, his lips pressing ever-so-gently against Carlos’ temple.

Carlos tipped his head to look at the king, genuinely surprised, and Cecil leaned down again. This time the kiss landed full on his lips, deliberate and sweet. Carlos wrapped his arms around Cecil’s shoulders and tugged the king to his knees, pulling him close.

To hell with gentle. Carlos had been craving this for months, and Cecil--

In the safety of fantasy, Cecil had, too.

The forest floor was soft, pillowed by moss and ferns that framed the king beautifully as he lay back, his grin alluring, his eyes warm and inviting--

“Inconclusive,” Gretchen said, smacking a handful of twigs down on the table in front of Carlos. The alchemist jerked upright, blinking to clear away the vision. “How many times have you seen me collecting samples, Carlos? Were you paying any attention at all?”

“Remind me who’s in charge of this team?” he muttered. Coming from one of his brothers, that would have frozen Gretchen in her tracks. Instead she rolled her eyes.

“You can be in charge when you can string two thoughts together without one of them involving His Majesty’s perky little ass.”

Carlos’ cheeks burned. “I was not!”

“Sure you weren’t.”

“I’m an alchemist for a reason, Gretchen,” he said, sitting up and straightening his lab coat. “Plants aren’t my specialty and you know it.” He might have ranted at length about how minerals and chemicals stayed put and didn’t ever try to talk to you while you were conducting tests on them (except that one time, but now that he was intimately acquainted with Sarah Sultana, he wouldn’t make that mistake again), and he preferred environments where he could make use of precise measurements and carefully tuned instruments. But Gretchen beat him to the punch.

“Fine. No more plants for you, Prince Prissypants. But if you ask me, the subject matter wasn’t the problem.” She looked at him over her spectacles. “The mudwomb guy at the Moonlite said he saw you head to the Whispering Forest with the king.”

A burst of panic. He’d been seen--

Of course he’d been seen, pointed out the rational part of his mind. He’d gone galavanting around town with the freaking king. That wasn’t something people were going to magically not notice.

“I needed a partner,” Carlos said. “And he wanted to get out of some official business. It was symbiotic.” Internally he flailed for a better defense, and found nothing. “You’re right, okay? I’ve been distracted. I’ll work on that, starting now.”

“Carlos--”

“Is that shape in Grove Park still acting up?"

“Carlos, we’ve talked about this.”

“Have we gotten anybody to actually talk about it yet?” he asked, pointedly ignoring her again.

Gretchen sighed, defeated. “They’re still acting like it doesn’t exist.”

“The thing in Grove Park isn’t a plant, is it?” he asked without waiting for her to answer. “Then it’s not off limits to me.”

“Listen, Carlos--”

“Can’t talk,” he said quickly, all but lunging for the door. “I’ve got measurements to make. Samples to take. Science to do.”

“Carlos--”

The door slammed shut, cutting her off. Carlos didn’t wait for her to follow him from the lab before he took off for Grove Park.

Gretchen was right: those had been easy samples, even if they were outside of his specialty. He shouldn’t have messed them up so badly. But he had, because he’d been distracted. He’d been distracted a lot lately.

He shouldn’t have been.

He shouldn’t have invited Cecil out to the forest. He shouldn’t have been daydreaming about the things he’d like to do to the king while the rest of his team was hard at work. He was supposed to be a leader here, and he was letting them down, and it had to stop.

Something had to change, before things got entirely out of hand.

“Okay,” he said, readjusting his labcoat and slowing his strides. “This is me changing things.”

Didn’t feel much different yet, did it?

“I’m going to get back to work,” he continued. “And I’m going to do it properly. No distractions.”

“I hear you loud and clear,” said a voice from behind a decorative boulder. “Thank you for sharing.”

That was one of the things he loved about Night Vale, even while it grated his nerves: around here, the spies who watched his every move were at least polite about it.

I’m going to get back to work, and I’m not going to think about Cecil, he finished his affirmation as he finally reached the park.

Not one bit.

Calling the shape in Grove Park a ‘shape’ and a ‘thing’ was a disgrace to taxonomy, but the team had yet to come up with a better name for it.

His team had yet to come up with much of anything regarding the shape, really. When interviewed, locals refused to acknowledge its existence; Malai had been investigating what records they could borrow from the City Council, but she had yet to find any allusion to the mysterious whatever-it-was. So far they’d been holding off on conducting any direct tests until they found something, but that was getting them nowhere.

Besides, Carlos wasn’t feeling up to overly complex thought at the moment. Collecting basic data would be perfect for him.

The shape hovered a few feet over the ground in the far corner of Grove Park, irregular in form and vaguely gelatinous in texture. Normally its surface was colorless with a pearlescent sheen, though at the moment it had darkened to the color of molten lead.

While Carlos recorded the first of his observations, the shape shuddered, and its baseline low, groaning buzz rose in pitch. Suddenly, it sounded less like the drone of monks in prayer, and more like moans of ecstasy.

Carlos’ observations trailed off as he listened to the sound. For a better description, of course. For science.

What would it take to make Cecil sound like that? Or would he not sound like that at all? Would that black velvet voice get even deeper when it was soaked in passion? Would it get high and breathy? Would he forget to breathe at all?

Carlos shook himself. Dear Smiling God, what was he doing?

"The subject hasn't moved since the last observation," he said aloud. Hopefully putting his thoughts into words would keep them from running away with him. "Possibly, it remains fixed in a single point, like that cat."

It. That seemed rude.

The trees could talk. A cloud regularly made administrative decisions for the town's schoolchildren. Who was to say the shape couldn't hear?

He cleared his throat. "Er... pardon? Are you sapient at all? Are you sentient?"

A violent tremor washed across the shape’s surface.

"I'll take that as a yes. Do you prefer he or she? Or perhaps something else?"

The groaning grew louder, twisting and warping until it sounded like a great many voices chanting.

"I... Didn't quite catch that."

The chanting grew louder. Angrier.

Carlos hoped he hadn't offended it. At the risk of being a nuisance, he decided to stick with a nice, neutral ‘you’. He could ask again once he'd figured out how the Shape communicated.

He raised a hand to hover just barely off the shape’s surface. “Your surface temperature seems to be increasing rapidly. It doesn’t look like there’s any way for me to find a core temperature at the moment, but I can figure that out later. You… are changing shape again.” Carlos recorded ‘adopted hyperbolic, non-Euclidian geometry’ on his clay slab, if only for an excuse to look away. Glancing directly at the shape was making his head hurt. “Your-- er-- your color is shifting rapidly.”

Defense mechanism? Possible reaction to change in weather?

Carlos’ hair whipped into his eyes. The wind had started to pick up, swirling in great gusts around him.

Was this some kind of early detection system for sandstorms, then?

The trees of Grove Park whipped in the wind-- it was growing stronger by the second, grinding sand into his skin and snapping twigs into his face. He covered his eyes to shield them from the debris, but around his fingertips he glimpsed a brilliant red glow.


 

A pair of Secret Police officers stormed into the throne room, marching past John Peters the farmer like he wasn't even there.

"Your Majesty, there's been an emergency," the first declared, their voice obscured by layers of veils and shawls.

"The Sheriff is working to contain the damage, but the situation is out of control,” added the other, similarly veiled. “You must come immediately."

Cecil flattened himself against his high-backed throne. How long had it been since he’d last been summoned like this? His stomach tied itself into an uncomfortably complicated knot.

They didn't want him to act as their king.

They wanted his Voice.

"What's the emergency?" he asked, barely managing to keep his voice steady. Maybe there was something else he could do. Some other power he could call on.

He expected the worst.

Instead, the two officers exchanged awkward glances.

"Er... you know. Stuff," said the first.

"Grove Park can be pretty dangerous this time of year, you know?" said the other.

Cecil stared blankly at the two of them. "No. I don't know. "

"You know how it is,” the first said. "There are emergencies and we deal with them.  Unless we can't."

"Is the force experimenting with passive-aggressive messages again?" Cecil asked. "Because I'm pretty sure we established that those don't work very well. "

"It's very windy today, isn't it?" the first asked helplessly.

The Faceless Old Woman huffed indignantly in Cecil’s ear. "This is getting embarrassing. Quit wasting time with those idiots and get to Grove Park already." She flicked the side of his head for emphasis.

"I take it you know what's going on.” Cecil glanced in the direction the voice had come, but as always, she was just out of view.

"Of course I know. I know everything."

"Care to educate me?" he asked.

"That would probably take a very long time. You're too emotional and you never pay enough attention. By the time you get anything through that horribly thick skull of yours, Carlos will already be dead."

Cecil was on his feet so fast his vision flashed white. “What?”

“He’s in Grove Park. I suggest you hurry.”

He crossed the throne room in a few long strides, throwing the doors open with both hands. They crashed shut behind him, but not in time to drown out the Faceless Old Woman’s voice:

“He doesn’t have much time.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Cecil ran.

His cape whipped through the air behind him, yanked this way and that by his own momentum and the gale winds that sliced through the air. The pair of Secret Police officers had long since fallen behind, though Nazr al-Mujaheed and Michael Sandero managed to keep up, flanked by four more palace guards.

Grove Park opened up ahead of them, and it was a war zone. Whirlwinds stretched into the sky, near-opaque with grit and captured debris. Trees had been stripped of bark and branches, and the shattered pieces crashed headlong into anyone and anything unlucky enough to be nearby.

Bodies lay among the wreckage, civilians and Secret Police and militia soldiers who’d come to restore order, all of them mowed down by flying limbs or blasted to pieces by the pulsing, shrieking shape at the center of the park.

Sand ground against Cecil’s teeth as he stared, open-mouthed.

He needed to do something. It was his job, dammit-- he needed to fix this.

But he couldn’t. His limbs locked into place and his Voice lodged in his throat, helpless and useless, just another frightened victim of the shape’s wrath.

“Cecil!” A voice cut through the panic. It was hoarse, rough-hewn instead of polished, but there was no mistaking that oaky timbre. “Cecil!” Carlos, previously huddled against a copse of handflower trees, rose to his feet, waving his arms. “Cecil, get out of here!” He turned to point at the roaring shape. “That thing is--”

A blaze of red light shot through the air. The tree that had sheltered him caught the brunt of the attack, exploding into a bloom of fire and shrapnel.

Carlos stumbled backward, toward the king.

He stared at the sudden emptiness where the tree had been. Then turned, blinking and confused, to look at Cecil.

Wide fragments of shattered wood protruded from his chest. Blood welled through his shirt.

He stepped toward the king, but staggered.

Fell to his knees.

So much blood.

Cecil didn’t realize he’d started running again until he felt strong arms dragging him back-- Nazr and Michael had him caught between them, the captain shouting for the guards to close ranks around the three of them.

Michael was saying something else-- talking about getting back to the palace, getting away from danger.

Cecil barely heard them.

His eyes were fixed on Carlos as he collapsed, face down, driving the stake deeper into his chest. On the pool of blood staining the ground around him. On the shudder as punctured lungs struggled to draw breath.

Deep inside him, something cracked.

“Unhand me,” Cecil said.

“Your Majesty, you need--”

“Let. Go. Of. Me.” Raw power flooded each syllable, so hard and sharp that the guards stumbled back, their fingers peeling away from his arms of their own accord.

The wind clawed at his face and yanked his clothes. With a shriek of torn fabric, his cape flew away and joined the cyclone.

Cecil’s lips curled into a snarl and he raised his Voice. “Let me through.”

The wind fell still even faster than Carlos had.

He marched forward, his magic uncoiling from around him, twisting and curling under the weight of his intent. “This tantrum is over. You will not be seen. You will not be heard. You will not be acknowledged or spoken of-- and you will not bring down further destruction here. Now go back to obscurity.”

The shape shivered. It shrank. It whimpered, but if any of the onlookers heard, they didn’t notice. Cecil had certainly stopped paying attention.

The king sank to his knees in a pool of blood. Carlos lay stretched out before him, face-down, frighteningly still.

“Carlos.” Cecil’s Voice became gentle. “Carlos, I’m here. I’m here and you’re going to be okay.”

He lifted the other man, careful not to disturb the shrapnel in his chest, and picked him up to rest on Cecil’s lap. Blood seeped from Carlos’ eyes and nose.

And ears.

A new kind of fear closed its fist around Cecil’s heart.

“Carlos, can you hear me?” Cecil raised his Voice to fill the silence of the park. “I need you to listen to me. I can’t help you if you don’t listen.”

He wasn’t moving. Dear Masters, he wasn’t moving!

“You’re going to be fine, do you hear me? You’re going to be okay. Your wounds will close and your bruises will fade and you are going to be absolutely fine. You’re going to be healthy and happy and safe--”

Oh Masters, please.

His Voice shook, unsteady under the weight of his plea. “You’re going to live. You have to. I need you to be okay.”

He pressed a kiss to Carlos’ brow.

“Please wake up.”

Nothing.

And then, movement. A faint flutter of eyelashes. Weary eyes dragged open and slowly focused on the face before them.

“Cecil?” Carlos rasped.

The king nearly dragged him into a hug. No-- that wouldn’t be good. He was hurt.

“Carlos, you’re alive,” Cecil said, bracing the fact with splints of magic and intent. “You’re going to be okay.”

“Oh.” A soft, fuzzy smile brushed Carlos lips for half a second before it curled into a frown. “You’re crying. Are you hurt? Did it--” He tried to sit up, only to hiss in pain.

“Shhh, don’t try to move just yet. I’m fine.” Better than fine. “I know it’s painful now, but you’ll heal. You’re going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.”

“Oh...kay…” Carlos murmured. His eyes drifted shut again, but already some of the thinner scratches on his face were beginning to close.

Cecil held him tight, repeating an endless litany of assurances and promises.

Around him, other victims of the shape’s wrath were sitting up, blinking and confused, while the Sheriff’s Secret Police collected the bodies of the people who were beyond saving.


 

The family of tarantulas that lived on the laboratory ceiling was having a domestic dispute. The largest of the arachnids was waving her limbs frantically, declaring her anger in an intricate mesh of sign language and interpretive dance. A smaller tarantula skittered indignantly away while a cluster of tiny spiderlets huddled in the shadow of a support beam.

Carlos felt bad for them. They were a nice family-- he hoped they would work things out. Whatever those things were.

It took a few minutes more for him to realize that he was lying on his back and staring at the ceiling. A few minutes more than that, and he noticed his team bustling around him.

“That big wound on his upper chest is another three millimeters smaller,” Rochelle said. “The… pectoralis major. Am I pronouncing that correctly?”

“I don’t think so,” Lanre said. “It’s a hard ‘j’, not a soft one.”

“Really? Huh. The more you know.”

Something cold and sharp touched Carlos’ thigh. He yelped, trying to jerk away from the sensation-- ‘trying’ being the operative word. Pain radiated from a hundred small points across his body, and their combined force sent him collapsing back onto the bed.

"Did I hurt you?" Malai asked, pulling away a pair of pincer pliers. And to the others: "Guys, Carlos is awake."

"Thank the Smiling God," Dave said.

"Thank Cecil,” Gretchen said. “He's the one who saved him."

Five heads crowded Carlos' field of vision, each one raising a voice to talk over the others. Carlos felt like he was trying to interview Hiram McDaniels all over again.

“Hey. Hey!" he demanded, loud enough to trigger a coughing fit and send a spasm of fresh pain through his chest.

“All right,” Gretchen said, raising her voice. “He needs room to breathe. Everybody out.”

“Remind me who’s in charge here,” Carlos croaked between coughs while the rest of the team retreated from the lab.

“Maybe when you’re feeling better, oh fearless leader,” she said, but her sardonic smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Listen, Carlos.” Her tone turned serious. “I’m-- I’m sorry for making you go out there. If I’d known--”

“If we’d known anything about anything, we wouldn’t be here in the first place,” he said. “We came here to learn, remember?” He flashed a weary smile. “Speaking of which-- what happened? Another assassin?”

“No, actually.” She flashed another half-hearted smile. “I know, I was surprised, too. No, this was just plain old bad luck. It turns out that when the entire population refuses to talk about something, it might just be for a good reason.”

"You mean the thing--" A hand clapped over Carlos’ mouth.

Ow.

"Yeah, we aren't supposed to talk about it,” Gretchen said, pulling back her hand. “Ever."

Okay then.

A good dozen questions bit at his tongue, but he swallowed them back in favor of something definitely-not-shape-related. "Mind telling me why I’m naked? Or is that off limits, too?"

“Sorry,” she said. “We couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass by.”

“If you wanted me to take off my clothes, all you had to do was ask.” Carlos wrinkled his nose, and immediately un-wrinkled it when the gesture sent a spasm of pain through his face.

“You’re hilarious,” she said. “We've been taking measurements of your injuries and recording the change over time. It's been incredibly informative so far."

Change over time? Carlos frowned-- it hurt less than wrinkling his nose, but there was still some residual pain. “How long was I out?"

"Only a few hours. Based on the amount of blood you lost, you should still be unconscious, or dead. But you’re not!” Gretchen added quickly, as if Carlos needed reminding. “In fact, your vital signs look great. We’d need an expert to say for sure, but these results are just short of miraculous. You look like you’re weeks into the healing process.”

An expert would be tricky. All of the experts in human biology-- or at least all of the ones Carlos knew of-- worked under his brother Santiago, and it would only be a matter of time before they passed on the conversation to their boss. At that point it would be easier just to go to the top of the field himself.

Oh hello, brother. It’s good to hear from you, too. Tell me, do you have any insights into my current condition? No, you can’t vivisect me to confirm your theories. No, you can’t pickle any of my internal organs, I don’t care how nice they would look in your office. Yes, I did nearly die. Sure, you can go ahead and pass the news on to Diego and Divina, I’m sure they’d be happy to finish the job.

Oh yes. That would go well.

Carlos eased himself upright, taking personal inventory. Dozens of scars stretched across his body. The worst of them congregated on his chest, right over his heart. Judging by the size of the scars, the shrapnel should have snapped a couple of his ribs at least, maybe even perforated his lungs, but his breathing was mostly unlabored and a few quick palpitations only triggered a minor ache.  He could still remember it: an explosion, a force like a punch to the gut, an uncomfortable heat, and then numb darkness.

And in the midst of it all: Cecil.

"Cecil was there, " he said, and a shadow crossed Gretchen’s face. "Did he... ?"

"He saved you,” she said. There was an odd finality in her tone. “He saved a lot of the people in Grove Park, it looks like.”

Carlos swallowed. “A lot of people? As in…?”

“There were more than two dozen people in Grove Park. Some of them are dead, but the rest are recovering. About as fast as you are, from what I could tell.”

Carlos went pale.

It was one of the primary laws of alchemy, and it wasn’t exactly ignored by any other schools of magic: whatever you got out of an equation had to be equal to what you put it, be it time or material or life force. A talented mage could tap into stored reserves or delay the cost of a spell, but the strain would snap back and hit them eventually, in one form or another. Healing magic was especially dangerous-- as often as not it wound up killing the person who did the saving.

What would it cost to try to rescue two dozen?

“I need to go,” Carlos said, rolling off the table. His feet missed the floor, and he would have gone sprawling if Gretchen hadn’t caught him.

“Calm down, Carlos,” she said gently. “You’re still healing.”

“No. I have to go.” His heart was racing. “Maybe it hasn’t hit him yet. Maybe there’s still time to-- to-- dammit, I need to do something!” He yanked himself out of Gretchen’s grip and stormed out the door. “Lanre, do you have any healing charms already made? Phylacteries? Heart boxes?” The mage turned to him, surprised. “Malai, Dave-- there have to be some kind of spells you can track down.”

“Carlos!” Gretchen burst through the door after him.

“You too,” he said. “There’s a way to fix this and we can find it.”

“Carlos.” Another figure blocked his way: Rochelle. “Please. You need to calm down.”

For a moment Carlos froze, staring at the seer.

If Cecil died-- if he was beyond saving-- Carlos didn’t want to know.

Instead he twisted on his heel and took off running.


 

Carlos was fast on his feet out of necessity. His talents had always lain more in observation and precision than they had in combat and defensive magics. So, on the not-infrequent occasions when his life had been in danger, he’d learned to get away quickly, even when wounded.

The growing pain in his chest and the spots in his vision were shoved aside, ignored until some less urgent time. There was no telling how long he had. If he was already too late--

That thought, too, was shoved aside.

