Cecil is choking, he's stuttering, he cuts to a pre-recorded ad and breaks down into full-on sobs.
His first time getting a job outside his home dimension was supposed to be fun. An exciting learning experience, with the extra thrill of not having your parents hovering around all the time. Having a fling with a cute local is practically tradition. Falling for a cute local who doesn't return your interest, but spends time with you anyway, is close enough to make Cecil happy.
It isn't traditional at all for your cute local crush to die while you're there. And there's nothing Cecil can do — he can't even get to the scene — maybe if he had his dimension warpers' license, but it's only provisional, he's not allowed to bend the fabric of space to his will without a responsible adult along —
Perfect Carlos is dying. Cecil's head is pillowed in his folded arms on the desk, crying so hard his tears are soaking through his sleeves and eating charred holes into the faux-oak surface.
Curse this town. (Not literally. He may be descended from the nameless horrors beyond the stars, but he isn't evil.) He wants to go home. This is the kind of thing they send people home for, right? He won't be learning anything if he's traumatized with grief. He can't....
A hand (in thick gloves; human interns have to be safety-conscious sometimes) shakes his shoulder.
He's being handed a note.
Cecil pedals up to the bike rack next to the Arby's and hops off, leaving the bicycle to fall ingloriously on its side. It isn't important. All that matters is that Carlos, wonderful Carlos, is sitting on the trunk of his car a few spaces down: bandaged in a lot of places but alive, radiant in the warm hues of the sunset.
Okay, one other thing might matter: the problem Carlos called on him to talk about, now that the miniature-city crisis has been taken care of.
(It has to be a problem. Carlos never asks him around for personal reasons. So whatever it is, Cecil needs to come off like he's strong and composed and prepared to deal with it, not like he's still shaking from having his heart torn out and abruptly stuffed back in again.)
Carlos has always treated Cecil with a lot of respect when it comes to science and/or town-saving. Even when Cecil doesn't get something, Carlos doesn't act like he's too dumb to understand it, just explains it to him like they're equals. It's one of the things Cecil loves about him. And if Carlos writes off that love as just a silly kid's crush, he's still totally sweet about it, so Cecil doesn't mind.
"What is it?" asks Cecil, approaching. He's still lightheaded with relief; he can't make his feet stay on the ground. "What danger are we in? What mystery needs to be explored?"
The scientist's gaze flickers to Cecil's temporary levitation. Instead of commenting, though, he shakes his head. "Nothing," he says, raising his eyes back to meet Cecil's. "I just...wanted to see you."
Cecil's current human heart starts beating a whole lot faster. If he were fully manifested, there would be lightning in the clear sky, a ringing in tones beyond the ken of his presently-limited ears, and perhaps beneath their feet the stirring of vast old bones from some prehistoric sea.
Mature, calm, self-reliant Carlos needs emotional support...and he wants it from Cecil.
They end up sitting together on the trunk as the stars come out, their legs touching, watching the still-unexplained lights that dance over the neon curve of the fast-food sign. Cecil rests his head on Carlos' shoulder, careful not to disturb the places where the flannel sleeve tugs against bandages wrapped around that flawless skin. He wants Carlos to feel that he's present, and that he can be trusted with Carlos' vulnerability, just as much as he's been trusted with reporting various news items of scientific interest.
When Carlos puts a hand on Cecil's knee, Cecil has to expend conscious effort to keep his internal organs from melting.
Their first date is amazing. Cecil spends most of his air time the next day gushing about it, to the point where Station Management has to reprimand him more than once. He spends commercial breaks twirling around in his chair, and, since the station still doesn't have an exception to the writing-utensil ban, pricks his finger just so he can write things like "Dr. & Mr. Cecil & Carlos Palmer" all over his official NVCR stationary.
Towards the end of the broadcast he gets a worried text from Carlos about the whole "drove straight through a buzzing cloud of shadow-energy" thing. Cecil texts back that he was never in any danger — it wasn't like any force on this plane could make him dissolve into malevolent buzzing shadows. He includes some happy emoticons at the end, just to emphasize the point.
It's only later that he realizes he didn't check to make sure Carlos' phone could display all the characters in those emoticons. Oh well. If the device has turned green and started oozing, Cecil will offer to replace it for him.
He can do that now — buy things for Carlos. It can even be for Personal Reasons.
