Nyr placed the box of rice into his shopping basket and mentally checked it off the grocery list he and Riyad had worked out. All that was left were a few spices and packaged meat, and maybe some cheese, if store had any in stock. He cast a quick look up at the aisle directory, found the one where the spices were located and detoured to collect the saffron and cinnamon they needed. They were an import and rarely available at the more common shops, but Riyad had long ago located more upscale places that carried the foreign spices that he needed for his cooking. Nyr couldn't help but feel self-conscious as he walked through the store among well-dressed people who carried themselves like royalty. It made him feel awkward and clumsy and worried that he would knock something expensive off of a shelf and have to pay for it. He stayed far away from anything marked fresh.
As he glanced over the tiny spice bottles, trying not to be too alarmed at the disparity between the price and the size of the containers, he heard a quick gasp and what sounded like a runaway cart. He turned his head towards the noise and caught his breath as Riyad rode down the aisle towards him on a shopping cart.
Nyr could feel the store's employees watching him, waiting for Riyad to lose control and either ram into the shelves or fall on his ass. He hopped down onto the floor and slowed his cart just in front of Nyr, though, in complete control as always and looking as though he quiet enjoyed drawing the unamused attention of the people around them.
“Hey, finding everything okay?” he asked, abandoning the cart and edging around Nyr to peek into his basket.
“Yeah. You do realize that the brands you wanted were the most expensive ones, right?” Nyr held up the smallest and most expensive bottle of saffron the store carried. “You can get almost twice as much of this for nearly half the price if you buy another brand.”
Riyad shook his head, guiding Nyr's hand and the spice jar into the basket. “Not a chance. When it comes to food, you get what you pay for, and I’d just as soon spend the money in a restaurant than cook second-rate food. Let me worry about the price.”
“So we're eating off your personal account, then?”
They both turned to see a portly man walking towards them. His tie and lack of an apron made it apparent he was probably the store’s manager or held some other position of authority.
“It is quite unacceptable to ride a cart through this establishment. It is a safety hazard not only to you but to our other guests as well. If there are any further issues with your conduct, I will have no choice but to have you thrown out.”
Riyad’s smile never faltered. He took the hand being shoved in his direction in warning and shook it. “Riyad Shihar D’sen. It’s nice to meet you. I was just telling my friend here how much I like this store.” He let go of the manager’s hand, as though unaware at how large the man’s eyes had grown. “It's a shame you don't carry whole cinnamon sticks, though. The ground stuff is nice and all, but I really prefer the sticks. I was thinking I might try an upper level store, but in that case, it really doesn't make much sense for me to come here, too. Although you are the only store I've found that carries my favorite rice.”
The manager's slack jaw went back into action once Riyad gave him an opportunity to speak. His eyes went from Riyad to the basket on Nyr's arm, to Nyr, and back to Riyad. The man was now oozing the same attitude that dripped from the other well-to-do patrons. “Mr. D'sen, I had no idea. My apologies for taking such a tone with you.”
“No harm done by either of us. And please, just call me Riyad.”
The manager nodded, motioning to the spice selection on hand. “It would be my pleasure to order some cinnamon sticks for you, Riyad. Is there anything else I can arrange to have imported?”
“I don't suppose you have connections in Xifeng, do you? A friend of mine really likes their crab meat.”
“Eh, not at present, I'm sorry to say.”
Riyad sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “Well, it was worth a shot.” He put a hand on Nyr's back and steered him past the manager. “Now, if you'll excuse us, we have a few more things to get.”
“Of course, pardon me. Please let me know if you require any assistance.”
Riyad smiled and thanked him, pushing his mostly empty cart past and joining Nyr in the center aisle. Nyr shook his head, not sure whether to be amused or to try to look stern in order to avoid encouraging him. Riyad knew, though, and just smiled at him out the corner of his eye.
“You enjoyed that,” Nyr said when he was sure they were out of earshot.
“You think so?” Riyad hunched over the cart casually “I wouldn't say I enjoyed it so much as I don't like being talked to like I'm five years old.”
Nyr nodded. He didn't know too many people who did. “You can't really blame him, though. He could have handled it better, but you were kind of riding a shopping cart down the aisle.”