The rest of his team would follow soon after-- he had to believe that-- bringing as much magic and equipment as they could carry. Maybe more. It would be enough to save Cecil. It had to be.

He barreled through the palace’s front gate and through the courtyard, nearly diving through the the massive bloodstone archway that opened into the palace-- but a flicker of movement caught his eye. The flash of a silver crown.

Cecil.

Cecil, pacing jagged lines through the garden.

Cecil, alive.

Carlos skidded to a halt, nearly tumbling head over heels on the cobblestone walkway. His vision swam. His breath came in gasps, his recently-rebuilt lungs straining with the effort at processing so much air so quickly.

Cecil was the one who’d put those lungs back together. Cecil was the one who’d saved him. If he died for it--

Carlos didn’t know what he’d do.

“Carlos?” Cecil stepped out of the shadow of a flowering almond, purple starbursts of balm-of-gilead bowing as he passed. His brow was furrowed in concern. “Are you all right? Shouldn’t you be resting?”

The question struck Carlos as hilarious, though he couldn’t think why. Everything was starting to blur at the edges. Everything but Cecil.

The king was suddenly at Carlos’ side, offering a hand to steady him.

“I-- I--” Carlos shook his head, but his hand clamped around Cecil’s like he was holding a lifeline. “I wanted to see you.”

Cecil’s cheeks darkened-- with exertion? Were his capillaries bursting? Was he short of breath?

“Are you okay?” Carlos asked, tugging the king’s hand closer. Cecil’s eyes seemed dilated, his breathing hitched and shallow. “After everything that happened-- are you feeling okay?”

“I wasn’t hurt.”

“Are you sure? No dizziness? Fatigue?” Maybe there was still time-- please let there still be time. “The rest of my team is on their way, and they’ve got-- they can--” He choked. “Maybe they can save you.”

Cecil blinked, frowning. “Am I in danger?”

Was he serious? Did he really not know? “After you used all that much magic-- Cecil, it’s going to hit you eventually, and it could--” His mouth kept moving, but his voice lodged in his throat. “If something happened to you, I don’t know--”

Carlos wobbled, his knees like soggy noodles. The only reason his hands weren’t shaking was because Cecil held them so tightly.

Cecil pulled him close, bracing Carlos against his chest. “Carlos, please. Sit down. You look-- actually you look gorgeous, in a rugged sort of way, but you should probably sit down anyway.”

Carlos found himself moving, guided and supported like he was the following partner in some strange new waltz. Cecil eased him back, dipped him low-- and Carlos found himself sitting on a stone bench. Cecil knelt before him, his hands smoothing Carlos’ hair.

“I’m fine, really,” the king murmured, low and soft. “I can’t say I understand how magic works in Desert Bluffs, but I’m fine. I just used my Voice, like I’ve done a hundred times before. I’m fine.”

“You’ve done it before?” Carlos clamped onto what few threads his mind could grasp and followed them.

“I used to do it all the time,” Cecil assured him. “I’ll admit I’m a bit out of practice, but I don’t think it’s going to hurt me.”

Carlos’ shoulders sagged, and he slumped forward. “I thought you were going to die.”

“No, my dear Carlos.” The king cradled Carlos’ head in his hands. “Everything is all right.” His voice took on a different quality-- sweet and dark and oddly resonant. It poured into his mind until there was nothing left in his head but Cecil. “Close your eyes. Let my words wash over you. You are safe now.”

Somewhere at the edge of his awareness, Carlos heard familiar voices raised in concern, but the only voice that mattered smoothed them away into background noise.

“You came just in time… no, I’m fine, thank you… did you? Good. I’ve done all I can, but I think he may need all the help he can get.”

Chapter Text

Miranda Yespie had a pyramid.

Why did she have a pyramid?

What in the world had made her think that was a good idea?

But there she was, gesticulating grandly with her pincer-like claws, proclaiming how much her mill would be benefited if Cecil would just start Speaking about her pyramid. The ambassadors from Desert Bluffs watched with interest; they'd been far more interested in court proceedings since the incident in Grove Park, though Cecil couldn't be sure if that was because of what had happened to their prince, or because Night Vale's economy was picking up. It was hard to tell with those two. What was certain, though, was that they were clearly on the side of Miranda Yespie's ridiculous marketing ploy, and that was just one more reason for Cecil to be against the idea. Not that he needed another reason.

One of the City Council’s very strictly enforced rules was that the Voice was never to be used to favor any one business-- that kind of power was to be used for the benefit of Night Vale as a whole (or the recipient of a wish, for those lucky enough to earn one). Drawing undue attention to a giant telepathic pyramid in the middle of town square that just so happened to have “Flaky-O’s Mill” written all over it was technically not against those rules, but it still leaned towards the underhanded.

Cecil wasn’t about to put up with that. Especially not when Carlos had just walked through the bloodstone archway, flanked by two of his researchers. They kept to the back of the crowd, staying pointedly out of sight of Lauren Mallard and her attaché. 

Official business had kept Cecil from visiting Carlos during his recovery, and after all these weeks without seeing the other man, Carlos’ beauty hit Cecil like a battering ram. The alchemist walked with a graceful economy of motion, his long hair was rich and glossy, his complexion a sun-kissed mahogany, his dark eyes keen and searching.

Cecil cleared his throat, which was suddenly dry. “I’m sorry, Miranda, but I stand by my decision. You’re just going to have to advertise for your mill the old-fashioned way.”

“But you are the old-fashioned way!” she chittered.

“Then do it the new-fashioned way. You’re dismissed.” He infused the words with just the slightest prompting to leave, throwing his Voice so it bounced around the front of the throne room. A few of the servants started to meander away, as did the front part of the crowd, but Carlos seemed unaffected. Even better: it looked like he was taking notes in the soft-clay tablets he and his team always carried around.

Carlos thought something he’d done was interesting! The idea brought a delightful warmth to Cecil’s face.

“Maureen,” he said, beckoning to the servant before she had the chance to wander off. “It’s been a long day. Send to the kitchens for refreshments for these good people.”

The servant frowned. “Are you sure?”

“Coffee, too, while you’re at it,” he said pointedly. “I need a break.”

A few seconds later Leann Hart announced he would be taking a recess, and then she proceeded to loudly praise every and any business that put enough money in her pocket. That worked just fine for Cecil-- since she wasn’t the Voice, there were no rules against it, and it made her a bit of extra money to get her printing press up and running. Meanwhile she made for an excellent distraction while Cecil slipped out the side door.

Carlos was already waiting for him, a tentative smile on his face. “You looked busy,” he said by way of prelude. “Is this a bad time? Or--” Did that lovely smile turn just a little bit hopeful? “--Or did you need an excuse to get away?”

Do you mean would I like us to scurry away from the palace like schoolboys, and wander into the forest, and do sciencey things with you, and touch your face some more? Because yes. Yes please. Right now would be wonderful.

“Uh-huh,” he squeaked, his face growing bright red-- and then getting even redder when he heard the sound he’d made. “Ahem. I would love to, but I’m afraid I can only get away for as long as Leann can keep everyone busy. But a break from court is more than welcome. Was there anything I could help you with? Some science that needs doing?”

Carlos’ cheeks darkened. “I-- um-- actually, Dave and Malai came to study your Voice, if that was okay with you. They were going to ask, but there seems to be a bit of a line...” He swallowed, and swallowed again, and rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “But I’m here for personal reasons.”

Maybe it was a contest: who could blush harder?

“Oh?” Cecil asked.

“Well, yes.” Carlos’ gaze fell to Cecil’s mouth. “My team thinks-- well I think it too-- your voice is a fascinating phenomenon, and potentially a branch of magic we’ve only ever heard rumors about before-- really, Malai’s heard more, but she always thought it was kind of a metaphor-- and they’re really the experts in the field of magic that involves words, what with Dave’s expertise in incantation and Malai’s work with written spells, and I’d really like to learn more about you but I really don’t think studying you scientifically would give me quite the insights I’m hoping for--” His eyes went wide and his mouth clamped shut.

For a few moments Carlos’ gaze flitted around the room like a very confused moth, darting from Cecil’s face to the floor to the doorway to his hands and back, over and over again. Finally, they settled on the amethyst brooch at Cecil’s throat.

When he spoke again, his caramel voice was thin and reedy. “I...er… wanted to know. If you had time. I mean, time doesn’t work right in Night Vale, but if it did, and you did, and you were interested, if you could maybe…” He swallowed. “Have dinner? With me?”

Do not squeal do not squeal do not squeal Carlos needs his eardrums and he would not appreciate you breaking them do not squeal--

Calm.

Stay calm.

“Yes!” he squeaked, which was okay, because a squeak was not a squeal. “That would-- that would be neat!”

“I’m sure you’re busy tonight-- but Friday? Maybe? At… um… eight?”

“Perfect!” Another squeak, but slightly more human in pitch.

“Great.” Carlos rubbed the back of his neck, a self-conscious smile tugging at his lips. “And I should probably go-- I doubt all those people will want me taking up more of your time.”

“I think they can learn a little patience when you’re involved,” Cecil said. “You are Night Vale’s favorite alchemist, after all.” It wasn’t just him gushing, either. Carlos was popular in Night Vale-- a natural consequence of being politically powerful, good-looking, and taking a genuine interest in just about everyone-- but public opinion had soared after the incident in Grove Park.

Ever since what had happened with Earl, the Voice had gone silent. It was just too dangerous, too unpredictable, too painful to use. The people of Night Vale hadn’t been particularly thrilled with Cecil’s self-imposed ban on the Voice and its magic, but they’d learned to cope. It wasn’t like they had much of an alternative, after all.

When Carlos got hurt, using the Voice to save him had just been a reflex, a last-ditch effort to do something. It hadn’t been intended as an official end to the silence, but that’s how people chose to interpret it anyway. They lined up in droves, crowding his throne room in impossible numbers, calling for him to bless their fields or buffer their children or lift their spirits. He probably wouldn’t finish today’s crowd until well past dark, and even then some of them would be sent away empty-handed. He didn’t anticipate finishing by eight on Friday, either, but he suspected nobody would complain too loudly if he went to see Carlos.

They knew too well who was responsible for ending the silence. They weren’t about to risk another one.


 

A date.

Carlos had a date. With Cecil.

Dear Smiling God--

Calm down, he told himself. It’s just dinner. You’ve eaten with him plenty of times. It’s just dinner.

Except that Carlos had called it personal. And Cecil-- he’d looked pleased. A personal dinner. Not a politics-and-alchemy dinner.

A date.

Carlos was so busy arguing semantics with himself that he didn’t notice the curly-haired servant until he nearly bowled her over.

“Oh! Sorry-- sorry, my fault,” he babbled.

“It’s all right,” she said. Her mouth curved into a wry smile. “But I should probably warn you-- if you’re trying to sneak into His Majesty’s chambers, you shouldn’t bother. He’s going to be stuck in court for a while.”

Carlos flushed crimson. “I-- no-- I didn’t-- I would never--” In his mortification he stumbled backwards and-- to add physical humiliation-- landed on his ass. “I got lost,” he said meekly.

“You know, I actually believe you.” The servant beamed warmly at him and extended a hand. “My name’s Dana, by the way.”

Carlos accepted her help to his feet. “Oh. Yes. Cecil talks about you often.” More than any of the other servants, actually. “Are the two of you close?”

“I’m not competition or anything, if that’s what you’re asking,” she said, not unkindly.

“No, of course not.” Wait. That hadn’t come out right. “Not that you’re not--”

“It’s okay, I get what you mean,” she said with a laugh. “You can relax; I don’t bite.”

“I’ll make sure to make a note,” he said.

“How about I show you how to get back to the throne room.” She said it with the amused patience of someone who’d had to do this dozens of times before, and Carlos could understand why. The palace was huge, full of hallways winding away into a labyrinth of bloodstone and granite. Now that he thought about it, he had no idea which way he’d come. As they walked, some of the halls seemed to loop in on themselves; others seemed to branch off in impossible directions. One of the rooms they passed made his head hurt when he glanced at it: the walls and ceiling and floor all met at obtuse angles, but they all seemed to lean in on each other in ways that defied the fundamentals of geometry.

Carlos shook his head, forcing his mind into a different direction. “I was wondering if you could clarify something for me.” Dana raised an eyebrow, but signaled for him to continue. “Sometimes when I’m with Cecil, he’ll get this look on his face. It’s always the same look, like he’s in pain, but I’ve never found a physical stimulus that would cause it. Honestly, I’ve never observed any real pattern to it at all. I wanted to know if you had any idea what might be behind it.”

Dana’s expression clouded over. “I take it you haven’t asked Cecil about it?”

“He acts like he’s trying to cover it up,” Carlos said. “My brother gets that way when people bring up his leg. Whatever Cecil’s going through, I don’t think he’d appreciate my drawing attention to it. I know it’s not any of my business, but if there’s something that makes him uncomfortable, I’d like to know how to avoid it.”

“That’s... fair, I suppose,” Dana said quietly. She paused, considering Carlos carefully for a moment. “Have you been to the tournament yard?”

Carlos frowned. “Yes?”

“So you’ve seen the statue there.”

“Of the soldier? Yes, I’ve seen it.”

“It isn’t a statue.”

Carlos blinked, immediately flipping through every possible alternative. There were too many to draw any real conclusions. “What is it?”

“Sir Earl Harlan. It’s his body. It got turned to stone. The rest of him-- his mind, his soul-- they’re--” She waved a hand vaguely. “Honestly, I don’t understand it very well. But he’s gone.”

Carlos made another mental note to find a more specific explanation, but he nodded for her to continue.

“He and Cecil-- they were in love,” she said. “I mean, they were best friends forever, and then Earl became his champion, and--” She bit her lip. “Anyway. Cecil took it hard, what happened to Earl. He was in a dark place for a long time. He’s been a lot happier since you came around, though. I’ve seen him smile more in the past few months than I have in years.” Her smile, momentarily wistful, turned as hard and sweet as rock candy. “Of course, you should know that if you hurt him, I’ll hurt you. And there are lots of people lined up behind me to do the same. Fair warning and all.”

“Naturally,” Carlos said, though he suspected Dana would at least let him survive the ordeal, should it ever come to that. Most of his siblings weren’t nearly so forgiving when it came to scorned love.

“Just… take care,” she said. “He’s important to us. To a lot of us. We don’t want to see him hurt.”


 

Even with Cecil ending his audience in court early, the day had left him exhausted. Not magically drained, he’d assured Dave and Malai, who’d lingered after the rest of the crowd had left to thoroughly examine him. The Voice wasn’t Cecil’s magic so much as it was all of Night Vale’s, fed by hundreds of daily bloodstone chants and blood sacrifices and channeled through his will. Still, dealing with that many people and doing that much thinking had turned his mind to metaphorical putty.

So maybe it was lack of creativity, but he honestly couldn’t think of a better way to end the day than right here: eating good food and drinking good wine, sitting across from quite possibly the most beautiful man in the world, listening to him expound upon red kings and white queens and unification and harmony. Cecil was pretty sure there were some metaphors in there somewhere, and that the whole thing was actually about chemicals and stones and alchemy, but he was too busy enjoying the sound of Carlos’ voice to worry too much about it, and Carlos seemed content just to have him listen.

The evening brought them to the palace gardens, where the last brilliant colors of sunset washed over the night sky before it gave way to void, and stars, and the brighter lights that danced in the air overhead.

They wandered among rain lilies and damask violets with their fingertips just barely brushing, watching the nightflowers open their buds to the rising moonlight.

“It’s lovely out here,” Carlos said quietly, taking a deep breath of jasmine-scented air. He let it out again in a long sigh. “Thank you.”

“For what?” Cecil hummed.

“For bringing me here. For sharing this with me. For letting me stay in Night Vale. For saving me. For…” His voice turned warm and soft. “For being you.”

Cecil wasn’t sure exactly when he’d averted his eyes, but when he looked up again, Carlos was close. Cecil could feel the warmth of his breath on his cheek.

And then he was closer, his lips pressed against Cecil’s. Just once, just gently, and then it was over. Carlos’ gaze flitted from one of Cecil’s eyes to the other, and the motion made reflected light twinkle in their darkness.

A dizzy sigh escaped Cecil’s lips.

Part of his mind had ground to a halt, its gears choking on a single thought: he kissed me. Another part was racing forward at full gallop.

“What about your family?” he asked, mostly to distract himself from the need to throw his arms around Carlos and kiss him back.

Carlos gave a self-deprecating smile. “I realized I’ve been a terrible alchemist.”

“You?” Cecil almost giggled at the idea. “Never.”

“Thank you, but it’s true. Good alchemists conduct experiments and follow the scientific method and go where the evidence leads them. Instead I’ve drawn preliminary conclusions and ignored anything that didn’t support them. But past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.” He said it like it was the answer to the universe.

Cecil was far less enlightened. “I… don’t follow.”

“I assumed if we were together, a single conclusion would inevitably follow. But that’s only one possibility. Nothing is certain. Everything is some degree of maybe, and acting otherwise is highly unscientific. And what happened made me realize: I could die tomorrow, or we could learn we’re incompatible and drift apart, or any of a literally endless number of things could happen to us. Ever since what happened in Grove Park, I just-- I don’t want to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder for the things that might go wrong. I don’t want to keep wasting time. I want-- I want you, Cecil.”

The world stopped turning, and Cecil felt like he’d been thrown over the edge.

“Since Grove Park,” he repeated faintly.

Carlos smiled. “Near death experiences will do that to you.”

Maybe so.

But so will a Voice.

“I’m sorry.” Cecil stepped back, the color draining from his face. “I didn’t mean-- I’m so sorry.”

Concern furrowed Carlos’ brow. He followed Cecil into a burst of burdock, and in an instant the alchemist’s arms were around him, one hand supportive at his back, the other cupping his face. “What’s wrong?”

Cecil jerked away like he’d been scalded. “Please don’t touch me.”

The look of hurt on Carlos face carved deep into Cecil. He wanted more than anything to run back into Carlos’ arms, to hold him close--

But even more than that, he didn’t want Carlos to do something he’d regret while under the influence of the Voice.

Anything else he’d regret, anyway.

“I’m sorry.” Cecil coughed up the words like they were broken glass, but Carlos needed to hear them. He had to understand. “The Voice-- it’s an extension of my will. It gives me what I want. And Carlos, you--” He choked. You’re what I want. More than anything. “What you’re feeling-- it isn’t real. It’s a side effect of the power I used to save you. You have to understand, I didn’t mean to-- to do this to you.”

“What do you mean, it isn’t real?” Carlos asked, bewildered. “Cecil, I know how I feel--”

“No, you don’t.” Cecil retreated back another step. He felt twisted and dirty all over, like the Voice was seeping through his pores like miasma. “That’s how the Voice works. It feels real, but it isn’t.”

You don’t know that!” Carlos took a long stride forward, backing Cecil against the caged branches of an apple tree. “Cecil, please. Think about what you’re saying. I know you’re upset by what happened to Earl, but I--”

“What happened to Earl?” Cecil laughed, shrill and manic. “Don’t you understand? I happened to Earl! I couldn’t control this damn Voice then and now he’s gone! And after all that-- after I thought I learned my damned lesson-- I used it on you without even thinking. I don’t even know what I’ve done to you, Carlos. I have no idea the extent of the damage, or how to undo it, or if it can even be undone. But I will try. I will do everything in my power to fix this. But until I do, you can’t be here.”

Carlos blinked back angry tears. “Cecil, please--” He reached out, but another hand caught his hand in an iron grip.

Nazr al-Mujaheed melted out of the shadows, his expression steely and unyielding, the silver buttons on his uniform glinting in the moonlight. Michael Sandero stepped into sight on Carlos’ other side, tensed and ready to subdue him.

“Cecil, please,” Carlos whispered.

“I’m sorry.” The words fell dead at Cecil’s feet. If he didn’t give up saying them now, they’d keep pouring out for the rest of his life. “Nazr, take him back to his lab.”

Chapter Text

Carlos didn't sleep that night.

Every sound brought its own brand of potential doom: Dana coming to make good in her promise, the Secret Police coming to evict him from the country, that faceless old woman coming to do... whatever the hell it was she did. For some bizarre reason he pictured her crawling toward him on the ceiling like some kind of enormous spider, always just out of sight, twisting her her neck to stare at him with a face as blank and featureless as unpainted canvas.

