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02 February 2014 @ 01:02 am
FIC: Stranger (1/?)  
Title: Stranger (1/?)
Author: joonscribble
Fandom: Welcome to Night Vale
Rating: PG-13ish
Timeline: Set after "A Beautiful Dream" but before "Lazy Day." Also, for the purposes of this story, "Condos" is not part of the timeline yet.
Spoilers: Probably safe to say everything before "Lazy Day."
Disclaimer: All the recognizable Night Vale characters were created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.
Summary: After Carlos leaves Night Vale to go to a conference, the town vanishes without a trace.
Author's Note: Okay, my first Welcome to Night Vale fic. And I decided to make it a longish one. I'll probably regret starting this but I probably would have regretted not starting it even more. If I've messed up some piece of canon fact, I apologize in advance. The podcast is brilliant but continuity even in the canon is spotty and I can't promise I've kept track of everything. Many thanks to xparrot for cheering me on about this fic and for squeeing with me about the podcast in general.


There was a voicemail waiting for Carlos on his cell phone when he got out of the shower. He didn’t recognize the number of the missed call. These days there were only two numbers that ever popped up as an incoming call: the main line at his lab or Cecil’s cell phone. It had gotten to the point where Carlos would make bets with himself of at the end of the week which one took up the most space in his call log. But this one featured a California area code. So not a family member either.

“Hi Carlos, it’s Mike Gustave. Hope things are well.”

Mike had been a researcher in Carlos’ lab. The vague memory of Mike fending off the purring orange mold they’d scraped out from the produce aisle of the Ralph’s drifted into Carlos’ mind. Mike had left a couple of months after that to go to a teaching position in San Diego.

“I heard from Cynthia that you were coming out to Cali for the AAAS Meeting this year. It’ll be great to meet up. I feel like it’s been forever. Give me a call or shoot me an email with your schedule. Talk soon, bye.”

In the end, it hadn’t been the mold that seemed to believe it was an adorable kitten and deserving of a cuddle on Mike’s shoulder that had scared him off. It had been that plus the level of uncertainty saturated into every square inch of Night Vale that had prompted Mike to throw in the towel and email his CV out to any and every university in the country. Carlos had been sad to see him go. He’d like working with Mike who was a keen researcher, if a bit green.

While he ate breakfast in his small kitchen, Carlos searched Mike’s name and was directed to his faculty webpage. On it was a CV that was significantly longer than when Carlos had last seen it when he’d hired Mike. There were at least 25 more articles under publications as well as a good number of conference presentations. Mike was now on tenure track at his school and had clearly made a success for himself since leaving Night Vale. Seeing Mike’s CV now, it suddenly dawned on Carlos that he hadn’t had any cause to even look at his own CV since arriving in Night Vale.

In his voicemail Mike had said it felt like it had been forever since they’d last spoken. But in truth it had only been a year since Carlos had watched Mike floor it out of town in his rental jeep.

Morning shifted into late morning as Carlos perused Mike’s publications for the past year, his oatmeal now cold and forgotten. A year and a half had passed by since he’d come to Night Vale and Carlos had barely noticed the time draining away.

**

As an overall principle, Carlos knew he had to publish. He wasn’t an academic so it was less “publish or perish” for him. But he knew the value of publishing as a contributing factor for grant applications and esteem in the scientific community. Before coming to Night Vale his list of articles had been impressive, though probably less so if one considered Carlos more or less lived in his lab space. But now there was an 18 month gap in his CV that stared at him like an open wound.

“Carlos? Carlos?”

A small hand passed by in front of his face, snapping Carlos out of his blank stare of the computer monitor. Cynthia Shin was standing next to him, holding what looked like a pair of clunky headphones.

“What? I mean, yeah, hi, Cynthia,” Carlos caught up.

She raised an eyebrow. “Hi, again.” She held up the headphones. “Josh has volunteered to try and get a soil sample this time.”

It was Attempt #8 with the Whispering Forest. Despite multiple tests beforehand, all noise canceling headphones seemed to fail once anyone in their lab got to the forest to try and get a sample. During the last try, an overzealous Josh had tried for a branch and had nearly paid with his life for it. An attempt to record the compliments from the trees had resulted in several megabytes of static as did any attempt at videotaping. They’d yet to figure out why or even hypothesize on the why for that matter.

