Carlos used to dream of Night Vale when he was a child; a teenager; in the sticky restless sleep after a one-night stand in college. It loomed, the whole place, in that heavy way nightmares always do, hazy and thick on his tongue, terror-swollen. Which isn't to say… he was never all that scared when he awoke, not like he was of other things, littler things, day to day banalities that choked him up with nerves. The truth of a skinned knee or a laughing jerk, of spending $450 unexpected dollars to fix his busted car, of waking up the morning after in bed with a man who'd seemed so much softer around the edges the night before: these things were frightening. The city of his nightmares was too fantastical to mean anything beyond a few quick, shuddering breaths in the dim light of an early morning. The place was terror-swollen, sure, but like all swelling, it faded to the touch of ice, and reality as Carlos knew it had always been cold.
Dreams are harder for Carlos than facts. Once in Night Vale, the dots of his ongoing vague deja-vu don't connect for him until an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday afternoon, when he jumps in horrified recognition of a particular sidewalk crack.
"Oh, Carlos," Cecil says, that besotted almost-reverence, that warm sincere concern, that twitching in his hands that has to meant something -- because Cecil always means something. Cecil drips with meaning, oozes it out of the radio, lets it slide into the way he looks at Carlos until Carlos has to look away. It's too much and he doesn't deserve it and anyway it's not real, it can't be, any of this, not even the way Cecil tilts his head, says, "You've really got to get used to the gas vents. I swear, the purple is actually good for you." Like Carlos is his right and left. Like Carlos did anything but happen to run into him on the street.
It's not that, Carlos doesn't say, because… because. Because it should be that. Because he wishes it was.
Cecil is hunched over the fence the Sheriff's Secret Police put up to mark safe distance from the Whispering Forest; he's smoking a cigarette, or what passes for a cigarette in Night Vale, and humming something that sounds like today's weather. This makes Carlos nervous. The fence, first and foremost, is a concern -- Carlos had suggested the fence, and furthermore been the one to draw the chalk line around the entire forest, at the exact distance his calculations had assured him was as close as anyone should risk getting to the frankly terrifying energy signature held therein. He had expected -- well, hoped -- well, allowed himself to imagine as a possibility, anyway -- that the SSP would build the fence along that line. The fence they did build, which sharp zig-zags across the line instead, seems like asking for trouble. As, incidentally, do the intermittent spikes, nearly invisible in the darkness, that stick up out of the woodwork.
Then there's the cigarette. Cecil doesn't smoke the same way he doesn't wear bolo ties or drink milk that's still good -- he says he doesn't, and he even means it, but only most of the time. Carlos has known men of absolutes before and Cecil is like them, in the sense that he is so absolute that you could chip a tooth on it about some things and trying like hell to get there on everything else. (Cecil is also not like those men of absolutes Carlos has known, in the sense that Cecil is not like anyone.)
Cecil smokes when he gets all existential, and Cecil gets all existential when he feels alone. Carlos has noticed through careful observation that no one in this maddened, maddening town has any idea how to process loneliness as a thought, let alone as an emotion. They're all so used to the constancy of chaos as a companion that when they have those moments, cold and starkly human and inevitable, where their own singularity strikes them as sick and unfamiliar, they assume it's some kind of malevolent outside influence. They sigh, roll their eyes, and complain to the nearest hidden listening device until it's over.
But Cecil is more self aware than that, which is why he's smoking, which is why Carlos's chest aches to look at the curve of his shoulders and the swath of lighter brown skin at the nape of his neck, a shade that doesn't match his face or arms, where his collar usually protects him from the sun. It's almost dark and Cecil's wearing a t-shirt and Carlos can't breathe again today, has to force it, heavy with the hitching tightness that Cecil inspires in him whenever Carlos pays either too much or too little attention. It's almost familiar and totally foreign, just like always.
