Chapter 7


The hum of a dryer was one of the most calming noises in the world, Nyr thought, and he couldn't think of anything nicer that clothes fresh and warm from the dryer. Unfortunately, “clothes from the dryer” didn’t fit into his crossword puzzle. He sighed and decided to see if he had better luck with the next clue.

The laundry room in Protectors of Antiquity's headquarters, like the kitchen, was almost unaltered from the building’s days as a hotel; there were four stacked washer and dryer units along one wall, making one for each of the headquarters’ residents, which seemed more than a little excessive. Nyr was thankful for the excess, though, because it meant he would wash all his linens and laundry at the same time, as he was doing at that moment. He loved the smell of laundry soap and even though the couch was around the corner from the machines, he could still smell the fresh, clean aroma of detergent. As silly as it sounded, he rather liked doing laundry, especially when it meant sleeping in a soft, clean bed afterward, and with Ath'ran already gone for the night and Jin sleeping over at his girlfriend’s place like every Tuesday, it was good a way to occupy his time.

Du'shan seemed to have the same idea; he appeared down the hall with a large duffel bag over his shoulder. He grunted to Nyr as he walked by, but didn’t stop to chat. Nyr couldn't blame him--the bag he carried looked like it might burst and was probably rather heavy. Nyr leaned over the arm of the couch to peer around the corner at him, and watched the Arcadian open one of the empty machines and toss in handfuls of clothing indiscriminate of color.

"With all these machines, you're not going to sort that?" Nyr asked.

Du'shan looked over at him then smirked and shook his head, continuing to fill the washer. "Nah. I'll just wash it all on cold, it'll be fine."

"You're going to ruin your clothes doing that."

"Well, I've got no one to impress. Besides, most of my stuff's dark anyway." Du'shan closed the door of machine and haphazardly added soap. He closed the soap tray, started it up, then came around the corner and plopped down on the couch perpendicular to Nyr's. "You know, you don't have to just sit out here and wait for your stuff to get done. I imagine it's pretty boring, even with a crossword puzzle."

Nyr smiled at him, glad for the company. "Well, yeah. It's a habit I guess, though. At the boarding school I went to, if you left your clothes unguarded in the wash room, the older kids would steal your underwear."

"They stole your underwear?" Du'shan's face cracked in amusement.

"Well, it was a Catholic facility, so the bullies were rather tame."

"Are you afraid we'll steal your underwear, Nyr? I can promise you we won't." Du'shan looked like he was having a hard time not laughing.

Nyr ducked his head in embarrassment, shaking his head slightly as he chuckled. "Of course I don't think that."

"Good." Du'shan propped his feet up on the coffee table. His house shoes were nearly falling apart. Nyr could see his big toe through the sole and made a note to see about getting some cheap replacements for him. "So, a Catholic boarding school, huh? I thought you were an orphan. Don't orphanages usually send kids to state funded schools?"

Nyr was caught off guard by the questions; with few exceptions, talking about things outside of day-to-day life was unusual. He smiled at his friend's interest, leaning back against the worn, beige couch cushions. "I'm sure they do. I wasn't sent to an orphanage, though. When my grandmother passed on, the church more or less adopted me--I'd been baptized there, took my first communion there, and had been going to their boarding school for a couple years before she died. They just sort of decided it would be in my best interest to continue living there rather than end up in secular care, and there was enough money left after her death to fund their decision."

Du'shan frowned. "Wouldn't it have been in a kid's best interest to have a family?"

Nyr forced a shrug. "Maybe for some kids. I'd been boarding there for a long time, though. They probably thought it would have been a bigger shock to not only lose my grandmother but suddenly be uprooted from the only other place I called home," he explained, though he agreed with Du'shan to some extent. He'd always wanted a family to come home to. That was all in the past, though, and Nyr tucked the thoughts back to the corners of his mind where he kept most of his regrets and wishes. He decided to change the subject. "I've been meaning to thank you for what you said to me last time. It really did help."

"So you spoke to Ath'ran? What'd he say?"

Nyr smiled. "Exactly what you said he would. I think he would like to meet the Surge himself, but he's really pleased one of us has made contact. I think he's going to hold another meeting later and have us all go over it or something. I think I really made his day, though." He watched the slow smile spread across Du'shan's face and leaned closer to him. "So, I guess we can talk about the Surge at length later. What about you, though? Where'd you grow up?"

