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Names of collision in the dark

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In a fittingly weird way, Carlos feels like he was heading for Night Vale all along. A subconscious and twisted path, sure, but like driving a long road with nothing but headlamps to see by, the destination shows itself eventually, dissolves out of the gloom.

He’d heard the stories, vague and bizarre, always creepy and sometimes outright frightening, never knew just how much to take seriously even with the multiple reports that were definitely (he checked) obtained independently of one another.

“The town where nothing makes sense”, is how it gets billed to him by his supervisor. “Hell, you might not even be able to find it.”

It’s almost a dare, like being handed a knotted-up length of rope to untangle after everyone else has given up. He spends a day flicking through pages (some of them singed black at the edges, some of them covered in markings he thinks best left to the linguistics department, and some of them stained with coloured splotches that defy the questions in his throat) and folders with headache-inducing preliminary results. He ingests enough vending machine coffee to give himself palpitations, and becomes almost totally convinced he’s the victim of a practical joke. Almost, except for the polar opposite of humour in his supervisor’s eyes when Carlos stands in front of his desk and says, “I’ll do it. And I want a raise,” and his supervisor just takes a slow breath and nods, once. Like a gavel coming down.

Carlos signs a waver, and then another waver, and several pages of forms that are more redacted blackout than actual type. And then it’s days of working out what equipment he’ll need for such an isolated (“You won’t find a working cell tower, trust me”; “The internet might be a little, uh, limited”; “Have you got any experience with carrier pigeons?”) lab, and deciding who he wants – needs - to help him; who’s just enough like him to see the absurdity and step right into it anyway.

Carlos has spent his life asking questions, and he accepted a long time ago that the best questions lead to more questions more often than they lead to answers. He just never could’ve anticipated the kind of questions Night Vale would leave him asking.

He never could’ve anticipated Cecil.

| |

He spends his first days – and weeks, and then months – in Night Vale either completely mystified, frustrated to the point of snapping his apparently illegal pencils, or more terrified than he’s ever been in his life. Sometimes he’s all of those at once, as well as a few other emotions that he’s never felt before and that maybe don’t even have pronounceable names that he knows of.

“The town where nothing makes sense,” he says aloud in the lab one day, apropos of nothing and everything in particular, and Doctor Kusanagi – Mineyo, she’d said to call her – snorts and shakes her head. She’s standing by a corkboard covered in pictures of an empty space between two houses in Desert Creek, which is only an empty space from the camera’s objective reality, since if you looked at it in person you’d see another house, identical to those around it in every way, save for the fact that it can’t possibly exist according to any of their measurements. They’ve upped the reward for anyone willing to knock on the door to fifty dollars now that they’ve all tried and been driven off by a nagging feeling of something before they got past the picket fence, like it’s forbidden, wrong.

“Maybe that’s the sense of it,” says Alex. “The only rule is that there are no rules.”

“There have to be rules,” Morgan pipes up. It’s an impressive statement for someone working with a container of half a dozen disassembled clocks taken from around the town, all splayed-open empty cases and meaningless dials on one side and the grey blobs of matter with the hair and teeth that defy analysis on the other. He’s fixed the components down with duct tape, since the clocks have developed a habit of reassembling themselves if left unattended.

Carlos lets the argument work its way around the lab. He’s technically in charge, but he’s never felt the need to be that kind of boss. They’re all scientists, and he knows they work best when given a certain amount of leeway to come up with ideas and then break them down until something fits right.

He switches on the radio he keeps near his workbench, and out pours Cecil’s voice:

… from our sponsors.

Have you ever wanted to visit the very depths of the darkest oceans? How about taking a walk along the top of the highest peaks? To stride across the chasm that separates the endless flipbook variation of pandimensional space? For there to be nothing in the realms of mind-rending impossibility that you haven’t looked at, smelled, or poked with a pointy stick? Are there dreams you’ve kept secret, locked away in the vault of your dusty hopes and foolish ambitions? Do you lie awake in the dead of night, secretly and fervently loathing every atom of your own existence? Or maybe you’re just looking for a fun place to take and/or leave the kids!

Try the Night Vale Astral Projection Travel Agency: It might not be real, and we might have stolen your wallet, but we promise you just won’t care!

The city council, wailing in unison, announced today that…

Carlos smiles and lets the low, comforting burr of Cecil’s voice pour into his ears. He used to ration himself when it came to Cecil’s show, the continuing reel of strangeness clashing with Cecil’s calm tone whenever he tried to keep track of anything, not to mention the mortification that crept over him with every one of Cecil’s ‘perfect Carlos’ utterances, and the fact that before Cecil was even halfway done Carlos had counted enough improbables and downright impossibles to make his ears ring.

But he’s found that if you hear and don’t listen, just let the tones and words wash over you, pervade the air and plug the emptiness, then by the time Cecil wraps up you’re left with a suffusing calmness that Carlos can only equate with the time he spent on Vicodin after having his wisdom teeth removed, minus the certainty that his feet were on the ceiling and that the world was actually a faint shade of burgundy.

Cecil’s broadcasts are almost a religion in Night Vale. Not in the way that the long-dead gods of non-existent (according to Sahil, his team’s anthropologist) ancient cultures are a religion for some people here. The entire town swears by them, relies on them, and Carlos can’t quite tell if the reason he listens to them is the same as everyone else’s, or if it’s become more personal at this point.

… and strenuously recommend removing all mirrors from your home either until the infestation has passed, or until we’ve all learned to get along with our semi-sentient reversed images. We are a welcoming people, after all, and the spirits have thus far been extremely helpful with choosing outfits, if prone to bouts of piercing and unearthly shrieking at certain times of day. Remember, listeners, with a certain gorgeous and charming scientist exception, nobody’s perfect, neither us nor the mirror-dwelling organisms that borrow our likenesses.

And now for the community calendar…

“You’re doing it again, boss,” Alex says, startling him back into the moment with a nudge to the elbow. He hadn’t even noticed her walking over.

“Hm? Doing what?” he asks, reaching over hastily to turn down the volume on the radio, even if the sudden lack of Cecil talking sets him on edge in a way he can’t make sense of, a hollow ache like he’s missing a tooth.

“Mooning over Mr Dulcet Tones,” she says, smirking at him. She’s been giving him that look a lot. “I know you guys are all lovey-dovey now, but this is a place of cold, hard scientific study.” She’s somehow smirking with both sides of her mouth.

“Oh really?” he asks, looking around her to nod at where the others have taken to games of rock-paper-scissors to decide who’s going to collect more animal carcasses dropped by the Glow Cloud for testing. He looks back at her and raises an eyebrow.

“Okay fine,” she says, rolling her eyes. “But try not to get distracted and drop anything, huh? We’re still not sure we found the last of those giant invisible termites.”

“I’m not even sure we had the giant invisible termites,” Carlos mutters as Alex goes back to her workstation, picking up the sensor she’d been running over the small pyramid they’d collected. Judging from her frown, it’s still registering as both inert and extremely radioactive. When Carlos mentioned that to Cecil, he’d said it was probably just the City Council trying to determine whether they were optimists or pessimists, and that he shouldn’t worry about it (“Unless you’re a pessimist, in which case I suppose you’re going to worry about it anyway”).

Carlos pushes his glasses higher up his nose. He’d spent years getting used to wearing contacts, since glasses make looking into microscopes for long periods uncomfortable. But he’s a Capricorn, and he just can’t make himself put them in these days, just in case. He tries to focus more on the experiment he’s running than the hum of Cecil’s voice, like Night Vale’s own cosmic microwave background.

He still smiles while he listens, and when it’s time for the weather they all sing along in perfect harmony with a song they’ve never heard before.

| |

Carlos doesn’t believe in curses. But then again, there are a lot of things he didn’t believe in before he came to Night Vale, and he’s not willing to discount anything anymore. Except the Dog Park. That he’ll discount loudly and without reservation.

It’s just that every time he and Cecil manage to arrange a date, some kind of disaster strikes.

It starts with the shadow energy and shortly thereafter, the shadow people. Dozens or more weeding through the town, like human shapes cut roughly out of photographs, burned out of the thin film of reality.

He’s up most of the night desperately trying to fix it, undo it, propelling himself with burnt coffee and adrenaline and failing to ignore the distinct lack of anyone else in the lab. Between rapid-fire thoughts and surges of panic that stick sour in his throat, Carlos is almost relieved he has an emergency to focus on. He doesn’t want to feel gratitude to a malevolent and scientifically baffling cloud of energy, but at least while he’s hurriedly pulling parts and pieces out of storage to cobble together into some kind of countermeasure, then he can’t dwell on what a dolt he was with Cecil.

“Scientists are self-reliant,” he whines to the empty lab, nasal and mocking, slamming tools onto the nearest surface. Then, “It’s the first thing a scientist is,” even more self-flagellating as he empties out a box of bolts and screws in an avalanche of glinting metal. He shakes his head. “Ugh.”

It’s not a long drive to Cecil’s house from the lab, barring wormholes or other moebius-like events, but—

He glances at his phone, and then back at the half-assembled machine in front of him that may not even work, depending on which way the laws of physics are currently blowing outside.

Carlos takes a breath, making himself sturdier, hands shaking less and heart racing quieter.

“You got home fine,” he says, voice level and determined over the whir of an electric screwdriver. In his head the quickest route from the lab to Cecil’s house traces out, a glowing line on a mental map. Not far at all. “You’re home and you’re fine. Everything’s fine. I’ll—I’ll do better next time.”

He tugs his lip between his teeth, half old habit and half to shut himself up, thinking faster, faster.

Cecil can take care of himself; he’s not the one who does reckless things like clambering down into a miniature city full of dangerous tiny people; he’s not the one who sees the imponderable strangeness of his town and decides he wants to put his fingernails in the cracks and tug until who knows what comes spilling out. Cecil’s lived in Night Vale his entire life, which makes him a survivor on a level that would humble Nietzsche. Carlos’ fretting does nothing. The best thing he can do at the moment is counteract the shadow energy.

He keeps glancing at his phone.

There’ll be no time to test the machine once it’s done. There’s no time in Night Vale at all. There’s that optimism/pessimism thing again.

“So much time so little to do,” he murmurs absently as he pulls apart the defunct seismograph for the last few parts he needs. “Strike that…” the smell of solder in his nostrils and spare wires dangling from between his teeth, sweat dripping off the ends of his hair, “… reverse it.”

The machine lights up, hums with a pulsing drone that gets higher and higher until Carlos can’t hear it anymore, the oscilloscope across the lab practically (though not literally) dancing.

There’s a sound outside, like wind rushing backwards, then a POP that comes from everywhere at once. Car alarms sound. There’s a dull thud-thud-thud of helicopter blades somewhere overhead.

A spark, then another, a trail of grey smoke, and the machine shuts off. Instruments all around the lab go quiet, save for the average levels of Night Vale blips on screens and printouts. The radio stutters, and then carries on playing its third consecutive hour of ‘big rocks hitting smaller rocks’.

Outside Carlos hears someone yell, “Hey! I unsubscribed from that municipal sleepwalking program! This is extortionate!” and his lungs empty out a breath he never felt them holding in.

He drops, groaning, into a chair, and in a flat second he’s asleep, drooling on his lab coat and already feeling the impending blood sugar crash like a train bearing down on him.

Under the bowl of a carmine sky, the sun rises eleven minutes late.

When he finally wakes up and heads outside, sees the belongings lying on sidewalks and the abandoned cars left idling or dead in the road, the random neighbourhoods with their too-quiet streets and headstone houses, he rubs his hands over his face and tries very hard to reduce his world to nothing but his need to shower and change his clothes. To the knowledge that the town will back to its usual self in no time; they’re used to this sort of thing. It doesn’t make him feel any better.

Back at his apartment, Carlos tugs his lab coat sluggishly off his shoulders and throws it in the laundry. He inhales an energy bar without tasting it, downs a glass of orange milk, and takes his radio with him into the bathroom. He doesn’t look at the mirror until it’s fogged over, and with the spray peeling stale sweat and the tang of smouldering electrics from his skin, every muscle made of lead and his hair clinging to his neck, Carlos listens to Cecil talk about finding love.

It helps.

| |

Cecil gets called in for re-education halfway through their second date, due to what Carlos later learns had something to do with admitting to reading a book and enjoying it. Apparently City Council felt they had to make an example of him.

“Sorry,” Cecil says again, sounding completely miserable. His voice is slow and weak, there’s a faint tremor like he’s cold even though his skin’s scalding hot that can Carlos can feel running through him as he helps Cecil down the steps of City Hall and towards the car. It’s slow going, since the building is draped in black velvet and there’s no light to speak of, save for a gauzy grey that seems to be coming from under the steps, following them.

“It’s okay,” Carlos tells him, strained as he tries to bend Cecil into the passenger’s seat without knocking his head against the roof. Cecil’s a lot heavier than he looks. Still he’s almost surprised by how much he means it once it’s said. It’s hard to be annoyed or even disappointed when Cecil’s slumped back against the seat with his clothes bunched and askew, hair in disarray with a brand new grey-white streak in it and a bleary smile on his face as he watches Carlos buckle him in.

Carlos has a brief flash to the few times he got roped into taking his drunk college roommate home at three A.M., but it’s hardly the same thing; Carlos had hated that guy. “I know you didn’t mean for it to happen.”

Cecil tries to shake his head, but it just makes him go cross-eyed and turn a slightly paler shade. “C’los,” he mumbles, the vowel sound like sandpaper. With just the wan light in the car, Cecil’s eyes are pale blue-grey, sweat sticking his hair down at the temples and looking glossy across his forehead. “B-B’tiful C’los.” He sounds barely awake, but he focuses a little when Carlos climbs into the other seat. His eyes flick up to Carlos’ face and he swallows. “I ruined our date.”