This fantasy evaporates moments after he signs off for the night, when he gets a call from Carlos' phone, which means it must still be working. "I've gotten about eight different calls or texts about you since your broadcast started. Some of them with pretty...colorful threats about what I can expect if I, ah, 'take advantage' of you. Should I be worried?"
Cecil groans. Haven't these people been listening to his shows at all this past year? He's old enough to make his own romantic choices, and there's nothing Carlos can do to him that he hasn't been dreaming about since day one. "Don't be worried. I'll yell at them tomorrow. And if anyone tries to harass you in person, you just call me and I'll set them straight, okay? Ugh, I bet one of them was from Steve Carlsberg, wasn't it?"
"Well, yes," stammers Carlos. "I was pretty surprised about that one."
"No, it's totally something he would do." Steve is always so patronizing! Talking down to Cecil, never taking his opinions seriously, and generally treating him like an eighty-year-old instead of the young adult he is. "Such a jerk! Don't even dignify that one with a response."
"Will do," says Carlos. "Or won't do, in this case. Also, Cecil...."
"What is it, dear Carlos?"
There's a sigh on the other end of the line. "Something I should probably ask in person. Do you want to come down to the lab?"
The lab next to Big Rico's usually has a couple of scientists hanging around, but tonight it's just Carlos, wearing a nice collared shirt and a cream-colored fancy-dress lab coat.
Cecil, who biked straight here without any detours to put on a "date" outfit, flushes purple. "I didn't realize...I came here straight from work, I didn't even think to go home and change! This is so embarrassing."
"It's fine! Clothes aren't that important to a scientist anyway," says Carlos. Like his slacks just happen to be perfectly-pleated by chance. (Laundry doing itself in the middle of summer, when it's not even a waning half-moon? Yeah, right.)
"Oh," says Cecil, a bit miffed. He's only wearing his plainest non-patterned shalwar, and he doesn't even have the matching beret because he left it at home today, but Carlos doesn't have to treat it like it's worthless. Unless he was saying all clothes are worthless, because he wants to..."Ohhhh."
Now it's Carlos who's blushing. "I didn't mean that how it sounded!...Not that I don't want to...although, I swear, it's not the reason I invited...I'm sorry. I'm so bad at this. You look amazing, I swear."
Cecil practically skips through the door and puts his arm around Carlos' shoulders; Carlos responds by resting a hand on the small of his back and guiding him down the spartan grey front hall. They pass the darkroom, the entrance to the main lab space, the enclosed room for people who prefer to do their bloodstone circle chants in private. Carlos' apartment is on the third floor; they stop at the foot of the steps.
"We can talk in one of the rooms we use for interviewing subjects...people...if you want. They're comfortable! The whole point is to make you feel at ease. Or we can go upstairs...it's not much, but I've tried to do some cleaning lately."
"Upstairs!" chirps Cecil, hardly believing his luck.
They ascend. They stroll into Carlos' living room. Still in motion, Cecil drops a light kiss on Carlos' cheek, nose bumping the earpiece of those stylish yet functional glasses.
To his surprise, Carlos turns on one heel, cups Cecil's face in his hands, and presses their lips together. It's gentle. It's chaste. Cecil's head spins (not literally, that would interrupt the kissing), and he weaves his fingers through Carlos' impossible hair to encourage something deeper. Maybe with tongue.
A creaky wolf-whistle sounds from off to one side.
"Oh, go rearrange my sample trays or something, why don't you?" yells Carlos. There's a harrumph and a shuffling noise as the faceless old woman outside his range of vision leaves, and he sighs. "I'm going to regret that later. I just hope she doesn't change the labels again."
Cecil nuzzles his neck. "I'm sure whatever she does, science will be able to sort it out."
"I really did have a reason to invite you over." Carlos hugs him a fraction more tightly. "A personal reason. Other than cuddling. Listen, Cecil...." He swallows, throat moving under Cecil's lips. "Is it a secret, at all, that you're not human?"
"Hm? No, of course not."
Carlos palpably relaxes. "Oh, good! Because there are things I want to ask you, but then I thought, what if this is one of those Night Vale things where I'm supposed to pretend not to notice that you develop talons when you're mad? Or maybe you don't even realize that sometimes parts of you start glowing...."
"Glowing?" echoes Cecil, worried. "That doesn't happen a lot, does it?"
