When his cellphone rang Carlos startled. He'd been sitting on the couch staring at the coffee table for -- he had no idea how long, actually. He looked at the screen: Cecil.
Cecil. Oh, God. They were supposed to go out tonight, and here he was staring into space in his dark living room, still dusty from spending the day in the sand wastes at the edge of town. He slid his finger over the swipe bar and lifted the phone to his ear.
"I just got off the air, I'm on my way. Just wait until you see the menu at the new Italian place. Their squid ink pasta is divine." Cecil's voice was rich and golden and filled with promise and Carlos hated like hell to disappoint him, but there was no way around it.
"Cecil --" Carlos' voice trailed off. He was in no shape to go out tonight. He hated to cancel a date; what if Cecil read too much into it, what if Cecil regretted what they'd -- it didn't matter. He couldn't possibly go out. He'd be the worst date ever. "I think I need a raincheck."
"A raincheck? Are you okay?" To his unspeakably profound relief, Cecil didn't sound angry. He sounded concerned.
Carlos took a deep breath. "I was taking some measurements today on the southwest side of town, in the sand wastes, and I--"
"Oh, Carlos." Cecil's voice was warm with concern. "You didn't."
"I thought it wouldn't be so bad," Carlos said weakly. "The hooded men, they used to scare me when I first got to town, and now they're just...you know, hooded men. No big deal."
"The Void is nothing like the hooded men," Cecil said quietly.
"I know that now." Carlos scrubbed a hand over his face. "Look, I can't handle a restaurant tonight. I'm sorry."
"Of course you're not leaving your house tonight." Cecil's voice was firm. "But I'm not leaving you alone. Not after your first look into the Endless Void."
"I'm not in any shape for company," Carlos objected.
"I'm not company," Cecil corrected, "I'm your boyfriend. I'm going to stop and grab a few things; I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Okay," Carlos said. It felt like an admission: yes, I need your help. But Cecil was so matter-of-fact about it, as though it were normal for him to have to come and take care of a grown man who just made the mistake of looking into the wrong quadrant of empty space.
"Wrap up in a blanket," Cecil advised. "A bright colored one, if you have such a thing."
"I...might," Carlos said dubiously. "I'll check."
"Be there soon," Cecil promised.
As soon as Cecil's voice was gone, Carlos felt sick again. Chilled and hot at the same time, as though he were feverish, though his thermometer said he wasn't. Anxious. Weary. Not sure whether he wanted to vomit or to weep. He curled into a ball on the sofa and clutched his knees and waited.
The minute Carlos opened the door Cecil pushed past him carrying a grocery bag and deposited it in the kitchen. By the time Carlos had turned the deadbolt, Cecil was embracing him, and Carlos let himself be held.
"It's okay. You're safe. I'm here," Cecil murmured into Carlos's hair. "Run yourself the hottest bath you can stand. Do you have any bath salts? No, you wouldn't. I'll see what I can find. Go get started."
Carlos meant to object to this, but he found himself walking toward the bathroom, so he complied.
The hot water did feel good. He sank into it gratefully. He could hear Cecil puttering around in the other room, and that felt even better than the bath. Knowing that he wasn't alone.
After a few minutes Cecil knocked on the bathroom door and then opened it. He was holding a sprig of sage in one hand. "This will help." He tore the sage leaves into pieces and dropped them into the tub, along with a spoonful of kosher salt which had been cupped in his palm. Obviously some kind of weird folk remedy, and generally Carlos objected to those on scientific principle, but the sage leaves did smell nice.
"Take your time," Cecil said gently, and let himself back out of the bathroom.
When he came out wrapped in his bathrobe, Cecil was curled up on the couch reading something on his phone. He jumped up and beamed at Carlos, though his usual effervescence was muted, as though in deference to Carlos' fragility. "Let me grab something to eat."
"I don't think I can," Carlos said, but Cecil was already on his way into the kitchen. He emerged with two bowls, two spoons, and a container of dulce de leche ice cream.
