“Where are Syrik and Nyrese?” Izdahl asked, settling himself into one of the living room arm chairs.
“I’ve had the house to myself all day and night,” Kiana explained, as she put two wine glasses on the wooden coffee table. “I’m glad I have a husband who’s gracious about being kicked out. And of course, Nyrese is always up for playing with Sophia.”
Needing to recharge and, most importantly, not wanting to be distracted from her conversation with Izdahl, Kiana had coaxed Syrik into going on a trip with his best friend, Vadem. At Jonas and Felicia’s place, Nyrese was also with her best friend, Sophia.
Izdahl thanked Kiana for the glass of wine she handed him. She poured some for herself and then sat down across from him. The two were about to continue a conversation that had started when Armando was still in his coma. They had been unable, until now, to find time to fully discuss the topic of concern.
“Why is Dagmar so interested in my brother?” Kiana asked, getting to the purpose of their conversation.
“As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t figured out exactly why,” Izdahl reminded his sister-in-law. “However, I firmly believe that he’s up to something.”
He told Kiana that, for as long as he’d known him, Dagmar intensely disliked humans. Yet, Dagmar had wanted to contract with Armando’s firm, claiming to be changing his ways. Izdahl also mentioned that Dagmar had been in the cemetery at the same time Armando was visiting the family grave, when the architect was especially vulnerable. Then, Armando’s most recent, serious accident had taken place within Dagmar’s realm.
“It’s even likely that Dagmar has enlisted others to help him,” Izdahl added, now referring to two Teradas in particular.
He recounted that Rasmus had goaded him during the Nakra Hein, admitting that he’d injured Armando in the woods. He told Kiana that he thought Khalaf was also working for Dagmar. Khalaf was known for his stellar shape-shifting abilities. Dagmar had hired “Leila,” who’d conveniently begun dating Viktor. Izdahl suspected Leila was Khalaf pretending to be human.
“All of this is troubling,” Kiana said, when her brother-in-law finished.
“Yes…And, unfortunately, I might have made it easier for Dagmar to carry out his plans.” Izdahl explained about his actions at the concert and the resulting decision of Xersa.
“So, Dagmar now has two chances to punish you? Oh Izdahl…”
Kiana understood the magnitude of the situation. She’d become familiar enough with Nitelge culture to realize that Izdahl had committed a huge infraction.
“I already know.” Izdahl held up a hand to ward off any scolding. “I should have controlled myself.”
Kiana laughed. She had been about to scold him.
“At any rate, I have to be extremely careful now,” Izdahl said. “Otherwise, I’ll ruin any chances of finding out what Dagmar’s plotting.”
Izdahl let out a long breath, annoyed with the current unwanted complexity of his life. He looked at his watch and realized that it was now growing late.
“Ki, I’m heading home. I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest of your night.”
Izdahl finished the last sip of his wine and rose to leave. Kiana walked him to the door and out to his car. The air was crisp, one of the first signs that the summer season in Arlka would soon be ending.
“Are you and Armando coming to Naktun Island with us?” Kiana asked, as Izdahl entered his vehicle.
Vadem had invited both of the couples to use a villa on Naktun Island. It was a tropical area within one of the Shabota territories.
“Yes, that’s the plan. I think Armando needs a change of scenery. And frankly, I’d like to relax and just concentrate on being with him.”
“It’s the same for Syrik and me. We’ll get a babysitter for Nyrese, so we can focus on each other. We’re really looking forward to it.”
“Alright, I’ll see you soon,” Izdahl told her, as he started his car. “Take care.”
Three weeks had passed since Armando had returned home with Izdahl. The two were in the bath, with Izdahl massaging Armando’s shoulders, as the heat of the water surrounded them.
Even during a time that was supposed to be soothing, Armando was thinking of the stress Izdahl must have felt while he was in a coma. And though the architect had apologized for the concern he’d caused, he didn’t feel he could ever properly make amends. Again, he raised the topic, though he was conflicted with doing so; it often led to a request from Izdahl that he’d repeatedly pushed aside.
“I’m sorry,” Armando began. “I know it must have been difficult for you.”
“You don’t have to say keeping you’re sorry. But please consider that no one understood why you wouldn’t awaken. And that means you need to—”
“All that matters is that I’m better now,” Armando quickly cut off him.
