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Let The Shadows Fall Behind You

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Carlos is riding high, both figuratively and literally, as his chauffeur brings the vehicle in sight of Night Vale.

Figuratively, because he just had a great day at work. Some high-profile virology results finally came in, and not only does one of their ally worlds recognize the new mutated strain that's been wreaking havoc on the east coast of New Denmark, they've had an effective treatment for decades. The recipe is now in the hands of three different pharmaceutical companies for local testing.

Literally, because his vehicle is a gyropter.

When he started this job, he commuted in a car, then a design for high-efficiency solar cells hit the mass market and fuel efficiency was no longer a problem. Maybe if he worked somewhere with less sunshine, it still wouldn't be practical...but Carlos's gyropter spends all day parked on a rooftop in Desert Bluffs.

The chauffeur begins their final descent, until at last they settle onto the rooftop of Carlos's home.

(It was so prescient of Cecil to insist that the blueprints had room for a gyropad.)

Carlos shoulders his backpack, armadillo daemon riding in the largest pocket, and heads for the stairwell while his driver (with her cactus-wren daemon) takes the fire escape. The attic and the stairs aren't air-conditioned, so it's a blissful change when he steps out into the TV room, where the air is cool and the shades are down and Cecil is lounging on the couch with his laptop on his knees.

"Hi, sweetie." Carlos drops Isaña to the carpet and leans over the back of the couch to press a kiss to Cecil's temple. He glances at the screen: it's the vacation essay. "How's the writing going?"

The first vacation they ever took together was a last-minute thing, a daring escape from town to keep Cecil from being punished for the subversive content he'd snuck on-air right under Strexcorp's noses. NVCR's current management is significantly less evil, and it's not that Carlos doesn't appreciate that...but the requirements for time off are a lot more labyrinthine, involving an exactly-2500-word description of what you plan to do while you're away.

"Um...pretty well, I think," says Cecil. Khoshekh isn't around, and without his daemon Cecil can't actually see what's on the screen, so he presses a series of keys to get the word count.

"One hundred fifty-eight words," reports the ordinater.

Cecil's brow furrows. "Oh. I...I thought I had more than that."

"Well, you have plenty of time," says Isaña from the floor by their feet. Sure, the approval process takes a while. Two years ago Cecil started in October and didn't manage to get time off for Christmas. (Carlos ended up traveling on his own. His parents aren't getting any younger; family visits are too precious to skip.) But they're trying to plan this vacation around a physics conference Carlos is attending in Oslo this August, and it's only the middle of February.

"Mmhmm."

"I can handle dinner while you keep working," adds Carlos. "Unless you've started something already?"

"Nope." Guilt settles across Cecil's face. "I may not be that hungry. I may have finished all the leftover cupcakes from Janice's birthday party."

"You didn't even leave me one?" When Cecil doesn't answer, Carlos tsks. "Well, I guess I'm making you salad."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

A month after Janice's fourteenth birthday, they have to have another party, because her daemon settles. Carlos finds out when he's checking Facebook on his lunch break, and Janice, Steve, and Emmanuel have all posted excited updates, complete with photos.

Tehom is a sleek black dragonet, the size of an eagle, with the pointy frill of a girdled lizard and the soft-skinned wings of a bat. He's much too small for Janice to ride, but over the past couple of years she's spent more and more time riding a cloud-pine branch everywhere, so it's not going to hold her back.

Carlos, bursting with pride, +likes all the photos. He doesn't share any of them, but only because Janice's mother was leery of having her image on Facebook at all, let alone having it exposed to Carlos's un-vetted network. Carlos has no interest in upsetting the woman they all assume is currently the Sheriff.

Everyone in Cecil's network has been vetted, so Carlos assumes Cecil is sharing the images like mad. If they're not showing up in Carlos's feed, it's probably some kind of Facebook anti-repeats filter.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

The crowded, exuberant settling party leads into a small and solemn after-party, involving Important Secret Witch Business. Cecil and Carlos offer up their yard for the purpose. The main party was at Steve and Delphine's duplex, but it would be rude to stay there for a gathering where Steve and Delphine themselves aren't invited.

Carlos takes a car to and from work that day. He's probably not going to make it home before the event starts, and he doesn't want to disrupt everyone's conversations by landing a gyropter practically on their heads.

Sure enough, when he gets there, his back yard is occupied with most of the Night Vale Harbor clan.

