(tää kaikki sattui liian lujaa pieneen enkeliin)
Paris train pulled into the station of Idealo and was then left by those passengers whose long travel ended here. One of that group, a fairly tall young man, was now looking around the platform, somewhat at a loss. He was clad in a black overcoat, that emphasized his trimness and maybe made him look taller as well. His hair was dark, too, almost black - but his eyes were surprisingly light. The sun, appearing from behind the clouds every now and then, curiously moved its finger over his mop and looked into his golden irises. He was holding a suitcase in one hand and quite big package wrapped in brown paper in the other. He was soon approached by a porter asking which hotel the luggage should be shifted to, but the man only shook his head, and the carrier left, looking for another potential source of his income.
'The day that I have my luggage carried has yet to come,' Joshua Or concluded, thinking of what he should do next.
The train whistled and pulled out of the station to continue its journey south. People slowly dispersed, most of them accompanied by welcomers, and the platform was becoming empty. Josh adjusted the package under his armpit, clenched a handle of his suitcase and made for the station building. He left the luggage in the storage and went out to the city.
The depression from the north must have extended over the whole country, for it was cold ever here. End of June meant ungodly heat in Idealo, but today it was fifteen degrees at the very most. At least, it was quite a fine day; in Paris, it had been raining for some days now... Well, suspicious clouds did roll over the sky, but the sun didn't give up and kept shining on the bright scenery beneath them. Josh slowly walked down the Station Street, gracefully avoiding the puddles, that reflected the blue of the sky whenever they caught it.
After one year, he was back in Idealo. He hadn't even missed it, at least not consciously - but now he was greeting the familiar views with a mixture of emotion and melancholy. After all, it was this town he had spent some wonderful years in - and he had suffered from the greatest disappointment of his life, too... He was looking around, his gaze catching the well-known buildings and drawing out the characteristic points from the scenery. The tall tower of the Cathedral, the Town Hall, and the General Hospital more to the left. It seemed nothing had changed in Idealo, he quickly decided, as if he had left only yesterday. He took a deep breath, inhaling the atmosphere of calm and serenity he really had missed in Paris; that much he could admit.
As he made his way towards the Market Square, the streets became more crowded. It was early afternoon, so he could see few cars. He was being passed mostly by older people, as well as mothers with children. It seemed it had been raining here heavily in the last days, too, so the change in weather must have drawn the inhabitants out of their homes. Josh felt he was relaxing. The bustle of the city was surrounding him - and this time it was friendly. In Paris, he could never resist the impression the city wanted to eat him alive.
He crossed the market, passing the stalls and their customers, and entered the Little Market Square. He realized where he was only when he spotted the familiar sign just across the square, right ahead. The Patisserie Shelly had its door welcomingly open and tempted with the delicacies in the window. He came to a stop, overwhelmed by the surge of memories and emotions; emotions were even faster. He was standing there and trying to calm his heart and regain his balance. Finally, he relaxed his fists. No, he felt like eating a lunch, not a dessert. All his breakfast was two sandwiches he had eaten in the train, and his stomach demanded a real meal. He was going to find a restaurant...
But as he moved from the spot, his legs took him to that particular shop - and now he was standing in the doorway, perplexed. He looked around and saw the familiar hairdresser's sign. He suppressed a sigh and went inside.
"Welcome!" the shop assistant called out to him from behind the counter.
He approached, still hesitant, but already succumbing to the sweet smells filling the patisserie. 'The dinner must wait,' he thought, gazing at the delicacies in the displays.
"A cheesecake and one Earl Grey," he ordered, swallowing.
The woman bustled, and soon he was making his way towards the table by the window, filled tray in his hands. 'Much cheaper than in the capital,' he thought, distracted, putting the plate and the cup down. He waited for tea to brew, making himself comfortable in the chair and leaning back. His muscles protested; some hours of sitting in the train had taken its toll on them.
Somewhat astonished, he realized how much his behaviour had changed with regard to physical activity, and in just few years. As a child, he had been extremely lively; in middle school - and in the beginning of high school, too - he just couldn't stay still. Later, however, that energy seemed to have left. Maybe it was what becoming an adult meant? Maybe it happened to anyone who reached a specific age? This thought was strangely painful, and suddenly he missed the time he had been younger.
