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Let The Shadows Fall Behind You

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"We don't have to stay for the whole festival," says Carlos, in English and under his breath, as they step off the bus across from Mission Grove Park.

"It's the anniversary of the treaty that ended the Blood Space War," points out Cecil. "It is my patriotic duty to stay for the whole festival."

"I'm just saying, if you can't, it's fine. If you need to be discreet about tapping out, you can be discreet." Carlos takes Cecil's hand, and brush-taps the signal they discussed against his skin: the Morse procedural sign for This station is closing down now.

Cecil rearranges their hands so he's holding Carlos's fingers closed. "I appreciate your concern, but I am going to be fine." Pushing his face into a strained imitation of a grin, he adds: "Besides, Janice's Girl Scout troop is doing an archery demonstration! I can't disappoint Janice!"

Carlos stops talking. If only because that expression is disturbing, and he doesn't want Cecil to feel pressured to keep making it just for Carlos's benefit.

There are plenty of Night Vale citizens who can't bring themselves to events like this at all. Too reminiscent of the Strexcorp prison-camp-disguised-as-a-company-picnic that was set up here. Even though it clearly has the trappings of a genuine municipal celebration: official speeches, bake sales, novelty City Council merchandise, a booth where you throw things at the moon and are promised fabulous prizes if you successfully knock it out of the sky.

Carlos and Cecil detour through a popcorn stall on their way to the archery field, and it warms Carlos's heart when Cecil steps up and makes the order. He's missed missed Cecil wanting things, so every time Cecil makes a tentative experiment with having opinions, it's good to see. And even if this too is a front, faking interest can be an important step toward building it up for real. Like with confidence, or psychic powers.

(Carlos does not complain about how Cecil asked for an extra drizzle of glint, even though the stuff makes him break out in a rash. Cecil can eat all the popcorn. Cecil deserves all the popcorn in the world.)

Steve and Delphine saved a couple of good seats in the stands. Since it's Steve, that means there's a lot of hugging. "So good to see you out and about, Cecil! How are you doing? Have you said hi to the girls? ...Gosh, how long has it been since you've seen the girls?"

"Time sure gets away from you sometimes, doesn't it?" says Carlos quickly. He also misses Cecil's good-natured bickering with Steve, but a remark questioning Cecil's devotion to his niece is probably not a good way for that to start.

"I'll say!" Steve's eyes widen. "You haven't seen Renée."

"What?" It should only be Janice who notices if Cecil turns into a hermit for months on end. To her, he's an uncle. To Renée, he's just a friend of her dad's....

"My little girl is growing up and I support her right to make her own aesthetic decisions!" exclaims Steve, his face a picture of abject parental misery. "Can I have some of your popcorn?"

From all this, Carlos expects the teenager to have done something unutterably bizarre to herself. What kind of appearance would freak out a parent who already lives in Night Vale? Especially when you already have four eyes?

Then the Scouts take the field (Steve and Cecil quit elbowing each other over the popcorn to applaud), and, oh, it looks like all she's done is shaved off half her hair and dyed the other half neon pink. By Carlos's standards, it's only the third-most-extreme hairstyle on the field.

There's no witch-lore to give you supernatural archery skills, so Janice doesn't stand out from her peers...but the group itself is so keen and deadly with their arrows that they might as well all be magic. When the shooting ends, there's a crowd of parents rendezvousing with their daughters to congratulate them, and Cecil makes straight for Janice. "Hey, pajarita, you were incredible! Practice with your other uncles paying off, huh?"

Janice swoops her cloud-pine branch up through the air so she can hug Cecil at his eye level. "Sure is."

"I brought snacks...but your stepfather ate them all. Want to go swing by the booth where you bring different household objects and heckle the workers if they aren't able to deep-fry them?"

"Not now, I've got people to hang out with," says Janice. "But maybe you could take me to the stylist later...?"

"She's not allowed to dye her hair!" calls Delphine from like twenty feet away.

"Why not?" yells Janice. "Renée did!"

"Renée answers to her father. You answer to me! When I am dead and gone you may turn your hair whatever colors you like, but not before!"

