When Carlos is stuck in a desert otherworld, he tells his boyfriend, on the other side of the dog park (not that either of them knew it at the time) that a scientist is always fine. The words echo eternally through the sky, when he says it, buzz in his ears like that of an insect flying too close to the face, a radio with burnt speakers. It’s his own secret, but in this moment, he does not feel very fine. He is in a desert of nothing but sand and warmongers. An abandoned lighthouse in the distance that never gets closer.
Kevin is in his self-made studio, his voice jovial through the grates of a sanded piece of junk metal, a miniature radio that he made for Carlos shortly after they had met, here. At first, Carlos had been wary of the thing, and of course, it was unscientific of him, to be wary of using it instead of exploring the limits and mechanics of the tiny box, but while Kevin had a sharp, sometimes cruel streak, he had also never made an attempt to hurt Carlos, and the two of them actually got along well enough.
That’s all fine and good, but…
Carlos doesn’t know where he is, right now. The wind, carrying particles upon particles of coarse desert grain, is slow, thick and sappy. The sun is shining. He cannot see it. There are no posts, no Carlos-and-Kevin-made markers to help him navigate. Carlos knows, somewhere in the back of his mind, that something here is wrong. Looks down and sees sleepwear that he did not have when he got stuck here. Blinks and it’s different, a lab coat that covers a red flannel shirt. And then again, an undershirt, soaked through, no lab coat, and then again, the lab coat is back.
Somewhere along the way, Kevin’s bubbly voice had melted into Cecil’s deep timbre, but Carlos can’t understand what he’s saying. He wants so badly to understand. Everything is slow. Everything is fast. His head is pounding, and he pulls out his phone, dials a number that looks like nothing, like everything, like static, and the radio is static, has been static, he realizes, and he has to call Cecil, has to call him, but the phone is leaking briny water and the radio is leaking briny water and
And Carlos wakes up alone in bed, breaths harsh and fast. His skin is slick with sweat and he rolls over, presses his face into the edge of the bed as the bedroom door creaks open.
“Carlos?” Cecil’s voice calls, and Carlos hears the gentle clink of a coffee cup being placed on the bedside table. He takes a few more seconds to breathe before rolling over and smiling tiredly at his husband. “You alright, bear?”
“Morning, babe,” he sits up lethargically and yawns, wiping his face and doing his best not to show the ache of his pyrexia-addled muscles. “Sorry, just a rough dream, no biggie.”
“Mhm,” Cecil responds in a way that makes it clear that he doesn’t believe him, hand coming up to cup Carlos’s face. He holds intense eye contact with Carlos for about ten seconds (had it been anyone else, Carlos would have snapped at them or looked away, but this is Cecil, and he’s more than comfortable staring into Cecil’s eyes after two years of being married).
And then he gasps, dramatic (and endearing) as usual, “Sweetheart, you’re burning up!”
“I know, I know, but I’ll be fine ,” Carlos gently places his own hand over Cecil’s. “Just a head cold. I just need to sleep a little more, sweat it out. Have you made yourself coffee, yet? I’ll be fine, but you know that sometimes the secret police come in and use your fresh grounds.”
He hopes that it distracts Cecil from the way his hands are still shaking, but his husband makes a tsk-ing noise, gently kissing his temple, “Oh, you know I care about you more than coffee .” And then he goes, “But I will go check, if you’re concerned about it.” And he heads down the stairs.
For the next few minutes, Carlos flops over onto his back and listens to the sound of Cecil hammering more coffee beans (as much as he used the secret police as a distraction, they do have a habit of breaking into citizens’ houses for their coffee) and humming a song that has no real rhythm. In the moment, the blurry boundary between sleep and wakefulness, he latches onto that, uses it as an anchor to still his slurry thoughts and assess the situation.
These are the facts, as Carlos knows them:
- Carlos is running a fever. His current symptoms are as follows: muscular aching, headache, fatigue, pharyngitis, shortness of breath, and swollen lymph nodes. When he grabs his mug of coffee, the smell makes him nauseous, and he has no real appetite, so he adds those onto the list after the fact. It is highly probable that the nightmare that he just experienced was due in part to his ailment—a fever dream—and he only experiences those when he’s very sick, so he can’t expect himself to be in the right condition to go to the lab.
- Cecil is downstairs, as his usual routine dictates. He has to leave for work in the next hour. Cecil is concerned about Carlos’s health, and, if Carlos does not find a way to assure him that he can take care of his own fever, he will refuse to go to work. This is a problem, as he has not filled out any documentation with regards to claiming a day off from work, and Station Management will most definitely be displeased.
- Carlos has taken care of himself for a large majority of his life.
- He does not need his husband to take care of him today.
- He can handle himself. A scientist is always self-reliant.
