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Let The Shadows Fall Behind You

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There's an unexpected party at the Desert Flower this afternoon. At least they're mostly on the Bowling side. Tamika wasn't looking to hang out with a crowd; she only came by to kick back for a while and play Space Invaders. (The game is connected by time-traveling signal to a genuine battlefront in the Blood Space War, and her side is/was/will have been always looking for teenage strategists.)

She and Rashi are making their way to the Arcade Fun Complex side when Kevin's daemon spots them and comes trotting over, doggy nails clicking on the tile. "Hi, Tamika. Come sit with us for a while? Cecil keeps dropping hints about how much better his new meds are for his sex life, and he'll knock it off if there's a teenager in earshot."

"Yeah, all right." It's not like Tamika is uncomfortable with adult content — she never would've made it through the Complete Dr. Seuss if she was — but Palmero doesn't need to know that.

(He also doesn't need to know why Kevin considers the declawing of his sex drive a feature, not a bug. Doesn't need to know about every crossed wire that Strexcorp left in Kevin's brain, or all the reasons why he still avoids red meat and fresh injuries. Some stuff is personal, all right?)

Turns out there's a disproportionate amount of Palmeros crowding up the lanes: Emmanuel giving Cecil a hard time, Cecil laughing it off, and their mom lurking with some wizards a couple lanes down. Tamika greets Kevin with a high-five once she's close enough to his body, and waves to the other bowlers. "Somebody having an occasion, here?"

Emmanuel raises his hand. "Birthday. It's somewhere around now, anyway. Nobody remembers the exact date, but I'm definitely a Sagittarius."

"He quit getting any older years ago, and he's still making us take him out for cake and presents," puts in Cecil. "Big scam, if you ask me. Okay, everyone back up and let me roll, I've got a good feeling about this frame."

Everyone at this lane — Kevin, Emmanuel, Steve Carlsberg, and Delphine Cabrera — backs up. Cecil's got a point about the age thing. They're all around the same generation — Tamika knows for a fact that Carlsberg and Emmanuel once survived the same Summer Reading Program — but if you didn't know Emmanuel was a wizard, you'd guess he was Tamika's big brother before pegging him as Cecil's.

"How old are you really?" asks Tamika. "We could start calling you Old Man Emmanuel, if that'll help."

"Hey, I'm only forty-six...ish. Hold off on the nicknames until I'm at least fif...." He glances at Cabrera and Carlsberg, and changes direction. "...sixty. Ish."

"Nice save, darling," says Delphine, before Cecil shushes them so he can concentrate.

Tamika takes a minute to size up Cecil while he aims down the lane. She'd heard from Janice and others that the Voice was doing better, but this is the first time she's seen it for herself since his on-air breakdown a couple months back. And yeah, he looks pretty good...for a normal human...considering his age...and life experience...and so on. The lines on his face mostly stand out when he's smiling. His outfit is on point (Tamika's gotta look for tights like that in her size). Is that a new tattoo on his wrist? Whatever it is, he's making it work.

Aim is on point too: he rolls a strike. Tamika and Kevin clap, and Carlsberg pulls Cecil into a celebratory bear hug, as the last of the pins clatter to the floor.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Mayoral duties make Dana fashionably late to the party. Most of the guests she knows are in the dining area when she arrives, getting some kind of slideshow on Cecil's phone while Khoshekh hangs draped over his shoulder. Cecil flicks through a couple of photograms with an increasingly puzzled face: "These aren't from Mom's clan's ancestral lake. Or any of the other lakes we passed by. Um. These appear to be from a vacation I have not taken yet. Maybe we shouldn't look."

"I used to get those all the time when I was at the basalt fortress," offers Dana. "It never gave me any problems with causality. Can I see?"

Emmanuel is worried about causality, and Delphine mutters something about having seen these already. That leaves Steve, Kevin, and Dana to squeeze in around the table for the next part of the slideshow.

"I'm guessing these are in the south of France," decides Cecil, "going by the climate, the quality of rocks on the beach, and the judgmental treelike figures that loom along the horizon."

"Also, the fact that you have hotel rooms booked in the south of France for next week," points out Dana.

She had been worried, at first, that it would be impossible to keep up with Cecil once he was off the air. He had all but stopped posting things online, and if he was traveling a lot he might find it hard to stay in touch. Turns out, her fears were unfounded: as Cecil's enthusiasm for life has returned, so has his enthusiasm for things like "telling everyone about vacation plans." And there's no Station Management on Facebook limiting how much personal detail he's allowed to share.

