Author's Note: I'm… fairly certain I first saw this prompt on tumblr? I think? So, um… credit where it's due!
Warnings: Cecilos. Magical tattoos. Sexual situations. Fluff. This piece is a lot more… meandering?... than I'd planned. Hope that doesn't annoy. Crap editing.
Dedication: For Hannah. My compliments and salutations on your natal anniversary.
Some Degree of Permanence
By 7 pm, Carlos has run out of his daily rations of government sanctioned bemusement. He's considered dipping into his emergency stores of perplexity or applying for an advance on next month's befuddlement, but those seem like rather rash responses to the relatively minor twinge of confusion tickling at his brainstem. Besides, he will undoubtedly need full access to those emotions at a later date, being a scientist and all. And really, this is his own fault: he should have known better than to dissemble a Night Vale VCR right before a date. Cecil, for all of his charm and intellect, invokes more than his fair share of strange feelings. (Not all of which are offshoots of confusion, per se, but their relationship is young, and Carlos is shy. So.)
So. In the end, Carlos is forced to take Cecil's blithe comments with as much salt as possible, which isn't too difficult, seeing as they are sharing a plate of French fries at the Moonlite-All Nite.
"Of course, that's not to imply that your perfection has been in any way diminished," Cecil is rambling, his cheeks gaining a notably puce tinge as he waves frantic, long-fingered hands. The forearms attached to those hands glow a radioactive green in the pools of neon light cast by the diner's flickering window sign. Their feet bump beneath the table, one pair jittery with nerves. Sneakers squeak on the checkered floor. Carlos examines a fry more closely, musing—but is in no way curious about, because he's already used up all of his curiosity for the day, too— whether the granules he is observing are indeed table salt, or if they're in fact bits of calcium chloride. Or maybe Epsom salt; they do smell a bit like lavender. He shrugs as he pops the potato into his mouth. He likes lavender. "I mean, if anything else, it makes you even more unique and special, as people go. As citizenry goes. And truly, it is presumptuous of me to assume that the outside world holds to the same standards of… of fashion or normalcy as our quaint little burgh, so—"
"I have one," Carlos interrupts, with all the gentle softness of a man committing a mercy killing. It's an appropriate metaphor; Cecil, cut off mid-babble, looks as grateful as a victim. The scientist is reminded, not for the first time, of Cecil comparing words to rabid raccoons: they can be warm, or frightening, or a powerful defense; they can be corralled into effective, if puzzling, parades in order to convey meaning… but they can also be dangerous and wild and uncontainable, and even men who make their living wrangling them can lose control, sometimes. Carlos licks parched lips, the fry having absorbed 34.9% of his body's liquid stores, and says again, "I have one. I just… don't show it off? It's not considered very professional. And a scientist is always professional. That's part of being a scientist."
"Oh," Cecil returns. It is a little sound, the sort which implies acceptance, but it is contradicted by a new crease in his brow. Carlos's forehead puckers in kind; he worries he has offended his date, who holds himself to a high standard of professionalism despite half-flaunting the tendrils of violet and obsidian ink that peek from beneath the roll of his sleeves. Smooth, he chides himself, stomach rolling in ways he can't hold questionable condiments accountable for. But before Carlos has a chance to quantify his statement—of course, scientists and radio hosts are held to different dress codes— Cecil gasps out a second, more conspiratorial, "Oh." Carlos can even hear that the exclamation is italicized, as if the sheer weight of significance behind it has the non-word tripping forward or falling backwards upon itself.
Carlos also hears a reedy breeze. It rustles his hair as the meaning behind Cecil's endearing smile flies right over his head.
"I understand," Cecil is cooing, in a way that makes it perfectly apparent that he doesn't understand at all. At least, not in the way that the scientist had hoped. Cecil hides an apologetic smile behind the slats of his fingers, their pale lengths dissecting the curve of his lips as easily as if they were one of Carlos' scalpels. This shouldn't remind Carlos so vividly of their third date, but it does. He shifts against the vibrant vinyl, willing back a blush. Focuses on Cecil's continued simpers. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you! I just wasn't thinking. I guess I sometimes forget to think as much as I should, since I'm not a scientist, so it's not part of my job. In fact, Station Management actively encourages me not to think. But anyway. You don't need to worry! I mean, it's natural that it's a bit shy, right? Mine have always been shy. See?"
Cecil slides his forearms over the undocumented-but-much-respected equator that divides their tacky tabletop. The intimate intrusion into His Space leaves Carlos choking on a breath, his finer hairs standing on end as the air around his hands becomes notably warmer, teased by a nebulous body heat that is not his own. Beneath the booth, the tips of trainers bump with all the meditated nervousness of a child during its first ride in a bumper car. His heart, meanwhile, slams against his ribcage with the intensity of his coupe hitting a roadside barrier at 175 mph.
It kind of hurts. And that discomfort is exacerbated by the fact that his mouth is dry. Really dry. So dry, Carlos is half-convinced that he's forgotten wolfing down the rest of the fries. He'd glance over to check if only he could pull his gaze away from the other man's. But he can't. He physically can't. Not in the literal way—as has been known to happen to interns every so often—but in a manner no less significant.
"See?" Cecil urges a second time, in hushed, encouraging tones, and Carlos has no idea what he's supposed to be seeing, exactly, but he nods all the same, because Cecil's fingertips are close enough to his own that his torso feels inexplicably heavy— leaden with an unseen, but highly meaningful weight, like that earlier oh, like a magnet being drawn into a vector field, and he can't stop himself from surrendering a bit to its pull. There is a polarity between them, he decides: they are opposing points of voltage that leave the scant space between them crackling with electricity. They are opposites attracting.
They are grown men who'll get ketchup stains on their shirt sleeves if this keeps up.