How can you hypothesize anything when the laws of nature don’t work anymore? How can you get any results or even understand any results when nothing’s grounded in anything? Carlos wondered.

“Carlos? Hello?”

Carlos shook himself again, getting the feeling that Cynthia had been talking for awhile now. “Sorry, you said Josh and the soil sample?”

Cynthia frowned. “You okay?”

“Fine. Just…thinking.”

“Well, we’re all thinking,” she commented, dryly. “You’re not worried about the lab, are you? We’ll be fine for a few days.”

“I know.”

In a paradoxical way, Carlos knew they would be fine. Fatality rates were always elevated in Night Vale but somehow the town already feel more unreal when compared to this conference in California. Carlos had decided to go because he had gone every year since obtaining his doctorate. But this was the first year he wouldn’t be presenting anything. Which meant that for the last year and a half Carlos had found nothing to present; nothing to present other than pure observation which meant very little and would mean even less when the observations sounded insane.

“A floating cat lives in the men’s bathroom of the local radio station. It’s like the cat is enclosed in its own anti-gravity field. I don’t even have pictures though. Take my word for it.”

Looking around, Carlos saw the various sections of the lab that were busy with experiments dedicated to the oddities of the town. More or less all of them had yielded results which could only be named as inconclusive. Would it always be like this? Was it going to be another year, two, three, four and in the end all he could say would be the results were inconclusive?

“So, I’m going to go ahead and give Josh the green light for the soil sample, okay?” Cynthia said.

Carlos sighed, feeling already defeated about it. “Send Greg with him as insurance. Have Greg count to 500 and if Josh isn’t back by then, he’s going to have to get in touch with that depression group Teddy Williams put us in contact with for a search and retrieval.”

Carlos wondered if he should be alarmed that the plan sounded rather logical to him. As it was, this entire day suddenly felt very pointless.

**

“Listeners, it’s that time again when we all open our mailboxes, sift through the usual contents of bills, magazines, baby teeth, and catalogs we never subscribed to in the first place, to find that one envelope holding the Sheriff’s Secret Police Annual Census. As you may already be aware, the Sheriff’s Secret Police are now under the new management of StrexCorp. As such, the guidelines for the census and its contents are a little different this year. We had Henrietta Slade, the new citizen liaison for the Sheriff’s Secret Police, come in yesterday to explain the changes.

Previous questions of ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ and ‘If you could be anyone in the whole world, who would it be?’ she said have now been replaced with ‘live with your emotionally abusive parent for 7 years straight or dentist visit for 2 years straight?’ and ‘Spiders or clowns?’

Henrietta also added that there would be no extensions this year. All residents of Night Vale must fill out the census and return them via the included self-addressed stamped envelope in one week. After bleeding, sweating and crying onto it first, she reminded us. There will be no exceptions. If you live in Night Vale, please make every effort to complete and return them. For your own sake. No seriously, for your own sake, please fill these out, please, she pleaded before hurrying away, frantically wiping at her face.

Speaking of residency, I don’t know if you remember…I may have mentioned it once or twice earlier this week, but Night Vale’s most cherished outsider, my boyfriend Carlos, will be leaving us for a little while. As a scientist it is his duty to attend conferences in order to meet other scientists to discuss the latest in discoveries and do experiments. Obviously, Carlos must fulfill his role. And I must follow the sage advice once given to me by Old Woman Josie who said that love is like a bird. If you hold it light, it will fly. If you hold it tight, it will peck and scratch at you and you’ll be forced to open your hand and the bird will leave and you’ll have a bloody, possibly infected hand. My point is, Carlos will be leaving tomorrow morning and I will miss him terribly, Night Vale.”

**

By nature Carlos was a curious person. It was a quality that served him well as a scientist in that once an idea or thought or question entered his mind, he would work on it until he had whittled it down to the truth.

