The next few days for Darion and Tolrek were strained. Tolrek continued to keep his distance. And though it hurt Darion, he remained silent and gave the rebel his space.
It was late one night when Tolrek finally reached out to him. Yet again, Darion had taken up refuge in his study, trying to shield himself from Tolrek’s accusing glares. When he’d looked up to see Tolrek leaning against the doorway to the study, he was quite surprised. He was even more surprised by the rebel’s unexpected openness.
“They’ve killed part of my family, Darion,” Tolrek said, his voice constricted by pain and fury.
Darion slowly got up and went to the couch, beckoning to Tolrek to come to him. He hoped the conversation would be very different than the one they’d had.
“Tell me about them, Tol,” Darion coaxed.
At first, Tolrek looked at him suspiciously but after a few moments, he began to speak haltingly about those who had died.
“Adine was like a sister to me,” he began. “I met her in the orphanage. She constantly talked about piloting Krezkas, even though many of the kids teased her, including me, at first. As we grew older, she changed my mind about how powerful they were. She told me that if they were used effectively, they could be the backbone of the military but at the time, people didn’t understand the Krezka’s real potential…”
“Go on,” Darion encouraged. He motioned again for Tolrek to come sit near him. While the rebel still refused, he at least kept talking.
“We would prepare attack maneuvers, drawing plans in the orphanage yard while other kids played or just wandered around aimlessly. It was Adine who convinced me to sign up for the Academy with her. We met Itan and Mado there. They’d already reached the same conclusions we did about the untapped value of the Krezkas. Sometimes, in class, we’d get in trouble for talking about reconfiguring battle strategies for the machines. Several of our instructors, and many fellow cadets, found us to be unbearable. But it was all worth it.”
“Even back then you were being incredibly difficult,” Darion teased lightly. “I can only imagine why you four didn’t just take over the military.” His comments earned him a small smile from Tolrek.
“We promised each other that we’d make our mark in Vaironia by becoming the best Krezka pilots. We gave everything we had and Itan almost died during one of the Krezka exercises. Adine, Mado and I barely ate and slept while he was recovering from his injuries. This was before we were able to get the QikMed technology from Tildar. For a while, it wasn’t even clear Itan would be able to walk again, let alone pilot a battle unit.”
Tolrek finally sat down next to Darion. Darion rested his forehead against Tolrek’s, holding his lover as the rebel worked through the pain, talking more about the time he’d spent with his friends.
“I’m here for you, Tol,” Darion assured him. “Please trust me to help you.”
Tolrek trembled and let out a shuddering breath. Then, he buried his face against Darion’s neck. The negotiator felt his lover’s tears on his skin.
Even if he’d considered asking for clearance to do so, Darion knew he wouldn’t have been allowed to let Tolrek communicate with his friends. Beilon, had made that clear, as part of his conditions for permitting Tolrek to become the negotiator’s Pet. However, now, Darion wished he’d been able to let Tolrek see his friends once more. He’d never known just how much they meant to Tolrek. The tears of his lover burned his skin, the pain they carried too deep for him to sooth.
Tolrek had found out about the deaths of his closest friends two weeks ago. He had buried his sorrows by spending as much time in bed as he could with Darion. Tolrek had demanded lengthy sexual sessions from Darion; sometimes twice a day. Tolrek teased the negotiator, agitating him, goading him until Darion exacted retribution from Tolrek’s body. Darion understood that this was Tolrek’s way of releasing his stress about the situation; the negotiator hadn’t complained about his lover’s significantly increased sexual appetite, until now.
“I’m really tired,” Darion groaned out.
He hadn’t even caught his breath, yet Tolrek was ready to start another round of sex. The rebel laughed. His lover was lying next to him, breathing as if he’d never recover.
“If you’re tired, you should let me enter you,” Tolrek suggested. He looked at Darion expectantly, as the offer hung in the air.
“Well, we both know that won’t be happening,” Darion finally huffed out, laughing.
Tolrek sat up, putting some distance between the two of them. Darion looked at him warily, certain that Tolrek was going to press the matter further.
