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Tales told - a.k.a free reads > The Ravens Crossing 3 - Wildwood Tides

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message 1: by Kaje (new)

Kaje Harper | 16667 comments This is a third free story posted for us from the folks at The Ravens Crossing - this is the third of their Season Four Stories. Season Four brings in a new generation of characters-- there are three main couples (two m/m and one male/MTF trans). Each of the three stories stand alone, but still share a world.

Check out The Ravens Crossing for all the other free stories about LGBTQ high school students who discovered they had unusual abilities. They also discovered that their families, friends, and the neighborhood they lived in kept all of it secret. If you are new to the site, click on "First Time Here?" to get started.

Amanda from TRC will be posting the story here. Enjoy.

message 2: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Hi everyone. Thanks for stopping by. In case you missed it, here's a little background for those who are unfamiliar with The Ravens Crossing (TRC). The first three seasons of TRC revolved around thirteen high school students who discovered they had unusual abilities. They also discovered that their families, friends, and the neighborhood they lived in kept all of it secret.

Season Four ushered in the next generation of high school students, many of them are the siblings of the original thirteen. Wildwood Tides is the story of Darien Tiernan, Morgan's little brother, and Lani Waiola, a boy he met one summer vacation in Hawaii. They already have a history, they met over a year ago. But, circumstances aa well as location separated them. Now, Lani and his family have moved to Wildwood, and he wants a second chance. Unfortunatly, all the crazy in Darien's life has made it hard for him to trust, and it doesn't help that Lani burned him before. I doubt I'm spoiling much by telling you a second chance won't come easy for these two.

Their prequel story will be available this month. And I will happily answer almost all questions about them,about the thirteen, and about TRC except ones that might be spoilers.

I also wanted to give a warning that there is some strong language sprinkled throughout the story.

So, without further ado... enjoy!

message 3: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Wildwood Tides

By Amanda Corlies


June 2013

Lani hopped down the hallway trying to drag his shorts on and run at the same time. When he’d heard his mother calling out her goodbye up the stairs, Lani about had a heart attack. How in Pele’s planet did it get so freaking late already? He’d rolled out of bed cursing and yelling after her to wait, but he wasn’t sure she’d heard.

“Check it, Mama, hold up!” Lani yelled down the stairs at the top of his lungs. She looked up at him from the foyer. “Just give me five more minutes and I’m ready. I promise.” He turned and ran into his bedroom, plucking the first t-shirt he could find and tugging it over his head. A quick hand over his spiked black hair told him it hadn’t gone totally flat overnight.

He grabbed his Vans and his new skateboard. The latter had been a gift from his father last week. As if this would make up for moving them so far inland, Lani might never see ocean again. He could not believe he was a landlocked mainlander. How did this happen?

Shooting a wistful look at his collection of surfboards hanging on his new bedroom wall, Lani wondered again why he’d insisted on stacking them where he would have to look at them every damn day. At first, he’d been thinking it would help to have them nearby. But, it sucked, knowing it would be ages before he could paddle out.

Shaking his head, he turned to hurry downstairs and almost ran his mother over. She was leaning in his doorway quietly watching him. Her long, black hair was pulled back in a braid, and she was dressed in khaki shorts and a red Larabee Wild Animal Park staff shirt.

“I don’t think you should go with me again today.” Quiana gave him a sad smile. “You can’t spend your whole summer hiding out at the animal park.”/
“Who says I’m hiding?” Lani felt a cold chill race through him. He couldn’t stay cooped up in this house all day, alone. His sister, Meli, was at some stupid band camp thing for two weeks at the university. He’d be stuck here with nothing to keep him company but his thoughts all day. No way could he handle that.

“You haven’t gone anywhere outside of this house besides work with me since we got here. That tells me you’re hiding. Why haven’t you called Darien? You two hit it off on the island, didn’t you? I’m sure he could introduce you to his friends.”

*Sorry Mama, your son is not too popular with Darien or his friends.* “Um, yeah. No.” That was all Lani planned to say on that subject. He folded his arms over his chest and gave her his best stubborn look. His mother beat him at his own game with a look that always forced him to speak. “I am not forcing Darien to hang with the new kid. It’s too embarrassing.” He lied smoothly. He was getting good at it.

“Well, you can’t hide out with me all the time, Lani. It isn’t healthy. A boy your age should be making friends and having fun. Go enjoy the summer. I can’t stand to see you sulking and hiding yourself away like this. Surfing is not the only good thing in life.”

Lani narrowed his eyes at his mother. “We’ve only been here for two weeks. Since when is two weeks ‘all the time’? I’m not sulking! And I thought they liked having me volunteer at work. Wasn’t I doing a good enough job?”

Quiana laughed. “You can’t bullshit or guilt me, young man, and you know it. And, sulking is your current operating mode.” She pointed to the surf boards displayed prominently and then to the poster of Akaka Falls, the waterfall near their home. “All I have to do is look around to make my point. You don’t want to be here, so you make your room remind you as much of Hilo as possible so you can lock yourself in here to sulk. I get it. I miss home, too. But, refusing to get to know the lay of the land, not to mention the people? I have to tell you, it smacks of quitting before you’ve even tried. This is not like you, Lani.”

What could he say to that? Nothing much. Not unless he wanted to tell his mother a whole bunch of stuff about his past that she did not need to know. So what if he was hiding at the zoo? Lani figured the chances of running into Darien twice out there were slim to none, where the chances of running into him here in Wildwood were pretty high.

That thought took Lani back three days. Coming face to face with Dare in his mom’s aviary had been a total shocker. He’d practiced what to say to Darien a million times, and then when it came right down to the moment, Lani had totally botched the job.

“Darien?” His heart hammering, Lani wasn’t sure if he was real or an apparition. Darien stood beside the duck pond surrounded by a whole bunch of his friends. In the sun, with all the surrounding tropical forest, his eyes matched the leaves. His skin was the same pale color, and the blotches of pink on his cheeks tightened Lani’s throat. Itching to reach out and trace a finger down that flush, Lani curled his hand into a tight fist. It seemed like he’d wished for and dreaded this moment forever. “You look fantastic. How have you been?” Lani asked, feeling a pulse of joy run through him, to have Darien standing this close again.

Darien cleared his throat a couple of times. He narrowed his eyes and eventually croaked out, “What are you doing here?” It sounded like an accusation.

The joy quickly faded. Lani shoved his hands into his pockets and searched for calm. “My mom works here. She started today.” Lani tried to swallow his nerves. “There are no beaches in Iowa, you know, so surfing is out. Don’t really know anyone, except you. Don’t even have internet or cable hooked up yet. So, I came to hang at the park today.” Realizing he was rambling, he told himself to just say it and get it done. “Listen, this probably isn’t the best time or place, but I’ve owed you a huge apology for a while. I never could find the words. That whole thing in Hilo with Bane and everything. It really messed me up for a while, yeah? I was going to call you so many times, but I wasn’t sure you would…”

“Everyone,” Darien cut him off at the knees. “This is Lani. Lani, meet everyone.”

Obviously, Darien didn’t want to talk about it. Lani wasn’t lolo, but he’d been hoping he could apologize and maybe get Darien to listen. Now, that didn’t seem doable. To make matters worse, Darien kept flaunting some buff, blond guy he was dating named Tim. It looked like Lani’s future held a whole lot of watching Darien with other boys. Realizing his mother was still looking at him expectantly, Lani tried to find something to say.

“I can’t stay here alone all day. I’ll go nuts,” he tried for honesty.

“You can come with me,” his father said as he passed by in the hallway. “I have to go see a man about a warehouse. Should be lots of open space for skating,” Maika called over his shoulder as he bounced down the stairs. “If you want to come, I’m leaving in ten.”

“Hang loose with your father today. Try to meet some people. There are good Gaeas here, Lani. Don’t close yourself off just because it’s a new place. And if you still miss Hawaii, well, you graduate in two years. You can always go back and attend UH in Hilo. Two years isn’t really that long. I promise.” His mother smiled and kissed his cheek, before turning and leaving him alone.

Yeah, that’s what you think. Last summer, he hadn’t thought anything could hurt worse than when Darien left, knowing they lived half a world away from each other. It had been part of the reason he’d cut himself off from any contact. It had seemed like the least painful route. But, living with Darien in the same place and knowing he couldn’t touch him was going to be so much worse. Two years was already starting to feel purgatory, which was no less than he deserved.

Looking out the window at the huge grove of trees that came up to their new backyard, Lani lost track of time. Maybe today he’d go exploring in the woods. The place had an ancient, powerful feel to it, sort of like his sacred place back home. It had been calling to him. Maybe it was time to stop ignoring the call.

“Hele mai, Lani!” His father’s voice boomed up the stairs.

“Coming, Dad!” Dropping his shoes with a thunk, he stuffed his feet into them. First, he would find some distraction, maybe enjoy a good place to skate, then he’d see how he felt about hiking in the hood.

message 4: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Prologue continued...

Sitting outside of Greene Beans slurping the last of his iced café mocha, Darien tried to listen to Tabby’s chatter. She was always so freaking bright and shiny in the mornings. All that blond hair blowing in the breeze and those big blue eyes sparkling. Even after the largest size coffee with an extra shot, Darien still felt cranky. He so didn’t do morning chatter. But, Tabby’s feelings were easily hurt, and she was dealing with some serious shit at home these days. It’s not like he could have said no when she’d begged him to meet her for breakfast as an excuse to get out of the house this morning. She’d seriously needed a break, and Darien would have felt like a total ass if he didn’t give it to her.

He smiled and nodded and made sounds that seemed appropriate every so often. He was SOL if she started asking him to repeat a damned thing she’d just said. When Elliot appeared out of thin air to give him a second carbon copy of his first drink without having to be asked, Darien gave him a grateful look. Elliot winked and smiled, clearing his empty away without a word. Darien decided that guy was his new favorite person on planet earth. He took another long drink and tried to tune into Tabby’s frequency.

“Anyway, Mom is just so messed up most of the time, like total non-functional. It’s not like Dad was around doing everything for us when he was alive, so I’m not sure why his absence is making her this way. Though, I guess a broken heart really hurts, but it shouldn’t stop you from remembering to freaking feed yourself and your family on a regular basis, should it?”

“No,” Darien said the word because he knew it was what she wanted to hear. He also knew that a broken heart did hurt enough to make you want to forget about everything but your own pain. There for a while last summer, eating and sleeping had gone the way of shit he didn’t really give a crap about. Tabby obviously hadn’t felt that kind of pain yet. He knew she’d loved her father, and she did miss him. But, they hadn’t really been close. Robert Avery hadn’t been the type to let anyone close.

Darien let Tabby continue to vent and kept his mouth firmly closed. She did not need to hear any criticism right now, while she and Sharon were taking care of the kids and trying to get her mother to deal with her depression. That freaking ad for Cymbalta ran through Darien’s head. He really hated those commercials so much. Wow, you’re cranky, man.

“Hey Tab, hey Dare.” Alex’s smile was a welcome distraction. He waved as he came up the sidewalk with a petite dark-haired girl. Darien did a double take. She was like a much smaller, darker version of Alex. Same eyes, same smile, same facial features. Only with darker hair. “I’d like you to meet my cousin, Anna. She just moved here from France. Anna, this is Sharon’s sister, Tabby, and Morgan’s brother, Darien.”

“Bonjour. Enchante,” Anna said. “It’s lovely to meet you both,” she added in English.

“Welcome to Wildwood,” Darien said. He looked at Tabby, but she was staring, her eyes kind of glassy and her cheeks flaming red. Darien nudged her foot under the table.

“Huh? Oh, I’m sorry. Nice to meet you, Anna.” Tabby giggled nervously.

What the heck’s gotten into her?

“Mind if we join you?” Alex asked.

“Gods no, please,” Darien pointed to the two empty chairs. Then, he felt Tabby kick him under the table, hard. He mouthed the word “What?” to her when Alex and Anna were busy talking drink orders. Alex headed inside, presumably to order, while Darien tried to rub the stinging sensation out of his shin.

When it was obvious Tabby had somehow become absolutely incapable of speech, Darien decided he would be inviting Anna to meet them for breakfast from now on. When Tabby narrowed her eyes at him, Darien figured he’d better start talking if he didn’t want to be walking home with a limp.

“So, are you and your family staying with Alex’s folks?” Darien hoped that wasn’t too forward to ask.

“No, we’re buying a house here in Wildwood. It’s just a few blocks over on Hawthorne, down the street from the Yeatts-Tanakas. They brought us magnifique muffins from the bakery yesterday. They’re the only neighbors I’ve met so far, yes? But, everyone seems very friendly here.” Anna’s French accent was lilting but not hard to understand. She smiled as she looked around at the crowded tables.

“You’re practically neighbors with Tabby. Her place is catty cornered to yours, facing Hawthorne.” Darien pulled his shin to the side in time to miss Tabby’s flying foot this time. He caught it between his legs and held it, reaching under the table to give her calf a warning squeeze. He had no idea what her problem was. “I live another block up on Ash. So now, you know plenty of neighbors.”

“Wonderful to meet so many. We just arrived day before yesterday. I am still feeling a bit, how do you say it? Shocked?”

“Culture shocked,” Tabby finally got something intelligent to come out of her mouth.

“Yes, this is what I am,” Anna smiled and nodded.

Tabby blushed again and looked down at her lap. What the hell was wrong with her? Darien couldn’t figure it out.

“You’re Café Au Lait, mademoiselle,” Alex set Anna’s drink in front of her.

“Merci beaucoup,” Anna said. She closed her eyes and took a dainty sip of the milky coffee, smiling at the flavor. “You are right, Alexander, this Elliot does know just how to make it. Delicious.” She licked her lips in obvious pleasure.

Tabby jumped up out of her seat like she’d just been jabbed in the ass with a hot poker. “Um, we have to go, Dare. We’re going to be late, to that…thing. Sorry. We’ll see you later. Bye,” Tabby smiled lamely and chewed at her nail.

To cover, Darien snapped his mouth closed before anyone could notice it had dropped open. “Yeah. We’re running late. It was nice to meet you, Anna. See you around.” Darien stood and took Tabby’s arm, leading her across the street toward the Melon Cauli Market.

Maybe her father’s death and all this shit with her mother was making her mental. Darien figured it might be time to take Tabby for a visit to the ‘rents for a healing session. Maybe Sharon’s healing mojo was out of whack or something.

“Want to tell me what that was all about?” Darien looked at his friend. He was really worried.

“I would if I knew,” Tabby shrugged. “She’s just so…”

“What? Anna? She seems really nice. Did she say something offensive? I totally missed it.”

“No, that’s not what I was going to say.” Tabby’s face was getting really red again. In fact, her whole neck was blushing, too.

Darien stopped in front of the big empty warehouse that sat beside the market, turning to face Tabby. He ducked down until he forced her to make eye contact with him. “Tell me. I can’t read your mind. What were you going to say?”

“I was going to say hot, I guess.” Tabby’s eyes were almost black her pupils were so dilated.

“Oh,” Darien felt like she’d smacked him between the eyes. “Well, that’s not what I expected.”

A nervous bark of laughter burst out of Tabby. “Me either.”

“I mean, I didn’t know that you were attracted to…”

“Me either,” Tabby admitted. “I mean, I don’t really know that I am. Am I? I mean, I’m totally attracted to Pete, aren’t I?” She looked confused.

“Okay, well. You can be attracted to both you know. It’s cool. Either way. With me, that is.” How to go about this? Darien felt like he was getting it all wrong. But then, Tabby threw herself into his arms and hugged him until he was having trouble breathing. He held her for a long time, rubbing at her back. She was shaking.

The sound of voices coming out of the empty warehouse had Darien stepping back to look over. His heart began to pound when he saw Maika appear. He was engrossed in talking to Sven Hadley, the owner of the warehouse and the market next door.

“I would prefer to buy the building outright, frankly. I’m not a big fan of renting, particularly when it comes to business. Would you be willing to sell? The space really would be ideal for what I’m planning,” Maika said.

“I’ll have to talk with my partner and get back to you,” Sven said. “We’ll be in touch by tomorrow to give you our answer and an asking price, should we decide to sell it.”

“Thanks Sven. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you again.” Maika smiled.

“Yes, Maika. It’s been far too long. How is Quiana?” Darien wondered how and when these two had met.

“Fine, she’s taken a position out at the animal park as head of avian breeding and research…”

Darien tuned the drone of their voices out when he heard the sound of a skateboard and caught sight of a flash of purple from inside the open door. He grabbed Tabby’s hand and pulled her down the alley and around to the other side of the building, so he could look in one of the broken windows.

There was Lani, gliding across the big expanse of open concrete on his board. He jumped into the air, kicking the board and making it flip twice before he landed perfectly to keep gliding. He used one foot to push for more speed, then jumped at least five feet off the ground, grabbing his board with his hand, while executing a half turn to land and switch directions.

“Oh my gods, he’s amazing,” Tabby whispered softly.

Lani stopped skating, unaware that he was being watched. He used his t-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face, flashing those amazing, cut abs of his. Darien couldn’t seem to stop the groan that came out. He gulped down the saliva that pooled in his mouth.

Those brown eyes looked up at the sound and caught him staring in the open window. “Darien?” Lani asked it like he thought he might be seeing things. He came quickly toward the opening.

Letting out a strangled sound, Darien turned and walked away. He didn’t even wait to see if Tabby was following. He ignored the sound of Lani’s voice calling after him. Totally screwed, that’s what he was. Totally and royally screwed.

message 5: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Prologue continued...

Standing inside the big, empty warehouse, Lani watched Darien and his friend walk away. It had been a shock to look up and see that confused and heated gaze on him. Lani’d been sure Darien would never look at him with that kind of want in his eyes again. Maybe things weren’t as hopeless as he’d first thought.

*Who are you kidding, Lani. He’s practically running in the other direction to keep from talking to you. Lani beat his fists into his thighs, something he did to himself a lot lately. He had bruises on both legs just below his hips most of the time. Not really sure when it had started, he reminded himself again that it needed to stop. He unclenched his fists and stretched out his hands, trying to calm the fuck down.

“So what do you think?” The sound of his dad’s voice was echoing through the empty space behind him. It made Lani flinch. He turned to find his dad just inside the door looking wistfully around.

“It’s big.” What else was he supposed to say? Lani wasn’t even sure what his dad had in mind for the place.

“It’s perfect. Sven says it was used as storage for the mill, which is now the Broussard Center across the way. They would keep the bags at several of the larger buildings around the neighborhood until they were ready to be loaded on the trains at the old station, which is now the market next door. It’s wonderful how they’ve refurbished all these old buildings down here and made the community vibrant once more, isn’t it.”

“Except this building. Why haven’t they done anything to this one?” Lani wondered.

“Sven says someone was renting it for years until recently, but never seemed to do anything with it. Apparently the renter passed away in the bombing that occurred here. If they let me purchase it, I’m going to turn it into a sporting goods store and indoor sports center.” His dad was grinning from ear to ear.

“What kind of indoor sports,” Lani didn’t want to get into the War on Wildwood argument again right now. The attack on Wildwood had only been a few weeks back, and from what he’d heard, it had been brutal and vicious. Even though the lead perpetrator, Frederick Demetrius, had been killed, Lani wasn’t convinced it was as safe here for his mom and sister as his father seemed to think. After all, the man had led a whole army of followers. But, Lani had already argued with his dad until there was nothing else to say. Instead, he walked closer, focusing on hearing his father’s plans.

“Well, I was thinking things like rock climbing, an indoor skate park, maybe a boxing ring, someplace to add other levels of training for the Armors, but also a family place, some indoor fun for the community. And of course, I’d offer sporting goods and supplies in part of the building to offset the cost of renovating and maintaining the space. So?”

“Sounds awesome, Dad.” Lani could admit to being a little excited by the idea.

“I have two more locations to look at in town, today,” Maika glanced at his watch. “I’m due to check out the next two with Mark Bradley in a few minutes. Sven said if you wanted to stay and skate you could just make sure to lock the place back up when you leave.”

“Nah, that’s okay. I think I’ll go take a walk around town, check things out.” Since Lani already knew what direction Darien had gone in, there was no point in avoiding downtown anymore. Plus, he was no quitter. It was time to stop hiding. “I’ll see you back at the house later.”

Lani grabbed his board and bumped fists with his father. He headed out and found himself crossing the street to head toward the colorfully painted little church looking building with all the café tables out front. The sign said Greene Beans over the door. The smell of coffee lured him closer. The look of the hot dude with dreadlocks and the tall, dark and seriously handsome guy beside him making coffee hooked Lani in the door and reeled him right up to the counter.

“Hello. What can I do for you?” dreadlock dude had a lovely accent Lani wasn’t quite sure how to place.

Licking his lips, Lani smiled. “Hmmm. Let me think on that and get back to you.”

“You do that, mon.” The guy leaned closer and smiled, one of his dreads falling over his eye. “I’ll be here, ready to serve you the best.” The dude winked and moved on to the next customer in line. Lani noticed he only asked her what she wanted to drink. So, he didn’t flirt with everyone equally. A good sign. After looking over the menu and sneaking unabashed peeks at both the beautiful boys working the shop, he finally decided what he wanted. Lani stepped back up to the counter.

“I think I’ll try your spiced caramel. That sounds like it’ll be right up my alley.” Lani winked.

The dreadlock dude grinned, his white teeth a stark contrast to his caramel colored skin. His dark brown eyes were hard to look away from. “Have a seat, wherever you like. I’ll bring it out shortly.”

Lani decided to sit outside, enjoying the warm day and the sun beating down on him. He could just make out the sparkle dancing off the river in the distance. After his coffee, maybe he would walk down to the water, just to get wet. He laughed a little sadly at the idea that here, that saying meant only what it sounded like. There would be no waves in Wildwood.

“Two spicy caramels,” the dreadlock dude set down his coffee and slid into the seat next to Lani, resting his chin in his hand. “Hi, I’m Aren. And you are?”

“Thrilled with the service at Greene Beans,” Lani chuckled as he took a sip of his steaming drink. He closed his eyes for a moment. “This might be the best coffee experience I’ve ever had. Lani Waiola, nice to meet you.” Lani put out his hand to shake.

“The pleasure is all mine.” Aren took Lani’s hand between both of his large, warm ones, and Lani felt a zing race up his arm. Aren tilted his head and smiled, looking him over unapologetically. “You’re new around. I would remember meeting you.”

“Just moved here from the Big Island,” Lani smiled and leaned forward in his chair doing the same. “You?”

“Hawaii. Surfs amazing there,” Aren looked off into the distance like he was recalling some memory before he answered Lani’s question. “I’ve lived here for a while. Moved in when the VW bus I was driving cross-country broke down. I liked it here, so I stayed.”

“But originally you’re from?” Darien asked.

“Jamaica, mon. My parents live on Annodox now, though.”

“Either way, there’s ocean and beach. Why in hell would you choose to live here…voluntarily?” Lani wondered.

Aren chuckled. “A very good question. When I’ve figured it out, I’ll let you know. What brings you here from the islands, mon.”

“Family. I didn’t have much of a choice.”

Aren’s eyes flicked down to his wrist, where Lani’s Gaea mark was clearly showing. The guy lifted a brow. His expression seemed to say that Lani did have a choice, and of course Aren was right. Lani was a legal adult according to Gaea law. But, he wouldn’t leave his family to fend for themselves, especially not when they were moving to a potential war zone. None of that was anything he wanted to get into, so he just changed the subject.

“So, Aren. Are you seeing anyone?” Lani was never one for subtle. He saw what he wanted and he usually went after it.

“Not afraid to meet a challenge head on. I like that. No, Lani, I’m not just now. Would you like to change that?”

Darien’s face flashed through Lani’s mind, making him hesitate. Should he do this? Why the hell not? Darien was making it pretty clear he was off limits. Lani was not about to live like a monk for the next two years. It wasn’t his style.

“I just might, Aren.” He fished out his phone and pulled up a new contact file. He handed it over. “How about giving me your number and we’ll go from there?”

message 6: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter One

October 2013

Changing from black to white was wicked. Lani ran his hand over the short spikes. Who knew he would like himself as a peroxide blond. He tilted his head and caught sight of a patch of tan skin showing on his neck. He scooped the last of the green makeup out of the container and used it to cover the spot.

It isn’t easy becoming green. Lani chuckled at his not-so-Muppet thought.

At this point, the only thing left to give away his Polynesian heritage was the dark brown of his eyes. He opened the colored contact case and took out a blue lens. In a matter of moments, he was using a tissue to dab away tears and keep them from streaking his makeup. The final touch was the pair of green wings his father helped him build. He shrugged them on over his dark green, sleeveless vest and smiled at the exotic image he made.

Darien is going to shit lava.

That thought brought him up short. His heart gave a twist in his chest. Tonight was Wildwood’s annual Halloween bash, and apparently it was a big deal. The costume was seriously important. Lani and Darien had shared a mutual passion for The Young Avengers, Wiccan and Hulking. A heated discussion of their favorite gay comic duo came vividly to mind. They had both shared a lot of passion - once. Lani was hoping this costume might remind Dare of the good times.

Darien might think otherwise, but Lani remembered every minute of the short week they’d spent together in Hawaii with crystal clarity. It had been an intense week, some of it seriously bad, and some of it spectacular.

But that was then, and this was now.

Lani walked into his room and sat heavily on his bed, trying not to let the feeling of being helplessly landlocked overwhelm him. He took a deep breath and felt out with his Gaea energy until he connected with the flowing Iowa River that ran near the house. The waters soothed his suddenly raw nerves. It wasn’t anywhere close to the vast Pacific Ocean, but it was all he had to draw from these days.

Frowning at the surfboards stacked on his wall, Lani told himself there was still hope. If not that, he would surf the Pacific anytime soon, then at least, that Darien would forgive him. Not that he deserved anything remotely resembling forgiveness. Maybe if he showed Darien that he remembered, and he truly had cared, things would begin to change.

But, judging by the last few weeks of school, Lani knew he was headed for a wipe out. He was lucky if he got two words out of Dare that didn’t have to do with their mutual biology homework. Lani wasn’t sure how he’d gotten the lucky draw as Darien’s lab partner. Maybe he still held Pele’s favor, even though he’d left her behind on the islands. Surely, the goddess knew he had no reason to want to leave Hawaii. Well, except for being closer to Darien. Living half a world away had been the reason he’d let Darien go in the first place.

Pulling himself up short, Lani admitted that wasn’t altogether true. He knew his past avoidance of Darien had more to do with misplaced guilt than location. He’d told himself Darien deserved someone with less baggage, someone who made better choices in life. That was a boatload of crap he’d been trying to sail.

So, now, he was living with exactly what he deserved. Nothing more, nothing less. And he was lucky he hadn’t drowned. He might still. Dare wouldn’t even hear his attempts to apologize. Lani rubbed a hand over his spiked hair and frowned down at his feet. He balled his hand into a fist and punched himself in the leg, hard. The pain was bright and less achy than the one in his chest. He concentrated on that, while he tried to ignore the truth.

Maybe he truly was lolo like his sister, Meli, always said. This last ditch effort to turn Darien’s head was bound to backfire.

What would Aren think? Lani figured his one saving grace was that Aren didn’t have any clue what dressing up like Hulking had to do with Darien Tiernan. Aren, Lani’s current boyfriend, had been the one to explain to him what a big deal Halloween was around Wildwood. Every year, the folks at the Broussard Center and the rest of the community went all out with a big carnival in the streets, followed by a dance party.

Too bad Aren was working the whole night, with Elliot Greene and Greene Beans café. They would be serving coffee drinks at the Broussard Center. At least Lani had dibs on a dance or two whenever Aren got a break. And luckily, he had friends to hang with tonight. He was very grateful for that. Looking at his watch, Lani hoped Anna and the gang would hurry up.

Meli’s grass skirt swished as she came down the hall. He had to tamp down a bubble of laughter. Thank the goddess he’d gotten out of his family’s whacked deal. By the time his sister came through the door in all her Hawaiian glory, Lani had his expression under control. Poor kid was actually excited about wearing matching costumes with her parents.

“Ewww,” Meli wrinkled her nose as she looked him up and down. “You look hideous. I can’t understand why you would rather be green than prove you’re proud of our people. You really are lolo.”

“Maybe, I didn’t want to freeze my nads off out there. It’s going to be cold, you know.”

“We’re Water Gaeas. Surely you know how to elevate your body’s water temperature by now? Even I can do that.” Meli frowned at him.

Lani didn’t like to admit that he wasn’t good at the skill, plus he knew for a fact that not all Water Gaeas could manipulate body temperature. It seemed to be a Waiola family trait. Well, for everyone except him, anyway. Every time he tried, Lani would connect to the water in everyone around him, and he didn’t like the way it made him feel. But, Meli was the last person he would trust with that information. If October was any indication, he was going to have to get better at directing his energy and warming his core temp to survive his first winter on the Midwest tundra.

“I have my reasons for wearing this costume, okay?” Lani stood and found his wallet, stuffing it into his back pocket.

“I’m betting they center around a curly headed boy with bright green eyes,” Meli smirked at him.

“We do not talk about him. Ever.” Lani narrowed his eyes. He opened his mouth to say more, but the doorbell rang.

“I got it.” He sprinted down the stairs. When he opened the door, he couldn’t keep the grin from his face. Alex Peltier was flanked by his girlfriend, Sharon, and his cousin, Anna.

“Check it. You look sweet! ” Lani motioned for them to come inside.

“Why thank you, kind sir.” Alex took off his Musketeers hat and swept it into a deep bow. “Gentlemen, after you.” In an over the top gallant gesture, he motioned for Sharon and Anna to step inside. They were both wearing matching form-fitting leggings with tall leather boots and blue and white tunics. The tip of Anna’s sword clanked against the door frame making her jump.

Alex came through the door last and placed a hand on his sword hilt, affecting his best ready-for-battle pose. “The King’s Guard, at your service.”

Lani chuckled looking the three of them over. “Who knew Musketeers could be so sexy?”

“You’re just attracted by my mustache,” Sharon said in a voice that was much lower than usual. Lani noticed she was fingering one long curling handle, making him laugh.

“I know I am,” Alex grinned and managed to somehow duck smoothly under her hat for a kiss.

“This does not surprise me,” Anna said. Her eyes were dancing merrily when Alex threw her a wink.

Anna began to speak in a fast spat of French that Lani couldn’t understand, then Alex answered her fluently, and Sharon joined in. It sounded raunchy. Lani was captivated. He watched the three of them argue affectionately in the fluid language. He was rapidly growing uncomfortable and firmly squashed the need to fan himself. Obviously, hanging out with this gang would keep him plenty warm tonight. He realized Anna’s dancing eyes had turned on him.

