Carlos first finds out about the tattoo Thing when he visits Cecil at the station with a worrying set of seismograph readings. It's a particularly hot day, the sky a violent shade of verdigris, and Carlos has his sleeves rolled up past his elbows. He's handing Cecil a printout and explaining how the readings are roughly equivalent to those found in the core of an erupting volcano when Cecil looks down and coos, "Oh, hey there, li'l fella!". Carlos follows the line of his eyes down to where flannel meets skin and yelps, which is the only sensible course of action when you look down and see a scorpion peeking out from under the edge of your sleeve.
"It's alright," Cecil laughs as Carlos swats ineffectively at his arm and finds nothing but skin. "I don't mind. He's just saying hello. May I?" Cecil takes Carlos' wrist, gently but firmly, and raises the arm out straight; Carlos is too startled not to let him. "Come on out, it's okay." He makes a little scratching motion on the skin there which does something a bit weird to certain parts of Carlos, but fortunately the rest of him is distracted by the patch of colour which sidles slowly out from under his sleeve and over to Cecil's fingers. "Aww, there you are!"
Carlos stares. It's definitely a scorpion, and it's definitely two-dimensional, bending noticeably around the curve of his arm, but at the same time it also looks almost solid, like one of those optical puzzles where it's both a vase and two faces, or where you can't tell how many legs the elephant's got. It's really quite uncomfortable to watch. It's also very, very familiar.
"That's supposed to be on my back," he says faintly, once the initial shock wears off. "That's where it was put," he adds, in case that's not obvious.
"Well, he's not going to just sit there, is he?" says Cecil with the same tone of fond exasperation he's used in the past when Carlos questioned the need for Lawn Mowing Permits or why the parmesan shakers in Big Rico's screamed when turned upside down. "Oh, Carlos, he's beautiful. You didn't tell me you had tattoos! What do you call him?"
"Um. I don't really call it anything. Cecil, that is dye that was injected into my epidermis."
"He should have a name," says Cecil.
Carlos suspects he isn't really listening. "It's not supposed to move," he tries desperately.
"He's such wonderful colours."
"It's not supposed to do anything!"
"Did you design him yourself?" asks Cecil, who is definitely not listening at all. Carlos abandons the attempt at reason, something he's learning to do after his months in Night Vale. The scorpion isn't really doing anything threatening, after all, and Cecil is still gently cradling his wrist, a fact which is more pleasant than he's prepared to admit. Better just to go with the flow now and worry about it later.
"No," he says. "I mean, I picked the colours, but it was just something I had done when I was in college. It doesn't really mean anything. My others--"
"You have others?!" Cecil asks. His eyes are wide and beseeching, alight with curiosity and wonder, and for some reason Carlos finds himself showing Cecil the braid of roses and briars around his ankle that his sister designed; the paw-print from his cat on his collar-bone; Schrödinger’s equation on the inside of his wrist. After a moment of nervous indecision, he even pulls aside his hair to reveal "Never Again" on the back of his neck, just under his hairline, the reason he'd spent the first month after that terrible haircut wearing his shirts with the collars popped. Cecil doesn't ask what it means, just says that it's lovely. He also doesn't ask to see the tigress stretched across his chest, saying, "She'll come out when she's ready. You can't rush these things." He does, however, ask if she has a name.
"Shikari," says Carlos. "She was a stuffed toy I had since I was a baby. My mother named her; I was an unimaginative child and was going to call her Tigresa. Didn't really see the irony until I was older."
"How sweet," breathes Cecil, and from anyone else it would be patronising, but he sounds so sincere it's almost heart-warming.
"Do you have any?" Carlos asks, because Cecil is developing a slightly glazed expression. He has to admit he's at least a little curious; he's never actually seen Cecil in anything more revealing than a work shirt and slacks.
"Oh, no, no. I can't," says Cecil sadly. "I've always wanted one, but I'm allergic to needles."
Carlos wonders whether this might be a euphemism. "You mean you're acuphobic?"
"No, just allergic," Cecil elaborates offhandedly. "Surgical needles are the worst, of course, but even sewing needles bring me out in a rash. I have to wear latex gloves to fix a button. "
"Oh," says Carlos, because now that's nowhere near the weirdest thing he's ever heard. "That sounds inconvenient."
