Author's Note: I was so tickled by Nazi-Nurse saying that she and her friend liked "New Moon" that I wanted to write something else. But my idea mutated, as my ideas are generally wont to do. Oops. Regardless, this monstrosity is dedicated to them… And to those people who've made intriguing comments about Earl and Steve on Nazi-Nurse's tumblr. Thanks for all of the inspiration!
Warnings: Cecil/Kevin, Cecil/Steve, Cecil/Earl, Cecil/Carlos. Reeducation. Crap editing.
We want you to write it down—to camouflage it. Only for the present, of course. Once the thing gets going we shan't have to bother about the great heart of the British public. We'll make the great heart what we want it to be. But in the meantime, it does make a difference how things are put. For instance, if it were even whispered that the N.I.C.E. wanted powers to experiment on criminals, you'd have all the old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity. Call it re-education of the mal-adjusted, and you have them all slobbering with delight that the brutal era of retributive punishment has at last come to an end. Odd thing it is— the word "experiment" is unpopular, but not the word "experimental." You mustn't experiment on children, but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it's all correct!
~ C.S. Lewis
You are what you love, they say. You've never been in love before.
"Do you have everything?" he whispers, conspiratorial and soft as the sweat-dappled notepad he's trapped in a web of slender fingers. He is grinning. Wide and white and eager. He has the most beautiful smile. The light of the rising moon catches on the pearl of it, and the whole of his mouth flashes and winks like a jar of fireflies.
"I think so," you murmur, trying to sound equally steady. Confident. Brave. You fail. As you speak, you can feel your insides jellify into a slosh of anticipation. Your knees knock with nerves; the other places clammy palms atop those bony knobs, silencing their chatter. Fear has you shuffling closer together, squeezing into the shadow cast by a blushing orange sign. "Tape recorder, camera, flashlight, pens, screwdriver…"
"And you sacrificed a komodo dragon in a bloodstone circle during the quarter moon, right?"
He's so close to you, now. A nose bump away. You can count his freckles—one, two, three, four, the last hidden beneath the curve of dark lashes. He smells like luciferin. Foggily, you wonder if that's why he makes your heart glow. Somehow. Through osmosis, maybe. But that's a mystery for another time. For now, the bigger concern is the glowing of your cheeks.
"Cecil!" he snaps. The rebuke in his tone is sharp, carving your name into barbs; the syllables hurt when they prick your skin. It makes you wince. "What kind of journalist are you?! That's what they do here! That's the first rule of undercover work, you know. Blending in!"
"I just…" You squirm awkwardly, a gesture which is actually rather awkward in itself, considering how intimate the small conclave of darkness has forced you to be. His hot breath wafts exasperatedly over your face. "That's so mean. I couldn't… you know. And I thought, well, since it's only the school paper…"
"But if we don't impress them now, they'll never let us join the newspaper club in high school! Why do you think we're here at all?!" he hisses, gesticulating wildly at the trilateral insignia shining high above your heads. The flickering neon alters the feigned bioluminescence of his teeth; they gleam a rosy auburn, now, reminiscent of lightening bugs set free in summer cornfields. The illusion leaves you wondering if you, too, would happily flail and dance and rage and undulate until you collapsed, crushed and oozing to death beneath your hopes of attracting yourself to him. Probably, you think. Puberty is strange like that. It makes you sincere.
"I'm sorry," you mumble, and you are. You hate knowing that you've upset anyone, but most especially him. "I was gonna ask for one, but…" But. You trail off, properly shamed, because you have no real excuse. Not really. Frankly, you should have taken this entire excursion much more seriously. You should have focused on the project at hand. You should not have allowed your heart to get tangled up in the promise of spending time alone together in the slippery darkness. You feel guilty about this whole trip.
And that earnestness earns you empathy. Just a modicum, but it's enough to defuse real anger.
He sighs. Shakes his head. Ruffles flyaway hair. Then he holds out his hand, stubborn and frowning. "Give me the bag," he commands, flexing the long fingers that you sometimes imagine sucking, though you're not sure why. Puberty is strange for that reason, too. "I did ask for a komodo dragon, so. I'll go. By myself."
You make a sound that is more of a squawk than it is a proper protest. "But—!"
