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Let The Shadows Fall Behind You

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Carlos enjoys his trip.

He does a ton of science. He touches base with international friends and colleagues. He lets a lot of people at the conference, and a few who notice him on the street, pull him aside to take selfies.

His German bodyguard only has to take out a single troublemaker, who wasn't even armed. And everyone who just wants to flirt with him is gracious enough to back off when turned down.

The time zone difference means there's no convenient hour to call Cecil, but he sometimes texts in the evening and finds a reply by morning. NVCR still doesn't do any kind of online streaming, so he resigns himself to missing the show for the week. He's asked both Dana and Emmanuel to keep an ear to the radio, and check in on Cecil if he gets overwhelmed during the broadcast, or, heaven forbid, somehow misses it altogether.

Back home, the show goes on. At the end of the conference, Carlos stuffs his luggage with souvenirs and business cards, and catches his trans-North-Oceanic flight exactly on schedule.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Cecil doesn't meet Carlos at the aerodock...which is a good sign, right? It means Cecil isn't so lonely or insecure that he can't bear waiting until they see each other at the house. Carlos sends a text to say he's on his way, and takes the bus.

It's past one in the morning by his jet-lagged internal clock, but it's a sunny summer evening here in Night Vale. The house is quiet, no lights on. Carlos and Isaña dodge the series of bony spikes that have sprouted in the front lawn (they have got to buy some stronger weed killer) and let themselves in, yawning, hoping Cecil is out doing something fun.

He leaves his suitcases in the foyer and gets a glass of water in the kitchen. The counter is piled with dirty dishes and plastic takeout containers. Too much to load into the dishwasher now, so Carlos leaves the cup on a square of free space and heads for the bedroom.

Cecil's already in bed.

Not reading, or typing, or watching cat videos on his phone. Just sprawled there. His clothes (leather pants and a shirt trimmed with fake flowers) are wrinkled; he has greasy hair and stubble on his chin; a waft of stale air hits Carlos in the face as he steps in.

A horrible sinking feeling grips Carlos's chest as he hurries to the bedside. He doesn't see any blood — limbs and features all in the usual places — but — but. "Honey...? Are you hurt?"

"Oh..." says Cecil distantly. "Hi, Carlos. Welcome home."

Isaña breaks away to look for Khoshekh (no sign of him under the bed, or in his other favorite nooks and crannies) while Carlos switches to infrared vision, then switches back once he's sure Cecil doesn't have a fever. Which only rules out a tiny fraction of possible Night Vale ailments. "Cecil, talk to me. Do you feel any pain? How long have you been here?"

That gets more of a reaction from Cecil, in the form of sullenness. "I went to work. I have made it to work every day. I am a professional."

"Right, of course." Carlos squeezes Cecil's wrist, relieved. If he'd missed the broadcast, someone would have come to check on him.

But what about between broadcasts? Judging by Cecil's face, it's been at least a few days since he's shaved. And the clothes. The dishes.

"Besides that...have you gotten out of the house at all? How long have you been wearing this outfit? When was the last time you showered?"

After a long, aching pause, Cecil says, "...I have made it to work every day."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Carlos is more than just a brilliant researcher with pretty hair. He's an all-around fantastic coordinator. Science taught him to manage complicated multi-target workflows, and Night Vale trained him to stay on-the-ball no matter how bad things get.

He opens the windows and switches on a fan, so Cecil will get some fresh air and a cool breeze while Carlos retreats to the kitchen to set some other wheels in motion. Puts on instant coffee for himself, so he doesn't crash in the middle of this. Finds Cecil's vitamins, and searches the fridge for something more substantial than caffeine to wash them down. (Soda isn't wholesome enough, the milk's expired — okay, mango juice, that'll do.)

And he makes a call while the coffee brews. "Hi, Emmanuel. Can I ask you something?"

"Sagittarius," quips his brother-in-law.

Carlos groans. That used to be funny...back when he couldn't remember how many times he'd heard it before. "Will you get some new material, already?"

"All right, geez. What is it?"

"I need someone to pick up Khoshekh. He's at the station — you know his spot, the men's room by the sink."

