Khalaf knew that Rasmus was only moments away from yelling at him. He was certainly not in the mood to have a confrontation in his living room. However, it was inevitable.
Rasmus was glaring at his younger brother, still in disbelief about what Khalaf had told him. His sibling had just informed him that he would be speaking with Izdahl and Armando in a few days. Khalaf, without his brother’s input, had determined that it was time to reveal his role in helping Dagmar. The current stubborn expression on Khalaf’s face, one that Rasmus knew well, indicated that changing his brother’s mind was unlikely.
“It’s important to Viktor,” Khalaf said, quietly.
“I can’t believe you planned this without speaking to me!” Rasmus shouted. “We need to be strategic. You know there will be repercussions. Why are you acting as if this is something minor?”
“Stop with the excuses, Rasmus!” Khalaf told him. “This has to happen sooner or later. Mother made us promise, remember? You’ve just been putting it off. Viktor thought it was best to—”
“Since when did Viktor make all the choices for you?”
“Since when do you get to come to my place and shout at me?” Khalaf bellowed, his voice suddenly rising. Rasmus was shocked into silence. Khalaf continued. “You came up with this damn scheme and now Mother is ashamed of us. I’m tired of pretending, Rasmus. I want to be with Viktor honestly. Part of doing that means telling Armando and Izdahl what happened. And yes, it also means you’re going to have some explaining to do too. So, get the hell out of my apartment and form a plan. You need to worry about how to keep Izdahl from maiming you. That will be your biggest concern, once he finds out everything you were doing.”
Still shocked, and now furious, Rasmus sharply turned away from his brother and headed towards the front door. Viktor, having finished work for the day, was returning home. He was treated to Rasmus yanking the door open and barging by him.
“Hey Rasmus,” Viktor greeted him cheerfully.
“Fuck you,” Rasmus bit out. “You’ve turned my brother against me. I hope you’re happy, you asshole!”
Khalaf, having heard and seen the exchange, shook his head in disgust. Viktor looked at him and smiled. He followed his lover to the kitchen, where Khalaf poured himself the seventh glass of alcohol of the day. It was a particularly potent drink known as stemek nakra, which meant “black fire” in Nitelge.
“Do you want some?” he offered.
“No,” Viktor replied.
He noted that the bottle of alcohol was already gone. He opted not to point out to Khalaf that his drinking had steadily increased over the past few months. After Khalaf took a sip, Viktor gently pried the glass from his hand and put it on the kitchen counter.
“I know that wasn’t easy for you,” Viktor murmured.
“No, it wasn’t. It’s going to cause a problem between Rasmus and me for a long time.”
“I’m sorry Khal. Really.”
“I wish none of this had happened.”
“Hey now, there’s only so much sulking you can do. I’m looking forward to our trip and you have to stay in a good mood.”
Today was the day the two would go on a week-long trip, a much earned vacation from the stress in their lives. Khalaf, in particular, had been under strain from the promise he’d made to his mother. That had been several months ago. During the subsequent visits with Listia, she had not raised the issue again but Khalaf understood that the expectation was still there.
Knowing that the pressure was growing for Khalaf, as he tried to balance all of the interests involved, Viktor wanted to sooth him in any way he could. He took Khalaf’s face in his hands and gently kissed him, the taste of the alcohol weaving into his mouth.
“I’m betting I can take your mind off things for a while,” Viktor teased.
“I’m betting I’d like that,” Khalaf said, laughing softly.
The sounds in the café were supposed to help Armando forget what had just happened. However, he was unable to ignore what his lover had done.
“Izdahl’s at fault, isn’t he?” Armando heard. He realized that Jonas was now standing in front of him.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t even notice…”
“You were deep in thought and I move quietly,” Jonas said, laughing. “May I sit down?” He motioned to one of the chairs at Armando’s table.
“Of course,” Armando said quickly. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“I’m used to it,” Jonas teased, settling his tall frame into the chair. “Now, if you don’t mind me asking, what did Izdahl do to put that look on your face?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, come on, Armando. Very few people cause you to display your strongest feelings. You’re in a restaurant by yourself with a storm around you. I thought I’d be struck by lightning coming near you.”
“I imagine I didn’t look especially approachable,” Armando admitted, smiling
“Well, I’m a brave soul. Luckily for you, I took the chance. Anyway, answer my question.”
Armando explained in a hushed tone what had happened, as his heart grew heavier.
“He probably didn’t mean it the way it sounded,” Jonas tried to reassure him.
“I don’t know about that. He was confident enough saying it in front of everyone…Look, I want to forget about this, at least for a little bit. I know I’ll have to deal with it soon. Anyway, thanks for listening. I’m going to return to the office.”
“No; why don’t you relax here for a bit longer?” Jonas coaxed. “Felicia and Sophie will be joining me for lunch any moment. They haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s best that I…”
“Oh, it’s Daddy and Armando!” Sophie, having spied her father and his friend, galloped over to them, pulling Felicia along.
“Well, I guess that’s settled,” Jonas said. “You can’t disappear now.”
As the four of them shared a meal, Armando smiled at the way Jonas interacted with his wife and daughter. For a while, the pain inside him dulled.