Cecil seems to realize this, too. Eyes losing a bit of their cloying, velvety warmth, he chuckles, sheepish, and inches back into his hemisphere, fiddling with the buttons of his folded cuffs. As he retreats, he takes with him the static sizzle in the air, the pleasant tingle of foreign heat, and Carlos' sudden ability to wax rhapsodic, as if it'd been a talent temporarily borrowed from the radio host through some bizarre brand of Night Valeian osmosis. Which isn't out of the realm of possibility, actually. Carlos mentally curses himself for ordering the embalmer's special, not the invisible pie; while it might also leave stains, no one would notice those.
But then Cecil beams—bright as the sun rising outside of the window— and Carlos forgets absolutely everything else.
Including to care that the sun is rising at 11:35 AM.
They're not exactly sleeping together, and they're not exactly not sleeping together. That is to say, there is togetherness, and there is sleeping. But it's no more or less than falling into bed and rolling and touching and kissing and tangling until they're oversized lodestones stuck through their own Lorentz force, until they're a single Mobius strip of being, and that magnetized Mobius is exhausted from another impossible day of broadcasting and science and fight-or-flight-survival and running in circles and so—he? they?— pass out within minutes of comfortably knotting lanky limbs.
This development isn't new, nor is it old, on the day that Carlos wakes to a sharp, persistent prodding against the jut of his hip, accentuated by feverish sobs and a panicked voice repeating his name as if it were the new town chant. Or moan. And in a city where the laws of physics are decided upon by popular vote every other month, this sort of petrified caterwauling should be all the prompting one needs to leap out of bed and start searching for the nearest, least-gelatinous exit. But maybe Carlos has lived here a little too long, because he instead finds it a rather relaxing way to be expunged from the abyss of this Thursday's shared nightmare.
"Mmgmph…?" the scientist finally manages, always at his intellectual finest in the morning. He blinks groggily, rubbing at his eyes as if that will clear away a lifetime of nearsightedness, before remembering he has glasses that will make the whole "seeing" thing much easier. In the physical sense. It does not make seeing his boyfriend in the midst of a breakdown any easier. But the sight does rouse him a way that the poking didn't.
"Holy— Cecil, what's wr—?" Carlos begins, arms and legs floundering in the ultimate delayed reaction. Or perhaps the reaction is just premature. Either way, it's more appropriate half a moment later, when Cecil flings himself at the scientist with all the grace and tenderness of a semi-truck full of invisible corn. Whatever oxygen had been enjoying a residential stay in Carlos' lungs is forcibly evicted as he is football tackled to the sheets; he makes a mental note to ask the radio host if he played for the Scorpions in his youth. He makes another note to check for cracked ribs, or any other suspicious bruises. Certainly there is one forming on his hip, nearly as tender as the frenzied kisses that his boyfriend is plastering upon his throat and cheeks.
"Oh Carlos, sweet Carlos, I was so—" Cecil breaks off with a choked noise, thinks for a minute, then makes that sound again, as if it more accurately communicated his feelings than any recognized word in the human lexicon. In a primal way (and from months of observing the small town's date night rituals), Carlos recognizes it as an expression of heart-rending, logos-draining agony. This knowledge in no way helps him figure out the source of Cecil's distress, but it is a start. Something to go off of. He cards soothing fingers through the other's tangled locks as both parties gulp down deep swallows of air, their t-shirts catching and sticking in the aftermath of morning sweat. "You—you weren't moving! At all! Like, n-not even twitching in sleep, and I thought for sure—! F-for sure that you'd…!"
His warbling voice cracks. He burrows his face and it breaks all together: like a fissure crumbling away into nothingness, its foundation of consonants and vowels falling with distant, useless echoes into the pit of the Void. A dramatic display, all in all, and deserving of a more poignant response than the single eyebrow that the scientist manages to lift. Not that he's being condescending or dismissive, it's just… Just, given what Carlos knows of his own sleeping habits, it seems a bit hard to believe. Unless he's developed apnea without realizing it. Or is suffering from another minor possession. But though Carlos has a difficult time accepting that he'd been enjoying a sleep that deep, neither can he bring himself to refute someone so close to hysterics. Instead, he puts his voice to better use: humming placations as he rocks the shaking Cecil, wondering distantly if this will be one of the rare experiences he'll look back on and someday understand, or if it'll be yet another anomaly to chalk onto his wall.
For once, Carlos gets to leave his chalk in the hiding place he'd carved into his German-dictionary-turned-sham-dream-journal.
"Oh," he says as he yanks Cecil's shirt over his head, noticing something odd through the cloying haze of lust that fogs his vision like nearsightedness. It's not a bad odd. The exclamation is light, pleasant. Oh. Still pink, still panting, his heady gaze drops clumsily from a shock of rumpled hair to a long, flushed neck to a torso that is as intricately scrawled upon as a page from the Book of Kells, or some equally-elaborate pagan equivalent. And it's stunning, of course, but that isn't news to Carlos. Not really— even if he's never had the opportunity to fully appreciate anything but the stray glimpses he's caught beneath the starched fabric of a sleeve, or above the hem of tight jeans whenever Cecil strains for the garlic or the ectoplasm cleaner in the upper kitchen cupboard.
So the outburst, and the quieter reprisal that follows, are not voiced out of surprise, exactly. Not the traditional sort, anyhow. Not even after Carlos blinks and squints and realizes that, glasses or no, his eyes are definitely not playing tricks on him—that the vines and tentacles and glyph-imbued swirls are actually uncoiling, skitter-slithering across layers of exposed skin like the ants and arthropods that scatter upon being discovered beneath a rock. Oh, he breathes, but not in shock, or fear, or—right now, with Cecil working off their pants and slipping a hand between their bodies—even any modicum of scientific interest. There is only another mild "oh" (followed by a much deeper, throatier, markedly different sort of "ohhh") as memories of responses and terrors and random, stray comments click suddenly into place, like puzzle pieces he hadn't even realized were part of the same set.
