They sit in silence a long while, in perfect silence, comfortable and understanding. Then: “Cecil,” Carlos says, his voice as soothing and soft as a night breeze. It is a voice Cecil had thought silenced forever, even more irrevocably and awfully silent than a mute child who mysteriously emerged from, and then dragged victims back to, a burning burlap tent. Which is pretty irrevocable and awful. Oh, it so very, very good to hear Carlos's voice again.
Carlos is still speaking, saying something low and husky about violations of the laws of thermodynamics, about time and light. However, Cecil, busy trying to resist the urge to push his face just ever so slightly higher, off of Carlos’s broad, delectable but also damp shoulder and into Carlos’s perfect neck, is not per se listening to the words Carlos is saying. He instead just basks in the sound, the mellifluous, resplendent aural joy of Carlos’s living voice. Alive. It is the perfect accompaniment to the other senses Cecil is indulging at present. He is wallowing in like a pig in mud in the smells of Carlos, the feel of Carlos’s soft flannel shirt, warm beneath his cheek. There is a perfect curl of Carlos’s perfect hair in one of Cecil’s eyes.
Then Cecil realizes Carlos has been saying something, emphatically and repeatedly, in the sort of way that demands response. His name. “Cecil. Cecil.”
“Yes?” Cecil asks drowsily. He does not lift his head. Having one’s heart metaphorically rise to dizzying heights of relief, then fall to hadean depths of despair, and then, at the last, get dragged back upwards to a surface of hope and joy and delight, his metaphorical blood depressurizing in great painful wonderful bubbles of carbon dioxide—well. All of that, it’s turned out to be more tiring than Cecil expected. He thinks he could happily stay here, right here, on the thrumming trunk of Carlos’s car, forever.
Except. Except—and oh, it’s embarrassing, it’s greedy, but…
He dares to dream of tasting Carlos, too. Of hearing and smelling and touching and tasting how wonderfully alive Carlos is. Cecil wants to press his face against the hot throb of a carotid artery, to mouth the soft thrum of a jugular. To presume so far unto Carlos’s person as to lick the remaining blood and sweat on the skin of his cheek with a careful adoring cat-like tongue, to groom—but no. No.
Cecil doesn’t even know if this is a date, let alone whether they both want to enter the more intimate, much closer and more permanent relationship that grooming and blood-sharing would entail. But if this isn’t a date, then both of them are already being spectacularly forward, of course, what with the hand so warm and hot and heavy and high on Cecil’s thigh, and Cecil himself cuddled so close, so very very close, under Carlos’s arm.
But it still might not be anything but the platonic overture of a deeper friendship, mightn’t it? Forged in the fires of near-fatal depths of terror and despair. Yes, even despite the overtly romantic setting—the smell of hot oil from Arby’s in the air, the tang of blood and sweat on Carlos’s firm shoulder, and the lights, shifting in perfect nauseating colors above them, it might not be anything more than Cecil seeing the world with rose-colored, besotted glasses over his eyes.
Oh, but surely, surely this is a date. Except. Cecil has been wrong on that front before, and he can’t bear being turned away now, not after today. Not after today. Cecil is still clutching that foolish trophy in one awkward fist, hidden against his side. He no longer need clutch it like a schoolchild with her first machine gun, because Carlos, sweet Carlos, is here, beside him, alive and his organs functioning and faintly gurgling.
But somehow Cecil still can’t bring himself to let it go.
And then Carlos’s fingers flex, high on the khaki of Cecil’s thigh as he talks, something low and scientific, in that tone of wonder and joy that first stirred love in Cecil’s veins like a lumbering subterranean beast awaking at last and emerging into a strange, blinding new world.
Carlos, so brave, so dear, so confused and enthused, and, well. Cecil is mostly human, after all, and all his restraint snaps like a dry bone. He can’t hold back any longer. He moves forward to press his lips against the thrum and vibration of Carlos’s throat, and for a moment Carlos’s skin tastes just as coppery and sharp and faintly scorched as Cecil had dreamed. Perfect. Cecil’s very innards seem to be attempting to crawl up Cecil’s throat to get a taste, too, to bathe in the concoction of molecules that imbues the surface of the scientist Cecil has come to love.
And for a moment Carlos simply gasps, hand tightening even further, but then—
But then oh—oh, no, Carlos’s perfect hand is leaving Cecil’s thigh. And it gets worse, as Carlos pushes Cecil’s head gently back, away, and Cecil has gotten this all so wrong. Carlos is hard to understand at the best of times, a charming and handsome cypher, but Cecil tries, by the many-appendaged small gods of the colony inside his garbage disposal, he tries.
