Nyr dreamed in red. Not long before he’d dreamt in a full spectrum of color: bright hues in opaque mosaics of starburst fantasy that were beautiful but commonplace. His mind seemed to have forgotten all other colors now, or else it seemed to think that all things bled. Buildings and rubble were dark red with speckles of pink where rose colored light caught metal. Bodies were the same color as the pavement and both were covered in a vibrant pigment never found in nature. Once he thought he’d caught a glimmer of gold in Du’shan’s dead eyes, but he knew when he woke up that his memory filling in details that his mind had mis-colored.
Sitting at the bottom of the shower stall, Nyr let the hot water beat down on him long after he’d finished washing. His clean hair directed water over his face as he looked down at the drain and its clockwise pull along the dark gray-green laminate. It was almost a mercy that all dreams were red. It made knowing when he was awake and when he was asleep easier to distinguish once consciousness hit him. Though he often jolted awake in fear, covered in sweat that made the sheets stick to him and with his heart racing like he’d been running all night again, a glance at the cobalt blanket clutched in his hands would relax some of the tension in his body.
Right now, he could feel the stress still pulling at his shoulders, though. It felt as though the claws that had raked down his back had hooked into him and were dragging him down the drain along with the water--down into darkness.
Nyr straightened his leg and let his left thigh fall over the drain. He watched it pool, bounded by the lip of the walk-in shower. It rose up against his scalded skin, but he almost didn’t feel it against flesh that was numbed under the pinpricks of heat from the showerhead. He let the shower fill a bit, then bent his knee and watched an even larger whirlpool form and spiral down into unseen places. He repeated this several times, not sure why he found himself compelled to alternately flood and drain the floor of the shower over and over again. It was wasteful. Riyad would pay higher utilities taxes for negligent resource consumption. And he’d never say a word or bat an eye over it. Because that was the kind of person Riyad was at times: the kind that could ignore blame when faced with more pressing issues.
Within minutes of his first sight of the head of the D’sen clan’s face, it had been torn off and eaten. In place of his own.
The voice often echoed in his mind, followed by the monochrome pantomime of horror that ensued. Glistening red blood splashed against the marbled garnet floor, clung to the alien flesh of monsters with soul-burning eyed. Riyad’s own eyes filled with tears like blood as his orders were ignored.
In the dream-created silence, a voice that was both like and unlike his own always felt the need to point out the obvious: This is what you get for your sin; the one you love will resent you forever for being the one who lived. And the growing pool of blood from the father lashed at him with long tendrils like a living thing, banding him with acid burns until he looked more like one of the monsters than a man, transforming him into a creature only capable of inflicting pain, and left him to die in the ecstasy of his own despair.
Waking from those dreams, looking down at his pink, trembling hands, Nyr felt himself losing the battle against an already slain enemy. He would self-prescribe two pills and a shower. Any two pills would do so long as they took the edge off--two pills and the trembling stopped, and his mind stopped racing, and his thoughts were beaten down, down, down like drain water until reality was the beating of hot water against his head and shoulders and the illusion of power in a slowly flooding shower stall.
The knock at the bathroom door snapped Nyr’s head back so fast it smashed against the laminate wall with a hearty thunk and sent flashes of light and color across his vision like a kaleidoscope.
“Nyr? Hey, you okay? You didn’t fall asleep, did you?”
Nyr hissed and stumbled to his feet, feeling clumsy and awkward as he turned the water off and took a deep breath of the steamy air.
“I might have. Sorry.”
He pulled the curtain open and grabbed for a towel, feeling at the back of his head and inspecting his fingers to check for blood. Just a bump, though it throbbed and offered no help to the sudden dizziness of standing. He pulled the fluffy towel around his waist and answered the door, guilty steam rushing out to flirt in Riyad’s curls as the cooler air from the hall raised bumps along Nyr’s skin. He did his best to look sheepish at the thought of falling asleep in the shower.
Riyad blinked wildly before pushing his way into the bathroom. “Sands, you’re red. Sit down before you faint and hit your head or something.”
Nyr opened his mouth to explain he’d already hit his head, but allowed himself to be moved over to sit on the closed lid of the toilet as the blood racing back to his head continued to spark mists of color before his eyes.
Riyad rubbed the fogged mirror clear with the sleeve of his shirt. “You should have turned the ventilation on. Kept the steam from building up like this.”