(Emmanuel wanted to call it the Lake Whatlake Thisisthemiddleofthedesert clan. Janice talked him out of it.)

Eight new adults have been added over the past three-and-a-half years. Carlos used his media infamy to tell the world that there was a new clan based in Night Vale actively seeking trans men, and the world responded. Not every guy who comes out of the woodwork to investigate has stayed — some can't get past the language barriers, others aren't willing to tolerate the desert heat — but six wizards, one of them accompanied by his sister and another by his wife, have decided they like it enough to move here permanently.

All of them are, naturally, stunningly beautiful. Before he greets anyone, Carlos makes a beeline for the refreshments table to get a glass of lemonade. Very icy, very cold lemonade.

Janice is in conversation with one of the wizards, a three-century-old exile from a Muscovite clan. She's taking Muscovy in school, and it sounds like they're using the opportunity to practice. Josie (not a member of Night Vale Harbor, but invited as a kind of ambassador for Lake Jeris) is talking to another in Spanish. And there's Emmanuel; when he spots Carlos, his daemon rises out of the grass in a buzzing black cloud and flies over to say hi.

"Hey, Neharah," says Carlos warmly. "What's it like so far, being the parent of a dragon?"

"Could not be prouder," hums Neharah. "We settled at thirteen, but Mamá and Cecil were both sixteen, so we were prepared for a wait...and then, wham, here they are! And Tehom's not a bird — do you know how rare that is for witches? We always knew our girl was special!"

Carlos doesn't deflate the fatherly gushing by asking if Neharah is trying to brag about their own non-bird status. "Where is your mother, anyway? And did Kevin make it? I know he was invited...."

Kevin — like Cecil — is treated as a kind of auxiliary clan member. It's a strain on tradition, letting non-witch relatives (and/or their genetic near-duplicates) get this close to Secret Witch Business...but the idea of male witches is itself a strain on tradition, so this group is willing to experiment. Carlos's presence is more of a strain, and usually too much to ask. He's getting a pass at this gathering because he already knows the Secret in question.

Also, because it's his house.

"Kevin sent his regards," says a subset of Neharah. "And Mamá...was asked not to come."

Carlos frowns over his lemonade. "Wait, why not? I mean, I guess it's none of my business. But why not?"

The answer comes from a smaller, quieter subset of flies. "...Personal reasons."

It strikes Carlos that there's more than one kind of Secret here. Everyone present knows about separation ordeals. Everyone but Carlos has been through one — or, in Janice's case, is due to go through one very soon. But only a handful of people know that Cecil's wasn't by choice. "You don't think — I mean, she wouldn't —"

"No! Of course she wouldn't try anything. There's no reason to. We even asked Dana to double-check the prophecy records to make sure." And if Mayor Cardinal can't find anything at her clearance level, there's probably nothing to find. Probably. "We just think it would be best if she gave this whole affair some distance."

"Makes sense." Carlos hesitates. He doesn't actually know whether Emmanuel and Neharah, too, had their separation forced on them. "I hope your separation was...okay. Or at least, that you're okay about it now. However it went."

"Ours went better than most," says Emmanuel himself, stepping into the conversation and clinking his glass against Carlos's. "Sometimes these things balance out."

He looks across the yard at his daughter. She's looking every inch the mature young adult, hair done up in an elaborate braid, black silk dress cut in a classical witch-style — with the skirt specially tailored so her small legs don't get lost in it. (Emmanuel's tunic is the same color, but the cut is consciously masculine. Carlos is just relieved he's through his "celebrate the fact that I'll be remembered no matter what I wear by borrowing the most outlandish things from my brother's wardrobe" phase.)

"Listen, Carlos...I really can't thank you enough for helping all these people find us. I've talked to Janice about my separation, and made sure she was present for Kevin's, but those were both unusual cases, and hers is going to be so much more...traditional. She needed some traditional people to talk to."

"It was nothing," stammers Carlos, embarrassed but pleased. "Hey, speaking of unusual cases...Cecil is here, right?"

His brother-in-law frowns, gaze darting around the rest of the crowd. "Of course. He must've gone to the bathroom or something...he was out here just a minute ago, I thought."

Carlos has been home longer than a minute. "I'll go check on him."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Cecil is at the kitchen island, head rested on his folded arms, laptop and Khoshekh both on the countertop. An oscillating fan stands sentry on the counter, ruffling Khoshekh's fur in waves as the breeze passes over him.

