Carlos groans and fumbles for his phone. Pinned under his pillow, it fails to escape, but he has to jab the snooze button three times before it will stop its caterwauling.
Not thirty seconds later—though the phone's screen shows exactly five minutes elapsed, down to the second—it starts up again, and this time it's skittered across the room on its many tiny multi-jointed legs before he can catch it. He drags himself out of bed and chases after it, swearing.
It leaps onto the kitchen counter—it should not be able to propel itself that high on such spindly legs—and settles down next to the kettle, folding its legs underneath itself until they disappear.
"Fuckin' piece of shit," Carlos mutters, swiping the screen to dismiss the alarm. He switches the kettle on and retreats into the bathroom to shower. He feels sweaty and sticky; it must've been hot overnight.
The water feels good, sluicing over his skin, warm and clean; he lingers, sleepy mind unusually captivated by the sensations of the water, soap, washcloth, even his own hands. He only gets out when the water starts to sputter and cool off; it's never a good idea to still be in the vicinity when the white sludge begins to ooze out.
He feels a little more awake as he towels off, and a cup of tea helps, too. He opens the fridge, but everything looks vaguely nauseating, so he passes on breakfast and just pulls his clothes on. Soft things today, he thinks, and not too many: his oldest and most wash-worn T-shirt, its tag long ago yanked out; jeans with an elastic waistband and he doesn't care what anybody thinks; soft plush socks; his lightest lab coat.
It takes some time for his hair to dry enough for him to be able to brush it; any good the shower or tea did for his mood, the constant tugging at his scalp destroys. By the time he's gotten his hair tied back, he's about ready to say the hell with science and crawl back into bed.
But he has a job to do, and just because today it actually feels like a job doesn't mean he doesn't still have to do it. Sometimes science is the only thing standing between the town and disaster!
The rest of the team is already in the lab by the time he gets downstairs; he prickles at their judgmental looks (imagined or not, he's never sure) and only grunts in response to greetings.
He pores over last week's readings from the door John Peters (you know, the farmer) found out in his fields, trying to decide if he thinks his sensors detect desert on the other side of the door, or if they're just picking up on the desert surrounding this side of the door. After a few quiet minutes, Rochelle approaches him.
They met as undergrads, back when everyone still thought he was a girl and she was a boy; he helped her pick out her name, and she helped him get his pushed through the school system. He credits her for the fact that his diplomas show his true name.
"Bit prickly today, boss?" she says, pulling a chair over to sit beside him.
"Bit, yeah," he admits. "Guess I just didn't sleep right, or something."
"You looking at the corn readings?"
Carlos shuffles his papers. "I've got them here. You got an idea?"
"Boss, I think that's a project for the scrap heap. You've heard the interviews, right? I don't think this is a delusion; I think it's exactly what it's called: imaginary. There's nothing in those fields."
He scrubs a hand over his face. "Rochelle, we've been here for a year and a half. In that time, how often has it been a good idea to dismiss the local understanding?"
"They call it imaginary corn, Carlos. There's corn in that field in the exact same way there are no angels at Old Woman Josie's house." Rochelle sighs. "Look, I'm not saying dump the data, of course not. The university's gonna eat it up. I'm saying that imaginary corn is the least of the mysteries we could be exploring, and I wanna call that one done, or at least, put it at the bottom of the stack."
"With a fuckin' spoon," Carlos agrees. "All right, yeah, dump it. Pick out something shiny to play with next."
Rochelle rolls her eyes. "You're being a bit of a jerk today, boss."
"Sorry," he mutters, and then sighs. "No, I am. Sorry. I don't know what's up with me, I'm just tired and grouchy today."
Rochelle quirks an eyebrow at him. "Tired and grouchy, huh?"
He scowls. "What are you saying?"
She huffs a laugh. "C'mon, Carlos. Take a look at the calendar—and then take a few days off, huh? Go lock up."