“Why not?” the rebel demanded, as if on cue.
“Because it’s an honor you don’t deserve,” Darion responded. His tone was cold, as he intended to prevent the discussion from continuing.
“Uh yeah,” Tolrek replied, brushing aside his lover’s attempt. “Has anyone ever—”
“Not even Jarrick?” Tolrek peered at the negotiator, incredulous. “Not once?”
He wondered how no one had managed to ever get inside Darion. Internally, he kicked himself for not bringing up this topic earlier. Perhaps he could have already claimed Darion in a way no other had. Then again, he realized that he might merely be overly optimistic. There were few things that happened in their relationship, unless Darion wanted them to take place.
“No one,” Darion told him.
“I just don’t understand why it would bother you. Haven’t you ever wanted to experience—”
“It’s not something I would enjoy.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I know everything, dammit.”
Tolrek was quiet for a few moments, as he decided what tactics to try next. Then, he phrased a delicate question.
“D, did something happen to make you not want to—”
“No. And don’t try to psychoanalyze me.”
Darion sat up in the bed, stretching his aching back and limbs. Tolrek moved behind him, massaging him.
Though the negotiator kept in great shape, his body was significantly taxed by Tolrek’s increased demands for sexual affection. Having his lover’s hands on his body, in a manner that was not strictly sexual, was needed and welcomed. Darion sighed with pleasure.
“Does it feel good?” Tolrek asked, after listening to Darion’s sounds of contentment.
“Yes, Tol; it does.” Darion braced himself for the inevitable next step in Tolrek’s plan.
“Wouldn’t an internal massage be better?” A grin spread across Tolrek’s face, as he attempted to stifle a laugh. He knew it was unlikely that Darion would give in but he still wanted to try. “How can you be certain you wouldn’t like me inside you?”
“Tol, will you stop?” Darion laughed and looked over his shoulder at his lover.
“I think the problem is you want to be too much in control,” Tolrek admonished him. “Sometimes you have to let go.”
“Well, clearly, self-control isn’t transferred through osmosis,” Darion teased. “Otherwise, you’d be a better person just from being around me.”
“Were you exercising ‘self-control’ when you made that video?” Tolrek jabbed. His strong fingers gripped and squeezed the base of Darion’s neck, purposefully causing his lover pain.
“Ow!” Darion complained. “You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?”
Tolrek cuffed Darion on the head and scrambled away, laughing as he avoided Darion. The negotiator was about to chase after him, when his cell phone buzzed. It was an encrypted message stating that Beilon had made the arrangements for the return to Vaironia. As Beilon had mentioned earlier, Behadan Kyniska was providing a military convoy, which would arrive in two hours. Darion felt his stomach tighten, apprehensive about what would happen from this point.
“What is it?” Tolrek asked, when Darion didn’t chase him. He noted the strained expression on his lover’s face.
“We’ll be leaving Tildar soon,” Darion explained. “As soon as we land, we’ll go to Beilon’s office.”
Tolrek knew that it would be night when they touched down in Vaironia. He realized that the situation was grave; Beilon wasn’t waiting until morning to see them.
“Things won’t ever be the same, will they?” Tolrek asked.
“No, Tol,” Darion responded, quietly. “I just don’t know how much they’ll change.”
They barely spoke, as they gathered the essential items for their trip back to Vaironia.
Darion and Tolrek had completed half of the journey home; the military airship had effortlessly progressed through the eighth hour of the trip. Tolrek sat in a seat across from Darion. They’d remained silent for most of the flight.
Tolrek’s fingers absentmindedly stroked Najrina’s fur. Sensing that her master was distraught, she purred and nudged his hands numerous times. Tolrek was once again lost in pain, thinking of what the loss of his friends meant. Now, added to his loss was increased uncertainty about his future. At least on Tildar, he was able to pretend that he and Darion couldn’t be touched by the events on Vaironia. However, he was rarely willing to delude himself.
By the time the flight finished, he’d made a decision. He wasn’t going to remain in limbo any longer.
