"A scientist is self-reliant," Carlos says and doesn't mean, because it's not true, it's never been true. Just this morning Carlos looked at his coffee mug and thought, That's not supposed to be floating, is it?, a query contingent upon his knowledge both that the mug's lack of contact with the surface of the table indicated a state of floatation and, indeed, that floatation was not a normal state for a mug of coffee. In researching the problem -- which took several hours and felt like a waste at the time, although now Carlos wonders if that had something to do with the current shadow-plague, so perhaps it was a worthwhile pursuit after all -- Carlos used several pre-existing constants, none of which he would have existed for his reference if science was a self-reliant discipline. For the basic fact of gravity alone he has to thank Newton, Aristotle, Galileo. A scientist is self-reliant like a giraffe is striped.
Granted, in Night Vale Carlos has observed the flouting of any number of otherwise proven constants and a striped giraffe that was also about six inches tall, but still. Self-reliance, as a credo, isn't something it's really fair for Carlos to put on science.
Cecil says, "Oh."
Not, "Bullshit." Not, "You just don't want me to come inside." Not, "Let me convince you otherwise," or, "But baby, I thought we were having such a good time," or, "Fine, whatever." He doesn't look at Carlos like Carlos has broken his anything -- heart, spirit, pride, whatever -- like Carlos was supposed to answer differently, like Carlos was supposed to answer at all. He just glances down at the steering wheel and swallows, this little bit of throat-work that Carlos can only see in the dim of the evening because Cecil's dashboard emits a sort of ethereal, throbbing light that Carlos is really planning to think about later, eventually, when there are fewer interesting things going on.
He looks… Cecil looks like he's reigning himself back, not from anger or annoyance, but from hope. It makes Carlos want to kiss him. It makes Carlos remember that he can kiss him. It makes Carlos wonder, for a brief, heart-tilting moment, what he cares about self-reliance, anyway.
Cecil's lips are like his radio voice: soft, warm, enveloping, only very slightly frightening. Carlos has to make himself pull away and even when he does he takes this second he wouldn't, normally -- normally when Carlos kisses he does it hurriedly and feeling like an ass about it -- normally Carlos is getting kissed and not the one doing the kissing -- anyway. He takes this moment he can't exactly explain to himself, hangs in the air so close to Cecil's mouth that he can feel Cecil's breath against his cheek, and talk about something that's not self-reliant at all.
I changed my mind, come inside, your continued ability to fog mirrors is a goddamn inspiration, Carlos does not say. He just pulls back and still Cecil is smiling, smiling for all the world like Carlos said it anyway, like Carlos's kiss and hesitation to pull away was as telling as the words would've been. Maybe, Carlos thinks a little dazedly, maybe it was -- this is Cecil, who finds truth where none exists, who turns over interesting-looking rocks and spots deep meanings where anyone else would just see dirt and maybe some arthropods.
Carlos has one of those moments of searing clarity as he climbs out of Cecil's car, an unasked-for eureka that he can't fight off or deny, just has to stumble his way past in walking to the door. This -- Night Vale, Cecil, all of it -- will undo years of Carlos's hard work, all this careful progress he's made towards being a certain type of person. It's already happening, this date and the way he's brushing by the clouds of citizens-turned-shadow-energy like they're less important than the lingering sensation of those lips on his; he's not worried about going insane, exactly. Sanity is relative in a place like this, where things that appear to exist don't, where one cannot, under any circumstances, dwell upon the dog park.
But everything ends, even in Night Vale, especially in Night Vale. People fit together for certain lengths of time and then, eventually, they fall apart again. Rub any two things together for long enough and they'll change each other's surfaces, and Carlos doesn't want to erode away any part of Cecil, never mind to lose those parts of himself he has painstakingly built up so he wouldn't need any other person to feel whole. Not needing other people to feel whole is something Carlos prides himself on, something Carlos knows is an asset, and this will ruin that, he can feel it, he just knows.
Then again… Carlos catches his bottom lip between his teeth, worries it back and forth, an old habit that feels heavy with new meaning tonight. His pencil, deeply forbidden, flies across his page. He thinks that for now -- with no implications or intentions towards taking them park-ward -- he'll let his sleeping dogs lie.
"Okay but," Carlos hears himself saying, as if from a great distance, "you at least recognize that this is deranged, right? Like -- I -- right, Cecil? The part of your brain that handles your, your -- I don't know, can you call it a survival instinct in a place like Night Vale? I mean, can people who willingly stay here possibly actually have a survival instinct? Or really any instincts? At all?"
