Cidgeon turned the key in his lab door. While his feelings on returning to Vector grew more mixed on each return, it was good to be back to his offices, his work, his materials—he entered and paused with a frown—and Cabanela.
Cabanela was slumped, asleep, in a chair by the table he used to take over at times while working in company. Some habits hadn’t changed it seemed. Cidgeon’s frown deepened. Even asleep, Cabanela’s face was drawn and tired. It was early enough that he hadn’t expected him here before him; had he stayed the night, or simply come even earlier? Either option seemed equally likely.
And he’d stared too long. Cabanela’s eyes opened, darted around in surprisingly clear confusion, before fixing on Cidgeon and a smile took over his face.
“Welcome baaack, Professor, Lovey-Dove.”
“We hardly needed a welcome,” he said dryly. Not like this at any rate, he thought as he studied him closer. Wakefulness generally provided a cover energetic enough to cover what he really felt; it wasn’t enough this time to disguise shadowed eyes. Maybe he had been here all night, and possibly the night before by the haggard look to his face. “What are you doing here?”
“I had a few things to check on and I kneeew you’d be back soon. How did it go?” He asked brightly.
“Same as usual.”
“Glaaad to hear it.”
And he was, Cidgeon realized as a tension he hadn’t noticed drained, leaving Cabanela looking more relaxed. The sight was… more welcome than he expected and for a moment he found himself wishing he could give him a full update. Kamila was doing well and learning at a remarkable pace despite the limited materials they had to work with in Thamasa. He would have to pack a few extras when he returned. She was a tough kid and if not always exactly happy, she was thriving.
Lovey-Dove fluttered over to Cabanela, landing on his knee.
“Heeey there, Ladybird,” he said while giving her a light pat.
“Things seem the same here,” Cidgeon said as he went to his desk.
“More or less. Some things are progressin’.”
He hoped the right things.
“By the way, there’s a new seeet of Magitek Armour they’ll want you take a look at in the next few days.”
“I’ll be ready,” Cidgeon said and set to emptying his bag of its files he’d need to complete his last reports for this trip.
They lingered in a companionable silence while Cidgeon worked and Cabanela seemed to have an enthralling visit with Lovey-Dove—she certainly seemed to think so while she got repeated pets and, yes, he caught that slipped treat.
In time Lovey-Dove had enough and returned to Cidgeon’s head. Cabanela stifled a yawn.
“You should get some rest. Try a bed.”
Cabanela hopped up and waltzed to the door. “No can dooo, prof. Got an appointment with the doc and a meeting with General Beauty. I should be on my way.”
Cidgeon barely had time to return his attention to his papers when there was a soft thump just outside the door. Cidgeon hurried to it, chest tightening at what he might see. Cabanela leaned heavily against the wall a hand pressed to his head.
“What happened?” Cidgeon barked.
There was a long pause before Cabanela dropped his hand and straightened. “It’s nothin’.”
“If you’re going to lie, try being convincing.”
“Thought I remeeembered… something. A feelin’… but it’s gone now.” He shook his head and grinned. “Déjà vu, baby, nothing like it!”
Cidgeon’s eyes narrowed. He could be flippant all he wanted, but he only saw another problem to add to the list that seemed to grow with each subsequent visit. “Has this happened before?”
“Not like thaaat.”
“And the dissociation? Is that still happening?”
Something flickered briefly in Cabanela’s carefree expression, but he rallied—he always did, Cidgeon thought with an inward sigh, which was all very well and good but did nothing to help here.
“Once in a while,” he said carelessly before fixing Cidgeon with a burning stare. “It doesn’t matter. Everything will be fiiine soon, better than fine.”
No thanks to Asbolus, Cidgeon thought. It appeared these ‘side-effects’ weren’t getting any better, and possibly grew worse. And what did ‘soon’ mean this time? Truth or another bout of fruitless optimism? How much longer would this go on? How much longer could he go on? What would he find on his next return to Vector? But what was he to say? He’d have better luck lifting the palace than convincing Cabanela to change paths, especially if he really was getting closer.