“Are you seriously going to bring Najrina into the VSB?” Darion demanded.
The two had arrived outside of the building. However, they still hadn’t left the car. The rebel’s insistence on taking Naj inside was severely irritating Darion.
“Of course,” Tolrek responded. “She goes where I go.”
“There must be some limitations on—”
“Darion, I’m not leaving her in the car.”
The negotiator recognized the expression that came across Tolrek’s face; absolute belligerence. Realizing that Beilon was waiting for them, Darion chose not to pursue the issue. Tolrek motioned for his pet to follow him, when Darion didn’t argue any further.
Naj jumped out of the car and walked by Darion, swatting him hard with her tail. It was as if she’d understood that he’d intended for her to remain in the car.
When the trio entered the building, the six security guards eyed Tolrek and Naj apprehensively. The head guard was about to question Darion.
“We’re expected and I’ll accept no arguments,” the negotiator stated. “Or, you can personally explain to Director Warel why you’re wasting his time.”
The guards acquiesced, though they didn’t look pleased. The trio made their way to Beilon’s office, where the official was waiting for them.
“You’re quite bold to bring a wild animal in my presence,” Beilon said.
“Do you mean Darion or Najrina?” Tolrek asked, laughing.
“This is hardly the time to be joking,” Darion warned him.
“Yes, of course,” Tolrek responded. “I did forget myself. Speak, Great Lord Beilon. What do you require?”
Beilon studied Tolrek for a few moments, one eyebrow raised. He wondered if he’d regret the concessions Prime Minister Devdan Kebehde had authorized him to give. Knowing that the government had few options, he began his briefing, explaining the situation.
“As of two weeks ago, Ersha has been making small attacks at our borders. We need to send that country a strong and final message, before it becomes bolder. I want you to be part of that message, Tolrek. No doubt Ersha still remembers the carnage you and the other Krezkas caused. I want you to do much more this time.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?” Tolrek asked, derisively. “You’re actually going to let me back into Alrak Nor? Is my Krezka even still functioning? Will I have command of troops? And if you answer ‘yes’ to all of those questions, how are you going to deal with the Vaironians who are against me?”
“I’ll move those obstacles out of the way.”
“Perhaps I want Vaironia to be destroyed by Ersha,” Tolrek said nonchalantly.
“Tolrek!” Darion shouted.
“What are you worried about?” Tolrek asked. “You can always go back to Tildar. Jarrick would welcome you with open arms, and mouth and—”
“Be quiet!” Darion’s fists clenched, as he was tempted to throttle Tolrek. The situation was much too serious for the rebel’s irreverent humor, especially in front of his superior. Darion was about to reprimand Tolrek further when Beilon motioned with his hand for the negotiator to stop.
“There are benefits for you, if you follow my orders,” Beilon mentioned to the rebel.
“And what makes you think I care?” Tolrek replied.
“I can answer all of your questions, especially the most important ones.”
“Of course, you’re Beilon the Omniscient.”
“Yes, and Beilon the Omnipotent, when it comes to running your life.”
“You VSB dogs really don’t know your limits.”
Tolrek turned his back and began to walk away.
It took every bit of self-control Darion had not to release the fury he was now feeling. He found Tolrek’s display to be surprising and embarrassing. Yet, he maintained his composure, deferring to Beilon’s methods.
“You have a family,” Beilon stated. “You’re definitely not an orphan. And Tolrek, you are certainly not Vaironian.”
The rebel paused and then turned to look at the official.
“Surely you can do better than that,” he responded, trying not to reveal his reactions. Inside, he was reeling.
He assessed Beilon’s face, to see if there was any element of truth. He knew that the official had a reputation for being straightforward. Still, he knew that using subterfuge wasn’t completely against Beilon’s principles, if it served a greater purpose.
“I’m quite serious,” Beilon assured him. “Would you like to meet your mother and sister?”
“What would I gain from that?”
“Answers. Surely, even a hardened individual, such as yourself, has many questions about the past.”