'Lock up,' referring to Carlos' habit of taking whatever sick days he can afford and hiding away in his bedroom for the duration of his heat. Society's progressed far beyond the point that it feels the need to literally lock its heat-experiencing individuals away, and while most would certainly never take a walk alone at night in the middle of one, it's generally safe to be out in public. Distracting, and uncomfortable—but everybody's gotta work, and most people can't afford to drop everything at the first sign of a heat.
Carlos is lucky that he can. Nothing triggers his dysphoria like a heat; the more he can isolate himself while it happens, the more he can pretend to himself that it happened to someone else. He makes his own hours, and puts in enough voluntary ten- and twelve- and sixteen-hour days that no one complains if he wants to take three days off in the middle of the week.
And of course Rochelle noticed his heat before he did. She's been doing that almost as long as they've known each other.
"I don't want to just take off," he protests. "The things going on—"
"Imaginary corn," Rochelle points out. "Seriously, boss. If anything world-ending or publishable happens, we'll call you; right now it's just Night Vale being Night Vale, and we can handle it."
"Right," he says. "That's... of course you can." He bites his lip, and adds, "You'll call if anything major comes up?"
"You'll be the first to hear, if the day needs saving."
"Right," he says again, "of course, but. You'll call?"
"'Course I will." Rochelle slugs him one gently in the shoulder. "Get on out of here; I'll make your excuses."
"Thanks." He hugs her, a light clasp, and then hurries away back up the stairs, not sparing even a wave for the rest of the team.
Food first, he thinks, no matter how little he wants any; he's not gonna want it any more later than he does now, and he's gotta keep his blood sugar up. Nothing fancy: some peanut butter spread on toast, a little honey, a glass of milk to wash it down.
He's not horny yet, just oversensitive and irritated; he changes back into his pajamas and curls up in bed, pulling his softest blanket over his pillow and nuzzling his face down into it.
He's been wanting to go back to sleep since he woke up; with nothing left to worry about and nothing left to do, he finally can.
By the time he wakes up, the heat's set in proper; he tosses the blankets away, hand pressing down between his legs to try and relieve some of the aching emptiness. He's still sweaty and sticky and sensitive, but all that takes a backseat to how much he—
—Shit. He has a date tonight.
With a shaking hand, he picks up his phone and dials. He fists his other hand in his pajama bottoms to keep from pressing it between his legs; he refuses to give in to hormone and instinct while he's on the phone with Cecil.
"Hi," Carlos says, on autopilot, the sound of Cecil's voice blanking all thought from his mind. Fuck, they've got a gorgeous voice, and a talent for kissing; what he wouldn't give to have them here, find out what else they can do with their mouth. What he wouldn't give to have them bend him over the side of this bed and—
"...Carlos? Are you all right?"
Carlos shakes his head, hard. "Yes, I'm—fine," he says, the whole truth sticking in his throat. 'What he wouldn't give'? There's plenty: his sense of dignity, his bodily autonomy. "Listen, I—I'm sorry, I have to cancel tonight. Something's, uh, come up." Something he should have been paying closer attention to.
"In the lab?" They almost sound hopeful. "Is it something I should put on the show?"
"No!" Carlos yelps. "No, it definitely should not be on the show. Uh—better cancel for Thursday night, too. I'm sorry. Don't—don't come by the lab, okay?"
"Carlos," Cecil whines, "you promised. What's going on that you have to clear three days?"
"I'm sorry," Carlos says. It's not an answer and he knows it. "I am, I—I'll make it up to you. Somehow. Just—don't call, okay? And don't, don't come over."
"Are you sure you're all right? Have you picked up that flu that's going around?" They sound concerned now. "You should know, I'm immune; I can come over and—"
"No. No, just." Carlos groans. "I'll be fine, Cecil, okay? Please, just. Trust me. Forgive me."
He hangs up before Cecil can answer. He feels like shit, like the worst kind of boyfriend, but he has to be alone for this and he can't stand any more of Cecil's anger, or concern.
He strips off—finally—and reaches underneath the bed for his box of lube and toys.