"I think I resent that, Carlos," Cecil says, mildly enough. The phone connection crackles and spits, and Carlos wonders, with a fairly distressing lack of concern, if he's on the radio right now. "We have plenty of instincts here in Night Vale. Our primal fear, for example, is off the charts. There have been studies."
"Studies by whom?" Carlos demands, and then abruptly wishes he hadn't.
"Carlos," Cecil says, his voice gone lower, purring, "are you jealous?"
"For god's sake, Cecil, I'm calling to tell you that there is an active volcano currently erupting somewhere in a three mile radius," Carlos snaps. "Erupting! A volcano! And I can't see it or hear it or feel it but the ash cloud, Cecil, the ash cloud is clearly visible, not to mention pretty obviously sentient, and the data all lines up and there are citizens walking towards it like -- " He stops, lowers the phone, raises his voice to be heard by the woman across the street, and cries, "You there! Do not approach the ash cloud! Have you have no concern for your own mortality?" Then he winces, wondering why danger sometimes makes him talk like he was plucked from a period novel.
The woman doesn't seem to notice, though; she just waves a hand at him and continues to proceed towards the thick black ash emerging from a point a few miles to the west. She calls, "My mortality's on vacation this week," over her shoulder, and then, when Carlos makes a strangled, frustrated sound, makes the noise back at him, amended with a "To you too, dear."
"Everyone's going to die," Carlos tells Cecil irritably when he picks up the phone again. "And I think the glow cloud is coming, I mean, I can see something approaching the ash cloud -- Cecil, I swear to god, I swear to god, if this is some kind of -- of cloud mating ritual -- "
"You're jealous," Cecil crows, because, great, apparently he's still on this. "Of the other scientists. You totally are! Oh my god, Carlos, that is so sweet."
"I am not jealous," Carlos says with as much patience as he can muster, which, admittedly, is not a lot. Then he realizes he's said that, as opposed to what he actually meant to say, which, embarrassed, he is forced to add: "Stop focusing on unimportant things! By my calculations Night Vale is going to become Pompeii in approximately six hours!"
"Listeners," Cecil says, confirming, goddamn it, that Carlos is on the radio, "we turn to you to settle this argument. Please call in if you think Carlos is totally jealous of the other scientists who have studied our little town. If you do not think Carlos is jealous, please refrain from calling, as the vague yet menacing government agencies monitoring this town frown on the public airing of clearly compromised judgment."
"Listeners," Carlos yells, tugging a hand through his hair in frustration, "this is not important, take shelter at once, the end is nigh!!!" Then, to his own deep shame, he finds himself adding, "And you should absolutely call in if you want to acknowledge that I'm not jealous because I'm not, and it's a violation of journalistic ethics to try to skew poll data that way, Cecil."
"It really is remarkable, listeners," Cecil tells his radio audience as the glow cloud reaches the ash cloud and starts -- flickering? -- at it. "I had no idea my dear, sweet Carlos had such a possessive side. The last time I heard him this agitated, it was in the aftermath of discovering what horrors lurk within the Night Vale ice cream truck, an experience to which I know we can all relate. Truly, a new relationship is like nothing so much as journey into unexplored and distantly treacherous territory, mapless but traveling boldly ahead into the brush."
"The-glow-cloud-is-eating-the-ash-cloud-Cecil," Carlos says, one long, shrieking breath, because it is the most powerless he has ever felt, watching one massive and impossible entity savagely consuming another. Through some means Carlos cannot identify he can tell that the ash cloud is writhing in pain, and that sits as a lead weight in Carlos's chest, uncomfortable like splinters wedged beneath each fingernail. But somehow -- and Carlos is really very unsure how -- he finds himself adding, "And I'm not possessive. I was just surprised, is all. You just surprised me."
"Well," Cecil says. "Just in case: I promise that you that you are the only scientist to whose studies this reporter is interested in contributing."
It's the literal end of the world; Carlos is staring at something so cataclysmic that he can no longer fit the entire image in his brain, is, when he tries to summarize for himself what he's seeing, drawing horrified blanks punctuated with the muted sensation of exclamation marks. But what he's thinking -- crazily -- is that Cecil's voice is too intimate for radio. They've only been out a handful of times and never seen each other naked and that was still the dirtiest thing that's ever happened to Carlos, what Cecil said and how he said it and how many people must have heard it... and, god, how weirdly all-over-good Carlos feels to consider that, all those listeners ringing the edges of their lives.