Apparently, the muscle of the Protectors of Antiquity was just as confused by the interest in his past as Nyr had been. He blinked a few times before his face set into a rather stern look of indifference, looking down at his exposed toe. "Nowhere special. New Arcadia's got some pretty rough slum areas. I stayed with my mom there until she died, then moved in with my father's clan. "

"What about your father?"

The sound of metal clanging inside the dryer was an interesting accompaniment to their conversation. Du'shan crossed his feet at the ankles. "He left when I was a kid. Before you ask though, it's not a big deal. Men aren't expected to stick around with their wives and children where I'm from. I figure I'm lucky he stuck around as long as he did. He's probably still alive, though; I've probably got some half siblings floating around back home, even. That's just how it is. Different culture, different problems, different solutions."

Nyr nodded, though he didn't really understand. Rather, he understood what Du'shan said but could not make the same sense of it from his own knowledge and feelings. "So you, Ath'ran and Riyad all grew up together then?"

"More or less. I'm a couple years older than them but they were still absolute pains in my ass when I moved in."

It was an interesting mental image--a young Ath'ran and Riyad pulling on Du'shan, wanting him to play with them. Nyr smiled. "You were the ring leader then?"

"Oh no. Riyad Shihar has always been and will always be the one in charge. Ath'ran just got really good at making Riyad Shihar want to do what he wants him to do. For instance, Riyad Shihar paid for the renovations to this place and has been the financial backbone since day one. Ath'ran gets to be in charge since it was his idea and he's got a better head for these sorts of things. It's exactly the same as when they were kids, though I will admit, with the trouble they got into doing what Riyad Shihar wanted to do, it's best they figured out a way to let Ath'ran control things within the boundaries of their relationship." Du'shan rolled his eyes to punctuate his annoyance with the past versions of his colleagues.

Nyr was wholly engrossed in the information he was being given, forgetting the crossword puzzle in his hand completely. "So I guess they're pretty dependent on each other, hm?"

Du'shan seemed to mull over the definition of the word as he looked up at the ceiling, his lips pursed in contemplation. "I'd say that's about right. Riyad Shihar would have done better in the crossing if they’d allowed him to ride across with Ath'ran, I'm sure. His brother, I have been told, was less than sympathetic towards his dementia."

"Dementia?" That was certainly not a word that he would ever have associated with Riyad.

Du'shan nodded, as though it were common knowledge. "You have heard of the crossing, yes? It's almost like a very long tram ride. A very long one. You can't see outside, everything you own and about nine other people are all in the same space with you for weeks. When traveling, the children of the D'sen were placed together in many different cars along with elders of the Mukshah to look after them. Sometime durring the journey, something happened and Riyad Shihar just sort of snapped. He began screaming like his mind was completely gone. In such a tight space, this behavior couldn’t be tolerated. His older brother, Samir, beat him until he was silent. When Riyad Shihar was awake, he was completely mad and he only slept when it was knocked into him. When we arrived in Solace, he was taken to a mental hospital. He lived there for three years until his senses returned to him in full. No one really knows what brought all that on, and he doesn’t really talk about it."

It was as though Du’shan were describing a complete stranger. Nyr blinked and tried to imagine Riyad in a straightjacket and padded cell but the happy, charming man was all that came to mind. "Poor Riyad...you'd never know it to look at him now."

"No, you wouldn't, which is why no one really needs to know, Du'shan," Riyad announced as he came to stand behind the other Arcadian, looking rather annoyed as he peered down at Du'shan's upturned face.

Nyr turned red immediately. He turned away from the pair, focusing on the coffee table and the tumble of clothes in the background. Riyad probably resented him now for being so curious and eager to learn things that were none of his business. He'd completely violated their trust by asking Du'shan such personal questions. Nyr's hands were shaking just slightly as he clasped them at his lap, waiting to be reprimanded.

"It's a good thing Nyr knows how easily enlightenment can be mistaken for insanity or he might think I'm some kind of mental case." Riyad took a seat on the arm of Du'shan's couch between them, smiling at Nyr with such genuine kindness that the medic couldn't help but feel it, though his eyes were elsewhere. "That's when I got my gift, you know."

Nyr cocked his head slightly in confusion as he tentatively looked over at him. "What gift is that?"

