By Amanda Corlies
“Isn’t today supposed to be your zoo thing?” Tim asked as he slid into the booth across from Darien at OTP. “How come you’re back in town so early?”
Chewing on his soda straw, Darien quickly considered his options. He shouldn’t have called Tim right after school, but he’d just gotten word from Rowan that Ben was waking up. Darien didn’t want to be alone. Another long pull of his drink gave him more time to form his answer. Probably best to go with half-truths.
“I switched a couple of my volunteer days around. Had some appointments I couldn’t miss. I’ll head out there tomorrow.”
“I thought you were supposed to work with Lani.” Tim looked concerned. “Didn’t Roberts say your grade hinges on it?”
“Couldn’t be helped,” Darien shrugged.
“I call bullshit.” Lani’s voice startled Darien. He was striding right toward them.
Choking on his soda, Darien started to wheeze and cough. The whole truth was that after a night with Lani on the dance floor at Richard’s, Darien hadn’t wanted to face the tailwind of awkward they’d been dragging around. Through the blur of his suddenly watering eyes, Darien could tell Lani was seriously pissed. Darien’s heart kicked hard against his chest.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Lani didn’t sound sorry at all. “But, I need to speak with your boy for a minute -- alone. Mind?” he asked Tim.
The look Tim turned on Darien made his throat constrict. With a frustrated sigh, Tim began to slide out of the booth “You two definitely have some things to work out. I’m just going to go.”
“Wait,” Darien called.
Tim turned to face him. “You need to figure this out, Dare. Whatever it is.” He bent over and kissed Darien’s forehead. “I’ll talk to you later.” Trying for a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, Tim stood and walked away.
Darien watched Tim’s retreating back until he realized Lani was sliding into the vacated seat.
“Thanks,” Darien scowled.
“You’re welcome,” Lani said, opening his menu, looking completely calm, except for the muscle jumping in his jaw. “So, what’s good here?”
“We are so not doing this.” Annoyed, Darien started to slide out of his seat, but he found his ankle hooked and his wrist gripped hard.
“Yes we are, Dare. If you run, I will follow, to Annodox if I have to.” Lani was talking quietly through his teeth. “I don’t give a crap where we end up. You don’t want to do it here? That’s the best idea you’ve had all week. Where should we go to be alone?”
Slumping back into his seat to pull free, the last thing Darien wanted was to be alone. He rubbed at the red marks on his wrist. “Fine. You want me to come clean? You’re absolutely right. I am avoiding you. I don’t want to be alone with you. Happy now?” Darien crossed his arms over his stomach.
Lani folded his hands together on the table. “Yes, actually.”
The pain in his eyes was obvious. Darien gave him a skeptical look.
“Maybe happy isn’t the right word. Relieved. At least you’re being honest, a definite improvement. Want to elaborate, or do I have to pull it out of you?” The muscles in Lani’s jaw were jumping faster. The feel of his anger raised the hairs on Darien’s neck.
Wrapping his arms tighter around himself, Darien tried to search for words. They were a jumble in his mind. It didn’t help when he felt Lani’s energy slap out. Darien flinched. “I don’t want to do this,” was all he could push out of his confused thoughts. Another half-truth.
“Again, I call bullshit,” Lani leaned forward, forcing Darien to meet his eyes. “What’s with the mixed signals? Friending me on Facebook and Twitter, the flirting, not to mention the scorching hot time at Richard’s. What was that? You can’t erase it like it didn’t happen, Dare.”
“That’s not…” Darien tried again to order his thoughts, but the words wouldn’t come. “That’s why…” He combed his fingers through his hair and let out a low, frustrated sound. Finally, he simply opened their connection. Might as well let Lani see how he was feeling. His confusion poured out. A stricken look crossed Lani’s face. Feeling terrible that Darien had caused even more pain, he quickly closed the connection.
“I see,” Lani sat up straighter. “I didn’t realize you think of me as a pushy bastard.”