Then he notices Carlos is smiling at him brilliantly, which is confusing, but then Cecil sees Carlos is also massaging the shoulder upon which Cecil’s head had just dared to rest, and the wobble of the earth’s orbit seems, for a moment, to steady. Cecil is both relieved to know the reason behind his being pushed away, and appalled. Devastated.
“You’re still bleeding? And you—you feel pain!” Cecil realizes with horror. “Oh, I had just assumed you didn’t. Carlos, today must have been—oh, it was already horrible, but it was even worse than I thought.” Cecil is so very glad this possibility hadn’t occurred to him earlier. The thought of Carlos, dying alone and in pain and so far away, well. Even now, it is enough to close his throat, as though he’d just been bitten by a rogue wheat by-product. “Oh, Carlos,” he breathes, hand fluttering worriedly over Carlos’s shoulder. “You should have said. I would have brought a R'lyehian tentacle from my garden—the pus can be very soothing for those unfortunates among us with pain receptors!” Oh, Carlos.
“What? Oh. Oh, this.” Carlos touches the tacky patch of blood on his shoulder, then lowers his hand to his side. “And that. And the others. They don’t hurt that badly, actually,” he says slowly, blinking at Cecil. He rotates his shoulder and grimaces slightly: a noble, brave grimace. Cecil can’t imagine being so unlucky as to suffer pain. “Not anymore. Mr. Williams already applied the, um, tentacles. I guess not for long enough, he did say I should wait another hour, but I was in a hurry—to— Well. To speak to you.”
Cecil really needs to invest in some sort of depressurization chamber for his heart, a diving bell for his soul. He is sure he cannot take much more of this. He will die in blissful, metaphorically gassy agony.
“You were?” he squeaks, and Carlos, perfect Carlos, with his mussed hair and a streak of ichor and blood upon his cheek, smiles at Cecil. He smiles wide, with his bright teeth and his eyes turned to crescents, twin perfect moons of coppery brown.
“Yes. I wanted to talk with you. Not just about clocks and the unknowable nature of time in Night Vale and thus in the universe itself,” Carlos says, and then looks down, and his gorgeous caramel mochaccino eyes are obscured by his thick lashes, and oh—oh, Cecil has to look away for a moment, gripping his own thighs tightly and staring sightlessly at the lights above. Carlos, exquisite Carlos, extraordinary Carlos, ex-exanimate Carlos, is blushing and it is beautiful. Cecil chances a glance back over, and yes, it is as excitingly arousing and amazing and astonishing as it was just seconds before, and it gets even better when Carlos glances back over and meets Cecil’s eyes.
Cecil wonders if this is what pain feels like, unbearable and incredible and so very, very intense.
“Cecil, there is so much I don’t understand, and it is wonderful, in a way. It’s a scientist’s dream to start over and anew—but,” Carlos says, and then again, “Cecil,” as though trying to catch Cecil’s attention, which is ridiculous. As though Cecil’s attention could possibly be anywhere else. And oh, Cecil just loves the way Carlos says his name. He can’t help saying just that, vehemently and wonderingly, and it’s hardly fair to expect Cecil to stop rhapsodizing when Carlos keeps smiling wider and blushing harder.
“Stop,” Carlos laughs, and finally, something makes Cecil stop. Probably Carlos’s hand on Cecil’s mouth, and it’s more the shock of skin that does it than anything else. “I want to—I just, you’ve been… wonderful. Ever since I arrived. I don’t really pay attention to your program—”
Cecil is indignant, he is furious, but is also furiously glad Carlos has not heard Cecil embarrassing himself gushing over Carlos, but Cecil is also insulted. But seriously, thank the dark gods below for this bit of luck, why hadn’t Cecil ever realized Carlos might hear Cecil mooning and dithering, what had he been thinking, but why hadn't Carlos wanted to hear it—this is all so confusing. Cecil hasn’t felt so many simultaneous yet conflicting emotions since the Worm Moon his sophomore year of high school!
“—I mean, I do listen!” Cecil deflates slightly, a confused soufflé of half-baked emotions. “I just have the radio on when I’m working, and I mostly just listen to your voice, more than the news itself. You have,” Carlos says, and Cecil thinks for a moment that this, this must be what it feels like in Radon Canyon, breathless and waiting. “A really gorgeous voice, Cecil. And you’re so—you love your town, and the people in it, and I can hear it in every syllable you say, and I just. I like—I really like hearing you. I’ve listened to you, every night, for the past year.”