“An answer is out there. It’s the job of science and us as scientists to find the answer and understand it,” his old biochemistry professor had once said. Sitting in that huge amphitheatre, a freshman in college then, surrounded by mostly juniors and seniors, it had been less a revelation for Carlos and more an articulation of what he’d always known growing up. The world was to be studied in order to be understood, the application of the scientific method ferreting out its secrets and untangling its conundrums.

Unfortunately, this method was less successful for Carlos in his personal life. At their least generous, people who knew him would tell Carlos he was like a dog with a bone; refusing to let things go until he was satisfied with some sort of answer. It had been the cause of death for many of his relationships.

“You need a fucking scientific phenomenon, not a partner,” his last boyfriend had said to him as a parting shot shortly before Carlos had moved to Night Vale.

Where he had met Cecil.

As people went, Cecil was probably the closest to a scientific phenomenon as one was going to get. And why Carlos had filled up an entire notebook with observations he’d made of the Voice of Night Vale and the strangeness that seemed to surround him specifically. When he’d shared this information with Cecil very early into their dating, he had done so in the spirit of honesty and had offered to stop studying him. Cecil wasn’t a lab rat, Carlos knew. It wasn’t terribly respectful.

What Cecil had taken away from it was that Carlos had a notebook that was dedicated to Cecil.

“Carlos, that’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me! Do you really believe I’m interesting enough for science?” Cecil’s giddiness over the notebook had practically flooded out of the ends of his hair, he had been so pleased.

It always struck Carlos as ironic that as much of a mystery as Cecil was in terms of basic things like family history, there was never anything mysterious about him in terms of his present state. Whatever Cecil was feeling and most likely thinking at the moment tended to be broadcast all over his features before being broadcast all over the airwaves. Particularly when Cecil was happy, the emotion practically vibrated out of every pore of his body. As someone who never found it easy to read people correctly, Carlos was immensely grateful that Cecil was like a reading a book with an unusually large font size.

Which was how Carlos knew Cecil was putting in an effort to look cheerful when clearly he wasn’t on Carlos’ last night in Night Vale before flying out.

“I thought of another one,” Cecil said as he added some salt to the salmons being prepped. He had insisted on making Carlos dinner, meaning Carlos was left to sit at Cecil’s kitchen island with a glass of wine. “I won’t miss our lunch plans getting canceled because your lab gets put under quarantine every other week.”

Carlos murmured his agreement.

Cecil had suggested when Carlos had first announced their pending five day separation that they each come up with various things they wouldn’t miss related to the other and save all the things they would miss about each other for when Carlos came back. Carlos had been initially wary that this was some sort of passive aggressive test but Cecil had plunged into it with the sort of enthusiasm that was too obvious to be anything but genuine.

“I won’t miss hearing how upset you get when you get those Mountains Exist pamphlets,” Carlos replied.

"You mean propaganda."

Shoving the salmon steaks into the oven and setting the timer, Cecil joined him at the island. He poured himself a glass of wine as well, using his free hand to fondly stroke the grey streaking the sides of Carlos’ head. “I won’t miss worrying about your safety all the time.”

“I’m not helpless,” Carlos replied, sounding more annoyed than he meant to.

“Carlos, just last week you nearly forgot about Street Cleaning Day again,” Cecil pointed out. “I know you think it’s harmless but I keep telling you-“

“I know, I know, it’s different here,” sighed Carlos.

Cecil frowned, his hand not stopping the stroking motion. “What’s wrong? Is it the trip?”

“Yes and no. I realized today that I haven’t done anything for 18 months.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m about to go to this conference and for the first time not have anything to say. My colleagues have spent the last year publishing, gathering meaningful data, working. And I’ve just been…here.”

“But you work all the time,” said Cecil, clearly confused. “You’ve been here studying the town.”

“Nothing I’ve studied about the town can be translated to anything meaningful out there,” said Carlos. He waved his wine glass toward the kitchen window. “Out there it’s just strange phenomenon that hasn’t been captured by any sort of quantifiable data that can be organized. Even if it could be, I’m not sure anymore how I’m supposed to analyze it seeing as how physics and even math doesn’t work the same way here.” Draining the last of his wine, Carlos stared at the remnants clinging to the sides of glass. “I’ve wasted an entire year and a half.” The stroking motion stopped. Carlos looked up as Cecil withdrew his hand to wrap it around his own glass.

