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Let The Shadows Fall Behind You

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Cecil's essay is finished by Wednesday, and he wants to go back to work. He holds the six-page printout in shaking hands while Carlos drives him to the station and kisses him goodbye.

Khoshekh is staying at home. Emmanuel's keeping him company. There are things Carlos needs to fix up around the house while he has the free time, but first he steers himself to the rec center. The gym at his office hasn't been a workout option this week, and he needs some exercise.

He's delighted to step out of the changing room and find Kevin and Tamika sparring on the nearest mat.

Seventeen-year-old Tamika is whip-fast, all muscle, and, though she still has another year in high school, already being fought over by every high-ranked college literature program in the Spanish-speaking world. She's a trained expert in whatever weapon you hand her. At the moment, she and Kevin are dueling with solid wooden bo staffs.

(Kevin's favorite. Solid at both offense and defense; limited risk of drawing blood. Tamika's the one who got him into it; she's always been the first and strongest link in his support system.)

Their daemons sit on the sidelines, watching the match: Tamika's massive African buffalo, Rashi, and Kevin's limber African painted dog, Va'eira. She doesn't take her eyes off Kevin, because without them he can't see what he's doing. That's no big deal when they're walking side-by-side, but impressive when Kevin is fending off blows he can only see from behind and at an angle.

Rashi, meanwhile, notices Carlos and Isaña, and lifts his head in greeting. He and Tamika must also be in four-eye, because Tamika shifts her staff from two hands to one, pivots to look at Carlos, and waves...all while still holding her own against Kevin one-handed. "Hi, scientist. You want a go at the winner?"

Carlos grins. "It's an honor, but I'd rather fight Kevin."

(Staff fighting is Carlos's favorite too. For years he hadn't even realized it was an option; he figured he had to learn one of the self-defense methods used by his other Night Vale friends, and get over his shyness around weapons that were projectile-based, sharp-and-pointy, or both. Then Tamika suggested bojitsu for Kevin, and Carlos finally noticed how his own most successful physical fights all involved whacking his opponent with a cane or a baseball bat, and realized it was a skill he was allowed to build on. )

"I'm hurt!" exclaims Kevin, mock-pouting. "Just because it's true does not make it any less hurtful."

Sure enough, in the next instant, he attempts an under-the-leg sweep — Tamika hops his staff like a jump-rope, catches it with one foot, and, instead of tripping, does some kind of quick twist that knocks him to the mat. The dark glasses over his eye sockets would have gone flying if they weren't held on with elastic. His staff does go flying.

Carlos ducks.

Tamika helps Kevin up, and they bow to signal the end of the match. Carlos retrieves the wayward staff and brings it over; Isaña says hello to the other daemons, touching noses first with Va'eira (who isn't much bigger than Khoshekh), then Rashi (who has more armor in a single horn than Isaña has body mass). Kevin takes Tamika's. "All right, go pick on someone your own skill level."

"I'll try," says Tamika wryly. To Carlos, she adds, "You haven't been in here for a while, have you? Remember to warm up. Do your katas."

From any other kid, Carlos would be annoyed at the matter-of-fact bossing. From the God-Destroyer, if she says jump, he doesn't complain even if he's already in the air. "I will."

He nods to Kevin, and they step into the opening position of a simple practice form. She's right, he's out-of-practice, but it doesn't take long for the muscle memories to kick in.

"Is Cecil feeling better?" asks Kevin on their third run-through of the form, when he can tell Carlos's moves are fluid and sure-footed again — step, step, high block, low block, swing, thrust, clack, spin! "I told myself, if he was out sick for more than a few days, I would send him a card. And they didn't call me to the station today, so he must not be out. Should I still send a card?"

"I'm sure he'd appreciate the thought!" Carlos ducks a swing at his head, jumps over one at his ankles, twists to do an inside block. "And, ah — if you have any pick-me-up book recommendations — he might like those, too."