The other hitching tightness in Carlos's chest, rather more urgent, is in direct response to how far beyond the still-visible chalk outline Cecil's spot on the fence is. That, at least, is becoming rote -- Cecil laughs at it, the way Carlos fears Cecil's death-or-worse at every sinister turn, but, well. Cecil's lived here longer.
"Uh," Carlos says, because this thing between them isn't new but it's not old, yet, and words are Cecil's thing, not Carlos's. Observation Carlos excels at, but when it comes to the right thing to say, he almost always gets it wrong. "Are you, uh. Sure that's a good place to be standing?"
"Yes," Cecil says, and then, "no," and then, turning, tossing his cigarette, stepping away from the fence, "You found me."
He says it like Carlos did it on purpose -- says it with his eyes shining and his shoulders straightening out, warmth bleeding into his voice and changing it into that one he only ever uses to, about, Carlos. And it should make Carlos feel guilty, because he was just, it's almost the end of the week and he hasn't eaten his Rico's yet and he just walked this way, happened to walk this way, and recognized Cecil's silhouette from across the street. He didn't come looking the way Cecil obviously thinks he came looking, didn't sense Cecil's dangerous mood the way Cecil obviously thinks that he did, and it's. It's not fair, dishonest, that Cecil loves Carlos like Carlos is this incredible person when he's not, he never has been, he's had a whole life to observe himself and he's never been amazing, just dogged and detail-oriented and frightened most of the time.
Except. Except that in Cecil's eyes Carlos feels… newsworthy, which is a terrible thought, an embarrassing thought, that he'll maybe tell Cecil one day, tonight, eventually. In Cecil's eyes Carlos feels like it probably doesn't matter that he was just going for Rico's, that it was all chance, because he showed up when Cecil needed him and Night Vale makes it pretty hard to believe in chance, anyway. In Cecil's eyes Carlos feels summoned and heroic and eldritch and perfect, or maybe just wanted, honestly and wholly wanted, which is novel.
He holds out his hand and Cecil steps forward, forward again, past Carlos's hand to press his face to Carlos's neck. He's corpse-cold, stuff-of-nightmares cold, but Carlos doesn't jump, just says, "You're freezing," with mild surprise, a little reproach, a glimmer of professional interest. Cecil nods and sighs and winds closer, one of those moments that Carlos thinks maybe he's trying to permanently fuze their bodies or something, and Carlos knows he should probably be bothered. He hums, picking up the weather where Cecil left it off, and wonders how'll test to find out if the Whispering Forest leeches heat as well as souls. He rubs the back of Cecil's neck until Cecil starts to feel warm-blooded again.
"Cecil," Carlos says eventually, and smiles, just a little, at the way even now Cecil makes that noise whenever Carlos says his name. "Are you, uh, all right? This is just… I mean, you know I hesitate to say 'not normal behavior' but. Is everything okay?"
"Sometimes," Cecil admits, sounding embarrassed, "it's very hard for me to be certain I exist."
"Oh," Carlos says, "that." He gets it. He really does.
The thing is that Carlos has been loved before the way that Cecil loves him, this all-consuming overwhelming press, this brand of adoration that sits like an all-night vigil. He thinks everyone has been loved like this at some point in their lives, although he recognizes even in thinking it that it's not true, that it's the sort of thought that's only ever had by beautiful people. Carlos knows, for better or worse, that he is beautiful -- it's not a value judgement or a flight of egotism, just a fact, a data point. Carlos has thick hair and sharp cheekbones and a sort long-boned delicacy that appeals to people, that inspires in people this particular brand of affection, this instant love, this blank-canvas phenomenon.
Because that is what it is, what it always is, what always comes of it: he is beautiful and he is beautiful in this very specific way that makes him, somehow, a sheet of clean paper onto which people can sketch an entire human soul. They look at him and they decide who he is going to be and then, oh, then, they love him like they have never loved anyone, not in their whole lives. They expect him to be grateful, to be honored, and the thing is that he is, even now that he knows better -- the science of human love is incomprehensible to even the most brilliant minds and Carlos doesn't take it lightly, what it means for someone to feel that degree of emotion for him. He is honored and he is grateful and if that were all it was, all they wanted, maybe it would be fine.