“I am thinking the French is the final touch, oui?” She winked at Lani.

“Definitely. What say we get out of here, before the Hula Dancers get a hold of me and I end up out there half naked in my grass skirt.” Lani shivered at the thought.

“I kind of like that idea, myself,” Sharon said.

Alex elbowed her.

“What? I can look. You have to admit, he would be delicious.” She grinned up at her boyfriend.

“Thanks, I think,” Lani chuckled as he crossed the hall. “I’ll just be a sec,” he called over his shoulder as he high-tailed it down the hall.

He was very glad he’d gotten to know the Peltier clan this summer. Anna’s father, Nicholas Peltier, worked for the Armors along with Lani’s father and both Sharon and Alex. So, they had all been given plenty of opportunities to hang out. It was a relief to know good people had his father’s back, since Lani wasn’t convinced Wildwood was a safe place for his family to be, despite several months of relative quiet.

message 7: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter One continued...

Anna had confided the same concerns not long after they had met. She had moved to town from France in the same week Lani’s family moved from Hawaii. So, it totally made sense that they would stick together. It was good to have a friend who understood where he was coming from, especially on that hiddie first day at Wildwood High School when everyone had been giving them both the side eye.

Lani shook off the memory as he stuck his head through the kitchen door. “We’re leaving. See you over there.”

His mother smiled at him as she dropped a string of kakui nuts over her head. His father was kneeling at her feet on the floor tying tea leaves around her ankle.

“Aloha. Have a good time,” Maika looked up with a smile as he patted his wife’s foot.

“Aloha, see you there,” Quiana added, switching feet to offer her other ankle.

“A hui hou,” Lani waved as he left them to it.

“You look totally different,” Alex said as Lani came back down the front hall. “I don’t think I would have recognized you if you hadn’t answered the door. You could go seriously incognito.”

“What’s the fun in that? I worked my ass off on this costume, I want to show it off,” Lani said. He left the rest unsaid. What he really wanted was to show Darien that he remembered - everything.


Strutting the length of his room, Darien stopped, turned, and posed as if on a catwalk, just like his best friend Rowan had taught him. He tried not to flinch. The hoots and hollers coming from his computer were growing ridiculously loud.

“What is going on in here?” Tim walked into the room.

“Holy shit, Dare. That is some guy you have there.” Holly put her face closer to the computer as if she might be trying to come right through the screen. Her pupils had blown wide.“Yummy!”

“Alright, alright. Simmer down,” Morgan tugged Holly back into her seat, but she was smiling through the Skype camera, too.

“Yes, he’s mine, all mine.” Darien tugged Tim toward him and wrapped his arms around his boyfriend. Tim’s tall, muscular frame felt damn good in its green and black lycra’d glory. He had his blond hair slicked back and you could see every perfect contour of his body.

“Tim, grasshopper, how is it that you think the Green Lantern is part of *The Avengers?*” Morgan winked to soften her words.

If she wasn’t thousands of miles away in Montreal, Darien would have kissed his sister just then. He couldn’t help but be mildly disappointed with Tim’s choice of costumes, even if he did look smoking hot in a skin tight bodysuit.

“The idea was to dress as your favorite comic book hero, and this is mine. He was before he came out of the closet, I might add. The Lantern is way cooler than any Avenger.” Tim brushed at an imagined bit of lint on his shoulder. “I shouldn’t have to apologize for that.”

“Oooh, them’s fighting words, huh Dare?” Holly grinned.

“He doesn’t get the whole Marvel versus D.C. thing,” Darien tried to sound like he didn’t mind. He felt Tim stiffen and pull away.

“No he doesn’t,” Tim gave him a hard look. “Particularly, when you are literally a walking D.C character.”

Darien tried not to let the flippant comment bother him. Tim was just joking around. It wasn’t like it was any secret that Darien could flash using his Air Gaea abilities. He’d had no choice but to use his powers all over town during the War on Wildwood. But, he still didn’t like the fact that everyone knew, and he certainly didn’t want to joke about it.

“So what do you think? Am I missing anything?” Darien deliberately ignored the quip. He’d spent years hiding his freakishly strong abilities, and he wasn’t ready to have everyone up in his business. In fact, his need for privacy probably went a long way toward explaining his long-time aversion to all things Flash and D.C. Darien was a Marvel man, all the way. It wasn’t that big of a deal if Tim didn’t understand.

“That blue bodysuit is the bomb, but where’s your cloak, or cape, or whatever, Dare?” Morgan wanted to know. “Doesn’t he always wear that?”

“It’s right here.” Tim crossed to the chair where it was draped. He wrapped it around Darien’s shoulders, using the ends to tug him closer for a soft kiss. Tim tied the cloak to one side, and then gave Darien’s dark curls a finger comb to make sure they were all free of the fabric and tousled around his red headband. “There. Now you look perfect.”

For a moment, Darien felt like they were alone in the room as he looked into Tim’s light eyes. They looked startlingly blue behind the black eye mask he was wearing. With another quick kiss, Tim turned Darien toward the laptop so his sister could get the full effect.

“Man, you make one hell of a Wiccan,” Morgan chuckled.

“You’d better hope he doesn’t put a spell on you, Lantern,” Holly added.

“It’s too late to hope for that,” Tim said. He threw an arm over Darien’s shoulder and smiled into his eyes.

Darien felt warm all over. “We’d better go if we’re going to make our date with Rows and Wayde.”

“Make sure you text us some pictures of everybody in their getups, will ya? And send me a couple of you, too. I miss you, bro.” Morgan kissed her finger and touched the screen.

“Miss you, too.” Darien did the same, touching his finger to Morgan’s. “See you soon for turkey day.”

“Can’t wait,” Holly smiled. Then she lifted a hand and the screen went black.

Darien took a deep breath and tried to let the sadness go. He never thought he would miss his sister this much. Things felt totally different now that most of The Thirteen were gone.

“Ready?” Tim asked, already standing at the door.

“As I’ll ever be,” Darien said. He gave the black screen one last glance on the way out.

They could hear kids laughing and the sounds of carnival games as soon as they stepped out Darien’s front door. They crossed through the park from Darien’s yard. He felt a shiver run through him as they passed the place where Holly Golightly’s used to stand. It was just an empty lot now. All of the charred remains of the burned out building had been removed, but it was the one place Darien could not stop seeing flashes of the hell that had been the attack on Wildwood last June. He heard the horrible boom in his mind, and for a moment, he was back in that smoky field with the ash raining all around him, the smell of burning, the sick and the dying lying at his feet.

He was haunted by a clear image of his sister and Sharon’s dad dragging Holly away from the inferno where her mother had been keeping dozens of people safe off the streets. Breathing through his teeth to quell the nausea, Darien took Tim’s hand. He let his boyfriend’s energy sooth him as they crossed the street to the Broussard Center.

And just as suddenly, he was back in the present with smiling, laughing people in all kinds of crazy costumes all around him. Some were bobbing for apples. Some were carving pumpkins for the contest. A group of Trekkies were marching through the crowd toward the photo booth, one of them eating from a huge cone of bright orange cotton candy.

Darien caught sight of Alchemy and waved to her. She looked awesome in the Soul Eater costume Sera made for her.

“Nice threads,” she said and threw them a smile as she dragged Jute past. They were obviously on their way to somewhere important.

“Same to ya,” Darien called out at her fast retreating back.

“Does that girl ever stand still?” Tim wondered.

“Not that I can remember,” Darien chuckled. He turned and his breath hitched. Pete was striding towards him dressed in a killer Hawkeye costume with Tabby as his Black Widow. She had even found an awesome red wig. “At last, my people are here.” He felt himself grinning like a fool. “You both look amazing. Where did you get the bow and quiver?” he asked Pete.

Tabby flushed and grinned as one of Tim’s lacrosse guys walked by and wolf-whistled at her. The guy bumped fists with Tim and started up a conversation that Darien tuned out.

message 8: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter One continued...

“My dad let me borrow his set as long as I promise to guard it with my life. Plus, I have to help him clean his hunting rifles before hunting season gets into full swing,” Pete was saying as he rolled his eyes. “Can I tell you how much I hate cleaning guns. But it was worth it to see the stunned look on this one’s face when she opened the door.” He smiled down at Tabby.

“You looked pretty stunned, yourself,” Tabby said. She would have sounded confident if not for her face growing steadily brighter under so much scrutiny.

“Well of course he was. You look hot, mama,” Darien leaned down to kiss his friend’s flushed cheek.

“You look pretty smexy, yourself.” Tabby held him at arm’s length. “Both of you.” She pointed at Tim, who was standing nearby talking to his teammates.

Tabby made this strange, high pitched sound, making the hairs rise on the back of Darien’s neck. He followed Tabby’s gaze to find Alex and Anna Peltier dressed in fully fantastic Musketeer’s garb with Sharon as their third. He felt a moment of relief that another war wasn’t coming, and gave Tabby’s arm a squeeze of silent support. Every time Anna turned up, Tabby got seriously weird.

As his friends started the usual round of greetings, Darien’s attention was drawn to the guy standing a few paces behind Alex in an absolutely fantastic costume of Hulking. He was all tight muscles and compact body, with an exotic tilt to his features. Darien’s eyes traveled over the guy and his heart started to hammer in his chest. There was no harm in looking, after all, and man, oh man, but he liked what he saw. He was just about to take a page from Wayde’s book and make some flirty comment when he felt a pulse of energy and realized he’d know that Gaea vibe anywhere. What the fuck? The guy standing there didn’t look anything like…

“Lani,” Alex smiled over his shoulder. “I think we’ve found your sidekick.”

But, Lani didn’t answer. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to anyone but Darien. The guy looked as shocked as Darien felt as his eyes traveled over Darien’s Wiccan costume. Then his mouth spread into that grin of his, and Darien felt his heart flip over. He suddenly couldn’t catch his breath, and he was -- Darien tried to figure out what he was feeling as he rubbed his palms along his thighs. He was --pissed! That’s what he was!

“What the hell?” He narrowed his eyes at Lani. Then, before his emotions could drive him to do something really stupid like flash the fuck out of dodge, Darien turned and walked away, forcing himself not to run.

By some miracle, Tim didn’t follow him. Darien just kept walking, ears ringing with the need to pull the Balance. He made it around the corner to the Broussard Center loading dock before he felt a hand grab his arm to stop him.

“Darien, please! Wait!” Lani tugged him around.

Lani was holding both hands up. “Sorry. I just want to talk. That’s all. Please.”

“Who told you?” Darien demanded.

“Told me what?” Lani ran a hand over his white blonde hair.

“What costume I was wearing?” Darien crossed his arms.

“Nobody,” Lani laughed. “Almost crapped myself when I saw you back there.”

“No way am I believing this is some coincidence. No way!” Darien was having trouble keeping his voice down.

“Well, of course it’s not a coincidence, Dare.” Lani shrugged in that infuriating way he had. He took a step closer and Darien stepped back. “But, I didn’t know what you were planning to wear. I worked damn hard on this Hulking costume because I wanted you to see that I haven’t forgotten. I was hoping this might make you understand that you meant something to me, too.”

Lani kept walking forward as he talked, and Darien kept walking back until he hit the concrete wall behind him hard. He was well and truly trapped. His heart was beating like a wild thing. He tried to tell himself that he didn’t want Lani close enough to feel, to smell that ocean scent that still clung to him even in the middle of Iowa. Darien was already getting lost in those big, soft eyes, again, even if they were the wrong color.

“You won’t talk to me. You barely look at me. I get that you’re angry, and I deserve it. But, damn it, Dare. I…”

“Don’t!” Darien shot a hand out and thumped Lani hard on the chest, holding him at arm’s length. The thought of those words crossing Lani’s lips was just... “I’m not some innocent kid, anymore. I know better.”

“Okay. I guess I can see why you’re not buying. All I really want is the chance to start over…”

Darien opened his mouth to stop Lani’s words, but the guy rushed on.

“…as friends. Just friends. What’s the harm in that? I miss you, Dare.” Lani lifted his hand to run a finger along Darien’s cheek.

Darien felt a tingle that followed a trail from that finger right down into his chest. He should tell the guy no, now, but he couldn’t seem to form that one little word.

“Holy shit, mon!” A deep voice made Darien flinch. It came from the loading dock beside them. “You two are smoking hot. How ‘bout you give a brother a treat. Lay one on him for me, Hulking.” Aren’s thick Jamaican accent was not helping Darien get his libido under control.

Then, Darien saw the shocked and guilty look on Lani’s face. Lani had dropped his hand and was already stepping away as Aren came closer.

“Don’t stop on my account,” supremely hot dread guy from Greene Beans said. “I’m just bringing supplies inside. Be out your way in a sex, er, I mean sec.” He was almost past them when Lani rubbed a hand over his spiked hair and Aren stopped short. Turning back he asked, “Lani? That you?”

“Um, yep. Guilty as charged.” Lani’s eyes darted back and forth between Darien and Aren.

It took several awkward seconds for Darien to register what was happening. He shouldn’t be surprised that Lani was seeing someone else. Darien shouldn’t care. It was obvious if he wanted to keep his heart from being trashed again, he couldn’t let himself care. What the heck should he do?

Where the hell is Rowan when you need him? He would know exactly what to do. It only took a moment for Darien to decide what that might be. He was going to have to fake it until he made it.

“Yes, well, it’s been a strange coincidence this whole costume thing, huh Lani?” Darien pushed himself off the wall and stepped away. “Hope you two have a good time tonight. Anyway, I’d better get back to my boyfriend. He’s waiting. See you later, Aren.” Darien waved to them both while Lani just stood there looking stunned.

Darien knew he sounded as if he didn’t have a care in the world. His voice didn’t even shake. He managed to smile at Lani as he walked calmly away. He was pretty freaking proud of his performance, overall. *Two down, a whole village to go.* The hard part was going to be faking it for the rest of the night it in front of Tim and all their friends. But, if living in Wildwood had taught Darien anything, it was how to keep shit on the down low.

message 9: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Two

The wind had a bite to it, but the bright sun made sitting outside bearable. Darien was so happy to be having coffee with Rowan and Alchemy, he barely registered the chill. It seemed like forever since they’d been together like this, hanging at their favorite table in front of Greene Beans. They had barely even found time to talk at the Halloween bash since Rows and Wayde had arrived late and had to DJ the dance and Alchemy had been busy with her other friends.

“Okay, lean in. Say cheese.” Rowan was holding his cell at arm’s length to snap a picture.

Darien said, “Swiss,” at the same time Alchemy said, “Feta.” They all grinned foolishly at the old joke.

Another burst of happiness warmed Darien as he watched Rowan quickly tap his screen to post the image on Instagram. Darien hadn’t realized how much he’d been missing his two besties. Hanging with Tabby and the gang was great, but it wasn’t the same. Everything was changing around them, leaving this unsettled feeling that nagged at Darien more with each passing day.

“I might need this to help me remember your faces.” Rowan set his phone aside and picked up his coffee. It almost seemed like he was reading Darien’s thoughts.

“I know, right,” Alchemy said. Darien marveled at the intricate Geisha designs painted on her nails as she brushed a strand of jet black hair that had escaped from the chopsticks she used to pin it up. “You’re becoming quite the jet setter. But, that’s not a bad thing, right?”

It wasn’t hard to read the unhappiness on Rowan’s face.

“No, I mean…” Rowan shrugged. Sitting back, he stuffed his hands into his hoodie and glanced through the café window. Wayde was sitting inside, presumably doing homework on his laptop. Darien could totally feel Rowan’s confusion before the guy started to talk. “Mostly, it’s great. But, we just got this tutor who has to travel with us. Wayde keeps calling her our governess. She’s all smiles, like some bad chewing gum commercial. I don’t like it. Thank the gods, we have plans to get away this weekend…” Rows caught himself and threw an apologetic look at Darien. “Anyway, we’re not here to talk about me. Dare needs help dealing with this Lani situation.”

“Yes, please, let’s get back to me. What am I supposed to do? He’s my freaking lab partner. It’s not like I can practice abstinence.” Darien frowned into his caramel flavored coffee, watching the little crystals of salt float around on the surface.

Rowan snorted.

Alchemy leaned forward and drummed her fingernails on the tabletop. She didn’t do sitting still very well, especially after two cups of coffee. “Here’s an idea. He said he was sorry. Why don’t you give the guy a second chance?”

“Have you not heard a thing I’ve been saying?” Darien could not believe his ears.

Rowan flipped his bangs out of his eyes and lifted his cup higher, trying to hide a smile. Darien narrowed his eyes at Rowan.

“What? It’s an option.” Alchemy sat back and crossed her arms over her stomach, bouncing one leg. “You said he apologized, and that was one hell of a costume he put together to impress you. Just saying.”

Darien didn’t want to admit it, but the Hulking costume Lani made had been pretty freaking cool. “Okay, give the guy an A for effort. But, I’ll say it one more time for the record. I don’t trust him. Not as far as I can throw him.”

“Which we all know isn’t far,” Alchemy grinned.

“Ha ha!”

“Lani broke his trust in the worst way,” Rows added. “You can’t just bounce back from that, Al. So, I’m with Dare. No second chances.”

“Remind me to never piss you two off.” Alchemy was now bouncing both legs.

“Good plan.” Rows chuckled.

“Can I get a recording of you saying that,” Darien asked.

“No.” Alchemy winked.

“How have you been handling things with Lani, so far?” Rowan asked.

“I was going with avoidance at first, but it isn’t working, for reasons I’ve already explained. So, the other night at the dance, I switched gears to the classic Rowan Stallings ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ routine. I’m pretty sure I pulled off the, ‘you-do-your-thing, I’ll-do-mine,’ vibe if I do say so myself.”

“And how did that feel?” Rows gave Darien’s shoulder a light punch.

He didn’t want to admit this next part, but Darien couldn’t lie to his two oldest friends. “Like someone was grinding a heel into my chest. Could you tell? I mean, did I look like I was having a good time?”

There was a long pause. Darien felt his stomach tighten.

Alchemy leaned over and put her hand on top of Darien’s. “You’re asking the wrong people. We know you better than everyone else. Of course we could tell something was wrong.”

“Nobody else seemed to notice though,” Rowan said. “It was a great fake out. Especially, when Lani and Aren danced together.”

Darien squeezed his eyes closed and took a deep breath. That moment had hit below the belt, and not in a good way.

“What about Tim?” Rowan asked.

“What about him?”

“Did he know what was up?” Alchemy finished Rowan’s thought. Rowan nodded his head.

“I don’t think so. I mean, he never said anything.”

“Well, there you go. That’s your answer. The plan worked. You can’t beat an old tried and true Stallings classic. Don’t worry, Dare. It will get easier as time goes on.” Darien watched Rowan’s eyes track back to where Wayde sat talking on his cell, shivering as he felt a surge of Gaea energy slip past Rowan’s control. Rowan went on talking like he hadn’t even noticed he was pulsing, “You’re still getting used to having the guy in your face. After a while, it won’t hurt so much.”

Rowan might be saying all the right words, but Darien was so not convinced.

Alchemy looked seriously uncomfortable, like she was struggling to keep her mouth shut. She cleared her throat and looked at her rainbow colored day glow watch. “I have to go. Places to be.” She jumped up and leaned over, kissing Darien’s cheek. “Good luck.” She kissed Rowan, next. “Safe travels. See you when you get home.” She tossed her coffee cup in the recycling bin and hurried down the street.

“I have to get moving, too. I still have to pack.” Rowan seemed a little reluctant to leave. “You going to be okay?”

Darien had to look away. He rubbed at his thighs and struggled to swallow. All he could think to say was, “I miss you, Rows. A lot.” At this rate, he might embarrass himself any minute. Darien felt himself being tugged to his feet, and then Rowan had him wrapped in a tight hug. They both opened to the Balance. Darien let himself melt into the Gaea energy humming between them. His stomach calmed for the first time in days. It felt so good to be together again.

Lately, when Rowan left town, you never knew how long he would be gone. Last semester, during Rowan’s study abroad program, he and Wayde had landed a role as hosts for a popular European television show. They got the gig thanks to Wayde’s success as a fashion model and Rowan’s growing following as a DJ. That, and the fact that the two of them were, like, the hottest boys since, well -- Lucas and Riley.

VisionAir, the company that produced Rowan’s show, had decided they wanted to continue filming the series from America when Rowan’s time in England ended. It was great to have Rowan and Wayde back state side, except now they were always being sent all over the place to film another live segment.

Darien burrowed in and soaked up the feeling of hugging his best friend while he had the chance.

“We won’t be gone long this time,” Rowan was speaking into his ear. “Just going to Annodox with Luc and Riley for the weekend. We’ll make time to hang when we…oh crap.” Rowan tensed, and Darien felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. “I hate to tell you, but hula boy is fast approaching.

Darien couldn’t seem to stop the spike of panicked energy that slipped out. The wind around them gusted, making the heat from Rowan’s fire energy rise.

Rowan tightened his arms. “Okay, simmer down. Emergency evasive maneuvers coming right up.”

Before Darien knew what hit him, Rowan was kissing him hard, hot, and fast.

It was a strange thrill, one that felt good, but also just a little off. It was too bad the chemistry wasn’t right, because they were otherwise a perfect fit, if only…Darien turned his brain off and went along for the ride, letting Rowan lead them. When Rowan was finished with him, he had managed to point Darien away from the café and was giving him a gentle push towards his car.

“Don’t look back,” Rowan said softly.

Darien jumped when his friend slapped him firmly on the ass.

“I’ll miss you, Dare,” Rows called out, loudly. “See you when I get back.”

“Miss you, too,” Darien did as instructed and walked blindly away, lifting a hand in a wave without looking back. He was proud of himself for managing to cross the street and slide into Morgan’s car, or rather, his car, without incident. His hands shook as he turned the ignition. His face was all kinds of hot, and his heart was hammering, more from panic than from Rowan’s kiss.

It was time to get the hell out of dodge. He pulled his phone out and texted Cory at the wild animal park.

Need br8k. Ok to come work?

He checked his mirror and pulled out onto Wildwood Avenue, not waiting for an answer. If Cory couldn’t use him today, he’d just walk around the park for a while.

Volunteering for the Larabee Wild Animal Park was one of the few things that kept Darien sane. The chance to escape the drama that was Wildwood and hang in the woods helped him deal with crap. Plus, Darien’s connection to the park ran deep and long.

Ben Larabee, the man who had funded and built the park from the ground up, was like family to Darien. He had been taking Darien and the other Wildwood kids to the animal park for years, teaching them about nature. When everyone had mistakenly thought Ben and his partner, Pierre Broussard, had been killed in a car accident a few years back, Darien had started visiting the park whenever he wanted to remember Ben. Now that Ben was back alive, mostly, albeit in a coma, Darien had started to volunteer at the park. It felt like a way to help Ben heal by caring for the animals Ben had loved so much. Darien brought the man news of the park to his villa on Annodox whenever he could.

Lately, he’d even been considering work with animals as a career. Especially now that he’d found a way to combine his other passion for technology into the mix. The park staff seemed thrilled to have a volunteer willing and able to update their computer systems. Darien was thrilled to install technology that would help them better observe the animals. He was actually making a difference, and he liked the way it felt, like what he was doing had a real potential future. He hadn’t figured it all out, yet, but it was only his junior year at WHS. He had plenty of time.

message 10: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Two continued...

The phone rang, startling him. “Hey,” Darien answered it expecting to hear Cory, one of the park’s big cat keepers, on the other end.

“It’s a bloody good thing Rowan is here to explain why you left without a proper farewell,” Wayde’s deep, British accent purred through the line, making Darien smile.

“Um, yeah. Sorry about that.”

“Just so we are clear, you owe me a very warm welcome when I return. Otherwise, I might feel left out,” Wayde teased.

“You know you can always count on me,” Darien’s mood continued to lift as he took the exit for the zoo.

“Good. Now. You remember what I taught you, young Jedi?”

“I have forgotten nothing, Master,” Darien replied.

Wayde chuckled. “Alright. You’ll do. Put on just enough of a show to keep him guessing. See you when we get home.”

“Safe travels,” Darien said.

“Always.” The line went dead, but Darien kept the smile on his face all the way to the park’s employee lot.

He checked for texts and felt a pang of disappointment.

Short staffed. Flu. Can’t shift animals 2day. Stop by tho.

Feeling better once he’d read Cory’s text, Darien headed toward the lion house. He could at least check out the area and make plans for another day.

He stopped by the tiger exhibit on his way past. The two cubs had almost doubled in size since the last time Darien had seen them. He watched them chasing after some poor, unsuspecting bug in the grass. The mother tiger was napping in the sun. She opened one lazy eye and gave him a look. Since he was the only human around this late on a November day, she gave a huge yawn and went back to napping. Darien figured she was saying, “Don’t make me use these bad boys.” It wasn’t long before he was sucked in. The cubs eventually gave up on bugs and began taking turns stalking each others tails.

“You two are better than crack,” Darien laughed when he realized he’d been standing there for half an hour. He hurried down the path.

The hidden keeper trail through the bamboo was just beyond the tiger exhibit. Darien took it and walked past the back mote of the lion habitat. He could see the pride of females lying around, but the two adult males, Bogo and Pogo, were nowhere to be found. Darien walked to the end of the path which widened out to the cinderblock holding facility. The building was completely hidden from the visitors. Darien peered through the narrow pane of glass on the door of the lion house as he knocked.

It only took a moment for Cory to appear from the kitchen. The blonde, seriously built guy wiped his hands on his khaki slacks as he crossed to let Darien into the building. The door made a metallic clack as he released the lever that reinforced it.

“Hey Darien,” Cory’s smile warmed Darien. The guy’s eyes were this strange shade of blue that seemed to catch the light and sparkle. He was seriously beautiful, for an older guy. “Come in out of the cold.”

“Thanks, man.” Darien unzipped his vest as he stepped through the door. The interior of the building felt sweltering after a brisk walk in the Iowa wind. “How’s it going?”

“Could be better,” Cory led the way toward the back aisle. He obviously knew Darien wanted to see the boys. “Laura is out with sick kids, so it’s skeleton crew. Sorry we can’t shift dangerous animals until Kevin gets here for the late shift. So, you can’t help me in this building, today.”

“It’s cool. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming. Just needed to get out of town, ya know.” Darien shrugged./
“Absolutely.” Cory turned his attention to the two enormous male lions. “Hey boys. I brought you a surprise visitor.”

Bogo, the older of the two, lifted his head and sniffed at the air. Since there was no meat in the immediate vicinity, he went back to lazily licking his paws. Pogo, on the other hand, stood up and crossed to the bars, rubbing his face back and forth in front of Darien. He was making this deep rumbling sound, like a cross between a growl and a purr, but the look on his face was pure contentment. Darien had to resist the urge to reach out a hand and scratch Pogo’s furry white chin.

“Well, he’s happy to see you.” Cory laughed.

“He’s probably just happy to have a day inside with Bogo,” Darien said. It was a well-known fact that Bogo and Pogo had a thing for each other. They preferred one another to their whole pride of females. Apparently, it was okay to be gay, even if you were a lion. Bogo hadn’t bred a female in years. Pogo was the only one still doing his fatherly duty to the pride.

“How’s Beatrice?” Darien asked. “The staff newsletter this week said she’s already pregnant.”

“She’s great. Can’t believe Pogo bred her so quickly. I wasn’t sure the old boy still had it in him. He seems less and less interested in the girls with each passing season.”

“But not in Bogo, I see,” Darien found himself grinning as he watched Pogo stretch out beside Bogo to lick and nuzzle at the other male’s face. Bogo gave a loud sigh and let his eyes go half shut, looking totally blissed out.

“Still devoted to each other,” Cory chuckled. “Bogo doesn’t seem to mind sharing, as long as he isn’t asked to perform. If all goes well, the cubs should be born in early March. It’s going to be great to have the lion cams...” Cory stopped himself. “Listen to me. I assume you got approval and that’s what you’re here to work on?”

“Yep. Holly donated the money for extending the fiber optics cables from the office, and The Larabee Foundation will be coming through with everything else I asked for. Apparently, an anonymous donor heard about the project and handed over a check. It’s enough to cover cameras for most of the exhibits.” Darien had just gotten the go ahead earlier this morning. He was still wondering if Pierre had donated the money. But, why would Pierre donate anonymously?

Didn’t really matter. Darien was just glad to come give Cory the good news. “Anyway, I figured why wait? If Bea is already pregnant, we should go ahead and start the installation.”

“Fantastic!” Cory rubbed his hands together. “Did you hear that boys?” he asked the two lions. “Darien is going to help us watch over your cubs,” Cory spoke as if the cats understood every word. When the two lions stopped their mutual love fest and turned golden and green eyes on Darien, he almost believed they could.

“This is going to make life so much easier on the staff, Dare, you have no idea. Not to mention cutting way back on the stress to the females because we can monitor the whole thing remotely. I don’t know how we can repay you. Free membership for life? A parade in your honor? Donations for a college fund? What can we do?”

Darien felt heat creep up his neck. “I’m doing this for me as much as anything. I just want to see a lion birth.” He shrugged.

The whole animal cam idea had started when he’d heard that the tigers were breeding. Darien had practically begged everyone at the park for a chance to see the cubs when they were small. But, they told him that while females denned, there could be no outside disturbances without risking the mother killing the cubs. So, Darien decided he would ask if he could install a camera. It had sounded easy enough, until he’d taken the idea to the tiger keepers. Turned out he needed to build a totally silent camera with both night and day vision capability that was camouflaged so the animals didn’t know they were being watched. It had been a serious challenge, but in the end, Darien had watched the tiger birth her cubs from the comfort of his own room. He’d been hooked ever since.

The funds he’d gotten from Lucas Broussard for the initial project had also covered installing cameras for the elephants and the otters. Now, Darien could satisfy his animal watching cravings at all hours of the day and night, plus the whole project had netted him his first date with Tim. So, it had been a win/win thing for Darien.

“Honestly, I’d rather nobody made a big deal about it,” he said.

“Hmmm, well, okay. If that’s the way you want it.”

“Absolutely.” Darien hated being the center of attention.

Cory took his ring of keys out and began to absently twirl them around his finger. “So tell me what you need to get the job done. If it’s within my power, I will make it yours.”

“I’ll need to run cables above the cages, so it will be good if the lions could be locked outside. And, I could use an extra set of hands to help me fit the new, fake pipes above the den cage to hide the cameras.”