“It's fun,” he admitted without remorse. He looked over his shoulder then strode closer to Nyr with a mischievous look in his deep brown eyes. “Want a ride?”
“Are you kidding me? I would tip that thing over the minute I hopped on and crash into the most expensive thing they sell.” Nyr looked over his shoulder as well. “Besides, he already warned us that he'd kick us out.”
“Yeah, well, we're leaving anyway.” Riyad pulled the basket from Nyr's arm and set it inside the cart, holding Nyr's elbow as they walked towards the door until he got the picture and began to follow on his own.
Nyr looked back at the abandoned cart in confusion. “What about the groceries? I thought you said this was the closest place to get them.”
“We'll get them later. I'm not in the mood to shop.”
They left the grocery store. Nyr offered an apologetic smile to the watching staff members as he passed under the security sensor and out onto the sidewalk. Riyad waited for him, hands in his pockets, surveying the street and the other shops that lined it.
Despite the sudden change in plans, he didn't look upset. Nyr hadn't thought the store manager's attitude had affected him, but something had happened to make him make such an abrupt change to their plans. Nothing seemed wrong, though; he even smiled once Nyr was standing beside him again, nothing about the expression feeling fake or forced.
“So what's up?" Nyr asked, following Riyad's example and looking down the street. “Just taking our business elsewhere?”
“No business. I'm kind of sick of business,” he said, motioning for Nyr to follow as he started down the sidewalk.
They ended up going in the opposite direction of most of the traffic. He reached back through the crowed and grasped Nyr's wrist, pulling him along through the other pedestrians. So they wouldn't get separated, Nyr told himself.
Riyad let go once there was room for them to walk side by side, his smile broader than ever. “You know, just yesterday I was sitting in my office and I realized I couldn't remember the last time I’d stepped outside. It's a great convenience to live and work in the same building, but with Ath'ran gone, it just feels like I never do anything fun anymore.”
Nyr nodded, rubbing his wrist absently. “Yeah, I've noticed that too. I never exactly lived a life of high excitement, but I bet this is the first time I've gone out since...well, the last time we went shopping.”
“I know! And you know what's sad?”
Nyr shook his head, acknowledging the rhetorical nature of the question.
“I've been looking forward to today for days.” Riyad threw up his arms as though to punctuate how silly it was. “Since Monday, all I really thought about was how today I'd get to leave the basement and go shopping with you. That has got to be the saddest excuse for anticipation ever: grocery shopping!”
Nyr laughed courteously, ducking his head in embarrassment. He'd been looking forward to it as well.
“Well, not today, Nyr. Forget the groceries, forget work, and forget all that stuff, because you and me are going to have fun.”
“Fun, huh?” Nyr looked around at the neighborhood again. It wasn't exactly the sort of district people went to for their fun, unless they enjoyed banking and shopping for necessities. With the tram behind them, Nyr had absolutely no idea where they were headed or what Riyad had in mind. It was a nice day, though, with the sun peering through the buildings at them. He didn't mind the idea of a surprise in the midst of such pleasant surroundings.
They walked into a residential plaza and rode a lift up to the skyway above. Riyad was bubbling with excitement, but he didn't say a word about their destination and Nyr neglected to ask, enjoying the quiet ignorance that seemed to feed Riyad's high. They walked from building to building until Nyr was sure he was lost, his sense of direction failing him from so high above ground. He could tell when they were close by the way Riyad walked just a little faster, his eyes brightening a bit more.
When they arrived, he wasn't even aware they were there. It was a skyway almost identical to the others they had traversed, except for a round protrusion off the center of the walkway. Inside the dome of thick, somewhat clouded plastic was a simple playground. There were slides, a swing set, bars to climb on and hang from, and a merry-go-round that Nyr remembered from his childhood with few fond memories. It was there that Riyad stopped and spread his arms out as though to embrace the equipment built for people much smaller than them.
“Welcome,” he said, “to my secret getaway.”
Nyr blinked twice at that and looked around, somehow expecting more, considering the designation. It was just an ordinary playground between the residential floors of two buildings, where it could be of use to the children from both. For whatever reason, it was deserted today.
