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Affection Falling Just Short of Love [+podfic]

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Earl Harlan's belly was clenched in knots of nervous excitement when he awoke. Today was the day. In just a couple of hours, he and the rest of his Boy Scout troop would meet Scout Master Marshak at Night Vale Middle School, and head to the desert for their overnight wilderness survival camping trip. But that was not why Earl was nervous. He had learned all the skills he needed to survive a day and a night in the desert. The badge was as good as his already.

Over the past several months, Earl had been undergoing some changes. His moms had explained that this was a perfectly normal, if awkward and uncomfortable, part of being thirteen years old. As children grew into adults, many things about them changed, and one of the most important changes to happen during adolescence was the discovery of one's special gift. Earl had recently learned his, and he was eager to test it out, but it had so far proved difficult in a town the size of Night Vale, where there were always so many people around. The desert would be the perfect place to find out the thing he most wanted to know.

He got up, dressed, and ate as much breakfast as he could force down, even though he did not feel hungry. Earl knew he would be glad of it later. Before leaving the house, he double- and triple-checked his pocket survival and first aid kits, to make sure they contained everything they were supposed to. Matches, disinfectant wipes, a compass, three small bloodstones, a pocketknife, bandages ... everything seemed to be in order.

Both of his moms drove him to the middle school. "Mo-o-o-o-o-o-o-om," he groaned, embarrassed, as they hugged and kissed him and told him to be careful, before letting him out of the car.

Shouldering his tent and sleeping bag, Earl hurried over to the group of boys clustered around Scout Master Marshak. Tak Wallaby was already there, as well as Dougie Marshak, the scout master's son, in his ridiculous homemade feathered headdress. Earl ignored him, but greeted a few of the others, while he waited for his best friend to arrive.

They were loading their equipment into the Marshaks' van when a voice called, "Hey, Earl!"

Earl turned around, grinning, to see Cecil Palmer and his brother Cal hurrying toward him.

"Hey, Cecil."

He rubbed his suddenly sweaty palms on his pant legs. Soon, he would know.

Cal rode shotgun. He was the oldest - almost seventeen - and would be acting Deputy Scout Master on the camping trip. The other boys scrambled for window seats, and argued about who would have to sit in the middle. Earl took the seat between Cecil and Tak without complaint. He did not participate in the other boys' raucous conversation as the van passed the edge of town and followed Route 800 out into the desert. Earl was a quiet, thoughtful boy by nature. He would have chatted with Cecil, but Cecil, too, was silent, staring out the window.

This is it, thought Earl, taking a deep breath. No one was paying him the slightest attention. Slowly, carefully, he reached out with his mind to brush against his best friend's thoughts.

Sadness. That was no surprise. Earl did not need his new-found telepathic abilities to figure out why Cecil was unhappy. He had been sad ever since Niraj Kapoor was swallowed up by the portal that had opened in the Night Vale Middle School cafeteria six weeks before. Cecil and Niraj had not been dating, precisely, but they had been spending a lot of time together, and several notes had been passed in class. Earl knew Niraj had been looking forward to the camping trip. It was no wonder if Cecil was thinking of him today.

Earl's heart ached for his friend. He had been wildly jealous of Cecil's feelings for Niraj. The presence of the tall boy, with his dark eyes and perfect hair, had been a near-constant reminder to Earl of how ordinary-looking he was: short for his age, plump, plain-faced, with black hair that stuck up like the bristles on a brush. Cecil would never look twice at someone like him, while Niraj was around. But even so, Earl would never have wished Niraj to be sucked into another dimension. Not when his absence made Cecil so sad. Jealousy and sympathy mixed together inside Earl's chest. It was all very confusing.

Cecil's hands rested limply in his lap. Earl longed to take one of them, to remind his friend that someone cared about him very much, and thought he was wonderful. But he could not do that. Cecil was completely oblivious to Earl's feelings, and Earl knew it was too soon after Niraj's disappearance to tell Cecil how he felt.

With any luck, he would not have to. Earl's new telepathic gift would let him know how Cecil thought of him - if only he could get Cecil to think about him at all. After reading up on telepathy, Earl knew that it was impossible to read thoughts a person was not currently thinking.