There is a pterodactyl-like shriek of preteen glee somewhere in Cecil’s chest, and it is probably for the best Carlos is still blocking said shriek in with his warm, callused hand. Who knows what it otherwise would attract at this hour.
“It’s just, I’m not good at this, at understanding people. I’m better with geophysics, and quantum molecules, or I used to be, before Night Vale invalidated both of my fields of study. But I do have some solid facts. I know you love my hair, for some reason,” Carlos is saying. “And now I know you love the way I say your name.”
At this, Carlos’s eyes positively twinkle for a moment, a wry sly nigh-irresistible teasing grin quirking his mouth and Cecil leans forward slightly, helpless before it but held back inexorably by that warm palm. No, Cecil cautions himself. He cannot just fling himself forward, heedless of the depths below. Why, to think how deliriously happy he would have been just this morning, to have this moment of closeness. It is folly, it is dangerous to yearn for more. But oh, Cecil does.
“I like how you say my name, too,” Carlos says, in the hushed tone of a confession. Cecil will spend the next episode of his program saying only Carlos’s name, over and over, in every tone of adoration he can muster. “But, that’s not—well, it’s not conclusive data, is it? Except a few people in Mr. William’s militia have said, and they’re people who know you, who really listen to your broadcast, and they said that you like… more than just my hair. That you like me. But I can’t be sure. People exaggerate. And—this is something I really want to know. I need to know, I need to be sure.”
This is ridiculous. It cannot be borne. Cecil attempts to deliver a blistering address on Carlos’s very unscientifically terrible interpersonal observational skills, but it is rendered unintelligible by the hand he can’t quite bring himself to pull away from. Carlos’s hand is dusty and warm and tastes faintly of tinfoil and cornflowers. It is the most wonderful thing that has ever covered Cecil’s mouth, far better than any other gag of sinew or rotten sailcloth. Brave, wonderful, intrepid Carlos with his beating heart that is sending hot blood to the tiny perfect capillaries that beat now against Cecil’s lips.
“Down in that city, beyond the bowling alley, in agonizing pain and being swarmed by homicidal waves of its well-armed citizens, you know what frightened me the most, Cecil?”
Cecil mouths the word no. He licks his lips, unthinking, and something as hot and squirming as a radioactive tapeworm starts writhing low in his belly, when Carlos’s eyes darken.
“It wasn’t the fact that I’d never understand what's happened to the clocks, or why there are strange earthquakes, or even anything about the dog park and the non-existent house. It frightened me that I would never know how you felt, never be able to do anything about it. All the things we had never asked each other. Maybe that makes me a bad scientist, because it’s not the most important question in the world at large, I know. I know there are larger questions at stake. But it’s the most important question to me, Cecil. I don’t think any other question matters, if I haven’t answered that one.”
Carlos takes a deep breath, looks away, then looks back.
“I thought, when I woke up—well, after the pain receded—that I had to find out, to know with full confidence, what you felt. Feel. Cecil. What do you feel towards me?”
Carlos takes away his hand from Cecil’s mouth.
Cecil feels like a clock, right now, hollowed out and timeless, immobile and being taken apart gear by gear in Carlos’s perfect, tender hands. He cannot speak. He can barely think. He feels like he is dreaming, or drinking his Grandmother’s holy datura wine. But it is real, isn’t it? This is really happening. He can’t move for fear it will dissolve into seizures and gibbering in long-dead languages.
“Cecil? Say something. Please. Is this okay?”
Carlos is leaning in, almost ludicrously slowly, and Cecil. Is. Frozen. His muscles lock as surely as a dog park gate, but Carlos is still moving closer. Cecil keeps thinking it’s about to happen, but it doesn’t, but surely now! It’s about to happen right now. Except somehow, still not quite, it’s still just faint puffs of breath against his chapped lips, warm and damp. It’s not happening, and it keeps not happening, and oh, god, what if Carlos is just looking at Cecil’s dumb closed eyes and waiting mouth and had never actually intended to—
Except then, it happens. It does.
Carlos is kissing him. Carlos. Kissing. Cecil. On the mouth, with his mouth, soft and just as perfect as Cecil had tried never to dare to imagine.
“THIS IS SO OKAY,” Cecil garbles immediately. And then he can’t stop himself, it’s like a dam of ecstatic idiocy bursting just, everywhere, like spring and rain and a dumb desert of words blossoming. God, it’s so stupid, but Cecil just keeps saying ‘Wow!’ and ‘Oh gosh!’ into Carlos’s mouth, their teeth clashing together and noses mashing. And then, especially mortifyingly, he says, “Groovy.”