On Carlos' own hip there is a small smudge of blackness, inert but for the blood that boils unperceptively beneath it. An eye inscribed onto Cecil's lower stomach stares at the mark, blinking stick-thin lashes in mild trepidation and polite concern. In a fit of endorphins and madness, the scientist speculates whether sentient tattoos get their own quota of emotions, or if the designs are dipping into his boyfriend's stores, or if maybe they are expressing that which their owner can't bring himself to vocalize. Or— or—
"Oh," Cecil groans, a pleasant shudder somersaulting up and down the staircase of his spine as Carlos' tongue chases a snaking hieroglyph and lassoes it with a silken swipe. The ink shivers, flailing like the cilia of paramecium that Carlos has observed through his microscope, like the kind that humans have in their tracheas— throat— m- mouth oh my God—
And that is the last coherent thought, scientific or otherwise, that Carlos can muster for a long time.
Cecil isn't scared of Carlos, of course.
But he is occasionally taken aback, or unnerved, in much the same way a child might be upon first seeing a parent without their customary moustache. It is a loving sort of apprehension, harmless and fleeting, albeit occasionally exasperating. Still, Carlos can understand. Though he knows that the garbage disposal will shriek abuse if unfed, and that the Sheriff's Secret Police have set up a bunker in his attic, and that the Starbucks on Main is staffed by an octopus on Fridays between 5 and 11, he'll still sporadically find himself caught off-guard and perturbed when reminded. Just for a moment. Just for one heartbeat.
To spare his boyfriend that random jolt of adrenaline, Carlos tries bandaging his hip, hoping that what Cecil can't see won't bother him. Unfortunately, this rather has the opposite effect; the simple task of asking if he could add his shirt to the laundry has Cecil flying into a panic about whatever lab accident has marred his beautiful, perfect skin, and if he is still bleeding, and if not how fast they can get to the hospital to check for internal wounds, psychological damage, and the extent to which his eternal soul may have been injured.
"No, I— Cecil, I didn't…" Carlos flounders, holding the opposite end of the laundry hamper as if it is some kind of wicker barricade. Cecil is straining, glowering worriedly at him, his anxious tattoos scuttling across his clavicle and tightening around his torso. The scientist wants to ask if their constricting motions make it difficult to breathe… But then, Cecil looks on the verge of a panic attack, so it's probably difficult for him to breathe, regardless. Guilt gnaws at Carlos with the same serrated fangs as the aforementioned garbage disposal.
"Querido," he tries again, comforting, reaching across the pile of dusty slacks and darned socks to cup his boyfriend's cheek, "it's nothing, okay? I'm not… I'm not even hurt. I just thought, you know, since… I dunno, it seemed to scare you a bit, or like you didn't like it. And I figured maybe…"
As per usual, Carlos manages to say way too much and absolutely nothing all at once. Also as usual, Cecil manages to find meaning in those inanities. The scientist trails off, watching as a gleam of understanding alights behind his boyfriend's wide eyes, but winces to realize that the shine of that glow is… kind of sad. A crumpled sort of disappointment that has Cecil leadenly loosening his hands on the basket's handles. His knees, too, take to crumpling: they fold so abruptly beneath him that Carlos nearly drops the laundry, only-just tightening his grip in time to keep from conking the radio host with its contents. Because that's what would've happened, now that Cecil has crouched before him. Unseen. Hidden beneath the bottom of the hamper, knowable only through the fingers that are dancing along the hem of Carlos' jeans: pawing, petting. There is a scrabble of manicured nails upon his hip; a pinch as adhesive glue gets caught on fine hairs; the wet, reverential heat of a sigh, of malleable lips, against his tingling skin…
He's left with a bruise the size of a silver dollar, green and blue and love-you-violet. He fingers it, smiles, and indulgently allows Cecil to hide the rest of the band-aids.
Their attraction is the sort traditionally described as "magnetic:" powerful, pitching, potent. It makes sense, then, that they are like magnets in other ways, too. More bluntly, that they are often polar opposites. They have very different taste in fashion, for instance. Certainly the extent (and focus) of their education bares little similarity. They even clash over preferred breakfast cereals— a topic which has instigated far more arguments than it should in a town where wheat and its byproducts are both strictly forbidden. But something that they do share is an intrusively tenacious brand of inquisitiveness, coupled with the strong desire to poke at things they don't understand with sticks. Sometimes literally. Sometimes metaphorically. And sometimes with fingers, if sticks aren't readily available.
Carlos generally pretends not to notice. Actually, at the time, he often doesn't notice: the faint, casual brushes that travel, or linger, are explained away by such easy excuses as "Oh, you had some crumbs there," or, "Sorry, I was reaching for the popcorn" or even, "New council verdict. Didn't you listen to my show, silly boy? Now, touch my hip, too." And it's all so perfectly nonchalant that he thinks nothing of it, because Cecil is, in fact, that smooth, when he wants to be. But later, in a series of bizarre and unnecessary eurekas (usually experienced while holding a toothbrush, or a spatula, or at one point a mildly toxic sample of Night Valian deodorant), Carlos realizes where, exactly, Cecil's hands had fallen. Where they fall every time. It's all so perfectly obvious in retrospect; still, the insight hits him like a ton of the bricks that fall instead of rain. He quivers, remembering the anaesthetizing, yet encouraging tingle left in the wake of each touch.
Unfortunately, an object at rest stays at rest. And it seems unlikely—though maybe not impossible, given what he's observed—that a commemorative design of this sort will be roused by random prodding. Still, it's… endearing, he thinks, that Cecil cares enough to keep trying.
For his part, Carlos isn't remotely as subtle. At one point, he goes so far as to trap Cecil upon the sofa—sprawled atop the cushions, pelvis pinned beneath his own—in a single-minded effort to record the cyclical dance of his two-toned markings. Or try to, anyhow. But it isn't long before the gently rippling bands—floating about like cumulus clouds on a spring day—rile themselves into a violent tornado of motion, blurring into a single swirl of black and purple. Carlos is left balking in confusion as the tattoos shimmy this way and that: hiding like frightened toddlers behind Cecil's back.