Having commanded his son to speak with him in his office, Jaxon was now glaring at Izdahl. Izdahl had installed himself dejectedly into a leather chair, awaiting his father’s tirade. He didn’t have long to wait.
“What is the matter with you?” Jaxon demanded. He was staring down at his youngest offspring, his arms crossed.
“I have no appropriate explanation for my actions,” Izdahl replied quietly, steeling himself for the harsher words he thought would come. He looked down morosely at the floor.
“You’re right. Nothing could justify what you did,” Jaxon bit out. “You actually think it makes sense to goad Lorne about the Resonance Ceremony?”
“No sir; of course not.”
“Your lack of judgment amazes me; despite how well your mother and I have tried to raise you. There are few things more painful to endure than a Resonance Ceremony. Izdahl, you know that!”
“Father, I’m sorry. I was angry and—”
“Don’t you dare give me such an excuse!”
Jaxon and Izdahl stared belligerently at each other, both biting down on their jaws to avoid taking the conversation to a more heated level. The two were well aware of their similar temperaments and the sharp words they could easily say when highly agitated.
Jaxon sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He was struggling not to let his anger get the best of him. He knew it would only ruin the chance for him to impart some very important knowledge to Izdahl. Once he felt his ire subside a bit, he began to speak quietly on a subject that never failed to cause him pain.
“Son, you’ll likely never know what it’s like for your lover to sleep with someone else. I assure you, to have that act be out of a sense of duty does not make it any easier. Since it’s part of the process of protecting the planet, complaining is incredibly pointless. Selfishness means nothing when billions of lives depend upon the spiritual abilities of the Shield Guardians…Now, as you are aware, your mother was one and a possible match for her was Dagmar. Over the years, our connection with him has been tenuous. During our most heated debates, I have to remember that he is a Kelcho, so that I do not shame myself and my family. I know that it is because of the Resonance Ceremony why he ultimately slept with my Hadil. But that doesn’t make the situation easy to handle.”
Before Jaxon and Hadil had met, Dagmar and Hadil had grown quite close. Even now, there were times when it was unbearable for Jaxon to see them together, knowing their history. Despite this, Jaxon did his best to accommodate Hadil’s wishes because of her intense dislike of discord. She had asked Jaxon to bear the burden and he did so because of his love for her. To witness Izdahl taunting another in a similar situation was unacceptable.
“I hope you never experience what I’ve had to endure,” Jaxon continued. He rested one hand on his son’s shoulder and looked at him intently. “You must never mistreat Lorne or anyone else who has to endure this process. Do you understand me, Izdahl?”
“Yes, Father…” was all Izdahl could murmur.
Jaxon’s words, filled with raw emotion, had completely reached Izdahl. When he left his father’s office, he had a deeper understanding of how wrong his actions had been. In addition to widening the rift between him and Lorne, he’d stirred painful memories for his father and had angered his lover.
The evening meal was strained. Izdahl wasn’t sure how much more he could say to try to resolve the situation. Armando had remained angry with him all day, refusing to take his calls when he’d wanted to apologize. Izdahl had been surprised when the architect had sat at the dinner table with him. Still, the meal had been painfully silent and Armando was barely bothering to look at him.
“Love, listen. Let’s talk about this,” Izdahl began. “It’s not what you think. Give me the benefit of the doubt, please.”
“I heard your words!”
“I was only goading Lorne,” Izdahl assured his lover. “None of it meant anything!”
“Choosing that way to hurt someone says a great deal about you!”
“You don’t know the history Lorne and me have.”
“I don’t care either. Nothing justifies what you did. Just go to Avila, who you find to be…‘succulent’.” Armando cast another loathsome gaze at Izdahl.
Izdahl shook his head and laughed.
“Ah, you’re so sexy when you’re jealous,” he teased.
“I am jealous. I admit it. Are you happy now?”
“Now Armando, I—”
“I understand that you’re a global treasure, being a Core Guardian and all. But maybe you can spare a thought for me dealing with your new-found fame.”
“If you’re going to be angry with me all night, I’ll sleep in another room. I can’t be next to you and not at least hold you.” Izdahl hesitated. He was unsure if he should say the next words on his mind. However, after a few moments of indecision, he decided to be straightforward. “We haven’t exactly been all that intimate lately. Don’t eliminate the little bit of intimacy we do have.”
Armando skewered him with an unwavering gaze.
“So you finally get around to blaming me,” the architect said, as he put down his utensils and folded his arms.
“I don’t believe that’s my intent, Armando.” Izdahl sighed.
“Oh, like you didn’t intend your words to Lorne. Maybe you and his wife can go to Nantuk Island together. I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“Please don’t be this way. I’ve really been looking forward to that vacation.”
“I’m not stopping you,” Armando responded, coldly. “Remember, as a Core Guardian, you are quite popular. Surely you can find someone else to fuck.”
When Armando cursed, Izdahl felt his anger rising.
“Armando, maintain composure.”