“I’ve learned to make it through life, without getting all of my answers.”
Tolrek looked at Darion pointedly. In that moment, he wished they were alone so he could tell Darion exactly what was on his mind. He realized the negotiator must have known about his family for at least several months. Fuming inside, he turned his attention back to Beilon.
“Your mother and sister searched for you all of these years,” Beilon stated. “Don’t you think you—”
“What? Owe them a chance to meet me?” Tolrek demanded. “If you really cared about them, you wouldn’t be using them as a bargaining point.”
“Fair enough.” Beilon nodded his agreement. “Regardless, you clearly understand reality. They are a bargaining point and you are interested. Otherwise, you’d have left already.”
Despite Beilon’s maneuvering, Tolrek realized a salient point. The country wanted him to be in the military again. He had leverage and decided to set some terms.
“Not only will I get to see my mother and sister, I’ll also have my status as Darion’s Pet removed. I no longer find that arrangement acceptable.”
Darion was shocked, shaken him to his core. He stared at Tolrek, incredulous and at a complete loss for words.
Beilon didn’t immediately refuse the terms and he didn’t bother to glance at the negotiator. It was as if Darion was no longer in the room.
Darion listened to the conversation between Beilon and Tolrek, as if he was merely there to bear witness to it. A slow, twisting ball of pain was beginning to grow inside him. Tolrek had casually asked to be separated from him. The desire to beg Tolrek to reconsider and the desire to keep his pride intact warred within Darion. His face drained off all emotion and he stared ahead into space, the pain digging deeper into him as his mentor and his lover bargained.
“And you believe you’re in a position to make demands?” Beilon asked Tolrek.
“This isn’t about what I believe,” the rebel stated. “This is about what I know. Ersha has always been a relentless country. Eventually, it will completely overpower Vaironia. You need me more than I need this entire country. I’m an individual who can survive anywhere. I don’t have to stay on this planet, let alone here.”
Everyone in the room knew that Tolrek was correct. Ersha wanted to expand and Vaironia was a prime target, with excellent resources. Sooner or later, Ersha would launch more vicious attacks. Even if Vaironia was able to fend it off again, the peace would be temporary. Ersha would only rebuild and continue its assaults.
Still, Beilon was not prepared to let Tolrek do everything he wanted. He needed to make sure that the rebel would not cause more harm than good.
“Don’t let your arrogance cloud your judgment!” Beilon told Tolrek. “Ersha must be brought completely to its knees. Otherwise, eventually, it will swallow this nation. I’m not about to let that happen. Your cavalier attitude might actually put us in a worse position.”
“Only if the VSB continues to be timid,” Tolrek pointed out. “I can’t do what I need to, unless you give me the authority.”
“I’ve already seen what you do with authority.”
“No, you really haven’t,” Tolrek assured him, walking towards Beilon’s desk. He put his hands firmly on the desk of the official and stared him directly in his eyes. “I primarily used fear but little to no violence. I just reminded Vaironia of what I could do and it was enough to get me what I wanted. If I can do that with the threat of violence, imagine what would happen when I become truly vicious.”
“Once again, don’t exaggerate your influence,” Beilon goaded. “After all, you became Darion’s Pet, kept under his thumb and by extension, kept under my thumb.”
“You and Darion can think what you want. I’ve never forgotten my worth.”
“Alright, I will remove your status as a Pet,” Beilon agreed. “In return, tonight, you’ll enter military service again and prove your worth. An escort will arrive to take you to Olnas Military Base.”
“And what makes you think I’ll simply leave with this escort?”
“You’ll leave with them for the sake of your mother and your sister.”
“Is that the best you can do?” Tolrek asked, laughing loudly and heartily. “You’re still talking to me about some phantom family?”
“Oh, I assure you, I make no reference to phantoms.”
Beilon activated a series of images on his computer tablet. He handed them to Tolrek. The rebel stared at the faces of two women who looked eerily similar to his.
“How do I know these aren’t fabricated?” Tolrek challenged, shoving the tablet back at Beilon.