They stay up late talking, sitting on Carlos' secondhand couch with a couple of beers while Carlos asks about Cecil's kind. Cecil warns him up front that the name of their race is unpronounceable in only three dimensions, and some of his relatives are completely unspeakable, but other than that he's willing to tell Carlos anything.
Mostly, it seems Carlos just wants to know what, if anything, would pose an actual danger to Cecil. He asks about a lot of experiences Cecil has mentioned on the radio — most of them even before Carlos agreed to go out with him! — which is so sweet. Especially considering how some of them are practically harmless. His Carlos (his Carlos!) is a bit of a hypochondriac. It's adorable.
And it's always flattering when Cecil is the one being turned to for expertise. Makes him feel like he really is on Carlos' level.
A couple of beers in, and the alcohol starts making Cecil's human shell dizzy. He snuggles against Carlos' side. He could manifest enough to use some of his other senses and/or limbs to compensate, but this feeling is so warm and peaceful that he doesn't want to ruin it.
Carlos leans back against a throw pillow so Cecil can rest more comfortably on his chest. "Hey...will you show me something?"
"Sure," says Cecil instantly. "What kind of thing?"
"Anything. Claws? Spines? A tail? I don't really know what you have under there."
Cecil curls in on himself a little (as much as he can when Carlos' body is in the way). He likes to think his real body is out of its most awkward years, and he only got really bad boils for the first decade or so of puberty anyway, but there's plenty to be insecure about. One of his major fins has come in faster than the other, so they're uneven; his voice is still prone to cracking in a few of his lower mouths; some of his air sacs inflate on their own if he sits the wrong way.
"If you're okay with it!" adds Carlos. "I don't want to be rude. Ignore me if I'm being rude. It's just, I would be...interested. Scientifically."
"What if I show you something and you decide you aren't...interested...after all?"
"Statistically impossible." Carlos rubs his back. "I have a very keen scientific interest in you."
That sounds promising. "Tell me more."
Carlos fidgets beneath him. "Well, for instance...the lighting-up thing. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. But there's only so much a scientist can think without examining the phosphorescent cells and/or organs up close, you know? It would be...irresponsible. Hypothesizing on insufficient evidence."
He slurs a couple of the longer words, but Cecil gets the general idea. Carlos doesn't need him to strip out of his human form completely, just wants to see a little skin.
Already manifesting a few swaths of otherworldly flesh in the most seductive way he knows how, Cecil murmurs, "I think I can help you with that."
"Before we go on to the Children's Fun Fact Science Corner, I want to take a moment to address our listeners who happen to have photophores. Did you know those things can be sensitive? I mean, really sensitive. In the good way! If not, I recommend you set aside some time and do a little experimenting. Not to be too explicit, this is a family show, but...yowza.
And now, let's talk about bones. Did you know, the element that makes up bones wasn't discovered until 1972...."
(By the time of his next break, Cecil has a text from Old Woman Josie reminding him not to let his older boyfriend pressure him into anything; a text from Intern Dana, who can pick up the show in the dog park but never gets great audio, offering recommendations on what to feed his new pet eels; and three different texts from Carlos asking him to please not talk about anything that specific on-air again.)
For their third date (because Cecil definitely counts getting frisky in Carlos' living room as a second date) they make a halfhearted attempt to play mini-golf. Carlos is awful at it. Cecil can't tell if it's because the miniature setups are giving him some kind of flashbacks to the city under lane five, or if he just isn't comfortable with the way the balls scream when you hit them.
After four holes they give it up as a lost cause, carry the equipment back to the check-in desk, and emerge onto the street. There's a bus stop halfway down the block.
Carlos, who's been quiet for a bit, waits until they get under the bus shelter before saying, "Sorry I'm so terrible at everything."
"You are not," says Cecil.
"I meant except for science, obviously."
Cecil presses against Carlos on the bench and rests a hand on his hip. "Science and other things," he says, pitching his voice low.
A shy grin spreads across Carlos' face. "You thought I was good? I didn't know anything about, ah, what feels nice for your kind of limbs. I thought I just got lucky with the, you know. The sensitivity."
Several thrashing tentacles sprout from Cecil's shadow and wave around in excitement. Cecil himself giggles and squeezes Carlos close. "It was so nice. I can't wait to find out what it's like when you play with my horns."
The nearest false manhole pops up from the surface of the street, and a secret police officer yells, "Oh, for heaven's sake, take your trophy boyfriend and get a room!"