"Hey, babe," says Carlos, letting a hand rest on Cecil's shoulder. "You feeling all right?"

"Oh! — yes. Yes, I'm fine. Hi," stammers Cecil. "It was just...it was getting a little hot out there. Thought I'd go inside. Get some work done."

Carlos glances at the screen. Cecil's vacation essay is open, but he can't have made much progress. The toolbar across the bottom of the window announces that it has 327 words.

He looks to the far right and blinks twice, which signals his bionic eyes to display the menu. The settings appear in his visual feed like a hologram hovering in midair. Some of them he almost never uses, but others he can switch between by rote; flipping over to infrared view with a numerical overlay is a reflex that takes half a second.

"Is everything okay outside?" adds Cecil. He and the laptop are now glowing red figures in a room of mostly greens and yellows. According to the readings, he's not feverish. "Does the table need more drinks, or anything...?"

"Nah. I just got lemonade, there's plenty." Carlos double-blinks while looking left, which flips him back to the default view (human-visible spectrum, no zoom), then focuses normally and smiles. "I'll keep an eye on it, okay? You go ahead and focus on writing."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

The pattern is obvious eventually, when Carlos looks back on it, but he doesn't notice anything special about the moments as they're happening.

One movie night they get halfway through Cat Ballou without Cecil laughing once. But any movie is going to get old once you've watched it a couple hundred times, right?

Carlos asks if he wants to put something else on. They end up trying the first episode of Magical Dust Warrior Lyra-chan — a Nipponese anime very loosely inspired by Lyra Belacqua's childhood, in which one of the characters is an unsubtle expy of Carlos — and they both get a kick out of it. When Cecil coos about how well the animators captured Carlos's glorious hair, he's as effusive as he's ever been.

(Carlos thought the sparkles were overkill, but there's no accounting for taste.)

.

.

One Thursday afternoon Josie calls Carlos's phone, concerned. She's been trying to call Cecil to ask about league night for days, and he hasn't responded. Is he okay?

Carlos promises to investigate, dials Cecil, gets voicemail, and is officially nervous enough to drive down to the station. He finds Cecil in the office, totally fine and preparing for the night's show, full of stammered apologies for having worried everyone. He's forgotten to check his phone for a while, that's all.

Which could happen to anyone. Carlos calls Josie to pass on the news that Cecil is fine, just kinda swamped right now, and isn't going to make it to bowling tonight. He's got this essay he wants to work on.

.

.

One weekend morning Carlos is making breakfast, trying a new vegan omelette recipe, when Cecil wanders in with stubble and mussed hair and wrinkled clothes. The same clothes he was wearing yesterday, Carlos realizes. "Hey, did you sleep in those?"

Cecil blinks sleepily at him. "...yes? Don't you remember? You were there."

"It's just...you don't usually do that. Do you?" Carlos tries to think back over the past few weeks, but it's not like he was taking inventory. Every average night with Cecil flows together in his memory; he isn't going to remember specific outfits unless he was involved in taking them off. And he hasn't done that in...huh. Some time.

"I once wore the same outfit for two and a half years straight, waking and sleeping," points out Cecil. "This one's gonna survive being slept in for a night."

Carlos can't argue with that. And it's not like he never sleeps in his clothes. (Cecil does change into a horrendous fresh outfit for work — it involves toe socks and Silly Bands and a skirt with an ugly crocheted hem that looks like it's had holes ripped in it — and that evening, Carlos takes great pleasure in throwing each piece across the bedroom.)

.

.

Once in a while he catches Cecil staring at the wall, or gazing blankly into his coffee, or otherwise unfocused and unmoving. But Cecil always shrugs it off and seems okay, if tired, once Carlos gets his attention.

"I'm thinking," he protests, when Carlos asks if he's okay. "Thinking is an important part of being a scientist."

Carlos raises his eyebrows. "And you're a scientist?"

"I'm a scientist's husband," says Cecil primly. "Which basically makes me a scientist too."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Carlos's job runs on an unconventional holiday schedule. He's relaxing at home, enjoying a day off guided by a religion that doesn't exist in his universe, when Tehom taps a claw on the living room window.

Cecil, whose work day hasn't started yet, lets the dragonet daemon in. "Janice! Is something wrong? Shouldn't you be in...school...?"

