“This is a great surprise,” Armando said, hugging his sister tightly.
Kiana and Syrik had stopped by his business for a quick conversation.
“We wanted to congratulate you,” Kiana told him. “We just heard on the radio that your design has reached the next round!”
“I have to confess that I’m getting a little nervous.” Armando rubbed his neck, thinking that the third part of the competition would be the most stressful. “The competitors are getting tougher to beat.”
There were only three teams now in the Inter-territory Architectural Design Contest. The winner would be determined and announced on a televised special within another month.
“I’m sure you’ll win,” Kiana said.
“And she had to come here and say that in person,” Syrik teased. “Trust Ki to make me take a detour.”
The pair had been on their way to have dinner at his parents’ house and also to pick up Nyrese. She had spent the afternoon with Jaxon and Hadil.
“There’s a lot of good news for our family,” Kiana told him. Her eyes beaming and her lips pursed, she looked at her older brother slyly.
“What else do you have to tell me?” Armando asked, knowing his sister well.
“You’ll have another niece or nephew to spoil soon.”
“Ki, that’s great!” He hugged her and spun her around, making her laugh. When he put her back on her feet, Syrik was frowning at both of them.
“Hey, be gentle with my wife,” Syrik told him. “She’s in a delicate condition.”
“Sorry,” Armando said, putting Kiana at arm’s length. “Did you get hurt?”
“No,” Kiana said laughing. “Besides, we would have had another child sooner but someone was too worried.” She looked pointedly at her husband.
“Your pregnancy was hard for you,” he reminded her. “I was just being careful.”
“I know, sweetheart,” she said, gently resting her hand on his arm.
Armando chuckled at their interaction.
“Why are you here by yourself, Armando?” Kiana asked. “It’s evening. Go home to Izdahl.”
“I was planning on leaving in a few minutes. Let me gather my things and we’ll walk out together.”
“I was particularly great, wasn’t I?” Izdahl teased.
He and Armando were drying off after a vigorous round of sex in the shower.
“Perhaps. However, you’re always better in my fantasies.” Armando ducked as a wet towel went sailing past his head. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I hurt your narcissism?”
“Yes,” Izdahl said, pointing down at his crotch. “It’s drooping. But I can go for another roll.”
Armando couldn’t deny the existence of his lover’s obvious erection. Izdahl cock was standing firm, slapping against his stomach. The boisterous time in the shower clearly hadn’t dulled his need.
“You’re pretty eager tonight,” Armando observed.
“Is that too much for you?”
“No love. Let me take care of you.”
Izdahl pulled him over to their bed. Armando lay down, watching Izdahl, knowing his next actions. As expected, Izdahl reached into the drawer of the nightstand, intending to get the sexual lubricant to prepare Armando for him.
“What’s this? It’s new.”
“I bought it yesterday,” Armando explained. “It heats up when it touches skin. I’ve heard that it’s great for massages.” He took the small bottle from Izdahl. “Get on your stomach.”
Smiling, Izdahl did Armando’s bidding. The architect lavished attention on his partner, liberally massaging the liquid onto his supple skin. The light scent soothed Izdahl, building a layer of heat on him.
“I had to request that the store deliver the package to my office,” Armando said, laughing.
Earlier that day, during lunch, Jonas had recommended the oil. Felicia had purchased it and put it to toe-curling use just the previous night. Spurred by the vivid details of his friend and his “complaints” about how sore he was, Armando had ordered three bottles. At his request, a clerk had delivered. Being the only other person in the office to know what the package contained, Jonas had quietly teased him. Armando had given Jonas a pretend scowl.
Gone were the days when Armando could personally go shopping for sexual items. The media’s focus on Izdahl had only increased when he’d announced he’d be fighting in the Elite Fire Sparring. Armando still wanted to maintain some privacy in their relationship. It was likely that the tabloids would speculate about his purchase, or even harass the store clerks of Inside/Outside for details. The store was one of his favorite adult-themed areas to shop. In the nearest mall, it was situated in the section that was strictly for adults; it was quite popular.
Feeling incredibly relaxed, Izdahl turned over on his back, letting Armando continue to spoil him. After seeing to the other parts of him, the architect drizzled a generous amount of oil on his lover’s cock and then gripped him firmly. Between the strong, thick fingers kneading him and the pleasant heat from the oil, Izdahl was soon nearing his peak. He placed his hands over the architect’s, encouraging even rougher strokes. Just as Armando knew was soon likely to happen, Izdahl’s breath caught in his throat. Thick streams of come pumped out of him, lacing Armando’s hand. Izdahl shuddered when Armando put his mouth on his cock, sucking the last few drops out of him.
His chest still rising and falling from his orgasm, Izdahl pulled Armando to him. He pressed the architect under his body.
“I want to try the same thing on you.”
“I’m good for tonight,” Armando said. “We can just lay here and drift off to sleep.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, our time in the shower took care of me.”
“Well, what you just did was fantastic,” Izdahl told him. “I like the idea of you thinking about sex with me, even when you’re at work. You appear so aloof but there’s a lot of sexy nastiness in your head.”