“Oh.”

It was incredible how much emotion could get packed into one word.

“I’m sorry,” Carlos apologized, hastily reaching across the island. “That was a lousy thing to say. I don’t mean that everything was a waste. It’s just my work. It hasn’t gone the way I thought it would and I’m not used to not having that.”

The smile on Cecil’s face was tentative which somehow made Carlos feel worse. “I understand, Carlos,” replied Cecil. “Your work is important to you. I’ve always known that.”

“If another year goes by like this, my chances of getting another grant will be impossible,” said Carlos. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to move?”

He had said it as a half joke but it was clear the other half of it was deadly serious.

Cecil blinked. “Move? You mean, like, out of this apartment into…another one with…other things?” Something akin to excitement rippled across his face.

“Well, sort of. I meant move to a different town.”

“Leave Night Vale?”

“Yes.”

There was a momentary pause before Cecil laughed, like Carlos had played a prank on him. “Carlos, that’s insane! I can’t leave.”

“You mean you literally-“

“No, obviously, I can leave,” said Cecil, rolling his eyes in fond exasperation. “I’ve gone on trips before.”

Carlos didn’t want to argue about Cecil’s supposed vacation to Europe right now. “Haven’t you ever thought about living somewhere that isn’t Night Vale?”

“Why would I?”

“Because there’s an entire world out there. You can live in a place where pens aren’t illegal and eating wheat won’t kill you and every minute of your day isn’t recorded by some badly hidden police officer.”

“Sounds a little dangerous, don’t you think?” said Cecil.

“Really? That sounds dangerous?” Carlos demanded.

“Carlos, I can’t just stop being the Voice of Night Vale. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Your predecessor did. Leonard Burton? He retired, you said.”

Cecil looked distinctly uncomfortable and something twisted a little in Carlos’ chest. He hadn’t listened that day when Cecil had played his old tape but he’d heard about the broadcast afterwards. That entry alone had taken up pages in Carlos’ notebook about Cecil. “It’s not the same thing. Leonard…well, I don’t know actually what it was for Leonard or much about him in general actually. But I know I can’t just stop.”

“I’m not asking you to stop doing radio,” said Carlos. “But can you think a little about maybe doing radio elsewhere? With me.”

“Oh, Carlos,” said Cecil. “I’d love to follow you anywhere. But I can’t. Being the Voice of Night Vale is what I am. I wouldn’t ever ask you to stop being a scientist.”

“At the rate I’m going, it’ll happen pretty soon if I stay here,” Carlos replied, darkly. “The reality is that research projects have to end at some point. Either because it’s a complete bust or the truth gets uncovered. When that does, I’m going to have to leave Night Vale.”

“Reality is a matter of opinion.”

“It’s really not.”

“See? That’s what I mean.”

“Cecil, seriously,” said Carlos. “If you can’t leave Night Vale and if I can’t stay then what happens?”

Cecil looked stricken by the question, his mind clearly working to find some sort of loophole in the query and finding none. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t know at all. I only know I would miss you if you weren’t here.”

“And I’d miss you if you stayed here.”

Cecil smiled, wanly. “Oops, we were saving those until you came back.”

“Right. Yeah. Until I came back.”

The oven timer chimed.

**

They ate dinner amidst forced, light conversation after which Carlos decided to go back home, citing last minute packing he still had to do.

Carlos kissed Cecil at the door, pouring his unspoken apology for having ruined their last night into it. When they broke apart but remained wrapped around each other, he heard Cecil whisper, “I won’t miss missing you all the time while you’re gone.”

The drive back felt long.

In an ideal world, Carlos would almost prefer there be no grant proposals and esteem measured by publication. Only experiments, questions, and the joys of discovery. That would be enough for him. But he didn’t live in an ideal world.

By the time Carlos was done packing, he estimated it was past midnight. He got ready for bed, knowing he’d have to be up in a few hours to drive to Phoenix to catch his flight out from there. But rather than sleep, Carlos found himself staring up at the ceiling. He considered texting Cecil goodnight but thought against it in fear he might instead text some other loaded question because apparently his brain tonight had decided to lose its filter. What would they do if Carlos were to leave? Because surely one day he would have it.