Cory nodded his head as he hooked his keys back on his belt. He pulled out his cell and tapped the screen, pursing his lips as he read. “Looks like the weather is going to be mild all next week, so Bogo can handle being outdoors. How about we shoot for Wednesday afternoon? That’s usually a slow day at the park. Or do you need to make it a weekend so you can start earlier?”

“Nope. Should only take me a couple of hours. Oooh, maybe I can get out of my last period biology class.” Darien liked that idea. A lot. “My teacher should give me credit to work on a project like this, don’t you think?”

“If he gives you any crap, you let me know,” Cory said. “I’ll make sure we have an extra set of hands on deck next Wednesday to help. Just let me know when you’re on the way.”

“Awesome. Thanks.” Darien lifted a fist. Cory bumped it with his. “I’ll get out of your way, then. See you next week. Later boys,” Darien called out to the lions. He laughed when Pogo let out another grumbling sound, like he was saying goodbye.

By the time Darien walked out the back door, he was already formulating what he would say to Mr. Roberts. If he could convince the guy to give him credit for this project, who knew how many biology labs Darien could get out of, which meant less time shackled to a desk with Lani. Darien began to whistle as he walked. This project had all kinds of potential.

message 11: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Three

“It’s a sweet sign, right? I mean, it was like out of the blue...” Lani held his cell phone between his cheek and his shoulder while he rummaged through his sock drawer, trying to find the match to the one he was already wearing. Lani was still reeling from what had happened last night.

He smiled at the sound of his best friend, Davie, firing a million questions at him from a thousand miles away.

“I didn’t think Darien even had a Twitter account. I know, I searched him, too, and I never got any hits. He goes by @On_A_Dare with underscores and caps and crap. Looks like he signed up on a dare from his best friend Rowan.” Lani paused, listening to Davie comment. “Yeah, me too. I mean, was he dared to join or dared to follow me? I’m hoping it’s all about me.” Lani laughed when Davie agreed, adding colorful and very inventive ideas about what other things Darien might have been dared to accomplish.

“Not that I would mind, but you’re getting way ahead of yourself, brah. Anyway, I’m trying to be chill. ‘Cause, I’ve been getting the total freeze out, and I’m not talking about the weather. So, you know, I played it cool. I didn’t follow him back right away.”

Lani held the phone away from his ear. He let go a bark of laughter while he listened to Davie freak out.

“Okay, okay. I’m joking, man. I only waited, like, ten minutes. I didn’t want to look like a friendless loser up in here.”

Moving to the laundry basket, Lani began to rummage around. It was midnight and balmy on the other side of the globe in Hilo. It was six in the morning and hella frigid in Iowa City. He seriously needed some sock action. But not even the hour, the weather, or his inability to find one blessed thing to cover his icy toes could mess up Lani’s mood this morning.

Darien Tiernan was following him on twitter. Funny how such a small thing made him feel like he could fly. Ever since Lani had gotten this tiny sliver of hope in the form of a couple of freaking tweets, he couldn’t seem to come back down to earth. Especially, after Darien’s friends had started joking around with him. It had to be a good sign.

“Oh, and I almost forgot. Luc Broussard invited me to this rave at a local club called Richard’s over the Thanksgiving holiday. Get this. He’s one of The Thirteen.” Lani chuckled. “Yes, that Thirteen. You know Dare’s older sister, Morgan, is one of them too, right? And so are my new friends, Alex and Sharon.”

Davie had met Darien and his family over summer vacation a couple of years back, and Lani was pretty sure the two of them had kept in touch. He wanted to ask, but Lani refused to go there. It really wasn’t his business, and he knew it would be all kinds of awkward for Davie if he did. Instead, he listened to the guy chattering through the line. Lani realized he really hoped Darien had stayed in touch with his friends in Hawaii. In fact, he rather liked the idea -- a lot.

Listening to Davie, Lani could picture his friend’s arms waving around. The guy was going on and on about The Thirteen and the Prophecy and all the crazy stuff that had gone down in Wildwood a few months back. Lani made noises where appropriate, but he began to feel some of his happy glow start to fade.

He dumped the whole laundry basket over on the floor and began kicking through it.

“I know,” he said when he could get a word in. “It’s no wonder Dad insisted we come here. I guess protecting Wildwood is pretty freaking important. No, nothing like that. It’s been quiet here since we arrived. But, the energy is off, ya know. The whole place has got this weird vibe… Sweet! I found it!” Lani held the blue sock over his head like a grand prize. “Nothing. Just my missing sock. Listen, man. I should let you get some sleep. I gotta get my ass dressed.”

He felt more of his happy bubble wilting as he listened to his friend say goodbye.

“Check it, Aloha to Bane from me.” Lani nodded his head as if Davie could see him. His throat felt tight as he said, “Mahalo. A hui hou.” Lani hung up and sat down on the bed, staring at the screen. It was a picture of him, Davie, and Bane on the beach in Hilo. They were all three leaning on each other and smiling. Man, he really missed the guys. The occasional early morning calls and Skyping wasn’t cutting it. Lani had to get back to his island.

He felt bad that he hadn’t asked about Bane, but he hadn’t wanted to ruin his good mood. Now, it felt like betrayal. The guy was still struggling with serious Bleu addiction, not to mention the permanent injuries he’d gotten. Lani felt guilt wash over him. If he hadn’t mixed his friend up with a seriously bad bunch of drug dealers, none of it would have happened. He tried not to let the images from that summer surface, but it was no use. All at once, the smell in that lava tube was ripe in his nose. That smell and the look of horror on Darien’s face were memories Lani couldn’t seem to shake loose.

“What the hell are we going to do?” Darien whispered.

“No freaking clue.” Lani rubbed his hands over his head. “Just give me a minute to think.”

They were crouched behind a pallet of crates that read, Demi Corp. Lani was still trying to catch his breath. The swim through the rocks and into the lava tube during high tide had taken a ton of his Water Gaea power and Darien’s Air Gaea power combined. They had dragged themselves out of the churning waves and into the dank interior of the cave exhausted.

The choice to come at high tide to search for Bane had been deliberate. It had seemed like a good way to prevent getting caught by Will’s dealer buddies. Nobody attempted to enter the tube when the ocean was up. But, now that he and Darien were here, stuck in this place until they could re-coop some of their strength, Lani was pretty sure he’d messed up large, yet again.

On the plus side, he had been exploring these caves since he was little. They were huge, twisting dormant sections of the volcano cut by the lava flows years ago. He knew all the connecting tubes, all the hidden crevices by heart. But, Lani hadn’t been here in a while. Not since long before he’d found out his ex, Will, whose family owned the land, had been letting dealers use the caves to move an illegal Gaea drug called Bleu.

The drugs were one of the many reasons Lani had broken it off with Will. Unfortunately, not before his friend, Bane, could get sucked in by the lure of fast times and big money. The guy had taken off in a snit after a party, and then he’d just vanished. Lani and his friends had been searching for three days. Pele knows, he’d been trying to keep Bane out of trouble. Now, it was obvious they were far too late for that.

“I swear, brah. I didn’t steal anything. I was just looking around.” Bane’s words sounded slurred. “Please…”

Another scream tore through the cave, bouncing off the high ceilings. Lani put his hands over his ears and tried to think. He wanted to gag from the smell of burning flesh. He felt Darien’s arm come around his shoulders and he turned to bury his face in Dare’s neck. He had to keep himself from flying apart, or they might not make it out of this mess.

“Lani, keiki! We’re leaving!” Lani jumped when his mother’s voice bellowed up the stairs. She had some lungs on her. “Use your father’s car, today, okay!”

“Okay, Mama.” He rubbed at the aching feeling in his stomach. “Mahalo,” he called out his thanks.

“Don’t be late!”

“Yes, Mama.” He was about to roll his eyes when he saw the clock. He realized he was still holding one blue sock. Nearly an hour had gone by while he’d been reliving memories best left alone. He tugged the hopefully clean sock over his other foot. Lani crammed his feet into his Vans.

If he booked it, he would have time for a quick coffee and an Aren fix at Greene Beans, always a good pick me up, to be sure.

Lani slung his pack over his shoulder and took the stairs two at a time. He had on a hat and mittens and was lifting the extra set of car keys off the nail where they lived before you could say, butt ass frigid. Bouncing his leg as he drove to keep the blood flowing, Lani was glad it only took five minutes to reach the café. Not enough time for the car to warm up, but still it was warmer than walking. Every bit counted around here.

The heat, mingling with the smell of roasted beans, went a long way to chasing off his chill. Aren’s face lighting in a slow, knowing smile did the rest.

“Good morning.” Aren leaned across the counter and grabbed a handful of Lani’s shirt, tugging him closer for a quick kiss.

Lips tingling, Lani felt his happy bubble begin to re-inflate. He was all over the place this morning. “What was that for?”

“You looked a little sad and a lot cold. Always here to warm you up with some dark, bitter sweets, mon.” Aren winked. “What can I get you?”

“The usual…and maybe a quick break if you can?” Lani wanted more of the sweet to go with his bitter, if he could get it.

“One triple caramel macchiato, and one dark caramel surprise coming right up.” Aren was giving him a look from those big, brown eyes that made his breath catch.

Lani found himself grinning as he paid the man. He walked to the other end of the counter to wait for his order.

“Hiya.” A deep Brittish accent sounded from behind him. “Excuse me.” Lani turned to find Wayde holding an empty cup.

Realizing he was blocking the recycling bin, Lani stepped aside. “Hey Wayde. Sorry.” That’s when he noticed the guy’s hand was wrapped in gauze. “Oh, man. What happened? You alright?”

“Oh this? Not a big deal.” Wayde held up his arm. He reached out his good hand to stop Rowan from walking past and slung an arm over his shoulder. “If you play with fire, you’re bound to get burned.” Wayde was smiling into the Rowan’s eyes. Rowan didn’t seem to find it funny. Lani wondered what that was all about. “Thanks for asking. It’s on the mend, but Sharon won’t let me unwrap it, yet.”

“For very good reason, and don’t you mess with me on this, Wayde Knight.” Sharon sounded serious.

“Bloody Nurse Ratched, she is.” Wayde grabbed Sharon and kissed her, making her laugh.

“Watch it there, buddy,” Alex teased.

“See ya, later,” Rowan called as he dragged Wayde out of the café.

message 12: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Three continued...

Lani hadn’t even noticed Sharon and Alex standing nearby. “Aloha. I didn’t see you guys.”

“You were otherwise engaged,” Sharon smiled and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

Lani felt her soothing healer’s energy pulse through him. It seemed to chase the last of the clinging memories back into the dark where they belonged. He bumped fists with Alex, too.

“Hey man. Sorry, I can’t stay and chat. Injured Gaea trainees make for tons of paperwork. My day is going to suck.” Alex frowned. “Hope yours are both better.” He leaned down and kissed Sharon on the mouth. “Later, babe.” He nodded to Lani as he headed out.

“What happened to Wayde?” Lani couldn’t help but ask.

“He got burned during a training drill yesterday,” Sharon frowned. “He’s going to be fine.” She seemed distracted by something. “Have to run. See you later, Lani.”

“A hui hou,” Lani replied.

“So, where do you want me?” Aren came around the counter carrying a coffee.

“Walk me to the car?” Lani wondered. “I have to get to school.”

Aren smiled and handed Lani his cup. Lani watched the guy walk ahead and hold the door open. The muscles of his glutes put on a mighty fine show as he walked. Stepping outside, Lani found himself being dragged to the SUV. He managed to get the key fob out and unlock the door. Aren pushed up along the length of his back as Lani leaned in to put his coffee between the seats.

Lani turned and let himself be caught in a searing kiss. Aren tasted of coffee, chocolate, and dark, hot man. As always, the energy that flowed between them felt amazing. Lani grabbed a handful of Aren’s shirt and held on for the ride. By the time Aren let him go, Lani’s core temp was good and warm.

The guy smiled down at him. Lani felt Aren run his knuckles along the side of Lani’s neck, making tingles travel down his spine. “Will that tide you over?”

“It’ll have to do.” Lani grinned. “When can we get together?”

“I was thinking you might want to see Annodox Island with me, mon.”

“Are you serious?” Lani was stunned. He’d always wanted to visit the popular Gaea island.

“My folks live there, you know. I’m going next weekend. Think you can come along for some sun and surf?”

“Oh hell, yes. Even if I have to run away from home.” Lani was pretty sure that wouldn’t be necessary, but no way was he missing the chance to surf Annodox with Aren. “It’s a date.”

“Good!” Aren pulled him in for another fast and furious kiss. “Aloha,” he said, when he’d let Lani go.

Lani let out a wolf whistle as he watched those glutes working to carry Aren back inside. “Aloha,” he called back right before the guy disappeared through the door.

He could smell Aren’s spicy scent mixing with the coffee all the way to Wildwood High. Maybe life at the Raven’s Crossing wasn’t so bad, after all.

message 13: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Three continued...

Fifteen minutes later, he was feeling like this place might not be so great. Darien had barely looked at him as they passed in the hall on the way to first period. Lani told himself the guy was with his boyfriend. Maybe it made Dare feel awkward. Maybe Tim didn’t know they had been talking online. Would he be jealous? Lani told himself it was all cool. But, it wasn’t.

On the way to second period, when Darien was alone and he still didn’t make eye contact, Lani told himself he shouldn’t be so freaking concerned with Darien when he was dating Aren. Not that Aren minded. The guy had been totally cool with the whole Halloween costume fiasco. Once Lani had come clean, Aren seemed fine with keeping things between them uncomplicated, which made him the perfect guy. The last thing Lani needed was more complication.

When Darien passed him after third period without so much as a kiss my butt or a hello, Lani began to sense Darien was really off his game. He had this vacant stare going on. The guy’s energy level felt really low. It was tempting to open to the connection they’d forged all those months ago and give the guy a boost, but Lani had a feeling that would not go over well.

He was busy watching Darien’s lean body walk into his honors calculus class when he almost ran head long into Mr. Roberts.

“Whoa there, Waiola.” Mr. Roberts obviously found his alliteration clever.

“Sorry. I was, um, distracted.”

There was an awkward pause. Was he supposed to say something else?

Mr. Roberts cleared his throat. “Yes, well, I need you to meet me in my office during your lunch break. I have something to discuss with you. It won’t take long.” The man didn’t even wait for an answer. He just hurried into the biology lab.

“Yes, sir.” Lani threw a salute at the guy’s back. He wasn’t sure if he should be worried or creeped out or what.

Study hall was the last thing Lani needed today. The mixed signals he was getting from Darien were really messing with his head. The guy was so different, now. Dare was taller, and he filled out his jeans way better, for sure. He moved with this grace that he’d been lacking before. All yummy good things.

But, some of the changes weren’t so great.

Lani found himself remembering the first time they’d met. Darien had been beautiful in his awkward innocence. He’d been standing on the beach like some kind of apparition all blushing, pale skin, and wide, green eyes, and Lani had wanted to eat him up. In the space of a day, he had connected to Darien like the guy was the yin to Lani’s yang or something. All that open trust had been like a dose of Velvet, and Lani had been hooked, for sure.

Now, the trust was gone and so was the innocence. The way Darien looked at him sometimes made Lani wicked sad, because, the blame for a whole lot of that loss could be placed squarely on Lani’s shoulders.

After an hour with his spiraling thoughts, Lani was actually looking forward to Mr. Robert’s office. He walked into the room and felt his heart give a hard squeeze. Darien was standing by the window looking out. The sun was shining in, catching the highlights in his brown curls. His pale skin glowed in the light. He looked over his shoulder and his eyes narrowed. Lani could almost hear the question in Darien’s head. What are you doing here?

Mr. Roberts asked me to come. What is your freaking problem, man? Lani bit back the words that came to mind. Darien’s eyes widened, and Lani wondered if Darien had heard him. Maybe their t-path line wasn’t totally broken. Lani tried to play it cool and school his features into a bored look.

“Gentlemen,” Mr. Roberts walked into the room. “Thank you for coming. Have a seat.” He gestured to the two chairs in front of his desk as he sat behind it. “Darien has told me he has an amazing opportunity to work on a lab science project for Larabee Wild Animal Park this semester. He will be building and installing animal cams for the park. Lani, I know you also volunteer at the park.”

Darien groaned as if he were in pain.

The sound made Lani grit his teeth. He rubbed a hand over his hair. “Yes, sir. My mother works there.”

“Excellent. Since a portion of your lab grade centers around partnering with another student, I would like you both to work on this zoo project together.” Mr. Roberts handed them each a stack of papers. “I expect you to keep detailed journals of your work and complete the assignments described in this syllabus in order to meet the class requirements. Is that understood?”

They both nodded. Darien was clenching his fists. He sat rigid in his chair, not saying a freaking word. What the hell?

“Um, sir?” Lani felt mildly confused. “Are you saying we’re going to the zoo instead of biology lab? Everyday?” He wasn’t sure he understood correctly.

“Yes. You will be allowed to leave campus early on the days you have permission to work at the wild animal park, but only for last period biology. I’ve already spoken with both of your parents, and they have emailed the required permission slips -- a formality, of course.”

Mr. Roberts was a Gaea, so he knew both Darien and Lani had their Gaea marks. Technically, they no longer needed parental permission. But, the Iowa school board was run by a majority of Normals who wouldn’t understand. “According to Darien, he is all set to start working on this project today. I’ll expect your first journal entries in my inbox no later than Monday.”

As soon as Mr. Roberts dismissed them, Darien was up and out of the room like a shot.

“Thanks,” Lani said as he followed Darien. “I think,” he mumbled under his breath. Following Darien’s energy signature, Lani found him in the restroom leaning over one of the sinks. The guy looked seriously pissed.

“Want to tell me what that was all about?” Lani walked into the room and leaned against the wall, crossing his arms.

“Jesus, man. Can’t I get away from you for five freaking minutes?” Darien glared up at him.

“Hey, I’m not the one who got us assigned to work at the zoo together, brah. I’m not the one who followed you on twitter last night. And, I can’t possibly be the one who’s got your panties in a wad, today. So, how about you stop treating me like crap, and tell me what’s up!”

Darien threw back his head and let out a frustrated sound that wasn’t pretty. He took a deep breath, and then another. His energy was all messed up. Watching him struggle for control was painful. Eventually, Lani gave up fighting the need to help. Nobody was in the room, so he opened to the Balance and offered his energy to Dare.

At first, it was like getting pushed back by a strong wind. Lani was shoved flat against the wall by the barriers Darien had errected. But, instead of giving up, he sent another pulse of energy forward, and this time, their eyes met in the bathroom mirror. Lani felt Darien open up, and a cool breeze began blowing around them both. Their energies seemed to remember the other, and very soon they were twined together.

A pulse began to beat between them and there was a perfect moment of stillness, like all you could hear was the drum of one heartbeat. Darien’s storm currents had suddenly calmed. The tension in his shoulders visibly melted. Lani felt some of his own tension relax.

Dare’s eyes were suddenly shiny. He blinked a few times but kept eye contact as their energies continued to twine around each other.

Stepping closer, Lani lifted a hand. Darien’s eyes were pleading as he said softly, “Don’t.”

Nodding, Lani stepped back to the wall and waited. He wondered what Darien was thinking, but that part of their connection remained locked down tight.

After what seemed like a long time, Darien finally started to talk. “I’m sorry about taking my crap out on you. I’m just so freaking tired, Lani. Last night was rough. Rowan accidentally burned Wayde in training yesterday, and he’s really messed up about it. I was up half the night, and we used a ton of energy for the healing. I’m just not good today, okay.”

Lani might have accepted that explanation before he saw the crazy kiss between Darien and Rowan the other day, which had been a pretty obvious ploy to avoid talking. He might have accepted it before being ignored all morning, and certainly before the meeting with Mr. Roberts. But Lani wasn’t stupid. He shut down their energy connection all the way. This was bound to hurt.

“And, I’m guessing with this zoo project, you thought you’d found a way to get out of being my lab partner, but now you’re stuck with me for even longer, right?”

Darien nodded. He wasn’t making eye contact, now.

Oh yeah. That hurt more than Lani imagined. All he could think to say was, “Check it. Shit sucks all over.”

It was a very bad idea to continue this conversation, because Lani suddenly wanted to say a whole lot of stuff he was seriously going to regret. “So, I guess I’ll meet you at the zoo. Any particular place?”

“The lion house.”

Lani nodded and walked out. He heard Darien call his name, but Lani didn’t stop.

message 14: by Amanda (last edited Feb 07, 2014 01:07PM) (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Four

There was no place better than the Grove for getting himself back in Balance. Darien looked at his watch. He still had time to kill before meeting the gang at Hearty Boys for breakfast. Then, it was off to Annodox Island for the weekend.

He couldn’t wait to tell Ben all about the lion cams and the upcoming lion birth. Maybe the good news would help bring his friend back from wherever people went when they were in a coma. He was looking forward to telling Ben’s husband, Pierre, all about the project, as well.

Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Darien listened to the leaf litter crumpling underfoot. The usual churning sounds of the river were relaxing…until it suddenly stopped. WTF?

The river wasn’t flowing at all for a second. Strange silence sent Darien’s hairs on red alert even before the rest of him could register the danger. He pulled on the Balance and quickly masked his energy signature, something his sister had taught him to do months ago.

A pulse of familiar Gaea energy came from the forest ahead, and the river began to flow again, in the wrong direction.

With his mouth hanging open, Darien watched a small wave form, as if on the ocean, and roll upriver. Then, the water reversed again, and the river flowed normally.

What the heck is he doing?

Darien moved low and fast up the trail from one tree trunk to another to be sure Lani didn’t spot him. The guy was standing in the clearing facing the river. His father, Maika, stood beside him. Another pulse of Gaea power went out and again the river stopped flowing. The sound of the water shifting directions gave Darien the shivers. He hadn’t felt a concentrated burst of Lani’s Water energy since they were stranded in that lava tube in Hawaii. Lani felt way stronger, now.

There was a large tree at the edge of the clearing. Darien crouched low to watch, telling himself he shouldn’t feel guilty for spying on Lani’s Gaea training. If Darien was going to be forced to work with Lani all the freaking time, he should know how his powers had grown or changed.

“Nicely done.” Maika was patting Lani’s shoulder. “You’re doing great with manipulation. Any luck on mastering the calling?”

The look that crossed Lani’s face was sheer frustration. He rubbed his hands over his head several times. “No. It still makes me feel like crap, and I can’t seem to stop the surges while I connect.”

“Let’s give it a try, then,” Maika stepped back and nodded. He appeared to be bracing himself.

“Dad, I’m supposed to meet Aren, soon. Can’t we do this later?” Darien had never heard that pleading tone in Lani’s voice before. What was the calling and why did Lani seem afraid? Usually, he was pretty damned fearless.

“You can’t keep putting this off.” Maika rubbed a hand over his head, looking exactly as Lani had moments before. “This is serious, keiki. You know about Wayde’s injury, eh?”

Lani nodded his head, but the muscles in his jaw were jumping, and Darien could feel currents of anger rising. Tendrils of Lani’s energy called to Darien, and he had to struggle to keep his signature shut down.

“We had no idea that drill was happening until a few hours before it took place. We still don’t know why they insisted on it, and it remains unclear who we can trust.” Maika dropped his hand to his side. “You have to be prepared, Lani. Stop letting fear of the past rule and push yourself.”

“Fine,” Lani sounded like he was clenching his teeth. “But remember, you asked for this.” Lani closed his eyes.

The energy that rolled through the Grove almost made Darien fall on his ass. Lani’s signature seemed to wrap around Darien.

Maika flinched and turned rigid. He stumbled back right before Darien felt another even stronger surge of Lani’s power. This time was different. The energy pierced him.

It was like having cold water rushing inside Darien’s veins for a split second. Then, he felt a prickling heat from his head to his feet. Lani’s eyes opened, locking on Darien. He felt like a band had constricted around his heart, and it was hard to breath. His jeans grew seriously tight, and his limbs felt heavy with a need he’d never experienced.

What are you doing here? Lani’s voice was inside his head, like he had reached right through Darien’s defenses and into his brain. *Are you even real?* A look of such sweet longing crossed Lani’s face that it made Darien’s eyes sting.

The need to go to Lani was suddenly overwhelming. When Lani licked his lips, Darien stood on legs that felt filled with air and began to walk. A smile tugged at Lani’s lips.

All the heat of their first kiss on that Hilo beach blew through Darien’s memory. He needed to feel that heat again, right now. Darien didn’t even give Lani’s father a thought as he stepped up to Lani. He could see the darker flecks in Lani’s huge, brown eyes. Running a hand up Lani’s arm and over his shoulder, Darien cupped Lani’s neck, pulling him that last inch closer until their lips were almost touching.

The look of surprise on Lani’s face was satisfying.

I’m not that same boy, Lani. You won’t find me shy about this. Not anymore. Darien tugged Lani closer.

Their lips met, but Lani jerked back, looking like Darien had slapped him. A confusing tangle of emotions ended in shock when Lani shoved him away, hard.

Lani glared at his father and Darien felt his cheeks heat. He’d forgotten the man was even standing there. Maiki didn’t say a word, but he looked like he was trying not to smile. Darien’s gaze returned to Lani and his expression changed from anger to longing to something Darien couldn’t define.

Leave! Now! Lani’s voice coursed through him, and Darien didn’t even think, he just turned and walked away. He wanted to go back and make Lani talk, but when he tried to turn around, he couldn’t.

Another pulse of Gaea energy rolled over him, and Darien felt a sensation of release. His stomach plummeted, like it belonged in his ankles. He suddenly understood what the calling was, and Darien wished he hadn’t been so damned nosy.

Looking back at Lani standing across the clearing, Darien didn’t know what he expected. But, whatever it was didn’t happen, because Lani just stood there with this sad expression on his face.

How was Darien supposed to feel? Had Lani been able to control him like that all along? Even back in Hawaii? Darien wondered how much of what he’d felt had been real and how much had been Lani manipulating him. The only thing that was still clear was the need to run.

Calling the Balance, Darien pulled the Air. Everything blurred around him. He was moving fast, until he was standing in his driveway. Only a couple of seconds had passed.

Weak in the knees in a way that had nothing to do with flashing, Darien rested his back on his car and slid to the cold, hard pavement. He let his head hang down and began pulling Air to even out his breaths. He finger combed his now tangled curls with unsteady hands, trying to tame them back down to his scalp. He needed to get his shit together before any of his friends saw him and started asking questions.

His watch said he was way late. Darien realized he wasn’t making it to Hearty Boys. He needed to get the hell out of Wildwood. He fumbled with his phone. It took four attempts to text Tim. Darien didn’t even feel bad about lying. Desperate times…

Tell the gang I overslept. Sorry to ditch. Make it up to u l8tr.


After a pretty ugly argument with his Dad, and a hurried trip home to get his gear, Lani was back in the Grove clearing. The late morning sun was bright. Lani leaned his surfboard on a nearby rock and set his duffel down beside it. He threw his head back and tried to soak in some of the sun’s warmth, but he couldn’t seem to find any. Lani shivered again. He’d been feeling a cold that went beyond natural ever since he’d run into Darien this morning.

He hadn’t meant to call Darien that way. Lani had been trying to use his Gaea power to call his father’s body water. The idea was to call just enough from the other person to warm his own core temperature. But, like always, Lani messed it up. His first mistake was that he hadn’t been specific on targeting the source. Plus, he couldn’t control the surges that went through him when he was searching a target.

He hadn’t expected Darien to be standing there, looking all lean and beautiful in the morning sun. It wasn’t surprising that Lani’s energy had latched onto Darien like a riptide.

“Shit!” Just when Dare was starting to open up. “I’m so maki die dead.”

“I hope you’re not going to die this weekend, mon. We have wicked waves to catch,” Aren walked up and set his gear beside Lani’s. “You should not be frowning this morning. What’s up?” Aren rubbed a thumb over Lani’s brow.

“Sorry.” Lani didn’t want to lie. “Dad pushed me in training this morning and I messed up huge with Darien. Total nacho, man. Guess I just have to press past this thing with him, yeah?”

Instead of looking upset, Aren wore a knowing smile. “Maybe this will help,” Aren leaned in.

Lani felt soft lips brush his. He tasted coffee and chocolate. Lani opened his energy, letting Aren’s trickle into him like a stream of sunshine. As the kiss went on, Lani felt some of his sadness wash away. As usual, Aren’s energy was like basking in a bright patch of light. He made Lani feel weightless and buoyant.

“Mmmm, you warmed me up.”

The corners of Aren’s eyes crinkled as his smile spread wider. “Want I should turn up the heat?”

Lani nodded and felt his stomach start to hula. He let himself be drawn into another kiss, this one deeper. Soon, he could feel Aren clutching at his hips. One of them let out a sound that vibrated between them. Lani wasn’t sure who started it.

message 15: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Four continued...

A sudden change of pressure in the Grove made him flinch. Lani stepped away from Aren and lifted his hands to his ears. A loud pop sounded and a giant portal opened nearby. A deeply tanned man in khaki slacks and a t-shirt that read “Island Mojo” stepped though.

“Gentlemen,” the Portalkeeper lifted dark glasses onto his head. He held out his hand. “Travel documentation, please.” The man smiled as he gave them a once over. “I’m sure you’re as eager as I am to get out of the cold.”

Lani pulled a folded envelope out of his back pocket and handed it to the man. This was Lani’s first trip to Annodox. He was excited to check out the scene. He turned and hefted his bag onto one shoulder, tucking his surfboard under the other arm. By the time Lani turned back, the man was handing Aren his resident’s card. Since his parents lived on Annodox, Aren didn’t need travel documents, only his Annodox ID card.

“This way, please.” The Time Gaea gestured with his arm. This wasn’t Lani’s first trip through the Blind by any stretch, so he didn’t hesitate to walk into the dark corridor surrounded by its swirl of lights. As he followed the Portalkeeper, Lani was glad to be literally walking far, far away from the wicked ugly freak show he’d starred in this morning.

After several moments of dizziness, a couple of flashes of light, and one more change in pressure, Lani followed the man into a garden that stole his breath. For the first time, ever, he was in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The closest mass of land was Madagascar and it was hundreds of miles away. A smile spread across his face as he set his surfboard down.

Lani’s mother was absolutely right. The place looked like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon with the enormous, open-air buildings, the stacked columns and pillars. People were bustling around at a bazaar filled with colorful booths and storefronts and signs of every size and shape. In the distance, the ocean could be heard pulsing and thrashing.

