Chapter 1: The Page Of Cups
this entire thing comes from me watching Good Omens about 5 times and consistently going "man. anathema has intense carlos energy." i dare you to tell me i'm wrong.
ETA, 06/26/19: This chapter has been almost fully rewritten and revamped. Now it's MUCH cleaner, the prose is expanded, and it's in past tense, which suits the story better. I will be doing this to the rest of the chapters as well.
Carlos Device pulled his coupe over onto the shoulder, off the road. A great plume of dust rose on his tail as he coasted to a stop. Luckily, there was no one around, no one to honk at him for the audacity of leaving the road with a dense cloud coating the air behind.
Out here, it was quiet. Desolate. The only signs of life were the road itself and the green sign post ahead, signaling the road transition into Route 800.
A long box made of dark heartwood sat in the passenger seat, secured in place by the belt. Picking it up, Carlos opened the lid on its hinge, revealing the long row of index cards inside. He ran his thumb over their edges, drawing them back a bit, each in turn until he located the one he'd marked with a little sharpie dot.
Pulling the correct card loose, he framed it between his fingers against the steering wheel. Staid writing laid across it, justified margins and a courier typeface.
561: On the precipice ye stand, Carlos, amid the duste along the grey road where sits a post rede eighte hundred. Settle thy affairs in the world behinde.
This, apparently, was the place.
He tucked the card into the cupholder and called his cousin, A. Device. There were many Devices on his contact list, but this one had the most frequent calls.
"I've reached the threshold," Carlos said as soon as the line picked up. "Agnes was right. I can feel it like a veil ahead of me, about three hundred feet."
"You're right on time," Anathema Device said.
"Of course. A descendant is always punctual." He picked at the fraying thread on his steering wheel cushion, his eyes held taut to the route sign. "It's the rest of the world that never seems to be on time."
"There are many aspects of the life that I still hold fondness for. Things I miss," Anathema said. "Always waiting for the would to step up to its damned cues is not one of them."
Anathema had given up the life . A few months ago, at the tail end of the summer, the world had very nearly ended. It was a very messy affair involving a misplaced Antichrist, some truly trashy motorcyclists, and some demonic and angelic emissaries that helped botch the impending apocalypse.
It also involved a Device. Anathema had been the one chose by their long-deceased matriarch, the last true witch and renowned prophetess Agnes Nutter, and sent to help avert Armageddon.
Which, points to Anathema, had gone well. World was quite remarkably un-ended.
In the wake of the Almostageddon, a new book of prophecy had been discovered. More instructions from Agnes.
Anathema had sent the manuscript back home to the family in California without reading a single word, and declared if anyone tried to involve her in any more predestination, she would fly back to Malibu singularly to hex their hair off.
Carlos was sympathetic to this, but also had a job to do. He maintained the family's personal Nice And Accurate App to track everything. Thus, the manuscript was printed into a book, and the book wound up on his desk.
The very first entry he'd read when he opened the book had been addressed to him, by name.
And now, a few months later, here he was.
"Yes, I'm here."
"Do you have everything you'll need? It's important to be prepared. Before, we have some 400 years to forecast what was to come and what we'd need. Now…"
In his rear view mirror, he saw the suitcases and bags that refused to fit in the trunk. "I have most of my life packed into this car."
"Good. I should have expected you to be properly prepared." She sighed across bandwidth and thousands of miles of space. "You be careful, conejito. Listen always to Agnes, even when she seems quite mad. And do your best to return to us. If I could survive her, then so can you."
Carlos smiled, a little watery but happy. "I'll miss you, Anathema. Be good, and tell mama I love her."
He heard the particular distorted sound of a kiss being pressed to the receiver. "I will do," she promised. "Until next time."
"Next time," he agreed, and thumbed the call off.
There was still no one around, not a soul, as if the road he idled beside barely existed. No one to be a bother.
Shutting his eyes, he took a private moment to gather himself.
Then, Carlos shifted his car back into drive, pulling back onto the road, and aimed straight towards Route 800, towards destiny, towards his duty.
The Voice of Night Vale
A stranger has entered our town today, listeners. Perhaps you saw him, driving down Somerset in his extremely sporty hybrid car with the out of state license plate, the tinted windows rolled down, his perfect hair moving like black silk in the hot wind. Who is he? What does he want with our quiet little town? And why does he carry so many designer bags filled with brassy contraptions?
Old Woman Josie was the first to meet him. She and her tall, winged companions who all happen to be named Erika were at the Last Bank of Night Vale this afternoon. She was tending to some of her deposit boxes, dropping off fresh fodder and offerings. The usual.
According to Josie, who did her best to eavesdrop on as much as she could, the man is named Carlos Device. He opened a new account with the bank, and plans to buy a house. Specifically, the small house near the Cactus Bloom development, the one that has sat vacant since the Emmerich family vanished the night of the meteor shower three years ago.
A stranger, purchasing a home in our community, mere hours after arriving.
More on this, as we know it.
432: Where the Serpente bendes to Devoure his own taile and the dry plante Bloomes, ye will finde Succor and a place to rest thy heade.
Once he figured out the place Agnes intended for him, Carlos went to the bank to set up his account and buy it, sight almost entirely unseen.
He was pleased enough with it from the start. It was a bungalow, painted a charming pale blue, like a navy jacket left out in the sun for several years until it metamorphosed into a friendly cornflower. It had A/C and plant boxes under the windows. It would do nicely.
There was an old safe mounted in the kitchen wall, which for anyone with another last name would be a wonderful stroke of luck. For a Device, it was simply ordained.
"Thanks, Agnes," Carlos murmured, and availed himself to the safe immediately. He slid the heartwood box inside and sealed it for the time being.
Night Vale was strange. Ley lines crisscrossed and run gambit through the town, giving the entire city a sort of otherworldly mystical hum like background radiation. One nexus of lines sat directly under the bungalow, and for some time Carlos stood in the living room, basking in the energy under his feet rising like spring grass between his toes.
With a whisper of will, he could feel other places. The library, City Hall, the strange dog park with its high electrified walls, the heavy line of Main Street, and the lofty tower of the radio station. All of them, and more, shone with a kind of power that flowed like an open river of lava. And similarly, it should have been painful to stand astride its path. Carlos should have burned.
But the energy was… dark. A dark light that didn't so much as sting his metaphysical eyes.
Standing around all day marveling at the weirdness was a waste of daylight when he still had work to do. Shaking himself loose from the gossamer draw of the nexus, he stomped back outside, into the cruel glare of the midday sun.
Squinting against the glare, he saw a small crowd of teenagers on the sidewalk, loitering and staring at his new house.
This, too, seemed like good fortune or something ordained.
"Hello!" He hopped down the patio steps. "Would anyone like to help me unpack my car?" He consulted the billfold of his wallet and brandished a few twenties into the air. "If you have time and inclination, of course."
The Voice Of Night Vale
An update on the stranger who has already moved into the bungalow near the Cactus Bloom development. Roger Harlan, sophomore at Night Vale High School, happened to be walking by on the way to the White Sand Ice Cream Shop when he passed the blue house on the corner of Ouroborus Road. It seems Carlos paid Roger and his friends twenty-five dollars apiece for their help carrying suitcases and boxes into the house and helping rearrange some furniture.
Roger reported back that it was the easiest twenty-five dollars he ever made, and Carlos was really nice. They had sunshine tea on the porch, and Carlos said the ley lines in Night Vale were the loveliest he'd ever seen. He then corrected himself and explained that when he says see , he means with his deeper senses of perception, not vision per se.
Roger asked if Carlos was a witch. Carlos hesitated almost imperceptibly and said no, he was an occultist. Then he sent everyone home, as he had work to do.
Here is a partial list of things Carlos unpacked from his sporty hybrid car. Twelve candles, scented and unscented, though predominately the latter. Several long pendulums of various sizes, all hung from silver chains. Two shelves worth of books, none of which are municipally approved. Three wide-brimmed hats. An astrolabe. Three tarot decks, including the standard Rider-Waite-Smith edition. One Lenormand deck, well-used. Numerous glass jars, each filled with labeled seeds. A heartwood box filled with heavily-pursued index cards, which was immediately locked into the wall safe.
And now, traffic.
There was a way these things were done, generally speaking. Carlos had already taken in the general lay of the land, as well as the ley.
Trouble was, Night Vale didn't exist on any maps he could find online. GPS navigation just didn't function once he entered the region. Even the Tourism Board lacked any useful material, carrying only brochures for bus tours to the local irradiated canyon and some posters of the local desert landscape, all mysteriously rendered without the mountains on the horizon.
Ergo, it was up to him to make his own map.
After collecting the necessary materials, he elected to start on one side of town, near the library. It was a decent landmark, huge and towering like an oversized cinderblock. From the outside, it could've been mistaken for a prison, with its high barbed fences and the metal bars over the windows. Also the lack of entry points. That was odd.
Stepping out onto Broken Sound Boulevard, tertiary ley lines tickled Carlos' feet as he looked up and down the road.
This he knew: His stride was about 2.3 feet at a relaxed pace. All he had to do was keep count of his steps, then create a reasonable to create the map with. Once he had something functional, he could get imaginative with clear plastic overlays, guides of various points of interest, the aetherial flow around the city, and the best restaurants. Then, scan that into his computer, and he could carry all the information he needed around on his phone.
The plan was excellent, and Carlos knew how to execute it.
He didn't anticipate the patrol car that pulled out in front of him around step fifty-six to give him a ticket and confiscate his pencil.
"What do you mean, writing utensils are banned?" Carlos shouted after the car as it screeched away, leaving a dark line of rubber on the sidewalk. "You can't, you can't ban writing utensils, I-- I need those!"
He nearly followed the car, continuing to shout, but that was not a good plan and besides he was meant to be counting.
"It's fine." He patted his pockets until he found another pencil. It was not nearly as nice, already halfway down to the wood. It wound get him through this street, surely. "A descendant is always prepared, even for completely asinine city ordinances."
The Voice of Night Vale
John Peters, you know, the farmer? He was dropping off a selection of his invisible corn at the Green Market when he saw the outsider. Carlos was standing on the corner of Broken Sound, near the library. He was walking east, counting his steps aloud in a voice like a heavy bell, melodious and perfect. In his hands was a journal and a pencil.
Now, of course, being a model citizen, John pointed out the illicit materials to the closest Secret Police monitoring station-- that metallic apricot that sits on top of the fruit pyramid in the produce section.
As we can always expect from our city's protectors, the Sheriff's Secret Police showed up in seconds to inform Carlos of the ban and to take away his pencil. They then returned thirty seconds later to pat him down and found three more pencils, as well as two highlighters and a quill.
Carlos argued that the quill wasn't a writing utensil, but an antique of great value. Upon hearing this, the Sheriff's Secret Police left in a hurry, as they suddenly remembered they were late for their daily lurking in the emergency antique-related disaster bunker on Shay Street.
Michelle Nguyen, owner of Dark Owl Records, said Carlos entered her store and attempted to buy more illegal contraband. Michelle doesn't carry writing utensils, of course; there are a free souvenir pens from various concert tours, but all of them had the ink removed in accordance to city by-laws for the authorized sale of prohibited items.
Also, she's not accepting dollar currency at this time. This week, Dark Owl Records is exclusively accepting bottle caps of sodas from the 1920s as payment. Michelle plans to using the resulting collection to craft a very heavy but completely unique vest, which she'll enjoy until the bottlecap chest armor fad catches on around the city. Then she'll stop enjoying it.
While he was there, Carlos looked through some albums. Apparently he prefers vinyl to CD and cassettes, and wanted to purchase a copy of The Klaxons' "Myths of the Near Future", but didn't have enough bottlecaps. He also smelled of amyris and sun-dried linen.
Michelle threw some of her least favorite bottlecaps at him until he left.
Speaking of Dark Owl Records, speaking of music, lets have a look at the Weather.
Carlos found a coffee shop to sit in and take stock. This was surprisingly easy, as Night Vale had an entire strip comprised entirely of cafes, the air on the whole street biting with the smell of coffee.
The Spiky Hammer seemed fine enough, and Carlos was attracted to the big, open windows. He never liked going into a place he couldn't examine from the outside first.
He ordered a macchiato with hazelnut and politely declined the various additives offered: metal shavings, fermented syrup, mulch, and residual anxiety. All sounded fascinating, but Carlos was already at his limit for adventure this week. And he'd only been in Night Vale three days.
He sat at a free table in the corner, facing the door. From here, he could see who came in, and thus watch out for those overzealots in balaclavas who had it out for him and his pens. At some point, he had to look into what else was banned in this strange place.
The heartwood box remained in the safe back at the bungalow, and Carlos had yet to remove it. But here, he set his phone on the table, opening the Nice and Accurate App. Selecting 'Volume Two', he began to flick through the prophecies.
He was proud of the interface; the prophecies were searchable by keyword and text, but also he could flick through them rapidly. It was already becoming a nervous habit; he already knew Anathema had relied on random card pulls when she needed direction. This was the same idea, but digital.
Tapping his thumb rapidly against the tabletop, he swiped the screen, sending the cards spinning like a motorized rolodex. After watching it with unfocused eyes, he planted a finger down, stopping the wheel hard.
221: When that the Bell chimes, heed thy man, Carlos, and witness his countenance when he doth reckon to thy presence. Spurn not a violet eye.
He didn't think he transcribed this one correctly. The Olde Tyme English was an extra level of difficulty to deal with as he worked on this. Granted, complaining about completely accurate foretellings of the future because their antiquated vernacular seemed a little petty.
But it was still very annoying.
Shaking his head, Carlos let the screen time out as he blew into the spout of his drink, trying to cool it and almost making a funny wood-whistle noise. "Violent eye, Agnes," he said to himself with the long-ingrained habit of talking to his ancestor as if she were still lurking over his shoulder. As his entire family kind of did. "You meant violent. I'm keeping a look out for more officers, I've got this."
The bell over the door rang as it opened. Carlos' eyes flicked up briefly, just long enough to gauge the new person entering. Decidedly not a member of the Secret Police in that pale green tunic and the metallic gold skinny jeans. He walked up to the counter with a long brisk stride, exuding confidence but also exuding the feeling of being in a bit of a rush.
"Hello, good artisans. Good tidings to the Barista Colony," he said, something like grandeur in his voice. Carlos followed him quietly with his gaze, and wondered if he was in theatre or something. He had a voice that sounded cared for in a conspicuous way. "Great, that's wonderful. My best to the King. Uh, can I geeeeeeeet a cold brew with the foam and sssssssome salted pomegranate arils? Thanks so much."
Something was pushing against the back of Carlos' eyes. Nothing like a sixth sense , though to a layman the similarities were clear. A preternatural urge like instinct cranked up to eleven, it nudged and pushed him insistently. Look, look, look.
He shut his eye tight, and pictured simmering liquids in glass phials. The steam emanating from their mouths. The veil of steam made of fictional colors. Blew away the Veil, proper noun.
He opened his eyes, and looked at the man's aura.
This was the strange thing: there didn't seem to be one. Which was fairly unlikely, bordering on impossible. So Carlos shut his eyes, went through his meditative steps again, phials then smoke then fake color then Veil, right right. Then looked again, to be sure.
Around the man's corporeal form was a shivering field. It was that bright darkness Carlos had felt before. Immediately, it soaked into him and began to pluck and unfurl the accumulated tension of the past few days. It was presumptuous and proprietary, but deeply soothing. The sensation was sitting in the dark after a long day of reading a book with too-small type, or a hot compress over the eyes after a three-day headache. It was nails dragging along the scalp, fingers slipping through hair.
That, but metaphysical.
"Persephone's Sidecar for Cecil!" a barista called.
And inadvertently broke the reverie Carlos had slipped into. He blinked his eyes dazedly open and his inner sight dazedly closed with a faint sound of loss.
"Thank you," the man with the aura of a city said, nearly singsong as he picked up his drink. "Just what I need before going back on air, perfect."
"Hey there, Cecil." A woman sitting at a table near the counter leaned from her seat to tap two fingers against his arm. "Cecil."
He twisted at the waist to regard her, his drink at his mouth. "Flora Sandero, good afternoon. How's Michael doing?"
"Still recovering from the sentient lightnin' strike. You'll probably be first to know when he's back on his feet, so you let me know, hm?" They shared a smile, some in-joke moving between then. "But no, I was listenin' to the show, and heard all the reports about the outsider around town. The one with hair like black silk and the designer bags?"
Carlos did not turn his head to look towards this conversation, but did rest his hand on his bag. Which was a gift from his aunt last Christmas. His family always got him clothes and things like that. He didn't even know who the designer was , didn't recognize the logo.
"Yes!" Cecil sounded enthused. "There's been quite a few sightings around town."
"Yeah, 'bout that." The woman, Flora, jerked her head to the side. Her voice turned dark and hissing as she whispered sotte voce: "Interloper."
As though an alarm had gone off, all gazes in the cafe lifted and redirected to Carlos' little corner table. No, to Carlos . The effect was terrifying, and his throat tightened with fear, hand instinctively flying to his jacket pockets. What did he have on him? He could probably swing his pendulum really hard if it came down to it.
Cecil, with the taste for pomegranates, stared as well. His face wasn't drawn into the disdainful glare like all the other faces focused on Carlos. That was maybe why Carlos lingered for just a moment, holding his gaze, the only safe place in the room.
Cecil's eyes were purple. No, not purple. Violet.
"Interloper!" Someone shouted, breaking the eerie quiet of the room.
Standing, Carlos shoved his things into his bad, and left out the door, the bell ringing cheerfully in his wake.
When he's put a solid block between him and the coffee shop, he slowed enough to catch his breath. Now, he believed, it was time to retreat back to the bungalow. Maybe the heartwood box would have advice for him.
It would be some brand of irony for him to follow in the legacy of his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother and wind up burned at the stake. Not a funny kind of irony either.
Fumbling his journal out of his bag-- he'd not exactly packed it neatly in his rush-- he flipped it open and started to leafing through pages. "Ouroborus Road," he murmured entreatingly. "Tell me where it is."
"Wait! Excuse me, Carlos? Carlos Device?"
Snapping the book right back shut, Carlos pressed it to his chest. Turning to the voice, he sidestepped until his shoulder touched the wall. Some primitive thing in his brain wanted to scrunch up, make himself a smaller target.
The man with the strange aura, Cecil, speed-walked along the sidewalk to him, making full use of his long legs to delete the distance between them. Both of his hands were occupied with drink cups. "Hi there, you left your coffee back there!"
He was breathing like bellows, deep breaths as he approached, holding one cup outstretched.
"Oh." He tucked his journal under his arm and accepted the drink. "Thank you."
His eyes were violet , like watercolor amethyst in the late afternoon sun. "Oh, anytime! Anything to help a newcomer settle into town, especially one so, uh-- interesting!"
"Right." Carlos watched him carefully, unsure what to make of him. There was still, faintly, that suggestion behind his eyes. Look, look, look at that. He ignored it. "In a normal interaction, one might say something along the lines of 'introductions are in order,' but we seem to be out of order right presently."
Cecil leaned back on his heels, his cheeks flushing. "Oh, you are right, I have you at a disadvantage, forgive me." He laid a hand on his chest and inclining his head to Carlos, seeming much like he was presenting himself for evaluation. "I'm the local radio host in this city, so news of you has already crossed my desk a few times these past few days."
"Radio host," Carlos repeated. That explained that cadence and tone. Silently, he jotted a mental note on the whiteboard of his mind: Radio host, so logically situated on that ley line nexus by the radio tower, possibly (probably) related to that aura he had that felt like Visine for the inner eye.
"Cecil Palmer." He offered his hand to Carlos. "Voice of Night Vale."
Taking it, Carlos found his grip firm without the additional aggressiveness of posturing that some people did, as if a handshake were a debate or conflict to win. Cecil's nails were painted and his palms were soft. "Carlos Device, as you seem to already know."
"My phone has been buzzing with news about you. Everyone is so interested. You're an occultist, according to Roger Harlan?"
The handshake was going on too long, and Carlos remembered himself, letting go and tucking his hand into his jacket pocket. "Among other things," he said quietly, looking around them, at the people going about their lives, as if there was a chance of being overheard. "Whatever term is least likely to lead to matches and kindling."
Cecil's eyes widened. "Oh! Are you a witch?"
Carlos stiffened. That was unexpected, but at least he sounded intrigued and not, well, imminently murderous. "We, well, we tend to avoid that term."
"Oh, of course, whatever identification you prefer. Will you be in town long?"
"That's unclear," Carlos said. "I have to, I mean, I should find my way back…"
"To the blue house on the corner of Ouroborus Road, by the Cactus Bloom development?" The way he said it was odd, even and steady in a way that reminded Carlos of incantations. "This may be forward, but could I walk you there? I just noticed how things went back at the Spiky Hammer, and I could-- could help you from getting waylaid by anyone looking to greet an outsider."
"That's one way to put it," Carlos said. He didn't know what to make of this man, or his offer, or his eager friendliness. Maybe that was just part of being a local radio host. "Are you going to mention the witch thing? On your show?"
"No!" He sounded surprised. "Not if you don't want me to, of course not." His hand cut through the air. "Off the record, stricken from it entirely."
Even if Carlos didn't know what to make of Cecil, he did know Agnes had given him some sort of forewarning about him. And he didn't want any more people shouting at him.
"Okay," Carlos sighed, forcing his shoulders to untense, to try to relax a bit. "Lead the way."
Cecil grinned, brilliant as a the desert sun.
The Voice of Night Vale
Listeners. I have news. During the break, I took my lunch hour over in the Barista District. Lunch was a coffee, which is not really a lunch , I know, I know, but! Guess who I ran into at the Spiky Hammer?
Carlos the Occultist, sitting there like a beautiful greenhouse flower in the corner with his journal, this time thankfully devoid of pen or pencil. He was drinking a hazelnut macchiato all by his lonesome. Even in the artificial, imperfect light of the coffee shop, his hair shone like obsidian, his eyes dark and troubled like a midnight sandstorm.
Flora Sandero pointed him out to me, and admittedly that didn't go great . A few other patrons of the shop took notice of them. Which, who could blame them? He's our most interesting resident at present.
But their friendly calls of 'interloper!' seemed to startle our visitor. He left in such a hurry, he forgot his drink. I would have-- should have said something to remind him, but standing there and finally setting eyes on him for the first time, I found myself… distracted.
I recovered, though, and I carried his drink down the street to him. And listeners. We introduced ourselves. We shook hands. His skin is dark and delicate, and it's true! He does smell of amyris.
He seemed a little shaken up by our particular manner of welcoming outsiders, so I offered to walk him home. He said yes, and I escorted him to the blue house on the corner of Ouroborus Road, by the Cactus Bloom development. The air was still hot from the peak of the day, so we took the long way, around Old Musk Road, to keep out of the sun.
Carlos asked me about a map of town. Apparently, he's been all over and has not found a single map. He asked me to mention on air, if you happen to have an accurate map of the area, he would like to see it. He'll even pay you twenty-five dollars. That's enough for a family meal from Big Rico's Pizza. So, call into the station if you can help. I'll pass on the message.
We traded phone numbers. And a few messages. Nothing serious, but who knows? I've never been a big believer in fate or destiny, but Carlos is.
Stay tuned for a live reading of the dictionary. Be caller number 60 after hearing the secret bonus word and win a daytrip to the Waterfront Recreation Area. What's the bonus word? It starts with Q.
Goodnight, Night Vale. Goodnight.
Chapter 2: The High Priestess
ETA, 06/27/19: Revamp and editing complete for this chapter. Expanded, tense changed, and cleaner in every way.
Upon being safely escorted back to his bungalow, Carlos locked the door behind him and moved to the kitchen. Opening the safe, he retrieved the heartwood box he'd left securely inside.
He'd liked the escorting, actually. A local radio host made for a veritable fount of information about Night Vale, and let loose facts and points of interest and regional color like water spilling from a bag. Half of his stories sounded like fiction or some sort of community in-joke, but that increasingly seemed to be Night Vale itself. It was something that sounded like fiction.
Cecil had stood at the gate by the sidewalk and waited until Carlos had reached the door and unlocked it before he left. Which was a thoughtful touch.
Really, the entire encounter had been pretty nice, especially given the rocky start.
This was why he consulted the box, looking to verify the applicable card. 221, right around the middle of the stack. Sliding it out, he held its place with a finger as he read it.
221: When that the Bell chimes, heed thy man, Carlos, and witness his countenance when he doth reckon to thy presence. Spurn not a violet eye.
All right. That was the same. It still said 'thy man' and still said 'violet,' not 'violent.' Which turned out nice and accurate enough; Cecil's eyes hadn't held a trace of violence.
That should be a comfort, especially after the interloper thing. Still, uncertainty roiled around in his guy like a snake. So, he checked the actual book, wanting the reassurance from the most perfect reproduction of Agnes' wisdom.
His copy of the book sat out in the open, on the bookshelf. Initially, this seemed extremely dangerous to Carlos, to leave such a powerful book out where it could be found and taken. But Anathema had told him there was no point to worrying; if the book was intended to, for example, be picked up by an incredibly well-read celestial being, then that was part of the journey and would happen. No point worrying.
Carlos worried anyway, drawing the curtains before taking the book down.
The prophecy as printed still said 'thy man.'
Carlos put it away and went to make dinner.
He was being ridiculous. It was a common pitfall of propheteers, along with conspiracy theorists and professional skeptics. Sometimes, the difficulty was in getting caught up looking too close at the material at their disposal. When there was sort of canonical tome to work from, it was hard not to examine every letter of every word, to fixate on the oddity of language, or to invent the oddity of language until there was so much pressure the entire thing ripped like old paper.
"She probably means my man as in a potential resource in the city," Carlos argued aloud to himself. "Someone who's safe to be around, who's willing to help, who's amenable to… my work. He's 'my man' from the point of view of occultism."
That definitely sounded logical. As he thought it over, his confidence grew, alongside the smell of spices as he cooked.
"It's not romantic," he assured no one in particular. "And why would it be, anyway? That's ridiculous. I'm not here for romance. I'm not interested."
Very convincing. Nodding, he slipped 221 back into its spot.
A nameless but well-known urge inside him seized him, its grip like a hand around the throat. He obeyed it, and pulled a card from the heartwood box at random. At this rate, he really was going to turn into Anathema.
190: Nested in the plase betwixt mountains, a Tower standeth over all, more powerfull than Smyth's grate card even. They who walketh its halls walk a darke plane lit by no sunne. There ye must go, blood of myne, and aswoon.
Carlos pushed up his glasses and squinted at the card. None of that sounded particularly pleasant.
From the kitchen, he could look out the window and across the street. Drawing the gauzy curtain aside, he stared out. Just above the house opposite his, there was a metal peak, dark struts drawn together to a high point. It was easily the highest point of elevation for miles around.
Atop the tower flashed a light. Red, and then gone. Red again, and then gone.
The Voice of Night Vale
Hello, Listeners. I've been asked to remind you that the dog park is off limits to all dog, humans, sentient creatures, and the attentions thereof. Some people had taken these instructions, which we state at least once a week on this very station, by their letter and not the spirit intended.
People have taken to walking their dogs within line of sight of the dog park. This has agitated the hooded figures who lurk in its vicinity. A few dogs have been taken.
One can assume the hooded figured do not like dogs. Or, just as likely, they very much enjoy dogs, but more in the sense of a delicacy. Nothing you want to consider too closely.
Regardless, consider taking your young pups and good old boys to Mission Grove Park. They've recently added on-site water fountains, which makes it easy to keep yourselves and your pets hydrated.
Carlos waited a few days before making the journey to the radio station. There were several reasons for this. Some were unspoken and unacknowledged reasons that he was determined to ignore. They weren't very good reasons, though, so he also came up with better ones.
For instance, he wanted to spend a little time listening to the show first, which meant he needed to buy a radio and then devote a few afternoons to being in proximity of it. Carlos had assumed he'd need to find the station somehow, but when the radio was plugged in and Cecil's show was starting, it turned itself on. And the show was on every station with no dead air or static between.
Very strange. But in line with Night Vale so far. And the show was nice. Often, it helped Carlos understand some of the nuances of living here. Occasionally, he was mentioned, usually in passing but sometimes a summary of his work out of the house. Always, someone in town had essentially reported him into Cecil.
But Cecil talked about everyone . In less than a week of listening, Carlos learned:
Marcus Vansten was the richest man in the city and was building his own private library on Oxford Street, which would have floor to ceiling windows, around which Vansten intend to walk nude;
there might've been a five-headed dragon living near Night Vale, who maybe killed some guy named Chen but almost definitely committed insurance fraud;
Michelle Nguyen, who ran the record store, was just Like That all the time, so at least her pelting Carlos with bottlecaps wasn't personal;
and the Mayor was named Pamela Winchell and she sounded totally deranged and possibly battling an ongoing malevolent possession.
Being invited into the minutiae of people's lives was utterly foreign to Carlos, who never listened to radio back in California. Somehow, it softened his fear of the town, like the personal details of its citizens filed away his anxiety.
Also, the music was excellent.
While he let the show erode his anxiety about its host away, Carlos discovered something else, something remarkable. Night Vale was covered in a spider's web of ley lines. The primary ones, the wellsprings, all sat in set locations around the city. Totally normal outside the sheer amount of them.
But the secondary and tertiary ley lines… moved. Which was totally and utterly impossible! It took monumental and prolonged effort to adjust such a thing about the very firmament of the earth. Carlos figured it would take approximately his entire life and all his arcane knowledge until his dying day to adjust one ley line. Moving a river with a shovel would be easier to accomplish.
However, here, in Night Vale, places became disconnected from the network of power, shifting to other locations that then became charged.
When Carlos realized that these changes lined up with the news of the day, he knew it was time to visit.
The radio station was on the very edge of walking distance, but there was a hard, refreshing breezing rolling in from distant mountains, just cool enough to rejuvenate him against the heat. He packed a few tools in his bag, careful not to take anything he would be devastated to lose. He'd yet to find a complete list of banned items in city bounds.
To occupy himself during the walk, he carried his dowsing rods. There was no intention to follow where they could lead, just to observe the effects. More data to collect and organize in his mind as he created a more precise image of Night Vale.
The pulled glass sat loose in the brass grips of the rods. In theory, the two rods would move in unison or draw together to cross as he found points of interest.
Predictably, the rods spun like helicopter blades, tilting erratically, sometimes changing direction to spin the other way, but constantly in motion.
As he walked up the hill to the station, following the draw of the bright, friendly NVCR sign, the dowsing rods spun into a blur, as if he could hold up his arms and let them carry him away. Shaking his head with a sigh, he put them away, before they did something truly absurd like burst or catch fire or melt.
The Voice of Night Vale
And now a look at the community-- hm? Listeners, Intern Dana is waving at me through the window of my booth. She is, in fact, bouncing around quite excitedly. Yes, Dana? What seems to be...
Oh. Ohmygod. Ah haaa, listeners I… apparently have a visitor at the station. He's wandered into the hallowed and desecrated halls of this very building, brandishing some of those brassy instruments of his, as well as his amazing bone structure.
I am just going to go and say hi. Just a quick hello, and maybe ask if I can help with anything. Then I'll be right back. In the meantime, here is a collection of highlights from the School Board meeting, edited for time and to remove the lengthy segments of Glow Cloud adulation.
Dana! Dana, how do I look? … Because I didn't anticipate an important guest today. Carlos always looks so stylish, and here I am-- what? Well, turn on the segment. Press that button and swap feeds to--
No one was tending the front desk at Night Vale Community Radio, the entryway just a little spooky with light streaming in through fogged windows, dust motes twirling in the air. Carlos waited a cursory amount of time to see if anyone would arrive to welcome him.
It was a very short amount of time. Carlos wasn't an abundantly patient man.
Walking past the desk, there was only one way to go, down a shadowy hallway. The eerieness was only growing and something prickled at the back of his neck, his instincts flaring.
Pausing to rustle through his bag, Carlos took out a pendulum. It was an ornate metal sphere suspended on a silver chain. At one end of the chain was a hook that slipped comfortably into the metal ring on his middle finger.
So armed and prepared, Carlos ventured further into the building, letting the pendulum rock and move as it was buffeted by energy around him. There were few lights and scattered doors. Each seemed to be sealed with a bloodstone lock, a few cleaner than others, signifying how often they were used.
There was also one very conspicuously normal wooden office door with with the blinds pulled tight. The glass said STATION MANAGEMENT in plain sans serif black lettering. As he walked past, his pendulum swung wildly in every other direction, as if being repelled from whatever was through that door. Or perhaps repulsed.
He came to a fork in the path, and stared down at the swinging, trying to determine the least dangerous choice.
"Um, excuse me," a voice like sweet cherries and sweeter tea came from his right, down the path. "You're not supposed to be back here."
Flicking his wrist sharply up, he caught the sphere in his palm, tucking his arm behind his back before turning.
The woman gasped, covering her mouth with her fingers. "Oh! It's you!" She was short, shorter than even Carlos, with soft cloud of dark curls held perilously at bay by a wide, resilient headband. Her shirt read NVCR Intern , and her aura was the color of ripe peaches, held close to her body but radiating softly.
"No one was up front," Carlos said.
"Were you…" She leaned forward and lowered her voice. "Were you doing magic things?"
"Maybe." Taking refuge in a vague answer wasn't much refuge at all, but she'd caught him off guard. "I'm Carlos."
"Oh, I think most of town knows who you are." She smiled, showing off deep dimples in her cheeks. "I'm Dana. And, gosh, I should tell Cecil you are here. He will definitely want to know." She started to turn, then hesitated. "Did you come to do magic? I just want to inform him if so."
"Uh, not specifically?" Caught out, he stopped hiding his arm, holding his pendulum open on his palm. "I sort of never stop. But no specific magic."
Outside of Night Vale, people had tended to politely pretend Carlos' tools didn't exist. Or that Carlos didn't exist. It never bothered him much; no one wanted to deal with something like witchcraft invading their mundane normal lives.
There was no, Carlos thought, such thing as a mundane daily life in Night Vale.
Dana beckoned him along. "Come with me. You can wait in the green room. We're broadcasting right now, so it may take a bit for him to reach a break."
At the end of the hallway, Carlos saw a room with a large soundboard and monitors hung around the walls. The control booth, he assumed. Beyond it was another door, shut, with a red sign that read ON AIR above it. It was illuminated, the brightest light by far in the shadows.
Dana detoured him into another room, leaving him there and excusing herself.
The room was indeed green. The walls were oddly textured, as if they were covered in moss instead of paint. Checking with his pendulum revealed nothing of interest, so he assumed it was fine. The color was nice.
Sitting on the sofa, Carlos drummed his fingers on his knees. Then, he toyed with the spinner ring he wore, enjoying the way the gear design wound endlessly into itself. Then, because he was both anxious and terrible at waiting for anything, he took out his phone and started reading prophecies. The family had only known about the second volume for a few months, and Carlos was nowhere near having them all memorized.
He was engrossed trying to decode the language into something he understood. When the door swung open, he yelped and stumbled to his feet.
"Carlos, hello! Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," Cecil said, shying backward with an apologetic expression.
Running a hand through his hair, Carlos inhaled deeply. "It's fine. Hello."
"Dana said you maybe came to do magic?"
He couldn't tell what it was, whether everyone was so genuinely excited at the idea or if they were just that friendly. "Ah, hm, I suppose in a technical sense, yes I am, but that's the ambient effect of me being anywhere. Honestly, I'm just following up on something." Cecil smiled at that, easy and simple like putting such an inviting curve on his lips was no big deal. Carlos cleared his throat. "Random prophecy, that's all."
"It was reported you had an impressive collection of prophecies with you."
"Yeah, I-- wait. How did you know that?" He hadn't shown the teenagers the book or the box.
"I'm a reporter," Cecil said simply. "What was the prophecy?"
Carlos located the relevant card with his app. "Nothing interesting, but I go where I'm told. Who knows what the causal repercussions of violating the validity of the most accurate and correct prophetess in history. It could rip a schism in reality." Or do nothing, but Carlos wasn't willing to risk testing it.
If nothing happened, that would be more frightening, he felt.
Cecil stepped into his space, and Carlos amenably tilted his phone to let him see it. "You have a phone app for your prophetic work."
"Please don't call it that, it makes me nervous. And, yeah, yeah, I built it." Unable to resist the urge to show off a bit-- so few people ever saw the app-- Carlos demonstrated its use, flicking his thumb over the screen and letting the digital cards cascade like a waterfall. "The original prophecies were written with quill and parchment, but I prefer Python."
"That is very impressive," Cecil said, as if he just knew Carlos was looking for praise. " You're very impressive, is there anything you can't do?" He reached out and flicked the screen with a fingertip.
Carlos' ears were burning. So a little recognition made him feel good, who could fault him that? "Whistle," he said, smiling. "I can't whistle."
Cecil nodded, the motion slow as his eyes began to move in that particular stuttering motion that indicated reading. His brow furrowed.
Carlos glanced at the screen.
3: Prepare ye to reach out and catch, fore a grate beauty will fall.
Operating without conscious thought, Carlos spun around, looking upward, then at the shelves in the room, anything off the ground. But there was nothing on the ceiling, not even a fan, and the walls were mostly just moss. "False alarm," Carlos murmured. "Don't worry, these predictions apply to my family and I."
"I see." He lets out a low hum, modulating up as he looked at Carlos again and started to smile again. "Can I show you around? I have a pre-recorded segment playing, so it would be the best time if you wanted to see the booth."
He was absolutely interested in seeing the epicenter of the station's work. If there were any clues to be found, it would be there.
"Yes, that would be nice. Can I do magic?" He reached into his bag, swapping out his Casual Out Around Town pendulum for a much heavier one that wouldn't jitter around so much.
"In the booth? I don't see why not." Backing out from the room, Cecil held the door open for Carlos; his hand touched Carlos' back very lightly as he lead him to the control booth. "By the way, would you be willing to talk on air about your magicks and prophecies?"
"I don't think that's a good idea," Carlos muttered, threading the hook of the pendulum into his ring before carefully lowering it to swing. Being cavalier with this one and dropping it from his hand would hurt, given the increased weight. "I'm not good at… that."
"Au contraire, I think you're wonderful to talk to. Besides, I'm a radio professional. I have a sense for these things."
Unless Carlos found a prophecy card that explicitly commanded him to sit in front of a microphone, it wasn't going to happen. He didn't say that though, just demurring, "Thank you, but no, I don't like… talking. In a public sense."
As they approached the door to the booth, the pendulum wobbled awkwardly as it hung under Carlos' hand. The movement didn't make a lot of sense, as though the chain was swinging with more slack as the sphere lifted or grew lighter.
Cecil opened the door while Carlos narrowly watched his tool. As he crossed the threshold, a nameless familiar urge rose in him, and pressed against the back of Carlos' eyes.
The Voice of Night Vale
We'll return to the news in a moment. I mentioned before the last segment that we had a visitor at the station. Carlos, beautiful and curious, showed up to take a look around our station. He even brought a few of his mystic tools. It was all very magical.
He had this pendulum, waving around in undoubtedly arcane and mysterious patterns, like a drunken bee stumbling through its intricate dance for its colony. According to Carlos, there was something about the energy in the area, and how it was very strong in my booth!
Obviously, I was thrilled to have an intriguing bit of esoterica to offer. Anything to help out, right?
That's when something odd happened. Carlos said he was going to take a look at the booth, but he said it with some emphasis, like when he said look he meant Look, with the implicit capital letter. I got my scout badge in Detecting Verbal Emphasis ages ago, so I picked up on this right away.
Carlos closed his eyes, lashes dark and fluttering, and took off his glasses. I offered to hold them for him. They're really nice Warby Parkers, actually. Very dramatic around the temples, perfect for a chic modern occultist.
Now, when he opened his eyes, listeners, his eyes… were cloudy as unseasonable rainstorms. I have no evidence as I know very little about most things, including his field of work, but I had a sudden sense of certainty that he was obscured from me. Very far away.
He stayed, and stood, and then very suddenly covered his eyes with his hands. A pained whimper fought free from the prison of his lips, and he… fell. He passed out, I think. But I caught him! Thankfully, I had a… warning of sorts, so I was ready and caught Carlos in my arms.
As I said, I wanted to help him in his work in any way I could. I didn't anticipate this level of hands-on, though.
Well. I laid him down as gently as I could. He's still asleep right now. Or passed out? Unconscious, at least. Intern Dana found a pillow and one of the shock blankets from our extremely well-stocked medical closet.
I hope he's all right. Regardless, we'll move on with the news while I sit vigil over him, and wait for him to rouse.
Go to the radio station, Agnes said. It'll be fun , she said.
Or, she hadn't. That was just some hyperbole Carlos told himself as a method of comforting himself.
Carlos stirred slowly, coming awake with a hollow echoing feeling dominating his skull. Turning his head, he found a soft thing under his cheek. For a moment, he laid there, wallowing in his aches. More than anything, he wanted to unravel the Veil and find the magic that would allow him to send a message back along the stream of time, up to the 1600s, so he could inform Agnes of how not-Nice her damn prophecies were.
A thrumming beat ran from the top of his skull to his eyes. Keeping them shut, Carlos put a hand over his face, breathing deep and steady against the throbbing.
All he'd wanted was a glimpse of the ley line situation at the station. When he stood in the booth, he'd felt himself as if standing on a glass floor over an intricate vertex of power. The very world around him seemed thinner, more permeable.
He'd had a theory, about Cecil. It'd been bothering him, the way Cecil just knew things, information beyond what a reliable source could provide him. The way he pulled intimate details from seemingly nothing was impossible. Or, mostly impossible.
If, for instance, Cecil was an unsuspecting empath or telepath who worked primarily on top of a potent convergence of ley lines, it would explain a lot.
So, he'd wanted to see it. To confirm his theory.
Opening his inner eye had given Carlos a head rush so intense, he'd collapsed. His entire perception of the world had flooded with that calm not-light that was unique to Night Vale. So much of it had poured into his mind, he couldn't feel anything else. He couldn't feel himself through it, there had been just a sensation of floating.
But it was falling.
Carlos made a determined attempt to pull himself together. Under his back, he still felt the brimming nexus of energy. As long as he kept his metaphysical senses to himself, he was fine. It was fine.
Music was playing. Carlos opened his eyes slowly, gradually, testing the waters. The song was, well, not quite a song. It was something ambient and droning, lifting and sinking like a ship on the ocean.
He was on the floor. A lurid orange blanket was drawn up to his shoulders. Perplexing. Around him were walls covered in that egg-carton texture, the matte smoothness of sound proofing.
There was a desk, and a man speaking into a microphone with a paper held in his hand. Handsome man, handsome voice.
Carlos squinted, watching Cecil with a sudden curl of annoyance. Licking his dry lips, he managed to voice his complaint: "Why do you have a pen? Pens are illegal."
Head whipping to the side to stare back at Carlos, Cecil stopped mid-word, biting the syllable harshly off. "Oh. We will continue with the community calendar momentarily, but first this urgent Weather report." Moving swiftly, Cecil flipped one switch, killing the soothing background drone, then flipped another on the sound board. A catchy song with extensive spoken word verses filled the room. It too dimmed as he adjusted a slider, volume dropping.
Turning in his chair, Cecil slipped his headphones off his ears. "Carlos, are you all right? You…"
"I aswooned," Carlos supplied with a bitter grumble. Stupid Ye Olde English. Planting a hand on the floor, he levered himself up to sitting. "Sorry, I didn't see that one coming, funnily enough."
"That's okay, I did. Sort of. I saw it coming enough to keep you from hitting the desk, at least." He leaned over Carlos, hands out and hovering, clearly wanted to assist somehow. "Can I get you anything?"
Carlos took stock of himself and considered careful instead of objecting outright. "Ginger ale."
"Dana?" Cecil gestured at the glass window. "Excellent, thank you." He looked back at Carlos, his expression soft and concerned. Reaching out, he took Carlos' hand and pressed his glasses into his palm. "Here. I only have a few more items to get through before signing off. Then, if you'd like, I could take you back to the blue house on the corner of Ouroborus Road."