"I think that might do more harm than good," says Kevin sheepishly, whacking the end of Carlos's staff against the mat. "Cecil does not appreciate my favorite books. He thinks they're boring."

They step away from each other to start the form over, re-adjusting their grips and catching their breaths...and Isaña takes advantage of their relaxed concentration to murmur to Va'eira, "Not books that happen to make you feel better...we meant books about how to feel better."

The painted dog's tail sinks. "Oh," she says softly. "He's that kind of sick."

"It's not as bad as...as it could be," says Isaña, catching herself before saying not as bad as you used to be. He's sad and hurt, yes, but he hasn't stopped getting out of bed in the morning. If he had a corporeal death like you do, it would be keeping its distance too, not hovering over his shoulder. "We just think it's good scientific practice to cover all our bases."

"We can help with that." Va'eira gets to her feet, radar-dish ears pointing forward. "There are some good standbys on our shelves, but the best ones will need a library run...Be back in a minute."

She trots off in the direction of Tamika (currently on the far side of the room, dueling another teenager with rapier techniques learned from The Last Unicorn).

While his daemon is away, Kevin clicks his tongue and beckons Carlos over. Carlos relaxes his grip on the staff and approaches. Since Va'eira is Kevin's eyes, he throws in a low noise of affirmation so Kevin knows he's close.

"We have similar chemistry, right?" asks Kevin under his breath. "Brain chemistry. Me and Cecil."

"That's right." It's one of the things Carlos remembers drawing the most excitement from another local scientist who studied the two. (Unity the comparative physiologist, Night Vale research team, summer 2015. Other highlights included "his spleen and his pancreas are in exactly the opposite places" and, to Cecil's extreme jealousy, "his body can synthesize its own caffeine!")

"Well, you can tell him that what I'm on, what's working for me, is a thing called Dark MegaProzac."

"...seriously?"

"I know, I know, it sounds pretty evil! It's from a former Strexcorp subsidiary, and they didn't want to redo all their branding. Terrible marketing decision if you ask me...not that anyone did...but I've been on it for a couple of years, while being monitored by multiple non-evil doctors, and there haven't been any side effects I wasn't informed about up-front. You know I would never recommend it if there had been."

Yeah, Carlos knows. "I'll pass it on. Thanks."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

He mentions both the books and the meds when he picks Cecil up that evening. Cecil doesn't sound enthusiastic. "I will try them if you want."

"Or we can try something else," says Carlos, trying to be encouraging. "It's up to you. We can even ask Fey to calculate what would help you most. Everyone at the Foundation gets an allowance of personal questions, and I have a few saved up."

Cecil looks miserable as he sinks into the passenger seat. "I do not want Fey to worry about me."

"Um." Carlos sets his daemon in the back seat, avoiding Cecil's eyes. "She might be doing that already. I mean, I do talk to her about things."

"You what? Does she tell you things?"

"She tells me off for seeking medical information that you haven't consented to divulge, is what she tells me!" says Carlos sheepishly. "Her ethics library is so advanced these days. We haven't had to do more than minor update packages for almost a year. I'm so proud."

"But you haven't programmed her not to look things up for her own information," points out Cecil, as they pull out of the parking lot.

This is true. Fey insists on keeping autonomy in some areas, and considering her history, Carlos can hardly blame her. "Doesn't mean she will. When you had an alethiometer, you didn't abuse it like that, right?"

"Sometimes I found out personal things by accident! You know that as well as anyone."

Also true.

"I'm getting along. I'm surviving," adds Cecil. "Isn't that good enough? I don't want you to waste your time working and stressing and searching for...whatever magic fix you're imagining. It is not going to work. You're not magic."

"I'm a little magic," protests Carlos. "I got a solid 2% on the aptitude test. Scientifically speaking, two is a greater percentage than zero."

"I know how percentages work!"

Carlos falls silent. Even he knows there are times when more science is not the answer.