"Well, that would be a factor, yes," says Cecil now. "But I like to think my highly-developed powers of scientific reasoning —"

He breaks off, not confused this time, but flustered. The photo he just flipped to is a shot of Carlos, bare-chested, giving the camera a seductive smile and twirling his fingers through his hair.

"There's a highly-developed scientific something here, all right," says Dana approvingly, while Kevin gives the photo an aww, and Steve a wolf-whistle.

Cecil clutches the phone to his chest, blushing, while Khoshekh murmurs, "Perhaps we should have reviewed the entire set before sharing."

"Where is Carlos, anyway?" asks Kevin. His painted dog daemon looks around the Desert Flower, double-checking that the scientist isn't here yet. "I thought the whole Night Vale Harbor Clan Auxiliary Squad was invited."

"Surprise situation at the aerodock," says Cecil. "There was some kind of snarl at customs — I hope it's not Erikas again! — and he got called in to smooth things over. If he has time afterward, he'll join us here."

Dana quietly goes into four-eye. Unlike Cecil and Kevin, who need their daemons by their sides to see a digital screen, she has no accessibility problems while Eustathias goes traveling at a distance. Right now the phoenix daemon is outside, catching the thermals hundreds of feet above the parking lots. Sharing Dana's senses, she surveys the ground for Carlos.

He's not far at all. Getting off the bus this very moment, a little ways down the block.

If Cecil seemed anxious or despondent, as he has been all too often in recent months, Dana would reassure him that his husband is close at hand. It would be cruel to put him through any more uncertainty than necessary. But today, Cecil is...comfortable. Satisfied — no, happy — at the company he is in now.

So Dana keeps her pleasant surprise to herself, sits back, and prepares to enjoy the look on Cecil's face.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

"Sometimes people think he's my brother," says Janice, across from Tamika at the telekinesis-only pinball game. "Sometimes I correct them, especially when it's Father-Daughter Night at the opera house or the cult compound, but sometimes I let them continue on in their misapprehension. I'm still not sure which is ruder."

"Don't think the library has an etiquette book that covers that one," admits Tamika. "I can double-check if you want."

"It's okay, I'll go through the shelves myself." Janice sighs. "At least Tío Cecil doesn't have to worry about it...people know about him from his show, so they know he isn't a dad, and what to expect from his brother. And it's gonna be a long time before Renée and I have to worry about people thinking she's my mom."

Sometimes Tamika envies the young witch. How cool must it be to have the next thousand-odd years of history, culture, and books to look forward to? Then she thinks about all the people Janice is gonna lose — about how they nearly lost her uncle already, and had that nightmare period a few years earlier when they all figured her stepsister couldn't be saved — and, you know what, maybe a normal human lifespan is all Tamika wants to manage.

"Oh, speaking of Renée!" exclaims Janice. "She settled! Have you seen?"

Tamika hasn't — so she follows while Janice's cloud-pine branch swoops through the aisles of games, until they find her stepsister tearing it up at single-person DDR. Renée's killer pink hair clashes with the daemon on her shoulder, but it looks like she's keeping it anyway. Cool.

"Hey there, God-Destroyer," she says, when the song finishes and the machine starts frantically spitting out prize tickets. "You want a match? I can't get any good competition these days! Not since Tehom settled as an animal too small to hit all the arrows."

"You're on," says Tamika warmly, taking the next free platform.

Rashi finds a spot where he can squeeze up next to the machines without blocking too much of any aisle. Renée's daemon, Tovitthae, hops down to her wrist; she holds this out to the buffalo, so the two daemons can greet each other without Tovi getting too far from his human.

Thanks to a war injury, their range is as stunted as Janice's is broad. Can't get more than a foot away from each other without pain. But the daemon that hovers in front of Rashi's face is a ruby-throated hummingbird, and the symbolism couldn't be better: their scars and their limits haven't stopped him from being able to fly.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

The kerfuffle at the aerodock doesn't take Carlos long at all. He went because Sherie the physicist (Night Vale team, fall 2013, senior member) asked him to make sure things were okay, but he's pretty sure Seth would've had it under control. The kid lived in town during the War, after all, and comes back to visit his mom and sister almost every time US schools go on vacation. He's weathered plenty of ordeals more challenging than an extended Night Vale security screening.

So Carlos shows up at the Desert Flower only an hour late.

