by V

maya - n. Hindu concept of illusion or unreality.

Elijah always thinks of India as dark and exotic and mysterious, until he actually goes.

The India in his mind is full of twisting rivers and foreboding temples and alien trees scattered across black fields. The people are mistrusting and scarce. The India in his mind is a surreal country populated by the dying gods of a dead religion, where the only signs of life are the solemn ringing of temple bells and tedious, meaningless rituals.

The India he finds in the streets of Delhi is a brilliant reality that he never thought to expect.

People throng so thickly here that he needs to grip Orlando's hand like a vise or be swept off; Dom is latched to the back of Elijah's t-shirt, because they can't possibly get through the crowd three abreast. Vendors of religious icons are interspersed with the homeless under the awnings of buildings; cows wander the streets uninhibited, or lie in the way without protest by pedestrians; dozens of people always need to get somewhere; and at least once, they see a man leading around a roped cow and her calf. Elijah doesn't understand much of this, but it doesn't matter, because there's always something else to look at.

The air is foul, reeking of cows and dirty bodies and some sort of burning fat, and everything is filthy and crusted in grime and there's cow shit in the street, but somehow, it's beautiful. All the buildings are white-washed, even if they no longer look it, but there are colourful icons of unknown gods on the doors and in the windows, and everyone is dressed in vibrant shades of red and blue and green.

They come upon a temple one day-- it could be the first, second, third day, second week, first month, it doesn't matter-- in a deserted square, and Elijah has to wonder where the people are. The sun is scorchingly hot, reflecting off the pristine white of the temple, so bright that it hurts to look.

Dom slides up next to him and says, "It doesn't look like it belongs," with a touch of reverence, and Elijah has to agree. It's clean and quiet, even though there's a cow lounging carelessly at the foot of the steps, and it looks like it's been taken from somewhere else and left here, untouched by the world. He thinks maybe that's the point.

Orlando drops his hand, and Elijah notices that he's been sweating profusely, and their hands had been fused stickily and unpleasantly together. Orlando wipes the back of his hand across his forehead and squints at the temple. "D'you wanna go in?" he asks, and Elijah imagines his only interest is because it's bloody hot outside, and bound to be cooler within.

Dom exhales loudly and Elijah can feel the heat radiating off him. "D'you think we'd be allowed?" he asks, and Orlando shrugs, looking like he'd just as soon collapse on the ground right there than move to go inside.

"Why not?" he says.

"We aren't Hindu," Elijah says calmly, but that doesn't stop them. Inside, the ceiling is high and vaulted and white, and it is cooler, because everything is stone. There's a lot of empty floor space, though there is a small group of people kneeling near the back, facing away from them, apparently in prayer. There's an altar at the very back, with a cradle atop it, that holds a blue bundle. Several priests, or monks, or whatever they are, are surrounding the cradle, and one is ringing a hand bell.

"Look at the flowers," Orlando whispers, and Elijah would leave it to him to notice something like that. The priests are all wearing floral necklaces, and the floor around the altar is scattered with sheaves of flowers. Abruptly, another priest joins the ringing of the bells, this time with a counter-rhythm. Elijah feels a little like he's intruding, like he's witnessing something he shouldn't be allowed to. Dom grabs his forearm as the noise within the temple continues with the addition of bells and a gong and small hand-drums, and the steady drone of several voices, speaking what Elijah can only guess is Sanskrit.

Orlando shifts restlessly beside him and opens his mouth to speak, but Elijah touches the back of his wrist, and he stays silent. The cacophony of this-- ritual?-- rises up into the vaulting, and reverberates throughout the temple, and Elijah can feel it in his blood. The persistent beat washes over him and becomes a sort of white haze in his mind, thrumming against the beating of his heart. Dom is standing oddly still, but he seems to be humming tunelessly along with the noise.

It all comes to a halt suddenly, the sound cutting off and giving way to solemn prayer. Orlando leans down and whispers, "We should go," and Elijah agrees. They step out of the temple, back into the blazing sun, and Elijah immediately feels droplets of sweat flare out on his forehead; he finds that he doesn't care.

He looks over at Dom, and sees that his eyes are bright with some sort of excitement that Elijah's never noticed before. Orlando doesn't say a word on the way back of the hotel, and that's new, too.