As much as the mental image made his skin crawl, he almost wanted someone to come for him. It was better than stewing in his own thoughts.

He was angry: angry at the guards for dragging him away, angry at Cecil for rejecting him after all this time, angry at himself for ruining what they had.

The anger, though, was easier to handle than the doubt that flowed underneath it. What Cecil had said had been completely ridiculous. Insulting, even. But… Carlos had never been much of a romantic before Night Vale. He was too practical for that, especially when the potential object of his affections came with as many strings attached as a king. Every iota of reason and logic told Carlos to stay far away from Cecil. But sometimes even logic needed to be ignored. And Cecil-- ridiculous, confusing Cecil-- was worth defying reason for.

Or was that just the Voice making him think that? Undermining his faculties, twisting his thoughts until they weren’t his own, jerking him around like a marionette on its strings?

And if it was, he argued back, was that really so bad?

As unsettling as the thought was, Carlos couldn’t deny that he liked being in love. He liked how much brighter the world became with Cecil in it. He liked looking forward to their meetings, no matter how mundane, and he loved reliving them over and over again afterward. He liked seeing Cecil’s face light up and knowing he was the one responsible for the king’s glee. And as distracting as his fantasies could be, Carlos enjoyed having someone to fantasize about.

Hell, with the exception of recent events, Carlos was happier than he could ever remember being. And if all of that was thanks to a spell, who cared? It was wonderful!

Unless it was the Voice making him think that.

What could he trust, if his own head had been compromised by a subconscious thought? Was anything safe? Was anything safe anyway, all things considered?

At a little past five in the morning, when lack of sleep had left his head foggy and confused, a new thought entered his mind.

What if the roles had been reversed?

What if Cecil had been the one enchanted? What if every moment they’d shared had been a mere re-enactment of Carlos’ most secret fantasies, and Cecil had merely been forced to play along? Someone so pure and kind, corrupted into a will-less plaything, without a hope of escape or a chance to say no--

The thought turned Carlos’ stomach. He wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

Whether he was right or wrong in his assumption, Cecil believed that had happened to Carlos. And worse, he thought he’d caused it.


 

The palace was sealed up as efficiently as a castle under siege, and for the first several days, that was what it looked like. The townspeople gathered outside the front gate in a thrumming mob demanding to see their king, but they couldn’t get past the door. The side and servants’ doors were locked, after a few villagers had attempted to sneak in through those entrances and been promptly thrown out again by the royal guards.

Leann Hart seemed to be finally making good use of her printing press: she’d taken to recording events inside the palace and selling the information to the people outside, charging by the flyer. She seemed absolutely delighted by the popularity of her papers, though Cecil found it hard to be happy for her. She’d taken to hounding him through the halls, pestering him for updates and quotes. Usually he could deflect her to someone else, but even Leann had gotten sick of Lauren Palmer's smiling updates on how Desert Bluffs felt about the whole situation. Now she pursued Cecil with a ruthless dedication to balanced journalism.

Cecil, for his part, retaliated by speedwalking. He wasn’t particularly tall, but his legs were still longer than Leann’s, and she had to stop every so often to keep her notes from flying off in all directions, which gave him ample time to flee out of sight.

One such escape brought him to the courtyard. He’d barely burst through the doors when he caught a cluster of people arguing up ahead, and he immediately ducked behind a decorative shrub. The last thing he needed right now was to have his location pointed out to Leann.

“So how long d’ya think this is gonna last?” drawled the voice of Hiram McDaniels’ gold head.

“Hell if I know,” Pamela Winchell said. “I just wish he would have waited until I was out of office to do it. Once a term is bad enough, but twice?”

“Does anybody even know what happened?” Steve Carlsberg asked. Of course he would. Steve.

“A few people, but they’re not talking,” Pamela grated. “All I know is that the Sheriff’s Secret Police called for the palace guards in the middle of the night, and they didn’t even call in the chatty ones. The Sheriff says it’s classified.”

Cecil made a mental note to see to it that the Sheriff got a raise.

“I thought that alchemist had snuffed it or something,” Steve said, “but apparently he’s still around. Cecil always did get all mopey when it came to guys.”

“Really,” huffed another voice-- Pamela’s assistant Trish Hidge, by the sound of it. “If he’s going to quit doing his job every time he gets a little emotional, then maybe he needs to not be the Voice anymore. He should just hand it off to someone who can actually handle it.”

“Now, now,” Hiram said. “Cecil ain’t half bad as a Voice. In fact, he’s a pretty good one. You just gotta know how to handle him, that’s all.”

“And you’d be the expert?” Pamela asked dryly.

“Well, yeah. There ain’t much of a trick to it, once you know what to look for,” the dragon continued. “That there alchemist, Carlos? Yeah, he got himself all banged up, and bam! out comes the Voice. So it seems pretty obvious to me, if you want to bring the Voice back, all you gotta do is, oh, I dunno, light him on fire or somthin’.”

Cecil sucked in a breath. He backed away, staring at the group through the shrub, his mind empty and numb.

“I suppose he just lost your vote,” mused a voice in his ear.

Cecil raised his head to look at the Faceless Old Woman, but of course, she was already gone.

“It’s starting again,” she observed. “Just like what happened last time.”

“Worse,” Cecil breathed. “They’re talking about going after Carlos.”

“Not irrationally. He is the reason you stopped Speaking again, after all. Even if they don’t know that.”

“No!” he snapped, and the crowd in the center of the courtyard paused.

“Calm down, Blue Head,” Hiram said. “Anyway…”

Cecil lowered his voice again. “Carlos didn’t have anything to do with this. It’s me.” He glanced through the bush again. “They’re right. I’m an awful Voice. I’m an awful king. If I had any sense at all I’d just give it up--”

“To whom, exactly?” the Faceless Old Woman asked. “Someone you trust, I’m sure, but it would only be a matter of time until they got fed up with the responsibility, just like you. And then who would they give it to? How long do you think it would take before the Voice wound up in the mouth of someone who had absolutely no qualms doing the things you fear?”

“That could happen anyway,” Cecil muttered.

“And it has,” the Faceless Old Woman continued. “I am older than Night Vale’s history, Cecil. I have seen much, and I will see even more. You are very, very flawed, but not everyone is as responsible with the Voice as you. Some of them used their Voice in daily conversation-- do you realize just how many have unwittingly imbued intent into words like “I’ll be there in a minute” and “hold on a second”? It was a poorly-thought-out decision, and it has made keeping track of time very difficult.”

“I have absolutely no idea where you’re going with this,” Cecil said.

“That’s because you never pay attention, and that’s very frustrating,” she said. “But every year that you have the Voice is another year it isn’t handed off to someone even worse than you.”

Cecil blinked. He was pretty sure that was supposed to make him feel better, but mostly it just left him a little queasy.

“All right, fine,” she said. “If you’re not going to listen to me, at least stop moping.”

Something white fluttered in front of his face, and he scrambled to catch it: a piece of parchment. A letter, written in beet juice, sealed with a wax stamp and since torn open. Cecil cast a sidelong glance in the direction the Faceless Old Woman had last spoken from and tucked it into his pocket. He’d read it, but in the safety of his rooms. Not out here.


 

Cecil--

I feel like I should put ‘dear’ or ‘dearest’ in front of that, but I don’t think that will be very helpful right now. I’m trying to understand what you’re going through. I don’t think I can-- not entirely, not without your help-- but I am trying. If you need me to stay away for now, then I’ll respect that.

Cecil, I believe what I feel for you is real-- but I realize that’s what I would say if I were enchanted, so I understand if you don’t put much stock into what I think.  

When we last met, you said you didn’t know the extent of the effect you’d had on me. Dave and Malai have gathered excellent insights into your abilities, but they still have a lot to discover. They’re willing to help you, if you’ll let them. I’ll be conducting my own investigation. Hopefully one of us will get to the bottom of this.

Until then, know that I love you-- with all my heart, and as sincerely as I can. And I believe that I will always love you.

So please, please believe it, too.

--Carlos


 

As the last gloom of twilight faded into dark, the solar shrieking in the town square fell silent. It was, as the townspeople had reported, solar by nature-- it began at dawn, ended at dusk, and faded into a mild whine when the sky above the square became overcast. It also couldn’t be heard outside of a very narrow area: when Carlos stepped onto one side of the line he’d marked around the square, the shriek was nearly deafening; when he stepped across the line, it was completely inaudible.

The whole situation warranted further investigation. Until then, he recommended that important social functions be moved elsewhere-- or that the Glow Cloud be called in to lend its benevolent shade to those events that simply couldn’t be moved.

The day’s investigations had left him exhausted, but it was the good kind of exhausted-- the kind that followed a long day of being productive and actually making progress. He’d had entirely too little of that lately.

He was just thinking about how much he could use a good glass of wine and a backrub when he stepped through the door into the lab.

Lanre and Malai were gathered around the stone tablets they’d borrowed from the City Council’s labyrinthine vaults, as they often had been for the past several days. Gretchen and Dave were huddled across the labs, taking notes and cooing scientifically at--

Cecil.

Carlos froze, struck by a sudden self-conscious panic. His hair was a wreck, his skin was gritty with sand and dried sweat, his clothes were hopelessly rumpled, his face was red either with a blush or with a mild sunburn.

Cecil was here. In the weeks since the incident in the garden, Carlos had only seen him twice, both times at a distance, both times while Cecil had been on his way to some community event or another. Before then, Carlos had written Cecil a letter, once-- a syrupy, awkward, embarrassing thing that he’d been too self-conscious to send, though it had vanished from his desk mere minutes after he’d sealed it. He didn’t believe it was a coincidence that Cecil had allowed the rest of his team back into the palace after that.

Carlos had not been invited. And as much as he could understand the reason behind the omission, it still left a bitter aftertaste in his mouth, and he’d tried to swallow it back with as much grace and understanding as he could muster.

Now, looking at the king up close, Carlos thought he understood a little better.

Cecil was gaunt. Drawn. His face had an exhausted heaviness to it, the kind Carlos had seen so often in Desert Bluffs-- the look of someone who finally let themselves frown after a day of forcing smiles.

Carlos was moving toward him before he knew what he was doing. He wanted to hold Cecil, to wrap him in blankets and cradle him in his arms, to press warm cups of tea into his hands and promise him everything was going to be all right. He wanted to smooth away the lines on his face and kiss color back into his cheeks.

But he couldn’t. Because that would just make things worse.

“Carlos,” Rochelle said, and he forced himself to focus on her instead of the look that had just crossed Cecil’s face. “You weren’t supposed to be back until nigthfall.”

“It fell.” He waved a hand at the window to prove his point. It occurred to him that she must have done a reading to find out exactly how long he’d be out-- and, following that line of logic, that she’d timed things so that Cecil would be here when Carlos wouldn’t.

He tried to think back to his past projects-- how often had they used his absence as a chance to bring Cecil here? How many times had he been one forgotten piece of equipment away from seeing him again?

Cecil cleared his throat. “If that’s all you’ll be needing from me, I’ll take my leave.” His face was mostly composed, but for a moment his eyes turned back to Carlos, and the facade flickered. He looked like a beggar staring through closed windows at a king’s feast: all hunger, need, and bone-deep resignation.

The king only made it as far as the door before Carlos dove after him. “Cecil! Cecil, wait, please.” Cecil was already outside and turning to walk away, but Carlos grabbed his wrist.

The king froze, a look of pain on his face. “Please let go of me, Carlos.”

Carlos recognized the edge to his tone: it wasn’t a request so much as a chance. The next time he asked, it would be an order, and it would be to guards standing just out of earshot. Reluctantly Carlos dropped his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But Cecil-- Cecil, you don’t need to hide from me. You don’t need to drop everything and leave when I arrive. I-- I like seeing you. I miss you, Cecil.”

The king looked tired. “I know. That’s the problem.”

“But we’re making progress,” Carlos said. “We’re getting closer. Soon we’ll figure it out--”

“No, you won’t.” Cecil sighed, and the color seemed to fade out of him, leaving behind a lifeless gray. “Your entire team has dedicated themselves to this for weeks, and it’s accomplished nothing. Just wasting your time and mine.” His eyes rested on Carlos for a moment. Just one. Then his lids shut like portcullis: a sealed door. “I think it’s time to call this investigation a failure.”

“No!” Carlos reached for him, but his hands closed over empty air. Do not touch. “Cecil, please. I swear, I just need a little more time. A month! A week!” Do not touch. “Please, I’m begging you. Don’t let it end like this.”

Cecil’s shoulders sagged. His eyes dragged open and he stared at Carlos like he was trying to commit him to memory. “You have a week.”

A week.

“Then a week’s all I’ll need.” Carlos bowed low, catching Cecil’s hand and pressing a quick kiss to his knuckles. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

For a moment Cecil’s fingers extended to brush Carlos’ cheek, soft and warm and tremulous. Then the moment passed, and Cecil was gone.

But that was all right.

A week would be enough. It had to be.


 

A week wasn’t enough time.

Not even close.

The problem with investigating the effects of the Voice was that Carlos had no idea what to test for. The fact that the Voice had been bestowing blessings and granting wishes for the entire kingdom since time immemorial meant that there were too many variables, and it was impossible to account for all of them. Theoretically speaking, everyone who had grown up in Night Vale should share some quality, some lingering trace of the Voice’s influence. But it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what that should be when some of the citizens were river rocks and some were five-headed dragons and some apparently shared lineage with subterranean insectoid rodents.

Even when Carlos narrowed his sample size-- dark-skinned male humanoids between thirty and forty years of age-- he found everything and nothing. Their temperature and blood pressure all fell within acceptable limits for typical human conditions. They all bled red, though some of their blood smelled oddly of vanilla. They all reacted to the Glow Cloud within forty-five seconds of it exuding its influence on their frail human minds.

He tried comparing those who hadn’t been present at the shape’s outburst with those who had (which was much more difficult than anticipated, considering he couldn’t talk about or acknowledge its existence), but he found no significant differences between the people who had received that recent dosage of magic and those who hadn’t. He'd tried testing the rest of his team, even Lauren and Daniel, but still the results were inconclusive at best.

He’d already been at it for weeks, but there was simply no other way he could look at this data. He, and his team, and every local mage and witch he’d called in had used every ounce of their energies on this project, and still they’d come up empty.

He was out of options and out of time.

He needed help.

Unfortunately, he knew exactly where to get it.

Desert Bluffs had long since been on the bleeding edge (often quite literally) of research into all things magical, medical and technological. Carlos’ siblings would share enough of his physiology to serve as appropriate control groups in analyzing the changes he’d undergone while in Night Vale, and each of them stood firmly in the top tiers of their respective fields. If anybody could find a conclusive answer, it would be one of them.

What they would do with that information was another matter entirely. If there was anyone that didn’t need access to that kind of power, it was the Family Strex. It had been dangerous just letting the ambassador know general details about the team's investigation; actually asking for help would require more truth and detail than he could give.

But Carlos had one last alternative. And at this point he was willing to try even that.


 

The cave was something out of a nightmare.

Everything was red: it splashed across the walls in broad streaks the color of ripe apples; rust-brown flaked from the ceiling; it covered the floor, congealed so thick it was nearly black, so slick that Carlos nearly slipped on the smooth, wet stone. Copper and salt and rotted meat filled his nose and left him retching. And everywhere: teeth.

Molars had been fastened to the ceiling in an elaborate mosaic. Canines and incisors lined the entryway, like the entire door was fixed in an unholy grin. Tongues-- some fresh, some blackened and shrivelled-- had been nailed into arrangements like petals on flowers. He realized with horror that the centerpiece of each floret was a single dissected eye, sliced open in two directions so it could bloom with the rest of its bouquet.

If Carlos had anything left in his stomach, he would have thrown up. But he’d been prepared for this-- intellectually, if not mentally. He’d fasted while he made the journey here, and he’d purged what little remained in his his bladder, bowels and stomach before approaching the cave.

The Oracle didn’t appreciate those who disturbed his grisly decor. Carlos suspected that their penance was a personal contribution.

Something moved in the depths of the cavern, and Carlos raised his lantern.

He’d been prepared.

Just not for this.

The set of his shoulders, the drift of his hair, the curve of his jaw, the long, lovely legs...

“Cecil?” he whispered, nearly slipping again on the cruor.

The figure turned, and it wasn’t Cecil. Not at all.

His smile was all wrong, all teeth, stretched wider than muscle and bone should allow. He moved like a spider-- inhumanly fast one moment and statuesque the next, and in between something slow and deliberate. Predatory.

But his eyes--

His eyes were gone. Deep, black pits with nothing in them, not even the back of the empty socket. They were void and horror and the dark things that lurk in forgotten places.

Hello, Your Highness!” The Oracle’s voice was shrill and entirely too cheerful. “It is wonderful to finally meet you. Your family comes to see me so often, but this is the very first time you’ve paid me a visit.” He tilted his head-- mocking? Inviting? Carlos couldn’t tell. “Welcome. You can call me Kevin!” His voice deepened, suddenly dark and sultry. “How can I serve you?”

“What, you don’t know?” Carlos asked bitterly. After the initial shock of seeing Cecil’s face, he’d remembered the stories: the Oracle was what you wanted most. Whatever you wanted. When his siblings looked at him, they saw power, or intellect, or adoring subjects. Carlos only saw Cecil.

Kevin grinned with Cecil’s mouth, his smile too wide and full of teeth.

Carlos swallowed. Well, there was no point in putting it off any longer. “I believe I’ve been… affected… by the Voice of Night Vale.”

Whatever else Kevin was, he was the highest authority on magic. If he couldn’t see something, it wasn’t there. No matter how subtle or on which plane of existence. And now that eyeless leer was fixed on Carlos.

“Ohhhhhh yes,” Kevin purred. “In many, many ways.”

It wasn’t damning. Carlos had anticipated that the remnants of the healing spell would linger in his veins.  You couldn’t just bring someone back to life without leaving a mark on them.

“What about my head?” Carlos asked. “Is it altering my thoughts?”

“Silly prince,” the Oracle sang, suddenly at Carlos’ back, and he ruffled the prince’s hair. “You don’t need me to tell you that. You wouldn’t have come to see me if he wasn’t." His voice turned somber, almost sad, though there was an edge of amusement behind it. "He’s in your head, deep into the folds of gray. He’s curling your soul around his fingertips. You’ve been apart from your sweet quicksilver king in so very long, my brimstone prince, but still he consumes you. You’ll burn into nothing before he’s done. Nothing but ash and char.”

Carlos’ stomach dropped.  

So that was it, then.  Cecil had been right. It was all a lie.

Then what? Then he got to spend the rest of his life forced to pine for someone who wouldn’t have him? Unable to be reciprocated and unable to move on? That wasn’t living, that was purgatory. And Cecil--

Cecil.

Cecil already hated himself for what he’d done to Earl. Cecil would look at this whole twisted mess and see not accidents and bad luck, but another life he’d personally destroyed.

This would kill him, if he found out. And Carlos would be powerless to help.

Unless…

Unless Carlos took away half the guilt. Unless he made sure there would be someone to hold Cecil and comfort him. Someone whose love Cecil could accept.

Someone whose love he’d already accepted.

“I can undo it, if you like,” Kevin purred.

Carlos blinked. “Undo it?”

“Take away all that awful pain.” He twisted a lock of Carlos’ hair around one blood-stained finger.

“You mean-- fix this? Cure me, so that I can go back?”

So I can have Cecil for real this time?

Or so I can bring back his dead boyfriend?

“Of course!” Kevin clapped his hands, far too close to Carlos’ ear. “But you have to ask nicely.”

Carlos took a deep breath that tasted of blood and decay. “Please. I want you to sever my connection to the voice.”

“There are so many ties here. You want me to cut all of them?” Kevin ran his fingers over Carlos’ skin like he was strumming a harp.

Or Carlos could leave now. Go back, restore Earl Harlan to his former self. And then spend the rest of his life alone, knowing the man he loved was safe and happy in another man’s arms.

Carlos bowed his head. “...Yes.”

A flash of movement, and Kevin was in front of Carlos once again, so close that Carlos could smell mollassass and meat on his breath. “I should warn you. It’s going to hurt.”

