Riyad slapped his hand down on the bedside clock as the preset alarm began its less than welcome chirp. Seven in the morning: he’d only been asleep for a couple of hours. There was sunlight, though, filtering into the room through the false window. Turning his head towards it and squinting through eyes swollen with sleep, Riyad could see a warning marquee running along where the windowsill would normalley be projected. The words were a blur but he imagined he knew what they said anyway. He wondered if the demons were diurnal creatures.
Beside him, Nyr’s breath was finalley evening back out into the less panicked breathing of near sleep. The alarm had startled them both, but Nyr most of all. His face was blushing red with embarrassment, his arms back at his sides in the awkwardness of morning, after holding Riyad while they slept and then clutching at him in fear. He rubbed one eye with the heel of his hand.
“Nah, don’t be.” Riyad smiled as he sat up. “I’d have been grabbing you, too, if I hadn’t recognized what the noise was.”
Nyr nodded, crossing both arms over his face to hide his red cheeks. There were scratches made by large hands crisscrossing both arms from shoulder to wrist; his torn shirt hid very few of the varied wounds he’d sustained the night before. The skin around the gashes into Nyr’s stomach and chest looked puffy and red. Riyad took them in with guilty eyes.
On his way to the kitchen to make breakfast, he turned the terminal on in the living room as he passed it. Ath’ran’s home was as familiar to Riyad as his own, but the absence of his friend and the children made the rooms eerily foreign. Even the kitchen, which he’d sometimes reorganized just to annoy Lisa, felt like it belonged to a family of strangers. The emptiness hurt. He poured two bowls of cereal and walked over to the couch where Nyr had sat down to watch the news. He handed him a bowl and spoon and sat beside him, chewing as quietly as possible as the newscaster spoke.
It took all of two minutes to realize what most of Solace apparently knew: the threat was over. Neither of them celebrated as they listened. The good news was dampened by the death toll, the damage estimates and the request of the military police for civilians to stay indoors while the city collected the bodies from the streets. Riyad saw tears on Nyr’s cheeks and placed a hand on his knee. Whether they were happy tears or mournful ones, Riyad shared the sentiment.
They watched as much of the news as there seemed to be, and turned the terminal off when the reports began to repeat themselves. Riyad took their empty bowls into the kitchen and washed them out. The back of Nyr’s head was a matted, tangled mess of bloodied hair, but it was all he could see of him from the kitchen counter. Talking to the back of his head was still easier than facing him, though.
“We should get you to a doctor.”
Nyr’s head shook slowly from side to side. “I’m fine,” he said. His voice was quiet and throaty.
“Some of those cuts look infected. Probably need some stitches too.”
“Half the city needs a doctor, Riyad. I can get by.”
Riyad couldn’t argue with that. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, though. Just because he wasn’t in danger of dying didn’t mean that he didn’t need to be taken care of. Riyad wiped the clean counter tops with a dry rag.
“Well, we’re well stocked back home, aren’t we? If we go home, you can fix yourself up. I mean, who knows what kind of diseases those monsters carry? Just because you’re not bleeding internalley doesn’t mean everything’s okay.” Riyad looked up from his counter. “You’re not, right?”
Nyr chuckled lightly, turning his head to the side to look over his shoulder at his friend. “If I were, I don’t know that even Ath’ran’s alarm clock would have woken me up.”
It wasn’t funny, but Riyad smirked at him for his wry reply. That they had both survived the night was a feat, when there were thousands of other people who hadn’t managed to do the same. Du’shan hadn’t. Jin hadn’t. The home Riyad longed to return to now had two rooms without tenants. He tried not to think about it too much. His eyes and face burned from crying the night before.
“Do you think they’ve removed their bodies?”
Riyad didn’t require clarification. “Depends on if the crews are just doing the streets right now or if they’ve moved into the alleys and buildings.”
Nyr nodded and stood up, aches showing in the stiffness with which he moved. The muscles in his shoulders, visible through the tatters of his shirt, were tense with the anxiety of the night before. Riyad often forgot the physical power his soft-spoken friend possessed. He had thick arms strong enough to push either Du’shan or Ath’ran around if he chose to, but Riyad had only ever experienced them as reliable and comforting as he had the night. He imagined, for an instant, Nyr punching the demons in their ugly faces and fighting his way to relative safety while Riyad himself had run the other way; Nyr, the one man army driving the demons away as he searched for Riyad, every scratch their claws managed to lay on him nothing more than futile grasping as they were beaten back. Nyr, the hero who couldn’t be taken down until just before they dragged him into the lobby. Nyr, the unbroken.
Riyad hated that he couldn’t make it true. As Nyr turned towards him, not even the overhead lights reflected in his eyes. Riyad could not bring himself to ask him what horrors he had seen.