But that's never all it is, all they want -- they keep expecting, expecting Carlos to be the person they decided he was, expecting Carlos to return their love, this fever-pitch brand of love, and Carlos isn't capable of it. Carlos doesn't fall in love like an all-night vigil, with all-consuming instancy, with a need to see and be seen; he falls in love like an experiment, testing and checking and testing again, careful about his language and not to get too excited. It's the only way he knows how to do it because it would kill him otherwise, the ups and downs -- there have been days when a simple phone call was more than Carlos could stand, when a trip to the store was too much excitement. He can't love these people the way they love him and it hurts them, angers them, shames them. Eventually, they hate him for it.
He likes Cecil, is the worst part. Cecil, with his odd giggle and his boundless enthusiasm for municipal goings-on and his very misguided sense of normalcy, with his canyon-deep voice and his broad chest and his confusingly attractive forearms. It breaks Carlos's heart to see Cecil love him this way because he knows how it will go, and despite the circumstances, this terrifying place where every last thing works at least a little bit wrong, Carlos thinks he might've enjoyed the chance to try for something.
Only… a month turns to three turn to six and Cecil talks about him on the radio, voice going trembling and maudlin and wrenchingly sincere, perfect Carlos and his perfect self is perfect perfect perfect. Cecil pulls him aside at press conferences and looks at him with his whole heart in his eyes and trips over his own voice just in saying hello, looks elated, just elated, when Carlos says hi back. Cecil asks him out and doesn't mind when he says no, just nods, shrugs, doesn't act like the rejection is Carlos's fault, and then he talks about him again on the radio, and it's mortifying and much too much and makes Carlos feel so alive that it's like it burns him, sort of, but not exactly in a bad way. When he gets that shit haircut Cecil threatens the barber, Carlos actually sees him threatening the barber, and that's weird and intense and creepy but it makes something in Carlos's chest twist anyway because he'd wanted to say those things himself, just a little, and had swallowed them down instead. Carlos is afraid of so much but Cecil doesn't seem to be afraid of anything -- well, not of much, anyway -- and least of all of Carlos being himself, and so Carlos starts calling him and then meeting with him because, well. Because he has this hypothesis.
Maybe in Night Vale, where everything else works a little bit wrong, love works a little wrong too. Maybe in Night Vale, where time occasionally stands on end and gravity pulls slightly less than usual every second Thursday, someone like Cecil, a love like Cecil's, could come without any strings attached at all.
Now that Carlos lives in Night Vale he doesn't have nightmares about it anymore -- or, well, not the same nightmares, anyway. Not the vague, intractable ones he used to have out in the world, the ones he'd always wake up from thick-tongued, filled with a distant sense of dread and maybe… summoning?… until he brushed them away. The new nightmares he has about Night Vale are all very specific, things like the Geiger counters all turning out to be in perfect working order after all and Carlos discovering this fact by way of watching everyone spontaneously begin to melt, Cecil screaming his name. Or there's this really bad one where the City Council… actually it's better if Carlos doesn't think about that, because it's very scary but also because he's a little worried the City Council can hear him.
The worst one, though, the worst nightmare he has now, is this one where he's dreaming. Where Night Vale, all of it, everything, is just this dream he's having -- where he wakes up from a coma and his old life is right there waiting for him and none of it, not the town, not the research, not even Cecil, was real.
Carlos wakes up in a cold sweat. He turns the radio on and gets static. He lays, panting, in the dark, tries to slow his breathing, tries not to be afraid. There's so much worse to fear than this, there are so many horrors in Night Vale more horrifying than the idea that there is no Night Vale, but it doesn't feel that way and he needs to hear Cecil's voice and he doesn't even realize until the sound of ringing breaks through his panic that he's picked up his phone.