How it is he can be dwelling on this when the sky is... shredding, that's probably the word for it…. Carlos couldn't say, but he's running around trying to herd citizens away from the danger they're walking towards like lemmings, and he's smiling. He's smiling and holding the phone to his ear just to listen to Cecil breathing -- maybe it's the weather or something, he's not usually quiet for this long on-air -- and seriously, seriously, Carlos wants to kiss Cecil more than he wants to piss his pants in terror right now. He wants to kiss Cecil more than he wants to piss his pants in terror, despite being fully aware he's is one of very few circumstances where that's the wrong choice.
"D-dear god," Cecil says, sounding shaken, after a moment. "Listeners, I have -- I have looked out of the window and I regret to inform you that there seems to be a slight apocalypse going on outside. I know that we all had this penciled in for next Tuesday but it seems to be ahead of -- oh dear. Is the glow cloud throwing javelins?"
"This is what I've been saying," Carlos says. He should sound irritated but instead it comes out cheerful, which, Christ, maybe he was a little jealous. "I thought I'd come by the studio, just in case this is actually the end. Be nice to say a goodbye before death consumes us, you know."
"Oh, Carlos," Cecil says, honey-milk-sugar soft, and then, sharper: "Wait. Won't that leave you coming towards the danger?"
Carlos is already running. "Eh," he says, "I've lived here willingly for more than a year. Guess my survival instinct's already done for."
It isn't -- it's not like Cecil is Carlos's first successful relationship or anything. It's not like Cecil is the first person Carlos has ever loved. He's got a long history, a stupid history, of mistakes and missteps, people he fell into bed with because they were convenient or because they just seemed to like him so much -- he felt like he owed it to them -- whatever. It's a pockmarked list that he wishes he could edit, but there have been bright spots, too, people he wouldn't erase, people he thought at one point or another were forever.
He doesn't know if he's supposed to tell Cecil or not. Like, there's this lamp in Carlos's cramped little apartment, one that sits on the side-table next to the couch close to the television, that was Michele's, and sometimes Cecil turns on that lamp and Carlos thinks, fuck. Michele had wide hips and dexterous fingers and used to let him rest his head between her breasts and listen to her heartbeat; she worked at a frozen yogurt stand and laughed at his jokes and didn't take shit anyone. Sometimes even now he thinks of how she'd strip off her shirt after getting off a shift, throw it into the laundry all spun-sugar-sweet, and if he'd wanted kids or she hadn't he might not be here, with Cecil, in Night Vale. He's not even sure if people in Night Vale know what frozen yogurt is or how to be sure if that's his responsibility: to bring it to them, to unpack this piece of himself for Cecil, whose fingers brush the lamp that used to be Michele's, who makes Carlos wonder where the lines are.
Or, there's -- and it's not that it matters, exactly, it's just, there's this thing Carlos doesn't like to do in bed, this one thing, it's fine. It's not even a big thing and Cecil doesn't mind at all when it comes up a few weeks after they start fucking; Carlos squirms, says, "I don't, uh, that's not, I don't like to do that, sorry," and Cecil says, "Okay," and that's it, there's no problem. Except that Carlos feels it itch at him just like Cecil touching the lamp, wants to say, That's because of Wyatt, this guy, Wyatt, I used to date. He used to love to do that but then when things went wrong with us it got all -- not like that, Cecil, it wasn't anything terrible, god. We just, you know, we would fight all the time, we wanted different things, we were very different people and he got judgmental when he was hurting, that's the truth. And now I'm, I don't know, I'd like to do it again but I just remember him, the way he stopped liking it and this face he used to make, and I don't... I don't know how to move past it, is all.
It's -- topography, Carlos thinks, of a person, of two people, it's so complicated, it's so much easier to just go it by yourself. He doesn't want to hurt Cecil but he doesn't want to keep any part of himself from Cecil, either, and it scares him that that's true, and it scares him to know it's what Cecil wants. Because that's the real first with Cecil, the love-entire as opposed to the love-everything-except-what's-inconvenient, and Carlos doesn't want to fuck it up with a desperation he's never fully experienced until now.