Darien must not have gotten everything across. “It’s not, I mean, that’s not…look,” Darien slapped the flat of his hand on the table. “I’m confused, okay? You want what you want. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. You make it very clear. But, that’s what happened before. And as much as it attracted me then, I can’t forget that you cut me off, Lani. You got what you wanted and then you treated me like I didn’t even exist. Now, you turn up and you want to act like I should forgive and forget. Well, I can’t.”
The silence stretched between them. The pain swirling in Lani’s eyes was hard to face. Darien fought the urge to run, somewhere safe, far from all of this emotion. He felt like if he didn’t control it, the swirling currents might form a tornado and rip him apart.
“I was doing you a favor,” Lani finally spoke, and Darien’s mouth fell open. “At least, that’s what I wanted to believe. I told myself you deserved someone better. Someone who didn’t nearly get you killed. I ended it, quick, so it wouldn’t hurt as much.”
A snort that was anything but kind passed Darien’s lips. He couldn’t help it. Anger blew through him as he looked across the street to the place where Holly Golightly’s once stood.
“Doing me a favor? Really? You are so clueless! I tried to tell you -- once. I told you everything. But, you didn’t listen. I told you why it’s so hard for me to trust. I had nobody here, Lani. No mentor, I couldn’t even trust my own family. You made me believe I had someone to count on. Then, you left me here, alone.”
Sadness swelled between them. Lani cleared his throat before speaking. “There isn’t anything I can say. I’m sorry doesn’t cut it, Dare. It never will. All I can do is show you that you can count on me. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
“By putting yourself in my face all the time? By showing up and pissing off my boyfriend?” Darien wondered.
“Pot, kettle much? It’s not like you haven’t been putting yourself in my face. Anyway,” Lani waved a hand in the air. “I don’t really get you and Tim. What is it you see in that guy?” Lani lifted a brow. He seemed serious, like he genuinely wanted to know.
“Stability. Safety. Comfort. A smoking hot body. Need I go on?”
A smirk crossed Lani’s face as he leaned his chin on his fist. “Well, that sounds totally boring.” When Darien lifted a brow, Lani chuckled. “Okay, not the body part, but the rest? I know you Darien. The guy is not your type. Eventually, you’ll get bored.”
Darien could not believe the nerve. He narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to speak, but Lani lifted his hand.
“I take it back.”
“You can’t take it back.”
“Okay, semantics. I admit my mistakes. How’s that? You want stability? Safety? I can do those things.”
Darien threw back his head and laughed. He couldn’t help it.
“What?” Lani demanded. His eyes were dancing with humor now. “I can. Okay, maybe not so much, but seriously. I totally want to be your friend. If that’s all you can give me, that’s what I’ll take. So, can we please stop with the avoidance crap? It’s juvenile and beneath you.”
“Ouch,” Darien rubbed a hand over his chest. “Don’t pull any punches.”
“Well, if we’re going to be friends, we have to start with honesty.”
Again Darien opened his mouth to admit that he didn’t think they could be friends. There was way too much between them that went far deeper than friendship. But, Lani gave him a pleading look that seemed to blow all Dare’s arguments away.
“I get some of your hiddie situation up in here.” Lani waved a hand to indicate the view of the street. “You know I do. I even met Ben, remember. I see how people are suffering. You have no idea how sorry I am for leaving you here, for all my selfish mistakes. It’s really important to me, you know, to try and make this up to you. Of all people. Please.” Big brown eyes peered imploringly across the table at him, and Darien’s insides turned to mush.
Lani had opened himself to the Balance, letting Darien tap into his complete sincerity. Despite all Darien’s reservations, how was he supposed to argue with that?
“So, friend, are we okay?”
Darien nodded once.
A smile spread across Lani’s face. “Good. Cause this place smells awesome. Let’s eat.”
“The pie totally lives up to the hype,” Lani leaned back in his seat and rubbed his pizza filled belly. Once the arguing had ended, Lani had been starving. Apparently, the feeling had been mutual. There was nothing left on the large sized tray but crumbs.
“I can’t believe you haven’t tried OTP before,” Darien stuffed the last bite of crust into his mouth and chewed. “You’ve lived in Wildwood for months.”