That catches Emmanuel off-guard. Khoshekh is more than capable of traveling on his own, and they both know it. "Everything okay? You're not in danger, are you? We're having an impromptu archery tournament over here, so if you need a flock of well-armed witches and wizards to have your back, you called at the right time."

"This isn't a job for the whole clan! Cecil's not feeling well and could use a hand from his brother, that's all."

Once he's set Emmanuel on his way, Carlos finds a few sticks of that doctor-prescribed incense — was it ever really helping Cecil's moods? Well, if nothing else, it'll smell better than body odor and dust — and sets them burning behind the fan before finally, finally settling down.

Cecil manages to drink half the juice at his coaxing, then crawls into his lap and collapses like a bag of flour.

"Take a sick day tomorrow, gatito." Carlos runs his fingers through Cecil's hair, though it's a mess, all greasy, and more tangled than fingers alone can comb out. "Let yourself relax. Take a nice long bath. I'll get this place cleaned up — you can help, if you're up for it."

"Need to go to work," says Cecil.

"You don't. They've got an excellent substitute who can step in."

Most people become eligible to serve as backup Voices by surviving as a station intern for a year and a day. The only person to do that in the past five years is Dana Cardinal, and she's busy being Mayor. But when Strexcorp brute-forced changes in NVCR's ancient protocols to install their own Voice, it stuck. As long as Kevin lives in this universe, the station will accept him as a substitute.

"Need to get out of bed. To go to work." Every sentence fragment sounds like an effort to get out. "That was my reason. For getting out of bed."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Emmanuel is talking to Khoshekh as he comes down the hall: "...didn't think so, but I had to ask. Just hang in there. Your haltijani vaalija's right around the corner."

Carlos shifts Cecil from his lap to the nearest pillow and gets up, dabbing his face with the corner of a sleeve. (Gently. Can't be too rough with his eyes, or they'll bluescreen, and he'll be blind until they reboot.)

The margay daemon is riding awkwardly in his brother's deerskin briefcase, both of Emmanuel's arms holding it half-closed around the lump of fur in the middle. Emmanuel barely nods to Carlos in greeting before brushing past him, with confident, icy self-possession. (He's such a witch sometimes.) "Cecil...! You told me you were coping!"

He pours Khoshekh out onto the mattress, while Cecil mumbles something. Sounds like a repeat of I have made it to work every day.

"You should have asked for help." Sitting on the edge of the bed, Emmanuel picks up Cecil's arm and tucks it around Khoshekh's body. Even that tiny effort, he wasn't making on his own.

Holding Isaña against his own heartbeat, Carlos drifts closer. This time he catches Cecil's answer: "You're busy with Janice."

"Janice is fine! Janice and her daemon are strong and healthy and proud of themselves — you've barely seen them since the erokärsimys, or you would know that! And even if they weren't, I would find time to be there for my brother. Janice has plenty of uncles who could back me up."

"Better uncles," mutters Cecil.

"Different uncles with different skills that happen to be more suited to this situation. Janice doesn't ask you to teach her about erokärsimys, and she doesn't ask any of them to help her sell Girl Scout cookies."

Carlos kneels next to the bed so he's at Cecil's level, setting Isaña next to Khoshekh and touching the back of Cecil's loosely-hanging wrist. He only recognizes maybe fifty words of Suomi, but it includes the one his brother-in-law keeps using here. Separation suffering. "This is something to do with your ordeal...?"

Cecil shrugs.

"And you got through that," says Emmanuel firmly. "So you'll get through this, too, and feel better soon."

"Won't feel," mumbles Cecil. "But it's okay. This is fine."

His brother squeezes his shoulder. "Yeah, we'll work on that. Carlos, if you want me to stay with him while you take care of any...." He trails off. "Carlos? Are you fine?"

"A scientist is always fine," says Carlos.

Emmanuel looks immensely skeptical.

"Okay, granted, I just got through spending fifteen hours on airplanes, and my head is still in a time zone where it's two in the morning. But I am not too depressed to get out of bed! Also, I have had coffee."

"If it was Cecil's special coffee, there's no point in trying to sleep, but otherwise, you should get some rest," says Emmanuel. "Anything I can handle around the house before I go? Or pick up at the store, so you'll have it in the morning?"