“Didn’t plan to take all that long a shower.” He rubbed his face as he heard Riyad rummaging around, first to flip the vents on with a rattling hum, and then to mop up some of the water that had spilled out along the edge of the shower. “Don’t. I’ll get it.”
“Already doing it, so don’t worry about it.” Riyad tossed the wet towel into a bin, then ran his fingers over his brow where beads of condensation were already forming. “S’like a sauna in here. You going to be alright?”
“Yeah, don’t worry about it. People fall asleep in the shower all the time.” Whether they did or not, Nyr didn’t know. It felt important to specify, though. The hot water and warm, moist air weren’t a concern; if he was alright in a broader sense, however, was not something he felt equipped to answer.
Riyad steadied his hands on his hips as he leaned back to pop his back. “I can do dry heat, but moist heat is too much for me. Like my lungs forget how to breathe. Makes my whole chest feel heavy and sick.” He smiled, the beginnings of wrinkles puckering at the corners of his eyes. “We took cool baths growing up. Not cold, really, but refreshing, sort of. I’ve taken a hot bath a couple of times here, in the winter, but I don’t last long. With my luck, I’d be the first person to drown from stream and vapor.”
Nyr laughed a little, always thankful for Riyad’s lighthearted demeanor. It helped him forget for a moment the accusations he felt lay in wait just beneath the surface. It was much harder to look into Riyad’s dark brown eyes and feel despised when he smiled at him in earnest.
“I’ll let you get dressed. Sorry about barging in and all.” The Arcadian walked over to the door, hesitating slightly as his hand came to rest on the access panel. He looked over his shoulder through mischievous curls. “You know, Jin’s out this weekend to visit family, so it’s just you and me here. Want to go out for a meal? Save on the dishes for a night?”
Nyr looked up, somewhat surprised. "Uh...sure.”
He couldn’t imagine where they’d go; the regular pub had been destroyed and was still undergoing renovations. There were the regular fast food and take out places around, though. The two of them could probably do quite a bit of damage to a large pizza in one night.
“Okay. I’ll make reservations in that case.”
Nyr didn’t have the chance to do much more than blink in confusion before the door slid closed again, leaving him alone in the bathroom with only the hum of the ventilation fan.
He looked over at the clothes he’d brought to change into with a grimace: plaid sleep pants and a ribbed tank. He certainly hadn’t planned on leaving the headquarters, but he suspected that Riyad’s decision to go out for dinner had something to do with that. It wasn’t a very subtle way to hint that he needed to get up and do more than change into different sleepwear before crawling back into bed.
Grabbing his dewy clothing off of the steel rack, Nyr left the bathroom in his towel and hurriedly entered his own room down the hall. The florescent light flickered on and he tossed the sleepwear on the bed as he rummaged through clothes he hadn’t worn in weeks. He grabbed an olive-green polo and a pair of brown slacks, finding them both baggier than he remembered once they were on. He’d lost a bit of weight, he figured, standing in front of the mirror, ignoring dark rimmed eyes for a moment to inspect his gut. He didn’t look thinner, didn’t feel any more trim, but his clothes certainly looked larger on him than they had in the past. Looking down at the heap on the bed, he wondered if maybe his drawstring and elastic sleep pants hadn’t been a bad idea in the first place.
They left home around six, missing the bulk of the commuter traffic as they hopped on a bus heading out to where the restaurants were still open for business. They’d have had more luck going to the upper level, but Riyad spoke highly of the place he’d made arrangements with. Nyr would have worried about his casual attire if Riyad hadn’t been wearing a printed yellow T-shirt and worn jeans with frayed legs.
They alighted in a pedestrian zone that was packed with people milling about in front of a variety of eateries. Riyad pinched Nyr’s shirt and tugged him along with him as they wove through the crowd towards one particular door where a line of men and women in serving aprons flowed in and out. Nyr watched a wave of cred cards shoot up above the people’s heads, vying for attention. Watching the synchronized chaos, Nyr nearly walked into a woman’s chair as she sat at a table on the walk. Riyad chuckled and took him by the shoulders before he mowed into her, but the woman still gave Nyr a disparaging look.
“Careful. Gets a bit crazy here at dinner time.”
Nyr nodded and stuck close.