"You stay here," he continues, lingering annoyance faintly palpable in his tone as he hefts the snatched backpack over a shoulder, straightening. Your arm is extended in objection. It is ignored. "If you're not gonna do the work, you don't get to have the fun. Take notes on scenery until I get back. Maybe we can use them to write a good hook, or something. Okay?"
"…okay," you agree, defeated. Pouting. But then he grins again—boyish, which makes sense, seeing as you are both boys—and you feel a bit of your ire evaporate, like heat from the evening air. There, and then gone. The moon scuttles higher on spindly legs of mercury. The ethereal touch of its radiance turns bitterness to desolation. "I'll see you in an hour," you add, almost frantic, creeping to the edge of the gloom's protection as you watch him depart. He nods, resolute as a fairytale hero, and inches towards a gap in the factory's impressive, wrought-iron gate. Shoos away what looks like a herd of radioactive deer. Slips a leg between gothic bars. Then he vanishes completely, swallowed by a night so black it makes the emptiness above seem nova-bright.
The fireflies are gone. Your heart bruises itself against your ribcage. The company's logo sparks.
You are alone.
No, you are not al—
(Notes: Crier. Kept asking for his father. This is natural, of course. Once he'd calmed, he was willing and eager, not to mention a quick study. A real delight. C-.)
"What made you interested in journalism, anyway?" he asks, hands attached to wrists and wrists connected to elbows and elbows propped against the floor, supporting his own weight atop a carpet of computer print outs and municipally approved texts. This year, the PTA had insisted—somewhat radically—that the students of NVHS earn their grades through a variety of written assignments, rather than bi-weekly murder mêlées hosted by the teachers of various subjects. 'Instead of picking peers off slowly, one partner project at a time,' the voice on the radio had stated, 'the students will earn their place at graduation by taking a final exam, which will consist of a week-long, school-wide battle royale. This new system will teach our children the importance of bottling stress and daily anxieties to the point that the only possible catharsis lies in coldblooded murder. Moreover, this change will save the school millions in janitorial fees and memorial costs.'
You have to admit, it makes sense. A single, mass grave will be a lot cheaper than burying those who fail or drop out subject by subject. Maybe the school will consider installing a vending machine with the money they save.
But that's neither here nor there. What it is, is the reason that you've now got a history report due in two days, and why he has a list of algebraic equations to complete. A list that he hasn't even looked at yet. Because he likes to talk, and you tend to enable.
Your shoulders shift, lifting in a way that you hope reads as nonchalant and distracted. They're a bit tingly, close as they are to someone else's body. To his body. "Dunno," you then vocalize, albeit unnecessarily, as you flip another page in your jotter and switch out the letter tiles in your rubber stamp. It's tedious work, taking notes like this, but if the Chinese could do it, so can you. (Besides, the last time you'd tried the more traditional needle-and-blood method, you'd had a panic attack and fainted. So.) "Um. I think some older cousin was into it. When I was little. If you believe in cousins, anyway."
"I do on Tuesdays."
You glance at the calendar. Monday had been cancelled, but Tuesday is still on the schedule. You smile faintly, encouraged by his half-lidded smirk and the way he's idly caressing a clip about Bigfoot's most recent trip to rehab. His interest in conspiracies runs almost as deep as your own, if not deeper. Like an infected blister, seeping beneath the dermis and becoming septic. During moments like these, you remember how his first invitation to the Moonlite-All Nite had been scribbled on the back of a half-composed letter to the local radio station, insisting that the government was to blame for last month's infestation of fanged ducklings. You'd found it charming.
"Well. I kind of remember staging silly investigations with him. Writing fake newspapers... Daring each other to do research at the library... Concocting biased half-truths based on flimsy, circumstantial evidence and spreading it like gospel around the school yard in order to ruin the lives of those we didn't like... That sort of thing." Your whimsical smile becomes a faint frown, shifted by the tectonic tapping of your chin. A bit of blood-blue stamp ink stains your skin, but the damage is temporary. "Hm. Haven't thought about that in a while. Mom said all of our extended family died in that explosion on Main a few years ago. You know, when they closed that portal to alternate dimension Night Vale with a nuclear reactor."
The aside invokes a snort, derisive. Not at you, though. Sometimes, you wonder if your affections are the only thing he accepts at face value. Other times, you wonder if he even believes in those. "That explosion was obviously a cover up for the aliens," he drawls, but the askance flutter of his lashes seems apologetic. "…that is too bad, though. About your family, I mean. I'm sorry."
