Chapter 23


Du'shan was nicely buzzed when he came home. Not drunk, but certainly under the influence. Ath'ran had been in a rare, generous mood that night, meeting with him in a bar for drinks after getting off work. They'd celebrated jobs well done, the indomitable spirit of the Mukshah and tipped back their glasses to the future. It was a better excuse for drinking than Du'shan usually had, and better company than nameless drunkards provided. He hoped Lisa would take it easy on Ath'ran once he arrived home sauced and a little late after a night out with his cousin. It would certainly be putting her feelings towards Du'shan to the test.

As for Du'shan, he welcomed the sluggish state of mind, finding it both comfortable and familiar. Thoughts weren't as rough around the edges, things were less important and the nagging sense that he could have or should have done something more with his life had ebbed into a lesser melancholy. Alcohol wasn't a cure for what ailed him, but it was a strong enough medicine to get him through the day.

Nyr and Riyad Shihar were on the couch in the front room when he came in, neither in need of anything more than good company to lighten their spirits. He envied them that. The terminal was on, filling the air with the droll, badly acted lines of an overly dramatic drama, but the two of them seemed not to even notice it was utter crap. They sat along side each other, Riyad's head almost resting on Nyr's, his shoulder pressed against Nyr's arm. They looked cozy. Du'shan almost felt bad about having to walk in front of them to get to his room, like it might snap them out of the trance that had left them looking so content.

Riyad was fingering something around his neck. The motion caught Du'shan's attention; Riyad didn't own much in the way of jewelry. He had a few fine pieces handed down to him that were worn on special occasions, but nothing he wore everyday. It was a shape Du'shan recognized, but it was around the wrong neck. The gold cross belonged to Nyr, but it was Riyad who was wearing it.

The small golden charm made him uneasy. His hesitancy to announce himself faded. Du'shan cleared his throat. "Hey."

Nyr was the first to look up, a cheerful smile spreading across his cherub face. "Oh, hey. Have a nice night?"

Du'shan nodded, taking his time to walk across their field of vision. "Yeah, Ath'ran says hi. You two look comfortable sitting there."

"We are," Riyad informed him, looking around him so that he wouldn’t miss anything on the screen. Nyr looked at Riyad instead, his face pink, as though he'd been unaware how much couch was available to them and how close the two were sitting.

Du'shan looked away from them and headed for the kitchen. "Cool," he said over his shoulder before disappearing into the other room.

The air still smelled of Riyad's home cooking and he salivated with just that ghostly taste of it. Peanuts and chips were not a meal and he'd made sure to save room for something with more substance.

He had the fridge door open, hand on the dish the leftovers were in, when he heard footsteps enter the kitchen behind him. Du'shan pulled out his food and bumped the fridge door closed with his elbow. Nyr was sitting at the kitchen bar watching him, smiling. Du'shan gave him the briefest of nods and turned to reheat his dinner.

"I think Riyad's a little jealous Ath'ran invited you out and not him."

"Looked to me like he was content with the way he'd been spending the evening." Du'shan glanced over at him, not sure how to continue or if he even should. He stirred the saffron colored gravy and rice and put it into the microwave, watching Nyr through the reflection in the tempered glass. Were it anyone else, Du'shan was certain it wouldn't be a difficult thing to discuss. He owed it to Ath'ran to look out for Riyad, though, not that he wasn’t around, so the task fell to him. He cleared his throat again, nervously. "So...you and Riyad seem to be getting close."

"Uh...yeah. Well, we like a lot of the same stuff. Like...food."

For someone who hadn't grown up in an Arcadian family, Nyr certainly had taken a liking to the food. It was much more than that, though. Whenever Du'shan needed to look for one of them, the other was almost always close by. They came and went together, engaged in the housework as a team; the sound of their combined laughter was as much a part of the day as an alarm clock or the phone ringing.

"You're practically soul mates," Du'shan pointed out, choosing his words carefully.

They brought an even brighter shade of red to Nyr's cheeks than his comment to him in the living room had. His voice came out softer, meek or maybe even scared as his eyes searched the counter top.

"It's not like that..." he began. "I mean... we're both men."

It wasn't exactly a fact Du'shan had overlooked. He hadn't denied it though--the connection or attraction or both. Nyr wasn't a liar, but he was decent at skirting around uncomfortable territory with convincing vagueness. If he felt nothing, though, he'd have been direct. Nyr was still far too easy to read.

