Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Delay and Excerpt

Hi darlins,

Well, due to two looming deadlines for paid work and a monster headache, Mutable is going to have to wait a bit. I'm sorry, I hate to delay this late in the story game, but it's cold and I'm tired and I've got a pile of things to do reminding me they exist.

Instead of Mutable, have some of a story I'm subbing to Dreamspinner at the end of next month. Fight scene for the win!

***




She wrapped her free hand around the back of my neck, then smashed her forehead against my face. I felt my nose break, hot, salty blood gushing over my lips and into my mouth, and my eyes teared up so badly for a moment that I couldn’t see.

Corday followed her elbow up with a vicious knee to the balls, a strike that would have completely incapacitated me if I hadn’t already been reeling back out of her range thanks to the head butt. The impact was still enough to double me over, almost retching with the throbbing pain but not so far out of it that I wasn’t able to grab her leg before she could knee me again.

You wanna play rough? We’ll play rough. Gritting my teeth, I grabbed her behind both knees, lifted her up, and did a high double-leg takedown that put her straight through the glass-topped coffee table.

The noise was intense, way worse than the breaking glass of the door. I was on top now, exposed, not an impossible shot for her sniper to take, and yet no shot came. That meant whoever it was had changed targets, and was probably hunting for Mal. I needed to give him as much time as possible to get away from the hotel, away from both of them. As much as I wanted to turn around and run after him, I had to stay and fight it out.

Corday was stunned, spluttering, but holding onto my hips with her legs. I reared back and began to throw punches, simple, brutal hammerfists, down onto her head. Fuck being a gentleman, this woman was a better, definitely dirtier fighter than me. I needed to end it, fast.

She protected her head well, though, keeping her hands down by her face and leaving her elbows up to deflect my blows. Five strikes in she wrapped up my right arm with her left, looping around it like an eel and drawing me in close, then—crack! She brought her right elbow around for a vicious strike to my face. It hit my cheekbone and not my disaster of a nose, thank fuck, but it was still enough to knock me onto my side.

Glass crunched beneath me, shards glittering like diamonds against the cream-colored carpet, dotted with red splotches from my still-bleeding nose. Corday spun to put her feet between us, seemingly oblivious to the sharp glass beneath her, and lashed out with her foot, kicking me just below the sternum.

I exhaled hard and grabbed ahold of her ankle before she could reel it back in, clutched it to my stomach and twisted, hard, to the left. I wasn’t much of a grappler, never had been, but I was versed enough to know that if you could isolate a limb, it would be that much easier to break. I didn’t want to kill this woman—the thought made me feel sick—but I wouldn’t mind wrenching her tendons out of place so she couldn’t fucking kick me again.

She rolled with the movement of my twist, and ended up flat on her stomach and trying to stand. She was hurt, the plethora of cuts on her back welling with blood, but it wasn’t slowing her down at all. I kept my grip on her foot, got up onto my knees, and jerked her flat just as she was raising her other foot to strike at me.

She hit the floor with a smack, and I took the opportunity to get back onto my feet. I needed a weapon—where had my gun ended up? Hell, her gun would do too.

There. Three feet over, beneath the wall-mounted television. I dropped her foot so I could go after it, saw her hand move out of the corner of my eye—

***

And that's all you get, because I'm MEAN!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Five, Part Two

Noes: Our last chapter of meandering conversation before we get down to the hunt! It's cute, though. What, parasitic organisms can be cute.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Five, Part Two

***


Chapter Twenty-Five, Part Two



Cas didn’t expect to be joined in bed that night. He’d figured he’d be alone there for the rest of however much time he had left with Rone, actually—or he’d be alone in a different bed, a smaller bed, meant for a solitary person who hadn’t lied their way into a marriage. He got under the covers alone, he lay on his side and stared at the wall alone, and finally, he fell asleep alone.

He woke up with a hot body plastered to his back. The heat was almost enough to make him sweat, but that wasn’t the part that woke him—it was the way the phage was purring against his skin, practically vibrating the tiny hairs on his back with the sheer pleasure of being curled against Rone.