“We hardly ever eat out. It’s an island hold over, I guess. Now, that we have Melon Cauli Market right around the corner, Mom’s in hog heaven. It’s nice to have everything in walking distance. Different, you know, but good. We used to have to drive into town for groceries...well, you remember.”
“Hog heaven?” Darien chuckled.
“It fits, brah. Trust me.” Which reminded Lani, “Have you tried the fresh bacon over there?” He rolled his eyes, “So ono. I could eat my weight in the stuff.”
“I guess you can’t get a lot of stuff on the islands, huh?” Darien sounded curious.
Thrilled that Dare seemed relaxed, Lani realized this was more than they’d talked since he’d moved to town. It felt good. Maybe this friends gig wouldn’t be so bad. He sat back and rubbed at his stomach.
“You can, but it’s expensive. We did have bacon out there. But, you should hear my parents rap about how cheap everything is here.” Lani scowled. Sometimes it felt like they didn’t miss Hilo at all.
“What?” Darien asked.
Probably not the best idea to admit that Lani wouldn’t have left Hilo without the pressure from his parents. He definitely didn’t want to dive into this conversation right now.
“Nothing.” Lani shrugged. Switching gears would keep them treading calm water. “Listen, I keep getting these texts from Cory about the lion cameras. The feed keeps going offline or something.”
“I know. I can’t figure it out. Everything seems fine one minute, and the next, the signal jams. Can’t decide if it’s something about that particular building, you know interference from the security system, or what. I planned to go out there and run diagnostics.”
“We, brah.” Lani pointed his finger back and forth between them. “This is an opportunity to put up or shut up.”
Darien flushed and looked at his lap, making Lani’s heart pick up. The guy was smoking hot when his pale cheeks pinked that way.
“I’m talking friendship. Remember? Friends can work on a project without it getting awkward, right?” Lani lifted a brow. “After all, our grades depend on it.”
This got another chuckle out of Dare, and he lifted those changeable green eyes. Today, they looked almost mint colored, like the wide stripes in the plaid shirt he was wearing. “Because we both know you care so much about our grades.”
Actually Lani did care, but he wasn’t going to argue when Darien was smiling at him. Instead, Lani winked. “What say we head out there? Cory seems pretty manic. It might be good to get the thing fixed.”
There was hesitation. Realizing Darien looked suspicious, Lani felt a pulse of energy. Darien was obviously looking for any hidden agendas. Lani kept himself wide open on the Gaea front. He could be patient, let Darien learn to trust him again.
Finally, Dare’s mouth turned up at the corners as he slid out of the booth. “Sure, we can head out there. You can help me unload the new equipment from my trunk. Just give me a minute to call Tim, and I’ll meet you out front.”
When Darien reached for the check, Lani grabbed his hand.
“I got this,” he said, pulling the folder out from under Darien’s palm. “Get me back later. Go make your call.” He felt a surge of satisfaction when Darien didn’t argue.
Ten minutes later, they were on the road, and for once, things felt pretty relaxed between them. Lani looked at Darien’s profile out of the corner of his eye. He caught sight of the curls brushing the back of Darien’s ears, and he turned to get a better look at the cord running down the side of his neck. He wanted to lean over and bite it. When Darien glanced over and caught Lani looking, he smiled and lifted a brow. “What?”
“Nothing,” Lani smiled in return feeling his cheeks heat. It wasn’t like he could tell Darien the thoughts running through his head, not if he wanted to convince him that friendship was going to work.
Didn’t seem to matter. The tension between them was suddenly back, and it had nothing to do with arguments. Shaking his head, Darien rolled his eyes and gave a laugh that sounded a little nervous. “So, did you hear about that guy?”
The car felt ten degrees too hot. Lani blew out a breath before asking, “What guy?”
“The Olympic diver guy. The one who just came out to everyone.”
“Oh, that guy. Yeah, I saw the vid.” He had totally reminded Lani of Dare for reasons he still couldn’t figure out. The accents and the cadences of their speech were nothing alike, nor were the color of their eyes. Maybe Pele had decreed that every curly-haired, attractive boy with a pale complexion should remind him of Darien. Not something Lani was willing to share, so he tried to tune back into Darien’s sudden ramblings.