“No,” Carlos says, partially automatic at the look of dejection Cecil’s wearing. “No, it, uh… how much do you remember?”

Cecil frowns. His hands twitch where Carlos had folded them in his lap. Carlos hesitates for just a second before he reaches over and takes one of them, his left palm on the back of Cecil’s clammy right.

“I—We were walking,” he says, words constructed so carefully Carlos can almost see them balanced on the air, traversing a tightrope to Carlos’ ears. “Nice night,” he adds, mouth working hard to smile. “I could see the lights above the Arby’s in your eyes.”

Carlos huffs faintly through his nose, bites down on the smile and pats Cecil’s hand. “See?” he says. “Nothing ruined.” He supposes there’s no point mentioning that they stopped at the Pinkberry, or the part where Carlos dropped half of his order down his shirt when Cecil made an obscene slurping noise around his spoon. No point at all. He’s definitely not mentioning the part where the Sheriff’s Secret Police ‘asked’ – a least having the decency to look embarrassed about interrupting their evening – Cecil to go with them to City Hall.

He starts the car without letting go of Cecil’s hand. “I’ll take care of the end-of-date report, okay? Just…try to rest.”

Cecil’s a little more himself by the time they reach his house, and when Carlos kills the engine he looks over and gives a sort of sheepish smile.

“It really is okay,” Carlos tells him. “There’ll be other dates.” He realises a whole two seconds later how presumptuous that probably was. Not that Cecil seems to care.

“Really?” he asks, pushing a still-unsteady hand through his hair, which doesn’t do much except alter the angle that it’s sticking up at, and exacerbate the urge Carlos has been battling for the whole drive to reach over and touch it.

Carlos’ shrug gets constricted to an awkward twitch by his seatbelt. “Sure. I mean, uh, if you wanted to-”

“Yes! Uh, yes,” Cecil says, the second time considerably quieter and lower in pitch.

“We can talk about it after you’ve rested,” Carlos says, because the pull of attraction he’s accepted he’s going to feel regardless of how battered Cecil looks aside, he’s blinking in that way people blink when nothing they’re seeing is in focus.

He stretches across and kisses Cecil anyway. It’s a lot like their first kiss, except this time all Carlos has to think about is the drive home and whether he’ll be able to get frozen yoghurt stains out of his clothes. Maybe with that new All Consuming Detergent he hasn’t had the nerve to try yet. Either way, there’s a lot less panic and a lot more focus on the softness of Cecil’s mouth and the way he tilts into the kiss.

Cecil stumbles a little when he gets out, waves Carlos off when he offers to help him inside. Carlos waits in the car until Cecil makes it all the way to his front door anyway, just to be safe.

It takes some fiddling with his keys (or he can’t remember the invocation to stop the keyhole devouring his keys and his fingers and his arm), but Cecil gets the door and makes it inside. He turns and waves when Carlos starts the car again, and he’ll never be able to decide if he was watching until Cecil shut the door or if Cecil only shut the door once Carlos was out of sight. Uncertainty keeps things interesting, he reminds himself.

| |

Carlos still calls into the station from time to time, even if the way he says, “I’m not calling for personal reasons,” now sounds more regretful and resigned than awkward, even in moments when he’s poring over test results with large red lines jagging across them above words like WARNING or CRITICAL or simply ???eRRor???

He gives Cecil messages and warnings to pass along that he realises will probably be greeted with little more than ambivalence or mild irritation by most of the town, assuming they get passed along at all.

Things like the neon pink slug-like creatures which are attracted to fresh laundry, causing intense itching and, more seriously, spontaneous combustion; the subliminal hum that for days makes two-thirds of Night Vale sing the opening verse of The Girl From Ipanema; the plague of tiny silver bells that appear on every surface overnight, including walls and ceilings, and jingle incessantly in response to motion until you start bleeding from the ears; a sudden sense of uncertainty when shopping that leaves a lot of people completely unable to buy groceries or even open their cabinets.

But between those calls there are other calls, where Carlos responds to Cecil’s opening happy sigh of, “Carlos,” with, “I am calling for personal reasons.” He’s even developed restraint enough to keep from babbling about whatever’s in front of him or what he’d had for breakfast.

They fill Cecil’s breaks or the interminable times when Carlos is waiting for results with talk that Carlos tries not to think of as flirting, since it makes him trip over his words and the phone slip in his sweaty palm, not to mention whoever walks through the lab’s break room make faces at him from the doorway or leave mocking post-its on their mini fridge.

“And Khoshekh’s kittens have gotten so big,” Cecil’s telling him while Carlos stirs his coffee with the phone pressed between his cheek and his shoulder. “Intern Leland strung a couple of toys from the bathroom ceiling with fishing line, and oh my god, Carlos, they roll over in midair and bat at them and it’s so. Cute!”

Carlos smiles as he sits on their somewhat lumpy couch. “I’ll have to come and see them soon,” he says, again the accidental subtext of what he’s saying hitting him a second too late. He needs to start reviewing his words more carefully ahead of time.

“I’d like that,” Cecil says, soft, in the hopeful tone that coils in Carlos’ chest and makes his feet shift restlessly against the floor. “I always want to see you.”

Breath trips out of Carlos’ mouth, and he’s too aware of the bunch of his lab coat between his back and the couch, the way his tongue’s sticking to the roof of his mouth. He wants to stand and pace, move until the urge to let words overflow from him dies down, words that will either make no sense or leave him banging his head on his desk or both.

“I—Yes, I. Me too,” he fumbles, briefly dropping his head back to wince at the ceiling. He says, “Me too,” again though, this time with full forethought weighing it down.

| |

Their third date is a lunch date.

They use Cecil’s lunch break, since Carlos more or less makes his own hours, and hours in Night Vale are a pretty vague concept regardless. He’s not even sure ‘lunch’ is a definable period; Cecil takes his breaks at moments when he says station management is in a state of omnipresent somnolence, and won’t mind him being out of the station for a little while.

So they go to the Moonlight All-Night Diner and sit in a corner booth under the hum of a fluorescent that seems to light the room from behind Carlos’ eyes, photons rebounding all in the wrong order. The speaker in the corner of the ceiling is playing hints of music, fading in and out like a heaving, breathing chest with a tune rattling inside it.

“I can’t believe they still haven’t fixed that,” Cecil says, clucking his tongue when he notices Carlos frowning up at the lightbulb. He thinks it’s a bulb anyway. “Those things are so energy inefficient.”

Carlos and the bulb look away from each other, and he smiles absently at Cecil, who’s got his hands folded on the table and his foot pressed to the side of Carlos’. His skin is flushed under the maybe-bulb, making his bright red tie patterned with tiny black microphones (apparently a gift from his newest intern) stand out like a sunburn streak and his hair look like a whitish halo, but thankfully not the kind of halo that crackles around Old Woman Josie’s house. He’s compelling in a way Carlos doesn’t have words for. He hopes he never has the words.

“What would you like to order?” asks the waitress, suddenly at their table like she’d melted out of the floor, and Carlos startles, feeling his face heat when he realises he’d been staring again. Not that Cecil seems to mind, or that he wasn’t staring right back, but still.

They don’t rush, but Carlos doesn’t want to keep Cecil so long that station management gets impatient and starts thrashing around their office again. So they eat quickly, methodically, and spend the rest of the time talking with their feet still touching under the table.

Cecil tells him about the latest texts from his intern Dana (or her double), sent from inside the Dog Park. He has to lean closer across the table, talking low in case tangentially mentioning the Dog Park gets them in trouble, hands flat to the table either side of Carlos’ and an intent look on his face. It has the added effect of leaving Carlos dry-mouthed and wishing he could consciously control his heartbeat the way the City Council mandates he should.

“We’ve got the high school tennis club helping us,” Cecil says. “A few times a week they use their racquets to launch small food parcels over the walls.” He shrugs a shoulder. “We’re hoping the hooded figures don’t need to eat. Or if they do, that they don’t like granola.”

Carlos nods, aimlessly fiddling with a fork in his hand. He gives up on that when it just makes him think of how close their fingers are.

He learns a little more about Cecil’s life, that he was raised by his mother because his father, “Wasn’t around much on our plain of existence”. He’s not at all surprised when Cecil says he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

“I couldn’t imagine Night Vale without you,” Carlos says, a little unthinkingly, but Cecil lights up (only figuratively, thank goodness), smiling huge. It’s the truth; Carlos has no idea what Night Vale would be like without Cecil. Empty probably, sadly disparate and a lot more frightening.

It eases something, Carlos’ saying that, like a band around his ribs has loosened by a few notches. He makes Cecil laugh with a story about seeing Old Woman Josie in the Green Market, getting into an argument with four or five other townspeople while trying to buy out their entire stock of imaginary corn.

“Who knew the angels liked imaginary corn on the cob so much?” he says around his grin, Cecil laughing in a breathless, helpless way, leaning on the table while he shakes with it, crinkles at the corners of his eyes. “But the manager came out and tried to tell her that since they don’t exist, she couldn’t really need to buy all the corn. He looked really nervous, but she still did it, even with all these people yelling and protesting in interpretive dance. I’ve never seen a woman barely over four feet tall look so imposing before.”

Cecil finally drags in a breath and slumps back in his chair, wiping at his eyes. He ends up smiling softly, like an afterimage in Carlos’ retinas, and Carlos moves his hand the few inches it takes to place it on top of Cecil’s on the table. Cecil turns his hand palm up, a rapt expression on his face. Their fingers twine, and a blush works its way under the collar of Cecil’s shirt as Carlos’ belly flips.

They share a piece of invisible pie, still holding hands, forks in the other clinking together in between attempts to actually locate the pie on the plate. By then Carlos is almost, almost convinced that they’re going to make it through a whole date without an emergency of any kind, that the third time really is the charm and he’ll be able to kiss Cecil again before they both go back to their jobs. Maybe he could walk Cecil back to the station, it’s not like he can’t delegate some of his work for an hour or so. He grins across the table and doesn’t even play it off as an accident when his foot brushes up Cecil’s ankle.

He’s contemplating a pressure-free way of asking Cecil about his thoughts on making out in his recording booth, when the entire school board comes into the diner, led in single file like a line of marching, obedient ants by the Glow Cloud.

“Oh dear,” Cecil mutters, squeezing Carlos’ hand tighter as one of the waitresses slips on an animal carcass, and another breaks into tears, muttering about the futility of life in an entropic universe.

The people at the table next to where the school board’s sitting have begun to sway in place, their meals abandoned and forgotten as they rhythmically chant, “HAIL THE GLOW CLOUD, HONOUR THE GLOW CLOUD, MAKE OFFERINGS AND PLEAD FOR MERCY WITH YOUR DISCORDANT, PUNY VOICES.”

The chant spreads from table to table like a contagion, and Carlos can’t move his legs or unstick his thoughts ALL HAIL can barely even blink KNEEL can’t—

He shudders into control of his body when Cecil gives a hard shake of their joined hands and then hurriedly whispers into his water glass for the check. It appears under the tray of sugar packets and they throw bills and coins on top of it, drop the tray back down and almost sprint for the door, holding hands all the while.

Outside the diner, the fog of creeping, gnawing despair fades, along with the pulsing, repeating groan of, “WE SERVE, ALL ARE PROSTRATE BEFORE THE GLOW CLOUD, WE  S E R V E”, and Carlos takes a deep breath of warm probably-afternoon air, and tries to resist the urge to pull Cecil into a desperate hug and say something ridiculous.

“Ugh I have to go,” Cecil says with another squeeze of Carlos’ fingers and a glance at the sky (puce with just a little amber). “We were in the cloud’s thrall for almost half an hour! I’m late!”

“Go,” Carlos says. “It’s fine.” And then, softer, “I’ll call you later.”

Cecil nods and perks up at that, then squares his shoulders before he steps in and kisses Carlos, quick and light and over almost before Carlos realises. It shouldn’t be enough to liquidise the strength in Carlos’ knees, but then again there’s a sentient cloud of glowing energy ordering an omelette behind him, so what do his knees know in the grand scheme of things?

“I just thought—” Cecil starts, cheeks tuning the same shade as the pink streaks in the sky, biting at his lip in a really unfair way. “My turn, you know?”

Carlos smiles. “Absolutely. It’s—Well, it’s only fair.” He manages not to cringe at himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the air around the radio station turn a faint and sickly yellow while the light on the tower gets brighter. “You’d better go,” he says again. It would help if he let go of Cecil’s hand wouldn’t it?

Cecil makes for the station at a quick jog, smiling at someone in a passing car when a seven-fingered hand appears out of the window and waves. He reaches the doors, turns back to raise his own hand and aim a smile at Carlos, and is it awkward that he’s just standing outside the diner waiting for Cecil to vanish?

He waves and smiles back, and there’s a buildup of warmth behind his sternum when Cecil’s hand misses the door handle twice. Then he’s gone, and Carlos tips his head to stare into the sky and scoff, “It’s only fair?” as if the desert breeze or the wandering clouds will take pity on him.

This is Night Vale. Anything’s possible.

| |

The first night they spend together doesn’t exactly follow the agreed-upon plan.

Carlos has every intention of taking Cecil out; he’s changed his shirt four times and his shoes twice and berated himself for second guessing his socks on the drive over, and every nerve-sour tick of his stomach and bead of sweat on his hands between white knuckle grips of the steering wheel can attest that he’s definitely committed to the date.