Sipping his Earl Grey, he looked around the patisserie. He couldn't quite remember the last time he'd been here. Probably the second year of high school. The interior didn't seem to have changed: the same pastel, stripped wallpapers, familiar small pictures of landscapes, and geranium in pots. Ambience remained the same, too: positive atmosphere of a place filled with joy and pleasure. There was nothing upsetting to it; people came here to meet one another and eat some delicious cake. To spend time in a pleasant way...
Today, the patisserie was far from being crowded. An older woman was reading a newspaper by the table by the other window. Two teenage girls, their heads close, were whispering their friendly secrets to each other in the shadowy corner. Outside, the Little Market Square was enjoying its peaceful life. The pigeons were strutting on the flagstones, pecking the crunches from the joints. From time to time, a child ran by, laughing. On the benches, the elder ladies were discussing the important matters.
Josh set to his cheesecake, closing his eyes in delight. Nothing could match the cheesecake from Idealo, after all. In Paris, he had tasted at least several but hadn't found any he would fall for. This one, however, was just perfect: crust was crisp, cheese was not too sweet, and icing melted on the tongue - and he still couldn't say which was the best. Long ago, he had believed that, if he could eat cheesecake every day, he wouldn't need anything else. Now, he wished he could return to those childish daydreams.
The cheesecake was all gone, and he was considering whether he should order another Earl Grey, when a new scent filled the shop. For a while, Josh tried to identify it, although his subconsciousness knew it right away. Someone had ordered mint coffee, taking their place only two tables away. A boy, a bit younger than Josh, immersed himself in a book, occasionally sipping his beverage and never devoting any attention to it.
Josh looked behind the window, but the scent kept irritating his senses and made the memories flood. He hadn't expected - while he should have - that the past would come back to him right after his returning to Idealo. How foolish on his part. He had thought he had left everything behind. In Paris, he could focus on studying and not brood on the past. All and all, he had been doing pretty well - and only sometimes, through soothing words of his reason a voice could be heard, a penetrating whisper that kept saying to him his life was nothing more than a vegetation.
His eyes were stinging, and he blinked a few times. It must be that mint aroma, he told himself.
Mint coffee was a favourite drink of Alain Corail.
He folded his arms and stared at the square, not really seeing it. What he could see was the park surrounding the dorms, where three years ago, in one misty June morning, Alain had left him without a word and disappeared from his life.
Hard to believe it had been so long already. The memory seemed so vivid; he could almost feel all that he'd felt that time.
He hadn't expected it. Or, precisely, he hadn't expected it to be so... ultimate; after all, he had predicted their parting all the time. Still, when it had really happened, it'd been so hard to understand or accept it, especially that the circumstances had indicated the opposite, He and Alain should have... At last, they should have...
Anyway, for a few days, he had dwelled in some daze, with his mind refusing any attempt to comprehend what had occurred. He'd been restless and filled with chaotic emotions. And hopes. He'd still believed it'd been not for ever, not for good - although his reason would keep whispering to him that he should accept the reality... That what he'd assumed all the time, what he'd feared all the time... had really happened.
Nevertheless, Alain had disappeared. He had left Idealo, and had been not heard of any more. He hadn't returned, and Josh, reluctantly, had had to accept the fact his dreams would remain only dreams, the ones he couldn't fulfil. Of course it'd been painful, but somehow he'd managed. After all, he'd been prepared. He'd had to go on, even if sometimes it would seem impossible. Occasionally, Erwin would give him strange look... and say nothing, for Josh had put him off, along with his desire to help and support him. Having nothing else, he had focused on studying, and his marks had improved drastically - and only mathematics had been no good. It'd been quite a view - his marks in the end of his third year: a row of the best possible grades separated with a lowest sufficient in maths. At the beginning of his fourth year, his form tutor had asked him for a talk, which Josh had left appointed for private maths tutition. The teacher had said Josh could apply for university scholarship, but he'd had to lift his grade on this one subject, which shouldn't be a problem for him - although Josh had no longer believed it himself. Still, when June had arrived, he had been astonished to collect his final certificate - along with the pass to the best university in the country.
He couldn't relish it as much as anyone in his place would, but deep in his heart he'd had the feeling he'd somehow managed - and maybe something good could still happen to him.
During summer vacation - his last vacation in Saint Grollo - he'd started to hear the rumours about Alain's return to Idealo. He'd taken them calmly. Indifferently. Alain Corail had been a closed book - or, rather, a chapter, for he had taken only a moment and quickly disappeared. Josh's heart had been broken but managed to heal already. How they say, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger'. Even if he'd stopped laughing and had rarely smiled, he'd been alive. Alain Corail couldn't hurt him more than he'd already had.