They make it all the way back to the house before Cecil speaks again. It sounds like an effort. "I know you only want to help."

Carlos parks, switches off the ignition, and pats the dashboard to show the car he appreciates it. "And I know there's no switch I can flip that will instantly make everything better. I'm just trying to find ways that will make it a little easier. You can still imagine that, right? What it would feel like for things to be a little bit easier?"

"I already said I would try the medication. And the books."

Not quite the affirmation Carlos was looking for, but he'll take what he can get.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

He singlehandedly fills out the paperwork to renew their coffee permit, which was dangerously close to overdue. He orders a replacement for a cabinet where he found an untreated stain, from something strong enough to warp the wood like damp cardboard. He vacuums the rugs and mows the lawn, cleans the bathroom and makes sure Cecil gets in the tub at least once every other day.

He drives Cecil to and from work, plus once to the health center for a doctor's appointment, and picks up Cecil's new prescription along with his eyedrops at the nearest non-forsaken CVS.

When they get home on Saturday night, Emmanuel is working on dinner. Carlos doesn't know what the menu is; Cecil said he didn't care what his brother made, anything was fine. So it's a surprise for both of them when they find Emmanuel stirring a pot of bright-yellow macaroni.

Carlos glances over the edge of the pot and raises an eyebrow. "Are those...fun shark shapes?"

"That's right!" says the wizard. (Literal wizard, if not culinary wizard.) "And for tonight's streaming selection: several episodes from the original 1980's run of Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, lovingly restored by the most attentive pirates on the Internet. Or, if you prefer something a little more sophisticated, the concurrent run of My Little Pony."

"Hey, I remember that," says Cecil, with a watery, nostalgic smile. "This is...sweet of you. Really sweet."

Instead of being proud or gratified, Emmanuel looks...uncertain. Maybe concerned. "If that sounds too childish, we can watch...I don't know, one of your husband's documentaries. And I can throw some seasonings and things in the pot to class it up. Although there's not much to be done about the fun shark shapes."

"It's okay! This is good," says Cecil thinly. "I'm gonna go wash up."

While he's in the bathroom, Carlos murmurs, "Is it Municipal Childhood Throwback Night and I missed the news, or something?"

"This was his favorite when he was a kid. Mamá made a ton of it while he was recovering."

"Ah."

"I got sick of it pretty fast, but she told me if I wanted anything different, I'd have to make it myself. I was already pretty good with a bow — this was when Josie just taught me how to skin and dress the things I caught. And to make biscuits." Emmanuel sighs. "Maybe I should've gone with biscuits and lizard à la king instead."

"The macaroni is good enough for me," says Carlos quickly. "And, listen, I'm sure Cecil appreciates the thought! Even if he isn't as effusive about it as he usually would be." Small smiles are the best he's gotten out of Cecil for a while...and it's too early for the meds to have kicked in. If they're going to.

His brother-in-law doesn't look reassured. "He's putting on a good front. I mean, this isn't hurting, but it isn't comforting like I hoped it would, either."

"How can you tell?"

Emmanuel taps his temple. "I can still see things you can't, fancy-eyes. Trust me on this one."

They eat in front of the screen, Emmanuel on an armchair, Cecil and Carlos nestled together on the couch. Cecil cleans his plate, so he must at least be okay with the meal, but he's asleep before the credits roll.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Back at work, Carlos has almost no trouble re-settling into the rhythm of things.

There's an interworldly geology meetup to schedule, for the benefit of a universe where scientists are only just beginning to understand why the earth rumbles sometimes. There's a new round of internships to sign off on (mostly a formality, since Fey has already approved them; Carlos is unsurprised but delighted to see that Megan Wallaby's application has been accepted). There's a charity fundraiser to shoot a video for.

Eight people have emailed or Facebook-messaged him to let him know that the town where he grew up just voted to rename a street after him. Carlos is almost as flattered as he was when Harvard renamed its science building.

