Gas mask regulations had been relaxed somewhat, now that the war with the miniature people from the city under Lane 5 of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex was underway. It wasn't that there was no danger of poison gas attacks, but the gas in question was heavier than air (except between noon and three on alternate Wednesdays, of course) and thus posed a danger mainly to the soles of people's shoes.
Carlos was therefore able to take his mask off when he and Cecil met for something that was either their fourth date or just getting coffee as boyfriends. They hadn't had sex or discussed their relationship status yet, and Carlos suspected that there were, as always, hidden intricacies that escaped him. It was reassuring, for a highly localized value of 'reassuring', to know that the hidden intricacies in this case probably involved forms to be filed with the City Council or terrifying-yet-taken-for-granted Night Vale mating customs, and not just Carlos's more usual failure to Know How Human Relationships Work.
Here in Night Vale, when Carlos confessed his ignorance, Cecil would explain it to him, or the Sheriff's Secret Police would leave him a sternly worded notice of the expected future behavior from which he could discern their expectations. In a pinch, Carlos could even consult the public library's extensive collection of pamphlets, fliers, and official municipal notices, especially since it was now possible to go there on purpose.
Carlos had gained such a reputation for needing to have things everyone knew explained to him in small words that the staff at Big Rico's had taken to writing instructions on the paper plate when he came in for his mandatory slice (which was helpful, actually, since the ban on wheat and wheat by-products). Old Woman Josie had spent half an hour last week trying to explain to Carlos what was so great about Frasier, something Carlos had definitely never understood. He still didn't, really, since he doubted anyone outside of Night Vale watched it for the ongoing saga of the mute, invisible dragon to whom no one ever referred directly--but then again for all he knew they did.
Just now, Carlos was too distracted to worry about the exact date status of this coffee with Cecil. As soon as he had his gas mask off he held his iced coffee to his forehead with one hand and pinched the bridge of his nose with the other.
"Oh, Carlos, if you wanted a drink for direct skin absorption the poblano green tea gel is much more--"
Carlos lowered the cup from his forehead with a smile, meeting Cecil's gaze with no masks in the way for the first time in a couple of days, and Cecil's beautiful voice faltered into silence. Cecil's expression congealed into one Carlos had felt on a regular basis from the other side: it was the look of a man confronting a spectacle his brain could not grasp, searching for words and knowing that he must settle for linguistic approximations which could never convey the bewildering impossibility of what was unfolding before him.
"Carlos," Cecil said a little breathlessly. "You look... tired. Still ravishingly beautiful, my dear Carlos, but not... not your best."
Carlos felt his smile quirk. He pinched the bridge of his nose again, forcing his throbbing headache back by direct pressure on the nerves. "It's all right, Cecil. There's been this noise in my apartment the last few nights and I haven't been able to sleep. I think I'm getting used to it, but it, uh, activates my pain receptors."
On their second date, Cecil had asked what he clearly thought was a standard question about the existence or nonexistence of Carlos's pain receptors. When Carlos, inevitably, didn't understand, Cecil explained that this was important information to have in advance of Any Intimate Activities, Including Vigorous Kissing, as the partners of people without had to keep an eye out for any damage they might accidentally inflict without it being felt. Cecil had none. He'd been startled to learn Carlos did have them and was comfortable just saying so; he was very curious about the phenomenon of pain, which was apparently rarely discussed in Night Vale. Cecil had looked like he was breaking a medium-serious taboo when he asked Carlos whether he'd ever stubbed his toe and what it felt like.
This time, though, Cecil didn't get all earnestly curious about Carlos's headache. Instead he said, with every evidence of genuine horror, "Carlos, have you been moaning?"
Carlos felt his face heat. "It was actually more, uh, crying, around three in the morning when I realized I wasn't going to be able to sleep at all."
Cecil waved that away impatiently. "No, no, that wouldn't help. Carlos, the official town moan. Didn't you go to your mandatory citizenship class? I know they teach it there, it's on the survival curriculum."
"Uh," Carlos said.
He'd been informed that he was registered for the mandatory citizenship classes four or five times by the Sheriff's Secret Police--he assumed that was who wrote it on the calendar in his kitchen, anyway. He honestly meant to go each time it showed up on his calendar, but on the two occasions when some other crisis hadn't come up, he'd once just forgotten and once been entirely unable to find the room listed. Carlos had spent three days wandering the basements and sub-basements of City Hall, eaten his own shoes and several dubious forms of fungus he found growing in the lower levels, hallucinated extensively, taken an involuntary trip to the library and woke up back in the sub-basement next to a stack of Fleetwood Mac LPs, and finally found his way to the surface just in time to be informed that he'd completed the alternate requirements for citizenship and the actual class would not be required.
