Chapter 2


Nyr couldn't help but dread the first Thursday of the month. He'd always felt that when it was time for them to fire him, it would be during the monthly meeting when all the data could be presented to support the decision and everyone could help him pack up and go before the customary round of cards. It was absurd--after all they were his friends--but he still felt sick to his stomach as the minutes passed, bringing him closer and closer to the start of the meeting.

Somehow, more than ever before, he knew this was the day. Ath'ran would have to be a fool not to do something to cut costs and Nyr knew for certain the Arcadian was far from foolish. The business was failing. The Protectors of Antiquity were losing money; expenditures far outweighed sales. The largest expenditures were from payroll. The decision practically made itself.

While Jin had been made to take it easy, under Ath'ran's orders as well as Nyr's, Nyr had taken turns with Du'shan covering his duties. Answering the phones and inputting scheduling and accounting data had been easy enough tasks once they had found a rhythm to it. The numbers never added up well. The business would be alright with four members, but could not support the burden of five. The building itself had only been built with four people in mind: there were four bedrooms, four washers and four driers. Someone had to go and the moment the Surge had been revealed, Nyr's usefulness evaporated. They didn't need a medic on staff and the only reason he had survived the last monthly meeting was to due Jin’s circumstances. Jin was refusing to be kept from work any longer, though. With him ready to take on his responsibilities again, Nyr was just a charity case and Ath'ran had always been adamant that they were not running a charity.

And yet, certain as he was that he would be terminated, Nyr had not started looking for another job. It felt like a betrayal of trust to look for work while he already had one. It would be nice if he could find a new home and job nearby, so that he could pop in and say hi, maybe play a game of cards or be invited in for dinner. No matter what happened, his coworkers were like a family to him now and Nyr didn't want to just walk away and never look back.

He took a small container down from the medicine cabinet of his medical lab, hands trembling in a bothersome manner, and poured two white pills into his palm, which he swallowed dry. He took a disposable cup from the dispenser by the sink to wash it and the flavor down before screwing the lid back on and putting the bottle away. He felt his hands relax in a placebo effect; the pills could not have worked fast enough for such immediate relief. It was in anticipation of the calm that his joints unlocked, and that was enough. With five minutes until the meeting, the pills would kick in when he needed them most.

"Nyr?"

The medic froze for a second then looked over his shoulder. "Yes?"

"Ath'ran's ready and we're all just waiting for you now." Du'shan's keen eyes surveyed the room, perhaps looking for some indication of what Nyr was doing in the infirmary. "Are you in the middle of something?"

"No. I, uh, just had a headache. Needed something for it. I'm ready." He forced a smile and walked over to his friend. "How about you? Ready to trash Jin again or are you going to take it easy on him and his wallet?"

Du'shan shrugged. "He'd be pissed at me if I treated him differently. I wouldn't feel right letting him win, either. It goes against tradition."

"That's the most humanitarian reason I have ever heard for beating a man senseless at poker."

Du'shan shrugged again. "That’s how I roll." He stood aside, waiting for Nyr to walk past him, and then shut the door behind them. As they walked the short distance to the kitchen, Nyr clasped his hands in front of him, hearing a funeral match in the back of his mind.

The others were waiting around the table. Jin was already shuffling the cards, either prepared for a short meeting or just nervous in the silence. One hand was still wrapped in bandages, but he still managed to shuffle better than some of them. It was good to see him smiling. Things were different now, but not in ways people talked about. Jin had been in a sexual relationship with a male serial killer he'd had to murder. It didn't require them to understand, just to accept and let things go undisturbed. The Arcadians were very good at that in particular. They had been tight lipped to the police when it came to Greg Water’s murder, making it all the easier for the events to pass by quickly and with little fanfare. Arcadian stoicism was something even the SPD had to admire it seemed.

At seeing Nyr drawing close, Riyad pushed the chair beside him out with his foot, inviting the medic to sit. Nyr took the cue and accepted the seat while Du'shan continued around the table to his place beside Ath'ran, who was looking very tired. This wasn't going to be good.

