Somewhere it is spring. Somewhere green shoots unfurl, stretching toward the clear warmth of sunlight. Somewhere petals shiver but do not fall, caressed by a soft breeze. Somewhere things are waking, the very earth softening and yielding to the sweetness of bright mornings and lengthening afternoons. Somewhere the scent of fertile soil mingles with the perfume of cut grass and new blossoms.
Carlos thinks he knows how it feels, the spring, even as he stands in the middle of the desert, shielding his eyes from a wind filled with sand that snaps the edges of his lab coat. He knows it best when he is with Cecil: Cecil's voice is the sun, warming what was cold, reviving what seemed beyond hope, reinventing the world in greening glory. A wastescape becomes a garden. A lonely life becomes a promise. True, Carlos' focus blurs as the edges of things soften, but it is worth it. The process becomes as engaging as the results; he incorporates new data into his hypothesis about what pursuits give life meaning and richness, and he tests and retests and refines and tests again as he laces his fingers together with Cecil's and lets Cecil's words fill his ears.
+ + + +
For their third date, Cecil shows up in yet another tunic. Carlos likes this one the best - it looks a lot like one of the kurtas his favorite labmate used to wear back in grad school. He tried to talk Cecil into wearing ordinary clothes for their dates after the first one, but Cecil looked so shocked. "But Carlos," he said, "how will the Sheriff's Secret Police be able to identify us as participating in municipally-sanctioned romantic activities if we're not dressed appropriately? Oh, and this is your dating license, so, um, make sure you don't lose it." He handed Carlos a card and giggled. Carlos blushed a little as he looked at the card. Night Vale Municipal Dating License, it said at the top, and underneath, The bearer of this card is given license to participate in municipally-sanctioned romantic activities up to and including holding hands, kissing, petting, and intercourse* while any part of any participant remains within the Night Vale city limits, including hair, skin cells, kidneys, or astral projections. At the bottom, in very small font, it said "Intercourse is defined as whatever the participants damn well please so mind your own business, cheeky, or it's the abandoned mine shaft outside of town for you. Truly amazing or startling acts of sexual gratification may be subject to additional erotic tax and/or video surveillance by those who enjoy titillation. Failure to present license may result in termination of sexual privileges."
There was no arguing with that. Or with Cecil. And Carlos, who had taken some small advantage of municipally-sanctioned petting during their second date, was a little more kindly disposed to the furry pants, which did have a pleasing texture under his fingers. Tonight, for their third date, he is looking forward to the furry pants. He has his dating license tucked firmly into his wallet, along with a couple of condoms, which normally he wouldn't carry in his wallet, but they'll be safe enough for a few hours tucked into the pocket of his casual lab coat. He doesn't want to overstep, but a scientist should always be prepared. That's the second and third and fourth thing a scientist is, prepared. Carlos, quite frankly, is looking forward to eschewing self-reliance tonight, at least when it comes to sensual pleasure. He hopes Cecil feels the same way.
This tunic is very nice: deep, rich purple with gold embroidery. Cecil's tattoos shimmer faintly gold against his brown skin where the sleeves are pushed up. He's not as dark as Carlos is, but then again, Cecil spends his days inside, tucked away in the insulated box of his studio. Carlos spends a lot of his days with his sleeves rolled up and the sun slanting off his bright white lab coat as he measures trees in Mission Grove Park or shifts from foot to foot outside the house that doesn't exist in the Desert Creek housing development, trying to summon up the courage to ring the doorbell, or on the fringes of the Whispering Forest, taking recordings and staying carefully out of the shade that reaches toward him. In fact, they're outside now, standing in front of the radio station as the late afternoon sun tinges everything with red and void eats at the edges of the turquoise-mauve-and-speckled sky.
"What a lovely evening," Cecil says, and it's as if his saying it makes it truer and more real. It is a lovely evening, and promises to be lovelier. "Carlos, beautiful Carlos - I'm so glad that we are spending it together."