The calm he’s carefully constructed about their dating has maybe crumbled slightly, now that he’s thinking about the line in the social contract relating to numbers of dates relative to how far they go with the kissing, the touching, the fingers beneath articles of clothing that Carlos wakes most mornings on the tail-end of dreaming about, hard in his boxers or humping his mattress.

Yes, his calm has definitely started tilting on its foundations now.

He pulls up outside Cecil’s house, stares his reflection down in the rear-view mirror and dares it to make a comment about his train of thought. The thunk when he gets out and shuts the door sounds far more ominous than he’d like, and was the distance from the sidewalk to Cecil’s door always this great? He’ll have to come back and measure.

His finger slips on the doorbell, and he wipes his hands on his jeans quickly, taking a breath of cool-ish air and thinking slower, calm down, in the direction of his heart.

Cecil answers, and maybe Carlos is early or Cecil’s running late or both, or maybe Night Vale has gone ahead and fiddled with causality just to taunt Carlos. Because now Cecil’s standing in the open doorway with mussed hair and glasses slipping down his nose, a Chambray shirt that’s buttoned only as far as the shadowy dip in the middle of his chest and no pants, socked feet on the carpet leading to his lean legs. The light from behind him strokes down over his shoulders, spills into the places his shirt’s hanging open, and there’s an automatic-but-genuine smile at one side of his mouth.

“Carlos,” he says, and it’s the same shape as his smile, casually lilting upwards.

“Cecil.” Just as redundant. Just as not redundant.

There are other words, he’s sure. Maybe he even says some of them. But all he registers is the path of Cecil’s tongue over his bottom lip when Carlos steps closer, the way his hand falls to his side before Carlos is in front him. The soft groan he loses in Carlos’ mouth and the way he steals the slide of Carlos’ fingers against his cheek, buries it beneath his skin so Carlos will never be able to find it again.

They’re in Cecil’s hallway, and Carlos’ jacket is on the floor. They’re at the foot of the stairs and Cecil’s hand is in Carlos’ hair, his other hand on Carlos’ hip while Carlos drags teeth against Cecil’s lip and laps away the sting.

The kisses aren’t the cautious ones they’ve swapped before, aren’t full of that childhood rush of dashing two steps up the driveway of a neighbourhood haunted house and feeling like you’ve moved for miles – this time they mean it.

They’re in the middle of the staircase and Cecil’s shirt isn’t buttoned at all anymore. Cecil’s back is pressed to the wall next to his bedroom door and Carlos’ hand pulls him in by the back of his neck, Cecil prying Carlos’ mouth open that scant bit faster than Carlos can do it for him, breaths snaking round each other.

Cecil’s mouth tastes faintly of toothpaste and Carlos is licking at the dips of his molars, at the slick shape of his tongue when it toys at Carlos’ lips. He’s hard, brand-hot in his jeans and rubbing against Cecil’s hip as Cecil murmurs, “Carlos, Carlos,” against the edge of Carlos’ jaw before he’s kissing Carlos again like he’s desperate, almost angrily, deeper surges that dash them together, pressing harder until Carlos can imagine Cecil climbing inside him, filling and devouring and all he can do is kiss back like please yes do it I want you to.

The bedroom door’s shutting behind them and Carlos laughs, soft and edged when Cecil pushes him against it and fumbles for his belt. A clink of metal like a laugh, a whisper of leather like conspiracy, the sharp catch in Cecil’s breathing when he sees the dark-wet spot on Carlos’ shorts.

Carlos knocks his head back into the door when Cecil’s heated glance hits him in the eyes before he folds down onto his knees, fingers lifting Carlos’ shirt and sending shivers rolling between his ribs when they stroke down to pull at his underwear, pants in a denim puddle around his ankles.

“Don’t watch,” Carlos says to the air or the walls or the ceiling. Wherever the listening devices or cameras might be hidden.

Cecil kisses the shape of his hip, up to his belly and down to just, just above his dick. “They have to, you know that,” he says, low and reassuring like he’s on the radio. “It’s their job. I’m sure they’ll be discreet.”

Carlos huffs. “They’d better be,” into the cool air moving against the blush on his cheeks, and then Cecil’s lips are sliding over him, and god,his mouth, Carlos thought Cecil’s radio voice was the smoothest thing about his mouth.

Cecil looks up at him, with hollowed cheeks and glinting eyes that’re dark, so dark it’s like they’re all pupil, and his hands are framing the spit-shine of Carlos’ dick as it vanishes between the stretch of his lips.

Cecil’s tongue runs up the vein on the underside, traces smaller blood vessels and random figure-eights, symbols in languages Carlos doesn’t know but that roll his eyes back into his head. He squeezes Carlos’ hips and holds him to the door while he slowly takes Carlos apart with wet heat, filthy suction that’s almost beyond belief.

He threads his fingers through Cecil’s hair, tugs when Cecil makes an approving hum that rattles from Carlos’ cock to the marrow of his bones. His hand moves down to the base of Cecil’s skull, over onto his cheek, pressing with a thumb to feel the swell of his dick in Cecil’s mouth.

There’s no way he’s going to last, not with Cecil looking up through his lashes and his mouth stretched bright pink, tongue digging at his slit until he pulls back just enough to make an obscene O of his lips around the head before he goes down again.

A groan’s filling the room before Carlos realises he’s the one who’s making it, and Cecil’s throat works around him, mouth nothing but slick suction, and Carlos hears a high whine that might be lodged in his throat as his head falls back against the door and he’s coming and coming, hard enough it’s like a kick to the stomach.

He hauls Cecil upright, quickly enough that he staggers, and kisses him in a surging step forward that probably hurts, throbs like a bruise. Cecil’s lips are burning hot and his mouth tastes sour and a little sweet and perfect when Carlos sucks at his tongue.

Cecil pulls back enough to mutter, “Bed,” with a voice turned into a gravel scrape in Carlos’ ears, the Voice of Night Vale chipped in all his smooth places from taking Carlos’ dick, and there’s a kink he didn’t know about until now.

They end up strewn across Cecil’s bed in a stack of limbs like kindling, after the spark and already burning. Cecil’s down to just the socks now, and Carlos kneels astride his hips, scrapes air from the bottom of his lungs.

“I tried to wait,” Carlos says, words falling off his tongue, and Cecil laughs around a groan when he sees Carlos clicking the lube open.

“And I’ve been waiting.”

Carlos swallows, all of a sudden too aware of his breathing. His free hand rests low down on Cecil’s stomach, thumb tracing the line of hairs to his navel and then up until he’s badly balanced and Cecil’s heart is leaping up to meet his palm and Cecil’s watching him, looking at him – seeing him, and Carlos can’t explain the grin on his face but he feels it just the same, and isn’t that appropriate?

It’s been a while, to put it mildly, but Carlos focuses on the roll of Cecil’s throat as he watches Carlos work a finger into himself, twisting his write despite the bad angle, pressing deeper. The second finger burns as his muscles stretch, but there’s precome pooling on Cecil’s belly above the head of his cock, and when he spreads them wider and pushes his hips down into them Cecil moans like he can feel the stretch, the fullness. He doesn’t spend long on the third finger, a quick push and turn of his wrist, dick twitching when he hits his prostate.

His thighs are burning and his muscles are shaking and there’s sweat catching cool air at the base of his spine, but the head of Cecil’s dick breaches him and the sound Cecil makes.

It’s a slow, effortful stretch getting Cecil deeper into him, but Carlos’ weight and the eager tugging fingers of gravity bring him down, down, forcing out of his lungs with the opening of his body and the measured exhales he manages through his nose.

Cecil’s already panting under him, hair on his thighs brushing the smoother insides of Carlos’ with every rocking motion, jaw working like he’s got his teeth gritted tight. He puts his hands on Carlos’ thighs, thumbs and fingers finding the straining outlines of muscle, not pushing or pulling but just there, words enough in the touch that it doesn’t matter that they’re past words altogether.

The brush of Cecil’s dick against that spot inside him makes Carlos’ twitch again, knocks a sound out of him as he slides the rest of the way down. Then he’s seated in the narrow dip of Cecil’s hips, arch of bones against his skin, and he clenches his toes in on themselves while his body adjusts, the thick-heavy weight in him all he can really feel.

One of Cecil’s hands goes to Carlos’ hip, rubs up as far as he can before it slides back down again, soothing.

“Okay,” Carlos says, because, ‘I’m okay’ and ‘You’re okay’ clash inside his throat and only the last part makes it out. “S’good.”

Cecil’s lashes are dark, ashy smudges when they fan down onto the skin beneath his eyes, and his tongue’s a shock of pink when he wets his lips, nipples tight and a flutter in his stomach leading down to where Carlos’ knees are braced either side of him – to where Carlos is slowly lifting and pressing his hips into the hot-full ache of Cecil’s cock in him.

He rides Cecil just like that, mostly graceless but good, slowly working the angle to where he needs it, gripping down to watch Cecil’s whole body jerk in response.

By now he’s hard again, leaking precome in blots and droplets on Cecil’s stomach, and when he pushes shaky fingertips through it it turns to bright trails pointing up to the cage of Cecil’s ribs. He leans up and puts his fingers to Cecil’s lips, sliding over the pink bow and the softness between them, and Cecil sucks them into his mouth to the second knuckle, rolling his tongue while he watches Carlos ride him.

There’s heat everywhere, working its way up Carlos’ body between the layers of his skin, washing out on his tidal breathing. Cecil pull his mouth off Carlos’ fingers with a pop, and Carlos traces them down his chin, over the point of his Adam’s apple, the hollow between the tendons of his throat, the ridge of his collarbone.

He lifts and drops himself harder, faster, moaning at the glance of Cecil’s dick over his prostate, his own cock smacking down onto Cecil’s stomach when it’s not curving up tight and blurting precome. He’s got hair plastered to his neck and Cecil’s hands are gripping, like ribbons, like shackles around Carlos’ thighs.

When Carlos wraps a hand around his dick it’s with Cecil’s spit still on his fingers, and he lets his head fall back between his shoulders, slowing down and swivelling his hips hard against Cecil. No matter what he does he feels like he can’t get close enough, and for the first time he resents the stubborn exclusion principle, the thing that keeps them from occupying the same point in space. He clamps down and groans at the hot pressure on that perfect spot inside him.

“You—You should see yourself,” Cecil gasps, grunts as he fucks up in tight jabs that jar Carlos’ breath loose. “How you look like this.”

Carlos grinds over Cecil’s hips, heart smashing against his sternum and thumping in his throat. He jerks himself faster, thumb pushing at his slit and under the head, free hand curling against Cecil’s side as he rocks and raises himself again.

Orgasm hits him hard in the solar plexus, balls tight to his body as his cock twitches in his fist and he pulses. Stripes and gobs of come marks up Cecil’s skin, and Carlos rides through the aftershocks until Cecil’s arching up and groaning like a death knell, the hint of more fullness when he swells and comes still buried in Carlos’ ass.

It leaves him shaking all over, wracking and persistent quaking from his shoulders to his thighs and the curl of his toes, every breath feeling cold when it fills his lungs. Cecil’s no better off, skin a mess of sweat and Carlos’ come, and again Carlos’ hand wanders down to push fingers through it, streaking along the plane of Cecil’s belly.

Cecil slips out of him, softening, and Carlos gives a last hiss, lube already cooling between his cheeks, the tight skin behind his balls, every sensation he registers some combination of fucked-out and exhausted.

He drops down next to Cecil, blows a deep exhale up at the ceiling. The side of his head’s brushing Cecil’s, and he smiles when Cecil picks up his hand and brings it to his mouth, lips pressing kisses to Carlos’ knuckles one by one, turning Carlos’ hand until he’s brushing over the lines on his palm.

“Might have been our best date yet,” Cecil says, considering with another kiss to the heel of Carlos’ hand before he tugs it down into his chest. “Or out most relatively successful one, anyway.”

“We can reschedule our more… outdoor-oriented plans, though,” he says, still trying to wrangle his breathing back to normal, words warping with a little leftover laughter.

Cecil hums, “Good, but maybe a nap first. And in future I’ll be more careful about what outfits I wear when I open the door for you.”

“I think it was more to do with the negative space around the outfit,” Carlos says. “Amongst a few other things.”

Cecil rolls until he’s half over Carlos, leaning on an elbow. He drops his head down enough to stamp a kiss to Carlos’ lips. “Well. I’m definitely not sorry,” he says, and Carlos laughs again, endorphins buzzing in his veins.

“Yeah,” he says, like it was any kind of debate at all. “Me neither.”

He burrows into the arm Cecil puts over his waist, tucks his legs over and under the longer stretch of Cecil’s, his own still feeling jellified and tired-hot.

He’s taking slow in-outs of air into the curve of Cecil’s shoulder, blinking half-lidded at Cecil’s profile, when Cecil’s chest under his hand starts to rise and fall deeper, even as a metronome.

Stretching out along Cecil’s side, Carlos has to admit that the date could’ve gone a lot worse; that just maybe their luck is changing.

Not that he believes in luck, of course.

| |

An unscheduled and therefore impossible meteor shower insists on happening one night in late summer.

The sun goes down at the expected wrong time, the stars peek out from behind their black curtain, the air cools until Carlos pulls on a sweater that’s probably Cecil’s judging from the shade of purple, and then it starts. It starts the way more things start in Night Vale than Carlos can be bothered to count: with a light in the sky.

By the time dozens of them, streaks of brilliant white scratching over the darkness, Carlos is just one of several dozen people standing out in the Scrub Lands with his head tilted back, mouth slightly open, eyes more than slightly wide, and all the words he knows buried where he can’t find them.