Shy, he then remembers. The tattoos are shy.
Cecil isn't, though. He chuckles, apologizes, and with the slyest, sweetest smile, undulates in their place. Slowly, at first, in gentle waves like low tide, silken hands slipping up denim-covered legs… And then his thumbs hook through worn belt loops, his fingers curling to ground themselves against the solidity of Carlos' hip (and there, he's massaging that spot again, but he doesn't really notice, not now, anyway, because) it's then that high tide comes in—with a rush of hormones and heat—, gradually building, surging up, followed by a fucking tsunami, and they are grinding and pushing and rutting and rolling and it all goes a long way to distract Carlos from his studies.
Distract, but not abandon. He does manage to note—mentally, if mistily —when the sigils first peep out from around a heaving ribcage. It's unclear if they'd reappeared of their own accord, or if they'd simply been dislodged; they're swelling, rippling, clearly caught in the tempest and possibly losing their grip on Cecil's spine… And then in a sudden burst they are gushing and pulsing and spinning like calibrating centrifuges, like goddamn hurricanes, summoned by gasps and pleads and the clatter of a mobile on the linoleum floor. It's dizzying, beautiful. All of this. Everything about everything.
They erupt when Cecil does, obsidian flowers exploding into fragmented petals. Fireworks, violet and ebony, like the translucent afterimages Carlos sees behind his lids. He collapses, cradled between crooked legs and the back of the couch. The stubble of his cheek must be rough against the other's bare chest, but no complaints are made. Instead, there is a sonorous purr; he can hear it, feel it, rumbling up from between laths of arched bone as eager fingers comb through sweat-dampened curls. He smiles, moving his hand to reciprocate—to forge an affectionate trail from shoulder to side—but stalls when he… feels something. A pleasant prickle. Warm and fuzzy, like static.
He is nestled too deeply against Cecil to use both eyes, but he does manage to pry open one. And maybe if his heart hadn't already been hammering at the speed of light, he'd have felt something closer to… not fear, never fear, but apprehension or alarm. Or disbelief. As it is, he can only grin stupidly, an effervescent giggle wedging in his throat, as he watches dark coils and branches rub coyly against his hand, his arm. His stomach, trying to seep through the cotton of his lab coat. Like kittens, warm and sticky kittens, the tattoos cling to his shadow and weigh him down, as possessive and loving as their master. Impossibly, he wonders if they'll leave a stain.
He decides he wouldn't mind if they did.
"Carlos, no! Just—just no! You know how I feel about those things!" Cecil snaps, expression curling in on itself in fear and disgust. He locks his legs, ready to fight, even as his torso flinches as far to the right as possible, shoulder lifting to protect his face. A stray salamander, inked in lacy charcoal lines, scurries over the bridge of his wrinkled nose. "Are you trying to kill me?!"
Carlos, equally defensive, stands his ground. In all senses of the word, as it happens, cradling the small vanity mirror he'd recently purchased at WalMart. He knows more about biology than he does chemistry—specifically, the brain chemistry of humanoid males—but he longs for the psychiatric expertise to label Cecil's condition as spectrophobia or catoptrophobia. (Or eisoptrophobia, he supposes, though his boyfriend strikes him as a touch too egotistical for that to be the case.)
But that's hardly the point. Certainly not what's important at present. What's important is keeping the skin he has left, and not accidentally slicing through his own jugular when the wraith who lives in their bathroom cupboard decides that Shaving Time is the best time to practice its impression of a demonically possessed cuckoo clock.
"Cecil, I'm sorry, but some of us are going to die from blood loss before figuring out how to shave without a mirror!" Carlos retorts, trying and failing to not sound as exasperated as he feels. But he's tired, his face hurts, and the line at the store had been atrocious after half of the cashiers had been unceremoniously carried away by a hoard of hungry quetzalcoatluses. (Quetazalcoati? Quetzalcoatlus? Carlos growls at himself, frustrated by a lack of grammatical knowledge that he probably wouldn't have had to possess anyway if he lived anywhere else in the world. Literally. Literally anywhere else. ) All in all, it's not been a good day, and he's simply not in the mood to compromise over something as inoffensive as a bit of glass. The beleaguered scientist rakes a hand through his unkempt locks and sighs, trying to choose words that sound composed and diplomatic. Unfortunately, he is not the orator in this relationship, and instead settles on: "Look, I put up with a lot from you—"
In a bowel-shriveling instant, Cecil—and every single roiling tattoo on his pale, wiry body— screeches to a furious still. Silence. The sort of silence that hurts one's ears with its loudness, strains one's bones beneath its weight. There is a thrum in the stagnant air, fueled by the primal knowledge that something is waking; vibrations, atomic and dangerous, pulse in electric waves from prickled skin.
"Excuse me…?" Cecil whispers into the nauseating hush, in a voice as soft and terrifyingly dark as the Void. Each word is like snow: frigid, gossamer, and disturbingly delicate; the question burns, leaving frostbite as it lands in Carlos' ears. Not just in a metaphorical sense, either. He shivers, half-frozen, as if someone had set the AC to "glacial storm" without him noticing. Maybe someone had? He glances towards the thermostat, just to check. Also, to avoid the furious flashing of Cecil's wine-black eyes. But in so doing, he notices something far worse.
The shadows. Specifically, the shadows behind the broadcaster— inoffensively inanimate just a few moments ago— have darkened against the pale of the carpet. No, not just darkened: have sucked out the light, and grown fat on that feast. They expand—upwards, gaining substance and dimension, pulsating out and together in some kind of preamble: a Lovecraftian portal, woven from tendrils of fury that bleed out of braced feet. Carlos resists the urge to hit his head against the wall. Just barely.