Then Carlos stops laughing, and Cecil doesn’t even have time or energy necessary to worry it’s laughter that’s directed at him, like, really at him and not with him, because Carlos’s hand is on Cecil’s jaw, tilting the angle slightly. And then all Cecil can say, as the blood in his head sinks south and his heart redoubles its efforts to beat out of his chest and into Carlos’s, is “Fuck.”
Somehow without thinking he’s already heaved himself half onto Carlos’s lap, biting at Carlos’s mouth and swearing, saying desperately, “Carlos, Carlos, you’re alive,” over and over, running his hands up, and oh, saints and their slaughterhouses, his hands are in Carlos’s tousled hair, and it is so. soft.
Carlos gasps suddenly, squirming, and Cecil reels back, horrified and wondering. He can’t make himself take his hands from Carlos’s night-dark curls, which means he yanks at them, and oh, that’s worse but he still can’t stop.
“I’m hurting you,” Cecil says wretchedly. It’s the last thing he wants to do, to hurt Carlos. He tries to jerk away but Carlos catches him, holds him in place and keeps him from falling off the trunk onto the pavement.
“Not you! I mean, it hurts, but not badly, and anyway, it’s my fault. I don’t know what I was thinking,” Carlos says. “Jumping down there alone.” He looks faintly sheepish in the faint luminous light of the parking lot. “Scientific discovery. You know how it is.”
Like this. Like how, overhead, the lights wheel and shine, and Cecil can taste their phosphorescence on his tongue, overlaying the blood and Carlos-flavor. Oh, Carlos. Carlos, wonderful Carlos, with all of his dangerous, deadly questions, his effervescent strive to know. How has he survived so long, all the way to adulthood, without coming to harm, as he nearly had today?
But then, Carlos is a scientist. Can one blame a scientist, a professional scientist, for only doing what comes naturally, any more than one can blame a reporter for reporting?
Perhaps. But does that matter?
“You terrified me today. I couldn’t even—what is the point of anything, without you?” Cecil hears himself, and oh, that is even more forward than kissing before exchanging bloodgifts. He is as naked as newborn unskinned baby, terrified and vulnerable. He is putting a hand over his eyes to hide and immediately smacking himself hard with the forgotten trophy. “Oh, bother.”
“What’s that?” Carlos asks curiously, because he always asks questions, and he is choosing now to be interpersonally observant, now that Cecil is being an idiot with his sentimental idiocy and survival award.
“It’s for you,” Cecil says, somewhat miserably, and thrusts it over. He has a hard time unfolding his fingers from it, but it goes into Carlos’s hands, where it belongs. A celebration of life, of them, of them alive. “Because. It’s been a year since you came and we met, and I wanted. To celebrate it.”
Like an anniversary, oh, he can see that now, what he’d been thinking and hoping. Presumptuous, stupid, arrogant Cecil! Except Carlos is taking the trophy, engraved old silver and polished bone, as though it’s as delicate as an eggshell, as though it is something beautiful and precious and not a dumb craft Cecil had labored over with a frankly low-grade blowtorch for hours.
Carlos, perfect Carlos, is smiling brilliantly, at him. And Cecil finds that he had been wrong before, about perfection. Because this, this is perfection. Carlos is so flushed, and, oh. His smiling mouth is freshly kissed, reddened and soft, and Cecil did that. Cecil is going to give himself a trophy, a medal, and maybe a new theme song.
“I’m taking this as conclusive evidence in support of my hypothesis that you like me,” Carlos says suddenly, almost shyly, trophy cradled in his hands, and Cecil will probably stop being surprised by the non-lethal things Carlos can do to his circulatory and respiratory systems just by existing, to say nothing of his limbic system. “Just so you know.”
“Carlos,” Cecil says, edging closer, vibrating slightly in delight and directionless nerves. “I hope you are ready to conduct a number of further experiments on this subject, because that is the very least of the things that I feel for you.”
He feels so much. He wants so much, even if he is not yet exactly sure what or how or why, but he knows Carlos wants too, is uncertain but hopeful too, and that is enough. That is so much more than enough.
“You could shave your head,” Cecil confesses, wildly daring, as brave as any scientist. “I would be upset, I would, but it wouldn’t matter, really. It wouldn’t.”
Carlos, perfect Carlos, perfect of hair and of smile and of self, takes Cecil’s hand and says, soft and wondering, “I had hoped that might be true.”
“But you won’t cut it again, right?” Cecil can’t help but ask, because, really, he would still love Carlos, of course, but really.
“No,” Carlos agrees, eyes shining, and leans in again. Against Cecil’s lips, he whispers, “I won’t.”