“Isn’t it lovely?” someone asks him casually as they pass. He thinks it was Larry Leroy, but he can’t look away from the glowing, burning paths of rocks that’re dying in droves overhead, so it’s hard to be sure. Someone up in front of him is unfolding patio furniture. There’s a pop and a hiss as bottles of beer are opened. A family of three-point-eight to his right are explaining to their fractional children about signs and portents and the benevolence of the Elder Gods, and Carlos is just trying very hard not to listen or look or be aware of much at all.

He doesn’t have any equipment with him, no camera or telescope, not even an outlawed writing utensil hanging by a frayed bit of string from a clipboard. The material of Cecil’s sweater hangs overlong against his wrists. He thinks he might be too awed, too overwhelmed. It would explain why his vocal chords have abandoned him and all his thoughts have gone away.

“Oh, that is beautiful!” says a voice attached to a person standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Carlos. At least he knows this one.

“Cecil,” Carlos breathes, acknowledgement and question and rebuke, nothing and everything all at once as his brain trips over itself. “I just—This isn’t…” Bleary facts try to assemble inside his head, things like the path of the Earth around the Sun and times of year for meteor showers and how scientists are supposed to know about these things in advance.

Cecil takes his hand, their fingers slip between one another, and Carlos squeezes until he’s sure something, at least for now, is real.

The crowd of townspeople utter out a collective, “Oooohh,” when a bright yellow burst carries in a rush between the paler lines that leave purple afterimages on Carlos’ retinas. Then an, “Aahhhh,” as a second one diagonally zooms to the horizon before it fades. There might be cinders tomorrow, dotting the desert. Carlos hopes someone’s still around to look for them.

“They’re getting closer,” he says almost to himself, to no one, neck protesting the angle he’s keeping it at, blood pounding in his skull. He grips Cecil’s hand a little tighter, and Cecil is so close their pant legs are brushing.

It’s not a pleasant feeling, to be suddenly unsure of where your own planet is in the infiniteness of space, of what planet your town is really on, and surely Night Vale’s ambient impossibly can’t do this? Can’t alter the positions of rocks and cometary debris littering the Earth’s orbit? The stars behind the tremendous and frightening lightshow are the same, constellations as they ought to be. They haven’t moved, so how—

Another cooing, “Oooohh,” when what is clearly an explosion mingles with the flashes, a bone-deep sonic thud prodding into their ears a second or so later, and Carlos has skidded over afraid and slammed into numb, into helpless.

He thinks he can smell barbeque. There’s definitely the sour cloy of smoke in his nostrils. Nearby, someone comments on wanting their patty cooked rare. Someone else asks for ketchup.

He’s been staring at the sky too long, the way he would as a little boy in his abuéla’s tiny garden, tipping his face up into the night until he couldn’t see his feet or his arms or his shoulders or the ground he was standing on. Until the disorientation felt like the spinning of the world even though the stars were so still, and Carlos could imagine floating despite the stubborn cling of gravity.

“They did such a wonderful job this year,” Cecil comments. Carlos hadn’t forgotten he was there; his hand is still in Carlos’. He doesn’t want to think about letting go, sure he’ll vanish into the void like a balloon when a child lets go of the string. Cecil nudges his shoulder, and Carlos feels momentarily more solid as the motion carries through him. “Don’t you think?”

Carlos wrenches his head level, ignores the way it messes with his inner ear in favour of looking at Cecil, who’s looking back at him – has probably been looking at him for most of the time, and Carlos is glad, because if you observe a thing it’s more likely to exist, even in Night Vale.

He could handle existing, even here, so long as it’s Cecil who’s always looking.

“I don’t understand,” he says, and it leaves his mouth as a whisper, dry as the sand and the scrub grass around them.

Cecil smiles, fond and patient. “I know,” he says. His thumb strokes the back of Carlos’ hand. “You don’t need to. Just…” his smile widens, “make a wish.”

There’s a whoosh and a roar and the bang of a protesting atmosphere. A smattering of applause breaks out. Bottles clink together and someone laughs at a joke told in modified Sumerian.

Carlos sees yellow and gold and flaming orange reflected in the gleam of Cecil’s eyes, lighting the line of his neck, forming the silhouette of his hair.

He leans in, tilts his head, and wishes as hard as he can with his eyes held open while the cosmos rearranges itself above them.

| |

The mayor declares a random Friday in September to be a mandatory rest day, advising all residents to stay indoors, board up their windows, and huddle in the darkest corner they can find until, “You better appreciate the value of your mayfly existences, and all the freedoms your venerable mayor so generously provides and can easily revoke”.

Carlos convinces Cecil the best thing to do is to spend it together, conducting rigorous tests to see what collapses first: their skeletal structures or Cecil’s bed frame. He’d love to say he had a good idea of which it should be. Clearly it requires experimentation.

“This—This i-isn’t particularly restful,” Cecil points out, the words wobbling and warping as Carlos sucks at his lower lip, his hands warm under the hem of Carlos’ shirt.

Carlos huffs a shaky laugh through his nose, feels the nudge of the bed at the back of their tangled legs, and uses his weight to topple Cecil backwards, an oomph getting knocked out of one or both of them as they land on top of each other.

He brushes a hand up the soft inside of Cecil’s forearm, smiles when he shivers. “Are you complaining?”

Cecil squirms under him, wriggling until their hips align and Carlos can feel just how much he really isn’t complaining. There’s dark pink at the tops of Cecil’s cheeks and sweat at his temples, hair sticking up on one side where Carlos has had his fingers in it, the collar of his shirt pulled askew. Carlos groans in his chest and rocks down against him, heat tracing patterns up his spine.

“Tell me something you want,” Carlos says, gentle fingers stroking strands of hair off Cecil’s forehead.

He smiles into the kiss Cecil plants on his mouth, eager and a little sloppy.

“I uh—I want—” Cecil gasps, mouthing at Carlos’ jawline and what he can reach of his throat. He gives up a small overwrought laugh against Carlos’ skin. “I can’t decide,” he says, nips at the tendon straining at Carlos’ neck.

Carlos kisses him again. “Anything,” he murmurs, tongue slipping to the edge of Cecil’s mouth. He puts his hands firmly on Cecil’s hips, arches into the weight of Cecil’s fingers on his side, his back. “You can have anything.” He ruts his body down into Cecil’s like punctuation, dick riding the space above Cecil’s hipbone.

Cecil groans, and when Carlos catches his gaze there’s this look, and just like that he gets it, and Cecil knows it too, the way he bares his neck and groans again, sound all stuck in his throat.

When he finds it, Carlos’ voice is rough, a burr that catches right down the aroused-heavy length of his body.

“Roll over.”

Cecil puts his head down into the pillow, hands fisted in the sheets. His shoulders are trembling, and kneeling behind him Carlos is panting wet-hot across his lower back, hands stroking down Cecil’s ass with the tips of his fingers ghosting into the space between his cheeks.

When Carlos pulls him open and slips his tongue to Cecil’s hole, Cecil jerks, limbs locking up and a high noise squeezing through his teeth.

He moans again when Carlos hums against him, face buried in that hot, shadowy space and the push of his tongue opening Cecil up, feeling Cecil’s thighs shaking where Carlos has their knees slotted together.

It’s been, well, a long time since Carlos has done this, since he was with someone who wanted it, but Cecil’s eager, cock hard and hanging down between his legs, leaking onto the bed as Carlos traces the edge of his hole and dips inside, curling while Cecil’s hips tilt up and he garbles out more broken nonsense.

Carlos barely even takes a breath, eats at Cecil with more and more pressure every time he whines and bucks into Carlos’ face. His stubble scratches along Cecil’s skin, the shuff of it contrasting with the slick sounds of Carlos’ tongue when he stabs it up deeper into Cecil’s body.

His back’s aching with the arched angle of his spine, beads of sweat itching as they roll down from between his shoulders. His dick’s tight to his belly, echoing his pulse, probably spilling as much precome on the sheets as Cecil’s, arousal tightening around his gut when he fits his lips to the wet mess of Cecil’s hole and licks around, in.

Spit’s running down the strip of skin to Cecil’s balls, and around a moan he hopes Cecil can feel he can’t help murmuring, “The way you taste,” sounding like he’s half out of his mind.

He adds a finger alongside his tongue and Cecil shudders, legs twitching when he pushes his knees further apart, Carlos urging him on with nudges of his own. His hand pries Cecil’s cheeks open and he licks around the digit he’s twisting deeper and deeper.

“Yes,” Cecil says, barely audible over Carlos’ own breathing in his ears and the yammering of his blood in his head. “Yes, Carlos, please.”

There’s a lull, an empty pause in all the contact while Carlos flicks the lube open, spreads it between his fingers and tries to ignore how hard he is when the wet noise makes him leak, white-hot spreading from his hips and driving like a stake in the base of his skull.

The warmth of Cecil’s body is addictive, flushed skin and the slide of sweat, the press of him back into Carlos just as wound up as when he’d been fucking Carlos, because Cecil is not a top or a bottom much in the same way he’s not tall or short, fat or thin; in much the same way that his pentagram-shaped driver’s licence lists his gender as a stamped sigil that Carlos’ eyes refused to focus on.

In an overfull drawer in the lab, under bundles of wiring and boxes of glass slides, behind countless scrunched printouts, Carlos has a notebook where he’s tried time and time again to describe Cecil in terms of attributes he actually possesses. But he’s starting to think that Cecil defying description as much as his town is one part of what draws Carlos to him; that his lifelong need to understand means that someone he can never understand is actually perfect for him, and that when he wasn’t paying attention he just decided not to care, to just accept Cecil as he’s been offering himself to Carlos from day one, back when it was suspicious instead of endearing, strange instead of beautiful.

He hasn’t felt the need to open that notebook in a while.

Cecil’s back goes bowstring taut when two of Carlos’ fingers wriggle into him, through tight muscle and curling, Carlos smiling a little when Cecil coughs out a high noise at the rolling touch against his prostate. He fucks himself back before Carlos is halfway through adding a third finger, body opening for it until Carlos can span his fingers out and feel the heat, the ripple that runs through Cecil to the core.

Blowing sweaty hair from his face, Carlos’ has to support Cecil when his knees nearly buckle, ends up leaning down until his chest slides against Cecil’s back, urging him down into a steeper angle with the tops of his shoulders on the bed and his face in profile. Carlos’ lips fit to the knobs of Cecil’s vertebrae, crooking his fingers as much as he can.

“You want me to beg?” Cecil asks, near-casual in a way that has to be an act but that makes Carlos’ hips twitch forward anyway.

Half a dozen answers that all add up to the same thing cling to the sides of Carlos’ airway, isomers of sopping thoughts like, ‘do you want to beg, is that where this was going’ or ‘you’d sound so good saying please over and over, my name mixed in in a thousand ways I haven’t heard yet’ or just ‘if I don’t get inside you I think I’ll lose whatever bits of my mind haven’t already overcooked and boiled away’.

The blunt head of Carlos’ dick works into Cecil slowly, fraction by fraction while Carlos forgets to breathe, opening Cecil wider than his fingers. He drives Cecil up towards the headboard, pressure aimed into the grip of Cecil’s ass until he has to grit his teeth to keep his noises down and finally, finally his hips are flush with Cecil’s body.

He takes Cecil apart like that, still slumped over the concave fall of his back, cock sliding in to the hilt before he rolls his hips and pulls out slowly, until the head’s keeping Cecil open at the rim, gliding in again smooth and up against Cecil’s prostate.

It’s devastating, the exerted shake in Cecil’s shoulders against Carlos’ chest and Carlos’ thighs at the backs of Cecil’s, tremors getting worse and the need to come pulling at him from behind his balls, in his stomach, the hollow feeling of his chest when he exhales choppy and senseless, Cecil trailing precome down onto the bed like filthy gossamer all the while.

Carlos leaves a hand on Cecil’s hip, uses the other one with its lube-wet fingers to reach around and grip Cecil’s dick. He palms over the head and Cecil groans in pointed fragments, shuddering at the hips like he’s caught between thrusting in Carlos’ grip and working back onto his cock.

Cecil comes right as Carlos presses under the head with the blunt ends of his nails, and Carlos grinds hard into him, desperate uncoordinated snaps of his body rocking Cecil and echoing with the creak of the bed frame, the knock of the headboard against the wall. He’s facedown in the pillow now, muffled noises leaking out of him, and Carlos’ head is full of a high whine and the red behind his lids.

His hips stagger once, twice, barely a third time, and his fingers go slack around Cecil’s dick as he bites out a groan that claws from his palate and his bally empty, mind-numbing pulses that clench his stomach muscles, other hand keeping Cecil tight to him until he can finally breathe again.

They collapse onto the bed, rolling in a vain attempt to avoid the wet spot. Cecil turns in Carlos’ arms and they exchange kisses between slowing pants, roving hands around their slowing heartbeats.

Cecil lies back while Carlos cleans them up, hums when Carlos pulls him in again and musters enough energy to comb his fingers through Carlos’ hair. Carlos shuts his eyes and leans his head onto Cecil’s chest, hand on the curve of Cecil’s thigh and the smell of him – them – everywhere.

They fuck again maybe an hour later, dimming orange sunset spilling through the gap at the bottom of the drapes. Cecil’s flat on his back, knees crooked and feet flat with Carlos between them, keeps eye contact when Carlos pushes into him again, body still open and the slide in ridiculously, obscenely smooth.

Carlos pulls Cecil’s calves over his shoulders, hands spanned out on his shins while his hips work forward, throwing shadow across Cecil’s belly and the pretty flush running down to near his nipples.

They’re not speaking, but it feels like they are. Carlos doesn’t feel like he’s breathing but he has to be. He wants to find out how synched-up their pulses are.