“We have our roles,” Cabanela said as if reading his thoughts. “Let’s stick to them, shaaall we?” He spun away from the wall with a wave. “For the Empire.”
Cidgeon watched him go before going back inside, patting Lovey-Dove as he went and sighing. For the Empire indeed. He took a seat at his desk, grumbling. Lovey-Dove flew off to land by his hand and he absently stroked her head. For the Empire, be the perfect aide, the perfect soldier. The perfect lab rat.
“Hmph,” he muttered to Lovey-Dove. “At least you had the good sense to stay out. I don’t know what Asbolus wants from him, but it’s not doing the boy any good.”
Lovey-Dove cooed softly in response. Cidgeon gathered together the papers and folders that would comprise of his next batch of reports. Approaching three years since this all began. The line between providing enough to keep the Emperor interested while withholding everything he didn’t dare let fall into their hands grew finer. How fine were Cabanela’s lines growing?
Cidgeon didn’t see Cabanela much over the next few days. When he did see him, it was only in brief passing in the hall with barely an acknowledgement from him, or at General Beauty’s side during an inspection of the next round of magitek armour at the Emperor’s order—“See what you can make of it, my good man”. He gave his terse replies to Beauty, his agreement to look at a proposed upgrade and watched Cabanela when neither were looking. There wasn’t much to glean from the brief attempts. He seemed all right—fully embedded in this role, taking notes for her, answering promptly when spoken to and fluid as always. Professional and useful down to the core. Nothing stood out, yet Cidgeon couldn’t quite shake a niggling concern.
The day after Cidgeon set down his quill and gave Lovey-Dove a thoughtful frown while she poked at her seeds.
“What do you say to dinner out tonight, old girl?”
“I know, but it may do him some good to get out of here for an evening.” No, it wasn’t his preferred activity but it could provide a small chance to get a better read on things. While talking freely was out of the question regardless, it was possible it might remove one of Cabanela’s barriers.
Lovey-Dove cocked her head and gave him another soft questioning coo.
Cidgeon bit back a sigh. “I don’t know. Something’s not right.” Of course that was the case for the past few years. He’d told himself not to worry. Cabanela was fully capable of taking care of himself. More or less. He chose his path and Cidgeon had Kamila to look out for now. It seemed a simple enough task at first to let each other get on with things until his return trips gave him a little more cause for concern each time.
He shook his head and returned to his work. He would see Cabanela this evening.
Cabanela’s office and private quarters were still attached to Asbolus’s labs much to Cidgeon’s disgruntlement. He passed through the halls, with a curt nod to a passing researcher until he reached Cabanela’s door. He knocked and waited, hoping he was in—a hope that started to dwindle as the silence stretched. Just as he started to wonder whether he should try once more or leave Cabanela’s voice rung out.
The small room beyond the door was austere as always with blank white walls, a single shelf containing tidy rows of books and files, a plain clock on one wall, and a desk and chair—exactly what was needed, nothing more, nothing less. A door off to one side led to his private quarters and Cidgeon knew they likely remained the same as well: impersonal and a place to work and a place to (in theory) sleep. Cabanela watched him enter from the desk.
“What can I dooo for you professor?”
“Dinner,” Cidgeon said. “I’ll take you.”
Cabanela raised an eyebrow. “Reaaally? I know a nice little place in the lower quarter. Fellow’s a good cook. I’ll swiiing by your office tonight.”
“I’d rather not be out all night, Cidgeon said pointedly. “If you’re too busy we can do this another day.” If he was busy he should take a step away for a change, but that wasn’t a fight he was about to waste time on losing. His ground wasn’t much higher anyway.