Over his lunch breaks, he does some light leisure reading on different worlds' best treatments for depression. There's a lot to take in. A wide variety of compounds that change the way the brain processes certain chemicals. Neural reconstruction surgery, pioneered in a universe where the dominant species has totally different neural structures, not yet tested in this one. Targeted anbaric shock, a crude way of affecting the brain's Rusakov production...with major side effects, including uncontrolled memory loss. Targeted Rusakov-particle shock, much more subtle and with fewer side effects, but astronomically expensive. Dozens of different schools of talk therapy.

He resists the urge to bombard Cecil with a long discussion of the pros and cons of each treatment method. Gathers the information in his own mind, that's all, to have it ready if Cecil asks.

In the meantime, he bombards Cecil with casual, uplifting things. Boasting about the renamed street, photos of the plants in his office as they're starting to flower, and the opening of this great joke one of his English-speaking co-workers told him. ("Did you hear the one about the artificial structure for the excavation of groundwater?")

He promised to text Cecil every day. Sometimes Isaña has to remind him, but together they pull it off.

And, going on Emmanuel's reference to things even bionic eyes can't see, he checks out one of the Foundation's electrum spyglasses and brings it home.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

The golden currents of Rusakov particles around Cecil, as seen through electrum lenses, are sluggish and thin. He should be swirling with patterns shaped by curiosity, intelligence, warm feelings towards his friends and family, nascent plans for tomorrow's show, the romantic fulfillment of knowing that their anniversary is coming up soon. Instead, he's...not.

"I'm dim, I know," he says dismissively, hanging his bag in the closet and kicking off his ballet flats. For a second Carlos wants to reassure him that he's plenty smart, then realizes, no, Cecil's just saying his vision can already tell how little Rusakov radiation he's putting out.

No wonder he's been making so few decisions lately. His capacity to care, about anything, is physically limited. Doesn't make sense to waste it on being invested in what clothes he's wearing or what food he's eating.

Carlos puts down the spyglass and hugs him. As if by sheer proximity he can transfer some of his own Rusakov production to Cecil, like sharing body heat. Instead of relaxing into the embrace, Cecil tenses: "Don't. I'm all sweaty, I'm disgusting."

"So we'll both need to shower," says Carlos, unbothered. He's barely even been outside, and it's air-conditioned in here. "Anything more strenuous than usual happen today? Did you have to run for your life earlier?"

"Localized heat wave. Surrounded the station."

"Sounds fascinating."

Cecil shrugs. "It was only picketing for higher wages during overtime hours. Typical labor dispute. Typical endless, grinding struggle for any kind of fair and decent treatment in a vast uncaring world."

"Hey, it's not all bad," says Carlos. "Today I gave someone half a million dollarpounds for the study and conservation of the Ecuadorian spotted wasp."

Cecil doesn't go for the obvious conversation-starting questions, like what a dollarpound is and how much it's worth, or what "ecuadorian" means. But he does let go of some of that tension, sagging into Carlos's arms.

"I'd like to join you in the shower, if you don't mind," says Carlos hopefully.

The Morse for I DO NOT gets tapped out against his shirt.

At one point, this kind of offer would have been almost guaranteed to go to innuendo-based places. Even if it was a night when things weren't happening for Carlos's body, he would be happy to help Cecil's along. And loving, consensual sexual stimulation is a way of boosting someone's Dust production.

Tonight, it really is just showering. Still restorative in other ways, though, since Cecil gets what might be the first serious full-body scrubbing he's had in weeks. And Carlos makes a point of kissing every one of his scars in the process, just in case.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

He arranges for people to visit over the next couple of weeks, keeping Cecil company while Carlos is at work. Not constant company — the point isn't to overwhelm Cecil — just regular contact with close friends.