Carlos loses it first this time, head thrown back with his neck straining and sweat falling from his hair to his back. Cecil jerks himself off with Carlos slowly softening in him, and he’s halfway through streaking white-wet up his stomach when Carlos lays his fingers over Cecil’s and coaxes him the rest of the way through, mess stringing in spider webbed  threads between them.

Cecil grabs them food from the kitchen and they eat sitting cross-legged on the (ruined, by this point) bed sheets, passing oddly-coloured and shaped grapes and lumps of meat and cheese from some animal whose name Carlos can’t pronounce but that has a lot of apostrophes if the wrapper is anything to go by.

Eventually they shower, pressed close in the tiled cubicle while water takes the sweat and come and crumbs off them. They’re both half hard by the time the water’s turning cool, but neither of them are in any kind of hurry to do anything about it.

Carlos lets Cecil wash his hair, smiling when Cecil moans more than he does, strong fingers pressing over Carlos’ scalp and down to his neck, erections bobbing between them.

They flop down onto the couch and let a movie run in the background (Lord of the Rings, with Cecil quick to point out that that sort of thing is exactly why the City Council banned enchanted jewellery in the first place), hands running over each other more comforting and restful than erotic or purposeful.

By the time the town starts to hum back to life outside, Carlos is sorry to leave, doesn’t want to abandon the soft-encapsulated bit of peace they’ve put together in Cecil’s house.

He smiles when Cecil pushes him against the doorframe, hand in the middle of Carlos’ chest while he kisses Carlos slowly, deep and possessive in a way Carlos wants to dig into more, just shut the door and walk Cecil back to the couch or upstairs again. One of Cecil’s neighbours wolf-whistles from down near the sidewalk and Cecil laughs into Carlos’ mouth, pulls away just to lay a softer, close-lipped kiss on him.

Carlos walks backwards down half of Cecil’s driveway, smiling at Cecil’s smile and resisting the urge to look down and check that his feet are still actually on the ground.

He whistles to himself on the drive home, and when he flicks the car’s radio on, Cecil’s voice is smilingly explaining that it’s a wonderful day.

| |

There’s an outbreak of zombies during Night Vale’s flu season that keeps Carlos and his team awake for almost a week straight trying to find a cure for.

They’re tired, exhausted really, none of them have showered or even eaten beyond the bare minimum to keep their hands from shaking, and outside there’s the constant low moaning and groaning of the hordes of zombified townspeople.

Cecil’s on the radio, has been almost the whole time, encouraging and reminding people to stay out of biting distance of their now-necrotic neighbours while also waxing poetic about discrimination against those without the privilege of a pulse or a particular set of dietary needs is not what Night Vale is all about:

We are a diverse community, built on mutual respect, understanding, and a shared fear of the impossible vastness of the void our little planet is hurtling through at terrifying speed. It is simply not in that spirit to generalise based on race, or gender, or animated versus reanimated, listeners. And I’m sure once Carlos – tireless, dedicated Carlos – and his team of scientists have this little bout of walking death resolved, and we can once again embrace our fellow citizens without fear of being gouged or devoured and converted, they will appreciate our willingness to remain united.

“Your boyfriend is one upbeat guy,” someone says in a lull between all the frustrated questions and harried requests for more coffee. “Dunno how he does it.”

“Try not to sound too jealous,” Carlos responds, only half kidding, still staring down the microscope with eyes that feel like they have ants crawling behind them. It’s an unpleasant thought, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

Once they do figure out an antidote to what Cecil’s been calling “FluZ”, Carlos – because of course – draws the short straw (or, well, piece of snapped pencil) in driving to the rough centre of town to release it, packing his car with the drug while the others create a diversion out in front of the lab that bears a disturbing resemblance to the YMCA dance (they’re scientists, not tacticians).

He manages to avoid the horde by simple virtue of the fact that shambling really isn’t the speediest mode of transport when compared to an automobile, and he’s already done opening the valves on the strapped-together tanks of aerosolised compound before any of them even reach him.

Crisis resolved, the team unanimously agrees that scientific discovery can wait until they’ve bathed and slept for at least a few days.

Carlos sees Cecil leaving the radio station on his way to his apartment. He looks as tired as Carlos feels, bags under his eyes and wrinkles in his clothes.

“I knew you could do it,” Cecil tells him once he pulls over, leaning on the driver’s side door.

Carlos yawns, waves a hand in apology. “It was touch and go,” he admits, mostly just trying to keep his head upright.

“I never doubted,” Cecil says, and then, “I shouldn’t keep you,” when Carlos yawns again. Carlos smiles for the first time in days when Cecil leans through the open window and kisses him on the cheek.

“I’ll uh—” he yawns. “I’ll call you, once I’m not so—” he waves a hand at himself.

Cecil kisses him again. “Beautiful Carlos,” he murmurs, like a reminder, and Carlos smiles again like it’s just that easy. “Drive safe.”

He collapses face-first into bed, the last of his energy expended on getting out of his clothes, and even though he’d feel ridiculous for it if he was awake enough and his limbs weren’t made entirely out of lead, he touches his cheek before he falls asleep.

| |

Their fifth date (Carlos is aware he should stop counting at some point, though he’s got no idea when that point is. He’ll make a chart) is a picnic in Grove Park, which promptly gets cancelled on account of the denizens of the tiny underground city launching a pincer movement from the parking lot of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex.

The Sheriff’s Secret Police manage to free Teddy Williams from where he’d been tied up with dozens of thin lengths of rope and staked down in the middle of lane five (like Gulliver, Carlos couldn’t help thinking), but by then there’s a good number of miniscule troops around the town causing all sorts of trouble.

So everyone’s advised via the Emergency Dream Broadcast System, which leaves Carlos blinking away images of wandering through infinite fields of vivid, blood-red corn with messages pressed into them like municipal crop circles, while the sky turns slowly orange shot through with sooty black, like a tiger in a kaleidoscope, to stay indoors while the Sheriff’s Secret Police try out their latest idea: a group of cats in full body armour trained to attack the forces of the underground city. Apparently they’ve been practicing on some army men confiscated from kids at the elementary school, which Cecil agrees is a little harsh. The Secret Police could’ve at least used their own army men.

Carlos has too many unpleasant flashbacks to little explosives and toothpick-sized, glinting spears coming at him to mind the confinement. Plus he’s at Cecil’s house by then, so the night’s not a total failure.

They end up sitting together at Cecil’s dining table, pressed side-by-side and playing what Carlos can only assume is the Night Vale equivalent of Jenga, because the name of the game on the box was just a series of jagged runes along with “Marvel at the beauty of destruction! (Suitable for ages 5-260)” and a picture of a family with four members possessing an improbably large number of limbs. Some of the blocks are wood (albeit a kind that apparently generates its own faint heat when touched) and some are a lightweight blue metal Carlos is sure, without having to check, isn’t anywhere on the periodic table.

There’s a trail of greenish-yellow slime running down the side of the tower where a couple of the blocks are… well, leaking. And some of them make a noise when he pokes or pulls at them with his fingers, something indignant between a huff and a squeak.

It should be more disturbing than it is, but honestly Carlos is still a little stuck on the way Cecil’s long fingers crook and turn as he nudges and moves the blocks away.

When he looks at Cecil he sees him leaning on his arm, elbow on the (thankfully not self-heating) wooden surface, and watching Carlos with a tiny smile lurking in the corners of his mouth, softness in his eyes. It’s the way Cecil looks when he sees him as Carlos and not ‘beautiful, perfect Carlos’. Like he’s seeing the person and not the fiction – the mystifying ideal that gets breathed over the radio or out of smiling faces that Carlos passes in the aisles of the Green Market.

So he leans in, doesn’t even have to go far, they’re sitting so close, and plants a kiss on Cecil’s mouth. Because he wants to, because it feels good when Cecil’s smile blooms against Carlos’ mouth. Because he can’t not with that pillowy warmth in the colour of Cecil’s eyes.

It’s warm and close-lipped, sweet, and he presses a second and then a third kiss to the curve of Cecil’s lips, his eyes shutting without telling them to. He tilts his head and fits them together, brushes his tongue over Cecil’s lower lip, and Cecil shudders and sort of falls closer to him, a hand on Carlos’ shoulder. The wet sounds they lose between them make Carlos’ toes curl up in his socks, arch against the floor, and he grins when they finally pull apart, because Cecil looks good, and also slightly surprised, but mostly he just looks happy.

“Wow,” Cecil says, and Carlos grins wider, because he’d maybe been expecting another ‘Neat!’ even though Cecil’s imposed a moratorium on that word possibly for the rest of time.

“I uh, I think it’s your move,” Carlos says, having to make his eyes hop up from staring at Cecil’s mouth to look him in the eye. He’s talking about the game. He is. Cecil’s got colour in his cheeks and his eyes are a little dark, kiss-bruised around his lips, and Carlos can’t seem to find his thread of thought. He tugs at his collar, wiping his other, suddenly damp palm on his pant leg.

He presses their thighs a little more snugly together under the table, and Cecil’s hand twitches as a small noise breaks free of his throat, but he pushes back and lays his foot over Carlos’ before he moves for the ‘Jenga’ block again.

The smile never quite leaves Carlos’ mouth, and when the tower finally collapses with a loud clatter and a lot of irritated squeaking, Carlos catches Cecil’s hand by the wrist as he goes to clean up, looks up at his unaverage and non-spectacular but utterly compelling face where it’s ringed by the light and coloured with shadow and says, “Leave them.”

They squash themselves onto Cecil’s couch and let a rerun of some soap opera turn to white noise while Carlos’ hands run up under Cecil’s shirt and Cecil pushes his fingers through Carlos’ hair, murmuring half conversations to each other between slow, lazy kisses.

“I should probably be reporting on the fight against the underground city,” Cecil says regretfully, one hand at the back of Carlos’ head, long fingers playing with the hairs at his nape.

Carlos kisses him again, pulls back enough to lean his forehead on Cecil’s temple. “You’re not due back at the station until the morning. You pre-recorded your show for tonight, right?”

Cecil nods, gently tracing the fingers of his other hand up and down Carlos’ forearm where it’s draped over Cecil’s waist. “I, uh, I wanted more time with you,” he admits, as though that’s either a surprise or something Carlos wouldn’t enjoy hearing. He turns his head to kiss the flush puddling on Cecil’s cheek.

“Then stay here,” he whispers, pad of his thumb tracing Cecil’s hipbone under the hem of his shirt. He hears the soft click of Cecil swallowing, and the hand at the back of his head slides down to cup his neck, anchoring him in the next kiss, his lips soft as they slide over Carlos’. Cecil’s staggering breath on his mouth, wet and warm. “Stay and spend time with me.”

He presses closer to feel the shiver that runs its way down Cecil’s body, puts his hands under Cecil’s shirt and slots his fingers into the spaces between his ribs, Cecil’s shaky breathing fluttering against his palms.

They roll until Cecil’s laid out underneath him, lazy-slow motions of their hips slotting together. They’re both hard by now, eager despite the occasional tinny clatter of tiny weapons or feral meowing and hissing from outside.

Carlos dedicates a few worthwhile minutes to putting a purplish mark on Cecil’s neck sucking and scraping with his teeth when Cecil moans and bares his throat more. He pulls back enough to kiss the mark once he’s done, nosing up to Cecil’s cheek and planting a kiss there too, then his chin below his mouth, then the slight gap between his lips.

Cecil’s hands move across Carlos’ back, fit to the juts of his shoulder blades and move to the dip above his ass. He gropes at Carlos’ sides, returns the slow, wet kiss Carlos imprints across his mouth, groans taking over his breathing and trembles taking over his muscles.

Carlos can hear his heart in his throat, dick nudging over Cecil’s in the fabric of their clothes between them, skin stretched hot and tight and shooting jolts out from his hips.

It turns more frantic in fits and starts, Carlos’ hands clenching tighter in Cecil’s clothes and against his skin, Cecil writhing under him, shoving up against his weight, low noises splintering when they hit Carlos’ skin, fingers leaving bruises behind.

“We-ah-we should do something about that,” Cecil says when his cock ruts over Carlos’ again and both of them let out groans.

“Definitely,” Carlos mutters halfway through a sloppy kiss against the faint prickle of Cecil’s jaw where he’s missed a spot shaving.

Struggling out of their clothes takes a frustrating amount of time and effort, breathless laughs mixing as their noses brush together, and Carlos ends up fighting to get his shirt over his head. He huffs and pushes his hair away from his face, lowers himself onto the bare warmth of Cecil’s chest, the feeling of being skin-to-skin making his hips stutter, Cecil groaning when it rubs them together harder.

“Like this?” Cecil asks, even though he’s already moving, rolling his body up into Carlos’ in a long sinuous wave that makes it impossible for Carlos to actually answer him.

Sharp-hot pressure between his shoulders makes Carlos hiss, and he arches towards the drag of Cecil’s nails down his back. He retaliates with another hickey, sucking it into the soft skin below Cecil’s ear, too high for him to hide so he’ll have to explain it or at least blush and misplace his vocabulary the next time someone sees him.

It’s a teenage rush, riding the juddering of Cecil’s body and chasing the pool of heat that floods his stomach whenever his dick rubs over Cecil’s, a hard ridge like a brand smearing precome against him to the thunderclap of his pulse.

His hands slide on the couch, on Cecil’s skin, fingers sweaty and twitching, curling towards his palms when he tucks them against Cecil’s arms shoves himself down, up, down again.