"But what is with the cows?" Orlando asks, incredulous. It isn't the first time today he's asked. He can't seem to get over the fact that people let them lounge on islands in the road and sleep wherever they please and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

"If I knew," Dom says, rubbing his temples, "I would tell you. So you could shut up."

They're trying to get into the downtown core of the city, because Dom wants to see the parliament buildings. He says they've seen enough poverty and backwards living, and he *knows* Delhi's a modern city, so he wants to see that. It's not supposed to be that difficult, considering that they can see the downtown high-rise from their hotel, but when they set out, they weren't accounting for the winding, random streets, and Orlando's incredibly bad sense of direction.

They give up when what Orlando says should be a train station turns out to be a park in the middle of the highway. For a minute, Elijah lets himself believe that it's just an oasis, because it's stifling hot at midday, and he's been seeing lakes in the sidewalk all morning, anyway.

Then he blinks a few times and Dom says, "I think it's for the cows," and no, Elijah realises, it really is just a park in the middle of the highway. Which is when Orlando sets in about the bloody cows.

"You know what?" Elijah says, after a time. He just wants to get back to the hotel, so he can take a swim or something, or just sit in front of the air conditioning in his room, or take a cold shower. His shirt is clinging uncomfortably to his back, and there's a cow sprawled out behind their bench, radiating heat and fresh cow smell.

"What?" Orlando asks.

"I think," Elijah replies very deliberately, "that you should give Dominic the fucking map, so we can get our sorry and disgustingly hot asses out of here."

Orlando looks at him, sidelong, and Elijah thinks he's probably going to call him on the ass thing, but instead he just draws the messily folded map out of his pocket, and passes it to Dom. "This was your idea, anyway," he says, and when Dom stands blearily up, Orlando swats at his ass, and collapses against the back of the bench. "Help me, boy wonder," he says, and Dom has to drag him to his feet.

There's a marketplace just down the street from the hotel. It's perpetually crowded with people and cows, overrunning the stalls and vendors. It smells exactly unlike any other part of the city, like cooking and spiced heat and fresh flowers. Elijah loves it.

It's best in the morning, when people are just setting up their stalls. The milkman has his normal post near the centre of the market square, where he ties up his cow and her calf, so he can sell fresh milk. Elijah never buys any because he doesn't trust it, but he sees the vendors buying quarts of it at a time.

Just before floods of buyers start trickling in, he can get a good look at the day's market; it changes, from day to day. There are people selling fresh vegetables and grain, and people selling jars of something called ghee, and people selling religious icons, and people selling linen, and people selling objects Elijah can't name and never asks about.

Around midday, when the market is at its busiest, a crowd of monks in saffron-coloured robes always makes its way in. Vendors give them food without question or recompense and give a short prayer as the monks leave. Nobody bats an eye but Elijah.

Dom comes out with Elijah one morning. He asks about the icons and listens to the vendor's explanation of God in broken English, and nods in all the right places. Elijah follows very badly, but Dom ends up buying an icon of who he says is Parvati, because he feels bad for asking if he doesn't buy anything. He later leaves it in Elijah's bathroom.

They buy fresh naan from a baker and eat on the front steps of the hotel. When they get back upstairs, Orlando is already awake and annoyed that they left him behind.

They spend a few days in Dom's hotel room, when Delhi catches the tail end of a monsoon heading further east. The first day, rain sleets down outside so hard that everything becomes a blur; it trails off on the second day, and is merely a dull, muggy drizzle on the third.

Orlando sits on the floor, blocking the air conditioning with his back, reading a tourist guide, left compliments of the hotel. "I think we should go to Sri Lanka," he says, at one point, and Dom throws his shoe at him.

"I bet it's even hotter there, you cunt," Dom says. He spends as much time as he can wearing as few clothes as possible, which still usually ends up being an undershirt and boxers, and fanning himself dramatically with the Hindi newspaper he gets delivered every morning.

"True," Orlando concedes. He gets up to take a piss, taking his tourist booklet with him, and Elijah rushes to take his place by the air conditioning.

"Get out," Dom says, and shoves Elijah aside so he can share the space.

Orlando comes back, glaring, and says, "What about a pilgrimage thing? Hindus take 'em to--"

"We aren't Hindu," Elijah says, and he's getting a little tired of having to remind Orlando of this.

"No," Orlando says, "we aren't. But we can rent a car or something. They all go to this place called Vanr-- Vanara-- Var--"

"It doesn't matter," Dom interrupts, and leans over to smack Orlando on the ankle so he'll sit down. "Where is it?"