"We'll find something else to do together," says Cecil reassuringly. "You go have fun with your friends, okay?" His voice deepens, suggestive: "Or perhaps...more than friends?"

His niece gives him an affectionate shove. "Tío Cecil!"

"Someone who's a friend, but who you would like to be more? You can tell me!"

Janice looks annoyed, then concerned. "Don't you have enough stuff to put on the show tonight? With the festival, and you could do a retrospective on the history of the war...."

"Hey! I would not put your personal life on the radio!...necessarily."

This is Carlos's cue to speak up in his husband's defense. "Cecil is honestly very good at keeping personal things private!...when you ask him to, and are very specific, and get to him quick enough that he hasn't revealed it already."

Cecil groans. Carlos pulls him into a one-armed hug.

Janice does manage to get away without revealing anything too incriminating. All the girls split up into groups and disperse down the paths of the festival; many of the adults do the same. Cecil and Carlos return to the much-emptier stands, because Mayor Cardinal is giving a speech, and that's something Cecil does need to report on-air.

"That was nice," says Cecil softly.

"Yeah?" asks Carlos, helping himself to some water. This morning, he was worried Cecil would be unnerved and distant around Janice again — maybe enough that Janice would notice, and be upset by him in turn. Now he's just sorry she was too busy, being a teenager with a life of her own, to hang out with her uncle longer.

"Yeah. Family, you know?" Cecil lifts a hand, clasping, like he thinks he can physically pull the appropriate descriptors out of the air. "That's...a good feeling."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

"...and then he smiled!" exclaims Carlos, as he and Kevin spar their way across the rec center mat.

Kevin didn't attend the celebration; too many attendees doing casual blood spells. He asked Carlos how it went, and for once Carlos doesn't want to talk at all about science, he's too busy being hopeful about Cecil.

"And it looked like a real, feeling-it smile, not...you know...."

"Strained, forced rictus of a smile that hurts the cheeks and shows too many teeth?" suggests Kevin. "Or joyless, horribly un-forced smile of someone who has gone beyond pain, beyond caring at all?"

"I was thinking of the first one...and those were incredibly specific descriptions."

"Well, I know what a lot of expressions look like on my face." Kevin nearly jabs Carlos in the stomach before he can catch and redirect the thrust. "So! He had a good time, then?"

"I think so! He fell asleep on the bus afterward, but he wasn't sleepy throughout the day. He's got more energy in general now...called his brother earlier to set up a movie night, instead of just going along with whoever I invite over...and did I mention he's been carving again?"

"You asked if I could help you pick out knives for him, remember?"

"Ah, yes." (Nothing had come of it; Kevin had protested that he didn't know anything about judging knives without near-supernatural cutting powers.) "Well. You should see this alethiometer he's been working on. The detail is amazing."

"I bet! When you're that familiar with something...." Kevin parries a swing from Carlos's staff. "Say, where did the real alethiometer end up? It never got fixed, did it?"

"Unfortunately, no. The pieces are in the National Museum."

Carlos shudders to remember the political and academic firestorm after the world-at-large learned a broken alethiometer had been "discovered." Hispania Nova's government threatened a full diplomatic meltdown if the pieces were sent out of the country, but it hasn't been easy keeping them in, either. The museum has spent extra millions in security, consultants have come in from Oxford and Heidelberg, and Fey has to send them the heads-up about impending heist plots at least once a week.

Maybe Cecil's putting so much effort into this carving because he misses the real one. Maybe their vacation should include a detour. Unlike the two working alethiometers, the broken one is in an exhibit that's open to public view, and yet they've never visited....

Carlos is so busy making travel plans that he misses a block, and gets a hard thwap on the side of the head. The world goes blue.

"Time out!" he yelps — but not fast enough to stop Kevin from knocking his staff out of his grip altogether. "Eye reboot."

"I call that 'leveling the playing field'," teases Kevin.

He's stopped moving, though, and Carlos does his best to do the same. Even closes his eyes for a few seconds, only to be annoyed when, against all his instincts, it doesn't change his view. No matter what, he's suspended in a field of blue.