Carlos comes first, a broken and heavy noise constricting his neck and unsticking from the roof of his mouth that he muffles into Cecil’s shoulder. The spiralling tightness in his gut, in his hips, snaps and he’s spilling heat everywhere, onto the smooth expanse of Cecil’s belly and the hairs below his navel, against the dark and scalding ridge of his cock.

The slide between them turns filthy-slick, molten, and Cecil grunts out Carlos’ name before he goes tense all over and his head snaps back, eyes tight shut and Carlos is riveted to the leap of Cecil’s dick against his body, the seizing up-down of his ribs.

He’d like nothing better than to pass out for a while, drained and already being lulled into drowsiness by the pliable warmth of Cecil under him. But he’s probably getting too heavy by now, not to mention the unpleasantness of being stuck together that they’ll both regret if they fall asleep without cleaning up.

Cecil’s just starting to focus on him again, eyes swallowed by his pupils and his breathing all in pieces when Carlos kisses the closest bit of skin he can reach and stumbles upright. Cecil makes a seriously appealing image, flushed and mussed with his hair in stray flyaway strands above his head, come glistening on his skin.

Carlos wets a washcloth and cleans himself up quick and efficient, heads back to the couch where Cecil’s idly pushing fingertips though the mess on his belly, taking slow breaths that cave and expand his chest, eyes half-lidded and blinking lazily when he notices Carlos standing next to him.

“Sounds like the fight’s dying down,” he says, reaching out a hand to stroke up Carlos’ thigh.

“No tiny victory trumpets?” Carlos asks, wry. He laughs at the face Cecil makes when he drops the washcloth onto him. “No sounds of little flags being raised?”

Cecil hums, lips curving upwards. “I’m sure our noble defenders and their feline compatriots have things in hand. Or, well, paw.”

“Oh good,” Carlos says as he climbs over, slots himself between Cecil and the back of the couch, throws an arm over Cecil’s middle. “I’m too tired to join a militia or a resistance campaign just now.”

Cecil huffs. “Well, losing at board games can take a lot out of you.” His huff turns into a laugh when Carlos prods him in the side. “Either way,” Cecil says once he’s breathing evenly again. “We’ll go on as we always have: meeting out attempts at meaningful existences under the watchful gaze of our benevolent overlords.” He yawns and burrows back against Carlos’ body, reaches over them to pull a blanket off the back of the couch. “It’s really just the size of the overlords that changes.”

Carlos fondly shakes his head as he throws the blanket down over their feet. He just knows he’s going to wake up too hot before very long, but his body’s still orgasm-loose and his brain’s ticking over silently for a change, and he can’t make himself care all that much.

Surprisingly, it’s actually Cecil getting up for work that wakes him, everything sleep-soft and blurred at the edges like a comforting memory, domestic in a way Carlos enjoys more than he’d expect to.

“I have to go,” Cecil’s telling him. “But you should stay as long as you want. Maybe the Faceless Old Woman can make you something to eat if you get hungry.”

Carlos hums, burrows a little deeper into the blanket, already half asleep again. “Play me something nice for the weather,” he mumbles, and the breath of Cecil’s laugh stirs his hair just before his lips press to Carlos’ temple.

“I’m sure I can think of something,” Cecil murmurs. Carlos is out like a light by the time the door clicks shut behind him.

When he finally blinks awake a little while later, it’s just in time to hear the first words of It’s Only a Paper Moon coming through the radio in Ella Fitzgerald’s voice. He laughs ridiculously up at Cecil’s ceiling with the blanket in a tangle around his middle, and throws the crook of his arm over his eyes, not sure if he’s embarrassed or touched as the heat rises up his neck to his face.

“Well played, Cecil,” he says, glad for once that only the Sheriff’s Secret Police can see the face he’s making. He laughs again. “Well played.”

| |

On days when he feels a little claustrophobic, or when some of his colleagues are taking some personal time to sit on a chair in a specially designated area of the lab and drink unsafe volumes of alcohol while rocking back and forth, or even just on days when the sky is such an impossible colour that it seems to have changed places with another sky from another place, a place where the sky has a Name and a Voice and a Temper, Carlos goes looking for the clock tower.

It’s probably a fool’s errand. He’s still not entirely convinced that the clock tower exists, even in the loose Night Vale sense of the term. They’ve all heard it – the chimes at random moments that strike out across the air and thud upwards against the soles of their feet, but it’s not like the town doesn’t have a plethora of sounds that emanate from nowhere. It’s still too tempting to resist investigation.

So he packs a backpack with water and sunscreen, a sandwich, and the radio from his workstation, puts on a wide-brimmed hat and grabs a handheld sensor, and starts following the blackened fingernail scrapes of streets and shimmering roads between the buildings. It’s hardly the oddest thing he’s done so far in pursuit of answers to one of Night Vale’s mysteries.

He tried to get the plans for the tower from City Hall during his first excursion, but after spending half a day wandering gleaming corridors of what he desperately hoped was linoleum, and passing more than one door (or possibly the same door existing in multiple loci) made of solid black something and marked with the word RE-EDUCATION in a seeping red font, he’d decided a simple walking search (following a panicked and speedy exit) would be best.

He starts from the Old Navy outlet store, heading up Flint Drive and examining any area of empty space he imagines might be able to hold something the (theoretical) size of a clock tower. The scanner only buzzes with the usual forms of radiation and snatches of ritual chanting, plus the occasional screech of interference from a passing Secret Police surveillance crew. He’s hoping they won’t hold it against him. He apologises aloud, enunciating, just in case.

After a while, he reaches around and turns the dial on his radio where it’s snug inside a mesh side-pocket of his bag. No reason he can’t listen to Cecil’s show while he works. He needs to keep an ear out for weather warnings after all; coal storms can get nasty.

… because the road, like the void, or the cleaning of your home, is endless. We are all on this eternal highway together , travelling as a family – a community – towards the inevitable demise of our universe, each other, and in a last fit of searing cold and darkness, ourselves. But isn’t the real destination the journey itself, faithful listeners? We may never arrive, we may never leave, and who’s to say whether we’re even going in the right direction at all? But rest assured we are all in a place, at a time, and sooner or later, we will come to a stop.

This has been traffic.

Carlos walks down Ouroboros Road, making sure to avoid looking directly at Jerry’s Tacos, and keeps going until he reaches Cactus Bloom. He almost stops for a Subway, passing the building with its infinite entrances and suddenly feeling like he hasn’t eaten, ever; that his bones are hollow and his stomach’s empty, skin as thin and devoid of filler as a paper lantern. God, he’s so hungry.

He stumbles, pulls the sandwich from his pack and tears half of it into his mouth with his eyes clenched shut, forcing his body to feel the food between its teeth, the roll of muscle along its oesophagus, and busily fills his head with every formula and principle and equation he can think of, down to reciting the atomic weights of elements. He steps forward, and then again, the scanner in his hand piping up tinnily with, “eat fresh; eat now; come to us. Let us take it all away.

Thumb jamming the power button to kill the voice that’s like hooks in his eardrums, Carlos’ other hand finds the volume dial on his radio and turns it up, up until the speakers are fizzing with the strength of Cecil’s voice:

... a house. You have been here before, though you now not when or in what way it has changed. You are suddenly certain that you will always come here, searching for something you fear you will never find; something you lost long ago, a childhood you have since forgotten. Around you the house begins to creak and waver. You stumble. The walls change places, and laugh when you hit them. All the doors lead inwards, allowing you passage only to throw you back, like a cruel fisherman who enjoys watching your futile struggle for oxygen. The lights are going out. In the darkness a hand snatches your wrist, a hand in name only, all sharp points and roiling tangles. As you are hauled in enforced silence into the grave darkness, your only thought is that yes, you have been here before.

This message brought to you by Coors Light: Suckle from the emptiness.

Listeners, during the break I received several calls informing me that Carlos – loving, dear, beautiful Carlos – is once again conducting a search for our little burgh’s magnificent clock tower. Since the clock tower is invisible, and is continually teleporting, it’s safe to assume that his search requires a great deal of effort and scientific knowhow, and we should all admire him for it. I know I do.

The sunbaked ground dents when he falls onto one knee, swallowing dry with remnants of peanut butter on his palate. His smile is weak, watery. He takes a slow breath, focuses on what Cecil’s saying about the clock tower instead of the faint pull coming from the Subway.

Perhaps it is only a metaphor – a twenty-three million dollar metaphor, existing and not existing as both a statement about the price of our material desires, and the potential folly of trusting mysterious construction firms who communicate solely through patterns in the spilled entrails of sanctified chickens. Or maybe it’s just really hard to find. I mean, I once lost my car keys in my living room, and it took me forever to find them. Either way, we wish our town’s most beloved inquisitive soul the best of luck, and hope that whatever he finds or does not find, that it does not come with an even heftier price for all of us.

Now listeners, let us go, unsure and wistful, filled with buyer’s remorse, to the weather…

Carlos drains one of his water bottles, wipes his mouth, and tries to relax into the beat. When his limbs feel more solid and his heart stops trying to punch out of his chest, he walks a little further across the unpaved ground of Cactus Bloom, dry air sticking in his nose and sweat collecting at his collar. Even under the glaring eye of the afternoon sun, he can still make out the pure glow of the halo around Old Woman Josie’s house in the direction of the car lot. There’s a hawk circling high up in the empty air ahead of him, but he’ll never be able to convince anyone else of that; hawks have been unknowable for weeks now. He takes a picture with his phone anyway, empiricism demanded by his conscience as much as his stubbornness.

… that nothing predicts the future so well as the past. Nothing predicts the present so well as your outlook. And nothing predicts the past so well as your municipal time travel schedule, posted biweekly ahead of its own creation outside of City Hall…

He thumbs at the black-grey smudge on his phone’s screen that is definitely a hawk, it is, and should be much clearer than it is. He shoves the phone into his pocket with a sigh, glances up as he steps around a cactus, and that’s when he sees the man.

He’s standing less than twelve feet away, in the middle of the grass-dotted emptiness that is Cactus Bloom, where Carlos should’ve spotted him long before now. But… that’s all he does notice: that there’s a man, and that he’s standing nearby, big leather suitcase in his one hand and heedless of the desert heat in his tan jacket.

Carlos frowns. He can’t—There’s something about the man’s face. It’s—

A fly buzzes close to Carlos’ ear, startling him. He raises a hand and swats at the phantom itch in his eardrum. When he looks ahead the man’s raised an arm, pointing out across the sand with a wrinkled cigarette pinched between two (two?) fingers. Are those fingers?

“What—” he starts, and grunts at the throbbing in his temple, the sun stabbing at the fragile space behind his eyes.

The scanner shifts in his palm, and the display is filled with white, cracked and wavering like television static. A fly lands on the heel of his hand, tiny black legs twitching and odd colours scattered by its wings.

He’s forgotten something, hasn’t he? Something important? But at least he remembers which way he’s supposed to go. Did someone—

The scanner whines, a long and wavering note that makes Carlos wince. There’s a man watching him, holding a suitcase and pointing. There’s something wrong with his face.

Air that brushes Carlos’ hair over his forehead and in his eyes doesn’t touch the tan folds of the man’s jacket. The sand doesn’t creep against the sides of his shoes. He doesn’t have a shadow, or he’s wearing his shadow under his jacket. He’s still pointing, and his cigarette scatters ash upwards.

“W-What do you want?”

The breeze picks up. There’s a buzz like electricity, like groaning, like insects.

Carlos takes a step closer, and doesn’t know why. His stomach turns and bile burns behind his tongue. His palms are sweating, he’s suddenly cold, and he wants very badly to be somewhere else, behind walls and locks and to not be alone. He wants to believe not being alone would help.

His scanner warbles, screeches, and it sounds like SEE.or KNOW.or FALL.

A gust of sand and sour wind that’s full of flies and Carlos’ hand covers his eyes but not his face, not enough of him, glancing points of contact on his skin that feel chilled, feel revolting. It’s over and he’s blinking with tight skin and shivers pulling at his limbs, swallowing with dry nothing in his throat. He feels nauseous. It might be heatstroke; is that why he’s so cold?

His foot knocks into something that isn’t there, jolt of surprise leaping up his spine and snapping in his neck with the startled sound he makes.

When he kicks out at the air it’s solid and makes a scraping noise against his shoe. It resists his palm when he presses at it, a wall of not-nothing. He’s alone and there’s a sound inside his head.

Tick-tock

Tick-tock

Carlos follows the wall until he meets a right angle and his arm extends into the finally appropriately gaseous air, then another and another, making a rough square with his footprints in the dirt. He imagines a triangular prism stood on end, higher than he can reach and wider on each of its three sides than the span of his arms.

Tick-tock

He should be happy. Or vindicated. At least confused as to how an entire clock tower can be tangible and apparently functional but also completely invisible. But all he feels is… unease? Dread? The urge to run and not look back.

Why is he afraid? Invisible clock towers are somewhere near the bottom of fear-inducing stimuli this town has to offer. He looks around and he’s alone, scanner beeping a warning that it’s low on power but busily sucking down readings. He bats away a fly that’s circling his head and picks up on Cecil’s voice like he’d forgotten it was there.

… Woman Josie says the angels are very upset. Says they won’t tell her why. “I think it’s because their favourite show was just cancelled midseason,” she told me a few moments ago over the phone. “They just want reliable, quality programming!” she continued, having to steadily raise her voice over the humming din of the heavenly glow that’s been ballooning out from her house for the past several minutes.

I think we can all relate to that, right, folks? Just how many times have we all been burned by networks that recycle the same ideas? Who care for nothing but ratings and appealing to the lowest common denominator? Too many, dear listeners. Too many.