"It's not so bad. Oh, god, I'm so sorry, you were talking about science, weren't you?" Cecil apologises, and there is the merely pink flush across his cheeks. "I'm really interested in science," he adds hopefully, and Carlos' heart does something hearts probably aren't supposed to do. Completely thrown off now, he fumbles his way through the rest of his explanation, makes some awkward excuses, thrusts the readouts into Cecil's hands and beats a hasty retreat.
That night, in the quiet of his lab, Carlos names the scorpion Abraxas. He wonders why it didn't occur to him sooner.
Two months and a renegotiation of personal boundaries later they're sitting in Big Rico's, having just finished their mandatory weekly pizza which definitely did not contain any wheat or related by-products, absolutely guaranteed or your soul back. Carlos has spent the last ten minutes excitedly relating the progress of the slime cultures retrieved from the former site of the Night Vale Senior Center. He's just getting to the good bit involving the guy who came to exorcise the sink when he's interrupted by a giggle from Cecil, whose attention up to this point has been divided between listening raptly, nodding occasionally and exclaiming "Great!" every so often, and playing with the hand Carlos isn't using to demonstrate the trajectory taken by the blue specimen. He looks down to find that Abraxas has emerged from his sleeve and is now playing keep-away with Cecil's fingers.
"I won't be responsible if he bites," Carlos half-jokes. It only qualifies as half because while his tattoos haven't yet shown any ability to interact with things outside the 2-dimensional surface of his skin, he also hasn't conclusively proven that they can't.
"He won't," says Cecil confidently. "He likes me, doesn't he? Don't you like me, huh?" he coos, scratching Abraxas' back. Carlos is no expert in arachnid behaviour but he's certain that if it had been a real scorpion it would be purring. He shares this observation with Cecil, who grins.
"Go on," he says, stops scratching and folds Carlos' hand up in his own. Abraxas seizes the opportunity and scuttles down Carlos' arm and over his hand. There is a moment of eye-bending uncertainty where it seems to be in more than one place at once, and then it's running up Cecil's arm instead. Cecil squeaks in delight, an odd noise given the usual timbre of his voice.
"Hey!" Carlos exclaims. "Get back here, I paid two hundred bucks for you!"
Abraxas gives absolutely no sign of having heard and disappears up Cecil's sleeve, reappearing from under the unbuttoned collar of his lavender work shirt and settling down on the side of his neck.
"Traitor," hisses Carlos, while a giggling Cecil twists his head every which way trying to look at his own collarbone.
"That's so neat," he laughs. "I've never seen one do that before! Did you, like, train him or something?"
"That's me, Carlos the Night Vale Tattoo-Whisperer," Carlos jokes, and Cecil dissolves into peals of laughter. It's unbelievably gratifying; no-one's ever found Carlos as funny as Cecil does, at least when he was trying to be funny. It makes Carlos' head feel light in a way that is probably not connected to the fact that the atmosphere in Big Rico's tonight seems to be slightly luminous. "Why don't you keep him?" he says suddenly. Cecil's face registers confusion, then joy, then sorrow in quick succession.
"Oh, no, I couldn't!"
"Yes, you could," Carlos insists, pulling his hand away pointedly. "You said you've always wanted one, and he likes you better anyway."
The slow lopsided grin and the accompanying flush that spreads over Cecil's face is beautiful to watch.
"Oh, Carlos," he breathes, the same crooning sigh he's used a hundred times before, and yet it still sets off butterflies in Carlos' stomach. "That's... thank you."
They say no more about it then, but Carlos turns on the radio the next day to hear Cecil telling the whole town about it.
"...is settling in nicely," he is saying as Carlos makes his third cup of coffee in as many hours. "You all know about my unfortunate intolerance; such an inconvenience when receiving government-mandated re-education, and of course I have to be careful what I eat; it's not a common allergy like peanuts or the colour pink so people just don't think to warn for it, you know. Anyway, I'd long given up being able to adorn this collection of bones and blood and viscera with anything that wouldn't wash off in the shower. But oh, thank our dark, eldritch creators for my Carlos. Just think about it, listeners. This beautiful collection of pigments was once on Carlos, was actually in his smooth, soft, gorgeously opaque skin. He said it took three hours. Now, I know many of you listening will have been born without pain receptors, and as such might find this difficult to understand, but Carlos wasn't. He endured in what I can only assume was a state of excruciating agony for three hours, and then he gave the result to me." There is a crackle from the radio as Cecil sighs into the microphone. "Isn't he just wonderful?"