Carlos wakes up on Friday morning sore, sticky, and—mercifully—not aroused. He drags himself into the shower on wobbly legs, gets dressed for the first time in days, and shoves his bedding into a sanitary wash cycle, toys and all.
He's ravenous, but he's uncomfortably aware of the phone on his bedside table; he owes Cecil an explanation, at the very least, and this is something he's always preferred to explain in person, if he has to explain at all.
He calls once, and gets Cecil's voicemail. "Cecil," he says, swallowing past the knot in his throat. "I, I'm calling to say that I'm. I'm really sorry about this week. I'm really sorry I ruined our plans, and I know I didn't give you a proper explanation. I." He takes a deep breath. "I was hoping I could—take you out today? Let me buy you breakfast, and I'll explain everything."
He restrains the please that wants to slip out, and then doesn't know what else to say; after a moment he gives up on coming up with anything decent and just hangs up.
For five minutes that feel like fifty, he vibrates with anxiety, picking things up, putting them down, chewing on the inside of his cheek. Is Cecil deliberately ignoring him? Or—it's early—maybe they're still asleep. Maybe they're making coffee and missed their phone going off. Should he call again? What if they were deliberately ignoring him, shouldn't he give them their space? Maybe just a text, a small non-invasive message, and if they don't answer then he'll—
His phone comes to life in his hand, tiny legs scrabbling against his palm; today, he snatches it up and answers, breathlessly, "Cecil?"
"Carlos." Cecil sounds... not cold, but cool, maybe. "Be here in twenty minutes."
"Yes." Carlos agrees immediately, relief unspooling in his chest. "Of course. Cecil, I am, I'm so—"
"Save it for breakfast," they say, though their tone is much softer than their words.
"Okay," Carlos says, chastened. "I'll... I'll see you soon."
There's a soft click in his ear.
Cecil's place is only ten minutes away, so he drives in circles for a while first, rehearsing in his head and knowing that anything he comes up with is going to be useless in the face of reality. Twenty minutes is long enough for him to wind himself up with anxiety, but not long enough for him to feel prepared; his hands are shaking as he knocks on their door.
"If that's Carlos, just come in," Cecil calls from inside, so he does.
The place is a mess of takeout boxes, at least compared to how neat they usually keep it. They're perched on the edge of one of their kitchen chairs, eyes closed, an elastic hair tie in their mouth, weaving wet hair into a plait.
"You look tired," Carlos says without thinking, pushing the door gently shut behind him.
"I am tired," Cecil answers, flat. "I called the lab on Wednesday. Rochelle wouldn't tell me anything; only that you were in the middle of something and couldn't talk. 'He can't spare just five minutes?' I asked. 'He really can't,' she said."
"Well," Carlos says, fully aware that he is not helping his own cause, "I really couldn't."
Cecil huffs; in another context, it might almost pass for laughter. "So what scientific pursuit has required your full attention these last few days?"
Carlos flinches from the hurt in their voice. "I—No, it—it wasn't science. I thought I'd been doing better about that. About calling, and—and not cancelling on you for science."
"And yet," Cecil says. "So what was it, then? What were you so focused on that you couldn't spare even five minutes to explain?"
"A... failure of science," Carlos says. That's not helpful; he goes on. "And of my attention; I should have known it was coming. I... I went into heat."
"You..." Cecil finally looks at him; the hair tie falls into their lap. "Oh, Carlos. I'm so sorry. Why didn't you just say so?"
Carlos shrugs and looks at his feet. "I don't... I know I should have. It's hard to talk about. I knew I should've even then, but I was already pretty fuzzy, and your voice was—and I. I didn't know how." He dares a brief glance up. "I'm sorry."
There's an elastic snapping sound, and then footsteps—and then Cecil's hand tentatively brushing back the hair at his temple. "It's all right, Carlos. I forgive you. I didn't know."
Carlos leans into the touch, grateful. "I'll try to let you know sooner next time. Before it actually starts. I just missed the signs, this time; I'm always doing that. I'm..." He stops himself from saying sorry again, and instead rubs his cheek against Cecil's palm.