"You've dated people other than me, right," Carlos says one night. His head is in Cecil's lap and Cecil's hands, both of them, are running through his hair. The television's on, but it's just been playing haunted-seeming static since Mythbusters ended, so neither one of them is really watching. It's one of those moments that Carlos wishes he did what Cecil did, because his voice comes out sounding scared and uncertain instead of casual like he was trying for, and he bets Cecil knows how to avoid that. He bets Cecil did training and everything, on how to keep his voice even when it wants to be anything but.
Carlos realizes that he's not sure he'll be able to stand Cecil's answer, whatever it is. If Carlos is the first it, the guilt, will just kill him. If he's not the first -- and this Carlos thinks with the thrill of the unfamiliar -- he may kill someone else. He wishes he hadn't asked.
Cecil's hands slow their path in Carlos's hair, his smooth one-two-one-two stuttering until his right palm is cupping the crown of Carlos's skull, holding him still. Most of the time Cecil touches Carlos like Carlos is something fragile and delicate, a Faberge egg, a regular egg -- it drives Carlos a little crazy, actually, he keeps trying to figure out how to tell Cecil he can stop -- but this isn't that kind of touch. This is the kind of touch with enough weight behind it that Carlos can tell it means Cecil doesn't want him to turn his head, doesn't want Carlos to see his face.
Carlos's entire life can be summed up as a battle between nerves and curiosity -- curiosity is the stronger fighter, but nerves are more willing to play dirty. His voice cracks, just a little, when he says, "Cecil?"
"Uggggh," Cecil says, the low, embarrassed sound that's always accompanied by a flush to his cheeks, "do we have to talk about this?" and Carlos is grinning even as he shoves Cecil's hand off his head, rolls over. Cecil groans again, tips his head back against the couch, and throws his arm over his eyes, his glasses, like he's some kind of Victorian maiden; Carlos is glad he asked after all. He's glad he gets to see this, this hilarious preamble to whatever horrible thing Cecil's about to tell him -- because Cecil will tell him and it will be horrible -- Cecil always tells him and it's always horrible -- or, at least, it always has been before.
But before, Carlos thinks, they've been talking about things that matter less, or more, or -- differently, anyway. The details of a Night Vale childhood, of what Cecil's school years were like, of holiday traditions in a place where the mistletoe is not only dangerous when ingested but actively homicidal on its own: on these topics Cecil has flushed and Carlos has grinned and then there has been explanation, and it has been bloodcurdling. But it occurs to Carlos to wonder, as he sits here in this darkened room with the haunted-static playing on the television, with Michele's lamp on the side-table and Devin's steak knives in the drawer and Cecil's thigh under his neck, whether romance doesn't always curdle the blood, just a little. Whether he, perhaps, is not giving Cecil enough credit.
"Cecil," Carlos says again, and when Cecil shakes his head Carlos laughs, pushes himself up on an elbow, pries Cecil's arm up and away from his face. He takes Cecil's chin in his hand and says it once more, "Cecil," and then, "Come on, how bad can it even be?" and then, recklessly, wildly, "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."
There is a moment where Carlos thinks that Cecil is going to refuse him -- Cecil, who has never refused Carlos anything -- but then something cracks open in Cecil's expression, just a little, just enough. He says, "It's so awful, Carlos. I mean, of course not all of it's awful, some of them were quite lovely -- not as lovely as you but it would hardly be fair to compare, what with how even Old Woman Josie agrees you've ruined the curve for the rest of the class -- but. Well. I was hoping you wouldn't ask. I thought to myself, 'Now, Cecil, don't worry so much, maybe where he comes from they don't ask these sorts of questions.'"
"What," Carlos says, amused despite himself, his own nerves long forgotten, "you thought that because I never shared a body with a dispossessed spirit as a kid I wouldn't ever think to ask if you had exes?"
"Well you have to admit that it is very odd," Cecil says, "I mean, to go through an entire childhood and never do it once."
"You're stalling," Carlos says.
Cecil says, "Steve Carlsburg."
He says it with all his usual loathing and menace, which has Carlos actually looking over his shoulder for the man before he realizes, voice cracking again in surprise and maybe a little bit of laughter: "Steve Carlsburg?"
"Uggggggh." This time Cecil buries his entire face in the couch, rounds his shoulders up towards his ears so as he's closed off from Carlos as someone can be while the person they're avoiding is basically in their lap. It leaves one of his shoulder blades sticking out at an odd angle, pressing lightly against Carlos's cheek; the thin cotton of Cecil's undershirt is very slightly sweaty, and it sticks just a little when Carlos leans away, like it's the sort of fabric that believe in clinging, but not so much as to be considered creepy.
