Cecil blinked. “You’re my boyfriend, of course you can kiss me…” But the words died in his throat; Carlos had looked away, gazing through lowered lashes at a point on the floor, a line deepening between his eyebrows. “Carlos?”
The scientist flicked his eyes back up to Cecil’s. “I’m still your boyfriend?” he asked quietly.
Cecil suddenly felt as though his heart and lungs had been confiscated by the Sheriff’s Secret Police and replaced with a large, particularly soggy sponge. He took a deep breath, partly to make sure he still could. “Yes?” he answered, not sure why it came out sounding like a question.
“It’s just. This year. Cecil.” Carlos’ eyes were intent and wet, and his lips were trembling. “I left you so alone. I didn’t realize. I didn’t…” His voice hitched, and he dropped his gaze to his lap. “I’m so sorry, Cecil.”
“Oh, Carlos,” Cecil murmured, leaning in to wrap his arms around his boyfriend’s shuddering shoulders. “You know—you know that I love you. And support you. And of course I missed you, but it was important to you to be there, important to your science. To your career! I’m proud of you.”
“But you were so sad,” Carlos whispered.
“That wasn’t about you,” Cecil said. “That was about—a lot of things.”
“I could have helped.”
“You tried. Remember? You asked me how I was. And I told you—I told you I wanted space.”
Carlos drew a shuddering breath. “Being in the desert otherworld…it turned out to be totally pointless, Cecil. I mean sure it was interesting, but it wasn’t…there was nothing there that was any better than what I have in Night Vale. I just didn’t—I—” Carlos broke off with a sob.
“But you realized that later, right?” Cecil said. “You didn’t know—”
“I knew,” Carlos cut him off, and Cecil could feel Carlos’ lips twisting into a scowl against his shoulder. “I knew right away. I told you the doors shut because everyone was in their proper place, and my place wasn’t in Night Vale. Maybe I wanted to believe that. But it obviously wasn’t true. The other Night Vale citizens, the ones who were trapped in the dog park…they were still in the otherworld. If the doors depended on people being where they belonged, then they should never have been able to close.”
Cecil pulled back, eyes wide. “You…you lied?”
Carlos stared hard at the floor. “I lied,” he muttered harshly. “Maybe not at first, but once the excitement died down, once I realized I was safe…Cecil, I…I’m so sorry, Cecil. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay there. Forever.”
Cecil’s grip slackened. He felt his hands sliding away from Carlos’ shoulders, down his arms to land numbly in his own lap. He thought he should probably keep holding Carlos, keep comforting him, but all strength had left his arms. He sat, barely able to blink.
“It gets worse,” Carlos whispered. Cecil’s mouth worked, but no sounds came out. Carlos’ hands balled into fists against his own thighs. “Kevin was there the whole time, you know? Basically the whole year. And I didn’t tell you. Having him there was—” Carlos hugged his elbows. “He’s not you but he looks like you and I got to talk to you a lot on the phone and it sort of felt like you were around all the time because he was there.”
“You…and Kevin?” Cecil managed, fighting down bile.
“We never did anything but we may as well have, I feel like I was cheating on you, like he was a substitute for you. Like any warm body would have been fine. I don’t—Cecil—”
Tears were streaming down Carlos’ face. A sight like this should make Cecil feel sympathy, right? Shouldn’t he want to hold Carlos, to wipe his tears, to tell him everything was all right?
“I’m a coward, Cecil,” Carlos sobbed. “I’ve spent my whole life running. Did you know that I came to Night Vale because I was running away from my job? When things get hard I just…I just leave, Cecil, and I left you, and—”
But you came back, Cecil thought. He didn’t want to say it. Not yet. He knew it was true, he knew that Carlos’ return meant something far more profound than he’d originally thought. That when Carlos had said “Worry about the everyone,” he’d been talking to himself as much as he’d been talking to Cecil.
But Cecil felt hollow. Numb. The words wouldn’t come, couldn’t come.
Carlos’ eyes were searching his. Cecil imagined they were finding nothing. His universe was void. Not even partially stars.
Abruptly, Cecil turned away, eased himself down onto the bed. “I’m going to sleep for a bit,” he said.
Carlos made an unintelligible noise in the back of his throat. Cecil felt the bed shift as the scientist stood up, heard a soft click as the bedroom door closed.
He lay on his side for hours, never once slipping into the blissful respite of sleep. Finally, eyes dry, face slack, stomach in knots, he rolled off the bed, straightened, and opened the bedroom door.
Carlos tumbled to the carpet in front of him. He had apparently been sitting propped against the door. His eyes were red and his face was streaked with tear trails and he obviously hadn’t slept either. He blinked up from the floor. “Cecil,” he said, then looked away. He pushed himself to his hands and knees but did not rise to his feet. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, voice cracking. “I’m so sorry.”
“You came back,” Cecil said, his voice dull. Carlos raised his head. “That’s something, Carlos. It’s not everything. It’s not perfect. But…it’s something.” Cecil crouched down to meet Carlos’ eyes. “We need…we need to talk about this. We can’t—this isn’t—”
“If you want me to, I’ll…I’ll move out,” Carlos said, “but—but I don’t want to, I want to be with you. That’s what I realized. When I lost everything I’d been working on. If it had been important, it would have mattered. But I didn’t lose anything I hadn’t already lost. When that happened, I realized…I’d lost you, Cecil. I’d lied and I’d pushed you away and then I’d acted like everything was normal and you never knew anything, and I left you all alone when you needed me.”
Cecil waited until Carlos’ self-piteous tirade was over. “You were wrong,” he said finally. “And you hurt me. You really hurt me.” Carlos snuffled. “But you decided not to run away anymore. Or at least, not from me. We can do something with that. We can figure this out.”
He rose and offered Carlos his hand. “I still love you,” he clarified. “But…I’m probably going to be mad for awhile.”
Carlos took his hand and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. He raised his rich brown eyes to Cecil’s and smiled for the first time since their reunion in the limo. “Okay,” he said.