Now that he recollected those beliefs, he wondered how he could be so naive.
Alain had returned to Idealo, and the reputation he'd quickly gained had bested even that of his high school time. The main context his name had been spoken in has been: alcohol, women and fights. Of course, the town would have much important matters to attend than a single delinquent, but for some reason the dorms had been living with that issue, and Josh would run across it all the time, whether he'd wish it or not. Whenever someone had mentioned Alain, he would fall silent or leave and try to occupy his mind with something useful. He'd believed he'd been pretty fine. He'd almost felt as if Alain Corail had been a stranger to him.
Until that day...
It was the beginning of August. The summer had been spoiling people of Idealo - except for the farmers, who complained about the drought - and every day was sunny and hot. Like always during summer vacation, there was not so many people in the dorms, and thus only one canteen was operating, the one in the fourth-years' wing. Josh went down for lunch, wondering about Erwin's sudden call the previous day and his promise to stop by today around noon. Which meant soon...
In the hall, a group of students discussed some matter, and with enthusiasm. Then, however, excited whispers suddenly ceased, and, when he looked up, he saw a few pairs of eyes fixed on him. He frowned, trying to drive away a sudden anxiety. After all, he had no reason to feel anxious. "What is it?" he asked as the boys kept staring at him.
They lowered they gazes; some moved away as if they wanted to leave, but Josh could see they were still observing the scene. One of the students offered a newspaper to him. "The last but one page," he said, and it seemed to Josh that his voice was a mixture of sympathy and excitation. "Down, to the right."
Josh took the local paper in his trembling hands - he didn't know himself why they were trembling - and found the page. Ads and Announcements. Down to the right...?
He felt the blood rushing from his head when his eyes picked up the familiar name. On Sunday, August 24th... in the Cathedral Church... Alain Corail shall marry...
The paper slipped from his fingers and fell on the floor. He felt as if someone had just hit him. He staggered. The room vanished from his sight, along with people filling it. For a moment, he was absolutely sure he would faint - or he already had. He didn't even thought he was making a spectacle.
"I told you it's true," an excited whisper reached him.
He opened his eyes and blinked. Again, he could see people in front of him, people he didn't really know and whose gazes he couldn't read. He turned and headed for his room, almost blindfold.
Someone was calling him - but who could ever call him? It felt as if he was in the world with no-one else.
A strong hand grabbed his shoulder when he was going inside his room. He turned around, trying to guess whose face it was, along with those knitted eyebrows and sad eyes behind the glasses, and...
"Erwin..." he rasped when his mind found his friend's name.
"Josh, what's... Damn it, you can't... You've just learned?"
Learned? About what? He thought he had known something but already forgotten, for he didn't want to know... He wanted to forget...
"Josh, are you listening to me?! God, say something. Josh!"
He blinked when Erwin shook him.
"Hurts..." he stuttered.
It hurt. Not his arm. He felt pain he couldn't really identify, spreading across his chest and radiating towards arms and legs, everywhere. Erwin let go of him and was now giving him a terrified look. Hazily, Josh realized Erwin had never looked at him like this before.
"Josh, calm down. I know that nothing I say will help you, but... Damn it!"
The next thing Josh knew he was pressed against Erwin's chest and the strong arms were squashing him in the embrace. Erwin used to hug him like this... but they were no longer kids. They were eighteen, and Josh wasn't a little boy any more... He was almost as tall as Erwin...
"I feel like killing him," Erwin said fiercely, but he sounded more like he was about to cry in the first place. Josh blinked. "But you shouldn't really care about him. You've managed so well so far. You'll bear it, too, right?"
Josh's head ached, as if he wanted to think about something... understand something - and didn't, in the same time. It seemed to him that once he understood it, he would cease existing.
"But, honestly. One day I'll really paste that Alain Corail!"
The world fell to pieces - as did his heart.
Josh freed himself from Erwin's embrace and pushed his friend away.
"Leave me alone," he whispered, unable to raise his gaze.
"Please...!" he almost screamed, which didn't go well with a clenched throat.
Erwin's arms fell, and he took one step back. Josh could see his light-coloured trousers and brown shoes that moved backwards onto the corridor carpet. He pushed the door so that they could shut.
