Darion opened his eyes, expecting to see Tolrek’s warm, enticing body next to him. Instead, he was looking at a female, who blinked slowly and peered at him with her green eyes.
“Clearly we’re spoiling you,” he said to Najrina.
She’d moved from the foot of the bed during the night and placed herself between him and Tolrek. The hettira had done that ever since they’d begun their vacation at his second home on the Vaironian coast.
Najrina ignored Darion’s scolding tone, as she stood up to shake and prepared to leave the bed. She could have gracefully jumped over Darion and down to the floor. However, she purposefully stepped on his stomach and then used his abs as a launching pad.
“Smart ass,” Darion grumbled. It earned him a swish of her tail, which smacked him in the mouth, causing him to grunt in pain.
“That’s my girl,” Tolrek said laughing.
“You’ve created a monster,” Darion noted, flicking Tolrek lightly on the tip of his nose. “One of these days, she’s going to take a bite out of me.”
“I would love to see that!” Tolrek exclaimed, knowing that Darion was being jokingly dramatic.
“Because you’re a terrible person,” Darion responded drily.
Tolrek only chuckled. He was about to get out of bed, when Darion pulled him back down.
What is it?” Tolrek asked.
“Shouldn’t we be enjoying more time together? Let’s not rush the day.”
“We’re not rushing the day. The day is rushing us.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“My two weeks of vacation are over. I need to report in today.” Tolrek escaped Darion’s grasping hands, firmly pushing him away. “And you have to go to that appointment with your doctors, which is the least of the important things you need to do.”
Darion muttered his discontent, not wanting the outside world to intrude. He wasn’t ready to face the tasks at hand, even if it meant finding those who had hurt him. His reluctance to handle that situation had steadily grown. He didn’t want to explore all the reasons why he had no drive to track down those responsible for the explosion at the VSB and his resulting hospitalization.
“This isn’t only about you,” Tolrek reminded him firmly, after a few moments had passed. “There were people who lost their lives, when the VSB was attacked.”
Darion flinched, as Tolrek’s scolding tone hit him at his core.
“Others have already been on the case,” Darion protested. “Why do I have to be at the forefront?”
“Because it’s expected and because you can handle it.”
“I’m sick of living up to everyone’s expectations!” Darion suddenly shouted.
When Tolrek saw the disheartened expression on his face, he tenderly brushed a hand against Darion’s cheek.
“We have many other pieces to put in place,” he reminded Darion. “Let’s not lose sight of our major goals.”
“I need more time, Tol,” Darion said, his voice plaintive.
“For what? We don’t know how far this trouble spans. Worst of all, our windows of opportunity are likely closing!”
Darion put an arm over his eyes, not even wanting to look at his lover. Tolrek sighed at the evasion, once again surprised at how much Darion’s trademark determination had diminished.
Tolrek was tempted to let him know that he’d already set some events in place. When news had reached him that Darion had been hurt, he’d contacted Kejaro and Arjan, requesting that they start gathering information, before all of the best avenues of intel were closed. However, letting Darion know what he’d done would have to wait. Darion clearly wasn’t in the state-of-mind to listen.
“Fine. You can forget about what others want,” Tolrek said. “But do this for yourself.”
He closed the conversation by giving Darion a gentle kiss and then left the bed to get ready for the day.
Darion was meticulously avoiding his father’s eyes. The subject of the conversation was incredibly uncomfortable. Not even communicating via videophone was enough of a barrier. Ryam continued to stare at his youngest son, though Darion was still not able to meet his eyes.
“Are you not a Navarr?” Ryam finally demanded. The cold question from him immediately caught Darion’s attention and his father took advantage of that, continuing to speak. “I believe you have a problem to address.”
Darion’s words trailed off and he let out a long sigh that was full of suffering. He had remained in limbo for several months. Though at times his lethargy bothered him, he hadn’t been able to marshal enough fortitude for him to act.