You shrug again, and this time it really is nonchalant and distracted. You are very invested in this new research about the moon. It's a fiction, you think. Sometimes, you think everything is fiction. Or like fiction. But if you linger too long on the idea, you find yourself feeling strangely transparent. Anxious. You pull a new article nearer, as if it might banish the sensation of spider legs and tubes ghosting over your flesh. "Thank you, but it hardly matters anymore. I don't really remember them. And as the City Council says, what I don't remember can't hurt me."
"It can still make you sad, though. Or angry."
The retort is fervent, though he's carefully kept his voice light. He shifts; his shoulders are hunching over his elbows' point-of-balance. He has very broad shoulders. He's nearly twice as wide as you are, and it makes you feel ever-so-safe when he holds you. You wish he was holding you now. Holding you, pressed against you instead of pressing. This topic is making you uncomfortable; the words ring hollowly, incessantly, as they echo inside of your head. Like… Like an alarm.
Yes. Yes, it's like an alarm, but whether its intention is to rouse you or to warn you, you can't tell. All you know is that this conversation is spiraling in a way that it shouldn't, and that counterclockwise turn is twisting your organs in kind. Tight in anticipation.
"Mmm," you reply. It's all you can think of, all you can manage. You flick listlessly at the heavy vellum of an essay in front of you. The sounds in your head are nearly deafening. Nearly. But not quite enough. Not enough to drown him out.
So you smother them completely, because really, alarms are maddening, and ignoring your boyfriend is rude.
"—before. But speaking of the Council," he's chattering, golden eyes too bright with intrigue to notice your inner turmoil. And that's okay, because you don't want to talk about that, either, "you'll never guess what I managed to do."
As always, his sing-song zeal is as contagious as virulent Ebola. It oozes from every orifice. You catch it easily, despite yourself.
"Oh? If I'll never guess, then there's no point in prolonging the suspense, is there?" you counter, unable to bite back the smile that blossoms on your face. It grows like a weed, quick and deeply rooted, fed by the warmth of his enthusiasm. Anthocyanins add a splash of color. "What did you manage to do?"
"Well. My mom got five stamps on her Good Citizen's card, and asked me to trade it in for one of those bumper sticker passes that'll let her ignore stop signs, right?" He pauses long enough for you to nod. So you nod. "Of course, that process involved taking a trip into the archives, you know, to double check that the Secret Police's reports and Mom's stamps matched up. And while the clerk was distracted…"
With a roll of his wrist and a flourish of fingers, he tugs from his satchel a pristine manila envelope, neatly sealed with an infinity loop of string. And while it looks innocent enough, unmarked save for a single, three-sided sigil in the corner, you can't help but notice that you're trembling. Cold. Your head pounds in earnest. You tell yourself it's from excitement.
"Dunno," he answers, equally reverent. He holds the packet gingerly between two fingers, with a veneration usually reserved for unstable chemical cocktails. "It was poking out from the beginning of the Ps. But I thought, you know. You're writing a piece about Night Vale history, right? I figured anything from the archives would be helpful."
It would be helpful. It would be so helpful. And it was so, so sweet of him to think of you—to risk indefinite confinement in the Dark Box to bring it here, to make a gift of it. It's better than flowers, or chocolates, or those tiny clay voodoo dolls that have been all the rage at school, lately—the ones that gradually turn themselves, and their sentient counterparts, inside-out. But… You cast a wary eye towards your table lamp, where something square, plastic, and suspiciously transmitter-shaped had long ago been attached to the inside of the shade.
You hesitate, hand reaching but fingers flinching away from the sachet. "We shouldn't…" you begin, but immediately regret it.
Because he's scowling. And this time, the derision is for you.
"Is that you or them talking?"
Oh. Dear. Shame eats at your cheeks, gnawing 'til they're left raw and red. Your guts, equally raw and red, are a rope of knots. A noose. Cotton weave, like the bulge of your tongue in the dry cavern of your mouth. You swallow sharply—gulping around a glass shard of horror, fascination—when his nails rasp against the lip of the envelope, prying it open on your unsolicited behalf. A fibrous rip; he's shuffling out a stapled collection of papers. They are as orange as a flame, and you are a moth. Despite yourself, you lean closer…
A Comparative Study on the Psychosomatic—
He throws the article beneath your bed.
"Cecil, did you hear something in the clo—?"
