Carlos can’t sleep in a room full of lights. They hang around him like a million accusing eyes in the dark, goldenrod and violet and faintly humming, like a haze of imaginary fireflies. On his first evening in Night Vale, Carlos put his hand through one. Just to test. Just to see. Because he was surrounded by things his own universe, his own dogma could not explain to him, and the best he could do to try and make sense of his world unraveling was touch one of these floating lights. After all, science isn’t knowing everything, it’s the willingness to try and figure out everything, even the things you don’t know. Or, perhaps in Night Vale, can’t know. He had reached out with a quaking hand, fingers pinwheeling in a slight tremor as he dragged them through one of the nearest lights.
They went right through, as if there were nothing there. “Are they real?” He had asked the night, his own voice scaring him with how hoarse and lost it sounded without its anchor of science tying it down to the natural world. Of course, the night hadn’t answered. It just stayed lit with those hovering, translucent, visible-but-untouchable spheres, until the sun rose three and a half minutes too early the next morning.
Carlos can’t sleep surrounded by something he cannot explain, cannot touch, can only see. This is why he starts listening to Night Vale Community radio. He needs something to do while he waits for Earth’s nearest star to bring direction to him again, and all of the other radio frequencies don’t come in here. So, from the beginning, Cecil is the only thing that isn’t static.
It’s hotter than any desert he’s ever visited. Carlos has been to LA; he even want to Palm Springs on some awful vacation when he was a kid, with some awful aunt whose car smelled like cigarettes and cat piss. He remembers baking past his usual golden brown to a burnt, charred darkness; he remembers his skin standing out against the ultramarine-chorine glow of the motel pool. He remembers the horizon line’s mirage-like flickering he can now explain using scientific terminology, if he wants to make it sound beautiful (although most people think the way Carlos talks strips the beauty from things, rather than infusing them with it). He remembers all of that, but he doesn’t remember the way the heat felt on his skin.
He thinks that if it were as hot there as it were in Night Vale, he would have remembered, because the heat seems like a huge thing, a real thing, an oppressive thing that chases everything around it out and into the endlessness of sand. It seems impossible, how much it aches against his skin and smothers him. He stops counting the number of times he raises the sleeve of his white labcoat to wipe the sweat from his brow each minute. He stops wiping the condensation from his thick rimmed glasses. He just submits to the heat.
It seems impossible, in a town full of actually impossible things. It makes the house that doesn’t exist and the pockets of anti-gravity and the windstorm of screaming monarch butterflies that happens every Friday at seven pm like clockwork seem swallowable, compared to the monstrosity that is the heat. Carlos wipes the sweat from his brow and thinks, give me radiation. Give me blood stones and trees which grow upside down and three-headed fire-breathing mourning doves and even floating lights in my room at night, anything. Anything but this heat.
Carlos is not sure what is happening to him here. He wipes his brow, and tries to remember the last time he stopped counting.
It doesn’t take long for Carlos to hear what the voice of Night Vale community radio thinks about him. He’s sucking up some DNA from a roadkill armadillo he found into a pipette tube to run through a gel electrophoresis so that he can carbon date the rest of the sample when he hears his own name in that voice. And in his mind, already, it’s that voice. Already Cecil has gotten his attention somehow, it’s that voice and not a voice, not his voice, not the radio’s voice, even, but that voice. Something Carlos feels like he needs to keep at a distance before it burns him, before it changes his world even more than the rest of Night Vale already has.
Cecil remembers dropping his armadillo for a moment to turn the radio up.
This thing about Cecil exists before Carlos realizes it exists, which means it is real. And as illogical and senseless as it seems, it must be scientific because it is elemental. It’s on Carlos’s figurative, internal periodic table. Which of course means it’s strange. Base. Incapable of being broken down into smaller bits.
He’s not sure exactly what it is, this thing with Cecil. In fact, he’s not even sure what Cecil is, in and of himself. If he’s human. Carlos sometimes suspects that he must not be, because by human standards, Carlos is not perfect. In fact, he’s not even particularly good looking. He’s on the high end of average maybe, and he has kind, dark eyes and what some people have told him is a nice smile, but those aren’t the compliments a perfect person receives. He does not have the type of features to inspire hate, or despair, or love in any human, let alone one he’s only met at a City Council meeting. He thinks that Cecil must be from another planet, or another century at least, in order to draw such conclusions.
Also, there’s the very real matter that perfection doesn’t exist. It’s scientifically impossible. It’s like infinity, the unreachable end of a spectrum that isn’t actually spectrum. It’s the arrow drawn on the other end of a ray, just a place holder for the infinite. Nothing, and no one, is really perfect.
And maybe, maybe Carlos would respond to Cecil’s very determined pursuits in some fashion or another if he didn’t already know that he is not perfect, and than eventually, upon truly knowing him, Cecil would realize that. And then their relationship would be like every other relationship ever: the failure of expectations. This is why it’s better that it currently exists one-sidedly, and on the radio. It can’t exist as it is anywhere else. On the radio, Carlos gets to be perfect, and Cecil gets to believe himself and his impossibilities. That one can fall in love instantly. That the arrow drawn onto one side of a ray is real.
Or maybe Cecil really is an alien, and those things are real in his culture. It would be scientifically insensitive for Carlos to not consider this option.
Anyway, In Night Vale this is a probable explanation, so Carlos does not press the matter further, even in his own mind. He allows the ray to stretch on and on, content to know that he is flawed. He listens to the rest of the broadcast, the overhead florescent light over his lab-table blindingly glowing as to drown out the unnatural shining orbs which haunt the night sky, which is visible even in the hotel room Night Vale City Council is paying for him to stay in. The night sinks in, lets itself in through the cracks until Carlos’s ceiling disappears and he is stuck in the vastness of the desert. He mentally clings to his florescent (which seems to be floating eerily in the darkness, unanchored to anything solid) and that voice, which has told all of Night Vale that Carlos is perfect.
As the sun rises in the East seven minutes too late, Carlos concludes that the armadillo remains carbon date back to the 1860s. He kneads his forehead, and that voice says “Good night, Nightvale. Goodnight.”
On most days, Carlos thinks he’s going crazy.
He’s driving from his hotel to his lab when a giant fissure opens up in the sky like a rip in tissue paper. He watches the edges of periwinkle fracture along a fault line above him, then pull apart until a dark, seething mouth opens and what looks like tar pours out. Frozen behind the wheel, watching everything he’s ever sworn by and everything he’s ever taken for truth in every textbook fray and tatter to useless strings before him, Carlos panics. He should drive. He should get out of there, before this torrential geyser of tar stuff floods the interior of his car and he’s stuck like the dinosaurs in La Brea.