Riyad gracelessly dropped onto a swing, facing out towards the thick wall that looked out over the city. It was the first real clue as to why Riyad liked the playground. The view was spectacular.
“Hope you're not afraid of heights,” Riyad said, motioning to the swing beside his.
Nyr eyed it with certain misgivings, but eventually sat down. Riyad smiled at him, looking pleased and full of life.
“The floors connected by this walkway were bought out by a company a few years back, so they're used for business meetings and corporate functions now. No one really brings any kids around here so the playground's pretty much always empty and the walkway's pretty desolate, too, most of the time.” His eyes were fixated on the sky outside. “I came here a couple times when I was a kid. My father had work to do and I wanted to be a grown up, so I went with him. That lasted as long as it took for me to find out there was a slide down the hall and I ended up hanging out here until dad was done.”
Nyr laughed. “You remember this place from when you were a kid?”
Riyad shook his head, leaning against the chain of his swing. “I used to come here all the time in high school. I kissed Missy Johnson over behind the monkey bars when I was sixteen." He gestured towards the area with his chin. “Sort of became the place I took all my girlfriends, since there’s a great view and it’s secluded and all. The sunsets here are amazing. Kind of reminds me of home.”
Nyr looked out towards the skyline but his eyes kept wandering back to the monkey bars. He had no idea who Missy Johnson was--had never heard the name before and was likely never to hear it again. Somehow the name made his chest feel tight, though, and his stomach churn. He was vaguely aware Riyad was still talking and tried to divert his attention back to him and away from the strange feeling.
“--Sick and we had to call maintenance to clean it up,” he was saying, laughing to himself. “I don't know. I guess after that, I really didn't feel like sharing this place with anyone anymore. It's not really a secret getaway if everyone knows about it.”
“No, not really,” Nyr agreed. He picked his feet up off the ground and began to swing gently, leaning back to look up at the sky above them where the dome met the steal support beams. “So why am I here?”
“I guess I figured if anyone could appreciate it, it'd be you.” Riyad looked back at him. “Do you not like it? If you'd rather, we can go catch a movie or something.”
Nyr shook his head, the tightness in his chest fading to be replaced with a gentle warmth. “No, it's a really nice spot. Thanks for letting me tag along.”
“Sure thing. It's our secret now, okay? Don't tell Jin or Du'shan.”
“Okay. I won't.” Nyr hoped his smile wasn't as large and dopey as it felt. It was his and Riyad's secret. Part of him was cheered by that, did somersaults and back flips in his heart. Just him and Riyad.
And every girl Riyad had ever dated. He looked back up at the top of the dome, frowning thoughtfully. “So, when was the last time you were here?”
“Probably two years ago. Jasmine Harris. An accountant. We met at school. She was probably my last girlfriend, I guess. Everyone after her was just a couple dates here and there. She was exactly the kind of girl my father wanted me to marry, too. Good family, beautiful, bred for social interactions. A trophy wife with a clever head on her shoulders. Sort of perfect, I guess, but she was really critical of me and the longer we were together, the more it bothered me.”
“Nah, don't be.” Riyad's smile was reassuring and genuine. “I mean, she wasn't, like, ‘Riyad, you suck’ or anything like that. If it'd been her at the grocery store, she'd have been apologizing to the manager for me, and telling me that a member of the D'sen clan shouldn't be acting like that in public. Like I said, my father loved her. She wanted to get married, actually. I thought about it. I mean, lots of people I knew were married and I'd been with her for a while, so it kind of felt like I was supposed to. I was twenty-two, though. I wasn't ready for that. She was, so we broke it off. She needed someone ready to settle down and that wasn't me.”
Nyr nodded, following the story with interest. He'd heard from the others as part of their teasing jibes that Riyad had been something of a playboy in his college years. A lot of what he heard about Riyad didn't match up with what he saw, though. It was interesting to hear the stories from the man himself. “Do you ever regret not marrying her?”
“Not really. I don't really think about her anymore. I've got my life and she's got hers. If I really had made a mistake in letting her go, I think I'd have felt it by now.” Riyad twisted around on his swing to face Nyr. “So, what about you? Any secret love affairs? Illegitimate children? Unrequited passions?”
Nyr turned scarlet. “How can you even ask me that with a straight face?”
