“Cyrus,” his father said suddenly. “You’ll help your mother set up for tomorrow?” It was the last thing Cyrus wanted to do, but he nodded his head vigorously, overly eager not to upset him even more. “Good. And…would you help cook tomorrow as well?”
The way he asked the question and the content itself made Cyrus’ heart stop briefly. He didn’t really think Fiearius wouldn’t be here did he? That was nonsense. He would be here. He would help with the cooking. Not Cyrus. But Cyrus nodded anyway.
“Good,” Rohlan said again and added kindly, “Eat your soup, it’ll get cold.”
Obediently, Cyrus picked up his spoon again and did as he was told, but internally he was in turmoil. No, he decided firmly. He’d been right the first time. Fiearius would be back before midnight. He’d crawl home just like he said, say he was sorry and go upstairs quietly to bed with his tail between his legs. And then the next morning, he’d get up and go downstairs and turn on the oven and rip open all of his gifts like always. Everything would be back to normal.
In the meantime, the family ate their soup in silence. No one paid any heed to the empty fourth place-setting nor the still-steaming bowl set upon it until hours later when his mother dropped it heavily in the sink and it chipped.
The next morning, Cyrus awoke in his bed after a deep and heavy sleep to the sound of children laughing in the street outside his window. Tiredly, he opened his eyes, blinking at the stream of sunlight coming in from his window. It took a few moments for him to realize why there were kids out playing this early. And then he remembered. Concordia!
Excitedly, he sat up in bed and shouted, “Fiear! Wake up! It’s–” but as he sought out his brother to incite him to hurry downstairs to get a headstart on the day’s activities, he found the bed across the room empty. “Concordia?” he finished, his heart sinking. The sheets were just as messy and in disarray as they were when he’d fallen asleep last night. They hadn’t been touched.
…He hadn’t come home.
But maybe he had. Maybe he had just happened to get up earlier than Cyrus and left his bed the same as it had been. Or maybe he was sleeping on the couch. That seemed more likely. Already knowing he was lying to himself, he nonetheless crawled out of bed, wrapped the blanket around himself to fight off the morning chill and crept out the door onto the landing.
Still holding onto some semblance of hope, he started down the stairs, but, as he should have expected, Fiearius was not on the couch. Their mother was instead. She sat completely still upon the edge of the cushion, as though ready to spring up any moment. She was still wearing her clothes from the night before. She looked exhausted. Cyrus could feel his insides clench as his foot set down on the last, creaky step and those tired, red eyes looked up at him as though he were a ghost. But after a moment, she smiled sadly.
“Y’etah Concordia, issyen,” she greeted him calmly as he slowly came towards her and sat down on the couch by her side.
“Y’etah Concordia, ti’hma,” he replied quietly, putting his arm around her back and leaning his head on her arm.
It wasn’t until well into the night that Cyrus finally climbed back upstairs and fall into bed. The Soliverés were a rowdy bunch, especially when you got all eighteen of the local ones in the same room. Once they were there, enjoying the food and drink, it was apparently difficult to get them to leave. He had almost drifted off a number of times during the evening, particularly during his grandfather’s story hour, but he forced himself to stay awake for the midnight candle lighting. It was his favorite part of the whole day when the entire city shut down for just a few minutes and Paradiex was lit only by candlelight against the cold, black desert sky.
After that, of course, he’d been roped into helping to clean up.
Overall though, it had been a pleasant Concordia. The visiting family had been in high spirits. The feast had been as good as always. He’d finally gotten the robot construction kit that he’d been asking for for ages. Everything was as it should have been. Save for that one glaring omission.
Cyrus wasn’t sure what his parents had been intending with their treatment of Fiearius’ absence. Had they really expected none of the family to notice that the elder Soliveré son who had been, for the last 14 years, a very present force at these events, was no longer there? That there was no one starting fights with the cousins. No one flicking vegetables across the table during dinner. And no one interrupting people’s conversations to make them try whichever new concoction he’d cooked up this year. Fiearius was a hard person not to notice.
But neither Rohlan nor Idya offered any explanation of why only one of their children were present this Concordia. Why there was a stack of gifts left unopened. Why there was a single empty placesetting at the table. Instead it was left to Cyrus when, in the middle of dinner, following a long discussion of how he’d been doing in school, his aunt turned to him and asked, “Now, Cy, sweetie, where’s that brother of yours at?”