“…bad that his family had mixed opinions. But, I dug how he said his boyfriend made him happy, like everything was finally right and safe, you know. He kept saying he felt safe. That was kind of cool.”
“Yep, pretty cool,” was all Lani could say. He’d be lolo to spew out what he was thinking. Namely, that Darien seemed fixated on the safe thing. Lani fought to keep the t-path firmly shut. It’s not like he could begrudge Dare that need, especially after all he’d been through.
When Darien took a different turn onto a small, hidden road at the back of the wild animal park, it jarred Lani from his thoughts.
“Where are you going?”
“Cory got us permission to drive onsite, so we don’t have to carry all the stuff to each building.” Darien pulled up to an automatic security gate and rolled down his window, punching a series of numbers into the keypad. “I figured if we’re going to do this roving camera idea of yours, we’re going to be hauling a whole bunch more stuff in and out. Remind me to give you the codes later.” The gate began to slowly slide open.
Lani grinned, ridiculously pleased that Darien was taking his ideas so seriously. Lani had been the president of the robotics club at his old high school, and they had won several state championships, but Darien didn’t know any of that. Still, he seemed to take it on faith that Lani could do what he’d claimed. It was kind of cool to realize that Darien did still trust Lani on some level.
“What?” Darien glanced over. Another suspicious look crossed his face, as he turned down an even narrower gravel driveway.
“It’s nice that you believe me.” Lani shrugged as they bounced along, the sound of crunching gravel filling the car. The look of confusion on Darien’s face prompted Lani to explain, “When I told you I could build the robotics stuff, you didn’t even hesitate. You just ran with it. Thanks.”
A flush began to creep up Darien’s neck. “It’s no big deal. The mysterious donor gave us plenty of money to cover whatever we need.” He shrugged. “Might as well give it a try. But, I’m going to look kind of lame if you can’t deliver.”
Oh, I can deliver. Lani deliberately let that thought slide across the t-path. Darien flushed again, but he didn’t take the bait.
About to apologize for crossing the line, Lani lost his train of thought when he saw the vet truck parked in the lion house lot.
Frowning, Darien quickly parked. “Hope we aren’t interrupting a booty call,” he muttered.
“You do know Dr. Dylan and Cory are living together, right?” Darien asked.
“I do now.” As appealing as the idea was, Lani didn’t think Dr. TJ Dylan was the type to make booty calls at work. Lani opened to his senses. Something felt really off. He glanced at Darien.
A look of understanding passed between them. Darien was out of the car and crossing the lot at a fast clip before Lani could get his seatbelt undone. Fumbling for the release, he had to run to catch up. He pushed through the propped open door to the lion house right on Dare’s heels.
They found Cory pacing the aisle. He stopped when he caught sight of them and held up a hand. Pressing a finger to his lips, he nodded his head toward Bogo’s cage.
Bogo sat watching Lani warily, but he didn’t move. The golden male had his forearm pressed against a small open square in the steel mesh. Dr. Dylan was bent over using a large syringe to draw a fairly substantial blood sample. Bogo didn’t seem to mind being poked. He turned bored eyes on Lani as if to say, “Where’s the beef?”
Feeling Darien’s building tension, Lani rested a hand on his shoulder while they waited.
As soon as Dr. Dylan pulled the needle out of Bogo’s vein, Cory began pacing again, while Dr. Dylan got to his feet.
“Okay, Bogo. All done.” The vet tossed the lion a chunk of beef from the cup beside him. Instead of springing up and moving away from the bars like usual, Bogo chewed the tidbit and swallowed, then stretched out onto this side and sighed.
Lani frowned as he felt a pulse of Earth Gaea energy reverberate out from Cory. It felt like sunshine rolling over him. Cory’s expression showed worry, even as he tried to soothe the sick animal.
“What’s going on?” Darien asked.
Cory was visibly shaking. He made no move to answer, just watched the cat with sad eyes, which Lani found more disturbing than anything else.