Carlos steps forward and kisses Cecil briefly. Cecil's mouth is yielding and warm against Carlos' own, but Carlos takes one deep breath and steps back. Cecil flushes, his cheeks darkening and light sliding along the lines of his tattoos. Carlos licks his lips, getting a taste of Cecil and no more; that will sustain him until later in the evening. They may have their dating licenses, but Carlos isn't willing to perform any municipally-sanctioned activities in the open air. Not tonight, at least, not when he can see a leather-balaclava-clad head peering around a trash can. He knows, of course, that they are under constant surveillance just like any other residents of Night Vale, but he prefers to pretend that the Sheriff's Secret Police won't be staring through the windows into Cecil's bedroom. They will be, but the illusion of privacy is easier to maintain when there's a pane of glass between them and the wide, staring eyes.
"Why, Carlos," Cecil says, "that was unexpected but very pleasant."
Carlos smiles. "I should inform you that you can expect a more prolonged embrace later in the evening, with your consent."
"Oh, Carlos," Cecil murmurs, and Carlos feels that spring breeze again, sweet and warm and making him shiver in the anticipation of the surge of life that will follow.
They eat at Red Lobster, because Cecil is very fond of cheddar biscuits, even now that they're made with potato flour, and because Carlos has become fond of things that make Cecil happy. His day improves quantifiably by 89.264% every time Cecil smiles, and besides, those biscuits are tasty. Carlos' mother would have something to say about how food should be fresh and how fish should be bought and cooked whole, but she's not around. The Occult Calamari is actually really good, once Carlos gets past the echoing scream when he bites into it, and the Catch of the Day is Floundering Flounder, which Cecil tackles with enthusiasm. Literally - he has to tackle it to the table when it flips itself off his plate. Fortunately, the table is set with a dish of small sharp stakes and a tiny watering can full of holy water, and that brings the flounder to a halt. Carlos would visit the kitchen to ask for a sample of the flounder, but he's found that he'd rather not know what he's eating. A scientist knows when not to question.
After Red Lobster, they go to Pinkberry. Cecil waffles between Bloodstone and Coconut Surprise. Carlos is glad when Cecil chooses the coconut - he isn't sure about the surprise, but the bloodstone flavor makes his skin crawl, and, well, he is planning to encounter Cecil's mouth later. Cecil happily heaps his yogurt cup with popping boba - mango? sunrise? Ichor Alternative? it's hard to tell - as Carlos dispenses wedding cake yogurt into his own cup and tries not to read anything into it. His conscious mind enjoys cake just as much as his subconscious. They were out of snickerdoodle, and besides, it isn't as if he's planning to leave Night Vale any time soon. It isn't as if he's planning to leave Cecil.
They eat their yogurt on a park bench. Carlos studiously ignores the trees. In the back of his mind, plans for further experiments spring up like seedlings The front of his mind directs him to balance his yogurt cup on the arm of the bench and put his free hand on Cecil's furry-pants-clad knee. Cecil smiles. Carlos can hear the strange bell-like chiming as the little syrup bubbles pop between Cecil's teeth and he can feel the way that Cecil's body warms the soft silky pelt of the furry pants. When they finish, they throw their cups away and sit on the bench holding hands.
"Would you like to come in for a drink?" Cecil suggests. "I have a bottle of locally-brewed sarsaparilla that's truly excellent, or a bottle of haunted champagne if you'd rather have something alcoholic. Don't worry, the haunting wears off pretty quickly. I just like the way the bubbles tickle my nose and conjure up the faint sensation of horrors from beyond lurking just behind my shoulder. It's very refreshing."
"Sarsaparilla sounds fine," Carlos says. "But we're at least a mile from your apartment."
"Oh, I wish we could take the subway," Cecil says wistfully. "It was - oh, Carlos, it was inexplicable, the sensation."
"I wish I'd been there to share it with you," Carlos tells him.
"Well," Cecil says, "perhaps we can try to recreate it. I'll explain it in great detail, Carlos. With the kind of precise descriptions that are relevant to qualitative research, if not quantitative. I know what scientists like."
"I'm certain that you do," Carlos murmurs. He leans forward and kisses Cecil. Cecil's lips are cold but his tongue is warm and sweet, their kiss brand new and ancient all at once, and for a moment, Carlos thinks he understands what it was like to ride the subway.
+ + + +
They walk back to Cecil's apartment arm in arm. Cecil unlocks his door as Carlos touches his wallet for reassurance. Both license and condoms are still within, he's sure. His wallet hasn't turned into a frightened small animal in weeks.