“What the fuck?” Cas muttered. He had never, ever heard of a phage acting like this before. Everyone who survived getting a phage implanted did so because they had been strong enough to beat the parasite into submission. From then on out, that was the dynamic—obedience was earned, and it was earned by practice and stricture and slowly doled-out care. Phages…hell, they weren’t pets. They didn’t have the brainpower to be a pet. They were organisms to be trained, tools to be used.

Then why was his phage acting like a snugglelump salamander that wanted nothing more than to cuddle with Rone?

“You feel strange,” Rone said sleepily. He had one arm around Cas’s waist—not tight, but firm enough that it wasn’t just something Cas could slide out from under. “Kind of crawly.”

“It’s the phage,” Cas replied. He felt a little at a loss for words. “Why are you…I mean, it’s totally fine with me, but I didn’t think you’d want to…sleep in here. With me.”

Rone sighed. “I wasn’t sure I’d want to either, but honestly? Unless it makes you uncomfortable, I’d rather keep things the way they were. If you or I go to another room, someone—probably one of the kids, but possibly one of my subordinates, and I don’t know which would be worse—would find out about it. Then it would get around, and the next thing you know people would think we were fighting or on the outs or seconds away from a messy divorce, and it would be really damn messy considering my status here.”

“Oh.” Cas hadn’t even considered that Lilah and Shar might think it was strange. No matter how open and honest things were between him and Rone now, there was still work to be done, still a cover to maintain. He had to continue to be Beren for the time being, at home and abroad. “You’re right. When are the kids coming back?”

“They’re not. We’re picking them up, and spending some time with my brother while we’re at it.”

Great. And it was, but… “Am I going to survive going through those damn doors?”

“I tested them,” Rone said quietly. “You’ll be fine. I wouldn’t let a little thing like a security door take you out now. When we’re done with this, though? I’m going to do everything I can to make them capable of detecting the phage. This is a security flaw that can’t stand.”

“It’s one you could have seen coming decades ago if you’d bothered to do the tiniest bit of diplomacy with us instead of pretending we didn’t exist so you could make deals with the Leelingers.”

Oh hell. Why had that come out right now? Cas didn’t need to start a fight right now, ugh. He opened his mouth to apologize.

“You’re right.” Rone sighed gustily across the back of Cas’s neck. “My father thought—believed, with all he was—that military power needed to be the focus of our policies. He was Imperia first, Imperia all the way. There was no point in reaching out to anyone other than the established governments of any other world, because the minorities didn’t have enough power to be consequential. No one else did, really. Imperia still has the biggest ships, the biggest guns, the most powerful biological weapons. Or so we thought,” he added in a wry tone. “I’m grateful that you’ve shown me otherwise.”

Guilt knotted uncomfortably in Cas’s gut. “You don’t have to say that.”

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.” Rone gave him a little squeeze, then sat up. Cas rolled over to look at him. He wad dressed in thin, temperature-controlled sleep clothes that clung to his body, unlike Cas, who’d rolled into bed in a pair of shorts and nothing else. Instead of getting up and treating Cas to a view of him from behind, though, Rone just sat there and stared at him.

“What is it?” Cas asked after a moment.

“I’m just still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’m sleeping with another man.”

“I’m the same man.”

“Maybe,” Rone allowed, “but you look different. Not just that, but you act different, you hold yourself differently.”

Cas shrugged. “I’m me right now. I don’t get to be me often, so I try to commit to it when I do.” Knowing it was weird but unable to stop himself, he asked, “Do you want to watch me change?”

Rone seemed surprised but not put-off, if the way he’d tilted his head was any indication. “You really wouldn’t mind?”

Part of Cas did mind, actually—he hadn’t let someone actively watch his change, knowing what they were watching, since training. He’d kept it out of Beren’s life, which had been fine by his little brother—Beren hadn’t liked it, said it was creepy. But a bigger part of Cas wanted Rone to know exactly what he was, and what he could do. “No, it’s fine.”