He turned to his room, recognizing familiar furniture. The bed and the coverlet. The bookshelf. The desk. The net curtain in the window. Only an hour ago - half an hour, a quarter - he had been here, and he'd been quite happy. Accepting himself and almost believing something good awaited him. Only a moment ago he'd felt he'd let Alain leave his life. Maybe his existence had seemed somewhat empty, but it'd been better this way. Easier.
Now he was sure he'd rather choose that emptiness over pain that was now piercing his chest and taking his breath away.
He was foolish, he was so foolish - and he still loved him. Now he realized that the past two years he had been believing, hoping, waiting... He had never buried his dreams, even though he'd believed he had. Some part of him, unseen to his eyes, had continued to believe that Alain... would... come back...
He couldn't forget the taste of his lips and the touch of his hands.
His knees gave way, and he plunked by the bed, burying his face in the coverlet. His fingers clutched at the thick fabric, but it didn't give any support. He felt he was falling down, into pieces, physically, as the sobs shook his body. He couldn't hold his tears. Never before had he felt so sad, sorry and lonely... Not when the patron had left in order to get married. Not when he had learned that the gym teacher had been caught in the act with a teenage girl and sacked right away...
He was weeping like he'd never wept in his eighteen years of life - yearning for consolation and knowing he wasn't going to receive it. All people who had the power to hold that little boy he really was in their hands kept disappearing from his life one by one.
He started, coming back to reality. He could hear people talking, laughter and noise of moving the chairs... He looked around. As he had immersed in reflection, the patisserie had become crowded. Three girls were sitting now by the next table, giving him a curious look. When he looked back, they giggled.
His tea was cold already, but then, right as if on cue, a waitress appeared, a young woman who blushed when he raised his eyes at her. He opened his mouth to order another Earl Grey. "A mint coffee, please," he said, surprising himself.
The girl curtsied and left, while he was blinking in astonishment. Eventually, he sighed and decided he could as well taste it.
He glanced at the watch - it was almost four o'clock. He must have spent quite a while, sitting and staring at his own past. No wonder people started to make fun of him...
That time, in August, Erwin had spent the rest of the day at his door and had been driven out of the dorms in the evening. Josh had learned of it only later - but it wasn't until later that he had been able to appreciate it. The very same week he'd left from Idealo, unable to stay in the town. Erwin and Cecile had seen him to the station, and no sooner than aboard the train Josh had realized he hadn't even given his new address to Erwin. He'd spent those days in a daze, without touch to reality, wishing to run away, change his place and forget everything. In the big, unfamiliar city he'd had a good chance, and he'd made the most of it. In the end, he had never written to Erwin and almost entirely ceased thinking of Idealo, concentrating on studying. In his free time, he'd used to walk, discovering new parts of that maze Paris seemed to his eyes...
The waitress put a mug on his table and blushed again when he thanked her. The girls by the next table murmured in excitement, and their eyes sparkled when he glanced at them. He'd seen such gazes already - in Paris, he had used to meet them all the time. He felt like blushing himself upon the memory of his ordeal in the residence hall... But no, he wasn't going to bother himself with it now.
He lifted the mug to his mouth, focusing on the smell and taste and driving away the unwanted thought. The scent of mint was pleasant, soothing and invigorating at the same time - just like green. He blinked when the recollection of green eyes suddenly popped into his head. He took a mouthful, ready for the bitterness of coffee he had never liked - but the flavour surprised him. The mint note softened the overall impression though, of course, it couldn't attenuate the basic sharpness.
Alain could be repulsive and gentle at the same time, too.
He drank and asked for a bill, that the waitress brought more than eagerly. He went out of the patisserie with a feeling he needed some fresh air. 'Joshua Or,' he told himself firmly, 'he is a married man now, and you will never have him.' It didn't ache, not really. For the last year, he had grown accustomed to the blunt pain in his chest, anaesthetizing for everything else.
The streets were filled with people. The sun was shining with a soft light of afternoon, and the clouds had vanished. Josh walked slowly, his heels clattering on the pavement. It seemed he had gathered enough courage to go where he had to go... He suppressed a sigh but couldn't calm his heart-beat. He didn't know what kind of welcome he would be given, although he suspected he did... Or, at least, he hoped so - and was full of remorse at the same time.
'You are a grown-up man, Josh,' his reason reminded him. 'Where has your courage gone?'