Carlos shakes his head. "You brought Khoshekh home. That's all I asked for."

"But there are other things you could ask for."

"Nothing I can't get a good night's rest and then take care of."

With a sigh, Emmanuel says a few words to his brother in quiet, Suomi. Carlos has no trouble recognizing I love you.

Then he nods for Carlos to follow him out.

Carlos tries to indicate, with headshakes and gestures, that he'll stay with Cecil. So Emmanuel picks up his discarded briefcase...and uses it to scoop Isaña off the bed, clamping her shell between its sides and carrying her to the hall.

Great. "I'll be back in just a minute," says Carlos, and hurries after his daemon before the distance between them gets painful. They both swallow their protests while Cecil is in earshot, because, wow, is there anything he would find more upsetting right now than someone's daemon being unwillingly hauled away from them? What the hell is Emmanuel doing?

"What the hell are you doing?" hisses Isaña, once they're safely in the living room.

"You really don't get what's going on here, do you?" demands Emmanuel.

"Of course I do! I've seen how he gets messed-up about...erokärsimys," says Carlos. "After Kevin's ordeal. And after we first watched the Lyra movies from Will's world — the original local release, so it didn't have the R rating, or the mountain of warnings. Both times, I supported him through the aftershocks until he got better! And don't try to say that I only managed it with secret help from you that I no longer remember. You were memorable for one, and in a different universe for the other."

Emmanuel's mouth presses into a thin line. "I did not know about the movie," he admits. "But I did check on you and Cecil, after Kevin. If he'd needed extra help then, I would've been ready. And he needs it now."

He relaxes his grip on the briefcase and half-tosses Isaña into Carlos's waiting arms.

"He won't be okay tomorrow. He might not be okay a month from now. Think about taking care of him long-term. Think about what kinds of responsibilities you'll have to cut, or hand off to other people, to keep that up without burning yourself out. Think about starting those adjustments now."

"So that's why I should ask you to do our housework."

"The housework needs doing," says Emmanuel firmly. "And witches take care of their sisters' needs. Or their brothers'."

Okay. Okay, Carlos can change his strategy. Or rather, he can change it for now. If it turns out Emmanuel was completely wrong about how slowly Cecil starts to feel better, they can switch back, and at least he'll have played it safe in the meantime.

"I'd ask if you want time to think about it...but if I know you, you've already put together a methodical ten-point to-do list and can run me through it off the top of your head."

Carlos sighs. "Take my dirty clothes out of the luggage and throw them in the wash, clear up the dishes on the counter, go through the fridge and toss anything that's expired and/or moldy and/or starting to develop sentience, get groceries, get weed killer, change the sheets, call the doctor. See, you were wrong. That's only eight points."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Morning. The night air has cooled the room down, and they never turned off the fan, so it oscillates over Carlos's back in icy waves. Half-asleep, he tugs the sheet over himself and tries to cuddle up to Cecil.

There's no one else in the bed.

Carlos snaps awake, and is relieved to find that Khoshekh, at least, has moved to his and Isaña's basket. Maybe Cecil's on his way up. Maybe last night was when the storm broke.

Leaving his daemon curled up with Khoshekh, Carlos slips into the bathroom.

And there's Cecil. Sitting against the tiled wall, staring aimlessly at the cabinets, arms draped loosely over his knees.

"Hi, kitten." Carlos swallows. "What are you doing down there?"

"I was...." Cecil blinks in confusion, then looks at his hands, at the fingers curled around a razor. "I was going to shave. I thought...you'd like it. If I shaved."

"I think it might make you feel better. And I would like that."

Cecil doesn't respond.

"How about if I help? Would that be okay?"

"That's fine."

Okay. Carlos thinks for a minute about the best way to do this. Making Cecil stand over the sink is probably an unnecessary effort, and if Cecil's knees buckle while there's a blade against his cheek....(Carlos scratches the scar on his own. Yeah, that's too much of a risk.) Getting him to strip and sit in the tub would work, but feels like overkill. If Carlos does end up having to help Cecil bathe, so be it, but in the meantime, Cecil is an adult who needs a shave, not a toddler who just dumped spaghetti sauce all over himself.