Armando laughed, admitting that he was never this way before being with Izdahl.
After hearing the confession, Izdahl bit him, nicking him with his teeth. Armando flinched and Izdahl slowly ran his tongue over the area he’d just bitten.
“You’re gnawing on me more,” Armando noted.
“I don’t gnaw on you. I claim you, again and again.” Izdahl held Armando tightly as they slipped into sleep. Later, in the middle of the night, Armando awoke Izdahl so he could be claimed.
Afterward, Izdahl expressed what had been bothering him for a few days.
“You were unusually quiet,” he said. “I was worried you were upset with me.”
“Something was on my mind,” Armando replied vaguely. Izdahl studied his face, not liking the answer.
As much as Armando had tried to ignore Dominic, the other man had popped in and out of his head. He wondered more about Dominic’s presence in the city. He was curious about if he would remain. If so, it was likely they would see each other at different business-related events or even pass on the street. The business district of the city was large but not so large he could completely avoid his ex-lover. Armando was not looking forward to dealing with him.
“When were you going to tell me about Dominic Byrne?” Izdahl asked bluntly.
Armando sat up, looking slightly guilty.
“How did you…”
“Jonas called me last week to talk about it. I know he’s not a meddler. For him to do that, it must have been serious.”
“Dominic is just someone from my past.”
“And he’s the one who hurt you, right?”
“Yes love. He and I were together during college. When it was time to graduate, we wanted different things. Our relationship wasn’t balanced and discussions about what we’d do were filled with so much anger. One night he just became out of control and he broke my arm. I was shocked; not just from the pain but from how he’d acted. Things would have been worse if I hadn’t escaped to Jonas’ house. He and Felicia took me to the hospital.”
“I remember seeing you around campus with a cast. I didn’t know why. I wanted to say something but…”
Armando looked down, embarrassed at that event.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Izdahl reminded him.
“I know that but it doesn’t make it any easier. And now that he’s back in the city…”
“Learning about him was just a source of low-grade irritation for me. Now seeing how you’re withdrawing into yourself, I’m becoming angry.”
“We can move beyond it; we don’t have to let it cause problems for us. Leave the subject alone.”
Izdahl was tempted to argue but thought better of it. Armando gave him a small smile.
“I always know when I’m going to win with you,” Armando told him.
“You think of our relationship in terms of winning and losing?”
“Those might not be the best words but we don’t agree on everything. If I know I’m going to eventually get my way, there’s no need for me to press the matter. Even with the issue of you participating in the Tournament, now that I think more about it, my deeper concern wasn’t about if you’d agree with my position and not enter. I was more worried that you’d easily disregard that I was worried at all.”
“Why do you think I would do something like that? If anything, you’re quick to push aside my worries. How long was it before you finally went to get help with your dreams? You’re sounding hypocritical.”
“Are we really going to argue?” Armando asked, looking at him through half-closed eyes.
Izdahl cursed and started to get up.
“Are you really going to leave our bed?” Armando questioned. “Our bed where this morning you had me pinned down? Where you were pounding into me?”
Izdahl swallowed, fighting the urge to leave and resist Armando’s hypnotic voice. He shivered when his lover licked his right ear.
“You could get me to do anything, when you talk like that.”
Armando sighed. He wished he had more energy. He was in no mood to be in the chamber, facing a large tome with deep mysteries he did not want to uncover. Nothing he read seemed to be clear; it was as if there was an intentional haze over the book preventing him from grasping the meaning of the words. Yet, over the past month, for two hours each day, he’d been required to return to the room. On most occasions, as Xersa had promised, she remained with him.
The massive book contained a variety of writings, including historical accounts of the battles between the Basheil and the Nitelge. He’d read the passages Xersa had designated, struggling to make sense of what he was to glean from them.
Pushing the book away from him, he grunted in frustration.
“You would think that with all of the technology the Nitelge have, this would have at least been digitized,” he muttered.
The normally warm, encouraging expression of Xersa disappeared. Her eyes drilled into him; her disapproval was palpable. Concerned by the stark contrast, compared to the emotions he usually saw from her, he became nervous. He tried to gauge the level of her anger.
“Xersa, I’m sorry. I was rude.” His apology had no effect.
“The power is in the writing itself,” she told him. “To digitize it would destroy that. Can’t you feel the energy coming from the book?”
He’d thought she meant energy in a figurative sense. Then, when she placed her hand over the open book, he understood differently. A soothing blue field of light rose up from the pages, eager to meet her hand.
“The words are handwritten by some of the most influential individuals to ever be on our planet. Both Nitelge and humans have instilled so much into this tome. Anger, pain, excitement and a host of other emotions are contained in it. When you have truly opened yourself to what you’re capable of doing, the emotions will rise to meet you. When you are ready, the book will accept you and you’ll understand so much more than you do now.”
Armando pinched the bridge of his nose.
“I know you’ve explained what you expect of me,” he stated, with exasperation in his voice. “But I don’t think I’m able to do what you’re asking.”
“You can and you will,” Xersa told him. “Now begin reading again.”