"The one that lets me do the appraisals. I have the ability to tell how old something is just by looking at it and touching it. I can tell if it has any special properties and stuff that other people can't, not even Alan and he's dealt with the sorts of objects I see for hundreds of years." Riyad's voice carried an air of pride as he sat on the armrest, back straight and both eyes visible through the wave of crooked curls that shaped his face. "I can't remember much about the crossing or why what happened to me happened, but it's made me useful, which is more than can be said for most of my siblings. It’s certainly not my fondest of memories and it's sort of a sore spot for certain members of my family, but yeah, there you have it. Asylum aside, at least we all know I'm not the nutter of the group."

"Oh, and who is?" Du'shan chanced to ask. "Jin?"

Riyad's smile was contagious. "Who else? I mean, you were in the running and all, but he takes the cake. What a lucky guy, though, huh? Supposidly his girlfriend lives in the apartment building overhead. She's supposed to be pretty needy, but I bet you she's gorgeous the way he can't wait to hurry over and see her some nights."

Sinful as it was, Nyr couldn't help but enjoy workplace gossip. Du'shan, however, seemed in a rather defensive mood. "Wait a minute, I was in the running for the crazy one? What the hell is that about?"

Riyad rolled his eyes. "You were a drunken cage fighter at one point in your life. Reckless disregard for your well-being is a form of crazy. I've got you down as the angry, depressed one now."

"I'm not depressed. And I'm not angry, either," Du'shan argued, looking less than amused.

"Says the man who got shanked in a bar fight," Riyad teased. "You had to be something. Ath'ran's the stoic businessman and I'm the charming aristocrat, which leaves you with being the angry one."

Du'shan seemed unable to keep a straight face and Nyr's own smirk had been in place since the beginning of the exchange. He was enjoying their conversation, especially the fact that it was in Standard and thus intended for him to overhear. The playful bickering was heartwarming in a strange way.

"So what's Nyr then?" Du'shan asked.

"Nyr?" Riyad's smile turned from cocky and fun to something much softer as his eyes met the medic’s. "Well he's the nice one, of course."

Nyr forced himself to look away before the color in his cheeks turned him from a man into a tomato. The smile on his face refused to be hidden, though, as his heartbeat skipped several beats. Riyad thought he was nice.

The Arcadian leaned over and tousled his hair, chuckling huskily. "That reminds me. Since it's just the three of us tonight, what do you guys want to do for dinner? I say we make the others jealous and have a men's night out. Show those other two us single men can do more than sit around and work all day, too."

Du'shan sighed loudly and let his head fall back. "Like what? It's not as much fun for Nyr and myself to sit back and watch you chase skirts as you might think."

"Oh come on, I haven't done that since high school. I'm all grown up now. I'm mature and stuff," Riyad insisted, looking hurt. "I'm serious. Even if it's just walking down to the local pub, it's better than wasting another night sitting around the laundry room."

"I have a word puzzle," Nyr offered, holding it up for him to see.

"Give me that!" Riyad snatched it from him quickly. "No! We're going out and we're going to have fun."

"I'm okay with the pub idea. Landry's is pretty close. Food's decent there, too," Du'shan chipped in.

"They serve food at a pub?" Nyr asked, and immediately felt like an idiot when both Arcadian’s looked at him with strange expressions.

"Oh wow, you've never gone drinking, have you?" Riyad interjected into the slightly awkward silence.

Nyr shook his head. He was a little embarrassed, though he knew he had no reason to be. The consumption of alcohol was, in most cases, a means to deal with harsh reality--he already had such an escape, and it aided him without the risk of a hangover. Besides that, drinking was considered a bad habit and the sign of a less than upright character. There was hardly any appeal to drinking a near toxic liquid other than for the sake of curiosity, which was a devil that seemed to have awakened from it's slumber now that he had left the sacred confines of a life devoted to devotion. On top of that, surrounded by people he admired who seemed quite keen on the idea of a night of beer and food, his reasons against joining in were dwindling.

Landry's was, as Du'shan had said, quite close to headquarters. They walked the block and a half there, hands stuffed deep into their pockets against the cold air. The pub was located off of the first floor lobby of a business; men in suits and ties could be seen through the windows, seated at booths and laughing obnoxiously. It looked warm and cozy, though, not at all what Nyr had expected, and they rushed inside to get out of the chilly night.

It was quiet inside, aside from the booth of boisterous men, and most people seemed content to sit quietly and have their meal and ale with friends or family without disturbing anyone around them. The most disagreeable thing about the room was the light dusting of cigarette smoke, and even that was mild and the smell was overwhelmed by the odor of fried food. Nyr felt himself relax, much more comfortable with this setting than he’d thought he would be. A cute woman in a dress shirt and bowtie who was congenial without being bubbly seated them. She quickly brought them their drinks and took their orders with a smile that seemed to be mostly directed at Du'shan.

