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Comfort Food

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Cecil had a lot of knick-knacks.

It wasn't the first time Carlos had spent the night at Cecil's apartment, but it was the first time he'd been first to wake. He was too restless to stay in bed, but he didn't want Cecil to wake up and find him gone. And it was an excuse to look around. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but it hadn't been a set of matryoshka dolls depicting rather more internal anatomy than usual, a shimmering feather from no bird he could identify, and various carved figurines that seemed to squirm if he looked at them too closely. Some seemed almost mundane, large crystals and a Venetian glass paperweight and a small candelabra -- no, a second glance and Carlos realized it was a menorah. Hunh.

Not wanting to be caught snooping and feeling a little bad for leaving Cecil alone in bed, he decided to fix breakfast. Soon the kitchen was filled with the smells of coffee brewing and eggs frying, rapidly followed by the padding of bare feet. Carlos looked up with a sheepish smile.

"I was feeling fidgety and wanted to let you sleep, so I decided to cook for us." He rolled his eyes at himself inwardly for stating the obvious like that.

Cecil beamed at him sleepily. "Sweet Carlos, so thoughtful," he murmured, making a beeline for the coffee. He claimed a slow, lazy kiss, then stirred in sugar as he took a seat at the cramped-for-two table.

Carlos joined him a moment later with the eggs and for a few minutes they ate in comfortable silence, sunlight filling the small kitchen. Their plates occasionally clinked together.

Cecil's features grew more animated as the coffee worked its way into his system. "Just the way I like them," he said around a mouthful of over-medium.

"I time it by how long it takes for the smell of coffee to wake you up." He sipped his own more slowly, nibbling at his eggs, enjoying the coziness of breakfast for two. Carlos enjoyed watching Cecil wake up. It was a gradual process, even aided by the Tanzanian Peaberry Cecil favored.

"Science in action, Carlos?" He was awake enough now to grin teasingly.

"What kind of scientist would I be if I couldn't learn by observation?" He smiled sheepishly. "I couldn't help looking around a little. Is that a menorah on your bookshelf? I didn't realize you were Jewish." It was the simplest thing to ask about. Some of the statuettes had hurt to look at.

Cecil looked pleased by his interest rather than annoyed by his prying, and smiled a little wistfully. "Not really. My mother was, that was hers. Even she wasn't really practicing, especially after that seder when I was eight... I do miss her matzoh ball soup, though."

Well, if Cecil wanted matzoh ball soup, Carlos would have to make sure he got some. Thankfully, he had someone to ask.



"You're right," Rebecca said, not looking up from the soil sample she was studying through a microscope. "Matzoh's got wheat. You won't find it in Night Vale. But yeah, they make a gluten-free version now." She shook her head. "Not that they sell it here, of course. Finally there's all sorts of gluten-free stuff on the market, and the Ralph's here doesn't bother carrying them. I thought I was gonna have it easy for a change."

"Does that mean I won't be able to get any?" Carlos frowned. He'd been hoping to make a nice surprise of it.

Turning away from the microscope, she took some notes with a stylus on a wax tablet. "Mail order," she said with a grin. "So the Voice of Night Vale is a nice Jewish boy, hmmm? All right, all right, I'll teach you how to make matzoh ball soup... if you get that centrifuge sterilized for me. And don't blame me if he says his mother's was better."


Carlos thought it may have been an abuse of power to delegate the tedious chore instead of doing it himself, but he didn't let it stop him. He had a cooking lesson. Rebecca's kitchen was even smaller than Cecil's, but they were used to moving around each other in the confines of the lab. "You're lucky," she told him, taking a box out of the cupboard and eggs from the refrigerator. "I just stocked up, and I like having matzoh ball mix in the house."

He stayed out of her way as best he could as she laid out a bowl and a big pot. She passed the box ('Streit's Gluten-Free Matzoh Ball Soup Mix') to him and he duly began reading the directions. They sounded simple enough.

"Right," she said, "Get mixing."

"I thought you were teaching me how?"

"You can mix eggs, oil, and matzoh meal without me holding your hand every step of the way," Rebecca told him with a wry grin. She handed him a set of measuring spoons. "Put in a smidge of salt and pepper while you're at it. About what you'd use for the same amount of mashed potatoes."

And it wasn't hard, really, just blending the three ingredients into a sort of grainy batter while Rebecca put a big pot of water on the stove. "What do I do now?"

"Now we put it in the fridge while the water boils." She pulled another bag from a cupboard and tossed it at Carlos. "See if you can use your influence with the Voice of Night Vale to get him to convince the Ralph's to start stocking it."

"Pamela's Bread Mix," he read from the label. "Gluten-Free, Wheat-Free, Non-Dairy." He gave her a dubious glance. "Any good?"

"Better than you'd think." Rebecca gave him a wry grin. "It helps if you can bake, but I can still turn out a decent loaf with it." The conversation turned to recent experiments as Carlos read the label of the bread mix, then she glanced at the pot of water, just starting to boil, and at her watch, and retrieved the bowl from the fridge. "Now's the trickiest bit. Run your hands under the faucet, they'll need to be wet for this."


Doing as he was told, Carlos waited for the next step. He watched Rebecca deftly take a small amount of the mixture, deftly roll it into a small ball, and drop it into the now-boiling water.

"You just roll it into a ball about an inch across," she told him. "The trick is to do it quickly, handle it as little as possible. That way they come out nice and fluffy. Then they go in the pot."

Carlos kept a close eye on how Rebecca was forming the little balls even as he tried to concentrate on making his own. Handle it as little as possible, he kept firmly in mind as he shaped the grainy batter into small spheres. The first one fell apart as it hit the water.