It was a problem, though. Whenever he thought of himself from some years before, he was under the impression he'd used to be much more brave and despised cowardice. He'd used to advance, challenge and win. Maybe he had become wiser? Or maybe it was what becoming an adult meant, too? Because now he'd rather not go when he wasn't welcomed. He didn't exactly withdrew, but he didn't go on a wild-goose chase either.
The streets took him farther from the centre of the town, and he stopped in front of a storeyed house with a small garden behind the pale. He pushed a gate that creaked and soon found himself inside the building. There was a little corridor in there, with stairs in the back, and two doors leading to the flats. He knocked at those to his right and took a step back, breathing fast and waiting.
"You took your time with that delivery!" a young man called with a slight reproach, opening the door, and then he fell silent.
Josh was looking at Erwin, who seemed both different and the same like one year ago. Always taller - although not so much any more - with a mop of brown hair and round glasses on his nose. Josh tried to smile but was too overwhelmed. Erwin, on his part, was staring at him, his face blank.
'He's forgotten. He's forgotten me,' flashed through Josh's mind. He lowered his head, swallowing down his sudden and insufferable disappointment - along with the feeling there was nothing to be surprised about after he had left Erwin without as much as a word.
And then his eyes got wider once he realized - and it filled him with self-contempt - that he had done to Erwin exactly the same thing Alain had done to him. How could he ever treat his only friend this way?
He moved back, involuntarily, ready to go - and come back with an apology one day - when Erwin whispered, "Josh?" and in the next moment Josh found himself in his embrace.
Like in the old days.
Once that constant hugging had used to unnerve him - even though he knew it was the way Erwin expressed his feelings, and those Josh really had appreciated - but now, for the first time, he felt gratitude and only let himself be hugged, resting his head on his friend's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he whispered through his clenched throat, rumpling the back of Erwin's shirt.
Erwin released him and only kept looking. It seemed he was fighting the tears, too. "You've lost some weight again," he said in a breaking voice and then wiped his eyes with a sleeve.
"Erwin? Who's that?" Cecile appeared in the hallway.
"Look yourself," Erwin started, but Cecile wasn't looking. She ran up to Josh and embraced him.
The end of the world.
Josh had never expected it would feel so good in woman's arms... Life was full of surprises, wasn't it? He hugged her back, trying to smile.
Cecile let go of him and stood next to Erwin. She was wiping her tears, too. "We worried about you so much..." she spoke shakily, taking one hand up to her lips. "You didn't give a sign... Oh God. I'm so happy to see you."
Josh felt warmth filling him - a sensation that already seemed forgotten. It soothed, a bit, the remorse that were growing bigger every moment. His eyes were stinging, and he blinked to see better. Cecile grabbed his hand and pulled him into the flat, while Erwin closed the door.
Only after a while of blinking Josh was able to have a look at his surroundings. The living-room was warm and cosy, filled with sunlight. The white net-curtains were moving gently, and the colourful flowers in the pots emphasized the bright atmosphere of that household. Or maybe it was his own happiness - the one he hadn't been prepared for because he'd felt for so long as if everything had died in him - made this place so appealing?
"Take off the coat," Cecile asked.
Josh unbuttoned the suit and gave it to Erwin, who took it back to the hallway, and remained in the shirt. Cecile cast a scrutinizing look at him, and then she looked away. "I forgot you're taller than me," she said somewhat embarrassed, showing him a place on the couch which he then took. "And thinner!" she added, this time with irritation.
Erwin stood beside her and tenderly wrapped one arm around her waist. However, she slipped from his embrace and went to the kitchen, her long hair bouncing. Erwin sat down on another couch, opposite to Josh, and was only looking at him. For some time, they simply sat in silence.
"So you've moved in together, after all?" Josh spoke once he was sure he could do it.
Erwin waved a hand. "Not before I promised her father I won't touch her before marriage."
"We're adult already, but my father is a man of principle," came from the kitchen together with the sound of boiling water. "As is Erwin." Cecile's head poked out of the frame, and the girl's voice rang both with affection and frustration.
Erwin blushed slightly and lowered his eyes. A whistle was to be heard, and Cecile disappeared again.