"I can't believe I swooned," Carlos continued to grumble, sliding his glasses on. When he could see again, he began to run a hand through his hair, only to be jerked by the silver chain still attached to his ring. Sighing, he unhooked it. "That was actually really embarrassing. Why do you have a pen?"
"I have a permit. Can we get you on a chair instead of the floor?" He stood, offering Carlos his hands to pull him up.
Rolled under the desk was a spare seat. Cecil kicked it out with his heel and guided Carlos to sit. He was just in time for Dana to slip into the booth with a Canada Dry and a straw, which Carlos gratefully accepted.
"That was startling, the way you fell. It was like watching the air go out of tube dancer, you just crumbled," she said. "I thought for sure it was a Glow Cloud possession or a slow-acting poison finally kicking in. I'm glad to see you're alive."
Carlos didn't know what a Glow Cloud was and decided it wasn't worth worrying about today when his head still felt like it'd faced off with an ice cream scoop. "I am, yes. Thank you."
"Cecil? Fifty seconds." She flashed him a five and a zero on her fingers before sliding right back out of the booth.
Cecil watched Carlos with concern, his eyes steady as an old oak tree. Being looked at so closely felt like a physical sensation, and Carlos busied himself with his straw and soda for an excuse to break his gaze. "I'm probably not going to swoon again."
His eyebrows lifted, and a wry smirk tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Probably not, but I'm ready regardless. Always happy to help however I can." He turned his chair back to his desk, and consulted the copy laying out across it. "I have about ten more minutes, I think? Then, my car is outside. Let me get you home safe. That was quite a scare."
Carlos checked his watch, relaxes his arm, then blinked and hurried to check it again. "Um, what? That's… not right." He tapped the display with his finger.
"It says it's negative 5:89pm."
"You should really get an analog watch. It's only two-thirty."
That sounded much more believable. Taking off his watch, he fiddled with the buttons, attempting to reset it. "Digital helps with time-sensitive prophecies. Anyway, I don't know how I feel about turning in for the night in the mid-afternoon."
"Oh, if that's the case… if you wanted, we could--" Behind him, Dana tapped on the glass window. "Hold that thought."
Headphones back on, Cecil adjusted some switches and levels around him before continuing with the community calendar, right where he left off.
The Voice of Night Vale
… If you're interested in more information about the concert, you can try reaching Michelle Nguyen. But a belated text I received while reading that announcement says she'd really prefer if you didn't, and if you kept all your enthusiasm to yourself, and if you didn't ruin her event by showing up to it.
That concludes the announcements for the coming week. Next, we have a final traffic report as well as a press release from the Sheriff's Secret Police.
But first, an update. As mentioned near the top of the hour, Carlos has been recuperating on the floor of my booth since his ordeal. I'm still unsure what happened, but I'm often unsure of things, so that's normal.
Well, the good news is Carlos is awake and seems fine.
I don't know if you heard that, listeners. Carlos, would you like to be on mic? Oh, no. Nope, he's shaking his head and opening a nonogram app on his phone. I inquired before about a potential interview, but he didn't seem interested. Maybe another day.
Regardless, I'm quite relieved to see him awake and aware. Things can always go bad. There is always the potential for disaster in our lives, on small and large scales. Every benign and benevolent moment is a gift worth treasuring. Seize each one with both hands and hold them close, like a light in the dark.
Is that a smile? Was that funny?
I'm getting a rueful headshake. Let's move on to traffic updates for your commute.
Cecil offered to carry Carlos' bag for him as they prepared to leave. Carlos declined before he had time to consider it.
He wasn't sure why, but he knew it was the reason for the conspicuous foot of space between them as they walked back through the shadowy hallway. And he wasn't sure why, but it bothered him. It wasn't what he intended, in so much as he found suddenly he had intentions.
He could apologize, but trying to align the words to explain what he was apologizing for seemed an great tasking endeavor, and his head still ached. Instead, he let his residual wooziness carry him over to bump into Cecil's side.
That worked, as Cecil took hold of his elbow, murmuring, "Careful, now. Am I going to have to catch you again?"
"I could consult the prophecies. See what fate has to say. Or you could just be ready."
He grinned, teeth white and gleaming in the dark. "I can be ready."
Carlos was not flirting with this man. He told himself this sternly, as though conviction shaped reality.
Outside, the glare was intense, and Carlos covered his eyes. Cecil's hand, still on his elbow, directed him as he waited for his vision to adjust after hours in the dark station.
When he could see again, he stood beside a car. Looking it over, Carlos aimed a look of pleasant puzzlement at Cecil. "A convertible? You have a convertible?"
It wasn't the flashiest car ever, quite a bit more functional than what Carlos knew from back in Malibu, but it was still a nice surprise.
"I could put the top down," Cecil offered immediately, reflecting Carlos interest right back with his own eagerness. "It's a nice day, and you implied before-- Are you in a hurry to get home?"
"Not sure if the bungalow is home, per se," Carlos found himself saying, his gloomy tone divorced from any conscious thought.
Standing too close to be ignored, Cecil stared at him, eyes heavy like lead. The emotions that shifted over his face were rapid, moving faster than Carlos could catalog. He settled on something like restrained disappointment. Carlos had no idea what to make of it.
"I'm not in a hurry," he told Cecil.
"Oh. Oh thank god. I mean--" Letting out a pained sound, Cecil unlocked the car and held the passenger door open. "Ignore that, I meant nothing by it, it just takes me a while to wind down after the show."
As long as he wasn't expected to keep up, that was fine. Cecil had a wonderful voice, just the sonic qualities of it weirdly alluring. "I don't mind," Carlos said.
"That's really kind of you. Get in. Let me show you around."
It would be a chance to listen to Cecil, to track his wind down and see what that sounded like. He could enjoy a drive without worrying about the driving itself. And if he was lucky, he could try to figure out how Cecil's brand of prognostication worked.
And, all right. Carlos didn't need to consult the prophecies or the cards or the stars to know it would lead to dinner. Which was just another opportunity to learn more about Night Vale and its Voice and the energy that moved through them both, powerful and placid like a deep, deep well.
He was getting information. Forming clearer ideas. Solving the puzzle of this place and why he was commanded here. That was all. And if in the meantime the breeze felt good rushing through his hair as they drove, that was no one's business but his own. And he wasn't acknowledging it.
Carlos lowered himself into the car, smiling as Cecil waited to shut the door for him.
this is ridiculous and self indulgent and i don't care, it's fun
Chapter 3: The Hierophant
ETA 6/28/19: Revision DONE. Tense change, expanded conversations with Anathema and Josie, added a bit with Dana, everything just flows better.
Making a phone call out of the Night Vale area took Carlos a solid week of attempts. He called at least four times each day, trying to make any connection at all. More often than not, his signal plummeted all the way to 1G, which wasn't even possible!
Then, his phone would stop working until he restarted it.
But eventually, Carlos managed to get a call out.
It rang for a long time before picking up. "Carlos. It's 3AM."
Time zones. He had a habit of forgetting how physical proximity affected how people perceived time. "Anathema, hi, I'm sorry. I've been trying to call you for days."
She sighed long and loud over the line. There was a rustling noise, of her presumably sitting up in bed. "You got me. Hello, cousin. It's good to hear your voice. What do you need?"
He stood in his kitchen, over the island, where he had the heartwood box open. Three dozen cards were laid out in rows and column, organized in the order they'd come to pass. "'Ye Saga Continues.' What does that mean? The original book made it clear that it was a how-to guide for the apocalypse, and-- good job with that, by the way."
"Thank you. I had a lot of help." She trailed off with a yawn.
"What is really getting to me is figuring out what this book is for." He tapped a finger against the corner of one card in the top row. The 'violet eyes' prophecy. Since it had successfully come to pass, he'd added a little star sticker to the corner.
Getting ahold of more writing utensils in Night Vale was difficult, and involved some sort of illicit trade network he'd yet to unlock the secrets to. Cecil had been cagey about his own source of pens, to Carlos' great irritation. But the local Staples carried plenty of novelty stationery supplies. It was a decent solution in the meantime.
"Well," Anathema said, seeming to take a moment to percolate her thought. "Have any prophecies appeared to come to fruition?"
"Yes! Yes, about thirty or so. But they don't appear to lead anywhere."
Anathema scoffed. "Neither did the Apple prophecy when Ita bought those stocks."
"No," Carlos said slowly, with exaggerated patience. "That lead to a lot of money." He pushed his glasses up into his hair and pressed his knuckles against his brow. There was a headache threatening to form, and he just didn't want to deal with it. "What I mean is that so far, Agnes has sent me to this super weird town there they don't let you own pens, picked out an admittedly very nice house for me to live in, and had me faint into someone's arms! None of which I would characterize as a piece of a grand design."
"Fainting? Oh, that does sound like Agnes," Anathema said, suddenly sounding keen. "Who was this?"
"He's… Cecil." He wasn't sure what to say about Cecil. "He's the local radio host."
"No, it's not," Carlos snapped, voice fraying a little. "He's just a person! He's just, you know, friendly and wants to help out with my work, it's not serious."
"I said nothing to quantify or qualify your relationship with a man I've not met, cousin. But your defensiveness is noted. He's helping with the work; does he know you are a witch?"
"Yes. That is strangely so not an issue in this town." He blew out a breath, sweeping his hair out of his face and holding it back at the top of his skull. "There's a kid on the football team here in Night Vale, he was struck by sentient lightning and grew a second head that speaks Russian."
The line was dead silent for a moment.
"Before you say it, no, I'm not fucking with you," Carlos added. "There was a giant pyramid that appeared overnight that telepathically beamed messages into people's minds, and the prevailing theory on where it came from is a marketing scheme. The City Council-- which doesn't seem to be human exactly-- lead a seance to contact Syd Barrett."
"Who is that?"
"If you were not my favorite cousin, I would hang up on you. Famous musician."
"Oh." She tsked loudly. "Whatever. Well, I don't… know what to say to that. Other than wondering if you are hallucinating, but I assume you have checked for that."
"So this guy, you fainted into his arms? And he caught you?"
"Anath, oh my god." He rolled his eyes to the ceiling and tried to breath. "Agnes warned him. He saw a prophecy telling him to be ready-- Do you actually want to provide me with some advice?"
"I am!" The line went fuzzy as he blew out a sigh right into the receiver. "I don't know what you want to hear, Carlos, but if you are taking actions and they are lining up according to Agnes' instructions, then you are on the right track. I would advise you to not be upset that your track isn't leading to some certain doom down the road."
That was a fair point. "Right. You're right. Sorry."
"We all have trouble with this, our faith in Agnes. Remember that she has taken care of our family for centuries," Anathema reminded him softly. "She died before she would meet any of us, yet worked to essentially provide for our entire lineage. She loved us. She wouldn't be just fucking with you, conejito ."
"You're completely right. Sorry."
"I am." Her grin was audible. "Also, this is not teasing: this Cecil is being called on by the prophecies, so keep him close. If Agnes has instructions for other people, then you will have trouble sorting through the predictions. Many will not make sense to you personally."
"That's really annoying."
"I know. But it sounds like you are having fun in this strange city."
He frowned at the air in front of him, wishing it was Anathema. "It does?"
"You sound angry-jovial, which I think is good. Anyway. I will go back to sleep now. Buck up, okay?"
"Anytime." A pause. "No, well, not anytime. Do not call me at 3am again. I will be back in California soon, so take the time difference into account."
"You're leaving Tadfield?"
"Yes," she said, the good humor drying from her voice. "I look forward to going home. Perhaps I will come see your strange city."
Saying goodnight, Carlos put his phone down.
He did feel better now. He was no closer to understanding the plan Agnes had in mind for him, but she wanted the best for him. That rang true, at least. For now, it was enough.
Packing up his cards, Carlos put the heartwood box away and sat on his porch steps with a cactus fruit cider. The radio was already playing, having likely turned itself on at the start of the show. It was the second airing of Cecil's show, carrying over the air.
Then it came time for the Weather, Carlos laid with his back flat against the wood boards of the porch, listening as the Klaxons incanted against the falling night, "Do what you will, do what you will."
The Voice of Night Vale
The Sheriff's Secret Police is issuing a warning to citizens. According to missive sent to my booth via italic morse code, it is highly suggested that anyone walking down Main Street today keep their phones securely in their pockets and bags. Do not take out your phones. Do not answer your phones. Put them away , and just enjoy your walk. At least for the duration of it that takes place on Main Street.
In completely unrelated news, the Night Vale Daily Journal is holding a fundraising today. It is being held on Main Street. Be sure to stop by! But maybe carefully. Leann has an incredible throwing arm these days.
Ooh, listeners. I've mentioned before that I've been helping our newest and most interesting visitor get settled in. Carlos the Occultist has been staying at the blue house on the corner of Ouroboros Road by the Cactus Bloom development for almost a month now, and every day my phone buzzes with new updates from observant listeners about him. What he's working on, what new strange contraption he's been seen using, what city ordinances he's accidentally broken this time, and so on.
Well! We've met up a few times, usually over lunch or an early dinner. We talk about Night Vale, and about magic, and about how thaumaturgically interesting our little community is. Often, we order drinks and wind up leaving much later than anticipated. Sometimes I drive him home after.
They are not dates. I know this because I once asked, "Hey, is this a date?" And Carlos told me it was November 13th. Which I think means it wasn't a date. But maybe he just misunderstood me. At the time, he was very busy copying complex seals onto some parchment to burn in a ritual later. They were incredibly intricate.
Now that I think about it, maybe he did misunderstand me? But if I ask again and he did understand me perfectly the first time, then I'm being pushy! Nothing is worst than someone who can't take a hint.
I'm not going to be that guy. I enjoy all the time I spend with dear Carlos. He's so smart and his work is so interesting, and sometimes his hair catches the light just right and turns this beautiful indigo color, and I lose track of the conversation a bit.
... Anyway. Carlos wants to know if anyone has any library books on Night Vale history checked out. I warned him of the dangers of braving the library himself, so if you have anything relevant laying around, call in and I'll pass it on.
Deserts did not experience rain often. It was one of the defining characteristics of a desert.
When there was rain, however, it tended to make up for its absence with ferocity, slamming down viciously.
Another thing about deserts and rain: the best time to get ahold of lightning glass was during the rare confluences of storm and sand. Which was why Carlos was on the edge of town, parked in his car down from the Barista District, where the asphalt faded into dust and sand.
It was difficult seeing out the windows; flashes of lightning were clear enough, flash floods of white-blue light pouring over the landscape as he watched the horizon. But everything else was lost through the sheets of rain, how they turned the view into something like melted glass.
Pulling his jacket tighter around himself, Carlos sighed quietly, stroking his fingers over the heartwood box, letting the imperfections in the grain catch on his skin.
A knock came suddenly, jarring Carlos out of his meditative silence with a wordless yell. He jerked away from the door as much as the console between the seats would allow.
A second knock, more apologetic this time.
Putting the key back into the car, Carlos rolled down the window. "What are you doing?" he asked, heart still pounding from the surprise.
"I brought drinks," Cecil said, holding a cardboard carrier and a wide, sturdy umbrella. It was clear plastic, giving a stunning view of the stormy sky beyond as it streaked with rain.
"It's pouring, Cecil!"
"I also brought my galoshes."
Who owned galoshes in the desert? Was that strange? And if so, was it strange for Night Vale? Carlos shook his head. "Just get in," he told Cecil, and rolled his window back up, unlocking the car.
Cecil slid in, quickly closing his umbrella and shoving it along the side of his seat. "Hi," he greeted Carlos belatedly as he slammed the door. "What're you doing?"
"Magic," Carlos answered, relocking the doors and taking the key out. He tossed it up onto the dash and sank back into his seat. "Why are you out in the rain?"
"Janice Rio, from down the street, told me you've been sitting out here since before the storm rolled in. She assumed you'd broken down and just hadn't paid your AAA blood dues."
"No." Outside, there was a flash of light. Perking up, Carlos looked out at the blurry horizon, listening. But the resultant thunder came too long after. Not a nearby strike. "Sorry, this isn't very interesting. I'm just waiting for nearby lightning." He cleared his throat, finally tearing his eyes away from the windshield to look at Cecil. He did have very effective-looking galoshes on, as well as warm velvet leggings and a long pastel blue shirt, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow.
"I thought you might like a warm drink, given the weather," Cecil said. His voice pitched lower and quieter in the enclosed privacy of the car. "I took a guess and picked up some jasmine tea. But I got myself honey-mint if you wanted to swap."
"Jasmine," Carlos said, his breath catching.
Cecil paused in his unpacking of cups, moving them from his carrier to the holders in the console. "Yeees? Yes. Is that okay?"
"Oh, it's fine. Ordained, even." Carlos turned the box around on his lap and opened it, sighing in tandem with the hinge creaking. The card he was looking for was very close to the front, and he found it almost immediately. Plucking it out, he spun it over the backs of his fingers, and offered it.
19: Blood of myne, Carlos, chase the storme when it coom, feast thy eyes for its glase. Jasmine sharl bring good tidings if ye soften thy stoneheart.
"I brought dried jasmine stalks with me. They're in my bag," Carlos explained as Cecil silently read the card. "Guess what she meant was… you."
Cecil handed him the card back, and watched Carlos shove it back into the box, shutting the lid. "You seem upset."
"I am not upset," Carlos said, clearly upset. It was a stupid outburst, and he felt bad. Rubbing his eyes behind his glasses, he could see the negative image of lightning behind his lids. "I'm not mad at you. Just Agnes."
"She wrote all these stupid prophecies, and addressed them to me. And they led me here! And so far they've been relevant to what I'm doing, what I'm supposed to do." A sigh loosened from deep in his chest, a winged thing released from his ribcage. "But I don't know why I'm supposed to do! I just pull cards and see what happens."
"But they're helping, right? I thought that was good."
"Are they helping? What are they helping? See, my cousin used the first volume of prophecies Agnes wrote to avert the apocalypse." He picked up the jasmine tea and took a sip. Sweet, like honey, and richly floral. It was exactly what he wanted right now in the damp coolness of the storm, dammit. "Anathema at least knew what she was working towards. I've reread my volume a dozen times and there's no big disclaimer saying what it's all for."
The miasmatic pity that had a grip on Carlos broke hold, and he looked over at Cecil. His face was drawn into concern, eyes dark and steady.
Carlos felt his face warm.
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize this was such an ordeal for you, that you were searching for purpose. My prophecy solved that particular problem for me, and I frankly assumed it was the same case for you." He put his hand over Carlos', a comforting weight.
"Prophecy? You have one?"
He smiled contritely. "Oh, yes. That I was to be the Voice of Night Vale. I started preparing when I was five."
"Oh wow," Carlos said. "No wonder you're so good at it."
He beamed like a searchlight. "Oh, thank you! That's kind of you. But my point was, I never had to contemplate all that. I'd assumed you were in a similar situation."
Carlos was forgetting to watch the storm, caught up in how animated and open Cecil's face was. He turned in his seat best he could, cheating in towards the other side of the car. The lightning was relegated to his peripherals, but given how close the strikes needed to be, the sound would be loud enough to alert Carlos anyway.
"Not really," he said, feeling a candidness stealing over him. "I was your average hedgewitch about, oh, a year ago. Just helped out my family as needed and kept to myself. I wasn't the primary descendant, so I wasn't particularly important outside having the last name." He rested his hands on the console, wrapped around his drink. The heat transfer was nice, warming him up. "Then, Anathema sent over the new volume of prophecies. It was my job to update the database on the app for the family. Everything changed when I opened the book and my name was on the first entry I saw."
"Now you're here," Cecil said, nodding along, watching Carlos attentively as he spoke.
"Trying to stumble through what Agnes intended."
"Right. But, it seems to be going okay."
Hiding his smile behind his cup, Carlos shrugged. "Mm, maybe. Or, no. Not 'maybe.' That's not nice and accurate . You're correct. I do have a purpose here, even if the exact parameters are still unknown."
"Yes. You're here now," he said, as if that were some great victory. "Ah, speaking of. What are we doing out here?"
"Waiting for lightning to strike the sand so I can collect the glass."
"Oh! That's neat!"
"You can stay, if you want," Carlos offered quietly. "I can't promise it'll be very interesting, though."
"Oh, but I can," Cecil said, and Carlos thought for just a second there was something lascivious in his tone. "You're always a pleasure, Carlos, I'd love to keep you company." Definitely something, right?
Carlos didn't know what to say through his tied tongue. "Oh, good. I'm glad."
Cecil took a drink of his mint tea, wincing slightly. "Still hot. Hey, I have an idea if you're willing. Could I… Would you be all right if I looked at your magical box of futuresight? I helped before, maybe there's something else in there I can assist with." He held up his fingers, a scout's oath. "I promise to be careful."
Good tidings, Carlos thought, looking at the man who was ensconced in this small space with him as the storm continued outside. Keep him close .
Anathema was the expert. "Sure," Carlos said, and gingerly passed the heartwood box over. Cecil eagerly set his drink aside and opened it.
Everything was quiet for a while, which surprised Carlos. Often Cecil was chatty, even if he didn't expect conversation in return. But something about the pounding rain and tiger's purr of thunder settled a spell of silence over them. It was soothing, and Carlos went back to watching the horizon.
Cecil picked out a card, and almost immediately let out a little abortive gasp, slotting it right back into place.
"What?" Carlos asked.
"If it was something significant--"
"I'm sure it wasn't," Cecil said, biting his lip. "Nope, nope, nothing to worry about." His ears were noticeably read, and he shot Carlos a reassuring smile before pulling out the next card to read.
Carlos let it go. Some things weren't for him to know.
It was quiet for a long time.
The Voice of Night Vale
… Eventually, the rain eased, and we went out looking through the desert. Carlos had kept track of the closest places where the lightning had struck the ground. I mostly just held the umbrella.
At one impact site, the sand and lightning had transformed into a tall, alien object, like a desiccated tube from a marine creature. It looked delicate, as if someone had meticulously stacked grains of sand to craft a sculpture that would fall away with the first strong wind. But Carlos wrapped a towel around it and picked the whole thing up!
It was hollow inside, with walls of charged glass. Jagged arms spidered out from the body, and I saw in them the moment of impact arrested in time and superheated sand.
Carlos let me keep one of the smaller pieces! The larger ones he needs for important esotericism but I have in my studio an intricate chunk lightning glass, on the shelf by the door.
I've never been one for magic, personally, but sometimes you meet the right person and… you know.
... Let's go to the Weather.
Carlos took his lightning glass home, slept with the twisted bundle under the head of his bed, then got to work.
Heating his athame over a flame, he cut the craggy glass tubes into cuffs, dusting off the loosest grains of sand. It made a horrible mess of his table, but by the end, he had a dozen usable pieces.
Carlos strung the cuffs on fishing line and lined them all up on a coat hanger for easy carrying. Armed with a bottle of water and one of his wide-brimmed hats, he ventured out into Night Vale. He had to place the ornaments in as many significant locations around the city as possible.
He did draw some looks, and specifically saw Jackie Fierro take his picture with her phone. Which meant it was going to be on Cecil's phone before long. This was his new normal, the strange local celebrity status that Cecil's effusive commentary had gifted him.
He did manage to get Jackie to take an ornament and put it in her thrift shop and promise not to sell it, so that was a plus.
He placed one hanging from a tree outside the Library, since the building itself was demolish or burned down regularly in attempts to quell its threat. Another, he hung on a forgotten nail behind a shelf at the Ralphs. When he tried to put one near City Hall, a member of the Secret Police started to hover nearby in a vaguely threatening way, so he decided not to try that. One, he put in fairly plain sight, hanging from the outdoor light by the radio station; Cecil would ensure it was left alone.
The last piece, Carlos held onto. He ran into Dana while having lunch at the Moonlite All-Night Diner, and she sat on the stool next to him.
"Cecil said that Jackie Fierro said you were out putting those lightning glass things around town. Is it for magic? Are they magical?"
"They will be," Carlos said. "They're part of a larger project I'm working on. I'm making a map."
"Hershel Wallaby sent a text saying you tried to put one near City Hall but they shooed you away. I have to go to a press conference Pamela is having in an hour. Would you like me to take one and place it somewhere discreet, such as a broom closet or the empty snack machine on the third floor?"
Oh, that was tempting. "That would be really helpful, but… I only have one left, and I know where I want it to go. It's really important."
"Suit yourself," Dana said, finishing her cinnamon bark milkshake before wishing him luck and leaving.
In hindsight, he should have taken the out. Not that it was intended as an out, but functionally, it was a way out of the situation Carlos found himself in as he stood on the sidewalk out by the car lot, looking over the green wooden fence that separated Old Woman Josie's house from the rest of Night Vale.
A secondary ley line meet a tertiary line directly where the house sat. This made it highly relevant to his project. Still, Carlos stood with his hand resting gently on the fence, questioning the wisdom of stashing a magical item on this particular property.
After all, there were angels here.
He was still standing there, gnawing his lip, when a French horn filled the air. Stepping out of a veil between worlds into this one, a very tall being appeared, looming over Carlos. They had many eyes and skin so dark it seemed cut out of creation itself.
When Carlos looked up at them, it was like cold water pouring over the embers of tension in his gut, dousing his every worry and leaving only fragrant woodsmoke.
The angel held up a hand. "You should keep your inner eye closed, witch."
"Oh, no… I know," Carlos said, voice slow like treacle. A bubbly delight fought its way up his spine and out his mouth. He grinned, childlike and awed at the presence of the angel. "I was just, ah… just wondering if…"
The angel, who Carlos knew must've been named Erika if he remembered Cecil's non-reports on them correctly, stooped deep like a bowing Joshua tree, and unlatched the gate. They rested a hand on Carlos' shoulder, and it was chilled like a glass of lemonade. refreshing coolness spreading outward like a balm across his senses.
He was going to do his best not to faint again. Thankfully, he's pretty sure Erika will be as quick to catch him as Cecil was. Angels were good like that. Wonderful and good.
Up on the porch was a swing bench, and Old Woman Josie sat upon it with her cane between her knees, reminding Carlos immediately of nothing so much as the Hierophant before their congregation. Her feet swung slightly off the floor, and she used her cane planted firm to propel herself on the swing.
Carlos didn't dare examine her aura with all the angels around the property; being struck metaphysically blind would put the brakes on his work. But he hardly needed to Look properly to guess her aura would appear to him solid as a painted line, a protective layer of pure will around her. He guessed it would be green. Or blood red.
"Hello there, witch," she greeted him archly. "You nosin' around for a reason?"
Behind her head, the window was wide open, letting music flow out into the yard. It was something dramatic and Italian with great soaring vocals. Through the thin curtains, Carlos saw more tall beings named Erika in the living room. Two of them seemed to be swing-dancing to the opera recording. It was impressive to watch.
Refocusing, he cleared his throat. The Erika who'd greeted him vanished with a final horn blow, and his senses began to return to him. "Kind of," he answered, shaking himself. He held up the strung piece of lightning glass. "I'm constructing a method with which to study Night Vale. There is a mystery here, something that needs solving. That's why I'm here."
"Is it? You're here to hide trinkets around and stand in your room, staring at a map to see what glows." She scoffed, but snatched the ornament from him with one notched finger. "Erika! Hang this up somewhere safe."
"Thank you," Carlos said, his ears hot from her scolding. Still, he was grateful she accepted it. A long, long arm reached out from the window, and lifted the strung piece of glass from her, carrying it back inside. "It won't be obtrusive."
"Of course it won't be, I've got angels all over, witch. I'm not going to notice one stray talisman." She tapped her cane on the ground, reminding Carlos distinctly of a gavel strike. "What mystery do you mean to solve then?"
"I have no idea," he admit, because he had feeling that he could not lie or obfuscate anything to this woman. Whether it was her or her angels, his tongue felt strange in his mouth, compelled to truths. "I am commanded by ancient prophecy and am a tool of my ancestor. I'll find what my purpose is eventually and presumably save this town from certain doom."
"We avert certain doom just fine on our own, so that sounds like a crock to me." She'd thus far mostly stared ahead, off the porch and at the sand dunes. Here, she snapped her glare sharply at Carlos, and he took an instinctive step back. "Are you going t' just stand there or will you sit your keister down."
Framed as a choice, delivered like an order. Carlos tried not to think about how he'd been groomed from birth to follow the commands of old women, and sat on the other side of the bench, taking his floppy hat off his head. Resting it on his lap, he folded his hand on it.
There was a long beat of silence. He was expected to break it. Likely some kind of test of his mettle.
"My name isn't 'witch,'" he said softly.
"Hrm," she said, as if considering this. "Seems like all you want to be, so the pointed shoe fits."
"Is that a cliche about witches? I thought we were expected to have riding boots, for the brooms?" At this, she narrowed her eyes at him. "Sorry, um. I don't… know you? I know you're a friend of Cecil's, but otherwise…"
"Everyone knows you, and the angels have been following your work. They're big fans, them. Love all the fiddly ins and outs of proper occultism." She sniffed loudly, with clear disdain. "Wake up, do magic all morning. Break for lunch, magic all afternoon, and into the night if you're on a roll. Go to bed. Repeat. What's your name matter, witch?"
Carlos felt himself bristling, his knuckles going white where he clasped them tight. "Then." He considered all this. "Then, you sit on this porch, and you dispense uninvited advice without the filter of tact. Should I just call you Old Woman?"
She cackles, loud and punctuated with a few stamps of her cane. "There's your spine. I'd imagined your family had those surgically removed, lest anyone step out of line from your ancestor."
The process was not surgical at all, he didn't say. It was just cultural and familial.
He thought Josie was a little mean. At the same time, he understood why Cecil adored her. Hard truths unasked for must've been sweet like candy to someone who spent so much time dispensing the edicts of the City Council and the Secret Police.
"I think I'd like to go now, if you don't mind."
She nodded sagely. "You're free to be your own person and follow your fancy, Device." Somehow, using his name didn't feel nicer. "Maybe try it sometime."
"What would you have me do, then?" The irritation flows out, beyond his grasp, saturating his voice before he can stopper it. "If the commands of my matriarch are wrong, then what're yours? It's just trading old wisdom for old wisdom."
"For one," Josie said, "keep doing that. Show your teeth. That's good if you're going to be here long. Then, get Cecil to take you out to a nice place, and leave your alethiometers and pendulums at home. Actually look at Night Vale like a place and not a puzzle box for you to fiddle with. You may like it 'round here. He's sure hoping you do, bless his heart."
"I've been around town," Carlos muttered, standing. "Fine. Thank you for accepting my talisman."
She grinned at him, the lines of her face like ripples in a pond. "You pick your words careful-like, don't you, Device?"
"I do," he said, and put his hat back on. "Good evening, Josie."
She waved him away as he left, letting himself out at the little gate.
He walked several streets away before taking off his hat to fan his face. Spending the entire day out on his feet had left them aching. He was tired, and residually aggravated from that awful conversation.
It was a long walk back to Ouroborus Road. Carlos took out his phone. It illuminated upon his Nice and Accurate App, the only thing he'd looked at all day.
A flash of shame hit him hard, and he swiped the app away, glaring at the other icons on his home screen. A little widget showed him his recent calls. Most where Cecil's number. Last call, yesterday afternoon, from when Carlos called to ask a question, following up from some report on the radio. It hadn't been for personal reasons, but Cecil still talked to him for five minutes and seventeen seconds.
He could touch that entry on the widget and call Cecil again. It was late, well after the end of his show.
He might be busy, Carlos considered.
Cecil was never too busy for him, Carlos thought immediately after, and felt his whole face go hot.
This was Josie's fault. All that stuff she'd said got to him and he just wanted to hear a friendly voice.
Cecil would know a good way to spend a day away from work. That was reasonable and true. He'd also come pick up Carlos and drive him home if asked.
Carlos pressed the phone against his forehead, groaning in frustration. He was tired. He hadn't taken a day to himself since he arrived in Night Vale. She hadn't been wrong about him needing a break.
He called. It wasn't an act of rebellion against his long-dead ancestor. It wasn't a capitulation to Josie. He'd earned a little relaxation.
And a ride home from a kind person.
Chapter 4: Seven of Pentacles
still trying to write one chapter per day, this one is right under the wire, oof
ETA, 6/28/19: revamp complete, tense change, cleaned up everything, unspooled some knotted passages.
By now Carlos knew many of the dining options in Night Vale. He was a busy man who often forgot to cook dinner or bring lunch with him, so winding up at one of the many places in town where someone would just put food in front of him without fuss was a relief.
There was Jerry's Tacos, which was adequate most days. There was Big Rico's, which was the most mediocre pizza Carlos had ever had, but he supposed when there was a city ordinance demanding everyone eat there once a week, they didn't have to be competitive. Some fresh food establishments existed around town, but never in the same location, which was handy when one appeared nearby when he wanted lunch during his walks.
Carlos mentally jotted down 'migrating restaurants????' but it was a low priority item.
The point was, Carlos didn't know much about Tourniquet. It didn't sit in any magically profound intersections and it was the kind of location that seemed out of Carlos' depths for a fast meal. When Cecil had suggested it, the name alone seemed a little severe, but there was a faint undercurrent of hope and nervousness in his tone. That was enough for him; Cecil knew all the best places in town with encyclopedic knowledge, and Carlos trusted him.
Huh. Carlos considered that. He trusted the possible tele-empath who worked on a nexus of extreme power and broadcast out to the entire city. Yes. That sounded wise.
On the radio the next day, Cecil mentioned their impending dinner, and particularly having to call in an enormous favor with the sous chef to even get in. Carlos felt put off by that before he remembered how Night Vale sort of worked.
The reasons Night Vale was strange were myriad and endlessly varied, but one of the most benign reasons was the communal culture. Living in large houses decadently tucked away from major cities had defined most of his life, the spoils of being a wealthy descendant. On the vanishingly rare occasions when he wanted to go somewhere exclusive, all it took was some financial leaning. And how often did that happen? When had Carlos ever wanted to go somewhere fancy?
Amsterdam had been Anathema's idea, and it had also been her picking where they went, so that didn't count.
Now, he listened to Cecil admitting to pulling interpersonal strings where Carlos would pull purse strings, and he enjoyed the grittiness of it. Night Vale was insular as a containment bunker, and everyone knew Cecil. And Cecil in turn knew everyone, and it was his currency here.
It was more charming than readily procured twenty dollar bills. There was effort to it that made Carlos feel nice. Flattered at the effort, maybe.
They were set to meet up Thursday night, after Cecil's show, then head for Tourniquet. That left the entire morning and afternoon for Carlos to get some work done.
Which he was going to do because he didn't want to give Josie the pleasure of having successfully advised him. That, and nothing to do with Carlos being a workaholic.
He was going to make some headway on the map project before Cecil arrived. It would be fairly impressive, and Cecil liked observing the occult stuff he did, even if he didn't understand it.
Carlos spent the morning getting things ready. The bungalow had come with one good dining table that suited his purpose well; he sanded down the top, working with various grains of sandpaper and a level, creating the precise plane he needed.
Opening all the windows, he painted sealant over it. Nothing would be worse or more of a mess than resin dripping all over his floor.
Speaking of. Carlos crossed his arms and looked at his set up. The layer on the wood was drying and would be a decent surface to build the map. But the table probably needed guards on the edges, or again: resin disaster, just all over the floor. He didn't want to reduce the value of the house.
He looked at the clock, which said it was 6:9PM. Useless, and juvenile besides. Carlos unplugged it and put it away in a cabinet.
He consulted the radio instead. Cecil was just starting his show, so he had time. Listening to the community calendar, Carlos took measurements of the table, writing them down in his journal before hiding the pen again. Not this time, Secret Police.
Finally getting dressed around midday, Carlos locked up the house behind him and set off to Home Depot. Just some scrap wood to use as guards, then he'd be ready to brew up the resin and pour. Maybe after Tourniquet, Cecil would want to come inside and help. That would be good and unlikely to lead to anything Carlos was simmering with nervous anticipation about.
He was walking down Flint Drive, looking at the liquor store and wondering if he should pick up something for home, just in case, just to ensure he was prepared for any eventuality.
A blue van with tinted windows peeled off the road, cutting right in front of him on the sidewalk. Startled, Carlos nearly fell as he stumbled back.
He did not fall, because the sliding door of the van opened, and hands grabbed him, completely arresting his movement. A bag went over his head, and he yelled a few stray curses as hands pinned him down.
The Voice of Night Vale
Today, a vague yet menacing government agency is catching up on interrogations! According to this statement slipped under my bedroom door, written in invisible ink that only appeared after being lightly sprayed with lemon juice, they've finally hired a new interrogator. The last retired a few months after a long and productive career as Chief Truth Seeker for the agency. A well-earned and much deserved retirement.
In the meantime, the backlog has gotten pretty long. So in celebration of their new hire making it through the rigorous background checks and re-education sessions and employee training programs, a vague yet menacing government agency plans on whittling that down so they can get back to normal operations.
This means if you've done or said or thought something that you thought should have garnered the attention of a vague government agency only to find no apparent recourse against you, you can stop worrying. Most likely, you'll be collected soon and everything will be put to rights. The scales of justice will find their balance again.
The agency informed me this process shouldn't take long. They've scheduled their catch-up effort briskly and expect this process to take a week, maybe a week and change. Then they'll resume their normal schedule of abductions and clandestine projects.
Already, blue vans have been seen in higher density around town. Several citizens have been escorted inside by these trained operatives. Harrison Kipp was removed from Mission Grove Park, likely due to his fringe scientific beliefs. The agency will certainly want to know more about that. Michelle Nguyen was seen knocking on the door of one van and climbing inside. Always ahead of the curve, that Michelle!
Also, on Flint Drive… Ah… Hm. Hm.
… Here's a word from our sponsor.
Carlos spent a long time with a bag over his head. He was not pleased about this. Really, Carlos considered himself a remarkably easy-going occultist. A little pent up at times, but broadly a decent witch to know.
If he had access to his athame or wand, he would be putting one hell of a hex on these people who'd abducted him.
He didn't have his tools, and one of his captors had handcuffed him and duct taped his legs together. All he could do was sit there, fuming, and trying to compensate with his inner sight. Around him were the glowing outlines of people, most of their souls burning dark and desaturated, like paint water. Just looking at them left an acrid taste in his mouth.
One of them came close, making him nearly gag at the taste of chemical fire that followed them like a metaphysical plague. They grabbed him by the hair, through the bag, and injected the back of his neck.
His supernatural vision faded back to the darkness of the physical world as his concentration failed him. His head lolled as they asked him question after question, pelting his slowing, tired mind with queries about himself, his work, his family, how he'd heard about Night Vale, his intentions in town, and what his position on local ballot initiatives were.
Sometimes the questions repeated. When Carlos noticed, he pointed it out, annoyed.
They injected him again , and the questioned restarted, and this time Carlos didn't bother pointing out the inefficiencies of their process. He no longer cared.
When the questions finally stopped, they moved him again. His legs were still bound, and his knees felt like gelatin, so someone fireman carried Carlos out of wherever he was. He recognized the sliding grind of the van door before they laid him quiescent on his side on the floor.
The van moved. "That's number 37 done. Who's next on the list?" someone asked.
"Carlsberg, Steve. He'll be leaving the bank by now. We'll swing around back and take him," someone answered.
"Oh, for fuck's sake, do we have to? He's gonna talk our damn ears off. We'll be under quota."
After a meandering drive, the door opened again. Carlos was lifted under his arms and set down on the hard ground, like a package being left for someone. Only then, finally, hours later, was the bag whipped off his head.
He head the van burning rubber as it peeled away, but couldn't turn to look. Everything was bright, light stinging his eyes like needles even through his clenched eyes. When he squinted around, he saw the sun was setting, and he happened to be left facing it, and the angle hurt.
His head hurt so much. He bent forward, resting his forehead against his knees, groaning weakly.
"You left the cuffs on!" he shouted at no one. "You're terrible at your stupid job!"
There were footsteps on the sidewalk, coming closer, and Carlos stiffened, trying to lean away without falling over impotently. Blinking rapidly, trying to clear his vision, he mumbled, "Where are my glasses?"
"Hooked on your collar," Cecil said, suddenly very close. "Are you all right?"
"No. Someone kidnapped me."
"New citizen orientation, most likely. Sorry, I should have warned you. Here, hold still."
There's a tug at his collar, a weight removed. His face was touched very lightly, Cecil's fingers resting against his cheek as he guided Carlos' glasses back on. He was good, first try, no catching on Carlos' ear or in his hair. The world came back into focus, though everything was still too bright and fish-eyed around the edges.
"Besides that, are you okay?"
"Um," Carlos said, because he'd never been this close to Cecil before. This close, he could see Cecil's eyes were many different shades of violet, and the effect was striking, like the eclipse of a lavender sun against an apocalyptic eggplant sky. It was stunning, and thus left Carlos a little stunned. "What?"
Cecil clicked his tongue. "That'll be the serums they use. Where are your keys?"
"Right jacket pocket."
Retrieving them, Cecil hooked the carabiner clip on his belt loop. "Lets get you inside and off the sidewalk."
"They messed up my legs. I'm going to find them and hex them."
He thought Cecil chuckled at that. "You're fine, I've got you." Then, he braced himself carefully and picked Carlos up, arm under his back and legs, curling him against his chest.
"Aaaaah? Oh my god, don't drop me," Carlos said, expressing his surprise at this.
Cecil blew out a breath, and while there was effort to lifting Carlos, it didn't seem to be a lot. "Don't worry, you're not that heavy. I, uh, recalled from before, when you fainted."
"Oh, right. I remember that." Carlos let his head hang back, staring upside down at the world for a second. "Say, if you see an open grave, just drop me off there so I can at last die of embarrassment."
"Try to relax. You have a lot of stuff in your system right now." He paused. "Stop that, that actually makes this harder. Maybe hold onto me?"
Carlos lifted his head again and tried very hard to stop being petulant. Making this harder on Cecil was rude. He shifted to instead rest the enormous heft of his skull against shoulder and held on best he could. Immediately, he was rewarded for this; breathing in deep, he found something new, a faint chemical bite, an anchor for the smell of green amber and watermelon liqueur and salt spray right off the ocean. None of which were particularly native Night Valean scents, but together made a really lovely profile.
He should've asked what was up with that, because addressing the incongruities of life was sort of Carlos' thing . Instead, Cecil was fumbling the door open, and it came out of Carlos' mouth as, "You smell really good."
The door opened, and Cecil turned to maneuver them both through it. "Thank you."
He inhaled deeply again. "It reminds me of California One, back in Malibu. That's what I like convertibles, you know? I used to borrow Anath's because she hates driving and never used it. Worst birthday gift she ever got, prob'ly. But I drove it up and down the road." He sighed, shutting his eyes. "I miss that. Things were simpler when I wasn't the designated descendant. She was better at it than me."
"I… think that's the sodium pentothal. You're under the effects of sodium pentothal, Carlos, okay?"
"I'm an occultist, not a scientist, what's that even mean?"
His comfortable perch in Cecil's arms upended, and Carlos yelped as he was set down on the sofa.
"It's a truth serum. Fairly standard for new citizen orientation. It just makes you babble, mostly."
"I don't babble," Carlos pointed out with some offense. "I always pick my words carefully. They left me handcuffed." He rattled the links, glaring at this wrists. "I-- I just need to get myself together, and get my wand, and I can do a spell."
Cecil grabbed a throw cushion from the couch and tossed it on the floor before folding himself down onto it. "Could you? I didn't know you did spells."
"People get really nervous around shows of real witchcraft, so we try not to use it. Don't want to get rocks tied to us and thrown into rivers. But you aren't like that, it'll be fine."
Cecil smiled at him, warm as sunshine. "Oh, Carlos. I mean, that is very true, but I do love to hear you actually say it." As he sat there, at Carlos' feet, he took out his keys. They were on a huge metal ring, and had a lot more accoutrements than Carlos'. A dozen keys, some simple unmarked silver ones from the hardware store, his car key with the beeper attachment, and one heavy wrought iron key that looked like a movie prop.
There was also a long, sturdy metal rod. He shook that one loose and took Carlos' hand, their palms pressed together. His thumb tilted the cuff up, and he inserted the rod into the lock.
"You can pick locks," Carlos said, leaning in to watch. "That's incredible."
"Not as impressive as a spell, but we'll get you out of these faster, I think." His eyebrows knit together as he worked. "Your magic isn't working?"