(Notes: Petulant and rude, not to mention disruptive. Insisted that the stolen report wasn't his— despite vehement reassurance from the opposite party—, and refused to stop screaming while reason was explained to him. B.)
"You have eyes like milk," he says, and it is the sweetest thing that anyone has ever told you. Even though he frowns when he says it. Even though he looks… concerned. He always looks concerned. He is a worrier, a coddler. Mostly, you find it endearing.
"Thank you," you respond, because that's what you're supposed to do after someone gives you a compliment. You smile widely, with teeth, and although he tries very hard to stay serious, you can sense the bubble of laughter swelling in the center of his esophagus. His own lips contort a bit, warping into something small and syrupy, and his softly callused palm reaches up between you to cup the curve of your jaw.
"You probably know this… since you know everything," he murmurs, tentative, flexing his toes against yours and smoothing down pale wisps of your hair, "but it's said that those who have been reeducated have eyes like yours. Pearlescent. Like crystal balls, fogged so that they can only see the future, not the past."
He voice is one of symphonic sympathy, lilting fondly to a crescendo of pity. He is a gentle soul, tender and green as the lush foliage he dreams of camping in, one day. There has been talk of backpacking together, once school is out. Maybe in Europe. But for the moment, your attention is more localized.
"Really?" you say. You sound dubious, albeit amused. You shift a knee between his, and the denim of your jeans creates pleasant friction with the umber fabric of his trousers. The sofa beneath you groans. He parrots that response. With great effort of forethought, you uncoil the neckerchief decorating his collar, kiss the base of his palm, then gently twine the colorful cloth around his delicate wrists. "Well, you don't need to worry about me. I have perfect recall. Go on," you teasingly goad, and you know he can feel your smirk against his neck from the way that he shivers. "Ask me what I had for breakfast four months ago."
A snort. "I'd rather ask you what your deal with Steve is," he rejoinders, finally surrendering to his earlier mirth. When you immediately scowl, his chuckles grow airier, seem to float away, full of a helium humor that adds a squeak to his voice. "All he did was say hi, and you nearly ripped his head off."
"He's an asshole," you snarl, with a passionate burst of fury that curdles your blood and scalds your insides. The name alone leaves you feeling sick. And it isn't funny, it really isn't, but you can't fully explain why not… And because you can't, even you have to recognize how petty your hatred appears on the surface. You can hardly hold it against him, then, the way he's giggling and grinning, his butterfly lashes beating like the heart beneath your left hand.
"An asshole? But you like—"
"Don't finish that sentence." You move your fingers. Pull them away, more precisely. Then you smartly tap the curve of his buttocks, feigning scandalized reproach. "For someone whose ability to wax poetic rivals my own, you can certainly be crude, sir," you huff, mortally offended, and that just has him snickering harder, the whole of his body trembling with it. Undulating with it. Rolling with it, up and down, leisurely and inviting, coaxing against your own—urging you to surrender to the sensation, to sink and drown in the tide of it.
"Sorry," he then husks, drollness present but draining as your lips whisper over his. "Let me try again…?"
You manage a grunt. He interprets it as one of permission. He isn't wrong.
"You have eyes like milk," he says once more, but with a different sort of weight. The words are heavier, now. Rougher. His back arcs like a bow, stringy arms taut behind his head, as strange poetry tickles your ears and your mind and somewhere just-below your stomach, all with the feathery delicacy of crest feathers. Or angel wings. Which don't exist, obviously. "I want to drink you in, let you coat my throat and leave me rasping in that special way that dairy does. I'd sing your praises, but I can't. You make me speechless, so I can't. You make me strong. You fortify my brittle bones; you keep me from breaking under all this pressure. Without you, I'd— I'd…"
He hitches, trails off. When his speaking falters, so do your movements. The mood shifts, and you respond in kind: brow furrowing, gaze narrowing, nose nuzzling amorously as he tries to piece the shattered puzzle of his thoughts back together. You say his name as if it is a question, and it is. Everything is a question, when you're a journalist.
He asks one of his own.
"…you love me, don't you, Cecil?"
"Of course I do," you tell him fiercely, and you mentally revise your previous musing, because there is no question about that. Everything is a question except for that. You hope he can hear the amendment in your retort, hope he can see it in your frown. You grip him more tightly, as if to bruise that truth into his skin.
"So you won't… you won't leave me?"
"Where would I go?"