Josh looked around the flat. The previous time he'd been here, it was in pre-renovation state. He cast his mind back... When Erwin had graduated from high school and had been admitted to the local college of education - and, what was not of less importance, had got engaged to Cecile - her parents had invited him to move into the apartment they had long ago bought for their daughter, had she even got married. To tell the truth, they had already treated Erwin as a family member. At first, Erwin had been reluctant to do so, but then he had agreed - on condition that he would be allowed to redecorate and furnish the space with his own money. Now Josh could see the results of his friend's obstinacy - which was excellent. There were bright wallpapers and little pictures on the walls, and the furniture were comfortable and soft. The place was alive and filled with love, and Josh didn't wonder for a second that it was Erwin's and Cecile's home.
It was wonderful to see how they were so in love with each other, and have been for so many years already. Josh stifled a feeling he had no chance for anything similar.
"I'm glad to see you," Erwin said once Josh finished his inspection.
Josh felt warm inside again. He smiled shyly and with gratitude. "I'm glad to see you too," he replied, and then he added quickly, "I'm sorry I didn't contact you."
"You made me worry to death," Erwin retorted frankly.
"Me too," came from the kitchen.
"Cecile, why don't you join us, for instance?" Erwin called into her direction.
"I'm coming, I'm coming." Cecile came in with a tray filled with three cups, a teapot and a plate of cookies.
Josh suppressed a sigh. Sweets again.
Cecile put the load on the table and took a place next to Erwin. "Erwin called all residence halls in Paris in order to get know whether you were alive," she said outright, pouring tea into the cups.
A silver spoon Josh had just took, dropped from his hand. His eyes grew wide as he stared at Erwin. He was under the impression his feeling of guilt would crush him.
Erwin gave Cecile a reproaching look and patted her on the arm. "It's all right," he told her. "You really didn't have to say it."
Cecile pouted. "He was insufferable," she added, folding her arms. "Until he learned you were safe and sound."
Josh wondered whether he would be pardoned if he fell to his knees and begged forgiveness. Some of his thoughts must have been reflected in his eyes, for the corners of Erwin's mouth twitched. "You had your reasons," he said gently, although there was some resentment to his words that smile couldn't entirely erase.
"I'm sorry," Josh whispered again, and suddenly he was sure he would spend the rest of his live apologizing.
Erwin waved a hand, then took his cup and started to drink. Cecile pushed the plate of cookies towards Josh. "Not Parisian delicacies, but I hope you'll like them anyway."
"You're kidding? I'm starving. I'd eat anything," Josh blurted out before he thought.
"If you wanted to compliment her, you've failed," Erwin retorted, suppressing a smile, and Josh blushed.
"The dinner's going to be in an hour," Cecile bravely endured both comments and took her cup. "You have to bear with it."
Josh nodded. Did he really have to behave like a dimwit? At this rate, it was pretty sure he would knock something over... He mustered his courage to take his tea; a gentle scent of Darjeeling soothed his senses. He leaned back.
"I suppose they have not only delicacies in Paris, but also pretty girls. Oh, sorry, I meant boys. I bet you've broken some hearts," Cecile threw in, and Josh almost dropped his cup indeed when his hands trembled.
"Cecile!" there was a reproach to Erwin's words, and it seemed the girl took it to heart.
"I'm sorry," she said in a quiet voice, lowering her eyes.
But Josh realized he didn't hold it against her. After all, she and Erwin had received him, surrounded him with their love and forgiven everything. He started to feel as if he had returned home. All this when he'd had no place he could call home, for so long now, and he'd lost hope he would ever have.
"I knew you'd come for our wedding," Erwin spoke after a while.
"He's been worrying about it the whole last week," Cecile added.
"I couldn't miss it," Josh answered, sipping his tea.
Erwin and Cecile had engaged a year ago and scheduled their wedding for the first Saturday of the next July, when Cecile would have graduated from her secretary college. Josh knew that, even if he was never to return to Idealo again, this one occasion he couldn't pass up. If there were people he could call friends in his life, these were Erwin and Cecile. He hadn't even thought he could be absent on their Great Day.
"And where's your luggage?" Erwin asked.
"I left it on the station," Josh said, putting the cup down. "I didn't know if-"
"If you could stay in our place?" Erwin guessed. "I'll bash you."
"Bash him for me, too," Cecile added, her eyes sparkling. She moved the plate closer to Josh and poured him more tea, saying, "Eat and drink something, and then you may go fetch them. Once you're back, the dinner will be ready. Now, take some," she encouraged.
Josh decided to calm his stomach before it made some improper noise, and took a handful of biscuits. The smiling faces of Erwin and Cecile got blurred before his eyes as he swallowed emotion along with the cookies. He drank the tea in one gulp and looked at Erwin with, he hoped, enthusiasm.