"Of course you can't eat dinner after your first encounter with the Endless Void," Cecil said. The capital letters were totally audible. Carlos wondered sometimes how people in Night Vale did that. "But you can eat ice cream."
"I could try," Carlos said.
The cold sweetness was really good, actually. They sat on the couch facing each other, toes touching beneath the fuzzy orange blanket Cecil had found somewhere to drape over them. Carlos was pretty certain he didn't own anything that looked even vaguely like that at all. Maybe Cecil kept it stashed in his trunk for color emergencies.
Arguably this was a sign that Night Vale was starting to rewire his brain, but in that moment the notion of a color emergency requiring a specific visual stimulus made perfect sense. Didn't people paint hospital hallways certain shades to try to make them more soothing and conducive to health? Maybe the color orange was the antidote to the Endless Void. Would yellow have worked as well? Or green? That might merit further exploration.
When they finished their bowls, Cecil took them into the kitchen and put them in the sink, returning the ice cream to the freezer. Then he came back to his place on the couch, got settled in the same position he'd been in before, and asked, "do you want to talk about it?"
Carlos had known that question was coming. He knew he probably should talk about it. But he wasn't sure how. "I just wanted to take some readings on its current dimensions," he said. "I thought I could look into it for a minute or two and then be done."
"How many hours did you lose?"
"Eight," Carlos said, and he couldn't repress his shudder.
"Eight! Oh, Carlos," Cecil said. He sounded horrified. "Even I wouldn't gaze into the Void for eight hours, and I've lived here my whole life."
"I didn't mean to," Carlos objected. "I just glanced in, and next thing I knew--"
"It was sundown and you were empty and desolate," Cecil guessed.
"Everything was grey; nothing had any point anymore," Carlos said helplessly.
"It isn't true." Cecil's voice was firm, brooking no objection. "But the Void can make you feel that way, for a while."
"I hate that nobody knows how big it is." Carlos knew he sounded petulant, but he couldn't help it. The fact that there was a portal into Endless Void just outside the city limits already stretched his scientific credulity. The fact that it occupied some unknown sector of space (and, who knew, possibly time) was more than he could bear.
"There are stories," Cecil said quietly. "They say Old Woman Josie's father went out to try to measure it, when she was a kid. Some people think the angels came to look after her once the Void took her dad. Not that there are angels, of course," he added hastily, for the benefit of the Sheriff's Secret Police.
Angels, or the absence thereof, seemed almost entirely irrelevant when there was a verifiable Void less than five miles away. A void which in the best of circumstances made you feel bleaker than any depression and in the worst of circumstances apparently swallowed people whole. "How do you stand it?"
Cecil shrugged. "We make offerings at our bloodstone circles." Then, as though he could tell that wasn't enough, he added, "we get used to it."
"How?" Carlos hated how plaintive he sounded, but there it was.
"Every child in Night Vale looks into the Void at least once before turning eight." Cecil was rubbing Carlos' feet now, gently. It felt good; Carlos closed his eyes. The touch tethered him, keeping his memories of the Void at bay. "But we do it with a guardian, or at least an older sibling, standing by to yank us back after five, ten minutes at the most."
"Limited exposure," Carlos murmured. "Repeated?"
"Of course. It doesn't make the Void less devastating, but it gives us practice in recovering. You should never have gone alone; I wish I'd known, I would have gone with you!"
"I didn't know." God: the unspoken rules of doing science in this fucking town.
"I know, I'm not blaming you," Cecil said quickly. "I just wish I could have been there."
"You're here now," Carlos pointed out.
Cecil gave him a small smile. "About that..." He took a deep breath. "Look, I know we haven't slept over yet, and I don't want to push you, at all, I promise." He was twisting and rolling the edge of the blanket with his hands. "But I'm not leaving you alone tonight. Just give me a pillow, I'll sleep on the couch."