Instead, he just watches, mouth open, waiting to be filled with blackness. The tarry obsidian muck splatters on the hood of his Toyota truck, eating through the steel with such ferocity that for a moment, Carlos thinks it might be alive. This oozy alien beast that eats machines. Then the reality of the situation hits him, and he unbuckles his seatbelt and throws himself out of his car, careening onto the burning pavement before he gets his feet under him and can run.
Other people are erupting from their cars, some stopping to raise their fists and shout at the sky, like yelling at a breach in the scientific laws of the universe will correct it. Carlos stands at the edge of the road, and a tumbleweed rolls past him at a steady, determined pace. He pants, hands braced on his knees while he sucks fiery breaths into dying lungs.
The black stuff keeps pouring out of the tear in the fabric of the sky. It looks like devil’s food cake batter, neat ripples of it layering themselves on top of one another while the mass steadily oozes outward. It sucks cars into itself and they disappear within seconds, fizzing like snails under a tablespoon of salt. After a few minutes of this madness, the black stuff begins to emit a high pitched keening sound.
Because Carlos is covering his ears, which are already ringing, he almost doesn’t hear his own name. But because his name is said in that voice, he turns around, stumbling and off balance.
Cecil is standing behind him, eyes wide and alarmed, hand held out to steady Carlos by curling impossibly long, bony fingers around his elbow. “Carlos. Are you okay?” He asks.
Carlos squints, and pushes his smudged glasses up the sweaty bridge of his nose. He doesn’t think he’s seen Cecil this close up. Or at least not since he’s listened to all the things Cecil says about him. Cecil does not look like an alien. He is tall and willowy, with flyaway blonde hair in what was probably at some point, a neat coif. His white dress shirt is buttoned up to the bobbing apple in his throat, and over that he’s wearing an electric green cardigan and bowtie. This man is wearing a dress shirt and sweater, outdoors at high noon in the middle of Night Vale. And he is not breaking a sweat. His eyes are a color, but Carlos has no name for it.
Are you an alien? Carlos wants to ask. Cecil’s hand is still touching him, gentle but firm in it’s grip. Carlos stares at it, feeling like this moment is incredibly surreal, and manages to yell over the shriek of whatever is coming out of the sky, “Yes. Yes I am, thank you.”
Then Cecil grins at him, and the brilliance of that alone seems like it could have been what cracked the sky. Carlos feels himself flush, feels his glasses slip down his nose again. He’s not sure what to say. The sun bakes them, and the shattering of science screams behind them, eating cars. “I am quite relieved to hear that. Losing you to something as pointless as falling sky would be a shame to end all shames, my Dear Carlos,” Cecil says.
“My Dear?” Carlos asks, laughing a weak laugh that turns into a cough. The rip in the sky seems to be emitting some kind of smoke now, and the scream shifts into a high, tea-kettle whistle.
It’s at this moment that Cecil finally lets go. His eyes crinkle at the corners, changing the intensity of his gaze to a mere kindness. Carlos feels lost. “My apologies. It’s just that you’re a fabulous asset to Night Vale right now. A celebrity or sorts. I, personally, am a great fan.”
Carlos knows that he is only a celebrity in Night Vale because the voice of Night Vale Community Radio speaks very highly and very often about him. He wonders if Cecil knows that he listens to the radio show. That he knows the things Cecil says before he tells the city good night. They stand, looking at each other, eyes half-shut against a haze of smoke.
“Oh hey, look,” Cecil says amicably, pointing over Carlos’s shoulder. “The sky stopped bleeding. I wonder if it will leave a scar.”
Since Carlos’s car got eaten, he rides a bike now. He bought it from Old Woman Josie, who posted a sign outside the Arby’s parking lot proclaiming, “Stray Bikes for Sale.”
“Which one do you want?” She asks, sitting amongst her herd of bicycles, crinkled old face raisin-like behind her aviators. She shifts her weight in the seat of her ride-on lawn mower. A moth lands on her shoulder, and she reaches up to very gently pet it. “Sometimes they come with me,” she tells Carlos. “In different forms.”
He thinks she means angels, but he is never sure of anything anymore. “Any of them. Whichever works the best, I guess. Or whichever is cheapest.”
She shrugs. “They all work, I think,” she explains, very carefully standing up, weight supported on a walking stick carved with a camel’s head on the handle. “This one seems gentlest, though. A little stubborn, but gentle,” she points to a pale blue beach cruiser. “And this one...pretty feisty. I wouldn’t trust it. But then again, I’m not good with bikes myself,” She shrugs, patting the basket of a black ten speed road bike.
Carlos stares, feeling very sweaty and confused. “Where did you get these bikes then?”
“They just showed up on my doorstep. Feral, I think,” Josie tells him. Her long withered finger strokes the moth.
“Oh. I see.” Carlos nods carefully, pointing to a rusted purple mountain bike towards the back of the cluster. “What about that one?” he asks. “Purple is my favorite color.”
“That one?” Josie asks, hobbling towards it and wheeling it up to him. “Not sure about that one. Pretty quiet. Keeps out of the other’s business. But be my guest if you want to learn more.”
It seems about the right height for Carlos. He hops on and takes it for a spin around the parking lot. The brakes are a little squeaky, but he doesn’t feel like standing here in the heat any longer talking to this insane old woman and her insane angel-moth in this insane fucking town. “I’ll take it. How much do you want for it?”
“Eh,” she says, waving her hand through the air between them. “Wish I could give it to you for free, but everyone’s gotta eat round here. With the Radio Station taking those compulsory donations and all. Give me a twenty and we’ll call it even.”
Carlos gives her a twenty and a five. “Thank you.”
She takes off her aviators, and studies him for a moment. One of her eyes is milky blue with blindness, and his own eyes sting as he looks at it, but his mother always told him that you should look at the things that scare you. People are people and they can’t help it.
“You’re a handsome boy, you know that? Not perfect, but handsome,” Josie says. “Cecil thinks he’s in love with you.”
“I know,” he catches himself saying, even though he didn’t want to.
“Have you met him?”
“Kind of,” he admits.
“You like him?”
Carlos flushes. “I don’t know.”
A tumbleweed crashes across the parking lot behind her, and the moth flutters out to meet it.“Gotta tell you about Cecil. He has a way of knowing things. Mild psychic gift, he calls it...whatever it is, he tries to speak the truth. Which is a hard thing to do in a place like Night Vale.”
Carlos nods, and is stunned to find that on some basic, periodic table-level of himself, he knows what she means. “Thanks again. For the bike, I mean,” he tells Old Woman Josie.
Nodding, she ambles back into her ride-on mower. Carlos bikes home, and his new bike only tries to buck him off once.
Carlos doesn’t look for Cecil, but he sees him everywhere. He doesn’t blend in with the rest of the town folk, he’s like a neon sign flickering on the second Carlos’s eyes linger too long upon some far point in the distance, a cactus silhouette shadowed on the horizon. The crowds blur, faces melt together into a hazy soup of Night Vale, and amid all of that chaos and undefined humanity there’s Cecil, standing out in stark contrast. Too tall, too thin. Hair the same unnerving goldenrod color as the lights in Carlos’s room at night. The ones he’s not sure are real.
