Carlos is fairly sure he only met Dana once. He's almost certain they never spoke; all he really remembers is a short girl with dreadlocks in a Night Vale Community Radio shirt and a pair of patched jeans- he's not sure why he remembers that, the strawberry patch on the back pocket, but it's there in his mind anyway. He definitely met the original Dana, though he thinks maybe the difference between people and their doppelgangers is largely academic and definitely philosophical. Carlos isn't a philosopher for a reason.
Even without actually knowing Dana, either one of her, he knows plenty about her. She was one of the interns who worked at the station the longest, two or three months before the incident at the Dog Park, and Cecil talked to her on the air from time to time. Once or twice she even got behind the mic to do ads; Carlos remembers her voice, too, sweet and chipper even when she was talking about organ meats.
But that's all from before; what Carlos really knows is from after, from Cecil. At first Carlos thought that Cecil didn't really have any friends; later Carlos knew Cecil didn't really have any friends, but Cecil had Dana. Cecil gushed when he talked about Dana, even if there was sadness in it. He worried about Dana constantly, said things about her in the government-mandated prayers that he said every day, in full view of the window and in a loud, clear voice. Carlos held him through a long night of angry, useless crying when she called from the desert; it was more for restraint than comfort, because Carlos was sure at one point that he was going to try to leave, to go to the Dog Park or the house that didn't exist and try to get in to get her back.
But then Dana is where they are, when they are. Dana is home.
It takes bending of time and space that even Carlos despairs of ever understanding, willing, on this rare occasion, to chalk it up to "Night Vale is fucking weird" and let it be. The point is that she's home, in the hospital, dealing with prolonged exposure and doubt concerning the nature of existence, i.e. that there is such a thing as existence, both of which the Night Vale hospital is thankfully well-versed in treating. Otherwise, she's mostly fine, and after a few days, Carlos takes Cecil down to visit her, not sure Cecil can deal with it without moral support.
She smiles at Carlos as he enters, but her entire face lights up when she sees Cecil. Cecil rushes over, and it's a shock to Carlos that he doesn't fall to his knees at her bedside; it's probably only because there's a chair there already. "Dana," Cecil says, and that one word has more weight than Carlos can even express.
"I'll just leave you two alone," Carlos says tactfully, stepping out, but neither of them seem to actually hear him.
Carlos pulls the door to, sitting down across the hall and looking through the window into Dana's room at the two of them. It's kind of weird, to be perfectly honest, not being the only thing in the room that draws Cecil's attention; Carlos feels like a dick when he realizes that, but at least he's self-aware enough that he realizes that it's dick behavior.
In the room, Cecil and Dana are talking animatedly, and Carlos can just imagine Cecil's voice, the way it gets high and sort of, well, girlish when he's really excited. The mood changes, though, as they seem to wind themselves down. Cecil runs his hand over her hair, and she says something to him, clutching at his arm. Cecil doesn't say anything in response, just leans down and kisses her.
Carlos isn't sure precisely what to do about that. He stays where he is, because it would still be dick behavior to run in and break it up, even if his boyfriend is in the next room kissing someone else. Mostly he's too shocked to move; he was pretty sure Cecil wasn't exactly the straying type, but this is causing some alarm.
In the room, Cecil finally stands up, his hand lingering in Dana's, until he says a final word and lets her go. They're both smiling, and when Cecil comes out, he's wiping tears out of his eyes. Carlos tries to clear his expression, but apparently it doesn't work very well.
"We'll talk in the car," Cecil says.
"That's probably best," Carlos tells him.
They're quiet through the hospital, down the elevator, in the parking garage. They don't actually talk in the car; Cecil keeps looking over at him like he wants to say something, but can't figure out what.
"I couldn't tell anyone," Cecil says, when they've gotten all the way into the entranceway to their apartment and Carlos is shutting the door. "She was an intern then, and if anyone had known, it would have been very easy to misinterpret in ways that might have gotten either or both of us fired. And then she-" he pauses, like he does every time, like he still hasn't found a way to put words to it- "left, and I didn't want to tell anyone. It hurt to think about."
"What do you mean, 'misinterpret'?" Carlos asks, frowning. "I thought you were friends."
"We are friends," Cecil says. "It's just that we're-" He stops, frowning.
"More than friends?" Carlos provides, starting to feel more than a little annoyed.
"It's not like that," Cecil says quickly. "We're not 'more than friends', we're just- well, our relationship has additional, um, parameters."