"Stay right there," he says, unnecessarily, and he and Isaña round up some supplies. Clips to hold back Cecil's hair. A big bowl: filled with warm water, Cecil can hold it in his lap. Razor, washcloth, shaving cream.

May as well sponge off Cecil's face and neck, while he's down here. Carlos keeps it the motions few degrees gentler than he would be with his own skin. Cecil closes his eyes, and is that wishful thinking, or is he leaning into the touch?

"You like that?" murmurs Carlos, rubbing the washcloth along the line of Cecil's jaw.

"...yes."

Carlos shares a worried look with Isaña, then says, "Do you really like it, or are you just saying what you think I want to hear?"

"...I want you to be happy."

"Well, I want you to be happy. Really happy, not faking it for my benefit."

"Then I am going to disappoint you," says Cecil softly.

"We'll shoot for comfortable, for now," decides Carlos. "Tell me if any of this makes you uncomfortable. If I've got a blade near your face so you can't talk, tap it out on the bowl."

Cecil taps the Morse for O-K.

So Carlos pins Cecil's mess of tangles up out of the way, and goes at Cecil's jawline with careful strokes of the razor and twice as much lather as it probably needs. He doesn't ask any more questions, so Cecil doesn't have to make the effort to respond. Full spoken sentences seemed to exhaust him earlier; would Morse be easier on him in general? Should Carlos brush up...?

At last the warm tan skin is silky-smooth under his fingers. He caresses Cecil's face, thumb sweeping over the high cheekbone, the spray of freckles, the soft lips. "I think you should jump in the bath now," he says. "Would it help if I ran the water?"

Cecil nods.

The tub is half-full when Carlos hears a whack from the front yard.

He switches off the tap. "Don't undress yet, okay?" he tells Cecil, as the mysterious whacking continues. "I'll go make sure that's nothing we'll need to run from."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

It's Delphine and Janice, both wielding axes, taking them to the bases of the spikes in the yard. Janice doesn't have anywhere near her mother's muscle tone, but she makes up for it with plenty of enthusiasm.

"Form, darling! Swing from the shoulder, keep your elbow straight," directs Delphine. Her daemon, a huge silver-grey house cat, is also showing Tehom how to sharpen his claws on the next spike over. "Ah, Carlos! Manny said you had lawn trouble, but he failed to tell us you had an infestation."

"Yeah, I guess we let it get a little out of control," says Carlos. "Did he, um. Did he mention anything else?"

Delphine and Emmanuel have an unusual relationship, even by Night Vale standards. In a Timeline that Doesn't Exist, they fell in love, got married, and had a daughter. In the timeline that does exist, they didn't even meet until after Delphine got engaged to someone else. Which is probably true of lots of people...except that in this case they know about it, and avoiding each other completely isn't an option because their daughter still exists. They get along well; they're just really awkward about it.

Carlos isn't sure how much Delphine has been told about Secret Witch Business. He suspects she's picked up a lot, even with her reduced powers of surveillance, but that's only a guess. She in turn doesn't know how much he knows, so they both get cagey around each other whenever the topic comes up.

"Just that Cecil isn't feeling well," says Delphine now. "It isn't throat spiders, is it? I had thought his voice sounded somewhat flat on the air recently...that would be something, wouldn't it, the Voice of Night Vale needing a vocal cord replacement."

"Not throat spiders," says Carlos. "And nothing contagious. But it is really wiping him out. Thank you so much for taking over the lawn. Knock if you need water or bloodstones or anything, and I'll bring it to the door, all right?"

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Cecil has a bath. It's not clear if he actually scrubbed at all or just had a long, placid soak. Definitely didn't touch the shampoo.

He does manage to put on the comfortable clothes Carlos lays out for him. And takes his vitamins. And trudges into the kitchen without any prompting. Oh, good; Carlos hadn't been sure whether he was eating.

Carlos already had music on (their house has a state-of-the-art sound system that reaches every room; it's one of the features Cecil was most excited to install) to accompany throwing the sheets in the wash. He finishes spritzing Febreeze around a couple of rooms and joins Cecil for breakfast.

The fridge and the cupboards are packed with newly-bought food, all lined up in neat rows. Looks like Emmanuel didn't spare any expense. There's even a stack of banana nut muffins on the counter: out in the open, which means they came from one of the only locally-authorized wheat-product dealers, highway-robbery markup and all.