"I don't know," he confesses quickly, ruefully, sensing your mild exasperation and echoing it back upon himself tenfold. "Somewhere else. Somewhere far away. It's just, sometimes… Sometimes, it feels like you belong somewhere else. Like— like, I'm always so terrified, right? Of everything. Everyone is. Everyone but you. It's like you know something, deep down. Some secret that keeps you from going mad, like the rest of us. Some secret you must have learned somewhere else."
"But… you're wrong," you protest, eyebrows knit and tangled as fragile notes of confusion creep into your sonorous voice. Where is this even coming from? How long has this nonsense been eating away at his thoughts? Of the two of you, you're the performer, the histrionic thespian, but even you could never create such a drama. It's almost a bit… hurtful, really, to realize you've been seen for so long as this—this foreigner. This other. "I'm scared. I'm scared, too. Of so much. Of the Void… of the moon… of triangles… of not getting a job and dying destitute on the streets after graduation…"
You are lying so close. His breath mingles with yours; his hip is cutting into your thigh. But he looks unconvinced, and you've never felt so distant, so separate from him. Like there is a yawning chasm between you, as wide and deep as Radon Canyon, and something very precious has slipped through your fingers: has fallen into that interminable gulf, lost forever.
"Are you ever afraid of losing me?" he asks.
The query tumbles, bounces, reverberates in your brain as if off the walls of that intuited abyss. The same gravity pulls at your soul. You cut your ties to its sobering implications with a sickle beam.
"Constantly. That's why I hold your hand whenever we walk anywhere."
"You worry too much," you scold, untangling your limbs with a quick kiss to his nose. There is a watch on your wrist, half-broken and always malfunctioning, but its existence is generally enough to act as a reminder, and thus serve its ultimate purpose. You glance at it, and remember. "I've got to go. They finally granted me an interview with the head of the social sciences department," you announce, still wearing that Cheshire leer as you unbind him. "With any luck, I'll get the information I need to finish my thesis on the historical significance and cultural ramifications of the sporadically changing population of Night Vale."
The look he shoots you gives you pause.
He's scowling, startled. Scared…? You heft yourself over the peak of his pelvis, the uncertainty of it all making you uncomfortable. There's a discarded jumper on the floor, next to a bow tie. Your focus shifts to putting the latter on first. "But last week you said you were going to write about the illusion of existence! Remember, you called me from the sand wastes to tell me how you had 'conclusive evidence' that nothing is real…?"
"Did I?" On their own accord, your fingers pause. Just for a second. The world goes glassy. Then you're blinking at him, owlish, trying not to appear condescending. But honestly, you don't remember any of that, and you feel like he has been insisting—more and more often, lately—that you've said and done things that you've never said or done. It gets a bit wearisome. But you don't want to fight. Not now. It's better to compromise, if only half-heartedly.
"Hm. Well, I must have been drunk. Or possessed. No, this has always been my thesis topic," you are quick to insist, talking over the nagging protests that always follow this sort of not-so-subtle sidestepping. "I mean, I know the subject sounds kind of dry, and out of my particular field. And yeah, on the one hand it's pretty straight forward—people earn death or get killed and that's that—, but it's actually kind of mysterious, if you take a minute to think. That is, have you ever noticed how children just appear or disappear without any warning? I've read about how, in other places, you know, babies are consistently born in hospitals nine months or so after members of the opposite gender engage in sexual intercourse, and anything outside of those parameters is considered unusual… But here, people will give birth to detached adult feet, or vaporous orbs, or maybe a koala every fourth blue moon, but rarely a baby. Yet, there are still kids in school and an unending supply of messengers for the City Council. I don't quite understand based on my observations, but I'm hoping that— oh."
You cut yourself off, sheepish and pink. You're rambling. Flailing your arms, animated and invested, but rambling. It's a habit you're often teased for; he's suggested—more than once, with varying degrees of seriousness—that you look into a career in television, or radio, rather than search for a position with a scientific journal. But today, he's just smiling, affectionate. Concerned, maybe. Always concerned. But affectionate, nevertheless.
"You're going to be late, Cecil," he reminds you quietly, knuckles white where they've curled around his neckpiece. He holds to it so tightly. Like a lifeline, you muse. Is he trembling? It looks like he's trembling. You should investigate.