Carlos is at Big Rico’s for a soda, staring at the shoe-scuffed red and white checkerboard linoleum under his loafers. There are a few people in front of him, people he’s seen before, maybe people whose names he’s gotten but lost somewhere along the way. Carlos has been losing lots of things lately. His truck. His sanity. Small things. Things he thinks he can live without, if he just keeps on breathing.
He pays for a Mountain Dew in pocket change, turns on his heel to leave. And there, pushing through the swinging glass door with the fingerprint smudges all over it, is Cecil Baldwin. The only solid, unmoving thing in this whole forsaken place. Too tall, too thin. Eyes sharp and bright as he locks his gaze onto Carlos, stopping in his tracks.
“Hi,” Carlos says stupidly. Cecil is wearing a very purple argyle V neck sweater rolled up to the elbows, and for the first time since visiting (and unexpectedly, inexplicably staying in) Night Vale, Carlos notices that Cecil’s forearms are entirely covered in tattoos.
“Carlos!” Cecil says, beaming. He crosses those tattooed arms in front of his chest, grinning with impossible brilliance. There’s a flush to his cheeks, and it’s different than a heat flush because Carlos is well acquainted with such things since visiting (and unexpectedly, inexplicably staying in) Night Vale. “It’s wonderful to see you,” Cecil adds, like they are old friends. The air snaps between them, very alive.
Carlos has never met someone so very obviously into him. It’s surreal. He runs his hand through the hair at his temples, and Cecil’s gaze softens like he’s witnessing something beautiful. “It’s nice, um, to see you too,” Carlos mumbles, grinning back awkwardly. He finds himself wishing that Cecil would just reach out and touch him, seeing as he clearly wants to. His hands are clasped very tightly on his own elbows, crossed before him with a white-knuckle tightness. The swirling patterns inked on his spindly forearms clash horrendously albeit charmingly with the argyle.
“Let me guess,” Cecil asks, wrenching a hand away from his arm to point at the plastic to-go cup in Carlos’s hand. “Something caffeinated?”
Carlos nods. “Lots of work to do. Late night tonight.” He wants to explain late night every night because I can’t sleep. I just stay up tinkering with calculations that make no sense, listening to your voice talk about how much you want me, but he can’t. Not here, with the eyes of Night Vale on him, boring into his shoulders, weighing down on him from above.
Cecil takes a measured step towards Carlos, then sidesteps around him furtively to get to the front counter of Big Rico’s. “I see,” he says. He takes a receipt out of his back pocket once he’s leaning against the counter, and jots something down on it. Big Rico himself has left, escaped somewhere into the back of the building or to the kitchen or whatever so he doesn’t have to witness the voice of Night Vale interacting with the object of his affections. Carlos understands. If he could escape, he would. But he can’t. His feet are rooted to the dirty linoleum like he is a checker, awaiting Cecil’s next play. What’s worse is that he can’t stop staring at Cecil, roving his tall, lanky body with his eyes, wondering if those tattoos go up any farther, if they stretch and curl onto the pale skin of Cecil’s shoulders, his back.
“I’m sorry about your truck,” Cecil says without looking up as he writes.
Carlos, immobile but apparently not yet mute, says, “It’s fine, I bought a bike. Anyway, if my truck is going to be eaten by black sludge, at least it happened in the name of science. It was an interesting event to observe.” he clears his throat, and it turns into a cough. His hand aches from the chill of the soda still clamped in it.
Cecil’s eyes flash up, the sharp curve of his smile. “You are so lovely. Finding the positive spin in all that.”
Stomach dropping, Carlos feels a burn climb up his cheeks. “Yes. Well. It’s my job.”
Cecil folds the receipt up into an origami turtle, which he hands to Carlos. “This is my home phone number. Call me if you ever need a ride, dear Carlos. Or, anything else.”
Then, Cecil pushes past him, leaving without so much as a slice of pizza. Carlos sits down for a long, long time, as the ice slowly melts into his soda, night falls, and the lights rise.
Carlos staggers outside the following morning to grab whatever the paper boy has tossed onto the doorstep of his motel room (this time, it is a rotten burrito, which is less savory than the time it was a carnation, and preferable to the time it was a dead squirrel.) He tosses it in the wastepaper basket, rubbing his mess of hair out of his eyes. Outside, he finds that even though it’s still ungodly hot, the scorching desert air feeling like fire in his lungs, it seems to be snowing. Or, if not snowing, something fine and white is falling and gathering in embankments.
Carlos sighs, and holds his hand out. He has not slept in at least forty eight hours. When a bit of the white stuff lands on the junction between his index finger and thumb, it melts, just like snow. He even thinks it feels cold, just like snow. On clumsy legs Carlos stumbles back into his room and grabs a beaker so that he can take a sample of the maybe-snow and test it later.
When he reemerges, he notices with a sick, tingling feeling of dread in his stomach that his truck is parked in its usual place next to the pool no one swims in. A little dirty, but otherwise intact. There is no gaping hole in the hood where the acidic black goo ate a direct path to the engine. There is no evidence of the black goo at all.
Carlos stares, blinking. Desert snow falls and collects on his shoulders. Heart slowing, he makes himself walk calmly over to his truck. Or the ghost of his truck. The imitation of his truck. Some mysterious creature which took on the form of his truck in order to lure him to a certain demise. Carlos has been in Night Vale long enough to know he cannot trust the appearance of something. He’s also been in Night Vale long enough that he’s developed a new reckless type of bravery in the fact of things unexplained or impossible. He wouldn’t have come as far if he hadn’t. It is a necessary adaptation, to maintain his unkillable curiosity to discover and test and learn. Even when there is no answer. Even if it seriously injures him. The ray continues on.
Once he’s close enough, he sees that there’s a tiny origami pigeon tucked into a notch of space between the windshield and the windshield wiper, and a embarrassing rush courses through his body. Cecil. With infuriatingly tremulous hands, Carlos removes and unfolds the snow-damp bird.
My dear and darling Carlos,
This little guy showed up outside headquarters last night! I believe this means that even your truck knows you should visit me. I drove him here, I hope you don’t mind. I imagine you are sleeping, otherwise I would knock on your door and deliver this message in a sonorous voice in favor of imperfect penmanship. Continue to dream sweetly.
Yours if you want,
Carlos leans against his miraculously unaltered truck, and puts his face in his hands while the desert snows around him. What the hell are you doing to me? He thinks. This isn’t me. I don’t act like this. It’s impossible. However, like time, Carlos knows that impossibility is a fiction here. And maybe everywhere else. Because being a scientist does not mean knowing everything. It’s accepting that there are still so many things we don’t know, can’t know.