He could sense the other boys' feelings as well - their excitement and trepidation over the camping trip. From the front passenger seat, Earl sensed a weird buzzing, like the hum of a fluorescent light, but he ignored it. Cal Palmer had always made him a little nervous. He never seemed quite real to Earl.

Cecil turned away from the window, and caught Earl watching him.

"Sorry," he said, smiling sheepishly. "I was just - thinking about things."

"You're going to have to work harder than that, if you want to earn your Daydreaming badge," Earl teased.

Cecil's smile widened. The two of them were always coming up with silly badges to award one another.

"Just because you earned yours ages ago, doesn't mean I'll never catch up."

They left the highway and followed a dirt road out into the wide, flat expanse of the desert. When the van finally came to a stop, the town and the highway were no longer within view. The sun was already high in the sky, but since it was only April, it was not too hot out yet.

"All right, boys," said Scout Master Marshak. "What's the first thing we should do when we're stranded in the desert?"

Earl and a few of the other scouts put up their hands, but Dougie Marshak just yelled out, "Look for shade!"

"Very good, Son," the scout master nodded approvingly. "And how do we do that?"

Earl did not bother raising his hand this time. "Get up as high as you can, and look around for trees or rocks."

They gave Tak Wallaby, who was the tallest boy in the troop, a boost onto the roof of the van. Cecil volunteered a set of folding binoculars that he had brought with him.

"I think I see some rocks over there," said Tak, pointing.

"Excellent," said the scout master. "We'll drive over, but that's the last help we'll have from civilization today."

The jutting stand of stones was more than a mile away. It had a slight overhang on one side, which provided a little shade. They stowed their equipment there, after checking the area thoroughly for snakes, scorpions, and spiderwolves.

"What do we do now?" asked the scout master.

"Look for water," said Earl.

"Before that?" Scout Master Marshak prompted.

"The Circle of Protection," said Dougie smugly.

The scout master nodded. "Precisely, Son. Everyone get out your bloodstones."

The boys turned out their pockets. Humiliated at having missed such an obvious step - only to be reminded by Dougie Marshak, of all people - Earl opened his survival kit and took out the three small red-flecked pebbles he always carried. Noticing his crestfallen expression, Cecil gave him a sympathetic smile and an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

Altogether, the scout troop had twenty-seven bloodstones between them, which was an ideal number. Multiples of three were always good for protection. They paced the perimeter, laying out the stones and chanting the words of the blessing.

Once the circle was closed, the scout master again asked them what to do next. "It's not just water we need, is it?" he said. "What else?"

"Food," said Dougie immediately.

"Shelter," said another boy.

"Fire wood," said a third.

"We should divide into teams to look for everything we need," Earl suggested, shrugging off his embarrassment.

"Very good, Harlan." Scout Master Marshak gave him a rare smile. "You'll save time and energy, dividing up tasks."

Earl was assigned to the food-finding group, since he was the best at making snares. Cecil, who was good at identifying edible plants, went with him. Less happily, the third member of their party was Dougie Marshak. They spread out to cover more ground, ranging among the rocks and scrubby vegetation. Earl was laying his fourth snare when he heard a loud whoop. He looked up to see Dougie waving frantically. Reluctantly, Earl and Cecil hurried over to him.

Earl stopped dead, ten feet away, mouth dropping open. "Holy crap, Marshak!"

The boy in the ridiculous headdress held tight to the end of a stout, forked stick. He had used the Y of the forked end to pin down the neck of the biggest rattlesnake Earl had ever seen. The snake writhed, coiling and uncoiling, but it could not escape the trap it was caught in.

"Someone get a rock and smash its head in!" Dougie crowed, eyes wild with excitement.

Cecil hung back. Earl knew his friend was not fond of snakes. Knowing it was up to him, Earl swallowed his own misgivings, and bent to pick up a rock the size of a small melon. He approached the trapped and flailing snake with wary footsteps. Earl did not like killing things, but if he did not, there was no safe way to let the now very angry snake go. Besides, a snake that size would have a lot of meat on it. They would not go hungry tonight. Squeezing his eyes shut, he brought the rock down.

Afterwards, feeling woozy, Earl went off a little ways to sit by himself, leaving Dougie to deal with the dead snake. He was watching the helicopters swoop in the distance, distracting himself by trying to figure out what color they were, when Cecil sat down beside him.