"It's all funny. Fuzzy and staticky."
"Fuzzy," Cecil echoed, a curl of amusement in his voice.
"Can't See anything. I mean See like Seeing, not--"
"I can hear capital letters, Carlos, I know what you mean."
"Oh, that's handy. But I can't See and everything feels flat. There's this big, huge ley line nexus under this house, and it's not making me feel tingly at all, which it usually does."
One cuff popped open. "I see. Lowercase see, implying understanding."
"You always understand things. Or, if not understand, you accept things anyway." Carlos leaned further, like a glass tipping, and rest his forehead on Cecil's head, in his hair.
For a solid three seconds, Cecil froze, hand resting on Carlos' chest, like he was afraid he'd fall. When Carlos stayed right where he was, he started picking the second lock again. "Carlos? You're humming, Carlos."
Maybe Cecil didn't know it. That seemed very unlikely since he had extensive knowledge of music. More likely, it was just bad humming. Carlos sat back against the sofa, accidentally pulling his hand out of Cecil's and jostling the pick. Whoops. "And the road a-winding goes, from golden gate to roaring cliffside, and the light is softly low as our hearts become sweetly untie 'neath the sun… of California One."
Rather than a wave of recognition, Cecil reacted with a hand over his face, his head ducking, shoulders shaking.
Carlos was hurt. "Am I a bad singer?" he asked, frowning.
"No. Oh my god, Carlos, no. Just… hold on." He finished the other lock, and put the handcuffs on the coffee table. Shaking out another attachment on his keys, a pocket knife, he sliced the duct tape off Carlos and tugged it away. "Okay. You're free. I… would ask how you're feeling now, but I think I can guess." Pushing off the table, Cecil stood.
"You're very tall," Carlos said.
I'm not. You're just sitting down." He bent, and rested his hands on Carlos' shoulders. His touch was heavy and anchoring. "I'm going to look around your kitchen and see what I can make to eat, is that all right?"
"Uh huh," Carlos said, eyes lidding.
"You should shut your eyes for a while."
"Okay." He did.
The problem was then, Cecil just left, which was much less relaxing. Still, Carlos tried to follow direction and rest for a while. Turning inward, he rested his cheek on the sofa and curled up with his feet on the cushion. He missed the pressure of someone nearby.
He stayed on the sofa for about five minutes, then got up and followed Cecil to the kitchen. His knees were still more suggestions of motor skills that reliable aspects of locomotion. He gripped the frame of the kitchen entry, holding himself up.
"Carlos!" Cecil put down the pan he was examining and immediately grabbed Carlos by the hips. "You should be sitting down."
"I will!" He pointed at the chair at the kitchen island. "Wanna sit there."
"Why? Oh, all right. I can keep an eye on you then." Cecil walked Carlos to the seat and watching him climb on and sit before nodding. "Stay here. Do not move," he said, voice suddenly firm.
"Okay." He even put his hands on the island, interlacing his fingers, a perfect image of obedience. When Cecil gave him a narrow look, he grinned, and watched how Cecil just softened like chocolate in the sun.
Satisfied, Cecil circled the island and went back to looking through Carlos' kitchen, opening drawers and cabinets, apparently just learning the layout. "I almost bought wine today. I was going to after picking up some scrap wood. I was going to build a frame before doing a resin pour tonight. It was going to be really impressive witchcraft. You would've liked it."
"I-- I'm sure I would've. Maybe we can do that another night." He pointed. "And that explains the wood leaning on the wall."
"What?" He turned, slowly and careful about his current off-kilter balance.
There was, against the wall, four pieces of wood leaning against the wall. An orangey Home Depot wrap held them together, and Carlos was fairly sure the measurements matched what he was supposed to get.
"Why?" Carlos asked. It seemed a reasonable question.
"A gift. An acknowledgement of the way they inconvenienced you."
"Aw, that's nice." He turned back around, watching Cecil's back as he moved things around, putting pots on burners, cutting things. It distracted him for a moment before he frowned. "Wait, no it's not. They kidnapped me."
"No, it's not very nice," Cecil agreed.
Carlos nodded, reassured by this. Hunger was starting to impress on him, and his feet were beginning to tingle again, either from the truth serum wearing off or from his supernatural senses coming back from their chemical dormancy. The ley line kept his toes company as he curled and uncurled them, feet off the ground.
Having someone else in his house was a novel experience. The bungalow had sat unoccupied for years before he's bought it, and Cecil was the only person who'd been inside it for an extended period. But even before Night Vale, Carlos lived alone. In close proximity to his family, but often on his own. He'd long slept with a wand by his bedside, ready to react to stray noises through the night.
Now, there are ambient sounds around him, and the urge to investigate was dethroned entirely. Someone else was here, the impetus of changes in the environment. No mysteries in the dark to worry about.
Cecil had excellent knife form, Carlos observed, enjoying the thnk-thnk-thnk as he rocked the blade.
Staring at him was a bad idea. Carlos was remembering that by degrees. He needed to occupy himself. Fortunately, there was esoteric detritus strewn over the table. It was a good work station; Carlos tended to eat standing up a the counter because all his projects were scattered around here.
As he waited patiently for dinner, he picked up one of the decks left withing arm's reach. Rider-Waite-Smith, the classic. Shuffling it briskly, he set the cards facedown to his left, and began drawing, laying them out.
There was something kinestetically pleasing about the way a card felt snapping into place against a hard surface, a simple aural joy at the snpt noise each made as he placed them.
Carlos completed one game, a little sloppy. He was sharpening, coming back to himself.
He shuffled, and started again, playing faster with a mental timer of three seconds. With the restriction, it went better.
"That seems like a very complicated spread," Cecil remarked as he set out silverware. "What are you forecasting?"
"Nothing!" Carlos smiled, placing the Queen of Cups over the King, then moving his neat stack of the rest of the suite on top. "I'm playing solitaire. It's helping immensely. I can feel things again, and I think my verbal filter has returned." He hesitated, hand on the draw deck. "Sorry for… babbling at you and then singing , I'm so sorry."
"I truly and genuinely do not mind, on either count. It was very charming." Cecil set a plate coconut rice and vegetables beside the solitaire game. "Everyone goes through interrogation, it's totally fine."
"I bet you don't babble," Carlos muttered, dismantling the game and putting his deck back together. The feat of the shuffle was pure muscle memory from decades of cartomancy, splitting the cards and working them with rote movements of this wrists. Then, reverse and again.
In a fit of sudden pique, because his day had been awful , Carlos snapped a card down, face already set into a glare.
Five of Cups.
"Shit." He pressed the heel of his hand into his brow. "We were supposed to go out."
Cecil sat across from him, taking care to lift and move everything out of his way before resting his own plate of food down. "It's fine."
"Is it?" Carlos dragged his hand back, through his hair, gripping and pulling. "Dammit. When was… did we completely miss it, when--"
His smile was small and wry. "You were very busy coming off of barbiturates at the time. It's fine . And you really need to eat, or the hangover effect will be intense."
The crash was looming over him like a tide being inexorable pulled in by the rising moon. He felt it at the edges of his awareness, in the way all his recovered senses felt sore like an overworked muscle. Metaphysical soreness.
Warm food did seem to help, in some sense. Still, the exhaustion that hit him was absolute. Carlos had enough energy to rinse his plate in the sink and leave it there before shuffling around the house to check windows and wards. No one was going to get the jump on him again today.
When he finished, he came to a sharp halt in the living room.
Cecil hovered around the entryway, toying with his keys. Before, nothing but the immediate struggle of his ordeal had penetrated his dosed up mind. Now, tired but clearheaded, he noticed Cecil had really night black jeans with laces up the sides, a pair of striking blue-china Docs, and a silver shirt that somehow seemed duochome, blending colors along the slope of his shoulders. Even his nails were painted duochrome to match.
Of course. He smelled like amber and watermelon liqueur because cologne. He'd made an effort, only to have to come and haul Carlos' ass off the sidewalk and make him dinner.
Carlos felt cheated.
"I'm sorry," he said, crossing his arms over his chest, holding his elbows tightly.
Cecil looked up, face pulling into an expression of complete surprise. "Sorry? Why are you sorry?"
Tentatively, Carlos walked over to join him at the door. "All this. It wasn't the plan. We had plans."
"Someone else had a plan for us," he said with a lifted eyebrow. When Carlos shot him an inquisitive look, he drew his phone out of his back pocket and thumbed at it for a moment.
When he offered it to Carlos, the notes app was open.
700: Great chariots ryde in the Vale, a festivale of Fear. Thy tight bande of Blood sharl snap, and ye sharl wait by the house amid the dry Bloomes wif care aplentey.
Underneath were associated notes: (Vans, potentially Street Cleaning Day. Reference to Tourniquet. Cactus Bloom = near Carlos' house.)
Carlos shut his eyes and took a deep breath. "Agnes."
"Agnes," Cecil concurred, though he seemed in much better humor about it than Carlos. He put his phone back away. "I was worried something much worse was set to happen, so I will take this alternative aaaaany day of the week."
It wasn't fair. The urge to have some kind of fit was rising in him, up his spine and eager to flood him with a petty type of anger. All while Cecil was so calm!
He couldn't freak out in front of Cecil. As if he hadn't been enough trouble already. Breathing deep through his nose, out through his mouth, Carlos counted to ten. "Thanks for taking care of me."
"Anytime. But also, lets try to avoid it happening again?" He grinned, good humored.
That apparently sounded final. Cecil nodded and turned to the door.
Panic crashed into Carlos, the wave hitting shore, and he reached out to grab Cecil's hand.
Which got him to stop with a little gasp, fixing Carlos with a stare, lips downturned in confusion.
Carlos let go fast, clasping his hands tight behind his back. "Sorry. I don't know why-- I should go. I mean, you should go. One of those."
Nodding slowly, Cecil started to reach for the door again, and Carlos lost him mind for a moment, catching his sleeve. "Tourniquet, another night? We can try again?"
"If we can get in," Cecil said, sounding perplexed by what was happening. Which, so was Carlos, so hooray for consistency. His hand was on the doorknob, but he lingered, obviously concerned. "Carlos, are you sure you're all right?"
"Yep! Yes. I'm great. Not great, I'm fine. I'm okay."
Cecil lifted his eyebrows. "You don't seem sure. Like, at all."
"I'm sorry I ruined dinner," he said quickly. Cecil opened his mouth, likely to reassure him, so he barreled on, the proverbial barrel falling right off Niagara and plummeting. "Not just sorry for you, but sorry for myself. Because I wanted to go."
"Oh." Cecil lets out a whoosh of air, still holding Carlos' gaze in an iron grip with unblinking eyes. "Because… you wanted to experience Night Vale's fine dining scene?"
"No," Carlos said. He wanted to break eye contact, it was becoming overwhelming. "Anyway, goodnight."
He was still holding Cecil's sleeve, and still Cecil stood there, body taut with uncertainty and-- and something, his gaze a tangible weight holding Carlos locked in place.
It was unfinished, a sentence lacking a period. It would eat at Carlos, he was a stickler for grammar. All professional descendants were.
Cecil leaned, a gentle sway that brought him just an inch closer. Carlos was in motion, curling his fingers in the lapels of Cecil's shirt, turning that sway into a topple.
Staggering a step, Cecil reached to brace himself on Carlos' shoulder, utterly off balance when Carlos kissed him.
He hadn't put a lot of thought into this. No, that was inaccurate. He'd thought of it a lot recently, but in the abstract. It wasn't such a mess in his imagination.
In the fraction of the second before Carlos pulled him in, the split instance when he considered this, he was going to give Cecil a quick kiss. A kiss like punctuation. End of sentence, and they could pick up on it another day. A forecast of what was potentially to come.
He didn't intend the sudden surge of desert thirst to hit him, didn't expect Cecil to make a moan of longing deep in this throat, and didn't foresee how Cecil's thumbnail dragging along his hairline would hit him like lightning.
It wasn't quick at all.
Indulgent and slow, Carlos wrapped his fingers around Cecil's wrist, keeping Cecil's hand rubbing small circles in his hair. He could feel Cecil's pulse thrumming, and suspected his own was beating much faster. But he could also feel Cecil's aura mingling with his own, and the impossible wellspring of rich melted calm coloring him like smeared paint.
It was a kiss he could sink into entire and drown with full lungs.
They parted, perhaps because every other aspect of the kiss had been thoroughly tested and explored, everything but the parting.
"Carlos," Cecil sighed, very, very softly.
"Yes. Oh yes." Carlos nodded.
"Oh, good. I-- I'm glad I didn't completely obliterate our, ah, relationship with a misstep."
"Nope," Carlos said on a sigh. "We're good."
"Great. That's good. Um." He touched Carlos' cheek lightly. "Your eyes are closed?"
Right. Carlos opened them, blinking gradually back to full observance of the physical world. "Sorry, I was… aura stuff. Got distracted." His hands were still tight on Cecil's shirt and wrist; he let go and took a step back. Distance was good too. A lot of things were very good. "I should, um."
"No, I should." His lips were dark as he smiled. "I'll call you tomorrow, to make sure you're recovering. Try to drink a lot of water before bed, and don't be shocked if you're sluggish tomorrow."
"Right." Saying 'thanks' seemed trite now, so Carlos didn't, just folding his arms in case he lost his mind and tried to grab Cecil again. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Carlos," he said, voice slipping into that deep, soothing balm he wielded so sanguinely. Waving, he opened the door, turned the lock, and shut it behind him as he left.
Carlos walked to the door, resting his head against it as he flipped the deadbolt as well, catching his breath.
Distantly and muffled, he thought he heard someone let out a loud celebratory whoop.
The Voice of Night Vale
Today, a vague yet menacing government agency continued its interrogations, picking up dozens of people around town in its attempted to catch up on their backlog. Things are going pretty well. Yesterday, they made a sizeable dent in their list.
It's funny. Carlos, our visitor and the local occultist, he was picked up in the late afternoon. We all know a trip to the agency's interrogation rooms is a rite of passage for anyone migrating to Night Vale. I suppose we can stop calling Carlos a visitor, now! He's a our newest resident, and a welcome addition to out little community.
Unfortunately, his interrogation took several hours. Long enough that we completely missed our reservations for Tourniquet.
Ha ha, I was just remembering some of my past run ins with vague yet menacing government agencies around town. Like, last August, when Intern Dana was abducted during a completely routine and sanctioned assignment for the station. She was just picked up by one of these unmarked vans and vanished!
Oh, her parents were so upset. And, not to get too personal, but I was upset too. It's not often we get such promising interns here at the station. Dana's mother had asked me to help out, and if I'm remembering right-- which, you know me, listeners. My memory just isn't what it used to be.
Anyway, if I recall correctly , I made a few statements on the radio about the then-current location of one of the agency bunkers, as well as some munition caches in the area. It was a long broadcast, especially when I got tied up reporting on the Night Vale Fire Department's arrival. They had to be called in to put out the complete conflagration of that one bunker out in the Sand Wastes. Who knew that with the right materials, even an average citizen could start a fire hot enough to melt concrete?
I'm just reminiscing here. I wonder if the agency remembers that day as vividly as I do.
Anyway, Carlos and I will have to reschedule our dinner. Hopefully nothing gets in the way of our next… next dinner.
Now, the community calendar.
Chapter 5: The Star, Inverted
ETA, 6/29/19: revamp complete, not as dramatic as the previous chapters, just clean up and tense change.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
One day off was quite enough, especially when aforementioned day turned out to be such a disaster. Far more exciting than he'd hoped for. And, in other ways, less exciting he'd hoped.
It was fine. An occultist was always fine.
There was sand under his knees as he realigned his stargazing kit. Trying to find a flat surface in a desert was nigh impossible, and each little spindly leg sank unevenly with every correction he made.
It was also chilly out, which seemed unfair. The days in Night Vale were much like the boiling frog idiom, a context of wills with the sun to see who would flinch first. Given the lack of proper weather report on the radio, Carlos relied mostly on morning cartomancy, developing a new three card spread to try to eek out an answer about the projected temperature.
He didn't quite have the hang of it yet. But the nights were especially troublesome, as the environment seemed to mock him with how chilled it was. His fingers locked up and fumbled against the sextant as he repositioned it again.
Muttering a curse, he bent down to squint through the eyepiece.
"There you are, then, you…" He stopped. "No. That's impossible."
They'd changed again. For the third time in one night.
Sitting back on his heels, Carlos sighed explosively, patting dust off his jacket and doing up the buttons. Then, he tucked his hands away in his pockets. "I need gloves. You couldn't have told me that, Agnes?"
She did have things to tell him. A bit more abstract than shopping advice.
78: Where eyes meet twain the Spheres, lay thy heade neath and See.
For Agnes, it was a fairly straightforward piece of instruction. Find the right constellation and lay down and, he assumed, turn his his gaze skyward and See.
All of this would have been easier if the stars stayed still.
Carlos picked up a rock and hurled it, just because he could. It landed in a little cloud of dust a few yards away.
On his satchel was his phone. In his phone was a voice. Or, no, proper nouns were important in his line of work. It was a Voice. Because it was Monday, so the Voice was on in the evening instead of the early afternoon.
"City Council has proclaimed a parade will be hosted this Friday to celebrate the successful destruction of the Night Vale Public Library. Citizens are encouraged to dress as their favorite literary character. There will be a costume contest, and the winner of best costume will have their name legally changed to that character! And they will continue to live the life of that character until whatever ordained end. So, pick something with a happy ending, I say."
"Can I dress up as a more successful witch," Carlos muttered.
"It's a quiet night, listeners. From the station, all Night Vale is visible, drowsy with the onset of cold from this chill night. The remaining cars on the road roll like marbles through honey, pausing periodically as each driver becomes distracted by the void overhead, obscured by the lights between us and infinite distance. We need not understand the lights to appreciate their beauty. If you are awake to hear my voice, perhaps you should look skyward. The path is clear of cloud cover. Perfect conditions for stargazing."
Carlos sat up straighter in the sand, whirling to stare at his phone. It was an insufficient proxy for Cecil, but all he had.
"Can you see me?" Carlos asked aloud. "'From the station' nothing is visible except the control booth, there are no windows for you to see out of. Are you seeing me? Or Seeing me? Or otherwise perceiving me with other means of extrasensory perception? Cecil?"
"So ends my sentinel over you, my beloved Night Vale. Tomorrow, the heat will return, scorching the sand into illusions of cool water. Just another type of dream soaked in dry desire. Sleep well, and goodnight, Night Vale. Goodnight."
"Is 'sentinel' a clue?" Carlos asked. "Is that a sign? Oh, nevermind. Get home safe, I guess." He sighed and picked up his journal, looking at the notes he took on the stars for this region. "I am… talking to myself. Yep."
Night was absolute and moonless. At the very least he had the most optimal viewing conditions to work with.
It was not optimal for looking at his notes.
Glancing around, Carlos saw no one around. He was a ways out from the road, and the houses were mostly dark at this hour.
It was also optimal conditions for witchcraft.
Taking a small needle, he pricked his fingertip. As red beaded, he took a small, faceless coin from the pocket sewn into the inside of his jacket. Blood smudged just a bit on the flat, silvery surface.
Bracing the coin between two fingers, he flicked it with his other hand. The coin spun and spun, velocity increasing as he let it go. It hovered where he'd held it until it blurred into a sphere of movement.
"There," he exhaled, picking up his phone and waving its light at the coin. The light collected until it was a small orb in the air, an adequate lamp to work by.
He licked the puncture after, sitting with his legs crossed and his star chart tilted to read over his lap.
"Hm." Carlos rubbed his chin, scratching at the stubble peeking out.
When they came, the sound of wheels crushing dirt and stones were unsurprising. The break in the quiet didn't even earn a turn of the head towards the noise.
A kickstand metallically notched into place, and footsteps approached.
"It's late," Carlos said by way of greeting. "You should go to sleep."
"I know, just--" Cecil broke into a full yawn, one that lasted several seconds. "Sorry. Hi."
"Hello." Carlos rotated the star chart ninety degrees and examined it again. "Do you know why the stars don't work out here?"
"I… Wait. Is that magic?"
"Barely," Carlos said, but smiled at the naked delight in Cecil's voice. Turning slightly, he watched Cecil leaning over him, hands on his knees and eyes on the small magelight. "Price and will and really basic arcana. I needed a light and flashlights are unwieldy."
"That's amazing." Cecil said with awe, crouching down. "What's wrong with the stars?"
Carlos was thrilled for a chance to vent. "Firstly, they're never the right stars for this latitude, that's pretty weird." He tapped the sextant with a finger. "Then, once I figure out what constellations I am seeing, they keep moving around! Like, as soon as I turn my back on them. It's deeply vexing."
"Why are you looking at stars?" Which was not an answer. He dropped down to sit beside Carlos, the small magelight between them. Lifting the back of his hand to his mouth, he covered another yawn.
"No," Carlos said slowly. "I have the next question. How did you know I was out here?"
Cecil lifted his head, looking marginally more awake. "Oh? Is that what we're doing now?" He sounded richly amused, like tickled chocolate. "Trading answers?"
Cecil smirked, one side of his mouth, a glimpse of teeth in the night. "Over there." He pointed, past Carlos. "Old Woman Josie turns in pretty early, but her guests do not. And they seem very taken with you. One of the Erikas updated her Facebook with some flattering comments about you. Watching you work is always deeply stimulating."
His voice was radio-rough, and Carlos shivered, pulling the arms of his jacket further down. "I'll keep that in mind. I'm trying to figure out a prophecy." Seemed he did little else lately, grasping at threads in hopes of finding a useful seam in the veil to unravel and peer through.
Another question seemed on its way, but Cecil covered another yawn in his shoulder. His crows' feet crinkled with each yawn.
Carlos snapped his fingers and caught the coin in his other hand. The light winked out. "Come on."
"Hm?" Cecil lifted his head, a lock of hair falling over his eyes. Carlos very much wanted to tuck it behind his ear, but that seemed forward. "You're leaving?"
"We are. Come on, your bike will fit in the rack." He packed up his charts and journal and tools, sliding each item into their proper pockets. Standing, he dusted himself off, and carried his bag over his shoulder, his sextant's case under his arm, and a hand on Cecil's bicycle, guiding it over to the car.
"Oh! You don't have to!" Cecil jumped up and hurried to follow. "Carlos, wait!"
"I do. Kind of." He opened the back of his car, throwing in his bag and the carry case. Shutting it, he walked the bike to the trunk. "There's this law we have. Kind of a guideline. A strongly suggested outline of behavior." He lifted the bike and set it into the thick metal support hanging off the back of his trunk.
Cecil hovered nearby, clearly wanting to do something to help. There was something vindictively pleasant about it. "We, as in?" he asked.
Carlos hesitated for a half-second. "Witches. There's this thing about keeping balance. If someone is kind to you, if they are relentlessly helpful to you, then you should do your best to make recompense. It's like a build-up of energy that needs to be released. Static that'll build into something that can kill you."
Cecil gave him an alarmed look. "You can die from someone being too kind to you?"
"Yes. Or no." Carlos sighed. "Or I could try to explain this properly, that's a fascinating idea for us to try." He sighed and opened the door for Cecil. "Get in, sleepyhead."
"My hero," Cecil said, obediently collapsing himself into the car and putting his head back, eyes already shut.
Carlos shut that door and got in behind the wheel. Turning the car over, he rolled down the windows. "It's just something you grow up with, as a Device. Have you ever seen Colman Smith's art of the Magician? First card of the Major Arcana? It's right after the Zeroth card, the Fool."
"Zeroth," Cecil murmured, head lolling to look at Carlos, his smile sweet.
"We begin from zero, the blank slate upon which anything can spring. The inert imbued with potentiality."
"Uh huh," Cecil said, his smile widening.
"The Magician is the first card. A figure with a wand lifted high over their head, surrounded by all the tools of the magical trade. Symbols of the suites, athame, but the wand is the important part." As he pulled out of the dirt and back onto the road, Carlos glanced at Cecil, who looked entirely too attentive for someone so tired. It made Carlos want to do something ridiculous, like touch him to see if he was as soft as he looked.
So, Carlos stopped looking at him and watched the road instead, though the streets were empty this time of night. "The Magician is a lightning rod of energy, inviting it and drawing it in. But lightning is an overwhelming force for a mortal soul, so they have to transform that energy and dispense it out into the world. It's their purpose, but also if they don't, the build-up of pure arcana will destroy them. Upright, the card represents the way we manifest energy into something tangible. Inverted, the card is wasted potential and manipulation. A false show of power."
"Caaaarlos," Cecil drawled sleepily. "Please come on my show. Pretty please."
"None of this is actually interesting," Carlos told him bitterly. "I'm not a teacher, I-- I'm an occultist, that's all."
"Lived experience is the most compelling story to tell. It's not about--" another yawn, and a little headshake of annoyance, as if the interruption of his own body was unacceptable. "Not about teaching. You're just… very interesting, and charismatic! Like, all the time, but especially about witchcraft. Is that okay, 'witchcraft,' is that an offensive term?"
"No," Carlos sighed. "I'm trying to be less uptight about it. I don't think Night Vale is into burning people at the stake."
"Not witches," Cecil demurred.
"That's a terrifying comment. It's a left up here?"
"Yes, at the stop sign. Or, the pole where the sign was. They're undergoing annual cleaning."
"Of course they are."
"Are you that card then? The Magician?" He twisted in his seat, the belt tucked under his arm.
"Why does everyone assume that's how it works? We don't have patron cards. They're tools for cartomancy." He sniffled, and turns the A/C to something less cold. "I prefer Lenormand anyway. Feels better in my hands."
"But can you do all the… the Seeing with it? Ask them to tell you about the future or your career or... romance?"
"In theory? Yes."
"Not in practice?"
"No. No, not yet. I have Agnes now, it seems."
"This one," Cecil said, pointing out the correct building. "Have you considered a seance to talk to Agnes and work out your frustration with her?"
Carlos snorted. "I come from a family of professional descendants who are naturally predisposed to magic."
"Ah. You all thought of everything." Cecil shook his head softly. "Thank you for the ride. The ride home. The car--"
"Yeah, I got it." Carlos pressed his knuckles to his mouth until his smile goes away. "Anytime." He shifted the car into park. "Let me get your bike."
"I can do it," Cecil said, then put his hand on Carlos', on the gear shift.
All Carlos said was, "Oh."
His thumb stroked over the back of Carlos' hand. "I would invite you in for coffee or something but." He winced. "I… actually have to be in the station at a decent time tomorrow, for the afternoon program."
"What if I promise not to keep you up?" Carlos asked, finding courage out of the late night. Seeing the way Cecil's pupils blew wide and dark gave him a pinprick pleasure. "Kidding, I-- I'm kidding, you should sleep."
"Cruel," Cecil said, sounding strained. "Mean and cruel, what does your first card say about that?"
"It's more of an example of a wider concept that applies all over magic, in and out of cartomancy." But he didn't want to talk about cards anymore, or any magic at all really, so he leaned in to kiss Cecil at the corner of his mouth. "Goodnight."
Cecil leaned in for a follow up, lips together. He was warm and weary, and Carlos could easily push for more, knew Cecil would just fold like-- well, like cards. He was very close to being very mean, and keeping this tired man awake significantly longer tonight.
Temperance, and a steady hand. Carlos nudged Cecil back. His violet eyes were almost closed, in want of sleep or… other things.
"Goodnight," Cecil murmured. He climbed out of the car, steps languid and graceful as he miraculously managed to not trip over his own feet. He collected his bike over his shoulder, walking up the path to the Datura Dreams apartments.
Carlos braced himself on the wheel to stare out the winder after him. "Oh, that's just unfair," Carlos said, watching Cecil's back and the bend of his arm. It stirred a hot sensation in his gut. "Will you stop that." As if that would banish the sight of Cecil's shoulders and the line of his spine.
Suddenly, he was unsure, and scrambled for his phone. Just in case, just in case Carlos was letting his caution override his fate, if his destiny was weaving away in tight jeans, he opened one of the seven cartomancy apps he had installed.
"Cups, cups, cups, come on, cups," Carlos muttered like a player at a felt table looking for 21.
The Moon. He got the Moon.
"That doesn't help," Carlos sighed, and looked up from his phone. Already, Cecil had disappeared into his apartment building. "Fine."
Carlos drove back to his bungalow, thinking the entire time about the Moon, sly and secretive and mad, prophetic and alluringly dangerous.
The Voice of Night Vale
Some news, listeners, about your favorite occultist and mine. I was out picking up some coffee for Intern Dana and myself, because she's been doing such a great job, and I like to treat our interns sometimes.
Well, I was at the Spiky Hammer and my… ugh. Hrm. I was accosted by Steve Carlsberg, who works at the Last Bank at Night Vale. I didn't want to talk to him, obviously, and tried to convey this by fashioning a rudimentary ranged weapon from a straw and some balled up wrappers.
Steve persisted, and said the bank had a major ghost infestation. "Just the one ghost, but it's really rowdy," Steve said. I told him that one ghost does not make an "infestation" and specificity was probably an important part of working at a bank with people's money.
But. Steve said he'd leave me alone if I would get him the phone number of that occultist I've been hanging out with. Which-- "Hanging out"? How juvenile can you be, Steve?
Ugh, whatever. Point is, I definitely know a talented occultist, and while I didn't want to subject poor Carlos to Steve, this sounded like a great opportunity to remind Night Vale that Carlos Device is very much a resident of our town, and that shouting "Interloper" at him on the street really makes him anxious. We need to get past that, okay?
Just an aside, I know our friendly greeting for outsiders is a long-held tradition, but it makes Carlos very nervous. So if everyone could refrain from raising their voices at him, that'd be great.
Anyway, I was more surprised than anyone that Carlos agreed to help out with the ghost problem. According to Steve, Carlos secured the windows and doors with salt lines, then spoke to the ghost personally.
Carlos told the lingering spirit that as one of the dead, it was free from the shackles of capitalism, and thus didn't need to hang around banks anymore worrying about their bills. So informed of this freedom, the ghost burst into tears and faded from this world to the next.
I'm so proud of Carlos. I hope that's not condescending. I've lived in Night Vale all my life, and thus can't imagine the pressure involved with integrating into a new community and life. Seeing him becoming a real member of our town is inspiring. Or, at the very least, I find myself quite inspired.
Ahem. Now, some news from the Museum of Forbidden Technologies.
"This is my shout," Steve Carlsberg said, waving a magnanimous hand. "Pick your poison. Oh, that's just an expression. This place doesn't have poisons, but there's Arabella's Toxic Tonics down the road, if you--"
Carlos shook his head. "Jasmine tea, if they have it. Honey instead of sugar."
Night Vale having an entire Barista District had become a point of bemusement for Carlos. A disproportionate part of the economy seemed to revolve around coffee. He usually stuck to the Spiky Hammer, hoping that by becoming a repeat customer he would reduce the chance of being shouted at. The clientele seemed used to him enough to stop calling him "Interloper!"
This wasn't the Spiky Hammer. It was a Starbucks, which Carlos was surprised by. He'd assumed the Baristas had enough power in the town to pass some kind of Big Rico's style ordinance to ensure all Starbucks scouts were summarily removed from city limits upon entering town.
He picked the corner table again. Old habits.
Steve brought two mugs, actual white ceramic. "Here you go!" He had a voice that seemed locked to a jovial baseline, warm like sunlight cutting through the blinds too early.
As he tried his tea (good, floral, but not as floral as the one Cecil brought him that day when they watched the lightning), he peeked at Steve's aura.
It was pretty, actually. Green with shots of maroon that refused to meld together, a pleasant starburst to his inner eye.
"Nervous?" Carlos asked, both because he could tell from the aura and also to cover how nervous he himself was.
"Oh ho, well. Given the situation, I guess I am." He sat with his own drink, a blonde latte. "I'm gonna hear about this later! My brother-in-law is going to pitch a fit later, but I can handle that. I'm used to it." He smiled, but his eyes were sad and resigned.
"I'm sorry. Who's that, your brother-in-law?"
"You don't know?" Steve huffed out a laugh. "Oh, no, he wouldn't mention it if he could avoid it. Cecil. I'm married to Cecil's sister, Abby."
Carlos' brain underwent a crash similar to a pendulum chain snapping mid-ritual and rolling noisily onto the floor. "Cecil has family? Wait, that sounded awful."
"No, no. He's a radio professional, and he doesn't talk about that kind of thing on air. At least, until Janice starts sport season." Steve beamed with blatant and furious pride. "Then, he never stops. She's quite the athlete! Janice is his niece, by the way, my stepdaughter."
Carlos rested his head on his hand, two fingers pressing between his eyebrows. "I might be experiencing a paradigm shift. Give me a moment."
"I understand. He doesn't like to talk about it, but I know he cares. That might be the problem," Steve said, solemn even with that undercurrent of perpetual good humor. "Cecil cares so much, but is a little intense, you know?"
Oh, did Carlos know. "I have about twelve different questions, but I am trying to sort out which I want to ask first." He frowned into his mug. "Also what is even appropriate to ask. Hm. Why… don't you go first? You asked to meet up."
"Oh, h-okay!" He drummed his fingers excitedly on the table. "Well, when I was talkin' to Cecil, trying to get your contact info, he mentioned you were too busy to help because you've been doing very important esotericism with the stars."
"That's right, but only at night. Currently, I am free during daylight hours."
"That's what I said! And then he started shooting straw wrappers at me. Anyway, if you're studying the sky at night…" Steve leaned his big hands on the table, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "Do you see them? The things in the sky?"
"Could you be more specific?" There were many things in the Night Vale sky.
Steve grimaced and tried to lean in further. When he whispers, it's too quiet to be heard over the natural din of the coffee grinders and frothers.
"One moment." Carlos gestured for Steve to wait and to stop leaning, worried the little cafe table would topple if he wasn't careful. He had a better solution, though the fact he was doing more of these tactics still felt a little scandalous to Carlos. It was hard to get used to it.
Regardless, he took his blank coin from his pocket, and silently, efficiently bloodied it, taking care to prick a different finger this time; otherwise it'd hurt much worse.
Setting the coin on the table, he spun it, leaving it to dance in a small loop. From his bag, he took out a brass cup and set it over the coin, trapping it underneath.
The sound of the spinning deadened. So did the sound of the rest of the shop. "Okay, what about the sky?" Carlos asked.
Steve's eyes were wide and bright. "Did you… was that…"
The way Night Valeans, who themselves lived in such a deeply strange place, reacted to a little witchcraft was still really gratifying. If he wasn't careful, Carlos was going to get sloppy about keeping his magic quiet, just to see that kind of delight in people. "It's a dome of privacy for us, but it'll only last until the coin spins down. So hurry up."
"Whoa, that's so cool! Uh, but the-- the lines in the sky?" He pointed vaguely upward. "The arrows and circles, they hang over us all and no one seems to see them! They talk about the lights over the Arby's and the helicopters and the Glow Clod, but never the instructions and answers up there." Steve clasped his hands together like a man in prayer. "But you see things, right? Cecil mentions it on the show."
Lines, arrows, and circles. Carlos dabbed at his finger with a napkin, considering this carefully. "When do you see them? At certain times? On certain days?"
It was disheartening to watch hope snuffed out of someone's eyes. "No. No, they're always there," he said. "Even in the day, when the sun is high, I can see them. At night, they shine, they're so vivid. All the answers are up there. You can ask anything and turn your eyes to them, and the angles and curves just sort of unlock."
"Do the lines move as you move, is it like seeing through a-- a layer? That sounds like scrying, or--"
Steve was already shaking his head sadly. "No. Not like that." Gingerly, Steve picked up the flipped cup. The seal broke, and the muffle spell with it. His lips made a little 'o' before he snickered. "That is super cool."
"I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help. I'll keep an eye out for your lines. There is a chance you have some sort of innate aptitude, just like my own aptitudes, and if I just look properly…" Steve nodded along with Carlos' reassurances. He didn't look at all hopeful or convinced. "Sorry."
"I appreciate it. You seem like a really good person, Carlos," Steve said, smiling with well-earned laugh lines.
"I don't know about that," Carlos demurred. "If I can help, I'll help. Even if Cecil thinks I'm busy, you can ask me. You have my number; if you hear about anything I can possibly help with, let me know?"
"Are you going to stick around?" Steve asked with simple curiosity, as if that question were so simple. As if it hadn't been creeping up Carlos' spine like a scorpion, poised and ready to doom him.
As if Carlos wasn't wondering which way was 'doom' at all, if it was this place with it's dark glow cradling him as he slept or if it was anywhere but this place.
"That's not up to me," Carlos said, because he didn't have a better answer. "I'm a tool of my ancestor. I go where I'm told."
He whistled softly. "Wow. That sounds really serious!"
"It's fine. I've always been fine." He packed away his coin and cup. "Hey, would you mind if I texted you some questions periodically?"
The very idea seemed to excite Steve. "Yeah, anything you need! Least I can do after you handled that ghost! It was scaring our patrons." He looked at his wristwatch. "Speaking of, I gotta get back. And Cecil's show should be starting soon. I'd better listen, in case… well. He's gonna say something."
His sigh was indulgent, aligning with the same fond exasperation the entire city seemed to hold for their radio host, but also tired. Tired enough that simply hearing it gave Carlos sympathetic pangs.
They part ways there, Steve leaving to head into work.
Carlos lingered to finish his tea, worrying at his lip with a thumbnail. He couldn't help Steve with his mysterious lines yet. But maybe he could ease some of his troubles another way. While he sat there, Carlos took out his phone and texted Cecil, asking if he'd be up for assisting Carlos with some magic on Friday. And dinner.
That, Carlos was certain, would distract Cecil for now.
ngl i intended The Fucc in this chapter but it didn't fit, so next time. NEXT TIME. magic and bang.
also i love steve carlsberg, okay. he's great. what a good person.
i also just really like writing magic. how a person does magic, the methods they use, is my favorite thing to figure out about someone. carlos has several utilitarian tools he can do a lot of things with. maybe we'll see more as he settles in even more in his new home.
also carlos is full of shit, patron tarot cards are fun. in this, cecil is almost certainly the moon, shared with night vale itself. carlos is flirting with the hanged man given his work, but obviously has strong shades of the hermit with his studiousness and isolation and seeking arcane paths to truth.
look i own like 7 decks, don't judge me
Chapter 6: The Moon
/cranks that fic rating up to E
ETA, 6/30/19: all chapter revamps now complete, culminating with this one. tense change, clean up, no major changes or additional scenes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was Friday night, and Pizza Palace was on fire.
Cecil braced his hand on the passenger seat to peer at the conflagration. It was a noisy fire, with chunky metal sounds as pieces of the building crumbled under the weight of the destruction.
"Well," Cecil said dryly. "That's a news story for Monday."
"That was fast. They've only been open two weeks." Carlos sighed and rested his head back. "Now what?"
Cecil settled back in his seat and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. "I can cook again? Then we can just adjourn to the roof when we're done."
"You don't have to do that."
"I don't mind. Having someone to cook for is a nice change. It's always easier to put in effort when someone else is there." He offered a reassuring smile, and pointed the car back towards the other side of town.
The plan had been to go out to the new pizza restaurant before digging into some magic work. Cecil had mentioned they should try to get to Pizza Palace as soon as possible, quite certain it would disappear very swiftly and suddenly from Night Vale. Now, they were back to just having Big Rico's apparently.
In the backseat of the car was Carlos' bag, stuffed to the brim, as well as the case holding his sextant. Rather than another fruitless night spent fighting with sand and dirt outside of town, Cecil had suggested the roof access of his apartment building. Working on a flat surface sounded much easier than what Carlos had been doing.
Back at the Datura Dreams apartments, Cecil hopped out of the car as soon as the engine stopped running, picking up Carlos' heavy carrying case.
"Hey," Carlos managed, reaching back to grab his satchel.
It was snapped up and away. "Got it! Come on."
Cecil was a little ridiculous, Carlos decided, and performed hospitality as if it were an Olympic event.
The apartment was on the top floor, and Cecil's door had a bloodstone set into it instead of a lock. He swiped the side of his hand against an abrasive pad on the doorframe then against the stone, and the door swung open.
Cecil set Carlos' things down, shaking out his hand. "Make yourself at home. I'm going to see what I have."
First thing upon enter Cecil's home: Carlos took off his shoes, seeing the mat with Cecil's many colorful shoes by the door.
Second thing: Carlos took stock. A tertiary ley line, humming friendly under them. A few other things that hum against Carlos' senses, like the bloodstone altar, the record player, and things that radiate old affection and homey feelings.
There was also an annoying buzz of surveillance devices.
Narrowing his eyes, Carlos stepped back into the archway that led to Cecil's kitchen. "Could I get a glass of water?"
Cecil gestured to a cabinet. "Of course. I have wine too? And armagnac and aperol and amaretto and akvavit and absinthe."
"Special on A-names?"
"Forty percent off on a no-tax day. I mean, honestly. "
"I'll start with water," Carlos said, taking a stemmed glass and some water from the tap.
Back in the living room, Carlos wet a finger in the water and traced the rim of the glass until it started to ring out.
"What's that noise?" Cecil asked, and Carlos belatedly noticed a cut out in the wall between the kitchen and living room.
"What noise?" Carlos asked, still ringing the glass.
"Like someone ringing a glass."
"Oh, I'm ringing a glass. Hang on a sec." It was a small area, so he didn't need much power. Once it seemed enough, he flicked the glass with a nail, the sound loud.
The lights all flickered. When Carlos checked again, the buzzing was gone. "Great. Thanks." He drained the glass and placed it on the shelf of the cut out, then settled down on Cecil's sofa.
"Are you allergic to anything?"
"Metal shavings," Carlos said, not because he was, but it was a common Night Valean seasoning and he just had not gone that native yet. Not that he was going native. Native Night Valeans probably didn't hex recording equipment.
"Aw, but they're so crunchy. Okay."
The sound of cooking filled the room. Carlos looked around. There were overlapping rugs on the floor that didn't remotely match anything else in the house, and about twice as many throw pillows on the sofa as needed, one of which was transparently a sleeping pillow. Through the windows, Night Vale glowed with electric light and the otherworldly colors that hung in the sky above.
There were four crates of vinyl records, and Carlos invited himself to investigate. He'd always wondered if Cecil chose the Weather or if the Weather chose him. Both were possible, to Carlos' estimation.
Most of what Carlos gravitated towards is not what he would call date music, so he gingerly slid Armchair Apocrypha out of its sleeve and set it on the player.
Music helped, but the anxiousness still got in Carlos' fingers. He grabbed his bag from the hallway, sneaking a glance at Cecil's back as he worked a pan, one hand knuckled on his hip.
If Carlos were bolder, he would've step inside and maybe leaned back on the kitchen counter and said something flirtatious.
Instead, he sat back on the sofa and opened his heartwood box, pulling out number 78 and examining his notes.
It was nice, in its own way. The soft violin music and the domestic sound of cooking bracketed him in like a blanket draped over his shoulders. Also, Cecil had the license for writing utensils, and Carlos finally felt safe breaking out a pen. Journal open in his lap, he reviewed the constellations from the previous nights and jotted down his predictions for tonight.
He just had to catch Virgo. Which didn't belong in this hemisphere, but: Night Vale.
He head was propped up on his hand when Cecil appeared with two bowls. Mind filled with esoteric equations, Carlos was slow to notice him, but eventually the absence of kitchen noises filtered into his awareness.
He blinked, looking up.
For a moment, Cecil simply stood there, staring at Carlos with his lips slightly parted.
"Oh," Carlos said, sitting up and putting his feet back on the floor. "I was thinking about constellations, sorry."
There was a beat where Cecil kept staring before he seemed to snap out of his reverie. "Right, of course. Sorry, I was thinking… not about constellations." He handed off a bowl to Carlos, then dropped down to sit on the other side of the sofa.
Dinner was stir fry, with what smelled like fresh ginger. Fast, but good and hot enough Carlos realize he'd not eaten since breakfast.
While they ate, Cecil delicately picked up the prophecy card from Carlos' knee and read it.
"I have theories," Carlos said between bites. "There's Markarian's Eyes that're in the Virgo constellation. Just a matter of catching it."
"Capital letter See," Cecil noted.
