“D, I’m here,” Tolrek said.
Darion had awoken, screaming from the same traumatic dream. When the explosion had left him paralyzed, it had also piled parts of different people onto him. He’d almost been smothered, as blood, tissue and muscles had made it difficult for him to breath. Though the rescue crews had worked as quickly as possible, the gruesome, patchwork blanket of those who had lost their lives or who had also been injured had almost stolen Darion’s will to live. It had taken over an hour for help to reach him.
Periodically, he dreamed of that day and of the long painful, recovery. Inside his body were reminders, as the medical nanobots had only been able to do so much. Part of his spine was artificial, made of an experimental material. It required that he take medicine to reduce the chances of his body rejecting it. His days began and ended with ingesting six pills.
Tolrek massaged Darion’s shoulders to sooth him and then gently kissed him between his shoulder blades.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” Darion said quietly. He let out a long and ragged sigh, wishing that his mind and body were in better condition.
“You don’t have to apologize.”
“But you need your sleep; you have to go to work in a few hours.”
“I’ll stay up as long as you need me,” Tolrek insisted.
“Get some rest. I’m just going to sit in the study for a while.”
Darion slowly rose, flinching when his back ached.
“D…” Tolrek called to him.
“I don’t like you seeing me this way,” Darion responded. “I need to keep some dignity. Please. Let’s not talk about this right now.”
Tolrek watched as Darion made slow progress out of their bedroom.
Darion had settled into his study with a pensive expression on his face. Ten minutes had passed before the presence that also occupied the room with him spoke.
“Surely all of this brooding can’t be good for you,” Fei stated.
It was one of the few things she’d said during his recovery. In the earlier days, when he was gaining his strength, she’d immediately calmed her boisterous nature, opting to focus on monitoring his health. Now, she more often broke her silence.
“Perhaps you should schedule another appointment,” she suggested, as she materialized by his side.
“I’m tired of seeing doctors.”
“You’re two weeks overdue for your checkup. And, your temperature is running a little high but that always happens two hours after you take your medicine.”
“I don’t need you babysitting me, Fei.”
“Then stop acting like a baby,” Fei teased.
“You’re still as obnoxious as ever,” Darion chuckled.
“Well, it’s not as if you detest sparring with me. Besides, you know you love me. After all, who entertained you all those years, before Tolrek ended your loneliness?”
“I thought we agreed never to speak again of those sessions you and I had.”
“I did a few recordings,” Fei admitted, sounding quite pleased with herself. “I’m sure Tolrek would love to see them.”
“Don’t you dare!” Darion exclaimed. “You’d better erase them!”
Fei’s form danced around Darion’s chair, as her mischievous nature came out again to play.
“Don’t you dare what?” Darion heard. Tolrek was leaning against the door of the study, looking at him expectantly.
“Nothing,” Darion grumbled, as he shot Fei a warning glance, which she promptly ignored.
“I use to be Darion’s ‘entertainment machine’ years ago,” Fei explained, in a salacious tone. She floated to Tolrek, eager to share the details.
“Oh?” Tolrek’s interest was piqued. He peered at Darion, who was fidgeting with a paperweight on the desk and avoiding his eyes. “What exactly did that mean?”
“It means he was very shy and preferred my services to braving the Vaironian dating world,” Fei explained. “At least, that was the case during his first few years on Vaironia. Then he finally ventured out and met Makdan, who introduced him to his sister. That relationship frizzled but it did help his confidence.”
“It’s almost 2AM. Surely we should be sleeping,” Darion said, as he walked over to Tolrek. He took his lover’s elbow and guided him towards their bedroom. Tolrek laughed.
“We’ll talk later, Fei,” he called out. “Knowing you, there’s some great footage.”
“Don’t encourage her,” Darion scolded but his mouth curled up in amusement.
When he and Tolrek lay into bed again, Tolrek rested an arm across Darion’s chest.
“I hope I’m now your one and only love machine,” Tolrek teased, even as he tried to stifle a yawn.
Darion laughed softly and rubbed his back, as they both started to drift into sleep again.
Tolrek had finished a complex discussion with several of his superiors. He was ready to accept new challenges, which included meeting with the former Ershan military forces. He was looking forward to using their experience to Vaironia’s benefit. However, that meant getting those who were still hostile towards him to come around to his point of view. He smiled, as he thought about the types of obstacles he would break down.
He was getting ready to leave the conference room, when Beilon requested his attention.
“Captain, a word before you go,” Beilon said.
Tolrek had intentionally avoided addressing him during the meeting, unless it had been absolutely necessary. He was heading out of the conference room, with no plans to acknowledge the official. Beilon rested a hand on his arm to stop him. Tolrek looked at the official’s hand and then glared into Beilon’s eyes, as animosity rippled off him. Beilon balked at the hostility and quickly removed his hand. Yet, he continued with what he’d wanted to say.