“How mad do you think they’d be if we walked home today instead of staying here?”
“Who, the Military Police?” Riyad shrugged, looking away uncomfortably. “They might bitch and moan a little, but I’d kind of like to get you to the infirmary, so you’ve got my vote if you want to ditch this place.”
He did. Riyad took a shirt from Ath’ran’s closet and handed it to Nyr before scribbling down a note telling his friend of the change in plans: We’ll be at the old building. Basement’s probably still in good shape. Come over when you can or call and I’ll come. Realley want to see you. Love, Riyad Shihar.
He left the note where he knew it would be seen and ignored the blood-smeared pillowcases and sheets they were leaving behind. He thought for a second that they might alarm Ath’ran unduly, but any misunderstanding that meant they would see each other sooner rather than later was welcome as far as Riyad was concerned.
Riyad led Nyr back out of the apartment and down the elevator, expecting the worst. Somehow the destruction still amazed him, left him standing opened mouthed just behind the retracted elevator doors. He held Nyr’s hand as they stepped out into the lobby, watching through the glass windows as garbage trucks full of mangled corpses trolled the streets with men in uniform walking in front.
It was no secret what became of the bodies of dead Solacians: they were biodegradable products full of nitrogen and carbon and other precious compounds. In the coming months, biochemists would produce a surge of products due to the spiking quantity of available materials. Everyone knew this and no one batted an eye at it. Du’shan would be in one of those trucks, though; so would Riyad’s father. It was an unfitting chariot for the bodies of two deserving Arcadians.
Riyad’s fists and chest clenched at the same time. Nyr looked at him, then at the truck slowly passing down the bloodied road.
“There’s no trash in the trucks with them. Different processing. It’s just probably the largest vehicle in service.”
Riyad nodded and pulled them through the doors to the sidewalk outside. He didn’t mention the elaborate funeral ceremonies performed in New Arcadia, or the sands strewn with the ashes of their ancestors. Du’shan and his father would never be a part of that endless burning sea. He wished them well and prayed they were making the journey alone; that the rest of the D’sen and Mukshah were still among the living. There were so many calls to make.
Other than the clean up crews and corpses, there were few people outside in the streets. A few curious bystanders stood huddled together as though their proximity to the living would protect them from the reality of the death all around them. An even sparser amount had dared to step out among the prone bodies, brushing back hair from unclosed eyes and arranging postures from rag doll to human. When the trucks came, necessity would mean that the bodies would simply stop being people. Until then, they were still lost family and friends, though.
Riyad led Nyr back to the decimated lobby where his father’s remains still laid to find the building and those to either side were nothing more than mountains of rubble. Six buildings in all, he counted, had been reduced to dust and debris. The city would be pulling bodies out of that rubble for months. They left the scene without realley stopping; other than the shock of the missing high rises, there was literalley nothing to see. The walk towards home showed similar landscapes of ruin where sun-blocking towers had stood. Riyad began to fear the worst.
The building with the pub was mostly intact. The front windows and walls that had been shattered and blown in when the attacks began seemed to be the extent of the structural damage. The street in front had already been cleared of bodies; they found that the inside had been picked clean as well when they peered through the windows searching for Jin.
They traced hurried steps into the alley at the back of the pub, but the trucks had been there too. There was pooled blood against the wall in a wide, thick smear. It was a sticky mess of crimson against the concrete, thinner where the body had been. Nyr whispered a prayer and Riyad stood silently beside him while he did. Then, crossing himself, Nyr knelt and pressed his hand into the thick, congealed mess, leaving the concrete exposed through the print he’d left.
“What does that mean?” Riyad asked, watching Nyr rise and stare down at his bloodstained hand.
Nyr shook his head. “It doesn’t mean anything. I just wanted to do it.” He looked over at Riyad, worried. “Should I not have done that?”
Riyad smiled faintly and knelt, pressing his own hand in Du’shan’s blood, overlapping Nyr’s print closely enough that, upon standing, he saw that the two prints formed the shape of a heart.
The old blood was sticky with a strong smell, and they wiped it off on their pants. They stood a moment longer, looking down at all that remained as evidence of Du’shan Mukshah’s body, then walked the few short blocks home.
The first bit of good news they’d had since that morning’s news report was that their building was intact. Even the alley that led to the Protectors of Antiquity’s door was free from any evidence of slaughter. It was deserted under normal circumstances, so the running mobs and monsters seemed to have missed it in their frenzy.
The front door was locked as usually, but it opened when Riyad typed in the entrance code. The air inside still smelled of spices and laundry. When the door closed behind them, the low hum of the terminal was the only sound in a home built far too big for two.
It wasn’t until Riyad had taken several steps into the living room that he saw the barrel of a gun peeking out from around a corner. He didn’t waste time wondering how someone had broken inside; he grabbed Nyr and shoved himself in front of him, pushing them back towards the door. He heard a click from the gun--was it the safety or the chamber?--and stared as an arm and body came around the corner as well.