The microwave beeped and he removed the steaming bowl of rice and meat. The gravy was bubbling lightly and slightly crispy on the sides of the container. He stirred it again, hoping he'd get to enjoy at least a few bites before the conversation ruined his appetite. The first bite was almost too hot to taste, but the second left a small smile in the corner of his lips. Riyad had tried a new recipe again. He did that a lot more since Nyr had moved in.

"Being of the same gender isn't something many Arcadians take issue with," he explained, pushing himself to continue with his conversation. "However, Riyad Shihar's father isn't one of them."

There was a brief pause. Du'shan ate and avoided looking at Nyr as he let the point soak in. Detestable as his task was, there were sure to be no short cuts through it.

When Nyr found his voice and asked, "What does that mean?" it was less a surprised inquiry than a whispered sigh of resignation settling over both of them. The conversation was no longer between two friends but between a man serving as Riyad's retainer and a man who, perhaps, loved him.

Du'shan sighed, setting his spoon down. He would show his respect by giving Nyr his full attention. The food could be reheated.

"I don't know what your views on the subject are, but I can tell that you are attracted to him on some level," he began, locking his eyes with Nyr's. He hoped there was sincerity in his gaze, not just the half-glazed twinkle of a man with half a bottle of liquor in his gut. "You seem very happy around him, but I want you to know ahead of time that it's pretty much impossible. Even if Riyad wanted a relationship, his family would be against it and he won't go against his father."

He regretted having said anything instantly. Nyr's eyes grew large with alarm and he looked away, like a child caught in a shameful act.

"I never... I don't expect anything to come of it," he explained. His voice wavered, matching the mixture of fear and self-loathing that were as obvious in his expression as his affection for Riyad had been.

"Please don't make that face."

"What face?" Nyr asked, looking up at him as though he expected to be reprimanded.

Du'shan shook his head. He had no business telling other people to go easy on themselves, but he wished Nyr would. "I'm not saying you did anything wrong. I don't think Riyad Shihar realizes how magnetic he is. And it's entirely possible that he feels the same way as you do. But he would be disowned if he acted on it, and it would crush him."

"His father would disown him?"

Du'shan nodded, feeling it safe to look away and take another bite of his meal while he still had an appetite. It was fading with every blow he felt himself take at Nyr's heart. He’d never been a fan of necessary evils.

"That's terrible."

"Arcadians are severe," Du'shan added.

"But that's his family..."

"And he has some thirty-odd brothers and sisters who can take his place in his father's heart. Riyad only has one parent, and he was his mother's only child. Should he be disowned, it would be a dishonor to her as well as to him within his clan. He can't afford that, with his history."

Nyr was silent for a moment, looking down at his lap, shoulders slumped in defeat. He raised his head a little higher when he spoke, though his voice was hardly a whisper. "I understand."

Du'shan wished he'd brought a bottle home with him to share. Buzzed wasn't going to cut it for long, looking at Nyr's sad face. They were both orphans--they understood the underlying desire to be a part of something and to be loved. Even if he was only the bearer of bad news, Du'shan felt somehow personally responsible for denying Nyr his first love.

He sighed, rubbing his face. Better him than Ath'ran, in any case. He put a hand out and clasped Nyr's shoulder in a comforting gesture. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Nyr's forced smile was shaky at best. "It's wrong to feel this way and I know it...but it's nice... And I don't need anything from him to feel this way. We're friends. That's how it's supposed to be."

"There isn't anything wrong with it. And you deserve happiness."

"I am happy."

Du'shan thought it was an absurd lie. But if he was lying, Nyr had gotten much better at it in the past few minutes. His smile turned genuine as he placed his hand over Du'shan's on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring pat.

"I've got four of the best friends in the world," he said. "Who wouldn't be happy?"

Du'shan smiled a little, thinking of his own mixed misery despite the company he kept. It cheered him up a little to see Nyr smile despite the bad news, though. He envied him his optimism as much as he pitied him the hurt it could bring.

Nyr slid down from his stool, looking over his shoulder towards the front room where Riyad still sat with his attention glued to the screen.

"Want us to make room for you on the couch?" he offered.

Du'shan shook his head. "Nah, it's okay. I need to get more work done with Alan's books." He picked up the bowl of food and headed towards his room.

He hated trying to read the pompous texts, but they were a great deal more interesting than whatever it was the other two were watching. Besides, he was far enough into them that a few things had caught his attention as rather interesting. His grasp of written Standard had improved as well, helping make the works make sense. It was far from fun, but at least it wasn't entirely mind numbing.

"Well, if you need a break from that, you know where to find us."

He did. And he knew he'd find them cuddled on the couch in just the same way as before, as though nothing had been said. It was sad, in a way, but comforting in another. Change wasn't always bad, but some things deserved to stay the same.