He tries to swallow that his truck has magically regenerated, that it’s snowing in the desert, and that he does want.
Time doesn’t really mean anything in Night Vale. But then again, time doesn’t really mean anything anywhere. Time is arbitrary, just numbers assigned to the orbit of the Earth so that humans can make appointments, arrive fashionably late, punch the clock, cede control of their lives over to something imaginary. It’s like Night Vale just figured this out, and started doing it’s own thing.
Carlos wipes dollops of grey sludge off his fingers with a dirty rag. His colleague, Fernando Montoya, stands a safe distance away, arms crossed and latex gloves decidedly clean and powdery. He’s not touching anything in Night Vale anymore, not since his Labradoodle was abducted by a mysterious cloud of grey dust outside the Boardwalk last Tuesday. They’re at the lab, where there’s a shattered clock, (or what they thought was a clock) laying in pieces before them, the cuckoo bird and little hand mired pathetically in a grey gelatinous substance.
“You know, we gotta tell someone about this stuff, man. These people deserve to know,” Fernando says.
Carlos shakes his head. “Tell them what? That the results to every single one of our experiments here have been inconclusive? That we still have no idea what’s going on, let alone why? Plus, who do we tell? The Sheriff's Secret Police?” He snaps, peeling his gloves off and tossing them into the wastebasket with a harder than necessary overhand throw.
Fernando rakes a hand through his thinning hair, eyes shutting into exhausted crumples of skin. He hasn’t been sleeping, either. None of them have. “I don’t know, man. Someone. Maybe these people aren’t as desensitized to the weird as we think...maybe they’re scared, too. I dunno. I just think we should let someone...someone in charge, but not in charge charge, know.”
“About these?” Carlos asks, gesturing to the clock remains. Or, the not-clock remains. He and Fernando have just discovered that all the clocks in Night Vale are not actually clocks, but clock decoys filled with mushy grey stuff. Carlos and the rest have yet to discover the implications of such a find, or how the clocks themselves have been functioning, or at least seeming to function.
“About everything,” Fernando says.
Carlos doesn’t stop to think if he’s making up reasons to talk to Cecil. He doesn’t stop to think about what it would mean if he were making up reasons to talk to Cecil. He just says it, eyes still stuck on the not-clock casualty. “I know someone we can call.”
It becomes a habit. Every time Carlos discovers a potential threat to the citizens of Night Vale, he calls Cecil so that Cecil can use the radio to inform everyone. It seems like a logical, acceptable way to hear Cecil’s voice become higher and hoarser than the frequency at which he is used to hearing it at.
He calls Cecil at the Community Radio Headquarters, and when he doesn’t get a hold of him there, he calls him at home. He tells himself that this is professional. In fact, it’s necessary that he share pertinent dangers and threats to community in the most efficient way possible. The second or third time he does it, Carlos stops feeling so guilty and dirty about the whole thing. It helps that Cecil always sounds immeasurably happy to hear from him.
Sometimes, they even meet about such things in designated, public locations. Carlos is very good at limiting the conversation to a layperson-friendly explanation of whatever dangerous scientific phenomena is looming ominously over them. Little by little, as Cecil learns what is happening in Night Vale, Carlos learns about Cecil. Small things. He learns that Cecil wears almost exclusively sweaters over dress shirts and ties, regardless of how record breaking the heat is on that particular day. He learns that Cecil talks as much with his hands as he does with his mouth, gesturing in wild, animated motions when he’s excited and awkward, stilted, muted ones closer to his body when he’s nervous. He learns that Cecil is far-sighted, where Carlos is near sighted. He learns that as forward and suave as Cecil seems on the radio, he isn’t quite as confident in person. He learns than his own presence makes Cecil blush,and stumble over his words almost every time they meet. He learns that Cecil is attractive in a mysterious way, with his long face and expressive brows, his flashing teeth and pinwheeling hands.
For the most part, he tries to prevent Cecil from learning anything about him. Science he tells himself when they meet. Don’t say anything beyond the scientific.He folds his arms in front of him, he uses basic language and tries not to let his gaze linger to extensively on Cecil’s piercing, impossibly colored eyes.
Carlos could describe how Cecil looks to a stranger. His hair color, his build, his bone structure, what he’s wearing. Every detail, save for his eyes. They seem like a different color each time he meets them, but he can’t be exactly sure, because he hasn’t allowed enough time for a significantly deductive observation. He knows that if the subject were anything but Cecil, he would already have an experiment running in the lab. But the subject is Cecil, so he is stuck wondering.
Of course, it is expected that when the Underground City in the bowling alley attacks Carlos, the first thing he does once he’s certain that he’s alive is call Cecil.
It’s not as absurd as it seems. It’s not that he wants consolation or care. He doesn’t want someone to fret over his near death experience, he doesn’t want someone to comb fingers through the premature grey at his temples and ask when the last time he slept was. He doesn’t want someone to take him to their home, to save him from the lonely ache of his motel room where the carpet has mysterious carnivorous patches and the the wall becomes permeable and sticky whenever he plays music from his laptop. He doesn’t want someone to lay at his back with a tattooed arm tight around his waist, hold him close to solidity and sense while the desert boils itself to insanity around him, plagued with snow, with lights hovering between reality and something else.
He doesn’t want any of that. He just thinks that the rest of the town should know the danger involved in engaging the Underground City under the bowling alley. So he calls Cecil.
They agree to meet in the Arby’s parking lot. Carlos sweats the whole way over, the bandages on his chest itchy and irritating. It’s hard to breath against the constraining embrace of them, but it’s only a few more blocks. People from Night Vale walk along the main strip with their usual nonchalance, like nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Like science doesn’t matter to them. Carlos wishes this was because they were in denial, instead of the fact that nothing out of the ordinary has happened, and science doesn’t matter to them. The isolation of this fact seems like too much for him today, so he just drives.
As the sun begins to sink like a lead weight down to meet the flat, mountain-less horizon, he pulls into a parking spot and climbs out, wincing against the pain. He sits in the back of the truck because it seems cooler back here. The air conditioning hasn’t worked for years, making the cab smoldering and oppressive and claustrophobic. The Toyota’s round trip to the other side did not seem to correct that.
Cecil shows up without preamble or obvious transportation, somewhat like magic. It is so instantly overwhelming to see him and the lines of genuine concern creasing his brow that Carlos doesn’t even resist the wave of relief that washes over his tired, bloodstained body. He sits on his tailgate, waiting. Cecil picks up a jog when he sees him, looking ridiculous and perfectly endearing in his fluffy pink cardigan with the kitten embroidered on the pocket. Carlos wants to cry with how badly he craves Cecil’s proximity in this moment.
Cool hands cup his face, and the air around Carlos suddenly smells like another person, cologne and clean, desert-heat sweat. “You’re okay,” Cecil says, and his voice does not sound like the voice of Night Vale. It’s reedy and thick. Scared. Carlos isn’t sure why, but it feels good to hear Cecil sound scared.