“Bogo is having another one of his attacks. He gets these sudden onsets of lethargy.” Dr Dylan reached out a hand and squeezed Cory’s shoulder for a second. He tucked the vial of blood in his shirt pocket, then bent and tossed the used syringe into his tote. Taking off his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose, Lani felt Dr Dylan send a pulse of soothing energy out to Cory.
“What’s wrong with him?” Darien demanded.
“He doesn’t handle it well when Bogo gets a little off his game,” Dylan said.
“Not him. I meant Bogo,” Darien sounded frustrated.
“Ah. I see. That’s an excellent question,” Dr. Dylan put his glasses back on, casting a worried glance at Cory, who was still standing rigid, watching his lions. Dylan absently brushed at the golden hairs stuck to Cory’s uniform.
Suddenly, Cory turned and pointed. “Look at him, TJ. This is more than a little off his game, and you know it.” Cory narrowed his eyes. “This shit keeps happening.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “He was fine yesterday. Just like last time. No warning, no reason, he’s barely mobile. What the hell?”
“I still say it’s age. Most likely, it’s the usual aging process and he’s just having a bad day,” Dylan said. “After all, he’s no spring chicken.”
Hooking a finger into Cory’s belt loop, Lani watched Dr. Dylan pull Cory several steps closer. When Cory allowed himself to be tugged with the ghost of a smile, Lani thought this looked like something that happened all the time between them.
“Why isn’t Pogo showing the same symptoms? He’s forty, too. The exact same age, and he acts totally fine.”
“Forty?” Darien’s eyes widened. “How can they be forty?”
It seemed to Lani that neither Cory nor Dr. Dylan remembered anyone else was even in the room.
Touching their foreheads together, Dr. Dylan answered Cory,“It’s possible Bogo simply isn’t aging as gracefully. Plus, he had that tumor last year. Which makes me think he may just have less of the typical Gaea immunities in his genetic makeup.” Dr. Dylan slid a hand up to Cory’s neck. “You stressing out isn’t going to help him.”
It made Lani’s stomach tighten to watch. The two men continued to speak softly to each other, as if they were the only two people on the planet.
“Earlier aging?” Darien was still muttering to himself. “Captive lions only live into their twenties. Forty is impossible.”
The news had not surprised Lani at all. He’d already figured out that Bogo and Pogo were Gaeas. They could probably live a lot longer than forty years. It was wicked weird, Darien’s reactions to all things Gaea sometimes. He was clueless half the time. Lani wondered just how old Darien thought some of the people from Wildwood were.
Lots of the animals Ben had rescued at the wild animal park were Gaeas. How was it that Dare hadn’t felt this? Did he lack the ability to tell the Normal lions from the Gaeas? More likely, this was another case of Darien not paying attention to what went on around him.
Cory’s voice grew louder, again. “What if I was right about the tumor? What if there is some underlying cause? What if it’s all connected?” Cory had stepped away and began to pace again. He looked like he wanted to punch something. Lani wished he knew what to say to help.
“You need to calm down and listen to me. Look at Pogo,” Dr Dylan pointed to the adjoining cage, where the big cat was now pacing to match Cory.
Letting out a frustrated sigh, Cory stopped and squared his shoulders before facing Dr. Dylan. He gave a nod to indicate he was listening.
“I’ve run every test I know. There is no sign of disease, no sign of infection. I’ll run a full panel again. But, at this point, I don’t even know where else to look.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Cory stepped closer to his partner straightening the lapels of his shirt. “What about the last panel. Did you ever find the missing results?” Cory asked.
“No, but I won’t send them out this time. I’ll run the whole kit myself.” The doctor pressed their foreheads together again. Lani found himself holding his breath when Dr. Dylan leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on Cory’s lips.“I’ll put a rush on it and have it done later today. I know how important this is to you.”
“I promised Ben that I wouldn’t let anything happen to him.” The pleading look Cory gave Dr. Dylan made Lani’s stomach knot.
“You’re not letting anything happen,” Lani couldn’t seem to stop himself from blurting that out.