“Don’t insult me,” Beilon told him, laughing. “Now, I know who you really are. I’ve been keeping an eye on you and your family, ever since I learned the truth about your roots. You have an opportunity to finally get to know your mother, who by the way is ailing. She’s been through quite a lot over the past several decades, including the death of your father and separation from you and your sister. She was only recently able to reunite with your sister, who was one of the three individuals tracking you at the Bazaar. And that’s all you’ll hear until later.”
“How long did it take you to come up with that story?” Tolrek asked. “Seriously, did you make the images yourself? Or did you bully someone else to create that garbage?”
“Truly, I have greater concerns than making up stories about you,” Beilon growled out.
Tolrek studied the official for a few moments, trying to determine his next move.
“I’ll make the time to look into what you said,” the rebel stated. “For now, I’m primarily concerned about no longer being a Pet.”
“I’ll certainly remove your status as Pet A-21,” Beilon responded.
Hearing the inevitability in those words finally moved Darion to speak.
“Beilon! Why must you release him?”
“After the fight on Tildar, I reprimanded you,” Beilon reminded him. “I also told you that I was not finished with you. I warned you to expect more when you returned to Vaironia. Let’s not forget that little recreational video of yours. It was a foolish choice, given my expectations of you. Deal with the consequences.”
“I can see some type of reprimand but this is much too severe,” Darion protested. “I —”
“This isn’t about you!” Beilon shouted, slamming a hand down on his desk. “Did you forget that Tolrek was always under VSB control? That he remained a prisoner? That he was merely with you for psychological reasons?”
“No, of course not, sir. I only—”
“Mr. Marou will have a new residence on Olnas.”
Darion knew his mentor very well; there would be no change to his decision. He cast his eyes downward, resigned to the situation.
“You’re not much of a negotiator now, are you?” Tolrek teased.
He’d hoped to see anger in Darion’s eyes. Instead, when Darion looked at him, he saw a level of pain he hadn’t expected. On this rare occasion, he had blindsided Darion. He’d gained his freedom, at least from the negotiator. But he didn’t feel particularly triumphant.
“I was never really your Pet,” Tolrek murmured, his tone now subdued. “Besides, this is for the best.”
Darion didn’t respond. Instead, he spoke to Beilon.
“Sir, am I needed here any longer?”
“Not right now but report for work in the morning. You’ll be part of a team reviewing strategies for dealing with Ersha.”
“As you wish. Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Darion turned to leave.
“Wait,” Tolrek said.
Darion paused, wondering if Tolrek would attempt to save their relationship. Instead the next words from the rebel surprised the negotiator again.
“During the negotiations, what was in those other boxes?” Tolrek asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What were the consequences?”
“They were all the same. The children would be taken from their parents and they would be listed as orphans. They’d become wards of the state.”
“And changing the children’s status to being orphans, whose idea was that?”
“Mine,” Darion admitted. “At the time, that’s what I thought you were.”
“It’s surprising how wrong you can be about a person, isn’t it?”
“Indeed,” Darion responded, quietly.
He headed towards the door. Najrina rose to follow him, expecting Tolrek to go also. When the rebel did not move, Naj looked back and forth between Darion and Tolrek, aware that something significant had happened.
“Do you want me to take Naj with me?” Darion asked.
“Not right now,” Tolrek replied. “But I’m sure she’ll be seeing you again.”
Darion was unable to decipher the look that Tolrek gave him in that moment.
Beginning to feel drained by the rapid changes, Darion left Beilon’s office and walked slowly out of the building. He trudged to his vehicle, replaying what had happened. How had there been such a swift reversal of his situation? How was it that a day ago, he’d been buried inside Tolrek, teasing him, feeling content and yet now, he wasn’t even sure if they’d be near each other again?
He’d had no indication of what Tolrek would do. He wondered if he’d missed some important clues. Perhaps, he considered, Tolrek had never been open with him. Otherwise, he might have predicted what would happen, he might have been able to shield himself from the wretched pain he was feeling.