Erwin's eyes were filled with compassion that quickly vanished when Cecile elbowed him. "Move, Erwin. I'm getting jealous when you stare at each other like this," she called like in the old days.
"And I'm jealous when I look at you two," Josh said and smiled lightly.
Cecile gave him a fazed look and didn't say more. Erwin rose, followed by Josh. Soon, they were making their way toward the station. The street was bathed in the gentle afternoon sunlight. It had cleared up completely; the sky was blue and resembled a perfect dome covering that place, where everyone was happy and no evil existed. The bustle from just an hour ago seemed to recede; the workers had returned to their homes, where well-earned meal awaited them, and the city filled with couples and the urban youngsters in general. Josh couldn't not notice the looks girls and young women cast him, but he ignored them, just like he'd used to do for some time now. He'd got accustomed to it, although he'd been quite surprised at first.
"Right," Erwin spoke suddenly, as if reading his mind. "I've forgotten you've grown to be a beauty."
Shocked, Josh stopped dead in his tracks and stared at his friend in disbelief. Erwin turned around. "No wonder they keep ogling," he added. "If I were a girl, I'd ogle too. And if I'd prefer the guys-"
"Stop it," Josh said faintly as he resumed walking. "It's not funny."
"I'm not joking," Erwin's voice was serious. "Now I can see it clearly. You look fabulous, Josh."
Josh lowered his head. Never before had he heard something like this from Erwin, and he didn't know how to react.
"Those dark hair and light eyes..." Erwin kept talking, and Josh wondered whether he wanted to hear it at all. "I'm sure you've already broken hearts of most girls in Idealo, and the rest of them is thinking how they can get you. In Paris, I bet you couldn't get rid of a crowd of admirers?"
Involuntarily, Josh clenched his fists, and then he relaxed them slowly. A crowd of admirers, indeed... He didn't want to talk about it. He didn't want to touch on the topics related to his personal... his emotional life. But it was Erwin - a friend he'd had no secrets from.
"In the dorms, I had to bolt the door at nights," he whispered finally. "And I was almost dragged to the broom cupboard. Twice. A female fifth-year medical student and a guy of the second-year of theology," he explained as if it mattered. Erwin said nothing, and Josh noticed he frowned. "I was shocked," he dared to go on, for he knew Erwin wouldn't laugh at him, especially that it wasn't anything to laugh about. "At first. Then I got used to it. I just had to be careful. And have a bag of books with me all the time. In fact... I started to wonder why I'd been left in peace here." Erwin kept silent, so Josh continued, "I decided that there, in the North, my looks might seem... exotic. They have more blondes there, so maybe I just stick out." Even if I didn't want to, he thought.
Erwin cast him an intent look and kept walking. "But you can see for yourself the impression you're making now," he said after a while. "Here. Girls are goggling at you. I bet guys too," he added, looking at Josh again, and then averted his eyes. "It's just that... In the dorms... No-one dared to get close to you."
Josh looked back at him, confused. A car passed them, honking at the children that were running along the pavement. "What do you mean?" he asked.
Erwin folded his arms. "Everyone thought you belonged to A- Ah, for God's sake!" he exclaimed when two rollicking kids bumped into him from behind.
Josh stopped, stupefied. Erwin returned the children to their mother, who kept apologizing to him.
"What was I... Ah. Well, everyone thought you were his boyfriend. Of course no-one wished to fall foul of him. And later... Later you seemed as if you were about to fall into pieces the very moment someone approached you." Josh couldn't utter a word and only stared at Erwin, his eyes wide open. Erwin cast him a look. "To tell the truth, you still do."
"I'm sorry," Josh whispered, lowering his head. He hoped Erwin would change the topic, but it appeared futile.
"You look as if you're about to fall into pieces! I've never thought I'd... live to see the day Joshua Or would apologize for being alive," suddenly Erwin was agitated.
Josh resumed walking again, trying to overcome the chaos filling him. "Apparently, only normal guys have a chance for ha- for normal life," he said quietly.
Erwin grabbed him by the arm and turned him sharply. "You can't possibly believe what you've just said," he called enraged.
Josh looked away; he didn't want to see anger in Erwin's eyes, much less pity. In fact, he'd been convincing himself about what he'd just said. He thought he'd stop suffering once he convinced himself completely. He freed himself from Erwin's grasp and started walking.