"No," Carlos said, feeling oddly embarrassed, as though he'd been caught out in shoddy lab work. "I missed it."
"But the dissonance storms have been terrible this week," Cecil said, and his nimble radio voice conveyed the impression that he was both wringing his hands and clutching his hair while his actual hands were, in fact, tapping frantically at his phone. "And tonight's will be even worse--haven't you been listening to the weather forecasts? I know there have been warnings for days about the dissonance storms."
"Oh," Carlos said, because he never heard anything but quirky, unfamiliar songs during Cecil's weather reports. He'd gotten the clear impression from Cecil that Cecil thought meaningful information was being conveyed, and hadn't yet ventured to ask how. "I... guess I didn't realize what that meant. We didn't have dissonance storms in California."
"No?" Cecil said, and then, with a slyly amused look, "I suppose the mountains blocked them?"
"Probably," Carlos agreed, because he was in no shape to debate Cecil about mountains. Carlos drank a little of his coffee and then held it to his forehead again.
"Oh, but your pain receptors!" Cecil exclaimed, losing that bit of humor. "I wonder if I can get them to deactivate? The standard moan probably wouldn't work now, but maybe...."
Cecil set his phone down and leaned across the table, pressing his palms to Carlos's forehead. For a fleeting instant Carlos expected him to simply command, Be healed! and was genuinely curious to know if it would work, but then Cecil started moaning.
Cecil's rich, warm, expressive voice was easily Carlos's favorite sound in all of Night Vale; literally nothing could be further from the mind-shattering awfulness of the noise of the dissonance storms. But the rhythmic, droning rise and fall of Cecil's voice somehow recalled the wave patterns Carlos had begun to discern in the horrific noise of the storm, shortly before it reduced him to whimpering tears. He could feel Cecil's moans resonating in the bones of his skull, just as he'd felt the sound of the storm insinuating itself hideously through his skin, but this was... well. This was Cecil emitting waves of energy that literally penetrated Carlos's body. Carlos felt blood rushing to his face--and also other, more sensitive areas--before he realized that the pain was gone.
"Uh," Carlos said hesitantly, and Cecil stopped at once.
The other occupants of the coffee shop burst into spontaneous applause. Cecil grinned and essayed a couple of bows before he leaned back in his seat again.
"Thanks," Carlos said faintly, as he considered pressing his iced coffee to his crotch. "That did the trick."
"Good," Cecil said decisively. "I'll come by tonight to help you with the moaning. It's probably best if I spend the night, it might take hours for you to get the hang of it, and you obviously shouldn't be trying to handle it alone."
Carlos stared across the little cafe table, searching Cecil's face for any sign that he knew what he'd just said.
Cecil was frowning a little anxiously. "I hope I can teach you; they have special instructors at the citizenship classes. But of course it's one of those things we're all supposed to be able to teach, isn't it? Instinctively? I suppose my mother must have taught me how. I don't remember ever not knowing."
No, Carlos concluded. No idea.
Carlos had been thinking for weeks now that Cecil's Good night, Night Vale. Good night, sounded more suggestive than he'd first noticed it being. Tonight it sounded downright promising, with a hint of the same resonance that had forced Carlos to drink his iced coffee very, very slowly in order to be decent by the time he stood up.
Carlos was wearing his oldest, softest lab coat over sweatpants and a faded UCLA t-shirt--all of which he'd laundered after their coffee date-or-whatever, to get rid of the funk of the last few nights' misery. He wouldn't have changed into his pajamas before Cecil's arrival except that Cecil had--with apologies to the rest of his listeners and station management--told Carlos to change about ten minutes into his show. Carlos was so tired that he'd been wanting nothing all day but to put his pajamas on anyway, so it had seemed perfectly logical to let Cecil tell him to do it.
Barely a minute had passed after Cecil's last Good night on the radio--the program on the soothing sounds of continuous machine gun fire (sponsored, of course, by the Night Vale Chapter of the NRA with their new motto: 'Guns don't kill people, they just help them sleep forever') hadn't even started yet--when there was a knock on his door. Carlos spent an instant being surprised, and then reminded himself that this was the way time worked, or didn't work, in Night Vale. Then he went to the door to let Cecil in.