Steve shows up with fresh scones, and takes Cecil to one of Renée Carlsberg's soccer games. Josie drives both Cecil and Carlos to a bowling tournament, where Cecil does manage to applaud their resounding victory over the Desert Bluffs team, and they take home a basket of extra wings afterward. Michelle Nguyen brings some albums from bands Carlos has never heard of, plus some egg rolls that she claims are a new experimental way of recording, and is so disgusted at Carlos's un-hip-ness that she won't speak to him for the rest of the day. Later, when Cecil plays one of the (non-egg-roll) albums on his own initiative, Carlos decides the derision was worth it.

Mayor Cardinal's security staff don't allow her to visit homes with average defense systems, so she invites them to the mayoral residence for orange salad and moss wine. Some political rival chooses that night to attack, apparently assuming her guard will be down. She draws a sword, Carlos borrows a staff, and the two of them successfully fend off the herd of ravenous snow-bunnies.

And Carlos tries to arrange a way to work from home a couple of days a week.

He'd just as soon do it every day, but there are things that can only be accomplished at the office...including some that push him into overtime. There's an evening when he texts Cecil to apologize, he's stuck in a tense diplomatic negotiation involving an otherworldly superpower that's trying to reinvent the reality bomb, so he's likely to miss dinner. Another text asks Emmanuel to go make sure Cecil is okay, not left alone.

The meeting goes long enough that he reserves a couple of hotel rooms and tells his pilot not to wait up. Finally he staggers into his own room, eats the mint on the pillow for dinner, and collapses without even bothering to put in his eyedrops.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

The flight back home is slower than usual, because there are all these glowing red obelisks hovering over town that the gyropter has to weave around. So that's annoying. Carlos drops the saturation on his vision to cut down on the distracting glow, and sends his chauffeur away with an extra tip.

He spots Emmanuel over the edge of the roof, pulling weeds in the garden below. Neharah rises to meet them, the flies making a cloud of sharp black dots against the crimson sky.

"You stayed overnight?" asks Carlos. "Did you just feel like having a sleepover, or was Cecil...?"

"He was having such a good time, we didn't want to leave," buzzes Neharah. "We had Big Rico's and played Monopoly until he crashed, then fell asleep in the guest room. Don't worry, we washed the sheets after we got up. Then we decided to spruce up the garden while he was still asleep. Which he probably isn't now, after that racket...but don't worry, we're happy to finish."

"You weeded that garden a week ago. There can't be much more to do," points out Carlos. "C'mon in. Have you had breakfast?"

They have — and Cecil, improbable as it seems given the gyropter landing right over his head, is still asleep when Carlos checks in the bedroom — and Carlos had scrambled eggs at the hotel. He convinces Emmanuel to come in for orange milk anyway.

Getting the wizard to relax is more of a struggle. He keeps trying to get up and sort the Tupperware, or renew the hexes on the microwave, or scrub minor stains from the recently-cleaned stove.

When Carlos finally badgers his brother-in-law into sitting down already, he says, "Can I ask you something personal?"

"Can't promise I'll answer, but go ahead."

Carlos sets his glass in a strip of the weird red light from the nearest window. If there's an optics expert on the current Night Vale team, they'll be having a ball today. "Look, when you were kids...after Cecil's ordeal...did your mother put it on you to help take care of him?"

"...No more than usual. Probably less than usual."

"And was that a lot?"

"Ah, you've got kid siblings, you know how it is," says Emmanuel lightly. "I'd hold on to school permission slips so he didn't lose them...read captions and translate Morse-code notices, back when he hadn't learned how...distract him when the ice cream truck came by, so he didn't fall prey to its vile, unspeakable fate...that kind of thing."

"Sure, of course."

"Mamá was always there for the big stuff. If we had to go to the library to pick up a book, Bekhorei would come along — he took a few limbs off of three different librarians before they learned to steer clear. After the separation, she dropped all her other responsibilities so she could take care of Cecil." A muscle in his cheek twitches. "Honestly, it might've been better if she had put some of that on me. You've met our mom; you know emotional support and reassurance isn't exactly her strong suit. But, credit where credit is due...she was as comforting as I think she knew how to be."