"I'm gonna make fruit salad," says Carlos, hunting through shelves for the cutting board while Cecil sits at the island and slowly, methodically demolishes a muffin. "You want some?"

Cecil swallows his bite of flour-based decadence. "Mmkay."

As Carlos chops strawberries and bananas and whatever these faintly-glowing purple ones are, he tells Cecil about the conference. Fun little anecdotes. Cool scientific revelations. The single protestor, whose cunning plan didn't involve actually hurting Carlos, just dumping paint on him.

His husband doesn't respond much. Just says "hmmm" every so often. It's hard for Carlos to tell if he's really listening, or putting in the bare minimum of effort to fake it. Isaña sits under his chair, ears pricked for any little change Carlos might miss.

Eventually Carlos sets two bowls on the island and says, "How about you, honey? Do you want to talk about anything that happened while I was away?"

A shake of the head.

"Do you want to talk about...anything else?"

Another shake.

"Can I call you in sick to work today?"

"Mmkay."

So Carlos does, offering his best reassurances to the intern on the phone when Station Management starts howling in the background. (Then he calls the health center, making an appointment for later in the week with someone who's more of a specialist than Teddy Williams.) He himself isn't going anywhere. Normally he'd do some work from home over the weekend, but he can put that aside for today.

Cecil, meanwhile, eats most of the fruit, plus two more muffins. The wrappers sit in a crumpled, crumb-dusted heap next to his bowl until Carlos scoops them up. "Let me get these for you."

"Sorry the house's a mess," says Cecil, slumping even lower in his chair.

"Don't apologize," says Carlos...moments before he has to suppress a wince, at the rancid smell when he opens the garbage bin. Better take that out later, not rub Cecil's face in it now. "Remember the week I was quarantined for space measles, so I was too sick to do the mid-year residence chant? The house was a lot more out-of-control then than it is now. How many of our carpets did it eat?"

"I don't have space measles," mumbles Cecil. "Lyme disease isn't even acting up. Everything is perfectly in order. I should be fine."

Carlos decides to stop arguing about how Cecil is allowed to be not-fine (just like he's stopped trying to convince Cecil that whatever conditions he might have, none of them fit the scientific definition of Lyme disease), and focus on making him feel better instead. "If you'd feel less overwhelmed with the place clean, I can tidy up for a while. Would you like to join in? Or would it be easier to relax and recharge? I can ignore the house and sit with you, too, if you like. We can watch a movie or something. What do you want to do?"

For a few seconds Cecil looks utterly blank. As if Carlos just asked him whether he preferred mesons, leptons, or anbarons.

Except that normally he would still say something to that. Maybe those all sound so scientific, I can't possibly decide! Or certainly not leptons, the Mayor's office released a condemnation of those treacherous particles just last week. Or even that depends; in your professional opinion, which would go best with these clogs?

At last, he gathers his strength and bursts out, "I want you to pick a thing and I want you to make it happen and I don't want to have to think about it."

Oh, good. That means Carlos has a blank check to spoil him.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

The tangled mess of Cecil's hair is no match for the conditioner designed for Carlos's. He works the cream into Cecil's shower-damp cowlicks, combing out the knots as gently as possible, while Cecil lies with his head in Carlos's lap and Cat Ballou plays on the flatscreen.

Khoshekh has been coaxed out of the bedroom; he and Isaña are curled up on a cushion next to Carlos's bare feet. One of Cecil's arms hangs over the side of the couch, brushing against his daemon's marble-furred back.

He doesn't laugh or react to any of the scenes that usually move him — and Carlos ought to know which ones those are, because Cecil's had pretty consistent reactions across the last eighty times they've watched this movie together. There are more than a few moments when Carlos leans over to check whether he's still awake.

The stress-whitened hair is silky-smooth under Carlos's fingers by the time Cat squares off against the robot rogues. He keeps combing and stroking anyway, massaging Cecil's scalp.

At the start of the climactic laser battle, he leans over and discovers that Cecil really is asleep, eyes closed and lips slightly parted.