"There," Orlando says, and points at the tiny map in the guide. "I can drive," he continues, "if you'll give the directions, direction boy."

Dom punches Orlando's shoulder half-heartedly, and Elijah laughs a little. He ends up drifting off into a groggy sleep, with his cheek pressed into the clammy skin of Dom's shoulder.

The place is called Varanasi, it turns out, and it's right at the height of pilgrim season, apparently. Dom says, "I bet they say that to everyone all the time," and goes to talk to the man at the desk of the rental place. Elijah's fairly certain they're not going to get a car, since they've been to just about every damn car rental place in all of Delhi and none of them will rent to them, either because they don't have any cars left ("What the fuck is that supposed to mean, they don't have any fucking cars left?!" Elijah yells, at the first place, but at the next few, he's more subdued) or because they don't rent to foreigners.

They end up having to wait several hours, for the insurance to clear, and for them to accept Orlando's license, and for a car to come in, or something, or any number of reasons. They spend the first hour of sitting in the lobby in complete silence, with Elijah tapping his foot incessantly and Dom reading the only English magazine in the whole place and Orlando pretending that he can read Punjabi.

The beginning of the second hour opens with the guy at the desk saying, "It is customary to walk or ride to Varanasi," in his heavy, clicking accent. Orlando looks up and shrugs, because this isn't about custom: it's just about his perception of a good idea for how to spend a vacation with two of his best friends.

"That's all right," Dom says, and Elijah goes out for a smoke.

It's not until four o'clock that everything clears and they actually get the car. "I don't even want to drive anymore," Orlando says, but he has to anyway, since Dom's driving skills are less than spectacular, and Elijah doesn't have an international license.

The car's a piece of shit: an old, black import from Russia, with cracked brown leather seats, a taped dash and a refinished steering wheel. The air conditioning works fine, initially, but it doesn't sound too good. Dom sits up next to Orlando, shoving his seat as far back as it will go, and kicking his feet up on the dashboard. Elijah's crammed in the back with Dom's suitcase, because it wouldn't fit in the trunk, and after the first half hour of sitting in crawling Delhi traffic, his legs are cramping and sporadically falling asleep.

Dom has their ratty map of India spread out on his thighs, and he randomly tells Orlando directions, even when they're sitting, stopped, just trying to get into another lane because a cow is blocking their present one. Orlando is irritable and stops listening to Dom eventually, which Elijah imagines will be a bad thing, once they actually get out of the city. Now he understands why they've been walking everywhere.

It's five thirty before they've finally reached the city limits, and the four-lane city highway gives way to a cracked two-lane country road. There are cow-led carts, ridden by large groups of people, taking up the entire right-hand lane and blocking Orlando's view into the left-hand. They get stuck behind one for a good fifteen minutes before Orlando can pass them, at which point they get stuck behind a puttering tractor.

The drive continues like this for a long time, well past sunset, and Orlando complains a lot. He's hungry and he hates driving and Dom gives the most vague directions and do they have any music to put on? Elijah offers up his tape of Kid A, and it gets to "How to Disappear Completely" before the tape player eats it, and Dom throws the tape out the window. They eventually make it to a city called Agra, where Orlando and Dom stock up on Big Macs and Elijah on fries, and they get back in the car and keep driving.

Some time after eight o'clock, Dom says they're halfway between Agra and Varanasi, and Orlando says he's not driving anymore. They pull over on the side of the road, and Orlando kicks Elijah out of the backseat, where he curls up like a "fucking cat" (says Elijah) and promptly falls asleep.

The night air in the country is considerably cooler and fresher than that of the city, though it's still muggy and dusty. The only traffic coming down the road is another cow caravan and a group of walkers, so Dom and Elijah cross, leaving Orlando where he is. The river-- the Ganges, Elijah supposes-- runs parallel to the road. It's slow-flowing here, and the bank is flat and pebbly; the water is cool to the touch, when Elijah crouches down and runs his fingers through it. He looks up at Dom and grins, and Dom's already unlacing his shoes.

They walk in silence down the shallows of the broad river, shoes in hand, until Elijah spots a dark building with a sharply steepled roof some way off from the road. "Look," he breathes, because it seems somehow wrong to speak in full tones, and gestures with his shoes.