Once they're on the bus — it's almost empty, just a guy in a wheelchair up front and a group of tarantulas in one of the middle rows, so Carlos and Cecil get seats in the back — Carlos folds his hands in his lap and says under his breath, "Okay, I probably should have asked this right from the beginning...."
"How old are you?"
"Um," says Cecil, suddenly nervous. What if Carlos has an attack of ethics when he hears it out loud?
"I figured you didn't look your age," adds Carlos. "What with the way your human form hits such a perfect balance of 'neither old nor young.' But I guess I convinced myself the specifics didn't matter...."
"The specifics don't matter!" exclaims Cecil. "Age is just a number! In terms of maturity, I bet we're basically the same."
"I believe you, I swear," says Carlos. "Can I have the number anyway? For science?"
Cecil takes a deep breath, steels himself for rejection, and blurts, "I'll be a hundred and forty-six next month."
"...Oh," says Carlos.
A long pause.
"And you've really never had anyone touch your photophores before?"
Cecil blushes a furious shade of plum. "Some of us are late bloomers!" he stammers, yanking his hand out of Carlos's. Just because certain stunningly beautiful people probably had other humans of all genders lining up to have sexual contact with them during their high school years, it doesn't mean Cecil was that lucky during the equivalent.
(Or that ready, if he's honest with himself. Earl Harlan would have been happy to touch his photophores. But Earl was a little too pushy, and Cecil got uncomfortable and called their whole relationship off. It seemed like a good idea at the time! Who knew that only eight years later he'd have a super-experienced boyfriend to try to impress?)
"Sorry! Kidding, I swear," implores said super-experienced boyfriend, holding up his hands in appeasement. "Look, other experiences aside, I've never had any photophores to touch, so that probably makes us even, you know? Please don't feel bad."
Down by their feet, someone clears a tiny throat.
It's one of the tarantulas, wearing a tiny balaclava. "Gentlemen, have either of you filled out Form A7-423, Permit for Exchanging Sexual History in Public?" s/he chirps.
Carlos freezes. Cecil thinks fast. "We weren't exchanging sexual history. We were exchanging lack of sexual history. There's a difference."
The spider thinks it over. "That's a stretch and you know it," s/he says sternly. "But, look, you're only young once, eh? You two kids just keep it to yourselves until you're on private property, and we'll let this one slide."
"'Us two kids'?" repeats Carlos in a whisper, after the tarantula leaves.
"Spiders are notoriously bad at judging human age ranges," Cecil whispers back.
Bits of Cecil are already manifesting by the time they get into the elevator of his apartment building. Carlos runs his fingers along the spines of a vestigial fin unfolding from Cecil's left arm, making Cecil catch his breath with at least two mouths.
The next thing he knows, all the furniture in his own living room is shoved to the side or pushed all the way into the kitchen, and he's taking up most of the space.
Ropy, muscled limbs with greyish skin the texture of tree bark extend in all directions. Neat lines of blue and green photophores run up the sides of his snakelike torso; ragged fins flex, paddling through the air. Every few feet a fanged mouth opens, or a baleful yellow eye, or perhaps a spur of bone juts out from under the skin. Carlos — barefoot, his glasses folded on the kitchen counter and his casual lab coat tossed over the back of a chair, wearing only jeans and one of his fitted T-shirts — sits in the vaguely elbow-like joint of a limb the width of his own torso.
Cecil keeps his human upper half on, but it's more for his own modesty than Carlos' comfort, because Carlos seems perfectly happy to make eye contact with whichever eye is nearest (at the moment, a bloodshot, sideways one, the pupil a long black bar like a goat's). "Do all of these have fangs?" he asks, running his thumb along the bottom lip of one of Cecil's mouths.
With a different mouth, this one on the end of a narrow, scaly tentacle that he curls around Carlos' torso, Cecil says, "Not all of them. Why?"
"Because I would really like to kiss as many of them as possible."
Cecil un-manifests every fang in his body so fast it gives him a headache.
"Friday is the Night Vale Middle School bake sale. As always, please remember to label your baked goods if they include common allergens, such as dairy, peanuts, wolfsbane, copper, or unpasteurized blood. This concludes the Community Calendar," recites Cecil.