"Since we're all here, let's get this over with." Ath'ran arranged the printouts in front of him. "Jin, would you care to go first?"

With an exaggerated sigh, Jin began his monthly account. "Well, we still haven't located any new Shards aside from the four we closed with at the new year. No real clues as to the existence of the others, and I'd just like to add that just because I've been back to work for two weeks now does not mean Riyad can stop providing me with cookies."

"Those were grief cookies. When do you expect me to stop providing you with extra treats?"

"Um, never?" Jin rolled his eyes. "You can't give me my own plate full of cookies one week and then nothing the next. You need to slowly wean me off all this special treatment or keep it up. Cold turkey is not cool."

Riyad snorted. "Nyr and I made, what, fifteen pounds of cookie dough? Nothing’s stopping you from making some for yourself. It's in the freezer."

"I'll make some. It’ll be a nice snack to have with the game." Nyr scooted back in his chair and stood. He turned to Ath'ran and smiled apologetically. "I may as well go next then. Nothing to report this month. We're well stocked, Jin's wounds can mend themselves at this point, and everyone else is in perfect health."

Ath'ran nodded and Nyr moved toward the cooking side of the kitchen while the others continued from the table. He could hear them just fine as he pulled out a cookie sheet, preheated the oven and took several of the large blocks of dough from the freezer.

They hadn't intended to make so much cookie dough. At first he and Riyad had set out to make chocolate chip cookies and nothing more, but once Nyr had mentioned decorating sugar cookies for Christmas, they had decided to make a batch of those as well while they had everything out. This had progressed to chocolate chip with walnuts versus without, which turned into two separate batches and then several batches with things they had in the pantry that sounded like they would be good in a cookie thrown in.

Each flavor was rolled into a cylinder and wrapped in waxed paper, ready to be sliced and cooked when desired. Nyr had one of the chocolate chip rolls, a cranberry and orange one, plain sugar and one of their more experimental flavors lined up to give them a selection while they played cards. He took a few slices from each and aligned them on the baking sheet before putting the extra back in the freezer. The oven was still heating as Riyad finished his report on the artifacts he'd been looking over and Du'shan was called on for his monthly report.

Du'shan sat back in his chair comfortably. "I hate Alan's books."

Ath'ran waited for a moment for him to continue. When he did not, he cleared his throat and leaned towards him. "Is that all? You've learned nothing from them?"

"I've learned that Alan and Quinn are crazy and if the stuff in the books is actually real, I'm going to be a lot nicer to them from now on, because I wouldn't stand a chance against them." He flipped his hair out of his face. "It mentions Gaigulos in passing, but the books come from a tribe that lived outside Gaigulos. They didn't worship the Gaigulosian gods, so it doesn't mention anything specific about them. It's just a how-to book with a little bit of history thrown in here and there. It reads like a textbook that's really full of itself."

Ath'ran nodded a little, realigning the papers on the table again. "How many have you read?"

"Just the one so far. Alan asked me to make digital copies of them while I read them, so it's taking a while. I've still got two more to read."

"Well, thank you for your hard work. Keep looking." Ath'ran paused, looking down at the monthly summary on the table in front of him, then looked over towards the sink. "Nyr, would you mind coming back to the table for this last bit of news?"

Nyr nodded, putting the cookie sheet into the oven first. It wasn't fully preheated yet, but it would be okay. He tried to walk normally and not like he had no idea where the floor was. This was it, though. He took his seat next to Riyad and waited. Everyone was quiet. Jin wasn't shuffling the cards anymore.

The uncertainty of the moment dissipated as Ath'ran began. "You all know the Protectors of Antiquity have been suffering financially as of late. We've been in the red since early fall and things haven't gotten any better since. With all the breakthroughs we had near the end of last year, we've only fallen even further in debt. The only cuts I can make at this point that will save the company are to the staff." Ath'ran held up his hand as Riyad began to speak. "I know exactly what you're going to say and the answer is still no. So long as I run this business, we will not be delving into your family's money to save us. And as I relieve myself of that position effective tonight, you are free to do so and start again fresh. My only regret is that I leave you with such a burden."