"Yeah, I assume something new will appear? We'll see, so to speak."
"No swooning this time?" There was a faint smile on his face.
"That seems to be some inescapable part of our history, now."
"It left quite an impression. I didn't mind." He placed the card on the coffee table, and picked up a glass of wine. It was pink, which Carlos thought didn't fit with the meal, but Cecil took what seemed to be a fortifying gulp. "Didn't mind the part where I got to catch you."
"Oh. Good." Blood rushed to Carlos' face. "I mean, I missed that part, what with the, uh, the aswooning." Goddammit, Agnes, he thought viciously.
"Maybe next time," Cecil said, then grimaces with his whole face. "Or, god, nevermind." He swallowed more wine and put the glass purposefully aside. "Did you know I talk for a living? I was ordained by prophecy to do so? Hard to tell, I'm sure."
Carlos laughed, covering his mouth. "Are you nervous?"
"Oh, incredibly. How kind of you to take notice."
"Stop it. It's fine. You're helpful. Like, preternaturally so, and I'm really grateful. I didn't expect someone like you when I came to this place. Not that I anticipated much about Night Vale. I'm a pretty terrible seer, I guess."
"Is that what you… like? Helpfulness?" He seemed at once keen and also in dramatic pain at his own words. He half-reached for his glass again before visibly stopping himself, rubbing his palm on his pants.
In a fit of pique, Carlos grabbed his glass, sparing a thought to indirect kisses before he drained it. It was sweet, and not tannin-y enough for the meal, and it was also not enough to amount to any kind of liquid courage.
"Wow," Cecil said. "Do you want a glass?"
"I like many things. I'm partial to the factual reality that you can pick me up and carry me, and I enjoy how your eyes look like purple eclipses. And your enthusiasm for my work makes it feel remarkable and special, even though I've been doing it my whole life. You make me feel remarkable when I'm not." He held out the glass. "I would love more, but I shouldn't do witchcraft while under the influence."
"After, then, to celebrate catching Virgo. Should I show you the rooftop?"
The bowls went in the sink to soak with the pan, and Carlos quickly picked up his carry case before Cecil could avail himself. He didn't reach his bag in time, though, and the grin Cecil gave him as he slung it over his shoulder was unfairly attractive.
The rooftop access was one flight of stairs upward, and Cecil had a key for the door.
Outside, the desert had gone chilly again, and Carlos remembered how he was going to buy gloves. It was just about the fourth time he'd remembered how much he needs gloves.
The roof was quiet, a sunken box on top of the building. There were rows of planters, each overflowing with flowers and bushes. A few were night blooming, and Carlos wandered over to examine them.
"Oh, careful. Poison garden. Required by all residential zoned buildings in South Night Vale." Cecil followed close on Carlos' heels.
"These are beautiful. Hey, you have actual datura."
"Among other things. There's a clear spot over here."
"Are you allowed to harvest from here?"
"With the proper permits or being a resident." Cecil took hold of Carlos' elbow and drew him away.
"You're a resident."
Carlos was fairly sure he could revive this topic later and perhaps get some access to fresh spell components, but for now, he dropped it. Regardless, the rows of plants and flowers made the concrete roof a pleasant place to stargaze.
There was a moon again, a thin sliver. Not really enough for illumination. Carlos shook his phone, turning on the flashlight and handing it to Cecil to hold. "Let me set this up."
Cecil shone the light over Carlos as he unpacked his sextant, unlocking the legs and standing it up. "And that is… a compass and telescope?"
"Sextant," Carlos explained shortly, kneeling by it to lower it to the height he needed. Just tall enough he could operate it while sitting. "With a few bonuses. It's a custom creation from my great-great-great uncle, I think." He tightened the tripod into place with a brass knob. "The Device family is good at… well."
"It's a very cute family name."
"I suppose. Don't know if I like it, but it's apt at least." He reached out, gesturing for his bag. "We are instruments of fate's execution."
Cecil sank down to sit on the other side of the sextant, placing the bag between them. "That's a grim way of thinking about it."
Retrieving his charts, Carlos sorted through until he found the Virgo constellation, and laid it down by his hip. "It's practical. You've seen what drives my life. That's only about 800 prophecies. The first volume was thousands . I lucked out."
"Is that really how you feel about it?" Cecil handed Carlos his journal without being asked. "That it drives your life, and being an instrument?"
"Well, of course." He wrinkled his nose at the idea, which seemed very clear and present to him. "My name is practically nominative determinism. And you've seen how nice and accurate it all is." Since his past run-ins with the Secret Police, Carlos had learned to be careful. His jacket was modified to have dozens of hidden pen sleeves. Reaching inside, he slipped a pen loose.
"I have, is the thing. I didn't read them all, but I did read…" He reached into the bag and frowns. "Oh, you left the box."
"Yeah, it's still downstairs. Why?"
"It's only that some of them, they seemed more… perhaps considerate or peaceable than you tend to characterize them. I wrote down a few in my phone, but I meant…" He trailed off, pulling out his phone and glaring at it while still shining Carlos' as a light.
Dual-wielding phones was still, so Carlos took his and performed his magelight trick again, setting up a spinning coin lamp in the air nearby. "There. And I really don't know what you mean."
Cecil inhaled through his nose, lips pursed. "Would it be out of line to ask for that handy snake app you have, so I can explain?"
"Python," Carlos corrected automatically, frowning. "I… It's never been used by a non-Device device, but." He bit his lip, thinking. "But that seems sensible. Agnes has already called on you with the prophecies. I think my hesitation is not in sharing the app, but in what that will mean for you, Cecil."
"I would be able to help. To be helpful."
"You would also be roped into her bullshit," he muttered, aligning the sextant and taking a peek through the eyepiece.
"This is what I mean. I feel like she might be encouraging us to work together, and that is perfectly okay with me, right? But it's not being roped into her bullshit, it's being roped into-- into you. And I don't mind that at all."
"Oh. Um." The scope was out of focus, and Carlos fiddled with it, fingers slipping on the dial. "Um. That sounds. Okay." Swallowing thickly, he picked up his phone. "I'll send you the .apk, do you know how to use one?"
"I do. Thank you for trusting me."
"The app is locked to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. The password is 'aubergine.' Can you pull up prophecy 78?"
It was quiet but for the distant roll of intermittent cars down the road around the building and even more distant helicopters and Cecil murmuring "G-I-N-E, right?" as Carlos worked.
He rest his fingers lightly on the brass and peered through the eyepiece. It was clearer now, improved by his fussing. There were, at least, stars to be seen now.
Cecil cleared his throat, and the casual lilt in his tone, unique to him in private settings and moments, took a backseat to his richer radio voice. "'78. Where eyes meet twain the Spheres, lay thy heade neath and See.' Proper noun See."
Carlos hummed an affirmative as he adjusted and peered through again.
"And you believe this means you need to find a specific part of the Virgo constellation and then use your inner eye on it, presumably with the reward of vital insight."
Lifting his head, Carlos peered at Cecil instead. "Hm. Why does it sound like that when you say it?"
"Sound like what? Kind of a reach?"
"There aren't a ton of eye-related star things," Carlos said, a cool defensiveness eeking into his voice even as his cheeks flushed. "These I'm looking for are the Eyes Galaxies."
"Would Agnes have known that?" Cecil asked, words irritatingly gentle. "When were the galaxies discovered and named?"
"That doesn't mean anything; she predicted the rise of Apple, it's why my family is so rich."
"Why would she not just say Virgo? That seems to fit in the tenor of her writing."
Carlos shoved his eye back against the scope and winced at how his glasses tnk'ed against it. "I don't know what you're implying. What does it matter when they were discovered? Isn't NASA just another conspiracy to you?"
"Oooh," Cecil absolutely crooned, and Carlos looked at him nervously. "Carlos. That was mean. My position is much more complicated than that." Weirdly, his eyes seemed even brighter than usual, a strange madcap delight curving his lips.
Breathing deep, Carlos examined the sky. And he had no idea what sky it was, what set of stars had been slotted into place for him this time. Focusing was difficult under these conditions.
"Listen," Carlos said, hating how his voice had gone tight and rose an embarrassing octave. "Spheres, that means celestial and earthly, so we're talking about something above the ground. There has to be a significant event to prompt me to lay my head down, and to See something that will impart wisdom."
"Couldn't be simpler," Cecil agreed, playful and facetious. He dragged his fingers over his phone, intent on the screen, the light catching on the turquoise polish of his nails. "Let's see , where was it… This app is really nice, by the by. Ah!" He cleared his throat. "Prophecy 299. He is Not that Which He Says He Is--'"
"No, that's-- that's from Volume One, it's 1002," Carlos said, frowning deeply.
Cecil lifted an eyebrow in return, and continued in the same tone. "'Fey man, do repair his falsehoods with thy own Tongue.'" The corner of his mouth lifted. "I'm not sure how I feel about the appellation, but given I knew it was addressing me, I can't complain terribly."
Carlos silently reached for the phone. When Cecil passed it to him, he stared at the screen, at the prophecy written plain as day.
His heart began to beat hard. "I, um. I don't." His words were congested, bumping into each other as he tried to put them in the right order. He always prided himself on the veracity of his speech, but now he didn't know what to say, let alone how to say it.
The screen went dark from inactivity, and Carlos finally met Cecil's eyes, finding him patiently waiting.
Eyes meet. Oh, fuck. Obviously it wasn't an obscure part of the constellation Virgo, what kind of idiot was he?
"'Tongue' is a really interesting word," Cecil said in a vaguely instructive tone, as if reading from one of his amusingly ridiculous scripts of alleged science facts. "Context is always important, but I think especially now. Just reading the prophecy, I would have assumed she meant 'tongue' to mean one's mother tongue, a euphemism for language. But you and I both speak this tongue," and he really had to stop saying that word, the heat in Carlos' face was going to kill him, "though we have access to different lexicons. I speak radio and the secrets of my city. You speak esotericism and mysticism. Still, a shared language. We understand each other well enough, don't we?"
Carlos answered with a noise that was a cousin to a squeak. The soft touch of Cecil's palm against his jaw blew his thoughts out like a candle wick. To their sides, the faceless coin stopped spinning and fell musically to the concrete as Carlos' concentration utterly snapped.
"Again, the where and when is important." He was still speaking radio and his thumb pressed very deliberately under Carlos' lower lip. "Reading the card in your car lacks the context of being here on this dark rooftop with you. Given that extra bit of understanding, I think the 'tongue' in question is something a good deal more literal and less euphemistic. Though, I guess it makes the entire prophecy more euphemistic in turn? Language is interesting like that."
Parting his lips more just made Cecil's thumb press in firmer. A rush of blood hung there suspended in that point of contact, like feasibly he could remain there forever if Cecil just continued to hold him so.
It was not to be. Cecil leaned in and worked his other hand into Carlos' hair, along the back of his skull, and brought their mouths together. Glasses clicked together, and Carlos shakily slid his off to shove in his jacket pocket. Then his hands were free to fist tight in Cecil's shirt, holding on for dear life as Cecil turned Carlos head and delved his tongue in.
He was pushy and confident in a way that surprised Carlos. Long since, he'd grown used to Cecil swinging rapidly between smooth romantic gestures and deep embarrassment at his own missteps. It was sweet, even.
Cecil methodically exploring Carlos' mouth with singeminded determination made Carlos' mind skip like an imperfect record. He didn't know how to reconcile this with the man he'd become familiar with over the past few months.
He had an utter lack of grip on the situation, and so compensated by twining his fingers in Cecil's clothes, pulling, trying to get Cecil in closer first. When that didn't work, he got up on his knees instead, and moved to kneel over Cecil's lap.
His hip bumped the sextant, and the kiss was cancelled as Carlos yelped and flailed to grab it as it teetered on two legs. Cecil gasped and grabbed the heavy top. Together, they wrestled it back onto its spindly legs.
"That's really expensive and been in my family for generations, sorry sorry!" Carlos babbled.
"No, no, obviously, right!" Cecil let go of the sextant as soon as it was secure, electing to pat Carlos' hips soothingly. "Let's not break the heirlooms."
"Right," Carlos agreed, and let out a long, loud breath as the sextant miraculously didn't break on the cement. "Uh, can we.." He had a leg between Cecil's, balanced over him. This way, he was looking down at Cecil, and that had a smoldering appeal to it, but. "The-- the roof is nice, but can we…"
Cecil stroked a hand down Carlos' spine. The urge to bend back into his touch was hard to ignore. "Want to go back inside?"
He nodded. "Seems safer. That's also likely what 'lay thy head neath' means, physically moving to a lower altitude."
"Oh, you don't say," Cecil said, a touch sarcastic.
They put the sextant back into its case and shoved Carlos' charts and notes unceremoniously back into his bag. Their phones nearly got left out to cook on the roof in the sun, but Carlos noticed them in time to pocket them.
Carlos put his glasses back on, hurrying along. Cecil was waiting, holding the door open for him, which still felt strange and nice.
"Hey," Carlos said softly in the stairwell. "Did you just extemporize all that? The things you said?"
"I certainly didn't prepare a statement. " A flash of a grin took over Cecil's face. "Why, was it good?"
"It was enthralling. In the, well, the figurative sense, not literally speaking."
"Sometimes, and I do mean very occasionally, I live up to my title." He opened the way back into the apartment, and locked up behind.
Carlos placed his bag on the coat hook by the door. It was an appropriate place to hang his jacket too. He stroked his hands down its lapels, considering. He'd rarely been without it and its protections, subtle sigils worked into the stitching acting as the metaphysical equivalent of a kevlar vest.
The carrying case set down by the door, by the shoe mat, and Cecil's eyes settled on Carlos and his fidgeting. "Do you want to… leave that on? We really can just have wine and relax."
"No," Carlos said quickly. "No, that's not what I want. Just feels strange to have this sort of ordained. I'm navigating the emotion at the moment." He frowned down at the buttons on his sleeve, then forced himself to look at Cecil. Meeting his eyes was difficult at times, but he hoped with repetition, he could get better at it.
"Is this more being helpful?"
"No. Not even a little." He stepped in close and put his hands on Carlos' shoulders, slipping smoothly under his jacket. His thumbs pressed against collarbone, making Carlos' eyes lid. Warm pressure on his skin was so good, he felt tipsy from it. "I… like you very much. To such a degree the word isn't really adequate, but I think the right term might be unnerving, and I'm trying to tiptoe around it."
"Oh?" Shoulders sloping down, Carlos let Cecil run his hands down his arms, slipping his jacket off.
Cecil caught it, of course. Snagged it before it fell and pulled it away, his eyes not moving from Carlos. "From the moment I saw you, honestly." He placed the jacket on a hook neatly, then touched Carlos's hair at the temple, where it was prematurely silver. He was so very careful. "It was very much a, hm, a 'like at first sight' situation."
The rush that poured into his chest was complicated in a way Carlos didn't feel equipped to dismantle. Anxiety at the very idea, because what would Cecil have even seen in that moment that elicited such a strong connection? It didn't make sense.
But it also felt magical, in the sense of the inexplicable and unknown, not the mundane arcana of his life.
It was transient and wouldn't last because Carlos wasn't the kind of person someone stayed in-- in 'like' with that way.
But on the other hand, Cecil eased further into Carlos' space, moving like Carlos might bolt like a rabbit at any sudden movement. And there was nothing wrong with enjoying someone who was caring and kind and strange and had the most beautiful eyes Carlos had ever seen.
So, Carlos asked, "Bed?" before Cecil could kiss him again, certain they'd just get caught up in the hallway. And it wasn't the best place.
Cecil beamed, faster than he could catch and rein in. "Yes. Yes, bed, great."
And rather than leading Carlos away, Cecil bent to catch Carlos' leg and lift it.
"Hey! I can walk," Carlos protested automatically, even as he grabbed Cecil's shoulders.
"I remember you saying something about this."
"I did!" He laughed, and helped with the carry, hopping off his other foot. His protest was cursory, a social nicety that Carlos fulfilled to be done with. "Is this all right?"
Cecil's hands splayed wide where they held Carlos' thighs. It was unreasonably comfortable to drape his arms around Cecil's shoulders. With the closer proximity, Cecil could kiss his neck, and did.
Thus, Carlos didn't notice their moving until Cecil mumbled, "Door, get the door," just as Carlos' back was pressed against the wall.
There was indeed a door; he reached down to open it and push it ajar enough for Cecil to bring them through.
The bedroom was dark, and Carlos learned that Cecil's eyes glowed very faintly. His theories evolved as he stroked the flushed skin under one violet eye. Theories he'd come back to later.
"Dropping you," he was warned before Cecil dropped him back onto the bed, enough of a fall he bounced slightly.
As he sat up, Cecil touched him. Lightly at first, then with rapidly increasing boldness. So much so, he removed Carlos' glasses to set aside, pressed his fingertips into Carlos' temples, carded one hand into Carlos' thick wind-tousled hair, held Carlos' neck with his other hand.
He touched the adam's apple there, and Carlos let out a gasp, staring up at Cecil.
"Perfect, beautiful, honey-hearted man," Cecil murmured, kissing Carlos' ear, lips parted as they dragged over Carlos' jaw, urging his head to tip to the side. "How did I get you in my bed?"
"Cecil," Carlos sighed sweetly, fingers clenching against the bed, eyes shutting. It was easy to get caught up in how pleasant a soft touch and warm breath felt on sensitive skin.
The temptation to let this unfold at Cecil's speed and direction was strong, but Carlos was less patient. He pulled at Cecil's shirt, a colorful wrap with a knot over his hip. Plucking the knot loose, Carlos tried to tug it off.
"Okay, okay," Cecil said tersely, and helped shrug it to the floor. There was ink underneath, but with the darkness and his lack of glasses, Carlos couldn't decipher any of the shapes. Still, they were good to touch, and Carlos had waited a long time to actually feel up those muscles he'd been perving on for weeks now.
Point to counterpoint, Cecil pulled Carlos' pants undone and dragged them down, his fingers hooked to catch the hem of his boxers too. His own bare skin was enough of a shock for Carlos to let out a wordless noise, gripping the maroon bedsheets to not get dragged off himself. "Cecil, fuck--" His surprised vulgarity was swallowed in a messy kiss as he fell back onto the bed.
He felt like a barely controlled fire threatening to spread, trying to find the right place clutch at all the new skin he was allowed to touch.
Which could have been enough, because Cecil had incredibly nice arms, but Carlos still went through the trouble of getting him the rest of the way to naked.
It was hard to convey intention without breaking the kiss, but thankfully Cecil was extremely clever and caught on, helping shove his pants off.
Fingers lacing, Cecil pressed Carlos' hands on the bed over his head, in the same motion climbing up with his leg right under Carlos' dick.
Carlos groaned, tugging a question against Cecil's grip. His back arched, mindlessly grinding against Cecil's leg and definitely spreading fire, the hot flush spreading through his chest and up his neck. "Cecil, Ceec, god."
Cecil held Carlos' hands long enough to make a point, a point that made Carlos pant with desires he hadn't known lived in him before this precise moment. He licked his lips, ready to inform Cecil that, hey, if he wanted to hold Carlos down and fuck him, he'd be willing to entertain the notion.
Instead, Cecil let go, stroking along the soft skin of his inner arms. And if Carlos decided to lay like that, arms out and unresisting, that was fine. It had to be or he was going to cry.
There was at last a moment of stillness, with Cecil bent over Carlos and staring at him with something akin to wonder in his eyes. One finger migrated around, touching various points on his body in some random, meandering order. Carlos' fingers clenched around nothing, and he heaved a breath.
"What can I do?" Cecil asked in a hushed tone.
As if it weren't obvious. "Anything, whatever you want." Carlos was whining a little.
"For you, I mean."
"Anything you want, just do it." He was whining a lot.
"We could be here days with an open invitation like that," Cecil murmured, and leaned over Carlos, tapping his fingers idly against Carlos' chest, right over his heart. "The sheer multitude of debaucheries I would come up with doesn't bear thinking of. I'd be late to work come Monday."
His words were pretty, but Carlos was already aching. Bracing himself, he sat up, face close to Cecil's. "Pick one."
Cecil grinned like a falling knife. "You are incredibly compelling when you're a little desperate. Okay, up, put your hands on the headboard."
Hands directed Carlos as he moved, his knees pulling at the sheets, Cecil gripping his wrists to set them on the arch of the headboard. Through his shirt, he could feel Cecil flush to his back, feel the way he breathed, how his weight felt on Carlos. He could also feel the way his erection tented the front of his shirt.
In no apparent rush, Cecil nuzzled Carlos' neck, wrapping around him in a tight hug. The air pushed Carlos' lungs came out a groan, and he tried to press back against Cecil, a subtle hint.
"I do enjoy this. Taking care of you." Cecil backed away enough to retrieve a utilitarian bottle with a pump from the bedside drawer. "You don't seem to pay very much attention to yourself, which is a tragedy given how beautiful you are."
Carlos felt a little like he'd been punched. "No," he mumbled, pressing his face into his sleeve.
"I wasn't asking for your opinion, Carlos." It wasn't quite his radio voice, but the authoritative steel in his words stuck into Carlos, right between his ribs. "You're wonderful at detail work, the way you seek out the threads in the world and pull on them. But you don't know how lovely it is. How lovely you are."
The words were an athame pushing closer and closer to Carlos' heart. "Cecil, I can't," he moaned, tensing and starting to shudder.
"Shush, all right. Another time." And he mercifully cupped Carlos' cock, palm slick, and strokes firm. The sudden intensity of physical sensation was easier to handle than kindness.
Carlos hadn't had any hand but his own for a long, long time. He was bad at flings and trusting anyone to get in so close. Now, just a hand, and he was soon rocking his hips along with each stroke, open-mouthed and moaning. How? Their hands were broadly the same, outside Cecil's longer fingers and his soft skin, how did it feel so profoundly different?
His arms buckled, sinking down against the bed. Cecil stopped, and with an irrational flash, he thought about grabbing him and putting his hand back where it was.
"Easy, down, down," Cecil said, sounding winded. One of his hands was slick and warm as he coaxed Carlos down onto his elbows.
"Cecil, please," he pleaded when it took too long. To hell with gracious treatment, he was desperate.
"I know, Carlos." He pet Carlos' back. "Will you do something for me?"
"Anything," Carlos reiterated. "Just don't leave me like this."
Hushing Carlos again, Cecil fit himself against the back of Carlos' thighs, their hips pressed together. A hand returned to Carlos' dick, thumb rubbing circles over the head.
He also directed Carlos' hips with a hand, canting them, and worked his slicked cock between Carlos' legs, exhaling loudly.
This, Carlos could do. Shifting his knees together, pressing his thighs closer together made Cecil gratifying curse, voice shaking. Cecil's hand fisted in the back of Carlos' shirt, a place to hold as he pushed against slick skin.
Then, it was practically a race, Carlos fucking Cecil's fist as Cecil moved in tandem. They were a good team, Carlos thought deliriously as the friction and sensation of being so thoroughly handled drove him out of his mind. Out of bed, Cecil was an eager assistant and companion. In bed, Carlos thought they'd traded off equitably.
Distantly, Carlos was pretty sure his face was stuck in a dumbstruck expression, and it was a relief to be facing the mattress. He couldn't control it, couldn't work up enough conscious thought to look less ridiculous as his entire body kept strumming with tension, teetering on climax. Cecil squeezed him hard, almost too hard, and Carlos let out a keen as he came, pulses jerking out of him.
He panted against the mattress, shaking to his bones, every breath coming out a little strained moan. While he laid there, Cecil kept working his dick against Carlos, firm heat stroking against skin that felt so sensitive he was vibrating.
Carlos grunt, grasping the bed as everything tipped over into too much. His hips twisted away.
Cecil immediately stopped and drew back. For one blinding second, Carlos felt bad, stinging as he wished he'd just held out a moment longer.
But in significantly less than a moment, Cecil was coming across Carlos' back, the wet slide of his own hand loud even over his panting.
So, that worked out pretty well. Carlos felt quite accomplished, laying awkwardly against the head of the bed with Cecil idly petting his hips.
"Good," Cecil said, sounding kind of wrecked, which was very good for Carlos. "Good, good Carlos, very good."
"Thanks," Carlos said sardonically, though he thoroughly agreed with the sentiment. Still, he couldn't help snickering.
"Welcome." Cecil tapped his hip, too light to be a slap. "Legs. Going out. Lets."
Slumping onto his side, Cecil curled on the bed, chest moving with each deep breath. He looked very inviting to lay with, languid and open.
But before that, Carlos had to peel off his shirt. Carefully. He threw it on the floor. "I will need to borrow another one," he remarked calmly.
"Sorry," Cecil murmured, smiling up at Carlos. His eyes were bright, literally, a microcosm of everything about this place in velvet purple hues.
Carlos could probably look at him forever, but he was also exhausted and post-coital. Moving gingerly, he joined Cecil, laying down to face him. "Hi."
"Hello, there," Cecil fairly purred. "You're staying, right? Please stay here."
A sudden tightness in his throat made speaking impossible, so Carlos nodded. The clear adoration staring him down was causing several potent emotions to swell like balloons in his chest, none of which he had the wherewithal to deal with right now.
Cecil stroked his hair. Carlos shut his eyes, inhaling deeply the taste of shared heat and watermelon liqueur.
After a few minutes, there was weary shifting around, cleaning up and actually pulling up the sheets. They settled into the same positions again, facing each other.
Soon, there would be sleep.
Oh, but before that, Carlos' eyes slammed back open like a thrown door. "Shit. Oh, goddammit." He slapped a hand over his face and groaned.
"What? Are you okay? What, what is it?" Cecil sounded nearly asleep, simultaneously incoherent and frantic.
"I forgot to do the thing! To-- to See, to open my inner eye!" Carlos explained. "Why am I so bad at this?"
Maybe it was presumptuous, but he expected something from that. A supportive remark or a tired quip. When Cecil didn't say anything, Carlos lowered his hand from his face and looked.
Cecil had rolled to press his face into his pillow, his shoulders shaking.
"Hey," Carlos said with feeling, and pushed him.
He tipped back onto his side. He was laughing, face flushed. "Carlos, I thought something was wrong! Don't do that!"
"Well!" Carlos waved his hand, trying to encompass everything about the situation. "It is, I mean, I was supposed to! And I got distracted."
"You have," Cecil said slow and intent, "no idea how flattering that is to hear. To have done so well in bed, the professional descendant forgot about his prophecy. That's wonderful, thank you. Another reason to lo-- like you."
His ears burned. Carlos tried to glare through his embarrassment.
"Relaaax." Cecil scooted closer, until he could rest his forehead against Carlos', until his arm fit around Carlos' waist. "In the morning, we can try again. Work together and make a concerted effort." He kissed Carlos' furrowed brow. "Now, sleep."
Carlos let out a breath, shutting his eyes. That sounded like a very good plan.
me, halfway through this chapter: oh shit, i'm writing service top cecil, aren't I
this was deliriously fun to write, ngl
Chapter 7: his ears pricked with a knife
SUP THIS IS AN IMPORTANT HEADS UP: If you have not read the fic since the last update, I took a few days to fully rewrite the fic thus far. I started this just as a fun way to keep my writing wheels turning, but recently found that I actually really like the story and have a Point in mind for it.
So I went back, and I cleaned up the entire story. Fixed continuity errors, added things, expanded scenes, unpacked particularly knotted passages, and set the entire story to past tense instead of present tense. I would say that it's worth a re-read but the plot itself is the same. Most of my editing was technical clean up and enhancing the theme.
Carlos tended to be a very heavy sleeper, and this seemed to hold true even when he was in someone else's bed. He didn't have a ton of experience in the matter, so this was new information.
Since he'd moved into the bungalow, the ley line humming under his house had granted him plenty of peaceful nights, not so much as a single nightmare touching the edge of his unconsciousness. Being born with an aptitude for the arcane almost always came with an unfortunate side effect, a penchant for dark visions and invasions into the sleeping mind. It was just the kind of thing a witch learned to live with.
Then, Night Vale, and its soft comforting energy that seemed to fill the still waters of Carlos' mind, everything dark like soft cloth tied around the eyes. He dreamed of indistinct voices and coiling shapes, but it was like white noise, drawing him further under more than anything.
Cecil's apartment wasn't located over such a nexus, but it did have
himself, who diffused the same dark light.
So, Carlos only woke up come morning, when Cecil moved. This woke him because Cecil had wound up spooning Carlos to his chest at some point in the night, and finally extricating himself was impossible without nudging Carlos awake.
"Go back to sleep," Cecil said, stroking Carlos' hair.
"'kay." He was very comfortable and happy to doze off again.
Some indeterminate time later, lost to meandering laziness, Carlos rolled onto his back and shivered at the cool sheets against his spine. Cecil kept his apartment just a little too cold, and Carlos found the effect stark. Sleeping next to another person, it was perfect, but alone the chill was a little too much given the lack of comforter on the bed.
He could hear music, and smell something hot cooking. It was time to get up, clearly.
His clothes, which had been abandoned on the floor, were missing now. The air was definitely too cold for bare skin, so Carlos opened the closet door to look for something. Grey and magenta striped pajama pants and a soft faded blue tee. Easy, done. Maybe it was presumptuous to just steal Cecil's clothes without asking, but Cecil had presumably stolen Carlos' without asking, so that balanced out.
He didn't have a lot of experience in morning afters, and was winging it. His fingers itched for something he could use to telegraph the immediate future, to see what his Lenormand deck said about this, but he'd not brought it. Somehow he didn't foresee his own morning-after-having-sex-and-staying-the-night anxiousness, which was such an obvious oversight in retrospect.
Easing out of the bedroom, Carlos looked around. The curtains were open, and late morning light filled the apartment. A record was spinning on the player, and Carlos recognized "Soft Shock" by its distinctive synth-y percussives.
Cecil was in the kitchen, whisking a bowl, standing barefoot in a robe that was fetchingly short on his legs. When Carlos tapped his knuckles on the entryway, he looked up, and grinned. "Good morning. Or is it afternoon?"
Carlos winced. "I work late nights, sorry."
"You're fine, Carlos. I couldn't bear waking you up." He took a pan off a hook, spun it once, and set it on the stove. "Though if you slept much longer, I might've beared it."
"I've been sleeping really hard since I moved to Night Vale." He walked into the kitchen and leaned on the counter. "What are you making?"
"Pancakes. Cliche, I know, but there's blueberry compote with it." He reached for a ladle, then leaned further until he could kiss Carlos' temple. "And I figure if we're going to have sex again, we should eat beforehand. I won't want to do any post-coital cooking, I get really lazy."
"Oh god." Carlos' ear were burning. "Th--that makes sense, yeah."
"That's still the plan, I assume?"
"Yes? Yes, if you want to."
Cecil looked at Carlos like he had two heads. Or, that wasn't Night Vale-weird. Regardless, it was an expression of confused offense. "I want to. But lets eat first."
The pancakes were lemony, and the compote was hot and sticky and almost too-sweet. Cecil bopped his head along with "Dull Life" as it played from the living room, shifting from foot to foot in restrained tribute to the beat. Carlos wondered if he liked to dance.
"You're a really good cook," Carlos murmured between bites.
"Mm, thanks. I just know some basics. It's nice to have a reason to make something nice, I don't actually eat this well usually." He smiled sheepishly. "You're a very welcome excuse."
"I'm glad to help however I can," Carlos said, and pointedly shoved another bite in his mouth. Cecil snickered.
Standing so close, Carlos could just stare at Cecil. Seeing him this way felt unconscionably intimate, like it couldn't possibly be allowed. Though it must've. Carlos was being ridiculous, that was all. Out of practice and out of his depths.
Cecil's robe was more revealing than anything Carlos had ever seen him in; at the station, Cecil wore a tie and sometimes a vest, and looked very professional. Off the clock, he had the strangest wardrobe Carlos had ever seen with the widest palette he could imagine. It was as though Cecil were compensating for how done-up he had to be at work.
Now, Cecil was mostly in his skin, with the robe loosely tied and just decent. The sleeves were short little caps with blue trim, and Carlos tried to be subtle about staring at his arms.
"Hm?" Cecil met Carlos' heavy stare, smirking.
"Sorry. Uh, I thought-- I must've been mistaken. It was dark and I didn't have my glasses on."
"What do you mean?" Cecil nudged his foot against Carlos'.
Carlos shook his head. "Nothing. I thought you had tattoos."
His teeth flashed in a wicked grin, and he put his plate down on the counter. "Did you now?" He retied the belt of his robe more taut, then shrugged his shoulder, letting the sleeve slide off his arm.
Over his shoulder and across the top of his back were leaves, dark outlines with fainter green colored in. They were wrapped around tattooed trellises, hanging heavily down. Scattered amid the greenery were some flower bulbs, locked tightly closed.
"You saw them last night, when they reach down my arms. They're night blooming," Cecil explained as Carlos gently touched the point of one leaf.
Looking up, Carlos gauged the seriousness of Cecil's face. "I'm sorry did you say they are night blooming?"
"Yes," Cecil said, his grin smug and constant. "I have, oh what do I have? I have… A few gardenias, brugmansia, which are the big trumpets, datura obviously--"
"Cecil, are you implying that your-- your tattoos flower at night?"
"They do." He slid his arm back into his robe, pulling it around himself. "No implication at all."
"That's… impossible. How did that happen? Is there just, I don't know, a tattoo artist in town that does moving tattoos? Can you feel them move?"
Cecil held up quelling hands. "Okay, in reverse order? Yes, I can feel it. It's like pinpricks that move over my skin. No, there is no one in town who can just make tattoos move, that'd be absurd."
"Oh, yeah. Absurd."
"This is something of a special case." He picked up his plate and ate two more large bites, swallowed a big drink of water, then continued: "Alright, I think the best way to explain is to tell the story. My best friend growing up was Earl Harlan. We were in the same year at school and were in Boy Scouts together."
"The sous chef?"
"Yes, him! At some point we will go to Tourniquet and I'll introduce you. Anyway, we were teenagers and reached that age when boys show camaraderie and affection by being awful to each other." Sadly, Carlos knew exactly what Cecil meant. "We were out camping with our troupe, and Earl gave me a bag of trail mix. Which, I thought nothing of, we shared food all the time. But this time, he'd mixed in inkpot seeds he'd made at home."
"Oh, I don't know the exact process. I'm sure he got it out of some old book or something, but you treat the plant seeds with fresh ash and alcohol and some other stuff, and you have inkpot seeds! The next morning I woke up with a small garden of plants on my back. I was so mad at him."
Carlos gaped at him. "You woke-- oh my god. So they… they were permanent?"
Cecil shook his head. "No, with the right botanist, you can get rid of them. But mine took particularly strong root, which is unusual for inkpot plants. Apparently I'm a natural carrier for them, and I sort of wanted to get back at Earl, so I kept them." He rubbed his shoulder, reaching back to press his fingers into the space where the tattoos were. "I think Earl eventually felt bad for the prank, because he asked after them for years after."
Maybe it was that. Carlos considered being young and brash, and unforeseen consequences.
"Then, I got older and went to a tattoo artist to add the trellises because they were getting heavy. It's fairly easy upkeep, actually. I just tend to drink more water than other people, and sometimes toss a few fertilizer pellets with my cereal."
More than anything, Carlos wanted to see them, wanted to watch them grow and bloom, to confirm Cecil's story with his own eyes. He could do a few sketches in his journal to document them. "That sounds extremely magical. Do you think Earl still has the book he referenced? Or remembers the recipe?"
"I could ask him. I didn't think it was esoterically relevant." He seemed very pleased to hear it though. "I see Earl all the time at Whole Foods. He asked about you last time, even." Cecil took the empty plates and set them in the sink, rinsing them off. "I would love to introduce my childhood friend to my-- uh."
Cecil faltered, eyes widening as he visibly searched for a word. Glancing askance at Carlos, he flushed. "Okay, I don't have an end to that sentence."
"I can see that," Carlos said, wincing apologetically.
There was a pause, stretching its wings awkwardly like a pelican in a phonebooth.
"I just don't actually date a lot," Cecil blurted. "Married to the job, that kind of thing. I usually don't feel like it's worthwhile."
"But… me?" Carlos pointed to himself, then realized what that would look like to any outside observer, and quickly stopped. "Last night, you said, um, at first sight?"
"Um at first sight does sound about right, yes," Cecil said with a ghost of a smile. "I'm trying very hard to not be a desperate mess, because that's not attractive, is it? But also I don't want you to go?"
"In what sense? Go where?"
"Oh dear." He drummed his fingers on the counter, not quite looking at Carlos anymore. His shoulders were slumped slightly, not dejected but also not not dejected. "Away? Back to where all the gorgeous witches come from, I guess?"
"Right." He stopped hard on the word, and Carlos wished he could just read his aura, to get a hint of what he was feeling. He just felt tense, tight like a spring that wanted to explode but was trying really hard not to.
Would Cecil notice if he ducked away to grab his phone and do a two card draw? Probably.
"Cecil." Hearing his name made Cecil shut his eyes like he was bracing himself for impact. "Are you sure?"
"Sure? Of what?" He peeked at Carlos, nervous.
Carlos crossed his arms over his chest, holding himself tightly. "That it was love at first sight? That's deeply unlikely."
"But isn't that what magic is?" He turned and took a step in, holding Carlos' arms. "Unlikely and miraculous and wonderful?"
"No!" Carlos barked a laugh. "Magic is a system I use to manipulate the world around me, I started learning it when I was five, and my knowledge of it is in the top percentile in the world. If anything, someone looking at me freaking out in a coffee shop and deciding 'oh he's a catch' is the least magical thing to ever happen to me because it's so inexplicable!"
"Okay, most people don't think of magic that way?" Cecil rolled his eyes. "They think like… Santa and faeries and miracles."
"All three of those are a different field of study. The same field, actually, like sponsored magic through supernatural entities--"
"The fact that you are explaining to me what magic is and isn't and I still want to take you to bed is probably love, Carlos." He stroked Carlos' arms. "And you don't have to say that back or anything, I just… want to be able to say it. I love you. Yes, from the moment you ran off from the Spiky Hammer, because you-- you looked at me first, and you saw me, and I don't know. To me magic means I can't explain it."
Magic was often explicable. It was part of what made it magic to Carlos, that he understood it or could learn to understand it. It made sense and operated based on set parameters, either clear and obvious cost-reward or something more, well, esoteric.
Love was the thing that didn't make sense. Carlos didn't know why someone would be in love with him, but that was apparently part of the whole process.
"Carlos?" Cecil asked.
"Still thinking, hang on," Carlos said, shutting his eyes.
He was afraid that Cecil was mistaken. Which meant he was afraid of what would happen if Cecil changed his mind and wasn't in love with Carlos. It wasn't that Cecil claiming love was bad or… unwelcome. If he carefully touched the emotion it gave him, Carlos found an intense ball of heat in his chest. If someone loved him, that was important. It made him important in a way that had nothing to do with his last name or Agnes' vision of the future.
Cecil, if he loved Carlos, did not love him because he was a good executor of prophecy.
And that it was Cecil, who was so relentlessly kind to him, who showed up unasked to help, who just kept Carlos company when he was alone in this strange new city, who made oblique threats over the airways and used his influence to try to protect Carlos, and who had such beautiful eyes Carlos fought daily not to stare at them like a moth bouncing off a porch light--
Carlos' nails were digging into his own arms. He didn't notice until Cecil made a sound and forced his hands into Carlos', holding him still, making him stop.
He'd gotten so used to being just a Device. Close to his family, but distant from everyone else. Lived that way so long, he forgot that the feeling was loneliness.
He swayed forward, resting his head on Cecil's chest. Instantly, Cecil let go of one of his hands and reached up to run fingers through Carlos' hair.
"Still thinking?" Cecil asked quietly.
"Always, unfortunately." Carlos rubbed his cheek against Cecil's skin. "I don't know if I love you, but I've never been in love before? Not even a little. But I know I get excited and kind of stupid every time I run into you, and I keep hoping you're still happy to see me, and oh my god, if you knew how wonderful your aura was, I feel calmer just standing close to you."
"Wow, really?" His nails ran over Carlos' scalp, which felt amazing. "That's neat, I had no idea."
"I don't know how I feel about the prophecies, about the way we keep… colliding because of Agnes." He sighed tersely. "But also I don't want that to ruin the rest of it, so I'm trying to deal with it."
"I don't mind it," Cecil said, stirring Carlos' hair as he spoke. "If it means I get a chance with you, I'll do whatever she wants. Say 'jump,' and I'll ask 'off what?'"
"Ceec," Carlos said, exasperated. "Don't tempt fate, it won't be kind to you."
He pulled, drawing Carlos back with the grip in his hair, tilting his head up. "I love you." He kissed Carlos, a long full press of their mouths. "I love you." When Carlos' breath hitched, Cecil kissed his jaw. "And I would like to take you to bed and make love to you if you're amenable to that."
"Yeah, okay," Carlos said, nodding. "Yes."
"And this time, remember to use your Sight." Cecil pulled away, keeping hold of Carlos' hand to tow him along behind. "Or we'll have to do it again."
"Oh, fates preserve us from that hardship," Carlos said dryly.
"Hey, she practically wingman'ed me before my spiel about tongues and language. I owe her."
"Can we have a moratorium on mentioning my great-times-five grandmother in relation to all sexual activity?"
"Sure." Cecil led Carlos back to his room, to the bed and its rumpled sheets and the indents on the pillows from where they'd slept. "I bet she has a prophecy about this, though."
"If she did, we'd have seen it already. That's how circuitous destiny loops work."
Carlos sat on the bed at Cecil's urging, hands on him, sliding up to cup his face. "I will eagerly listen to you talk occultism some other time. Now, tell me what you want."
"Anything," Carlos said, because it had gone well last time.
Cecil smiled, tilting his head. "I picked last time. Turnabout is fair game."
Before, they had traded questions at Carlos' behest, just as a game and to enforce some kind of balance. Equilibrium made Carlos feel good, soothing an unknown aspect of his soul.
But here, he let his head go lax, resting in the cradle of Cecil's hands. "I like when you pick."
A canny look crossed Cecil's face. He leaned down to stare into Carlos' eyes. The violet glow was like neon through water. "Then I have a question, with the caveat that you don't have to answer. Just say 'pass' and we won't talk about it."
"Did you like being put into place and told what to do? When I held you down?"
"That's two questions." Carlos needed the extra second to think about it.
Cecil's eyes narrowed. "I don't need your sass, Carlos."
He nodded. "I did. I liked that. Did you like the, uh." He didn't know the right words, which was frustrating.
"What I liked was taking care of you," Cecil told him, picking his words with care. "And the way you… allowed me to pick what that looked like. Is that all right?"
"I think so. Yes."
"Okay." His voice dropped like a penny into a fountain, deep and bassy. How he went from something so sweet and amiable to that heavy bell tone across the span of two syllables, Carlos had no idea. "Having you in my clothes was gratifying, but its time to take them off."
He let go of Carlos face. Unprepared, Carlos swayed forward with a faint noise. Sitting there, he watched Cecil untie his belt and pulled it loose. His robe parted, and Carlos stared a moment.
Cecil curled a knuckle under Carlos' chin and pulled his head up. "Carlos."
"Right. Sorry." He pulled his borrowed shirt off, kicked off the pajama pants. "How… how do you want me?"
"Hm. Compromise! Pick a position, and I'll figure out the rest."
God, pressure. Carlos twisted to look at the bed, gnawing his lip. Hands and knees came to mind, but he'd had his back to Cecil last night and didn't want to do that again. That decision also crossed out bending over the bed and laying out on his stomach. Really, it narrowed things down a lot.
Climbing up, Carlos laid out on his back in the middle of the bed, pressing his ankles together and resting his hands on this navel. "Is this too boring?"
"Not at all." Cecil followed him up, touching his shoulder and balancing on his knees over Carlos. "I definitely want to see your face when you come. May I fuck you like this?"
A hard breath punched out of Carlos' chest. "Yes."
Cecil nodded back, still balancing and staring contemplatively down at Carlos. "Hm," he said, suddenly turning to sort through the contents of his bedside table. The condom and the pump top of lube, Carlos expected.