Carlos looked away. “It already hurts.”

“Excellent!” Kevin squealed. “Then this shouldn’t bother you one bit!”


 

Kevin was wrong.

It didn’t hurt.

It was agony.

 

 

Chapter Text

The Sheriff’s Secret Police found Carlos in the sand wastes. He was ash-faced and bloodstained, slumped over in the saddle while his horse meandered in search of water. The poor animal almost had to be put down, it was in such sorry shape, though Josie’s angels were able to coax it back from the brink.

Carlos was… alive.

It was difficult to discern much more than that. He was dehydrated, starved and sunburnt, but otherwise uninjured. Thinking felt like he was trying to wade through swamp water, and moving wasn’t much better. His skin didn’t feel like it fit properly-- like it had been peeled off and lined with sand before it was sewn back on by clumsy fingers.

Several concerned citizens insisted (loudly and repeatedly) that he should be turned over to the king’s care, but after a good deal of arguing, Carlos was turned over to his team.

The first few days passed in a blur, most of them spent sleeping and gulping down bowls of brothy soup. Apparently the team had completely given up on things like personal space and privacy: Malai was in the process of tattooing an elaborate sesame oil tattoo on the few undamaged patches of skin, and Gretchen had taken to slathering sweet-smelling healing salve all over his sunburns. The guys were a bit less hands-on; Lanre had already supplied a healing charm that rested under Carlos’ pillow, and Dave refused to perform any spells until he knew exactly what was wrong in the first place.

Rochelle already knew.

Naturally.

“I won’t tell the others if you don’t want me to,” she said.

Carlos raised a wary eyebrow at her. “What, did you do another reading for me?”

“I didn’t have to,” she said. “It’s all over your aura.”

“That so?”

“Do you remember when the Glow Cloud dropped a small whale into Radon Canyon?” she asked. It was hard to forget. That much mass travelling at terminal velocity into a rocky pit made for one hell of a mess. “It looks kind of like that. That’s what people almost always look like after they visit the Oracle.”

“Pleasant,” he muttered, raking his fingernails over an arm. It did nothing to stop the itching.

A low, sonorous voice drifted in from the front room: “Hello, Dave. Lanre. I just wanted to check in on Carlos. Is he doing any better?”

The alchemist sat up, only to be hit by a wave of dizziness. Fortunately, it felt like it had more to do with sitting up rapidly than with any of the other things wrong with him, so that was a good sign. 

So far his only visitors had been Lauren and Daniel, though they'd been quickly shooed out by Carlos' team. That voice didn't belong to Daniel, though-- it was too smooth. Too rich. The other two men responded, but their voices didn’t carry nearly so well as the newcomer. Or maybe it was that Carlos was far less invested in hearing their smalltalk than in soaking up that lovely sound.

“I’m sure your team is taking excellent care of him,” the man said. “I just wanted to know if he’s had a chance to tell us what’s happened. If there’s bandit activity in the sand wastes, the Sheriff’s Secret Police will want to know about it.”

Carlos sat up again, slowly. “I’d better take care of this,” he sighed.

“Are you sure?” Rochelle got the strangest look on her face. “We can handle this.”

“It’s fine,” he said, waving her away. “The Sheriff won’t appreciate his men being sent off on a wild goose chase.” His legs wobbled, but they still held his weight. He threw on his lab coat and ran a hand through his messy hair before he pushed his way through the door. “Don’t worry, I’m awake.”

The man who stood between Dave and Lanre looked up and froze like a startled jackalope. He wasn’t quite tall or short, neither fat nor thin, but Carlos couldn’t bring himself to call the man average. His eyes were wide and clear, as violet as a twilight sky. His mouth hung open just slightly, his lips parted in a gasp, a sigh, a silent laugh, an expectation of a kiss. His skin had a weary grayness of someone who’d pushed himself too hard for too long and pretended to be fine.

“Oh,” he stammered like wrinkled velvet. “Carlos. You’re awake.”

“I am,” the alchemist sad.

“That’s-- that’s good.” The man’s gaze flitted over Carlos like he was checking for injuries. “I-- er-- do you remember what happened to you? Are you all right to talk about it?”

“I remember just fine.” Though honestly, Carlos would have preferred not to. The memory of what the Oracle-- Kevin-- had done to him in that cave sent a shudder through him. The stranger advanced a step, but stopped short. “I’d rather not talk about it, thanks. But it wasn’t bandits, or anything else the police need to be concerned with. It was an isolated incident.”

“Oh. Good. I mean, it’s not good what happened to you-- but I’m glad you’re back home and safe! If the danger has passed…” He looked uncomfortable. “I’ll be going, then.”

Back home, Carlos mused as the man hurried away. That was an odd way to put it. Carlos had been living in Night Vale for more than a year, but it was hardly home.

As soon as the stranger was out of earshot, Dave let out a low whistle. “Did the temperature just drop a few degrees, or is it just me?”

Carlos glanced at the thermometer among the equipment. “Looks normal to me.”

“If you say so,” Lanre said. “But I agree with Dave. I’ve never seen Cecil move so fast.”

“You know him?” Carlos asked politely.

The lab went suddenly silent.

“Carlos?” Dave asked slowly, carefully, like he was speaking to a panicked child. “Are you all right?”

The prince gave him a flat stare. “I think we’ve collected enough data to answer that question.”

“You can never have enough data.”

A long silence frosted between them.

“Yes,” Lanre said abruptly. “I know Cecil. As do you. He came to the lab when we first arrived in Night Vale. Do you remember?”

Carlos shrugged. “A lot’s happened since then. Names and faces have never exactly been my strong suit. You know that.”

“But it’s Cecil,” Dave said, like that was supposed to mean something. “He’s-- he’s Cecil. He’s--”

“He’s the king,” Rochelle said.

Carlos blinked. The king?

That was funny. Night Vale wasn’t exactly a vast empire. Statistically, Carlos would’ve run into him a few times at least during the past year. Especially since he’d been to the palace on more than a few occassions.

That was right, the castle was the first place he’d gone when the team arrived in Night Vale. To introduce themselves and declare their intentions. That was a pretty big deal; it wasn’t the sort of thing a monarch would reasonably miss out on.

Carlos tried to focus on the event, but he found nothing but a vague blur. No names, no faces, no conversation. He’d arrived in the palace, he’d declared himself, he’d asked for the lab, he’d been pleased, he left. There was no inkling of who he’d been talking to-- it might as well have been a brick wall, though he was fairly certain it hadn’t been.

There was just… nothing.

“Oh,” he said faintly.

“Oh what?” Dave’s voice was getting shrill. “Oh what? Carlos, are you all right?”

Carlos was getting so tired of that question.

“I’m going to sit down,” he said. “Rochelle, go ahead and explain.” He staggered back toward his room while voices rose behind him.

That man. The king. Cecil.

No, that wasn’t right. He needed to focus.

Carlos trained his mind onto a single event-- crawling out of the cave. Grabbing his horse’s reins where it had been tethered to a tree, bucking and shrieking at the scent of blood. Rasping and cooing until the animal had panicked itself to the point of exhaustion, and then hauling himself into the saddle and setting his horse loose to find its own way to civilization.

No. Not that event. Earlier. The cave. Drenched in blood, writhing, as slender fingers dug between eyes and sockets, as long tendrils of something forced their way down his throat and into his lungs, as sharp teeth tore into flesh and skin and the very fabric of his soul. Unwinding him like a mis-stitched patch of knitting, unravelling, tearing him apart--

Stop stop stop before that!

The cave, still. Only his feet drenched in blood. Nearly slipping and struggling to catch his balance so he wouldn’t get the gore on his hands. Speaking with Kevin, who looked like-- what did he look like again? It changed, didn’t it? Carlos had asked him something. Kevin had wanted to know if he was sure, and then he’d begun the torture.

Carlos had been sure. Of what?

He couldn’t remember. It wasn’t at the tip of his tongue, it simply wasn’t there.

Just gone.

But that in itself was data.

Carlos rummaged through his desk. Every item he touched stirred a handful of memories: interviews with the Glow Cloud, late night dinners at Big Rico's pub, arguing with Sarah Sultana while she drew rude pictures of him. He couldn't find any other blanks in his memory.

Did that mean they were more cleverly hidden, or was the king the only person expunged from his memory?

And did he even want to know?

Carlos didn't share his siblings' infatuation with the Oracle. Kevin had always made him uneasy at best. If he was willing to go to Kevin for help, to ask for that torture to be inflicted on him, then he must have been truly desperate.

What had he wanted so desperately to purge? What was worth that torture?

And was that a memory he should even be trying to uncover?

His skin crawled, and he shucked off his lab coat. Nothing there: no sand, no flakes of dried blood, no army of crawling insects. Just him and his own discomfort.

He resumed searching his belongings. If the situation was dangerous, then he wouldn't have left himself defenseless. He would have left a note, a sign, some kind of clue of what to avoid.

There was a knock at his door.

"Carlos?" Rochelle asked softly. "Can I come in?"

He opened the door. Maybe he'd found his note after all.

"I don't remember the king," he said. ‘Why not?’ and ‘what happened?’ were dangerous questions. Perhaps those were wounds better left unopened. "Should I be afraid of him?"

She hesitated. Never a good sign.

"That's a complicated question," she said finally.

"Funny. Because that sounds like a yes to me."


 

"He doesn't remember you," said the Faceless Old Woman. "And he doesn't look eager to correct that."

"Thank you for telling me." Cecil's voice was thin and frail. He was not upset.

"He looks to be recovering quite well."

"Good.” He nodded absently. “That's good. This is all good. As it should be."

He was not upset. Not with the time limit he’d imposed, and not with the solution it had inspired Carlos to find. Carlos had done what he'd said he would: he'd fixed things. Fixed didn't mean aligned with Cecil's hopes. It meant back to the way things were supposed to be.

This was how things were supposed to be.

"Cecil, it– it’s going to be okay,” she said awkwardly, and then her tone fell back into its normal tone. “Actually, that’s a lie. In general, it’s not going to be okay.”

"There's no need to lie to me," he said. "But thank you all the same."

The Faceless Old Woman floundered. It might have been a novel concept, but he barely made note of it. "Some people would suggest you fight for him," she said.

"If it was someone else keeping him from me, I would," he said wearily. "But he's the one who doesn't want this. He said so from the beginning. It's about time I respect that."

He was not upset. It wasn't even a lie anymore.

He just felt empty.


 

The statue in the tournament field was, frankly, beautiful. A knight in full regalia, his pose at once ramrod straight and perfectly natural. His face was tilted to look at the dais where the king would normally sit, his expression…

His expression was a work of art in itself. Proud, terrified, sad, brave-- all of them, all at once. And beyond that, those stone eyes that should be flat and dull crinkled at the corners with love. Pure, innocent adoration. The sincerity of that expression was enough to inspire a sympathetic ache in Carlos’ chest. A man’s heart could break just looking at it.

Even beyond that beautiful face, the detail in the statue was breathtaking. Carlos could see the rough places where nails had been gnawed. at touching the statue he could feel individual hairs carved into its locks, he could see the individual stitches in the statue’s uniform, complete with badges and patches for acts of valor. Artistry like this could make an artist throw away his chisels and give up the craft forever.

But that’s because this wasn’t a statue.

Earl Harlan. Carlos remembered the name without trouble. Earl was human once; his body was here, encased in stone; his mind and soul drifted somewhere in the aether. But when Carlos tried to remember what happened to the soldier, he found nothing. Just that same gaping emptiness.

It was as good as a signature. The king was involved, apparently.

“What did he do to you?” Carlos asked, reaching up to brush the statue’s cheek. He couldn’t imagine what Earl must have been going through. Death might have been a kinder fate for the man-- at least death was an ending. This-- it was drawn-out, an eternal, unbreakable prison. Surely Earl hadn’t done anything to deserve that kind of hell. If he had, maybe he would have used his last moments to try to escape. Maybe his expression would have captured more guilt and dread.

Not this.

An odd absence tugged at Carlos’ awareness. Not the non-memories that he had when Cecil was involved-- a different kind of lack.

It took him a few moments to realize: the itch was gone. In its place was a feeling of… of wholeness. Of rightness. This was where he was meant to be.

Something pulled in Carlos’ chest. A memory, burned away until all that remained was an urge. He’d decided on it at some point before he’d gone to Kevin. The Oracle had tried to hide the task, but it had clung stubbornly to the inside of Carlos’ mind. It was important. Essential. The more he thought on it, the more solid the thought became: he had to save Earl Harlan. Even if it meant he never accomplished anything else in his life, he had to save Earl. Nothing else had ever mattered so much as this.

And to think, Kevin had almost wiped it away.


 

They were talking about him again.

“At least he could have told us before he pulled something like this,” Gretchen said.

“He’s a grown man,” Lanre said. “It’s his business what he does to his own head.”

“But we’re his team! We could have helped him, or made sure he got home safely, or… or something! Doesn’t he trust us?”

The rest of his team had taken to talking about him behind his back like he was a petulant child. Carlos, in his turn, had taken to ignoring their sidelong glances and whispered conversations.

“It’s this place,” Dave said quietly. “His behavior has been getting more and more erratic ever since we got to Night Vale. We should leave.”

“You can go, if you feel that way,” Carlos said, not looking up from his work. The rest of his team was in the other room, but he was certain they’d heard him. “I’m staying here.”

There was a momentary grumble, and they fell silent. Again.

Really, it wasn’t his fault they didn’t appreciate the magnitude of this task.

Spread across the floor before him were dozens of clay tablets, dried to brittle-bone hardness. Within them were every fact and note the team had taken on the king and his Voice. Whoever the king was, whatever he was, he’d been involved in Earl Harlan’s demise in some way, and Carlos needed as much information on the subject as possible. On every subject, actually. He had no idea exactly what he was dealing with, so he needed to find all of it. When he’d scoured every nuance of the notes about the Voice and his teammates had stopped grumbling, he hauled out the rest: transcriptions and notation on the City Council’s stone tablets, summaries and theories on incantation, evocation, abjuration, necromancy. Magic woven into words, into rituals, into objects, into sacrifice.

He fancied he’d devised a new branch of alchemy: taking all other schools of magic available to him and stripping away the flourishes of tradition, distilling them into their purest essence, and then recombining them, over and over and over again.

He barely ate anymore, barely slept, barely left the lab except to gather more information and and ask the ambassador for materials for more experiments. His team had long since given up on talking to him, except to try and coax or command or chase him out of the laboratory, but he remained firm.

And finally, finally, he had it.

After weeks of trial and sometimes disastrous error, Carlos had reverse-engineered the spell that had turned Earl to stone. He only had enough reserves to transfigure a few insects and lizards, but the concept was sound. From there the process of reversing the spell was fairly simple by comparison. The first few were, again, failures: the tiny creatures were alive in the technical sense, but lacked any will or awareness. But within another week he’d perfected even that, and the decalcified lizards scurried away from him as quickly as they had before the spell had hit. They were safe from further experimentation; Carlos was too exhausted to chase after them for a second go. Changing such small, simple creatures back into their former selves was enough to leave him collapsed on the floor. Restoring a grown man would kill him. It would kill a hundred mages.

But it wouldn’t kill the Voice.

That was how the king factored into all of this. No other creature could power this sort of a spell. But even if Carlos could have persuaded the king to save Earl, he couldn’t. According to the tablets, the Voice couldn’t undo what it had done, not without grave consequences.

But Carlos had already found a loophole.

It didn’t take much to persuade a few dozen of the locals to lend him their bloodstones-- “for research purposes”, he’d assured them-- though he detected something further from admiration and closer to pity in the way they looked at him. From there it only took a few more experiments, a few minor explosions, a few slightly altered runes, and the bloodstones were returned to their respective owners.

All that remained was to wait.


 

“Cecil, we need to talk,” the Faceless Old Woman said.

The king stopped short, looking around in a token effort to glance in her direction. “Is there another emergency?”

“There is always an emergency going on somewhere, Cecil,” she said impatiently. “Megan Wallaby is hopelessly inexperienced in picking out the right color palette to compliment her eyes and skin tone, and that ifrit of hers is giving her terrible fashion advice. Lucy and Hannah Gutierrez are going through financial difficulty, and the strain of the situation had them in another shouting match this morning. Walton Kinkaid’s father is dying of old age and there’s nothing anybody can do to help him. There are emergencies happening all around us, Cecil, separated merely by a matter of scale.”

Cecil pinched the bridge of his nose. They hadn’t even gotten to the meat of the matter, and already he could feel a migraine coming on.

“Another headache, Cecil?” the Faceless Old Woman asked.

“It’s fine,” he said.

“I’ve heard several people say that sex helps ease headaches. Sometimes it cures them entirely. You used to enjoy it very much.”

“I’m fine,” he repeated. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

“You should go see Carlos,” she said.

The thought sent a painful stab through Cecil’s temple. “Would you drop it with the sex already? I said I’m fine.”

“I have dropped it,” she said petulantly. “And you’re not fine. Neither is he. And he’s finally let himself out of that laboratory of his, so you can actually see him now. He’s even bathed and changed clothes, which is a step in the right direction for him. His previous state was very unhygienic.”

“Hold on for a second,” Cecil said. “What do you mean he’s not fine?”

“His team is concerned for his wellbeing. So are a number of people who have seen him lately. I discussed the matter with Dana, and she agreed that it was important to bring the matter to your attention.”

“Why?” Another stab of pain made him cringe. “I won’t use my Voice on him again.”

“I don’t expect you to,” she said. “Just go see him.”


 

Carlos blinked at the horizon. Had the world always been this bright, or had he just been cooped up indoors for that long? For the past few (several? many?) weeks he’d only left the lab in short, driven trips, and he’d been too focused to really take in his surroundings.

The stage was set to liberate Earl. Or, rather, the preliminaries had all been taken care of; he wouldn’t be able to continue his work until his modified bloodstones accumulated enough energy to actually enact the spell, and that would take time. Days, at least. Maybe a couple of weeks.

What the hell was he supposed to do with himself for that long?

The need to keep going crawled under his skin. It itched, it burned-- and if he couldn’t find relief, at least he needed something to distract him from it.

He considered tracking down his team… for what? To apologize for being more focused than usual? To stand around awkwardly? To explain what he’d been doing all this time?

They’d understand perfectly when Earl was up and walking around.

Carlos found himself moving without thinking. His feet carried him toward the tournament field, to the beautiful statue. It wouldn’t be much for conversation, but at least it would keep him company, and looking up at that face could sooth the itch under his skin, if only for a little while.

He’d crossed halfway through Grove Park when approaching footsteps caught his attention. He paused, feigning casualty, and glanced behind him.

The king stood in the shadow of a copse of scraggly trees. If he was attempting to hide, he was doing an awful job at it.

“I can see you, you know,” Carlos called to his possible-stalker.

The king winced, but nodded. “Thank you for confirming my existence and my visibility. That’s very good to know.” His voice sounded strained and parched, like he’d been gargling with sand.

Carlos took a few steps closer. He had time to kill, after all. “Does that need much confirmation, Your Majesty?”

Another flinch. “Every once in a while. Not at the moment, but it’s good to stay in the habit.”

Carlos moved even closer, and let out a low whistle. “Well. While we’re building up the habit of confirming the obvious, Your Majesty, you look like shit.”

“Not literally, I hope.” The king flashed a wan smile. “That would be embarrassing.”

He’d clearly made an effort to take care of himself-- his clothes were clean, his hair washed, and he looked like he’d bathed recently-- but he looked tired, worn, even more so than he had when Carlos had last seen him. His posture seemed unnatural, like he was a scarecrow barely hanging onto a wooden pole. His skin had taken on a sallow, sickly color, and his eyes were dull and nearly lifeless.

“No,” Carlos said, taking another step toward him. He caught it now: a pattern of flinches and cringes that followed every time Carlos spoke. He lowered his voice and tried again. “But you look like you’re about to fall over.” This time the wince was less pronounced. A reaction to loud noise, then. “Are you all right?”

“Just a headache, that’s all.” Cecil flashed a smile that looked like it had to be nailed into place. “I should actually be seeing to some paperwork right now, but it’s next to impossible to read like this. Sometimes walking helps.”

“Is it helping?” Carlos asked, his voice so low it was nearly inaudible.

“Not yet.”