When he opened his energy to the Balance, Lani was overwhelmed by the sensation of the ocean surrounding him again. For a moment, he thought he might have to sit right down in the square and weep. He squeezed his eyes closed and soaked in the sensations, breathing deeply of the exotic scents of jasmine, strange spices, and clean, salt air.

“Lani, snap out of it. Come get your stamp.” Aren stood inside a nearby shop at a counter gesturing with his hand.

Walking over, Lani set his documents on the marble counter. A woman checked them and quickly pressed a blue stamp to the page. “Welcome to Annodox Island, sir. Blessings on your stay.”

“Thank you,” Lani smiled.

By the time he’d grabbed his gear, Aren was already outside in the street. Obviously, Lani was going to have to move fast to keep up. He chuckled as he watched Aren hoist his surfboard onto the top of a small covered buggy that was attached to the back of a bicycle. The board hung way over both ends of the cart, perched precariously.

“We have one more board,” Aren was saying to a seriously built Adonis of a guy as he pointed to Lani.

Reluctantly, Lani handed over his surfboard. “I don’t know about this.” He frowned as the guy strapped his board to the roof. Then, the man gently pulled Lani’s bag from his shoulder and tied it to a small platform on the back of the buggy.

A pulse of Gaea energy washed over Lani. The guy’s deep, navy eyes danced. “No worries. We do this all the time, here.” The man stood, forcing Lani to look up to meet his eyes. “Now, climb on up and let me take you for a ride.” The man winked and pointed to the buggy.

“Come on. It’ll be fun.” Aren laughed. “Dalton always gives a great ride.” Aren climbed into the cart with ease, offering a hand to Lani.

“Thanks. I try.” Dalton grinned.

Lani felt a little ridiculous by the time he’d clamored into the cart. He sat crammed next to Aren in the seat. Dalton climbed onto the bike, and Lani felt Air currents begin to stir around them. The bike pulled away from the curb with ease. Soon, he was captured by all those muscles working to pull them through the narrow streets.

Aren bumped his shoulder. When Lani looked up, brown eyes were sparkling at him. Aren lifted his eyebrow. “Told you it would be fun.”

Before long, they turned onto a road with fantastic views of the beach, the turquoise of the ocean spread out as far as the eye could see, and for the first time in weeks, Lani felt like he could really breathe. Aren took his hand and squeezed. Laying his head on Aren’s shoulder, all Lani could think to say was, “Thanks for bringing me.”

Aren’s parents were still at work, so it didn’t take long to settle in. They owned a large house just behind the beach front villas. Lani loved the view off the rooftop garden, complete with a private pool. He was looking forward to a midnight swim later. The place was not what Lani had expected at all. Aren’s parents had to be loaded. But, when Lani said as much, Aren just shrugged and changed the subject. Message received.

Happily following Aren down a narrow path that ran along the outside of a villa wall to the beach, the crap in Wildwood suddenly seemed like a bad dream. “Any idea who owns this place?” Lani wondered, running his hand along the wall.

“Pierre Broussard, of Wildwood Broussard fame, actually,” Aren glanced over his shoulder. “And if you take that path, you’ll end up on the Brennan property, as in George Brennan. His wife is the one who owns Hazel’s.”

“Wow, so far and yet so near. Is this how you ended up in Wildwood?” Lani watched the muscles of Aren’s bare back flex as he walked.

“Sort of. I mean, I’ve known Pierre and his family since I was a kid. They always talked about Wildwood like it was the center of the universe or something. So, when I found myself near Iowa, I decided to check it out. Then, my VW bus kicked the bucket, and I decided I liked Wildwood enough to stick around, ya know. Save up for a new one.” Aren walked out into the sugar sand and propped his board.

“These are ours,” Aren dumped his pack beside a couple of lounge chairs and tossed his towel onto the seat of one. There was a small stone deck under the palm trees, complete with a couple of hammocks and a fire pit grill.

Lani wondered again why Aren needed to save for anything if his parents had all this money, but he knew better than to ask. Instead, he dumped his gear and stripped his shirt off with a single move. “Time to get wet,” he felt himself grinning as he grabbed his board and ran across the sand. A burst of Aren’s laughter chased him to the water.

The two of them hit the surf at the same time, and Lani was paddling out with his heart soaring. This was home. It didn’t matter that the ocean was halfway around the globe from Hawaii. It was all connected and Lani belonged here, like he belonged nowhere else. At last, he could hang loose, for real.

The action was killer. Lani wasn’t sure if it was the vibe of the island or what, but the waves were perfect. He rode the barrel more than once and only wiped out a couple of times. The ache in his muscles felt fantastic when he finally followed Aren back to the shade to rest. His skin felt alive with the heat and the sting of salt.

Stretched beside each other on the double lounger, Lani felt totally relaxed. He let out a sigh and threaded his fingers with Aren’s. The guy circled his thumb around Lani’s palm, sending tingles up his arm. Lani turned his head and lost himself in Aren’s sparkling, dark eyes.

About to lean forward and claim a kiss, the sensation of being watched prickled along his senses. Lani sat up and looked around. “Did you feel that?”

“Nope,” Aren looked curious but he didn’t sit up. “What?”

“Felt like someone was watching us.” Lani searched the beach but didn’t see anyone who appeared to be interested in them. Reluctantly, he lay back down, but he couldn’t seem to relax again.

“Want to talk about it, mon?” Aren asked.

“Talk about what? I guess I imagined it.”

“I’m referring to the thing that has you so jumpy.” Aren took his hand again and squeezed. “Tell me what happened in training this morning, brah?”

Strangely, Lani did. He told Aren everything.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I guess I’m just broken.” Lani shrugged.

Aren turned onto his side, and propped his head on his hand. “You are not broken. It takes practice to control a calling. Judging by your mojo, you got a lot of power, mon. The more power, the harder the control.”

“You’re Water. Can you do it?”

“Nah. I mean, I can tap for the core, but that’s about it. Sounds like you can do the whole Narcissus thing.” Aren looked totally serious.

“What whole Narcissus thing?” Lani had no idea what he was talking about.

“You know, compel people with your image. It’s like a reflection of you, what happened with Darien this morning. You tapped him, and then he was connected and compelled by your thoughts.” Aren sighed.

Lani was shaking his head. The idea was incredible.

“Obviously, you don’t know the whole legend. Remind me to show you the Temple of the Annos some time. But, right now, I think you need some more heat therapy.”

Lani let out a whoop of laughter when Aren suddenly pinned him to the lounger. The guy began sucking at the tendon along Lani’s neck. The squeal that came out of his mouth was one more thing Lani couldn’t control. He was breathless and grinning by the time Aren’s mouth met his.

message 16: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Four continued...


Bending over Ben’s frail body, Darien brushed a kiss on his forehead. For a few minutes, while he’d been describing the ideas he and Lani had come up with for roving robotic cameras at the zoo, Darien thought he’d felt Ben’s presence in the room. But, Ben never moved a muscle.

The atrocities Frederick Demetrius had committed were beyond horrible, but of them all, watching Pierre and Ben suffer like this, knowing they had been held hostage and tortured for months and months, that Ben might never recover, was the hardest to cope with. Darien felt anger begin to inflate his chest. If the Thirteen hadn’t killed that guy, Darien was pretty sure he’d be first in line to take him out. He had to get out of this room for a while.

Pierre was sound asleep in the chair beside Ben’s bed, his book almost ready to slide to the floor. The dark circles under his eyes were shadowed by his long lashes. Apparently, he hadn’t been sleeping well, lately. Darien gently slid the book from his hand and set it on the table nearby. He worked Pierre’s reading glasses off and folded them on top. All he got was a mumble, something about making dinner.

“I’m going for a walk,” Darien whispered. “We’ll fix something when I get back.” He held his breath and waited, glad when Pierre sank back under and began to softly snore.

Everyone had been taking turns visiting the island to give Pierre help caring for his husband. The round the clock care, even with the help of several nurses, was really starting to wear on Pierre. Darien was glad to take his turn this weekend. The timing felt pretty spectacular after this morning. It felt damn good to be on the other side of the planet from Wildwood.

The island had this amazing energy that restored Balance. It was like the Grove, only way more powerful. Darien totally got why Pierre and Ben stayed. Ben’s chances of recovery here, in the healing energy of the island, were far higher than they were at home. Darien wondered what it would be like to have someone who loved him the way Pierre loved Ben, someone to sit vigil by his bed for weeks on end and never give up.

Walking across the lanai, Darien skirted the pool and walked down the path to the beach. He’d seen some surfers in the distance from Ben’s window earlier. Maybe they would still be out. A couple of toned bodies riding the waves might go a long way to restoring Darien’s Balance.

Just as he stepped onto the beach, he heard a high pitched squeal coming from Aren’s deck. Darien found two surfboards propped next to each other as he stepped around the end of the wall. He heard a groan and heavy breathing. Sure sounded like Aren had another one of his hot surfer friends here for the weekend. Grinning, Darien came around the line of palms fully expecting to get a show.

What he found didn’t disappoint. Aren looked seriously hot in his trunks. He was on top, kissing the hell out of…

“Lani?” Darien couldn’t stop the word from bursting out of his mouth. Was there nowhere he could go to ditch this guy?

There was a tangle of arms and limbs and a grunt as Aren ended up dumped on the ground and Lani ended up standing in front of him.

What are you doing here Lani’s voice was crystal clear in his head.

“Stay the hell out of my head, man.” Darien crossed his arms. “And I think the question is, what are you doing here?”

The silence stretched between them. Lani opened his mouth several times, but nothing came out.

“He’s hanging loose with me this weekend,” Aren finally said. The guy was brushing the sand from his trunks.

“Great,” Darien said. “That’s just great.”

More silence.

“Well, I have to get back to Pierre and Ben. See you guys later.” Darien turned to leave.

Darien, wait! Please. Again, Lani was inside his head.

Darien hesitated.

Will you at least give me a chance to explain, Lani asked.

I don’t think that’s necessary. Have a great time.

Not sure how he made it there, Darien found himself standing back in the middle of Ben’s room. His breath hitched and wheezed as he tried to calm himself.

“Would you stop running…” Lani came barging through the door and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Ben lying there attached to his IV monitors. “Oh, man. I’m sorry,” Lani lowered his voice.

Darien couldn’t believe Lani had followed him. He ran a hand through his curls. His stomach clenched and his heart felt constricted again.

Stretching as he sat up, Pierre looked from Darien to Lani. “Bonjour,” he said. He lifted a brow when nobody said anything. “Why don’t you introduce us, Darien?”

“Um, yeah. Sorry. This is Lani, my...he’s my…my lab partner.” Darien cringed. “Lani, this is Pierre Broussard and his husband, Ben Larabee-Broussard.”

“Ah, do you hear that, mon ange.” Pierre reached over and took Ben’s still hand. “This is the young man who helped our Dare with the cameras at the zoo.”

Lani’s eyes were huge. “This is Ben Larabee, as in the Ben Larabee?”

Pierre threw back his head and laughed. Darien could almost forgive Lani for that.

“Yes, this is the Ben who started the wild animal park,” Darien said.

“Wow,” Lani said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.” Lani spoke to Ben as if the man could hear. Darien didn’t want to be impressed, but he was. “My mother loves working at the aviary, and I have really enjoyed volunteering there.” Lani looked down at his feet, appearing to realize they were coated with sand. “Oh, man. I’m sorry I came barging in. I’m just...I’m gonna go, now.”

“Nonsense. We track sand in all the time,” Pierre was smiling. “Stay. Talk. I’ll go make dinner.”

Darien wanted to call Pierre back, but that would be stupid and obvious. Suddenly, he was standing in Ben’s room with the one guy he’d once wanted more than anyone. The one he’d thought would be his own forever guy.

“I’m really sorry, Dare. About this morning. About following you in here. I didn’t know.” Lani reached out and ran a finger along Darien’s cheek. He felt it deep inside. All he could do was nod.

“This morning, in the Grove, it was the first time that’s happened.”

Darien looked up. Lani seemed really sincere. Somehow, it was unthinkable that he would tell a lie in this room, in front of Ben.

“I was only supposed to be calling water from Dad. But, I guess my energy really likes yours. A lot. And, I’m not good at controlling yet. So, you got the mirror image of what I was feeling. I’m told it can compel you to feel the same.” Lani stepped closer and Darien seriously couldn’t breathe. “So now, you know exactly how much I want you. It’s no secret. But, I get that you don’t trust me anymore. I do.”

Darien really wished he didn’t feel so mute. But, his throat had slammed shut.

“This thing with Aren…” Lani frowned. “It’s not serious. Aren knows how I feel about you. All you have to do is say the word, and I would end it, Dare.”

When Darien still couldn’t find any words, Lani nodded in understanding.

“Okay. I’m sorry.” He turned towards Ben. “It was nice to meet you, Mr. Larabee.”

Lani was almost to the door when Darien found his voice, in a way. He opened the t-path.


Lani stopped and met Darien’s eyes.

It’s okay. Having you here. I mean, you could come back, to visit Ben, if you wanted. Darien ran a hand through his hair. Anyway, I’ll see you.

He wasn’t sure, but Darien thought his heart might have stopped beating when he saw the smile that spread over Lani’s face. Lani’s eyes suddenly looked wet and bright. Nodding once, he swallowed and lifted his hand before walking out.

message 17: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Five

“Aloha! Happy Thanksgiving.” The sound of Maika’s booming voice filled the Tiernan’s front hall. Darien tripped over his own feet and rammed his funny bone into the door frame as he ducked into the den. He bit his fist to keep from crying out.

In the past week since their unexpected run-in on Annodox, Darien had managed to mostly avoid Lani, even canceling their day at the zoo together by taking a bogus sick day, and now they were on holiday break, and here Lani was, walking in the front door. What the…? He rubbed at the aching tingles in his elbow.

“Come in. Come in. We’re so glad you could make it,” Darien’s mother was saying.

“It’s about time we got to repay your hospitality,” his father added. “Lani, how’ve you been?”

“Fine, sir. Thank you for inviting us,” Lani’s voice sent a whole different kind of tingle through Darien.

He let his head drop to the wall in front of him, bouncing his forehead against it a few times.

“Dare! Get your sorry butt back in there and stir!” Morgan came marching down the hall. She was pointing one of the wooden spoons they used for the Elderberry sauce. Her scowl immediately dropped off when she saw him. “What’s wrong?”

Darien turned his head toward her. Pressing his hot cheek to the cool plaster, he rolled his eyes. The voices in the hall were coming closer. Morgan stuck her head out the door for a quick look. “Ohhhhh.”

“Listen up, Tiernans! It’s your turn! I stirred that crap until my hair fried last year.” Holly walked into the room. “And you!” She pointed at Darien. “Your guest is elbow deep in Hazel’s stuffing. It’s totally uncool to ditch... What?” Holly seemed to realize something besides the typical avoidance was going down.

“Come on back to the kitchen and meet everyone,” Viv was saying as she marched the whole Waiola family down the hall. Darien stood up straight and tried to look casual.

Lani’s eyes tracked directly to Darien as he passed by. He was wearing seriously tight black jeans and a burgundy button down shirt that stretched across his shoulders and hugged his waist. The outfit made his jet black hair and tanned complexion look amazing. Darien wondered why he cared so much that Lani had died his hair back to its natural color after Halloween. Lani threw a jaunty wink over his shoulder, as if he knew what Darien was thinking. He moaned.

“Awkward,” Holly mumbled.

“I’m sorry, Dare,” Morgan gave an apologetic smile.

Darien pointed an accusing finger. “You knew about this?”

“What?” Morgan looked confused for a moment. “No! I didn’t. Pinky swear.”

Damn. Darien really needed someplace to put all this painfully nervous energy. It was swirling through him like leaves caught by the tail wind of the passing car that had just mowed him down.

“Better get in there, little brother,” Morgan said. She stretched up to her tiptoes and planted a kiss on his cheek.

“Jeez oh Pete,” Darien mumbled. “I freaking hate Thanksgiving.” He felt Holly pat his shoulder as he brushed past her and walked down the hall.

Pushing through the swinging door into the controlled chaos of the Tiernan kitchen, Darien’s stomach flipped. One of the larger rooms in the house was already packed. Darien squeezed past Maika and leaned against the wall beside the door.

Tabby gave him a worried look when she thought nobody would see. She was standing between her mother, Marjorie, and brother, Tommy, beside the kitchen table. They were taking turns shaking hands with Mrs. Waiola and Lani’s sister, Meli.

Adam Blumfeld, the boy whose parents had gone missing and was now living with the Averys, was talking to Dare’s father and Tim. Watching his boyfriend, Darien was surprised that Tim seemed totally nonchalant, as if he didn’t mind the giant elephant that had just barged into the room looking totally smexy. Tim caught Darien looking at him. His brow creased, but he gave a little shrug. Darien didn’t know what that meant.

Try as he might to ignore the guy, Darien couldn’t seem to keep his eyes from tracking to Lani. He and Maika were getting reacquainted with Hazel and her husband, George. Apparently, they’d all met before. Darien wondered when.

As if he sensed being watched, Lani looked over his shoulder and gave Darien a slow, teasing smile before turning his attention back to Hazel. Darien tried to stir the Air currents so he could listen in, but the noise level in the sardine-like surroundings made it impossible. He shook his head when he realized Sharon, Alex, and the whole Peltier hoard hadn’t even arrived yet. Where the heck were they supposed to put them?

Forcing himself to be pro-active, Darien pushed past Morgan and Holly and skirted the island to where Tim was standing. He leaned against his boyfriend’s back and whispered softly in his ear, “Sorry, man. I didn’t know my folks invited them.”

Tim’s piercing blue eyes met his, as he leaned back over his shoulder to kiss Darien’s cheek. “I figured.” Tim didn’t seem upset. “It will be fine.”

“It will be weird,” Darien grumbled. He frowned at his father’s back. “What were they thinking?”

Wiping his hands on a towel, Tim turned and leaned on the island. A lock of his reddish blond hair fell over his eye and he flipped his head to remove it. He appeared to be thinking deep thoughts as he leaned closer. “I have no idea. They probably figured the two of you were friends. Is there some reason you and Lani can’t be friends, Dare?”

“No,” Darien took a step back.

Tim reached out and squeezed Darien’s forearm to stop him. Smoothly, he looked past Darien. “Hey, Lani. Glad you could make it.”

Darien tensed, his cheeks heating as he felt Lani’s energy prickle behind him. “Um, hi Lani,” Darien said, stumbling as he turned.

“Aloha,” Lani smiled. “Thanks for inviting me.”

“I…” Darien stopped himself from stating the obvious. There was no need to be mean. “I’m glad your family could come.” He flinched. That didn’t come out right.

Relax, Dare. Lani’s voice filled his head. I didn’t come to make trouble.

Too late. He really hoped that thought hadn’t slipped out over the t-path. Again, Darien told himself to be nice. Giving a smile and a slight nod, he crossed to the stove. He had to get some distance. Luckily, the Elderberry sauce hadn’t burned. He picked up the wooden spoon and began to stir.

The feeling of being watched crawled up his neck. He tried not to look, but Darien had to know whether it was Lani or Tim eyeing him. He was surprised when neither of them were paying him one bit of attention. Their polar opposite heads were bent close like some crazy yin and yang symbol as they laughed at Tim’s ineptitude with the knife. Hazel was trying to show him a better way to cut the onions.

Senses still tingling, Darien looked around the room. The only person paying him a bit of attention was George Brennan. Fighting the need to scowl, Darien went back to stirring. He totally agreed with Morgan. Holly’s grandfather was creepy. From Darien’s peripheral vision, he noticed George moving closer. Darien fought not to react. It wasn’t like he had any reason to distrust the guy, apart from this nagging sense of unease whenever George came around.

“Need any help over here?” George was rolling up the sleeves on his Armani dress shirt.

Who the hell wears a tie to an informal family dinner?

When George gestured, Darien looked at the stove. The sauce was boiling. “Oh crap!” He slid the pot off the burner and started fanning it with his hands.

“Here,” George leaned over and grabbed the serving boat. “Pour it out. That should keep it from scalding too much on the pan.” When Darien didn’t follow his directions, the man gently took the handle and poured the sauce himself. “Everything okay? You seem…distracted,” George said. A strange sensation traveled through Darien. It wasn’t like any Gaea energy he’d come across before. It felt really good.

Then, Darien remembered this guy was one of the Conclave, who had been a part of dragging his sister and the Thirteen through the inquisition from hell a few months back.

Giving George his best fake smile, the one that seemed to get him around all the teachers who wanted him to step into Morgan’s overachiever shoes, he shrugged and opted for a half truth. “Mom and Dad forgot to tell me there would be so many people coming. It’s a little crowded.”

George narrowed his eyes, but he nodded and smiled. “Yes, it is. I’d forgotten how loud things can get at these large family soirees.”

message 18: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Five continued...

As if on cue, Alex burst into the room. “Where are my girls?” he demanded. A grin broke across his face as he spotted Morgan flying across the room to launch herself into his arms. He twirled her around, and then pulled on her hair until he could claim her mouth for a kiss. Sharon came into the room and slapped him on his leather-clad ass.

“Unmouth by best friend, mister!” Sharon tugged Morgan away from Alex. He passed her over willingly and the two girls began mumbling softly to each other as they hugged. Darien knew the Thirteen going their separate ways, especially after all they’d been through together, hadn’t been easy on any of them. They shared this amazing Bond that could never be broken. He was glad some of them had been able to come home for the holiday.

“Fine by me. There’s plenty to go around.” Alex was saying as he grabbed Holly and tugged her closer. His eyes found Darien’s, and he grinned as Holly jumped up and wrapped her long legs around his waist. He closed his eyes and held her tight. His expression married pain with joy. It made Darien’s throat ache to watch.

“Gods we’ve missed you so much,” Holly said. Then, she pulled back and began raining smacking kisses all over his face. “It’s. My. Turn. For. Sugar.” Alex laughed and gave her a kiss on the mouth.

Watching the varying reactions in the room was amusing. Tim was already used to the Thirteen’s antics. George seemed to be fighting laughter, especially when Hazel chimed in, “I’m feeling a little under appreciated, here.” She leaned closer and tapped her mouth. Without missing a beat, Alex leaned around Holly and planted a kiss on Hazel’s lips. “Mmm. Delicious,” Hazel said.

The look on Lani’s face was priceless. It was obvious he had no idea what to make of the Alex show in full Technicolor. There was Gaea energy pinging all over from the reunion, mingling with the insane amount of power contained in such a small, enclosed space.

“This is a man a father can be proud of, yes?” Alex’s father came through the door and the Gaea energy in the room quickly dropped back to a normal hum. Leon Peltier smiled. Like most Normals, he didn’t seem to notice the sudden, if subtle, shift in the room’s vibe. “It’s best to invite the Frenchmen. We are always available to give life.”

Alex’s haste to set Holly down sent laughter around the room. Darien heard Lani’s laughter above everyone else. Their eyes locked. He was grinning, his brown eyes sparkling. Darien realized Lani looked relaxed and truly happy for the first time since they’d come to town. A pang of guilt tightened Darien’s chest knowing he had caused some of the hurt that shadowed Lani’s eyes. It wasn’t like Darien wanted to pay the guy back in kind, or anything. He just didn’t want to be on the receiving end of all that pain again. It was beginning to feel like the two of them were destined to perpetually hurt each other. Yet, another reason to keep his distance, if only that were possible.

“What? I do not understand?” The sound of Leon’s voice drew Darien’s attention.

“Let’s not go that far, Pop,” Alex winked as he tugged Sharon closer. “I’m not quite ready for giving life.” He pulled Sharon against him and kissed her forehead.

“You meant to say Frenchmen are the life of the party, babe.” Alex’s other dad, Charlie, wrapped his arm around Leon’s waist.

“This is what I said, is it not?” Leon’s brow was creased, but his eyes danced.

“You know it isn’t,” Charlie gently chided his husband as he steered the man toward the table to set down the plates of finger foods they were carrying.

“Excuse me,” Lani was suddenly behind him. Stretching forward, he placed a hand on Darien’s hip as he leaned past to get something out of the container on the counter. “Just needed this.” Lani held up a potato masher. Darien felt that hand give his hip a squeeze before Lani walked back over to his work station beside Tim. Heat swirled through Darien and he scowled. How did Lani end up on KP duty, anyway? Was this whole family conspiring against him?

Suddenly angry, he walked into the pantry.

“What’s got you so worked up?” his mother’s voice startled him. Wondering how long he’d been standing there, and when she’d arrived right in front of him, Darien crossed his arms over his stomach. He felt his mother open to the Balance, sending out a little pulse that said she was reading him.

“Stop!” Darien glared. “You know I hate it when you do that.”

“I’m just checking to make sure it’s nothing physical.” Viv waved a hand to indicate his body. “You’ve been acting weird, avoiding us for weeks,” she said quietly. “What’s going on?”

“How come you didn’t tell me you’d invited the Waiolas?” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.

“We did tell you. Last week. As usual, you weren’t paying attention.” Viv sent out another pulse of energy and looked him over from head to foot. “This is about that summer isn’t it? Are you ever going to tell me what happened?”

Darien opened his mouth but she cut him off by holding up a hand. “Never mind. Now is not the time. Your aura is all over the place. Just make sure you ask Sharon and Alex for some help with your Balance. Soon, okay. Lani seems to be throwing your system into all kinds of fits.”

“You see. This is why I avoid you people. Nothing is ever private,” Darien narrowed his eyes at his mother. “Stay out of my aura.” He walked across the kitchen and out the back door. He needed some air.

Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he realized too late that it was freezing outside. Tensing when he heard the back door open a few minutes later, he was relieved when Tabby stepped out. She was carrying his coat. “Thought you might need this,” she held it out./
“Thanks,” Darien shrugged it on and zipped. His teeth were chattering.

“Everything okay?” She leaned against his side and Darien gratefully draped an arm over her shoulders.

“Not really.” He couldn’t lie to Tab.

“Want to talk about it?” Tabby rested her head on his shoulder. She was one of the few that had been able to crack him wide. She just sort of blew through his defenses.

He wondered for a minute if he should tell her about Hawaii, the drugs, Will, the whole island disaster. It wasn’t like Rowan was ever around to talk to any more. He opened his mouth, but “Not really,” seemed to be all that would come out.

“’kay.” As usual, Tabby didn’t push.

Smiling, Darien pulled her against him until she was snuggled close to his chest. “Want a ride to Richards, later?” Since the Armors had deemed the traditional Turkey-Trot Bonfire after party unsafe, Alex had convinced his Uncle Guy to let them use Richard’s nightclub for the evening. After the War on Wildwood, Darien was relieved they were moving the late night scene indoors. Plus, he was looking forward to hanging with Rows at the club for a change. Darien wished they could just skip the whole family dinner fiasco and get the party started.

“I can’t go tonight.” There was a deep sadness in Tabby’s eyes as she looked up. “Someone has to stay home with the boys. Mom’s already been hitting the pills, and I’m betting she won’t stay out of the Elderberry wine at dinner, either. I couldn’t bear to keep Sharon from spending time with the Thirteen while they’re home, so I promised to stay in.” Tabby shrugged.

“Oh man,” Darien pulled her into a full hug. He felt terrible. He’d been so self-absorbed lately, he hadn’t realized what Tabby must be going through. These were the first holidays since her father had been killed. “I’m sorry,” was all he could think to say. There were no words, so he just opened to the Balance, sharing energy to try and sooth his friend.

“Me too.” He felt Tabby’s breath against his neck as she curled closer. Darien rubbed a hand along her back. Once again, all he could do was watch over her while she grieved. It made him feel totally inadequate.

He felt a foreign tingle like a soft breeze across the back of his neck. Hugging Tabby closer, Darien followed the direction of the energy signature to find a raven staring at them from a nearby tree. Her blue eyes were distinct, and she nodded in silent greeting. It was Cora, sitting in the cold, silently watching over his house. The realization gave Darien a sudden burst of warmth inside. It only took a moment to understand why she’d made herself visible. Sometimes, knowing someone cared was exactly enough.

Thank you, Cora, Darien sent the thought across the t-path.

You are most welcome, Darien Tiernan.

He felt Tabby start to shiver against him. “Come on, Tab.” Darien shifted his friend to one side and led her toward the door. “Let’s get you inside where it’s warm. Today is going to be great. We’ll eat tons of junk and play GTA Five until we pass out. We’ll nap in a tryptophan stupor.”

That got a chuckle out of Tabby, and it sounded like music. Again, Darien felt a rush of warmth.

Who cared about all his own worries? His friend needed a drama-free good time.

Ushering Tabby back toward the chorus of voices in his kitchen, he hesitated. Turning back, Darien offered a wave to Cora before closing the door.

message 19: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Five continued...


The bass beats pumped into the street, making the air throb. Lani came around the front of his mom’s car to hold the passenger door for Anna.

“Merci,” she smiled at him and took his arm, letting him lead her across the street toward the line at the entrance of Richard’s.

“You clean up nice,” Lani said. She had changed into a tight, leather skirt and a fitted, sequined top before they left the Tiernan’s house. He led her toward the back of the line.

“No, mon amie. We go to the front.” She gestured toward the huge mass of muscles at the door. “Guy will have our names on the list.”

“I guess it pays to arrive with a Peltier.” Lani pressed her hand to his side with his elbow.

“Oui. Anna Peltier,” she said to the Hulk wannabe.

The man nodded and gestured toward the door. “Enjoy your evening, ma’am. Sir.”

Anna winked at the man and he actually blushed.

“I swear, you Peltier lot are like lava. Smoking hot.”

She let out a husky laugh that was swallowed up by the pulsing beat of the club when Lani opened the door. Following her through the crowd, Lani had to force himself to keep up. The place was packed with beautiful boys, each more compelling than the last. It had been a while since Lani had been to a club like this. The energy was electric and wicked addictive. Finding it hard to concentrate on following Anna, he grabbed onto her shirt and let her slowly lead him through the throng.

An announcer informed everyone that DJ Rows was in the crowd. A cheer went up, and Rowan was pulled onto the stage.

“Hey there all you Turkey Trot fools!” The cat calls rang out around the crowd as DJ Rows gave a lazy smile. Rowan was hella good at working the crowd. Soon, the guy was jumping up and down to the beat, waving an arm over his head, his cut stomach visible beneath the hem of his T-shirt. The crowd was immediately hooked, chanting, “Rows, Rows, Rows.”

Lani wondered what it would be like to have fans. Wayde joined Rowan on the stage looking totally at home with the crowd chanting all around him. How did they do it and stay so totally unfazed?