In a more serious voice, Kevin adds, "Why don't you just go into four-eye?"

White sans-serif text appears in the spot Carlos is 'looking' at, informing him that his system is undamaged. Out loud, he says, "Can't do it. Never learned."

"Really? I learned it when my daemon had only existed for a few weeks, and you've had one your whole life and never picked it up?"

"Yes, good job, I'll make you a medal," gripes Carlos.

A low-res view greyscale view is restored. From the blur he gathers that the end of Kevin's staff is a few inches from his throat. Then comes a dizzying array of other spectra — infrared, microwaves, radio waves, anbaric charge, magnetism — and then a blur of light with no color, a blur of color with no depth, and Carlos knows his system well enough to grab Kevin's staff and yank.

Full vision is restored at the exact second Kevin realizes what just happened and springs at him. Carlos swings; Kevin has to scramble to avoid a blow to the neck. But one good surprise doesn't win a fight — Kevin is good at hand-to-hand, too — Carlos's legs get kicked out from under him, they have a mad tussle over the remaining staff, and then it gets dropped and they're just wrestling, no form or anything, a random tussle

It's ridiculous. It's fun. Carlos is giggling as Kevin gets him pinned face-down on the mat...

...limbs wrapped around his, bodies pressed flush at multiple points, and, uh. This could get awkward.

"Say pasta!" urges Kevin, cheerfully oblivious.

"What? Why?"

"Like in the playground song? Don't you have that here? It's an expression, it means you surrender."

"Never heard it," says Carlos. On top of him, Kevin's legs shift for better balance, and now Carlos is definitely flushed from more than the workout. Oh dear. "Pasta. Let me up."

"I don't think it counts if you don't know what it means."

"Kevin...." (He knows it's Kevin, can hear the voice that is completely unlike Cecil's, feel Kevin's distinctive three-fingered hand gripping one of his biceps. But it feels so much like if Cecil was holding him this tightly...and it's been so long...and Carlos hadn't quite realized how much he missed this.)

"Is there a phrase in your Spanish that means the same thing?"

"We would just say 'I surrender'. Please let me up."

With an adorable laugh, Kevin bends forward so his lips are practically on Carlos's ear, and whispers, "First say you surrender."

Carlos moans.

There's an utter mortified silence, broken only by the clanging of someone having a swordfight a few mats down.

"...I'm going to let you up," says Kevin, untangling himself from Carlos as fast as humanly possible. "And I am going to helpfully return your equipment along with my own, so you can leave right away to hit the showers."

"After which we never ever speak of this again?"

"Sounds like a plan!"

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

The rec center famously has ghosts for plumbers. Carlos has never been more grateful to take the coldest shower of his life.

(There's a physics conference in Sydney this week that he passed on attending, and boy, is he regretting it. It's midwinter in the global south. He could've been submerging his entire body in a snowbank right now.)

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

It's not like this is coming out of nowhere.

Carlos has looked up a whole lot of side effects. He can recite the ones for Dark MegaProzac off the top of his head, and "takes your libido out behind the woodshed and shoots it" is one of the most common. This, after Cecil had already spent months with as much interest in sex as he had in anything else — i.e., very little and fading fast.

But Carlos hadn't been worried. Had assumed he could manage his own sex drive singlehandedly (or double-handedly, as needed) for a while. Did not anticipate completely embarrassing himself with one of his friends in the meantime.

"It doesn't mean we have to suggest experimenting with Cecil's meds," says Isaña firmly. "Not yet! Not when he's doing so much better, while all we've had is one very minor case of complete humiliation in front of one of our hot male friends. Not until we've tried...being more proactive in getting out ahead of the situation."

She's right. And Carlos gets good results when he tries being extra-affectionate with Cecil that evening. An extra kiss on the cheek here, a bit of hair-twirling there...it doesn't go farther than snuggling, but having Cecil curl up against him in bed and cover his skin with gentle touches is fulfilling in its own right.