"Spit it out, Cecil," Carlos says flatly. He isn't liking the present tense in any of this; he honestly wouldn't like the past tense, not without Cecil telling him about it.
"Dana is my submissive," Cecil says, in a voice that makes it sound like a question.
Carlos is totally thrown. He knew Cecil was into kinky stuff, and what he's introduced Carlos to so far has been pretty outstanding, but this is something completely different. "You were having sex with Dana this whole time and you never told me about it?" Carlos says, indignant.
"I've never had sex with Dana," Cecil says, like the idea is shocking. "Carlos, I care for Dana very deeply, but I wouldn't have sex with her."
"Why not?" Carlos asks, not sure why he's asking that question.
"Well, for starters, I'm gay," Cecil says, and now it sounds like he's starting to get angry too, which he has no right to be, as far as Carlos is concerned. "If I had been with anyone else since you got here, I would have told you. What Dana and I do isn't sex."
"What is it, then?" Carlos asks. "Because I've seen what you do, and it seems pretty sexual to me."
Cecil sighs in frustration. "Carlos, if you'll just calm down for a moment and let me explain-"
"I need to think about it," Carlos says.
"It'll be okay," Cecil says, in a pleading voice. "If you don't want me to kiss her, I won't kiss her. I see that that's a limit for you, so we can just-"
"I said I need to think, Cecil," Carlos snaps.
"Fine," Cecil says tightly, walking out of the room.
Carlos rubs his forehead. If Cecil wants to get pissed off, that's his business. It's not like he didn't deserve it.
It's not fair to say that Carlos avoids Cecil for the next few days. He sees Cecil, certainly, though admittedly it's mostly in the early morning and when Carlos crawls into bed. It's just that Carlos finds an awful lot of science to do- all very important and urgent, of course- and spends his time doing it instead of talking to Cecil.
In fact, he's doing science when someone knocks on the door to his laboratory. He looks up, somewhat confused. He doesn't get many visitors other than his fellow scientists, who tend to traipse in whenever they want without knocking. He walks to the door, pulling it open, and he frowns when he sees the person on the other side.
"I brought you this plant," Dana tells him, holding it out to him in both hands.
"What kind is it?" Carlos says, looking it over.
"I don't know," she says, "but the cat ate some and dissolved. Don't worry, it regenerated a few hours later."
Carlos understands now that it's a peace offering; he considers briefly not taking it, leaving her here holding it and gently but definitively shutting the door. "Thank you," he says instead, taking it from her. "Come on in."
Carlos turns, leaving her to follow him, and she shuts the door behind them. He walks over and places the plant on a side table, where it will be out of the way. When he turns back to her, she's peering at his lab equipment with interest. "Is there something I can help you with?" Carlos asks her, and she looks up at him.
"You know why I came by," Dana tells him.
"I probably do," Carlos says. "Did Cecil send you?"
"Cecil is too busy licking his wounds," Dana says. "You really hurt his feelings."
Carlos doesn't say what he's thinking, which is that Cecil deserved it. "So you're taking it upon yourself to smooth things over?"
"Pretty much," Dana says, with a calm smile. "Let's talk, Carlos."
"Have you had sex with Cecil?" Carlos asks; whether or not he wants to have a reasonable discussion about this hinges on it.
Dana shakes her head, looking faintly amused. "No."
"Then let's talk," Carlos says. He sits down behind the official-looking desk that he never uses; something about having her on the other side of it feels better, like she's a disrespectful undergrad that Carlos is having to deal with rather than a threat.
God, he's such a dick lately.
She sits down, perched at the edge of the chair, and for all Carlos's rudeness, she looks perfectly at ease, like she doesn't see Carlos as a threat at all. Carlos envies her then, how she can be so secure.
"I have no idea what's going on, but so far I don't like it," Carlos says honestly, not knowing what else to say, not knowing why he should sugarcoat it.
"That's okay," Dana says, not looking offended. "Some kinky people don't even understand it."
"You're going to have to spell it out for me," Carlos tells her. There's a spare notebook on the desk, and Carlos unclips his pen from the pocket of his lab coat. "Please be detailed."
Dana raises an eyebrow at him, but she shrugs. "I belong to Cecil. I do things for him, and he takes care of me."
"You're going to need to slow down," Carlos tells her. "There are at least three parts of that statement that I don't understand. It's important that this be very precise."
"Okay," Dana says, drawing the word out. "Cecil and I have an arrangement. I have certain responsibilities in it, and so does Cecil."