Cabanela stared at him before his eyes flicked to the clock and back. “Of couuurse,” he said smoothly and swung up from his seat. “I wouldn’t dreeeam of it. Or of keeping our lady bird awake past her bed time,” he added with a winning smile at Lovey-Dove.
Their walk out of the labs was quiet and it wasn’t until they entered the city that Cabanela struck up conversation. Cidgeon let his words wash over him. Frivolous gossip of little use or importance, but it was good to hear him cheerful and lively.
The restaurant turned out to be a tiny place wedged between two other buildings. Cidgeon had never seen it before, but Cabanela had always had a way of finding the interesting spots in nooks and crannies. He certainly knew Vector well enough, exploring it from top to bottom as a child. There were few tables and even fewer customers, but the man Cidgeon assumed was the owner returned Cabanela’s jovial wave and grin.
They were swiftly seated in a cozy corner with food. Quiet reigned while they ate until Cidgeon looked up from his meal at Cabanela. While his fork made its aimless rounds around his plate he’d eaten little.
“You should try eating some of that. You’re spindly enough as is.”
Cabanela blinked and stared at his plate as if seeing it for the first time. “Ah… Sorry Prof! Got lost in thought for a moment theeere.”
Moment, right. Cidgeon eyed him critically. “When did you last get a night’s sleep, boy?”
“Last night,” Cabanela replied swiftly. Cidgeon continued to stare at him. “Maybe didn’t feel like it,” Cabanela conceded with an airy shrug and took a sip of his drink. “It’s fine. I’m fiiine.”
“So I noticed earlier. It’s not like you to lose track of time like that. What happened today?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary if that’s what you’re askin’.”
“Then tell me the ordinary.”
“I took a little stroooll with General Beauty this morning.”
That was one way to put what was likely an inspection Cidgeon thought with a mental shake of his head; at least he hadn’t changed in that regard.
“Then had a short check-in with the Doc after and went to my office to tie up some paperwork. I…” Cabanela faltered for a moment then resumed, “must have dooozed off because there you were, professor.”
“You’re missing time again, aren’t you?” Cidgeon asked flatly and knew he was right at the dark look that flashed across Cabanela’s face. He paid it little heed and continued. “You ought to consider stepping back. Take a break and recover. Focus on your duties with the General. Asbolus can find other subjects.” Can. Would. It wasn’t a comforting thought, but this wasn’t right. Beauty no doubt had useful information and Cabanela was no stranger to finding what he needed by himself.
“Not like me,” Cabanela replied and a spark danced off his fingers.
Cidgeon just managed to refrain from rolling his eyes. Needless dramatics, but point made.
“All in service to the Empire,” Cabanela continued pointedly. “And I’m learnin’ pleeenty from him. We’ll be done soon.”
“Mutual benefit, eh?” Cidgeon said wryly.
“You saaaid it.” Cabanela leaned back and a light entered his eyes. “This won’t last. I’m movin’ up in the world, baby! I suspeeect it won’t be long before there’s a promotion in my name.”
Now this was a familiar energy, Cidgeon thought, and a comforting one in its way. The last times he saw this ambition was while the young man bounced into his office with claims of rising to ambassador and again later when he was about ready to kick the dreamy lovesick fool out of his lab. He got what he wanted both times, for a time. There was a big difference between those and seeking to rescue a king and betray one’s own home in the process, but maybe he really was close this time. Cidgeon could only pray that this third time would hold true as well.
“There’s no stopping you,” Cidgeon muttered. He nodded toward Cabanela’s still mostly-full plate. “But I’m not paying for air.”
They returned to their meal and the conversation turned to safer topics, steering carefully away from any talk on either of their work.
Once more they didn’t see much of each other until Cidgeon’s last night in Vector. He took the evening to tidy up his office and lab for his absence and double check he had everything (and more for Kamila). He didn’t bother looking up when his door opened. Only one person ever entered unplanned and unannounced.