...he still makes a point of doing some, ah, self-management the morning before movie night. Because the only thing worse than getting obviously sexually flustered by one of his and Cecil's friends would be getting obviously sexually flustered by Cecil's brother.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

The feel-good 1980s cartoon cuts to the end credits. Carlos is internally debating whether it's worth taking his hand off Cecil's knee just to clean up their dishes (bowls for the ice cream, plates for the macaroni in fun shark shapes), when Cecil says, "I remember watching that episode. On the couch, back home."

He must be talking about the house he and Emmanuel grew up in, not the one they're in right now. In the next chair over, his brother nods.

"And...you were there? Right?"

"Are you kidding? You were my excuse," says Emmanuel. He's got Neharah with him today, draped over the chair around him like a lacy cape. "Anyone got suspicious of my in-depth knowledge of Ponyville, I could explain I only saw it by accident while babysitting."

"Earl watched a lot of it with us," recalls Cecil. He's staring at a spot on the wall, brow furrowed. "When I was...recovering."

"Sure did."

"His favorite pony was Moondancer. Which one was yours...?"

"I think you mean, which pony was objectively the best," says Emmanuel, mock-sternly. "No matter what you and your childish fascination with Slenderpony might have thought."

"Uh-huh. Was it Glory?"

Emmanuel's eyebrows jump. "Did you remember that, or just make a good guess?"

"A guess? Sort of? It wasn't a random guess. I do know you."

It's an offhand comment. Cecil isn't even watching the reaction. But Carlos doesn't miss the way Emmanuel lights up.

"I...remember being on the couch a lot," adds Cecil.

His brother sobers. "Yeah."

"There are gaps. In my memory. Not you-gaps, not re-education gaps, just blank spaces." Cecil draws his knees up to his chest, shaking off Carlos's touch. "I remember Mamá taking me for a walk in the abandoned lots. I remember her — picking me up. We must have been at the edge. The rest — Khoshekh remembers the rest better than I do — I remember kicking, I...."

Emmanuel is dead silent. Carlos barely breathes.

"...and then, blanks. I don't know how it ended. I don't know how Khoshekh and me got back to the house. It's like a dream — not a communal broadcast dream, the other kind. Where things skip around. The next thing I remember is being on the couch."

The DVD loops back around to the menu. Carlos puts it on mute.

"You got rolled at least some of the way in a stroller," offers Emmanuel.

"...what?"

"That's the part I remember. I'm in the front room, right, doing a Modified Sumerian worksheet, when I hear the screen door bang open and Josie snapping something out back. Then Ojansi flies in and tells me to go to my room. So I make a show of doing it...pick up my textbook and my tablet —"

"Tablet?" echoes Carlos. He doesn't mean to interrupt, it's just....

"The clay kind," says Emmanuel, and, oh, that makes more sense. Addressing Cecil again: "Pick it up, start walking, then duck around him to the kitchen. Josie gets in front of me and shooes me away for real, but I catch a glimpse of you. Lying in a heap in your old stroller. Well, 'in' is a relative term. You were way too big. Limbs hanging out all over the place."

"I bet," mutters Cecil.

Bigger than a toddler, but still small enough to be picked up and carried by his mother. Carlos thinks of the photos he's seen of Cecil as a child, all unruly dark hair and cherubic cheeks and big bright violet eyes; he thinks of Janice when he first met her, then rounds down a few years. Six. Cecil was six.

"What was it like?" adds Cecil. "For you?"

"Confusing. At first I thought you were sick — that I was being steered away because you were contagious. But Josie was mad, like I'd never...."

"I meant your erokärsimys."

"...oh. That." Emmanuel shrugs. "It was fine."

"I don't remember it."

"You weren't there," says Neharah. "It was during one of the times Mamá took us up North to see the clans. All the fallout was over by the time we got back."

"...that's right." Cecil hugs his knees tighter. "You must have been really old. I remember Neharah being settled, and still having to stay close around you. It must have been a while after they settled. Why such a long wait?"

Emmanuel shrugs. "Eh, you know, doing things the traditional way was never...."