Stepping back, Cory gave him a weak smile. “I know. It’s just…” He lifted both hands palms out. “We have to figure this out.”
“And we will.” Dr. Dylan reached out and threaded his fingers through Cory’s. After a long look and some obvious private conversation between them, the vet turned and picked up his tote. “I’ll let you know as soon as the results are back.” Cory watched until Dylan disappeared from sight.
“Sorry about all of that.” Cory gave Lani a look that seemed seriously uncomfortable before he turned to watch Bogo lie on the concrete. Lani felt his heart give a twist when Bogo let out a deep, heaving sigh. Pogo rubbed his face on the bars between their cages, then went back to pacing. What was it about these two lions? They seemed to get under the skin.
“I’m glad you’re both here.” Cory seemed to have his professional mask back in place when he turned toward them. “This camera issue needs to be addressed if at all possible. Especially now, since I need all the eyes I can get on my boy here. Anyway, last night’s feed went offline again. Think you can fix it?”
A look of guilt flashed across Darien’s face. He nodded.
Hating the fact that Darien somehow felt responsible, Lani figured he would fix the damned things, even if he had to die trying.
“Good, I’ll leave you to it. Take your time visiting the boys, too. They could both use some cheering up. I have to go pick up diets. Be back in a few.” Cory turned and slowly walked down the aisle.
Lately, Cory had been leaving Lani and Darien alone with the lions more often. It felt good to be treated like a real part of the team. Lani figured it was probably another perk of being part of the Gaea community.
“Cory,” Darien called out. Lani felt him send out a pulse of soothing energy down the aisle. Turning, Cory opened and accepted it wordlessly. “You know Ben is waking up, right?” Darien asked.
Eyes turning suddenly bright, Cory squeezed them shut. “We’re going to visit him this weekend. I seriously hope I don’t have to give him bad news about Bogo. If he’s lucid, it’s going to be the first thing he asks me. I can’t tell him the old guy’s sick, Dare. Not after everything he’s been though.”
Breath visibly hitching, Darien nodded. The pain that reverberated around him was sharp. Lani wasn’t sure if it came from Darien or Cory. Probably from them both. Not knowing what to say, Lani watched the lions.
Bogo hadn’t moved a muscle, but his breathing had deepened and it felt as if he might be sleeping.
When Lani heard the doors to the building close behind Cory, he felt pain lance out again, this time obviously from Darien. It felt just as bright. Dare was silently watching Bogo.
Without a thought, Lani stepped closer and took Darien’s hand. When he rested his head on Dare’s shoulder, he felt Darien tense. About to step away, not wanting to push the friendship boundary, Lani felt Darien grip his hand hard.
An idea surfaced as they stood there quietly. Why didn’t they try sharing energy with the lions? Sending a pulse out toward Bogo and Pogo, Lani felt Darien take a deep breath before joining in.
Pogo suddenly stopped pacing and sat, cocking his head. Then he turned his eyes back to Bogo, whose breathing grew deeper still. He looked completely relaxed.
“We have to help him,” Darien murmured.
“We will,” Lani assured him, having no idea how. But, he was determined to figure something out, especially now that Lani understood for Darien, this project was as much for Ben as for anyone else. “First thing we’ll do is fix the camera issue. Until we figure out how to keep a continual streaming feed for this building, we can set up remotes with motion sensors. You know, for the time being.”
Darien was nodding in agreement.
Feeling the hairs rise on the back of his neck, Lani turned to find Pogo’s gold eyes boring into him intently. Lani wondered what the big guy was thinking. Then, he felt a pulse of seriously powerful and very foreign Gaea energy wash over him.
Darien flinched. “Wow!”
The lion energy burst out, a short and intense pulse that left Lani’s blood singing.
“I’ve never felt anything like that before,” Darien said. “You?” He was looking down into Lani’s eyes.
“Never,” Lani admitted.
For a long time, they stood close, joined only by their hands, just looking at each other. The reverberation of Pogo’s energy surrounded them again. It was gone as quickly as it came. There was no need to say or do anything. No need to pull away. No need to get closer. Just a perfect, shared silence.