“Someone injured a Navarr, you specifically, in case you’ve forgotten,” Ryam stated. “Stand up for yourself, Darion. I shouldn’t even have had to contact you about this. You’ve had more than enough time to heal. And I’d like to think you’ve been deciding your next steps. Anything you require will be provided for you.”
“I know. It’s just that I need more time.”
Ryam pinched the bridge of his nose, after seeing the dejected expression on his son’s face.
“Darion, despite how hard I am on you, I know you’ll do the right thing.”
“Because I’m a Navarr,” Darion said, giving his father a small smile.
“Exactly. Take some more time but not too long. I can’t hold back Ashrom and Aleena forever. They’re still observing Tildari law and giving Tolrek the first right to get redress for you. But it is becoming more difficult for them to wait to intervene. And, I’m aware that Tolrek has already acted.”
“What do you mean?” Darion asked, now even more alert.
“Oh, he hasn’t informed you? Well, all I’ll say is that he’s being more of a Navarr than you are,” Ryam stated, looking at his son pointedly. “You need to do your part.”
“Father, you know how Tolrek is,” Darion said, concern starting to flow through him. “I hope he hasn’t put himself at risk to protect me.”
“That’s something you’ll have to determine. Goodbye.”
Ryam ended the conversation. Darion sat back in his seat, wondering about what all Tolrek had already done. He was going to get answers that night.
When Tolrek returned home, Darion sat him down on the couch to find out what he had been doing.
“I asked Kejaro and Arjan to investigate,” Tolrek began.
The two had been tasked with following up on various leads about Meric’s location. They had sent periodic reports for Tolrek but, ultimately, there hadn’t been significant news about their main target, until recently. Kejaro had texted a swift message to Tolrek, explaining that he and Arjan were returning to Vaironia with worthwhile information. Kejaro had used the code “Alrak Nor has all of its parts,” letting Tolrek know that a major step in their goal had been achieved.
Once Darion had been informed of the events from the past few months, he let out a long breath. Tolrek took a moment to study him, seeing the troubled expression on his lover’s face.
“It’s not that I don’t want to track down who hurt me,” Darion told him. “It’s…”
Darion hesitated. Tolrek waited, giving him the opportunity to find his words. He was surprised when Darion buried his face against his neck.
“This will bring it all back,” Darion said, his words muffled.
“I didn’t quite understand you, love,” Tolrek said quietly. “Don’t hide from me.”
Darion raised his head to stare at Tolrek and spoke plainly.
“Handling this situation will take me back to the pain.”
Darion moved away from Tolrek, when it didn’t appear that his lover understood. A heavy silence drifted between them.
“You’re ashamed about what happened,” Tolrek announced, after a few moments.
“That’s right,” Darion whispered, not really wanted to make the admission.
Tolrek reached for him and massaged Darion’s shoulder, soothing him.
“Not even my Alrak Nor is invincible,” Tolrek said. “Luckily, we have parts to put him back together too. He’s been through a great deal, especially with this recent conflict, but I know he’s strong and I also still trust him with my life.”
His way of comforting Darion made his lover smile.
“I want you to show the strength you did when you came to negotiate with me,” Tolrek continued. “When you didn’t beg me to return, after I struck that deal with Beilon. When you lay in the regeneration tank, dealing with the physical and mental pain I know you felt. Love, don’t let me down.”
Tolrek held Darion’s face in his hands, making sure they maintained eye-contact. Soon, the confidence began to return to Darion and Tolrek smoothed the frown away from his lover’s brow.
A week after Tolrek had provided Darion the background about Kejaro and Arjan’s whereabouts, they received news that they were coming back to Vaironia. During a dinner upon their return, they focused on recounting what they had done.
“You had us worried for quite a while,” Arjan told Darion. He shook his head, thinking of how concerned so many had been about Darion’s wellbeing. When Darion had been hospitalized after his injuries, Arjan had visited repeatedly. It was after one of those visits when Kejaro had met with him. The conversation had been brief and the meaning of Kejaro’s words had been clear.
“Tolrek has given us some work to do,” Kejaro had stated.