He also removed a long piece of lilac cloth, holding it with both hands. "Nod or pass," he instructed, and tied the cloth-- which felt like silk, but thicker, sturdier-- around one of Carlos wrists. He wound the free end of the cloth through a post of his headboard, then back down. Taking Carlos' other hand, he wrapped it loosely around the wrist, giving Carlos an inquisitive look.
"Oh," Carlos said, understanding striking him in totality, all at once. "I can do that."
Smiling, Cecil finished tying his wrists. "Could you magic your way out?"
"No. I'd need a wand or an athame, and I'd just cut it with the athame."
"What is an athame, by the way?" Cecil asked this while sliding down Carlos body, taking proprietary hold of Carlos' legs to reposition them around Cecil's waist.
"A fancy knife. I have a really nice one. I'll show you later." He exhaled hard and turned his wrists slowly, pulling at the cloth. "Okay."
"Okay?" Cecil touched Carlos' chest lightly.
"Yes. Y-you can go ahead."
Cecil arched his eyebrows. "Go ahead? And what? What would you like me to do, Carlos."
Immediately , Carlos knew what Cecil wanted, that he wanted Carlos to ask to be fucked. It was as clear and present as the silk tie; the classics were classic for a reason, after all.
Instead, Carlos took another deep breath and said, "I would like you to take my body and do with it whatever takes your fancy, as if it were yours. Which, for the immediate future, it is." He smiled. "Please."
Cecil's eyes flashed, maybe literally? Carlos thought the light in them sparked. For certain, he gasped, digging his fingers into Carlos' legs. "I can do that," he said, strained, his resonant tone slipping like a fumbled glass for a moment. "Yeah, that's-- I can do that."
Carlos pulled at his wrists and wiggled against the bed. In return, Cecil gave him a tart look.
But then he slicked up his hands and without warning pushed a finger into Carlos, shocking him into a sharp gasp. "You can be quiet now, Device," Cecil said, and it was like drizzling oil onto a hot pan, how it cracked and popped in Carlos' gut. Without intending to, he pulled at the cloth, hit the limit, and gripped it tight in his fists, suddenly needing something to cling to.
Situated so, bent over Carlos, Cecil watched like a hawk for his reactions as he worked Carlos open around his fingers, periodically adding more lube and gliding his fingertips around inside. Eventually, Carlos tensed everywhere, gasping, and Cecil rubbed his fingers sharply, right there.
He wanted to shout, tension stringing tight in his gut. But he could be quiet. It took biting down on his lip hard and inhaling small, fast breaths, but Carlos wanted to do this right, to impress Cecil somehow.
The sound of his own faint gasps and slick friction was deafening in the room. Carlos pressed his head back against the pillow, feeling himself go from the start of an erection to fully hard as Cecil pushed him. "Uhh, g'd," he said, unable to manage total silence.
Biting his lip hard, Carlos shook his head. For his trouble, Cecil leaned over him and kissed him, gently tugging his lip free and swiping his tongue over it. "You do so well. Take everything so beautifully."
Carlos panted softly, swallowing down the sounds that wanted loose from his throat.
"Now." Cecil adjusted Carlos' legs, bending them further with his feet flat to the bed, and paused to rip open and apply the condom. "I'm going to fuck you. You should consider doing the Sight thing."
"Or," Carlos said, noting his voice was a little rough, "w-we could just do it later?"
His cock rubbed against Carlos' hole, then nudged in. "Now, now. You…" He was opening Carlos up, making them both gasp. "You can't put it off forever. Ohmygod , you feel amazing."
A happy thrill zipped up his spine. His hands pulled at the cloth. "Cecil," he said, voice lifting up as he was fucked into. Such a long time since he'd done this, relearning the sensation was wonderful.
After a few exquisitely good thrusts, working his way all the way into Carlos, Cecil stopped. He inhaled deep, his whole chest moving. "Go on." His hips rolled back an inch, and he pushed in again, much harder. "I've got you."
He did. Carlos sort of wished he didn't, because it would make everything easier if he was anxious about that part of things. Somehow, against pretty much all logic, he was gently tied down and being fucked and he felt completely safe.
Whatever was waiting for him beyond was the unsettling thing.
It was Cecil, though, and that decided Carlos. He was still fending off a viper of fear that threatened to constrict around his lungs, his heart, poison this moment with venom. But laid out like this, laying neath and in position so to speak, all he could see was Cecil, and he remembered how his aura looked.
He'd not looked again since that first time in the coffee shop, afraid he'd go all dazed and stupid just from looking at it.
Now, he was supposed to look again.
Carlos shut his eyes, and went still inside, bundling up the hot pleasure of being fucked. Unspooled the sensation and drew it around his mind like a cloak, care and desire and security. Rebraided it into the focus he needed.
His eyes held shut, he opened his Eye.
The dark light wasn't a light, nor an absence thereof, what it was instead was diaphanous liquid that clung to everything it touched and coated everything with its benevolent strands, diaphanous from those loquacious Greeks, to show through , and everything the light dripped over shown and everything it touched known with the familiarity of a trusted neighbor who took your hand in times of joy and of hardship and regardless listened to everything you had to say, all of it existed in every singular drop of the light and there was so much of it, filling everyone's boots and soaking through their socks and finding its way into their blood until the light shone in their hearts, they wept and sweat and bled it out into the very firmament of their lives, everything part of the same mass from beating heart to asphalt to hot breeze to metal tower, the ley lines didn't migrate around you foolish boy they were everywhere, the land itself ley, each soul was a part of the tapestry and so are you, Carlos, another vector in the tesseract, swallowing bits of it like arils until you are going to become part of the cloth and live in the rich heat forever, Persephone in reverse, the Empress Inverted and married to the Moon, don't you know the story, the Queen of the Upside Down who gave wisdom and mercy to those in the dark and guided them, she did not fall she jumped and tell me, did any of those books ever teach you how to fall?
He didn't wake, because he'd not been asleep, but he hadn't exactly been conscious either. Carlos opened his eyes, and could only see the dark light, a radiant blindfold around his vision.
Never in his life had it taken effort to close his inner eye. More than anything, it took control and intention to keep it open.
Now, he whined high in his throat and forced himself to stop Seeing, to make it all finally stop .
When he dared to look around again, there were a few seconds in which all the colors and shapes didn't quite make sense. Nothing lined up into comprehension. He blinked slowly, again and again, until he caught up with what the world was and how it existed around him.
He was sore everywhere, and there was a slow sleepy pulse in his blood, sated and tired. His exhaustion was dramatic and drenched him. Pulling away from it was like pulling out of the ocean.
Cecil was a shape he understood. He was sitting beside Carlos, holding a little notepad and a pen. The pen swished and waved as he wrote rapidly, eyes narrow and focused on the page.
He stabbed the page with a period, then said, "I have it, go on."
"Cecil," Carlos moaned pitifully.
Cecil's head snapped up to look back at him. "Carlos?" He tossed the pen and paper on the bedside table without a second thought, bracing his elbow on the bed and cupping Carlos' cheek. "Hey there. Are you here? Can you hear me?"
Nodding slowly, Carlos swallowed. His throat felt so dry, he could taste copper. "What happ'ned?"
"Nevermind that for a moment. Are you okay?"
"Thirsty." He frowned. "Can't move."
Reaching up, Cecil untied Carlos' wrists. "One sec, do not move." Sliding off the bed, he fairly sprinted out of the room.
Carlos had time to start gingerly sitting up before Cecil returned with a bottle of water. He climbed back onto the bed, next to Carlos, facing him. "Drink." He cracked open the seal and handed it to Carlos.
It nearly spilt, his hands were shaking so bad. Cecil was quick to fold his own around Carlos' and steady them while he drank. It felt like ice against hot cracked sand, and he nearly moaned just from the relief.
Two-thirds of the bottle later, he let Cecil set it aside. "What happened? Did I ruin everything?" Carlos asked, coughing when his throat protested still.
"Did you… no. Oh, no, Carlos, you didn't ruin anything ." Cecil moved to sit up against the headboard, his arm going around Carlos' shoulders, their hips and legs pressed together.
"What happened?" he asked again.
"Um." His nails dragged up and down Carlos' arm. It was grounding, and Carlos gave into the bone-deep exhaustion he felt and slumped against Cecil's chest. "Well, I'm not sure . We were having sex, and I assume you did your Sight thing, and you went a little wild there-- really, the most fortunate and well-timed application of light bondage in my life , it helped a lot."
"No! Stop catastrophizing." He flicked Carlos' nose. "No, we were fine. Both of us. You, at considerable volume too."
"Oh my god." Carlos shut his eyes, and then felt a spike of fear of the lack of physical vision. He opened them again and breathed. "Just. Go on. You were writing?"
"You told me to." He bent to kiss the top of Carlos' head, an attempt at comfort. "You were going on and on about things you were seeing. Or Seeing? I don't know. But you needed me to write them down. Luckily I'm used to taking statements and quotes, so I write very fast. Not very legibly , but that's the trade off."
"Why did I have you write stuff? What did I say?"
Here, finally, Cecil faltered, long enough that Carlos lifted his head to look at him. His face was drawn into an expression of deep concern, eyebrows together, lips pursed and flat.
"Twelve of them," he said quietly. "Then you seemed to come out of it."
Carlos thought he'd start shaking, his heart rattling too fast, too frantic. "Twelve what , Cecil?"
"You aren't going to like this," Cecil murmured. Then he picked up the notepad and held it for Carlos to see.'
And he was right.
Carlos did not like it at all.
Carlos took Cecil's notepad home and went through the necessary steps with mechanical muscle memory. He bought index cards and unpacked the typewriter from the box it was living in, from the closet. He numbered everything from 0 to 11 and typed the prophecies out. There were not enough of them to justify a full box, so he hole punched them and put them on a set of binder rings.
He did not want to look at any of them, did not want to engage with any of the messages that had now arisen from his own bout of prognostication. More than anything, Carlos wanted to be back at Cecil's apartment and whiling away the Saturday, getting to watch in real time as his tattoos bloomed.
Instead, he was back at the bungalow, and staring dully at the cards.
The last one of the set was upfront and clear, utterly lacking any obfuscation or symbolism.
So, Carlos called Anathema.
They were not the type of family that wasted time with pleasantries. "Hello"s and "Hi, it's X, how are you" were a rote part of conversations for non-Devices.
No, when Carlos called Anathema, he started with what was important: "I need you to come to Night Vale, are you back in the States?"
"I am," Anathema said. "What happened?"
"I am contacting you in accordance to prophecy number eleven, which reads 'Call your cousin immediately.'" He swallowed a deep breath. The hand not holding his phone was shaking.
"What prophecy do you mean?"
"Mine. My prophecy. I have twelve. I followed Agnes' instruction, I had a break from reality, and I dictated twelve fucking prophecies to Cecil." Carlos fisted his hand and pressed it down hard on the table to try and stop the shaking. "Anath."
"Okay. Okay." Her voice had gone tight, and it was almost a relief to hear the unhappy tone of her voice. He felt reassured in his panic. "I will set out tomorrow morning. Should I tell the family--"
"No!" Carlos squeezed his eyes shut. "Don't-- please don't, don't tell any of them, no."
"Okay, I got it. Send me your address."
"There's no point," Carlos said. "GPS doesn't work here. As soon as you hit Route 800, give me a call and I'll give you directions."
Then, Anathema surprised him with a prediction of her own. "You are going to be okay, Carlos. This will be okay."
She had no way of knowing that, no ordained knowledge, no omniscient advantage that gave weight to her argument. But still, Carlos wrapped it around himself like a shawl before going to sit on the sofa.
He couldn't sit there and wait for her. It would be a few days of travel before she reached the barrier and crossed into city limits.
Regardless, Carlos sat there, his legs pulled up to his chest, his head resting on the sofaback, and waiting for a long time.
The Voice of Night Vale
I'm just not sure if I did something wrong, and the not knowing is this virulent strand of concern with a high mortality rate. I mean, I don't think I did anything wrong? It was going so well, Josie, it was… wonderful.
No. No, I don't think so. Or, I don't know. I have no idea! The cul-de-sac of Carlos' relationship with his-- his ancestor, his profession, it's a mess! There is so much baggage there, it's like the mobius baggage claim conveyor at the airport, covered with designer bags filled with brassy contraptions and familial troubles.
No, I'm not upset. Or, not at him. I don't have the leg to stand on.
Okay, fine, yes, I'm upset but only because I. I don't know how the help. I want to help, Josie. How do I help?
… That doesn't seem helpful.
Fine! I'll just sit on my hands and hope he doesn't pack his car right back up and point himself back to wherever California is.
Yes, I'll be at bowling tomorrow. Might as well. Sorry for snapping. Bye.
Come morning, Carlos had hot tea, a bowl full of fresh fruit from the Green Market, and broke out his Lenormand to pull the Grand Tableau.
All thirty-six cards, snapped down in rapid succession on his kitchen table, against the sealed wood he was eventually going to turn into a map of the city. The spread was large, and he didn't look at it immediately, just drinking his tea and popping some blackberries in his mouth.
When he finally examined the tableau, he pushed up his glasses and examined the central cards, the heart of the spread.
Ring. Snake. Animus. Birds.
"Oh, fuck off," Carlos muttered.
Lenormand was in some ways the checkers of cartomancy. There were fewer cards, and each card was, comparatively speaking against the traditional tarot, much simpler in meaning and symbolism. But in that way, they were much more versatile, and the reading was based entirely on pairings and proximity, liked reading the ripples in a still pond to divine wisdom.
Most of the time, Carlos preferred it to a dramatic degree.
Now, he had the Ring, the card of commitment, of promises, of bonding, paired with the Snake, the card of ambition and deception and all those other Slytherin emotions. So, the tableau was well aware of his recent trouble, how his duty had suddenly and terrifyingly expanded into his own propheteering.
Snake was also adjacent to the Animus, which was broadly associated with masculinity and important masculine figures in one's life. Ergo, masculine seduction and desire. And since Animus was also adjacent to the Birds, the card for anxiety and uncertainty-- Carlos scowled deeply.
And Birds was adjacent to the Ring. Really, he was looking at a perfect encapsulation of his plight. To him, it couldn't've been more obvious if the cards had spelled out in staid courier typeface: You went for it, you indulged in your desire to sleep with that handsome man with the handsome voice, and now duty has got you around the throat, what did you expect? Did you forget who you are?
Digging both hands into his hair, leaning forward on his elbows, Carlos examined the entire tableau for its veracity and forecasts. There were some fun or at least intriguingly aggravating card placements. The conspicuous placement of the Dog amid the "how did you get yourself in this mess" cards was vexing. And the Mountains in the frame, the part that told him about the immediacy of his situation, was kind of funny.
He was looking for answers, and for the most part getting confirmation of things he already knew, or things he had been conspicuously ignoring as he got himself dug further and further into this mess.
Four rows of eight gave him plenty of context. At the very bottom, four cards remained, the advice of the Grand Tableau.
Key. Book. Crossroads. And the goddamn Moon.
"What does that mean?" Carlos asked aloud. Discovering his own mistakes and oversights in the spread was easy. Finally faced with actionable advice, he had no idea what to do. Mostly, he stared at the Moon with trepidation.
It didn't mean the same thing in Lenormand as in the tarot, but the coincidence was troubling. Like the Moon was haunting him.
Carlos broke the tableau, pushing all the cards together, stacking them, and shuffling rapidly.
On a whim, he snapped two down. With Lenormand, you always used two.
Anima and Book.
A to B. Carlos pulled one of Agnes' cards, moving step by step like a prophetic machine.
578. Tools thy need, the instruments to controlle the colours and shapes, are to be found in possession of Michael.
B to C. He picked up the binder ring of cards, the new prophecies, and let his eyes fall upon the very first.
00: All the windows are doors and all those doors are in paintings, and the right one won't be there for the red bird, and she'll have to wait such a long time. Paint a door, your door, and lock it in a driftwood frame. Give it away.
Carlos put all of the cards away in the wall safe, then pulled on his jacket, heading out to the Michaels on Shay Street.
Paint. He needed paint.
The Voice of Night Vale
It's time for this week's horoscopes.
Pisces. The way you slam your body into mine reminds me I'm alive, but monsters are always hungry, and they're only a few steps behind you, finding the flaw, the poor weld, the place where we weren't stitched up quite right.
Capricorn. I will not cross you and you must move on. There is nothing else.
Sagittarius. You'd break your heart to make it bigger, so why not crack your skull when the mind swells.
Scorpio. This is the wrong story.
Libra. All stories are the wrong story when you're impatient.
Virgo. Love, for you, is larger than the usual romantic love. It's like a religion. It's terrifying. No one will ever want to sleep with you.
Leo. Hello, darling. Sorry about that. Sorry about the bony elbows, sorry we lived here, sorry for the scene at the bottom of the stairwell and how I ruined everything by saying it out loud.
Cancer. We have not touched the stars, nor are we forgiven, which brings us back to the hero's shoulders and the gentleness that comes not from the absence of violence, but despite the abundance of it.
Gemini. It's time to choose sides now, the stitches or the devouring mouth.
Aries. When you have nothing to say, set something on fire. A blurry landscape is useless.
Aquarius. All night, I stretched my arms across him, rivers of blood, the dark woods, singing with all of my skin and bone: "Please keep him safe. Let him lay his head on my chest and we will be like sailors, swimming in the sound of it, dashed to pieces." Makes a cathedral, him pressing against me, his lips at my neck, and yes, I do believe his mouth is heaven, his kisses falling over me like stars.
Taurus. I wanted to explain myself to myself in an understandable way. I gave shape to my fears and made excuses. I varied my velocities, watched myselves sleep. Something's not right about what I'm doing but I'm still doing it-- living in the worst parts, ruining myself. My inner life is a sheet of black glass. If I fell through the floor, I would keep falling.
Hm, sorry Listeners. I don't know how those got so out of order, though I have it on good authority that the stars in Night Vale are weird.
There were several forms of panic.
Panic could hit like a villain in a dark alley, fists and bats and rapid escalation with blood against the bricks where your body landed poorly with staggered surprise.
There was a slow welling of panic, like a boat beginning to take on water and sinking while your arms ached, bucketing black ocean out of your delicate haven from the depths.
There was the kind of panic that was just screaming, pitched sirens that arrested all movement and turned bone and sinew into immovable cement.
What Carlos was up to, he felt, was the reverse of that last one. His panic was a laconic thing, part of everything he did but also the mechanism of his momentum. It was like riding a bike, but with catherine wheels instead of rubber, everything sparking and streaming fire and pushing him on. If he fell off, he'd never get back on, but at the same time he couldn't slow down.
It was panic, but functional. Carlos was functioning.
The doorbell rang. He looked up from his work and stared at it for a long moment before slapping the brush down in the dish and walking over.
He tried to open it, only for it to resist. Oh, right, the deadbolt. He forgot about that. It must've been on since… since pizza delivery. Maybe he ordered another one and forgot.
Swinging open the door, there wasn't a pizza courier, but Cecil. He was still in his work clothes, tie slightly loosened, his vest tidy and purple brocade.
Carlos frowned at him and rubbed his face. And, subsequently, felt paint smudge on his temple. Shit. "I thought you had the evening show tonight."
Cecil's eyes narrowed. "That's on Mondays."
"Today is Wednesday , Carlos. I… you…" His mouth opened into a little expression of shock. "You are covered in paint."
"How much paint denotes 'covered,' that seems hyperbolic."
Cecil closed his mouth, and briefly shut his eyes with a deep breath. Exhaling slowly, he finally asked, "May I come in?"
"I'm not good company right now," Carlos said, grimacing.
"Probably not," Cecil agreed, which was candor enough that Carlos flinched, surprised at Cecil saying anything that wasn't entirely complimentary about Carlos' presence. "But I haven't heard from you since Saturday, and you've not been around town, I would've heard, and all I know is something is deeply wrong here."
"Yeah. I mean, yeah, there is, but um." He moved to touch his face again, even the muscles of his face felt exhausted. Paint, he remembered, and made himself stop. "Why would you want to?"
"Carlos, just." Cecil pressed his lips together, an unhappy white line.
Then, he stepped in, hands on Carlos' upper arms, and pushed him. Gentle but extremely firm, walking Carlos backward three steps until he could clear the threshold. After, he turned and shut the door, locking the knob and the deadbolt.
"Wow, okay," Carlos said, tired.
"Josie told me to give you space, and honestly that's probably good advice for me handling the situation, but I've come to realize that it's not good advice for you . But she's less invested in you, so that probably didn't cross her mind."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Carlos put his face in his hands, to hell with paint smudges. "I'm tired. I thought you were pizza."
"Carlos, it's past ten."
"Painting is difficult and takes a long time."
"Now who's not making sense."
Sighing loudly, Carlos turned and walked further into the house, over by where he'd laid down plasticky sheeting on the floor. It was spattered with paint, though not as much as the kitchen stool Carlos was using as an easel to hold the canvas up.
On the canvas was the rough approximation of the back door of his house, as seen from where he stood in the kitchen. The green door itself was a wobbly rectangle, sitting amid a dark background. Every time he tried to paint the angles of the room right, the corner near the door, he darkened it too much. Then, trying to correct it made everything muddy and terrible.
He turned to look at Cecil, and found Cecil was no longer standing behind him. During his pity party, he'd gone to the fridge and started taking things out. A few things, he tossed immediately in the trash. Others, he set on the counter.
"Cecil," Carlos said on a deep sigh. He felt like he was being scolded, and it rubbed him the wrong way, rubbed at him like sandpaper. "Cecil, you're taking liberties right now."
That got a real reaction. Cecil froze for a moment, head cocked to the side as if listening to something Carlos couldn't hear.
Carlos sat at the table and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. After a moment, his breathing hitched.
Footsteps circled the table. A few things were set down nearby. Cecil didn't say anything, and Carlos felt like a wind-up toy cranked too hard, the key grinding his gears too tight.
There was a light touch at his shoulder. Subtly rubbing his eyes, Carlos lowered his hands, letting them hang at his sides, heavy like iron shackles.
Cecil gave him a look soft as featherfall. Without a word, he picked up a parring knife and cut into an apple he'd set out. He sliced a perfect wedge from it, slipping it out of the whole. Carving along the inside, he removed the hard bits and the seeds, knife sliding smoothly to stop at his thumb.
With the same knife, he cut a thin slice of sharp cheddar from a block Carlos had meant at one point to use for baking. Pressing apple and cheese together, Cecil held them to Carlos' mouth.
"Your hands are covered in paint," he said quietly. "Open."
Carlos did, taking the bite and chewing. The sweetness of the apple melded with the sharp taste of the cheese, both greater than their parts.
While Carlos chewed, Cecil cut another wedge, this time applying peanut butter to the apple. When Carlos was ready, he fed him that too.
It seemed to him very much like a spell woven from singular attention. The sticky white fire of panic was still licking at him with flickering tongues, but something was blanketing over the top. It smothered the smoke, and let Carlos breathe for what felt like the first time in days.
"I know you're unhappy." Cecil spoke in a steady, low-pitched tone. "I know you've locked yourself up for days and are hurting. Every time I'm on air, it's as if I can feel you."
Carlos swallowed and nodded. "I have a theory, that you pick up things via the ley lines. Both my house and your studio are sitting on vertexes of the lines."
Cecil pushed another apple against his mouth, and Carlos obligingly shut up.
"I don't know how to make all this better," Cecil said. "And believe me, I've thought of pretty much nothing else since you left Saturday."
"You can't," Carlos said miserably.
"No, but at least let me make it easier. There's no point it dealing with this alone, is there? Is there some secret code of witches that dictates suffering must be done alone? That seems more like machismo than magic."
The laugh that startled out of Carlos felt giddy and foreign. "Does it? God." He shook his head and looked up at Cecil. "I'm… panicking. I'm kind of panicking really badly. But sort of laconically."
"I hear it loud and clear," Cecil said, putting the knife down and feeding Carlos the last slice of apple, this one with peanut butter. "Do you know why you're panicking?"
"I feel like I'm being punished," Carlos said after he'd swallowed the final bite. He felt better. He also felt exhausted. "I've been doing everything I'm supposed to, following instruction, and now I'm being punished. It's not fair."
Not immediately responding, Cecil cleaned up the remains of the impromptu meal he'd put together. The knife went in the sink, and Cecil took a kitchen towel from a hook.
He unbuttoned the sleeves of his white shirt, rolling them up to his elbow. Running the water, he wet the entire towel, then wrung it out. Picking up the bottle of dish soap, he returned to Carlos' side.
Applying some soap to the wet cloth, Cecil took one of Carlos' hands and began to clean the paint from his skin.
Carlos watched impassively as he was washed up. When Cecil finished with one hand and arm, Carlos mutely traded his other one in.
"I don't understand why you're doing this," he admit in a whisper, after several minutes of this.
Cecil took his chin in hand next. Shutting his eyes, Carlos felt the damp soapy towel tug and pull at the drying paint on his face. His glasses were silently removed, letting Cecil clean his eyebrow and the smudge across his forehead and temple.
Cupping Carlos' cheek, Cecil pressed his lips firmly against Carlos' forehead, and stayed like that, bent over him, holding him, enfolding him in cool dark light that pulled tension from his body like draining poison from his blood.
"I was worried about you. I wanted to help." Another full kiss against Carlos' newly washed skin. "I love you."
Oh, no. He squeezed his eyes shut and felt his eyes sting. He was so tired , and Cecil want so steady when Carlos leaned on him. His now cleaned hands wound around Cecil, clenching in the back of his shirt, in his vest.
Cecil drew Carlos in to lean against his chest, then rubbed the towel against his hair. It hurt a little as some strands pulled; he was working the paint out of his curls too.
Sucking in a breath, Carlos tried to pull himself together. "You-- you're really bossy."
"Mm, yes. But someone has to be, or you'd be passed out on the floor from low blood sugar and looking like an unwashed palette." He broke up a yellow curl of hair diligently. "I'm sorry for intruding."
"No, don't." Carlos huffed out a laugh. "My cousin's coming, and if she found me like this, I'd be in even more trouble." Carefully, Carlos leaned back, rubbing his eyes in case any tears slipped free, and sniffed loudly. "I have to paint the door. It's important."
"Okay. I do believe you," Cecil said peaceably. "But tomorrow."
"Okay." Carlos nodded, put his glasses back on, and let himself be pulled off his seat.
In his bedroom, there was a small mirror standing on the dresser. Cecil gave it a judgemental, steely look before placing it facedown.
Carlos frowned at him.
"Nothing good ever came from fixating on one's own reflection," he said.
"Accurate shaving," Carlos countered.
Cecil rolled his eyes, which was absolutely not a counterpoint. Rather than come up with anything to say, he undressed Carlos.
Sitting in his boxers on his bed with Cecil still fully dressed, just his wrists and arms bare, gave Carlos a fresh rush of panic. "Are you leaving?"
Cecil hesitated. "I don't know?"
Something struck Carlos, and he stood back up, hands going to Cecil's vest to unbutton it. "I wanted to see. The flowers."
Pink flushed over Cecil's entire face and neck. "Oh. Oh, right, we can do that." As Carlos was already doing that, he giggled nervously. "I thought you were tired."
"I didn't say we'd have sex," Carlos said as he pushed the vest off and started on the shirt underneath. "Maybe I just want to see."
"Now who's bossy?"
"Still you. Bossy implies an exertion of will. I'm not under the impression you don't want to show me your tattoos or require convincing that it's the best course of action. What I am is determined, that's all." He found another shirt under the button down and sighed.
Cecil pulled that shirt over his head, finally bare chested. "Not sure how much I like exerting my will. That's not what I meant to do."
"I know. It's what it all boils down to." Carlos moved to turn on his bedside lamp.
"I like that even less! Carlos, that's not what I--"
"Impurities and tar, Cecil," Carlos retorted. "That's what it all boils down to." His hand touched Cecil's arm lightly, curling under his elbow and pulling up. "If you leave a kettle boiling or leave a potion brewing too long, you don't get to some hidden true meaning of the thing. You get impurities left over from the water, or you get inert black tar you have to scrub out of the cauldron. What it all boils down to is falsehoods and diversions."
"Oh," Cecil said.
"I don't use inaccurate idioms," Carlos explained. "And I don't mind you being bossy. I'm just adjusting to the novelty of someone who cares enough to keep me from causing myself damage. Not even my family did that." He let go of Cecil's arm. "Could you lay down?"
Nodding, Cecil climbed onto the bed and laid back. His hands moved, flighty, from resting on his stomach, to up by his head, to down at his sides.
Carlos climbed up astride him, eliciting a gasp. He ignored it and touched Cecil's shoulders.
The difference between morning and night was dramatic. The leaves of Cecil's tattoos bowed heavily from their own weight, draping low from the frames that had been added to his skin. Each stalk and vine seemed to strain somewhat under the heft of the flowers.
Of which there were many, all thriving vibrantly. There was a spill of datura down his collarbone, the delicate petals folded together as it bowed steeply. Greenery capped his shoulder, and pushing the leaves aggressively apart was a cereus, a starburst of pale color. Dragging down his arm were sprays of other, smaller flowers, mixed and varied.
Carlos bent, touching his nose to Cecil's neck. He didn't smell like flowers, nor of amber and watermelon liqueur. Just desert heat and fabric softener.
"Carlos," Cecil hissed, grabbing his hips suddenly. Belatedly, Carlos realized he'd started to rub against him, senselessly rolling his hips against Cecil's. "Mixed signals."
"Maybe I don't want to just see," Carlos said.
"Ohmygod." He exhaled hard. "Okay, then-- then I have to take my pants off, I'm going to need them for work tomorrow."
Working together, they stripped off Cecil's work slacks. They slipped off the bed to the floor, and that would be its own problem if they wrinkled, but Carlos didn't care.
Cecil didn't seem all that concerned either. He cupped Carlos' face while Carlos pressed down against spilling inked flowers, palms hard on Cecil's shoulders as he worked his hips into a circling grind.
It was simple, enough so Carlos didn't even have to think about it. They were getting better already, getting
at this. Familiarity of this nature was a new sense for Carlos to explore.
Cecil came staring up at Carlos with too much reverence in his eyes. It stung like alcohol, so Carlos came with his eyes closed, as if that would help. Which, not really, as Cecil's hands touching him conveyed that same veneration.
Everything was a negotiation. Of boundaries, of bodies, finding them laid together in Carlos' bed. Nuzzling against a yellowish trumpet bursting out from pointy leaves, Carlos sighed and cinched himself close.
Cecil's hand stroked up and down his spine. Softly, but with feeling, Carlos said, "Goddammit."
"Oh, what now?" Cecil murmured, sleepy and good humored.
"I have this terrible fear," Carlos said into Cecil's skin, "that Anathema is going to really like you."
"And that's bad?"
"No. Just scary." He breathed deeply and settled. "Thank you for taking care of me again."
"Thank you for letting me," Cecil sighed, kissing the top of Carlos' head. "Sleep."
"Bossy," Carlos murmured, and fell unresisting into dark, benevolent dreams.
The horoscopes are all lines from the poems of Richard Siken. I recommend his first book, Crush, for all queer people who ride that knife's edge of love and panic.
I talk a lot about the specifics of cartomancy for someone who isn't actually an occultist, huh? Fun fact, I did the Grand Tableau draw for Carlos, figured I'd get a foundation than shift cards around as narratively needed. The core four cards, Ring, Snake, Animus, Birds, were straight up what I got for him. Fucking hilariously apt.
My Lenormand deck is the Seventh Sphere, which is coincidentally my favorite deck of the, like, seven or eight that I own.
This is among the most niche fucking things I've ever written, which for me is saying something. Thank you to everyone reading it and leaving lovely reviews, it's encouraging to know this weird story entertains people. 83
The Voice Of Night Vale
A new visitor has entered our little town. A devastatingly fashionable woman with dark hair and darker eyes was seen stepping out of a Lyft on Ouroborus Road. Her name is Anathema Device, and she's another occultist from California. They must have quite the cottage industry for magic over there.
She's arrived to take a look at our town and to do her best to safeguard us from seemingly inevitable doom. To facilitate this, she's brought a bulky designer bag full of her own brassy contraptions. Practitioners of the arcane arts often prefer to keep their own tools rather than borrowing another's. It helps them keep an affinity for their instruments.
As you might have guessed from her name and location, Anathema Device will be staying with our own resident occultist, Carlos. Who is also my boyfriend, and who often explains esotericism to me at great length, and who told me to warn people not to ask Anathema about her name.
I'm not sure what he was referring to. I still think Device is a cute family name, but Carlos is less of a fan. Maybe someday he'll want to change it.
Anyway! Let's talk about the new helicopter flight patterns over by Radon Canyon. The Sheriff called me on a burner cell phone they'd slipped into my pocket while we stood in line together at the Ralph's. According to them, no one is legally permitted to take note of the increased helicopter presence out by Radon Canyon. However , anyone who wants to admire the new additions to the helicopters is welcome to. They have four new helicopters added to the squadron.
So if you want to look at the helicopters, be sure to make appropriately appreciative sounds as you do, so the Secret Police don't misinterpret your actions as illegal. Maybe let out a few ooohs and aaaahs during your observation.
Anathema swept into Carlos' house and dropped her bags by the door, head tipped back and eyes shut. "It's so hot. It's so hot out in this hellscape, how do you stand it?"
"I left all my nice coats at home, for one." Carlos moved to take hers, the admittedly beautiful green plaid coat that swirled around her legs. He never understood the cost of being so fashionable, why anyone would prioritize looks over comfort to such a degree. There was something almost monastic about the suffering. "Also, lace?"
"I look good in lace," Anathema said. "Let me borrow a hair clip."
"In the bathroom, through the bedroom." Carlos pointed the way, and let her go to freshen up.
There had been a little planning ahead of time for Anathema's arrival, though not much. He'd managed to clear space away from the kitchen, setting all of his terrible paintings aside to make room. And now that she was here, he removed two glasses from the freezer, filling them from a fresh pitcher of sunshine tea with mint leaves.
Setting both glasses out on the kitchen table, Carlos sat down to wait, his hands folded in front of him. Along with the glasses, he'd set out the heartwood box of Agnes' cards, the binder ring of his-- of the new cards, the book, and his preferred tarot and Lenormand decks.
At the end of the table was the radio, broadcasting a report about helicopters. Carlos listened idly.
Anathema returned, and apparently elected for comfort over aesthetics. Her hair was up in a claw clip, and her long sleeved shirt was discarded in favor of a red lace top with no sleeves. She took the chair across from Carlos. "Did you know your mirror is covered?"
"Oh. I'm aware, yes. That's Cecil's doing. He doesn't like mirrors, and I just left it in case he came by or something."
"Cecil, that is the radio host. The one who caught you."
"No one wants to let that go," Carlos said dourly. He waved to the radio down the table demonstrably.
Leaning her cheek on her hand, Anathema listened for a moment. After enough time analysing the sound, she said, "I see. That is a nice voice. Why does he hate mirrors?" When she met Carlos' eyes, her own were bright with delight. "Does he have a face for radio?"
"No! Anath, jesus." Carlos sighed and gestured to the table. "Do I ask you about that guy from Tadfield? Do you want to tell me if Agnes' prediction about his physique and stamina was correct?"
Her nose wrinkled, and she quickly took a deep drink of tea. "I would prefer if you didn't. Rather not revisit that travesty." She held the cool glass to her cheek. "We used to talk about your dalliances, sporadic though they were. What about this one? Is he adequately attractive?"
"Yes," Carlos said simply.
"So coy. Fine." She pulled in the heartwood box and the binder ring both, setting them in front of herself at perfect right angles. Her hand hovered over each, unsure for a moment.
Some intuition must've struck her, as she opened the box and drew a card. She read aloud:
98. The bread turneth to poison in their mouths, a hoste of blights descended upon them, their cursed leavened.
Squinting at the card, she said, "Right. Did this fall in from the apocalyptic prophecies?"
It was a fair question. Carlos consulted the book. "No, it's here."
"Well, that one… doesn't sound relevant. What about yours?"
He flinched, crossing his arms on the table. "Do we have to call them that?"
Anathema gave him an arch look. "Call them what? Yours?"
"Yeah." He folded in further, bending until his head hung. "I was Seeing into something ancient and powerful, it probably was that. Not me. I was just the conduit."
"This is a purely semantic distinction. I'm going to consult your cards." She took off the binder ring and sat back in her chair, reading each one. It was a silent process, as all her attention narrowed, her focus absolute, her--
Her head lifted. "Did that man just announce the weather report and put on music?"
"Welcome to Night Vale," Carlos said, raising his glass of tea to her.
The Voice of Night Vale
The Night Vale Council for Commerce is pleased to announce they are sponsoring an event today. It definitely has already started and was absolutely part of last Friday's community calendar. The Night Vale Council for Commerce is an organized and efficient body, and they never forget to send in important press releases to the radio station.
So you definitely heard about this event in time to prepare your wheat-themed costumes and to craft a dish for the wheat-themed potluck! Which is already underway on Main Street, a few feet away from City Hall. Yep.
Come out and join the veritable hoards of well-informed and prepared citizens who are already enjoying the festivities of the Wheat and Wheat By-Products Fair!
Oh, nope. Not a "fair." I just received a text from the Night Vale Council for Commerce that reads, "Actually, could you call it an Expo? Sorry, we're super firing our communications director for this snafu, it's so embarrassing. Thanks for covering for us, XOXOXO."
So head down to the Wheat and Wheat By-Products Expo down on Main Street.
Oh, nope. Nope. Hang on. Another text. "Actually, it's on Oxford Street because the City Council wouldn't approve a permit within five hundred feet of City Hall, you know how they are, so it's over by lamp post on Oxford. People can just drive that way until they hit the massive traffic jam caused by Oxford Street being shut down, then park and walk the rest of the way. Thanks, XOXOXO."
So, Wheat and Wheat By-Products Expo on Oxford Street. Got it? Great. Lets look at traffic. Which is admittedly not great right now, listeners. I hope you own a bicycle.
What Carlos was hoping for was the expertise of his cousin, her years of in-depth work with prophecy interpretation applied to his situation.
Anathema read the new prophecies a few times, toying with a long curled lock of hair as she peered disdainfully at a few index cards. She reordered them in her hands, then put them back in original numbered order again.
"This explains the makeshift easel and paintings," she said after about twenty minutes.
"Painting is really hard."
"So I see." She pushed her chair back and stood. "Well, are you going to show me around?"
"What?" Carlos followed more slowly, uncertain. "Aren't we going to, you know, talk about the thing?"
"We will. But not yet. I don't think I could accurately divine anything from your selection without first gaining some context from the surroundings. Your house is sitting on a ley line nexus!" She gestured around, toward either the house or the implied entirety of Night Vale. "And you said there were others? How can I pass any judgement without first comprehending the landscape these prophecies are meant for?"
"Fine." Carlos sighed, and drained his tea. "Let me get my shoes."
Anathema stole an umbrella from where it rested by the front door, carrying it over both their heads as they left the blue house and set out through town. Briefly, Carlos considered taking his car, but at the end of the street, he could see traffic was bumper to bumper, and several motorists were abandoning their vehicles to walk instead.
Anathema offered her arm, and Carlos sighed, slipping his in to link them together as they walked.
"Tell me about this place," she said.
And he did. Told her about the ley of the land, the way the lines centered on some places and how others moved periodically. He told her about all the clocks being flagrantly wrong and about the invisible clocktower that teleported around. He told her about the various bans he knew of and about the time he'd been abducted for new citizen orientation.
"Carlos, this all seems--"
"I'm not done," he said.
He told her about the stars not only being the wrong stars for the region but how they changed by their own celestial whim. He told her about someone he knew with night blooming tattoos that moved as evening set in. He told her about the angels, and she gasped.
"Angels? There are angels here?"
"Not like the ones you met, I don't think," Carlos said gradually. "They are tall, black, winged beings that live at Old Woman Josie's house. They're all named Erika, and acknowledging them is illegal."
Anathema opened her mouth, then closed it and waved him on.
He told her about someone he knew with telepathic or empathic abilities, who knew impossible things about people. He told her about the helicopters, and which colors to avoid. He told her about the Barista District and the nearby colony.
"Oh, there. Can we go there?" She grinned. "I want to see an entire street of coffee shops."
They crossed between gridlocked cars, navigating towards the Barista District. Some people had taken to leaving their car doors open, legs stretched out, conversing with the people in their vicinity. It turned the roads into labyrinth of hot metal. Anathema lifted her umbrella high and pulled Carlos along behind her, weaving her way through the maze.
Carlos heard a camera snap noise, and turned his head. Jackie Fierro was sitting on the hood of a SSP-branded Crown Vic, her legs stretched out, her phone in her hands. "Hey there, Carlos."
"Hi, Jackie. Did you just take a picture of me?"
She snorted. "Yeah, obviously." Her thumbs were tapping rapidly at her phone as she spoke. "So that's the new outsider, huh? She does magic stuff too?"
"Hello, I'm Anathema Device," Anathema said with her most polite smile on, the one that made the lines around her eyes crinkle but showed most of her teeth. She kept a hold of Carlos, standing by his side. "I'm visiting my cousin."
"Jackie Fierro. I run the pawn shop." She gave her phone a satisfied nod and put it away in her shirt.
"Did you just send a picture of me to someone?" Carlos asked.
"Yeah. Obviously." She flicked her wrist, metaphorically batting the question away. "How else would your boyfriend know what you're doing?"
"Boyfriend?" Anathema stared.
"Yeah, Cecil. Obviously." Jackie let out a little tch noise.
"Boyfriend , though? Is it so serious?" Anathema looked Carlos over, as if he'd changed drastically in the past three seconds. "He's never had a boyfriend before."
"Can we do this later, please?" he asked quietly.
"Hey, everyone gotta start somewhere, and Cecil's a good guy. He was talking about you earlier, got that dreamy tone. Real adorable."
"He talks about Carlos on his show?" Anathema asked.
"Yeah, and you. Whatever the news of the day is, Cecil's dishing it out."
This is getting out of hand, and the heat in Carlos' face made the hot air around him even more uncomfortable. "Jackie. I don't think Cecil needs additional help to know what's going on around town."
"Nah, but he prefers citizen reporting to, like, surveillance reports. And he always sends me cute cat gifs when he finds them. It's a very equitable exchange of information."
Her phone pinged, and she took it back out of her shirt. "Cecil wants to know if you're going to the Wheat and Wheat By-Products Expo."
"I'm not. I'm showing Anathema the Barista District. We don't have those back home."
"Well," Anathema said, "I bet Silicon Valley does."
"Cool." Jackie started tapping at her phone again, presumably passing this information on. "You kids have fun."
Jackie was nineteen, and Carlos was very much not , but standing around all the cars was sweltering, so they moved on.
They made it across the street and back to the relative ease of the sidewalk. Pointing the way, they continued on their journey.
"Carlos. My favorite cousin," Anathema said.
"This is not 'later', I meant like in a few hours," Carlos said.
"I mean this with nothing but love," she said, "but your boyfriend sounds like a cop."
The snort-laugh Carlos let out was indelicate and loud. He clapped a hand over his mouth to muffle his giggles. "Uh, wow, no. No, Anath. No."
"Are you sure? Because I support you in finally getting into dating, that's wonderful , Carlos. But not a cop."
"I know. Come on, let's get a coffee and not talk about my romantic prospects anymore, please."
They walked down the entire strip of the Barista District, counting the twelve storefronts and the seven outdoor carts that were all staffed by apron-wearing artisans. Anathema covered her smile with her fingertips, clearly amused at the strangeness of it.
"Why are there so many?"
"I have no idea," Carlos said. "There's a colony nearby where they all live. And a cultural faire every October."
"That's the strangest thing I have heard all day." She shook her head, still smiling. "Which one, where do we go?"
The Spiky Hammer, of course. Carlos held the door for her, letting her shut her umbrella and step into the blissfully frosty A/C of the shop, buffeting the scent of coffee around.
They were greeted by a call of "Interloper!" But only one, and Carlos had been trying to better hone his perception of the call, recognizing the lowkey friendly version of 'interloper' better and not mistaking it for the version that could lead to a mob.
"My cousin, she's visiting," Carlos called back, waving. "Anathema, what would you like?"