The City Council, in a hurried message wrapped around a flaming arrow that struck the front door here at the station just now, remind you – yet again – that the angels are not real, and that the hierarchy of heaven is none of your business, even if it did exist. Which it doesn’t. Not at all. The, “at all,” part is underlined several times, so hard that the paper is torn a little, so you know they’re serious.

Carlos is looking for a door, a ladder, any kind of features in the walls that his palms move over. There’s a faint resistance between his skin and what might be stone now. His scanner’s beeping wildly, display showing spikes in charts of ambient static and a kind of radiation he’s never seen before.

A hauling pull makes his ears pop and the sand spiral up to his knees or higher, vortexing inward. The resistance turns to a sharp jabbing all along his palm and the lengths of his fingers. Then the not-nothing his hand is resting on becomes a much more traditional sort of nothing, briefly cold, and just like that Carlos is left standing with his arm stuck out into the air and his scanner showing average Night Valeian atmosphere.

He groans and lets his arm drop to his side. Amateurish, really, to forget about the teleporting. Next time he’ll tie himself to the damn thing if he has to.

The jingle of his phone pulls him out of the frown he’s aiming at the now-vacant air.

“Hello?”

Carlos,” Cecil breathes out, in relief instead of adoration it sounds like. “I was so worried! Old Woman Josie said you weren’t safe.”

“I’m fine, Cecil,” Carlos tell him, absently waving his free hand in front of him, toeing at the inert sand. “I was just—,” he smiles a little ruefully, “You already know don’t you?”

“Well,” Cecil starts, maybe embarrassed or maybe gearing up for an editorial, it’s hard to tell sometimes, “I might have made a few calls when I heard you were out wandering Cactus Bloom.”

“A few calls,” Carlos says, teasing, smiling again when he hears Cecil clear his throat.

“Several calls,” he says. “Definitely less than a dozen, anyway. Leanne Heart said you stumbled past one of the new super-subliminal Subway ads and after what happened in ‘06 with the carnivorous sand snakes I was simply making sure that-”

“I know,” Carlos cuts in. “It’s fine, I know you—it’s fine. I’m heading back now.”

“Oh,” Cecil says. “Of course. You have science to do,” he says it with an admiration Carlos doesn’t feel like he deserves considering his afternoon.

“And you’re—Cecil, are we on the air right now?” he asks, cringing a little. He’s asked Cecil to tell him, but sometimes he forgets, and Carlos’ voice has a way of changing pitch at unfortunate moments when he knows the whole town is listening.

“Ad break,” Cecil assures him. “It’s uh, probably gone on a little long by now, but, well. Priorities. I’m actually getting out early. We’re running a special today: The Groans and Cries of Warping Metal”

Carlos steps around a bunch of cacti as he heads for the town. “That’s—That’s good, Cecil,” he says. “Time off is, uh. Good.” He pulls the phone away from him to mouth an obscenity at himself and knocks it once against his forehead in the hope of shaking more adjectives loose before he puts it back to his ear.

“Would you-”

“Do you-”

Cecil makes a small, nervous-sounding laugh. Carlos stumbles on a tangle of scrub grass.

“Yeah,” he says, smiling while he pushes a hand through his hair. At least they’ve managed to get actual meaning into the awkwardness “What time shall I stop by?”

“Depends how long it takes you to get here,” Cecil comes back with immediately, followed by a muffled thumping distinctly like the sound produced when a head bangs repeatedly against a radio booth’s desk.

Carlos squints ahead at the loping rows of buildings, picks out the spindly jut of the radio tower sticking into the celeste-quality air between here and there.

The, “Not long,” gets doused in the fondness that’s filling up his chest.

| |

Carlos has no idea how their sixth date went, because it fell on a cancelled Wednesday.

He doesn’t wake up on Thursday feeling any more vaguely terrified or drained of some immaterial substance than he usually does though, and he’s in his own bed rather than standing in a bloodstone circle or frozen into an anatomically unlikely pose out in the middle of the Sand Wastes, so he’s hoping they enjoyed themselves.

He spends an hour moving around the kitchen of his apartment, eating his breakfast one-handed while reordering his cabinets, since everything in them has either changed places or been structurally inverted overnight.

Cecil will be at work by now, sitting in his booth leaning over the mic or getting coffee in the break room, planting flowers at the interns’ graves and reading the latest missives from Station Management. Carlos glances at his phone. He could call to say… something, couldn’t he? “I had a lovely non-time last night”? “Let’s do whatever we did again soon”?

In the end he sends Cecil a text asking if he wants to come over the following evening, pressing send after tapping out and deleting only three drafts this time, and showers quickly before he heads over to the lab. He’s just hoping he had the sense to do as little work as possible yesterday, since all of Wednesday’s test results will have either been plucked completely out of spacetime, or will have changed to brightly-coloured shapes that don’t quite fit on a two-dimensional plane.

His phone buzzes across the dash of his car just as he’s arriving. Cecil’s answered him with a series of looping, entangled pictographs that engrave themselves across the screen, and Carlos quickly puts his phone down again as a trail of thin, purple smoke trails out from between the keys, reaching for him.

From the speakers of the car’s radio, Cecil tells him (and the rest of Night Vale) that they have another date tomorrow night, and that he hopes Carlos and his magnificent hair are as excited as Cecil himself is.

The steering wheel is cool when Carlos rests his forehead against it, and the purple smoke slowly filling the car despite the open windows smells faintly of jasmine. He thinks it’s a compliment.

| |

Carlos understands that there are a lot of ways to fall in love. The problem is that it’s not a uniform process, and the multitude of ways it can happen to you aren’t unifiable. It’s slow or fast or both; sudden or expected or neither. It makes up its own terms and then decides to throw them all away. It’s a lot like Night Vale, really; poetic and terrifying, every data point an outlier and everything new potentially destructive.

Carlos has been in love before, several times in fact, each one as similar and dissimilar as people are from one another. Same genus, but things get muddled in the details.

The way he’s fallen in love with Cecil makes no sense because Night Vale makes no sense, and it’s perfect because Night Vale is perfect. And in that contradiction, overlap balanced on the edge of a knife, is Carlos with the heart that Cecil’s handed him as though it would never cost him anything, or bring him any kind of pain whatsoever.

Because Carlos fell in love with Cecil like the most dangerous way to fall out of a tree; tumbling end over end and snagging, catching and halting on branches time and again, taking so long so hit the ground that the impact ends up coming as a surprise. Whereas Cecil fell for Carlos - maybe more than once, the fiction and then the reality - like falling from the empty sky; clean and quick and singing through the air. But the end result is the same: they’re both on the ground.

Carlos just wishes he’d had the time or the perspective to brace his knees for the landing. As it is, he wakes up to the sound of his alarm and the vague confusion caused by all his bedroom furniture having rotated a good ninety degrees during the night, feeling his body slowly wake up while his brain is busy clobbering him with the knowledge that he’s so deep in this particular crater he can’t see daylight anymore.

“Holy shit,” he utters to the ceiling (and the Sheriff’s Secret Police), because this is a startling lack of self-awareness even for him, and the constant confounding distractions of Night Vale can only excuse so much.

He feels that the second, more forceful, “Holy shit,” is completely justified, even if there’s a muffled rebuke of, “Language!” from behind the light fixture.

An album of him-and-Cecil runs from cover to cover inside his brain. Awkward conversations where Carlos measures himself by his sweaty palms or the twitching smile at one side of his mouth or the jittery up-down of his knee, where he just can’t arrange his vocabulary into anything like you scare me more than this town and I’ve started needing it or you look at me like I’m remarkable but that’s the only time I feel like I am or Please tell me how you make everything seem okay. All the times Cecil’s smiled at him, grinned at him, laughed with or even at him and his silly, naïve ways, and the way Carlos felt so accomplished every time. The frequent arguments like pressure valves that they have at all hours, which are frustrating and exhilarating and remind Carlos he can never know everything, and most times that he doesn’t know anything at all, but make that seem completely wonderful instead of disheartening or infuriating.

There’s the nights he’s fallen asleep listening to Cecil’s voice and the times he’s lied and imagined the voice coming from Cecil’s soft mouth on the next pillow and not from a speaker grill on the bedside table. The feel of Cecil’s skin under his hands or the care he takes with Carlos’, the brush of his fingers like Carlos is made of spun sugar and the gasp of his pretty lips into the curve of Carlos’ shoulder, the infolding curves of their limbs in Cecil’s bed. Cecil’s hand in his and his head on Carlos’ shoulder, two tiny humans under lights they can’t explain in a town that makes no sense and built a home in a chamber of his heart when he wasn’t looking. The way Cecil looks when he comes; awed-surprised-exultant and beautiful; the way he looks when Carlos comes, eyes wide and cheeks flushed and hands never still. How his eyes are always so different, always something new. The way Carlos is abruptly, all-encompassingly terrified of losing any of it.

It feels endless, the reel of what they are. And it feels like a flint spark at night, there and gone in the tiniest moment, the afterimage lasting longer than its existence, and Carlos swallows hard, threads the sheets through his fingers and takes a breath, then another. He’s shaking, heart probably audible for miles around, skin feeling tight and his stomach swooping, circling somewhere near his knees.

Then it passes in a slow trickle, and he’s brand new – newer than the world around him, risen out of ash he hadn’t even noticed spending lonely years pulling around himself like a blanket, a shelter, a papery wall against a hurricane.

Somewhere his mother is probably clucking her tongue and telling him she told him so.

A bubble of hysterical laughter frees itself, pops in the air above Carlos’ head. It’s the kind of laugh you don’t mean to make in the middle of an event so much grander in scope than you are that the only response is to laugh or sob. There’s probably a word for it in Night Vale, even if Carlos couldn’t pronounce it.

“I love Cecil,” he says around a second bubble, like putting his foot on a frozen pond to see whether it’ll crack or hold his weight.

“Ugh,” says the light fixture, “tell us something we don’t know.”

Carlos has lived almost thirty years, has almost died in this town more than once, has butted his head up against fundamental principles that’ve been turned as solid as wet pasta, and never has he been more petrified than right now.

“I love Cecil,” he says again, firmer and without the laugh this time, like a challenge. He convinces his fingers to unclench and fan out, hair crinkling against his pillow while he gulps around his bursting heart.

He’s never felt braver, either.

| |

That feeling lasts until the exact moment Carlos realises he’s going to have to tell Cecil about his feelings, at which point he’s forced to spend some quality minutes sitting on some boxes in a supply closet at the lab with his head in his hands.

I love you, he imagines himself saying in all his awkward glory, and while it’s a definite step up from “Thinking. It’s part of being a scientist” or “A scientist is self-reliant” it’s still hardly Shakespeare.

Loving you. It’s part of being a scientist, his brain decides to prod him with, in Cecil’s voice no less, like the humiliation has already happened and now he’s reliving it via a radio retelling, and his handheld head gets dropped between his knees while he contemplates seppuku via the nearest blunt object.

He’s just never been any good at this – at expressing anything that runs this deep. It’s the same problem he’s run into in every other relationship he’s had, despite the… unusual circumstances of this one he’s building with Cecil.  Honestly he feels guilty at not finding it as easy to say the words as Cecil does based on the evidence he’s been given up to now.

He literally bumps into Alex on his way out of the closet (he swallows yet another bubble of hysterical laugher at that thought) and she gives him a concerned look at whatever messy arrangement of emotions are spattered across his face.

“You okay, boss?” she asks, quirking an eyebrow and sounding like she’s about to offer him the emergency whiskey. “You’re looking a little spooked. You didn’t eat a wheat by-product again did you?”

“I have feelings,” Carlos tells her gravely, using his heel to push the door shut behind him and heading off down the corridor, away from all potential sources of conversation.

Alex’s, “Not the local contagious kind right? We still haven’t put together a vaccine!” follows him until he rounds the corner.

| |

Cecil explores Carlos’ tiny (save for days when it isn’t tiny and Carlos doesn’t feel safe inside it) apartment the way a lot of people explore museums or walk around in churches.

He’s gotten better about it over the past few visits, but sometimes he can’t stop himself picking up random objects and turning them in his hands, caressing points of obvious usage. Carlos would try and get him to stop, if he hadn’t spent his first hour in Cecil’s house staring at a wall hanging that Cecil insisted was of a meadow, though Carlos has never seen a meadow with a sky like that or that held so many inventively horrific scarecrows. And then there was the incident with the stereo system that Cecil’s been too kind to mention again, unless he’d talked about it on the radio while Carlos was still waiting for his ears to stop oozing.

He wanders out from the kitchen with two glasses of wine, and finds Cecil in front of the closet just off of the living room that Carlos has been using for storage.

“You keep books in your home?” Cecil asks in a hushed voice, looking quickly between Carlos and the piles and boxes of volumes lining one wall. His mouth’s hanging a little open, eyes wide and face somewhat blanched, and Carlos probably should have expected this.

“I—Yes,” he sighs, turns and puts the wine down in case of any wild gesticulating. “They’re fine, Cecil, I promise.”

Cecil’s mouth pinches a little. “They’re not municipally approved,” he says. There’s a line between his eyebrows that’s actually kind of adorable. Carlos refrains from reminding him of the rebellious streak he often lets out on public radio; Cecil’s impressive cognitive dissonance about his own toe-the-line mentality is a difficult place to navigate, and Carlos is still learning where to tread.

“They’re for science,” he says, since that’s a sort of get out of jail free card with Cecil, and it’s true, most of them are academic texts he’d hauled across the country with him, references now made defunct by the town’s own brand of semi-constants, and others he just enjoys reading. He’ll work up to showing Cecil the uneven stacks of fiction in the other room. Or the shoebox filled with illicit writing implements in his nightstand. Baby steps.