You're anthropomorphizing shirts, Carlos, Carlos thinks, and, shaking his head, revisits the idea of topography. The thought should be more unsettling this time, since if nothing else this moment is concrete proof that Cecil is changing Carlos's personal landscape, but, of course, no. This time it's a fond consideration; this time there's no fear in it; this time he's pulling Cecil up out of the couch by his shoulders and kissing light apologies along his jawline, his eyelids. This time he's thinking that he would scale mountains for this ridiculous man who wears his entire heart on his sleeve -- because Carlos should have guessed, really, that Steve Carlsburg was an ex -- and that there's not much difference, willingness-wise, between scaling mountains and building them. Cecil is so, just, inscrutable sometimes, will go into terrifyingly astute monologues at the literal drop of someone's hat, and Carlos doesn't understand how he can be that guy and this one too, whose mortification makes his skin sing hot under Carlos's hands, who mutters something unintelligible against Carlos's neck.
"Hmm?" Carlos says, even though he's thinking I love you, I love you, thinking that he understands, finally, the appeal people in Night Vale find in obsessively chanting their innermost thoughts.
Cecil sighs, a gusting breath against the Carlos's clavicle, and leans away enough to be intelligible. "He wasn't so bad, when we were together. Steve, I mean. Or, maybe he was, I don't know. But it's such an awful reflection on my taste -- I really do pride myself, you know, on being a good judge of character -- and having that kind of stain on my record, I don't even like to think of it. And the story is just, it's really terrible. I mean, you think 'neat' was embarrassing?"
"You think 'neat' was embarrassing," Carlos says. "I've never been able to work out what that word even means to you, Cecil."
Cecil just looks at him, uncertain, uneven, and so Carlos finds himself telling him -- about Michele's lamp on the table and Devin's steak knives in the drawer, about the things Wyatt stopped liking to do in bed. About the way Avi used to call and hang up, call and hang up, until Carlos agreed to come over; about Yasmine and the coworker he caught her with; about Derrick and how he'd laughed, snub-nosed and hard-mouthed, and told everyone about how Carlos had confessed love to him by the bleachers after fourth period gym. It should turn his stomach but instead Carlos finds himself singing like a canary, words tumbling over themselves in their haste to escape him, and Cecil frowns in the right places and makes a couple of credible-sounding threats, makes Carlos feel glad to be known.
When Cecil explains about Steve Carlsburg, it is bloodcurdling, mortifying, and Cecil laughs at himself but Carlos refuses to laugh, grows hot under the collar to think of anyone talking to Cecil that way. Cecil tells Carlos about Terrence and Earl and ZigZig and the sentient haze that didn't have a name, just a series of powerful emotions, and somehow they find themselves on the floor having this messy, confessional sex, after. Carlos traces Cecil's scars with his tongue, even the strange one that he worries with his fingers sometimes late at night, and Cecil touches him like he is real and whole and anything but fragile.
They grind together and apart, together and apart, and Carlos can feel his edges eroding away; he reminds himself that this is how the world was made, after all. That this is how the world is remaking itself, today and every day, just outside the window of this little apartment where someday -- no matter what happens -- everything will remind him of Cecil.
Carlos grew up in Wisconsin, so it's not like he's any stranger to the cold. It's not the temperature of the desert nights that gets to him, it's the drop, the way he leaves his lab at three in the afternoon sweating and is shivering in the darkness by eight. Say what you will about Wisconsin (and Carlos could say a lot, wouldn't go back for all the grant money in the world), but you know where you stand, at least. If you wake up there thinking you have, as you always feared, managed to find yourself smack in the middle of a spontaneous glacial event, things are more or less going to feel that way all day. You put on a couple of extra layers and get on with your life.
It's one of those lessons about Night Vale Carlos can't seem to learn, that layering, here, works the other way. He's not sure why it is that he can remember to file a form on the last Friday of every month that states his interest in retaining use of his middle name, but not to bring a sweatshirt along when he goes out onto the Sand Wastes to do some star-charting; he guesses some things defy explanation. Life in Night Vale has definitely managed to teach him that.