In the tableau of the bowling alley, the first thing he sees is Bekhorei: sitting matter-of-factly down the center of Lane 3, filling it from gutter to gutter. Other patrons have politely (in any other town, Carlos would think nervously) given Lanes 2 and 4 a wide berth. It's still instinctively uncomfortable to see a large daemon in such a crowded space...even when Carlos has been assured that Bekhorei is numb to the touches of strangers.

("Always was," said Emmanuel, when Carlos brought it up after Oxford, over wine. "I've got a theory that it's why he settled so big in the first place. You couldn't hurt her that way, and she was really, coldly aggressive about wanting people to know it."

"Some still found out the hard way," added Cecil. "Remember that coach who picked on me in fifth grade? Speedy little lizard daemon. He put her in his pocket, figured that made him untouchable by some angry parental daemon. Bekhorei snapped his arm."

Emmanuel was the first to notice the face Carlos was making. "Also, when we were little, he used to give us rides! I don't want to make him sound like a monster. He's not a monster. He's just...Mom.")

Bekhorei notices Carlos noticing him, and nods a giant feathery head in the direction of the dining area. With a hat-tipping gesture of acknowledgment/gratitude, Carlos follows the direction. Cecil glows with a smile when Carlos comes into view, and Dana is already moving aside to let Carlos sit next to his husband, as if she'd been expecting him to show up at this exact moment.

"You missed all the bowling," Cecil informs him, squeezing Carlos's hand. There's a new set of markings around his wrist, a design inked in definitely-not-an-illegal-Sharpie. "But not all the fun! We haven't even started the recreational yelling-at-the-moon yet."

"Who does it think it is, anyway?" mutters Dana under her breath.

"So, how are you? How was work?"

Work was...uplifting. One of the governments in Kevin's home universe has finally approved a team to liaise with the International Science Foundation. Only the biology department so far, but Carlos is sure that it'll represent them well, especially since it's headed by Omero the xenobiologist (alum of the Night Vale team, fall 2013). On the rare occasions when Omero isn't sure what to do, an angel generally descends in a pillar of light and offers him extra guidance, in return for playing a few rounds of Resident Portal Effect VI.

"So you might actually get a working ISF branch there soon?" asks Kevin, sounding surprised.

"Could be as early as next year, if all the stars line up right," says Carlos proudly. "I know you have a few more years before you have to worry about leaving town...but let me know, any time, when you decide what kind of position you'd want us to hire you for."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

The yelling-at-the-moon plan gets pre-empted by the weather. Thick dark clouds gather in front of the sky, and some kind of anbaromagnetic phenomenon makes sparkling ribbons of color in front of the clouds.

Nearly everyone with the power of the flight makes use of it, soaring off into the night to get a closer look. Janice and Emmanuel, Sohvi and Josie, even Dana and her phoenix daemon: fiery wings sometimes standing out against the mysterious lights, sometimes blending in. Bekhorei's huge white wings are a vibrant canvas, painted by the sky.

Everyone else strolls to a nearby park and settles in to watch.

Carlos is still talking about science stuff. Tamika doesn't pay attention to most of it. There's this part about a universe where the cosmological models predict a whole bunch of unaccounted-for, unseen, mysterious light, which sounds like something she might want to know about...then Carlos explains that they already got Fey to do some calculations, and it's definitely not an evil or terrible light. So Tamika tunes the rest out, and puts a comfortable distance between them before settling down.

Someone quiet and unobtrusive takes a seat in the grass next to her.

"Hey there," says Tamika under her breath, leaning against Rashi. "It's been a while."

"Would you rather see me more often?" asks Kevin's death, with mild curiosity. "I haven't gone anywhere far."

"Eh, this is fine." Tamika casts a glance at Kevin and Va'eira, over on the other side of Cecil and his chatty scientist. "He knows you're around, right?"

"He is the one who keeps me where I am," points out the genderless, colorless, nearly-featureless figure. "For the moment: not at his heels, but not too far."

Tamika can't even guess where her own death would be, if it was corporeal. But if you grow up with them walking around, you probably get a better sense for this kind of thing. "You know some of his friends are thinking up a whole life for him," she tell Kevin's. "They figure as soon as he can't live here anymore, he'll move back to his own universe and pick up from there."

"Yes."

"Guess he's still got other plans."

The death's quiet presence is answer enough.