“Do you need to prepare for it somehow, or can you just—” He waved uncertainly at Cas’s face.

“I need to burn a mildew-scented incense cone and dip my fingers in the blood of a frog,” Cas said solemnly. Rone stared, and Cas’s smile broke through his straight face. “No, there’s nothing to prepare. It’s just getting up the willpower to actually do it. The phage tends to be a little reluctant to move after a big workout like last night.” Although today, the phage actually seemed unusually perky. Cas lost focus with his eyes as he turned his attention inward, ready to exert the necessary pressure for—

The phage surged to his face and changed its structure so fast that his skin stung. “Ow,” he muttered, rubbing the new bridge of his nose. He glanced up at Rone, who seemed a little shocked. “It’s not usually that fast,” he said.

“That was—definitely fast,” Rone agreed after a moment of silent staring. “And now you’re…back to Beren.”

“Yeah.”

He lifted a hand. “May I…”

“Sure.” Yes, please touch me. And he did, trailing his fingers lightly over Cas’s forehead, his nose, the new height of his cheekbones and the fresh smoothness of his chin and jaw. Cas held still for it, barely breathing, reminding himself not to lean in. He still looked, though, looked at the wonder in his husband’s expression, wonder that seemed to tilt on its side a few moments in and become—

All of a sudden Rone’s hand was gone, and he was standing, face shuttered and calm. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen in ten minutes.” Then he was gone, not even bothering to stop in the suite’s bathroom first. Cas stared after him and wondered what had gone wrong.

It doesn’t matter. Back to work.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Five, Part One

Notes: It's time to talk it out, like rational adults who are also starving to death thanks to their phage.

**Edit--I've been informed that I POV slip at the end of this one. I'M SORRY! I'm writing too many things in first person right now, oy. I'll fix it soon.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Five, Part One

***


Chapter Twenty-Five, Part One


Well, the big reveal had gone better than Cas thought it would. He was alive, he wasn’t in prison, and he wasn’t being experimented on. Those were all good things. Even better was that Rone had opened up to him, shared his past with him and told him that he would work together with Cas to fix this. Excellent, that part couldn’t be better. Except…

Rone hadn’t touched him. Not past hauling him from the couch to their bathroom, so Cas could shower the rest of the night’s gunk away. “What else do you need right now?” Rone had asked, watching dispassionately as Cas got into the shower. No hint of attraction, no glimmer of lust. None of the slivers of interest that Cas had barely realized were there until they were gone.

It was a terrible thing, to suddenly be confronted with the fact that you’d fucked over a possible future you’d barely even recognized you wanted until you were left with was the pain of knowing it was gone forever.

“Food and sleep.” The phage was snarling, starving, just recovered enough after downing a glass of water that it was feeling up to attacking his muscle tissue. “Protein. Lots of it.”

Rone nodded. “I’ll handle it.” He left, and Cas turned and smacked his forehead so hard on the shower wall that it would have left a mark if the phage hadn’t surged to it, trained to heal even as it fought for scraps of energy.

“You’re so dumb,” he whispered to himself. “So fucking dumb.” The phage percolated just behind his eyes, so hungry it was giving him a headache. “You’re dumb too,” he muttered to it, then grabbed the cleanser. Three minutes later he was dried off, dressed, and debating on whether he should try to walk or just go with crawling to the kitchen, given how his field of view was swaying before his eyes.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Warm, encompassing arms plucked him away from the wall and sat him down on the edge of the bed. “Shit, why didn’t you ask the AI to get help? I would have come.”

Cas shrugged. It was easier than saying I wasn’t sure of that and didn’t want to risk the psychological blow on top of the rest of my day.

“Here.” He put a tray down next to Cas. “Fruit smoothie with added protein, apricot-lamb meal bar, and a piece of toast with peanut bu—damn.”