“We can’t be sure of that,” Izdahl told him, quietly. “We don’t have all of the answers.”
“Let’s not become preoccupied with finding them.”
“Why must you minimize what happened?”
Izdahl gave Armando’s shoulders a firmer squeeze than was necessary.
“I’m not…” Armando protested, flinching. “For the time being, can we only talk about the good things? I’m tired now. I’ve been thinking about what happened so much lately. Can’t we forget for a little while?”
“Yes, ‘Mando, I understand…” Izdahl kissed his lover’s shoulder.
“I’ll be more careful; I promise.”
“I’m holding you to that.”
The two were quiet for a few moments and then Armando laughed softly.
“Izdahl, oddly enough, that coma was the best sleep I’ve had in months.”
“Armando! That’s not funny!” Izdahl resisted the urge to cuff his partner on the head.
“No, listen,” Armando told him, laughing even more. “I didn’t have any bad dreams.”
“Did you dream at all?”
“Yes, about Zaitis” Armando described the dream. “I’m still not sure what it all means. Though, he said he would help me. And, strangely enough, the coma might have been a way for me to recharge.”
“And maybe more has happened,” Izdahl pressed again. “After all, the doctors did detect some oddities with your blood.”
“You are relentless!” Armando exclaimed.
He pushed away from Izdahl and sat opposite him inside the large tub. Izdahl instantly felt the cooling of his body, the hot water unable to make up for the loss of the warmth from Armando.
“I don’t want to talk about going to Sunja right now,” Armando told him. “You know that I can’t stop myself from apologizing because I feel so badly about what happened. However, can’t we close the door on letting your Great Aunt inside my head, at least for now?”
“Alright. Just promise me we’ll revisit the matter soon.”
“Love, we will…”
The architect’s words sounded hollow to Izdahl’s ears. Even after such a significant threat to his life, Armando was still obstinate about being examined. Izdahl was doubtful that Armando would ever see Sunja, at least not at his behest. He was determined to find someone that could properly influence his lover.
Though Izdahl had not voiced it, Armando’s refusal was a strike to his ego. He had hoped he’d have enough sway with the architect to get him to properly take care of himself. He was tempted to point out that if Armando were deeply sorry, he would go to Sunja to help assuage Izdahl’s concerns. But he knew that would be manipulative and he wanted to avoid that route. The likely result was that Armando would remove any sliver of a chance of going. Feeling that he had few options to get what he wanted, Izdahl was now staring at Armando; hurt, frustration, doubt and reproach were mixed in his eyes.
Not wanting to be under Izdahl’s severe gaze any further, Armando changed the subject. It was to a topic he’d been curious about, since it first came to his attention. The previous night, Viktor had contacted him and Izdahl. He’d asked them if he and Leila could have a discussion with them within the next week.
“Why do you think Viktor and Leila want to talk to us?” Armando asked.
“They’ve been serious for a few years now. Perhaps it’s related to marriage,” Izdahl speculated.
“I don’t know. Viktor sounded a bit tense over the phone. Plus, he’s less focused at work.”
No longer Armando’s personal assistant at home, Viktor had begun managing the day-to-day matters at the architectural firm. While Armando hadn’t completely returned to work, he’d been in the office enough to see that Viktor had become distracted. Even before he’d been injured, the architect had noticed that Viktor was making mistakes in dealing with clients and interacting with the employees, which was highly uncharacteristic for him.
This week, Viktor had unreasonably berated an employee, who was usually quite punctual, for being a few minutes late to a meeting. Armando and Jonas had asked him to speak with them before he’d left for that day, asking him if something was wrong. There hadn’t been much of an explanation and Viktor had avoided looking either of them in the eye. He’d only stated that he’d been under some “personal strain” and that he’d do his best to no longer let his work be negatively affected. The recent phone call now had Armando wondering if he’d get a full explanation this time.
“Well, I’m sure we’ll soon find out,” Izdahl said. “Now, my plan was really to have us enjoy a soothing bath. So, let’s not have any other issues intrude.”
Izdahl motioned for Armando to come and lean against him again. Repositioning himself, his back touching his lover’s chest, Armando sighed in contentment. He believed that this kind of atmosphere would remove the problem he’d had since he’d left the hospital. However, that was not to be the case.