Tehom, alone, grins a sharp-fanged grin. "Janice is in school."

It's a few days after the ordeal, Carlos knows, though he was not invited and Cecil chose not to go. Janice's daemon doesn't look traumatized, or in need of separation-sufferers-only bonding time, so Carlos decides there's no need to slip politely out of the room. "Congratulations! We're so proud of you."

"How are you feeling?" adds Cecil, with more concern than pride. "Are you okay?"

"I am!" Tehom flaps into the air and perches on the back of a couch: the one covered with a heavy-duty throw, specifically to defend it against clawed daemons. "In some ways it was worse than I thought it would be...."

Cecil makes a noise too small for Carlos to interpret.

"...but in other ways, it was easier!" He tilts his head, the same way Janice does, the same way Emmanuel does. "At first, when she —"

"I do not mean to interrupt," interrupts Cecil, "and of course I always enjoy your company, it's just — I've been working on something, that's important and a bit time-sensitive. If you are hurt I will stop and help, but if you're all right — that is, if there's no emergency — I really do need to get back to that."

"Oh," says Tehom. "Is it something I could maybe help with? Because I can do that now. During a school day. While I'm also attending school."

"It isn't. It's an essay. You know how essays are, right? Gotta write 'em yourself."

His niece's daemon nods, understanding. "Oh, okay. I'll go see Papi. Good luck with the writing!"

Once they're alone again, Carlos says, "Honey, what's going on? You weren't working on the essay."

"Well, I should be," mutters Cecil.

Carlos sighs. "You probably should, yeah. Are you still having that writer's block? Can I help out at all?"

"You're not allowed to write it for me," says Cecil unhappily.

"Sure, okay, but can I edit? Once you have something written, can I go over it and suggest more scientific ways to phrase things? I bet that would double your word count, easy."

"Um...I think that would be acceptable. Since it's a vacation with you, you're an admissible editor." Cecil bites his lip. "How about if I give it to you when I have a thousand words? Does that sound good?"

"How many do you have now?"

"Very nearly five hundred."

Carlos does a double-take. That's it? That's it from Cecil, who can improvise a flowery, philosophical monologue at the drop of a hat? Wow, he really must be blocked. "And you don't want me to just look at it now?"

"I really would rather you not."

It's weird, and a little unnerving, but they do still have a healthy buffer of lead time here. Reluctantly, Carlos lets it go.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

They're both trapped at work for the evening — Carlos stranded in Desert Bluffs by the travel advisory, Cecil holed up in the station while some kind of hellish glass-and-shadow hurricane batters the walls — when Cecil freezes up on-air.

The weather can't be good for anyone's peace of mind. It isn't good for Carlos's, and Carlos is in a Desert Bluffs hotel room with an idyllic starry sky outside the windows, just hearing about it on the radio. Especially when Cecil starts narrating the presence of some kind of monstrous shambling figure in the hall. Which Carlos would assume is just Station Management, until Cecil describes mysterious bubbling lights, and the noise of slurping rather than screeching....

He stops, and, with trembling voice, launches into a recitation: "Hazelnut. Mystify. Cuttlefish. Lark. Lurk. Robert...."

He stops again.

"Anglican," whispers Carlos. He and Isaña are frozen, staring at the broadcast app on their phone screen. "Anglican. Come on, honey, you know this...."

The slurping gets so loud, Cecil's microphone picks it up over the sound of his own panicked breathing.

Carlos is already dialing when the audio cuts to the weather report.

"Sweet Carlos," chokes Cecil in his ear a few seconds later. "I love you so much. I'm so —"

"¡Avellana, mistificar, jibia, alondra, acecho, Robert, Anglicana, feromona, camiseta sin mangas, mermelada, hardware, láser, pimienta, liberación, rótula, falafel, período, persecución, casto, leggings, lana, suéter, latido del corazón, latido del corazón, latido, del corazón, latido, del corazón, latido, latido, latido, latido!" yells Carlos over the muffled racket. (Cecil is probably hiding under his desk.)

There's a startled silence, then Cecil croaks, "Did you...sing that?"

"Setting words to music is scientifically proven to increase mnemonic retention! Did you get all that? Or do you need it again?"

"I — I'd been thanking the mysterious lights you weren't here, I didn't even think you'd remember —"

"I heard you say it was important, so I remembered," says Carlos impatiently. "Cecil, babe, focus. Say it with me. Hazelnut."