"You did really good. I couldn't've done it."

Earl shrugged. "I had to, didn't I?"

"Someone had to, I suppose, but it didn't have to be you. That was pretty brave."

"Yeah, I guess."

He tried touching Cecil's thoughts again, but he was too shaken to get more than a vague sense of admiration. Still, that was gratifying enough that it made him feel a little better. At least, until Dougie presented him with the snake's bloody rattle.

"You earned it, with your bravery and skill," Dougie said solemnly. "May its spirit protect you on all your future hunts."

"Er - thanks," said Earl, gingerly accepting the grisly trophy. "Did you bury the head?"

"Yes. And I blessed the ground, and thanked its spirit."

"Great," said Earl, in no mood to argue about the merits of Dougie's methods.

"How did you catch it?" asked Cecil, as the three of them returned to the task of gathering edible plants.

Dougie looked smug. "I lured it to me, and hypnotized it, using ancient Indian magics."

Earl knew he should not - knew no good would come of it - but he could not help himself. "Stop it, Marshak. You're not Native American."

"I want to be, though," said Dougie eagerly. "I want to learn how. You could teach me."

Earl clenched his fists and ground his teeth together. This happened every time he let himself get dragged into a conversation with the scout master's son.

"You can't learn to be another race, Marshak. That's not how it works. Just because one of my moms is Navajo -"

"You mean your dad's Navajo, right?" smirked Dougie.

"Earl doesn't have a dad, Marshak," said Cecil in a warning tone. "He has two moms."

"So a man can learn to be a woman, but I can't learn to be an Indian?" Dougie looked triumphant, is if he had neatly trapped Earl and Cecil with his logic.

"That's not the same thing," Earl scowled.

He was not used to people in Night Vale questioning his mother's gender. He did not understand why Dougie, who barely knew her, felt the need to do so. It seemed breathtakingly rude and personal, apart from anything else.

"A person's gender is about more than just what's between their legs," Cecil said irritably. "Everybody knows that. You wouldn't call Tak Wallaby a girl, would you? He'd beat the crap out of you, for one thing."

"Whatever," said Dougie, rolling his eyes. "At least I know I'm a boy."

"Shut up, Marshak," snapped Earl. "What are you? The Sheriff's Secret Gender Police?"

There was nothing in the snares Earl had set, when they headed back to their campsite, for which Earl was a little bit grateful and a little bit disappointed. On the one hand, he was not in the mood to kill anything else. Well, perhaps one of his fellow scouts, but not a helpless animal. On the other hand, it meant that Dougie had proven himself the more successful hunter. It annoyed Earl how good Dougie was at many of the skills expected of a scout, especially since he insisted on crediting his success to "Indian magics".

As they walked, he prattled on about his favorite subject, in spite of Earl's stoney and pointed silence.

"I think I'd rather be an Apache than a Navajo," he said blithely. "It sounds cooler, don't you think? Apache. You know, Earl, if I were you, I'd change my name to something more Indian-sounding. Like ... Soaring Eagle. Or Running Wolf. That'd be cool."

"Ignore him, ignore him, ignore him ..." Cecil muttered in a steady undertone as they walked, and Earl did his best to focus on his friend's soothing voice. When he tried to touch Cecil's thoughts, he found only annoyance.

Earl did have another name, but he was not about to tell Dougie Marshak that. Cecil was the only person outside his family who even knew what it was. He probably thought Earl had told him because they were best friends, but that was not the reason. Earl had confided his name to Cecil because of the other huge, important thing he wanted to tell him, but could not. It had been a way of letting Cecil know how special he was, without Earl giving himself away.

When Dougie proudly presented the dead snake to his father, claiming to have defeated it in epic battle, Cecil elbowed Earl and whispered, "You're definitely going to earn your Putting Up With Jerks badge this weekend," which teased a reluctant smile from Earl.

While Tak Wallaby laid the fire, saying the blessing that would keep it burning all night, and Cal Palmer showed them how to construct a box oven out of flat rocks to cook the snake meat, Cecil opened his pack and fished around for the small transistor radio that was his prize possession. He fiddled with the dial, trying to find the elusive and ever-changing band for Night Vale Community Radio.

"Leonard Burton's show is going to be on in a few minutes. I don't want to miss it."