And, too, Night Vale's taught him not to jump at the arm that wraps, unannounced, around his waist -- even though it should have taught him the opposite, Carlos knows, he knows. But knowing doesn't stop him leaning back into the familiar touch, enough that when Cecil says, "You're exactly where you said you'd be," in a tone that indicates that's something he finds staggeringly admirable, it's right up against Carlos's ear.
"Hey, Cecil," Carlos says -- sighs, because it's not what he wants to say. He wants to say, I still can't get used to the temperature or the fact that I have a boyfriend who shows up for me. He wants to say, I wish I could chart the way I feel about you, the altitude and azimuth of my affections, so I wouldn't have to figure out how to explain it.
But Cecil does that little stutter-sigh, the noise that still escapes him sometimes in the aftermath of hearing his name on Carlos's tongue, and wraps his other arm across Carlos's chest. It makes Carlos's thoughts go all fractured and punchy, so what he does say is, "Draco isn't," and then, "In the place it said it would be, I mean," and then, "The constellation Draco," and then, "Constellations don't talk." Intellectually, it is not his finest showing.
"That's true," Cecil says. His sharp chin digs into Carlos's shoulder when he nods. "There was a vote; sixty percent of the town agreed that the occasional muttered comment did not count as talking, especially as some of them -- I'm looking at you, Orion -- have the tendency to bully."
"That is," Carlos says, blinking, grinning, flushing, Cecil's hand is sliding lower and the stars are out of alignment, "that is nonsense. That is raw nonsense."
"Bullying is always nonsensical, in my opinion." Cecil's hand slips into Carlos's pocket instead of… elsewhere… and Carlos can't decide if he's happy or sad about that development. Happy, because sometimes Cecil is such a gentleman that Carlos doesn't know what to do with himself -- because Carlos knows that if he asked, Cecil would say he was here to help Carlos with his work and would really, honestly mean it. Sad, for the obvious reasons.
A breeze brushes by, upsetting Carlos's charts and ruffling his hair, pushing a tumbleweed into their path. It bares its teeth at them, but not viciously, more of a friendly-hello sort of teeth-baring given what Carlos knows of the tumbleweeds around here -- still, there was a time, not even so long ago, that Carlos would have panicked to see its long fangs and yellowed eyes. There was a time not so long ago that Carlos would have panicked over any number of things, and in truth today has been kind of not great, anxiety-wise. Today has found Carlos chasing after fragments of thoughts and twitching violently at small sounds and, for fifteen uncomfortable minutes before he decided his best bet was to get away from people for a while, sitting on the toilet in the radio station men's room with his head between his knees for no particular reason at all.
It's a matter of some scientific interest to Carlos that Khoshekh apparently purrs in response to panic attacks being held very tenuously at bay -- or, well, it might not have been purring, that noise he emitted like somebody pulling a zipper. It was comforting like a purr, anyway. At least until Carlos thought about it too hard.
The point is -- Carlos doesn't know what the point is. The point is that today was a bad day, a pointlessly, achingly bad day, the kind of bad day he always tries to tell himself he'll grow out of eventually. It was the kind of bad day where he showed up at Cecil's office just to cancel their lunch plans with red-rimmed eyes and probably that one embarrassing muscle twitching in his jaw, and Cecil was… fine with that. Cecil just offered to meet him out in the Sand Wastes after his show, and so Carlos drove out to the Sand Wastes, finally got around to checking in on a few experiments and setting up a couple of others, and now he's charting stars and not in the bad place anymore. He doesn't know how Cecil knew that would work. He doesn't know if Cecil knew that would work. He's surprised at how okay he is with not knowing.
Cecil doesn't have days like this; Carlos would be able to tell. But his cracks show up in other ways, little surface fissures that radiate out from what Carlos knows have to be monstrous fault lines, because the truth is, Night Vale is terrible. It is fascinating and it is unprecedented and it is impossible and it is even sometimes beautiful, beloved -- but above all else, it is terrible. Blood falls from the sky and people die like elk being culled from an overgrown herd, dropping so quickly and so routinely that often the only souls to notice are the ones that were standing just beside them. Children go out and never come home. There are government-mandated periods of shattering anguish. To have been born here, raised here, to have known as reality this life and only this life; Cecil, like the town itself, must be a series of invisible earthquakes. Cecil, like all the residents of Night Vale, must contain multitudes in things no one should have to see.