He's holding the microphone rather than just sitting in front of it, because he's been floating six to ten feet off the floor all afternoon. Intern Laurie was kind enough to hand it up to him.
"In other news: I have been urged several times by my perfect boyfriend not to go into detail about our, let's just say, encounters of a personal nature. So I will not give any details whatsoever. All I will disclose is the entirely generic revelation that Carlos has a perfect tongue."
He has to manifest a couple of lengthy claws so that he can reach down far enough to flip the appropriate switches:
"And now, the weather."
Cecil's at the Pinkberry, playing the latest cat video from Dana on his phone, when it starts ringing. He doesn't answer it right away, because ahhh, this kitten is best friends with a baby otter, and they are so cute together — until Terrell Flynn (whose family gets free froyo for life after Tamika saved the owner's son during the Summer Reading Program fiasco) taps his table.
"If that's your scientist, you should answer," says Terrell. "I'm still not too comfortable about him taking up with you, but he seems to be a good man, and I know you wouldn't want him hurt."
"Yes, sir," says Cecil, scrolling instantly to check the caller — who, sure enough, is identified as Perfect Scientist. It's a badly-kept secret that Terrell is in the Sheriff's Secret Police. If he heard something over the scanner that he thinks will put Carlos in danger....
The instant the call connects, a faint eldritch howling tells Cecil everything he needs to know.
"Cecil?" says Carlos' trembling voice over the line. "Cecil, there's someone, something outside the lab — reminds me of you, but it's as big as the building — it keeps snarling things none of us understand, but I swear it said my name at some point, and if it keeps spitting acid the landlord is going to charge us for the damages — what do I do?"
His froyo forgotten, Cecil is already out on the street. "Is it sort of bronze-tinted and covered with bony, sightless, yet somehow malevolent eye sockets, or is it more of a sickly green with ragged, veiny wings?"
"The eye-socket one."
Oh, great. Mom would have been so much easier to talk down. "Stay right where you are. I'll be there in a second."
He hangs up, because you're not supposed to take phone calls while dimension-warping even if you're fully licensed, and makes an illegal but very short trip to the top of Carlos' building.
Sure enough, there's Dad out front, taking up half the street...and at least half a dozen Secret Police officers are lining up around him with flamethrowers. Cecil manifests until he's big enough to be visible, and amplifies his voice. "Officers, please, stand down! He'll be regulation size in a minute, I swear, and you'll only be wasting your equipment."
«Cecil!» roars his father in their native tongue, curdling all the milk in five hundred yards and reversing the playback of all the Pink Floyd albums at Dark Owl Records. «This is where your scientist lives, isn't it? You tell him to get out here right now!»
"Ugh, Dad, he doesn't even speak R'leyhian! You are being so embarrassing! You can talk with Carlos if you take a nice local form, stop annoying the police, and start speaking English."
Dad snarls in disapproval, but his limbs start to retract. Soon enough he's wearing a human form not too different from Cecil's, except that its skin is the dull yellow of old bone. The police take this opportunity to turn their flamethrowers on him; they only retreat after Dad spits acid that dissolves three of them.
As Cecil debates the merits of crawling down the side of the building, someone hisses his name, and "Is that really you?" One of the scientists is holding the rooftop door open, her taut hands ready to yank it shut again if he turns out not to be the eldritch abomination she's looking for.
He pulls his human shell back on in a hurry. "It's me, yes! Where's Carlos?"
"By now? Probably halfway up the stairs," she says. "Hurry on in and come get him."
The banging at the front door keeps getting louder. Carlos wishes he had another ten minutes to adjust his collar, scrub off the dust from the experiment he was in the middle of when Cecil's father showed up, and maybe run a comb through his hair...but the structural integrity of the building will only hold up for so long.
Cecil pulls the door open, and doesn't even blink at the way his father's void-colored jodhpuri is giving off foul-smelling smoke. "It's so good to see you!" he exclaims, throwing his arms around the man. "Dad, this is Carlos. Carlos, this is my dad — you wouldn't be able to pronounce his name, but he'll answer to Dagon, won't you, Dad? You should have told us you were coming to visit!"
"And you should have told me you were fooling around with some human!" snaps his father. "I had to find it out by downloading your radio show! Your mother refused to believe it until I played it back to her."