"You care about me too much," he said when his throat relaxed again. "Everything's all right. I-"
"Damn you, Josh! You're my best friend. Of course I care about you!"
Josh suppressed a sigh. How could he answer to this? After all, Erwin was right; he was right about everything. Josh was naive to believe it would be easy... He mustered all energy he had left - pathetically little - and looked Erwin in the eye, making a determined expression he'd used to wear long ago. He put one hand on his friend's shoulder - a planned, soothing gesture.
"Erwin. You can't possibly think that Joshua Or ever gives up?" he said, modulating his voice to sound like in the old days, and smiled, tilting his head. "Really, I'm all right. You just wait. I'll have an escort on your wedding."
Erwin didn't seem deceived by his little play, but he didn't argue either. Josh felt it would require a lot of effort on his part to keep a smiling face, but... Erwin didn't deserve it. He shouldn't worry about him, especially after he'd spent a whole year worrying. And probably two previous years as well. Josh clenched his fists, wondering where he could get the strength from and quickly deciding he would return to Paris right after the wedding.
The realization he had to leave home he'd found - if only for a short while - wasn't pleasant. Still, he wasn't going to let his egoism hurt the only people that cared about him.
For now... for now he had to convince them there was no need to worry about him. At all cost. He would tell them what they wanted to hear. Like now. He owed them that much.
Escort? Now, that was a good one... For the last year, he'd managed to accept the thought he would spend the rest of his life alone. Well, there surely were worse things in the world. And maybe it wasn't a future he wished for himself, but after two crushes from afar and one not-really-a-romance he'd ceased believing in miracles. Being nineteen years old, Joshua Or was still a virgin and he stopped hoping for this state of affairs to ever change.
In the meantime, they reached the station, where Josh collected his luggage, and headed back home. Erwin insisted on taking the suitcase, so Josh grabbed the other item.
"I'm getting hungry," Erwin spoke, changing the subject. "Maybe Cecile isn't the best cook in the world, but she applies herself to it. Her meals are getting better, so you can praise her."
"I'll remember to do it."
"You can ask her about her diploma, too. She will be thrilled to show it to you," Erwin prompted. "She graduated with first-class honours," he added, and his voice rang with a proud. "She's already got a job, too!"
"For all her romanticism, she is a very practical person. She says she isn't going to be a homebody but an emancipated woman... though I still don't know what she meant by it, precisely. She plans to start once we're back from our honeymoon." Erwin's cheeks covered with a blush.
"Where are you going?" Josh inquired.
"The south coast. I do hope she will show her romantic side," Erwin muttered.
Josh mercifully passed over the matters of romanticism in silence and instead focused on aforementioned Cecile's virtues. "Really, that's praiseworthy... To think I didn't consider her particularly clever at first..." he said, grinning. Erwin looked askance at him. "After all, she became your girlfriend," he added.
Erwin dabbed him but didn't seem offended. "Then, we're well matched," he grinned, "for I did pretty well myself, covering two-years material in just one."
Josh smiled wider. "Your appearance of an intellectual stands for something," he said. "How are your studies anyway?"
Erwin shrugged. "A bit harder and definitely more interesting than in high school. I really like it."
"And you're going to work at school?" Josh asked.
"With the youngest years. Cecile gets all dreamy and says I'll know how to handle children even before I become a father."
Josh choked. The world must have turned upside down if Erwin Argue used a word 'father' in relation to himself... No, such things simply happened when one became an adult. He tilted his head to look at his friend and noticed a slight blush covering his cheeks. "Well, you've always liked children," he said hesitantly.
Erwin only nodded, apparently unable to speak. Josh fixed his eyes on the pavement. Children. For him, children had always been an abstract, and he'd never bothered to think about them. Now, however, he caught himself wondering what Erwin's and Cecile's children would be like... Brown-haired, like them... And glassed...
He burst out laughing. Erwin cast him an apprehensive look, but Josh only waved his hand. They would surely have a lot of them. Somehow, it fitted Erwin. "I think you'll be a wonderful dad," he said, turning to his friend and looking him in the eye. He was absolutely sure of that.
Erwin looked back thankfully. Josh felt lighter at heart.
Entering the apartment by the Azalea Street and sniffing the delicious smell of Cecile's dishes, he thought with a careful optimism that he might succeed in not spoiling his friends' happiness.
All this hurt the little angel too much - "Särkynyt enkeli", Yö