"I want to know why Mamá let you wait!"

Carlos's heart skips a beat. Khoshekh, who a few minutes ago was a boneless heap over the arm of the couch, now has his claws out and digging into the fabric.

Cartoon sparkles wander silently across the TV screen.

"Mamá told us not to separate," says Emmanuel quietly. "At all. So we didn't plan to. Especially since the only erokärsimys we'd ever been close to was yours, and I didn't want to miss a month of school."

"She told you...not...?"

"She knew I would end up going through hard times, and they'd be easier if my daemon and I couldn't lose track of each other." Just like she foresaw hard times for Cecil that would be easier if his own daemon wasn't tethered to his side.

"But you did it anyway," says Cecil.

"Yeah, well...I did a lot of reckless things trying to get accepted by the clans. That particular visit, the state of my daemon felt like just one more thing that made me Not An Acceptable Witch. And we were less than an hour's flight away from the northern dead zone where every other witch did hers. So we snuck out one night and went for it."

Cecil sounds a lot more sympathetic now. "Alone?"

"Alone. Sort of. Neharah met me on the other side."

That's unusual, Carlos knows. Most daemons are so upset by the abandonment that they avoid their humans for days or weeks afterward. Isaña, on the carpet, is curled up half-shut at the very idea.

"You weren't hurt?" asks Khoshekh, ears flattened back against his head.

"By that point, we were just as hell-bent on getting the range as Manny was," explains Neharah. "Physically, sure, it was as stressful as you would expect, but emotionally...all our anger and hurt was directed at the clans, not him. Like you were angry at Mamá, not Cecil."

The margay lifts off the couch (there's a ripping sound as his claws detach) and floats swiftly out of the room, a swirl of spots and tail.

Emmanuel winces. "...wasn't he?"

"I'll go get him," says Cecil, standing and stretching. Now he's just sort of...brisk. Not panicked, but moving like a normal person with normal energy levels, instead of like every limb is an effort to drag around.

"It was hard on us later, though!" says Emmanuel. "Getting stranded in separate universes, that was emotionally stressful! And it was two decades before I managed to arrange a way back, so when you add that all up...."

"...you get a whole lot of stress that could've been avoided if you hadn't gotten the ability to leave each other's sides in the first place." Cecil lets out a hollow laugh. "God, don't you hate it when Mom's right?"

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Evening finds Cecil sitting lotus-position in bed, wooden alethiometer cupped in his hands like a comfort object.

Carlos slides in next to him, shower-scented and wearing only a towel. "Hi, sweetie," he says, kissing Cecil's neck. "It's looking beautiful."

"Mmm."

"Would you ever want to have it painted? Or gilded? It's too late to get it gilded in time for tomorrow, but maybe for the wedding anniversary...."

"I suppose that might help." Cecil drops the carving on the bedside table, between the reading lamp and his charging phone...then says, "Kiss me again."

Carlos does. First on the neck, then on the mouth.

"More," murmurs Cecil against his lips.

He keeps urging Carlos on, and Carlos is only too happy to oblige. They tumble across the mattress on a weird upside-down diagonal, headboard creaking as one of Cecil's feet pushes against it. In the basket next to the bed, Isaña rubs her face up against Khoshekh's: he has the eyepatch off for the night, and she nuzzles the downy-furred cheek underneath.

Carlos, meanwhile, squeezes Cecil's thigh, the flesh even softer and more yielding than he remembers. "More of that," prompts Cecil. "Harder."

"Yes, dear." First, though, Carlos gets a handful of Cecil's weird medieval shift/nightgown/thing. "How about if I get this off of you?"

"How about if you bite me?"

...well, that stings. "You could've just said no."

"Carlos," says Cecil impatiently, fingers clutching Carlos's hair to keep him from backing away. "Bite me."

"Oh!" exclaims Carlos, and nips at Cecil's ear while undoing the laces of the shift, giving himself room to sink his teeth into Cecil's shoulder.