It's a good cup of coffee.
It's not long before the inevitable happens, after a goodnight kiss outside Carlos' lab turns into two kisses, then three, and this time they aren't interrupted by a flyover of grey helicopters or a surprising whale. Carlos manages to get the door open and then there's a lot of fumbling and gasping and Cecil saying "Wow," and "You're perfect," and "Carlos," and one bruised shin before Carlos can find the light switch, and then some more fumbling but with more purpose now and Carlos saying "Uh-huh," and "No, you're perfect," and "Cecil watch out for that--oh, never mind, it didn't work very well anyway.", and somehow, somehow in the midst of all of this they manage to get up the stairs to Carlos' studio without too much incident. The bed is softer than the stairs or the unexpected coffee table and Carlos hits it first by about half a second.
"So," he says.
"Right," agrees Cecil.
"Um, can I..." Carlos tugs at Cecil's shirt.
"Please do!" Cecil's hair is a state and the splotchy red flush across his face and neck is clashing with the horrifically lurid colours of his favourite paisley shirt.
It turns out that Cecil looks remarkably unextraordinary under his clothes, which is just fine as far as Carlos is concerned. The red splotchiness extends down across his chest; when Carlos bends to kiss it, Abraxas comes scuttling over Cecil's shoulder to meet him.
"I think he misses you," Cecil laughs breathlessly. Carlos makes an attempt at removing his own shirt the usual way, decides it has too many buttons and tugs it off over his head instead.
"Oh, gosh," says Cecil, and then, "Excuse me, ma'am." Yellow almond eyes regard him coolly.
"Don't mind her," says Carlos quickly. Shikari blinks slowly at Cecil from her recline across Carlos' abdomen, a long, lithe stretch of orange on brown. "She's not easily impressed."
"Right," says Cecil again, with nervous determination, and presses him back into the mattress.
It's not perfect by any means, and Carlos says "Hang on," and "Give me a minute," and "Oh, no, wait, that's bite cream," and Cecil says "Sorry!" seven times, at least five of which are completely unnecessary. Carlos' glasses end up under the bed, where he'll find them in the morning having ransacked the entire building. Cecil avoids making eye-contact with Shikari.
Then something happens somewhere in the tangle of sheets and limbs and suddenly it all sort of makes sense. Carlos swears in three different languages, each one more beautiful than the last. Cecil says "Yes," seventeen times and knocks the alarm clock off the nightstand. Carlos discovers that Cecil growls like a big cat in bed and it's simultaneously disturbing and incredibly sexy. Cecil discovers the waveform inked into Carlos' upper thigh; he'll ask about that one later. Carlos forgets the non-existent houses, the incorporeal earthquakes and the several separate occasions he has nearly died in the last year. Cecil briefly forgets how to breathe.
At some point, the world turns upside down.
Fortunately, neither of them notice.
"Well," says Cecil some time later, when the universe has stopped spinning. "How did I do?"
What a ridiculous question, Carlos thinks dimly through a haze of residual euphoria, since the answer is self-evidently lying spread-eagled across the bed, completely unable to move. He manages to lift his head enough to look at Cecil, whereupon it becomes obvious that the question was not addressed to him. Cecil is trailing his still-sticky fingers across Carlos' chest and Shikari is following, batting at his fingertips like a kitten with a yarn-ball.
"She hasn't tried to eat you," Carlos mumbles. "I think that counts as approval. A-plus. Well done."
Cecil smiles the soft, understated smile that means he's passed through 'happy' into 'absolutely ecstatic', then curls up against him, all hands and legs and solid heat. Abraxas tucks up into the corner of Cecil's jaw. Shikari paces out a circle on Carlos' stomach and settles down to sleep, looking ever so slightly smug.
On the inside of his wrist, Schrödinger’s equation solves itself for a non-relativistic time-dependent particle with initial conditions.
It feels like butterflies.