They walked to the counter. She swept the room with her gaze, warm expression cooling. "There's no menu."
"Oh, don't worry about that!" a voice like a midday sunshower said. "They can make you anything. In fact, implying otherwise while speaking to a barista is a grave insult to their abilities and may lead to a standoff."
"Anathema," Carlos said, "This is Dana. She's an intern at the station."
Dana toodled her fingers at them both, sitting at her own table nearby. She wore her NVCR shirt, jean shorts, and jellyfish earrings. Her drink today seemed to be mostly whipped cream and pink glitter that Carlos hoped was edible.
"Nice to meet you, Anathema. That's a beautiful name."
Anathema immediately frowned. Carlos nudged her with his elbow. "She's not teasing," he whispered. Then, to Dana: "Strange to see you out and about during the show."
"Oh, I know, but sometimes Cecil gets a sense that something newsworthy is going to occur, and he likes to have eyes on the ground. Or, really, feet on the ground and eyes up and clear and ready to intake any relevant visuals. The other thing is just an expression." She grinned. "You can sit with me, if you want!"
Placing orders, they took the other seats at Dana's table. She had a handheld voice recorder with her, a notepad with a calligraphy brush, and her phone.
The phone was predictably tuned to the radio station. Carlos wasn't sure if any device could not be tuned to the station during a broadcast.
A Voice said aloud: "An update on our local occultists. Intrepid freelancer and local pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro reported in to the station to inform us Anathema Device is getting a tour of the city from dear Carlos. That's very sweet. According to Jackie, Anathema seemed friendly in a distant, reserved sort of way, and carried a large umbrella to hide from the sun. There's a picture… Oh goodness."
Anathema silently looked at Carlos, her eyebrows threatening to vanish into her hairline from her incredulousness.
"I fear radio is not the best medium to transmit the information revealed by this photo. Your average picture may be worth a thousand words, but I don't believe I have the time or the breadth of vocabulary necessary to convey an accurate representation of this frozen moment, captured in gleaming AMOLED."
Across from them, Dana slurped her drink loudly.
" I am not an expert in any form of science, but even a layman would find it fair to say the Device family is blessed with incredibly good genes. The chromosomal biases and inclinations of their family bend to a very aesthetically pleasing form. There is physical similarity in their full lips and the strength of their jawlines. Anathema's circular hornrims give her a studious, professorial air." A pause. "One might overfocus on her eyebrows, which seem a little too sharp. I prefer how Carlos' compliment his persistent world-weariness and melancholic temperament."
"Excuse me?" Anathema reached up and touched her eyebrows. "Do they look bad?"
"No, you look fine," Carlos reassured her.
Dana looked at Anathema with a contemplative moue. Slowly, Anathema noticed and stared right back at her, as if trying to read answers from her face like a scryer.
"I think that's our drinks," Carlos said loudly, getting up to walk to the pick-up counter.
He picked up his hazelnut macchiato and Anathema's green tea latte. Turning back to the table, Carlos intended to sit next to his cousin, to reassure her that Cecil didn't mean anything by it, that he just said things without thinking sometimes, and who didn't honestly? And if he nudged Dana a bit, she could probably lead them both down a nicely distracting conversational rabbit hole. Sometimes a question as inane as 'how's the weather' was enough to spark a truly impressive tangent.
He didn't get that far.
Anathema asked, "Do you hear hissing?"
And all hell broke loose.
The Voice of Night Vale
Urgent news from the Wheat and Wheat By-Products Expo on Oxford Street. Suddenly and without forewarning, all wheat and related products have metamorphosed into snakes. Each is green, and three feet long, and all seem to be extremely unhappy to have been conjured into this life.
We've reached out to the Night Vale Council of Commerce to inquire if this is another part of their event that was previously announced but we've all collectively forgotten. As of press time, there's been no comment.
The combination of snake outbreak alongside today's traffic problems has created an unenviable situation. People have been unable to escape the sea of cars and trucks that had congested throughout the vehicular circulatory system of Night Vale. Citizens have taken to climbing on top of cars to escape the hundreds of snakes that are pouring from every store and home and restaurant. The sidewalks are flooded with reptile green.
Preliminary reports had indicated that the snakes aren't very good at climbing stairs. If you plan to flee instead of laying down and accepting your grim fate, then you may wish to find elevation, and particularly elevation with stairs. Snakes are fine climbing slopes.
Snakes filled every pastry box and display case in the Barista District, plastic glass bulging from the weight. They dropped heavily from the sliding doors of their prisons, sending baristas to scatter, screaming.
Around the Spiky Hammer, tables overturned and dishes broke as croissants and scones and cake lollipops rearranged themselves into more snakes, slithering on the floor.
"Come on!" Dana grabbed Anathema's wrist and pushed Carlos, urging them out the door, joining the crowds that were escaping the coffee shop.
Carlos ran, hopping around the scattered snakes that were winding down the sidewalk. More were coming, roiling out through the doors. The entire city seemed to be hissing like a balloon losing air.
"Agnes was right! Again!" Anathema said angrily. "Climb up onto something!"
There was a gridlocked pickup truck nearby. Carlos bolted for it, yanking the tailgate down. Climbing up was awkward, the bed just a little too high for him. Eventually, Dana shoved his ass, rolling him into the flatbed before hauling herself up.
They both turned to take Anathema's hands, lifting her up.
Yanking the tailgate back up, Dana surveyed around them. "That sure is a lot of snakes. That would indicate that all wheat and wheat by-products have been transformed, not just things like bread. I wonder if it's like the amount of wheat and wheat by-products that equals a snake turns into one, or if its like every single instance of wheat turns into a snake. If you have a box of penne in the cabinet, does it just explode from the force of a hundred snakes suddenly existing in the space of a small cardboard box?"
Pushing up her glasses, Anathema ventured cautiously, "Well, I… would assume the latter, actually, as there doesn't seem to be any lingering trace amounts of wheat that isn't snakes." She shoved her hands under her frames to cover her eyes. "That is the stupidest sentence I have ever said."
Carlos dropped his bag off his shoulder and bent over it. "Let's figure this out."
The Voice of Night Vale
Now, back to our latest emergency, still in progress.
There has been a development in the situation regarding wheat and its various by-products. Good news and bad.
Good news. The snakes do not seem to be venomous. Strong, eager to coil around larger creatures to squeeze the life from them, but not venomous.
Bad news. Several houses in the tract homes in the Coyote Corners neighborhood have collapsed, their foundations transformed into deep pits of snakes.
Good news. The snakes have vanished entirely.
Bad news. The snakes have transformed again, this time into a rich smog that sparks with malevolent red flashes of light. Unlike the snakes, these clouds of noxious smoke are not restrained by an inability to climb stairs.
More on this, but first: the Weather.
"Mr. Fear" from SIAMES rang out from a car left running as Anathema and Carlos dug through his bag. He took his wand in hand and grabbed a velvet drawstring bag in his fist.
Dana took up the umbrella and swung it in wide arcs, trying to push away or at least disperse the encroaching clouds of darkness. "This would be a good time for magic! I mean, not that Cecil told me anything about witchcraft or your trepidation about using spells around people and how happy he was you trusted him, but this seems like a situation in which that trepidation should be set aside!"
"Agreed! I like this girl, she seems sensible!" Anathema snatched Carlos' wand from him and struck the tip of it along the edge of a chunk of sandstone. Flecks of quartz sprang from it, and Anathema blew them away with a lungful of air.
The flecks swirled in the air, and spun, and pushed, and wind circled them. The clouds were forced back, but moved somehow viscous, too thick for smoke or vapor. There was sentience that pushed back, trying to get back in.
"Oh, that's not good," she said, gasping softly. "Hop to it, conejito."
"Not a time for puns," Carlos said, but took his wand back from her. Kicking at the flimsy window at the back of the truck cab, he created a foothold. As he grasped the top of the cab, the metal burned his hands and he hissed.
"Hurry up," Anathema said. "Why didn't Agnes warn me to bring my own wand? Incredibly rude of her."
"Look at them, tell me what they are," Carlos said, finally getting on top of the truck and planting his feet.
Oh, it was high up here. He didn't like how far away the ground seemed.
"They look like black smoke with angry fireflies inside," Dana offered. "They remind me of the gaze of a spurned lover, the simmering anger that never goes away even after years and years."
"Who are you?" Anathema asked.
"Dana Cardinal! Nice to meet you."
"Anath!" Carlos shouted.
"I mean, she's right! That's what they feel like! Try a pacification!"
Shoving his wand between his teeth, Carlos tugged the drawstring bag open. Inside were a dozen trinkets of various materials. A dozen was too much in the middle of an emergency, and it took precious seconds for him to find the materials he wanted.
Stick of palo santo, rock of pink salt. Taking his wand back in hand, he dropped the bag with a cursory, "Catch!"
Dana caught it and gave him a thumbs up.
Looking up, around them, Carlos blanched. Beyond their little sphere of arcane wind, the streets seemed to be covered in a cloak of black fog. It rose, beginning to encroach on the buildings around them, seeping into windows and rushing over rooftops until shopfronts and houses began to vanish from view.
Anathema banged her fist on the cab of the truck, snapping Carlos out of his moment of fear.
"Right, sorry!" He cracked the wood and salt against each other.
They should have not reacted. These were not exactly the materials a girl scout would be handed to teach her to start a fire. Not unless the scout master really didn't like their troop.
But Carlos was a witch, so a single blue-white spark leapt out from the impact, and he drew it in.
It burned his left hand slightly as he caught it against his palm, the heat dissolving into his skin. A tang of power surged up his arm, into the stretched power line of his shoulders, and back down his right arm, right hand, wand hand.
Salt and white smoke slipped past his lips, his tongue curling against the abrasive taste.
His arm moved, drawing a perfect circle in the air, trailing blue-white light from the tip of his wand. It illuminated the smoke falling from his mouth.
As he finished the ring, the air poured with light, blinding and stinging like, predictably, salt on a wound. The luminosity grew and grew, until he was squinting to see.
Around him, the light struck the smog and cut into it, suffusing light into the dark clouds. The red gleam and the firesmoke hue faded to grey, then white.
He heard a camera snap sound below him and sighed as he worked.
The Voice of Night Vale
We come back from the Weather as always: eager to hear the details of our lives going forward and the way the world has changed around us in the meantime.
Intern Dana was fortunate to be at the epicenter of the activity and witnessed everything. The dark spirits of the wheat and wheat by-products spread over the whole of Night Vale, suffocating the sun and dragging our city into darkness. A downy comforter of imminent doom blanketed everything, and its grasp only grew as the minutes ticked by.
Then, rescue. Dana and the Devices climbed on top of a forgotten truck for shelter. According to Dana, Anathema then used… a giant fan she had with her to blow the spirits away and keep them at bay. She quite definitely used a mundane, non-magical object to accomplish this.
Using the window of opportunity provided, Carlos vaulted up onto the top of the truck cab, standing tall and majestic over the scene around him. Dana says he then used a… kite, a big glowing circular kite to sort of… disperse the spirits.
Dana took video with her phone, and I can verify that it was definitely an enormous kite. They do such remarkable work with summer leisure products these days.
The black smog softened and transformed into pale white clouds. Rising over Night Vale, they joined their fellows in the sky. A light rain began, running down our faces and streaking through the soot that had moments ago pressed murderously on our skin.
Anyone suffering from smoke inhalation symptoms should visit Night Vale General Hospital as soon as possible to be treated. After all, it would be inauspicious to survive such an unusual emergency only to die of something as mundane as smoke inhalation. If you're going to become a statistic, make it an interesting one.
Between the gridlock and the emergency vehicles struggling to make it around town and the manhunt-in-progress for the Night Vale Council of Commerce, Carlos and Anathema didn't manage to return to the bungalow until the sky was going purple-pink overhead, the sun setting beyond the houses.
"I call first shower," Anathema said, her face still streaked with dark smudges. Her clothes were now all uniformly black, as if they'd been poorly dyed in a wash bucket.
"Fine." Carlos waved her off. "Don't use all the hot water."
As he waited his turn, Carlos spent some quality time sitting numb and tired at the table.
His fingers tingled; it had been a long time since he'd performed real magic, and while the muscle memory carried him through, it left him sore all over. The fine arcane control needed to drive the blight out of the city had been more exertion than he'd done in…
Had he ever pulled off magic like that? In hindsight, it was far too expansive and ambitious for him. Hedgewitchery didn't include a mass pacification of malevolent spirits. He shouldn't have even attempted it.
His hands were shaking. Again. That was becoming a bad habit.
Carlos paced the living room until it was his turn in the shower. Then, turning it on as hot as he could stand, he scalded his skin until the latent anxiety burned away.
Head bowed under the spray, Carlos could watch as everything sluiced away. Coal dust turned the water black as he rinsed his hair. Then grey, as he shampooed and washed. By the time he turned to let the remaining heat hit his shoulders, it all ran clear, and he could believe for the moment he'd let all of it run down the drain.
Skin flushed from the heat, Carlos got out of the shower and dried off. His glasses were opaque, fogged completely over. He didn't know this house well enough not to trip over something or stub a toe somewhere, so he carried his glasses in his hand as he dug out pajamas and found his slippers. By then, he could see again, and slipped out into the living room, bracing himself a bit to deal with his cousin.
He loved Anathema. He'd asked her to come. Still, having her there was stressful, for all she represented, of home and of his family and of what he had to do. What she would inevitably say he had to do.
In the living room, Anathema was stretched out on the sofa with her feet up on the coffee table. She craned her head to look as Carlos emerged. "Ah, there you are! There was a strange man at the door. He brought us food, so I have let him inside. Come and eat falafel."
Cecil, sitting in the little rocking chair that had come with the house, ducked his head and smiled. "After today, I assumed there'd be a need for wheat-free food."
"There is roasted eggplant, conejito! God, is this the first thing I've eaten since I arrived? Horrible, just awful. Why do I do this to myself? Why does my beloved cousin do this to me?"
Cecil turned his head to her. " Cone…"
"Because he is small and jumpy," Anathema supplied cheerfully before shoving a forkful of salad into her mouth.
"Stop it," Carlos said, circling the sofa to sit beside her. "Hasn't today already been enough?"
"That's bunny, right? I only took Weird Spanish in school, and it has shockingly few conversational applications." Cecil handed Carlos a cardboard bowl, piled up with greens, falafel, avocado, and cilantro sauce. "You look tired," he said quieter, to Carlos.
"Little rabbit, but yes." Anathema nodded, and drew her legs onto the sofa to balance her bowl on.
"Don't I always look tired?" Carlos asked in the same low tone. "I always feel tired."
"Magic is often a physical strain," Anathema said.
"That's how you did it, right? You saved Night Vale with magic."
"Hm. I suppose we did." She bumped one knee into Carlos gently. "A very exciting first day in your strange town."
"I can't believe I pulled that off," Carlos muttered between bites of food. "It's not like we get a lot of practice at that kind of arcana."
Cecil set his finished bowl aside and reached to touch Carlos' knee, thumb stroking. "If everyone knew what'd happened, they'd be incredibly grateful."
"Best they don't." Anathema grimaced. "Only takes one bad apple with access to kindling to ruin your day."
"You need a permit for that kind of extra-judicial action, and I'm sure for all their faults, Sheriff Sam wouldn't approve that kind of thing."
No, Carlos silently agreed. Likely they'd be too busy painting some handmade miniatures or creating a chainsaw sculpture or something.
He could possibly admit he'd done actual magic to help the town. Thanks to Cecil's lipservice on air, people had for the most part started to look at Carlos like another resident of the town. That was progress. Whether that would hold out if he started doing witch stuff in public, though, was less of a sure thing.
However: Was it that much stranger than anyone else around town? No one batted an eye at the Sheriff's antics. The woman who owned the record store held concerts of dead musicians via hired medium. There was a sentient glowing cloud on the school board.
Still, without the direction from Agnes, it was reckless. Throwing off the pre-ordained was dangerous. Or so Carlos presumed. He wasn't sure yet if one could interrupt totally accurate prophecies.
He jumped when his bowl was taken out of his hands. Cecil was leaning over him, eyes concerned. If Carlos always felt tired, then Cecil always seemed concerned. Constant reliable facts of their lives. "Are you done eating?"
"Oh," Carlos mumbled. "Yeah. Sorry."
Cecil bent to kiss his forehead and took the empty plates to the kitchen, presumably to throw out.
Blinking slowly, Carlos looked aside at Anathema, and found her watching him steadily.
"What?" he asked.
"Seeing you mentally doze off is a source of worry, cousin. Are you all right?"
"That's a big question."
"It's not. You either are or you are not. Don't get granular."
Carlos shrugged. Anathema sighed.
Returning, Cecil stood by the sofa, his gaze skipping between them both. "Ms. Device, will you be staying nearby? Can I drive you somewhere?"
"No," Carlos answered. "She's going to sleep here. The ley line thing, it's important ," and he looked at Anathema, "and I really need-- need, I don't know."
"I got it, I know. I'll see what you mean and we'll talk about it in the morning." She touched his arm lightly.
"Okay," Cecil said. "Do you have a second bed hidden somewhere?"
"Oh," Carlos said.
"'Oh'?" Anathema asked, then pressed a hand to her forehead. "I assumed you prepared for my arrival."
"No. I mean, I did! A bit. I've been… painting doors."
"Yes, I saw." She sighed. "We can share, but I don't want to hear any more spurious lies about my sleeping habits."
"You kick!" Carlos looked up at Cecil entreatingly. "Amsterdam, like three years ago, she kicked me so hard I had a bruise the next day!"
"Fabrications," Anathema said.
"I probably still have the picture on my phone."
Cecil held up his hands, as if he were mediating some debate. "Regardless. If it's important for Anathema to experience this ley line thing, why don't you leave the house to her tonight and come home with me. I have to get to City Hall early tomorrow, so I can drop you back off here in the morning."
That made sense. Given how drained Carlos felt from the commotion and the magic, he didn't actually want to share with Anathema and her vicious heels. He nodded silently, rubbing his face.
"Do you need anything?"
"No. Lemme just go brush my teeth and we can go?"
Cecil nodded back once and stepped back so Carlos could stand.
To his surprise, Anathema stood with him. "Show me where that is, Carlos."
"Where… what?" He frowned. "The toothpaste is on the sink."
"I didn't see it, so before you go, show me." She pushed him lightly, urging him along to the bedroom, then the bathroom.
She shut the door behind them.
"This is not about the toothpaste," Carlos pointed out.
"No." She waved her hands as much as the narrow room would allow. "You are going off to stay with that man! He is your boyfriend, said the rude girl with the phone."
"Jackie's not rude, she just has a kind of confrontational sense of humor," Carlos said.
"Where is my Carlos, what have you done with him." Then, something happened. Her humor vanished, leaving the kind of severity Anathema usually reserved for people who spoke during movies and blocked bike lanes. "Is this Agnes' doing?"
Goddammit. It was very unfair, how Anathema refused to talk about That Thing that happened to her during the not-Apocalyse, but it still hung like a spectre overlooking everything she did. "Anathema, you spent all day not wanting to talk about prophecy and now you suddenly do?"
"Did Agnes tell you--" Her face pulled into a furious, unhappy look, something painful around the corners of her eyes. "I should have known."
Carlos understood where her ire came from. Everyone in the family knew Anathema was foretold to meet a witchfinder in the final hours before the Apocalypse, and further was ordained to sleep with him. When someone grew up knowing their future, memorizing it bit by bit from age five and onward, it changed things about that person.
Now, the witchfinder was back in England and Anathema was here in Night Vale, and even Carlos knew how to connect those dots.
"It's not like that," Carlos told her. "I don't want to talk about this."
She crossed her arms. "We will talk of prophecies in the morning, Carlos. You know this."
"Agnes didn't tell me to sleep with Cecil, Anath, okay? She just-- Cecil calls it wingmanning, of all things." His face felt hot. Hell, his chest felt hot, an indignant flush running over his skin. "He already-- before Agnes could worm her way into it, he was already, you know?"
The truth sounded so absurd, he didn't want to voice it to her. She would scoff or shoot it down or explain to him in detail how love at first sight wasn't a reality. He feared she could convince him, appealing to his logic. Convince him that Cecil was wrong, or at least misguided.
"I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" Carlos purposefully turned to the sink, turning on the faucet, and brushing his teeth. He took his time with it, more than was necessary, until Anathema sighed and left.
Carlos wore his jacket over his pajamas, huddling in it against Night Vale's particularly chilly late nights. He wore his slippers to Cecil's car, and upstairs to his apartment when they arrived.
The drive was quiet, and Cecil didn't speak as he brought Carlos inside and activated the lock on his bloodstone door.
Then, they were alone, and Carlos ached everywhere. His arms were sore from arcane exertion. His head hurt. Under his ribcage was warm and thudding with some need he couldn't name.
He felt like one big bruise.
From prior experience, he expected Cecil to take his jacket and guide him along, to take control in a way that rid Carlos of having to worry or think about anything.
That didn't happen. Cecil simply stood close by, looking at Carlos steadily.
Carlos took a deep breath.
"Cecil. Do you believe in fate? Destiny?"
Thankfully, Cecil appeared to give the question serious thought. Seconds stretched as his eyes flicked over Carlos' face, as if his answer could be found there somehow.
"Not exactly," he offered finally. "Not in the way you do, perhaps."
"Elaborate," Carlos said.
Cecil blew out a breath. "Uh, okay. Sort of putting me on the spot. I suspect I think about the topic less frequently than a professional descendant does, but I think… sometimes glimpses of the future are found, sometimes in the wisdom of a prophetess, sometimes from great stone tablets unearthed from the sands after a flood. But they're like spoilers. The difference remains between hearing about something specific to come and experiencing life around that moment. The difference between the eyes of Virgo and the reality of the situation when it happened."
He looked suddenly nervous. "Is that a good answer? I don't have the benefit of your perspective."
"I would hazard a guess that my perspective is limited in many ways yours is not," Carlos said. "Sorry. I don't think I'm good company right now. Again."
"Then we'll try again tomorrow," Cecil said, and lead Carlos further into the apartment, to the bedroom.
There, the bed was arranged with an extra set of pillows, which Carlos found wonderfully optimistic. Cecil readied himself for bed while Carlos folded up his jacket, leaving it on the bedside table. Tucking his slippers under the bed, Carlos climbed in, settling with a rich sigh.
Soon, Cecil turned out the lights and joined him.
Carlos rolled over to lay against him, fingers touching his side, under his ribs.
"Um," Cecil said, suddenly loud.
"Well, it's just that…" He took Carlos' questing hand and laced their fingers, holding it securely. "All my surveillance devices failed before, when you came over last time."
"Right." Because Carlos had hexed them. He didn't see where this was going.
"There are regulations in Night Vale about many things. Including sex. There are forms to be submitted, as well as mobile PIN pads used to confirm the intent to have sex, as well as bloodwork that is required--"
"Cecil, we've had sex before," Carlos interrupted, trying to work his hand out of Cecil's surprisingly strong grip.
"No, because that would definitely be against city ordinance, if we utilized the accidental privacy to engage in sexual congress without going through the documentation." He put a finger to Carlos' lips. "Which is a process monitored by normal citizen observation. Which was reinstalled in my apartment Monday."
Carlos rolled over. "I need my wand, right now."
While Cecil went on about sex PIN numbers and the turnaround time on bloodwork and how common overnight notary services were in Night Vale, Carlos grabbed his wand from where it was hidden up the sleeve of his jacket. Sitting up in bed, he drew a seal in the air, simple but crackling with staticky energy.
Breaking it with a tap of his wand, Carlos released the spell. The house hummed. A few things in the room buzzed and died.
Satisfied, Carlos put his wand on the bedside table.
"You are going to get me into such trouble," Cecil moaned, arm over his eyes.
"Listen, it's just logical. Orgasms help promote better sleep."
Cecil lifted his arm to glare at Carlos. "Oh, suddenly it all makes sense."
"I didn't anticipate staying in Night Vale so long. I ran out of valerian tea a while ago." He took Cecil's hand by the wrist, lifting it until he could kiss Cecil's palm with a warm hum. "It's been a long day and I want a good night sleep."
"I feel very used," Cecil intoned gravely, in contrast with his free hand sneaking under Carlos' soft pajama pants. "Callously utilized for sex."
Carlos kissed him, and swallowed the rest of his words, then swallowed a good deal more than that.
When they finished some twenty minutes later, Carlos slept hard and deep, laid sprawled with Cecil against his side, a warm hand splayed over Carlos' chest, heavy and grounding.
have you read It Devours! folks? did you know the entire process of getting Sex Approval is described in it? it's hysterical, and I ripped the relevant section of the audiobook, I highly rec listening. you HAVE to hear cecil baldwin reading “She pulled out a PIN pad. This was a bold and sexy move.”
anyway, carlos, right. two things there. first off, this version of carlos, the Carlos Device version, has always been extremely lonely and as anathema mentions has never actually Dated. he's slept with people sporadically but just never has Relationships. so having a relationship and learning to trust cecil means wanting to hit that like All The Time.
secondly: nothing in the early seasons prepares you for carlos being the horniest character in WTNV by a fucking mile, oh my god. he makes more references to sex than every other character combined and DID YOU ALL LISTEN TO THE VACATION BONUS EPISODE "HOLIDAY" WHICH INCLUDES DYLAN MARRON FAKING AN ORGASM WHILE TALKING ABOUT EQUATIONS.
anyway. yep. carlos "never not up for it" palmer, i'm sayin'.
i should come up with chapter titles already, damn.
There was something terribly domestic about Cecil dropping Carlos back off, leaning over to kiss his cheek. "Have a good day occulting, bunny. I'll see you later? I'm free tomorrow, the whole weekend, actually, like always, but I suppose you might not be free, given your cousin is visiting. You probably want to spend time together. Though, I'd solve the sleeping arrangements issue before you get too wrapped up in the magicky stuff. Unless you want to stay with me again, that'd be fine obviously, but we'll have to sort things out after my meeting at City Hall and the show, though you can probably catch me before the show starts--"
Carlos watched him, eyes cool. "Are we doing that now? Are you just going to try to slip that in there?"
"What?" Cecil gave him a guileless, innocent look.
He smiled. Oh, he knew. "I don't know what you mean?"
"Fine." Carlos sighed, ducking his head. "Uh, I'll let you know when I know."
Then, he leaned back in and kissed Cecil, because he could and it felt nice. Two nails, painted matte green today, touched his chin as their mouths opened, and Cecil touched his teeth to Carlos' lower lip. He breathed, and Cecil breathed too. Carlos tilted his head--
"Mm, nope, no." Cecil backed off. "I can't be late, the City Council will start howling and swinging their flagella around. There might be injuries to bystanders." His tongue swept over his lip, and he took a deep breath. "Right."
It would be interesting to see how far Cecil could stand to be pushed, how much his sense of professional and civic duty would take before he caved. Carlos wanted to know, wanted the exact parameters of his sway over Cecil delineated and documented in his journal.
Cecil looked past Carlos, winced slightly, and waved.
Turning, Carlos saw Anathema on his porch, arms crossed.
"A descendant is always punctual," Carlos muttered. "Yeah, I'll see you later, one way or another."
He climbed out of the car, looking back at Cecil once as he walked through the gate and up to the house. Then, from the porch steps, he glanced back again.
"Good morning, cousin," Anathema said, and waved over him at Cecil. Or perhaps waved him away. It was hard to tell. "I put on tea. Shall we talk?"
When Carlos checked back, the car was pulling away. With it went a wellspring of calm, and Carlos felt the absence acutely, like something had been taken out of him, something with claws that didn't want to release, and took a little flesh from him as it went.
Anathema stood on the porch above him, her fingers against the frame of her glasses. Carlos knew what she was doing; he'd always been the opposite, preferring to look without his glasses on.
"Don't stare at my aura," Carlos told her.
"I only do so out of concern. Especially given what I saw last night." She waved Carlos inside, face pinched with pain as she re-entered the house.
"It's completely unprecedented, right? I've never felt energy like that." He walked to the kitchen, zeroing in on the tea mugs set out. "Since I've been in Night Vale, I've slept better than I have probably in my entire life?"
"Are you joking right now?"
Carlos turned, frowning at Anathema.
Now, he was paying more attention. Anathema had circles under her eyes, and there was a redness in her sclera. Her hair was braided, but messy, all flyaways and discontent.
"Did you not sleep well?" Carlos asked.
"Did I sleep would be a better question, Carlos!" She slumped into the chair across from him. "All night. All night, it was at me, like a great beast. The dark light that growls and coils around this city, that moves sinuous and never quiet enough." She pressed her thumb against her brow. "It's a lurking thing, cousin, and the moment your guard is loosed, it reaches its tenebrous tendrils into the mind. It watches you. No, I did not sleep well! I got the chalk from my bag and I spent an hour drawing the Sixth Pentacle of the Sun so I could get some rest without feeling its sight on me."
That was unexpected, to put it mildly. Carlos opened and closed his mouth a few times, looking around the room, at his house as if there would be some explanation sitting in the corner, a demon lurking, an intruder to haunt the walls, violating the threshold.
When he resettled his eyes on her, she was waiting for him, dire and cold steel.
His entire body moved with his inhale. "I-- I didn't know that would happen. I wouldn't have left in that case."
"No, I suspect you wouldn't have." She crossed her arms. "How did you come to your prophecies, Carlos?" When he winced, her lips parted, her teeth apart of a vivid curl of annoyance. "Stop that. Be serious."
"Sorry, I didn't come to Night Vale expecting to start spitting up index cards, now did I?"
Anathema crossed her arms on the table, eyes narrow.
"Fine," Carlos said tightly. Then, with as few details as he could manage, he explained how it had happened, from the original instruction from Agnes to the-- the act. Broad strokes.
Anathema stared at him, expression turning to something baffled. "You…"
Carlos shrugged helplessly.
"And that is what Cecil told you? How he describes it happening?"
An injection of flushed irritation found his veins. "It's how it happened."
She made a vague gesture, unconvinced.
"No, knock it off. You don't know him, and-- and you don't know this place , Anath. Cecil did not do anything to me, he wouldn't know how. I-- I looked into him, and looked into the city."
"What," she asked, voice flat.
"His aura! It's the same! His aura matches the ley lines, the dark light, all right?" His hands were shaking again. "I-- I went under this thing, fell into the light or something, and something spoke to me. Or, I spoke to myself? I don't know. But whatever it was, it was enormous. It was everything, it filled my entire perception of the universe for a moment, and that wasn't Cecil, he's not capable of that and he wouldn't hurt me, so just put that shit away, Anathema, or you can leave and I'll figure this out myself, I swear to god."
Her hands were lifted, eyes wide, already saying "Okay, okay, okay," as he finally trailed off. "I get it. I'm sorry. I, wow, Carlos, I don't… know what to say."
"He wouldn't hurt me or use me," Carlos reiterated. "That is arguably the only thing I do understand about this whole situation."
She nodded. "Okay. Then." Holding up a finger, she sat back in her seat and took a drink of tea. Which seemed like a good idea, so Carlos did the same. Hot and strong and not quite sweet enough, but bracing.
"Right." Anathema pulled the binder ring of cards over and removed the ring. She set them out in rows.
She touched prophecy 00, the painting one, and pulled aside another, letting them sit side by side.
02: When the red bird loses her way, keep singing to her and so guide her way home.
"Dana," Anathema said.
"Yeah," Carlos said miserably. "I caught that too. Cardinal."
Nodding, Anathema put those off to the side. "Finish the painting, give it to her, and presumably… she'll be lost in the desert and have to trade the painting for safe passage. Or something."
"Probably 'or something,'" Carlos said.
Anathema gave Carlos a tart look, then slid two more cards out.
03: They dare to meddle with his heart and mind, pressing him into a more pleasing shape. A draught of somnus the night before will keep him safe, and you have to keep him safe.
06: Listen well: he is fragile with a rabbit heart. No one else will protect him, so it falls onto you. Sorry.
"These are almost certainly linked. Your prophecies, just from cursory read, seem to be aiming at something soon to come," Anathema said, pushing up her glasses studiously. "When someone is endangered, you will have to step in to help." Her gaze found Carlos'. "I have a guess for who."
"No," Carlos said quietly. "This isn't going to make sense to you, but 'no one else will protect him' , that's not Cecil. There are many people here who would."
"If you are sure," she agreed, thankfully without argument. "Then you will have to just keep watch."
Another slid across the table, into their joined focus.
01: Pay attention to the color of the blood in your mouth. Black ichor is a gift.
"I'll keep that in mind," Carlos said dryly.
"You should not be spitting up ichor so I would not worry about that. Perhaps there will be some other entity this applies to?"
"Maybe the dragon."
Anathema did that open mouth-close mouth-headshake thing and put the card aside with the others.
"He has five heads and is wanted for insurance fraud," Carlos added helpfully.
"Please stop talking," Anathema said with great pain.
05: If time is a river, it comes from a source, and despite what Aquarius would have you believe, it's absolutely not from a single source. At some point, it will seem like your pitcher has been stolen. Let it go.
Both of them reread the card a few times.
Carlos waited for Anathema to say something. All she did was gnaw her lip.
"Time is weird here," Carlos said quietly. "I… maybe there is a source for that, a centralized thing that contributes to that?"
"'Absolutely not from a single source,'" she echoed.
"Then I have no idea."
"Nor do I." She put it aside, then looked over the remaining cards. Taking most of them, she put them in the same stack. "Same with these."
That left Call your cousin immediately, which Carlos took and set in the stack as well, and one more.
09: When Persephone descended into the Underground, she ruled as Queen of the Shades, and dispensed wisdom and punishment alike. They called her a new name.
"Yeah, I don't know." Carlos rubbed his face and took a deep drink of his tea. "No idea. I'll keep my eyes out for encroaching queens, but I think any would-be monarchists would have to do battle with the current regime."
"It means to tell us something. I would even say it sounds like your particular type of obfuscation." Her nails, unpainted, tapped against the card. "It is an invitation to yourself."
Carlos made a face.
"You said you read too deeply into one of Agnes' prophecies and tried to catch sight of the Virgo constellation. Well?"
"This isn't me, though. It's…"
"What?" She set the card aside primly, clearing the board between them. "The city? Do you suspect a genius locus situation?"
"No." But didn't he? What else was he saying? "I don't know. I'm still exploring the possibilities. Night Vale is thaumaturgically unique."
Accepting this, Anathema nodded, wrapping her hands around her mug. "We'll see. Once you figure it out, let me know." She took a sip, and sighed. "I already learned about the veracity of existence of angels and demons and the Antichrist. Why wouldn't the Lady of the Underworld exist as well?"
"Correlation, causation, and coincidence," said Carlos. "What now?"
"Lets finish tea. Then, I want to try something."
The Voice of Night Vale
City Council held a press conference today regarding our wheat and wheat by-product-related catastrophe yesterday. And the news is admittedly bleak. For the foreseeable future, wheat and its by-products will be under strict regulation in Night Vale.
No household will be permitted to contain more than 20 ounces of wheat at any time. There shall be a one-strike policy in place. Should any citizen be found in possession of a quantity that exceeds 20 ounces, their wheat privileges shall be completely revoked. To regain wheat rights, citizens must submit to voluntary re-education and complete a four week community service program.
Local businesses are not exempt from new regulations. All wheat materials must be kept in a lead-lined containment cell exclusive to wheat. No other food supplies may be stored along with the wheat. The containment cell must be sealable from the outside and be equipped with high temperature flame jets to prevent any outbreaks. Obviously, no wheat can be purchased until these measures are in place.
Full specifications and guidelines for our new wheat regulations are available at City Hall. If you are interested in acquiring a license to own wheat, please bring a valid photo ID and proof of catastrophe insurance.
They were going to test a theory.
Carlos didn't like the theory very much.
It involved clearing the living room, pushing furniture against the walls to make a space. Carlos sitting in the middle of the room. Anathema having him hold a piece of string that allowed her to circumscribe a circle around him in green chalk.
There was a sensation in the air around him as she completed the line of the circle, like a window shutting to abruptly cut off the ambient noise of the world. A deeper silence that itched at his skin.
She didn't cross the line from the moment she completed it. Instead, she walked on her toes around the perimeter, setting prisms and colored stones in precise locations on the chalk line.
When they were done, when she was done, Anathema knelt directly in front of Carlos, on the other side of the line. She held a pen and notepad, the same one Carlos had taken from Cecil just under a week ago.
God, it felt so much longer than that.
She reached out to adjust a prism, so one of the flat faces sat like a wall toward him. "Ready?"
"I do not want to do this," Carlos said flatly.
"Consider it like this: if you put in your full effort and it doesn't work, then everything was a fluke and you just need to avoid-- well." She cleared her throat. "Avoid the circumstances that lead to the incident. Which should be easy, because who opens their inner sight during intercourse?"
Obedient descendants who listened to the commands of long dead prophets, that's who. Carlos sighed, taking off his glasses and setting them on the floor in front of himself. That handled, he shut his eyes. He thought of phials, of smoke, of fictional colors, and of a Veil.
He began to See. The colors of reality bled out to grey, and in their place he saw the world underneath. Around him hummed with dark light, sweet and tender and greeting him as if to say you come so rarely and wrapping its soothing balm over him.
He could See the prisms. He Saw them as lenses, as focii, honing his Sight with their clarity. He could See far away, so far away. He could See the Library as it slowly began to rebuild itself, defiant of its latest burning. He could See Dana making coffee at the station, humming to herself. He could See the arcane shroud City Council used to obscure themselves from his vision, from all prying eyes, how old and insular they were.
He looked into the shivering flow of energy that ran circuits through Night Vale, and it looked back up at him, its attention a tangible thing that filled him up like a goblet, violet red pouring from the sides as it over spilled, staining his skin and seeping in.
He swallowed, and it settled in him like a solid thing, still something dark, but verdant, spreading like greenery, wine and vine and exponential growth.
He was sinking, drowning, down and down and you'd been told, already, you were told quite plainly that you would fall, and here you were, descent still in progress. It would be both a long way down and also come faster than you expected, so you had to learn how to fall, which was just another way of saying you needed to learn how to survive the landing, learn how the Hanged Man climbed back down to relearn walking after seeing multitudes.
Carlos snapped out of it, eyes opening, Sight failing. Everything was blurred color and Anathema had broke the line of the circle.
To hell with it. Carlos gave into the urge to collapse on his side, breathing like he'd forgotten to do so for the past five minutes, big open-mouthed inhales.
"You're fine," Anathema said, knee-walking over to rest her hand on his shoulder. "You're fine, it's okay."
She was holding the notepad still. Carlos eyed it with fear.
Anathema followed his eyes and nodded. "Number twelve." She lifted the page to read from it. "'He's swallowed too much to ever survive beyond your reach. When he attempts to go, his feet will fail him. He will say cruel things. Know that he is a liar.'"
Whatever that meant. Carlos put his hand over his eyes, shuddering.
In a rare show of comfort, Anathema tucked her fingers into his hair. Her thumb stroked his forehead gently. "You're a prophet, conejito."
Carlos shook his head silently, and laid as still as he could, as if the universe would forget him and leave him alone.
The Voice of Night Vale
Since yesterday, I've received several messages from grateful parties. I wanted to say I have definitely heard them, but I haven't had the chance to pass them onto dear Carlos and his cousin yet. We all survived a crisis, and it's nice to hear from citizens who want to thank the occultists for their part in that survival.
I'm glad we are all in agreement about how well-timed and helpful that fan and kite trick was. And thank you, everyone who sent me more photos and phone videos of the event! It was some truly impressive work. Often, listeners, you are my eyes and ears as much as I am your Voice. I enjoy our little arrangement, don't you?
For those concerned, you'll be happy to know everyone was all right, though fighting off the horrible wheat spirits did put a hitch in Carlos' plans. See, Anathema was meant to stay with him overnight at his cozy little house. Only, the situation was a little too cozy; with all the commotion of the day, Carlos didn't get the chance to prepare a second bed.
Well, I'm always happy to help my boyfriend however I can, so I hosted him for the night! It was the very least I could do to reward his bravery and completely non-magical ingenuity.
The least I could do, but also the most. There hasn't been time to handle the required paperwork for more… hands-on acts of admiration. Nope. We slept with a proverbial sword between us. Even when the standard monitoring equipment installed by the Sheriff's Secret Police mysteriously failed, we continued to follow city ordinance in the unsuspected, surreptitious privacy of my home.
So temperamental, these standard issue monitoring devices. I'm sure there will be a technician along to re-reinstall the system soon. No rush, hypothetical technician! Take your time.
It felt very quiet in Carlos' head. Which wasn't a normal state of mind for him.
He dragged the paintbrush over the canvas slowly, dabbing a dark brown over the seafoam blue wall he'd painted. He was taking his time now. That was the only way he'd get this done properly.
Tapping little plods of paint, Carlos created the edge of the door, working from the top corner and down to the hard line of the floor. Up close, it looked a little messy, he thought, but stepping back, the rough edges were less glaring.
Anathema walked up behind him, looking at the painting over his shoulder.
"All packed?" Carlos asked softly.
"Yes. Are you upset?"
"It's fine," he said, tapping his brush in the color and starting the next line, the other side of the wooden door. "I wanted to show you more of the city."
"I know. It's not exactly a European vacation, though, and I need actual sleep."
"I like it," Carlos said, unable to suppress the urge to defend Night Vale.
"That's fairly obvious." She sat on a chair nearby, watching him work and letting out a yawn. "That's why all of this is good. I've been considering it extensively."
Carlos looked at her, faint confusion on his face. "You've been considering... "
"I hated the idea at first," Anathema said, folding her hands over the chair back, watching him over the rims of her glasses steadily. "There is no secret that I had some… tension with Agnes around the Apocalypse, some feelings that surfaced when the metaphorical cards were finally on the table."
"It's probably weird how we talk about her like she's Ita, as if she's just languishing in the Riviera or something."
Anathema shrugged. "She lives here, essentially. She lives where the book lives. That is the way of things for our family. But you. Carlos." She reached out her hand; he hesitated to take it due to the paint, but she curled her fingers. He held her hand, their palms together. "You are our first prophet in four hundred years. Living in a place that, frankly, could use the guidance."
He pulled his hand away and turned back to the painting, Lifting the brush, he stilled, knowing that if his hands started shaking again, he'd ruin his work so far. "I don't… I'm…"
"I look at you and I don't see Agnes. That is the difference. You can be this new thing but not her."
"I don't want to be a prophet," Carlos said. "I have done as I was told, I've followed instructions, and now this is how I'm repaid!"
"With wisdom of the future."
"Sure, if you want to call it that!" He slapped the brush down on the table and leaned on it, staring at the palette of paints, at the sanded wood below. "If you were in this position, Anathema--"
"If I were, what? Finally given the chance to see my own future instead of listening to someone else tell me my future? Carlos." She wrapped her fingers around his wrist. "If you love this strange place, then this is how you protect it. From ridiculous crises like wheat turning into snakes and then malevolent spirits. Didn't you figure that was why you were sent here? To help this place?"
His mouth worked without sound. He didn't know what to say. Yes, he'd come to Night Vale and immediately figured there was something coming to destroy it, some mystery to unravel; yes, he'd already decided to do this, to protect this place.
On some level, it felt like reciprocity. Balance. Evening the scales, as Night Vale protected him and didn't mind his magic and was so friendly, solicitous and kind, gifting him calm dreams.
Of course he wanted to repay that. But this wasn't the way he intended.
He glanced at Anathema. She had a finger to the edge of her glasses.
"What?" Carlos asked.
"Nothing," She said. Whatever she Saw in him, she kept her own counsel. "Listen, cousin. We walk a path no others can see. We see the path through history like the solution to a maze. We don't have to worry about our future. No one else knows this feeling, the responsibility we have."
"You hated her," Carlos reminded her.
Anathema sighed. "I didn't. I just… it's complicated. A complicated emotion to share. In the end, you always love your family, don't you?" She spread her hands. "I saved the world, Carlos. I watched Satan rise and saw him cast back down. I stood on the tip of the knife, the precipice. It cut me a little. But wounds heal." She smiled faintly, a rueful curve. "I have retaken control of some things. Fulfilled my duty and then returned to myself. I am always myself. And you will always be you."