For a long while Carlos just stared at the man he’d flayed his own soul to forget about. The king of Night Vale. The receptacle of one of the most powerful magics Carlos had ever heard of. The creature who had trapped Earl Harlan in a fate worse than death. He should have inspired fear, or anger, or disgust. Not sympathy.

Carlos sighed. “Come on, Your Majesty. I think I can help.”

“That’s all right,” the king said hastily. “I’m fine.”

“You are not. I don’t think you can get any more not-fine without organ damage.” Carlos got behind the king and pushed at his shoulder. The sovereign allowed himself to be moved, but he hissed in pain when he passed out of the shadow of the trees.

“Sensitive to light?” Carlos asked.

“A… a little, yes.”

“Cover your eyes, then. I’ve got you.” He wrapped one arm around the king’s shoulder. The other hand he laid over the king’s eyes, blocking out the offending light. The king went oddly rigid.

“I can take care of that myself,” he said. His dry, raspy voice had almost reached a stammer. Carlos would never admit it, but it was kind of cute.

“Certain mages speculate that skin-to-skin contact can help subjects manage pain. Is it working?”

“I-- maybe?” Dear Smiling God, was that a squeak? This man wasn’t dangerous, he was a kitten! And not even a particularly healthy one at that.

Carlos led him into the lab and set him down in a chair. “Sit there and keep your eyes shut. I’ll need a few minutes.”

He rustled through Gretchen’s collection of herbs, finding feverfew and willow bark among them. He sprinkled the plants into a clay cup, and set a kettle of water to boil.

“It’s quiet,” the king remarked after a few minutes. “Where’s the rest of your team?”

Carlos shrugged. “They don’t stick around here much anymore. Lately they’ve preferred fieldwork.” Admittedly, mostly they’d been doing it to avoid him.  A guilty pang went through him. His project had taken up so much of his time that he didn’t have energy left over to bother with politeness or friendly conversation.

“Not you?” the king asked carefully.

“I’ve been working on things here.” Already little bubbles were lining the inside of the kettle.

“What sorts of things?”

Carlos glanced back at the king. He was leaning forward in his chair, his chin tipped up, his lips just barely parted. His eyes were still shut, but he looked like the whole of his attention was dedicated to hearing what Carlos had to say.

And, damn it all, he looked absolutely kissable.

Carlos dug through Lanre’s collection of pre-made charms and tokens and found a lapis stone-- those were supposed to be good for migraines, according to Lanre’s notes. He turned it over in his hand.

“Something happened between us, didn’t it?” he asked quietly.

The king went still, and then he curled into himself, his shoulders and head bowing, his hands twitching as though he meant to wring them. “Yes.”

Prudence told Carlos he didn’t want to know. He’d removed those memories for a reason. Whatever had happened had been more painful than the things Kevin had done to him. But after all those weeks dedicated to his project, it didn’t seem so important anymore. Everything else felt muted in comparison to his new goal. And Cecil-- the king-- no matter how Carlos tried, Cecil just didn’t strike him as being particularly malicious.

“I don’t want detail,” he warned. “But… what? What happened?”

If the king curled up any further, he’d be in a fetal position. “I was… irresponsible… with my Voice. I… I altered you.” Every word looked like it had to be dragged out with pliers, jagged and bleeding. “I didn’t mean for it to happen. I know you don’t remember, but I am sorry.”

“Why?” Carlos asked. “Why are you sorry?” It was a word Carlos knew all too well. His siblings were sorry a lot, too: sorry they got caught, sorry because their schemes failed, sorry because something they enjoyed was in pieces on the floor.

Cecil pried his eyes open, and Carlos could see every spasm of pain as light hit his corneas. “It was wrong.”

There was no doubt, no reluctance, nothing but a conviction so strong it made Carlos shiver. He turned away, and the king’s chair groaned as he slumped back down. For several long minutes Carlos said nothing, only moving from one window to the next, shuttering them carefully and closing curtains so no sunlight could bleed through. By the time he returned to the king’s side, the lab was plunged in darkness, lit only by the crackling fire under the kettle.

He crouched in front of the sovereign and pressed the lapis into his brow. The king flinched, but his expression relaxed just slightly as the stone began to do its work.

“What did you do to me?” Carlos asked quietly.

“I-- I made you fall in love with me.” Why did it sound so much like a whimper? “I put a stop to it, when I realized, but by then--”

An image passed inexplicably before Carlos’ eyes: Earl Harlan, his face fixed on the king’s dais, his stone gaze warm and sad. That maddening itch returned full force, and Carlos had to move. Had to get away to fully process what he was hearing. But who knew when he would next run into the king like this? And who was to say either of them would be willing to speak on the subject again?

“Hold that there,” Carlos said, handing the lapis to the king. The alchemist stepped away and pulled the kettle from the fire, pouring it over over the feverfew and willow bark. He pressed the hot cup into the king’s hands. “Breathe the vapors while it steeps,” he said. “It’ll help.”

The king did as instructed, but his eyes were fixed on Carlos.

“You said you didn’t mean for it to happen,” Carlos prompted.

“My Voice-- this-- this power I have-- it overflows sometimes, when I don’t use it. Affects things without me knowing.”

Something else buzzed through Carlos’ skull. Panic, or maybe relief. That would explain the warmth he felt for the king. “So who’s to say it isn’t doing that right now?”

A thin, pained smile touched the king’s lips. “I’m more careful these days. I keep it locked up tight. It won’t hurt you again.”

Or maybe that didn’t explain it.

“You’re sure, then?” Carlos asked.

“I’m certain.”

“No leaks, no overflows?” the alchemist prompted. “Not even a dribble?” The itch was unbearable, growing in intensity with every beat of Carlos’ pulse.

“I’ve got it entirely contained,” Cecil said firmly. “There’s no way it can affect you.”

“All right, then.” So why did Carlos want to shove that tea aside and kiss him breathless? And why couldn’t he get that awful itching out of his system?

"Are you?" Cecil asked. "All right, I mean."

"Fine.  I'm fine. Just a bit restless, that's all. I've got a project that requires more patience than I anticipated, and I don't know what to do with myself while it settles. This has been an excellent distraction from the wait, actually." And then he did what he did best: unspooling into a long diatribe on the minutia of his work, babbling endlessly on about it without actually saying anything important.

The entire time, Cecil just looked at him-- completely uncomprehending but still entirely absorbed in every word Carlos said, prompting him to continue every time he stopped for breath. And when Carlos ran out of complicated magical theorems to talk about, he found himself ranting at length about other things-- how the rest of his team kept prying into his business and treating him like he was fragile and unsound, how the locals looked at him like he was damaged. “...And I’m trying my best, dammit! This work is important. It could change everything! Can’t they just understand that? Can’t they just--” Carlos’ voice cracked, hoarse and raspy from overuse. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken so much in one day, let alone one sitting.

A warm cup was pressed into his hands-- the tea Cecil had been nursing. Over the course of Carlos’ rant, he’d refilled the cup three or four times, he’d lost count. At least Cecil no longer looked like he was in pain.

“Thanks-- sorry,” Carlos said, accepting the tea from the king. “I didn’t mean to go off like that. It’s just…” It’s just what? Now that it was out of his system, he didn’t even know what he’d been trying to say.

Cecil just smiled, soft and gentle. “I know what you mean.”

The crazy thing: Carlos believed him.

Chapter Text

Carlos didn’t sleep much that night-- but that was fine. He didn’t sleep much at all these days. At least tonight he had something to think about, besides the overwhelming itch to get up and do something, knowing that there was nothing to do but wait.

It had been better, with Cecil there. He’d overshadowed Carlos’ other impulses, left him pleasantly distracted from what he had to do.

And that was how, when the sky lightened to a saturated cyan and it was appropriate to come calling on kings, Carlos found himself walking up to the palace with dizzy mind and a satchel full of willowbark and feverfew.

Yep. Just bringing Cecil flowers. No ulterior motives there.

A hypothesis: after weeks of being deprived of human contact and conversation, it was only natural for Carlos to gravitate toward the first person who shared a prolonged discussion with him.

Another hypothesis: Carlos had lots of time to kill, and this was by far the most pleasant way to slay the fickle fiend.

Another: the buzzing itch demanded that Carlos do something, and that stupidly gorgeous king definitely qualified as something that needed doing.

Not that it was going to get to that.

At all.

Nope.

Carlos persuaded a servant to let him in, on the grounds that Carlos wanted to administer a preemptive treatment for His Majesty’s headaches. It wasn’t a lie-- it just wasn’t the entirety of the reason behind the visit. Cecil would understand, he was sure. Especially with the way the king had been looking at him the previous day.

It was even better today. There was no twist of pain on Cecil’s features. His eyes had a faint trace of sleepy glaze to them, though his brows lifted in surprise when Carlos stepped through the door to the king’s study. Surprise was a good look on him; Carlos made a mental note to inspire it more often.

“Carlos?” he nearly yelped-- and that was a sound Carlos wanted to hear more often, too.

The servant cast Carlos a sidelong glance. “He said you were expecting him, Your Majesty.”

“What?” Cecil caught Carlos’ eye. “Of course I was. I just didn’t think you’d be here so early.”

Carlos’ lip quirked at the lie, but he schooled his features before the servant glanced his way. “I thought I’d get an early start this morning.” Three o’clock counted as morning. Carlos had managed to get at least a few hours of fitful sleep that night. “I hope it doesn’t conflict with Your Majesty’s schedule?”

“No. Not at all.” Cecil cleared his throat. “Chad?”

Immediately the servant bowed and left. As soon as his footsteps faded down the hall, the king raised an eyebrow. “Should I have been expecting you, Carlos?”

The alchemist smiled. “I just wanted to follow up with you. That’s important, you know. For scientific accuracy.”

“Oh. Right. Yes. Anything for science.” There was a certain familiarity to the way he said that. Possibly he’d said it before.

“Right,” Carlos said. “Just for our reference.” He set his satchel down and dug out a blank clay tablet, mentally noting the way Cecil’s eyes flicked discreetly over Calros’ form as he bent over the side table. “That tea I gave you yesterday. Do you think it helped with your symptoms?”

“I-- er-- yes,” Cecil said, regaining his composure just as Carlos turned back to face him. “A bit.”

“A bit,” Carlos murmured, jotting it down. “And the lapis stone. Did that help?”

Cecil bit his lip. “Some?”

“More or less than the tea, would you say?”

“More? Maybe? A bit more, yes.”

“Good.” Carlos took a step closer, disguising it as a shift in his weight. “And what about physical contact?”

Oh yes, that was most definitely a blush. “Yes. That-- that was...”

“How effective would you say it was, Cecil?” Carlos put just the faintest edge of emphasis on the king’s name as he stepped forward again.

Cecil swallowed. “Decently so, I think.”  He was nearly backed into the wall now.

“Were any particular areas especially sensitive to touch? For better or worse?”

Carlos caught the soft sound of cotton brushing against rough tapestry. Cecil could have him thrown out with a word, but he looked like the idea hadn’t even occurred to him-- and that was all kinds of exciting.

“C-can I think about it?” Cecil squeaked.

Carlos leaned forward, but that only made Cecil flatten himself against the wall. Better back off a bit. “All right, then. How long have you been having these headaches?”

“Uh…” There was a note of relief in the sound. “A little more than three months, maybe?”

Carlos blinked. Three months?

“Did you change your diet at all around that time?” he asked. “Your sleeping patterns? Did you get sick around then?”

“No,” Cecil said quickly.

No. But Carlos had. That was right around the time he’d gone back to Desert Bluffs.

“You said you’ve been keeping your Voice more tightly constrained recently,” Carlos said. “About when did that start?”

Cecil swallowed. “Maybe… ten weeks? Twelve?”

So three months, then.

Carlos knew as much about the scientific workings of the Voice as anyone-- his recent research had made sure of that. And suddenly something clicked into place that hadn’t been nearly so clear the day before. “Could that be what’s causing your headaches, then?” he asked. “A built-up charge of magical energy?”

“It’s… possible, I suppose,” Cecil mumbled.

“It’s a lot more possible than bottling up an entire kingdom’s magical power for any substantial amount of time.” Carlos’ mind was clearer than it had been in days, and he was on a roll now. “That sort of thing is going to have consequences.”

“Letting it loose would also have consequences,” Cecil said.

“It’s also possible that these headaches aren’t the only reaction you’re having,” Carlos continued. “If you’re a conduit of this energy, then failing to regularly discharge it could do you major damage. You were talking about a passive release of energy before-- it’s possible that was initially a coping mechanism, the way dams require outlets to drain off excess water. If there’s nowhere for it to go, then the dam’s either going to overflow or break down entirely.”

Cecil looked him in the eye. “I’m not going to break.” His words carried no magic, but they still had a particular edge to them: drop it.

“Are you sure about that?” Carlos demanded. “Because my observations say otherwise. You’ve shown all the visible signs of rapidly declining health, and there’s a strong possibility that bottling up your Voice is the cause. Continuing on this trajectory could have serious consequences.”

“They’re just headaches,” Cecil said. “I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not. Cecil, this could potentially kill you!”

“I’m telling you, I’m fine!”

“Really? Because yesterday you couldn’t even walk a straight line out in daylight,” Carlos said.

“Then it’s a good thing I don’t need to go outside to do my job,” Cecil snapped back.

“And yet there you were, and you looked ready to fall over,” Carlos snapped. “‘Oh yes, what a beautiful day for a splitting headache. I think I’ll go out for a stroll!’

“I was only out in the first place because I was looking for you.”

Me?” Carlos barked out a laugh. “Do you have any idea what I went through so I could forget about you? Do you have any idea what that son of a bitch did to me? What I asked him to do to me? And after all that, you go following me around like-- like what, some overgrown vulture? Why don’t you just stay away from me?”

“Why did you drag me back to your lab?” Cecil’s voice had gone high and shrill. “Why did you come back here at all?”

“Because I’m an alchemist, goddammit, and I don’t understand you!” The rational part of his mind told him to quit while he was ahead, that he’d already gone too far, but he was beyond listening to it anymore. “You! With your stupid voice and your stupid face and your stupid, stupid-- you! Any sane, rational person would be running away from you and your whole damn kingdom right now! They would’ve done it a year ago! They would take one look at you and realize how dangerous you are-- you’re like a siren, you’re like those damn trees that talk to you and say all those nice things, and once you’re in the middle of them you can’t get away. And I did-- I actually did get away, and I’m still here! Why am I still here, Cecil?”

“I don’t know!” Cecil was shouting now, and the light reflected oddly off his eyes.

“Neither do I!” Carlos shouted back. “So here’s a hypothesis: this whole damn kingdom is cursed and I couldn’t leave it for good if I tried. Or here’s another: maybe we’re both just pawns of the Glow Cloud and it really wants us to get together. Or here’s one: maybe you’re a self-important ass who put me through hell because you can’t deal with the fact that I really did fall in love with you!”

Cecil froze. His breath puffed out in a gasp, short and low, like he’d been stabbed. “What?”

“Either you’ve been lying to me about not using your Voice now, or you’re lying about using it then. Because you’re the only one who makes the world make sense anymore, and I don’t even know you. Yesterday was the first time I could focus on anything but that damn project in months. Hell, I want to wring your scrawny neck right now, but this is the first time in forever that I haven’t been ready to crawl out of my own skin and that makes me happier than I’ve been in a long time.”

Cecil blinked. “You’re… happy?”

“As close as I’m going to get, dammit. And I’m not about to let you throw that away for your own ridiculous, myopic, self-destructive pride.”

“Then what do you expect me to do?” Cecil looked oddly small and helpless.

“Not trying to kill yourself would be a good place to start,” Carlos grated. The fury drained out of him; it was impossible to stay angry with Cecil looking so lost and alone. “Quit bottling this up, quit forcing these headaches on yourself-- just quit it. Right now. Quit it.”

“And what?” Cecil asked. “Let it loose on all of Night Vale?”

Carlos sighed heavily. “They seemed to be doing fine before.” Before I came around, he realized. “You don’t have to use it, if that’s too much for you. Just… not like this.”

Cecil looked away. “It’s like a poison, though--”

Carlos cupped Cecil’s head in his hand, drawing him back up to face him. “So is water, if you drink too much of it. Doesn’t mean you should give up drinking.” He brushed a knuckle across Cecil’s cheek. It came away glistening with tears. “Cecil. Please. Night Vale needs you. These people love you-- they trust you. They wouldn’t feel that way if you were evil, or cruel, or some kind of horrible villain. You wouldn’t be so afraid of yourself if you were anything but the kind man that I’ve seen you be. Whatever you believe, you’re a good king.” He squeezed Cecil’s shoulder. “I want to get to know you again.”

Tears streamed down Cecil’s face, but he seemed rooted to the spot. At least he wasn’t running away. That was a good sign.

Carlos took a chance and pulled Cecil gently into a hug.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Cecil whimpered into his shoulder.

“That’s okay,” Carlos said, smoothing a hand over his back. “We can figure this out. Whatever happens, we can put each other together again. Does that sound like a plan?”

If it did, Carlos didn’t hear as much from Cecil; the king was too busy sobbing into Carlos’ shirt. Carlos guided him gently into a couch without letting him go, the gesture oddly familiar in some distant part of his mind. He sat beside the king and held him close for a long time, smoothing his hair and rubbing his back as Cecil cried himself dry.

“I’m sorry I called you stupid,” Carlos said gently, once Cecil’s shoulders had stopped shaking. “I didn’t mean it.”

Cecil sniffled. “And my face?”

Carlos skimmed a thumb affectionately across his chin. “Your face, too.”

“And Night Vale?”

“Definitely not Night Vale.” Carlos punctuated it with a kiss on Cecil’s forehead. It had been a reflex. He definitely hadn’t meant to.

But it felt right.

Chapter Text

A door opened somewhere behind him, followed by soft, careful footfalls on stone.

“Is this a bad time?” Dana asked.

Cecil started, hurrying to wipe his eyes and trying to regain some faint smidge of composure.

Meanwhile, Carlos seemed caught between trying to push away from Cecil and wrap him up tighter. “What?”

Dana cleared her throat. “Your Majesty, the City Council wants to have a word.”

“Can it wait?” Carlos asked. Apparently he’d decided to go with protective.

“Not much longer,” she said. “They want a final decision on that drawbridge.”

“Drawbridge?” Carlos frowned. “But there aren’t any rivers around here.”

No, there weren’t. But Cecil remembered someone saying something about Night Vale really needing a drawbridge. It had seemed important at the time, but now it just seemed a blur. “I’ll look into it.” He climbed to his feet with whatever dignity he could muster. “I’m sorry, Carlos, but I need to take care of this. Will you…?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “Go on.”

As soon as the door closed behind Cecil, Dana cast the king a sidelong glance. “Do you want to get cleaned up first? You’re a bit…”

“Thank you, Dana,” Cecil said. “How bad is it?”

“You look like a complete wreck, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.” She glanced up and down the hall as they took off toward Cecil’s rooms. “So what was that all about? Michael looked like he was about ready to come running in there.”

“What?” The guards were so discreet that sometimes it was easy to forget they were always just out of sight, just in case. “Carlos and I got into a bit of an argument. It got loud.”

Dana raised her eyebrows.

“We worked it out,” he said quickly. “I think.”

“You two definitely looked like you were getting comfortable in there,” she said. “So what’s going on now?”

Cecil fidgeted. “I don’t know. He still doesn’t remember me.”

“How about dinner, then?” she said. “And there are some wonderful summer blooms in the garden right about now. If he can’t have his old memories of you, maybe the two of you can make new ones. And this time, there won’t be anything stopping you two from being together.”

Cecil let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

Dana was right.

Things were going to be… okay. And Cecil would have the chance to say the things he’d been keeping back for so long. And he’d do it right this time. No more pushing Carlos away, no more hiding, no more isolation.

It was going to be okay.

Everything was going to be just fine.


So maybe ‘fine’ was a bit of an exaggeration. Carlos had been fine, back when all his faculties had been focused on taking care of Cecil.

Now Cecil was gone, and Carlos was left sitting in the study alone. And then pacing. And then trying to analyze the paintings and tapestries that lined the wall, only to shake his head and pace some more. He needed to be doing something-- something important. And he couldn’t do that cooped up in here.