You lean over to kiss his forehead in farewell. But no— no, he's steady. Cold and composed and resolute. If he's quaking, it is merely with the earth itself, constantly shifting as it hurtles and tumbles through the darkness, desperately trying to shake everyone off. Maybe he wants some time alone.
"I'll see you later," you nip into his ear.
"I love you," he says in reply. You don't quite catch the emotion inflating the words—frustration, maybe?— but the sentiment behind the confession is pure, genuine. It's enough for now.
You slip on your sweater. You gather your satchel, your shoes. You step out into the hall and—
(Notes: Problem student. Fifth class is three months! It seems he's retaining nothing. If this continues, he'll need a tutor. B+)
You hadn't meant anything by it. You really hadn't. Sometimes, yes, you'll poke fun at the law—you'll report on things you shouldn't, or say more than is wise, and you'll take the punishment you're dealt, because you've earned it. You're responsible like that. You own up to your mistakes. But this—this was an accident, unintentional in every way—and you feel like you're going to throw up over your notebook and stamps, over the smiley face sticker you've decorated the page with. Children's Fun Fact Science Corner, the header reads, and beneath it stretches a ream of white.
A Working Summary of the Palmer/Palmer Study on Long-Term Adaption to Psychosomatic Stress: The Importance of Recent Findings (Years of Focus: 2012-present)
White, like your eyes. Like the static running through your mind. Like the articles surrounding you, spread in a ritualistic semicircle across the carpet.
Dr. C. Ruano, PhD.
There is nothing fun about this. There are children, yes, and there is science, and there are facts. But there is nothing fun.
—orking definition, one: of, relating to, concerned with, or involving both mind and body; two: of, relating to, involving, or concerned with bodily symptoms caused by mental or emotional disturbance—
"Cecil?" He's back. He's calling you.
—of the most controversial, but medically relevant, studies in recent history, spanning nearly—
"Cecil?" The second syllable resounds more loudly that the first, amplified by linoleum rather than hardwood. Closer. He's coming closer. He's going to find you. In just a few moments, he's going to find you on the floor of his lab, petrified amidst a fairy ring of books and notes and studies and neatly collected data. Blanching over a stack of meticulously typed sheets marked in red pen and pencil lead.
—experiment, originally proposed by Dr. T. Palmer, head of medical psychology at Stanford, and funded by Dr. P. Palmer, proxy of the FDA and CEO of StrexCorp Synergists Incorporated, strove to examine the process by which the human psyche can adapt to perpetual, high-stress stimuli, and whether or not medicating is absolutely necessary when treating patients of—
"Cecil?" he calls a third time, somewhere near the stairs, now, and you are trembling, just—just shaking, and you're not sure if you're crying or retching or falling apart. If you're doing all three or absolutely nothing. You just don't know.
—a variety of different treatments, including new combinations of antihistamines, beta-blockers, alpha-blockers, benzodiazepines, serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. (Footnote: Some of these medications have since been deemed safe and sellable; others have been summarily rejected as a result of side effects observed in the experimental group.) It was decided early that, due to the biological nature of this experiment, as well as the importance of making as accurate a comparison as possible, identical twins would prove essential—
What you do know is fear. So much fear—the sort of bottomless blackness that gobbles you up in an instant, than chews on you for years. Your innards are uncoiling, liquefying; your brain is being grounded into bits, piece by piece and thought by thought. Torn apart. You can't move enough to resist being swallowed: every time you try, your gaze falls on something else, and you freeze all over again.
—owing to the number of necessary test subjects, as well as the very specific conditions that would need to be maintained in order to obtain valid results, the experiment itself would require total physical containment. The government provided 100 square miles of desert, wherein the control group—'NV'—and experimental group—'DB'—could be constructed—
"Nothing is real, I don't think…" you hear yourself saying— the impetuous, airy whisper of those staring at the Void, suddenly made much more tangible and solid on your tongue. You wonder if this is what real truth tastes like. Heavy. Sour. "Nothing is… is…"
"I'm sorry?" He's in the doorway. He's found you. He's beautiful, and perfect, and smiling, and you should have known something that beautiful and perfect and smiley was an illusion. There is no such thing as perfect. There's no such thing as… as, well. Anything. The curtain has been lifted, and here is the man behind it.
Or one of them, anyway.
"Cecil, what are you…? Are those my books? And my—?"