Cecil was standing on his doorstep, already wearing pajamas. They were very traditional-looking pajamas, a flannel-ish looking suit, although with more trailing ribbons than Carlos had ever seen on pajamas before. The flannel had a pattern of little ducks. Or at least, they looked like ducks at first glance. Carlos looked closer and then made an executive decision to forget what he'd seen and not look closer ever again. Sometimes scientific inquiry had to take a backseat to being able to sleep in the same bed with one's almost-certainly-boyfriend's pajamas.
Cecil had a small overnight bag in one hand and an extremely battered stuffed... thing... in the other. Carlos elected not to look too closely at that, either.
"Straight to bed, Carlos," Cecil said, in the same delightfully stern voice that had made Carlos accept wardrobe instructions from the radio. "The dissonance storm is already over Desert Bluffs, which is no more than they deserve, but that means we don't have much time."
Carlos nodded obediently and turned away, faintly aware of Cecil calling out a good night to Ephraim, the Secret Policeman on duty outside, and checking the line of salt across the front door for gaps. Carlos stumbled to the bedroom and collapsed facedown onto the bed.
He was nearly asleep when a touch on the back of his neck reminded him of Cecil's presence, and then Cecil said, scolding fondly, "Carlos, what have I told you about tin foil?"
"I'm not trying to block anything but sunlight," Carlos muttered. "Tin foil works very well for that."
"Poor Ephraim," Cecil sighed, but then he tugged the blanket out from under Carlos, and Carlos squirmed over onto his side and forced his eyes open. He really didn't want to miss the first time Cecil got into his bed, even if he was wearing pajamas that didn't bear close examination.
Cecil was smiling gently and still holding the stuffed probably-animal, which he tucked against Carlos's chest as he settled the blanket over them both. "This is Mr. Lambkins. I've never gone through a dissonance storm without him, but I thought you would probably need him more than I do tonight."
Mr. Lambkins resembled a lamb in approximately the way Khoshekh resembled a cat: it was safer to think of him that way than to force your brain, or human language, to acknowledge the actual reality. Carlos raised a hand and obediently cuddled Mr. Lambkins closer. He seemed safely inanimate so far, though he did squish in a not-quite-right way.
"Well," Carlos said. "We'll all be here together, really."
Cecil seemed to melt a little at that, as though Carlos's half-asleep observation had been some beautiful declaration. Carlos suspected that Cecil was not only better at speaking than he was, but also really good at hearing things Carlos utterly failed to actually say. So far the things Cecil heard seemed to be mostly things Carlos thought he probably would have liked to say to Cecil if he knew how, so he wasn't questioning the phenomenon too much.
Cecil settled on his side, facing Carlos, and rested one hand on Carlos's cheek, fingers splayed down onto his throat and over his ear. Cecil's index finger skritched gently through Carlos's hair, as though he just couldn't resist, but his face was entirely serious as he said, "Okay, now, Carlos, repeat after me."
Cecil's moan this time wasn't the magical pain-easing sound from before. It was, in fact, the official town moan, which Carlos realized he'd heard a few times in his sojourn under City Hall. He'd fled from the sound then, when apparently it would have led him to his fellow new citizens. It was an oddly hollow drone, as though there were something missing from it, something he couldn't hear--something he strained to find and dreaded finding all at once. Carlos listened until he had begun to discern the pattern and then attempted, hesitantly, to join in, tucking his chin so that Mr. Lambkins heard more of his attempt than Cecil would.
Cecil shook his head slightly, holding Carlos's gaze, and lifted his chin as he took a little catch-breath, his palm dragging upward against Carlos's cheek. Carlos tried to raise the pitch of his moaning slightly, still lagging a beat behind Cecil in the slow wavering modulations. Cecil waggled his eyebrows in an encouraging way, and Carlos took a breath of his own.
The dissonance storm hit.
Carlos felt it like a blow. He lost his breath just like he had the last few nights when it first struck, but Cecil kept moaning. And the hideous noise that made Carlos wish his skull were only filled with buzzsaws made of angry hornets somehow fit into the empty spaces in the sound of Cecil's moan, leaving a sound that didn't hurt at all. Hearing the two together felt like lying in a little shelter, as warm and reassuring as Cecil's hand on his cheek, encompassing just the space between their bodies. Carlos inched closer, and Cecil's hand tightened on his jaw as Cecil leaned in, pressing his forehead against Carlos's, moaning almost against his mouth. Carlos closed his eyes and listened to the huge sound of the storm and the human-sized sound of Cecil, the way one could hold its ground against the other.