The room was painfully silent for just the one second before the outburst ripped it apart.

"You're what?!" Riyad was standing, his chair on the floor behind him. "You can't be serious. You're quitting?"

Ath'ran sighed. "There's much more to it than just the financial issues we have here. I have a family, Riyad, and it's about time I start thinking about their futures. I can't afford to send them to college or for any unexpected medical expenses on an uncertain salary like this. I start work at my new job Monday."

Riyad shook his head furiously. "But you don't want another job! You love your job here! Do you really think I wouldn't pay for anything your family needed that you couldn't afford?"

Ath'ran's response was in Arcadian, the look in his eyes one that translated it well enough for Nyr and Jin: shut up, this isn't the time or place. Riyad punched the table with his fist and then picked his chair back up and sat. Du'shan was silent, looking at his cousin impassively.

"Wow...now I feel like an ass for bitching about the meeting." Jin picked at the bandage on his hand. "So...wow. Good luck with that. You'll still come by for poker night, right? Because goodbye forever sucks and I'm kind of not in the mood to say it again."

"I can think of no better place to spend the first Thursday of every month" Ath'ran smiled a little at him. "I'm counting on you, Jin, to walk Riyad through the paperwork and get him to the point where he can take over. You two have plenty of work to do on your own, but Nyr will make a good assistant to you both when he's needed."

Hearing his name woke Nyr from the shock. Ath'ran was leaving? Not him? It was hard to feel relief. Riyad was upset; Du'shan might have been if he’d allowed himself to express any emotion at all. Even Jin seemed uncomfortable and surprised. It just wasn't right.

"Nyr, the cookies are going to burn." Jin pointed across the table to the oven.

"Oh, sorry." Nyr hopped up and hurried to the oven, pulling it open to see a batch of cookies that weren't yet burnt, but were browner than most people preferred. He'd have to make another batch. All the same, he piled them onto a plate and set them on the table. Someone would like them and it was best not the throw them away. He turned back to the freezer to pull out more of the dough.

"These are fine, Nyr. You don't have to make any more. It's late anyway."

Nyr looked over at Riyad. "You're sure? The oven's ready, it wouldn't take but a couple minutes."

Riyad smiled at him and pushed the chair next to him out with his foot again. "They're fine. Jin's been waiting to deal these cards out for a while now. We'd better let him. I could go for some milk while you're up, though."

Nyr turned the oven off and set out glasses of milk for those who asked. Jin immediately broke one of the cookies in half and began dunking it in his drink. "So, we're going to leave the meeting at that? Ath'ran's leaving, let's play cards?"

"The decision has been made. Not really much else to be said," Ath'ran explained, though the look on Riyad's face made it clear he had plenty left to say. "Just try not to get any chocolate on the cards. Riyad counts them well enough without the help."

"You dirty liar, you have no proof!" Riyad chucked a mystery cookie at Ath'ran playfully. The other man eyed it with suspicion where it landed in his lap.

"What kind of cookie is this?"

Riyad shrugged. "Looked like one of the jalapeño raisin ones."

Ath'ran set it far away from him on the table. "For that, you can be double blind this time."

Nyr watched as Riyad pouted but readied his ante all the same. They were good at being friendly while inside they were fighting. Alone, he was sure they would be back to exchanging words on the issue, but in the presence of others, it was a day like any other. Nyr wasn't sure how they managed to do it. When things bothered him, it was all he could think about and impacted everything he did. Not the Arcadians. He envied them their self-control.

The game went on normally and Nyr did fairly well for once. He was too worried to smile when his hand was good, making for a better poker face than he was usually capable of. There was no doubt in his mind that everyone else had felt it would be him getting sacked that night. It was the logical course of action. And as he sat beside Riyad, aware of the unhappiness stirring under the surface, he wondered if deep down his friend resented him for not being the one to go.