The part of his lips widens measurably upon realizing what's before you. As he recognizes his hidden tomes, his secret journals. His own handwriting. You wonder bleakly if he regrets it, then— agreeing to move in together, giving you permission to use his archives for research. You wonder if telling you had been his intention all along. You wonder if he… if he really ever l…
No. No, you can't think that. Even in a place like this, that thought is—is too terrible. Too frightening. You clutch your throbbing chest, as if to physically force the pieces of your shattering heart back together. As if to mold it back into place. You can feel your lungs turning to stone beneath your palm. You can't breathe, you can't think, you can't move from this point in space. This point in time. And in some twisted way that makes sense, because you are literally just a point of data.
You are connecting those points. The dots. They operate physical illusions from the Dog Park. Call in scientists to observe, to ramp up tension with lies. The Secret Police monitor the subjects. The Council creates psychological fear. Grants death on the principle of equilibrium. And when anyone figures it out—
There is the sound of crunching paper; the flint of adrenaline strikes your bones, ignites your joints in a shower of sparks. He is crouching beside you, patent leather shoes crumpling the glossy pages of a magazine. "Cecil…" he murmurs, gentle—sincere. Nervous. With long mocha fingers, he eases the article from your fist, sweeping the rest of the mess to the side. "Cecil, no. No, this is—this is from some other place, okay? This was just something I wrote for practice. Don't think about it. Please, don't. It's not… it's not real."
It's like radiation down your spine, hot and cold and lethal. It's like fiction.
"Nothing is real," you hiss, serpentine—sharp, with a touch of venom. He's lying to you. Even now, he's—! Your stomach inverts, turns upside down. Bile rises, burns. Your eyes are dripping like spilled milk, blurring what had once been solid lines. "This, all of this— it's a set-up, a stage! We're all just komodo dragons to be sacrificed, aren't we?!"
"Night Vale is nothing but a laboratory! We're being kept here, while—Jesus Christ, while our brothers and sisters are…!"
"Sweetheart, no, stop—!"
"God, why didn't I see it before? What kind of a journalist am I?!"
"A frustratingly tenacious one," quips a houseplant in the corner. A nebula of static halos each word; there is a crackle of electricity, followed by a crash of breaking glass. Before your addled mind can fully process what is happening, you are pushed protectively to the ground. Shards of your window tinkle uselessly against the carpet, falling primarily on the lab-coated back of the one who has bodily shielded you. Instinctively, you clutch at that same body. Your intestines quaver, throat tensing to scream— a Pavlovian response you don't understand.
You choke on his name. He pets your hair, shushes you. Glowers fiercely at some balaclava bound brute behind him.
"NV-2253946 has been scheduled for reeducation, effective immediately. Please release him, sir."
His hold on you tightens. It's solid, grounding. Real. Maybe the realest thing—the only real thing—in the whole of your known world. He growls, and the low rumble of it resonates through his torso and into yours. "He's not going to tell anyone."
"Participant knowledge threatens the integrity of the experiment," the office intones, features dull, pursed lips unmoving as the speaker behind the fern snaps and sizzles. "You know that."
"Yes, but he and his brother were never meant to be part of it, anyway!" he barks, livid in a way that you've never seen. Or don't remember seeing. You can barely stand to see it now. You can barely see, period. "At any rate, he should be allowed to graduate from the experiment! How many times has he figured this out?! You should want someone like that on the team! I'm sure his parents wou—"
"NV-2253946 and DB-2253946 are contaminations that have been integrated," the intruder interrupts, merciless and stubborn. Your lover, equally stalwart, gives no indication of surrender; a shadowed hand flutters meaningfully towards a dark utility belt, hovering between a canister of ennui gas and a small, electrified trident. A creeping sense of déjà vu twines through your veins like ivy over a tombstone. "There is no leaving the study. Especially now that the parameters of the tests are changing. Moreover, you have become emotionally compromised. You are no longer qualified to work the field."
"How can you just—just keep doing this?! Have you no sense of ethics?! No humanity?!"
"A friendly reminder, sir, that hypocrisy was outlawed by Council Mandate 492.38A."