“Oh, I see. I’m supposed to ‘maintain composure’ in the face of your disrespectful actions. I went to your office to see you, to make up for what happened last night. Instead, I find you casually talking about having sex with someone else. As if that isn’t bad enough, you made sure you had an audience. You just wanted everyone to know that you’d be sleeping with Avila Nieri.”
“That was not my aim. You are exaggerating and you know it.”
“I realize that I’m raising my voice, though I’m trying my best to remain calm. However, your tone is still monotonous, as if you’re bored. It’s a shame that everyone can’t be as cold as you are.”
Armando’s comment swept through Izdahl, hurting him deeply.
“It would be best if you controlled your mouth,” Izdahl told him.
“Or what?” Armando challenged.
Izdahl took a deep breath, realizing that his irritation could get the better of him. He slowly wiped his mouth, struggling to choose his words carefully. He believed his lover had overreacted to the scene with Lorne. And, coupled with the sexual frustration he’d been feeling for the past few weeks, Izdahl wasn’t willing to tolerate Armando’s conduct.
“Perhaps I should just go back to my place,” Armando murmured.
He was now unsure. He’d expected Izdahl to be more apologetic, believing that he was justified in being angry at his lover’s callous actions. However, now he doubted the righteousness of his anger. Izdahl’s face was void of any expression.
“Yes, go to your place,” Izdahl said. “In fact, you should stay there. I have no desire to see you.”
He got up from the table. After neatly folding his napkin and laying it next to the dinner he had barely eaten, he went to his study. He left the architect wondering what had just happened.
Anger and pride surged within Armando. He’d been casually dismissed. He decided that he would return to his house. However, there was a complication. As he was rarely there and didn’t want the house to be vacant, he’d begun renting it out to two of his employees. Though they had been informed that he’d periodically be there, he’d had no need to return for almost a year…until now. He cursed, irritated at both his stubbornness and that of Izdahl.
Izdahl cursed, the rough epithet at odds with the refinement of the study.
He wondered how much worse his evening could get. He found out ten minutes later. The video-phone rang, showing that the caller was Dagmar. Izdahl contemplated not answering it. Then, he decided that it was best to hear whatever the Kelcho had to say, in hopes that it was a matter he could easily handle.
After removing any signs of emotion from his face, he accepted the call. Dagmar’s face appeared and the older Nitelge smiled broadly. This was not a good sign.
“Mr. Amasi, I believe we have some details to discuss.”
“Your first punishment for your indiscretion at the concert. As I recall, your great-grandmother gave me two opportunities to have you make amends. I’ll use of one of those in the near future.”
“What exactly do you mean?”
“I’ll contact you about the matter in a few days. I just wanted to be courteous and give you some notice…Now, you make sure to have a great evening.”
Dagmar nodded and nonchalantly ended the call, feeling quite satisfied that he had chipped away at Izdahl’s confidence.
Izdahl stared at the screen that was now blank, feeling disconcerted as he thought about the possibilities. He wondered why his life had become so complicated over the past few months. There was simply too much happening at the same time. The source of his largest concern was on the floor above him. He looked up, wondering how he would resolve the situation with Armando. Part of him wanted to apologize for the argument. However, he also felt that he was justified in how he had acted, especially given how Armando had labeled him as emotionless. He winced when he once again thought of the dinner conversation, remembering Armando’s uncompromising facial expression and his acidic words.
“Cold, am I?” Izdahl grunted, his eyes narrowing in anger. “We’ll see about that.”
Armando was in the bedroom, gathering his belongings. As he packed his clothes, sketchbooks and various other articles, he replayed the conversation he’d had with Izdahl. It seemed to have happened so quickly. Before he knew it, he had lost his temper and insulted Izdahl at least twice. Though his lover had tried to hide his emotions, Armando had seen him flinch, particularly when he’d called him cold.
The architect realized that, while he did continue to pack his things, he was moving incredibly slowly. Part of him was hoping that Izdahl would come for him. The other part was stubborn, believing that Izdahl had deserved his comments. Though, at the moment, it was hard to feel truly righteous. He was flipping through one of his sketchbooks. It was part of a set that Izdahl had bought for him, which had been emblazoned with his initials. Most of the images in the book were of Izdahl.
Armando’s cell phone rang, distracting him from his melancholy mindset. It was Viktor.
“Khalaf and I wanted to know when we should talk to you,” Viktor began. “We’d already agreed that this week would work best but we didn’t pick a time.”
“I’m sorry Viktor,” Armando said, quietly. “I don’t believe this week will work well.”
Familiar with Armando’s moods, Viktor could sense that something was wrong. He knew it was unlikely that Armando would tell him. The architect rarely explained what caused his disposition to become grim.
“The matter is important,” Viktor pressed. “But it’s not urgent. Let me know when there’s a better time. Please remember; it’s best that Khalaf and I speak with you and Izdahl together.”
“Viktor, about that…” Armando paused, as he heard footsteps behind him. He turned to face Izdahl, who closed the distance between them and took Armando’s phone.
“Viktor, he’ll speak with you later. Goodbye.” Izdahl shut off the phone and placed it on the nearby dresser.
Armando looked at Izdahl fleetingly and then glanced down at the floor, his eyes filled with confusion. He was nervous about what would happen next.