"Oh— Cecil, don't be so dramatic! You know I didn't mean it like—"
"No. No no no. What did you just say to me?" Cecil barks, at least sounding a touch more human as the otherworldly chill of his rage is thawed by the simmering heat of hurt. His fingers flex against his sides; he doesn't notice the mutations of his own silhouette, how it thrashes and peelings like paint upon the wall. Carlos has his doubts that Cecil has ever really noticed any of his abnormalities. But right now definitely isn't the time to point them out. No, right now is the time to flinch away in shame and self-loathing. "Oh. Oh, yes, it's all so clear now! Truly, you are the tolerant one in this relationship. How could I miss that? It's so obvious. Seeing how I am the one who constantly forgets when it's his turn to make dinner, and calls off dates last minute because of science, and is constantly blowing up half of the house with experiments gone wrong. Silly me! What was I thinking? I'm certainly not the one who puts himself at risk on a daily basis, covering for you and that stupid box of—" Narrowed eyes—now lilac-white— dart to the innocuous fern in the corner of the room; Cecil chokes on a cough instead of the word pens— "stuff next to all of those questionable and undoubtedly dangerous books in the closet! Obviously, I bring nothing to this relationship. Except, you know, for one meager prophesy about a mirror-related death, but that's just silly twaddle, of course. Really, the sheer audacity I've been showing! It's plain as day and StrexCorp yogurt that the only one who sacrifices in this relationship is you!"
In the aftermath of this tirade, it occurs to Carlos—not for the first time, either—that he's kind of a dick. A huge one, even. And it's not that he'd ever thought that he was the perfect, dependable demi-god that he often hears about on the radio, but… Well, if his behavior has been so bad that even Cecil is calling him out on it, he must have been especially intolerable, lately. And speaking of… Now that he's stopped focusing on his own woes for longer than thirty seconds, he notices that the broadcaster is actually looking a bit worse for wear. There are bags under his eyes—he'd had to host the town nightmare last night, hadn't he?— and his skin is a shade of sallow indicative of dealings with Station Management. By all accounts, he probably hadn't had the best day at work… And then to come home to a boyfriend who (apparently) thought nothing of belittling a phobia?
Carlos feels his stomach spasm, twisting into a double-knot of guilt as the quivering Cecil gulps down air and fights back tears. It hurts him infinitely more intimately than any razor burn or nick. Suddenly, a lifetime of facial band-aids doesn't seem so awful. Certainly not in comparison.
"Cecil," he says, gentle and apologetic, taking a wary step closer to the radio host. He lifts a hand and extends it gingerly, like Cecil does in Mission Grove Park when trying to convince stray cats to love him. Much like those strays, however, Cecil's only reaction is to recoil immediately. Violently. Even his tattoos, usually inclined to bound towards Carlos like excitable puppies, now withdraw from the threat of his closeness, slithering like startled snakes to some hideaway beneath their owner's shirt.
And that. The pure rejection in that reaction. In making Cecil's skin crawl. That makes his heart ache.
"Cecil…?" the scientist says again, but it is more of a question, this time. A pained question, throbbing with uncertainty. He's not even sure what the question is, exactly, besides painful and uncertain. So he simply repeats what he can, hoping that it is telling enough. "Cecil…"
Cecil cards shaking fingers through his hair, tugging at the roots in some combination of misery and virulent anger. But he is calming down. He must be, at least a little bit. He has no shadow at all, now, despite the brightness of the lamp; in its rosy glow, his limbs look ashen—corpse-white and translucent— without the grounding weight of their usual embellishments. He reminds Carlos of a dream, ethereal and almost-there, but not quite. Not quite. Ultimately, Carlos isn't sure which reaction he finds more frightening, but he does know that he hates both. And, at present, himself.
"No. Please, just… I just need to not be… ugh."
Cecil blows out his cheeks, ruffling his own bangs in the process. Beneath that wispy fringe, his hollow eyes are steady—drilling Carlos with a dull, despondent stare. It matches the flatness of his tone when he finally asks, "Would you please just come back later."
And later, Carlos will come back. Later, he will call Cecil from his lab, beg for him to listen. Later, while on speaker phone, he will break that mirror into a dozen glittering shards on the concrete of his lab floor. Later, while sweeping and apologizing, he will cut his finger, bleed, and earn himself an invitation to return. Later, Cecil will suckle that lesion, scarlet staining his lips like an expensive gloss, and tell the scientist that, in Night Vale, breaking a mirror and the gateway to parallel demon worlds contained within it brings a person auspicious luck. And even later than that, Carlos will realize that it's actually pretty easy to use his iPhone's camera as a pseudo-mirror, thus rendering the whole of this argument entirely moot, and why the hell hadn't he thought to do that before?
But that will be later.
For now, throat constricting agonizingly around the quavering cords of his voice, Carlos nods, and turns, and leaves.
"Hey," Cecil says primly, irritably. He scowls, and it's enough to put Carlos on edge… Or would've been, had Cecil been talking to him. But despite being the only other person in the room, that's not the case. Instead, his boyfriend is shooting a warning glare at his own hand, which he has lifted into the air and is now shaking with the same brisk effectiveness he uses when encouraging painted nails to dry. But there is no polish, this time. This time, there is a tiny black heart penned into the flesh webbing between his thumb and index, doodled as a joke when the radio host had tried to hide the content of Carlos' research beneath his palm.
"Stop that," Cecil barks, mauve glower reminiscent of a dagger. Faintly amused, Carlos watches as that sharp stare digs into his gangly arm, trying and failing to pin down the designs frolicking there. Curious vines have loped and roped around his forearm, his wrist, reaching bashfully towards the new mark. An offshoot gives the heart a timid poke. Flinches away as if expecting a retort. Inches closer when there is none.
"Come on, behave, you silly things. Carlos drew that! I like it!"