Carlos traces the modified-Sumerian runes for "sweet dreams" across the back of his neck.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

There are plenty of other ways to pamper Cecil, and Carlos throws himself into them with relish. A call to a local florist brings them half a dozen vases of freshly-cut bouquets, heavy on his husband's favorite bitey snapdragons. He sneaks the overstuffed trash bags out of the house (Delphine and Janice have completely cleared the lawn), and spreads pine-fresh sheets over the bed. When Cecil wakes up, it's the hottest part of the afternoon, and Carlos has made milkshakes.

Emmanuel left a bottle of Cecil's favorite topping in the fridge. Carlos waits until right before they start eating to sprinkle it on, because multiple tests have rated it as highly toxic to humans, and he doesn't want to drink the wrong one by accident. Cecil has always indulged his reluctance, but regularly pokes fun at him for his bland tastes, claiming a good venom gives a dessert "zing."

There's no teasing today. Carlos doesn't miss it — but "Cecil can't summon the energy to be condescending" is not how he wanted it to stop, either.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

"I think you should take a look at that vacation essay tonight," he says, around the time Cecil's show is about to start. He can't remember the last time he got a progress update, but Cecil was supposed to show him after hitting a thousand words, and that hasn't happened yet. "Spend some time working on it. Or just let me look at it. Or both."

Another of those long, uncharacteristic silences. Cecil stares at his hands, picking at a loose nail.

Khoshekh pushes off the carpet with two of his three remaining paws, lands with a thump on the cushion next to them (did he even float, or just jump?), and says, "Would you be...mad...if we didn't finish in time?"

Carlos does a double-take. "If you didn't...? Why wouldn't you finish? You've been working on it for months."

"I know, right?" Cecil forces a self-deprecating laugh. "Pathetic, huh?"

"Worrying!" exclaims Carlos. "Let me help. There's nothing wrong with needing help. Where's your ordinater? Show me."

The little laptop is sitting, closed, on the desk in the next room. Cecil brings it over, taps in his password (unmasked, but in wiggly runic characters that Carlos wouldn't remember any better than a series of asterisks), and hands it to Carlos without a word.

No work files on Cecil's laptop. He does all his radio writing and research on the dinosaur of an ordinater in his office. The vacation essay is right there on the desktop, accompanied only by his web browser, a couple of cat GIFs, and a shortcut to his fanfiction folder.

629 words, the progress bar at the bottom of the window reports.

Nowhere near the required 2500. Carlos skims the scattered paragraphs of vacation plans, barely two pages, full of half-finished sentences. Phrases jump out at him:

I will spend time with Carlos

I will take a flight to Lapland, because I've never been there. I've never visited where Mamá and Old Woman Josie grew up. This is my big chance. I have to take it while I can. I have to see

 

It will be cold. Colder than Night Vale. very cold (too cold??)

 

I will feel good about myself again

I will feel things again

Carlos's heart sinks like a stone.

Cecil's been mired in this for months. Months. Emmanuel was right — it's been at least since Janice settled — and in all that time, through all the indirect hints and subtle red flags, Carlos never grasped how bad it was.

"See, you don't want me being like this on your vacation," says Cecil, voice cracking with forced lightness. "I'd drag the whole thing down."

"On our vacation." Carlos bracelets his fingers around Cecil's wrist — the one that usually bears the watch Carlos gave him. "Cecil...if you don't want to go, if it'll make you feel stressed and pressured and unhappy, then we won't go. We'll find somewhere else to travel. Or we can just go to Oslo, and not take the extra flight up to Lapland."

"I...I don't...."

"Or, if you'd really rather stay in Night Vale, we can make it a staycation. We can work out the details after your time off gets approved. I will do everything I can to make sure that happens. I swear."

He almost promises to do something crazy, like confront Station Management face-to-face and demand that they give Cecil his due. But the last thing Cecil needs from Carlos is grand romantic gestures that'll only get him killed. What Cecil needs is for Carlos to make an extra (but realistic) level of effort.

"And in the meantime...I'm going to take some time off."

"You are?" echoes Cecil. "You can't."

"Sure I can. The executive director gets to set his own hours. That's the first thing an executive director does."

"But your work. It's important. I can't take you away from that."