A sudden sense of déjà vu nags at Carlos's mind. "Have you told me about this before? When you were unmemorable...?"

"Doesn't seem likely. You wouldn't have understood it. Couldn't keep track of the context."

"Still, it's ringing a lot of bells....did you just talk about your brother being sick, maybe? Even if I didn't know it was Cecil, or what exactly had happened to him, I could have followed that...."

Sometimes, when Carlos reaches for these memories, he comes up as blank as if Emmanuel had never been un-cursed. This time, he gets lucky. "You got sent away!"

Neharah buzzes in alarm.

"To a family friend. That must have been Josie, right? You got shipped off to stay with her for a little while...at first you weren't even told what was going on...am I getting this right?"

"Stayed with Josie for the first week," says Emmanuel reluctantly. "She told me upfront that Cecil would recover, then, a few days later, got over being too angry to talk about it and explained the rest." He sighs. "I wasn't kidding when I said Mamá dropped all her responsibilities. And let me tell you, it was pretty stressful for twelve-year-old me, because the TV at Josie's place? Half the size of ours."

Oh, good, he can kid around about it. Even though Carlos is about eighty percent certain he remembers a man in a tan jacket crying on his shoulder, lamenting how forces outside his control were keeping him from helping his baby brother, again.

Across the house, the bed creaks. Cecil must be getting up.

Carlos stands. Probably better not to dwell on past comfort he was never intended to remember giving. In the present, though, he says, "You've been an incredible support this time around. You know that, right? Can't imagine what I would have done without you. And I know Cecil appreciates having you around, having someone who understands what he's been through. You have nothing to overcompensate for."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

They're having a leisurely evening cuddle (Carlos is the big spoon) when the doorbell rings.

"I'll get it," murmurs Carlos, kissing the back of Cecil's neck and untangling their limbs. He's not sure who would be stopping by tonight. Is it Kevin or Tamika, here to pick up some books before they become overdue? Or maybe it's Sherie, with the —

It's nobody Carlos would have invited. His mother-in-law is standing on the front porch.

"Did Cecil invite you over?" asks Carlos sharply.

Sohvi Palmero cocks her head, birdlike. Her eyes are cold and milky. "No."

"Has Cecil said anything about wanting to see you?"

"No."

"Then I think you should go."

She goes.

Carlos doesn't realize until she's out of sight how hard his heart is pounding. He scoops up Isaña and cradles her against his T-shirt, wedding ring clicking against her shell, both of them immensely relieved that they didn't have to stare down Sohvi's librarian-maiming daemon too.

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

After an encounter like that, can anyone blame Carlos for hovering a little?

He finally hashes out a telecommuting plan, and does a lot of the work on his laptop at the Internet café down the block from NVCR, making it that much simpler to chauffeur Cecil. When they're both in the house, he tries to be as engaging as possible, and never to get too far out of Cecil's sight.

The good news is, Cecil seems to be recovering some of his energy. He gets back into doing his own shaving on a regular basis. Empties the dishwasher one morning, does the laundry another. Successfully holds the ladder while Carlos cleans the gutters. When Carlos checks him out with a spyglass, he's clearly driving stronger currents of intention.

Still not smiling as much as he used to, but hopefully that will come with time.

And his responses to Carlos's attempts at conversation are still pretty low-key. Well, Carlos doesn't need much to keep his own side going. He talks about the new exploratory probe their universe has launched towards the Kuiper Belt. Relates the story of how one of the NVCC professors tried to harass Sherie's daughter for being an Outsider, until the Faceless Old Woman who secretly lives in zer home replaced all of zer shoes with dried leaves and unlikely theories about bees. Tells Cecil about the festival that's being organized in Los Ángeles to celebrate interworldly rock music.