Cas had slurped down half the smoothie before Rone finished talking. He tipped his head back and polished it off in five more long pulls, not even stopping to breathe—he needed energy more than he needed air right now. He set the glass down and ripped into the meal bar, barely taking time to chew it. His stomach rumbled, and the phage flowed from his head to his gut, seeping into his stomach lining and absorbing nutrients directly from the source. He felt the pain of deprivation begin to fade, and by the time he’d moved on to the peanut butter he actually paused to taste each bite instead of throwing it all to the back of his throat.

He finished the toast, then looked at Rone. “More?”

Rone looked dumbfounded. “You ate all that in less than a minute!”

Cas scratched the back of his head. “Yeah, operating the phage is kind of intense on my metabolism, and I did a lot of work with it tonight.”

“I guess so.” Rone stood up without offering a hand, and Cas wanted to smack his head again for bringing up the very event that had clued Rone into his lies in the first place. “Can you get yourself to the kitchen now, or should I bring another meal in here?”

“I think I can walk.” He stood up and barely wobbled. Half the peanut butter toast had stayed with him instead of the phage, judging from the feeling in his stomach.

“Good.”

Cas ate a bowl of chili, a plate of shrimp yakisoba, another meal bar and an entire container of cottage cheese before his stomach finally protested it had had enough. Eating it all took about ten minutes, during which Rone alternated between looking impressed and concerned. When Cas finally pushed the last container away, Rone shook his head.

“I have never seen a man your size eat like that.”

“You’ve never known anyone with a phage before.” Only maybe he did. Who knew who Christala was imitating right now? “That might be one way to narrow down who in your brother’s staff might actually be Christala—check their food intake for irregularities.”

“So we’re getting right down to it, then.” Rone nodded. “It might be, but let’s start with the obvious solutions. Why can’t we just order everyone to get tested for the phage?”

“Your tests are inconclusive,” Cas pointed out. “I was able to fool them well enough to get here, which means Christala was too. And she infected at least one other person with her phage who wasn’t discovered until he tried to kill me, so even if someone tests positive it won’t be definitive. Besides, then your brother would know what’s going on.”

“Fair enough, but to your second point, Amiru is a decent king and a very competent bureaucrat. He knows the comings and goings of his own staff. He could be a great help in figuring out who Christala might be.”

Cas shook his head. “Her greatest weapon is stealth and surprise. She wants to use your brother for something, which means she’s monitoring him, looking for her chance. If she detects a change in his behavior, she’ll do something drastic. It’s not worth the risk.”

Rone nodded slowly. “Speaking of changes in behavior…you say she set a trap for you. She’s got to know you survived it. How do you want that to play?”

Despite himself, Cas’s heart warmed a little. This was what he’d always dreamed about, having a partner to back him up, someone who could work with him. It was a shame it had come together like this, but… “I think it’s best if we make it appear as though you still believe I’m Beren. You can say I got unexpectedly ill, which was what I was going to try and sell you before you figured everything out. I can make myself look feeble and wan, and she’ll probably think I’ve still got you fooled. What I’m more worried about is how we’re going to justify spending more time with your brother and his family.”

Rone smiled. “That’ll be the easy part. He’s been pestering me nonstop for us to spend more time at the palace. I’ll just say that I’ve finally given in.”

“Perfect.” That would get them into position to act, but they needed more information. “We’re going to need logs of his peoples’ daily activities—their work schedules, where they go on their breaks, when they’ve taken leave, all of it. We can at least pinpoint when Christala moved full-time into her new shell.” Danie had been gone for a week. “She might have had someone else on staff infected before, but even Christala can only be one person at a time.”

“It’s a place to start. And I can get the information on his staff without anyone else knowing.”

It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, even though the hardest work had yet to begin. “Thank you. I can’t tell you how much your help means to me.”

Rone looked away. “I’m not doing it for you, Cas. Not really.”

It hurt, but I’d earned it. “I know. I’m still grateful.” I pushed back from the table. “I’m exhausted. I’d like to go to bed now.” I turned and left him behind, alone, in the kitchen.