"I'm not perfect," Carlos says when Cecil answers, "I'm not, Cecil, this whole town is, -- uh, I mean it's fascinating but it's crazy, okay, it doesn't make sense and you don't, you don't even know me -- I don't even know what I'm saying. I, all the time, I do this, I had this dream and I'm so, I'm freaking out and -- god. God. This is stupid. I'm sorry, it's so, I don't even know why I called you."
"You called me," Cecil says. He sounds flattered, shocked, thrilled, and Carlos wants to laugh or cry or tear all his hair out because what, what, he's nearly crying and it's some insane hour of the morning and he's saying things that make no sense and Cecil is just -- happy. To hear from him.
"I was just," Carlos says, and it comes out fucked up and shattered and pleading -- which is horrifying -- because he doesn't know what he'll do if Night Vale is a dream, he really doesn't. "I missed the show, could you -- or, no, I mean, I can't ask you to -- I just, uh, I wanted to -- Cecil, I --"
And then Cecil makes this little sound, the sound he always makes when Carlos says his name, and puts on his radio voice. He says, "Hang a map of a place you'll never go on your living room wall. Draw new streets. Tear off bodies of water. Wait for news crews to arrive. Welcome to Night Vale," and Carlos thinks he understands something, maybe, about Cecil, the way Cecil knows when and just how to comfort this town. It fills him up, this new knowledge, warming him from deep inside until it's all he can think about, until even the panic is gone.
Cecil does the whole show, start to finish, just for Carlos.
They fuck for the first time and then for the next two days all they do is fuck, they fuck and fuck and fuck, like they somehow crossed out their other physical needs -- sleeping, eating, breathing -- and replaced them all with fucking. They fuck like Carlos has never fucked anybody else before which is to say: openhearted, unhidden, with everything on the table because why, honestly, why not. There is literally every chance that the sun will not rise tomorrow and Carlos has never felt so sure of his place with someone, has never felt so sure of his place, period.
Weird how that second thing is more important than the first one. Weird how the ever-encroaching dangers of this impossible place can't move Carlos to urgency just now, but the certainty of this man in his arms has him asking for things he's never dared to before, laughing bright and unabashed into Cecil's mouth.
They're panting after a go-round -- Carlos doesn't know which, the third, the twenty-fifth, he is so incandescent with happiness that it all seems like one huge unbelievable earth-shattering good time -- and Carlos pushes himself on his elbow and looks, just looks. He can't be sure if it's the reality of the situation or just the contrast of their backdrop but Carlos thinks Cecil is the most human, the realest person he's ever gone to bed with, and he wants to hoard every detail to carry later in shield of all the strangeness he's come to know. Cecil is hook-nosed and pot-bellied, and his hair when he's fucked out doesn't sit gracefully, makes him look decidedly electrocuted, like one of those people who draws lightning strikes. He's got these little marks that look like chicken pox scars all over the place but if Carlos asked he knows he'd get a different answer, that Cecil would say "Radioactive tick attack," or "You know, from my coming-of-age leeching, didn't you have one?" or something, and he'd be kind but a little dismissive, like Carlos was endearingly weird for not knowing.
It makes this laugh bubble in Carlos's chest, one that he knows would come out hiccupy sweet if it reached his mouth, but it doesn't. It doesn't, because the sun today is shining this golden-sepia somehow, and it's slanting through the blinds and making Cecil look carved perfectly into and out of a memory, stopping Carlos's breath. Carlos thinks: yes. Carlos thinks: I would tear the world apart for you. Carlos thinks: I have never known what anything meant, not anything, until right now. It is the most and least afraid he has ever been. He is thrilled and terrified.
He reaches out, touches one hand to Cecil's cheek, and Cecil flushes and goes hot under his touch, throws his hand over his eyes. He makes that noise, that Ughhhh noise Carlos is just learning means he is really, really embarrassed, and hides his face against the pillow. Carlos does laugh then, and it is hiccupy sweet and he doesn't care -- how could he care, when Cecil loves him, just loves him, without expectation.