Dougie rolled his eyes. "That show is stupid. I swear, old Burton makes half that stuff up."

"Does not!" snapped Cecil, frowning at the radio and twisting the dial more aggressively.

"Here," said Earl, reaching for it. "I'll find it for you."

Earl was good with electronics. One of his moms was an electrical engineer, and she had taught him several electricity-based spells and incantations. He took out his pocketknife and used the screwdriver to open the back of the radio, exposing the wiring.

"I can fix it so that it automatically finds the right frequency, no matter what."

"Neat!" said Cecil, grinning. "It would be a shame to miss the show. I have to learn everything I can from Leonard, since I'm going to replace him one day."

"Sure you are," Dougie snorted.

Cecil frowned. "The tablets at City Hall say so."

"Sure," said Dougie. "Believe some stupid tablets that just appeared out of nowhere. They don't even mention any names. How d'you know it's supposed to be about you?"

"I just do," said Cecil, sticking his chin out. "You don't understand anything, Marshak."

Dougie rolled his eyes again. "It's a free country, Palmer. I can think whatever I want."

Earl was so shocked, he almost dropped the radio. He exchanged a wide-eyed look with his friend.

"You'd better not let the City Council or the Sheriff's Secret Police hear you say things like that," Earl warned. "Not if you don't want to be brought in for re-education."

"I'm not scared of stupid Night Vale's stupid City Council, or its stupid Sheriff," sneered Dougie.

"Night Vale isn't stupid" said Cecil, offended. "It's great. It's a million times better than Desert Bluffs. I think it's the best place in the entire world."

Dougie laughed. "Whatever, Palmer. Didn't it just eat your boyfriend?"

"Shut up, Marshak," hissed Earl.

He leaned closer to his best friend, protective. Earl did not need to summon up his telepathy to sense how upset such a callous invocation of Niraj's disappearance made Cecil. Never mind that Cecil was not out to his brother yet. Most people in Night Vale did not care about such things, but for some reason, Cal Palmer did.

"Here," Earl screwed the back onto the radio again and handed it back to his friend. "I think I've got it."

He flicked the radio on, and the dial spun of its own accord, settling on a band, just as Leonard Burton's high-pitched, grating voice squeaked out, "Greetings, Listeners!"

Cecil gave him a sweet, grateful smile that sent a flutter through Earl's belly. "Thanks, Earl. You're the best."

After dinner, as it began to grow dark, they roasted marshmallows and sang scouting songs around the camp fire. Earl did not have much of a singing voice. Instead, he kept quiet, and covertly watched Cecil's face in the firelight. Cecil had a nice voice, but he did not have much confidence in it, so he sang softly.

"Glowing lights up in the sky,
Give us hope as they go by.
Do not question, do not doubt.
We are safe till they go out."

Cecil had a nice face, too. He was fairly ordinary looking, even Earl had to admit. He was neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin. His skin was a few shades darker than Earl's own, his glasses were too big for his face, and he habitually wore his cloud of black hair tied back with a hot pink bandana, rolled up into a headband. But kindness gave warmth to his brown eyes, and he had a friendly smile that dimpled his chin, and lit up his whole face, making him irresistible.

If he could read minds, he'd have no trouble figuring out how I feel about him, Earl thought wistfully.

His reverie was broken when Dougie Marshak stood up, and began to tell what he claimed was an "ancient Indian legend".

"Many moons ago, there lived a great warrior. He won many battles, and was greatly honored by his people, but he longed to see more of the world ..."

At first, Earl tried to ignore him, but it became more and more difficult as Dougie's gesticulation grew wilder, and he urged boys out of the circle to join him in pantomiming the different characters. When he grabbed Earl by the arm and said, "C'mon. You can be the chief," Earl had had enough.

"No!" he yelled, jerking his arm out of the other boy's grasp. "I'm not helping you with your stupid story. It's just Dances With Wolves, anyway. It's not cool to play with other people's cultures for fun. It's racist."

Dougie stared at him in open-mouthed shock. The rest of the scouts had fallen silent, too.

"Now, Harlan," said Scout Master Marshak in a warning tone, "that was rude and uncalled for. Dougie doesn't mean any harm, and he certainly doesn't hate your people. On the contrary, he admires them. We should all be open to learning about, and appreciating one another's cultures."