Warily, he cracked open the door. Cecil would probably be in with the City Council for a while. He wouldn’t notice if Carlos went for a walk. And even if he did notice, he probably wouldn’t mind if Carlos went ahead and went home. After all, Carlos had never said he’d still be here when Cecil got back. It would be fine.

He started heading down one hallway, then another, trying to retrace the path he’d been led down. It had to be somewhere this way-- the palace was big, but it couldn’t possibly be all that big.

Could it?

He was on the verge of calling for help when a familiar voice called his name.

“Why, hello, Your Highness. It’s so wonderful to see you.”

Carlos turned to see Ambassador Lauren Mallard standing at the end of the hall, Daniel flanking her like a terrier.

“What brings you to the palace?” Her smile was wide and saccharine.

Carlos straightened. “I was following up on a recent analysis on the practical application of medicinal herbs and power-imbued crystals,” he said coolly. “Not that the nature of my research is any of your business.”

“Oh, but I’m glad to hear you’re being so productive,” she said. “I’m sure your family will be glad to hear it, too. I understand you’ve been too busy to keep in touch.”

“If you’ve been speaking to my family, then they’ve told you that I always put my work first. I’m sure they understand.”

“And I’m sure they’d love to hear all about all the fascinating things you’ve discovered here. In fact, I bet they’d be absolutely thrilled to hear all about it when you go back.”

The muscles along Carlos’ back tightened like piano wire. “I’m afraid I’m too busy to go back anytime soon.”

“Oh, nonsense,” Lauren giggled. “You’re here, aren’t you?”

“I’m working,” he said quickly.

“Oh, but we both know that isn’t true.” She grinned wide and sharklike. “It’s perfectly all right to make personal visits, Carlos, but neglecting your family is just plain unfair, don’t you think? And they’ve been so worried about you, what with all those terrible things that have happened to you.” Carlos could feel his stomach sinking, his chest tightening. “They would have called on you sooner, but nobody wanted to make you travel while you were still recovering. But here you are, out and about and all better! And that means it’s time for you to head home!”

Carlos took a step back. Years of carefully-honed reflexes told him to run, but logic told him it wouldn’t do any good. He needed to maintain his composure. If she found a crack, she’d win. “I don’t think I’m feeling up to travelling just yet.”

“Don’t you worry, we’ve got it all taken care of,” she said, batting his protest away with one hand. “If you’re still not doing well, I’m sure your family will be happy to send someone to come fetch you and your team.”

And there was the crack. “M-my team?”

“Of course. We all know how much the six of you care about each other. We wouldn’t dream of separating you!”

They’d left Desert Bluffs for a reason. It was dangerous there-- and a hundred times more dangerous if his siblings were making their move. His team had always been there to look out for Carlos; if anyone wanted to take him out, they’d start by making sure there was nobody in the way.

“Actually, we’ve been on bad terms recently,” he said, his voice smoother than he’d thought possible. “The rest of the team didn’t appreciate my dedication to my latest project. Hell, we’re barely on speaking terms at the moment. Bringing them along on a trip would just be awkward.”

By some sin against biology, Lauren’s smile grew even toothier. “So you’ll be coming, then?”

Of course he would. The only question left to answer was whether he’d come willingly or whether he’d be dragged back to Desert Bluffs in chains. At least if he didn’t make a fuss, he might have a chance to get Ricardo and Gabriel on his side-- maybe even Caesar. None of them were personally invested in his safety, but they might help him just for the sake of screwing over the others.

But maybe they weren’t his only option.

Carlos flashed a smile of his own: wide and toothy and unnatural. “It’s like you said, Lauren. It really has been too long since I’ve seen my family. But the king seems to have taken a liking to me. I’m not sure he’ll be particularly thrilled to see me leave.”

“Is that right? I hope he isn’t making you uncomfortable, Carlos. Why, if the king were coercing our prince into staying in Night Vale-- that would make you his hostage, wouldn’t it?” Lauren’s smile crystallized into something that should have looked like sympathy, but instead felt sharp and cold. “I hope you know that your wellbeing is of the utmost importance to your family-- and to all of Desert Bluffs. We would do absolutely anything to save you from such a distasteful situation.”

Carlos swallowed. There was no mistaking her threat. “I’m fine.”

“And it’s my job to make sure you stay fine,” she chirped-- it sounded like the last thing a worm might hear before it was swallowed whole by a baby bird.

“I’ll need some time to finish my current project,” he said. “It’s time-sensitive.”

Lauren’s smile didn’t shift a micron. “We leave at sundown.”


 

Ugh. That meeting had taken entirely too long, and entirely too much of the blame rested on Steve’s shoulders, what with all his arguing and grumbling and general disagreeableness.

“Carlos?” Cecil called, pushing open the study door. “I’m sorry that took so long, I hope you didn’t get too impatient.”

But Carlos was gone. Another man was was waiting for him in the center of the room.

“Not at all, Your Majesty.” The voice that answered him was as stiff and unyielding as the beat of a metronome. “I’m so glad you could make the time to see me.”

Cecil tried very hard not to glower at the attache to the ambassador of Desert Bluffs.  “Sorry, Daniel, but I was already on my way to a meeting with someone else.” Maybe if he hurried, he could still catch up to Carlos before he got called away to any other duties. Maybe he could invite him to that dinner date.

“This won’t take long at all, I’m sure.” Daniel flashed a wide, wooden smile. “It’s nothing important, really, but we wanted to give you official notice. There’s been a change in Prince Carlos’ living situation.”

Cecil took a step back. “What kind of change?” he asked warily.

“His little outing to your lovely little kingdom has come to an end.” Daniel tilted his head, perfectly precise. “He’ll be returning to Desert Bluffs. Tonight.”


 

It was hard to estimate precisely how much energy the spell would require, or precisely how much would be siphoned off by each of the bloodstone circles he’d tapped into-- but his guesses had been conservative so far. He’d estimated the spell would require a few days’ worth, hadn’t he? And he’d already gathered that much magic.

It would be fine.

He arranged a series of concentric circles around Earl’s statue, their diameter sufficient that there was no overlap between them, each arranged etched with four, five, six, seven and nine-pointed stars, respectively, exactly as illustrated in Dave’s notes. At each point he buried items of power: Malai’s prayer scrolls, Lanre’s crystals, satchel’s of Gretchen’s herbs, bloodstones that he’d imbued with his own power. And in the seven-pointed star, he arranged the elements of his own discipline.

Earth, wind, water and fire. The elements that made up all that was. And between them, the three primes.

Between earth and water: Salt. Base matter. Condensation, crystallization, purity and strength.

Between water and air: Mercury. Quicksilver. Transcendence between liquid and solid, life and death.

Between air and fire: Sulfur. Brimstone. The stone that burns, the agent of change.

Body, spirit and soul.

When he finished burying the last of the items, he dragged himself to sit on the dais. The digging hadn’t been particularly strenuous, but each circle he completed took a share of his power from him.

He stared at the statue. Earl’s eyes were keenly focused at a single point over Carlos’ head: the king’s place, just slightly left of center.

“Why did you look at him like that?” Carlos asked aloud, climbing to his feet. He’d asked the question before, but that was before he’d known Cecil. At that point he’d had only his own guesses and assumptions to go off of, rather than any semblance of context.

Earl’s face showed fear, but no surprise. Sadness, but no blame. And through it all, gentle adoration.

Don’t worry, the statue seemed to say. Everything’s going to be okay.

It felt like a riddle: a mystery one moment, and obvious the next.

“You were in love with him,” Carlos sighed.

I don’t want to hurt you, Cecil had said, when he wasn’t trying to flit away and insist he was fine. I’m poison.

“He was in love with you, too.”

There were still pieces to the puzzle he hadn’t uncovered, but finally the shape of the thing was clear.

That’s why he’d been so determined to bring Earl back. For Cecil. Even when he’d forgotten everything else about the king, he’d remembered this.

Because Carlos had already realized that, one way or another, he wouldn’t be coming back to Cecil.


 

“Carlos?” Cecil called, throwing open the laboratory doors. Five researchers sat up in unison, looking confused and alarmed in equal measure. The alchemist wasn’t among them. “Is Carlos here?”

The researchers exchanged glances.

“No,” Gretchen said evenly. “He isn’t.”

“Well, where is he?” Normally Cecil wouldn’t be nearly so blunt, but he only had a few hours. He needed to find Carlos, to talk to him, to make plans, and that took time!

“Out,” Rochelle said, stepping up beside the witch. “He’ll be out for a while. If you’d like to leave a message, though, we’d be happy to pass it on.”

Masters, this was getting him nowhere. “Was he here?” he asked the empty air beside him.

“Obviously,” the Faceless Old Woman said. “It was a few hours ago yet. He was in a hurry, and very upset, though he didn’t say very much. It seems to have left the rest of the team quite disturbed. But that isn’t difficult. They are disturbed by so much already…”

“Where did he go?” he asked.

Carlos’ team stared at him with varying shades of bemusement and mild horror.

“Where’d he go?” Cecil repeated.

“Be patient!” the Faceless Old Woman snapped. “I’m trying to find him. But something’s wrong. Things aren’t as clear as they should be.”


 

Carlos slid a ceremonial dagger down the palm of his hand. A line of blood opened across his lifeline before he squeezed fresh blood onto the bloodstones of the outermost circle, one at a time. His voice was raised in chant, his mind focused on bending the spell to his will.

The sky darkened as every ounce of light was leached from the air like poison from a wound. Carlos could feel the magic crackling through his veins and pooling in his stomach as the stolen light settled around the statue in an ethereal glow.


 

“There!” the Faceless Old Woman shouted in triumph.

“Did you find him?” Cecil demanded.

“No, but the Sheriff’s Secret Police is getting anxious about a disturbance at the tournament field.”

Cecil’s eyes widened. “Is he in danger?”

“It’s impossible to say--” the Faceless Old Woman began, but Cecil was already running.


 

The statue was glowing like a miniature sun, like the Smiling God itself. Power arced through the air like lightning, agonizing where it passed through the alchemist, but he continued his chanting.

A sudden pressure in the air made his ears pop and his sinuses scream. His blood was on fire. His retinas were burned with the ghostly image of the Eternal Scout. The whole world seemed to arrange itself around this act, this place, this moment.

And then the whole world twisted sharply to the left.

The magic coiled in on itself, collapsing into a singularity of raw power.

And then it began.


 

I won’t let them take you.

I’ll go to war if that’s what they want. I’ll freeze their armies in their tracks. I’ll turn them to ants. I don’t care what it takes, I won’t let them take you. I won’t let them hurt you.

Please, Carlos, please, just hold on.

And then it hit Cecil all at once: a shockwave of pure magical energy, so raw and powerful that it knocked him to the ground. When he scrambled to his feet, the world felt… off. Like the ground was suddenly slanted. The air tasted wrong, bitter and too sweet all at once, and a strange, high-pitched buzzing whispered in his ears.

He ignored it all and kept running.

As he turned the corner to the tournament yard, the ground bucked under his feet and sent him sprawling. Or maybe his legs just refused to carry him.

Carlos was laying at the edge of the field. His face was ashen, his hair disheveled, his eyes wide open, staring glassily into the sky. His chest wasn’t moving. No part of him was moving.

He was as still as the chunks of broken stone that lay scattered around his…

His body.

The statue was gone. Earl was gone-- shattered, crumbled, nothing but fragments of a beautiful face that Cecil had been too ashamed to look at for the past five years.

And Carlos…

Cecil didn’t remember getting up, or crawling, or falling again to his knees; one moment he was staring, horrified, at the scene before him, and the next he listening at Carlos’ chest for a pulse.

Silence.

“No,” he whispered. “Carlos, please, you have to be okay. You-- Carlos, you have to wake up. I need you to heal.”

Carlos’ body was cold-- unnaturally cold under the desert sun.

“No no no no no-- Carlos, please!” He wrapped his Voice around the alchemist, tried to will those lungs to expand and that heart to beat. Carlos had to be okay. He had to be okay!

Shadows fell over Cecil, and he pulled Carlos’ closer against his chest.

“Dear Smiling God,” Rochelle whispered.

“What did you do,” Gretchen demanded. “What the hell did you do?

Cecil looked up, wide-eyed and frightened. “I didn’t-- I tried-- he’s--” He yelped as a pair of powerful arms shoved him backward and a second pair grabbed Carlos out of his grip.

“Rochelle, Malai, I want you to get back to the lab and get out my equipment,” Lanre barked. “Dave, Gretchen, help me move him.”

Cecil scrambled forward. “I can--”

You stay away,” Lanre snarled, and Cecil recoiled. The researchers moved with a seamless efficiency as they lifted Carlos between them and carried him away.

Another shadow slithered over Cecil’s skin, but his eyes remained fixed on the retreating researchers.

“Oh dear,” said a female voice. All the false sweetness had drained out of it. “Oh Cecil, what have you done?”

Cecil opened his mouth, but no words came out.

“I knew you’d be upset if Carlos left, but I never thought you’d kill him!”

Cecil’s head shook-- just slightly, barely more than a shudder. He couldn’t pull his gaze away from Carlos, the body unmoving except for where its pallbearers jostled it.

“He was under your protection,” Lauren accused. “He was under Night Vale’s protection. He trusted you with his life. And this is how you repay that trust?”

Cecil wanted to clap his hands over his ears. He wanted to cover his eyes. He wanted to scream.

He couldn’t move, except to tremble.

“This betrayal will not go ignored,” Lauren said, and somehow her voice cut through the roaring in his ears. “No. This isn’t just a betrayal. It’s an act of war.”

Chapter Text

What did you do?

Carlos was dead.

I knew you’d be upset if Carlos left, but I never thought you’d kill him!

He was dead.

He was under your protection. He trusted you with his life!

He was dead and he was gone and he was dead.

“Your Majesty, there are some kind of large, yellow birds closing in on the borders from all sides.”

“Cecil, please, you have to snap out of it! Desert Bluffs is on the warpath. They’re coming, Cecil!”

“She has a point, you know. There is a time and a place for mental breakdowns, but this isn’t it. You have a job to do.”

Cecil tried to look up, but he couldn’t see anything but glassy eyes and death-cold skin.

“As your spymaster, I’m bound to tell you when someone is plotting to kill you-- and this army intends to do exactly that. You need to stop them.”

He wanted to apologize, to explain, to say something, but his mouth felt glued shut.

What have you done?

Cecil!” That voice was different. Wrong. It didn’t belong here. The person it belonged to was dead. Unless…

“Earl?” Cecil looked around wildly. There was nothing but a flicker of red in the corner of his eye and a room full of people. It had been a hallucination. It had to be. A fractured memory of a childhood friend.

Teddy Williams stepped into his field of vision. “Your Majesty, the enemy’s infantry has broken through the eastern border.”

It took Cecil a moment to assign meaning to the words, and a moment longer to get his bearings. He was in the throne room-- on the throne. There were people here, most of whom were shouting over each other. Dana flitted between him and them, alternately shouting at them to get back and returning to his side to urge him to do something. The Faceless Old Woman whispered into his other ear, giving him reports of numbers and movements, her words lost in the cacophony.  

It was enormous and overwhelming, but he clung to that panic and discord like a lifeline. Anything was better than despair.

He sat up in his throne. “All of you, quiet!” he commanded, and the throne room fell silent. He turned his attention to the Faceless Old Woman: “Give me the short version. Now.”


 

Carlos opened his eyes. Shut them again. Wiggled each of his fingers in turn, and then his toes.

It felt like the first time he’d played with a marionette, testing each of the strings until he found one that operated the proper part of the doll, and then jerking it back and forth until he could decide how to maneuver it with just the right amount of force to seem natural. If you weren’t careful, you could tangle them all up and then you’d never get them loose.

“Oh Smiling God, it worked,” Rochelle gasped from somewhere overhead. “Lanre, you’re a miracle.”

Carlos’ chest hurt. No, it didn’t hurt. It ached. It felt… empty.

“Carlos?” Lanre’s face flooded Carlos’ field of vision, his already dark features nearly black in silhouette. “Can you hear me?”

Carlos thought about it for a moment. “Yes.” Another moment. “What happened?”

“You were an idiot, that’s what happened,” Gretchen said from somewhere out of sight. “I would throttle you if you weren’t in such sorry shape.”

“She’s not the only one,” muttered an unfamiliar voice, though it was quiet, almost inaudible. Maybe he’d imagined it.

“What the hell were you trying to do with that spell?” she continued. “It almost-- no, not even almost. It killed you, Carlos. You’re damn lucky Lanre had a phylactery handy. You know, one you didn’t steal for that dumbass experiment of yours.”

Carlos frowned, and his vision blurred. That was too much information all at once. One thing at a time. “I was trying to… Earl. I had to bring Earl back.”

“Great job with that, by the way,” said the voice. It was slightly louder this time, and most definitely male.

Carlos blinked; it still felt like he was manipulating an overly complicated machine, rather than moving his own body.

“Great job with what?” he asked.

Dave frowned. “Is he supposed to be this delirious?

“I don’t know,” Lanre said. “I’ve never done this sort of thing before.”

“Oh good,” said the voice. “You can hear me.”

“Yes, I can? Is that not…” The rest of his team stared at him with deep concern. “They can’t hear you, apparently.”

Dave raised a hand. “Are there a lot of beings that apparently can’t be seen or heard by several people, or is it just the one?”

Just out of the corner of his eye, Carlos thought he saw someone drag a hand down their face. When he looked, the shape was gone.

“It’s easier communicating with you, okay?” the voice snapped. “Maybe it’s because it was your blood in that spell, maybe because your friends stuffed your soul into that crystal thing. I don’t know-- you’re the expert. You can figure it out. But later. Right now I need you to get to Cecil.”

“What?” It took Carlos a couple of tries, but he managed to sit up. “Why?”

“Because he thinks you’re dead, and I can’t convince him otherwise,” the voice said.

“Why would he think I was…” Carlos tried to swing his legs over the side of the bed, and something small and heavy rolled off his chest. There was a collective shout from the rest of his team, but he barely heard it. His head was spinning, his ears ringing, his vision went white and foggy. He couldn’t breathe-- dear Smiling God, he couldn’t breathe!

A hand collided with his chest, pressing something solid and warm into his skin, and the sick feeling subsided as quickly as it had come. Carlos fell back, gasping, his eyes wide.

“This is very important,” Lanre said, taking Carlos’ hand and closing his fingers around a crystal phial, and Carlos clutched it close against his chest. “Don’t lose it. Don’t let anything happen to it.”

“Wait, I’ve got an idea,” Malai said, vanishing through one of the doors. She came back a few moments later with a length of leather cord. “It’ll work until we find something better.” It took some coaxing before Carlos loosened his grip enough to let her tie the cord around the crystal. The rest of it she fastened into a rudimentary necklace, and she looped it over his head. “That should keep it from falling off again.”

“Thanks,” Carlos wheezed.  

“Are you still alive?” the voice asked. Carlos nodded. “Are you going to stay that way?”

“I…” Carlos coughed. “I think so?”

“That’ll have to be good enough. Come on. Cecil needs you.”

Carlos tried to sit up again, but another hand pushed him back into the mattress.

“Don’t even think about it,” Gretchen said. “Not again. I am done watching you run off without a word, Carlos, and I’m done watching you get yourself killed. Now lay down and rest already. You’re not putting us through that again.”

Carlos opened his mouth to protest. He hadn’t been running off without a word, had he? Except that was exactly what he’d done a few… hours? Days?... before: run into the lab like a maniac, dug through everyone else’s materials, and then rushed off to perform the spell while the rest of his team scrambled to get out of his way. Looking back on it now, it seemed a bit dickish.

Very dickish, actually.

But it was desperation. He’d needed to set off the spell before he got dragged back to Desert Bluffs. It was important.

But he hadn’t even known why it was important until a few minutes before he’d started chanting.

And before then, he’d been avoiding his team. They’d kept asking him uncomfortable, awkward questions, kept getting on his case-- but now that he thought back, he couldn’t remember any specific instances of that behavior. It had just been difficult to talk to them, that was all. Almost everything that took him away from his work had left him jittery and irritable. But that was normal when he immersed himself in a project, right?

Except that most projects didn’t last for three solid months.

“I… I really messed up, didn’t I?” Carlos asked quietly.

“And then some,” Gretchen said.

Stars and stones. "I'm sorry. I never meant for things to be this way."