"I think they like it, too," Carlos comments lightly, brow arching in amusement as the tattoos somehow loosen the highly illicit ballpoint stain. Tug it free. An instant later, the squiggled heart is being cheerfully tossed from tattoo to tattoo, set and spiked like a volleyball. It causes no end of fuming from Cecil, who has taken to flicking at his limb in annoyance.
"You're wearing it out!" he whines at his designs. And indeed, Carlos notes, the scribble is very quickly fading from view. Skin-on-skin friction, he muses. Like how the marks he'll accidentally leave on his own hands will vanish if he rubs at them long enough. The heart is little more than a blot, now. "Oh, bother you all!"
"…they look a bit sad," the scientist observes, head tilting to the left as he considers the cartwheeling sigils. Sad and confused, to be precise. Not having realized that the ink was the temporary sort, the remaining markings flex in bewilderment, searching for the new toy they'd somehow lost. It's a bit pitiful, actually. Plaintive, the dark wisps and stems jerk atop Cecil's flesh, mutely asking what happened.
Cecil, disappointed for his own reasons, is entirely unsympathetic. Not to mention grumpy. "This is why we can't have nice things," he rebukes his arms, bitter and upset. Stubbornly so. There's no doubt in anyone's mind that he could sulk over this for the rest of the night, if left to his own devices. Possibly even into the next day. And the next broadcast. Lucky, then, that his devices are not his own this evening; the first traces of what would undoubtedly be a spectacular pout are interrupted by the sound of a pen uncapping. He glances up, startled, to find Carlos smiling.
Gently, the scientist takes his boyfriend's hand.
"Oh, I don't know about that."
A few minutes later, Cecil's skin is a whirlwind of confetti hearts, fluttering and flying and bouncing and swirling. Everyone (and their tattoos) are happy.
In August, Cecil catches hypothermia.
As with most things in Night Vale, Carlos isn't quite sure how that happened, and the bowel-knotting rush of Not Knowing fills him with a pulsating mixture of terror and fascination. Which sounds really, really terrible, in context. Because again, this is Cecil, and poor Cecil is sick—dangerously sick, fingertips blue and speech strangely slurred as Carlos drags him out of the scrublands and back to his coupe— but even still. Lady Science, as with most things that people personify as female, can be a bit of a bitch, and doesn't care if her allure is appropriate or not. Carlos wishes he could investigate. A few years ago, he might have. But not now. His priorities have since changed: drastically, and for the better.
"Dunneed…sss…tupid thin…ggg…" Cecil is mumbling, tugging sluggishly at the collar of his top. His fingers bumble over the not-quite-plastic buttons in much the same manner as his lanky feet trip over themselves; Carlos pauses long enough to take both slender hands in his, impeding the process of removing the disheveled shirt. If anything— and despite what seems natural beneath the light of a 110 degree sun—, Cecil should be putting more clothing on, not taking them off. The scientist clasps both icy palms to his chest, and frowns at the tremors running though his boyfriend's weakly pulsing veins.
"Cecil, why didn't you tell me earlier that you weren't feeling well?!"
Cecil—dreamily unperturbed by Carlos' anxiety— responds with a sleepy smile. His lips are the same color as his polished nails. "M'mmmfine," he then insists, or tries to, anyway, but his head is lolling, and the iridescent nictitating membranes that make up his third eyelids have half-hooded his glassy eyes. Even his tattoos, usually so energetic in Carlos' company, have slowed, moving like cold treacle over tinged flesh. One design—a tribal band of hieroglyphs wound around Cecil's elbow— has stopped undulating all together. Instead, it's decided to hunker in place, refusing to budge regardless of who or what nudges at its spirals and pictograms.
And that—that, more than anything else—is like an EpiPen of adrenaline stuck straight into Carlos' heart. Because he remembers. He remembers Cecil's first breakdown, the unadulterated panic in his voice. He remembers each crafty prod, the odd mixture of relief and disbelief on Cecil's face when Carlos' design remained immobile, but his body didn't. He remembers the time he caught the flu, and the desperate manner in which Cecil tried his very, very best not to poke at him more than was necessary, even though he clearly wanted to. Just to make sure. Just to make sure…
As if to reverse the escalating stillness of his markings—or, more disturbingly—as if to reject the last, clinging vestiges of his hold to consciousness, Cecil's whole body gives a jerk and a shudder, like he'd just grabbed an electrified fence instead of the scientist's arm. Observations induce hypotheses; science rushes through Carlos' mind, notes about synapse and chemical reactions and last-ditch efforts by human brains to rouse dying limbs. Data points and familiar facts warp and blur into elongated pulses of static in his ears, and the only thing he really processes is the rumble of a drowsy voice beside his shoulder.
"Mmmmm… Sh…ouuuld ssssleep... b'for work… I thiinnn'k…"
"Cecil? Cecil! No, I need you to stay awake!" Carlos snaps, twisting enough to give his boyfriend's cheek a brisk smack. The sound of skin on skin is elastic and sharp; Cecil's pallid lashes barely flicker in reply. Carlos isn't convinced he'd felt the slap at all. His hazy beam, accented by a patch of rose blooming on his cheek, widens in adoring exasperation as he slumps closer to his boyfriend, already drifting. His eyes have closed—both the physical ones, and the designs inked into his skin. Upon the curve of his throat, a Mobius loop has settled, become stagnant. There is a petrifying, poetic paradox to that, the sort that Carlos can't help but notice, now that he lives in Night Vale. Now that he loves this man.
This man. This man he needs to save. How. How how how. His mind is on the fritz. This isn't a monster or a mystery or a pestilence or a plague, this is something concrete and mundane and horrible and Carlos can solve almost any paranormal problem with a paperclip and a beaker, but this— this doesn't require ingenuity. This doesn't require luck or skill or creativity. It requires a hospital. Medicine. Tools and IVs and blankets he doesn't have on him, and can't possibly create out of what he has in his pockets. But—but they're an hour outside of town, and his coupe is a mile away, and—and—and—
This is impossible, some part of him reasons. Cold, analytical. Deadened.