The flush of panic was likely apparent in his face. He looked up at her with wide eyes and then glanced to his father at the end of the table, desperate for him to jump in with the proper alibi. His father, however, either hadn’t heard or simply didn’t care. He continued to fork bites of food into his mouth, completely oblivious to the fact that half the table was now fixated on his son and anticipating an answer.
He looked, then, to his mother instead who, in contrast, had definitely heard. She neither met his eyes. Idya had dropped her hands to her lap and was staring down at the plate before her, holding back tears from welling in her eyes. No one else had noticed her yet. Cyrus didn’t want them to. Diligently then, he looked back at his aunt and decided to answer.
Unfortunately, he didn’t know the answer, nor, even, what would have been a good answer to give. At a friend’s house, he came up with later and kicked himself for not saying it. All he did instead was frown curiously and shrug.
His aunt widened her eyes at him, surprised and glanced to her husband who grimaced thoughtfully. Across the table, one of his cousins, the one Fiear without fail ended up shoving into a wall every year, gave a little ‘hmph’. The younger cousins, who had always enjoyed Fiear’s fantastic stories of things that never happened, let out disappointed groans. And then the whispers started. They didn’t end. All through the night, the entire family seemed to be quietly speculating the whereabouts of the missing teenager behind their backs. All Cyrus could do was smile innocently at their questions and hope they didn’t see just how much every mention of his name seemed to make Idya crumble in on herself.
When Fiearius got back, Cyrus had assured himself, refusing to even consider whether the ‘when’ should be an ‘if’, he was going to be so angry for putting him through that.
As angry as he may have been, however, when he stood on the street in front of his house and looked up across the city skyline at all the flickering candlelight as far as the eye could see, it wasn’t anger that he felt. It was concern. Fiearius had run away before. Plenty of times. But never for this long. Never overnight. Over two nights, really, since he still wasn’t back.
As he laid in bed hours later, trying desperately to sleep, all he could envision in his head was that image Fiearius himself had provided. The gutter. He tried to chase it away, but it wouldn’t leave. There were so many ways he could end up there and his brain seemed determined to make him consider every single one.
It was just as he was imagining a particularly nasty scenario centering around a faceless man and a rope that Cyrus’ eyes bolted wide open at the sound of something against the bedroom window. He was facing the wall and couldn’t see the window, but as the rustling continued, he became more and more afraid to turn around and look. Surely it was just a bird or something, he thought. He was just scaring himself and being paranoid. But as the noise continued and Cyrus sunk further and further under the covers, he wasn’t quite as sure as a logical mind should have been.
Finally, however, the noise ceased with a bit of a clunk and silence fell over the room and the quiet street outside. Cyrus stayed wrapped up safe in his blankets, however, listening carefully for quite a few more minutes until at last he let out a sigh and relaxed. Just as he felt a hand close around his shoulder.
Instantly, Cyrus jumped up and spun around to face his assailant, a yell already forming in his throat, but a second hand clamped down around his mouth, blocking it from ever coming out and sending him into even more of a panic. Frantically, Cyrus struggled to escape the grip, but it was no use. His attacker was much stronger than him and fought back just as willfully. He was going to die here, wasn’t he? his mind pointed out hopelessly. Killed in his own bed by some horrible stranger. But then–
“Cy–Cyrus, stop,” the assailant whispered angrily, still struggling with his flailing victim. “Hey–would you–ugh ow–stop it! It’s me!” Cyrus realized suddenly that he recognized the voice as, almost simultaneously, a stream of light from the window caught a glimpse of red hair. Hesitantly, he relaxed.
“Mmf-hmm?” he asked from beneath his brother’s hand.
Slowly, Fiearius released him, but with the reluctance of someone that didn’t actually believe Cyrus was done yelling. But Cyrus didn’t yell. He just blinked up at his brother, his eyes gradually adjusting to the dim light and almost unwilling to believe he was there. Or that he’d just climbed through their bedroom window. Quietly, he muttered, “You came back.”
“Of course I came back,” Fiearius said simply, stepping away from Cyrus’ bed and moving over to his side of the room to dig through a drawer. “Couldn’t miss Concordia with my lil brother.”