"I wish I could say I understood, " Rochelle said. "But I don't. I have no idea what's been going on with you outside of what I’ve learned from my readings, and even those don't make sense anymore. We're a team, Carlos. We're supposed to trust each other."

"I know. I'm sorry. I--"

"I appreciate the importance of unity and fellowship,” interrupted the voice. “But this really isn't the time. Rebuilding your relationship is going to have to wait until the kingdom isn't being invaded."

Carlos sat up fast enough that his vision went fuzzy and gray. "What?"

"Your dying started a war, your little spell crippled my defenses, and Cecil is one unpleasant surprise away from going catatonic again and leaving Night Vale completely unprotected.”

Oh Smiling God.

He didn’t let his thoughts go any further down that road. That was data to be analyzed at a later point, when he could afford to go through the panic attacks and guilt spirals that were gathering momentum at the edge of his awareness. First he had to focus. He had to get to safety before he could assess the full extent of the damage, and he had to get all the facts before he drew conclusions like ‘I singlehandedly destroyed Night Vale’ and ‘it’s all my fault’ and ‘what’s going to happen to my team’ and ‘what’s going to happen to Cecil’ and ‘dear Smiling God, all those people.

Carlos tried to sit up again, only to be forced back down.

“I said sit down,” Gretchen barked.

Oh, right. Trust. Communication. That stuff.

“Desert Bluffs is on a war path and I need to stop it,” he said.

Gretchen pulled back. “What the hell? When did this happen?”

“In the past six hours or so,” the voice said.

“Just now, apparently,” Carlos said.

“What makes you think there’s anything you can do?” Rochelle asked.

Carlos shrugged: a jerky, uneven motion. “Because the disembodied voice that only I can hear says so. And you’ve all been living here long enough to take that seriously.”


 

Teddy Williams’ militia filed out just as Tamika Flynn marched into the palace courtyard, flanked by dozens of children.

Cecil’s stomach churned. The soldiers and the Sheriff’s Secret Police were one thing-- they knew exactly what they were getting into when they marched onto the battlefield, and any side-effects the Voice had on them would likely be better than not coming back at all. The men and women of the militia were less informed, less well-trained, less intimately aware of the mechanics of war, but at least they were still adults.

Tamika herself didn’t look older than thirteen. The eldest of the group had maybe three years on her, if that. So many of them were younger than Janice. The tallest among them was little Megan-- huge muscles rippling under her frilly sundress, fiddling nervously with a bracelet while two ifrits spiraled protectively around her shoulders. Absently Cecil agreed with the Faceless Old Woman’s assessment: that dress definitely wasn’t her color. He wanted her to live long enough to find a fashion that really suited her.

Cecil signalled their leader to approach, and Tamika marched forward: short, stocky, and as grim-faced as a veteran.

“Tamika,” he said softly. “I admire you and your book club’s civic-mindedness--”

“There’s nothing civic-minded about it.” Her voice rang out, deep and confident from months of shouting commands. “We came to fight.” She was punctuated by a roar from the other children.

Cecil had never heard such a high-pitched battle-cry.

“We have enough soldiers,” he said firmly.

She snorted. “That’s not what my sources tell me. The Strex family has been hiring mercenaries for months. Based on their budget, they’ve got our citizens outnumbered three to one. You need us.”

“You’re children,” he said. “By all means you should be safe at home--”

“We aren’t going to have homes if Strex gets their way,” she declared. “Night Vale is ours, and we will fight to protect it.” Another roar of agreement sounded from her small army. “And if you aren’t going to give us your blessing, Your Majesty, then we’ll fight without it.”

Dammit dammit dammit.

“Fine,” Cecil said. “How are you all with arrows?”

“Got a ninety-five percent accuracy rate.” A cold smirk crossed Tamika’s face. “We’re better with slingshots.”

“Good. Then I want you to take to the towers and turrets. Desert Bluffs is sending massive birds our way from all sides, and I want you to bring them down.”

Tamika raised an eyebrow. “So you want us to stay where it’s safe.”

“Do you really think the Sheriff’s Secret Police has ninety-five percent accuracy?”

“Still a compromise,” she said.

“You bet it is.” This time it was Cecil’s turn to smirk. “I don’t want you kids chasing the Librarians back into the stacks before they meet the enemy.”

“You heard about that, huh?” Her grin turned savage, and she absently raised a hand to touch the severed Librarian claw that was strung around her neck. “Settin’ the monsters on the monsters. I like it.”

“I thought you would,” Cecil said. At least, he’d hoped.  

“So how about that blessing?” she asked.

He forced himself not to swallow, to keep his expression as confident and steady as the little girl-- young woman-- standing before him.

These were children.

But they had chosen to be soldiers.

They were too young to fully understand what they were getting into.

But the look on Tamika’s face said otherwise.

May your aim be accurate and deadly,” he said, finally raising his Voice to wash over the crowd. “May you face the enemy with courage and strength. And--” Be careful, be careful, be careful, there were so many ways it could go wrong. “May you all leave the fight in the same way that you approach it.

“Book Club, you heard the man,” Tamika shouted at the children, and immediately every back straightened. “Move out!”

“Are you really going to send the Librarians out?” the Faceless Old Woman asked as the children marched from the courtyard. “That’s a bold move.”

“If their army is really that big, then we’re going to need bold,” Cecil said. “Any idea where Tamika got those numbers?”

There was a moment of silence, and then: “It looks like Paulo has been copying all of Ambassador Lauren’s correspondences with Desert Bluffs for the past year or so.”

“Paulo, the kitchen boy?” Cecil asked.

“Yes.”

“That’s very illegal,” he said.

“Yes, it is.”

“When all this is over with, remind me to recommend him to the Sheriff. I think he’d have a bright future in the Secret Police force.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Nazr, I want you to take your guards to the battlefield.”

“But sir--”

“I’ll be heading to the Dog Park and the Library after this,” Cecil said. “And when I do, I’ll be the safest one there. I want you and the guards to stay to the back of the melee and make sure nobody gets through into Night Vale. Understood?”

“But--”

“Understood?”

Nazr hesitated. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

Nazr and Michael had only just passed through the doors when the Faceless Old Woman huffed in Cecil’s ear. “Wait! Don’t send them away just yet!”

Cecil looked up. “Why not?”

“There’s something in the palace,” she said. “And I’ve never seen anything like it.”


 

The more Carlos used his limbs, the easier it was to get his body to obey him. Unfortunately, he was still moving too slowly to satisfy the voice that insisted on escorting him to the palace.

“I’ve been protecting Night Vale for years, and here you are, practically volunteering to break down every single one of my barriers from the inside. What I want to know is, how are you smart enough to figure out how to take apart every protection I’ve been keeping in place, but you can’t break through a simple compulsion?”

“What compulsion?” Carlos asked, pausing to catch his breath. This much walking without a proper sense of balance was exhausting.

“That would explain it,” the voice sighed. “The compulsion you’ve been under ever since you got back from Desert Bluffs? You seriously didn’t notice it?”

“What’s he saying?” Rochelle asked. She’d brought her scrying mirror and runestones, but the rest of her craft wouldn’t be much use in case of a direct confrontation. The rest of the team had stayed behind to gather their defensive magics.  

“That Kevin put a geas on me when he was rooting around in my head,” Carlos said.

“That explains a lot,” Rochelle said.

“Yeah, that’s what he said.”

“What, did the sudden, dramatic shifts in behavior not attract anyone’s attention?” the voice asked, and Carlos repeated it-- though a bit more kindly.

“You were emotionally traumatized, physically depleted, psychically mangled, and suddenly missing a year’s worth of memories,” Rochelle said. “That sort of thing kind of requires establishing a new baseline, don’t you think?”

“Why would Kevin even want to do something like that?” Carlos asked. “Don’t you think he’s got better things to do than try to get Cecil laid?”

The figure in the corner of Carlos’ eye stumbled. “What-- but you-- what?”

“What’s going on?” Rochelle asked.

“I think I broke him,” Carlos muttered.

“But you and Cecil were together!” the voice snapped, exasperated and angry and-- sad? “Why the hell would you drag me back into this when you-- when you two already had something?”

Carlos stumbled backward. “Wait-- you’re Earl? But you’re supposed to be--”

“I’m supposed to be protecting Night Vale,” he said miserably. “I’m supposed to be keeping Desert Bluffs away from our borders, not floating around between realities like some useless ghost. That’s what they were hoping for. Desert Buffs has been gathering its forces for months, waiting for you to break my seal and let them in. And you’ve played right into their hands.”

“What, and you couldn’t have explained all this a month ago?” Carlos asked.

“Don’t you think I would have said something if I could?” Earl asked. “Don’t you think I would have said something to Cecil? After everything that happened…” He fell silent, and his voice hardened. “Get out of sight. There’s someone here.”

“Carlos?” Rochelle asked.

“Quiet!” Earl hissed, and Carlos put a finger to his lips.

“Over there,” Earl whispered, and Carlos caught a flicker of motion like a pointing hand. “In the alley by Big Rico’s. See them?”

Now that he was paying attention, Carlos heard the faint sound of a man humming. Very familiar humming. Judging by the shudder that ran down Rochelle’s spine, she’d heard it, too.

“Is that Luciano?” she mouthed.

Carlos nodded. Leaning in, he spotted his older brother, his eyes shut, lazily conducting imaginary musicians with his fingers. Meanwhile Sergio shifted his weight impatiently at the mouth of the alley, watching the sky with narrowed eyes.

“How did he get in here?” Carlos whispered.

“I don’t know,” Earl said. “It’s a lot harder to keep track of what’s going on when I’m like this. It looks like it’s only the three of them here, though.”

Carlos frowned. “Three? But I only see--”

There was a snap of crossbow string and a sudden pressure in Carlos’ back that bloomed into a sharp, consuming pain.

“Oh god-- Carlos!” Rochelle shouted, and Sergio and Luciano perked like wolves who’d scented a wounded deer.

“Look who was still alive,” Diego drawled, his voice accompanied by the clatter of his crossbow being wound up for a second shot. “No need for concern, though. I’ve taken care of it.”

But all of that happened somewhere in the distance, oddly fuzzy and out of focus. Most of Carlos’ attention was centered on the bloody crossbow bolt sticking out of his chest.

Chapter Text

It was a vortex, so deep and dark it almost seemed indigo, just hanging in the middle of Cecil’s bedroom wall. It emitted a faint hum-- a strange, pleasant sound that slipped through the cracks in his consciousness and made him want to touch it.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” giggled a high-pitched voice, and Cecil turned abruptly away from the vortex. The guards were all gone, and that didn’t sound like any of the servants. “It was even lovelier on the other side. White-- almost pink! Would you care to step through and see?”

The voice made Cecil’s hair stand on end, and he stepped pointedly away from the vortex.

“Who’s there?” he demanded.

The figure stepped out of the shadows. “Hi!” it gushed. “I’m Kevin!”

Cecil retreated a step. It looked… like him. The face, the hair, the nose: they looked right, or close enough to what had been recorded in the royal portrait.

But those eyes… there were no eyes. And its clothes were smeared with blood, and its smile…

Was that a smile?

“Why are you here?” Cecil demanded, trying not to let his apprehension show. “What are you doing here?” Stop there. Stop right there and don’t say another word. “And why do you look like me?”

“What? Oh, this?” Kevin looked down at himself and grinned sheepishly. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I look like what you want most. What everybody wants most. It just so happens that your greatest desire, in your heart of hearts, is--”

“Myself?” Cecil scoffed. “Hardly.”

“Your perfect self.” Kevin’s voice grew dark and slick, and he meandered forward. “Yourself without flaws, without wandering eyes and existential angst and that terrible curse that keeps you so alone. A self that doesn’t destroy everyone he loves.”

Cecil felt suddenly cold all over.

“You’re wrong,” he said, but there was no certainty in his tone. The vortex gaped wide behind him.

“Am I?” Kevin mused. “What do you think happened to brave Earl Harlan? Or beautiful, perfect Carlos? They were so happy before you noticed them. I would know. I’ve seen Carlos’ mind. It was so pretty. So neat and orderly and efficient, but then you happened to him. And where is he now? What have you done to him? To both of them?”

Cecil flattened himself back against the wall, but he couldn’t feel anything solid behind him. The wall was gone, leaving in its place only the swirling vortex, and whatever lay beyond it.

He didn’t want to hear this anymore. He had a job to do, and he needed to keep a hold of himself long enough to do it. He couldn’t listen to this-- this madman who looked just like him and knew exactly what he’d done.

“It’s your own fault, you know,” Kevin said, his voice a singsong. “If you’d had a bit more restraint, maybe you could have spared them. But you didn’t. You were just too selfish for that. And now they’re dead because of you.”

No. He’s wrong. He’s wrong he’s wrong he’s wrong he’s wrong--

“It’s just going to keep happening, Cecil.” He pronounced Cecil’s name the way other people might name a toxin. “As long as you’re here, infecting everything you touch, people are going to keep dying. The ones who are stupid enough to care about you. The ones deluded enough to follow you. They’re all going to die. It’s going to be quite horrible.”

Cecil was shaking. His vision tunnelled. A roaring in his ears overwhelmed the vortex’s humming.

And then those hands tightened around his throat.

“What’s really funny is how easy this all is to fix. Just let me take care of it all for you. I’ll be a much better king than you were.” Long, slender fingers wrapped around Cecil’s throat like a loving embrace. “I mean, let’s face it-- anyone can be a better king than you. Night Vale will be so much better off without you.”

And maybe he was right. Maybe it would.

But right now Night Vale was under attack. Right now children and civilians were rushing the battlefield, hoping to hold off the attack. He’d promised them Librarians. He’d promised to get them home alive.

And he couldn’t do that if he died here.

With a twist of his arms, he forced Kevin’s hands off him. Air rushed into his lungs, and he stumbled backward.  

“Oh? Are you worried about little Tamika?” Kevin giggled. “Of course you are. You must be! But then, if you were a real king, you would never have sent children into battle.” The word came out like an explicative. “I guess it just goes to show how little you know about leadership.”

“I didn’t send Tamika anywhere,” Cecil said, backing up into a wardrobe and fumbling with the latch. “Her army volunteered, and they weren’t about to let anybody stop them.”

“Oh, but you could have,” Kevin said. “You know you could have. One Word, and they would have wandered back to their homes, obedient as lambs. Just like you could have stopped Earl from walking to his death. Just like you could have stopped Carlos from doing all those terribly dangerous experiments.”

“You’re right,” Cecil said, one hand slipping into the wardrobe and around a jeweled hilt. “I could have stopped them. You would have.”

But to what end? To extinguish the light in Carlos’ eyes every time he talked about the mysteries of the universe? To keep him tethered and dependent, forever trapped within the confines of the safe and knowable?

Earl had begged Cecil not to interfere with his fate. He’d begged.

Cecil drew the sword from its scabbard. “But then who would have saved them from you?”


 

Carlos waited for the world to go dark and numb, but it didn’t. Everything was still bright, and the bolt in his chest still hurt like hell.

Ow,” he finally said. “That really hurt!”

But it hadn’t killed him. It really should have killed him. Why hadn’t it killed him?

The phylactery grew unbearably hot against his collarbone.

Oh. That’s why. He’d already been dead, before this thing had reanimated him. It wasn’t like he could get any deader.

Curiously he pulled the wooden bolt out of his chest. It made a squelching, sucking sound as it dragged through his insides-- uncomfortable, painful, but that was manageable now that he was expecting it. The last few inches were the most painful: his uneven grip on the blood-slick wood made the end of the dart knock unpleasantly against his bones, but finally he had it free. Already he could feel a faint itch on his back where the wound was starting to close.

“You dropped this,” Carlos said, holding the bolt out to his brother.

“Oh Smi-ugh--” Rochelle clapped a hand over her mouth, making a sound like she was going to vomit.

Of his brothers, only Sergio looked put-off-- and even that was a grimace of mild distaste. Diego had lowered the bolt and was frowning, likely performing calculations of force and trajectory and vital points in his head and trying to figure out just why a shot through the heart hadn’t been fatal. Luciano looked absolutely delighted.

“Oh, what have we here?” he crooned, stepping closer and reaching for a scalpel. “How did you do that, dear Carlito?”

Apparently none of them had noticed the phylactery tucked under Carlos’ shirt. Good.

“Night Vale,” Carlos said with a shrug. “You pick up a few things when you live here long enough. Crossbows don’t kill people. Everyone knows that. As you can see, I’m perfectly all right, so you can just call off this little invasion of yours and go back home. Send Mother my regards.”

“Perfectly all right?” Sergio said, regarding him with disgust. “Hardly. You look more like a construct to me.” He tilted his head. “What do you think, Diego? Because it looks to me like King Cecil reanimated our dear dead brother. Why on earth do you think he’d do that?”

Diego flashed a predatory grin. “As a sex toy, perhaps? Lauren was saying how out-of-control the king’s infatuation had gotten.”

Luciano made a face. “That’s hardly sanitary. It's perverse. Absolutely disgusting.”

“Night Vale will pay for that,” Sergio said.

“Carlos,” Earl said in his ear. “I can’t help you like this. I’m going to try to get Cecil, okay? Just hold on until then.”

Carlos twitched his head just slightly-- the tiniest of nods-- and he felt the distinct lack of presence that signalled Earl was gone.

How long would it take to get to Cecil? Ten minutes, maybe? And how long would it take to get his attention? If he’d been able to do that on his own, then surely he wouldn’t have needed Carlos to go to the palace, would he?

What were Carlos’ brothers going to do to him in that time?

And what were they going to do to Rochelle?

There was really only one thing to do.

“Rochelle, get out of here!” He shouted, and without further warning, he threw himself at Diego. The two of them wrestled over the crossbow while Rochelle took off at a mad sprint. Sergio and Luciano started after her, but unlike Carlos, neither of them had ever been known to run away from their problems. She left them in the dust-- but for a moment, she looked back.

“Go!” Carlos shouted, waving her on. “Get Cecil! Tell him to send the guards to Grove Par--” A right hook from Diego sent Carlos to his knees, and before he could catch his breath, another crossbow bolt buried itself in his throat.

The pain was excruciating-- the bolt seemed to have caught the cluster of nerves in his spine-- but this time he’d expected the blow to fall. The bolt was spent. It would take Diego several precious seconds to reload, and by the time he did, Rochelle would be long gone.

“Well,” Sergio said, straightening his collar. “That was adorable. You always did have a soft spot for those mages.”

For several long seconds Carlos couldn’t feel anything below his neck, couldn’t move, couldn’t twitch-- but a few moments later he regained control over his limbs.

Bracing himself, Carlos yanked the bolt out of his throat. The pain left him rolling in the dirt, and the gush of blood it unleashed down his throat left him coughing and spluttering.  

A booted foot forced him flat on the ground. “Now what was it you were saying about Grove… Park, was it?”

Carlos snarled. “Go to hell.”

Sergio gave a shrug. “Diego, I believe this is your area of expertise.”


 

Okay, so maybe Cecil should have reconsidered using a ceremonial sword in combat-- all those jewels and inlay made for lovely decoration, but they didn’t exactly help the sword’s balance or durability. And maybe he should have tried to recall the last time he’d actually had a sparring match-- a good ten years, at least. And maybe he should have checked to see if his double was also wearing a sword-- which he was, and it was a whole lot nicer than Cecil’s, even if it was lacking some of the filigree.

So, all things considered, Cecil wasn’t entirely shocked when the broken shards of his sword went flying across the room.

Kevin lunged for another strike, but Cecil grabbed a chair and blocked the attack. The blade carved a deep notch into the chair, and then another, and another.

A particularly vicious strike sent Cecil stumbling back, and his skull gave a sharp crack as it collided with the wall. He slid to the floor, prone and undefended.

“Get up!” a voice shouted. “Come on, Cecil, you have to get up!”

Cecil’s unfocused eyes slid over a blurry shape-- redheaded and muscular, draped in what might have been military regalia. “Earl?”

“Cecil, please, you have to get up!” Earl urged, but he was almost entirely drowned out by Kevin’s unholy laughter.

“Oh, that is fantastic!” the double crowed. “Come to help him, little Scout? How adorable! Oh, Cecil, isn’t it, though? He’s just a wandering spirit, insubstantial and powerless. He couldn’t nudge a feather!” A dark, oily smile crept into his voice. “But he can still watch.”