It occurs to you, then, bundled and breathless as you are against the aching expanse of his chest, that—for the first time in working memory—you are properly terrified. This isn't news, of course. You'd been able to consciously label that emotion a few minutes back. But still, it's… it's strange. While the others are distracted by desperate bickering, you take a chance to properly analyze this most excruciating incarnation of existential numbness. To really consider this new level of asphyxiating dread. It isn't the usual, day-to-day sort of panic—the schizophrenic tickle that lives and skitters in one's spinal column, up and down like a millipede in a cardboard tube. It isn't the IV drip of ants-in-your-veins anxiety that comes from dealing with the law, either. Nor is it the steel-press of agony, the sort that squeezes life from a soul like pus from a boil, and tends to accompany the realization that everything you ever knew is the construction of some vague, yet menacing government agency, crafted for the singular purpose of torturing others in the name of science.
No. The horrible irony is that this is a study on fear, and while it's true that you have never before felt such a pure, unadulterated distillation of that emotion… you feel it only because you will soon forget the only thing worth fearing for. You will forget him. This man, this man whose job has been to torment you— this man who has become your everything. Who has changed you, made you into a better person. Made you into who you are now. He is the whole of your heart, and without a heart, what will you be but a shell? Some ghost, some stranger in your own body, and it would be kinder if the City Council just put you in the Dark Box to rot with the other unusable, forgettable figures, because suddenly all of the peculiar looks you've ever gotten on the street—the sidelong ones, sympathetic and imploring—make gruesome, perverted, horrifying sense, and you still don't remember, but now you know. There is a corroding, iron ball of knowing in the pit of your stomach, acidic and metallic-tasting. It eats away at your entrails. You want to vomit. How many times have you died like this…? How many of you have there been…?
You start at a sound behind you.
(Notes: Back to being a crier. Unusual for this age. Still, he did well with his tutor. Only fainted from blood loss twice. Used the highest level material; during his final exam, he could no longer remember crying. Ever. A+)
You are what you love, they say. You've never been in love before.
It must be nice, you think, leaning comfortably against the rail of your front porch. Today's dawn is hazy and cool, the sky beyond the Void a pearly pink. The color of it reflects prettily off of the mirror of your eyes, the glossy ceramic of your NVCR mug. You drink in coffee and mist in equal amounts. It's one of those moments that would be better if shared, but… well. You're romantic, but unlucky. There's no helping it.
Still, it's possible to enjoy a guilty pleasure on one's own, and loitering about like this certainly counts towards that. You settle with your forearms spread and ankles crossed, pleasantly nauseous from rising so early. Your little town is rousing too, drowsily preparing itself— mentally and physically— for the horrors ahead. Old Woman Josie and her non-existent angel friends had stopped over on their way to the Ralph's the other day, declining a drink but offering you some blueberry muffins. "They're good for the brain," she'd said, and you weren't sure why she was grimacing, but you'd smiled and taken them anyway. You bite into one now. They're sweet and soft, like some sundry organs, and they go far in filling up the gaping holes of emptiness in your chest cavity. Also, they're sticky. You lick your fingers clean, waving pleasantly to Steve Carlsberg as he rambles by in his tan corolla. This is the third time you've seen him out, and he still looks so bewildered by your kindness.
Ah well. Some people, you figure.
The sun is beginning to crawl in earnest, hefting itself into the heavens on long tendrils of light. You mimic it briefly, stretching lanky limbs. Work a creak out of your neck—remnants of stress from last night's dream. The one that left you clammy. What was it, again? Something about… something about love? The most poignant of nightmares, to be sure. Maybe that's why you're feeling so fanciful today. Regardless, it's over now. It can't hurt you anymore.
You roll your shoulders—and your eyes, at yourself—before placing a muffin on the porch step for the officer hiding in your shrubs. You wait until a hand reaches greedily for its prize, and then— for no particular reason— conversationally ask about the lab near Big Rico's. You'd walked past it while getting your mandatory take out yesterday. Thought you'd heard someone had bought it, but it was empty inside. Well, save for a Shadowed Figure who spoke television snow at you, but that didn't really count.
The bush responds by spitting out a greasy wrapper. Its leaves rustle once, as if in a vague shrug.
Oh. Okay, then. You don't care enough to press. Instead, you thank the officer for his or her continued service, pointedly leave their litter where it'd been tossed—as it now sports a small red flag—, and turn back towards your home. Morning is here; your reprieve is over. There's work to be done. Stories to write, editorials to proof. A scathing new attack on Pine Cliff to practice.
You open the door to discover that the radio is still on in your kitchen, singing a familiar jingle. A tinny siren song, summoning you back inside. You follow where it leads.
StrexCorp, coos a voice like luciferin. It is Everything.