"Would you like a glass of sarsaparilla?" Cecil offers as he ushers Carlos inside.
"There are other things I would like more," Carlos tells him, and Cecil blushes again, the ruddiness just visible. "It is our third date. I'm not sure if that tradition holds in Night Vale, but generally the third date provides certain...opportunities."
"Oh?" Cecil says.
"Yes," Carlos says.
"Oh," Cecil says happily. His hands reach out for the lapels of Carlos' lab coat. "I see. I think. I see?"
"You see," Carlos assures him, and slips one arm around Cecil's waist, pulling him closer. Cecil hums in a pleased way as Carlos kisses him, his lips parting for Carlos'. Carlos takes full advantage of this, pushing his tongue against Cecil's. Cecil sighs happily. His hands fist and tighten around Carlos' lapels and his hips press forward. Carlos meets him halfway, shoving gently against Cecil, whose delightfully standard anatomy (not that Carlos would judge, but he isn't sure he could have controlled his initial reaction of scientific fascination, which might dampen the mood and set his timeline back a bit in terms of this evening's plans) is making itself known, even through the plush fabric of the furry trousers. Carlos is certain his own anatomy is asserting itself just as fervently. He rubs against Cecil's erection, pressing their hips together, until Cecil cups Carlos' face in his hands and gently breaks the kiss.
"Do you have your license?" Cecil murmurs, and it shouldn't be a turn-on, but Carlos has been in Night Vale too long, or maybe just long enough.
"Of course I do," Carlos says, because by now he's learned to carry them everywhere: involuntary breathing license with mandatory conversion to voluntary license, license for involuntary heartbeat (50-100 bpm with flexibility for exercise), sentience card, certification of linguistic skills (English, Spanish, Three Semesters Of French, Barroom German, Pig Latin, Weird Spanish, Un-Latin, Pheromones, Dance).
"We should put them on the table," Cecil says in a slightly huskier version of his already alluring voice. "Wouldn't want to get a citation."
Carlos digs for his wallet. Cecil reaches into his own pocket and pulls out his license. He props both his and Carlos' up against a vase in clear view of the window.
"There," Cecil says with satisfaction. He reaches out and cups Carlos' ass in his hand. Carlos jumps and grins. He reaches out for Cecil and Cecil is already stepping into his arms, his hands reaching up to push Carlos' lab coat off his shoulders.
"I really like this coat," Cecil says apologetically. "But I would also very much enjoy touching your bare skin, Carlos. In fact, I have a delicious suspicion that the more of your body that is touching my body, the better my night will be. If that's all right."
"Yes," Carlos says, much more roughly than he intends, but he likes the way Cecil's eyes widen. "Please."
"Oh, Carlos," Cecil says, and Carlos kisses him before Cecil can wax rhapsodic about anything else. He slides his hands under the hem of Cecil's tunic, ruffling the furry pants the wrong way, which Cecil doesn't seem to mind at all, especially once Carlos' thumbs graze Cecil's hip above the pants. Cecil sighs into Carlos' mouth and nips at Carlos' lower lip. Carlos thrusts his tongue into Cecil's mouth and thrusts his hips forward, pushing Cecil gently back. They slow-step into the bedroom, Carlos quick to toss his wallet onto Cecil's bedside table before he lets his coat fall to the floor. He skims Cecil's tunic over his head and fumbles off his own t-shirt. Cecil gazes at him raptly, brown eyes wide. Carlos pulls him close and fuck, finally they're skin to skin. Carlos knows that there's science behind all of it, endorphins and pheromones and the base craving for the warm heat of another body pressed to yours, but he almost doesn't care: he's too busy gathering data on the way Cecil gasps when Carlos nips at that particular spot on his throat, and the way Cecil groans as their hips knock against each other, and the way the light slips over Cecil's skin as the sun goes down outside the half-open window, and the raised lines on Cecil's back that are rough under Carlos' fingertips.
"Cecil?" Carlos asks, though it is several minutes before he can pull himself away from the hot wonder of Cecil's lips and Cecil's tongue.
"Hmmmmmmmmmm?" Cecil says, somewhere between corny and adorable.