Cecil’s eyes focused on Kevin. The double honestly meant what he was saying. So Earl… wasn’t a hallucination, then?

He was real?

He was here?

He’s wrong,” Cecil Said, pouring power into the words. “Earl, he’s wrong. You’re real, and you’re solid, and you’re here, and you’re so important. And you’re not powerless, Earl. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known. And I--”

Kevin’s hands closed around Cecil’s throat, choking the words at their source.  “Nobody asked for your input,” he hissed. “You’ve done enough damage already. It’s time to give up.”

Cecil scrabbled at Kevin’s hands, desperate to pry them off, but his vision was going dark with spots of red--

Kevin pulled back with a shriek, his back arched in pain. As he writhed, Cecil caught sight of his broken sword buried in Kevin’s back up to the hilt.

Another figure bent low to pick up Kevin’s discarded sword. He said nothing, but fury blazed in every angle of his stance.

Cecil’s vision was still blurry, but he knew exactly how those chapped lips curled into a snarl. He knew every stitch and badge on that uniform.

He knew every inch of that man.

A clatter split the air as Cecil’s sword was dislodged from Kevin’s back and crashed on the ground. Kevin stumbled back, breathing hard, putting furniture between himself and the Scout.

“Oh?” the double said, tilting his head to one side. “If you wanted to join the fun, you only had to ask. I’d be glad to let you play--”

Earl lunged, the sword blazing as it caught the light. A splatter of fresh blood painted the room. Before Cecil could assess the damage or Earl could get in a second slash, Kevin stumbled backwards, vanishing into the vortex.

Earl gathered himself to leap after him.

“Earl!” Cecil shouted, pitching forward.

The Scout stopped like he’d been stunned, and for a moment Cecil wondered if he’d used his Voice. In that same moment, the vortex collapsed on itself.

Cecil was shaking-- with relief? If Earl had gone through-- if he’d followed Kevin into the void-- he would have disappeared. He’d disappear and maybe never come back again. But he was here now. Here and solid and… and the room was spinning, but that was okay.

Earl knelt at his side. “Cecil, are you all right?”

Cecil reached up and ran a shaking hand through Earl’s fiery hair. This couldn’t be real. He couldn’t be real. But Cecil had Said it, so it had to be.

“I’m fine,” he croaked.

“No, Cecil,” Earl said gently. “I need you to Tell me you’ll be all right. Can you do that for me?”

Oh.

“I’m going to be fine,” Cecil said. “This will heal quickly.” Obediently the back of his head started itching as skin and bone worked on knitting themselves back together. “What about you? Are you--”

Alive? All right? Staying?

Earl’s face was carefully blank. “Can you get up? Are there any guards left in the palace? Carlos needs help.”

“No.” Faintly Cecil shook his head. He had Earl back-- for now?-- but… Carlos… “I saw him. He’s gone.”

“He got better,” Earl said, scooping Cecil up into his arms with unnatural ease. “Again. I’m pretty sure dying is turning into a hobby for that man.”

Cecil’s mind ground to a halt. “What?”

“He’s okay. Or he was. Now he’s in trouble again. Is there someone here who can stay with you while I bail him out?”

Carlos was alive.

Earl was here.

And yes, maybe those were both temporary states, but Cecil would be damned if he didn’t drag them out as long as possible.

“I’m coming with you.”


 

Shit shit shit-- “Wait!” Carlos threw his hands protectively over his head. “Okay, I’ll talk!”

Diego and Sergio exchanged raised eyebrows. Luciano just looked disappointed. Re-education and mental manipulation were his areas of expertise-- Diego, on the other hand, liked to think that violence was the answer to all life’s problems. The sorts of things he liked to do to people were legendary; the things he’d do to a plaything that wouldn’t die, though?

Carlos didn’t even want to think about it.

“That was easy,” Sergio remarked.

“I like living here,” Carlos said quickly. “But I don’t like it that much.”  

Diego’s lip curled in disgust. “You always were a coward, Carlos.”

“No, I’m an alchemist,” Carlos sniffed. “Bravery and cowardice has nothing to do with it.”

“He’s changing the subject,” Luciano said. “None of that, Carlito.” He wagged one finger in Carlos’ face; in his hand was a thin surgeon’s razor. “We were discussing Grove Park.”

Carlos swallowed. “Right.” He hadn’t had a chance to put a whole lot of thought into this plan, but it looked like he wouldn’t get any more. “Grove Park-- it’s kind of like a holy place for the people here. Like, really holy. So much that they don’t ever talk about it.”

“Is that a fact?” Sergio asked, leaning back to glance at his other two brothers.

“Ask Lauren Mallard if you don’t believe me,” Carlos said quickly. “There’s this shape in Grove Park that nobody ever talks about or acknowledges. She’s seen it. Everyone has. I was doing research on it earlier-- you can see my notes if you want to.” Carlos’ eyes widened and he clapped his mouth shut, as though he’d said too much.

“Oh, come now, Carlito,” Luciano hummed, sliding the razor across Carlos’ throat, its blade just barely scraping the skin. “There’s no need to go quiet. You were saying?”

Carlos swallowed. “I-- most people just assume the shape in Grove Park is holy-- they don’t know what it’s really for. I do. Cecil-- the king told me.” The razor pressed lovingly into his throat. “He was trying to impress me! He said it’s the source of Night Vale’s power. It gives the king his abilities, it messes with time-- and it protects Night Vale. It’ll be acting up right now to defend against your soldiers. Look at it and see if you don’t believe me!”

At least, he hoped he’d talked enough about the shape in Grove Park to make it act up.

“It’s non-euclidian in shape, maybe a yard and a half across, changes color depending on what’s going on-- normally it emits this strange hum, but in times of stress it supposedly makes a louder noise, like chanting. It’s right there-- you can’t miss it!”

That ought to do it.

His three brothers exchanged glances, sizing each other up.

Unbridled power would be enough of a temptation on its own, but if one of them could bring it back home, that would ensure his place on Desert Bluffs’ throne-- hell, with that kind of power, whoever controlled it could build an empire. He could go unchallenged. And all the while he’d have a perfectly unique specimen to study.

There was no way any one of them could forego that opportunity-- and even less of a chance that any one of them risk letting the others get their hands on it. In fact, if Carlos was lucky, they might even kill each other in the process.

“All right, brother,” Sergio said, clapping a hand on Carlos’ back, almost hard enough to push him into the scalpel. “I think it’s time you show us around. And if anybody gets any unfortunate ideas, you’ll be sure to let them know how friendly we are. Won’t you?”

Ah, of course. No reason to kill anyone when they could make for perfectly good meat shields. Carlos should have thought of that.

“As friendly as a helping hand around a throat,” Carlos said dryly.

His brothers only grinned.

He led the way to Grove Park, Diego moving close behind, keeping his crossbow trained on Carlos’ kidney. Apparently it wouldn’t be a mortal wound, but it would certainly hurt.

The streets were nearly deserted-- the citizens of Night Vale were all either on the battlefield or barricading their families into the various shelters and safehouses that dotted the kingdom. Carlos’ hair was already whipped about in a frenzy; Luciano’s was being tugged stubbornly from its ponytail, while the wind struggled to peel Sergio’s and Diego’s hair out of its brilliantine hold. The wind yanked at their clothes and pushed them back.

“It’s right this way,” Carlos declared, getting a mouthful of sand and grit as he did. “All this wind is part of its defense mechanism. It’s trying to keep people away.”

The closer they got, the wilder the wind grew. The trees of Grove Park, already stripped nearly bare by the shape’s last uproar, flailed wildly in the path of small cyclones. And amidst them, the Shape: roiling and unfolding like clay in the hands of a Smiling God, flashing in erratic patterns of colors Carlos couldn’t even begin to name, roaring with a sound like a nation at war.

“It’s lovely,” Luciano breathed, stepping closer.

Diego pressed the bolt into Carlos’ back. “You said there’d be guards.”

“There are,” Carlos said. “The Sheriff’s Secret Police wouldn’t be very effective if they were out in the open. See? Behind that tree. And in the eaves of that house over there. Hello, Jamal.” He waved at an imaginary Secret Police officer. “I-- we’re here for diplomatic reasons. I just want to show my brothers the shape that we’re not supposed to talk about, and then they’re going to call off this whole war. Isn’t that right, Sergio?” He flashed his brother a winning smile.

His brother’s eyes still flicked around the park, not seeing anything. “Yes. Of course. Clearly this has all been a misunderstanding.”

“And we wouldn’t want to exacerbate the situation,” Carlos said. “So do we have the go-ahead to proceed?”

A particularly large rock cracked against the side of a house, then bounced and hit it again.

“Two thumps means yes,” Carlos said. “We can go.”

Diego shook his head. “Night Vale is weird,” he muttered.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Carlos said. “There. You’ve seen it. It’s real. Can we go now?”

“Not so fast,” Sergio said. “How does it work?”

“I--” Give the information too willingly, and they wouldn’t believe him. “I don’t know.”

Sergio shrugged. “Don’t you? That’s a real shame. Perhaps one of your friends is better informed. Diego, I’m sure you can--”

“Wait!” Carlos said in a rush. “No. Don’t hurt them.”

Sergio gave him a patient stare. “If you aren’t going to be helpful, brother--”

“No, I can be. I--” He swallowed. “You see the big bloodstone circle over there? That’s supposed to be how you control it. You stand on it, and bleed on the stones, and then you chant to the shape. You ask it to do your bidding. It’s that easy. Just-- just whatever you do, don’t touch it.”

Luciano’s eyes lit up. “Oh? And why would that be?”

Carlos stammered and swallowed. “It-- er-- it’s dangerous. If you touch it...” Carlos eyes flickered like he was thinking. “It’ll kill you. Just-- please, don’t touch it.”

Luciano’s mouth stretched into a wide grin. “Of course, Carlito. I do so appreciate your concern.” He ruffled Carlos’ hair affectionately. “No need to worry your pretty little head. I wouldn’t dream of doing something so--” For an instant he froze, and on Carlos’ other side, Sergio did the same. In the same instant they caught each other's intentions. Without another word they both took off running toward the shape, each diving at the other. It was the least dignified Carlos had ever seen either of them.

Conspicuously, a third figure didn’t join them.

Oh no, please, anything but that,” Diego mocked in Carlos’ ear. “Care to guess how many times I’ve heard that one?”

For a moment Carlos considered giving a sarcastic reply, but he decided he liked his eyes far too much to mouth off at his brother. Instead he watched silently as Sergio and Luciano raced each other to the shape. They were neck and neck-- only a few steps away from its glowing, churning mass--

And then a beam of red light shot through the air, disintegrating them both midstep.

“I tried to warn them,” Carlos said mildly.

“Don’t try to be cute,” Diego said. “You just murdered your brothers in cold blood.”

“What, disappointed you didn’t get to do it yourself?”

“A little, actually.” With a brutal swing, Diego smashed the butt of his crossbow into the back of Carlos’ skull. Carlos crumpled to his knees, and a savage kick sent him to the ground. A boot fell heavily on his back. “But now that they’re taken care of, you’re going to tell me what that thing really is, and how it really works. And you’re going to be honest with me.”

With the snap of a bowstring, one of the bolts ripped through Carlos’ chest and buried itself in the ground. Carlos didn’t have enough breath in him to scream.

“You’re going to be very honest, because if you aren’t, I’ll know it.” A second bolt bit through Carlos’ other side. Diego paused, thoughtful. “Funny. You look like like an insect down there. Pinned to the ground like a butterfly on a board.” A sharp blade caressed Carlos’ back, sliding across his ribs. “Shall I give you wings?”


 

Wind whipped through Earl’s hair-- and if it weren’t such an emergency, Cecil might have appreciated the view. He probably would have appreciated a lot of things: Earl was alive, and here, and holding Cecil’s hand as they raced out the castle doors.

In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that Night Vale was under attack and Carlos was in mortal peril, Cecil would be absolutely giddy right now.

Instead, the adrenaline flooding his system was of the much less pleasant desperation-and-horror variety, though his concussion had left his brain foggy enough not to get too bent out of shape about it.

“This way,” Earl called. “They were down by Big Rico’s--”

But the wind was blowing so strongly, and that wasn’t right. Cecil slowed, tasting the ozone of deja-vu on his tongue.

“Come on, Cecil!” Earl said. He drew back a step and wrapped his arm around Cecil’s waist, and oh, that felt nice… “We need to hurry!”

“No,” Cecil said slowly. It was still difficult to think, the world still felt sideways and wrong, but he was certain about this. “No. This wind... I saw it acting up like this before. Just like this.”

In Grove Park. Because of the shape that nobody ever talked about or acknowledged. Because they all knew not to talk about or acknowledge it.

Only one person didn’t know not to do that.

“Cecil--”

“No,” Cecil said firmly. “He’s not there. He’s in Grove Park. I’m sure of it.”

Earl stopped. Stared. And then shrugged. “To Grove Park, then.”

He turned abruptly, his hand sliding down Cecil’s arm to his hand as he gained momentum, and they raced into the epicenter of the windstorm.

The scene had unfolded just as it had before: the churning shape, the raging wind, the quailing trees, the flying debris. But instead of bodies, there was only one, lying prone on its stomach.

A single figure crouched over it, as though checking for a pulse. Even from a distance, Cecil recognized that silhouette.

“Carlos!” he shouted, but there was no joy in it. Everything was too much like it was before-- Carlos was going to die all over again, and he was going to have to watch. “Enough with this tantrum!” he roared at the shape. “Calm your winds and cease your bluster. Your wrath is known, and it ends now.” His voice didn’t just hold power, but desperation, and the shape shuddered under its force. Immediately the gale fell still, just as before-- but this time it ended with Carlos alive and still on his feet.

“Carlos, are you all right?” he called, rushing to close the distance. “Did it hurt you? Did it--”

Carlos turned to face him, and Cecil stumbled to a halt.

That wasn’t Carlos.

He looked like Carlos-- his build, his face, his dark tresses, his delicate skin-- but that wasn’t him. His clothes were all wrong, too elegant and not nearly practical enough to suit the alchemist. The expression on his face was predatory and calculating.

“I think that’s enough,” the stranger said, drawing a jagged knife from his belt. The other hand tangled in the long, dark hair of the man at his feet-- the man who was wearing a bloodstained lab coat.

“Ca--”

“Not another sound!” the stranger snarled, cutting off Cecil’s cry. “One more syllable and I take off his head. Do you understand?”

Cecil’s eyes flicked left and right, but he didn’t dare move his head to look. Where was Earl?

Do you understand?” The stranger dragged Carlos’ head back by his hair, and Carlos gave a hissing cry.

Cecil threw his hands forward in a sign of surrender, nodding frantically.

“That’s what I thought.” The stranger flashed a savage smile. A shape condensed behind him, like a taller, broader shadow. “Now you’re going to come right here. Let’s see what you look like with a gag in that pretty little mouth.”

Cecil nodded again, slowly. He took one step forward. Another.

“I’ve had enough stalling for one day,” the stranger said. “You have three seconds before I start carving out his eyes.”

Behind him, the shape solidified. Earl looked at Cecil over the stranger’s shoulder, silent as stone, awaiting orders.

Cecil gave a single, sharp nod.

The stranger caught a movement from the corner of his eye and tried to whirl around, but not fast enough. Before he could make the turn, Earl’s hands closed on his chin and scalp and gave a bone-wrenching twist. There was a sharp crack of a broken spine, and the man from Desert Bluffs crumpled in a heap.

Cecil raced to the cluster of men. Earl was already on the ground, carefully drawing two crossbow bolts out of Carlos’ back.

“Carlos, you’re fine,” Cecil said in a rush, sliding to his knees on the alchemist’s other side. “You’re going to be fine. You’re going to make a full recovery.” He turned frantically to Earl. “Is he going to be all right?”

“I’ve had worse,” Carlos coughed, scraping himself off the ground as soon as the second bolt had been removed from his chest. His eyes fell on the prone body of the other man. “What about Diego? Is he…?”

Oh. So that was Carlos’ brother.

Oh.

“He-- he’s dead,” Cecil stammered. “I’m sorry, we didn’t really have much of a choice--”

“No, you’re fine.” Carlos hacked up a spray of blood. “I was just trying to figure out how to do that, actually.” He gave another cough, but it sounded cleaner this time. “The other two were easier.”

“That’s enough talking out of you,” Earl chided, easing Carlos upright. “It looks like at least one of those bolts punctured a lung. Give it some time to heal.”

Carlos nodded absently-- and then he got a good look at Earl’s face. He froze like he’d been shocked. “Wait--” He erupted into yet another coughing fit. “You’re--”

“Carlos,” Cecil said slowly, savoring the words he never thought he’d get to say again. “This is Earl.”

“You’re solid!” Carlos said. “How did that happen?”

Earl raised an eyebrow at the alchemist. “What did I say about talking?”

“You two have met?” Cecil asked.

He felt half delirious. Carlos was okay. He was okay. And Earl was back. And-- and this would definitely complicate things, but that was okay, because they were both alive, and--

“Wait-- I’m confused.” Carlos said. “Are you okay, then? Is there still a war on?”

Oh yeah. That.

“Right!” Cecil jumped to his feet. “Right. That. Hold on just a second. I need to go to the Library real quick-- and the Dog Park-- but I’ll be right back. Please try not to die while I’m gone!”

And he took off running, leaving Carlos and Earl behind.

But that was all right. Because for once, he knew they would still be there when he got back.

Chapter Text

The war with Desert Bluffs ended as abruptly as it began.

As it turned out, the average mercenary did not take kindly to hordes of scaly, tentacled Librarians barrelling through their midst. They were even less pleased by the Hooded Figures that followed in the Librarians’ wake.

But what officially ended it all was a single horse, running wild, a broken-necked prince and two satchels of ash strapped to its saddle.

Earl thought it a bit melodramatic, but Carlos and Cecil agreed: it certainly made an impression.

As did the parcel Carlos brought to the throne room a few days later.

“I thought you should see this,” he said. “A courier delivered it to the lab this morning. My team’s already tested it: none of it’s poisoned or cursed.”

Earl plucked a banana out of the basket and quirked an eyebrow. “Are your fruit baskets usually poisoned?”

“Less often since I arrived here,” Carlos said. “But it’s always better to check. Especially since it came with a note.” This he handed to Cecil. The stationery was finely wrought and dyed a soft gold; the broken seal bore the triangular insignia of the Family Strex, pressed into dark orange wax. “It’s from my mother.”

Darling Carlos,

I’m so pleased the latest attempt at your life has been thwarted, and I wish you the best of luck with the local king. Try to make a good impression-- Desert Bluffs will be withdrawing our influences from Night Vale until the political atmosphere has a chance to recover from last week’s awkward affair.

“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Earl asked dryly. “And here I thought we’d gone to war.”

On that note-- the recent incident lost our family a lot of money, and we are tremendously grateful for you for disciplining the ones responsible in such a timely manner. The initiative you’ve shown is a mark of true leadership--

Cecil lowered the note. “Wait. Does she mean your brothers? Your dead brothers?”

“That’s Strex for you,” Carlos said dryly. “Fratricide gets you a fruit basket. I left for a reason.”

“Clearly.”

Cecil continued skimming over the note while Earl read over his shoulder. Carlos had read over it already: the long and short of it being that the Family Strex would be keeping its distance from Night Vale for a long time. There were a few less-than-subtle hints enclosed that Carlos should try wooing Cecil again.

And honestly, he felt less apprehensive about that idea than he otherwise might have. What was his family going to do-- kill him again?

Besides, there was no need to rush into anything.

Cecil looked good. There was a color in his once-ashen face, and a light in his eyes that Carlos couldn’t remember ever being there before. He looked strangely happy, even though his brows were drawn and his lips were tucked into a thin line as he looked through the letter.

Earl leaned against him to read, his body arranged perfectly to be close but not touching. The only point of physical contact was a hand on Cecil’s shoulder-- a reminder that he was physically here.

It had only been a few days, but Carlos hadn’t ever seen them together when they hadn’t been touching in some small way.

And that was good. Cecil needed that, and Carlos was glad he had it.

He just needed to figure out how he fit into all of this. However that turned out to be, he would deal with it, and he would stay here.

He was done with running.