If Roland’s face were not such a bright red, it would have been a gaunt green. Dry heaving was what finally made him realize that there was merit in Greg and Adil’s cautions to finding somewhere shady or cool to rest. The Karma City’s domes might have kept out malicious data, but they did not do much of anything else. Heat—that part concerning the surface had been forgotten about, considering Roland still donned his average layer count of three. Their city underground was refreshing in comparison, but three layers of dense, dark colors were not doing him any favors above ground. Oddly enough he was not the only one sporting out of context clothing: scarves were winter weather wear. At least Adil was sweating from wearing the scarf, but the same could not be said for Roland and his clothing choice.
Not many of them, Lokapala or unaffiliated civilian, had prioritized taking the recommended amount of fluids since moving underground, because water had become scarce. The only drink Adil ever remembered Roland quaffing down was the counterproductive type. As he thought about it longer, he wondered if he ever saw Roland consume anything outside a casual drink: neither liquid nor a ration—but he was not around him every moment to assure accusations that he survived off of next to nothing.
Up until then, Roland had gotten by convincing himself that his condition had not excruciatingly deteriorated and that resting would have been a bother. Greg said something about how it was ill advised—foolish—to disregard ailments or complaints especially during the minute endeavors like reconnaissance. He was not the type to try an persuade otherwise, especially when all three of them knew he was right, so Adil volunteered to break off from the group to accompany Roland somewhere suitable.
Adil discerned that place to be the entrance to the Underwater Cable. It was their travel path back to Old Portland anyway; plus, the repairmen often found themselves down there for long, extended hours, so there were repurposed spare rooms for short rests. He had gone scavenging for something small and cold in the closest room. There was a small refrigerator there that stored some leftover food, which caught his attention, but only for less than a moment. Boxed food was not the best for Roland’s current condition or his own needs. It would have been for later. Maybe he could attempt to convince Roland to eat something when their situation was resolved, he wondered, but he was not confident in his persuasion. Attempting to convince Roland to lie down had not gone over well prior, however a dirty, concrete floor as the option did not help his case; he certainly would not have wanted to lie down on it either.
There was also a hand-sized canteen in the freezer portion of the refrigerator, so he took it with him instead and reconvened with Roland who was sitting on the floor next to some wall-space.
The heat must have gotten to Roland’s common sense. Enough of it remained intact for him to have taken off that coat of his, but the black jacket he wore as a mid layer remained zippered up on his torso.
“Take the jacket off too,” Adil demanded.
He was hoping for the request to be enough distraction to get by undoing Roland’s pants without any questioning or fuss, especially since his fingers did not want to work with him the first go around at unbuttoning the waistband. Roland shifting about in efforts to undress did not help his cause either, even when his movements were languid. The situation could have been worse, Adil considered, weighting in other possibilities: Roland could have worn a belt. Eventually, the canteen found its way into an uncomfortable portion of Roland’s upper pant leg and crotch. There was not anything to wrap the container in as an extra, buffer layer—besides the scarf, but Adil discerned it was not feasible material or size for that particular purpose—so he was counting on Roland’s boxer briefs to work well enough.
There was a burning sensation forming where the canteen was, but when he gave effort to address the discomfort, Roland realized Adil’s hand had never left its post. Roland mumbled Adil’s name under his breath a few times as an attempt to grab his attention. It was not until past the third try Adil decided to humor him.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he huffed, “did I put it in the wrong spot?”
Adil shoved the canteen farther down onto the inner thigh and some bare skin, but the chill was not as uncomfortable as Adil’s glare locked in place, set at staring Roland down. It must have started to sweat from defrosting because his fingertips felt moist, and it certainly was not from Roland; his skin still had not glossed. There was also a cold spot on his bare forearm. He did not think about it enough to tell if the pant fabric had actually gotten damp or if he was just imagining it from an illusion proposed by temperature.
Both of them picked up on the clanking footsteps against metal stairs, making their way down from the surface. Adil had not budged, and Roland accepted that he was not going to either.
“How are you two doing?”—It was Greg. Either he and the rest of the group were done with scouting, the two of them had been gone longer than it seemed, or both. There had only been one set of footsteps either way.
“Just peachy,” Adil exclaimed with a dry humor, “Everything’s under control.”
Adil having his hand halfway down the upper portion of Roland’s pants was not exactly what Greg considered to be under control, whether it be from injury or intimacy. Greg knew it was not the former and did not want to impose about the later, so instead he gave them a brief status update and went on his way.
Before the rest of the makeshift reconnaissance group followed suit, Adil removed his hand and the canteen from Roland’s groin—to start unbuttoning Roland’s shirt in its place. He had only gone one button down because the collar button had already been undone; that one was never buttoned on any occasion. It was uncomfortable and suffocating for Roland when it was done up, but Adil pushing the fabric away from his neck also felt unreasonable. Open, exposed, susceptible, vulnerable—a bare neck felt likewise for Adil, but he sacrificed his scarf and folded it nice and neat until it was well-cushioned rectangular shape.
Although the outside of the canteen was wet, that superficiality was misleading for the actual water content. A large chunk of ice remained clunking around the center, so only a questionable amount of liquid was poured out of the container onto the scarf. There was enough to dampen the fabric, so Adil placed the wet side flush against Roland’s neck anyway.
“You could have just put it on my neck to begin with,” Roland said in a playfully sly tone, “or where you that eager to get your hand down there?”
Adil’s tense expression remained unmoved.
“The groin has a lot of blood flow close to the surface,” Adil answered, “It’s a way to cool yourself in a pinch… Did you forget you were overheating?”
Roland fell silent.
“You’re right. The neck is a good spot too,” he continued, grabbing Roland’s hand and placing it where his own had been to hold the scarf in place, “but it wouldn’t have sent the same message.”—Adil picked himself up off of the floor—“Don’t be an idiot again! Honestly, you have a better head on your shoulders than that.”
It took more effort that Adil was willing to recognize or reconcile with to bite back the rest of the heat that had crept into his throat. He wanted to give him a good scolding, exclaiming that none of them were heroes and there was not much worth in being stoic, especially since they were simply scouting. Nothing had put them in the Karma Society’s crosshairs. If they had planned something excessive, or had been pursued, or shot at, or worse, then Adil was willing to give Roland a pass for keeping ills to himself to push on, but his current condition could have been easily avoided by using a little bit more sense.
‘You might end up doing something reckless enough,’ Adil thought, ‘where someone’s going to pay for it one day. Maybe then you’ll learn.’
“Well then, I guess it was a good thing I had you,” Roland said through a weak smile, “To err is human, to forgive is divine… I was being stupid. Do you think you can forgive an idiot?”
“Hmph… yeah, whatever,” Adil replied, easing his appearance, and extended his hand out to Roland afterwards. He took the offer. Neither of them anticipated the excessive vigor on Adil’s part, so Roland was hoisted up off guard enough to where he had to put some thought into maintaining solid footing. On the contrary, their grip was sturdy enough to hold both of their forearms tight and their torsos together. Adil took a moment to note how close he had pulled Roland in, and made sure to give himself enough space to insure easier access to re-buttoning and re-zipping what he had undone.
Roland considered himself to be efficient in assessing others’ mindsets, but Adil fixed his pants with such a stolid guise that he could not make much sense of it. The only change had been a slight compression in his expression when he jerked at the waistband and belt loops for good measure, as informative actions to say his pants were situated again, and it came and went alongside the quick gestures. What Roland did know was that he was thankful about having a sun-beaten face; otherwise the red in his cheeks would have been far more sudden and conspicuous.