His tongue presses flat against the lines of old claw scars, underlining the quiet thrill Carlos always gets when he puts wanted marks on Cecil's body. Bruises or scratches from an enthusiastic night in...the tan line from his wedding ring, the reddened circle his watch sometimes leaves around Cecil's wrist...and, right now, a ring of tooth prints. And another. Carlos aims for the soft tender skin all around the scars, the better for Cecil to feel it.

They roll around a while longer. Cecil answers the biting with gentle kisses, with murmurs of encouragement, and, eventually, with a lot of breathless panting. His pajamas get hiked up, then all the way off, eventually. Carlos's towel barely needs any tugging to fall out of the way on its own.

...and the whole thing is clearly not as stimulating for Cecil as it might be, no matter how out-of-breath he gets along the way. In the end he stops encouraging Carlos's efforts and starts shushing them. Carlos, trusting Cecil to set his own boundaries, relaxes into postcoital cuddling.

He's awash in tender feelings; he traces a faint scar on Cecil's upper arm like it's the most fascinating thing he's ever felt. Maybe someday Cecil will come around to the matching-tattoo idea, to letting Carlos put something permanent under his skin....

"Khoshekh," says Cecil.

The margay flows up over the side of the mattress and makes a delicate landing, head popping up behind Cecil's. Carlos beams at both faces in turn, wondering if they're in four-eye right now, if Cecil is watching his smile from two angles....

"...touch Khoshekh."

"What?"

One of Cecil's arms is pinned under Carlos's body; he uses the other to pull at the hand stroking his bicep. "Touch Khoshekh. Like you've done before."

It's true, it wouldn't be the first time Carlos has put his bare hands on Cecil's daemon. But it's been years, and it was always in situations of intense stress, when Cecil needed something even more intense to ground him. Right now everything seems so calm.

Carlos sits up on one elbow, gazing down at his husband. "Are you sure...?"

"Please." Cecil's expression is startlingly neutral, his voice steady with conviction. "I want you to."

And Khoshekh does a little roll that presents his fluffy stomach, gazing upside-down into Carlos's eyes.

Stronger beings than Carlos would have a hard time resisting a face like that. He reaches over Cecil to skritch gently under the margay's chin.

Cecil's expression...stays...neutral.

After all the exertion he's just been through, this doesn't even make him catch his breath.

Carlos has done enough research not to panic: not to think this must be some uniquely-horrifying Night Vale illness, or an unprecedented complication of Cecil's forced erokärsimys. This level of non-feeling is a documented (if poorly-studied) symptom of profound depression. But still — to see it in person! — it's like when he and Cecil first met, when he wasn't used to seeing a non-witch with no daemon, when his reaction was still you're too lucid to be severed, so, oh, god, what are you.

He sits up, the better to scoop Khoshekh fully into his arms and cradle the daemon against his bare chest. "Cecil...honey...can't you feel this at all?"

"As if I am wearing a thick coat, and you are touching the outside," says Cecil, still prone on the bed, his voice distant. "Or as if I have to get the sensation through a radio signal, and the transmission is incomplete."

And Khoshekh mutters, "No wonder being bitten didn't help."

Carlos kisses the top of his head, fluffs his marbled fur. Like maybe it'll reach Cecil if he can just cuddle hard enough. "We should look into — doing something new. With your meds."

"It's fine." Cecil places a hand on his chest, like he's checking his pulse, or swearing an oath, or both. "Everything is in order. I'm not hurt. I am feeling...emptiness. As much as I reach out sometimes, it can never be filled. And maybe it should never be filled. Perfectly in order. I'm fine."

"You shouldn't have to settle for that!" It's wonderful that Cecil is up and functioning again, but not that he's been reduced to a near-zombi to get there. "Let me ask Fey what to try next."

Cecil doesn't answer.

"Cecil, please."

"I would like to ask," says Cecil.

Carlos nods. "Okay. Sure, you can do it yourself. You want to phone while I'm at work, and I'll put you on speaker? Or do you want to fly in with me and...."

"No. No, I want to ask."

"And I'm saying, you can...is that not what you meant? I don't understand."