They’d set about gathering information, putting the pieces together. They’d enlisted a variety of resources; having Fei review a multitude of communications for clues to Meric’s whereabouts, using the state-of-the-art surveillance equipment Tezza and Reya had provided, accepting Makdan’s financial support to pay informants and directing Halsam to make sure that Tolrek was aware of the proceedings, while he was still fighting Ersha.
The results of Arjan and Kejaro’s efforts were what they now presented to Darion and Tolrek. Their months of research had narrowed down Meric’s location to a one-mile-radius. The former Vaironian official had stopped moving around frequently and now appeared to be getting comfortable. He had remained for several weeks on the eastern portion of the large island of Zeiban. The territory was held by both Mekria and Hanio, two countries which had an unsteady relationship, though they were currently peaceful with each other.
From what Arjan and Kejaro had learned, it was critical to get to Meric as soon as possible, as tensions between Mekria and Hanio were rising again.
When Darion finished listening to their explanation, he looked to Tolrek for guidance.
“We have to be delicate about this,” Tolrek said. “But we do need to act.”
“You’re right,” Darion agreed.
“We’ll do everything we can,” Kejaro said. “Just let us know what’s next.”
“Wait a minute, Kej,” Arjan told him. “You need to let your leg completely heal.”
“I’m fine,” Kejaro assured him, trying to downplay his injuries.
“Baby, we already talked about this,” Arjan insisted, his tone becoming stubborn.
“First, Kejaro what happened to your leg?” Tolrek inquired, as he had noticed the limp.
“I was shot because somebody said to turn left, instead of right.” Kejaro looked pointedly at Arjan, who rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.
During an earlier excursion, they’d exchanged gunfire with those Meric had hired to protect him.
“Are you alright?” Darion asked him.
“Yes,” Kejaro responded, waving off the concern. “It’s just another scar to join the many others.”
“You’re not alright,” Arjan insisted. “He needs to take a break.”
“You’re taking a break,” Tolrek ordered him. Kejaro sighed, finally deciding not to argue, at least not for the time being; fatigue was starting to get to him.
“Good. That’s sorted out. Now, here’s the bigger issue,” Darion said. He leaned forward slightly, peering first at Kejaro and next at Arjan. “What else happened with you two?”
“You heard what Arjan said then?” Tolrek asked Darion, with a mischievous smile.
“Depends,” Darion mused. “I heard him call Kejaro ‘baby.’ Did you?”
“Indeed,” Tolrek responded, feigning a scholarly expression. He stroked an imaginary goatee. “It sounds like a development to me.”
“Details,” Darion requested.
“Well, when you spend a great deal of…of time…with someone…” Arjan began haltingly. He looked at Kejaro for help.
“A relationship blossoms,” Kejaro added playfully. His voice didn’t contain any nervousness, unlike his partner’s.
“That sounds nice. Who’s the top?” Tolrek cut past the entire series of delicate questions he could have posed.
“We usually switch,” Kejaro remarked plainly. “But, since I was shot, he’s been doing more of the ‘work’.” Then he chuckled, when Arjan let out a long sigh, as his face began to redden with embarrassment.
“So, as far as our next actions—” Arjan tried to change the subject but Darion prevented him.
“Now wait a minute, we’ll get back to that,” Darion said. “Meric can wait a little longer. Tell me more about you two.”
“Please spare Arjan,” Kejaro requested, laughing at his lover’s charming fidgeting under the scrutiny. “He’s still adjusting.”
“I don’t like this conversation,” Arjan griped. “Make it stop, Kej.”
“Yes, my dear,” Kejaro teased. Then he became serious again. “We’ll follow the newest lead, Darion. We think it’s the best one, so far. As the aggrieved party, you determine what we do after that.”
“Starting with Meric, I want everyone involved to pay,” Darion said firmly, without a moment’s hesitation. He looked at Tolrek, as fury settled into his eyes.
“There’s the dominator I know and love,” Tolrek stated, patting him on his back.