By the time he’s convinced himself of that fact, Cecil is once again reentering the room, sipping his own mug of coffee. Carlos sees his eyes clock the now-cold mug of his own caffeine, but neither of them speak on it. The room is quiet, and Cecil sits in the space made between Carlos’s arm and torso, drinking his coffee. The silence is expectant, but not demanding. Carlos knows that Cecil will wait patiently for him to say something, even with his inherently impatient nature.
After a few seconds, he speaks, “You don’t have to worry about taking care of me, Cece. The average human catches a cold about three times a year. That’s about 234 colds in an entire lifetime! I’ve caught ill enough times to know how to handle one, and you have to be in the studio in less than an hour unless you want Station Management on your back.”
“Ugh, but Carlos, ” his husband whines, “Missing a day of radio won’t kill anyone! You being sick and alone could actually be dangerous, and not just because of your health! There’s robbers , and arsonists , and those huge moles with heat vision—everyone knows that moles are at the top of their food chain, Carlos, what with their sharp canines and their barbed spines! What if they burrow underneath the floor and infest the house? And I’ll be giving a radio broadcast .” His rambling, rushed voice goes unnaturally flat at the end, and Carlos winces.
“Oh, honey.” His husband’s shoulders are a little more tense than usual. Carlos sits up again, carefully pulling Cecil’s mug away from him and setting it next to his own. “Look at me?”
Cecil obliges, corners of his mouth downturned. Carlos kisses his cheek, stares up through his eyelashes. “I’m going to be fine. You can call during your breaks and if I don’t pick up, you can come back and check on me. But this isn’t life threatening, Cece. You’ll go to work, and you’ll come home, and I’ll be okay. And we’ll be okay. Okay?”
Cecil exhales slowly. Leans forward and kisses the corner of Carlos’s mouth. “Okay, my love.”
Carlos takes the time to wash up once Cecil leaves, but he’s too achy and lethargic to even think about making an attempt at showering. He cleans his face and brushes his teeth, and then he’s slowly making his way towards the kitchen for soup of some sort. While there is food—a lot of it—Carlos soon realizes that he’s not hungry. Normally, he would push through it, making something hot and quick. Today, he just grabs medicine, a pack of crackers, and a glass of grapefruit juice, waves tiredly towards the camera angled at his kitchen window, and heads back to bed.
He wraps himself in the covers after taking the pills, shivering with chills, and unintentionally falls asleep, once more.
When he opens his eyes, he’s standing barefoot in the sands of the desert otherworld, again. Was it a dream? Or is this a dream? There’s no one here, but Carlos feels like there should be someone here—a few people here, actually, stragglers that he comes across, or a group of otherworldly warriors, or- or-
He loses the thought as though the wind carries it away. There is a small radio to his right, a giant lighthouse in the horizon behind that. There is no sun, but there is no moon, either. It’s dark, and yet Carlos can see. It is not night vision. Carlos has the urge to test this new trait out, but he has no real scientific tools for recording, let alone testing. And everyone knows that it’s only science when you write it down (usually in blood, as pens are illegal to use in Night Vale), and so Carlos moves on. Approaches the radio slowly, as though it were to suddenly become something animate, dangerous.
It only plays the sound of bubbling water. Carlos frowns. Wonders when Cecil’s voice would come through the speakers and waits for what feels like hours for his boyfr- husband- boyfriend’s (?) voice to come back.
While he waits, he places a curious hand to the radio, gently lifts it. Watches black, brackish water slowly drain out of the speakers. Something tells him to examine further. He flips the device, opens the battery compartment. Where there should be batteries, a pool of black bubbling out. The smell of brine hits Carlos so intensely, spilling onto shaking hands, making a puddle along black closed-toe shoes. Rising and rising.
He drops the radio, looks around, but there’s nowhere to go. Water up to his knees. Up to his chest, his shoulders.
Carlos clenches his eyes shut, takes a deep breath, and
jolts back into consciousness, throws himself over the bed, and vomits. For a second, it tastes and smells like ocean water, and he retches again, eyes clenched shut.
His arm hangs on the side of the bed, and he dazedly watches it sway for what feels like hours. It’s droopy. Something is vibrating. He hears something vibrate. Really droopy. His hands are really droopy. Drippy.
He blinks, and his hand is melting, and it's a peculiar, interesting thing. He watches the way color drips off of it like sweat, melted wax in summer heat. He can't find it in himself to panic, just holds his other one out and flips both over. Rubs them together. They're dry, which doesn't make sense, scientifically, because he is watching himself drip into the hot sand, trembling and quaking and beige and coarse and granular and
Lithe hands clasp around his, and he slowly looks into his husband's face. It’s a little watery, and Carlos can't really understand what he's saying outside of a repetition of his name in varying tones that he can’t decipher, at the moment, so he focuses back on the feeling of his cradled hands. They aren't dripping anymore. Somewhere in Carlos's mind, he notes that they never were, and that he had let his temperature get way too high despite saying that he could take care of himself, and that he should probably just let his husband take care of him, since he came back home.