"You're important!" exclaims Carlos. "When I'm the one who's not okay, you go out of your way to take care of me. Remember when that carnival came through town, and it turned out I was violently allergic to the pony rides? Or at least, the things they claimed were pony rides? You brought me straight home, and made sure I always had enough tissues and Claritin."

Reluctantly, Cecil nods.

"Or when we'd just been rescued from being kidnapped by Strex," pipes up Isaña. "You snuck around behind their backs to see us as much as possible, and comforted us, and helped heal Carlos's face...and put up with us yelling at you anyway, because we'd run ourselves to exhaustion."

Another nod.

"Or when I got sucked into a condo, and you projected yourself out of your body and dove in there to pull me out," says Carlos. "Even though it took so long you left some dead airtime after the weather. Or at the end of the War, when I'd lost my eyes! That all happened so fast, you couldn't even get vacation time. So you used up some of your own sick days to stay with me, to take care of me and help me cope."

"That was...different."

"How?" It's strange and scary to hear him talk like this. Cecil has never turned down Carlos's help and comfort before, not when he needs it. "Give me one scientific reason how it's different."

Cecil doesn't answer....

"We do not want to be alone," puts in Khoshekh.

Cecil gives him a shove.

Carlos's arms flash out and hold Cecil's back. He wouldn't let anyone else manhandle Cecil's daemon; he's not going to put up with Cecil doing it. "I'm not abandoning my career, okay? I'm just taking a couple of days off. A week, max. There's nothing I can't reschedule or delegate for that long. I don't have to let you be alone."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Carlos's PA is not impressed with his "a couple of days...a week, max" line.

"You are running a massive multi-dimensional foundation here! You have schedules. You have obligations. You cannot throw around vague, fuzzy timeframes like you're still the freewheeling director of a ten-person research outpost in the middle of Dangerville, Nowhere."

Carlos accepts her chastisement with minimal grumbling. No job is perfect, after all. It becomes perfect after you learn to work within its constraints. "A week, then. Cancel all my appointments, or postpone them, or tell Carissa Reimer she's in charge, for exactly five work days."

He calls his brother-in-law next. "You were right. He's not okay. I'm taking the week off — can I lean on you a little anyway, maybe have you keep him company if I have to run errands, or something?"

"I'll email you a copy of the times I'm scheduled to spend with Janice and Tehom," says Emmanuel. "Any other part of the day, I'm at your disposal."

His voice doesn't really do the ominous-deepening-for-emphasis thing that comes so naturally to Cecil, but he gives it his best shot:

"Any part."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

After picking out some pajamas for Cecil to change into, Carlos lets Cecil fall asleep cuddled against his side, while he silently thinks up an essay and watches the ideas flow onto the pages of the Little Scientist's Book of Big-Boy Note-Taking.

Not Cecil's vacation essay. One for himself. Of course, since they're going to the same place, Cecil will be welcome to read this over and borrow ideas from if he feels like it.

Carlos doesn't have the poetic gift that Cecil does, but he's written a lot of research papers, and the Little Scientist's Book makes it effortless to get your thoughts down once you have them. Words pile up by the hundreds.

While I am on vacation with Cecil, we will take turns making each other breakfast. We will take leisurely walks to different touristy sites, and Cecil will pull interesting facts about them off the top of his head, and I will think they sound like they come from another universe's history, strange but captivating. I will read printed labels out loud for him; he will look at statues and gardens and tell me about the signs of human touch that only he can see.

We will find a boat or a ferry, like the one we rode in Trimountaine two summers ago, and he won't be intimidated by all the water this time, he'll be able to relax and take in the scenery. We'll visit a theology museum, and Cecil will want to see all the things my foundation has had a hand in, and he'll expect me to be able to explain them all, but will still be proud of me even when it turns out I can't. We'll go out for dinner, and he will order in the servers' native language without even thinking about it, and they'll be so impressed.

He won't know it's impressive, but I'll tell him. I'll tell him whenever I happen to notice that he's being smart, or brave, or sweet, or kind, or terrifying but in a good way, or all the wonderful things my Cecil is. I'll remind him that he makes me happy, every day, and that he has every right to be happy with himself.

The sky outside is lightening to a pre-dawn teal by the time he puts the book away...and the word count is 2,872.