"H-hazelnut."

"Mystify."

"Mystify...."

He can't hear the bubbling shamble any more by the time they get to falafel, and Cecil is sob-gasping in the cadence that means relief when they hit the first beat, and then it's over.

It's over.

Well, there's still a state of emergency in effect outdoors, and the weather report is going to need to run all night. Carlos stays on the phone until Cecil retreats into the underground bunker for the night, where the signal can't reach. It's only after hanging up that he realizes his eyes are sore: he forgot to put his afternoon eyedrops in.

Eyedrops, shower, hotel pajamas, exhausted collapse onto the pillows with Isaña under his arm. It's been a while since they had a scare like that — either him and Cecil, or Night Vale in general. The town may not be safe in their lifetimes, but science has taken incredible strides toward making it safer. Just two months ago they celebrated the first Valentine's Day in living memory with no fatalities.

"Well, no prizes for guessing what the nightmares are gonna be about tonight," murmurs Isaña.

Carlos gives her an extra cuddle. "Anyone can freeze. That's what you have support systems for. That's what Cecil has us for. And if I hadn't gotten through, Manny would have. Or Josie. Or Steve, or Delphine...or, even if human error had hit us all at the same time, Fey would've stepped in."

They have safety nets. Plenty of them.

And anyone can freeze.

Carlos is already half-asleep when it drifts across his mind that, in Night Vale, people who do freeze don't live past forty.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

And no matter how much heart-stopping terror Night Vale still has up its sleeves, Carlos can never stay in a bad mood for long, because his job is amazing.

When people joke about the biggest medical discovery possible, it's the cure for cancer, right? Which is kind of misleading, because there's a whole spectrum of different kinds of cancer with a wide variety of causes, both environmental and genetic. Carlos's work has not brought his universe the cure for cancer. Just effective treatments for eliminating four separate types of cancer...with three more in testing stages.

The Interdimensional Science Foundation keeps a careful balance between making some things open-source and turning others into profit. Carlos and this dimension's board of directors hold a stable of patents, parceling out the testing and management to whichever companies Fey calculates are least evil.

Having obscene amounts of money is exactly as fun as Carlos always imagined it would be. For the first time in his life, he's enjoying grant applications — because he doesn't have to write them, he's the one who gets to make the writers' dreams come true.

Plenty of fields can't have the answers imported from other worlds, but find other kinds of value in the connections. In late April, Desert Bluffs hosts the local wing of a massive cross-worldly history convention. Carlos spends his lunches at the nearest bar, and gets a couple of classicists spending a whole hour explaining the empire-toppling effects of one world's climate being comparatively more hospitable to olive trees in Greece in 500 BC. (He doesn't really follow the explanation, because he's a physicist, not a historian, but their excitement is familiar and contagious.)

And, oh, the social change. The unanticipated, beautiful social change.

Some things don't translate. There's a lot of "sure, your universe might have had a problem with racism and police brutality, that doesn't mean the cops aren't objective in my version of this country." But it's hard to stick to a belief like "women can't be good presidents" when you're collaborating with an otherworldly scientist whose country has had eight of them in a row. And who just gave you, let's say, one of those cures for cancer.

Most relevant to Carlos's life (the anti-discrimination bills are wonderful for countless people, but he's the director of an independent institution, he's not in any personal danger of being fired) is that four states in Hispania Nova voted to de-gender marriage in referendums in 2016.

The population of Night Vale, many of whom seemed surprised that this wasn't the law already, turned out in droves to vote. True, they cast their votes by waving at the sky and shrieking, which Carlos is pretty sure did not make it into the official tally...but there was enough support in the rest of the state that the motion went through either way. And of course there were rings waiting in both his and Cecil's pockets as they watched the results come in.

Carlos still gets his fair share of hatemail and death threats, but these days he has people to screen them.

He comes home every week with a new fascinating discovery — say, "we just compared notes with the astronomers in Charles Raimeaux's world, and it turns out our respective galaxies are completely different shapes!" — and Cecil listens, and nods, and generally laughs or gasps or prompts him for more at all the right points.

Is it a problem, then, if there are other points when he's melancholy and distracted? If it's been a while since he made it to league night, or a local theater production, or one of Janice's recitals? Not everyone can be happy and energetic all the time. He'll get back on an upswing eventually.