“I think so,” Carlos says, eyes closing so he doesn’t have to look at this sweater kitten in hyper-close detail. He tilts into the broad roughness of Cecil’s palms, wanting to be grounded between them like a butterfly in a killing jar. He is so, so tired of this town. He want something to make sense again, to wrap up neatly with no loose ends.
Cecil suddenly lets go, like he just realized he was touching Carlos. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I just--”
“No,” Carlos says, reaching out and grabbing Cecil’s tattooed forearms, holding them in place. “It’s fine.”
Cecil stops, and doesn’t say anything. His hands slide down tentatively to the tops of Carlos’s shoulders. “Are you badly hurt?” He says eventually.
“No. Not badly. More shaken up, I guess,” Carlos explains. He holds very still, forcing himself into an unnatural, rock-solid shape because he fears that any tiny tremor of movement will send Cecil’s hands flying off his shoulders. It feels immeasurably good, the weight of those hands, and he doesn’t want Cecil to stop.
“Well that’s a relief,” Cecil murmurs quietly. For the most fleeting of moments there is the warm press of Cecil’s thumb into Carlos’s pulse, then it’s gone, and he sees Cecil’s arms fall to his sides. “I’m also glad to see your car is in working order,” Cecil adds awkwardly, rapping his newly unoccupied knuckles into the scuffed tailgate.
Carlos smiles, shaking his head. “Miraculously, yes. I don’t know how, but it’s running same as it used to. Kind of makes me wonder if I imagined the whole thing happening,” he says.
“I was there,” Cecil says. “I can affirm that if happened, if that’s any comfort at all.”
Carlos looks up at Cecil, meeting his eyes even though he tries not to do that on most days. They’re jade green right now, almost full of pupil. Carlos blinks. It should not be comforting that Cecil Baldwin also witnessed the sky cracking and pouring gallons upon gallons of acidic black, screaming, smoking ooze onto Carlos’s truck, but it does. “I’m starting to call it the, um, Lazarus-mobile,” Carlos tells Cecil, letting the corner of his mouth quirk up into a smile.
Cecil grins back, showing his teeth. They’re not sharper than usual teeth, they’re not fangs or anything inhuman like that, but there’s always something feral and flickering in Cecil’s smile, something that almost hurts. Sharp is the only way to describe it. It stings Carlos’s eyes.
Carlos thinks Cecil is going to touch him again, and he’s ready for it. He’s past telling himself he shouldn’t want it, that it’s foolish to desire someone only because they are so vocal about desiring you, even though he’s been certain for awhile that there is something more to his desire than that. Instead, Cecil just sits down next to him on the tailgate, a few careful inches away. Then, he pulls a pack of cigarettes and a zippo out of his pocket, and lights one.
Raising a shocked eyebrow, Carlos clears his throat and says, “You are full of surprises.”
Exhaling with a cough and flicking ash into the grey asphalt beneath them, Cecil grinds out, “Am I?! Little old me?” He blinks, and his eyes are warmer than green now, infused with some shade of clover honey.
“I didn’t know you were a smoker,” Carlos tells him.
Cecil laughs. “I’m not. It’s only sometimes. Very occasionally. An awful habit, I’m sure you know.” They’re quiet for a moment, eyes both fixed ahead of them at the strange, intimate place where the desert horizon meets the sky. Everything is a distantly burnt color, and the vastness above them looks swollen with light as the sun drops. “What else is surprising?” Cecil finally asks. It’s evident in his voice that he’s been wanting to know for some time now what Carlos thinks of him.
Carlos reaches across his own lap before he can think too much about it, and touches the thick inked lines swirling like seaweed around Cecil’s forearms. Now that he’s close enough, he notes that they’re not black as he initially thought they were, but a deep, plum purple. Carlos’s favorite color. “These, for one. You don’t seem like the tattoo type.”
“These?” Cecil shrugs, lifting his arm and examining the curls of darkness like he forgot they were there. “Hmm. They’re sentient, you know.”
Carlos stares. He can see the fine, blonde hairs dusting the skin of Cecil’s veiny arms, which are now braced in the edge of the tail gate, on either side of Cecil’s drawn-together knees. Cecil is staring off at the sunset, the orange hues reflecting like fire in the lens of his glasses. “Sentient?”
“Mmmhm. Sentient,” Cecil answers, enunciating the word carefully like he’s worried Carlos might not have heard him correctly.
“How do you know?” Carlos asks, predictably skeptical.
Cecil looks at him, eyes incredibly bright, gold nearing orange in its intensity. “How do you know I’m sentient?” He asks Carlos.
“Because you are. You meet all the scientific criteria for sentience; I can tell by talking to you,” he answers, uncomfortable. His chest aches where it’s bandaged, singing with pain every time he exhales.
“See? You just know. And I’m not even attached to you,” Cecil says. Then, he realizes what he’s said, and color comes brash and hectic to his cheeks. He looks down. “If you spend enough time around me you’ll start to notice,” he mumbles.
Carlos nods, not sure what to say. He inches his own hand over to Cecil’s across the lip of the tailgate, closer and closer until they are almost touching. He’s not sure why he can’t close that final centimeter, though. He fixes his eyes to it, willing it to disappear so that they can be touching in some way. He knows Cecil is waiting for some report on what happened in the bowling alley,he’s waiting for Carlos to initiate and continue their guise of professional meetings. He’s waiting for something he can say on the radio. Something helpful, and all Carlos can do is sit here, feeling things he doesn’t want to feel. As Cecil smokes, he keeps raising his fingers and making shapes in the smoke like he were molding things from clay, lazily, subconsciously. Carlos watches them form then fade and dissipate into nothingness. A pirate ship. A camel. A redwood. A mother cat and thirteen kittens.
“I don’t know what it is about you,” he says finally, throat thick and choked up. He drops his gaze to his hand, dark and brown, next to Cecil’s unoccupied one.
He continues to stare at the space between them, but he can feel Cecil’s gaze burning into his neck, his cheek, his shoulder. He hears a sharp inhale, and suddenly he is incased in smoke that was formerly inside Cecil’s lungs. Carlos is not a smoker, not even very occasionally, but he finds himself involuntarily sucking in the billowing white, taking whatever molecules of Cecil that still exist in the smoke. There is a brief silence, followed by Cecil quietly confessing “I’m sure by now you’ve heard I’m quite in love with you.”
Carlos laughs weakly. “The whole town has heard that. You told them.” Cecil shifts beside him without saying anything, radiating heat that Carlos can feel, separate from the usual heat, alive with blood. He clears his throat, the sound filling the tight silence between their bodies. “Also, I don’t believe you can fall in love with someone after only seeing them a handful of times, solely to talk business and safety. I just don’t think it’s possible.” Carlos tries not to remind himself that before coming to Night Vale, he also thought Underground Cities were impossible. But one tried to kill him today, and he is still bleeding.