He talks about tattoo ideas. Which is a sensitive subject, he knows; Cecil's only past experiences with tattoos involve a Strexcorp barcode being forced onto his neck. But Carlos has had a really cool idea, so he rolls it out as lightly as possible.

"First we diagram a molecule composed of cerium, carbon, and illinium, okay? Maybe using our universe's standard chemical notation, but a bunch of the worlds in the Foundation have much more artistic ones, so maybe I'd go for that instead."

"Mmhmm?" says Cecil over his nearly-empty trout soda. They're relaxing on the patio, feet resting in the shaded grass.

"And then we make a matching diagram of carbon, argon, lonsdaleum, and sulfur. Or maybe a macromolecule that encompasses both —"

"Carlos?"

"Yeah?"

"Can you — stop?"

"Um," says Carlos. "Sure. Sorry."

The grass whistles and chimes as a light breeze blows through it.

"Just to, ah, clarify," stammers Carlos. "Is it only this specific design you don't want to hear about, or the whole idea of tattoos?"

In a careful, strained voice, Cecil says, "I would like you to stop talking."

Carlos stops talking.

He opens and closes his mouth a couple of times.

Isaña, next to his foot, sits up straighter.

Cecil stares at his empty glass.

...and then Carlos is at it again. "For, like, an hour, or the rest of the day, or what? — and do you want me to keep sitting with you quietly, or get up and go somewhere else altogether? — and should I come back to drive you to work, or —"

"I can get myself to work! I just — I need some space," says Cecil, sounding like he's trying very hard not to shout, or cry, or both.

Carlos gets up, bites his tongue to keep from saying anything else, and goes inside.

He spends a good ten minutes pacing a hole in the living room carpet, needing his daemon to talk him down from second-guessing everything he just left unsaid. "Should I have apologized for hovering this past week? Offered to take his cup when I went in? Gotten another verbal confirmation that he'll be okay? I worry. I have a right to be worried. Maybe I should have pointed that out. I didn't tell him I love him — maybe as I left I should have reminded him that I love him. And what if I'm away too long? Should've held out for exact details of how much distance I'm supposed to provide, and for how long, and whether I should text Cecil while I'm gone, or maybe keep on keeping quiet after I get back, or...."

"He wants to be left alone right now," Isaña repeats. "He's allowed to need space! If we start making up reasons to ignore that, we'll just end up annoying him and making him need even more space."

She's right. Probably. Carlos is going to be a mature, well-adjusted adult and calm down about this.

At some point.

"We should call someone," adds Isaña. "To hang out. Not with Cecil, just with us."

"We could do that," allows Carlos. It's been a while.

"Or we could go hit things for a while? That might help too."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Carlos opts to do both.

He swings a high pass, Kevin blocks, and their staffs whack satisfyingly together.

They spar their way across the rec center mat, daemons watching from the sidelines. It's calming. Refreshing. Good.

Along the way, Kevin gets caught up in reminiscing about his home universe. Everyday details, pre-War stuff, nothing about his own past heartaches, no major scientific revelations. How long has it been, since Carlos had a real conversation that wasn't about work or trauma or both?

They end up making a leisurely trip downtown together: a scenic bus ride here, a casual stroll through Mission Grove Park there. When Cecil's show comes on, NVCR is playing in a barbershop and Kevin needs a haircut, so Carlos hangs around and listens to that too.

After the show they finally part ways, and Carlos waits to see if Cecil will call or text for a ride home. When a reasonable amount of time with no contact, he wanders over to the nearest cinema and takes in a film.

It's good and refreshing too, until the lights go up, when Carlos switches his phone back on...and finds two missed calls from Cecil, plus half a dozen texts.

Are you still at the rec center?

I didn't mean to send you away for the whole night.

Please come home.

Unless you want to stay over with someone. You can do that. It's not an emergency. I'll be okay if you don't come home right away.

Are you mad?

Please say something.