“I was joking. Well, mostly. Really, though, haven't you ever had a girlfriend?”
“No.” Nyr had planned to leave it at that, but the look Riyad gave him told him he expected more. He sighed and watched their reflections in the glass, two adults looking drastically oversized among the child-sized equipment.
“It's not like I wasn't interested,” he began, but the words seemed wrong even as they left his lips. “No. I don't know. It never really occurred to me to be, I guess. I've known I was going to be a priest since...well, for most of my life, and priests aren't allowed to marry. I guess I always just thought it was easier to give up something you never had rather than lose it." He gave a small, self-deprecating smile, looking down at his feet rather than at Riyad's reflected profile.
“I sort of failed at that, though,” he continued. “I was envious. I'd perform marriage ceremonies and all I could think about was how much I wanted what they had. I wanted someone to love me. After a couple of years, I just sort of lost my passion for my faith because I'd become so consumed by my desires. Not...not physical desires. Just an emptiness. I felt like I was being eaten alive from the inside out. I was lonely. I realized that no one had told me they loved me since I was ten, and it just sort of killed me inside that I had absolutely no one. I started to realize I wasn't supposed to be a priest if it made me so unhappy, that I was supposed to do something else with my life. And now I'm here. So, in a way, the only love affair I've ever had was with the church and I sort of walked out on that one.”
Riyad was silent for just a moment before he stood up from his swing, his black sneakers squeaking on the rubbery safety flooring. “Man, I'm sorry. I am such an ass. I mean, here I am talking about all the girls I've brought up here and I wasn't even thinking about you. Just going on about things and practically rubbing that shit in your face and--”
“--And I don't mind in the slightest.” Nyr tugged on the sleeve of Riyad's sweatshirt, demanding his attention and giving him a smile. “I really don't, Riyad. Don't worry about it.”
”But it did bother you,” Riyad insisted, taking his seat on the swing again. “I mean, I thought you were just getting kind of bored listening to me talk, but I was making you uncomfortable, wasn't I?”
Yes. Nyr didn't know why it felt like both the truth and a lie. He hadn't been uncomfortable--not really. He didn't envy Riyad all the women he had dated, didn't wish to be in his shoes with Missy or Jasmine or any other woman he'd never met or heard about until that evening. They were just names attached to a life he hadn't lived and had no desire to emulate. He wasn’t jealous of Riyad for the women he'd been with. He was jealous of--
Nyr inhaled deeply, steadying himself against the chains of the swing. No. They were friends. Nothing more. He thought about the two of them sitting on the couch, watching the news and trying to see who's cereal made the loudest crunch and a genuine smile lit his face.
“I wasn't uncomfortable, Riyad. Just daydreaming. Like I said, I'm a envious man; always wanting what I can't have.”
Riyad's features softened and he gave Nyr's shoulders a friendly pat. “Nyr, a guy like you can have any girl he wants. Someday you're going to meet a girl who takes your breath away, who's going to be with you for the rest of your life, and I'll be there to say I told you so.”
Nyr kept the smile on his face. “We'll see.”
They stayed until sunset; Riyad promised the most spectacular sight from his playground observatory. For some idiotic reason, Nyr let Riyad spin him around on his least favorite piece of equipment, earning him a good ten minutes lying on the ground trying not to throw up, watching Riyad climb on top of structures never intended for that purpose. And it was fun. Being with Riyad was always fun, even when the activities were mundane.
Riyad hung upside down from anything and everything he could and used the rest as balance beams, while Nyr managed to impress him in the limbo competition under the child-height bars. When the sun had vanished completely they climbed to the top of the playground tower and watched as the brightest stars penetrated through the darkness of the sky and the bright lights of the city. It didn't seem possible to have spent several hours on a playground several sizes too small, but not a dull moment had passed.
“I don't think we're going to get the shopping done today.”
Nyr laughed, turning his gaze to Riyad. “I kind of got that impression too.”
“Well, there's always tomorrow.”
Nyr looked back up, but felt Riyad lean closer so that he could reach out and trace something along Nyr’s chest. After a moment, he withdrew as though satisfied.
“Mind if I ask you something?”