Twenty minutes after the bath, Armando was staring at the bed sheets, his face flushed with embarrassment. He’d had no explanation for why his body wasn’t reacting to Izdahl. Ordinarily, it would have taken just a few kisses and strokes for him to eagerly respond. Instead, he was, once again, feeling awkward.
Izdahl was monitoring his lover’s face, trying to think of something to say. He hadn’t made many advances, wanting to give Armando time to adjust to being home again. Yet, even the few attempts he’d made hadn’t been successful. Tonight, he’d truly hoped that a relaxing bath would help ease the tension.
“It’s alright,” Izdahl assured his lover, kissing him gently.
“No, it’s not.” Armando said, mournfully. “I know you want this; I want it too. I don’t know why I’m not reacting.”
“Let’s just get some rest. There’ll be plenty of other times for us to try.”
“Wait. You can still go inside me.”
It was the same thing Armando had offered each of the other four times this had happened. Izdahl shook his head in refusal.
“It won’t be the same,” he admitted, quietly. “Your full reactions are part of what I enjoy, especially when I’m inside you.”
“I can’t believe this!” Armando suddenly exclaimed. “If I’d listened to you, I wouldn’t have worked with Dagmar. If hadn’t taken on the project, I wouldn’t have visited the Ymir Briger and—”
“I don’t want to dwell on any of that.”
“Say it, Izdahl! Stop holding back. I already know you’re angry with me. You’ve never liked the idea of me working for Havad.”
Izdahl stared at his lover, surprised at the turn the conversation had taken.
“No,” he responded slowly. “But I’ve chosen not to belabor the point.”
“You only waited until something unfavorable happened to skewer me about it.”
“That is your guilt speaking,” he responded, an edge coming to his voice. “I am not skewering you! As your lover, I am concerned about your safety…Now, we should get some rest; we’re both tired.”
Realizing that he was channeling his frustration in a negative way, Armando murmured his agreement. Izdahl waited a moment to see if another outburst was coming. Then, when there was none, he turned out the lights and reached for his lover, who put one arm across his chest.
When Armando fell asleep, Izdahl slid out of his grasp. He went to the bathroom and stroked himself, creating the most physical satisfaction he’d had in a month. While that ended some of the pressure, it was nowhere near the pleasure he craved.
After washing the pearly evidence off his hand, Izdahl looked at himself in the mirror and sighed. The shield fragment was magnifying his needs; being denied fulfillment was almost unbearable. He wouldn’t tell Armando that; it would most likely make it even more difficult for the architect to respond to him.
But Armando didn’t have to be told. He knew. And, he’d heard his lover. Even when he tried, Izdahl could never be quiet during his release.
When Izdahl returned to bed, Armando pretended to be asleep. However, his mind searched for an answer to his problem. Izdahl’s mind was busy too, wondering if all of this was somehow part of Dagmar’s plan.
Izdahl massaged his temples, releasing his breath slowly to let out stress. His assistant had just alerted him that Lorne Nieri, the husband of Avila, was waiting for him. He’d known that Lorne would want to have a discussion about the Resonance Ceremony. He was, however, not eager to talk at this particular time. There was simply too much happening in his life. The upcoming introductions with Matero and Avila, his two Shield matches, would happen soon. In the mean time, his responsibilities at work were increasing. He continued to wonder if Armando had fully recovered. And he was still sexually frustrated.
He’d wanted Armando so badly the previous night, wanted to bury himself deep inside his lover, but there had been no fulfillment. He’d hoped the universe wouldn’t throw many more difficult circumstances his way. It was not to be so. Reluctantly, Izdahl decided to speak with Lorne, opting to get the matter out of the way as soon as possible.
Seeing the unwelcoming expression on Izdahl’s face, Lorne didn’t even bother to sit when he entered Izdahl’s office. Lorne’s grey eyes assessed the other Nitelge; he once again cringed inwardly over the fact that Izdahl would soon be sleeping with his wife.
“I suppose you have some kind of complaint,” Izdahl began coldly. “Neither of us wants this. It’s best for you to just accept the situation and realize it’s bigger than you.”