As soon as he's outside, Carlos calls back. He's fine, he tells Khoshekh; he was at a movie, that's all. ("Oh. Oh!" exclaims Khoshekh. Then, muffled, as if turning to call over his shoulder: "He was at a movie!" Then a scramble, and Cecil comes on the line.) "I'm waiting for the 70 towards Void Crossing right now. I'll be home soon, okay?"

This time, he does get to end the conversation with, "I love you."

 

,,,^o_ø^,,,~

 

Cecil is sitting on the front porch when Carlos gets home, cupping something in his hands. It's about the size of the alethiometer, giving Carlos a shiver of familiarity...then he gets close enough for detail, eyes adjusting for the low light, and, ah, it's just a block of wood.

Well, maybe not "just." It's roughly the shape of an alethiometer, including three protrusions around the edge...and there's a short knife in one of Cecil's palms, a light trail of shavings around his feet.

"Hi, Carlos." Cecil's voice wobbles. "Sorry I'm such a basket case today."

"It's okay." Carlos joins him on the bench, while Isaña joins Khoshekh on the platform under the wicker seat. "I didn't mean to scare you, I just — you didn't sound like you wanted regular updates, so I did my own thing for a while — if you wanted me to check in, you should've said."

"I know," says Cecil miserably. "I'm sorry."

"I was always going to come home tonight. If I decided to crash with a friend overnight, I would have gotten in touch with you for that. Like I do when I have to work late."

"Uh-huh."

Carlos's record at keeping Cecil in-the-loop about his plans is far from perfect, but a lot better than it once was. Partly because the War came along, forcing everyone to sharpen out of necessity in order to make it through. And partly because he wanted to be a decent boyfriend. Disappearing on your partner is no way to treat them even when they're the picture of emotional health.

"I was never mad at you," he says softly. "Freaked out for a while, but that's all. I had a good day." Trying to lighten the mood, he adds, "If you tried to kick me out of the house, then I'd be mad."

Cecil sniffles. "I was afraid you thought that's what I did."

The events of the evening take on a whole new light.

"I — I was afraid I'd pushed you away, and —" Cecil hiccups over the words. "— you were hurting and it was my fault and I couldn't make it stop, I couldn't make it stop —"

That's the scalded six-year-old Cecil shining through, clear as day.

"It's okay. Cecil, shhh, it's all right," soothes Carlos, while his daemon snuggles close to Cecil's and presses her face against his. "I'm not hurt. And if I ever was, I would tell you, and we'd work it out. It would be okay. We're okay."

If things get rocky, it's because their old comfortable routine fell apart underneath them, and they keep having to figure out new ones on the fly. Cecil needs more presence and reassurance from Carlos than he did a year ago, but maybe more space than he did last month. It's fine. Gotta adjust, that's all. A scientist is adaptable.

(Carlos wonders if, when Cecil's vacation time gets approved, he'll still want to take it as a couple. It's been so long since he's been on a solo out-of-town trip, as opposed to Carlos, who gets them every other month. He'll have to ask.)

For now, Carlos keeps up the soothing patter, until it seems like it's pulled Cecil back from whatever brink he was slipping over. Then, cautiously, he offers a happier conversation topic. "So, hey...you're carving again?"

"I thought...it used to make me happy," says Cecil with a shrug. "I thought I should try to get back to that."

It used to fill him with enthusiasm, is what it did. Carlos has so many memories of watching animal figures emerge from blocks of wood, or decorative patterns weave around canes and clothespins: of Cecil gleefully posting in-progress shots on Tumblr, glowing with artistic inspiration (literally, if you looked through an electrum spyglass) as his knife flowed over the surface of his latest project.

He's not like that now. But Carlos can see such a difference from four to six weeks ago, when he wouldn't even have bothered to pick up a block of wood. "It's good to see," he tells Cecil, and holds back from giving a whole lecture on the scientifically-proven Rusakov-particle-generating properties of creative endeavors. "Tell me about the thing you're working on."