"Cecil! Cecil, wake up—!"
This is Night Vale, the other half reminds, full of hope.
His breath catches. His eyes widen. He remembers.
"Help! Help!" Carlos screams, banshee-brash, half-collapsed under the weight of Cecil and his own joints-dissolving fear. His legs waver, thrown by the force of his bellowing. They fold. The sand burns his kneecaps with the intensity of molten lava; he can feel blisters begin to form, like acid and liquid glass underneath angry red skin. He couldn't have cared less if he'd tried. "Cecil Palmer needs an ambulance! Someone! Send help!"
A beat. As a scientist, Carlos has never agreed with the city's official stance on prayer. He says one anyway, soundless and desperate.
There is a stereo crackle from behind a nearby cactus.
"Finally. Took you long enough," said cactus quips, with an eye-roll that Carlos can't see, but can hear as loudly as the toll of the invisible clock tower. "You're kind of dumb for a scientist, aren't you?"
And that's quite rude, all things considered. But who gives a shit? Not him. Not now. Rather, the rush of gratitude Carlos feels for the Sheriff's Secret Police is both profound and mildly disturbing. He understands, in a sudden burst, why Cecil admires them so. Internally, the scientist promises himself that he'll make a new habit of talking louder, and more animatedly, when he's in his lab; externally, he thanks the officer, repeatedly and unnecessarily, in shallow gasps. Hell, he even cries.
Well… Well, no, he doesn't— not then, anyway. He manages to reign that impulse back, quashing it down and putting it off through the remainder of his time in the scrublands ("So," the voice from the transmitter asks conversationally, "how about those Scorpions, huh?" The officer gives no indication as to whether he is referring to the sports team, or to the literal, ruffian gang that has been creeping about in the general vicinity, bottle rockets and six-packs in their pincers; Carlos doesn't bother to ask for clarification), an impossibly short ambulance ride (which is full of more bloodstones and sacrificial chickens than medical equipment, but Carlos thinks it best not to provoke the six-armed EMTs by asking), and a four hour stint in the hospital waiting room (which he could have sworn he'd seen before, in some Hitchcock movie, or shared nightmare, or past life).
But then he is ushered into a dimly lit room. A private suite that smells of frankincense and grape jelly, and has chicken feathers scattered all over the polished floor. The windows are covered in pale sheets, just like the mirror and the writing desk and the chair in the corner. Cecil is covered, too— in tubes and ritualistic sigils and a single, fluffy blanket, his body perfectly still atop the starched linens of his steel-framed bed.
Without a thought, Carlos throws himself towards that bed. He chokes on his boyfriend's name, on his own tongue, on a whole slew of apologies and agitated admonishments; in the end, the only sound that escapes him is a low hiccup. It's so soft— like overripe fruit, splattering into silence when it falls to the floor, rather than bounce back and reverberate. It shouldn't be surprising that such a squeak fails to rouse the radio host. It really shouldn't. But that doesn't stop bile from clawing up Carlos' throat, acerbic and sour. His esophagus burns; his words disintegrate. He'll have to find another means to wake him.
In retrospect, the answer is obvious.
Carlos pokes at one of Cecil's tattoos. Then another. A third. He strokes a coiling tentacle; traces a winding hoop of indecipherable symbols; counts each bird in the black flock on Cecil's shoulder blade and swipes his thumb over the sprig of plum blossoms that decorates his side.
The tentacle stretches, contracts; the hoop shakes itself like a wet dog; the birds twist their minute necks; the plum blossoms rustle in an unfelt breeze.
And Cecil—Cecil opens his eyes. Blearily. Gummily. Florescent light glints in rainbow bursts off of the kaleidoscopic capillaries in his rapidly flickering third eyelids; his human pair lift and lower more steadily, thoughtfully.
His mind catches up with his body. After a few minutes, anyway. When it does, he turns his head and offers his boyfriend a blithe, weary smile.
"Good morning," Cecil breathes. "Where did the sand go?"
That's when Carlos cries.
By 7 pm, Carlos has run out of his daily rations of government sanctioned discomfort. He's considered dipping into his emergency stores of soreness or applying for an advance on next month's grant to ache, but those seem like rather rash responses to the gradually diminishing twinge of pain that is radiating from his inner wrist. Besides, he will undoubtedly need full access to those sensations at a later date, being a scientist and all. And really, this is his own fault: he should have expected that a process that hurt like a bitch outside of Night Vale would be three times more excruciating inside of its borders, for no other reason than that it could. He suppresses any lingering need to acknowledge present stinging by focusing instead on his new, pulsating respect for Cecil— all blinding smiles and innumerable markings— who is cooing empathetically and trying not to look altogether too pleased. (Which is a difficult task for a man who wears his heart so predominantly on his sleeve. Or, at least, an inked approximation of such. So.)
So. In the end, Carlos lets himself enjoy Cecil's grin as the eye candy that it is, its sweetness a pleasant tickle on his palate—lingering in a way that the Moonlite-All Nite's invisible pie does not.
"Can I see it? One more time? Please?" Cecil is begging, wide-eyed and eager as his spidery fingers skitter over bare flesh, weaving webs of sensation wherever they land. Their elbows clunk dully atop the table, sticking to old soda spills. Around Cecil's wrist, a worn watch is ticking steadily away, as constant and dependable as a second heartbeat. Carlos can feel his pulse try to mimic that evenness, but it's a wasted effort. It always is, when Cecil is around. When Cecil grins. When Cecil giggles. When Cecil looks at him like that, his bright eyes crinkling with so much affection that Carlos sometimes doubts there's any publically available Love left in the world. Cecil stole it all, depleted global supplies, just to give to him. As theories go, it's actually not a bad one; it might explain the prejudice, wars, and mindless hatred that the scientist has witnessed outside of Night Vale. Maybe he should feel guilty about being so completely adored.