Cecil pulls Carlos into a loose hug and says, tentatively, "I assumed you were on suppressants."
Carlos sighs, leaning bodily into them and wrapping his arms around their waist. He's so glad to be near them again, and so grateful that they're not angry, he'll tell them anything they want to know. "I can't take suppressants," he explains. "I started them at puberty, and... Well. I'd had my first heat, and it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I thought the suppressants were saving my life, I took them for years."
"Saving your life...?"
"I was horribly depressed. I didn't even realize it was the suppressants causing it. My grades suffered and I lost all my friends and I didn't even care; I didn't care about anything. The only good thing in the entire world was the fact that I wasn't having heats." Carlos shrugs. It all feels like it matters so much less now, more than fifteen years later. "It wasn't until I started actually feeling suicidal that I thought, hey, this isn't how it's supposed to be—maybe I should get help."
Cecil presses their face into Carlos' still-damp hair. "So you stopped taking them, and everything was okay?"
Carlos can't help but laugh. "I wish it was so simple! Stopping suppressants was the first thing my therapist wanted to do, and I wouldn't do it. The only good thing in my life, remember? She was the first person I ever came out to, and she worked with me—she tried so hard to find some other way, and nothing was helping, and it wasn't until I—"
He cuts himself off, and then swallows, and goes on more quietly. "I... tried. Panicked, afterward; ended up calling her in the middle of the night, and she called 911 and stayed on the phone with me, and came to meet me at the hospital and everything. Begged me to go off them, and I promised I would."
Cecil squeezes him, hard enough to hurt. "And then everything was okay?"
He wants so badly to tell them yes, everything was fine. "Well... no. I stopped them, and for a few months I started gradually giving a shit again, and that was worse because now I cared that I wasn't on track to graduate, I cared that none of my friends wanted to see me anymore—and then the first heat hit, and I found out that one of the feelings I was suddenly capable of feeling was 'devastatingly intense dysphoria'."
"Don't sound so heartbroken," Carlos says gently, snuggling into their chest. "I'm okay now. Me and my feelings got our shit together and finished school, and got into college, and made it here. I'm a lot better now at dealing with heats, and I have friends now, and work, and—and you."
"Yes," Cecil says, firmly. "You have me."
"I mean, it's not gone," Carlos says, compelled to full honesty. "It'll never be gone. It's manageable—and I know better how to manage it, now. I cope better, now. I haven't had a really bad day in a long time."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"No." He tucks his face into their shoulder and reconsiders. "Well, this, this is good. Touch. It's supposed to be bonding, you know, oxytocin and serotonin, and going through it alone always leaves me a little skin-hungry."
Cecil nods, and slides their hands up and down his spine; he arches into the touch like a cat. They chuckle, and then say soberly, "If you had a partner..."
"It would be worse."
Cecil lets out a relieved breath. "I am, selfishly, glad. My own dysphoria—well. I couldn't. And I'd hate to think of you with anyone else."
Carlos nuzzles into their neck. "Well, good. Our dysphorias match. It'd be hard on us if they didn't."
"That's one way to look at it." Cecil nuzzles back, into Carlos' hair, breathing deeply. "I'm sorry I was so angry."
"I'm sorry I didn't explain sooner. We're okay?"
For a moment, all he wants to do is smile at them, relieved, soaking up their answering smile. He leans up to kiss them, desperately wanting the closeness and intimacy, wanting to breathe them in and hold them in his lungs for as long as he can.
The kiss breaks slowly, and Carlos gives them one last squeeze, then steps half out of the embrace to look up at them. "I believe I promised you breakfast."
"I hear the Moonlite All-Nite does a mean omelet," Cecil offers.
"Well, let's definitely not go there." At Cecil's puzzled look, Carlos says, barely restraining a grin, "I just got done telling you all about my fragile teenage emotions. I don't know that I can handle a mean omelet."