“I fell in love with you instantly, actually. There’s a difference,” Cecil says.
“Same thing--” Carlos starts. He was going to say something else, too, but he forgets, because Cecil shifts his palm so that the outermost plane of his hand presses directly into the mirror image of Carlos’s, and now he is silent. They’re touching, minimally, and Carlos wishes with a deep, visceral, and genuine wish that they were touching more than minimally. He swallows, and like he could read his mind, Cecil very carefully moves his hand so that is covering Carlos’s. Their fingers twine.
“What do you believe is possible?” Cecil asks. The sun is sinking, and the air is getting darker around them, cooler. A tumbleweed rattles by, a group of moths riding inside its filigree of twigs.
Carlos closes his eyes. “I believe that you can be instantly...interested in someone. Attracted to them, maybe,” he says, clearing his throat. “And I think that after meeting someone a handful of times. Even to talk, um, solely of business and safety, you can find them fascinating. And like them very much. And perhaps want to take them out to dinner, and spend more time around them, so that you can form your own opinion on the sentience of their tattoos.”
Cecil sighs a magnificent sigh. “Oh Carlos. I thought you would never ask.”
Carlos used to be unsure as to whether or not he could leave Night Vale. Now, he’s unsure if he really wants to anymore. Once he made it at far at the abandoned missile silo on his bike. His legs ached and burnt, and he was sure that this tires were going to melt straight into the sticky black glare of the newly paved road out of town, but he had to know. He had to know if he was really stuck here, if the road just kept on going on and on until it fed back into the other side of town, like Night Vale were a serpent with its own tail in its mouth and once you were there, you just became another scale on and endless loop of muscle and bones.
The silo wavered on the horizon like a mirage, enormous and black where the yellow paint had chipped off its exterior, lying in enormous piles of curled lead shavings at the base of the incredible hulking structure. It looked like the shed skin of some reptile. Panting, heart in his windpipe, Carlos stopped. Leaned his bike’s frame against his own knee as he watched the metal cables and concrete cylinders shiver indefinitely ahead of him, as uncertain of their own existence as he was.
Keep going a voice in his mind told him. Out of Night Vale. Even if it’s just into the desert where you die of dehydration and buzzards pick your bones, just leave. See if you can get beyond the limits of the town. If it’s even possible or if you’re going to die here, alone in this city.
But Carlos’s body refused to work. It locked in on itself while he stared at the silo against the hazy orange sky. Go, the voice screamed. But he couldn’t. What if wasn’t possible to leave Night Vale? What if it really had sucked him in, assumed his body under its dry, cracked skin and he couldn’t ever leave? What if all his insomnia addled, four a.m. suspicions that he had died a year ago when he got the grant to study here, and this was all just some prolonged pre-death hallucinatory state, were true? Or what if the conditions of the town had physically altered his molecular structure and he had actually become a part of Night Vale? A scale among many, stuck on an endless loop?
If Carlos kept biking, he would know for sure. He could end one of his many uncertainties. But, for the first time in his life which he built around a deep, authentic hunger for knowledge, he was not sure that he wanted to know this thing. If he stayed in Night Vale, he wanted it to be because he chose to, not because he had no other option.
Carlos biked back home after that, feeling like the missile silo was following him, watching him retreat into the depths of the thing he was becoming, bringing the desert behind him like coat of stars. That was two weeks ago. Before the Underground City tried to kill him.
But now, there’s Cecil, and Night Vale looks different. Feels different. And at least for the time being, Carlos stops thinking about leaving, or not leaving, and starts thinking about Cecil, who continues to be full of surprises.
The first time they go to dinner, Carlos pays the bill with a card he assumes to still be valid. When the receipt comes and he tries to sign it, Cecil’s eyes, ice blue at the moment, become wide and concerned and he reaches across the table, snatching the pen out of Carlos’s hand. “What are you doing?” He asks in a hiss, looking over his shoulder shiftily. “These are illegal.”
Carlos raises an eyebrow, eyes still fixed on broad knuckled joints flexing on blue plastic. “Pens?”
Cecil nods. “Writing materials of any kind. You could get in a lot of trouble,” He explains, sliding the ballpoint pen into the front pocket of his very out of season Christmas sweater with the reindeer on it. “I’ll take it. Then they’ll detain me instead.”
“I wouldn’t want you to take the fall for me,” Carlos says carefully, still not sure if this is really happening, if pens actually are illegal in Night Vale, or if this is just a figure of speech. “That would be absurd.”
Cecil shrugs. “I would want to take the fall for you. Anyway...” he glances over his shoulder again, and his eyes darken until they are the color of the sky before a storm. Carlos’s stomach tightens and Cecil beckons for him to come closer with long, deft fingers. The restaurant feels like it’s falling down around them, white-hot walls driving them closer and closer to either the pit or the pendulum. Still, Carlos has no control. He leans across the table until his ear is close to the warmth of Cecil’s lips, like he’s lost his better judgement. “I have an entire collection of colored pencils and stationary at home. It seems we are both law-breakers of the literary sort.”
Cecil leans back into his chair, and Carlos is left alone with the edge of the table biting into his stomach, hands sweating and open palmed on either side of the check. He immediately wants Cecil to be whispering to him again, now that it’s no longer happening. He sits back down slowly. “But...if pens are banned, how do I sign for my card?”
Cecil grins, the sharpness of it flashing across the room like a blade. “Don’t worry. I’ll get it.” Then, he takes a glinting embroidery needle out of his pocket and pricks his index finger, until a perfectly spherical bead of blood rises to the surface. Carlos’s first instinct is to take Cecil’s hand and bring that blood to his lips, to lick away, to keep it from touching the air. He shocks himself by thinking that, so much so that he isn’t even phased by Cecil pressing his finger into the signature line of the receipt. Magically, Cecil’s name appears in a familiar, looping script. He carefully folds the receipt into an origami angelfish. “Shall we?”
Carlos feels weak with affection and longing, stricken with how sudden and impractical these sensations overwhelmed him. He wants to touch the bones in Cecil’s face. He wants to press his lips into the hollow of his throat, where he has a mole. And it’s all insane, it’s unheard of for Carlos to want anything with this much certainty. He rubs his face with his open palms, until his vision becomes static and Cecil is lost to the chaos. “Do you know why I came to Night Vale?” He asks because there’s no reason to try and stop himself from being swept away in all this.
Cecil widens his eyes again, and folds his fingers into a a position of prayer. “No. I don’t think it was to save me form a future alone, in spite of my wildest dreams,” he sighs, smiling sadly. There is more irony and self-recrimination in Cecil’s voice off the radio, and certainly more complexity to read in the lines of his face. Carlos feels like he’s filling in a puzzle whose edge he already put together, forming a picture from merely a frame. “I guess I always assumed it was to study the scientific phenomena of our little desert community,” Cecil says after a moment.