Inside things were quieter, but still high energy. The hostess sat them at a table in the middle of the clatter and chatter of mealtime. Riyad ordered them a couple beers and a skillet of dip for chips, and the waitress, smiling so broadly her gums were visible, walked off to other tables to continue her rounds. Nyr looked, mostly out of habit, and noticed her shirt was tucked into her pants, topped with a plain belt half covered by the string of her apron. He thought it was probably rather pathetic to expect every waitress who served them to have a little red thong showing. That nameless girl was dead; she’d died only fifty feet from the spot where Du’shan had crumpled and bled with her number in his pocket.
He squeezed his eyes closed for a second and tried to push thoughts of that night far out of mind.
“Sorry it’s loud.” Riyad leaned his elbows on the green, striped tablecloth. “The food’s worth it, though, and the service is fast.”
“No, it’s fine. Smells great.”
Riyad smiled, looking around the crowded dining room. “It’s different from the old place, but maybe we need a new place. This could be ours now.”
Nyr imagined Jin and Ath’ran in their company, joking and laughing and causing just enough of a scene to gain the interest of nearby patrons. Tables generally sat four much better than they sat five. It was hardly a perk of losing a friend.
They ordered and ate in comfortable silence, exchanging pleasantries but otherwise not saying much of consequence. The sounds of other people eating and conversing didn’t leave them much room left for probing questions; some things were better left said at a different volume, a more intimate setting. At least they both agreed that Ath’ran getting to spend time with his kids was a good thing and they both hoped that Jin had a good visit with his aunt.
As the restaurant became less crowded, food and drink was replaced with chips and beer glasses. Their empties hardly rested on the table long enough for the foam to finish sliding to the bottom of the glass before they were refilled.
“To the Impulse!”
“To the Protectors of Antiquity!”
Nyr clinked his glass against Riyad’s and poured the lager down his throat. Though neither had ever said anything to that effect, it seemed to have become a contest. Riyad slammed his empty glass on the table first, taking a breath as though he’d just come up from a dive, flushed and smiling; Nyr’s landed seconds later and fell onto its side with an uncoordinated brush of his hand. He fumbled with it as he righted it alongside Riyad’s, rims touching. The Arcadian laughed like thunder rolling in the distance.
“At least you hold it in you better than you hold it in your hand,” he noted.
Nyr’s already flushed face felt even warmer. “We all have our talents. Mine don’t really”---a pause for a chest burp--“really include binge drinking. More Du’shan’s vice than mine.”
“Well, good thing. I didn’t think medication and beer were a good mix.”
Nyr nodded lazily before his eyes shot open wide and his panicked muscles held him perfectly still. He tried to think of prescriptions he might still be on since the attacks. The antibiotics had been discontinued weeks ago. A startled search of Riyad’s face showed the guilty, regretful pinch of someone whose mouth was faster than his brain: he knew about the Nemurol.
“How long have you--”
“Not very long. Sorry, uh...this isn’t the place and honestly...I don’t know when the time for this kind of thing is.” Riyad flipped his hair from his face, rubbing at one temple as though winding a gear. “Is it...like...does it still hurt? Or is it something else?”
Nyr pursed his lips together but it wasn’t enough to keep honesty from bursting out the second he took a breath.
“I’m dependent.” Like a fast-running tram, the words only seemed to build up momentum as he let them out, and he couldn’t stop them. “Du’shan knew but...that’s it. It’s not--I’m not so bad that I need it all the time, but it’s harder right now and if you tell me I can’t have it anymore or make a big deal about this, I really don’t know what I’m going to do because it’s the only way I know how to calm down and function and it’s hard enough to want to get out of bed without having to worry about how I’m going to get through the day on my feet.”
Riyad’s expression was somewhat pained. Nyr looked away, hands balled into fists in his lap, shaking with nerves. He felt far more sober than he wanted to be.
“I can’t tell you what to do, Nyr. I hate it’s like that for you and I...I’d like it a lot if it wasn’t, but that’s not my call.”
Nyr nodded as he listened, and felt hopeful as Riyad leaned across the table and put a hand on his shoulder to get his attention. Despite the kindness in his voice, Nyr caught only seriousness in the Arcadian’s dark brown eyes.