"Yeah," Dom says, but he's looking at Elijah, not the building. "I think it's a monastery."

"Maybe," Elijah says, and draws his gaze away from it, to Dom. The moon is reflecting off the muddy water and in turn reflecting in Dom's eyes: dark, glittering, alien eyes for a dark, glittering, alien country.

Dom touches his fingers along Elijah's cheekbone, softly, and whispers, "We should probably get back to Orli."

When they return to the car, Orlando is up again, leaning against the trunk of the car, smoking. "It's too fucking hot in there," he says. All three of them end up sleeping curled up on the grass at the side of the road.

Morning comes too early, with the sun rearing its ugly, searing bright head. They're back on the road by seven o'clock, and it looks like so is the entire rest of the population of India. "We probably *should've* walked. It wouldn't take so long," Orlando says. He's in a bad mood, now, because he's hungry again, which isn't much of a surprise.

"It should only be an hour and a half to get there," Dom says, but he doesn't mention that it should have only taken five hours to get to Varanasi in the first place. Elijah gives Orlando cold, leftover french fries, which he immediately and happily finishes.

The air conditioning dies around nine thirty, and Elijah swears colourfully. They open all the windows and Dom yells, "whoo! Road trip!" but none of them are that excited. A road sign tells them it's ten miles to Varanasi, and it's those ten miles that are the worst, because apparently absolutely everyone wants to get there. The road is clogged with cars and people and carts and cows and traffic moves sluggishly.

When they get there just before noon, Elijah doesn't even care anymore. The town is nothing spectacular, as they drive through: just some housing crowding around a marketplace, but the real sight to behold is the campground.

Hundreds upon hundreds of tents are set up, sprawling across the surrounding ground of Varanasi, spreading like an ocean of colour as far as Elijah can see. Even if there was a hotel in Varanasi-- and there is, Dom says, a good half dozen-- it looks like the best bet is camping. Orlando has apparently foreseen this, and pulls onto the stretch of dirt road leading down the centre of the campgrounds. They've got a tent and blankets and other camping stuff, but Elijah was thinking that was just in case worst came to worst.

"This sucks in a big way," Dom announces, when they find a clear area. "I want a shower."

Elijah gets out of the car and realises that they're the only white people in the whole place. "There's always the river," he says doubtfully. Orlando pops the trunk, complaining about his eyes and contacts and clothes all the while, and starts rooting around for equipment. Elijah's starting to wonder just a little what the hell they're going to eat, because Elijah can't cook and neither can Orlando, though Dom might be able to make, like, rice.

"D'you think they'll let me?" Dom asks.

"Who?" Elijah says. He doesn't know how to pitch a tent, but offers to help Orlando anyway, who shrugs and agrees, and ends up doing it all himself.

"All these Indian people. 'Cause, like, it's their sacred river and stuff." Dom looks questioningly at Orlando. "Right?" he asks.

"Sure," Orlando says. He seems to be in a better mood having finally gotten out of the car, even if it smells like human decay and cow shit and dirt and the heat is only magnifying the scent. "But they aren't gonna care. What the hell d'you think they use it for?"

"Um," Dom says uncertainly.

Elijah lights a cigarette, and hauls his suitcase out of the trunk. "Washing, Dom," he says. "They wash in it." He flips it open and grabs a clean shirt and another pair of shorts, and kicks off his shoes. "You gonna come with?"

Dom nods quickly, and Orlando waves them off dismissively. "I'll join you later," he says.

The river in Varanasi is a lot different than it is in the country. The banks are steep and supported by layers of slate, and Elijah would slip in the dark if he didn't already know what to expect. "Careful," he murmurs to Orlando. The river is a lot different at night, too, than it was during the day. The banks aren't crowded with people, and the sounds of playing shouting don't drift over the gentle breeze coming off the water.

Orlando comes down shoeless and shirtless, with a towel draped across his shoulders, and they sit on the slate bank a long time. Now and again, a few wooden bowls carrying lit candles, and sometimes flowers, come drifting downstream past them. Elijah wants to reach out and take one, to figure out what it's for, but he knows he shouldn't. It's not something for him to know about, he thinks.

