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Paultin was Tired.

Not tired, not sleepy, Tired. Capital T. The kind of Tired he saw etched in Diath’s shoulders whenever Diath thought no one was looking. The kind of Tired Paultin wasn’t sure Strix or Evelyn had ever felt before, with how high-energy (or, in Strix’s case, high-strung) they were, but maybe they were just better at hiding it. It was a Tired that no amount of wine could wash away, and he was past trying his damndest on that point. He was too Tired to even be drunk properly, or sleep, or do much more than stare at a spot on the table and feel Tired.

It had been this way for a few days now. Paultin thought he’d caught a glimmer of motivation when he woke up that morning, so he made his way downstairs, but now it was midafternoon, and he was stranded at the breakfast table, somehow too Tired to even animate the newly-made and christened Strahd von Chairovich to try and dump him up the stairs, at least.

He heard a plate being slid against his elbow, and caught a whiff of spice and mustiness from Strix’s flour-stained robes as she left him a snicketty-snook; to his surprise, it wasn’t pie. He peeled his head up off his hands and looked at it properly. Some kind of pastry, of course, but the smell…it raised a lump in his throat before his brain had even caught up as to why. It conjured up a silhouette humming at a wagon counter, beating batter and embedding wild fruits. A silhouette in long skirts and hair bound up in a silk scarf, who smelled like rosemary and danced with a laughing blond man before scooping Paultin up to join them, the feeling of being surrounded by a safety net of arms and warmth, of being hugged and kissed and held and—

Paultin shoved a rebellious bite in his mouth, more to spite his stinging eyes and increasingly urgent mental voices, and, well, mistake—it tasted like…not like home, exactly, but like repressed memories. Perfectly like repressed memories. And cherries, ripe summer cherries. He ate the whole thing while denying his blurring vision. Paultin didn’t cry. Not over a fruity cake thing. Pandispan cu fructe, his brain supplied, in the tongue he didn’t speak but would never really forget.

Paultin found it within himself to push the plate away and stalked away from the table, dashing his sleeve over his face as he went. “S’good,” he grunted at the kitchen as he passed. He didn’t stick around to hear the “thank you!” Strix screeched in reply (not in stereo, anyway). He heard the kids’ laughter and screaming barreling down the stairs and wisely ducked out of the way as Simon led the others in a stampede, shouting something about pirates while Squiddly waved Nat’s wooden sword around and Jenks hollered in general agreement. There was a happy little squeeze in Paultin’s chest and a fond twitch in the corner of his mouth, but. Well. Still Tired, and now trying to outrun the sad aftertaste of cherries and Vistani home cooking.

Upstairs still smelled like fresh paint and new wood. The WaffleHaus had gotten a lovely little facelift after its latest…accident. Paultin had been particularly proud of the design for his personal tower at the time, but looking now at the spiral staircase to his bedroom, he just felt exhausted. Curse his devotion to Aesthetique. So he merely walked up a few steps, out of sight, and slumped against the wall to zone out. It was all he had the energy for.

It could have been a few minutes or well over an hour, but as Paultin dozed and drowned in his Tiredness, he soon became aware of the scent of flowers and a warm, warm hand on his forehead. He didn’t open his eyes, but he did lean into the touch, just because.

“Hey,” Evelyn said quietly. “Are you okay?”

Paultin shook his head. Too Tired even to lie, how pathetic was that.

“What do you need?” Evelyn asked, and Paultin shrugged a shoulder. She was being remarkably quiet. And…not all “perk up, sunshine!” He appreciated that.

“Sleep,” he croaked. He didn’t move when Evelyn didn’t reply, but he did think about opening his eyes when her arms lifted him from the stairs, cradling him against where her breastplate usually was. He put his arm around her neck, just to compensate for the awkward size difference, and felt warm skin against his cheek as he settled his head back against her. “Right here. Gonna just. Sleep.”

“Paultin, you need a bed, you can’t sleep on me,” Evelyn said, and Paultin felt the hitch in her breath when he buried his face in the crook of her neck. She was warm. And soft. He was so Tired. “I mean, you can, if that’s what you need, I don’t—I don’t mind. So much.”

Paultin mumbled a wordless groan into Evelyn’s skin. He didn’t know what he wanted right now, everything was so Much. Evelyn sighed, and he felt her start to float up the stairs. Luckily for the plot, his door was still cracked open, and he felt Evelyn settle him into his bed. Or try to, anyway. He still had his arm around her shoulders.

“I’m gonna let you get some rest,” she murmured, and Paultin felt a sudden panic at being alone with his thoughts. It had never bothered him before, not ever, but suddenly, with his mouth turning sour and skin feeling oversensitive with the ghosts of arms leaving him—

“Don’t go,” he mouthed, barely putting any voice into the words. “Don’t go. Please.”

“Okay,” Evelyn said, and he felt her shifting to tuck herself into bed next to him. “Alright. I won’t go.”

Paultin wordlessly and sightlessly wrapped himself around Evelyn as she shifted to accommodate him. They wound up with Paultin’s head on her chest, Evelyn stroking his hair while he settled and breathed. She was so warm. Warm, alive, safe, present.