Maybe Tamika should feel like she did when she heard about Palmero — wanting someone to run to the rescue, to shake Kevin out of it. But it doesn't feel like something's been knocked off-kilter in Kevin's head, or like he's too deep in a hole to make clear-eyed decisions. If anything, this reminds her of when her abuelo got terminal wing cancer. Everyone knew his life was on a timer, and sometimes that was hard to deal with...but he was kinda at peace with it, and made the most out of those last few years. At the end, even if maybe not everyone was ready for him to leave, he was ready to go.

So she makes a point of swinging by Kevin before she heads off home. "You know I got your back, right?" she says under her breath. "Whatever you decide. Even if nobody else likes it...even if maybe I don't like it...I got your back."

Va'eira rubs her face up against Rashi's massive chin, while Kevin smiles in Tamika's general direction. His dark glasses sparkle with reflected rainbows. "Whatever I decide, I'm really lucky...and really glad...to have a friend like you."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

People trickle off home in twos and threes, until Cecil and Carlos are the last two left in the park: legs stretched out in the cool grass, daemons curled around each other, watching the sky.

Carlos rubs his thumb against the base of Cecil's wrist. In the low light he can't see the Sharpie marks anymore, and he hasn't bothered to adjust the settings on his eyes; he's just remembering where the ink was. It's the latest field-test of a tattoo pattern: based loosely on the chemical diagram Carlos came up with a while back, interwoven with a motif adapted from the Night Vale city crest, and some zigzag lines that Cecil insists are an accurate representation of radio waves.

"I like this one," says Cecil quietly. "I might want to keep it. If you like it on me."

"I like everything on you," says Carlos, without having to think about it.

Cecil shakes out of his grip and swings one leg around, so all of a sudden he's straddling Carlos's lap.

Carlos does a double-take, then toggles the menu on his eyes and switches to night-vision mode, letting him see Cecil's expression instead of a blur of shadows. "Honey...?"

"I understand." Cecil's voice is velvety and low. "I do. You're just grateful to have me alive. Next to that, any other question pales in importance. How can it be significant what I put on my skin? As long as there is a pulse underneath, it will make you happy."

A lump rises in Carlos's throat. "Well...yeah," he says, looping his arms around Cecil's waist and resting his forehead against Cecil's chest. Feeling that blessed heartbeat under the light weave of Cecil's patterned poncho.

Cecil embraces him in return, kissing the crown of Carlos's head through the mass of silvering curls. "I know the feeling. I have felt it for you, those times I got you back after fearing I would never see you again. It makes things seem so simple...but my dear Carlos, it will not last. In time, some of the things I do will begin to annoy you again. Others, you'll feel neglected and upset if I let them slide. Your happiness will go back to being something I have to work for."

To be honest, Carlos has already been annoyed by Cecil a couple of times recently. But they're so minor. Not worth mentioning. "I don't want to lose so much perspective that I get bothered about insignificant little things. I don't want to be that petty."

"Not petty," intones Cecil. "Human. And important. Part of the way we give our short and finite lives meaning is by making the little things significant. So help me make this meaningful, Carlos. I do like this design, but I don't want it if you're not interested — or, worse, if you think it's ugly or off-putting, and would only tolerate it because it was on me. I want a design that will bring both of us joy, even ten or twenty or fifty years down the road. Can you tell me, honestly, that this one rates?"

Carlos lifts his head, though he keeps his hands folded against the small of Cecil's back. "Can I see it again?"

Cecil shows him the affected wrist...and they both laugh, because all Carlos's affectionate touching has reduced half the lines to smudges.

"I do remember liking it," says Carlos sheepishly. "But you're right, I don't want to be flip or casual about this. You have all the designs at the house, right? Let me look at it again there, and I'll think about it seriously and tell you how I feel."

"Thank you," murmurs Cecil, and kisses him. First on the cheek, right above his scar, then on the mouth.

Carlos parts his lips and returns the kiss. In full view of the trees and everything — they'll be gossiping about it in the Whispering Forest by tomorrow.

They're on the verge of tumbling backward onto the grass when the clouds finally scud out of the way, and Cecil grumbles about the creepy and unnecessary pale voyeur all the way back to the house. Carlos doesn't join in, just nods and hums in non-disagreement until they can fall properly into bed. The sheets are softer than the ground anyway; they won't get grass stains on Carlos's lab coat or Cecil's fancy tights; and Cecil can fall asleep right afterward without risking a secret-police citation for being unlawfully adorable in public.

It isn't scientific at all to think that a rocky satellite hundreds of thousands of miles away would know or care what anyone down here is doing. Still, before Carlos drifts off too, he takes a minute to thank the moon for sending them home.