“No, I won’t.” Armando’s strong belligerence surprised even him. But, he continued. “I’m getting tired of this. It has been almost a month since we stated this. I have no idea how to accomplish what you want!”
“You’ve blocked out the possibility of understanding. That’s why the book isn’t responding to you. Why should it release the emotions of those who have gone before you, who have taken up a great responsibility to protect others? You don’t believe this is important!”
“How can I?” Armando shouted. “You’ve saddled me with this issue. You didn’t ask me if I wanted to help. You and my parents made choices for me that probably have repercussions I could never begin to handle. And for what? So I can tap into some “energy” in some old book? So I can help awaken Zaitis and Sabira? I’m not even going to get into how disturbing it is to have kept them in stasis for hundreds of years.”
Armando was well into his tirade, before he realized how cold the room had gone. He was puzzled when he could see his breath puffing into the air. If Izdahl had been there, he could have warned his lover. Xersa’s anger had hit one of its deepest levels. It had been in this same range when she’d telekinetically slammed Syrik against the wall, scaring her oldest grandchild for life. Fighting to retain her composure, she turned away from the architect. As the room grew even colder, Armando began to shiver. His teeth chattered and frost appeared on his hair, eyebrows and eyelashes.
“Xersa, I…Can you stop this please? You’ve made your point. You’re angry with me. But, can’t you see what you want isn’t something I can do? The orb should never have been put inside me.”
The room dropped another ten degrees and Xersa remained silent. After a few minutes, Armando went to stand in front of her, his eyes pleading with hers. Unconscious of his action, he touched her arm gently and then gave her a light squeeze, pulling at her heartstrings. It was the same gesture he’d used with his mother when she was extremely upset with him.
“I am here to guide you,” she reminded him. “And, I understand that you are confused. However, I will not accept you belittling what is so incredibly important.”
“I am sorry I was disrespectful. I will try again. I promise.”
Warmth slowly came back into the room.
“Go home for today,” Xersa told him. She rested her hand against his cheek and he smiled. “I want you to come back in one week with a better mindset.”
At the same time Armando was expressing his frustration with Xersa, Izdahl was at a meeting at the Resonance Center experiencing his own aggravation. He’d been required to attend a discussion about his pairing status. He had not found his match as a Core Guardian. Avila Nieri had been partnered almost two months earlier. His other potential partner, Matero Nolaska, had been paired the previous week with another Core Guardian. The center had recalculated the results, finding that Izdahl’s link with Matero had a 93% probability of a successful connection, while the individual with whom Matero had ultimately gone with had calculated at 98%.
“You’re in a unique situation,” Izdahl’s counselor highlighted for him. “It’s of concern to us. We’ve researched the reasons why and the only reasonable explanation is that your match has not been activated.”
“I don’t understand. What could possibly cause something like that to happen?”
Usually, when a new cycle for fragments activating began, all carriers were switched on within two years. The carriers the Resonance Centers expected to respond had all done so, except one.
“Your match is what we refer to as a ‘submerged. This individual has a great deal of power. However, this person is too skeptical about our process. Therefore, he won’t let his fragment activate.”
“Yes, ‘he’ as in Armando Medina. His results were off the charts when he was tested as child, twice. We’ve monitored him through his lifetime. His abilities are so high that most can’t even detect his energy. They’re just not capable of comprehending it. But you can. You’ve responded to him all of your life. However, more must be done because, intentionally or not, he’s causing his full abilities to remain hidden.”
The counselor explained that Armando was like a powerful vehicle that wasn’t moving. The engine was running but the vehicle remained stationary. Once it began to move, only then would the amount of power be clear.
“Is Armando this way because of the orb?”
“No. The orb was put inside him because his energy signature is almost identical to Zaitis. Of course, none of that will mean anything, unless the architect awakens.”
“And what can I do about this?”
Izdahl’s counselor stroked his chin thoughtfully, trying to choose his words carefully. He wanted to offer Izdahl encouragement. However, it was more important to him to be straightforward with Izdahl.
“Very few Shield Pairs consist of actual lovers,” his counselor began. “Ask yourself why the one you love is not responding to you in the way that he should…”
“Why are you looking at me so strangely?” Armando asked.
During dinner, Izdahl had unconsciously been scrutinizing his lover, thinking about the conversation with his counselor.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You keep staring at me,” Armando noted. “I’m half-way finished with my food. You’ve barely had anything. Usually we eat at the same pace.”
“I guess I’m not that hungry.”
Izdahl was quiet again and he kept on glancing at Armando.
“What is it? Tell me,” the architect prompted.
“I don’t think you’re submerged,” Izdahl murmured, confusing his lover.
“You’re not making any sense tonight.”
Armando thought back to the events in the chamber. A good portion of his day had already been filled with confusion. He didn’t need it in his home too.
“Never mind; it’s nothing,” Izdahl told him.
After dinner, Izdahl went to the study and played his cello. The vivid tones of the music traveled up to Armando. The sound of it was slightly morose and Armando wondered what was affecting Izdahl’s mood.