He presses his forehead into Cecil's collarbone, muttering something incomprehensible before going completely slack.
Cecil’s face is about five inches away from his own when he wakes up, and his head is cool. The fur of the ice pack is a little unbearable, but when he tries to take it off, he finds himself wrapped tightly against his husband, arms squished against his sides. He groans, presses his forehead against Cecil’s chest. He feels fingers start to run through his hair immediately, and he makes a rumbly hum.
“So, I called during the weather,” he hears Cecil say. “A few times.”
Fuck. “And I didn’t answer the phone?”
“And you didn’t answer the phone. It had vibrated all the way off of the bedside.” Cecil confirms, voice devoid of any heat or accusation. Just weariness. “And I tried telling myself that maybe you were asleep, and, I mean, that was right, but your temperature was so high, Carlos. Like, you were really overheating, my guy, it was...I was worried. I kept calling your name, but you were staring at your hands the whole time, and then you passed out on my shoulder, which was. Well if you weren’t so horribly sick, it would have been adorable, as most things that you do are. This time, it was just really scary.”
“I’m sorry, Cecil,” Carlos replies, voice rough. He doesn’t really know what else to say. “Wasn’t expecting it to get that bad. Fell asleep before I could drink any fluids or eat anything. Sorry for the floor, by the way.”
“The floor is fine, Carlos. I’m just worried about you.”
Carlos gently taps Cecil’s arm, once, twice, and he obliges, pulling his arm back so that Carlos can roll away and press the side of his face into the pillow. “I’m alright, Cece. Sorry for worrying you.”
Touch is too much right now, but he knows that Cecil will at least stay at his side, and there's relief in that. Knowing that a perceived lapse in the self-reliance that he normally aims for has no effect on how Cecil treats him. For a long time, being self-reliant, for Carlos, meant being respectable, dependable—and while science is a cooperative effort, especially in teams, Carlos took his role as leader seriously.
Here, seven years in a loving relationship, two of those years married, Carlos knows that there is nothing weak or unreliable about letting someone take care of you. The science of it is so simple and blatant, so much so that it often goes forgotten. Humans are social creatures, having survived through forming groups and communities with various tasks. When one falls behind, another takes up the task. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, as loathe as people are to do it. It's natural. It’s still difficult to wrap his mind around it, but it’s proven by Cecil’s presence, here in bed.
At some point, Cecil lies down next to him, a space maintained between the two of them. For a while, they just watch each other, and then Cecil angles his head towards Carlos, closes his eyes, and just breathes.
Carlos doesn't bother doing the same, just watches him through his eyelashes. There's a mole next to the outermost corner of his husband's right eye. He knows that Cecil is covered in moles and freckles, beauty marks that he's kissed over and over again, heart pounding and breath quick.
Right now, though, he just observes. That's what scientists do, observe, but this is different. He's said it many times, but love isn't a fact, isn't something that Carlos deals in regularly. Words are difficult, especially when he feels overwhelmed with emotion. But he knows that Cecil has 6 moles along his lumbar region and one on his left butt cheek, and he knows that Cecil musses his hair and swats absently at his dangly earrings when he's concerned, and he knows that Cecil loves him because he confesses it into his hair every morning and presses it into his neck and on the shell of his ear and against his lips. He knows that Cecil loves him because there is no way that he received permission to run out of the studio from Station Management, and yet he lies next to Carlos with their heads nearly pressed together.
"A scientist is self-reliant," Carlos had said to Cecil after their first date. Cecil had breathed out something soft and sad, a quiet "oh" swallowed up in a kiss, and Carlos had meant that a scientist has to know how to survive for himself, but he had also meant that a life with Cecil in a town of people that loved and accepted him both comforted and frightened him. He had meant that a scientist should be able to be fine no matter what, and sometimes he still means that, but he also meant that sometimes self-reliance is placing your hands at the nape of someone's neck and pressing your foreheads together.
Sometimes self-reliance is letting your husband place his lips against your forehead and make a tsk-ing sound before saying, "Oh, bunny, you are still burning up!" and telling him that he doesn't have to get the bloodstones from underneath the bathroom sink because you've taken your medicine and already feel much better than you did, hours before.
So, all those years ago, in a desert otherworld, Carlos was wrong. A scientist does not always have to be fine. And even farther back, to that night in the car where he kissed his husband for the first time, he didn't have all of the facts.
Self-reliance means knowing what you need and achieving it through your own power and resources. And the people that he loves are resources—more than that, they love him, too. And that's okay.