"You say -- Cecil, you talk about me on the radio like I'm, I'm, uh -- wow, I can't, I don't even know how to talk about it, it's really the most mortifying thing," Carlos says, still laughing. "The other day you said, you really said, that the weather's always about me because I'm the sky, I don't. How can you be doing this right now? How does this," he gestures between their bare bodies even though Cecil's not looking, is still pressing his face to the pillow, "make you do that? When you're so, god, you're so okay with it all, with everyone seeing, the rest of the time?"
There's a long pause and then Cecil moves, just a little, just enough that one of his eyes and the entirety of his heart -- and what a heart, what a heart -- is visible.
"No one's ever looked at me like you do," Cecil says, half-whispered, wondering. So Carlos kisses him, grateful, fever-pitched, lets his awe at learning to love like this slip across their brushing tongues.
When Cecil laughs -- really laughs, not just a polite chuckle or the brand of high pitched almost-whinnying that escapes him when presented with a cute enough cat video -- he does it with his whole body. His shoulders shake and his eyes crinkle up and the sound that escapes him is rooted in the same part of his voice that his radiotalk is, deep and carrying. It makes Carlos slump low in his booth, ducking his head and putting a hand over his eyes; he wonders if Old Woman Josie, a few chairs over, is judging them. He wonders, really, why he'd care if she was.
Then he sneaks a peek out from between his fingers, because, hell. Even laughing at him like this, loud and drawing too much attention to them, and wearing a really shockingly ugly tie, Cecil's smile is something else.
"Oh, Carlos," Cecil says eventually, "my sweet, sweet Carlos. I'm sorry to laugh at you, it's just -- do you know how long people have been trying to prove that Night Vale isn't real? I mean, do you have any idea?"
"Right, but, uh," Carlos says, "I mean, that doesn't really… help… because maybe I imagined that too, and you, and. Everything. I don't know. It's stupid."
"It's the cost of being alive," Cecil corrects. His voice is low and smooth and this is going to be one of those sharply insightful moments, the ones that are scarily poignant, the ones that dazzle Carlos on and off the radio. Carlos can just tell. "We are all, every one of us, trudging through every day clinging with desperation to the idea that we bear some significance. Some days it's impossible to imagine we have any at all, and some days, it feels like we have too much, like we stand alone in the center of an unseen, howling void." He smiles, and this time it's not mocking, just fond and besotted and knowing. He reaches across the table and takes Carlos's hand in his, runs his thumb over the the inside of Carlos's palm, and it tickles but Carlos doesn't pull away. Carlos isn't even sure he'd know how.
"But," Cecil says quietly, "we don't stand alone. Not you, not me, not Night Vale. We have ourselves, and we have each other, and we know where the howling void is -- I mean, we can literally see it most of the time, it's hard to be more sure of its location than that. You, Carlos, my brilliant, beautiful Carlos, are not going to wake up anywhere but here. Probably ever again. For the rest of your life. Night Vale does not like to let go."
He went a little sinister at the end there, Carlos thinks, amused despite himself. It's a thing he's learning, like so many things about Cecil: that sometimes he reaches for earnest and hits threatening and implying doom instead. It's an odd but effective comfort, this like so many imperfections, the way Cecil's holding his hand a little too tightly and the lone trickle of blood down the wall, just a tiny world-wound, an existential paper cut. Nobody's ever been able to prove Night Vale didn't exist and Carlos couldn't dream this if he tried and he's never felt so safely unsafe, unsettled into settlement, which doesn't make any sense at all. Nothing makes sense in Night Vale, especially not the way Cecil is still looking at him, doesn't stop looking at him no matter how honest Carlos lets himself be. Especially not the way Carlos can't stop looking back.
"Oh," Carlos says, and then, sly, "neat," and Cecil smiles, beams, like the sun coming up.