Yet here they stand: Carlos, who is sometimes overwhelmed by nothing at all, and Cecil, who Carlos hears occasionally flirting with a dangerous brand of suicidal nihilism on the radio. Here they stand, having bared in one way or another their unexpected teeth, and they are… fine with that. Fine with that, just like Carlos is with knowing that someday, probably soon, he is going to be caught sighing, "Hey, Cecil," on the radio. Fine with that, just like Cecil seems to be with Carlos all but burrowing into him, with the knowledge that the steady pace of Carlos's heartbeat beneath his hand is, some days, hard-won.
"It's really very dangerous," Cecil says after a long time, his voice carrying just a hint of honest reproach, "to simply trust that I am me without turning around to look. I mean, Carlos. What if I were a specter who had stolen my body and voice? What if I were a figment of your imagination? What if I were," and here, Carlos feels him shudder, "my double?"
"You're not," Carlos says with certainty.
Ever stubborn, Cecil says, "I could be."
So Carlos turns around, kisses Cecil like he did one night an age, a lifetime ago: a quick press of lips and then a hanging hesitation, after. "I know you," Carlos says, resting his head against Cecil's forehead, and counts Cecil's slow breaths.
He feels like he's won something -- an argument, but maybe one he was having with himself -- when Cecil smiles, small and secret, and says, "Yes. Yes. All right."
They've been talking about it for weeks, and one morning they shove the necessary permits under the City Council's door and just go, throw caution to the winds and themselves into the car and take Route 800 out of town. Carlos hasn't crossed over The Accused Threshold (the title he discovered for the highway exit in his early research, the one that USPS and all the major delivery companies came together to create) since he first rolled into Night Vale; he hasn't missed the all-over itching it sets off, which, he notes, is considerably more intense now that it was the first time. He can't imagine Cecil enjoys it, either, although it might not be itching for Cecil, given that he starts screaming the moment they cross over and doesn't stop for a full sixty seconds, after which he assures Carlos he is perfectly fine.
"It was like that when I left for college, too," he says dismissively, frowning at the radio and twisting the dial a few times before huffing and flicking it off. "The pleasure of widening one's horizons is always accompanied by the sharp and near-crushing agony of leaving one's old perspectives behind."
"Yeah, sure," Carlos says, "but I don't think that that's actually supposed to be, uh, literal, Cecil."
"Perfect, beautiful Carlos," Cecil says, shaking his head fondly. Carlos notes with some amusement that this has, over time, become something Cecil says when he means, Oh my dear, naive Carlos, what would you do without me; Carlos prefers it that way, honestly. Cecil's endearing little egotistical streak aside, Carlos never wanted to be an ideal, never once felt he deserved Cecil's praise when Cecil meant it at face value -- enjoyed it, sure, but didn't believe it was merited. Now that they've had screaming fights about the nature of existence at three in the morning and cleaned out the inside of Cecil's horrifically violent garbage disposal together, now that Cecil's seen Carlos in the throes of a stomach flu and Carlos has caught Cecil in his arms after a trip to the library, it's all a lot more grounded.
There's some erosion for you, Carlos thinks. He grins, and beats his thumb against the steering wheel. He takes the high road and doesn't point out that Cecil's still stiff in the aftermath of pain, just rubs the back of Cecil's neck, asks him to describe the sensation for a paper Carlos is thinking of writing.
It's nothing like any road trip Carlos has taken before, because of course it's not. They head east and Cecil is terrified of the Shell logo, insists that the rules of Punch Buggy involve blood sacrifice, spends about twelve miles methodically throwing jelly beans out the window for reasons he insists are self-evident. He makes them pull over at an exit that advertises a new Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum and, after Carlos has paid an exorbitant sum for tickets, walks them through it saying things like, "Well, I never," and "I certainly do not believe that, because I know it -- Carlos, honestly, how do these people make any money?"
"Well," Carlos says, tone heavy with exaggerated thought, "if I had to guess, I'd say it's through things like people's boyfriends forcing them to pull off the road and come inside." Cecil narrows his eyes, won't talk to Carlos until Carlos plies him with Dippin Dots.