Nyr nodded, his own hand replacing Riyad's around the simple, gold-colored cross dangling from the chain around his neck.
“That's the sign of your god, right? How come you wear his sign, but you don't worship anymore?”
It certainly wasn't anything he expected the Arcadian to ask. Nyr shrugged his shoulders, fingers twisting around the necklace.
“It's sort of complicated. More complicated than it needs to be, really, so feel free to laugh at me when I tell you this.” Nyr stretched one leg out in front of him, trying to get feeling back into his toes. “I'm not really familiar with how you worship your ancestors, but with Christianity, it's a social thing. You know everyone and everyone knows you, like a large extended family. I grew up with my church, I was baptized as an infant there, and it was my home. If I went back there, though, I'd be Father Kelly. That's how they knew me best and how they'll probably always think of me. Being a priest has a certain stigma attached to it. Makes people think you must be better than them, or that you think you are, anyway, and it puts me at a distance. I don't want that. I just want to me Nyr. But I'm not really ready to go find a new church and build that relationship up again. I don't want to be comparing it to what I had and miss out on something new and wonderful. So...I don't know. That's pretty much it. I don't want to go to my old one and I'm not interested in attending a new one."
“Oh.” Riyad smirked to himself. “I always thought it was because you'd already read the book. Kind of like asking a math teacher to attend math class.”
Nyr couldn't help but chuckle at the analogy. “I guess that's another reason why I'm in no hurry.”
“I was just curious. I like the symbol. It's simple but it has a sort of elegance to it.” Riyad looked from the necklace back into Nyr's eyes. “Does it work sort of like a talisman? Does it ward away evil spirits or anything like that?”
“Not that I'm aware of. The cross itself has a sort of power to it because of what it symbolizes, but not like that.”
“What does it symbolize?”
“Love.” Nyr smiled. “Unconditional love.” He reached behind his head and unclasped the chain, letting the necklace fall from his neck into his hand. He held it out for Riyad to hold, pouring it into his palm. “When I was growing up, it meant everything to me to believe that somewhere, someone loved me no matter who I was or what I did.”
Riyad stroked the necklace carefully, moving it around in his hand with a far off look on his face. His expression was guarded, his silence unnatural. Nyr watched him, unsure of what to say. He knew very little about his home life and family--only that they were rich and powerful by Solacian standards and practically royalty in New Arcadia. Nyr’s mind conjured up thoughts of distance, of polished lives that lacked in nothing save human touch and time alone together. Whether it was an accurate representation of his life or not, it pulled at Nyr's heartstrings to imagine a time when Riyad might have felt as he did: lonely and wishing for love.
Nyr wrapped his hand around Riyad's, closing his fingers over the chain and charm. “You know, I don't really need it, anymore,” he said, guiding it away from himself and toward his friend. “But it would make me happy if you wore it as a reminder that someone loves you.”
Riyad's eyes grew large with surprise, pulling the gift to his chest. “Your god loves even those who don't share in your faith?”
His god? Nyr bit at the inside of his lip, reminding himself again where the boundaries were. “Of course. He loves everyone.”
Yes. A sign of God's love. Riyad was only a friend. Should only be a friend. Could only be a friend.
Riyad's smile grew warm as he clasped it around his neck. “You won't mind too much if I take it because it's yours more than because of your god, will you? I like having things to remind me of the people close to me.”
All the warmth of his smile flowed into Nyr. “No. I don't mind at all.”
After a few more moments, stifling a yawn, Nyr followed Riyad along the skyway and onto a tram that would take them close to home. Sitting side by side, he tried not to think too much about the night they'd spent together, though he couldn’t help smiling every time he pictured Riyad hanging upside down with his hair brushing on the ground.
“I'd glad you came with me, today,” Riyad said, interrupting the silence they'd adopted since boarding the tram. “I haven't had that much fun in a while.”
“Same here.” Nyr ducked his head, pretending to look out the window across from them while instead he peered at Riyad's reflection. He was smiling at him, one hand playing with the cross hanging from his neck. A symbol of friendship? No.
Nyr closed his eyes, trying to suffocate the part of him that took so much joy in seeing his cross hanging against Riyad's chest. He knew better.
Riyad deserved better.