"For example?" Carlos says, making a pair of headings in his notebook.
"For example, I might serve Cecil tea or renew his bloodstone circle." Carlos puts a big question mark next to the second part of that, underlined twice, but he lets her continue. "There are more formal things too, kneeling and stuff, but it's not really as important. It all just shows that I respect him." She cranes her neck to look at his notebook. "What are you writing?"
"Please go on," Carlos tells her. "You haven't said what Cecil does for you."
"Well," Dana says, looking contemplative. "He lets me do all that stuff for him, because he knows that it makes me feel good." That gets an interrobang in Carlos's notes. "He watches my back. When one of us needs it or we just feel like it, he brings me down- you're going to want a longer explanation of that, but let me finish this part."
"Of course," Carlos says, putting a star by it.
"The point is that we both get a lot out of it," Dana says. "Because I know it's on your mind, I have to explain that it's not sexual or romantic between us. Cecil is my dom and my best friend, and that's all we need from each other. Even if we weren't both gay, that would still be enough."
Carlos looks over his notes. "Hmm," he says, mulling it over. He taps the paper. "You didn't explain what 'bringing down' means."
"Cecil was going to ask you about this, but it will take him another week before he gets over being hurt and gets up the courage," Dana says. "We both know that you're upset, but Cecil and I want to be together one more time. We want you to be there."
"What do you mean, 'be together'?" Carlos asks.
"It's really better if you just see," Dana says.
"What if I don't like what I see?" Carlos says.
"Then leave," Dana says, more bluntly than he expected. "Cecil can give you more details if you're willing to ask for them."
"That's a funny way to put it," Carlos says.
"Think about it," Dana tells him, standing up. "I'll see you soon, okay?"
With that, she leaves, and Carlos stares down at his notes. They're much briefer than he hoped, and they do and don't make sense. Carlos isn't much for anthropological observation, preferring the clean lines of hard science, but he knows what he has to do.
The cuffs look heavy, overpowering on Dana's thin wrists and ankles. Cecil has her facing the wall, her arms above her head, cuffs clipped to a chain running through a heavy eyebolt in the ceiling that usually holds a hanging plant. She doesn't look uncomfortable, though; her legs are free, her feet flat on the floor in a stance that says she's ready, confident, even though she's standing there in nothing but her panties in front of Carlos, who she really only barely knows.
Cecil squeezes Carlos's hand briefly before he walks up behind Dana, touching her lightly to announce his presence. Cecil runs his fingers over her hair, which is only maybe half an inch long now; she cut her dreads off when she came back, which Carlos doesn't blame her for. She has a sunburn scar on her left shoulder, an angry-looking thing, but she doesn't jump or flinch when Cecil puts his hand over it. He holds it there, whispering something in her ear; she nods, and he kisses her temple. He doesn't stop touching her, running his hand down her side and over the curve of her hip.
Dana gasps as Cecil suddenly grabs her, pulling her tight against him, and Carlos is taken aback. Cecil bites down on the right side of her neck, right where it joins her shoulder; she squirms hard against him, but he doesn't let go, holding her fast. That's when Carlos realizes something, something that's subtle but just visible: she's not trying to get away. The pain is making her flinch and twist, but she's not pulling back from him, just letting him do it. Carlos doesn't know what to think about that, not yet.
Finally, Cecil lets her go, smoothing his hands over her back for a moment before he stands back. This is the part Carlos was unsure about. Cecil has smacked him on the ass a couple times in bed; that was hot and everything, but now Cecil has a flogger in his hand, and that's a very different proposition. Carlos doesn't move, though. He's going to make a concerted effort to get through this, to at least see what this is all about.
Dana rolls her neck, spreading her feet a little wider. Contrary to what Carlos expects, she relaxes when the falls of the flogger begin to land on her skin. Cecil's doing it slowly, lightly; he does it in a figure-eight, the falls hitting one side of her back and then the next. Dana lets her head hang and pushes her shoulders out, giving him a better target. Carlos is still sort of confused as to what he's seeing, but Cecil and Dana are good at it, whatever it is.
Carlos can hear it when Cecil starts to hit her harder, the slap of the flogger against her skin, and Dana lets out a pleased moan. Cecil is intent on her; only his forearm is moving as he flogs her, but the whole of his body is somehow into it. It's like there's no space intervening between the two of them, like the flogger is nothing but an extension of his body, a different way to touch her.