Hearing Izdahl’s insensitive words made Lorne abandon any desire to remain cordial. He’d come at the behest of his wife, who believed that if the two had a conversation, perhaps the process wouldn’t be so painful for Lorne. He’d tried repeatedly to explain to Avila the animosity he and Izdahl had for each other. However, being quite optimistic, Avila insisted on Lorne trying; it was hard to say no to her. He now found himself annoyed that he’d wasted his time making the trip to Izdahl’s office. His goal was to leave as unscathed as possible but, first, his battered pride demanded that he make at least a few cutting comments.
“As expected, you’re still callous, arrogant and self-righteous,” Lorne told Izdahl. “And those are your good points. If you hadn’t been such a prick when we were younger, we wouldn’t be at odds today. Izdahl, there was never a need to disrespect my clan.”
“How faulty your memory is. I didn’t merely insult your clan; I ridiculed your entire immediate family for its weak leadership.”
Izdahl could not seem to help himself. Even after all of these years, he simply enjoyed goading Lorne too much. Perhaps it was the other Nitelge’s frail, tall, thin frame and perpetually gaunt expression that induced Izdahl to mock him. Lorne had always seemed to Izdahl to be the opposite of the usually hearty, optimistic Nieri. So, just as when they’d been younger, Izdahl continued to torment his visitor, not thinking of the consequences.
“I suppose you’re worried about how I’ll treat Avila. Don’t worry though. I’ll be taking her gently. Of course, once I’m finished, it will be as if you were never ever inside her. But, I’ll make sure she enjoys the experience. And if she ever lets you touch her again, she’ll probably still call out my name.”
Lorne only stood there, trembling in fury. He turned to leave and Izdahl followed him, a sardonic smile on his face.
“Wait, let me walk you to the elevator. What kind of host would I be, if I didn’t?”
“I think I’ve had enough of your ‘hospitality,’ Izdahl,” Lorne assured him, through clenched teeth.
“Oh but I insist.”
The two quickly arrived at the elevators, unconsciously racing each other. Their long, angry strides made the trip a short one. Lorne jabbed the button to call the elevator, hoping it would arrive soon.
“It’s a very tall building,” Izdahl reminded him. “But the elevator will still come quickly, though not as fast as you do. If you want, you can get a copy of my session with Avila and learn some—”
“Do you never stop?” Lorne shouted, causing several Nitelge and humans to look in his direction. “Do you have no sense of when to shut up?”
Izdahl only laughed, Lorne’s aggravation fueling him.
Lorne was about to fire off another series of angry words at his tormenter. However, he paused when he recognized one of the individuals who was now viewing the exchange. Perhaps the universe did have some justice. Lorne decided to use that to his advantage.
“I came to you to have a reasonable conversation,” he said, making sure now to sound as calm as possible. He wanted to highlight Izdahl’s cruelty. “Instead you’ve chosen to disrespect me and my wife. She’s going to be the mother of my children. Have you no concern about any of that?”
“Ah yes, that wife of yours, indeed,” Izdahl replied. “Tell Avila I look forward to seeing every inch of her. And Lorne, I’m thorough. By the time I’m finished, she’ll probably want to have my babies. At the very least, she’ll tattoo my name across her perfect breasts. Had I known of her existence, I definitely would have made her mine. After all, Avila is so…succulent.”
“Thanks for making it clear to your human lover,” Lorne quipped, satisfied with having lured Izdahl into an even greater display of arrogance.
Lorne motioned to Armando, who was part of the group of spectators. Izdahl turned to see the architect staring at him, pain and fury in his eyes.
Armando had planned on surprising Izdahl. However, he’d first encountered Jaxon and had spoken with Izdahl’s father for a while. As the two were catching up in Jaxon’s office, Lorne had arrived to speak with Izdahl. Armando had finished the conversation with Jaxon as soon as he respectfully could, eager to coax Izdahl home, determined to make up for his inability to have sex the previous night. Instead, he’d been greeted with a heart-wrenching display by his lover.
Izdahl cursed, realizing the difficult situation he’d created for himself.
One of several elevators arrived. Lorne stepped into it. Armando hurried to get in next to him. Izdahl was left with the supremely satisfied expression of Lorne and the blazing glare from Armando etched into his mind. When he turned to walk away, he was met with the commanding eyes of Jaxon, who was intent on addressing the spectacle his son had just created.