"...it's stupid." Cecil huffs a sigh. "Hardly bears mentioning. Dear Carlos. Put it out of your mind."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Carlos is half-working, half-listening to the radio in the café across the street when there's some kind of commotion down the block. He doesn't see what it is, Cecil reports on loud-and-mysterious noises without identifying them, then the staff are ordering "all customers who value their lives" into the basement shelter.

When they're allowed back upstairs, the weather is just coming to a close. Cecil explains in a strained voice about the dangers of not controlling your jerboa population. Especially if your area is not lucky enough to have one of the rare populations that cannot breathe fire.

Nobody at the station was hurt, he assures the listeners. Not even Intern Aiyana.

But there was...damage. Some of the furniture. One of the walls.

The carved alethiometer, which had been sitting on his desk.

"Listeners," says Cecil shakily, "I am not fine."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

It is, without a doubt, the worst anniversary dinner they've ever had.

Granted, they've only had one wedding anniversary, with the second coming up in October. This is the anniversary they were already celebrating three years before the marriage was legal: the date when they helped save the universe through sheer mutual adoration, and incidentally, the date Carlos first told Cecil he loved him.

By now it's also the anniversary of their proposal. Carlos had been set to pop the question the moment the 2016 election results came in. Cecil shushed him before he could finish the sentence, reminding him about the reservations they had at an expensive restaurant in only two days' time, and what a great place that would be for a person to make romantic plans, and wouldn't it be a shame if his darling boyfriend accidentally pre-empted them?

This year brings them to the same restaurant, but there's nothing romantic about it. Cecil doesn't talk. His eyes are bloodshot, like he's been crying, but he doesn't cry. He didn't bring Khoshekh, so Carlos reads the menu out loud; Cecil struggles to listen, then finally taps Y-E-S in Morse on the tablecloth, at a point Carlos is almost certain was chosen at random.

He orders it anyway, plus one of his own favorites for himself. Doesn't get a chance to enjoy it, because Cecil takes two bites of his own plate and starts tearing up.

They make a strategic retreat to the parking lot, where they sit on the trunk of the car, Carlos looking up at the void and rubbing Cecil's back while Cecil cries into his shoulder. He's so tired. They both need this vacation, and soon, because he's so tired.

Out loud, he says, "Oxford or Heidelberg?"

Cecil brush-taps R-P-T against his leg. Standard procedural sign. Say that again.

"When we go on vacation, I'm going to take you to one of the alethiometers," says Carlos. "And they're going to let you use it. I don't care if I have to call in every favor and spend every bit of social capital I have in the scientific community, I will make it happen. So: would you rather see the one at the university of Oxford, or Heidelberg?"

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

...and maybe that would've been enough, the promise would have kept them both hanging on until they heard back from Station Management, if it hadn't been for Fashion Week.

The opening day is when everyone in town makes a special point of wearing their hippest, most fashionable ensembles, because everyone will be judging your sense of style for the rest of year. And because the Sphere in particular will devour you if it deems you unworthy. It's the one day when Carlos is happy to let Cecil pick out his clothes.

Last year they wore their wedding ensembles, and Cecil called them "timeless," so Carlos figures they're safe to repeat. He unboxes Cecil's stole, fitted tunic, and garters, setting them out in the walk-in closet before airing out his own traditional New Dane tuxedo. A yawning Cecil is still peeling out of the clothes he slept in while Carlos picks out cufflinks, fastens a miniature bowtie around Isaña's neck, and puts a touch of styling gel in his hair.

He steps outside to survey the window boxes, plucking a couple of the most gorgeous (and least bitey) blooms to make fresh corsages. Ducks into the kitchen for some tape to wrap around the stems.

...and returns to the bedroom just in time to see Cecil stalking out of the closet, wearing nothing but briefs and a single garter.

"Cecil...? Is something wrong?"

"...don't fit..." grunts Cecil, scooping the pants he wore to bed off of the floor. They're faded leather, and not high fashion even by Night Vale standards.

"Say that again? I didn't catch it."

"I don't fit," repeats Cecil loudly, "in my tunic." With a bitter laugh, he hauls the leather pants up his legs. "I got fat."