All other thoughts left his head when Anna stopped moving. He nearly plowed into her back. Turning, he caught sight of Alex, shirtless and sweaty, and sandwiched between two bangin’ beautiful men. Lani’s mouth fell open.

Alex closed his eyes and rested his head against the tall, blond guy behind him. A dark haired, wickedly sexy dude with a full back tattoo of an hourglass ran his hands over Alex’s shoulders and into the blond guy’s hair.

“Pele’s fire. See what I’m saying? Lava!”

“They make quite a visual, don’t they?” Sharon’s voice forced him to divert his attention.

“Are they…?” Lani didn’t know exactly what to ask. He thought Sharon and Alex were exclusive, but now he wondered.

“Are they what?” Sharon gave him an innocent look, but her eyes were brimming with mischief.

Lani struggled for a word that wouldn’t offend her. “Serious?” was all he could come up with.

“Absolutely,” Sharon winked. “Come on. I’ll introduce you.” She pulled him toward the dance floor. “Sorry to interrupt, gentlemen. But, I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet. This is Lani Waiola.” Sharon had to yell to be heard over the music.

Three sets of glassy eyes turned on Lani. The dark haired guy’s mouth turned up into a slow smile that lit his entire face and crinkled his eyes. He didn’t wait for Sharon to complete her introduction before reaching out his hand. Lani found himself pulled closer. He could smell the guy’s spicy scent mingling with his sweat.

“Luc Broussard,” he said directly into Lani’s ear, sending shivers down Lani’s spine. So, this was the guy who had invited him here. The one who had been flirting with him on twitter ever since. “That’s Riley,” Luc pointed to the blond. “And you already know Alex.”

All Lani could do was nod. Sharon giggled.

“If I recall, you owe me a dance,” Luc winked at him. “You might want to make yourself more comfortable.” He gestured to Lani’s dress shirt. Lani wondered if he was ready to dive into the deep end. Luc lifted a brow.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Lani began slowly unbuttoning his shirt. Luc turned to whisper something into Riley’s and Alex’s ears. The two of them began chuckling, as they continued to watch and move together to the beat.

“Nice ink,” Lani commented, taking a closer look at Luc’s back as he removed his shirt, revealing his own set of tribal tats at the top of each arm.

A grin that reminded Lani of the Cheshire Cat spread across Riley’s face. “I like you,” he said, crooking a finger at Lani. Lani draped his shirt over a nearby chair, and let himself be tugged by a belt loop until he was pressed to Alex’s front, with Luc pressed to his back, and Riley smiling down at him over Alex’s shoulder.

Luc ran his fingers over Lani’s ink with feather light touches. “I approve,” he said.

Alex grinned.

“Well, this is an unexpected surprise,” Lani smiled up at Alex.

“Just go with it, man.” Alex winked.

Time seemed to pass in some kind of blur. Luc had this awesome energy, a strange kind of Gaea signature that Lani had never felt before. He forgot about everything outside the four walls and the driving beat. He found himself surrounded by Elliot Greene, Darci Broussard, who he learned was Luc’s adopted sister, Morgan, Holly, Wayde, Rowan, Sera, Alchemy, Anna, and even Aren. He danced until his muscles felt loose and his whole body hummed. The energy these people shared was off the charts amazing. The only thing missing was Darien.

The guy had been sticking close to Tabby all afternoon, pretty much doting on her. Lani had found it totally endearing watching Darien make sure she was taken care of today. He tried not to be bummed that Darien had chosen to hang at the Avery’s after dinner.

Taking a break to guzzle water, Lani smiled when Luc suddenly pressed up behind him again. They were long past the need for personal boundaries, one of the many things Lani loved about clubbing.

“You should go dance with my Riley, now,” Luc spoke directly into his ear again. “Someone special just spotted him. What our boy needs is a good show. Trust me, Riley is the perfect way to catch and hold his attention.”

Eyes following Luc’s, Lani’s breath caught. He was amazed at how buoyant he felt at the mere sight of Darien. He looked so beautiful in his green shirt the same color as his eyes, with a halo of lights from the strobes shining in his curls, like he was electric. His cheeks were all flushed and his neck and ears were turning pink as he watched Alex and Riley dance.

Lani’s knees turned liquid, and his heart throbbed. “Why are you helping me?” he wondered. Luc didn’t even know him. He turned to face Luc, waiting.

Seeming to consider his answer, Luc said, “I want what’s best for Darien. Pretty sure that’s going to be you.” Luc shrugged. “Don’t make me wrong.” He grabbed Lani’s hand and tugged him toward the floor where he was once again surrounded by beautiful people.

A brief thanksgiving to Pele was obviously in order. Tim had taken off earlier today to visit his grandparents for the weekend. Darien was here alone. That thought put Lani’s system into serious overdrive.

As if Luc and Riley had read each other’s minds, the guy let go of Alex and moved toward them like some sleek lion. Riley gave Luc a smoking kiss, then turned all that predatory attention on Lani. It felt good to be the focus of the guy’s amber eyes. Catching Riley’s rhythm, the two of them moved to the pulse of the room until it felt like it matched his own. Then, Lani found himself turned to face Dare.

Expecting Darien to be watching Riley, Lani was shocked to find Dare completely focused on him. The look Darien was giving him made everything else in the room fade to background noise.

Letting the music move him, Lani leaned back against Riley. He could barely feel the guy’s hands on his waist. But, Darien’s eyes caressing him from his face to his feet felt like a molten trail along his nerves.

“I think you’ve hooked him,” Riley said. “Now, reel him in.”

Pushing away from Riley, Lani crossed the floor to Darien. The guy was breathing just as rapidly as Lani. Hooking a finger into the waistband of Darien’s jeans, Lani tried to channel his inner predator.

“Dance with me."

Darien nodded, letting Lani lead him onto the floor. Lani pulled Darien flush against him, fitting one leg between Darien’s until they were pressed tightly together. He ran his hand up under Dare’s shirt, needing to feel that smooth, pale skin at his waist. Lani’s other hand traveled up Darien’s back to cup his neck.

Lani’s heart was pounding like the surf. It felt like they were back on that deserted beach, alone. He began to move his hips as he opened to the Balance, shivering when Darien’s Air currents stirred through him. Mouths a breath apart, they began to dance.

message 20: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter 6

“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 from the coma. 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.”

message 21: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Six continued...


“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.

message 22: by Amanda (last edited Feb 07, 2014 09:46PM) (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Six continued...

“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.”

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.

message 23: by Amanda (last edited Feb 07, 2014 09:52PM) (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Seven

Darien slid his tray onto the lunch table and straddled the chair to sit between Alchemy and Tim.

“Hey,” he gave Tim a quick peck on the lips, then bumped shoulders with Al. “Where’s the rest of the gang?”

Alchemy shrugged. “Late, I guess. Sera asked the guys to help her with something for the paper.”

“I see you did your secret ninja disappearing act. Awesome.” Darien winked. “Al’s super power is getting out of stuff she doesn’t want to do,” he explained, when Tim appeared to wonder if Al really could disappear.

She smiled and bumped his shoulder in return. “I’m stealthy like that.”

“I’ll say,” Rowan sat down across the table, unfolding his paper bag. “You remember the time we asked her to help us build that tree house.”

“She was gone faster than you could say hammer.” Darien smiled, fond of the memory.

“That’s because I could see the paintings on the wall. Sawed off limbs, broken bones, blood all over the place, and me cleaning up the freaking mess. No thanks.” Alchemy crunched into her apple.

“Hey, you act like we didn’t even have a plan,” Rowan groused.

“Did we have a plan?” Darien wondered.

Tim laughed. “I’m betting not.”

“Of course we…” Rowan stopped and tilted his head as if we were considering.

“…didn’t,” Alchemy finished for him. “You two are always flying by the seat of your pants.”

“Literally?” Tim asked, grinning. “Because that would not surprise me.”

There was an awkward shift in the air. Darien laughed a little nervously as he and Rowan made eye contact. They couldn’t speak to each other telepathically, but that didn’t mean they didn’t know what the other one was thinking.

Last Friday night. How had a little flirting and a simple conversation about boy troubles gotten so out of hand?

They certainly had been flying by the seat of their pants, when they’d ended up making out in Rowan’s bed like a couple of horny…the memory stormed through him.

Rowan was staring down at him. Something about his gaze heated Darien from the center out. Or maybe it was just the fact that he felt like a freaking furnace.

“I’m going to have to distract you. Kissing now,” Rowan said.

Darien laughed, but Rowan caught his mouth and put a stop to that. At first the kiss was awkward, like they weren’t sure how to do it, or how far to go with it. But, energy zinged through Darien when Rowan pinned him to the mattress and held one of his arms down above his head. Dare groaned and arched his back, pressing his hips against Rows. Rowan seemed to like that, because he pushed into the kiss more aggressively. Darien slipped a hand under Rowan’s t-shirt, skimming his fingers along his friends blazing hot skin.

As amazing as it felt in the moment, Darien could not get Lani and Tim out of his head. Then there was a flash of Wayde, like he was getting tangled in Rowan’s thoughts somehow, too. Then Lani, again. Always Lani.

Probably not a good idea to revisit that memory while sitting in the crowded cafeteria. A knowing look crossed Rowan’s face and he shifted in his seat. Clearly his thoughts were running along the same lines.

The two of them hadn’t talked about the night of Rowan’s birthday. Sure, they’d seen each other since, on Annodox for the impromptu visit to see Ben, and at the official birthday party at Greene Beans last Saturday night, and at school this week, but they’d both agreed, without the need to say it, to leave the subject of their latest pants flight alone.

It was what it was, a kiss – or six. No big deal. A way to blow off some serious frustration and forget about their mutual confusion for a while. Just because they’d accidentally opened their t-path lines and let Lani and Wayde see the whole thing in living Technicolor was no need to bring drama into an otherwise drama-free zone, was it?

Rowan nodded his head almost imperceptibly. Again, Darien figured they were thinking the same thing.

What was a little kissing between best friends? And so what if shirts had come off and a little tongue action had entered the scene? Darien sighed. Life would be so much simpler if he and Rows could just make it work as a couple. The chemistry was obviously there. But, something about the whole thing felt…

Searching Rowan’s eyes for answers, Darien didn’t find any. Awkward. He squared his shoulders when he realized Al was giving the two of them a really weird look.

“Hiya,” Wayde plopped down in the seat next to Rowan.

Darien’s face felt like it caught fire as Rowan broke eye contact to smile at Wayde.

Mumbling a hello, Darien got busy mixing a ton of butter into his lumpy mashed potatoes. Both Wayde and Lani were being way too quiet about the whole t-path voyeur thing. It was making Darien seriously twitchy.

He reminded himself that it obviously hadn’t caused any problems between Rowan and Wayde, since apparently the two of them had gone all the way later that same night. Darien watched from under his lashes. They still seemed blissed out, which was cool, but also a little sickening. Darien cringed. He was happy for them, wasn’t he? Of course he was. Watching them bend close, Rowan whispering in Wayde’s ear, Dare wondered why he couldn’t feel that kind of connection with Tim.

Wayde caught him watching, and Darien’s face grew hotter.

“It’s been a few days since I’ve seen you looking so flushed, Dare.” Wayde winked. “It becomes you. Have I missed something good?”

Darien’s reply came out as a squeak.

“Just Al telling tales in school.”

Rowan to the rescue. Darien crammed potatoes into his mouth.

“Speaking of flushed…” Tim said.

Darien almost choked, barely saving himself from spitting potatoes all over.

“…you guys looked fantastic out on the dance floor, Saturday.” Tim smiled.

Stomach giving a little twist, Darien thanked the gods that he and Tim couldn’t t-path. At least he didn’t have to explain to his boyfriend. Feeling bad for keeping so many secrets, Darien gave Tim’s thigh a squeeze under the table. This netted him a smile.

“I’ll say,” Carson Caruthers sauntered up. “We were too sexy for our shirts, if you ask me.”

“So sexy it hurt,” Lani agreed.

Oh shit! Lani was standing right behind Carson.

“Mind if we join you?” Lani asked.

Darien felt the heat in his face double and creep through his whole body.

“By all means,” Wayde pulled Rowan onto his lap “There’s always room for two more.” Wayde grinned at Rowan like the cat that got the cream.

Rowan’s body shifted subtly and Wayde made an oof sound. His smile turned a little sly and he winked at Darien. Wayde was having way too much fun.

“The more, the merrier, I always say.” Lani smirked at Wayde. “Which reminds me of this awesome vision I keep having, like a waking dream. Really vivid you know.”

Wayde’s grin blew wide. “I know exactly what you mean. Been having them myself. Do they make you sweat?”

“Oh yeah,” Lani chuckled.

“Must be something in the air,” Wayde lifted a brow at Rowan.

“Must be.” Rowan looked completely calm as he stuffed a chip in his mouth.

How did he do that? Darien was squirming in his seat.

“I wish I could get a good vision,” Carson giggled. “I do love to watch.”

message 24: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Seven continued...

Darien narrowed his eyes, a pulse of his Gaea energy snaking out before he could call it back. How does Carson know? Dare about jumped out of his skin when Lani answered.

What? That you showed Rowan a smoking hot time for his birthday? He was there – for some of it, anyway.

Relief swirled around Darien. Of course, Carson thought they were referring to Saturday.

Shame he missed the private showing, though. It was pretty awesome. I’ll be replaying it a lot. Lani’s voice blew through Dare’s mind.

Stop it. Darien looked directly into Lani’s eyes.

What? I’m not doing anything. Lani shrugged and took a bite of the sandwich he’d just unwrapped. His big brown eyes danced merrily.

Darien lifted a brow.

This is all on you, brah. Funny, Lani’s thoughts didn’t sound like he had his mouth full, even though he did. I didn’t open this t-path line.

Are you saying I opened it? Again? Was his control button broken or something? Why would I do that?

Good question. Lani’s smile widened before he took another bite. Why would you?

Darien noticed Rowan was watching the two of them closely. Obviously, he could tell they were talking. Eyes darting around the table, Darien was relieved to find Tim and Carson chattering away about the party with Al.

Tim might not have been able to join the dancing, but he’d been there for Rowan’s party, working as Greene Beans newest barista. He’d obviously enjoyed watching Carson teach all of them his killer dance moves. C_Car_Go. Darien had heard all about it, repeatedly, like he hadn’t been there, doing the cool twisty thing.

The birthday boy got ample time on the dance floor, too, and kisses from half the neighborhood, including Alex. Another thing Tim couldn’t seem to stop talking about. Darien felt the urge to laugh as he remembered the highlights of the party.

“Liking the new job?” Wayde asked Tim, suddenly killing Darien’s urge.

“It’s fantastic. Aren is tons of fun to work with. Plus, I already know the ropes. I worked there last holiday season,” Tim said to Lani. “It’s turned into a permanent position this year.”

Darien felt Tim take his hand under the table and link their fingers together. When Tim gave him a sweet smile, Darien was reminded that he had asked Tim on their first date last year, while he’d been delivering coffee drinks to a different birthday party.

“Yep, Aren is all about fun,” Lani agreed. He seemed totally fine with this whole thing.

Trying to keep his smile in place, Darien squeezed, then let go of Tim’s hand, and went back to eating. He didn’t know how to feel about Tim and Aren working together. What if the two of them started trading notes? This crap was already complicated enough.

Afraid loose lips will sink ships? Lani winked at him across the table.

Not funny. Darien tried not to smile, but he felt his mouth twitch. Okay. Maybe a little funny.

“Aren’s not hard on the eyes, either,” Wayde seemed to be viewing Aren on some mental projector. “Bloody brilliant, that tribal tat sleeve. Please say he’s given you the details.” Wayde turned to Lani. “We’ve been wondering.”

“Nope. Just that it comes from Annodox Island.”

Darien felt his heart give a little twist. He pretty much hated that Lani knew that much. They’d all been talking about Aren’s tats for months.

Again, Rowan’s body shifted and Wayde let out an oof.

“What?” He scowled at Rowan. “I’m just asking what everyone’s thinking.” Looking across the table at Darien, Wayde seemed to catch on. He flashed Darien an apologetic look.

Shrugging to indicate it was okay, Darien knew he shouldn’t be bothered that Lani was dating one of the hottest guys in town. Dating a much older hot guy.

Friends with benefits. Lani corrected, making Darien jump again.

Whatever. Darien sat back in his chair and set down his fork. He wasn’t hungry anymore.

Lani shrugged. I’m just saying. You’re obviously okay with the whole concept, brah. Want to give it a try?

Stop! Darien gave Lani a pleading look, trying without success to shut down their t-path connection.

As you wish. He felt Lani disconnect from his end, and a rush of relief blew through Darien. He needed to figure out why he couldn’t seem to control the line.

Great! Darien realized there was an awkward silence going on and Tim was giving him a strange look.

“I wasn’t thinking about Aren,” Alchemy steered the conversation back on track. The look she gave Darien said she knew she was deflecting.

Rowan snorted.

“What? I wasn’t. He’s so not my type.”

“Yes, and we all know your type, now, don’t we?” Rowan rested his chin on his fist.

Al grinned and jumped up like a shot. “Yes we do, and will you look at that, he just walked in the door. Later.” She winked at Darien and grabbed her stuff, practically jogging across the room to meet Jute.

“Our little girl is all grown up.” Rowan grinned, watching her go.

“Yes she is,” Darien agreed as Jute put his arm over Al’s shoulder. “When did she turn into such a girl? She’s all filled out and stuff.” Darien hadn’t paid attention until now. He felt a little stab in his heart. Why did everything have to change? He cast a glance from Tim to Lani to Rowan to Wayde, feeling his cheeks flame again. He must have said that out loud. “What I mean is, she looks really good. You know. All mature, and stuff.” He really needed to quit while he was ahead.

“She’s not the only one.” Rowan was giving him a look.

Lifting a brow, Darien felt a zing go through him. Suddenly, he couldn’t hold back the laughter.

Rowan’s eyes sparkled as he joined in. Before they knew it, they were both laughing like loons.

Tim and Carson looked confused, but Lani and Wayde just smiled at each other.

Darien couldn’t bring himself to care what any of them thought. It felt too good to open the pressure valve and let off the steam. Things between he and Rows were back on solid ground, as if they could ever be anyplace else.

message 25: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Seven continued...


Now that he had Darien right where he wanted him, Lani looked up and asked, “So, brah, when we going to talk about this t-path problem you’re having?” He felt the ladder wobble as Darien flinched.

“Let’s not and say we did,” Dare pressed his lips together. He stretched to retrieve the new camera they’d placed on a ledge across from Bogo’s cage. His shirt lifted up, exposing the smooth skin at Dare’s waist.

Lani swallowed the saliva suddenly pooling in his mouth. He licked his lips, feeling a bit like Pavlov’s dog. “That would be the easy route. But, we’re friends. So, I’m thinking we should talk.”

“Why? Rowan and I are friends and we don’t need to talk.” Darien furrowed his brow as he checked the camera. “Looks like it worked. There’s hours of footage recorded.” Obviously, he was trying to change the subject. “Hand me the new card,” Darien reached his hand down and wiggled his fingers.

Gently pushing the SD card into Darien’s palm, Lani let his finger brush the inside of Darien’s wrist. “Don’t make me call bullshit. You trying to tell me you and Rowan weren’t clearing the air today at lunch?” Lani watched Darien closely.

He continued to concentrate on what he was doing, as if changing an SD card was complicated. His face was an unreadable mask.

Lani sent out a pulse of soothing Gaea energy, not wanting Darien to tense up on him, now.

Bogo lifted his head and let out a chuffing sound, obviously liking the energy boost.

A smile tugged at Darien’s lips as he looked down at the big cat. He opened to the Balance and let his own energy mingle with Lani’s. Without the need to speak, they both sent their energy out to Bogo. He chuffed again and slowly stood, walking over to the closest bars and rubbing his face, then his entire giant body along the metal. He seemed much more alert today then he had been last week, though he was still lying around a lot. Lowering himself to the floor right in front of them, Bogo’s lion eyes gazed up at Darien curiously.

“We’ll have a look at the footage and see what we see, old man,” Darien spoke to the cat.

He rested his head on his paws and chuffed again.

Pogo came sauntering in and stretched himself out alongside his mate. He began licking the side of Bogo’s neck in long, slow laps. Bogo sighed and closed his eyes, looking totally blissed out. Lani chuckled.

Darien had started down the ladder, when a sudden burst of Gaea energy washed over them both. Lani’s heart twisted when Dare missed a step and almost fell. Instinctively reaching up, Lani found his hands full of firm, round muscle. Smothering the urge to groan, he held Dare in place until he could get his footing back. Reluctantly, he let Dare go, trying not to remember the last time he’d had his hands on those muscles.

“Thanks.” Dare sounded winded. He quickly climbed down the rest of the way, his attention back on the lions.

Another pulse of lion energy vibrated through the building. This was Bogo’s energy. It had a different flow from Pogo, less syncopated. Pogo closed his eyes and continued to lick Bogo. Quick bursts of energy joined Bogo’s and began vibrating over them.

“Wow,” Cory said. Everyone turned eyes on him as he came down the aisle. “They don’t share energy around other people very often,” Cory was smiling. “They must really like you two.”

“What’s not to like, brah?” Lani threw his arm over Darien’s shoulder and winked.

Darien cheeks pinked, making Lani’s heart give a squeeze. He quickly let Darien go before he was tempted to pull him in for a kiss.

“So, we got hours of footage,” Darien held up the card. “There must have been a whole lot of movement going on over the past few days.” Darien pointed to the motion detecting cameras they’d added. They had yet to figure out why the feeds weren’t working on the original units.

Cory started to pace, his eyes suddenly clouded. Lani thought he might know why Cory seemed so freaked out.

“Want us to go through it for you?” Lani offered. “We can pull all the useless footage out and just leave you with the good stuff.”

Darien was nodding his head.

The vibration of the lion energy grew stronger. Maybe, they approved. Lani liked that idea.

A look of vast relief crossed Cory’s face. “That would be so great. We have donors coming any minute for a tour. They’re here for meetings all week, and it’s a big freaking deal, according to the boss. She’s adamant that I sit in on everything, something to do with an upcoming project in the field. I tried to explain that I have my hands full, but she’s not listening…” Cory stopped himself and took a breath. “And, I’m venting. Sorry. I’m a little stressed.”

“No worries,” Darien smiled. “Lani and I will edit this for you.” He seemed excited by the idea. The realization made Lani feel warm all over. Hours of footage, meant hours with Dare.

The lion energy suddenly stopped pulsing, leaving a singing sensation along Lani’s nerves. The three of them turned to the lions. Both cats had their heads lifted as if they were sniffing the air.

The hairs on the back of Lani’s neck stood on end. There were Gaea signatures nearby.

“Hello.” A female voice called out. “Cory?”

“Speak of the devil. Good thing I shut my trap, huh?” Cory seemed to be asking the lions. He chuckled. “Back here!” He called out. Turning to Lani, he said, “We call her ‘Slider.’ I swear she can slide up to you quiet as a snake. and you’ll never hear her coming.”

Lani had to work to keep a straight face when Laura, the mammal curator, came around the corner followed by several upscale men and women. Seeing Darien’s back go ramrod straight, Lani gave him a curious look. Then, his eyes landed on George Brennan. What was Holly’s grandfather doing here?

“Well, this is a nice surprise,” George smiled at Darien. He actually looked surprised.

“Yes sir,” Darien said. He stood rigid, a fake smile plastered across his face. Lani wasn’t sure why so many people bought that look from Dare, hook, line, and sinker.

George didn’t seem to notice the insincerity. “Do you boys volunteer here?”

Darien nodded.

“These are not just any volunteers. Darien is the young man who came up with the idea for the animal cams,” Laura had put on her best fundraising voice. “You’re generous donations have helped purchase the equipment we needed to outfit most of the park. This project has expanded our ability to collect behavioral data remotely. Darien and Lani will be installing systems in several areas over the next few months. If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you one of our new observation rooms.” Laura was moving the donors down the hall to the small room where the camera feeds could be viewed.

George didn’t follow the group. He seemed suddenly uncomfortable, giving Darien a strange look.

“You’re the anonymous donor, aren’t you?” Darien didn’t look happy.

“Yes.” George straightened the knot on his tie.

“Why the secrecy?” Darien asked. Lani could feel the distrust wafting off of him.

Probably not a good idea to piss off the big money. Lani pushed that thought out.

George put his hands into his pants pockets and rocked back on his heels. For a moment, he seemed to be considering Darien closely. “Can you keep a secret, young man?” George narrowed his eyes.

The hairs all over Lani’s body stood up. What secret? Keeping secrets for the Conclave is not a good plan! Lani practically yelled that thought over the t-path and noticed Darien flinch.

“That depends,” Darien hedged.

George threw back his head and laughed.

Some of the tension drained out of Lani.

“I like you, Darien. You have a bit of your sister in you.” George winked. “Fair enough. You’ve found me out. I guess I’ll just have to reveal my big secret and hope you won’t tell Morgan.” He seemed to pause for dramatic effect.

Darien scowled. The wheels in his head were churning through all kinds of sinister scenarios. Lani took a moment to marvel at Darien’s imagination. He really didn’t trust this guy.

“I plan to surprise Holly with my donations to the park as her big Christmas gift this year,” George admitted. “I’m really looking forward to spoiling my granddaughter. But, I was afraid Morgan would let the cat out of the bag, so to speak.”

Lani couldn’t help it, he let out a bark of laughter. When the two of them didn’t laugh, Lani sobered. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“It’s just that Holly lights up when she talks about this place. Particularly the lions. And I want to give her something really special this year. So, a few months ago, I decided to come see what all the hype was about.” George looked at Bogo and Pogo and smiled. The two cats were seated side by side, watching, as if they understood everything that was happening. “They get to you, don’t they?” George chuckled. “I can see why Ben was so enamored. I might have built them a zoo myself, if I’d been the one to find them.”

The guy seemed totally sincere. Lani relaxed even further when he heard Darien blow out a pent up breath.

“Yeah,” was all Darien said. After silently watching the lions for a while, Darien offered his hand to George. “Thanks for helping them out.”

The man shook Darien’s hand, and then offered the same to Lani.

“Yes sir, thank you.” Lani shook his hand. “We really appreciate your donation.”

“So I can count on you both to keep my little secret, then?”

message 26: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Seven continued...

“Absolutely,” Darien agreed. He was smiling now. Apparently, he really liked the idea of surprising Holly. It was sweet how much he obviously loved his sister’s Bond mate. She was easy to fall for, Lani had to admit. He’d really enjoyed talking to her at the Thanksgiving dinner. She’d been the one to really make him feel welcome.

The loyalty Darien always showed to his sister and Holly kept Lani thinking on the drive back to Wildwood. Darien looked over and caught him smiling. “What?”

“Nothing,” Lani didn’t know how to verbalize what was churning through his mind without sounding lolo. “You want we should do this at your house or mine?” Lani held up the SD card.

“Mine. Mom and Dad have the hospital fundraiser tonight. The house should be quiet.” Darien said as he drove across the bridge into Wildwood.

Alone with Dare? Lani wondered if he could handle that without making a move. They were about to find out. He kept the t-path clamped shut as he got out of the car and followed Darien to the door. There was a strong urge to crowd him and bury his face in Darien’s curls. When they got through the door, Darien dropped his bag and headed straight for the stairs. Lani watched him go, figuring he would grab his laptop and come back down. Instead, he popped his head out of his bedroom at the top of the stairs. “Come on up.” He disappeared inside again.

No way. No how. Lani could not go up there. If he did, things were going to get real complicated, real fast. He’d promised not to go there. “Dare,” Lani called out.

“What?” Darien popped his head back out the door, a confused look on his face.

“Can we maybe, you know, do this somewhere else?” Lani shoved his hands in his pockets. “Like the living room or something.” Sitting next to Dare on a couch without touching was going to be hard enough.

“Sure. Sorry. Be down in a sec.” He didn’t seem mad.

Lani made his way into the front room and sank down onto the couch, rubbing a hand over his hair. He could do this. It was important to have Darien in his life. If friendship was all he could give, then Lani would have to deal.

Darien came striding into the room, his long legs eating up the distance fast. Lani let his eyes travel over faded, tight skinny jeans, slim hips, a fitted, green Avengers t-shirt that hugged muscular arms. The color made Dare’s eyes pop. Lani swallowed and rubbed suddenly damp hands on his thighs.

Oblivious to being cruised, Darien sank down on the couch, close enough for their legs to almost touch. He plopped the laptop into Lani’s lap. Dare put his hand out and wiggled his fingers. Lani smiled as he pressed the SD card into Dare’s palm.

Leaning across Lani’s lap, Dare popped the card into the slot and searched the files.

Barely controlling his body’s reaction, Lani fought the urge to lean forward and press his lips to Dare’s. This was going to be torture of the best kind. Or was it the worst kind? Lani wasn’t too sure.

“Want something to drink?” Darien asked. He still seemed totally oblivious.

“Nope. I’m fine.” Lani licked his lips. “Okay, maybe some water?” Space would be good here.

“Sure,” Darien jumped up and crossed the room like a giraffe or something, all long, graceful strides. As soon as he was out of earshot, Lani groaned and let his head fall back on the couch. He took deep breaths and mentally prepared himself, making sure he was too busy getting the footage started to watch Dare come back into the room. His heart did a little somersault when Darien plopped back down beside him. This time, their legs were touching.

“Thanks,” Lani took the water, concentrating on keeping his hand from shaking as he took a sip. He clicked the play button and the footage began with Pogo pacing the cage while Bogo slept. This went on for a while, until Pogo finally lay down and the camera clicked back off. Hitting the pause, Lani turned, leaning away slightly.

“Show me how to delete that segment.” He didn’t know this program very well.

Darien nodded, and leaned back over Lani’s lap, taking his sweet time about it. He was literally driving Lani nuts by the time they were ready to hit play again. There was a whole lot of the same thing. Though sometimes it was Bogo’s pacing that set off the sensors.

Lani was in some kind of purgatory. He loved having Darien pressed up against him, where he could smell his fresh air scent, feel the heat from his body, and the cool Air energy that wafted off of him when he was relaxed and concentrating on the video. Lani turned his head and inhaled deeply, getting lost as he watched the pulse point right below Dare’s ear. There was the sound of a distant roar. Should he lean over and lick that spot?

“Did you see that?” Darien turned wide eyes on Lani. Their noses practically brushed.

“What?” Lani was suddenly captured by green eyes. Their mouths were only inches apart.