“Eeevenin’ professor!” Cabanela swung himself into a chair. Cidgeon finished at the cabinet before giving him his attention. “’Fraid I won’t be able to see you off tomorrow,” Cabanela said. “So I thought I’d stop by toniiight.”
Cidgeon took a moment to study him. He was bright eyed—maybe a little too much in a lined face. He lounged in the chair, almost relaxed, but his hands folded a little too tightly across his torso and the stubborn set in his shoulders he’d long ago learned to recognize betrayed him.
He was getting run-down whether he wanted to admit to it or not.
“Keeping you busy, are they?” Cidgeon said.
“No one can argue your drive, but don’t bite off more than you can chew.” He seemed so awfully close to that already. “Look after yourself."
“You wooorry too much. Next time you come back, things will be different, you’ll seee.”
Cidgeon’s mouth thinned. “We’ll see. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone this time.”
“Of couuurse, monsters aren’t researchin’ themselves after all,” Cabanela said lightly before falling quiet. One finger tapped lightly against his hand. Something was on his mind and Cidgeon waited in silence, only giving him a nod of acknowledgement at the comment, and waited for him to either speak his mind or let it go.
“A queeestion for you,” Cabanela finally said. “My magic has been… erratic lately.”
“How so?” Cidgeon asked, frowning at him worriedly. If he was losing control that could potentially spell disaster.
“Some days I can hardly make a spark let alone anything else. I just feel… drained, like I’ve cast too much already.”
“Simple exhaustion can make it more difficult,” Cidgeon said slowly and trailed off as Cabanela shook his head.
“I know that much, but it’s happened some mornings when I should be fiiine. Asbolus said the same thing at first. Now he’s worried the infusion itself could be breakin’ down. Do you think that can happen?”
Cidgeon eyed him. It was better not to trust Asbolus’s word on anything, but Cabanela already knew that. But what did this mean? It could certainly be possible. “I don’t know. You’re our only source of data. One of a kind,” he added dryly. “He may be right, he may not be. What is he planning to do about it?”
“He wants to run more tests.”
“Have either of you considered that all these tests could be having an affect themselves?”
“I asked. He daaanced around the idea. I doubt he’ll ever admit the possibility.”
“He wouldn’t,” Cidgeon muttered. “If you’d come to me sooner, I might have been able to do more.”
“I’m not expectin’ any miracles. I’m only checkin’ the possibilities.”
Cidgeon sighed before speaking, choosing his words carefully. “I know you can’t be persuaded from this course—” Cabanela’s eyes narrowed. “But, you’re an asset to the Emperor. He wouldn’t want to lose you. If Asbolus’s tests get too dangerous back away. You won’t be of use to anyone if this leads to your own destruction.”
“I’ll do what I have to,” Cabanela replied flatly. “You know that.” He took a deep breath and swung up from the seat, with a sudden smile. “Just like you knooow I wouldn’t let anything stop me,” he said with a cheer that seemed too forced to Cidgeon’s ears.
“See that you don’t,” he replied with a sharp look.
Cabanela briefly gripped his shoulder. “Take caaare, professor.” He smiled at Lovey-Dove. “And you too. Look after the old fellow.”
Cidgeon snorted. They exchanged a nod and Cabanela whirled out of his office. Conversation over just like that and a whole lot of use it was to either of them.
Lovey-Dove fluttered down into Cidgeon’s hands. “He’s a damned fool,” Cidgeon said.
“Not much we can do now. Best get our heads down. We have a long trip ahead of us.”
She bobbed her head with a reassuring chirp and nudged his hand gently.
Cidgeon shook his head. “It’s all in his hands just as he likes.”
Next time would be better Cabanela had said. Next time he prayed Cabanela would be absent. Of course he’d have the Empire’s target on his back if they realized what happened, but that would be a new problem. If all went well, this next time could be his last. Make his own retreat from the Empire, see Kamila safely to Figaro, jobs done at last.