But Cecil has returned to picking at his dressings, gaze demure and hopeful beneath fanned lashes, and Carlos can't bring himself to care about anything or anyone else.
"Again? I don't know why we're bothering with a bandage at all, at this rate," Carlos drawls, trying to sound reproachful but betrayed by the quirk of his lips. Cecil's good humor is infectious, like so much else in Night Vale; he squeals, hearing all the permission he needs to peel back the rumpled gauze. Carefully. Reverentially, like wrapping paper. The moment invokes a memory so strong, it's nearly déjà vu:
Time, Carlos had said, pressing a small, giftwrapped box into Cecil's open hands, always feels like it slows down when we're together. Or— or maybe it feels like it goes by too fast. And when we first met, I thought, well, maybe it was you…? He'd hesitated then, flushing a deep ruby at the confession. When his boyfriend had merely blinked, owlish, Carlos had clarified, Like, you were affecting the whole town. Because the change always seemed to be the most significant in your presence. But then… Then I realized that you were really just affecting me and my perception of time. And, well, something else is, literally, messing time up for everyone else, but… But that's not important. Well, no, it is. But not right now. What's important right now is, um, that I want to spend as much time with you as possible, so… I thought maybe, this way, we could keep proper track of time together, and make sure we get our fair share.
At that point, he'd trailed off: awkward, his voice slipping through the teeth that were gnawing on his bottom lip. But thankfully, the radio host knew a cue when he heard one; he chose that moment to open his present, and the space between them was soon filled with bubbling and blissful bleating over the tattered watch that had once resided on Carlos' person. He'd kissed its face before synching it into place.
The past and the present overlap in a haze. The scientist starts, realizing with a thrill that Cecil is doing the same thing, now: kissing the face of Carlos' new timepiece. Delicately, elegant. His lips serve more as a tingling presence than an actual source of pressure. Still, the balmy heat of that closeness is enough to start fires; sparks and wandering ribbons of stardust erupt in the shallow veins woven through his arm. His heart pounds. Life moves onward, following that militaristic rhythm.
But some things don't move. Not yet, anyway.
"It's just a baby," Cecil soothes, as if somehow able to hear Carlos' thoughts. It's possible that he can. Though osmosis, or telepathy, or sheer power of will. It's a mystery for another day, regardless. Today, his focus is decidedly more egotistical. "A fetus, even, incubated by scar tissue and scabs. It'll be fine once it breaks out of its pseudo-womb. Give it a few days."
Carlos considers this. He considers his boyfriend, considers his words; he considers the tastefully gothic clock face that has been tattooed upon him in shades of onyx and ebony. He has been reassured—by artist and coworkers alike—that a watch of this sort will keep perfect time in Night Vale. Or, perfect Night Vale time. Or, perfect time of one's stay in Night Vale. Or, perfect time of one's stay on Earth, their own pulse serving as battery, gears, and crystal as the painted hands tick down the moments 'til that person's inevitable, gruesome death. Carlos isn't sure which, anymore. Maybe all four. To some degree, or another.
Oh well. He'll find out eventually. But for the time being, this brand appears as immobile as the pattern on his hip.
"A baby, hm?" Carlos echoes, uncharacteristically charmed by the metaphor. At first, the scientist had thought to blame Cecil again, for messing so masterfully with his heart… But no. Apparently not. "After it's 'born,' it won't wake me up in the middle of the night crying to be fed, will it?"
"Not if you remember to apply the ointment you were prescribed," Cecil assures, with far more gravity than a punch-line calls for. Though, to be fair, he probably isn't joking. Not like Carlos had been. Of course. His eyes— amethyst today—flit towards his own timepiece, lips parting in consideration. He is so beautiful, it nearly hurts to look at him. Carlos looks anyway. "You should probably apply another coat in an hour."
And in that instant, something strikes Carlos. Strikes him powerfully, and from behind. Like the Secret Police, in that respect: with great force, no warning, and, apparently, no deeply significant reason. But sometimes, the smallest, most ridiculously ordinary things are the most important, both in terms of Night Valian law enforcement and romance. And the dichotomy of this—the shackle of science around Cecil, the stain of alchemy upon Carlos— evokes thoughts of genetic exchanges and gene transference and polygenic phenotypes… Of organisms becoming stronger, healthier, more durable. Of evolution. Of evolving.
They are evolving. Separately. Together.
"I love you," Carlos blurts, loudly and without warning. A bit crazed, even. Like his affection is some kind of cursed heirloom that he is planning to force upon Cecil, whether he wants it or not. The guileless confession catches everyone off guard—his boyfriend, their waitress, the hooded figures in the booth beside them. But no one more so than Carlos himself, who hadn't even realized he had plans to say Those Words until they were tumbling out of his mouth.
He flexes his fingers, watching his tendons shift beneath his papery flesh. The faint movement warps the design ever so slightly. Nudges it. He imagines the inked face breaking apart, oozing like a Salvador Dali painting. He wonders if that's something he'll have to look forward to: to numbers and clock hands floating across his skin, adrift on tides of desert sweat and adrenaline. He wonders if the mark will be sentient enough to use as an alarm. He wonders how it'd move—if it'd move—beyond the city borders, should he ever leave. He wonders if he'll ever get to find out.
He doubts it. He doubts he'd be allowed. He doubts he'll ever see the world beyond this town again. And somehow, that doesn't bother him. That doesn't scare him. Even though it should, it doesn't. Not anymore.
He knows why.
From across the cozy, mint-colored table, Cecil blushes—bright as the sun rising outside the window— and replaces Carlos' bindings with fingers dyed black by curious tattoos. Their wrists read 6:15 AM. It is deeply significant. Neither notices.
Thirteen seconds pass, and the moment ends as it'd begun: with Cecil beaming, and Carlos forgetting absolutely everything else.
"I love you, too."