Riyad noticed as well and nudged the other with a devious smile on his face. "I think she likes you."

"I think she wants a decent tip." Du'shan looked over his shoulder at her, and Nyr followed his gaze. Their waitress was leaning over the bar area grabbing some straws to slip into her apron. The back of her shirt was pulled up just far enough to expose a ruby red thong peeking up over the top of her dress slacks.

"Get her number."

"No."

"You know you want to."

"You obviously don't know me very well." Du'shan cast the other Arcadian a dirty look over the top of his warm mug of beer as he took a drink.

Nyr eyed his own glasses on the cluttered table, one filled with ice water and the other with a brew Riyad had recommended he try, which was lighter in color than Du'shan's and less foamy. Riyad, who had ordered the same thing he’d suggested to Nyr, drank from his own tall glass contentedly and motioned for Nyr to pick up his own and do the same.

It was easier said than done; just closing his fingers around the cool container was an effort of enormous willpower. Part of him demanded he let go and drink the water instead, while the other part, the part that wanted to be like everyone else, was cheering him on to take the plunge into normality. He could sit there and let the two sides of himself wage war for eternity, he realized, or he could just hurry up and get it over with. At that thought, he took his first long gulp of beer with his eyes squeezed tightly closed. He brought the glass back down to the table so hard it splashed over the sides a bit, wetting the table and his hand. He opened his eyes and looked down on it as he felt Riyad's hand pat him on the shoulder.

"That's the ticket. Not bad or terrible?"

Nyr shrugged, not having let it sit in his mouth long enough to really taste it. "Not bad I guess. I don't feel any different, though."

Riyad chuckled. "You shouldn't after one sip. It's beer, not liquor, and even then it takes a while for it to kick in. Go ahead and finish that one and I'll buy you another."

The medic nodded, taking another sip. This time he let it sit on his tongue a little longer, tasting the somewhat familiar sting of alcohol that reminded him of the wine used for the sacraments. The alcohol content was where the similarity ended, though, and the differences were neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

He could hear Du'shan speaking to Riyad in Arcadian and frowned a little, not sure what had warranted him not being allowed to understand. Whatever was said was short and to the point, though, and ended with Du'shan continuing to give Riyad dirty looks while the “charming aristocrat” just shrugged and sipped his drink.

"So, you both came to Solace at the same time, right?" Nyr asked at length, wanting to return to the conversation they had struck up at home when things had been lively and they had sat together as equals.

Riyad was the first to put his glass down, and thus the first to reply. "Yeah, what was it...ten...twelve years ago? Wow, you know, I never realized I'd almost spent half my life here now."

"And when you moved here, did you go to public school or get private tutoring, Du'shan?"

"Public," Du'shan said simply.

Nyr nodded. "If you don't mind me asking, why is it then that Riyad speaks better Standard if you were immersed in Solace longer than him?"

Du'shan looked at Riyad out the corner of his eye then shrugged his shoulders and took a drink. "He's of the D'sen," he said once his glass left his lips, as though it were an answer in itself.

Riyad nodded but took pity on Nyr's ignorance. "Standard was part of my education before moving here," he explained. "We learned Standard early because my father felt it was necessary to prepare his children for professions that matched our social status. My oldest sister is actually in government here in Solace. We're quite proud of her."

"What do your other siblings do?" Nyr finished off his first glass of ale, which was quickly swooped up by the thong-wearing waitress and replaced with another.

Riyad thanked her for him, asked for some more nuts to snack on while they waited for their meal, and then turned back to the conversation. "They don't do anything. Which is exactly what I should be doing, or so my family thinks. Squandering money is expected of me, but they think my little business venture is rather common and unbecoming."

"Sorry. That must be difficult. Does your father really disapprove that strongly?"

Nyr watched Riyad's expression, which signaled something between uncertainty and affirmation. "He'd be happier with me if I just came home and lived like all the others do, but I'm not doing anything that might embarrass the family so I think he's okay with it. I'm pretty sure he thinks it's a phase I'll grow out of and that eventually I'll come home like a good boy." Riyad gave a playful wink. "If they're happier thinking that, we can keep the truth of the matter to ourselves."