Jaw set, fists clenched, Earl continued to stare Dougie down. "Maybe he'd like to learn about genocide, and how white invaders killed my people, and stole a whole continent from us. Maybe he'd like to learn about children being taken from their families and sent to boarding schools, until they forgot where they came from or their language or their parents or their own names. Would you like that? Does that sound like fun, Marshak?"

Dougie scowled. "I was just playing. Geez, Harlan. Why'd you have to make such a big deal out of it? I wasn't hurting anyone."

"I think maybe you are," said Cecil quietly.

Scout Master Marshak spoke in a cajoling tone. "That's enough of this nonsense. Scouts should respect one another, and scouts in the same troop should treat each other like brothers. Now, Harlan, apologize to Dougie for calling him names, shake hands, and we'll forget this ever happened."

Distress shook Earl. The scout master was an adult. How could he think what Dougie did was OK? Adults were supposed to protect kids, but how could Scout Master Marshak protect Earl, if he could not even recognize blatant racism? Earl looked around the circle of scouts, but they all busily avoided his eyes, looking embarrassed. These were supposed to be his brothers? Only Cecil met his gaze.

In unconscious desperation, Earl reached out telepathically to cling to his friend's thoughts. Pride. Cecil was proud of him. It shone in his mind and from his eyes.

Earl took a deep breath. "No," he said. "Dougie is the one who should apologize. It's not OK to treat other people's history and culture like a game."

"I think you should go to your tent and cool off, Harlan." The scout master sounded disappointed, but resigned. "Drink some water. You're probably just dehydrated. I'm sure we'll all feel more like ourselves after a good night's sleep."

Earl spun away and stormed off toward the semicircle of tents. Behind him, he heard Cecil's soft voice again, but could not make out what he said. He heard Scout Master Marshak well enough, though, when he asked, "Do you need to cool off, too, Palmer?"

Cecil joined him in their shared tent a minute later. Not long enough for Earl to pretend he was asleep, though he had already burrowed into his sleeping bag for warmth and comfort.

"Are you OK?" his friend asked quietly.

Earl was not OK. He was trembling with reaction from the confrontation, and felt like he might cry, but he did not want Cecil to know that.

"I'm angry," he said. "I'm just - really angry."

"I know. I get it."

"Thanks," said Earl, a little hesitantly. "You didn't have to say anything. I didn't want to get you into trouble, too."

"Of course I did." Cecil sounded surprised. "If I didn't say anything, it would be like pretending all the things Dougie does are OK."

Earl began to feel a tiny bit better. "I guess I'm not going to get my Putting Up With Jerks badge this weekend after all," he joked weakly.

"That's all right." He could hear the smile in Cecil's voice. "The Standing Up For Yourself Against Racist Assholes badge is a much bigger deal. It comes with a star pin for bravery."

"Dunno if I want to do scouting anymore," Earl admitted.

"Don't quit," urged Cecil. "You're the best at all this stuff. Don't let them push you out. Someday maybe you'll be scout master, and then you can make sure everybody treats each other right. You'd be really good at it."

"Thanks," said Earl again, swallowing the lump in his throat and the words that wanted to leap from his tongue. "I - you're - I'm really glad you're my best friend, Cecil."

"I am, too." He reached out in the darkness to lay a hand on Earl's arm. "Are you shivering?"

"I'm just cold," Earl lied.

There was a rustling of sleeping bags, and then Cecil was curled up much closer to him than before. "Me, too."

Earl's heart beat faster. He hoped Cecil could not hear it. He longed to reach out and take his friend's hand, or even turn and kiss him. It would be so easy, and Cecil would probably not freak out about it. Instead, Earl reached out with his mind, to touch Cecil's thoughts once more. They were warm and sleepy, and filled with deep affection, but it was an affection falling just short of love. Earl blinked back tears. Cecil did not think of him in that way.

Disappointing though it was, Earl was comforted by the nearness of his friend. He had someone who cared for him deeply, and was willing to stand up for him. Earl valued that friendship more than anything else in the world.

As Cecil's breathing evened out into sleep, Earl nestled closer to him, contentment and sadness mixing together confusingly inside his body. By the time he fell asleep, Earl was more desperately in love with his best friend than ever before.