"You're not fat," says Carlos by reflex — then stops and considers. It's not that Cecil was ever skinny, exactly...but Carlos and others keep trying to cheer him up with rich food, if not junk food. And it's not like he's had the energy to exercise for a while. Maybe he is...softer. Rounder. Carrying more weight. "Your tunic doesn't fit?"

"Nope." Cecil buckles the clasp on the pants and reaches for the garish, crumpled Hawai'ian shirt.

"Okay. We can work with that." Carlos heads for the closet. There's junk strewn across the floor; he kicks aside a duckling-print cummerbund, a feather boa, and a pair of clogs made out of sponge. "Let me find you something that's hip, but maybe has a little more give...."

"I'm wearing this. It's comfortable."

"You can't. Don't you remember what day it is?"

"I remember!"

Isaña, at the closet door, tugs on Carlos's attention. He stops rifling through non-fitted tunics and looks out. Cecil pulls the shirt down over his head, the collar tugging on his hair before letting it pop back up in a messy tangle.

He doesn't look defiant, or angry, like he's boldly making a challenge against the Sphere's authority. Nor does he seem distraught or embarrassed about the weight gain. He looks...blank. Unworried.

"Cecil, come on," says Carlos. "Most of the time it doesn't matter what you wear...and, honestly, as long as you're not unhealthy, I don't care if you can never squeeze into that tunic again...but you've gotta make the effort today."

"No! I don't!"

"Cecil —"

"I have been making the effort for heaven knows how long, and what has it gotten me? Long and tiring days. Hollow relationships. The wanton destruction of the one thing I made that I felt good about. The empty promise of a vacation that will supposedly make things better — a vacation that is never coming. And I'm sick of it! Enough is enough!"

He laughs — the joyless, horribly un-forced laugh of someone who has gone beyond pain, beyond caring at all.

"It'll be so much easier this way. Don't you see? It'll be easier for you too. You don't have to prop me up anymore! You can let go!"

Carlos grabs his shoulders, thinking about trying to pull the shirt back off, or at least trying to shake the slack manic grin off of Cecil's face, the wild abandon out of his eyes. "Listen to yourself! Like hell I'm going to not 'prop you up' on Fashion Week. This could kill you!"

"I don't care!" Out-of-shape or not, Cecil is still strong enough to heave Carlos away. "I do not care. Let it! If I get ingested by a fashion-conscious Sphere, then that'll just be what happens to me! At least I'll get to wear comfy casual clothes on the way out!"

Carlos's heart drops with fear as he stumbles backward. If he'd had organic eyes, his vision would be blurring. He understands being overwhelmed, he understands not having the strength to do more than the bare minimum to take care of yourself, but this — to give up, to shut down, to trip and fall onto the tracks and then just laugh as the train barrels toward you —

God, he wishes Station Management were human. Or any species that he could realistically challenge to a duel, for its role in shredding Cecil's psyche like this.

"Pick a date," he croaks, following Cecil out of the room. "Tell me when you want to go, honey, and we'll go. Whether your bosses have given the okay or not!"

"Why bother?" laughs Cecil. "What's the point of planning? Remember, today might kill me!"

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

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...maybe he passed out or maybe he just lost track of time because everything seems too slow and also too big but there are people in his kitchen. It's like a dream where things have skipped around so he doesn't know how they got here just knows they're trying to talk to him.

"...call Señor Palmero, he's the medical contact," one person is saying. His pilot. That's his pilot, she knows him. He must have been late. Must be really late. Panic attacks can make you late.

"...can't sedate him, there's a flag in his file," says the other person. All in black. Secret Police. Maybe they know him. Maybe not. "Can Palmero give permission for...."

"Don't call Cecil," rasps Carlos. He's on the floor, he realizes, back against a cabinet (he came in here for...breakfast? Did he eat?). His ascot is gone, and maybe a few buttons with it (he couldn't breathe) (can he breathe now? Debatable). "Cecil's in trouble. Call the Mayor, tell her, tell her Cecil's in trouble."