The drive takes them the better part of a day, which is… weird, because it shouldn't. Carlos set up a secondary odometer before they left, one he built from scratch from parts he got in Night Vale; it and the one that came with the car each offer radically different milage counts, both of which look incorrect to Carlos. Cecil is blithely unconcerned about this and Carlos isn't bothered, exactly, just interested and maybe very slightly unnerved. He wonders if becoming a Night Vale resident has just instilled in him some sort of permanent strangeness, a thought that's furthered when they stop at a motel and the white guy behind the counter stares at them openly for ten seconds before grunting and giving them their key. Cecil doesn't pay that any attention at all, and Carlos has no way to know if they appear in some way otherworldly or if it's just homophobia, racism, this man proving himself to be a depressingly predictable asshole in the situation of being asked by two brown-skinned men for a single room with a queen bed.
When Cecil exclaims like he has never seen one before over the frankly shitty Jacuzzi in the room, Carlos decides he doesn't much care either way, lets Cecil fuck him in it. He does make sure to be louder than he usually would and wonders in the hazy aftermath where along the way he learned to touch, to be touched, in complete divorce from self-consciousness; then Cecil presses a kiss to the side of his neck and Carlos lets go of wondering entirely.
They wake well before sunrise, eat a quick diner breakfast -- "What do you mean you've never heard of recaf coffee?" Cecil asks the waitress, as Carlos hides a smile behind his menu -- and hit the road again. It's barely an hour's drive before Carlos is parking the car and rounding to Cecil's side, opening Cecil's door, prying Cecil's white-knuckled hands from the dashboard.
"I didn't believe you," Cecil says. He's not looking at Carlos, is instead keeping his eyes trained on the looming shapes in front of him, clearly identifiable even in the pre-dawn dim.
Carlos kisses his knuckles. "I know you didn't. I know."
"My whole life, I was so sure," Cecil says, nearly whispering, "but look, Carlos. Look. Mountains."
This trip was -- not a vindictive idea, exactly. Carlos isn't a vindictive person, and he'd have no cause to be with Cecil anyway; there's no vendetta between them, no grudges, just a lot of love and a little exasperation and one longstanding argument about the non-municipally approved books Carlos keeps hidden around their apartment, another about Cecil's little nicotine problem. Carlos would give himself over to Whispering Forest before he'd willingly hurt Cecil, so vindictive is the wrong word for what they're doing here, at the tail end of the Rockies.
Still, it's not like Carlos brought him here without motive.
The truth is, Carlos thinks some days about the person he was two, five, ten years ago, about the awkward child he made, the uncomfortable teenager, the unhappy man he was so sure for so long that he'd always be. And he's not sorry about it, to have turned out differently -- it's searing gratitude every day, and he doesn't question or doubt it, never lays awake at night playing should-haves or what-ifs. Not everyone is lucky enough to find home through a distant occult draw, to discover their calling within layers of chilling impossibilities, to hear their future for the first time in sonorous tones over the radio. Not everyone gets to have the riches that Carlos does: a close-knit community, a professional passion, a man who loves and lets himself be loved with all the force of a hurricane. Carlos knows. He would never dare take it for granted.
But the fact remains that Carlos has had to shift his worldview in ways he never expected -- in ways he didn't know a worldview even could shift -- has crossed out and redrawn so many lines on his personal map of reality that sometimes his breath catches in his chest to realize he doesn't remember what normal even looked like anymore. So… so maybe he wanted Cecil to have a taste, for once. So maybe he wanted to watch Cecil do, just this time, what Carlos has been doing all along: making room for the unanticipated around every corner.
He's not expecting the look on Cecil's face to be familiar, obvious, one Carlos has catalogued and photographed and come, one way or another, to rely upon. He's not expecting the wonder on Cecil's face, the way he clutches at Carlos's shirt as he climbs out of the car like he's gone loose with amazement, to be a softer echo of the way he always looks at Carlos. It is, Carlos realizes in a moment of dizzying joy, an oversight on his part -- he thinks of Cecil's past lovers, of his darker moments on the radio, of all the terrors of Night Vale. He thinks of Cecil's teasing excitement at the way Carlos still sometimes gets jealous, of the way Cecil will still sometimes freeze up in embarrassment if he feels he's said the wrong thing, of the way they talk to, about, each other on Cecil's show.
Carlos thinks of Cecil's quiet little, "Oh," the night of their first date -- it was a thousand years ago, it was yesterday -- and finally, finally gets it: he's never been the only one finding surprise behind every corner. He's never been the only one redrawing all his lines.
So he takes Cecil's hand, and, because it's high time he did, he tells the truth.
"A scientist is adaptable," Carlos says. "That's the first thing a scientist is."
Cecil's smile is a seismic event. The sun rises over the mountains.