Carlos's heart leapt, though whether it was at Cecil's insistence on keeping him company, or at the chivalrous attempt to not presume, he wasn't sure. "I'd rather you sleep in the bed," he said, and was rewarded with Cecil's most genuine and dazzling smile. He couldn't help beaming back. "I'm not sure I'm going to be much fun, tonight, but I'd rather have you near me."
"You don't have to be anything at all except what you are," Cecil said. "My beautiful Carlos." Maybe that was another sign that he was acclimating to this place; the epithet didn't make him squirm, anymore.
They moved through the apartment -- Carlos brushing his teeth, then Cecil -- as though this were their usual dance. Carlos didn't usually sleep in pajamas, and after dithering for a minute, decided to just stick with his usual boxer briefs. Cecil stripped down to his boxers, which looked silky and were dark as purple ink. When they slid beneath the covers, Cecil curled around Carlos from behind and embraced him.
It felt good. The embrace warmed him on levels beyond the physical. Cecil's arms were his tether to this plane. The Void couldn't come after him, now.
Carlos couldn't have said what woke him, at first. Was there a sound? Had he snapped out of one of those dreams of falling? But then he registered the very slight movements beside him. Cecil was lying on his left side, curled away from Carlos, and his arm was shifting and flexing.
Carlos smiled and burrowed over close to Cecil, pressing his face against Cecil's shoulderblades. "Hi," he murmured, and pressed a kiss there.
"Oh!" Cecil sounded surprised, and the movements of his arm stopped. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."
"'s okay," Carlos assured him, and nuzzled his shoulder.
"I didn't mean to start anything." Cecil sounded worried. "After the day you've had! But having you so near -- sleeping in Your Bed, you have no idea how intoxicating that is --"
Audible capital letters again, Carlos thought fondly.
"-- I couldn't help myself. But I was going to take care of it. I didn't mean to bother you." Cecil sounded perilously close to babbling. It was adorable.
"C'mere," Carlos murmured, and tugged at Cecil's shoulder until Cecil rolled onto his back, giving Carlos access to reach down and grope his lovely cock where it protruded through the gap in his silk boxers. Cecil hissed a gasp through his teeth and Carlos smiled at him in the dark.
"I'm supposed to be taking care of you," Cecil protested weakly, though he didn't pull away.
"You are," Carlos promised him. "Here, hang on." He reached over to his bedside table, squirted lotion into his palm, and then returned, climbing over Cecil's thighs to kneel between them so he could reach down with both hands.
Cecil groaned and jerked up to meet his slick palm. "I'm not," he managed. Dear stubborn Cecil.
His room was dark and familiar and Cecil was shuddering beneath his hands, and together these gave him the courage to keep talking. "No one's ever wanted me the way you do," Carlos said. When he encircled Cecil's balls with his other hand, Cecil whimpered, so Carlos paid more attention there. All in the name of science. Figuring out what made Cecil tick and how to lovingly take him apart.
He was probably ruining Cecil's silk boxers with the lotion slicked on his hands, but Cecil didn't seem to be objecting. "You make me feel like I matter," Carlos said, recklessly, because that was perilously close to what he really meant, which was you make me feel loved.
And maybe Cecil heard what he wasn't saying, or maybe that was exactly the right stroke and tug, because he surged up into Carlos's hands and spilled over his fingers with a wordless cry.
For a moment the only sound was Cecil's breathing as it slowed back to normal. Carlos wiped his hands on the coverlet and slid back beneath it, snuggling close to Cecil again, because he could. There was a certain satisfaction in rendering Cecil speechless.
And then Cecil turned to face him and drew him close and they kissed for a long time. Carlos' erection nudged against Cecil's hip, and even just that amount of friction felt amazing with Cecil in his arms and Cecil's hot, eager mouth on his. When they broke for a breath Carlos let his head tip back and Cecil took the hint, kissing down his jaw and throat, somehow unerringly finding the exact places which made Carlos swoon.