The truth of the matter, as far as Nyr understood it, was that Riyad was most certainly not the kind of person who could accept a life that had been handed to him. He was proud, perhaps a little rebellious, and most definitely had a mischievous streak that made him enjoy harmlessly pestering his friends. He enjoyed life too much to spend it in a prison built out of money and rules. Nyr admired his courage to seek out his happiness against the wishes of his family.

In that way, though, Du'shan seemed to be a darker version of the same pursuit--the personification of what could go wrong if one fumbled too blindly for things that had no names. The moral of his story seemed to be to listen to and benefit from the words of those who loved him. It was interesting to sit across from the two of them, like looking into his own future and seeing the polarity of the possibilities before him. Desires could destroy as well as uplift and in looking between the two, Nyr felt he might never know how to tell the difference for himself between harmless and harmful wishes. There was solace in one thing, though: whatever the suffering or gratification, these two were both at the same table now.

The food, when it was brought out to them, was hot and delicious. Nyr ate happily, delving into his plate full of vegetables and poultry with fervor; he'd been hungrier than he'd realized and sitting surrounded by the smells of food had done nothing to diminish that. They talked about work as they ate, laughed with as they retold stories that had probably been less than amusing when they’d occurred and mused about what the future would bring for their tiny business. It was nice.

"You realize he's drunk, right?" Du'shan said, sounding rather annoyed. They'd finished their food and paid the bill, but were lingering amicably at the table.

Nyr looked over at Riyad whose face was slightly flushed. Riyad cocked his head slightly, rosy cheeks half hidden under his hair. "You think?"

"He doesn't even know we're talking about him."

Riyad's hand came to rest on Nyr's forehead, peering into his eyes. "You know, I think you're right."

"'M what?" was all Nyr could manage. He felt sleepy and warm and content. It was a rather interesting change for him.

Du'shan made a few interesting noises then walked over to him, helped him to his feet, which no longer seemed to understand their role in that particular process, and towards the door. The air outside--much colder and crisper than the heavy air inside--was like a punch in the face. Nyr's head spun, suddenly disoriented and confused. He didn’t feel nice anymore.

Du'shan and Riyad continued to talk amongst themselves in near gibberish, though Nyr caught his name several times. He could feel Du'shan's strong arm around him, keeping him upright as they walked home, and he focused mostly on that and Riyad's hand on his shoulder steering him away from walls and light poles. How embarrassing. Nyr let his head hang slightly as he mumbled an apology.

Back inside the headquarters, he was similarly helped to his room and was reminded of what he’d been doing earlier that evening: his linens were still in the drier and his bed was naked. Riyad steered him towards the chair at his desk and sat him down, then he and Du'shan disappeared. Riyad came back alone, arms full of sheets and a puffy red blanket that he set down on the floor. He rooted through the pile and began to pull a sheet over the mattress.

Nyr winced. "You don't have to do that. I can get it."

Riyad chuckled softly as he worked. "As funny as it would be to watch you try, I'd just as soon do this for you. Don't worry about it." He finished pulling the corners of the fitted sheet around the mattress then set about tucking the rest in place, finishing it all off with a clean cloth case over Nyr's pillow. He helped him stand again and guided him over to his bed. It seemed unnecessary but Nyr wasn't about to argue with him.

He collapsed onto the sheets, happy to finally be allowed to remain stationary for as long as he desired, while enveloped in the crisp, clean aroma he loved so much. His whole body felt heavy, like his limbs had been replaced with metal. He rolled onto on his stomach, mostly focused on the funny feeling in his head while Riyad's hands gently pulled his shoes from his feet and tucked the blanket it around him.

"Sorry I'm such a bad influence." Riyad’s voice was almost a whisper. Nyr felt the mattress shift as Riyad sat on the edge of the bed, felt the hand that stroked the back of his head.

Nyr sighed, enjoying the attention immensely. "Temptation is only as strong as one's will power is weak."

"That a nice way of saying it's your fault too?"

Nyr nodded, half nuzzling against the hand stroking his hair.

"Well, thanks for that. Next time'll be better. I promise."

Somehow, Nyr didn't think that was possible. He gave another contented sigh and curled up under his blanket, and was glad when the comforting weight on his bed stayed in place, and the hand continued to pet his hair. He smiled to himself in the haze between dreams and reality and wished to never move again if he could have that moment forever. The darkness waiting for him when he closed his eyes was lit by the gentle caress that called to the regrets and wishes long hidden in the back of his mind.