“Oh,” Cecil breathes, almost reverential now, looking back at the books with an expression of appreciation that’s likely completely sincere. Carlos has never met anyone so capable of that before, of reordering their own reactions to the world as effortlessly as Cecil does. Every time he watches it happen, Carlos is left with a tightness in his chest and a jealousy he’s not comfortable acknowledging; scientists are supposed to view the world empirically, unbiased by personal feeling and unattached to any one theory over another, but instead are often subjects to their own egos and prejudices. And more than that, there’s a childlike wonder to Cecil like this, a glowing humanness that Carlos is ashamed to admit he’s partly lost somewhere along the way, even if he’s slowly rediscovering it.

“Plus this way I don’t have to spend as much time in the Library,” he adds, and Cecil shudders, instinctual fear or memory of Carlos’ last visit, when he’d burst through the doors after a day of running and ducking and cowering, clutching red and green-stained books and carrying a look on his face and in his eyes that had stuck there for hours as his hands had shook and he’d thrown paranoid glances over his shoulder. Cecil got him drunk that night, patted him on the back and made soothing noises when Carlos’ sentences came out with much assembly required and half their pieces missing.

“You mustn’t go alone ever again,” Cecil says, firmly and not for the first time either. “You didn’t attend school here; you simply haven’t received enough anti-librarian training. There’s no reason to take the risk now that the Public Library has doors and we don’t have to wake up dazed and hazy between the stacks anymore.”

“I won’t,” Carlos says, tempted to pledge scout’s honour, except Cecil thinks non-Night Valeian scouts are a poorly-regulated organisation of amateurs who, “couldn’t tell a blood kestrel from a flying screech ferret if one walked up and introduced itself, and even then I doubt they so much as read screech ferret let alone speak it, honestly I despair for the youth of America sometimes.” And that was before Carlos even mentioned the homophobia. Plus the Night Vale scout salute involves more bloodshed and organ displacement than Carlos is comfortable with. Especially in a romantic setting.

Cecil reaches out and takes a book down, every move as cautious as someone who’s approaching a venomous snake. Or a live librarian, he supposes. He really should ask about that anti-librarian training at some point.

The book’s old, worn in places – loved. It’s one of Dante’s, and the cover’s peeling, a few pages swollen at their corners. Carlos has every mark memorised. Of course Cecil would pick this one; the universe’s way of throwing Carlos into the fire whether he likes it or not.

“Property of Hector Pavia,” Cecil reads from the innermost page.

Carlos steps in next to him, their shoulders overlapping. “My grandfather,” he says. “He was kind of a hoarder when it came to books; I used to play with them when I was a kid, even before I could read. He had this study stacked to the ceiling with them, drove my abuéla mad leaving them everywhere too. He left them all to me when he died.”

“Librarians catch up with us all,” Cecil murmurs absently, tracing a finger under Carlos’ grandfather’s blocky handwriting. The smell of pages is drifting up to them, so familiar Carlos smiles, and so new with Cecil there that his breath sticks in his chest.

Cecil turns the page with so much delicate care that Carlos takes to watching his face instead of looking down at the book. His head’s tilted just barely to the side, the point of his nose and the curve of his chin dropping shadows on his cheek, his jaw. He pulls at his lip with his teeth and Carlos wants to kiss him, ease the soft pink skin from the grip of his teeth and lap away the dents he’s left behind.

“This first part is underlined,” Cecil says. It takes Carlos’ brain a second to catch up.

“Oh,” he says, and he can feel the back of his neck turning warm. “I think it—I did that,” he admits. “In high school or maybe college – the first college, I mean.” He swallows. “I think I—It just sounded good; hopeful. So I—”

“You should read it,” Cecil tells him, hands going under the book to cup it in his hands as if it’s about to flow through his fingers. He holds it nearer to Carlos. “If it’s your favourite, I should hear it from you.” He’s so earnest, looking at Carlos with his eyes a soft golden colour. Book pages in the sun. Carlos doesn’t even wonder if that’s a municipal literary rule or just something Cecil holds to be true.

He’s looking at Cecil, not the book; even if he didn’t have the words Cecil’s pointing to memorised he thinks he’d still be looking at Cecil.

He clears his throat as if it’ll stop everything from being coloured across his voice, dripping off the words. As if he wants it to. “In that part of the book of my memory before which little can be read, there is a heading, which says: ‘Incipit vita nova: Here begins the new life’.”

“Carlos,” Cecil breathes, and Carlos is just now aware of how close they’re standing, close enough for him to see the flecks of odd colours in Cecil’s eyes. “I know you don’t—”

Carlos fingers presses to the width of Cecil’s mouth, watches Cecil swallow.

“I’m a little slow sometimes,” Carlos says, moving his hand to cup Cecil’s cheek, thumb brushing the softness beneath his chin. He feels drunk, somehow, tingly, like he’s floating. “You’re wonderful,” he says, obvious thickness in his voice now. His hand is on the edge of Cecil’s jaw, fingertips just reaching into the hair behind his ear. “Maybe the most amazing man I’ve ever met, and you’ve been so—” He swallows, feeling like there’s a bloodstone in his throat, and smiles gently. “Please don’t ever think it’s just you. It hasn’t been just you for a long time, Cecil.”

He’s watching Cecil watch him, like an out-of-body experience, except you have to request those from the Night Vale Department of Corporality with the proper paperwork submitted in triplicate.

“What I mean to say,” he starts, blinking through the itch behind his eyes.

“You don’t have to—”

“What I mean to say,” he insists, fingers crooking into Cecil’s hair and against his scalp. “Is that I’m—That I’ve been in love with you for a while now.” He huffs a laugh that comes out rough. “Sorry it took me so long to catch up.”

Cecil smiles then, so wide Carlos doesn’t think his mouth should be able to hold it. He tries for words, but for once he can’t seem to find them. Then he leans in and kisses Carlos, urgent and off-angle, pressing closer hard until Carlos lets the book fall to the floor and wraps his arms around Cecil’s waist.

“Bedroom,” Cecil groans against his mouth, and Carlos nods, jerky and rolling their temples together, and starts walking them towards his room.

| |

They bounce when they hit the mattress, and Cecil’s weight anchors him down, his mouth on Carlos’ jaw and his cheek and sliding across his mouth, sounds rolling over Carlos’ tongue and down his throat.

“Carlos,” Cecil whines, hips pressing down. “Tell me—Again, just-”

“I love you,” Carlos says, handing it over on a long unspooling breath, heavy words untethered until they hook into Cecil’s skin, catch there and hold on. “I love you. I l-”

Cecil makes a hungry noise, like a whine, like a sob, and when his whole body stutters there’s—

God,” Carlos groans, clenching his eyelids and his toes and anything else that might keep him from—“Did… did you just-”

Sorry,” Cecil mumbles, slurring a little with his face almost glowing red-pink. He’s shivering and his breath’s hot on Carlos’ cheek. The clinging dampness seeping down onto Carlos’ skin is making it hard to think.

Carlos lifts his head enough to press a kiss to Cecil’s jaw. “It’s not a problem,” he says, brushing his nose over Cecil’s cheekbone. “Really. Actually I think I’m flattered.”

Cecil groans, slumps down a little more, head falling into the crook of Carlos’ shoulder.

“Hey,” Carlos says, moments of silent eye contact scrolling past, his mouth brushing Cecil’s ear. “I really do, okay?”

Cecil shifts, leans back up enough for Carlos to be able to see the kiss-bruised swell of his mouth and the pink still staining his cheeks.

He’s maybe having a moment, he thinks with a giddy rush that feels cold, electric when it rides beneath his skin. He’s having a moment while his baffling boyfriend stares down at him with come sticking them together; he’s half-dressed and more-than-half-hard, Cecil’s weight is slowly making it hard to breathe, and Carlos is totally lost somewhere far away in the space between his heartbeats, in an enormous world where the way he feels is overshadowing all of it like a mountain next to a pebble; a hovering titan of a planet next to the tiny Earth.

“You’re my mountain,” he says before he can stop himself.

Cecil kisses him on the end of his nose, then the bridge, then his forehead. “Mountains aren’t very likely,” he murmurs, and Carlos blurts a tiny laugh that shakes him into Cecil.

“Right,” he says, lifting a hand to brush down Cecil’s cheek. “But you are.” He thumbs over Cecil’s lower lip. “Thanks for that, by the way.”

Cecil smiles against his fingers. “I promise to keep on existing for as long as I have a choice in the matter.”

“I’d appreciate that,” Carlos tells him, tip of his thumb at the corner of Cecil’s mouth now.

Cecil kisses his fingers when they slide across the curve of his lips again, then dips his head to kiss Carlos with slow, gradual pressure opening him up until Carlos is tilting his head back and there’s warmth sparking up in his hips again.

His breathing picks up quicker and his heart thumps harder against his ribs. Cecil’s breath huffs over his skin wet sounds of their mouths getting louder.

With his hands on Cecil’s sides Carlos flips them, braces himself over Cecil while Cecil strips down the rest of the way and then tugs at Carlos’ waistband.

Finally, blissfully naked Carlos lets his hands go to the soft undersides of Cecil’s arms, stroking up until they’re palm-to-palm and Cecil slots their fingers together.

“I meant it too,” Cecil says. “All of it.”

Carlos kisses him, brushes their noses together. “I know you did,” he answers. “I finally know.”

They push together, pant together, groan together, pace building until Cecil’s making incredible noises while he works his fingers into Carlos and Carlos is sure he’d be shaking if Cecil wasn’t touching him in so many places, damping the way he wants to fall to pieces.

Cecil pulls his fingers free and Carlos feels empty, neither of them breathing in a stretch of silent seconds. Cecil slicks himself up, pushes where Carlos is wet and open with his tremulous hips and galloping heart, and neither of them are looking away or closing their eyes this time.

Carlos never wants to close his eyes.

It’s not sex in any sense that Carlos is familiar with. It’s crashing and tumbling and unravelling down to his marrow, all their empty places and uneven notches sealing together. It’s tearing up a road and laying down a new one, and Cecil’s eyes are lit with colours Carlos has never seen, heat in his skin that he passes between them as he drives deep into Carlos over and over and everything’s Cecil, Cecil down to the name that’s the shape of the pleasure-swollen moan parting Carlos’ lips, humming in his throat again and again.

Carlos doesn’t really believe in a soul. Doesn’t believe in it the same way he doesn’t believe in curses or luck or a moon built by Masons or people living with angels, but he’s gripped tight around Cecil’s dick and splayed out loose under his body, and Cecil’s skin tastes like salt and something nameless. So tell Carlos there’s a soul and he’ll believe it; tell him he’s swapped the one he was born with for one he made in Night Vale and he’ll nod along. And with his gasping mouth at Cecil’s neck and his sweaty hair on Cecil’s skin, orgasm annihilating him from the inside out, Carlos believes in everything, because how can he not after what he’s been given?

His fingers cover Cecil’s on his chest, fall between and press around, and he’s halfway through saying those words again like a dam’s broken in him when Cecil muffles a cry into his shoulder and comes in a series of hard pulses Carlos feels like they’re his own. Entanglement, he thinks in a rush. Each permanently described relative to the other.

With a body shot to pieces and nothing left in his head, Carlos blearily kisses along Cecil’s jaw to his mouth, blots their lips into blurred-slick lines that cling together, more wet heat from Cecil’s tongue between them.

Carlos is muttering, whispering with all the delicate branches of his nerves burning, a forest fire raging down his spine. Not sentences or any meaning at all really, barely-there words, words too small to fit anything in, words that can’t hold promises, perfect nonsense.

By the time they’re lying in heaps side-by-side his eyelids are drooping, all his thoughts too big to see properly. Cecil’s fingers move across his belly and Carlos locks their ankles together, hollows to fragile bones.

They’re sticky and ruined and Carlos never wants to move again – never wants Cecil to move again, and they slip through minutes that no one’s counting, peaceful like drowning, like flying.

Carlos falls asleep between two breaths, and only one of them is his.

| |

Their seventh date is decidedly the last one Carlos counts. It’s started feeling less like a sensible tally and more like tempting fate, and in Night Vale, as the official town song says, ‘Fate has the keys to your house and stands silent at your bedside, pointed-toothed and ever-hungry, salivating on your skin.’ It’s surprisingly catchy.

Besides, seven seems like a nice number; Carlos has always liked primes. And if he gets a small thrill at the idea that he doesn’t need to count, that there’ll be others, always others, interspersed in front of him, then he’s the only one who knows that.

Well, maybe; Cecil sometimes looks at him like he knows, but Carlos isn’t afraid to feel a little smug about the fact that Cecil is usually looking at him.

And when Carlos has to head back to the lab less than two hours into the date, people all around them talking about the fact that a lot of the houses in the town have started walking, Cecil just kisses him on the cheek, pats him on the ass and says, “Good luck down at the office, dear,” with a glint in his eye as he steals Carlos’ dessert.

Carlos doesn’t even mind that his car almost gets flattened by the striding feet of the Williamson’s bungalow as he gets into it.

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Epilogue

There are plans now, formed in quiet-warm moments. There’s a key in a small black box under a load of socks in his dresser that Carlos has been looking at every morning for a week. He thinks maybe today, or tomorrow, if there’s a today or a tomorrow to be had. The odds are good.

Nuzzling into the soft skin at the back of Cecil’s neck, lightly kissing a mole beneath his hairline and skimming his thumb over the soft edge of Cecil’s stomach, Carlos drifts easily back into sleep.

Through the curtains and in the orange peel sky beyond them, with its sprinkling of helicopters and stirrings of gold, the sun leisurely rises – a full seven minutes too soon.

Neither of them stir.