Eventually, Orlando strips off his shorts, and slips into the water. The moon is bright over them, and the lights clings to the water droplets in his hair. Elijah passes him the soap wordlessly, and leans back against the bank. The stars are brighter outside of Delhi, and now that he can actually pick out constellations, they aren't ones he knows. A breeze carries the sweet tang of saffron, and Elijah suddenly feels exposed and alone and a long way from home, until Orlando touches his knee and says, "Where's the shampoo?"

"Oh," Elijah says, and hands it over.

Orlando stands there a long moment, motionless, just looking back at Elijah, and Elijah opens his mouth. Before he can say anything, Orlando says, "Sorry, I thought you were-- never mind." And Elijah doesn't mind.

As they make their way back to the car, Orlando laces his fingers through Elijah's, still a little damp, and whispers, "Thanks." Elijah wants to say, "for what?" but Orlando's already slipped away, racing back to the car, presumably so he can get dressed in peace.

The drive back to Delhi is almost worse than the drive from. The air conditioning decides it's not quite dead yet, but not quite alive, either, and randomly kicks in and out of submission, which is almost as bad as not working at all. Elijah stretches out in the backseat, or as well as he can manage, and passes in and out of consciousness for most of the drive.

Just before dusk, Elijah wakes up because he realises they've stopped. Rain is pounding down on the car, running down the windows in sheets, making it look darker than it really is. He sits up a little, because it's unnaturally quiet inside the car, and his breath catches.

Orlando is leaning across the gearshift, one hand resting on Dom's thigh, with Dom's own hand covering it. Their lips are brushing, touching, pressing, melting into each other, and it's not so much erotic as it is merely loving.

Elijah smiles a little and lies back, closing his eyes again.

The night they drive into Delhi is the eve of the flight home, and no one sleeps.

Dom spends twenty unnecessary minutes in the shower, and Orlando changes his clothes three times because he hasn't worn everything yet and doesn't want anyone to say he packs too much. They watch Indian music videos in Elijah's room until eleven, at which point it switches to import porn. Orlando orders samosas and lassi from room service and eats on Elijah's bed, getting crumbs everywhere. "That's really kind of gross," Dom says, because the samosas are spicy and the lassi is sweet, but Orlando just shrugs. He doesn't offer to share, and neither Dom nor Elijah want him to.

Dom flips channels until he finds a Bollywood movie, which he mutes and voices over. He loses interest halfway through and starts packing, because his flight to London leaves earlier than Elijah and Orlando's flight to LA. He isn't really paying attention to what he's packing, and Elijah can see himself getting a huge package of his clothes back from Dom in a few months.

Dom misplaces his passport and finds it in a pair of Orlando's pants, and Orlando whines, "I don't want to leave." Dom kisses the top of his head and calls a cab for five thirty.

Bollywood turns into snow, eventually, and Orlando drags Elijah outside to the balcony for a smoke. They're up four storeys-- three higher than the average building in the area, before the city grows into high-rise. The lights are out across the city, because it's late, so late that Elijah doesn't even know what time it is, and it looks like an illusory span of hills below. It makes him dizzy just looking down. There's no moon, hidden by cloud cover, and the only way Elijah can tell that Orlando is still with him is the sound of his breathing and the faint glow of his cigarette.

When Elijah finishes his cigarette, he stubs it out against the iron railing and flicks it out into the darkness. He turns to go back inside, but Orlando catches his wrist and says again, "I don't want to leave." This time he's speaking close in Elijah's ear, and Elijah shivers, even though it's still hot out and never stopped being so.

"Yeah," he says, and Orlando kisses the corner of his mouth and lets him go.

They all end up going to the airport together, because they haven't anything better to do. Dom's flight is at nine, so they wait around a long while, eating some strange Indian candy-looking thing Dom buys at the duty-free. Orlando reads USA Today in the designated waiting area, and Elijah has to wonder just when and why he became so interested in world events.

Fifteen minutes to boarding, Dom pulls them into a hug and Orlando says, "you're a big fuckin' sap, directions boy." Dom murmurs, "shut up," and Elijah laughs and hugs harder.

"We're doing this again, some time," Orlando says, after a moment.

"With you?" Dom asks. Orlando nods and smiles blearily, and Dom says, "Who's the big fuckin' sap now?"

Just before the flight boards, Orlando pulls Dom out of Elijah's earshot and whispers fervently to him. Making promises, Elijah thinks, that he has no way to keep. He'll do the same with Elijah, too, but Elijah won't believe him. Some things are better left dark and exotic and mysterious.