In the meantime, Carlos keeps trying to share the things that make him joyful, and only occasionally complains that it always seems left to him to fold laundry or empty the dishwasher these days.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

They're having Kevin over for dinner. Carlos has rice on the stove, deviled eggs in the fridge. Now he's just waiting on Cecil, who promised to swing by the Raúl's and pick up a few more ingredients on the way home from work.

At last Cecil arrives, carrying a canvas shopping bag like it's a ball-and-chain. "Ugh, don't even ask about the lines at the store," he groans, setting it on the island with a thump. "Do you have this under control? Is it okay if I lie down for a bit before Kevin gets here?"

"Sure, it's nothing too...."

Carlos pulls a chilled box from the top of the bag...and winces. Hamburger patties. The real thing, not the vegetarian substitute. Kevin has made a lot of progress in coping with his more horrifying Strexcorp-related memories — for instance, these days he can be around other people eating meat without getting violently ill from the smell — but Carlos would rather not put him through it at all. And eating it himself is still out of the question.

"Did you get the vegetarian ones?" he asks, pawing through the rest of the bag. "No? No. Great."

He sticks the meat ones in the freezer — he and Cecil can still eat them, some other time — but, ugh.

"Do you think you have time to go back? I don't have any good backup plans, and I...."

He turns back to the island — and stops short.

Big silent tears are running down Cecil's cheeks.

"Cecil, hon," breathes Carlos, annoyance wiped out in a rush of concern. "Are you hurt? Did something happen at work? What's wrong?"

"I — 'msorry, I didn't —"

Cecil's voice catches, lip wobbling. Carlos takes a step closer, heart in his mouth, daemon close at his heels.

"I know, I know he can't eat that, I just forgot — I didn't think — and the lines were so long and now it's too late, stupid, stupid Cecil —"

"Sweetheart, come here." Carlos pulls Cecil into his arms — and Cecil collapses against him and bawls into his shoulder, like a child who's just skinned their knee for the first time and doesn't understand why the world suddenly hurts. "If I'd known it would upset you like this — this is nothing we can't deal with, I swear. Cecil, listen to me. We can handle this."

He holds Cecil through the sobs, while Isaña runs to the edge of their range and checks the adjoining rooms, looking for Cecil's daemon. Cecil clings to Carlos, rudderless. Khoshekh doesn't show.

Carlos isn't watching the clock. Or rather, given that the clock is never accurate anyway, he isn't watching the rice.

Eventually he starts to smell it.

Cecil's storm of tears has quieted to these desperate little hiccups, so, okay, priority one is to get him out of here before he realizes he's made Carlos burn the rice and has a whole new guilt-stricken meltdown. Carlos shifts his grip and guides his husband away: through the dining room, down the hall, one step at a time, murmuring reassurances all the way. Once they reach the master bedroom, he guides Cecil into sitting on the mattress and cups Cecil's face firmly in his hands.

"You were right at first. You're tired, and you need to lie down," he says, using all his Executive Director authority. "I'm gonna grab you some comfortable PJs, and you're going to change into those and stay in bed for a while, okay? I'll take care of dinner. All I need you to do is get yourself some rest. You understand?"

Eyes red and face streaked with tears, Cecil sniffles, but nods.

"Okay." Carlos dares to let him go, and Cecil sits in place on his own, accepting the soft panserbjørne pajamas when Carlos presses them into his hands. "Tell me what you're going to do?"

"Put these on and rest and trust you," says Cecil wetly.

"That's right." Carlos presses a kiss to each of his temples. "I love you very much. It's going to be okay."

Then he's back to the kitchen as fast as sock feet on a hardwood floor will safely carry him, stopping only long enough to disable the smoke detectors along the way.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Obviously this dinner was not meant to be. Standing on the front lawn — hopefully Cecil will interpret his leaving as a last-minute grocery run, so Carlos can ease him into the news of the cancellation later — he calls up Kevin. "Listen, I'm really sorry to do this, but we have to back out of tonight. Cecil's not feeling well."

"He's not?" echoes Kevin. "Oh, gosh. Tell him I hope he feels better."

"I'll pass it on."

"Did you have a rain date in mind, or should I not worry about saving this pie?"