"What are these?" Carlos turns Cecil gently until he can see the scars that mark Cecil's back. They are slightly bumpy, slightly glossy, darker than the rest of Cecil's skin. Carlos can't quite make out the pattern. They look a little bit like the glyphs that Josie posts to Facebook, and a little bit like a map that Carlos can almost decipher.
"Oh, those?" Cecil asks. "Well. You didn't think it was easy, becoming the host of Night Vale Community Radio? Because there were plenty of challenges, I don't mind telling you."
Carlos traces the scars as Cecil cranes his head over his shoulder. "Didn't it hurt?"
"It's difficult to say," Cecil tells him thoughtfully. "For a while, I imagined I was part of the 53% of Night Vale residents who can't feel pain, but then later in the ordeal I got a paper cut while pre-recording sponsored ads, and that was the end of that. Which is good, because, after all, I can't have mirrors around. I think I was overtaken by euphoria. It's a documented phenomenon in community radio, you know. Broadcast euphoria. They put a script in front of me and told me to keep recording no matter what, and when the show was over, they bandaged me up and sent me to the next stage. But listen, I probably shouldn't be talking about this, especially at a moment like this one. You don't want to hear about all that."
"I do," Carlos assures him. He keeps tracing the scars with one fingertip, following the lines like he's walking a labyrinth, an erotic meditation. Cecil doesn't seem to have any sensation in the scars, but if Carlos lets his fingers stray, Cecil shivers. Carlos presses a kiss to the end of the scar, dangerously close to the nape of Cecil's neck, and presses his hips against Cecil's ass. "I want to hear everything."
"You do?" Cecil breathes.
"But you're right," Carlos tells him. "Later."
"Yes, much later," Cecil says with a smile.
The furry pants have no buttons, unlike Carlos' jeans. He leaves Cecil to deal with the pants on his own as he undresses himself, stripping down to his underwear. Cecil emerges from his clothes, not tall or short, not thin or fat, just Cecil in his NVCR boxers with his tattoos thin lines of liquid gold against his brown skin, ducking his head and peering at Carlos in a way that's hopelessly endearing. Carlos stretches out on the bed, tucking the condoms from his wallet under the pillow.
"Come here," he tells Cecil.
Cecil comes willingly, stretching his body out against Carlos, adjusting and readjusting with tiny movements until they are lined up to his satisfaction. Carlos reaches out to brush the hair from Cecil's brow. He leans in to find Cecil's mouth and as always, Cecil is open for him, warm and willing, eager and urgent, asking questions with lips and tongue that Carlos is happy to answer. They kiss for a long time, until Carlos' heartbeat is well above his approved range as shown on his involuntary heartbeat license (he hopes this counts as exercise) and his breath is fast and hot, and Cecil's is equally desperate. Carlos strokes Cecil's back and the scars are discernable even to his pleasure-dazed mind, the input overwhelming him.
"Turn over," Carlos says, and Cecil complies instantly. Carlos divests himself of his underwear and reaches for one of the condoms, rolling it down over his erection. Cecil, clever Cecil, nearly falls off the bed reaching for lube, but manages to roll back into bed naked, settling his back against Carlos' chest. Carlos can feel the scars against his skin; they rub pleasantly. For just a moment, he feels a shock of recognition, as if he recognizes the pattern etched into Cecil's back, but then it's gone, and not scientifically valid, although Carlos promises himself to try to replicate it again and again. For science, of course. Not because of the delicious feeling of Cecil's skin barely damp against his, or the heart-melting sweetness of friction between their bodies, or the line of Cecil's throat when he turns his head back to kiss Carlos.
Carlos pulls Cecil against him, caressing him from shoulder to knee, flattening his palms over the planes and hollows and swells of Cecil's body, sealing them together with salt sweat and passionate heat. Cecil makes small helpless noises, but his mouth tells another story: he demands more and more from Carlos, everything that Carlos can give, and oh, Carlos has so much to give. He trails his fingers over Cecil's cock and Cecil shivers against him and grinds his ass against Carlos' cock until Carlos is half-dizzy, trying to keep himself together.