“But that doesn’t mean I’m going to support the habit, Nyr. Because it’s my call what we keep stocked at our facility and it’s my money that pays for it. Last thing I want is you getting in some kind of legal trouble trying to get it through other means, so I mean... If you need it, we’ll make sure you get it. Just promise me you’ll work on not needing it. We’ll work out how we’re going to deal with the supply issue in my office later.”
Embarrassed nearly to the point of tears, Nyr nodded slowly.
Riyad’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “That’s boss Riyad Shihar’s stance on things, anyway.”
“Boss Riyad? Is there a different stance per role?”
The Arcadian smiled sadly. “Oh, yeah. Boss Riyad Shihar has to think of his employees’ health and safety. Friend Riyad is kind of hung up on how big of a douche he was to run off scared and leave you behind and...would bring you the Nemurol and a glass of water to wash it down with if he thought it would help at all to make it up to you.” Riyad’s hand slid from Nyr’s shoulder to his neck, guiding his face up to look him in the eyes again. “I am going to make that up to you, Nyr. The soonest I can. No matter what it takes.”
Nyr’s heart drummed in his chest so loudly that he thought perhaps he’d imagined the words--made them up to fill in the space where an admonishment should have been. He could almost feel his pulse pushing against the palm on his neck. Tingles ran down his spine and his eyes lost focus somewhere between reflecting on the green specks in Riyad’s eyes and the length of his lashes.
Nyr turned his head quickly and puked on the floor.
The waitress brought Riyad their receipt and they left.
On the bus, Nyr kept his eyes closed and his face cradled in his hands. The lurching of the bus over roads still in need of repair made the churning of his stomach worse, but at least his face was in the right direction if churning turned to spewing. He could almost feel the alcohol sloshing around in his gut.
It wasn’t all jostling and bumping along the way, though: Riyad’s long fingers ran up and down along his shoulders and spine as a welcome distraction, offsetting the sick, sour feeling with his gentle touch. Nyr was almost too easily distracted by the fingertips trailing over his shirt.
He imagined the fingers as paintbrushes and followed the snaking lines they drew. They laid down images of rolling dunes, winds of sand crashing against walls, rays of sun warm and burning. A smile spread secretly behind his palms as he felt the warmth of the Arcadian landscape in the touch of the Arcadian man. He imagined Riyad’s dreams in shades of gold and nearly fell asleep himself.
From the bus stop to their front door was hardly any distance at all, but Nyr still felt himself held closely as they crossed the street. He tripped on his own feet once, stumbling but staying upright with Riyad’s arm around his shoulders. There was a sense of déjà vu as they entered their quiet building, and it only grew stronger as they made their way to Nyr’s room. Nyr flopped down hard on the bed so that the springs groaned in response, and suddenly lacking the firmness of his friend’s frame as his own support, Riyad followed him down with a chuckle. He tried comically to sit up only to flop back down like a mop-headed doll. Nyr scooted onto his side to shake his head at the sight and allow his friend more room.
It was much easier to see the redness in his brown cheeks up close. Riyad smiled and turned onto his own side, facing Nyr. “Yeah. Do you mind?”
Nyr shook his head. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
He felt at the wall for the overhead light’s remote, knocking it off the wall on accident before killing the lights and failing to hang it back on its hook. It landed somewhere in the crevice between the wall and himself. He figured knowing that was enough for now; he could retrieve it when they needed the lights back on.
“You won’t leave, will you?”
Nyr blinked against the darkness as his eyes adjusted, searching for the frowning face with sober brown eyes. “Why would I leave?”
“I don’t know. But Ath’ran’s not around much anymore, and Du’shan’s gone. And my dad. I just...I don’t want to have to say goodbye to anymore people. For any reason. I want the people who are important to me to be with me forever.”
Nyr smiled slightly, embarrassed and thankful of the dark. “I promise you I’ll always near.”
Riyad chuckled and nestled against his pillow. “My aptly named friend.”
“That just means you’ll never forget.”
“Mm. Hey, Nyr?”
Nyr sighed, smiling despite the fact that he wanted to go to sleep sooner rather than later. “Yeah?”
“We’re still wearing our shoes.”
He wiggled his enclosed toes. They were.
When the laughter subsided, Nyr dozed off. He was greeted by the same world of reds: the same monotony of blood-colored buildings and people that always waited for his return. There was a new addition, though, hanging in the pink sky, and it reminded him of distant nights spent in full color: a warm, golden sun.