She was probably confused. She was probably feeling awkward. But she didn’t go, and Paultin finally just let himself relax. Go boneless. Lean his full weight into her. Their legs were entangled, somewhat. It felt good. It felt safe. Her fingers in his hair, touching his skin, started to thread tiny cracks of warmth into the ice cap of Tired that had formed over him like a thick rind. He might actually drift off to sleep, now. But after a while, she left his hair alone, settling her hand on his shoulder, and Paultin reached up to tangle their fingers together, too.

“Paultin, you know I love to help,” Evelyn said, her voice trembling and vibrating through Paultin’s skull, “but—but—it’s not n-nice, telling me you’re not interested and then…this.”

Okay. Okay. He was too Not Alright for this, but if he didn’t muster up what little energy he had, it would get worse for them both. He grunted, then scooted back a little. “I need…down here, please.”

Evelyn shuffled herself down into Paultin’s totally stylish wine-red sheets until she was face-to-face with him, and Paultin cracked open his eyes. He immediately wanted to shut them again, because Evelyn’s face was…and her eyes were just…he gritted his proverbial teeth and forced more strength from his stupid body and soul to sustain this conversation.

“It’s…complicated,” he said hoarsely, and Evelyn nodded, her smile sad. “And. Um.” Paultin sighed. He reached down between them and grabbed her hand again, curling her small fingers around his own, pressing his mouth to the back of it. Evelyn’s already over-bright eyes seemed to glow, and she watched him as he wrapped both his hands around hers and held it in reverence.

“If. If it wasn’t…um.” Paultin swallowed hard. He felt slow and stupid, but this was important. He had to get this right. Why were words so hard. Why was he doing this now, when he was a complete wreck, and not, like, at a more thematically appropriate moment? “I…am not…a good person. I try. But. Uh. If it wasn’t for…Simon, and Strix and Diath, and—and you. Um.” Paultin had to close his eyes again against Evelyn’s blazing gaze for a moment, dropping his forehead to her clasped hand as if in prayer. “I have a…history,” he mumbled, hoping she could still hear. “Real messed up. And I’m. Kinda broken. Always will be.”

“You’re not broken,” Evelyn murmured, and Paultin didn’t even have the energy to laugh. “You’re not. You have us to fill in those…less-than-whole parts.” She laid her free hand on his. “We all do.”

“I know,” Paultin sighed. “I know. It still hurts. And, uh…right now, I just need. Somebody.”

“If you need just somebody, you have a houseful in here and a cityful out there, you don’t really need me,” Evelyn said, her voice suddenly dull, and Paultin shook his head, eyes still firmly shut.

“Not anybody. Somebody. Somebody…warm. And kind. And…and somebody that’s good to me. Good for me.”

“I don’t…I don’t understand,” Evelyn said, and Paultin forced his eyes open again.

“I need you,” he said, and found himself completely unable to continue. The silence saw Evelyn’s eyes widen, her breath go still, and Paultin fought viciously with the Tiredness now. He needed to finish this. She needed to know. “I do. I need you, Evelyn. And I need—time.”

“Time?” Evelyn breathed. “Time for—”

“Time to…adjust, I guess? That’s not…” Paultin sighed, and shifted their hands so all of his fingers were threaded through all of hers. “I’m not…I don’t want…anyone. I want you. I want us. I want this, this—stupid exploding house, and the millions of kids and pets we keep collecting, and all of us, all together. But. If I—if I say it…if I say that, it’ll all—go. It’ll be taken away. Just like—just like everything else.” His eyes were getting wet again, his breath coming a little too fast, catching in his chest. Evelyn’s were, too, which wasn’t helping. She stroked her thumbs across his, waiting for him to calm back down (which he did, eventually, with her gentle presence soothing his raw edges).

“Like Sandra,” she said finally, her voice quiet with understanding. “And your parents.”

“Like you. And Simon.” Paultin squeezed her hands, swallowing thickly against his own despair. “I’m so…Tired. Of losing things. I just need…some time. To. Not be scared. To get some closure.” He could hardly do it, but he took a deep breath, and met her eyes. “Can you…be okay? With that?”

“Of course I can be,” Evelyn whispered, no hesitation or uncertainty at all. Paultin felt the corner of his mouth twitch again. “I just have to know…where we stand. Where the boundaries are.” She smiled sadly at him, no, she had to stop that, it made him Sad on top of Tired and Scared. “I’m afraid I’ve been real pushy, haven’t I?”

“No,” Paultin said, “never pushy. Except…maybe a little, about Lathander.” He somehow mustered the strength for a wink, and she gave him a sheepish smile. “We can…talk it all out. Soon. Tonight. Right now…I just…want to lie here. If that’s okay.” He yawned, despite himself. “I’m so tired.”

“Go to sleep,” Evelyn said, opening her arms for Paultin to burrow into with the last of his willpower. She stroked the hair on the back of his head as he fit his chin over her golden curls, clutching her like a child would a teddy bear (or a creepy vampire puppet). “I’m right here. You sleep.”

“’kay,” Paultin mumbled, feeling, finally, sleepy. Maybe even good enough for a drink and some light busking, soon. For now…for now, he let Evelyn’s skin brushing against his soothe away the waking nightmares and lull him into true dreaming.