“Go back.” Darien gave him a funny look.

When Lani didn’t respond, Dare snapped his fingers in front of Lani’s face and pointed to the computer.

“Oh, sorry.” Lani turned to find the screen filled with snow, like the camera had just stopped running or something. But, why wasn’t the screen black. “What happened?” The time stamp on the footage was still rolling, but there was no sound.

“Go back.” Darien grabbed the computer and started tapping the mouse pad to roll the footage back. “Watch,” Darien scowled at the screen.

Lani bent close to concentrate.

Bogo was up and pacing his cage, seriously pissed as he pressed his ears flat and hissed at something in the aisle. Then he lunged at the cage bars, bearing his teeth and roaring.

“The hell, man?” Lani frowned.

There was the flash of something metal and what sounded like scraping. A moment later, a black, gloved hand waved in front of the camera screen for a split second. The image turned to snow.

Darien was up off the couch like a shot, fumbling in his pocket as he pointed at the computer. “Grab that. Let’s go!”

Scrambling to gather the laptop, Lani followed Darien out the door. Dare was dialing his cell.

“Cory, man. We found something. It’s...bad. I mean. Someone…” Darien ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “Just meet us at the lion house. We have to show you.”

“What the hell, man?” Lani frowned as he jumped back into Darien’s car. “Why would anyone be messing with the lions?”

“I’ve got no freaking clue.” Darien took the turn onto Ravens Road way too fast. “But, I intend to find out.”

“We, brah.” Lani gave up fighting and rested his hand on Darien’s leg. “We’re in this together.”

message 27: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Eight

Wrapping a towel around his hips, Darien wound his way through the mostly empty locker room. It was Friday, so everyone was in a hurry to move out. Especially, since it was the last day of school before winter break.

A week had passed since he and Lani had discovered the break-in at the zoo, and what a week it had been. There were multiple trips to the zoo to work on the cameras and scour the footage for clues, multiple trips to Annadox now that Ben was slowly waking from his coma, finals for school, and a topper of holiday madness. What a combination. There were only five days left until Christmas.

All through drills today, his teammates had nattered on about shopping, of all things. At this point, Darien would rather have his eyes stabbed with hot pokers than hit a mall. Thank the gods, he’d long ago finished all of his shopping online.

With time to kill while he waited for Tim, Darien had enjoyed a long, hot soak in the showers. Now, he was feeling pleasantly relaxed, even though his calf muscles were still throbbing.

Coach Williams kept all of his players in damn good shape through the winter months, especially those like Dare who voluntarily signed up for extra fitness training. With the weight lifting, running, and Coach’s wacky drills, Darien wouldn’t need to worry about getting in shape before practice started next spring.

Today had been one of the dreaded wellness drills. They’d run the length of the gym more times than Darien could count, while Coach barked orders, making them drop and do tons of crazy shit.

Looking at his reflection in one of the full length mirrors, Darien gave himself a smug once over. Since he didn’t go out for winter sports, he knew he’d be soft around the middle by now. Especially with all the Elderberry and chocolate holiday stuff he’d hogged down this week. Thanks to Coach, he was looking tight.

Finger combing his wet curls, Dare tried to tame them into submission. It didn’t take long for him to give up and head to the lockers.

Glad that the residual ache from the squats was already fading, Darien felt pretty proud that he hadn’t called his Gaea power once today. Sure, he could cheat and use the Air currents to his advantage, but he liked what the regular workouts did to his body. He liked knowing he was fit because he’d worked damn hard at it.

Darien dropped his towel to the floor and fished through his gym bag for his boxer briefs.

“Hell of a view,” Tim’s voice made Dare smile.

Looking over his shoulder, Darien lowered his eyelashes, taking in Tim’s long, lean body casually propped against the end of the row of lockers. He must have finished his talk with Coach earlier than expected. Dare took in Tim’s tight jeans, a charcoal gray sweater with a light blue shirt underneath. He had the sleeves pushed up and his hands in his back pockets. His hair was still damp at the ends. Those blue eyes had already returned to Dare’s backside.

Deliberately bending, Dare slowly stepped into his briefs. He heard Tim groan. Inching the bright red and green mistletoe pattern up until it slid over his hips, Darien put his arms out to his sides and turned to face his boyfriend. The caption along his waistband read, “Kiss me.”

“Da-yum,” Tim said.

A grin broke out across Darien’s face.

They had one unbreakable rule. There could be no physical contact in the locker room. It was one of those agreed upon incendiary things for both of them. Not a place Dare could control himself if given an opportunity. Lately, they’d both been pushing the boundaries.

Right now, Dare could see Tim literally vibrating with the need to come closer. Darien crossed his arms, knowing what it would do to his pecs. His grin widened and he lifted a brow. That got another groan out of Tim. Dare threw back his head to laugh. It echoed through the quiet locker room./
They seemed to be the only two around. Maybe it was time to make fantasy a reality. Darien took a step towards Tim, watching his pupils blow wide. His lips started to twitch into an answering grin.

The locker room doors opened with a bang. “Greg!” A man’s voice barked.

Darien tried to lean around Tim to see who it was, but they were suddenly tangled together in the narrow space. A second later, the door to Coach William’s office slammed shut. Darien almost fell backwards over the bench as he tried to untangle himself. Tim grabbed hold of his arm to steady him, but his attention was now on the raised voices coming from inside the office. There was nothing to see but a closed door.

Quickly tugging on his jeans and t-shirt, Darien grabbed his socks and shoved his feet into them. He sat on the bench to tie his shoes, then stuffed his arms into his hoodie. He couldn’t make out what Coach Williams was saying, just the muffled sounds of someone yelling at him, and Coach giving as good as he got. Darien jumped up and carried his bag closer setting it down on a counter.

“Should we…?” Darien didn’t even know what to ask. He didn’t want to leave Coach alone with whoever was in there, but he felt like an intruder standing around gawking.

“We should wait here?” Tim sounded equally uncertain.

They didn’t have to wait long. Darien took a step back when the door flew open. Mr. Roberts stalked out into the hall, looking over his shoulder. What the hell was Darien’s biology teacher doing arguing with Coach Williams? Roberts pointed a finger at the coach who was standing behind his desk, eyes burning with anger.

“You put the word out to your boys, you hear me? Keep your political crap out of my classroom, Greg. I know that bullshit came from you.” Mr. Roberts turned and marched out.

“Happy holidays to you, too!” Coach called after him. “What a prick,” he muttered, running both hands through his hair. He looked up and caught Dare’s eyes. A startled look crossed his face. “Um, sorry you boys had to hear that.”

“Are you okay?” Darien asked reluctantly, hefting his bag onto his shoulder and crossing the space to Coach’s office door. The guy’s face was really red, and he looked seriously uncomfortable.

Coach let out a half laugh and nodded his head. “Just a misunderstanding.” He shrugged.

“We’re not stupid, Coach,” Tim sounded ticked.

In that moment, Darien really wanted to kiss him. Adults pulling their placating crap had become a major pet peeve for Dare. Apparently, it was one more thing he and Tim shared.

“You’re right. Sorry. One of the guys said some incendiary political things that apparently honked Roberts off. As you can tell, he’s decided the ideas came from me. Apparently, I’m brainwashing some of you.” Greg raked hands through his hair again and let out another frustrated sound. “Really, it’s laughable. Nothing to work ourselves up over. Go on. Get out of here.” He smiled at them. “Oh, and have a good holidays.”

There was nothing else to do. Coach was dismissing them. They wished him the same and headed for the door. Frankly, Darien was relieved to be set free. The whole thing was too weird.

“I wonder who said what to Roberts to get his panties in a wad,” Tim mumbled as they crossed the gym to the exit.

“I’m sure we’ll hear it through the grapevine soon enough,” Darien shrugged. He didn’t really care who said what, except he was kind of curious about the political stuff. He suddenly found himself wondering what kind of opposing political views Coach and Roberts had.

No good could come from that line of questioning. Dare reminded himself that he didn’t want to know anything about school politics. Best to remain blissfully ignorant. “What we need here is a change of subject.”/
“So, anyway…” Tim gave an exaggerated wave of his hand as if Darien’s wish was his command. “This is some weather we’re having, huh?”

They both laughed.

“Seriously. What are you doing later? Because, I thought we could catch a movie when I get off work. You know, celebrate winter break.” Tim smiled. “I’ll be done with my shift in time for a late show.”

“I’m not sure what time we’ll get done at the zoo,” Darien said.

Tim gave him a startled look.

“Didn’t I tell you Lani and I have to go out there tonight?”

Tim shook his head, looking like he might not believe him.

“We agreed to work this evening,” Darien explained. When Tim’s frown deepened, Darien felt his stomach tighten. “I would skip, but there’s this whole illumination thing for the holidays, you know lighting up the park at night and stuff. We promised to be there. Plus, we have to pick up our new security clearance stuff and sign a whole bunch of papers. Otherwise, we can’t go behind the scenes on the park anymore. They’ve changed all the codes and locks after the break in.”

“It’s, okay. I get it,” Tim said. He was no longer looking suspicious, but his disappointment was obvious, and there was something else lurking. Something felt off between them.

When Tim didn’t say much else on the drive to his house, Darien started to feel really nervous. As soon as he parked in Tim’s drive, Dare turned so he could make eye contact. “Can we do the movie thing tomorrow?”

Nodding, Tim leaned across the console and gave him a soft, very sweet kiss. “I’ll call you later.” Tim got out of the car. He leaned in the door to throw Dare a smile, but he couldn’t miss the flash of sadness in Tim’s eyes.

“Hey,” Darien cut the engine and jumped out. Rounding the hood, he reached out and cupped a hand behind Tim’s neck pulling him a step closer. “Everything okay?” He looked directly into Tim’s eyes. Something told him avoiding this was not a good plan.

Tim seemed to be considering what to say for a really long time. It was making Darien twitchy. Finally, Tim nodded. “I just miss you, that’s all.”

Darien felt relief blow through him. “Oh, well then. That, I can fix.” He smiled and pulled his boyfriend across that last inch for a quick kiss. “Tomorrow night, I’m all yours,” he promised.

message 28: by Amanda (last edited Feb 07, 2014 10:17PM) (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Eight continued...

Pushing through the doors of Greene Beans, Lani felt the warmth of the crowded café flow over him. He let out a relieved sigh. “Mahalo, Pele,” he mumbled, pulling off his gloves as he pushed through the crowd.

Wondering if it was holiday cheer, or the crazy last minute shoppers that had the place hopping, Lani was a little surprised to find it packed so early. It was just past five o’clock. Then, he noticed the microphone and sound system set up on the stage and figured it was probably another open mic night.

Lani checked his watch. He still had half an hour to kill before he was due to pick up Darien. Plenty of time, despite the crowd. He moved to the back of the line, grinning to himself. It was Friday night, and he had a date with Darien.

Okay, maybe date was too strong a word. He would be spending Friday night with Dare in a wickedly romantic setting, among all the holiday lights at the park. And since Aren worked most Fridays, and Anna had started dating some girl she met at the university, volunteering at the park with Dare was an improvement over the usual. Lani could be stuck at home fighting over the Xbox, or even worse, playing Animal Crossing with his sister.

He stuffed his hat and gloves into his jacket pockets and took in the scene, eyes searching automatically for Aren. He was behind the counter joking with the customers, wearing a ridiculous tie-dye Santa hat that made Lani smile. The man was seriously beautiful.

Lani let his eyes travel over Aren’s short dreads, down his corded neck, and over his tight fitting Bob Marley t-shirt, to take in the lines twisting around his tattooed arm. Lani had traced every bit of the intricate design and several others Aren had hidden around his torso. Lani’s gut tightened at the memories.

A throat cleared behind him and Lani realized the line had moved up. He stepped closer, watching as Tim came out of the back carrying a rack of clean cups. He said something to Aren as he passed. Aren’s eyes lit up and he laughed. Tugging the towel off his shoulder, he quickly twirled and flipped it. When it popped against Tim’s ass, he let out a high pitched yelp.

“You break them you pay for them,” Elliot barked as he walked by carrying two plates of pastries, but he was chuckling as he walked between them.

“Oh, I got this, boss man.” Tim winked. Quickly setting the cups on the warmer, he moved back by Aren, giving him a hip bump in retaliation as he passed.

“You are skating thin ice, boy.” Aren called out.

The three of them put on quite a show, all beautiful men in a graceful coordination of movement as they entertained each other and the crowd. Lani was grinning by the time the big guy in front of him stepped aside.

“Hey there,” Aren winked. Lifting a sprig of mistletoe, he reached out and hauled Lani across the counter for a kiss. Several wolf whistles rang out. “I knew you were in here somewhere. I’ve been holding on to this thing just for you.” Aren waved the mistletoe around.

“Oh yeah?” Lani chuckled. “I’m surprised you could pick me out with all the people. It’s a madhouse in here.”

“Elliot, Alex, and Tim have promised to play some holiday music for us tonight, right boys?” Aren raised his voice so everyone could hear.

Cat calls rang out, several people started urging them to take the stage. Others were calling out ridiculous song requests.

“Who is Dominique?”

“The Italian Christmas Donkey, of course,” Tim winked.

“Oh,” Lani had never heard of that song before.

“Simmer down, people. We have to make all your drinks first,” Elliot called out.

“Plus, we kind of need our third wise man,” Tim added.

“Where is that boy,” Aren wondered.

Elliot tilted his head looking thoughtful for a moment. “Alex is on his way.” Elliot said. “All in good time.” He turned his attention back to making foam for another drink. Lani wondered if Alex and Elliot could t-path or something. He shouldn’t be so surprised. Rumor had it the Thirteen Bond gave them mad Gaea skills.

“What can I get you?” Aren asked.

“The usual, plus a caramel latte for Darien,” Lani added. “To go.”

The corners of Aren’s mouth quirked up and he lifted a brow as he wrote the order on each cup. “Sounds like you’ll be having all the fun tonight, brah.”

“They’re working the light thing at the zoo,” Tim said. Lani thought he sounded defensive. Tim picked up the red marker and added a big, bright heart to one cup lid. He set it on the cup marked with Darien’s order. “Isn’t that right?” He was smiling, but Lani wasn’t feeling it as he paid Aren for the order.

He shrugged. Best not to waste his energy. He turned back to Aren. “Wish we could hang around and catch the show.”

“No worries, mon, there will be another time.” Aren’s eyes danced as he thumped Elliot playfully on the shoulder. “All that talent won’t be going to waste on my watch. Look at this crowd, oh exalted guru of the bean. You need to be performing regular, brah.”

“Do you hear that? Now that he wants something, I’m the exalted bean guru.” Elliot rolled his eyes.

Lani laughed, watching Elliot snap the lids onto their drinks.

“Enjoy your evening.” Elliot winked and handed the drinks across the counter.

“What he said.” Aren gave him a knowing grin. “Catch you later.”

“Thanks,” Lani said. “Break a leg, guys.”

He crossed the room, and set the drinks down at a table by the door while he popped his hat and gloves on. Tim’s red heart glared up at him. It felt like a needle jabbed him in the chest. What the hell? Eyes tracking to Tim, Lani was surprised to find the guy busy with a customer. Rubbing the sting, Lani grimaced and picked up the drinks, hurrying out to his mom’s car. Must have been my imagination.

Once he’d climbed inside and cranked the heat, Lani picked up his cup, about to take a sip, but he stopped midway. On a whim, he popped the lid of Dare’s coffee and switched it out with his own. He stared at it for a long minute, telling himself he was being ridiculous. Then he took a good long sip.

By the time he pulled up to Darien’s front door, he was feeling petty. He took the offending lid off his cup and tossed it into the glove box with a thwack, slamming it shut. Dare would think Aren had drawn the stupid thing if he saw it.

Why was he making this such a big deal? He should just let Darien have the blessed heart. Lani honked the horn, maybe a little longer than strictly necessary. He tried to shake off the sudden onset of the grumpies.

A few minutes later, Darien stepped out onto the porch, and Lani felt his chest constrict. Dare was wearing a black jacket, skinny jeans and boots, and he’d wound a black and white checkered scarf around his neck. His hair was curling in every direction. In the half light of the fast setting sun, his green eyes sparkled and his cheeks looked even rosier than usual. Lani’s mood lifted.

“Hey,” Darien said, sliding into the passenger seat.

Lani handed him the coffee.

“What’s this?” He looked pleased and curious, making Lani’s heart give a squeeze.

“A caramel latte. I remembered you like them. Thought you might need the warmth. It’s freaking cold here, brah.” He shivered. There was this wicked urge to keep rambling. Picking up his own cup, Lani took a sip.

“Didn’t you get a lid? You’re coffee won’t stay warm.” Darien was frowning at the lidless cup.

Lani felt himself tense again. He heaved a frustrated sigh and reached over to pop the glove box, tossing the offensive lid into Darien’s lap. “Tim drew it for you. I didn’t like it, so I swapped them out. Then, I felt petty. Sorry.” He took another sip of his coffee.

“Oh,” was all Darien said.

Lani took another sip of the bitter sweet drink, feeling his ears burn. He forced himself to meet Darien’s eyes. They were full of mischief. He looked like he was trying not to laugh. Picking up the lid, he gently placed it on Lani’s cup. “You can have it. I don’t mind.”

Lani frowned. How could one stupid gesture make his heart swell like that? Lani wanted to read more into Darien’s words, but he knew better. All he could do was pop the lid in place and say, “Thanks.”

They rode to the zoo in silence.

message 29: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Nine

It was full dark by the time they got to the wild animal park. Darien read the new code out to Lani, and he keyed a much longer series of numbers into the security gate. It was strange being out here at night. The back roads seemed much narrower and a little bit forbidding in the dark. The lion house was surprisingly devoid of vehicles when they arrived. The only car left in the lot besides theirs was Cory’s.

“I guess everyone is up at the main house,” Lani looked a little confused as he pulled up and parked by the door.

“I thought they were going to meet us here to do all the paperwork first. Look, there’s something taped to the door,” Dare pointed. “Hold on.”

He crossed the space and pulled the piece of yellow notebook paper from the door, reading it as he returned to the car.

“Cory says, and I quote ‘Screw paperwork. It’s party time.’” Darien laughed. “It says he and Dr. Dylan will meet us at the main house.” Dare slid back into his seat. “It feels kind of weird back here at night, doesn’t it?” he said as Lani turned the car around.

“It’s a whole different vibe, for sure.” Lani smiled as he turned down the service road that led them through the park to the main house, the place that was once Ben Larabee’s family home. It now served as the park offices and conference center. All the major fundraising functions took place there in what was once Ben’s formal living room.

“I thought the animals were staying on exhibit tonight.” Lani pointed to the darkened, empty tiger exhibit.

“Some of them,” Darien said. “But not the big predators. Too dangerous shifting them, I’m guessing. Though, the elephants are out, and I’m pretty sure stuff like the reptile house is open.”

“The aviary is definitely staying open for another hour. Mom wasn’t happy about it, since the birds will be pretty nervous.”

“I bet it looks cool though, with the jungle dome all lit up after dark. We should check it out.”

“No joke.” The smile Lani flashed made Dare’s pulse race.

The grounds had been turned into some kind of winter wonderland, and the looks that crossed Lani’s face as he pointed out each display they passed was not helping Dare get a handle on his libido. When they turned onto the back road to the main house, every tree trunk along the entire drive was wrapped in white lights, forming an electric grove.

Lani stopped the car right in the middle of the road.

“What are you doing?” Dare looked behind them, making sure they weren’t blocking anyone.

“Nobody’s back there.” Lani winked.

Darien’s eyes met Lani’s. He was just sitting there, staring. Not at the beautiful lights, but directly at Darien. “What?”

A smile quirked his lips, and then Lani leaned over and brushed a feather light kiss over Dare’s mouth. That tiny touch sent his pulse skittering and his breath hitched.

“You said you didn’t mind,” Lani mumbled. “I’m taking you up on it.” He claimed a second soft kiss.

Darien wasn’t even sure what Lani was talking about. Every rational thought had left his brain as that all too familiar zing raced through him. He leaned forward a fraction of an inch and claimed a third, and then a fourth, and a fifth kiss. His pulse was galloping full speed ahead. His breath was short and harsh, and he felt amazingly alive surrounded by the forest of lights.

“We’d better get in there,” Lani sighed. He ran a finger over Darien’s cheek sending a shiver down his spine. Dare wasn’t sure if it was arousal or apprehension. The combination was strangely addictive.

When Lani turned his attention back to driving, Darien realized he didn’t want to get out of the car. He didn’t want to give up the magic of having Lani out here in the beautifully lit darkness alone. He hesitated, hand on the door handle. Lani seemed to be doing the same. They both looked at each other at the same moment. A smile tugged at Lani’s mouth, and Darien felt his own tugged out. They sat smiling at each other for what felt like a long time.

Finally, Lani sighed and opened his door. Darien felt acute disappointment. Not sure what kept him rooted to his seat, he watched Lani round the hood and open the passenger door. He reached out a hand in a very old fashioned gesture that had Darien’s pulse spiking again. If his friends could see him now, he’d probably die from embarrassment. Shaking his head at his own reaction, he let Lani help him out of the car.

“You think they’ll notice if two of their volunteers don’t show up to eat the cake?” Lani asked.

Darien shrugged, looking around at the cars parked everywhere, even on the edges of the roadway leading into the property. The sound of laughter and music was coming from inside the house. “Looks like they have plenty of help, doesn’t it?”

“My mom will notice if I don’t show,” Lani frowned. He seemed torn for a minute. “How about we take a walk to the Aviary, and you know, check in over there, see if they need help?”

“I thought you said they were only staying open an extra hour.”

“Exactly. We’ll get there just as they close.”

“But, at least we showed. I like it,” Darien chuckled. “Let me text Cory.”

Darien let go of Lani’s hand and fished out his phone, running his fingers quickly over the screen.

Headed to aviary to help out. Will meet up with you after.

“Nice,” Lani took his hand again, and led Darien down the path toward the public area of the park. When they got to the electronic gate, Lani frowned when he found it shut and locked. “I figured they’d have this gate open for the volunteers to use tonight. Don’t suppose that new pass code will work.”

Dare shrugged and pulled the paper out of his pocket again, reading off the long string of numbers. “I’m never going to remember this damned thing,” he grumbled.

“No lie.” Lani’s frown disappeared when the gate clicked open. “Well, thank Pele, it works.”

“Good to know.” Darien pulled the gate closed behind him and tested to make sure it had locked. “I guess we shouldn’t complain about the security crackdown. Hopefully, it will stop whoever was breaking in.”

“Heard any of their ideas on who and what?” Lani asked.

“A few wild theories being tossed around, but Cory said they don’t have anything solid. The favorite theory is that they were casing the joint to steal the cats, but I don’t get why they would do such a thing? Lions are easy enough to come by legally with all the captive overpopulation. Why take the risk of stealing one, and where would they keep it? How would they move it? If you ask me, none of that makes any sense.”

“My mom wondered if it’s some kind of thrill seekers, out to see if they could get past the security, you know, like some trippy exotic animal fear factor game or something.” Lani didn’t seem that convinced.

“Not a bad theory. I wish we could have found something on the footage. Anyway, everyone seems pretty confident that the new security measures have taken care of things.” Darien felt Lani begin to run his thumb in circles over Darien’s palm, and suddenly, he didn’t want to talk about break-ins and the zoo anymore.

Lani seemed to catch the vibe, and they walked in comfortable silence along the lit paths. The smattering of people who had bundled up and braved the cold were mostly couples out on dates, though a few people had brought the kids. Love was definitely in the air.

Dare smiled at two girls walking arm in arm and whispering to each other. There was an older couple that reminded him of his late grandparents. They were holding hands and strolling in the opposite direction. What would it be like to have loved someone for decades? Darien thought of Pierre and Ben. He couldn’t wait to see them again. Just a few more days.

“Hold up a sec.” He tugged Lani to a stop and pulled out his phone, snapping a picture of the older couple silhouetted by the sparkling lights. He held it up for Lani to see. “For Pierre and Ben.”

“Nice,” Lani took Darien’s hand again as soon as he’d slid his phone back into his pocket. Dare was amazed at how natural it felt.

message 30: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Nine continued...

Caught by the magic of the park, they laughed at the animal shaped light sculptures and crazy moving figures everywhere. The animated penguins that ran and slid on their bellies down a waterslide while singing Mele Kalikimaka were Dare’s favorite. “They remind me of Hawaii. I didn’t think penguins lived there?”

“They don’t. But it was too good to pass up. It’s my family’s contribution.” Lani seemed pleased that Darien liked them. “Mom saw them online and we all agreed to chip in and donate them.”

“Awesome,” Darien was surprised by how much the gesture moved him, that Lani’s family would give such a gift to Ben’s park. “Thanks,” was all he could think to say. It felt as if Lani had reached right into his chest and squeezed. He seemed unable to stop sneaking peeks at Lani’s profile as they walked toward the aviary.

When Lani pulled him down the side trail to see the elephant exhibit, Darien’s mouth fell open. All he could do was gawk at the huge animals happily chewing their hay underneath an amazing spiral of rainbow colored lights. Somehow they had been suspended far above the elephant’s enclosure from wire that was well out of the animal’s reach.

“How did they do that?” Without thinking, Darien stepped in front of Lani, tugging until Lani’s arm wrapped Dare’s waist. He rested his head back against Lani’s shoulder so he could look up at the beautiful lights against the backdrop of a clear night sky. The sound of the elephants swaying and swishing and the feel of Lani’s arms were amazing.

Darien felt like he’d stepped out of reality and into some kind of fantasy super date. Instead of picking it apart, Dare decided, for once, to take Alex’s famous advice and just go with it.

“Do you have any idea how much I’ve missed you,” Lani mumbled directly against Darien’s ear.

What could he say to that? Not half as much as I’ve missed you, was the thought that he kept tightly hidden.

Looking around, Dare realized they were alone. His palms were suddenly damp and he felt his stomach start to do flips. He took a deep breath and Lani’s scent, that heady combination of sea salt and fresh air, brought back a flood of memories -- their first kiss, walking hand in hand on the beach, lying beside a waterfall in the Hilo Grove.

Turning his head, Dare planned to sneak just one more quick kiss. But, the kiss turned to nibbling, then biting, and Dare felt his eyes sting a little. A skittering of fear tingled his senses, but it was quickly replaced by fire when he felt Lani shiver and moan against his mouth. The next thing Dare knew, he was turning in Lani’s arms, opening his mouth, letting Lani in.

As Lani’s tongue licked between his lips, Dare was vaguely aware that he was being backed up slowly. Pressed to the overlook glass, he spread his legs to line them up better. Lani stepped between them, at the same moment Lani pushed their Gaea connection open. If Darien even thought of resisting, he couldn’t say. The feeling of Lani blowing through him again was too good to pass up. Every part of his body was now standing at attention, not just the obvious ones.

Strangely, what Darien noticed most was not so much groins and mouths pressed together, though that was freaking amazing, too. It was all the little things like the feel of Lani’s Water energy running gently across his shoulders, Lani’s hand on his neck, thumb brushing at his jaw, the other hand at the small of his back under the hem of his shirt, urging Darien to press harder against Lani’s contours. All of it made Darien feel full in ways that nobody else had managed.

Darien ran his hands up Lani’s back and fisted them in his hair as the kiss went deeper still.

Then, his mouth was suddenly free, and Lani was trailing kisses along his neck.

Gods, Dare. You feel so good. So good. Lani shivered against Darien when he cupped Lani’s neck to bring his mouth back for another long, hot kiss.

They did not make it to the aviary before it closed.

“Well crap,” Lani gave the locked aviary doors another tug, as if he thought he could magically make them open. “I’m so maki die dead.”

Could things get any more awkward? Darien couldn't believe they’d been macking down on each other for over an hour. He didn't know how to feel about it. Mostly, he was feeling disappointed that Lani had checked his watch and called a halt to their private party for two.

Lani stepped back from the doors and ran a hand over his head a few times. He was starting to look seriously nervous as he turned toward Darien. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to…what I mean is…” There was a long pause as Lani struggled to find words.

Darien didn’t know what to say so he just stood there, waiting.

“Check it,” Lani finally made eye contact. “I know I broke my promise to you, but I’ve been dying to do that for a while, and with all of that, I guess I just don’t have the willpower not to.” He made a gesture in the general direction of the elephant exhibit. “To be honest, I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry at all.”

The honesty along with the torn look on Lani’s face seemed to put another crack in Darien’s armor. For some reason, tonight, he couldn’t bring himself to keep the barriers in place. So, he smiled and t-pathed his own honest answer, I’m not either.

His heart gave a kick with that admission. What did this mean? What about Tim? He forced the questions that suddenly crowded his mind aside when Lani’s eyes grew bright and his smile blew wide.

“Good,” was all Lani seemed able to say. He looked like he had to struggle to get the one word out, but he didn’t look away.

There was too much to say, and no way of knowing how to say it without ruining the moment. So, Darien simply pulled Lani into a hug.

message 31: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Ten

Christmas Day

Wildwood: 11:45 AM

“Did you get everything from under the tree?” Darien asked his sister. He set the bags she’d handed him by the front door.

“Yep. Pretty sure all the loot is packed,” Morgan shrugged into her long, red coat. The emerald earrings Holly had given her this morning caught the light and winked at her ears, matching her green eyes and green sweater. The red coat added that final festive touch.

“I wish you didn’t have to go already,” Darien mumbled. He’d been feeling a strange urge to talk to his sister about his confusion over Lani and Tim. But, the past three days had been filled with family whack-a-doo, as Holly had been calling it, and the time had never seemed right. Now, Morgan and Holly were off to Hazel’s for the rest of the day, and by this time tomorrow, everyone would be at Pierre’s and Ben’s. The chance for privacy dwindled by the minute.

“Hey,” Morgan bumped shoulders with him. “What’s up? Everything okay?”

The concern in her eyes made Darien feel guilty. He didn’t want to bring down a perfectly good day. “Yeah. I guess. Just…I don’t know. It’s complicated.”

“Uh-huh.” Morgan lifted a brow. “Do I need to blow off the Brennan’s and hang with you? Because, you know I will.”

The offer warmed him all the way to his core. He pulled his sister into a tight hug.

“Whoa! I’ll take that as a yes.” Morgan’s hands came up to clench at his back.

“No,” Darien spoke into her hair, squeezing his eyes closed for a minute as her Chanel perfume overwhelmed him. He’d missed Morgan more than he ever thought possible. “It’s not a yes. But, I love that you offered, even though I know you’re looking for an excuse to get away from George.”