"Well, I was going to tell you eventually!" says Cecil, visibly trying not to look crushed. "Assuming everything worked out! We haven't even been together for a month — that's too soon to be bringing someone home for dinner even if it didn't involve interdimensional travel. Either way, it isn't Carlos' fault, so you're not allowed to take it out on him."
"I'm, ah, very honored to meet you, sir," agrees Carlos, trying to pull together his best meeting-the-parents manners. If Cecil's folks are prejudiced against humans, there's not much he can do about it, but he can at least try not to give them anything extra to yell at Cecil about. "It's a shame we got off on the wrong foot...."
"Sweet-talking isn't going to do you any favors, you shameless no-good cradle-robber."
Carlos freezes. Shameless no-good what now?
Cecil quits hugging his father and moves to stand between the two of them. "That is not fair. Carlos has been a perfect gentleman."
"I think there's been some misunderstanding," adds Carlos uncertainly, very thankful that Cecil is shielding him right now. "I'm only thirty-eight."
"Don't you try to pull the wool over my eyes," growls Dagon. "I took Humanology in college. You're a mature, established adult of your species. Old enough that it would be socially acceptable to have adolescent children of your own."
"Um, yes. Not that I have any —"
"And you thought you'd just swoop into town and take advantage of my baby boy?"
"Dad!" wails Cecil. "I'm a hundred and forty-five! You've got to wake up and stop treating me like a little kid!"
It's probably terrible form to interrupt here, but Carlos can't not ask. A scientist is endlessly curious. Especially when a scientist is almost forty and getting the sinking fear that he's been badly overestimating the age of his boyfriend. "What, exactly, is a hundred and forty-five for your species? Maturity-wise?"
Cecil folds his arms. "Young adult. Finished with all our compulsory education. Old enough to be moving away from home and starting a career. Young enough that our parents don't always appreciate it."
"So that's, what...something like early twenties?" says Carlos hopefully.
Dagon laughs, a sharp sound that makes a crack appear in the nearest wall. "More like 'you're just lucky this isn't a district where you could get brought up on statutory charges'."
Cecil, meanwhile, is turning violet. "What Dad is trying to say, in his well-intentioned but overly aggressive way, is 'about seventeen, give or take'."
That can't be right.
Some of Carlos' former classmates have kids that age. Carlos himself has a niece that age. If she announced to the family that she was dating a thirty-eight-year-old....
But when he thinks back over everything he's ever known about Cecil, it makes way too much sense to ignore.
Cecil and his father snap a few more things at each other while Carlos' mind races. He considers backing off for a while, encouraging Cecil to have fun with boys his own age, and maybe they can look each other up again in a few years. It's what Carlos' mother would call the honorable thing to do.
But he's also doing some fast math in his head — 17 into 145 is not quite ten, closer to eight, maybe eight and a half years that Carlos has to age for Cecil to grow the equivalent of one. Which means that by the time Cecil is in the eldritch version of the early twenties Carlos will be geriatric. Time is only going to make their unorthodox age gap worse.
And while he wouldn't trust the hypothetical average late-thirties man with a teenager, Carlos does trust himself not to be a creep.
He tunes back in on the conversation just in time to hear Cecil's father laying down an ultimatum. "You may not be under my roof right now, but if you keep taking up with this man, don't think you'll be waltzing on home after your stipend is up."
"Dad...!" pleads Cecil. His shadow on the floor is strangely perforated. Dagon's is bristling with spines, or possibly teeth.
Carlos makes a snap decision. "Cecil, if your parents kick you out, you can move in with me. Or — or if you'd rather live somewhere else, I'll make sure it's paid for."
Cecil's hands fly to his mouth, with a gasp that could be happy or overwhelmed, it's hard to tell. Dagon snarls, his human-appearing eyes receding to leave empty pits in his skull. "The true colors appear. You spot your chance when my boy's vulnerable, and set him up to owe you."
"He won't owe me anything." Carlos puts a hand on Cecil's shoulder, partly to reassure him, partly in preparation to make a dive for cover in case his father starts spitting corrosive fluids again. "You don't want me taking advantage of him, remember? Well, if I kept going out with him in the full knowledge that it was going to screw up his life in the future, and I — as the mature, established adult — didn't try to do anything about it, then that would be taking advantage. All I'm offering here is...not that."
"Oh, Carlos." Cecil's own eyes have gone an ethereal, pearly white, making them hard to read; but by now Carlos recognizes a gaze of rapt adoration when he's under one. "Perfect, thoughtful, financially solvent Carlos."