It didn't feel like that now. In his mind was a stillness like a dusty guest room, potentiality and unknown spaces. That there was a part of him that felt unknown was shocking and strange.
"You could always leave, then," Anathema said suddenly. "Shall we pack up your house and return to California together?"
She pointed at his face. "See that?" Sliding off the chair, she landed on her toes, and swept her hands over her skirt, righting it. "Then you're more decided than you think. Perhaps you simply need time to adjust."
"Come on." She linked her arm through his. "Come see me off."
The Voice of Night Vale
A few updates before the weekend. It's been quite an eventful week in out dry little desert community. Often the heat and the sun drowns us, moves us to a tired stillness, lethargy and listlessness together. Not this week, certainly! This week was snakes.
Our visitor has departed, quite sooner than expected. Anathema Device reloaded her luggage into a Lyft as she left the blue house on the corner of Ouroborus Road, by the Cactus Bloom development. A much shorter trip than expected. I wonder what convinced her to leave so soon. Surely one little emergency isn't enough to drive a family member back home?
Carlos and Anathema hugged for an extended period of time before her departure. When they parted, a sense of loss and finality filled the air, almost funereal in its solemnity. Something felt unfinished, a sentence lacking a period, and Carlos' eyes were red.
Anathema left, and Carlos realized she had not the answers he needed. And that was more knowledge that he'd had before. One option stricken from a list. A set back, but not a failure.
Before Anathema's car had vanished from view, he returned inside, ready for the next step.
In the backseat of her ride, Anathema stared out the window, ready to return home, knowing where hers was better than anyone.
It was late when Carlos arrived at the radio station. Cecil's car was still parked outside, as well as a cherry red moped that belonged to Dana.
Letting himself inside, Carlos stood in the rush of A/C for a moment, head tipped back to enjoy the cool air in his hair. He needed to start tying it back; the sun turned his hair into a burning brand after more than a few minutes outside.
By now, he knew the way through the shadowy halls. Agnes had called it a place lit by no sun. Well, thank god for that, honestly.
As he passed the strange fogged glass door for Station Management, he staggered, shoulder colliding with the wall as his balance was pulled from him like a rug yanked out. Something struck him. An absence , an abscess, like being swung at with a baseball bat only for the solid wood to just barely miss, the movement through the air striking hard.
He must've made a sound, because Dana stuck her head around the corner and gasped. "Come away from there, quick!" She pranced forward, grabbing Carlos' wrist, and pulled him away from that particularly dark part of the hallway, away from the door.
"What was that?" Carlos asked, winded.
"Oh, Station Management is very cranky right now. Did you have time to listen to the show today? Wheat and wheat by-products are under strict regulations now." She let go of Carlos once they were in the clear, turning down the corridor to the soundbooth and studio. "No more hot baguettes from Panera for them, not for a while."
"They've banned bread? I-- I was busy all day today, I have no idea what happened."
She gave him a sympathetic smile. "I figured. I'm sorry about your cousin leaving. She seemed really nice, if unsuited for the weather out here. Is that why she left so soon?"
Carlos considered that. "It was probably a major factor, yes."
"Well, Cecil's finishing up some recording for next week, if you want--"
"Oh." Carlos stopped, relieved when Dana stopped with him. Her head tilted curiously. "Actually, I'm here to see you."
"Really? Is there something magical you need?" Her teeth were wide and white, standing out dramatically in the shadows and against her dark skin. It was like a peek of the crescent moon in the dim light. "I know we can't officially talk about what happened, but that was very fun, seeing real magic!"
"This is less impressive, unfortunately," he said apologetically. "I need to give you something, but I can't really tell you why. But it's important you keep it."
Her smile faded into a serious expression. "Understood. What is it?"
Carlos held out the package he'd been carrying, wrapped in brown paper and string. She took it; it fit nicely in her hands, not too big, not unwieldy.
Carrying it to the soundbooth, she set it on her rolly chair and unwrapped it. The frame was soft, textured wood, grey-brown and rough. The store had promised it was genuine driftwood, from the shore of Luftnarp apparently. It contained a painting, simple but accurate enough, of an old oak door in mid-morning light.
Dana tilted it, looking close. "This is a real painting. Not a print."
"I did it. I'm sorry, I'm not very good."
"What? Oh, Carlos. Thank you. It's lovely." She held it out from her face at full arms length. "It feels… sad. But determined. Like coming home to a confrontation you know you have to have."
He marveled at her, not for the first time. "Dana, do you… see auras?"
"I don't know what those are, so I don't know!" She smiled, and tucked the painting back into the paper, retying it. "It's just funny how different people see the world, isn't it? I'm sure you see things with magic, but people focus on different aspects. My brother is really faceblind, so he focuses a lot on people's hair and clothes. I always notice how things make me feel first."
"Do feelings have color to you? Can you look at someone and know how they feel?"
"No, I don't think so. Sorry to disappoint you."
"Not at all! If anything, your way sounds better." He put on a smile for her, though his face didn't want to make that shape just yet. "Anyway, it's… important you keep it. Though I'm not sure why."
Somehow, that was an acceptable instruction for Dana, who nodded. "I will. I will sew a sleeve for it and keep it with me."
The studio door opened. Cecil stepped through, tie fully loosened and hanging around his neck, fingers in his hair. "That's all the ad reads complete. Honestly, Deb can't get back from vacation quickly enough. Where is Vanc-over anyway?"
"Cecil," Dana said. "Look up."
He did, and nearly dropped the sheaf of papers he was holding. "Carlos, hi! Oh, how did the occulting go? I'm sorry about Anathema leaving so soon. You look tired again."
"Why do I always look tired?" Carlos sighed. "It went…. it went. Occulting happened." He grimaces. "And she couldn't stay. It's okay. Um."
Dana took the papers from Cecil and slid them into a file folder. "I'll see you Monday, Cecil. Thank you for my painting, Carlos. I'm sure it will help me in a time of great need."
"That's the plan, I guess," Carlos muttered, and accepted a firm handshake from Dana before she left.
"Bye, Dana," Cecil called, watching her go for a moment before refocusing on Carlos. Alone together, he stepped in closer to touch Carlos' arm. "You finished the painting? That's wonderful."
"Cheated a little. Anathema sketched me a drawing and I painted over that."
Cecil's hand cupped Carlos' elbow. He nodded, attentive but waiting. A question was hanging unasked, like the Sword of Damocles.
"I don't know how it went yet," Carlos said quietly. "I didn't hear what I wanted to from her. And I thought she'd like to stay longer. It's weird that she didn't… feel the same about this place, and I don't know how that makes me feel. Confused, mostly. Almost hurt."
"Night Vale is not for everyone. Just for those who need it."
Cecil grinned. "I couldn't imagine any other home. It's my hope you… come to a similar conclusion? Eventually." He cleared his throat. "Do you have any plans tonight? If you prefer not to have company, I understand, but you look--"
"Tired. I know." Carlos rubbed his face. "It's been a terrible week. I think I want a drink."
"I know some places," Cecil offered. "Though I believe beer will be outlawed until City Council figures out safe handling procedures."
"Beer is gross anyway," Carlos said.
"There's somewhere that should suit our purposes. Let me go change first. Meet you by the car?"
It was a nice cap on the week. Cecil's car never stopped making Carlos happy, the way the air rushed over him as they drove. And while getting a table at Tourniquet was impossible, the bar was good. Carlos sat in the corner with Cecil taking the stool beside him, not commenting on it, just creating a barrier between Carlos and the rest of the world.
Cecil told the bartender precisely what to mix for him, and got a ruby red glass with mezcal and blood orange liqueur and grenadine. It looked like a gemstone in a tumbler. When Carlos was less sure, Cecil asked what flavors he liked, then ordered for him.
What he got was floral and lemon-y with gin, and had that particular taste that made Carlos think it was a lot heavier on the booze than it let on. Which was much appreciated.
The full kitchen wasn't available at the bar, but three appetizers was pretty much the same thing with a smaller price tag, though when Carlos said as much, Cecil laughed and said, "If Earl heard that, he'd have some words."
He'd meet Earl eventually, Carlos knew, but not tonight. Turning in his stool and stretching out his legs on Cecil's lap made sure of that. Long fingered hands wrapped around his ankles, tucking under the hems of his jeans, and Carlos had Cecil's complete attention again.
It was easy. Being with another person had never been easy for him before Cecil.
He needed something easy right now.
He had three drinks to Cecil's one-and-water, telling himself that well if Cecil wanted to take care of him, Carlos wasn't going to deprive him. That'd be cruel.
"This place has no music," Carlos said. "Let’s go home."
Cecil held his arm as Carlos hopped off the stool. "I have music at my place."
"But you have a tiny living room," Carlos complained. "Mine has room to move. I'm a really good dancer."
"I cannot wait to find out if that's actually true or just elderflower gin talking."
On the way back, Carlos thought about what albums he had. He'd finally managed to catch Michelle Nguyen in a mood to actually sell product and had picked up as much as he dared. He could put on something and prove to Cecil he definitely knew how to dance.
He thought about going to sleep with Cecil laid over him like a heavy blanket and the heart of Night Vale beating below, dark and spidersilk under him. He was going to sleep amazingly well, with gin and music and probably an orgasm in him. Just the idea had Carlos smiling as the street lamps passed overhead.
He thought about Agnes and being a prophet, and what Anathema said. Agnes lived wherever her book was. So, by that logic, maybe Carlos wasn't as alone as he feared. He wasn't the only futureseer around. Maybe everything would be okay. Under the cozy veil of alcohol, Anathema's optimism didn't seem so distant.
Then, Cecil parked on the corner of Ouroborus Road and said, "Oh, shit."
It hit Carlos like a live wire. Cecil rarely swore, and the sound of it outside of the rough-hewn tone of his bedroom voice was wrong, was enough to snap Carlos to attention.
There were Sheriff's Secret Police vehicles around his house, and sirens flashing red and blue and ultraviolet in the night.
The lights were on in his house. Had he left the lights on? Feeling lightheaded and floaty in a way that had nothing to do with gin, Carlos got out of the car, standing amid the flashing lights for a moment.
"This isn't supposed to happen," Carlos said. "I didn't see this coming. I would have seen this coming."
Cecil climbed out of the car, shooting Carlos a look that-- Carlos had no idea what it meant. Pinched and unhappy.
"Who's on duty? Phillippe, who's in charge," he asked a man in a balaclava.
"Sheriff," the secret policeman said, hooking a thumb towards the house.
Carlos ran his hand over the hood of the car for balance as he walked up to the sidewalk, moving quickly. The gate was perfectly intact, he noticed. His front door, ahead, was not, fully off its hinges and crooked.
"Oh no," Carlos said. "No, no no no, Agnes." Trying to hurry up the stairs, he nearly staggered over his own feet.
Standing by the door with a carving knife and a chunk of birch wood was Sheriff Sam, in full regalia with leather chaps and spurred boots and a shiny metal Sheriff's star with serrated edges. "Mr. Device, nice of you to finally join us."
Behind Carlos, Cecil's voice came, low and mean, just a solitary, "Sam."
"Ah, Cecil," they said, pronouncing his name wrong in a pointed sort of way, easy antagonism in the orange light of the porch. "Bit late, isn't it?"
"What happened?" Carlos asked, suddenly brutally uninterested in whatever that tension was.
"Hm." They dragged their knife over their carving. It looked like an owl with little lenses for eyes. "Suspected breaking and entering. Minimal damage, you'll be happy to know. Whoever it was, they were very precise. Seemed quite focused on particular things." They clucked their tongue. "The safe was opened."
Carlos covered his mouth with a hand, feeling ill. "No. That can't..."
"Oh, it can." Sam shook their head in some parody of concern. "Such a shame. I can't imagine the feeling of intrusion, of violation you must feel. If only we'd been able to help."
Cecil said, "Sam," again, voice like a vice around a wrist.
They looked up at him, eyes wide. "Well, what would you have us do, Cecil? How could the Secret Police possibly effectively protect our citizens given the circumstances? Honestly, if only our surveillance devices had been left in place and functional, we may have caught the perpetrator."
Slot A, Tab B. Carlos looked at the Sheriff with dawning understanding of what, what they were implying , the malice under their bored cheer. "Did you do this?" he asked quietly.
Sam gasped softly. "Mr. Device! I am certain you are not implying what I think you're implying, because that would be quite the libelous statement to make to a city official."
"Libel is written," Cecil said like acid. "You mean slander. Get it together, Sam."
"Whatever!" Rolling their eyes, they pushed away from the house, tucking their project away into their leather jacket. "We'll be done shortly. You'll want to call someone about the door."
Carlos decided he was going to punch the Sheriff of the Secret Police about half a second before Cecil grabbed both of his arms, holding him still. "We'll take care of it. Goodnight."
Sheriff Sam smirked. "And a better night to you both. Oh, by the by, this was left in the safe." They spun something around on their finger, then tossed it.
Carlos caught the binder ring with the index cards. The new prophecies, his prophecies. Looking down, he saw the card on top.
05: If time is a river, it comes from a source, and despite what Aquarius would have you believe, it's absolutely not from a single source. At some point, it will seem like your pitcher has been stolen. Let it go.
Carlos shut his eyes, and tried to breathe.
Sam is literally a fave of mine but GOD they are an asshole sometimes XD XD XD
I'm at the point I'm gonna have to go back and add chapter titles to this fic just to aid my own navigation. HMMMM.
Chapter 11: The Fifth Pentacle of Saturn
cw for some minor blood
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Magic worked differently for everyone. That was the secret, and what made proper magic so difficult to learn.
There was natural aptitude, of course. It wasn't a bloodline thing, per se; the Device family tree was not direct blood lineage, and included a few adoptions. The theory of magical inclination was currently "nurture and a lot of luck, probably."
But beyond natural aptitude, everyone used magic differently. The path to finding the particulars of one's own magic took years of self-reflection and guidance and experimentation, a knowledge of the self that non-magical people could scarcely conceive, akin to turning the proverbial slab of marble into the Venus de Milo, but inside your own capricious flesh.
Carlos picked up a glass vase from a shelf in the corner of the room and dropped it with vigor into the sink, smashing it musically with scattering glass shards and ruined flowers.
Cecil yelped, jumping, hands clasped to his chest. "What was that?"
"Price," Carlos said. "Can you hold the door in place for a moment?"
His left hand was clenched, holding onto the kinetic feeling of glass fracturing, things coming apart, the destruction of a delicate object. Nothing would ever repair it, there wasn't enough care or patience in the world. It was gone, and in its place was a humming jagged energy in Carlos' fist, as if he were carrying the breaks in the glass in his palm somehow. Not the object itself, but the gaps where it broke.
Cecil gave Carlos a look of great concern, but moved to the door. It was knocked badly off its hinges. Maybe someone with a battering ram had done it. Maybe someone in an obnoxious hat and spurs. Or maybe it was someone else. Regardless, the damage was fairly severe. Cecil was able to fit the door back into frame, but it wouldn't stay without help.
Walking up to it, standing beside Cecil, Carlos drew his wand. Right hand, evocation. As he set the tip of the wand against the door, he felt the metaphysical sensation of two magnets attracting and snapping together. His dark wenge wood tool stood out against the painted door, but for a moment, they were the same object.
Keeping his wand tip against the door, he outlined a hexahedron, trailing pale green light until the shape shone out at him. When it was complete, he felt the image come together with almost a click, and he willed all the jagged angry energy in his clenched hand to flow out, imbue into the door.
It obediently fixed itself, the torn hinges bending back into shape and reattaching to the frame, the chips in the paint melting back to a perfect plane, the cracks all refitting.
Reaching over, Carlos locked the door and flipped the deadbolt.
There was a long, tense silence in the house. It felt like a million pinpricks against the back of Carlos' neck. His senses felt shot, stretched like a rubber band and liable to snap the moment he tested them.
Instead, he went to the sink and carefully started to clean out the smashed vase.
He got all of the large pieces in the trash before he felt Cecil walk over, hovering nearby. Close, but not too close.
What an absolutely awful week.
If he didn't look up, he was fine, and could quietly tell Cecil, "You don't need to stay if you don't want to, Cecil. It's fine. I'm fine. But I wouldn't expect you to be after everything that happened."
"That's it?" Cecil said, deathly still. "Your house was broken into and the Sheriff obliquely threatened you and your family heirlooms were stolen, and you're fine?"
"An occultist is always fine," Carlos said. His words were bouncing weirdly in his head, and he shook himself slightly. "And this was all supposed to happen, so I can't be upset."
"Can't be upset? Dammit, Carlos, I'm just the bystander here and I'm pretty upset, so will you stop picking at glass and-- and stop that, just stop."
He tossed out the piece of glass he was holding and turned around, his back against the sink. Cecil stood opposite him, his back against the kitchen island, his arms crossed, body taut and radiating distress.
"Sorry," Carlos said softly.
"Carlos, what are you doing? Are you, what are you thinking right now? Please." Cecil's mouth curved down, crestfallen, his eyes wide and almost glassy. "I can't feel whatever you're thinking."
"Are you used to that? Having some idea what people are thinking?"
"I'm not having a talk about whatever theories you have about me right now. You're-- worrying, you're worrying me."
"Scaring you," Carlos divined.
Cecil glared balefully at him.
"Sorry. I don't know what to tell you. I'm not upset. I think I should be, but…" He lifted a hand, noting for once he was not shaking, and dragged his hair back from his face. "My head feels… hollow, kind of. Even when I try to think about that and how weird it feels, nothing's connecting."
The miserable set of Cecil's face faded, so that must've been a good answer. "Are you in shock?"
"No," Carlos said, fairly sure of that. "I'm just a little drunk and a lot tired and this week feels like I've been standing in front of one of those baseball shooters and taking hits constantly." He looked around. The safe was still hanging open, and he had a hard time not staring.
"Carlos," Cecil sighed.
"I remember thinking that it was kind of like Agnes was here. We all talk to her like she's just some lingering spirit that haunts us. At least I wasn't the only prophet in the house." His throat felt tight and uncomfortable. He cleared it. "Anathema didn't even stay twenty-four hours."
The grimace on Cecil's face was there and gone, quickly covered. "I'm sure she had her reasons." Finally, he approached, holding Carlos' hips.
"I still have the app," Carlos pointed out, everything still bouncing and echoing. "I haven't lost access to her predictions. I don't know why I feel like this. Or even what this feeling is."
"Someone broke in and took something you cared about." Cecil rested his head against Carlos'.
Tucked into the space Cecil made for him, Carlos breathed.
And took out his phone, opening the Nice and Accurate App. Pulling up the digital cards, he spun them around a few times.
He could feel Cecil's eyelashes move every time he blinked. It was a strange, private thing, so private maybe Cecil didn't realize it.
"Stop there," Cecil said.
Carlos tapped his thumb on the screen, pulling up a card.
- The leafs take to the wind and away. Ye can no more keep them than stop the coom of spring. New leafs will grow in their place. Tis the way of things.
"Oh, hoorah," Carlos murmured. "A reminder of the tumultuous attentions of destiny."
Cecil lifted his head; the motion drew Carlos along to do the same, looking up into his pretty violet eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Nothing." He shook his head, contrite. "Look, I'm just a little fatalistic. Anathema talked me through it. It'll all be fine."
"I don't think you realize how often you say that word, 'fine.'"
"But I'm right." Carlos drew a step back. "I'm going to-- I plan to just sleep. If you want, you don't have to--"
"I would rather be crushed underfoot by a stampede of giant centipedes than leave you right now," Cecil said, then belatedly added, "Unless you prefer I left. But don't. Don't do that."
"Do you notice I keep warning you of my demeanor and you just don't listen?" He stepped around Cecil, walking to the bedroom.
"Ah, do you notice that I don't care?" He followed, and leaned in the doorway as Carlos examined the state of the room as Anathema had left it. "Perhaps you're right. You haven't been in love before."
"Before," Carlos repeated, blinking hard.
"Nothing. I'm." He bit his lip. "Hold on."
First, Carlos went into the bathroom and covered the mirror with a towel. On the sink was the claw clip he'd loaned Anathema before. Picking it up, he walked back into the bedroom, bundling his hair up and letting the jaw bite it into place.
Cecil still stood in the doorway, propped up on his shoulder, watching Carlos evenly.
"I need to do a seal. Or I won't sleep." Carlos took off his shoes, kicking them into the corner.
"It's a very precise emblem that turns will and price into a tangible effect. Instead of a witch having to actively work to make something happen, the seal does the work. It'll… help me sleep."
"Are you not tired? You--"
Carlos pointed a finger at him. "Don't. Don't say it. I know how I look. And no, I mean, it's not that kind of seal. It's a protection for the house."
Cecil's mouth formed a little 'oh' and he nodded.
Taking up a piece of chalk, Carlos got to work.
He could see the faint burned-black lines from the night before, Anathema's seal spent up. He brushed the remnants away and started his own circle.
Socks were key. With socks on, Carlos could spin in a circle, drawing his own circle to start. Then, he began to form the Fifth Pentacle of Saturn, a safeguard for home and possessions.
As the chalk dragged against the hardwood, Carlos felt his own reserve of energy eroding slightly. With the door, he could find a source to pull power from. With seals, it had to be him.
Once he had the four circles and the square done, Carlos sat on the bed for a moment, rubbing a bead of sweat from his face. Cecil was still watching, ever attentive. He didn't ask if Carlos was all right, but there was an ambiance of proprietary concern filling the room.
Ignoring it, Carlos finished the shapes, forgoing the Hebrew because he didn't feel the connection to it. Instead, he wrote numbers. Significant digits from his life. Numbers from important prophecies, phi, lambda, and others. Finished, he stepped out of the circle gingerly and fair strolled to his dresser, limbs loose from exhaustion.
He tossed the chalk on the dresser haphazardly and opened his ornate arcane toolbox. "Oh, by the way, this is an athame." He held it out to Cecil, handle offered.
Cecil took it very carefully. The handle was the same dark, almost black wood as Carlos' wand, inset with a smooth piece of green-blue seaglass. The metal itself moon pale and reflected light so acutely it seemed to glow. "You're right, it's very fancy."
"Yep." Carlos had more seaglass in a velvet bag, and set smooth, matte stones around the seal at perfect angles. "Okay, now athame."
Cecil handed it back, and Carlos nodded his thanks before he looked over his hands, considering his options. He'd been using his right hand a lot lately, so he pressed the point of the athame against his left hand.
Now, suddenly, Cecil was hovering, full concern. "What are you doing?"
"You've seen blood magic stuff before. It's just price." He cut, watching how far the blade sunk in. "See, in movies and stuff people always cut across the palm, but that's really stupid. You have a ton of really complex tendons there to operate your hand, there's a high chance of infection, and it's one of the most painful places to sustain a wound. What you want instead is to press lightly into the fleshy part between your pinkie and wrist, on the outside of the palm."
There was a groove down the middle of the blade. Carlos tipped his hand until dark red filled the groove, then held the athame out, pouring it with precision in the seal.
He wiped his forehead on his shirt sleeve. "Uh, one more… I guess draw of blood and I'm done."
Cecil was frowning very hard, staring at Carlos. "Does it have to be you? You've been doing a lot of magic these past few days and you've had several drinks. Can you split the… price thing? Could I do it?"
"Um," Carlos said loudly, backing away a step. "Uh."
"What? Does that not work?" Cecil gestured to the athame.
"It does, but, well." Carlos swallowed his words. Of course Cecil didn't know anything about it. Had no idea the implications of sharing blood price on a major spell like a seal.
"Do witches not do that?"
"They do. Just." Carlos flexed his hand, looking at his athame.
Things had context. Cecil had explained that very thoroughly before, talking about tongues. Having the right context changed things.
But not having that context changed things too. If Cecil had no idea that he was suggesting something extremely intimate, something that signified the sanctity of a shared experience, the desire to protect a home, then… then it didn't have to mean that. Without that context, Cecil was just helping.
"Okay," Carlos said, not thinking about the duality on context, of what it meant for him to say okay when he knew the context, but it was fine, totally fine. "I have a flashy trick."
He flicked his wrist, and the athame lit up with pale fire, burning itself clean, spending up the remaining drops of his own blood.
Cecil snorted softly, but clapped.
It brought Carlos' attention to his hands. Soft skin, unblemished. Carlos' own dark skin had plenty of little knicks and marks. "Okay," Carlos said again, pulse thrumming in his head.
Whatever expression formed out of inebriation and exhaustion and emotional congestion, Cecil watched it on Carlos' face like a hawk.
Then, he held out his hand, palm up.
"Are you sure?" Carlos asked, cheeks heating up. "You don't have to."
Long fingers moved in a little wave. "Come on, Carlos. Show me some witchcraft."
Carlos took hold of Cecil's wrist. "Let me know if I hurt you."
"You can hurt me a little, Carlos. Go ahead."
"I mean it. I've never done this to another person before." When Cecil continued to wait patiently, Carlos bit his lip and gingerly pressed the tip of the athame against Cecil's hand, the same spot he'd cut himself.
Cecil waited, and tilted his head to watch. "You'll need to push harder than that to break skin."
"I know what I'm doing," Carlos said defensively.
"So do I. You're clearly not pushing hard enough." Cecil rested his other hand on his hip, a little sassy. "At this rate, we'll never get to sleep."
"Fine, okay," Carlos said, and cut into Cecil's skin.
Cecil hissed, body tensing, and Carlos stared at him. "Sorry, I…"
"It's all right," Cecil murmured. He was breathing steady and deep, intent on the gleaming metal that pierced his skin.
Carlos told himself very firmly he was not allowed to have a reaction to this. Nope. That would be bad and weird.
He filled up the groove in the athame before removing it gently, tipping Cecil's blood into the seal. Somewhere between drops, Carlos felt it accept his offer, coming alive with a metaphysical sensation like his ears popping during a flight.
"There. The house is protected." Carlos put his knife down, taking Cecil's hand in both his own. "Ceec."
"Lets get cleaned up for bed," Cecil said, squeezing Carlos' fingers.
Athame: cleaned. Bandaids: applied. Lights: out.
Carlos sat on the edge of the bed and pulled his shirt off over his head before slumping, arms still stuck in the sleeves. Sighing, he waited for the energy to return to him. He was right over a ley line. That had its benefits. Breathing deeply, he faintly tasted something like old coins and a dryness like dark red wine. He swallowed slowly and breathed again; it wasn't easy, like trying to drink an idea or eat a dream. Possible, but difficult and a little intangible.
The bathroom light flicked out, letting night take over the room entirely. "Careful of the seal," Carlos said, words starting the meld together, their borders less distinct.
"All that hard work, I'd hate to smudge it," Cecil said.
"Also it's a pretty powerful one, so the whiplash from breaking it at the wrong angle would hurt."
Turning, Carlos watched Cecil walk around the seal, to the bed. He was down to boxers, and moved the blankets to climb in on the other side. His side, with his long legs slipping under the linens. "You need more pillows."
"Cecil, you have seven pillows on your bed."
"I'm going to buy you some more." He laid on his side, and stared at Carlos. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing." Gathering himself best he could, Carlos pushed his shirt onto the floor and toed his shoes off, unbuttoned his jeans, hating how his fingers didn't want to work with him.
Something dripped out of his mouth, and Carlos inhaled sharply, slapping his hand over his chin, fingers at his mouth--
Pulling his hand away, he looked and there… wasn't anything.
His tongue felt especially wet in his mouth. He swallowed, frowning, rubbing his thumb over his lips.
Adrenaline was starting to run through him, his hands starting to shake as he tried to, to catch the phantom sensation that was filling him, spilling out of him. But it was nothing. Nothing was there, except a wave of nausea from the blood rush.
He covered his mouth, inhaling hard through his nose. Everything was wet and tart, his throat clicking. Was that the panic? Or was he choking on something? But nothing was there.
Hands settled on his shoulders, one bandaged. Cecil's voice was all cadence, no words.
Carlos' body moved like someone gripped his spine and cracked it like a whip. Words coughed up, like water from a drowned man's lungs.
"The boy who sees the lines in the sky," Carlos spilled, overturned and tipped, no no no, "tries to summon hope and calls a beast. It'll crush the very heart of the town under its paws. Banish it, for no one else here knows how and the angels can't say." He gasped. "I need paper."
Cecil folded around his back, arms clenching around Carlos. "I've got you, Carlos."
"I need paper. Boy who sees lines in the sky." He jerked again, gasping. "It won't shut up, it won't shut up, I need it remembered."
"I can remember." His palms pressed firmly against Carlos' chest. "Say it again."
The prophecy came out of Carlos' chest like a frog from his mouth, unnatural and leaping out of him. The sensation remained, squirming behind his ribs, like there were a dozen more just waiting to launch out.
Then, Cecil said, "The boy who sees the lines in the sky tries to summon hope and calls a beast. It'll crush the very heart of the town under its paws. Banish it, for no one else here knows how and the angels can't say."
It stopped. The alien sensation in his body quieted, and Carlos fell back, eyes shutting.
He was done. He was utterly done.
The Voice of Night Vale, off air
To put it simply, Cecil had certainly had better nights.
He laid in bed, silently carding his fingers through Carlos' hair as he felt Carlos breathing against him. Having a full grown man stretched against him, solid along his side and chest, was a not insignificant weight, but there was no chance Cecil would let go. Having Carlos tucked in his arms was the only thing he could bear right now.
This night had unsettled him. Seeing Carlos, often so contained and reserved, unspooling like spilled thread all over the place took Cecil's breath away. A glimpse at what lingered inside him, like peering through a glass, darkly.
All of it, Carlos' ire and frantic inertia and borderline deliriousness, it all vanished the exact moment Carlos fell asleep. He was out, and instead just breathed quietly, into Cecil's chest.
Turning his head, Cecil kissed his hair and hoped when he woke up, he'd be all right. After everything, the cacophony of stress that assaulted Carlos all day, what he wanted more than anything was a calm weekend. They'd earned that. If there were such a thing as balance as Carlos explained it, they would have earned a month of clear skies and cool nights. A vacation.
Even a staycation would work. Carlos waking up in the late morning, sun over his skin, painting his dark skin gold. Smiling, carefree and drowsy-sweet. No rush to do anything. Cecil wanted the time to learn what made Carlos smile, what made him laugh, what made him unrestrained and happy.
Cecil wanted to see Carlos dance, fluid and tipsy and bending towards Cecil like a sunflower.
They didn't have to leave the house. They didn't have to leave the bed.
Heaving a deep breath, Cecil shut his eyes, his head against Carlos'.
Destiny was a big concept, and one that Cecil struggled with. The world around him was chaotic and dispassionate, the idea of fate was tough to swallow.
But Cecil knew purpose. At five, Cecil knew his purpose: to be the Voice of Night Vale.
Then, much later, he knew his purpose again: to help his sister and his niece. Obviously some jerk took that from him, and he'd been waiting ever since.
'Waiting' was a bit much. He was being dramatic. It was, objectively speaking, what Cecil was best at.
But he'd been all right in the wake of Abby's marriage. Longer days, quieter nights, a stillness like wrought iron surrounding him. He couldn't tend to his family as much, but he could tend to Night Vale.
Then, it came again, in the dark doe eyes of a beautiful man, in the words of a dead prophet telling Cecil to catch.
It was Agnes' own fault; she never told Cecil to let go again, and so he had no intention to do so.
Cecil slept better with Carlos breathing softly against him. As though existing in Carlos' vicinity gave Cecil more density, anchored him further into reality.
Everything around Carlos seemed more real. He made Cecil feel more real than he had in years. Maybe more than ever before.
That was what love was. Cecil knew this with the conviction of his own persistent pulse, and it would be true until his heart stopped.
Carlos sighed quietly in his sleep, breath warm on Cecil's skin. At least his dreams were clear of trouble.
Keeping an iron grip on his wakefulness was a strain, and already he was doing everything he could. Giving in, Cecil followed Carlos into slumber. He'd need the rest to defy the coming day and whatever calamitous bullshit it had in store.
In the morning, Carlos typed up the new prophecy, hole punched it, and added it to the binder ring. Tossed it onto the kitchen counter and sighed deeply.
Cecil bumped his hip into Carlos' as he cut fruit for breakfast. "Trouble?"
When he rubbed his mouth, he kept expecting to come away with something smeared on his hand. It was a distinctly unusual sensation, and not an easy one to get used to. It felt like his lips were always wet. He licked them idly. "No," Carlos said. "The one good thing about Night Vale is that I tend to sleep really well here."
"One good thing," Cecil said with a scoff.
"Fine. Not the only good thing. I like it here a lot." He watched the way Cecil slowly drew the knife through fruit, how it settled against his thumb each time.
Night Vale had weird produce. Sure, there were apples and bananas and a lot of cactus pears, but there was also a lot of hybrids. Cherry plums and plucots, Carlos had had those before back home. But the pomenanas were an unholy combination, along with kiwi melons and persimarines and grape-acados.
Carlos had no idea what had been crossed with the peaches to make them pink on the inside, but they tasted good, so it was fine with him.
Distracted by just watching Cecil's hands, Carlos startled when he offered Carlos a slice of fruit right off the flat of the knife. "Thanks," he said after chewing. "You didn't have to stay, you know, I really--"
Cecil put the knife down and turned, hand on his hip again and glare level. "Are we doing this again?"
Yes, but selfishly because Carlos liked the reassurance that the utter disaster of the past week hadn't scared him off. He rested his arms on the counter, watching Cecil askance.
At length, Cecil said, "If prophecies are going to be a recurring thing for you, we should get you a little voice recorder. They seem to keep hold of you until they're properly archived."
"That's smart," Carlos agreed softly.
"We can ask Old Woman Josie what she thinks. I'm not sure if she dabbles, per se, or if she's just very prone to cryptic statements, but--"
"I don't think Josie likes me."
His eyes widened. "What? Why? Who wouldn't like you?"
"Oh, please," Carlos said, laughing. "She doesn't like I'm a professional descendant. Said some pretty pointed things about it last I spoke to her."
"I'll talk to her," Cecil said in a tone that implied it would be a Talk. "She has no right to say anything about you being chosen by your ancestor since she's been chosen by the angels."
"Rooting for the home team, I guess." Then, Carlos straightened up, noticing what had been said. "You acknowledged the angels."
Waving the knife in a circle through the air, Cecil pointed out, "No surveillance equipment here." He met Carlos' eyes over the edge of his glasses. "I told you, my position is complicated."
"Huh. Okay." He let Cecil feed him another piece of fruit, considering his options. Really, Josie wasn't a good one. Just thinking about bringing his troubles to her made Carlos bristle. As if he didn't have enough problems with her poking at him where he was soft and vulnerable.
He reread the latest prophecy on the card. "I should talk to Steve," he mused aloud.
"Oh, what? Why on earth would you do that?" Cecil's voice was a tense growl.
"Steve sees lines and circles in the sky," Carlos explained. "He claims they can be used to answer questions. It doesn't sound much different from what I do. If he can help me find who this prophecy is about--"
Cecil let out a noise like a car that didn't want to turn over, a verbose and mean grumble of indistinct syllables.
"Wow," Carlos said.
"He's just such a blowhard though. If you show any indication that he might know something useful, he's going to bloviate and ramble on forever about nonsense," Cecil said snidely.
"He's your brother-in-law." Carlos wasn't sure where he was going with that statement. Perhaps purely that he wanted to make it clear he knew.
Cecil stilled and shut his eyes silently, taking a deep breath. "Yesss," he managed, the sibilant a hiss. "That doesn't mean-- family is complex and sometimes…" He faltered for a second, glaring down at the plate of cut fruit. "Ephemeral."
"He said you had a niece who you cared about."
"I really do not give a shit what Steve said about me," Cecil said, word acidic and viper-like. It was harsh enough Carlos drew back, shocked.
"Cecil," Carlos murmured, unsure what to do.
"Let's drop it." Picking up the plate, Cecil turned to the kitchen table, grabbing a seat. His fingers picked at some grapes, popping them into his mouth.
Circling the table, Carlos took the seat opposite him so they were facing each other. Not that it meant much; Cecil wasn't meeting his gaze.
"We discuss the particulars of my troubles frequently," Carlos pointed out.
"Yours can be helped," Cecil said curtly. "No point in wallowing in a stale pond."
It didn't seem quite so hopeless to Carlos. Suddenly and passionately, he decided this part of Cecil was awful. Not Cecil himself, but whatever was nestled in him turning his kindness to poison. It felt unnatural as he probed the emotion. He knew how much Cecil enjoyed connection, and if Carlos mentally divorced the concept of Cecil as The Voice and the empath on a ley line, and just looked at him as a man, he should have been an overbearingly devoted family man. It felt like a logical progression.
Moving quietly, Carlos picked up his Lenormand deck and shuffled, bringing a query to the forefront of his mind.
Three by three. A reading for complicated issues. Flicking each card musically in place, Carlos put the deck aside and looked.
"What's that for?" Cecil asked, voice already laden with suspicion.
"Don't ask questions you don't want answers to," Carlos said. "That's practically the first rule of being a witch."
He touched the center card, the core of the problem. He expected the House for family or the Whip for conflict. Instead, the Tower sat there, tall and dark and lonely. It was much like Rapunzel's home: safety, of course, but also isolation. Hiding yourself away to avoid one danger, and going cold in its precipitous walls.
"Huh," Carlos said.
"Why?" Cecil reached out, putting his hand over the spread. Reacting without thought, Carlos caught his fingers, linking their hands together and resting their arms on the table, safely out of the way. "Carlos."
"Balance," Carlos said, looking at the four corners that framed the problem. There was the House and the Whip, but also the Cross and the Coffin, which he observed with a pang in his chest. He wondered who'd died. "What do we take. What do we give in return."
"I'm fine with just you, Carlos," Cecil said with an edge to his voice. "I don't want anything beyond that."
"Hm, not how it works, really." Letting go of Cecil's hand, he put the spread away (though not before mentally noting all the cards for him to interpret later) and reshuffled. Two cards: The Mice and the Heart. "See?"
"No," Cecil sighed.
"It's not about what you want, this about what you need. You're a finite well that can be depleted. Everyone is. Various things restore us, and no two people have the same needs." Carlos flicked down one more card next to the Heart. Diagnosis: the Ring. "You need people."
"And what do you need?"
"I don't know. I'm sort of in a period of transition. Besides, we're not talking about me."
"Of course not," Cecil muttered. "You know what you need? Something besides work."
Another card, next in the line. The Garden. "You do the same thing. You use your work to fulfill your need for connection. Being a figure of the community."
"You also need some tact," he said more bitterly. "Stop reading me."
"I'll never have more tact. If that's a deal breaker, then let's put it on the table now." Carlos put down one more card. The Mountains. Interesting, given how Cecil made his position seem so easy, like it came to him as naturally as breathing. He seemed often made for it wholecloth. Now, Carlos wondered if he'd just been taken in by how damn good Cecil was at presenting himself as such, and never noticed the jagged parts it left in him.
He went on: "You can just look at me and know things. Hell, I am willing to eat this entire deck if you aren't some level of empathic. You know impossible things about the insides of people's minds, things they barely admit to themselves, and pull the words from them like siphoning venom. I don't have that, Cecil. I have cards with pictures on them."
With his thumb, he swiped the line of cards, each one stacking up neatly for him to replace on top of the deck.
Cecil was bent forward on his elbows, looking down at the sanded-smooth surface of the table. The lingering exhaustion from the night before was still in his posture, the way his hair fell into his face.
Softly, he said, "Maybe I should have left."
Carlos sat back in his chair, hands on his lap.
The door was visible from the kitchen. At any point, Cecil could've just walked out. It would have been… hard, but survivable. Carlos wondered if Cecil did leave, how long before Carlos followed. He didn't have to remain in Night Vale. It would make his life much simpler, in fact.
The sigh was heavy. Cecil lifted his head to look at Carlos. "Can you tell me anything good? Do your cards only say overly pointed invasive reminders of things I would rather prefer to keep buried?"
"Not the cards," Carlos said. "But I've thought about it extensively, and I think I love you. But don't let that influence your decision here."
For a second, Cecil was still. Then his eyes flashed, their glow immediately clear. Maybe that was part of how it worked. Was Cecil doing the same thing Carlos had, probing gently at his heart for answers?
Just in case, Carlos sat there for inspection, waiting Cecil out.
He could have finished examining Carlos' emotions. Or maybe he'd just been thinking. There was no way to truly know. Regardless, Cecil rested his head on his knuckles, the weariness still in his face but something flickering and warmth kindling in his expression.
"Can you say that again?" he asked with the same tenderness in his eyes.
"Which part?" When Cecil narrowed his eyes, Carlos laughed. "I know, I know. I love you. Sorry my version of that comes with a lot of meddling."
"To be fair, mine does too." He held out his hand; when Carlos took it, he drew them close and rested his lips against Carlos' knuckles.
WHAT IS THIS? TWO FIC UPDATES IN ONE 24 HOUR PERIOD? yeah I had them both sitting at about 70% done, waiting to have a break from work so I could finish them up.
hey did y'all know I'm writing a Very Strange WTNV AU in which Night Vale is the only place A/B/O exists, and exploring the foibles and complexities of such a society? because I am, and it's a lot of fun. come give it a read.
also you can find me on tumblr @callmearcturus, i like night vale and video games and being incredibly pretentious about music.
Chapter 12: invitations explicit and assumed
this chapter introduces some plot elements from Season Four, but they'll be handled in a completely different way, so only oblique spoilers
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"I can already hear what Cecil's going to say." Steve sounded sullen and resigned as he walked beside Carlos along Beyerwood Boulevard, towards a large staid apartment complex called the Shambling Orphan.
Carlos looked at the sign, at it's cutesy pictograph of a toddler holding a raggedy bear. "Do I want to know why it's called the Shambling Orphan?"
"I think the original name, the Lumbering Giant, was already trademarked," Steve offered.
"Forcing them to go with their second choice," Carlos murmured. "What about Ceec?"
"I was saying, I can already imagine how he's going to talk about this on air." His voice shifted tone, breathier and with a faster delivery of words. "This just in, listeners. Steve Carlsberg has whisked away our favorite, most beautiful occultist from the safety of my loving arms and right into the feral and dripping jaws of danger. What a horrible brother-in-law."
"A little dramatic, even for him. But a very good impression of him." The Shambling Orphan was four different lumpy stout buildings around a courtyard. "Do you know which one we want?"
"I think building three," Steve said, falling into step behind Carlos as he started that way. "Cecil can be incredibly dramatic. I don't think you've seen him at his most keyed up yet. Which, you know, is funny. He's not had any extreme outbursts in a few months."
"That's good?" The outer door to the building was a wrought iron gate with a bloodstone. Carlos sighed. "This town is obsessed with blood, it's a little, hm, disconcerting sometimes. The whole town should have a sillage of wet pennies at this rate."
"Oh ho, I guess." Steve stepped up, taking out his keyring. There was an army knife on there, and he flicked a little corkscrew attachment out to prick his finger. "Never really thought about it."
He swiped his finger over the bloodstone, and the gate opened. Pushing it, Steve held it open for Carlos, smiling magnanimously.
"Thanks." Tucking his hands into his jacket, Carlos stepped inside the building. The lobby was narrow, just mailboxes, a corkboard, and stairs. "Hm. We want the second floor, apartment 207."
"Wow, how did you know that? Was there some residual energy in the air that you used to track him?"
Carlos pointed to the corkboard. "No. Tenant listing. Bowinger is in 207."
Steve deflated, shoulders slumping. "That's somewhat less impressive."
"Sorry." He started up the stairs. "What kind of extreme outbursts do you mean? Is there something I should be aware of?"
The steps creaked under Steve's more significant weight as he followed along with Carlos. "Eeeh, I don't think I should say. He and I don't see eye to eye on most things, but he sure cares about you, and I don't wanna mess him up."
"Think we're a little beyond that," Carlos muttered, turning onto the landing for the second floor. He licked his lips, frowning. The air tasted stagnant and cold. Nothing in Night Vale was cold like this. "Hm."
"Hm?" Steve loomed a little, his chest nearly against Carlos' shoulder. By now, Carlos was used to the feeling. What was it about him that garnered such protective urges from the people around him?
Was it because he was short? Nothing he could do about that.