"Hold still," he says, and Cecil stills. Carlos takes the lube from Cecil's loosening fist and slicks two fingers. He slides them into the space between Cecil's thighs, nudging his thumb against Cecil's perineum as he teases Cecil's tongue with his own. Cecil moans, a long low mmm that reverberates in Carlos' bones, as if Cecil has found his perfect resonance. More lube and more gentle rearranging, and then Carlos guides his cock into the tight space, wedging himself between Cecil's thighs. Carlos can't help sinking his teeth into Cecil's shoulder, because after so long a drought, the sensation is overwhelming, but Cecil moans in that way that makes Carlos want to buck against him over and over until they're both gasping, and it all seems to be all right. Carlos thrusts slowly, reaching for Cecil's cock, running his thumb over the head of it and wrapping his fingers loosely around the shaft. Cecil reaches back to clutch at him, and to kiss him, and Carlos pushes and pumps in steady rhythm, slow as a lazy rhumba. Cecil holds Carlos to him, pulling him even closer, his fingers digging into Carlos' back. Carlos feels that shock again as Cecil's scars press into his skin. There's something, oh, if he could only grasp it, but it's all he can do not to come right now, with Cecil's cock in his hand and the hot pressure of Cecil's thighs around his own cock and Cecil's tongue in his mouth and Cecil's nails leaving half-moons until Carlos thinks with a sting of pleasure that he might have his own scars to mark this occasion.
He thrusts. Cecil's scars rub against his chest, and that flicker of something more comes and goes. Cecil gasps. Cecil groans. Cecil presses back hard against Carlos until Carlos thinks they will merge somehow, become one body linked by pleasure and this mystery and that great unifier of the desert, salt. Salt of their sweat, salt of the pre-ejaculate that glistens on Cecil's cock, salt of their blood, salt for the longings so long preserved that they had crystallized into sharp-edged hope that could slice open the heart of a scientist or a community radio personality. The ground is so salty out in the scrublands that Carlos marvels that anything grows at all, but things grow. There is always the rain. There is always the promise of rebirth to come. There is always a love story that stands empty until they open the door and walk into it.
There is always this, this panting, this heat, this desire, this need. This thing that Carlos regretted, as his blood dripped onto the miniature buildings of the miniature city. This closeness. This reshaping of reality into a space for two. Carlos thrusts against Cecil and it doesn't matter that they are all so much empty space and so little matter, so little that matters, and yet all of this matters so much.
Cecil comes first, with a shudder and a cry and a flicker of light across his skin, a shivering pulse that ricochets through the constellation of his tattoos. Carlos bites at his shoulder again and shoves faster, desperate, and Cecil murmurs to him. Carlos can feel the friction between their bodies, can feel the strange hieroglyphics of the scars sawing against his ribs like a bow over strings, can feel Cecil's thighs trembling as he tries to hold himself in position.
And Carlos comes, and he says Cecil's name, and it is years before he is back inside his own skin, years and years of letting the mysteries of the universe sift through his disembodied essence, and yet it is really only a minute or so later that he feels again the familiar limits of flesh and bone, and Cecil is stroking his hair.
They clean up, dazed, touching themselves and each other with absent-minded tenderness. Carlos checks, but his dating license doesn't prohibit staying over, and besides, there was a flash flood watch (somewhere) and a warning from the City Council of something in the immediate vicinity. And Cecil is there, tugging the lilac sheet over his hip, turning half onto his stomach so that Carlos can trace the scars again and again until he has memorized them.
"Good night, Carlos," Cecil murmurs. "Good night."
+ + + +
It's spring somewhere, maybe even in Night Vale. A breeze winds its way out of Radon Canyon, carrying dust from the mesa. It sifts pasts the Moonlight All-Night Diner. It wafts through the open window of the room where Cecil lies calm in the curve of Carlos' body. Carlos thinks that he smells snow, and the first green things that stretch up through the snow, because the hope in them is greater than the fear of the cold, the fear of the long dark and the crisp footsteps of rough beasts slouching through old ice toward old haunts. The hope in him is greater than the fear of government agents, and greater than the fear of loss. He has kindled a watchfire in his heart, and it will see him through the last breath of cold.
He pulls Cecil closer, feeling the imprint of the signs graven on Cecil's back against his own skin. If he dreams, he will read them. If he dreams, he will know.
When he wakes, all he remembers is a riot of blossom and scent and the half-forgotten drone of bees. But his heart is light, and Cecil's eyes are so very bright as he rolls over for a kiss, and Carlos thinks that spring will never end.