**

Whatever it was that had woken Carlos up, it certainly hadn’t been his alarm.

Pale morning light filtered into his bedroom as he blearily grabbed at his phone to check the time and realized the battery had drained out during the night. Cursing, Carlos hurried to get ready, stumbling to the bathroom.

By the time he was outside and loading his car, the fog he felt from the disorienting wake up had yet to lift. The morning weather was odd, even for a town where weather could be music and music could be the sound of hail falling on rooftops. It was simultaneously humid and chilly, reminding Carlos of what it felt like to wake up in a cold sweat. Quickly he shoved his shoulder bag into the passenger seat and turned on the ignition, turning on the A/C and then the heater and then switching to the A/C again before giving up and turning them both off. Plugging in his cell phone to recharge en route, he pulled out of the driveway.

It was early, the earliest Carlos had ever been up since arriving in Night Vale. The streets were completely empty, not even a stray officer in sight. It only added to the uncomfortable sensation that nagged at Carlos that he was leaving behind the last year and a half of his life without telling anyone, simply slipping away like a criminal while everyone else slept. Which was ridiculous. The entire town knew he was leaving today, where he was going, and what time he’d be flying out thanks to Cecil broadcasting about it every day for the past week in a lamenting countdown. Everyone knew he was leaving. And everyone knew he would be coming back.

Driving down a neighborhood lined with small, identical houses, Carlos stopped at a red light and fiddled with his cell phone. There was no indication it was charging properly or if his phone had simply decided to dig its heels into the ground and refuse to work like everything else in this place that refused to see reason.

“We all see reason, listeners. But none of us see the same reason,” Cecil had once said. And like everything else Cecil said, it made sense but managed to spiral wildly out of proportion.

Universal truths, Carlos had wanted to shout to the skies. There were some things everyone had to see and must see as the same thing. A pure truth that wasn’t open for interpretation or vulnerable to negotiation. It just was.

The light turned green.

As he drove past the houses, Carlos saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. A man was pushing back the lacy drapes that covered a window. No, not a man. Just a man’s hand. Even from the car, Carlos could make out the dark hair covering the back of the hand and a flash of silver on the pinky, reflecting back the pale morning light. Megan sat perched on the sill and Carlos got the distinct feeling she was looking at him. The fingers were curved inward, tense as if the hand was on the verge of raising herself to either ask a question or give some sort of warning. But instead, she merely pushed herself back onto her wrist and wiggled her fingers, a gesture of goodbye.

Carlos waved back as Megan let the drapes fall back.

After a few minutes, the town border sign came into view that proclaimed “YOU ARE NOW LEAVING NIGHT VALE.” Underneath the impressively large, foreboding block letters in parentheses was, “Hey, you made it! Wow!” in slightly friendlier script.

Carlos sped up the car as he approached the border, half expecting some sort of cataclysmic event such as a crater opening up at the last moment. Or a torrential downpour of dead animals, denting the roof of his car and burying him under fur and bones. But as he passed over the town line, the most he got was a small cloud of dust courtesy of his tires.

He had exited Night Vale. All that was ahead was the rest of the world.

TBC

 
 
 
X-parrotxparrot on February 3rd, 2014 10:59 am (UTC)
Waaah you've started posting! \o/

Love this Carlos and the set-up - his argument with Cecil is as underplayed and gently real as the rest of their relationship, and it hurts because of that; it's a real problem and one that needs to be overcome (but they have to overcome it! I believe~~!)

What Cecil had taken away from it was that Carlos had a notebook that was dedicated to Cecil.

Oh, Cecil!

And love the town border sign, of course, of course.

Can't wait for more~! (and you should post on AO3, it seems to be where the fic is nowadays!)
formerly lifeinsomniacjoonscribble on February 3rd, 2014 04:34 pm (UTC)
it's a real problem and one that needs to be overcome (but they have to overcome it! I believe~~!)

Keep believing! :)

Oh, Cecil!

Yes, Carlos is talking about invasions of privacy and Cecil is excited that Carlos has been paying attention to him. These were the early days of their relationship.

Can't wait for more~!

More will be a'comin' soon!