"In this case, 'hm' means that there is an aura here that's very palpable. Or, not palpable. Pervasive." He rooted around in his pockets until he found the pendulum he brought. The chain hooked neatly into the ring he wore, and he lowered the sphere down to its full length to hang.
It went awry very quickly. Carlos held out his hand and whispered a wake-up to the pendulum, infusing it with an ounce of his will.
The pendulum jumped and swung to a high angle, rocketing down again. Momentum carried it back up the slope again, and Carlos quickly twisted his wrist before it could circle his wrist. Doing so may have saved him from having a metal ball slam into his hand, but it screwed the trajectory badly. The ball moved like a vicious propeller under his palm.
"Is it supposed to do that?" Steve asked, alarmed.
"No, not really!"
The chain snapped. Not only one point of failure, but multiple silver links opening and peeling apart. The sphere soared out from its orbit, and Carlos yelped, staggering backward.
With a dull, loud thmp , the pendulum embed itself into the wall.
Steve had his hands securely on Carlos' shoulders. "That was sure something! Is that a good sign?"
"Doubtful." There were three seconds where Carlos remained right where he was, absorbing the worried surprise he felt along with the miasmatic hue of the air. There was a permeating wrongness to this place, and as it filled his lungs, he wanted to do something absurd, like pull his shirt collar up over his nose, as if that would abate the metaphysical blight.
While he contemplated this, the door next to the pendulum opened. A severe-looking woman with her red hair pulled back into a bun stared out at them. There was a hip holster strapped over her business suit. From it hung a hatchet. "What's the commotion out here?" Her fingers dragged over the metal head of her hatchet.
"Hi there, Leann," Steve said in a bright, jovial voice, subtly nudging Carlos to the side and behind him. "Nothing to worry about. Just a, uh."
"Mystical malfunction," Carlos said, and pointed to the pendulum. "I'll pay for that."
Leann leaned out to examine the wall. She then examined Carlos. "You're the occultist."
"Yes. Hello. Sorry to disturb you."
Her face creased around a frown. "About time someone came to do something. This used to be a nice neighborhood, until that boy brought home that damn dog."
Leann pointed down the hallway. "I hear it. Pretty damn sure the whole building hears it. The yips in the night. They start at sundown and they just keep going. The sound is high and ivory and constant, until we spend so much time trying to pick out when the next one will come, the next ear-piercing yip, that it arrests all of our bodies, held still in dreadful anticipation." She lowered her arm and glowered. "Also the lease says no pets, and if I can't have a simple tarantula then why does he get a dog?"
"We'll look into it," Carlos said, inhaling stale mud and coughing into his fist. "Uh, thanks Ms. Hart."
She nodded, and unholstered her hatchet. With the pointed tip, she wedged it in against the pendulum. It bounced out, onto the floor, and rolled to Carlos' feet.
Then she shut the door. The deadbolt audibly turned.
Bending, Carlos retrieved his sphere and pocketed it. "We need to get in there."
"In Leann's place? I don't really want to do that. She's a little erratic and hates smartphones."
"No." Carlos walked further down the hallway. He didn't even need to count the numbers on the doors; he could feel the intensity of the miasma, and he knew when he stood outside the correct apartment.
Placing his palms on the doorframe, Carlos took a deep breath-- and gagged at the stench of mud, so much tepid wet earth. Reeling back, he hacked up nothing, a hand resting on his throat.
Hands braced him, holding him upright. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Carlos said, his talisman words bolstering him. He straightened gingerly. "I'm going to commit some breaking and entering. You may want to avert your eyes to avoid being an accessory."
The Voice of Night Vale
A rare and perilous day has come upon us, citizens, like a dark reliquary found on our doorstop. It's the annual Parade of the Hooded Figures. The gates to the Dog Park have opened, and they have begun filing out, descending upon our streets.
And there are so many of them. More than seems possible. Their dark cloaks could be a shroud for every one of us, they are so plentiful. Perhaps that is what eternal darkness is, the mantle of our own ordained hooded figure.
But our death rattles probably aren't going to come for us today. Today is a parade! In accordance to city ordinance, everyone should put on some sunscreen and break out the lawn chairs and coolers, and go out to see the parade!
Intern Dana has set herself up near the Dog Park gates, observing the coming train of cloaked terrors as they make their way out. She says that the White Sand Ice Cream Shop is right alongside the train, and if you're lucky enough to be on the east side of Main Street, you should stop by. They're having a special on smoothies. A cold blended drink sounds like the perfect accompaniment for the parade.
The apartment was empty.
Or, that was inaccurate. It was empty of people and non-person entities for the moment. Maybe Chad had taken the dog for a walk.
Regardless, Carlos held his wand in a tight, nervous fist as he walked through the unfamiliar place. In his other hand, he held tight the residual energy from his broken pendulum. It wasn't substantial, but enough for maybe one spell if he ran into trouble. And this place could have been trouble, easily.
The apartment felt sad. It felt like mud was caking the walls. It felt empty, not in the sense of having a living presence there but in the sense of a lack of connection. There was no threshold to cross over. If this place had been someone's home before, the sentiment had been lost. Now, it was just walls. Even Carlos' bungalow had a threshold after a few months there.
Swallowing against the knot in his throat, Carlos looked over the living room. An Xbox sat collecting dust on the table, turning the sleek black chassis to grey. The sofa seemed to be accumulating the same coating. Everything seemed abandoned.
The bedroom was worse. The bed had been shoved against the corner, opening up the center of the room. The hardwood floor was stripped of rugs or anything to get in the way of the enormous seal painted on the floor. It was a massive collection of circles and candles and intricately positioned stones.
"Don't go too far," Steve said from the other side of the entry door.
"One second," Carlos said. Shaking his phone, he activated the light and knelt down by the seal.
He tended to use chalk in his work. It lasted a few hours. The longer such a magical seal lasted, the larger the toll it took on the witch.
This one on the floor was not chalk. Tapping his finger against one of the thicker lines, Carlos examined what it'd been drawn in.
It smelled like blood, but the color and consistency was that of tar. "Hm. Transmutation?" He rubbed it between his fingers. "Draw the lines in something innately resonant and powerful like blood then transmute it into something more lasting?"
Wiping the muck off on his jeans, he stood again, examining the sigils worked into the design. It wasn't a uniform seal; he wouldn't find it in a book. Someone had worked hard to design this one from scratch.
Carlos took a few pictures of the design with his phone. Then, he hurried to the door, rejoining Steve. "We should go."
"Is that it?" Steve stepped back, and shut the door behind Carlos. "I thought you were going to do some magic."
"I can't until I understand what's been done. For that, I have what I need." He gestured for Steve to follow and speed-walked out of the Shambling Orphan building.
It felt like there was wet sediment in his nose. He rubbed at it unhappily, wanting it loose.
As he reached the sidewalk, he bent over, hands on his knees, and sucked in dry desert air, trying to supplant the mud. Why mud. Why did something so mundane leave him shaking and anxious?
A hand rested on his spine. "Carlos?"
"Yeah," Carlos said, confirming. He was still Carlos and he was coming back to himself as he lost proximity to that damn seal. Instead of mud, his lips were wet with that phantasmal sensation of thick liquor again. So, totally normal. Yep. Yep.
Standing up, Carlos put on a hopefully realistic smile for Steve. "Thanks for coming with me. Could I bother you to drop me off back home?"
"Sure," Steve agreed. "Do you think you'll be able to help Chad? I'm pretty worried."
Carlos wasn't certain about his ability, but the knowledge was in his grasp. And knowing was half the battle. The other half was brute force magic. He nodded. "I'll do my best."
The Voice Of Night Vale
I'm sorry for the delay in updates from the parade, listeners. I lost contact with Dana shortly after our initial story. Every time I tried to text her, the responses would come back in those flat boxes that mean you don't have the right font package installed? Well, eventually I downloaded just about every language support package. Turned out Ancient Phoenician (Expanded!) was the correct choice.
I still… can't read what she says. I may have to consult with an… expert in these matters.
Regardless, there were other eyewitnesses on the ground who eventually shared what they knew.
The parade was proceeding accordingly, with Night Vale residents watching in mute trepidation as the hooded figures poured like black coffee across a white tablecloth, saturating our streets with their presence. The city filled with the low drone of static, the telltale sound of their presence, as we all know and never hope to personally experience.
Then, well. Reports are mixed. What we know for sure is that the parade abruptly ended when the hooded figures scattered, running like a loosed murder of crows, soaring with great billowing flaps back towards the dog park.
Something spooked them. And oh, Night Valeans, we have a highly tuned sense of danger. If we see a dangerous being turning and fleeing, we put aside our differences, particularly our disparate locations on the food chain, and we run too.
Many people found hiding places. But others were swept up in the flock of hooded figures. The foreboding gates of the dog park spelled safety for a panicked moment. And many fled inside.
Intern Dana seems to have been part of that group, whether following her own fear or following the story. All things considered, I would forgive the former.
The doors shut. The dog park is closed.
To the family of Intern Dana. There was text messages on my phone sent by her phone. She is not gone. She is… displaced. We, indeed, know where she is and how she might be replaced.
Perhaps, just this once, the Sheriff's Secret Police would like to contribute to the greater good and get my intern back. If Sheriff Sam could find a stopping point in their admittedly beautiful mixed media sculpture. It would go a long way in restoring some faith in--
Oh. Station Management's door is rattling loudly. Let's… let's move on. Yeah. Yes.
It said a lot about the increasing spill of his life into Cecil's that Carlos was a little surprised when dinner came around and Cecil didn't show up with some inexplicable food to eat, didn't text Carlos to ask him out, didn't say anything.
Carlos stared at the notification bar on his phone as he transcribed the seal from Chad's house from his photos onto a piece of paper.
They'd spent the weekend together, having uncomfortably emotionally present conversations. Admittedly, it left Carlos a little drained. He didn't want to talk about his feelings anymore, that was certain.
But the house was very quiet around him as he worked. He'd grown to like the way having another person nearby made the creaks and idle movement of a house seem less malicious.
It was ridiculous. He'd lived alone most of his adult life. He didn't need to bother Cecil.
Working diligently, Carlos dragged the pen along the page as he redrew the seal.
When he was nearly done, he heard his bedroom door groan as it swung slowly. Turning to glare at it, Carlos waited for it to stop.
"Must be the wind," he said quietly.
"Oh, poppet, is that what you think?"
Carlos scrambled to his feet with a startled yell, bumping into the table and sending his wand rolling off it. He hopped around the corner and bent to snatch it up, lifted and pointing around the room.
"That's a rude way to greet a guest." The voice was feminine and vaguely irritated, like an overtightened spring. "I thought witches tended to respect the sanctity of homes, but well. We're learning a lot about you today, aren't we?"
The words were coming from somewhere, a specific point in Carlos' periphery. He turned slowly, trying to catch sight of the source. "Who are you and why are you here?"
A tongue clucked in annoyance. "Stop rotating around like a ramshackle pinwheel, Device. I'm a simple old lady who would like a few words with you. If you would simply glance in the reflection of the glass over the pictures on the wall, you'll see I'm sitting in your armchair." She let out a pleased little sound. "Did this furniture come with the house? It's very nice."
"Yes." He focused on the liminal space through refracted light and saw a faint image through the glass. A person was sitting on the armchair, sure enough. When he turned his head to properly look, it seemed empty.
Focusing, he shut his eyes and opened his Eye.
And instantly staggered back as the sensation of someone poking a sharp fingernail into his metaphysical sight hit him. "Rude child. If I wanted to be seen or Seen, would I linger in the gossamer veil of the narrows of your vision? No. Don't be nosy."
Carlos rubbed his forehead, wincing. "Fine. What do you want?"
"Just to talk. You visited my home earlier today. Well, visit is a very generous term for what you did, isn't it?"
He always sort of knew the answer, yet still asked, "Where is your home?"
The woman tutted softly. "All homes are my home. Or, they were." A hard exhale came from the chair's direction. "Chad's less so. I have never been made destitute in this way before. That horrible little beast drove me out."
"Do you know what it is?" Carlos asked.
"Something dark. Something that answers to desperation." Her voice was low and lethal like tasteless poison. "Chad called for order. Simple-minded and foolish, when entropy is your destiny. The great glowing coils of the universe will always be unraveling, and they are so fragile. Trying to grip them and impose order on them will only tear them apart and flay the skin."
"That's non-specific," Carlos said.
A huge sigh, like a wind through a belfry. "It's a dog. But it is not a dog. The dog is a vessel for a darker thing. It comes from the darkest place of all. It brings darkness with it, enough to blot out even Night Vale's own." There was the shifting sound of moving cloth, like someone resettling their body. Carlos imagined a leg crossed over a knee, long austere skirts to suit an archaic voice. "You have the curse of magic and a protective streak that smudges like charcoal over everything you touch. Do something about it."
"I plan to." He paused, squinting at the empty chair. "Are you… going to leave now?"
"No," she said tartly. "You're dreadful at hospitality. What would your arcane teachers say?" Another annoyed tutting sound that made Carlos feel fifteen years younger and foolish. "I will simply go back to quietly existing in the corners of your life and let you return to the belief you are alone. But rest assured, you are not. I may be slightly malicious and unwilling to help you in any substantial way, but you are not alone, witch. All homes are my home." She paused, very briefly. "You should call Cecil, by the by. He's rather upset."
"What? Why? What happened?"
"That's not how this works," the woman said. And then she said nothing more. She didn't speak, and she didn't breathe; Carlos hadn't realized he could hear her breathing until it was gone.
Again he felt alone. The veracity of that, he had no idea.
Picking up his phone, Carlos called Cecil.
The Voice Of Night Vale, off air
CECIL: Hm, sorry, yes. Hello, bunny. How was-- was occultism today?
CARLOS: Eventful and informative. But I'm not calling for professional reasons. There was… well, it should be said that I believe this house is haunted? There is a faceless old woman who spoke to me through the liminal window of a reflection--
CECIL: Oh, you met the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home. Oh, Carlos. This means you think of your cute-- cute little blue house as home! That's just peachy.
CARLOS: Um, yes, I suppose. What I wouldn't give for a regional grimoire for Night Vale… I should probably start one myself at this point. Add that to the list of things I have to do.
CECIL: So judi-- jus-- je suis-- ugh. So dedicated to your work.
CARLOS: Cecil, are you having trouble with sibilant sounds?
CECIL: I am perfectly capable of pronouncing sibilant sounds and apicals and any fricatives you care to hear.
CARLOS: You sound strange, and I have a hard time knowing your meaning without the context of your face. I'll come over.
CECIL: No, don't. Really, don't.
CARLOS: … No?
CECIL: [low laughter] What's that-- that thing you say? I'm not good company right now, honey bun.
CARLOS: Are you drunk?
CECIL: Drinking. [sigh] Stay home, Carlos.
CARLOS: Cecil. What happened?
CECIL: Mmm… Prophecy.
CARLOS: I'm coming over.
CECIL: Maybe I won't open the door. Maybe I am quite good company to myself. Just me and my reconnoiters. [distantly] Perhaps if you kept a better eye on Dana, she would be home, Sam!
CARLOS: Don't antagonize them, Ceec. I'm coming over and then you will have a choice.
CECIL: Oh? Tell me, doe-eyes.
CARLOS: Doe… No, listen. You can let me in, or leave me outside, facing off with a bloodstone lock with a ritual knife at the ready. See which of us caves first.
CECIL: [hisses softly] Don't do that, baby. I just…
CARLOS: You're bad company. That's fine. So am I.
CECIL: Come over. If you hurry, I'll share this delightful bottle of aperol with you.
CARLOS: I'm going to pick up food on the way. You need to eat something. [pause, distant jingle of keys] Um. Doe-eyes?
CECIL: My gracious companion, with your eyes of doe and… It's always easier to say to a microphone. Isn't that funny? But they indulge me. Silly Cecil is simpering over some singular specimen of ssssss… dammit. Lost it.
CARLOS: I'm on my way now. You keep practicing sibilants and I'll be there soon, honey. You can tell me all about it.
CECIL: Come get it out of me, sorcerer.
CARLOS: Technically speaking I'm not… Nevermind. It's fine. See you soon.
We are back with my beloved grumpy witch man. You may already know this but I have another big WTNV AU going on right now so I'm flipping between them both.
This past week has been dreadful. Hurricanes and hospitalizations and nervous breaks. Writing is a welcome distraction.
There may also be a side-fic in this universe, something a little softer (and, uh, pornier) that explores how magic works in some fun ways. Keep an eye out.
It would be inaccurate to say Carlos was afraid of Old Woman Josie. The emotion was complicated and he didn't know how much time he wanted to spend navigating what the core trouble was. Mostly, when he thought of her, the incisive words she'd said reappeared in the forefront of his mind, and he remembered vividly her contempt for his work. And he remembered that since then, he'd taken a turn for the… not the worst. But he was in some sense more Agnes' descendant than ever before.
So instead of going out by the car lot, Carlos set up on a park bench by Mission Grove, his widest umbrella propped up to shade him, and waited.
Angels were all over Night Vale. Their lack of legality didn't change the fact being out and about in the city tended to lead to seeing them at the grocery store, waiting at the bus stop, browsing the clearance sections of the local clothing stores. They kept their wings tucked in close, the layers of void and feathers collapsed down like a kaleidoscope to avoid bothering people.
But they had this funny habit. It took a while for Carlos to understand it, because it seemed insensible for a purely occult creature with only voluntary ties to the physical mortal realm.
Still, it worked to Carlos' advantage.
He was halfway through his bottle of mint tea when an angel walked along the sidewalk near him. Many eyed, many winged, shoulders low with the weight of their corporeal form. The angel stepped in front of the bench.
With a voice like a french horn stuffed with cotton, they asked, "Sorry to bother you, Carlos Device, but could I borrow ten dollars?"
"Hello there." Carlos moved his umbrella to his other side and gestured to the spot next to him. "Why don't you sit?"
The closest Angel Acknowledgement Alarm was stationed on the nearby street corner. It started tolling, an annoying cacophony.
When the angel sat, he bent and used a piece of chalk to close a mostly-drawn circle he'd inscribed around the bench an hour ago. Bending on the pavement, he spun a coin and covered it with a cup.
The Angel Acknowledgement Alarm shut up.
"Oh," the angel said. "You wish to speak."
"If you are agreeable to the idea." Carlos resettled on the bench.
"Not many people speak to us."
"That seems sad. I'm sorry about the archaic laws here. It seems discriminatory to me, to outlaw the acknowledgement of angelic existence while the City Council is, well, is whatever they are."
They nodded slowly. "We often wonder why this is, yes. Josie tells us people who abide by such unjust rules are not worth the salt in their blood. But it is hard." Their head tilted, wings rustling, phasing through the back the bench as if it weren't there at all. That must've been a mandatory trick for a creature hauling around such appendages. "Your sympathy is genuine, but not the cause of our interaction. What do you wish, witch?"
Carlos removed a poster tube from his bag and opened it. "There is something in Night Vale. An unnatural guest, like a visitor who barred the door upon entering the house." He unrolled a long piece of paper, his copy of the summoning seal.
The angel observed the careful recreation silently. They had eyes, but not pupils per se, and Carlos didn't know what precisely they were looking at, but they did emanate an aura of consideration that felt suitable to the situation.
"We know It is here." Their fingers interlaced, a gesture that was like watching a braid of spider legs. "We wait for It to show Its face, so we may try to push It back."
"What is It?"
"It is a dark monarch. It is a cruel place. It smells of mud and fresh tears. It will swallow the world, and wants nothing."
A sick thing roiled up Carlos' spine. "Nothing. Desolation?"
"Even that is something. It wants nothing."
Carlos inhaled deeply, and remembered the miasmic haze around Bowinger's apartment. "That seems bad."
"Yeah," the angel agreed, "it's pretty bad."
He traced the precise lines of the seal. "I could counter this. With the right vernacular and assistance. And…" He grimaced. "A medium that doesn't require weeks of bloodletting. It'll just take too long for me to accumulate that much, let alone keep it fresh enough to work."
"It is not our way to operate so." They hummed, a sound like a harp in a well. "I need to ask Erika. Or maybe Erika. They'll have an idea what to do." The angel stood, towering over Carlos. "Thank you for acknowledging me."
"Hey, anytime. Provided I am not asleep." He reached in his pocket and held out a twenty dollar bill. He didn't carry tens, really.
The angel laughed, cute and tittering. "I have no need for money. It's just--"
"A way to get people to acknowledge you, yes." Tucking the money away again, he stood, and inclined his head to the angel respectfully. "Thank you for your insight. If you're able to help, feel free to reach out to me."
"We'll soon see. I've heard amid the hierarchies that other angels found the services of a witch useful in averting apocalypse."
"We're handy to have around," Carlos said. It was a good meeting of minds, which was rare across the divide of mortal and immortal. He held out his hand.
Taking it, the angel shook. It wasn't a very good handshake, giving Carlos the impression they were out of practice or didn't get the opportunity often. But when they let go, they politely waited for Carlos to break the ring of chalk with his toe.
They dispersed with a thunderclap of noise, body and aura and very will dissipating in the arid desert heat.
The umbrella sat comfortably against his shoulder as he began to walk home. This was progress. Certainly the new understanding of what was threatening the city sat in Carlos' stomach like a stone, but he was sure he'd hear back from the angels soon and things would move accordingly.
This was his job now. Taking care of Night Vale.
He pressed his bottle against his neck, letting the lingering condensation cool his skin. There was still planning for him to do. Figuring out the right medium for his counterspell would take some time.
He was deep in thought as he returned to his bungalow.
Sitting on the swing bench, looking hollowly down at the porch, his hands clasped and between his legs, was Cecil.
They'd not spoken or texted today, so this was unexpected. Not that Cecil was unwelcome, but he tended to give Carlos a heads up before inviting himself over. Recently, he'd been more drawn, tension taut in his body and in his actions.
It was Dana, Carlos thought. Cecil didn't like losing, especially not people, and had been in a grouchy mood ever since her disappearance into the dog park.
Carlos was not what anyone would call observant, especially when it came to people, but prolonged exposure was its own benefit, and Carlos was starting to glean the way Cecil took responsibility, often undue responsibility. It was a heavy thing.
And Cecil looked very heavy right now.
Stepping up onto the porch, Carlos waited.
Cecil slowly lifted his head, and stared right back at Carlos.
"Should we go inside?" Carlos asked.
"That would be wise," Cecil said, and levered himself to standing, unfolding himself like a rusty hinge and following Carlos as he unlocked the door and went inside.
"I love you," Carlos said, because he did know to soften his words a little before he said them. "You look like three kinds of hell."
"Your concept of tact is adorable." Cecil sat heavily on the sofa, collapsing right back down.
"Something's wrong," Carlos pointed out.
Cecil gestured extravagantly to the room, the city, the world, and creation beyond, and Carlos loved him and was comforted by the fact he also could find Cecil obnoxious. It was a grounding reality tempering his desperate, terrifying affection.
Carlos put his hands on his hips, nudging his jacket back, and again waited.
The smile that fought its way across Cecil's face was hard to look at, tinged with bitterness and some lapse in control. "I… received a letter today." He drew a folded piece of paper from his pocket and held it out to Carlos. "Which, admittedly, I've gotten this letter before, and like a model member of this community, I've never had trouble with compliance before. It's always been part of my position to follow directives, and the process really is not as bad as it sounds."
Frowning, Carlos took the paper, folded into fourths with military precision.
He looked inside the first fold of the page, and caught sight of Mr. Cecil Palmer, we write to inform you that you've been scheduled for re-education tomorrow .
The paper creased as his fingers clenched.
"I fear," Cecil said slowly, "that I've forgotten myself lately, and have said a few… uncouth things about, oh." He leaned back against the sofa, lacing his fingers over his knee. "Sheriff Sam, the Secret Police, the City Council. A few antagonist remarks, none of which I think would garner retribution on their own, but…"
"What does re-education mean," Carlos asked dully. He'd heard the term before, on the radio, but the term had been intimidating, and if he didn't know the details then he could avoid worrying about it for the time being, until the problem caught up with him.
And it seemed to be catching up now.
Cecil's fingers fanned, then clenched into fists. "It's… a tending. The mind is a lush thing, a garden green and vivacious and verdant. But things overgrow, and s-sometimes weeding is needed to maintain it."
The stutter was a soft hiss, barely there. It all sounded much like a justification Cecil had used before. To himself? To others?
Inhaling deeply, Carlos steadied himself for a moment. "Right. Except that's not how minds work, Cecil."
"I've had it done before," Cecil said, as if that would be a comfort. There was a tremor in his voice, and it resonated in Carlos, making him want to tremble. "It's… corrective."
"Then why are you scared?"
Cecil huffed, rolling his eyes. "Scared. Scared!"
"Scared!" Carlos waved at him, the paper fluttering noisily in his grip. "If it's no big deal, you'd, I don't know, pop off to the Re-Education Room or Center or whatever it is bright and early, no problem at all! But no, you're here. With me." He sucked in another breath. "What are you afraid of?"
Eyes lidded, Cecil looked down at his intertwined fingers. "Mhm. Usually… I know why I'm being re-educated. The error is mine, and the correction is acceptable." His thumbs tapped together. "And… I suppose I know why I'm being scheduled this time. Aforementioned antagonism of city protectors and arbitrators. But also… you."
"Me," Carlos echoed.
"I think, I suspect, that maybe what might be corrected is… you. Or it might be caught up in the weeding, so to speak, like throwing a rosebush out with the dandelions."
They wouldn't. They couldn't. They wouldn't dare to--
Carlos' eyes widened and he turned on his heel, walking towards the kitchen.
His prophecies hung on their binder ring on a hook. He picked it up and flipped through them. It sounded like him, like his own words, a thought he'd had before. It sounded like:
03: They dare to meddle with his heart and mind, pressing him into a more pleasing shape. A draught of somnus the night before will keep him safe, and you have to keep him safe.
He hung the ring back up and nodded to himself. "Right. Okay. I've got this." And sounding confident was the first step to actual confidence, wasn't it? That, and the backing of prophecy.
He looked over at Cecil, met his eyes steadily, and yeah. Yes, he'd keep him safe.
He took out a sauce pot and set it on the stove, then pulled his cookbook off the shelf. Opening it, he flicked past the complicated instructions for roasts he'd never make and past the icebox cookie recipes he might make, and to the important additions at the back of the book.
Somnus. A dreamless sleep. Effectively, rest without subconscious cognition.
Carlos traced the ingredient guidelines. "But this'll just put you to sleep. How do I keep you awake…"
Head snapping up to attention, Carlos looked back to Cecil, who watched him with obvious trepidation.
He was scared. But he'd come to Carlos for help.
Carlos smiled, faint, wan, but warm. "I'm going to do magic to you, Cecil."
Slowly standing, Cecil joined him at the table, looking down at the cookbook and then at Carlos again. "Right. How?"
That was the question. The somnus made sense; if re-education was a process done to the mind, then Carlos was just going to help Cecil's mind sleep through the process. Come out the other side untouched.
But he had to be awake to go to the procedure itself. Two truths that didn't fit together: Cecil had to sleep through it. Cecil had to be awake for it.
He had to do both.
Putting his hand over Cecil's on the table, he thought over his tools and supplies. Rituals and knives and herbalism and index cards. Some way to pin two opposing ideas to Cecil.
Or tie them.
Carlos gasped, and broke into a grin. "Okay. Alright. I have a plan."
Carlos' plan went like this.
Somnus would protect Cecil's mind, and prevent anything from sinking in. He'd sleep and wake up as he'd been when the draught crossed his lips, albeit hopefully better rested. That handled the actual re-education.
At the same time, Cecil needed to do as he was told and obey the orders of the re-education facility staff. He had to follow commands, transient and in the moment. Nothing would sink in with the somnus insulating his mind.
So, Carlos got to brewing. Valerian and moonshine and the dark of a new moon, in his little sauce pot, simmering away and integrating.
Cecil, as he was wont to do, made dinner, their elbows brushing as they both manned their stations, potion-making and sauteeing united by the relative proximity of the gas burners.
"I should warn you," Carlos said, watching his work as he added dried passiflora to his pot. "The plan… the way I figured how to do this…" He shut the mason jar and set it aside, stirring the dried purple petals in. "It's an ask."
"An ask," Cecil repeated. "What are you asking me?"
He should just come out with it.
It felt like cheating; he had the power of prophecy behind him, reassuring him. He knew this was the way, no hesitation or second thoughts necessary.
"I'm going to put your mind to sleep with this draught. That'll protect you from the effects of the re-education." He looked up at Cecil, by his side. "I'm also going to bind you to any verbal command you're given, so you'll be able to go through with the procedure. No lasting effects, just obedience in the moment. You… won't even remember it, when I cut the binding."
That did give Cecil pause, his gaze slipping from the pan and to Carlos. "You… can do that?"
"With your permission, yes," Carlos said. "I can't battle your will, can't exert control over a complex consciousness like that."
"Usually it's a being of astronomical power or unknowable depth that takes control of me." Cecil stirred food, tone contemplative and not giving much away. "To think, a precocious bunny could manage it."
"It's really not the same," Carlos murmured, his face flushing. "It… The way it works, it's a binding agreement. A binding, in particular."
"What does that mean?"
"Uh. Rope. Rope will be involved."
Cecil turned to fully look Carlos over. "Carlos. If you wanted to add some more bondage to the bedroom, you only had to say. This seems very elaborate."
"Knot magic!" Carlos covered his eyes. "It's magic, it's real magic!"
"Uh huh. Well. Let's eat first. It's important to fuel up before any strenuous… magic."
"Oh my god," Carlos moaned. "You're going to be so disappointed when this is not sexual at all. Fine, let's-- yeah. Later."
Carlos took his draught off the burner so it could cool to a drinkable temperature, and they both settled in with dinner. He could barely taste the food, his anxiousness settling in like a thick rain freezing to sleet over him. He tried to ignore the significant looks Cecil shot him through the meal, but Cecil's face was captivating, and he had many looks.
"You should take off your clothes for this," Carlos told Cecil after they'd cleared plates away.
The smirk he got was equal parts tempting and infuriating. "Oh, of course Carlos."
"Close the curtains and sit on the sofa. I need to get my cords."
Cecil briskly kissed his cheek before taking great pleasure in following Carlos' orders, his walk unusually languid as he practically sashayed around the living room.
Sighing loudly, Carlos went to his dresser and consulted his tool box. He retrieved his athame, then lifted the wooden slat at the bottom of the box. Inside were more materials, and Carlos took the knotwork cords out, slinging them over his shoulder.
In the living room, Cecil's clothes were neatly folded on the arm of the sofa. He sat, one leg hooked over his knee, on the center cushion, leaning back, his hands folded over his bare stomach. As Carlos circled to face him, Cecil lifted his head and smiled.
"Colorful," he complimented, eyes on the cords.
"Yeah," Carlos said in a rasp. "The, uh, they have different resonances." He laid them over the coffee table, each set of colors separated from the others. "From the point of view of thaumaturgy, the most important thing is my own associations, what makes this easier for me."
"And what colors say 'obedience' to you?" He was entirely too smug. "Navy blue? That nice sunflower yellow?"
No. Carlos swallowed and touched the dark maroon bundle. Another was red as fresh spilled blood. And the stone-pink cords caught his eye as well.
He separated those three and flexed his hands. "Right. I've got this." Breathe. It helped to breathe. "Cecil. I'm going to enact some binding magic on you. It will literally tie you to your word and maintain your oath until such a time that I cut the metaphysical and physical binding, so releasing you. Do you accept this?"
Cecil looked intrigued and unconcerned. "I do."
The pink-grey cord was smooth in Carlos' hands, the surface slightly felted so it wouldn't chafe. Not that he'd bought these with the intention of tying up a person , but it was good to know he could and it likely wouldn't hurt Cecil.
Groaning, Carlos covered his face in his hands.
"What? What's wrong?" Cecil asked.
"I just. If my great aunt knew I was using knot magic like this! God."
Cecil snorted and tugged at the front of Carlos' shirt. "Come on. Do it."
Fine. The chances of Aunt Amara learning Carlos did this to a naked man were very low. Draping the cord around the back of Cecil's neck, Carlos looped the slack around his index fingers and wrists, and willed everything to start.
Cecil shivered, looking down. "I, hm, I felt something."
"Initiation of the spell," Carlos explained. "I have to maintain it for the whole process." He drew the cords down, creating space for Cecil's neck, then began forming a knot.
"Hm." Cecil tucked his chin down to observe. "You usually start a chest harness around the chest, not the neck."
"A chest harness?" The soft pink slipped through his fingers with gratifying ease.
Carlos paused. "This isn't shibari, it's witchcraft. And do you-- have you done--"
Cecil held up three fingers. "You learn a lot about rope in boy scouts. Or from… scoutmasters. Sometimes."
A flash of heat ran through Carlos at the thought, and the Earl Harlan in his mind's eye probably didn't resemble the man himself as they still hadn't crossed paths, but that didn't prevent Carlos from feeling something vicious and hot.
Cecil's eyebrows lifted, voice going treacle sweet and sticky. "Oh. Carlos."
"I'm trying to concentrate here," he pointed out, and started working a long continuous braid down Cecil's chest. "Lean back."
Carlos was watching his hands. Cecil was watching Carlos' face with an intensity that was disconcerting. It made him feel magnified, outsized and nervous under observation.
Licking his lips, he ceased the braid just over Cecil's pelvis with another large knot, holding everything in place. "Feet on the coffee table," he said.
He planted his feet on the corner of the table, legs bracketed around Carlos as he worked. The position let Carlos draw the cord out, around Cecil's hips, and he pressed down to reach around. He traded the cord between his hands, maintain the loop around his fingers, his wrists, exhaling hard when the spell held.
Cecil curiously stroked the long braid that bisected his torse. "This material is so soft. Were these expensive?"
"No talking unless prompted," Carlos replied. "This is hard."
"Oh? Is it?"
Carlos looked up his body to glare, pulling the cords back to the front and reuniting them with the pelvic knot. He reached the ends, and wound them in with the braid before finally letting go, shaking out his hands. His fingertips tingled, his palms flushed with magic, like spell residue collected in his skin.
"The tower, the trunk of the tree, the spine, the columns holding up the temple, foundation and lodestone," he said, reaching up to frame the knot near Cecil's neck with his hands. "This is the important part."
"This is the part where--"
Carlos cut him off quickly. "This is the part where you're extremely careful about what you say, Cecil."
Cecil's mouth formed a little 'oh' and he nodded, going quiet and waiting for instruction.
Thank god. "You will follow the instruction of those around you. Your body will move to comply with any command that does not threaten your life or health. You'll follow the letter and spirit of these words. Do you swear this on the tower, the tree, the spine, your foundation and lodestone?"
Swallowing, finally looking appropriately trepidatious, Cecil nodded. "I swear."
Good. Carlos turned to pick up the next cord, then reconsidered. Touching the long braid again, he said, "I swear to do everything in my power to protect you, to safeguard your mind, body, and spirit. I will take care of you."
"I know all that," Cecil told him. "I know."
"Still." Now, he picked up the red cord. "You should stand for this. Maybe lean on the kitchen table."
They moved, and Carlos was surprised at the stumble of Cecil's legs as he reoriented himself upright. He waved off any concern, moving to rest a hand on the table.
Carlos strung the red cord through the pelvic knot, taking a second to admire the contrast of colors. "You'll tell me if anything hurts or becomes uncomfortable."
It was a command, and sank into Cecil, binding and oath. He shuddered, and nodded.
"Good." Carlos looped the cord around his fingers and wrists, imbuing the same spell into them. "Let's continue then."
The first ties were the foundation. Now, Carlos built reinforcements. He widened the splay of the pink cord, distributing the weight out over Cecil's hips and collar. Along the braid, he loosely wound circular loops, leaves branching out from the central column.
"That's very ornate looking," Cecil murmured. "Admittedly not like anything I learned in scouts or post-scouts."
"Shh," Carlos hushed, trading cord between his hands and nudging Cecil to turn around, stringing cord from his neck around his back, pulling everything open so it'd hopefully sit more comfortably.
He finished around the back, coming to the end of the cord again. He tucked the ends securely away, then turned Cecil around again.
The evening had settled around them, and Cecil's eyes glowed faintly in the dim light of the house. His lips were parted, breathing deep and even.
Carlos blinked. "You can speak. Sorry."
"That's all right," Cecil said, voice thick.
"This is just very delicate a-and you need to be careful what you say before I'm finished."
Cecil nodded, and said nothing.
That really was more affecting that it had any right to be. Carlos loved Cecil's voice, muted brass and canyon deep. It made no sense for Cecil being quiet to dig into him this way.
Clearing his throat, Carlos hooked his fingers in the cords. "It's going to be okay."
"Oh, that you should redact," Cecil said. "Be careful, Carlos, what if…"
"If anything happens to you, I'll take the metaphysical blowback gladly," Carlos told him gently. "It'd be an appropriate response." He retrieved the last cord, the maroon. "We're almost done."
Cecil looked at the cord, then at Carlos' face, and nodded.
This one, Carlos wound directly into the braid, pulling the slack out and turning Cecil. The cord crossed over his spin, twisted to lock, and Carlos wound it back to the front braid. He pulled it again, to the spine, locked, and then just stepped in close to reach around Cecil. It was easier than having him keep spinning around, to wrap his arms around Cecil and thread through the braid by blind touch.
Cecil's arm were braced on the table, his breathing coming deeper as he stood still. As the fifth crisscross landed on his back, he bowed his head and bit down a sound.
Which, Carlos could… sympathize with. With all three colors in play, pressing lightly into Cecil's skin, the outline of a dark jagged flower was blooming over his body, and Carlos vainly appreciated how beautiful his work looked.
He was about half through the cord, and started to wind it through the spokes he'd created to Cecil's spine. Pulling and bending the lines, he fashioned a netting, a cage, curled around Cecil's sides, containing his ribs and expanding lungs and deep breaths.
"Almost done," Carlos murmured.
Cecil just laughed hoarsely.
As fate would have it, the cord ended perfectly for Carlos to work the ends into the braid, arms around him to coax them through with his fingertips. Keeping contact, he tucked his fingers between the soft lines and warm skin, checking everything was comfortable.
Then, he let go, and the spell snapped taut, out of his grasp but wrapped around Cecil. The hum of energy was almost audible to Carlos, though it might've been the tension-release of finally being able to let the spell go without breaking its fragile wireframe.
Knuckles white on the table, Cecil let out a tense groan. "I can feel it. I can feel it holding on."
"I can cut it," Carlos said. "If its too much."
"It's too much," Cecil said. "Don't you dare cut it. Just." He turned, and grabbed Carlos, hauled him close to kiss him, open and messy and fraying.
"Tell me what you want," Carlos said between presses of their mouths.
"I want you to take me to bed and to put me on my back and fuck me and hold onto the ropes so I feel them pull everywhere."
Carlos wound his fingers into the cords and pulled until Cecil followed him to the bedroom. His eyes were dazed, his gait deer-legged as he walked. He looked like he might fall at any moment. So Carlos pushed him down on the bed.
He was going to keep Cecil safe. From invasive civic foundations and from weak knees alike. A physical manifestation of his protection was meticulously strung around Cecil's body, and Carlos curled his fingers into it as he bent over Cecil and opened him up and slid slowly into him.
Cecil's webbing shifted with each breath, his oath bound taut to his chest. "Harder, Carlos, do it harder."
It snapped and cracked around him, the magic, like he was the person bound instead. He couldn't imagine disobeying, a sympathetic connection that had nothing to do with thaumaturgy but with how much he needed to give Cecil everything he wanted.
One hand tangled in pink and red cords, Carlos snapped his hips up harder, holding Cecil's thigh up around him. Laid out under him, Cecil arched and jerked with every hard thrust, his eyes open and skyward, burning violet in the dark. He looked like something that belonged on an altar or maybe even on a dark throne, he was gorgeous. "Carlos, Carlos, yes, like that, uh, god."
Holding onto the cords around his shoulders, Carlos bent further over Cecil, rhythm rough and unrelenting until he started to ache from it. He wanted to be good for Cecil, he wanted Cecil to come from this, to--
Carlos stared down at him with sudden comprehension. "Cecil. Come."
That was it. Cecil shook like the netting was the only thing holding him together, eyes rolled back, nails biting into Carlos' skin. He clenched around Carlos, and Carlos yelled, shoving into him and spilling like agony into him.
He should have fallen. Blinking back into his body, Carlos found Cecil bracing him up, his thumb stroking Carlos' cheek.
And, oh, he liked this. Being hot and inside Cecil while Cecil was laced up in his magic. That stroked something inside him.
The smile that crossed Cecil's face was soft as felted cords and held Carlos as securely in place. "You know. We could do this again. When things are less grave."
Silently nodding, Carlos leaned down to kiss Cecil's throat, around pink cord.
"Can I do this to you? Or is it witches only," Cecil asked. "Hypothetically speaking."
"Um. I don't know. It's all thaumaturgy, it's malleable, but I don't know if it's that malleable." He kissed Cecil's chin, humming. "You'll need to drink the somnus soon."
"Aw." He stroked Carlos' back with his fingertips. "Going to order me to?"
Lifting his head, Carlos gave Cecil an incredulous look.
Cecil held his gaze for a moment, then rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay. But. Well."
"You'll, ah, have to move, bunny. As comfortable as you may be right now."
Shit, right. He was still-- He eased back, out of Cecil, throat clicking as he swallowed a moan.
Rolling out of bed, Cecil looked down at himself, plucking at a cord. "Clean up first, I think. Can you get the potion ready?"
"Be careful cleaning! I don't know how the cords will react to water."
Separating, they prepared for bed. Carlos picked up the scattering of his clothes from the floor, hung up his jacket and threw the rest in the basket. By the time he checked on the sauce pot, the contents had cooled enough to drink. After locking up the house and activating a few charms to strengthen the threshold, he filled a mug with somnus and carried it to the bedroom.
Slipping into the bathroom, Carlos brushed his teeth, watching Cecil do the same. The domesticity was often pleasant enough. Seeing Cecil prepare for bed while tied up thoroughly kindled a whole new emotion in Carlos.
He'd never felt… possessive before. The intensity of the emotion always seemed out of his grasp. Long now Carlos had suspected he maybe didn't feel things as strongly as other people, couldn't relate to raw passion. It'd never bothered him.
And it still didn't. But the emotion he felt as he looked at Cecil was certainly raw.
He cleared his throat. "Ready?" Carlos asked.
"As much as I can be," Cecil told him. "Anything I should know?"
Leading Cecil to bed, Carlos sat on the edge, and handed the mug over. "Somnus will put you to sleep as soon as you finish drinking it. This much should keep you out through tomorrow, but I'll wake you up once you're safe. You won't dream and won't remember anything you do until I take you out of it."
Saying it made Carlos nervous, but Cecil accepted this with a nod, sliding around Carlos to settle on the bed, his legs stretched out, his pajama pants pulled up over the cords around his hips. Raising the mug to his mouth, he inhaled. "Herby."
"Yeah," Carlos agreed weakly.
Looking at him over the cup, Cecil smiled, taking Carlos' hand. "Stop worrying. You swore an oath I'd be safe. So I will be."
"Yeah," Carlos said again, and scooted closer to Cecil on the bed.
Cecil leaned in for a fast kiss, no more than a peck. "Goodnight, my lovely, talented occultist. I'll see you soon." And he drank.
As he predicted, Carlos wound up catching the mug as it slipped from Cecil's grasp. Putting it aside, he watched Cecil's eyes slide peacefully shut.
With enough foresight, he would have had Cecil lay down beforehand, but it was fine. He rearranged Cecil further down the bed, until he rested on his side, hands lax, lips parted around his faint sigh.
Tomorrow would be quite a day. For now, Carlos sat next to Cecil, stroking his hair, watching over him.
He had to keep him safe. He had to.
folks, i am a new woman. i have seen WTNV live. more importantly, I have seen Dreamboy live, and lemme tell you. Lemme tell you. Dane Terry is a gift. a show-stealing gift who gives good hugs. WTNV is doing like one more leg of their A Spy in the Desert tour and it's fantastic. please look into seeing it if you can, i promise it's a welcoming fun exuberant time.