Carlos nods. “That was what my grant was for. But I came. I came, personally, because I thought it sounded incredible here. And I wanted to see something extraordinary.”
Cecil’s face softens, chin resting in his palms. A piece of his neat blonde hair has fallen in his face, and Carlos knows that if he reached out to smooth it back into place, Cecil would let him. Cecil’s eyelids would slide shut; he’d tilt his cheek to fit into Carlos’s hand. The certainty in all this scares Carlos into not touching him. Instead, he only thinks about it, and watches Cecil light up a cigarette and blow zoos and cities and oceans out of his mouth in billowing white ghosts.
“Something extraordinary,” Cecil sighs, smoke curling from his lips into the image of a grapevine before it dissipates. “Like a bowling alley with an Underground City? Because if so, I fear our little desert community has delivered.”
Carlos shakes his head, eyes watering from smoke, mouth dry with how little he anticipated this happening. He clears his throat. “I don’t know what I expected. But it doesn’t matter, because nothing here is extraordinary. Not to you, or anyone else here. This is just your world. It’s not out of the ordinary to you at all.”
“Then, you have yet to find what you were looking for,” Cecil asks, hooking his finger behind the knot of his tie and loosening it just enough that Carlos can see the mole on his throat, a spot of darkness on otherwise pale skin. He smiles a smile like cut diamond.
Carlos shrugs, turning to look out the window and out into Night Vale, because he cannot look at Cecil as he says this. “I don’t know. I found you.”
One evening they explore the dunes of sand waste and forgotten rubble that’s left of Night Vale’s Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Area. Carlos brings empty, stained pillow cases so that he can take specimens and samples to test back at the lab, but after only a few minutes of kicking through piles of trash and fake kelp, Carlos can tell there’s nothing worth studying here, so he tosses the pillow cases onto the sand dunes and kicks a massive, sea-weathered board formerly reading “boardwalk” (it’s crossed out, now,) onto them so they don’t blow away.
The most interesting thing he and Cecil find is a fiberglass mermaid skeleton, which Cecil props up against the sign City Council left amongst the rubble declaring that the Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Area never existed. He then uses one of Carlos’s illegal sharpies to write a speech bubble on the sign proclaiming, “I am a mass hallucination.”
“I think her name is Maisy,” He says once he’s done, pocketing the sharpie and putting his hands on his hips. “Maisy the Mass Hallucination Mermaid.”
“She’s lovely,” Carlos says, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
A hot wind buffets past them, making a mess of Cecil’s hair and tangling the already-mess that’s Carlos’s. He feels sand in his teeth, an eerie memory from summers he spent as a kid at beaches, and for a moment he almost feels like this is the site of some long lost waterfront,the shore of some long since dry ocean. “Nothing is here. Nothing was ever here,” he reads off the sign, to Cecil and to himself. Then, he inches his index and middle fingers into Cecil’s cool palm. “How come your hands are never sweaty?” he asks, squinting against the fiery gusts of grit and desert dryness.
Cecil is looking at his black suede dress shoes, cheeks scarlet from being touched. “Homeostasis. Just science, Carlos.”
Then, very suddenly, Carlos’s lips are in Cecil’s hair. At the base of his neck, on smooth, warm skin, blonde and downy, and there’s a sharp intake of breath from both of them. He smells clean, and soap-spicy, the now unfamiliar scent of safety. Of sleep which Carlos remembers from another life, when he was just a human living in the world following the laws of physics just like everyone else. Before the angels and the time travel and the underground encroaching steadily upon the inescapable desert from below. But, in all of this, Cecil smells like solace. Carlos wants to sob against him here, he wants to crawl inside the only oyster in this imaginary ocean and make himself into a pearl.
Carlos’s hands are open and under Cecil’s sweater, crinkling his white oxford and tucked beneath the stretch of suspenders. He can feel warm skin, the huffing of nervous, elated breath. These are the layers between Carlos’s palms and the rapid fire thrum of Cecil’s heart. He counts them, and tries to calm the fever in his skull.
They stand this way for awhile, eyes shut tight and defensive against the abuse of the hot, gritty desert wind. “You know what homeostasis is?” Carlos finally murmurs into Cecil’s pulse, fingers rubbing small, uncertain circles into his shirt. This feels like a dream. He’s not sure it’s happening, if this is possible. If Cecil is real, or a mass hallucination.
Cecil laughs a small, dry laugh, tilting into Carlos’s chest carefully, like he’s not sure if he’s dreaming, either. “Of course. I’m not a complete idiot.”
“Tell me what homeostasis is,” Carlos says, lungs burning with dusty air and the scent and solidity of this person in front of him, this unbelievable thing in a place where everything is unbelievable, meaning nothing is. Carlos’s mind repeats the echo. Nothing is here. Nothing was ever here.
“The body’s ability to internally regulate temperature and Ph...how we keep ourselves warm when we’re freezing, or cool when we’re burning down. Or living in Night Vale,” Cecil says, low and quiet and reedy, his voice vibrating through Carlos’s lips. “Carlos,” he adds in a breath afterwards, pleading, because he’s scared. Carlos is usually composed, he’s usually so in control and here he is now, shattering both their conceptions of him. Cecil’s asking if it’s real, so Carlos tells him the truth, which is “yes.”
The wind blows Maisy the Mermaid down, and they shut their eyes and mouths until the flurries of sand down enough to speak again. “However, your touch seems to alter my body’s ability to efficiently maintain homeostasis,” Cecil admits, sliding one of his hands up inside his own sweater so that it can cover Carlos’s. It’s slick with cold sweat. “See? You mess my science up.”
Carlos shakes his head in awe, realizing how hard his own heart is beating, the sick fury of it raining in his chest so deafening it hurts. He shrugs, trying to keep his voice study as he touches Cecil’s hands experimentally, thumbing over the knuckles, the lines in his palm. “I think everyone should have their science shaken every once and awhile,” he says quietly.
“I am so very, very grateful that you think that,” Cecil replies, squeezing Carlos’s hand, a secret motion hidden under the highlighter yellow synthetic knit of his sweater. “Hey,” he adds, pointing to the sign before them with the hand Carlos is not holding captive. “City Council is wrong. We’re here.”
Carlos’s eyes widen, and he pulls Cecil’s frame closer, thrilled with the surprisingly neat fit. So they are.
Carlos is lying in his own bed, panting, left arm trapped beneath Cecil’s body where it tingles to a slow numbness he cannot bring himself to care about. His eyes are closed and Cecil is warm and sweat-sticky next to him, their ankles crossed, their clothes strewn somewhere at the foot of the bed in sad, forgotten heaps of repurposed loneliness. He knows he should move. He knows he should do something, but a strange inertia overcomes him in moments like this, and he’s possessed by something akin to contentment.