“Busted. Don’t tell my girlfriend.” Morgan sounded like she was smiling.

“George seems nice enough. He hasn’t done anything, has he?” Ever since helping George plan Holly’s surprise present, Dare was starting to think the man might be pretty okay.

“No. He’s been great. He doesn’t even hover much when he and Hazel are in Montreal. I guess Holly’s right. I’m just being paranoid. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about him.” Morgan stepped back and waved a dismissive hand around. “We’ll make some time to talk on the island, okay?” She looked him over skeptically.

“Yep. It’s no big deal. I promise.” Darien didn’t want her to worry. “Go. Have fun with Holly’s peeps.” He could hear Holly coming down the stairs behind him. He mouthed the word later.

Morgan winked and leaned up to kiss his cheek. “Merry Christmas, little brother.” She hefted several bags, and turned to head out the door.

Picking up the box of wrapped gifts, Darien did his duty and helped Morgan and Holly load the car for the short drive to Hazel’s house and their second round of gift exchanges. Though he’d been invited to join them, this afternoon was his last chance to spend any time with Tim before leaving for the island early in the morning.

He’d promised to make more time for his boyfriend, and that was exactly what he’d been trying to do, without much success. All the whack-a-doo was wreaking havoc on his love life. At least he could honestly say he hadn’t been avoiding.

Telling Tim the truth was weighing heavy on Dare. He’d wanted to come clean about Lani the moment he’d gotten home from the park, but it seemed a terrible time with the holidays. So, Darien was trying to make it through without hurting Tim, while he figured out what to do about…well, everything.

Lani had been really great, giving him tons of space. Darien had expected him to push, but instead, he’d backed way off, somehow seeming to know exactly what Darien needed without being told. Points for Lani. Who would have thought he could rack up so many after the hell he’d put Darien through? Memories of that dark time alone were never far. How could he even entertain trusting Lani again?

You would think I’d have learned my lesson.

Scowling at his shoes, Dare jogged into the house to help carry the food, almost running headlong into Holly.

“Whoa,” Holly pushed a hand into his chest to stop their impending collision. Red hair was flying all around her. She managed to keep the box she was carrying from crashing to the floor, just barely.
“That was close.” They both laughed.

“I was just coming to tell you we got everything.”

“Oh, okay. That was fast.” Just when Darien was desperate for distraction, there wasn’t one. Story of my life.

“Viv and Gabe took the food out the back.” Holly nodded toward the kitchen. Shifting the box she was carrying to one hand, she fished something out from between the gift bags. “We found this sitting by the door.” Holly handed him a small, wrapped box.

When he saw the tag, Darien’s heart flipped in his chest. Feeling his face grow hot, he kissed Holly’s cheek. “Thanks.” He flashed up the stairs without thinking. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” he called down from his room.

Heart pounding, palms sweating, he set the package on the bed and stared at it. His stomach felt like it had come alive. He gripped the carved sea turtle pendant he’d been keeping hidden under his shirt, the last gift Lani had given him, all those months ago, on a beach under the stars.

When he’d realized Lani had dumped him, Darien had considered throwing the damn thing away. But, he hadn’t been able to do it. For a long time, he’d kept the little turtle wrapped in its leather cord and hidden in the bottom of his sock drawer, trying to pretend it didn’t exist. Lately, he’d been taking it out to look at it more and more.

Darien hadn’t actually put it back on until four nights ago, right after he got home from the illumination at the zoo. He’d worn it everywhere since. Even in the shower. Squeezing his hand around the warm wood, Darien tried to get a handle on his pounding pulse as he frowned down at the box. The turtle was bad enough. Did he really want the weight of another gift from Lani?

Looking at the happy penguins with Santa hats smiling up from the wrapping paper, Darien found himself laughing. He was being ridiculous. He was treating the little box like some kind of omen. It was probably just a keychain or something. He flopped down onto his stomach and shook it. Whatever was inside slid back and forth. It was lightweight and sounded small.

Definitely a keychain. He sat up and tore into the paper, shredding it off the box.

With shaking hands, he lifted the lid. Inside was a woven leather bracelet. It was obviously hand-made. At the center was a single, shiny black nut. Darien recognized what it was right away. It was one of Lani’s Kukui nuts from a tree he’d said was sacred to the Hawaiians.

Of course. A keychain wasn’t really Lani’s style. Darien could hear ringing in his ears as he picked up the envelope that had been beneath the bracelet.

The photo on the small card inside had his heart constricting so hard, he had to suck in a breath. He rubbed at his chest as he looked at the triple waterfall in the Hilo Grove, a place where he and Lani had shared a spectacularly memorable day.

A message written in Lani’s handwriting covered both sides and the back of the card.


The Kukui bracelet is for hope. After the other night, I’m hoping for a new beginning. So, I’m going to go out on a limb and ask. Will you go to the New Year’s Eve banquet, you know, as my date? I know we both have to be there, so if the answer is yes, wear the bracelet and meet me by the Bandstand at seven. If not, I’ll see you at the dinner, always your friend –no harm, no foul.

I’m off to the island for a vacation with my family. I won’t see you until NYE, but I’ll miss you.

Mele Kalikimaka,


Resting his elbows on his knees Darien shook his head.

Typical, Lani! Do something completely amazing and then walk away. What the hell am I supposed to do with this?

Darien ran his fingers over the bracelet. He slid it onto his wrist. The leather felt warm and supple against his skin. He sat staring at his own reflection in the nut’s shiny, black surface for a long time, until his phone beeped with an incoming text. Tim, wondering where he was.

message 32: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Ten continued...


Christmas Day

Annodox Island: 5:30 PM

“Thank Pele, I escaped, man.” Lani felt white sand kicking around his ankles as he walked across the beach toward Aren.

“I totally get it. I’m always looking for a reason to ditch family. I wouldn’t have expected it from you, though.” Aren pulled Lani down on the lounger beside him. Aren seemed totally relaxed watching the late afternoon sun sinking low. The golden light made his skin look more caramel colored, if that were possible. Lani greedily took in all the intricate tattoos that traced themselves over Aren’s cut torso.

Lani shrugged. “We already did our gift thing.” He sounded defensive, even though he knew Aren wasn’t judging. “We just gave each other one gift this year so we had the money to come here. This is way better than a bunch of crap we didn’t need.” Lani put his hands behind his head and tried to let the relaxing energy of the island soak into his limbs.

“So, where are they now?” Aren lifted a brow. “Why the sudden urge to ditch?”

Lani wasn’t sure he wanted to say, but he’d never kept anything from Aren.

“I left something on Dare’s porch at the ass crack of dawn this morning before we left, kind of a request for a new beginning. It’s driving me lolo not knowing his answer.” Lani rolled his head to drink in more of Aren. He didn’t seem upset to know why Lani was looking for company of the non-family variety. “You okay with this?” Lani had to be sure. He felt bad using Aren to forget about his troubles with Dare.

A smile crossed Aren’s face. He took Lani’s hand and laced their fingers together. “I have never lied to you, brah. I am totally okay with this. I hope Dare answers soon.”

Letting out the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, a nervous laugh escaped. “Check it. I gave him until New Year’s Eve to make up his mind. So, now I have to wait.”

“Ah yes. And we both know how well you wait.” Aren’s smile said he totally felt for Lani.

“I was cranked out at my little sister for no reason, man. I didn’t want to be a total ass nugget, so I used the old headache excuse and got out of their evening hike to the mountain overlook for stargazing. No way could I handle hours in the woods with them right now. Plus, we already had our whole traditional beach picnic. Better to get some space. Keep the peace, you know. Anyway, I want you to show me the top of the island.” Lani shrugged. He knew he was babbling, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself.

Aren looked like he was trying not to laugh. “Nervous energy. A need for a distraction. And plenty of time to kill.” His eyes had gone almost black with dilated pupils, and he was running a finger along the inside of Lani’s wrist, spiking his pulse. “I’m thinking we should head back to my place,” Aren winked as he rolled off the lounger and pulled Lani up.

“What about your parents? Aren’t they home?” Lani frowned, following Aren along the trail away from the beach.

“Nope. We don’t spend holidays together any more. Not if I can help it. They’re in Martinique this year.” He didn’t sound upset by this. Lani felt sad for him.

That is, until he found himself pressed up against the cool tile wall of Aren’s front foyer, with hands and lips running all over him. He was minus his t-shirt and trunks in record time and pressed against the hot, hard contours of Aren’s skin, his senses overrun and all other thoughts completely on hold as the warmth of Aren’s mouth took him over.

After several minutes of tongue and teeth and rough hands, Lani realized he was finally, blissfully unworried about Darien.

Then the name flitting through his consciousness changed everything. As Aren dragged his mouth up Lani’s torso to his neck, where he began to suck on the spot just below his ear, Lani was suddenly back in the colorfully lit darkness, feeling Darien against him, Darien’s mouth on his, Darien’s hands running over him.

“Wait,” Lani tried to breathe out. Aren groaned and claimed Lani’s mouth in a ruthless kiss.

Lani brought his hands up and fisted them in Aren’s hair, pulling.

This got a growl from Aren, who pulled him closer, taking the kiss deeper. They both enjoyed things rough sometimes. Aren didn’t seem to know that Lani wasn’t playing. Lani’s thoughts were jumbled, as he struggled not to cave to the demands of his body, which was totally on board for the ride. His heart and his head weren’t sure, and they were trying to make sense of things.

When Aren pinned both Lani’s wrists, he felt a tiny fission of fear spike his blood. He needed this to stop, but he didn’t want to hurt Aren. Heart pounding in his ears, he couldn’t think straight. Lani tapped his Water power and opened to the Calling, searching out Aren’s energy. Lani latched on fast and tugged.

Stop! Lani gave the command.

Aren stopped what he was doing.

Let me go!

Aren dropped his wrists and stepped back. He looked confused for a moment, a bit scared, and riddled with guilt for the way he was behaving. The mirror of what Lani was feeling. Lani watched him take several steps back, whispering repeatedly, “I’m sorry,” mimicking the same words at the same moment they came out of Lani’s mouth.

When Aren began to appear less aroused, his breathing almost back to normal, Lani severed their connection with a snap. Aren sagged against the opposite wall, a strange mix of emotions playing across his face that Lani couldn’t read.

“I’m really sorry. I thought I could do this, but then I couldn’t, and you thought I was playing, and I didn’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you,” Lani was babbling again. He ran a trembling hand over his mouth.

“Wow,” Aren let out a breath. “That Narcissus shit is trippy, brah.”

Lani was shocked to see a look of awe on Aren’s face instead of anger.

“Don’t call it that! It’s terrible.” What else could Lani say? “I’m sorry.” The whole thing made him feel like he’d violated Aren, his closest friend in Wildwood. “I’m so sorry.” He couldn’t seem to stop apologizing. The adrenaline rush was ebbing, leaving him shaking all over.

“Hey! It’s okay,” Aren was coming closer. Lani put a hand out to stop him, but Aren swatted it away, pulling him into a hug. He held Lani against his chest cradling the back of his head. “It’s okay, mon. I don’t have a right to be mad. You asked me to wait. I didn’t listen.” Aren leaned back to make eye contact. “I thought you wanted me to slow down. I wasn’t in the mood. I’m the one who should be sorry. We should probably come up with a safe word.”

Lani rested their foreheads together. “As much as I may regret saying it, I’m not sure we can keep doing this.”

Aren tensed for a second. A shadow of a frown crossed his face, but as he stepped back he was nodding his head in agreement. He didn’t look angry. He ran a hand over Lani’s hair. “It’s okay. The benefits were awesome, but I can find those anywhere. Friendship is more important.”

Almost choking on the sound that bubbled up, Lani couldn’t have formed words to answer if he wanted to. All he could do was nod his head.

“Get dressed, brah. I got something to show you.”

message 33: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Eleven

Christmas Day

Wildwood: 10:30 PM

The credits rolled on Holiday Inn, the traditional family movie at the Cooper household. Looking at his watch again, Darien felt relieved that it was time to head home. Then he felt guilty for feeling relieved. As he helped Tim and his folks clean up the cookie crumb littered plates and empty glasses from the coffee table, Dare tried not to rush things along.

Soon he could get the hell out of Wildwood. Darien was beyond ready for some island mojo and a good healing dose of Pierre and Ben. Tomorrow morning could not come fast enough.

The afternoon with Tim had felt strangely disjointed, and though Darien had tried really hard to keep himself in the moment, his mind had drifted to Lani over and over again. He felt like a complete prick for treating his perfectly wonderful boyfriend this way on Christmas Day. Tim deserved better than he was getting. The right thing to do was to let him go, but just the thought of it was cutting Dare up inside. He wasn’t ready to call things off. But he wanted to be with Lani, too.

How fucked up am I?

Saying his goodbyes to Tim’s folks, he waited for Tim to shrug on his coat and walk him to the car. It felt like the final march to the firing squad or something. As they approached the driveway, Darien was talking himself up to his speech. Waiting until after the holidays didn’t seem fair. Then, he started wondering what kind of a douche bag dumped his boyfriend on Christmas Day.

Darien’s heart was suddenly in his throat. He didn’t know what to say or how to say it, so he stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned to lean against his car, forcing his eyes to meet Tim’s.

A hurt look crossed Tim’s face.

“I’m sorry.” Darien hated the fact that he was hurting Tim without saying a word. He’d thought he had his feelings completely masked, but maybe some of them were leaking out. Dare took Tim’s hand but when he tugged, Tim didn’t move into him like usual.

“Um. Listen, we have to talk before you go.” Tim wouldn’t look him in the eye. This wasn’t good at all.

“Sure,” Darien stepped closer. “Something’s wrong. Tell me.”

“I think you already know.” Tim’s shoulders were slumped. He pulled his hand free and turned to pace the driveway for a couple of minutes. Tim had his Gaea energy shut down tight, just like Darien. A sinking feeling blew through Dare’s gut. When Tim turned back to face him, Darien wanted so much to say something, anything, to make things right, but no words would come.

“The thing is, I debated talking about this so many times over the past few days, but it’s Christmas, so I thought I should...But, it’s stupid to wait, especially after the awkward hell of today. And you’re going to be gone, and I…” Tim finally made eye contact.

A long, tense silence filled the space between them.

“You’re breaking up with me, aren’t you?” Darien was surprised by how much it hurt. He didn’t blame Tim. How could he when he’d been about to make a similar speech only minutes ago?

“Isn’t that what you want?” Tim stepped closer. “I think we both know it’s what you need.”

An unexpected pain lanced through Darien. He swallowed hard trying to find the right answer. Was this what he needed? The very idea scared the living crap out of him.

“Be honest.” Tim’s eyes joined his plea.

“I don’t know,” Darien said. It was the most honest thing he could say. “I wish I did, and I know it’s totally unfair. But, I’m so confused, Tim. And I’m scared, and I don’t want us to be over yet. That’s the honest truth.”

“Well here’s something you don’t know. So am I. I’m scared and confused, but I don’t want to be that guy, Dare. The one who holds you back. I don’t deserve to be that guy.” Tim leaned forward and rested his forehead against Darien’s.

“I’m sorry,” Darien whispered, feeling terrible. He ran a hand up Tim’s back to his neck. He wished he had a way with words. But, he didn’t.

“Here’s something else you don’t know.” Tim stepped away and Darien’s hand fell to his side. “This is not just about your thing with Lani. I might have feelings for someone else, too.” Tim gave him an apologetic look.

“Ouch,” Darien let out a nervous laugh and rubbed at the sudden pain in his chest. He figured Tim was giving him a taste of his own medicine. “No need to be bitchy, just because I deserved that.” When Tim didn’t laugh, Darien dropped his hand. “You’re serious.”

Tim only nodded once.

“Who?” Darien barked out the word, louder than he’d intended. He felt seriously territorial. His internal voice immediately scolded. *Dare, you are a total douche!* Darien clenched his jaw to keep from saying anything else.

“I’d rather not say. It’s too new. Maybe I’m just projecting because I’m hurt. And, I’m angry. I can’t help it. You’ve been pulling away from me for weeks, spending way too much time with the guy who broke your heart. I’ve seen how you look at him when you think nobody’s watching. And there isn’t a damned thing I can do to stop you from jumping off this cliff, except maybe say you’re making a huge mistake.”

Darien ran a hand over his suddenly dry mouth. “I know. I can’t trust Lani. But, I keep getting drawn in. I’ve been thinking the same things, believe me. I wanted to talk to you, but the holidays came up and I told myself to wait. I’ve been feeling totally guilty. One minute, I’m saying I should let you go, because I’m an unfair asshole. The next, I’m remembering all the reasons I don’t want it to be over.” Darien took a deep breath to stop the verbal vomit fest he’d just let loose.

“Well, that’s better than I thought you’d say.” Tim smiled a little. “I thought you wanted to break up.”

“No, but you might, when you know the truth.” Darien took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. He needed to be honest. “I kissed Lani the other night.” Should he give the details? His gut told him no. “We didn’t plan it. It just happened, and I feel really bad about it. Honestly, I’m so confused. The way it made me feel…”

Holding up one hand, Tim was rubbing at his chest with the other. “Ouch is right!” He took several shaky breaths, as if he had to slowly re-inflate his lungs. “Okay, I need a minute over here.”

The pacing started again and Tim was running both hands through his hair and muttering to himself. The muttering grew steadily louder, even though Darien couldn’t make out the words. Then Tim slammed a hand down on the hood of Dare’s car. He flinched and took a step forward when Tim cradled his hand against his stomach. Darien would never forget the look Tim gave him. Not ever. It stopped him in his tracks. Wiping sweating hands on his thighs, Darien stood still and waited for the inevitable verdict.

A cold kind of calm came over Tim. His blue eyes were icy. Darien’s stomach did another hard flip. Tim had never looked at him this way.

In a calm steady voice Darien wasn’t expecting, Tim said, “We have several options. I’m not sure which one to take right now. The first is the one we’ve both just said we don’t want. The break up option. Right this minute, I’m not really sure where I stand on that. I guess I already figured you and Lani were cheating, but hearing you say it… well…” Tim shrugged. He was still cradling his hand.

Darien opened his mouth but Tim held up his good hand.

“Don’t! The second option, staying together as we have been, would be great if we didn’t have an elephant sized trust issue. So, I’m going to vote that option down right here and now. I guess that only really leaves one other choice.”

“You’ve lost me,” Darien had no idea what other choice Tim was talking about.

“I think we should take a break. Give seeing other people a try.” If it wasn’t for the slight trembling of his lip, Darien would have thought Tim was completely okay with the idea. He was standing rigid, and that calm voice he was using was creep factor ten. “I say we agree to come back in a few weeks and discuss the possibility of continuing to date each other. Until then, we explore the other options in our lives, and see what’s what on the other side.” Tim rocked back on his heels.

“You’re suggesting a temporary break?”

“Yes,” Tim raised his chin a fraction.

“Are you going to be okay with this idea? Really? I mean what about after the break?”

Tim shrugged. “If there is an after the break, maybe we can just date, but you know, not exclusively. Maybe, that could work. Who knows?”

It sounded good in theory. Actually it sounded great, like the answer to a prayer. Darien had no problems with the idea, at all, which might not be a great sign for their future. Plus, he wasn’t even willing to entertain the idea that Tim would call it quits after the break.

Darien could seriously get behind an open deal, though. It was just that he wasn’t so sure Tim would be happy with that scenario. “I don’t know. I mean, you’re the one who always said you don’t do casual.”/
“We’re being honest, for a change, so I’ll say I can’t promise anything. But, I wouldn’t really think of this as casual. I mean, you and I would never be casual, even if we did start to see other people. We both care too deeply about each other.”

Darien was floored. Obviously his look showed it.

“What? I might be pissed, but I’m not stupid. I know you care. What about you? If we do this and I decide to start seeing someone else, it won’t be casual, either, you know. You’d better give that some thought.”

message 34: by Amanda (last edited Feb 08, 2014 06:34AM) (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Eleven continued...

“Okay. I will,” Darien stepped closer, intending to pull Tim into an embrace. He was surprised when he found Tim’s hands pushing him away. His back hit the car.

“No!” Tim’s voice was deep and gravelly. That one little word didn’t sound so calm. He took a deep breath before continuing, “I need time before I let you touch me again.”

“Fair enough,” Darien wanted to throw up. He raised both hands. “You do realize if we see other people, me kissing Lani will probably happen again.” Did that come out sounding as shitty as he thought?

“Yes, Dare. I get it. Do you even get the difference? Because, it’s huge.” Tim crossed his arms over his chest, his brows coming together as his forehead creased. When Darien didn’t answer, Tim shook his head. “The difference is you won’t be cheating. Honesty, Dare. It’s a big deal!”

Tim’s words knocked the wind out of Darien. He had no clue what to say, but the need to say something was great. It seemed to vibrate between them.

The sound of a car pulling onto the street broke the spell.

Heaving a sigh, Tim shoved his hands into his pockets. “When you get back to town, call me, and I’ll let you know if I think we should give this open relationship thing a try or just call it quits.” Tim turned to go.

“Tim!” Darien called out. Tim stopped and turned back.

“I really do love you. You know that, right?”

“I know.” Tim gave him a sad smile. “Have a safe trip.”

Darien watched Tim disappear into the house. What hurt the most was the fact that he didn’t look back.


Christmas Day

Annodox Island: 6:00 PM

“When I said I wanted you to show me the top of the island, I meant some other time.” Lani followed Aren up a steep trail that ran from behind the Babylonian market, as he liked to call it.

“Buck up, brah. We’re not climbing all the way to the top.” Aren smiled over his shoulder.

Watching Aren’s tight glutes flex in the dim light, Lani’s mouth watered. He was already regretting having stopped things earlier. Needing a distraction, he searched for something else to say. “It’s getting dark. I hope you brought a flashlight.”

“The torches will light,” Aren said.

“Oh,” Lani realized there were torches lining the entire path. “I guess I got caught up with the view.”

The sound of Aren’s deep laughter sent a tingle dancing along his nerves. There was no harm in continuing to flirt, was there?

“Here we are,” Aren stopped in front of a marble, hexagon shaped building that was hidden in a clearing on the cliff, overlooking the top of the market far below. “Welcome to the Temple of the Annos.” Aren gave a kind of formal bow that Lani had seen other Gaeas make. He gestured toward the door to the temple. All humor had fled his face, and Lani realized this might be the first time he’d seen Aren looking completely serious in the entire time he’d known him.

“Wow,” was all Lani could come up with as he stepped inside. The most prominent feature of the spacious temple were five wickedly beautiful statues. He realized there was one for each of the Annos, the legendary first of the five types of Gaeas -- Time, Fire, Earth, Air, and Water.

Walking among them made the hairs on Lani’s body stand at attention. Each statue was very different. The Earth Annos was a woman draped in what looked like animal skins. She was bent low as if she might be tending something on the ground. The Time Annos was a short-haired woman with chiseled androgynous looking features. She looked at the viewer with her head turned as if she were watching from one eye. Lani looked longer at the statues of Fire and Air, both gorgeous men with perfectly sculpted bodies that made Lani’s mouth water. He took each of them in, instinctively leaving the Water Annos for last.

He felt a jolt of energy pass through him as he stepped in front of the statue of the Water Annos. The Asian looking warrior with long, straight hair made Lani’s mouth dry with a mixture of awe, fear, and longing. There was a name in the ancient language carved on the marble base. Lani wished he could read it. He looked up into the statue’s eyes, and felt another jolt of energy pass through him. It was almost as if he were being pulled by that frozen gaze.

Looking away, Lani glanced down, and practically jumped out of his skin when his own reflection peered up at him from a small reflecting pool at the base. He peered at himself for what felt like a long time. He looked different somehow.

The sound of Aren muttering nearby brought Lani’s focus back. He found Aren running his hand along the temple wall near the statue, appearing to read the symbols there. Totally focused on what he was doing, Lani waited until Aren finally turned.

“I found it.” Aren gestured for Lani to come closer.

“Found what?” Lani looked at the wall. There were all kinds of carvings in the marble, the old Gaea language mixed with something that looked like some kind of Hieroglyphics.

“I’ll show you. Just wait.” Aren bit his lower lip as he reached into his deep pocket and fished around. He came out with what looked like a marble, but when Lani felt a pulse of Aren’s Water energy the marble glowed blue.

“Is that your Marmaro?” Lani lifted a brow. Most Gaeas were given a Marmaro as children.

“Yep. Give it a pulse, will you?” Aren held it out.

If Lani could connect to Aren’s Marmaro, make it glow, it would mean that Aren truly trusted him. It was the ultimate symbol of Gaea friendship to be asked.

Grinning, Lani opened to the Balance, and a huge rush of Gaea energy coursed through him. “Wow, this place is wicked powerful.” His grin grew even bigger. Tapping the Balance here was almost like doing Velvet or something. It made him feel all warm and loose inside. It took Lani a few minutes and some effort to pull the power back a notch. When he found his control, he sent a pulse of his Water energy to Aren’s Marmaro. The little orb pulsed from blue to white, then back, glowing steadily brighter. Lani felt his belly do a little dance.

Aren quickly moved the orb to a small round spot on the wall where a whole section of text seemed to melt and change before Lani’s eyes. Suddenly, it looked English and he could read it.

“What the hell?” Lani’s heart was suddenly pounding.

“You didn’t think these were only toys, did you?” Aren lifted a brow.

“No. I guess not.” Lani just hadn’t realized they might do anything like this.

Leaning closer he realized the section Aren had uncovered, for lack of a better word, was about Narcissus. “Can you read the language? How did you know where to look?”

“I live here, brah. Been coming to the temple my whole life.” Aren shrugged.

“And can we use it to read everything?” Lani looked around at the other writings on the walls.

“Nah, mine only seems to work on the stuff that has to do with Water.”

It didn’t escape Lani that Aren hadn’t answered the original question. About to ask again if he could read the ancient language, Aren pointed at the wall. “Read.”

Bending closer to see in the almost non-existent light, Lani jumped when the torch above him suddenly flared to life. One by one the torches whooshed on around them. “Wicked,” he looked around. The whole place glowed. Turning back to the wall, he bent closer to read.

His suitors were many, yet Narcissus spurned all, finding no love worthy. Bemoaning his plight to his maker, the father of all Water Gaea, the favorite son was granted a gift, the ability to search another’s deepest desires, to compel those unworthy to greater action.

Knowing not the true nature of love, Narcissus continued his search in vain, never fully understanding his gift. Years passed. In desperation, he dared approach his maker again.

Disappointed in the son, Narcissus was granted one last gift, a glimpse of himself in the reflecting pool. Alas, when he caught sight of his own exquisite form, Narcissus did not recognize his unworthiness. Instead, he fell deeply for the only Gaea he could love – himself.

Eager to join with his suitor for all eternity, Narcissus compelled himself into his father’s pool, and drowned. So it has come to pass. In memory of the favored son, those the father deems worthy shall be granted the gifts the son squandered, that they be used in the service intended.

Lani stood up slowly, watching the wall change back to the ancient symbols and letters of the old language. He didn’t know how to feel.

“You see, brah?” Aren said.

Turning to see the smile on Aren’s face, Lani ran a hand over his hair, letting out a nervous laugh. “What? You think this is real? That I’m worthy? That I can compel someone to love me?”

A frown deepened Aren’s typically smiling face. “It doesn’t matter if the myth is real. What’s important is the lesson. Don’t you get it? It’s not about compelling someone to love you, mon. It’s about helping others. You have the gift. I’m not the only one who knows you’re worthy.”

Lani looked toward the statue of the Water Annos. “Um, I don’t mean to offend, but I think you have me confused with someone else.”

message 35: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Twelve

The crisp morning air on Annodox smelled of jasmine and sea salt. Darien left the villa early, needing some space from all the family and friends who were staying with Pierre and Ben over the holiday weekend. The place was huge, but suddenly it didn’t feel that way. To say Darien was overwhelmed was putting it mildly.

After a long walk on the beach, Darien headed into town. Now that they were a couple of days past Christmas, the shops in the market weren’t quite so insanely packed.

Dare walked up and down the marketplace for a while, until he realized he must have gotten the directions wrong. He back tracked to the bridge closest to the villa and tried to remember what Rowan had said. Pulling out his phone, he texted Rows.

I’m back at the bridge. Walked the whole market. Remind me where to find Malone’s.

It didn’t take long to get a reply.

Third corridor. Look for the wall of fame.

How could I forget the wall of fame?

Darien grinned as he tucked the phone back into his pocket. Apparently, Rows and Wayde had done crazy hot things against the wall outside Sean Malone’s art studio. The imagery had Dare’s heart racing as he jogged up the main plaza. Rounding the corner, he found the third corridor, grinning as he passed the long stretch of wall.

A little lightheaded and out of breath by the time he found Malone’s door, Darien pulled Air energy and calmed his breathing before heading inside. The island’s mojo was strong, so it only took seconds for Dare’s Balance to be restored.

The art studio was filled with intricate metal sculptures that immediately captured Darien. His hands itched to touch the smooth surfaces, but he didn’t think he should. He took time to walk around each piece, looking forward to the moment when the artist himself would appear. Rows and Wayde had both described Sean. Darien was looking forward to seeing for himself.

He found a long case of jewelry at one side of the space. This was what Sean was best known for, his Bond jewelry. A Fire Gaea, Sean had an obvious gift for working with metal, something that had been passed down through his family for centuries. Wayde said the Malone’s had gained quite a reputation around the world.

Dare took his time inspecting the various matching pieces, wondering what it would feel like to be Bonded to someone. Watching Lucas and Riley do their shared brain thing these days was pretty trippy. Darien wasn’t sure he’d want that kind of connection, one that apparently went all the way to the core. Then again, it was the ultimate trust, wasn’t it? Darien definitely wanted someone he could trust like that.

When Sean didn’t materialized, Darien started to feel a little weird about poking around the place. Especially when he found the giant book with the history of all the Bonded couples the Malone family had made Bond jewelry. He told himself it would be rude to finger through it, even as he gently opened the tome and flipped to the final pages. He smiled when he found Luc and Riley listed, as well as Kaz and Quinn.

Forcing himself to close the book, he went back to checking out the jewelry. He started to wonder if maybe the guy forgot to lock up or something. Darien looked at his watch. Sean said he’d be open by nine. It was a quarter after.

Dare cleared his throat a couple of times, hoping Sean would hear and come out from wherever he was hiding. No such luck. Dare tapped the Balance and gave a gentle pulse of energy. He felt a couple of Gaea signatures coming from somewhere nearby, but he didn’t want to pry, so he shut the connection down and continued to explore the artwork, trying to be patient.