"What do you want?" Cecil murmured against his throat.
Carlos meant to say 'anything,' but what came out was "your mouth." He flushed hot; he hadn't meant to ask so baldly, not like that. But Cecil beamed at him, teeth gleaming in the darkness of his bedroom, and then shimmied down his body and pulled his briefs away and took him in.
Carlos groaned, his thighs opening wider as Cecil settled between them. Cecil chuckled around his cock, a happy and satisfied sound which traveled right up Carlos' spine and set off fireworks in his brain.
Cecil's mouth was hot and wet, his rhythm was sure and steady, and his satisfied hum stood in for the monologue Carlos knew he would be offering if he were touching Carlos in any other way. Carlos felt pinned, transfixed, entirely present in his body as liquid pleasure sang through his veins.
This was the exact opposite of the way the Void had made him feel. Here in bed with Cecil, thrusting into Cecil's willing mouth, he was whole; he was real; he was alive.
When he came, Cecil gentled him through the aftershocks and then climbed back to the head of the bed, lying back down beside him. This time they settled into a tangle of limbs face-to-face. Cecil held him close, and Carlos let himself melt there, one leg between Cecil's, Cecil's arms squarely around him. His last thought before sleep claimed him again was that he had become a jewel, firmly cradled in its setting, shining and safe.
Light streamed into his bedroom windows, and the air smelled like coffee. His bathrobe was nowhere to be found, so he pulled on a pair of sweatpants and went to brush his teeth.
The reason his bathrobe was missing, it turned out, was that Cecil was wearing it. He was at the stove stirring a skillet. Scrambled eggs with cheese and chives, it looked like.
"I'm pretty sure any eggs in my fridge were past their sell-by date," Carlos said dubiously. Cecil turned and beamed at him.
"I picked these up last night, with the ice cream." Just then the coffee pot gurgled its song of completion. "You want the first cup?"
"...sure," Carlos said, wondering whether he looked as goofily lovestruck as he felt. The malaise of the previous day was entirely gone. In its place he felt well-rested and post-coital, and a beautiful man was cooking him breakfast, and there was coffee. As he poured himself a cup, he muttered "a guy could get used to this."
"I certainly hope so," Cecil said archly, and turned the stove off just as a pair of English muffins popped out of the toaster. "Hand me two plates? Breakfast's ready."
Carlos' kitchen table was piled with junk -- catalogues he hadn't gotten around to reading, boxes of scientific equipment he'd mail-ordered for the lab, a potted purple-flowering cactus which he'd picked up at the grocery store on a whim -- so they sat close together at the tidier end. When their feet bumped into each other beneath the table, Cecil's foot stroked Carlos's gently, back and forth across his ankle. How did Cecil manage to make playing footsie feel like foreplay?
How could Carlos ever walk away from this man -- even if this town was weird and deadly and sometimes filled him with existential dread?
He took the leap almost before the thought was fully-formed. "Listen, what are you doing on Saturday afternoon?"
Cecil gave an elegant one-shouldered shrug. "In theory, preparing for Sunday's show, but in practice, could be anything. Why?"
"Will you come with me to the southwest side of town?"
Cecil put down his fork, raising an eyebrow quizzically.
"I thought maybe you could pull me back from the Void," Carlos explained. "You know, like you said, from when you were a kid."
"You really want to face the Void again so soon?" Cecil sounded concerned. "I mean, of course I'll come with you, but--"
"You said everyone who lives in Night Vale is used to it," Carlos ploughed on. "So I figured, I'd better get used to it."
A brilliant smile broke over Cecil's face. "My brave Carlos."
"Not so brave," Carlos said quietly. "But I think if I've got you, I can be braver."
"I would be honored," Cecil said. His curiously old-fashioned phrasing made it seem as though he were making a promise. As though they were making promises to each other.
The next time their feet touched, Carlos pressed his against Cecil's, and he didn't let go.