A year ago, he thought contentment was an impossible thing to feel in Night Vale. He’s not sure that his opinion on the topic has changed over the course of a year, but he’s also not sure that it hasn’t. There are many things he’s still unsure about.
Even though he can still feel him pressed against the length of his body, Carlos reaches over with a blind, clumsy hand so that he can make sure Cecil is there. He palms his pale,narrow thigh, the crooked shape of his kneecap. Cecil makes a wordless happy noise beside him. “You good?” Carlos asks hoarsely.
Cecil shifts, turns, and presses a lazy kiss to the mussed hair at Carlos’s temple, the streaks of premature grey where his glasses usually line up. “My dear, perfect Carlos,” he murmurs “I am extraordinary.”
Carlos grins, tilting into the warm damp press of Cecil’s mouth, heart fluttering between his lungs because he still isn’t used to this thing yet, not by a long shot. “That you are,” he says, opening his eyes blearily so that he can examine the jutting curve of Cecil’s shoulder, pale and incandescent in the disappearing dusk-light, mapped out in tendrils of tattooed violet (which he has discovered do indeed cover parts of Cecil’s chest and back). Carlos traces the shapes with a finger, and the ink almost shivers beneath his touch.
This is not the first time he’s found himself here, so he’s not surprised. Carlos decided awhile ago that Cecil’s tattoo’s are sentient, though not observably so, and not in a way which he could calculate. He’s not sure how he knows, and that kind of uncertainty is troublesome for a scientist, but less so for a scientist whose spent over a year in Night Vale, and sentience is not the feature of Cecil’s tattoos that keeps Carlos up at night, wanting, so he’s not sure any of this matters anyway. He slides a palm down Cecil’s ribcage, feeling the notches of his bones, counting the things that protect the lungs that keep Cecil breathing and alive and brilliant beside him.
The sun is setting outside Carlos’s room twelve or thirteen minutes too early, and darkness edges the sunset out until there’s nothing but stars and almost-black. The juncture of ceiling and wall begins to fade into the indigo behind it, and Carlos knows there are only a few minutes of this pure, untouched night before the lights come and hover, reminding him of things that are. Unless, of course, they are not. He closes his eyes again, and opens his mouth on Cecil’s neck.
“Cecil,” he mumbles into skin. “Can I ask you something?”
“Mmmhm,” Cecil says absently, fumbling around in the open drawer in Carlos’s bedside table for his zippo. He pulls it out and lights the cigarette he has loosely pursed between his lips before he clicks it shut and drops it into the sheets. Carlos imagines the dampness of the cigarette’s rolling paper, the ring of wet it must have from hanging out of Cecil’s mouth, and he feels like a piece of something he locked away a long time ago opens up inside him, transforming into a messy, newborn shape of longing.
He sighs, inhaling things Cecil makes with his hand. A human heart. A giraffe. A wooden roller coaster with all its slats and curves and drops and danger, and in this moment of rare, private darkness, Carlos thinks of Cecil with all his slats and curves and drops and danger, and knows he loves him.
The feeling is ice cold and shocking where it chokes him deep in his throat. His hand stills on Cecil’s side, stunned to immobility by the revelation that when you love something, you can lose it. That love is the biggest relinquishment of science at all, because it means accepting that something is truly unknowable, and will be until the end of time. Carlos realizes that he was wrong before, because he was never a ray in all his time in Night Vale, embracing his own imperfection. He was a line segment, something defined and trapped between two certain points, but Cecil erased one of those points, and now. Now Carlos is hurtling along the pathway to infinity towards the unknown, now he is truly, truly lost. He closes his eyes, overwhelmed, and Cecil stirs beside him. “You were going to ask me something,” he reminds him.
And before Carlos can stop and think and really settle on the words he wants to use, the ones that make sense and aren’t frightening, he’s imploring in a hoarse rush as his hand tightens involuntarily in Cecil’s skin, “Are you real?” The words hang awkwardly in the air, stiff and heavy.
Cecil is silent for a moment, exhaling long and low into the night. “You tell me,” he says quietly, carefully. “You’re the scientist.” He puts his cigarette out in the makeshift ashtray Carlos made him out of a mason jaw lid, and rolls over so he’s facing Carlos, brow knit with subtle concern.
Carlos shakes his head, mussing his already tangled hair into his pillow, worrying it to further chaos. There is seismic activity in Night Vale none of the residents can feel. It snows sometimes when it is meteorologically impossible. There is a serious breach in the fabric of time. Light emits sound and sound emits light. Carlos is in love, and there might not be room for science in any of this at all. He suddenly sits up, bearing down over Cecil and straddling his narrow hips, a hand on either shoulder pushing him down into the mattress. “Cecil. How do I know you’re real?” He asks again, voice desperate, and Cecil’s eyes flash goldenrod beneath him.
“You don’t know. You can’t know anything, really. Knowing is for angels and enlightened extraterrestrials, not humans.” Cecil answers finally, hands coming up slowly to cup Carlos’s face. “But I must remind you that I fell in love with you instantly, and it took you a whole year to meet me here. Which means I have great faith in the unlikely, incredible staying power, and a mild psychic gift, so if you’re worried about anything such as, let’s say...impermanence,” he smiles, one eyebrow raised elegantly. “Then you shouldn’t be.”
The ice in Carlos’s chest melts into a wave of relief and awe and as he presses their foreheads together, mindlessly grinding the planes of their bodies like tectonics and mouthing over Cecil’s shoulders and sternum until he’s gasping and writhing underneath him. “I am much more afraid of this than I am of anything else here,” Carlos admits in a whisper against Cecil’s ear. “Forgive me.”
Cecil’s hands tighten in Carlos’s hair, and he answers with a rough kiss, his tongue flicking out against the roof of Carlos’s mouth, lips swollen and warm and feeling very, very real. Carlos dissolves around him, sinking and sinking until he’s back where he started, splayed out beside Cecil, catching his breath. In the time it took him to ground himself enough in Cecil’s solidity to breathe again, the lights emerged from their mystery origin, sinking low and unreal (or not) into the room around them like fireflies.
Closing his eyes, Carlos rolls onto his side and seals his chest against Cecil’s spine. He splays a hand on Cecil’s throat and aligns his thumb with the mole there, finding its location from touch and memory like a sailor using the north star to guide his ship home.
And here, he must accept that he is imperfect and he is human. Maybe they both are, maybe not. Maybe he will never know, and must also accept that because science does not dictate certainty, but only curiosity and the willingness to learn, he has to venture forth without knowing where he’s going, and only that it is what he wants. Cecil twitches as he drowses off, and Carlos thinks about the ray, extending indefinitely forward with great faith in the unlikely, incredible staying power, and a mild psychic gift. Above them, the lights hover silently, and finally, Carlos is able to sleep.