Then he heard a bark of laughter come from behind the black curtains.

“Hello?” Darien called out, walking closer. At the same time, the laughter became a long moan. A sharp spike of Gaea energy rushed through the studio as the moan came to a crescendo. Realizing what was going on, Darien turned to leave. Maybe they hadn’t heard him.

“Be out in a minute.” A deep voice called as the energy spike quickly dissipated.

Dare’s face suddenly went hot. He turned back toward the curtains wondering what he should say.

“He’s tied up at the moment,” another male voice called out. Both men started to laugh.

The curtain began to move and Darien found himself in the ultimate Peeping Tom scenario. He would catch glimpses of skin through cracks in the cloth. The flash of a pale, tattoo covered hip attached to a long, muscular leg. One half of a dark chest with seriously cut abs. Bits of male anatomy, flashed, then gone each time the curtains fell back into place. More quiet laughter was followed by the distinct sound of a zipper. Dare’s face felt ridiculously hot, but he couldn’t seem to look away as his mind painted the rest of the picture he couldn’t see.

A little voice said he should make a run for the door. Another little voice said he should reach out and open the curtain to get the whole show. Before he could make up his mind, a beautiful man appeared. He was shirtless, and his jeans were unbuttoned. Almost every inch of his torso was covered in tats, and both of his nipples were pierced. The guy used his thumb to wipe the corner of his mouth. His eyes traveled lazily over Darien. Darien began backing away from the curtain.

“Hello there. What can I do for you?” The guy winked, flipping his long, straight hair over his shoulder. He leaned against the counter in a relaxed, casual stance. He didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed by the coitus interrupt us.

“I’m looking for Sean Malone.” Darien forced himself to stop his retreat, proud that his voice didn’t shake or change pitch. The guy was running a lazy hand over the dark treasure trial that disappeared into his low riding skinny jeans. His lean torso was mostly hairless, and he had that fragile, androgynous kind of face that was totally captivating. Darien couldn’t seem to look away. Based on Rowan’s description, this had be Sean.

A soft chuckle escaped from the guy. “Well, it’s your lucky day. You’ve found him. Want to join the party?” Sean lifted a brow.

“What? Um. No.” Jesus you sound like a moron. “I mean, maybe some other time.” Shut up, Darien! Supremely hot Sean Malone just propositioned you! And you turned him down? You idiot!*

Sean’s grin blew wide. Darien had the strange sensation that Sean had just read his thoughts.

Think quick. Deflect, deflect! “Uh…” Darien searched for something to say.

“How about telling me your name for starters?” Sean suggested. He was actively trying not to laugh now, but his eyes looked kind.

Darien felt some of the tension ease. “Oh. Right. I’m Darien Tiernan. My friend Wayde emailed you a photo and you agreed to build me a frame.”

“Of course…” Sean opened his mouth to say more but another voice cut in.

“Darien?” Aren pulled the curtain aside, surprise written all over his face. He was tugging his t-shirt down over those cut abs. Darien tried not to feel disappointed when they disappeared under the tie dye. “Hey, mon. I didn’t know you were coming to the island this weekend. When did you get here?”

“Um. Hi?” He wondered why Aren thought he should know anything about Darien’s plans. And why was Aren suddenly interested? His mouth was hanging open as he looked from Sean to Aren and back. Realizing he was being rude, Darien tilted his head and tried for a smile. “I’ve been visiting Pierre and Ben for a couple of days. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt…”

“It’s cool, brah. I’m running way late. This one is hard to resist.” Aren turned toward Sean. “I have to head back to Wildwood for work.” He hooked a finger into Sean’s belt loop and pulled him into a long, deep kiss. Neither of them seemed to mind the audience as they drew the kiss out for several minutes. Darien couldn’t look away. His heart was racing by the time Aren stepped back.

“I’ll catch you later, mon.” He spoke to Sean. Darien wondered if Lani knew about these two. Would he care? Should Darien tell him? Probably not. It wasn’t any of his business.

Aren smiled at Darien. “Good to see you, brah. Later.” Aren pulled out his phone and started texting as he walked away.

“Bye.” Darien wondered how Aren could walk between all the sculptures and text like that without missing a step. He was out the door in seconds.

“So, are all of Wayde’s friends hot? Forget I said that.” Sean flicked a hand. “Of course they are. I’m going to have to thank him for bringing so much eye candy into my shop.” The guy winked, making Darien’s pulse race. “Step right up. I have your order over here.”

Sean walked to one of the counters and bent down, giving Darien a fantastic view of his form fitted jeans while he pulled a thin cardboard box out from one of the lower cabinets. He gently opened the end of the box and took out the eight by ten frame, unwrapping the paper layers protecting it.

message 36: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Twelve continued...

When the metal frame was unwrapped, Darien’s breath caught. The edges were the perfect mimic of Pierre’s and Ben’s Bond cuffs, the wrist adornments they always wore to symbolize their Gaea Bond. The two colors of metal wound around each other like vines intertwined. Darien couldn’t stop himself from reaching out to touch. Sean seemed pleased by his reaction.

The photo was the one Darien had snapped at the zoo illumination, a close-up of an older couple’s clasped hands surrounded by Christmas lights. It looked fantastic printed with Sean’s professional equipment.

“It’s awesome,” Darien smiled at Sean. “Thanks for doing this on such short notice.”

“Not a problem. Pierre and Ben are good people. I’m honored. Sorry, I couldn’t get the frame finished sooner.”

“I didn’t even ask Wayde until a few days ago. I was shocked when you agreed to make it so soon.” Darien fished out his wallet and handed over his credit card. He couldn’t take his eyes off the frame as Sean ran his card.

The gift wasn’t cheap, but Darien didn’t care. He would have paid triple what Sean was asking now that he’d seen it. Plus, Darien wasn’t hurting for money. He still worked IT for the Broussard Center. Lately, he’d been helping build the system for the new Health Clinic, and he often worked other computer related projects for Broussard International.

Luc and Sharon made sure Darien was well paid. Probably too well, but Darien wasn’t going to complain. He tucked his credit card back into his pocket, and began repacking the frame in the paper, tucking it back inside the box.

“Give me a sec and I can wrap it for you,” Sean said. “I have some gift bags in the back.”

“Great. Thanks.” Darien felt immediately relieved that he wouldn’t have to sneak it into the villa. It was virtually impossible to get anything past Pierre.

Five minutes later, he was walking back swinging an artfully wrapped gift bag and feeling seriously red-faced after a final invitation from Sean. Again, he’d declined. It would be too weird with Aren in the picture. Still, Darien liked knowing he had a new and seriously hot option to explore.

As he walked through the market, he felt a pulse of Lani’s Gaea energy. He fumbled and nearly dropped the gift bag. Heart in his throat he looked around, but the energy was gone as quickly as it had come. Darien turned in circles, frantically searching the crowd. Then he realized how stupid he was being. Lani was half way around the world in Hawaii. He’d said so in his note, hadn’t he?

Darien turned his attention back to walking through the thickening crowd of shoppers. But, he couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. He thought back to Lani’s note. Actually it hadn’t mentioned Hawaii. Darien recalled it specifically said, “the island.” Maybe Lani was on Annodox.

The thought had Dare’s stomach fluttering. He stopped abruptly and turned to look over his shoulder, convinced he would find Lani standing there, but all he saw were a bunch of people he didn’t know. Nobody was paying him one bit of attention. He let out the breath he’d been holding and tried to shake off the sudden skittering of his pulse.

Man, you have it bad. Darien shook his head.

Of course Lani wasn’t here. If he were on Annodox, why would Aren be doing Sean? Darien went back to walking. By the time he hit the trail to the beach, the sensation of being cruised was gone. He tried to figure out how he’d really felt in the moments he’d thought Lani was nearby. Had he been excited or freaked out? He wanted to see Lani, but he was so not ready to give his answer about New Year’s Eve.

He wrapped his free hand around the turtle pendant and rubbed it with his thumb. The truth was, the idea of Lani materializing right this minute filled him with joy, mixed with panic, all nicely mingled with arousal and a heaping helping of confusion. *What a cocktail.* Darien marveled at his tangled emotions. What he really needed was to get drunk and forget about everything for a while. It was way too early in the day for drinking.

When he got back to the villa, it was just shy of ten. Rowan and Wayde were already wrapped around each other in the deep end of the pool, laughing. Darien waved to both of them as he crossed the veranda, but neither of them noticed.

Jute and Al were sitting on one of the swinging loungers together watching the ocean. They seemed deep in some heavy conversation.

He tried not to stare as he passed Lucas and Riley on the reclining double chaise lounge. Of course, he wasn’t successful, at all.

Lucas appeared to be napping in the sun. Riley was on his side, totally absorbed in watching his boyfriend, as if sleeping Lucas were the most amazing thing alive. The look on Riley’s face made Darien’s pulse spike. If only Riley would look at him that way. Darien chuckled at himself. He hadn’t entertained that fantasy in a while. Who would with the evidence laid out in front of him. Riley didn’t even notice Darien walking past.

Sharon and Alex were in the kitchen helping Morgan make her famous breakfast casserole. The four of them were laughing and teasing each other mercilessly, as usual. Darien stood in the doorway for a while, but nobody saw him.

He watched as Holly pulled Morgan away from whisking the eggs long enough to claim a kiss. Alex did his usual ogling routine, while Sharon laughed and wrapped her arms around his waist, pressing her cheek to his back. Alex was smiling as he pulled Sharon around and kissed the top of her head. The whole kitchen was zinging with Gaea energy as the four of them casually shared power. It looked to Darien as if they didn’t even realize they were connecting. Maybe that was part of the Thirteen Bond they shared.

message 37: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Twelve continued...

He backed out of the kitchen and headed down the hall. Sometimes, being around his sister and the rest of the Thirteen was seriously hard to take. They all seemed blissfully happy in their coupled up, Bonded way. With the obvious exception of Suya, who hadn’t seemed happy in a long time.

Darien wondered how Suya really was. He tweeted occasionally, but he didn’t come home for the holidays. In fact, none of the triplets had come home. Darien had tried to get Alchemy to talk about her strangely absent brothers, but she was suddenly acting squirrely whenever he brought them up. Dare figured he should take the hint and respect Al’s privacy.

Pierre’s and Ben’s energy signatures were coming from Ben’s room. The door was wide open so Dare walked in, but he’d barely made it inside when his steps faltered. He was suddenly rooted to the spot. A tangle of emotions welled up inside him so strong that he felt completely overwhelmed. All he could do was stand and watch.

Ben was seated in his wheelchair, dressed only from the waist down. He was so skinny you could almost count every rib. But, he looked totally relaxed, a blissful smile playing across his face as he tilted his head further to one side for Pierre.

Bringing his hand up, Pierre gently ran the old fashioned straight razor up Ben’s neck and over his jaw, making a scraping sound as he cleared away the last few traces of shaving cream. The look on Pierre’s face as he cared for his husband was filled with peace and a little wonder.

It had been so long, so many months of Ben lying in a coma, nobody knowing if he would ever wake. And here he sat, upright, smiling, so unbelievably beautiful, Darien couldn’t move.

Darien felt his throat burn and his eyes sting. He pressed his lips together hard, trying to force back the tears. It was impossible. Two escaped to race down his cheeks. He wiped them away.

Would he ever find that kind of trust? That kind of devotion? The sudden longing felt sharp.

Realizing he was once again in the role of voyeur, Darien turned to leave, but Ben called his name. When Darien turned back he was surprised to find Ben hadn’t opened his eyes.

“Come in, Dare.” Ben held out a hand.

Immediately, Darien crossed the space and took Ben’s hand. Those green eyes opened and met his, giving Darien’s heart another jolt. He couldn’t get used to having Ben’s warm eyes on him again. He found himself smiling down at the man, his heart feeling like a swelling balloon.

“Ooh, what have you brought us?” Ben was smiling at the gift bag.

Pierre turned from putting the razor down, and began rubbing a wet cloth along Ben’s face and neck. He smiled at Darien.

“Another gift?” Pierre asked. “You do realize Christmas is well and truly over.”

“Yes,” Darien rolled his eyes. “This was sort of last minute, and I couldn’t pick it up until today.” He came closer, sitting on the edge of the bed in front of Ben. Pierre put the towel down and joined him as Dare placed the bag in Ben’s lap. He felt Pierre’s arm drape his shoulder as Darien explained, “It’s for both of you.”

Ben started to hand the package to Pierre but he waved a hand. “You do the honors, mon ange.”

The smile Ben gave them both had Darien’s throat tightening again. He mostly felt joy, but Pierre’s expression as he watched Ben dig into the bag left Darien feeling strangely bereft, too. There was no explanation for the mix of emotions he was battling, so he simply focused on Ben.

“If I’m not mistaken, this looks like it’s from Malone’s.” Ben pointed at the logo. He was grinning as he lifted the box and shook it. For a moment, he looked like a boy again as he held the box up to his ear. “It’s got some weight to it.” He smiled at Pierre.

“Well, don’t keep us waiting.” Pierre laughed.

When Ben’s shaking hands fumbled with the paper around the frame, Darien took the empty box out of the way. Pierre bent forward to help him unwrap. Ben’s sharp inhale brought Darien’s eyes up. He was running a hand along the braided metal frame.

“It’s like our cuffs,” Pierre ran a reverent finger over Ben’s cuff.

“The photo is from this year’s illumination at the park. I saw that elderly couple holding hands, still looking so happy after all the years, and they made me think of you. I figured you could change it out for something else,” Darien shrugged.

“It’s beautiful, Darien.” Ben took hold of Darien’s hand and pulled him until he was bent over the wheelchair, awkwardly hugging Ben’s frail body. He inhaled deeply of Ben’s familiar scent as he kissed the top of his head.

When Ben let him go, Dare found himself folded into Pierre’s arms. Darien had to struggle to get the words he’d been needing to say out. “I really love you guys,” he spoke into Pierre’s neck. Another gust of overwhelming emotion blew through him.

This time last year, he’d thought these two amazing men, who had been part of his extended family since the day he was born, were dead and gone. Now he had them back, and some days, like today, he didn’t know what to do with the overload of feelings. “I’m so glad you’re back. You have no idea.”

Pierre squeezed him hard and Darien felt Pierre’s hand brush over his hair like he’d done since Darien was little. “We love you too, Dare.”

Ben simply took his hand and squeezed.

When Darien stepped back, he found Ben smiling at the photo. He let go of Darien’s hand and blindly reached for his husband’s. They laced their fingers together just like the couple in the image. “Someday, when we’re old and gray, we’ll get Darien to photograph our own hands and that’s the day we’ll replace this image,” Ben smiled up at Pierre.

Pierre nodded his head and bent forward, gently kissing Ben’s smiling lips. “I like that plan.” His voice sounded thick as he ran a hand over Ben’s hair.

Again, Darien felt a painful sting of longing. He hadn’t realized he’d let his feelings slip until both Pierre and Ben turned concerned looks at him.

“Come sit. Tell us what’s wrong,” Ben tugged on Darien’s wrist until he sat back down on the bed. “You look so sad. What’s happened?”

Darien didn’t know what to say. He certainly didn’t want to burden Ben with his drama. He looked to Pierre for help getting him out of this, but Pierre simply smiled and shook his head.

“Don’t even think about holding out, young man. I might be weak, but I’m strong enough to give one of my boys some advice. Spill.”

“I don’t know where…I mean it’s just that I’m…Okay. There’s this guy…Actually, there’s two of them…And, I cheated…now, there’s a break…and I don’t know…” Darien’s shoulders sagged. He wasn’t making any sense as he fumbled around.

“This is about the dark haired boy who followed you in here, isn’t it?” Ben sat forward in his chair.

Darien cocked his head. “You were in a coma. How do you know about that?”

Ben looked at Pierre. Smiles crossed both of their faces.

“This is a Bonding thing, isn’t it?” Darien looked back and forth between them.

“I could often see and hear what was happening around me through Pierre, even though I couldn’t respond,” Ben confirmed.

No wonder Pierre had been so diligent in his vigil. He must have felt Ben’s presence, known he was giving Ben a window back to his life. Darien rubbed a hand over his aching chest. His problems were nothing compared to what these men had been going through.

“Don’t do that.” Pierre was frowning at him. “Don’t trivialize. Just start at the beginning and tell us. Maybe we can help.” Once again, Pierre sat beside him and draped an arm over his shoulder.

So, Darien did as he was told. He started at the beginning and gave them the abridged version of his saga with Lani and Tim. Nobody needed to hear the unabridged version.

“…So, now I’m not sure what to do. I had this totally amazing boyfriend and I’m messing it all up for the guy who already put me through the worst pain of my life.” With that revelation, Darien sat up straighter. “Hey, now that I’ve vomited all that out, it seems obvious I should go home and beg Tim to forgive me. I guess talking did help. Thanks for listening.” Darien frowned when Ben began shaking his head.

“Actually, I was thinking how relieved I was to hear that you’re on a break with Tim and giving Lani a second chance.” Ben looked to Pierre. “Don’t you agree?”

“Absolutely,” Pierre squeezed Darien’s shoulder.

“But…” Darien would have argued if Pierre’s finger hadn’t pressed against his lips to stop him.

“Love isn’t supposed to be easy, Dare. If there’s even a chance you might love Lani, than you need to give him a chance before you blow him off.”

“Besides, if a relationship is done properly, it certainly won’t be pain free,” Ben added. “Just look at us.”

This got an unexpected laugh from Pierre. Darien didn’t know what to make of that as Ben continued to speak, “Here’s something you both should know. I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one single minute of loving this man.”

Pierre’s laughter abruptly died. He turned bright eyes on his husband. His smile went a bit sly as he asked, “Not even that first week we met?”

“Not even that,” Ben chuckled. Then his features sobered suddenly. He pulled Pierre closer, cupping a hand behind his husband’s neck and pressing their foreheads together. “Not one minute, Pierre.”

Time seemed to slow as they remained quiet. It seemed like some private conversation was passing between the two men. Finally, Ben sat back in his chair and continued to speak, “I especially wouldn’t change things for the promise of some boring, safe and normal life.”

Darien was surprised when Ben’s eyes cut to his. “If I read that sad look you were giving us correctly, you’re longing for a bond like ours. The safe road is not where you’ll find it.”

“Nothing worth having comes easy,” Pierre added. When Darien lifted a brow, Pierre shrugged. “Some clichés stick because they’re true.” He gave Darien’s shoulders another squeeze and kissed his temple.

“Thanks, I think,” Darien rolled his eyes, making both men laugh.

“Now that we’ve got all that straight, tell me about my lions. How are Bogo and Pogo?” Ben sat forward in his chair again.

Darien was happy to change the subject, giving Ben all the good news. He left out the not so good news about the break-ins, figuring Ben didn’t need the stress. He answered all of Ben’s questions about the animals while Pierre finished helping Ben dress. It was beyond fantastic to hear both men’s laughter. So, Darien made it his mission to entertain.

By the time they got the call to come to breakfast, Darien realized he was feeling pretty spectacular.

message 38: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Thirteen

Lani looked at his watch for maybe the tenth time. It was ten minutes past seven on New Year’s Eve. Looking around the empty Wildwood Bandstand, with the white lights twinkling in the trees, Lani tried to digest the fact that Darien wasn’t coming. But, he couldn’t quite make himself walk back to the car to face the bleak prospect of another year alone. Instead, he shoved his hands in his dress coat and watched his frozen breaths disappear into the cold, night air.

There was a tiny sliver of a moon peeking out from between the grey clouds. Mostly, the sky looked dark and foreboding, much like the prospect of 2014. Lani tried to accept this purgatory he was living. It was no less than he deserved. Feeling numb, he barely registered the frigid cold as he stood in the freshly fallen snow.

Lani reminded himself he’d promised no harm, no foul. But he wasn’t sure he could get his shit together enough to drive to the zoo and spend an evening smiling at Darien like everything was fine.

What had he been thinking making that promise? No way was he going to be able to act like everything was okay. The last three days of wondering had been hell enough. Lani had stalked Darien all over Annadox Island, watching him like some kind of pathetic loser. He’d nearly been caught more than once.

Definitely lolo, that’s what you are.

Now that Dare was a no show, Lani really wanted to go home, toss his rented tuxedo on the floor, and crawl into bed for a week. He didn’t have much money left to do anything else. He’d spent nearly every penny on the monkey suit. All he had left was the cash in his wallet for tonight’s nonexistent date. Maybe he should go spend his last fifty bucks at Richards and skip the whole Larabee Wild Animal Park Gala.

If there was any lesson to be learned from tonight, it was the realization that it was beyond time for Lani to find a job. He could take his Dad up on the offer to work at Out and About. The grand opening of his father’s new outdoor store was scheduled for the spring, and their soft opening was next month. But, he didn’t like taking what he felt were handouts from his family. He looked down Wildwood Avenue at the glowing lights.

Maybe he would put in applications at some of the other shops. What he really needed was his own ride so he could get a job downtown and get the fuck out of Wildwood. A wicked good plan, that.

He needed to get away from his current obsession – watching Darien. But, how could he get a car? His parents didn’t have the money to buy one right now. Not when their house in Hilo hadn’t rented. Lani felt his stomach give another hard twist.

On top of everything else, Lani’s dad had broken bad news yesterday. Since they hadn’t found a renter, his parents were considering putting the Hilo house on the market. Lani didn’t want to see their home sold to the highest bidder. Especially, since he would be moving back there at the first chance.

It was nearly quarter past seven. Darien definitely wasn’t coming.

Lani began to slowly walk to his dad’s car, which he’d parked by Greene Beans. He’d been thinking he and Dare might want to grab a couple of coffees on their way out to the park. He listened to his feet shuffle through the freshly fallen snow.

When he was close to the SUV, he about jumped out of his skin. The door to Thistle suddenly burst open and Carson’s head popped out. “Well, hello good looking.”
Lani tried to smile when Carson openly cruised him. He couldn’t quite seem to make one materialize.

“Gods, I just love a man in a tux. I have to see the rest. Get in here,” Carson reached out and dragged Lani inside, marching him over to the spot where the mirrors would capture him from every angle.

Strangely, Lani found a smile tug at his mouth when Carson removed his scarf and began to unbutton Lani’s overcoat until he could push it out of the way.

“Holy gods and goddesses, you are yummy delicious, Lani!” Carson let his eyes travel over the classic lines of Lani’s rental. “Damn! You clean up nice. Who’s the lucky guy and why isn’t he me?” Carson’s laughing eyes met Lani’s, then his smile fell away. “Oh, honey. Did some idiot stand you up?” His hands were petting Lani’s lapels now, in a gesture that was strangely soothing.

Lani simply nodded, not sure he could speak.

“Oh, no! Come here. Let me give you some sugar.” Carson pulled him into a hug. Lani gladly let himself be held.

“Car! Why aren’t you locked up?” Elliot came through the front door. “Oh, for the love of the gods, stop groping Lani and let’s get a move on. Stag night at Richards is calling.” He was flipping his keys around one finger as he came striding over.

“I think we need to take care of someone first.” Carson looked over his shoulder at Elliot as he let Lani go.

“No, that’s okay. You should go have fun,” Lani worked hard to put what might pass for a genuine smile on his face.

“Only if you say you’ll come with,” Carson was suddenly rocking his best puppy dog look. Which was actually pretty freaking adorable. He looked good in his clubbing outfit of dark, fitted slacks and an electric blue shirt that brought out the color of his eyes, or maybe that was the dash of blue eyeliner he was wearing. His blond hair was arranged in messy spikes. When Carson batted those huge eyes, he knew exactly the effect he was having. “Pretty please. You’re all dressed up like some sexy man package just for me. How can I walk away from all this?” He made extravagant gestures to indicate Lani’s person as he looked at Elliot.

“I have no idea,” Elliot deadpanned.

Carson rolled his eyes as if to say Elliot was not helping.

Lani found himself laughing. “I don’t know.” Should he ditch Darien and the zoo all together?

A grin played across Elliot’s face. “You should come. The more the merrier. Aren might be there, later.”

“Hey! Don’t go giving away my suit porn before I even get a shot,” Carson punched Elliot’s arm. “What kind of wing man are you?”

“Ouch,” Elliot pretended to be injured. “Jeez, sorry. I’ll try to remember it’s all about you, tonight.” He winked at Lani.

“See that you do,” Carson laughed and turned to grab his things from behind the counter. “What do you say, Lani?” He held the door open for them.

Lani looked at his watch. Twenty after seven. Did he really want to torture himself all night at the zoo, or did he want to C_Car_Go with Elliot at Richards? The choice didn’t seem hard to make -- at all.

“Sure. Stag night. Why not.” He found himself laughing again when Carson squealed and began to jump up and down clapping.

message 39: by Amanda (last edited Feb 08, 2014 06:51AM) (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments Chapter Thirteen continued...

Chatting on the sidewalk with Elliot while they waited for Carson to lock up, Lani felt a pulse of Gaea power. He froze, afraid to turn, afraid to even breathe. Surely his imagination was playing tricks. Darien’s energy signature was in the alley across the street and he was coming closer.

Slowly Lani turned, straining to see through the dark. He held his breath until his ears were ringing with the need for oxygen. He took a deep gulp of air the minute Darien’s form began to emerge from the shadows. Lani reached out to steady himself against Carson. His knees felt watery with relief.

“Well, damn. I knew a surprise man in a tux was too good to be true.” Carson was practically holding him up. He spoke into Lani’s ear, “I take it you weren’t stood up after all.” When Lani simply stood there, gawking, Carson gave him a gentle push. “Go, have a Happy New Year.”

Lani walked toward the street, crossing to stand beside his dad’s SUV. He vaguely heard Elliot and Carson calling out something to Dare who smiled and waved at them. Lani simply drank in the sight of Darien walking closer. His tuxedo was mostly covered by a long, black coat. That black and white checkered scarf he’d been favoring was wrapped around his neck. His dark curls were arranged in their typical unruly mess that made Lani want to touch.

“Hey,” Darien’s smile looked a little shy as he came closer. “Sorry, I’m so late.”

“It’s okay,” Lani returned the smile. He was so relieved Dare was here, he didn’t even care about spending the last few days in hell.

“I’m glad you waited.” Darien was close enough now that Lani could reach out and touch, but he didn’t dare. Not yet.

Lani’s eyes tracked down to Darien’s wrists. They were completely covered by the coat. His eyes returned to Darien’s.

Please, dear Pele, let him be wearing it.

His stomach did a hard somersault when Darien tugged his coat sleeve up, revealing the bracelet Lani had given him.

Lani did the only thing he could think to do. He grabbed the lapels of Darien’s coat with both hands and hauled him into a kiss. Somewhere distant, he heard a loud wolf whistle and the revving of Elliot’s engine. But, it was quickly forgotten as sensations overwhelmed him.

The sound of Darien’s groan as he opened, licking his tongue into Lani’s mouth, was like hearing an old favorite song he’d forgotten how much he loved. Hands were suddenly gripping his back hard enough to sting. His insides felt like they might melt.

Soon, Lani had Darien pressed against the car, their bodies perfectly lined up and fused together. Tongues and teeth and gripping hands, Darien’s familiar scent, and those beautiful little sounds he made all combined into a sweet, blissful sensation as their bodies rocked together in a rhythm only the two of them could hear.

Thank Pele, Darien seemed completely on board with being late to the party, because it was a long time before Lani let him go.

At some point, snow started to fall. Because when Lani finally came up for air, there were tiny white flakes dusted through Dare’s curls. The frigid cold was starting to intrude, and Lani knew they needed to get moving before they both ended up with pneumonia.

But, Darien was looking at him with swollen lips, his cheeks and nose bright red, his eyes blown wide, and Lani wanted nothing more than to start peeling away the layers. When the corners of Dare’s mouth curled into that knowing smile of his, Lani caught a glimpse of the future, and for the first time in a long time, it felt bright.

Tracing a finger along one of Dare’s cheeks, he could only think of one thing to say, “Mahalo, Darien.”

Dare turned his head and kissed the tip of Lani’s finger. His eyes turned molten. “What exactly are you thanking me for?” He laughed and pressed harder against Lani’s obvious arousal.

Sucking in a breath, Lani brought his hand up and cupped the back of Dare’s head, making sure their eyes were locked on before he whispered, “For giving me another chance. We both know I don’t deserve it.”

“Don’t ever say that!” Darien’s angry tone startled Lani. “You deserve to be happy.”

Their Gaea energies combined, and the warmth of their shared power coursed between them. When Lani opened himself more, the power became overwhelming. He suddenly felt like he was drowning in it. He couldn’t catch his breath, his heart was racing, his ears ringing. Darien’s arms tightened around Lani as Air energy seemed to whip faster around his Water power. After a moment of confusion, Lani realized what he needed to do. He dove into Dare’s bright green eyes, holding on to him for all he was worth.

The waves of energy pummeled them both, pulling them under, but oddly, neither of them struggled to surface. Minds fully linking, Lani found he only wanted to sink deeper into Dare, like he couldn’t get close enough. Darien felt the same way. An electric buzz was lighting them up from head to toe, and Lani wouldn’t be surprised to find them glowing, if he could take his eyes off Darien’s for even a split second. There was no looking away, no going back.

When the buzz turned to a hum and sparks of little static shocks began to zing all over both of their bodies, Lani let the last of his flood gates open, and Darien groaned at the final coursing surge. Eyes still locked, Lani leaned forward to touch their lips in a final connection. A bright spark snapped between them making them both jump and laugh, and the energy immediately sank back, slowly beginning to calm. They’d found a Balance at last. Standing stock still, their arms remained banded around one another as the energy slowly settled and everything floated back to normal.

“Too bad it isn’t midnight.” Darien was grinning. “That would’ve made one hell of a New Year’s kiss.”

message 40: by Amanda (last edited Feb 08, 2014 07:08AM) (new)

Amanda Corlies (amandacorlies) | 109 comments And there you have Wildwood Tides, Season Four. Thank you for letting me share it here. Season Five began February 3rd, and you can continue to read about Darien and Lani every Friday at www.theravenscrossing.org

The Ravens Crossing Book Four (The Ravens Crossing, #4) by Andi Lea The Ravens Crossing: Book Four was just published, it's the anthology of all of Season Four in eBook. Please feel free to leave us a review. Ask questions, make comments. We love hearing from you.

If you are interested in what happened before Season Four... this is the reading order:

The Ravens Crossing: Book 1

The Ravens Crossing: Book 2

The Ravens Crossing: Book 3

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