It was only when Cecil took a breath, and the protection of his moaning flickered out, that Carlos remembered that Cecil wasn't only here to protect him from the storm. Carlos was supposed to be learning how to moan for himself. He took a deep breath himself, squeezed Mr. Lambkins to his chest for courage, and let out his own tentative moan alongside Cecil's. Cecil's thumb brushed against his cheek encouragingly, though Carlos could hear that his own moan was a mere wavering shadow of Cecil's, still out of sync.
With the storm raging, it was easy for Carlos to tell where he was going wrong. He closed his eyes, visualizing the complementary wavelengths of Cecil's moan and the hideous sound of the storm, and concentrated on bringing his own moan into alignment with Cecil's.
Carlos's whole body jerked in surprise when he got it; the shock made his breath skip, and his moan fell out of place again. But he got back to it more quickly this time, and held on long enough to really feel it. The sheltering effect of being right next to Cecil's moan was nothing to this, to the sensation of actually harmonizing with the storm itself, the terrible noise transformed into an energy that passed through him without hurting him at all. It was strangely exciting, like surfing without a board and under the surface, while wearing his pajamas and--it was nearly undeniable--cuddling with both Cecil's favorite stuffed animal and Cecil himself. Carlos dared to hook one foot over Cecil's ankle, and on Cecil's next quick breath he flashed a smile at Carlos.
They quickly fell into a rhythm, staggering their breathing, so that they were never entirely unprotected. Carlos still went out of phase from time to time, but he was getting better and better, steadier and stronger.
After a while, though--the most precise description of time available, in the circumstances--Carlos's three sleepless, storm-wracked nights started catching up with him. His thoughts splintered and drifted; he kept moaning, pushing out the sound from the edge of sleep, letting instinct time his breaths. His dreams were mostly like being awake--he was in bed, with Cecil, breathing in syncopated rhythm, moaning--but with various additions to or subtractions from reality.
At one point he was watching, fascinated, while Cecil licked Carlos's fingers, leaving them made of shadow-energy instead of the more usual arrangement of skin and bones. Carlos was just thinking of interesting uses to which he could put mostly-noncorporeal fingers--and whether licking Cecil back would have equally interesting results--when Cecil poked him hard in the cheek.
Carlos opened his eyes properly and discovered that he had wound his--entirely corporeal--fingers into the ribbons on Cecil's pajama-sleeve, and the skin beyond the constriction was turning an alarming purplish gray from blood loss. He untangled his fingers clumsily, nearly tearing a couple of the ribbons free in the process, and when he was done Cecil folded his own hand around Carlos's fingers, squeezing them gently as the pins and needles hit. Carlos touched his half-numb fingertips to Cecil's moan-parted lips, and Cecil's eyes smiled, even if his mouth was too busy to take the shape.
"Shhh," Cecil said, and his fingers were on Carlos's mouth.
Carlos would have licked them, but he had to keep moaning, because Cecil had stopped. Carlos couldn't leave him unprotected.
"Shh," Cecil said again. "It's all right, Carlos, the storm is over. You can sleep now."
"Oh," Carlos said, waking up a little more. He opened his eyes and looked up at Cecil, who had pushed up on one elbow to lean over him. Carlos's foot was still hooked over Cecil's ankle and Cecil's fingers rested on his lips.
In a spirit of scientific inquiry, Carlos licked Cecil's fingers. They didn't turn to shadow energy; Cecil laughed delightedly and ducked his head to lick Carlos's chin. Carlos couldn't help giggling then, relief bursting in his chest like an overfilled balloon. They'd made it through the storm, and Cecil was still in his bed.
Cecil, still laughing a little, turned his head and kissed Carlos, and Carlos tugged Cecil down, half on top of himself. He let out a moan that had nothing to do with the storm as Cecil's weight settled over him.
"My thoughts exactly, my dear Carlos," Cecil murmured. "But it's early. We'll have plenty of time for that later, after Mr. Lambkins is out of the room."
Carlos belatedly recognized the sensation of Mr. Lambkins being squished between his chest and Cecil's. He dropped his head back to the pillow to look up at Cecil, and Cecil sighed happily and tugged Mr. Lambkins free, tucking the thing close to his own cheek as he snuggled down on top of Carlos.
Their breathing was still syncopated, Carlos noted as he drifted toward sleep with Cecil. They would be ready when the next storm hit.