"An adult is responsible," says Carlos, trying to shrug it off as no big deal. "That's the first thing an adult is."
Dagon is letting off enough static electricity to make all of their hair stand on end, but he appears to be out of cards.
"Sir, I promise, I care about Cecil," Carlos tells him. One last effort can't hurt. "And I completely understand why you wouldn't trust me yet. But I hope that if I keep treating your son right, I can earn it."
Cecil's father ignores him, turning back to Cecil. "This is going to break your poor mother's heart."
"Mom is welcome to come over and meet Carlos herself," says Cecil, with what will have to be enough confidence for both of them, because Carlos on his own is emphatically not ready to extend the invitation to another venomous building-sized Elder-Palmer. "I bet she will totally love him as soon as she gets to know him."
Carlos is pretty weak in the knees by the time Dad leaves, so Cecil carries him upstairs, with only a brief detour to let the other scientists know that they are not in (imminent) danger of being devoured by the interdimensional forces of a cosmic horror who also happens to be an angry father.
Unlike last time, Carlos' front room is a mess: crowded with boxes and extra furniture. They squeeze through to the couch, where, as long as Cecil un-manifests a couple of limbs, they at least have room to cuddle quietly for a while. Cecil, too nervous to speak first, wrings his hands (and a couple of talons) and waits.
"Hope I didn't presume too much back there," says Carlos presently. "If you decide this relationship isn't worth the trouble with your parents after all, I'll understand."
"No, you were wonderful!" exclaims Cecil, five different eyes widening in earnestness. "I won't hold you to your offer, though. I'll definitely be able to support myself even after my current position runs out. Don't know if you've noticed, but I'm pretty capable at this radio thing."
"You really are." Carlos curls a hand around one of the tentacles draped across his lap, massaging the dull grey scales. "Especially considering...dear lord, you're a teenager. You're going to be a teenager for the rest of my life. Is there anything else I should be doing for you? Have I ever been unfair, or asked too much from you, or...."
If Carlos starts treating Cecil like an eighty-year-old, Cecil is going to...well, to be honest, he's going to keep being in love with Carlos no matter what. But this would make it a lot less fun. "You've been amazing. You don't brush me off or talk down to me — not like Steve Carlsberg, ugh — and it's so great, and you should not change."
"I wasn't planning to start brushing you off, honest," says Carlos sheepishly. "I feel like you've been cheated a little here, though. If I'd known from the start, I might have been treating you like...ah, like Steve Carlsberg does, this whole time."
Cecil cups Carlos' face in his hands and glares at him. "Don't even joke about that! You could never, ever act like that jerk."
From the way Carlos is smiling, he might be taking Cecil somewhat less seriously on the Steve Carlsberg issue now. He doesn't let on out loud, though. "I'll keep it in mind."
All of this reassures Cecil enough to go for a kiss (with the human-shell mouth this time). Sure enough, Carlos hasn't decided to start holding back or treating him with kid gloves. If anything, he's more confident, more self-assured. As if — in spite of everything he's said about Cecil being innocent and sweet — he was still nervous or intimidated around Cecil before, and now he isn't.
It's really hot. Cecil wishes he'd thought to make sure Carlos understood his age earlier.
He tries to shift position so that he's in Carlos' lap, and barks one of his shins on Carlos' bureau, which is inexplicably shoved up next to the secondhand coffee table. "Ow! What in the world is all this stuff doing out here, anyway?"
"Um," says Carlos. "I've been trying to clear everything nonessential out of my bedroom. Because these rooms are pretty tiny, and I wanted to make sure you had as much space as possible to, well, manifest in there."
Cecil is beaming, his heart is fluttering, he's seriously turned-on and more in love than ever. He kisses his boyfriend again, the piles of stuff around them lighting up blue-green as he glows with delight, and breathes Carlos' name with one of his spare mouths. Carlos responds by arching against him and caressing the nearest line of photophores, and it's caring and gentle and thrilling and basically perfect.
(While death will come for Carlos eventually, as it must, it doesn't have to be while Cecil is still young. There are...measures...that can be taken if he decides he wants to be with Cecil for the long term, on Cecil's time scale as well as his own. But it's probably too early in the relationship to bring all that up now. For the moment, Cecil just focuses on being the best, most affectionate hot young boyfriend he knows how to be.)