Carlos considers saying that he has no idea when Cecil will be better, because he doesn't understand what's wrong. Considers opening up to Kevin about how startling this has been, and asking if the man has any advice. Not that Kevin is the first person he calls on for help in difficult times, or vice versa...but the two of them have a special connection. They form this world's only support group for survivors of the Smiling God shining directly into your head, offering you everything you ever wanted while burning your eyes out of their sockets.

Then Carlos considers how, in spite of the identical faces, Kevin and Cecil have different minds and different feelings. (He's seen the brain scans to prove it. Courtesy of Tatiana the neurologist, Night Vale research team, fall 2014.) And how, even with the in-person secret-police observation at reduced levels these days, the phones are still tapped.

"Help yourself to the pie," he says out loud. "Raise a toast to our health in our absence." And, for the benefit of their secret listeners: "That's metaphorical toast, not the kind that could raise any suspicion of wheat-smuggling."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

A good night's sleep leaves Cecil looking infinitely healthier. By the time Carlos rolls out of bed and puts in his morning eyedrops, his husband is clean-shaven, shower-fresh, and hammering away in the kitchen, while Khoshekh does the angry chant that will make sure the coffee comes out just the way they like it.

"I'm really sorry about last night," says Cecil as he pours them each a cup. (Carlos's mug reads I'M A PHYSICIST, WHAT'S YOUR SUPERPOWER. Cecil's has the more modest caption My Husband Won A Nobel Prize And All I Got Was This Lousy Coffee Mug.) "I don't know what came over me. It wasn't even a big deal! Go back to the store, pick up some veggie burgers, bam, it's fixed. What kind of person can't handle that?"

"The kind who should see a doctor," says Carlos frankly.

Cecil breaks into a nervous laugh. "I think that's overreacting, don't you? It was one little transient case of one tiny, mundane task abruptly looming so large that life itself became too overwhelming to face without collapsing into helpless sobs. Hardly the worst thing I've ever been through. Did I tell you, there was one time on the Subway when I didn't move at all for what turned out to be almost five days? I'm over it now. You don't have to worry."

"I'll worry as much as I feel like," huffs Carlos, crossing his arms. "What if you have a serious vitamin deficiency? What if someone's putting a curse on you? If you don't make the appointment, I will. I'll pay extra for a house call if I have to."

"Sweet, oversensitive Carlos," sighs Cecil. "If it'll make you happy."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Teddy Williams does a couple of standard refreshing bloodstone chants, and prescribes vitamin-X supplements and this incense that smells like chocolate and sea salt.

Carlos debates backing out of the German conference he's scheduled to attend in early May. The programming schedule looks scientifically fascinating, and he's been looking forward to the chance to catch up with Keith Köhler (who's enjoying a quiet retirement in his home country, and doesn't plan on returning to Night Vale until he's ready to take a walk in the Whispering Forest). But if there's a chance Cecil might fall apart again while he's a fourteen-hour flight away....

"I am going to be fine," says Cecil firmly. "Now start packing or I'll start for you."

That's a credible threat. Cecil has come to understand Carlos's fashion sense well enough that he can sift through the clothes Carlos finds silly-but-charming, and pick out the ones that are embarrassing hideous. Carlos starts packing.

"You're sure you'll be okay," he says again on the day of his flight, as they're wheeling his luggage towards the bus stop.

"I am not so dependent that I can't survive a week without my husband," huffs Cecil, with a wounded air that's only half put-on. "It's not like you're going to disappear off the face of the earth. It's not like I don't know when I'll see you again. Your flight home lands at 5:45 on Saturday afternoon."

All this is true. On the other hand, Cecil has every right to be extra-sensitive where surprise abandonment is concerned. Cecil's mother and older brother did disappear off the face of the earth when he was a teenager, and he spent decades not knowing when, or if, he would see them again. "And you're going to be okay if the plane is delayed."

"Yes, Carlos."

"Or if there's bad weather and it gets canceled."

"I assume you'd get a seat on the next one available." Cecil hesitates. "You would, right?"

Carlos raises his eyebrows. "No, Cecil, I might get distracted by a very scientific Toblerone, and decide it would be best for both of us if I spent the next six months studying the duty-free shops without ever looking at the flight schedule. Yes, of course I'd get the next one."

"Well, there you go! I will be just fine." The bus appears a few blocks down, and Cecil rolls the suitcase into Carlos's grip. "Enjoy your trip. Do lots of science. Bring me back some lederhosen."