It's slow, infinitesimally slow, the way he builds up the rhythm of his hits, one after the other in that same side-to-side pattern, regular and measured even when he's moving faster, faster. The flogger is hitting her heavily now, loud strokes that ring out, but under it, Carlos catches two words-
Cecil hits her harder, moving faster, her skin turning redder and darker under the touch of the flogger, and it occurs to Carlos how much trust that takes, to take her at her word even in a situation like this one. This isn't what Carlos expected, not at all; Cecil is doing something to her that looks so painful, but it's so soft between the two of them, so calm somehow even as they both pant and sweat. It doesn't look like sex, not like Carlos thought it would. It looks like something else, something delicate yet so solid, a contradiction that Carlos doesn't understand at all, not yet.
Mostly it looks like something Carlos would be heartless to steal.
Carlos can't hear it, but he knows suddenly that Dana's crying, can read it in the way her shoulders rise and fall. Cecil doesn't stop, not at first, but he slows, the flogger falling gentler and gentler until he finally puts it aside. He walks forward, running his hands over Dana's shoulders. They're speaking, whispers that Carlos can't hear; finally Cecil nods, reaching up and unclipping the cuffs from the chain.
Cecil leads her away from the wall, settling into the nest of pillows and blankets that he's constructed and pulling her down with him. He takes her into his arms, pulling her against him tight and holding onto her. She's still crying softly, and now Carlos feels like he's intruding, out of place. He's about to go when Cecil looks up at him, cocking his head to beckon him over. Carlos isn't sure if he should come or not, but he does it anyway.
"Sit," Cecil says softly, indicating Dana's other side, and Carlos sits down. This close he can see how Dana really looks; she looks wrung out, but she doesn't look unhappy. She looks at peace, exhausted but blissful. Carlos doesn't know if it's okay to touch her or not, but Cecil nods at him when he holds out his hand. He strokes her arm, her thigh, and she sighs, cuddling deeper into Cecil's embrace.
Hours later, Dana is asleep in the guest bedroom, and Carlos and Cecil sit on the couch in the living room, Cecil sitting in the one specific spot in the room where it's just possible to line up the angles and see into the bedroom. Carlos didn't know this spot existed, but apparently Cecil has examined this before.
"I hope that wasn't-" Cecil says, in a soft voice, but he drops it there, like he can't decide how the sentence ends. Carlos knows what he was trying to say anyway.
"Do you love me?" Carlos asks, not caring if it sounds like a non sequitur, because it is anything but.
"More than anything," Cecil says earnestly.
"Do you love her?" Carlos asks.
Cecil frowns, unhappy, frustrated. "I'm not going to lie to you and say that I don't."
"I still don't want you kissing her," Carlos tells him.
Cecil leans forward, kissing him sweetly. "I'll save all my kisses for you," he says, dorky and charming at once, as is Cecil's way.
"Good," Carlos says.
Carlos sits at the kitchen table, sipping his Coke as he eats his lunch, the leftovers of the mushroom thing of unsure provenance that Cecil made. Cecil is sitting across from him, looking a little worn around the edges; he and Dana have been up since dawn, doing something to the bloodstone circle that was both very naked and very loud, though oddly, he couldn't hear it at all when he stepped out into the hallway.
Dana puts a plate down in front of Cecil, a grilled cheese sandwich that looks much more delicious than what Carlos has, which tasted way better last night. There are limits though, Cecil's and Dana's and Carlos's own, and it doesn't seem right to let Dana cook for him, even if it does look really, really delicious.
Dana sets down the other plate in front of her place at the table, but before she can sit, Cecil grabs her wrist, pulling her towards him. He puts his hand on her shoulder, pulling her down so he can kiss her forehead. Dana smiles at him when he lets her go; the accustomed pinch of jealousy that Carlos feels, the one that's lessening and lessening, is brought down to nothing when Cecil runs his foot up the inside of Carlos's calf, too far away to do anything else.
Carlos finishes his lunch, washing out his bowl and putting it in the dishwasher. He kisses Cecil as he leaves; Dana looks up from her sandwich, and Carlos waves at her. She smiles brightly, waving back. Carlos leaves the two of them alone, returning to his laboratory, not even worried about what's going to happen.
Well, he's a little worried they're going to start being loud and naked again and someone is going to complain to the landlord, who is a tentacled creature who literally absorbs their rent check every month and spits a slightly sticky receipt at them. Otherwise, they're going to be fine.