"You can handle them a little more than that," Rebecca told him with a teasing laugh. With two people, it was quick work forming the mixture into balls, and the rest of Carlos' efforts maintained their structural integrity. After they were done, Rebecca put a lid on the pot and turned down the heat. "Now we just let them simmer for twenty minutes."

While they simmered, Carlos gave the bread mix label a closer look. There were all sorts of recipes on it. "Have you tried all of these?"

"I tried the bagels," Rebecca said, shaking her head. "I couldn't get them to come out right but that could just be me. I'm a pretty indifferent cook most of the time."

"If Cecil wants bagels he can make them himself," Carlos laughed. "But I might try my hand at bread. I've missed bread." He fumbled for things to say; Rebecca was a reliable colleague but they had never really socialized.

She wasn't very good at small talk either, but didn't seem to mind sitting in companionable silence while their matzoh balls finished cooking. Still, it was a relief when the kitchen timer went off and Rebecca spooned the matzoh balls into bowls of chicken broth. They had grown considerably in cooking, and looked vaguely like beige meatballs. She carried them to the table in her apartment's modest living room and set them down. "Ready to taste your handiwork?"

Carlos sat at the table and looked at the unfamiliar dish dubiously. Some were a bit smaller and rounder, others were larger and slightly more irregular - presumably the 'nice and fluffy' Rebecca had touted as the ideal. He raised his spoon and glanced at her questioningly.

"Eat, eat, you don't need an engraved invitation," she said, grinning. She spooned a bite of one of the rounder, denser balls into her mouth, chewing it thoughtfully. "Not bad for a first try. My aunt's aren't any better."

Carlos started with one of the 'nice and fluffy' ones. It was starchy and mild with a light texture, and went well with the chicken broth. Now he knew what he was aiming for, he tasted one of his own efforts. It wasn't bad, but he could tell why the fluffier ones were superior; for one, they seemed to pick up more of the chicken broth flavor. "So I just need to use a bit less pressure shaping them? How much practice do you think I need?"

"Oh, Carlos, yours are servable right now! Some people even like them better dense. I think Cecil's lucky you're willing to put so much effort into learning." Rebecca grinned and ate another of the matzoh balls Carlos had made. "You got the salt and pepper just right."


The next evening Carlos slipped out of the lab early and made sure he had eggs and oil and a can of chicken soup (Rebecca had been kind enough to give him a packet of the matzoh ball mix on the condition he order her another package) before he used his key to sneak into Cecil's apartment while he was at work. He already knew where all of Cecil's kitchen tools were, so getting a mixing bowl and a big pot and various utensils was easy, even enjoyable. Rebecca was no ass-kisser so if she said his matzoh balls were up to snuff, she could be trusted, and he could look forward to surprising Cecil.

He listened to the radio while he worked. Cecil wasn't on yet, so there should be plenty of time. It was easy, even without Rebecca to guide him. Whisking together the eggs and oil, mixing in the matzoh meal and salt and pepper, it seemed more familiar than it should, as if he'd done it many times before. Maybe the kitchen remembers, he thought. It was whimsical and utterly unscientific, but in Night Vale there might be something to it. He set the mixture in the fridge and put the water up to boil. Cecil still wasn't on yet so he still had plenty of time.

When the big pot of water started boiling, Carlos started shaping the balls, remembering not to make them too dense. Again there was a strange sense of having done this many times before. Cecil was on the air already; he should be home just in time. The chicken soup bubbled in the saucepan and Carlos was gratified to see that his matzoh balls looked much more like Rebecca's than his first attempt.

Cecil's voice caught his attention. "And now, the weather."

Carlos squeaked, he hadn't realized it was so late. He spooned chicken soup and matzoh balls into the biggest serving bowl he could find and balanced it on the table, setting a spoon and a small dish at each place. By the time Cecil got home it should be cooled enough to eat. And this was a special meal, or at least Carlos was determined to make it one. He got out the cloth napkins and the cutlery that matched.

He lost time of how long he'd been admiring his handiwork when he heard the key in the lock.

"Oh!" Cecil sounded startled but not displeased. "I wasn't expecting a home-cooked meal, this is a lovely -" As he entered the kitchen, Carlos had a perfect view of Cecil's face. When he saw the bowl of matzoh ball soup his eyes lit up with delight before his features twisted with anxiety. "Carlos, please don't tell me you bought contraband wheat just to - "

"It's fine." He crossed the small kitchen and wrapped his arm around Cecil's waist. "I got some help from one of my colleagues. She couldn't eat wheat before we came to Night Vale, so she's an old hand at finding substitutes."

"Well since you cooked, I'll serve," Cecil said, smiling as he ladled the soup into bowls. It was still steaming hot and Carlos was pleased to see that the matzoh balls looked almost as fluffy as Rebecca's. "It smells wonderful."

"I hope it tastes as good," Carlos said as they sat down, trying to mask a flutter of nerves. Maybe he should have made another trial batch or two? But it was too late now; Cecil was already taking a bite. "Rebecca warned me that you'd probably think your mother's were better."

Cecil's eyes were wide, and a bit damp. He smiled broadly as he swallowed. "Carlos, it's been so long since I've had matzoh balls... these are just as I remember them."

"I'm glad they came out well." Carlos blushed, and hurriedly changed the subject. He didn't feel he'd merited such praise. But it was good, and they ate quickly.

As they stood side-by-side at the kitchen sink, Cecil leaned close to Carlos, kissing his cheek. "So what do I get to make for you?"

That was easy. Carlos pointed at the bread mix on the counter. Since they both had the day off, this would be perfect. "Fresh bread. Toast. Breakfast in bed."

Cecil made a face and blew some suds at Carlos, but he laughed. "I think that's more than fair."