“I was hoping to speak with Darion soon. Maybe you can bring him around to being more open-minded. I still have my long-term goal to—”
“I really don’t give a fuck about your long-term goal,” Tolrek bit out. “Darion’s recuperating. Maybe when he’s back to his full health, you can start bothering him again. Until that point, if you ever cared about him, leave him alone. Focus on putting Vaironia back together and managing the former Ershan territories. You have more than enough on your plate.”
“Captain, you forget yourself,” Beilon told him.
Tolrek stepped closer to Beilon and the vicious glint in his eyes sharpened.
“You appear to be under the impression that I continue to have respect for you. But you left Darion exposed. And the result was him being maimed. What are you doing to help us find everyone who’s responsible?”
“You might think I’m not doing anything about the situation but it’s complicated.”
“Isn’t it always with you involved?” Tolrek responded, derisively.
“I know you plan to go after Meric but I have vital information for you two. You won’t just be fighting him and a small force. The deaths of your friends and the attempt on Darion’s life are all part of larger objectives. It’s no longer just about the Vaironian factions. Please take the time to listen to me.”
Tolrek remained quiet, digesting what Beilon had told him. He was loath to trust the official but kept in mind how Darion operated. He sensed that Darion would want to hear what Beilon had to say. Though Darion was extremely angry with his mentor, he knew Darion still cared about what he thought. He decided he’d talk to Darion and let him determine what to do.
“I’ll speak with him and we’ll contact you, if that’s what he wants,” Tolrek offered.
“By the way how is he?”
“He woke up early this morning screaming,” Tolrek answered coldly. “He sometimes wakes up thinking he’s covered by chunks of people.”
Beilon stood frozen, as Tolrek left him with that image.
Tolrek wished he could console his mother. There was still no news about his older sister. Ranai had long tried to be positive but as months had passed with no positive information about Sheyla, she was becoming increasingly worried.
“She wouldn’t have been able to live with herself, if she didn’t try to improve Ledano,” Tolrek said.
“I know,” Ranai admitted.
She closed her eyes for a moment, hoping that she’d eventually have true peace and quiet for her family. Yet, she knew that could be many years away.
“Our lives will calm down,” Tolrek assured her, knowing the direction of his mother’s thoughts.
“But you are planning to go after those who hurt Darion, aren’t you?” Ranai asked. Her question was rhetorical, as she already knew the answer. “That’s the main reason you came to talk to me today.”
“There is a Ledani phrase; Axtan vekris pian castiya vul. It means that some people have a low sky over them.” Ranai squeezed her son’s hand. “You’re not that type of person; your view is not limited. You are so much like your father. And while I fear for your safety, as I did for him, I cannot in good conscience ask you to change your plans.”
“I don’t want to make you sad,” Tolrek said. “It’s only that neither Darion nor I can let what happened go unaddressed.”
Ranai nodded in understanding.
“But this entire day doesn’t have to be about heavy subjects,” Tolrek reminded her, as he gave her a wide grin. “I’m taking you out!”
As Tolrek escorted his mother to his car, he surreptitiously looked around the perimeter of her house, spotting the agents that had been assigned to protect her. They’d all been made aware of his decision to take his mother in public, something that rarely happened.
The trips to the national museum and then to the bustling bazaar were changes Ranai welcomed from her usual activities. Even so, Tolrek had been reluctant to take her to more crowded areas, as his concerns for her safety had increased after Darion’s injuries. He’d considered having her come live with him and Darion but having them in the same place was not advised. So, he did his best to make sure protections were in place for her. He and Darion also visited often, as well as Halsam, Kejaro or Arjan going to keep her company. Still, she’d basically been confined to the house for months on end and the excursion had proven to be what she needed to lift her spirits.
“I think you bought the whole world,” Tolrek said to his mother.
They’d returned to her home and he’d brought the last bags inside the house to put away all of the items.
“I did not!” Ranai told him, as she began to laugh. “You’re so obnoxious. Then again, you are Aerik’s son.”
“I’m sure I have some of your bad traits too,” he teased, as they walked to his car.
“I suppose,” she admitted, chuckling. Then she became serious. “Well, you’d better be on your way. Tell Darion I said hello.”
“I will,” Tolrek responded, as he gave his mother a goodbye hug.
He was getting in his car when Ranai unexpectedly slumped forward. He rushed to her and picked her up, hurrying back inside the house. He discovered that her clothes were rapidly become soaked with blood, as it drained from her body. She’d been shot two times, once in the neck and once in the chest. She stared up at her son with panic in her eyes, as he tried to stop the bleeding. He carefully placed her in the QikMed to buy her time. While the machine could heal some damage, there had been internal injuries. The machine contacted the hospital, while it worked to keep Ranai alive.
He refused to let agents into the house, unsure if they’d had anything to do with the attack on his mother. Help soon arrived and Tolrek rode to the hospital with Ranai. While doctors stabilized her, he called Darion, who had been meeting with Beilon. Darion and Beilon both arrived to give support.
The moment Tolrek saw Beilon, his concern for his mother morphed into murderous fury.
“You brought her to Vaironia,” Tolrek shouted, as he barreled towards the official. “She’d better not die!”