The man from Xifeng flashed a toothy, crooked grin, the gun hanging limply at his side. Nyr rushed him and hugged him, with Riyad only a few steps behind.
“You’re alive! Sands, Jin, we thought you were dead!”
“Come on, Riyad, I’m the master of survival. Like some random monster is going to really be the end of me. I’m surprised at you for doubting me.” Jin’s smile faltered only slightly as he added, “Rough night, huh?”
Riyad nodded, looking him over for wounds. Like himself, Jin was relatively unharmed. There were scratches and bruising, but all of his limbs were accounted for and none of his features were marred by claw or tooth marks. The acrobat truly did have an uncanny ability for escaping from danger.
“What happened, Jin? The lights went out and Du’shan pulled us out of the room, but you were just gone. How’d you get out?”
Jin’s smirk was proud. “I didn’t. I rolled under some dead bodies and played dead too. Got stepped on. That was a bitch. Had to wet myself too and I haven’t done that since I was.... Well. I stayed in the pub until it felt safe enough to make a run for it. I saw Du’shan’s body...” His smirk and gaze both faltered. “I figured you two were gone, too. Helped myself to Du’shan’s gun since he didn’t need it anymore. Just sort of been up waiting for something to find me here since then. Never thought it would be someone I knew, let alone you guys.” His smile returned as the honesty left his eyes. “What about you two? How’d you last the night?”
Riyad looked at Nyr whose story he was more interested in hearing than he was in retelling his own. Nyr smiled slightly, tousled Jin’s hair, and walked past him towards the infirmary as though he hadn’t heard the question.
Jin frowned and mussed his hair back into whatever style he imagined it had been in before. “He okay? Looks like the got at him a couple times.”
Riyad shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows,” he admitted, then tousled Jin’s hair as well as he followed Nyr.
Jin hung back at the infirmary door, afraid perhaps they’d continue to find reasons to mess with his hair if he drew any closer, while Riyad steered Nyr away from the cabinets and towards the nearest table. “You can’t reach the ones on your back anyway so just lay down and I’ll take care of it.” Nyr opened his mouth to decline but Riyad pressed his fingers to his friend’s lips. “Just let me.”
Nyr stared at him for a moment before lowering his eyes and nodding slowly. He slid up onto the exam table and drew Ath’ran’s borrowed shirt up over his head. Jin whistled at the deep gashes that were revealed and Riyad squinted at what could be bone as he walked around to inspect Nyr’s back. He came back, drew open the cabinets and took down the peroxide and cotton swabs, eyes searching for the pain killers he knew he’d had been on the last order form he’d signed for Jin. The bottle was curiously low on pills as he poured out two into his palm. He filled a small cup with water at the sink and carried his supplies over to Nyr.
“I know it probably won’t make a huge difference with me messing with your cuts, but maybe it’ll help.”
Nyr’s eyes widened curiously at the pills as he looked from Riyad to his outstretched hand. “Thanks...” he muttered, taking them in his own shaking grasp.
It was an odd exchange but Riyad ignored it. “I think you probably need some stitches.”
”The needle and thread are in the second drawer on the left. The syringe and numbing agent are next to it.”
Riyad followed his directions and pulled the black twine and curved needle out of their sanitary wrappings along with the prepackaged syringe. “I’ve never done anything like this,” he warned, bringing his collection of tools and medications back to the patient. “How bad can I mess it up?”
“Worst you can do following my instructions is cause wider scarring. That doesn’t really matter to me.” Nyr pulled the tray closer and demonstrated on a deep gash in his chest how to clean, numb and sew the wounds closed. He let Riyad slide the last few stitches in under his observation and smiled at the careful precision with which the Arcadian worked against his skin.
Riyad bit his lip in concentration as he pulled the needle through one last time. “I’m still all for taking you to a hospital and getting someone who’s had more than a couple minutes of instruction to do this.”
“I don’t get to be the nurse at a hospital,” Jin argued, holding out the scissors for Riyad to snip the end of the thread. “I think this is fun. Let’s get started on the big ones already.”
Riyad felt a smile bloom against his cheeks as naturally as it had in the past. Maybe he was still avoiding the pain from the night before or had found a safe place inside to store it for later, but the smile felt genuine. He could feel the smile in his eyes, and everything seemed to soften and tense at the same time as a slight laugh built in his chest. There were real things to be happy about and his grief couldn’t overshadow them. He tousled Jin’s hair just to piss him off and smiled up at Nyr, whose solemn demeanor cracked slightly as Jin muttered curse and smoothed his hair back down. Things would be okay, Riyad told himself with growing assurance: nothing survived just to stay broken.