Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Twenty, Part One

Notes: ***New note: there's a POV shift in here that crept up on me. I don't have time to fix it yet, but I will asap. Please don't hold it against me!***

Hi darlins! Not the longest post today, but we'll have some genuinely tense moments next week. Read and enjoy :)

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty, Part One

***


Chapter Twenty, Part One



Waking up was abrupt—strangely so, considering that usually when Cas was in bed with Rone his husband took pains to move softly and silently. This time—and the only excuse Cas could give himself was that he was exhausted—once Rone pulled back the bedroom curtain, light from the artificial sunrise that it concealed pouring onto the bed, it was clear to the newly-awake Cas that he’d already been up for quite some time. He was dressed in his military uniform, and something about the briskness of his steps was weirdly off-putting.

“Rise and shine,” he said, glancing Cas’s way with a small smile. “It turns out we’ve got a lot to do this morning.”

We? “I thought you would be busy with the riots today,” Cas said, pushing up to a sitting position. The sunrise became a clear blue sky a moment later, which made him want to scoff. He’d never seen a sky that color, not on Leelinge or Imperia. Did skies even come that shade of blue? Probably just Old Earth propaganda.

“Those are dying down now that the camera system is up and running again,” Rone explained. “The air scrubbers in the city finally managed to catch up with the ash, and our technicians finished their work a few hours ago. There are still a few glitches in the power grid here and there, but they’re not enough to keep me from accompanying you to your appointment.”

What appointment? “Um, I wasn’t aware that I had an appointment.”

“Oh, did I not tell you yesterday? I must have forgotten about it in all the turmoil with the children. Dr. Weiss is ready for your follow-up examination.”

Oh. Shit.

“And it’s going to be on base, and since I’ve got to look over a few things there this morning I thought I’d accompany you,” Rone continued, glancing at his wrist. “We’ve got to be there in under an hour, so please be quick getting ready. And don’t worry about the children, I sent them to the palace with a full escort. I figured you could probably use a break, so my sister-in-law will look after them for the day.”

That was actually kind of disappointing. It wasn’t that I wanted the kids to hero-worship me, and I knew that I was running a risk with them now that they knew I could fight. But…we’d just started getting along. Four days of hell, then one lovely afternoon of friendship, and I didn’t even get to see them off this morning.

Rone nodded his head at the bathroom. “I’ll have breakfast ready for you in fifteen minutes, if you want to shower before we leave.”

How thoughtful. “Thank you, I will.” He left, and I forced myself out of my warm, comfortable bed and toward the bathroom.

Ow. Owwww. My muscles were sore from yesterday’s endeavors, which was funny in a not-at-all-funny way because usually the phage compensated for little things like soreness. But I was taxing my phage, making it work harder than it had ever worked before, and it apparently didn’t have the energy to spare making sure I could walk without wincing.

I made the shower as hot as I could stand and gave the phage a little break once the steam rose up. I touched the familiar rise of my real nose, the hollowness of my cheeks, the lines on the outside of my eyes. I felt exhausted, tired in not just body but in soul. I was sick of pretending to be better than I really was, sick with guilt over inhabiting my brother’s memory. I needed to get with the avenging, and I needed to do it fast.

First, I had to survive this damn trip to the doctor, though.

What would he do, take more blood? As long as it resembled my first sample, I could claim the theory about childhood illness had to be the right one and probably get away with it. Then again, this was an established medical wing inside a permanent base, not a mobile camp set up on a distant planet or a small medbay in a ship. Dr. Weiss probably had access to some truly amazing technology here. Which meant that if I was going to be sure about getting away with my charade for a while longer, I needed to make Dr. Weiss modify my data to be normal willingly. Which meant…it was time to try making a thrall.

I didn’t want to make a thrall. The thought of having anyone other than Christala completely under my power was disgusting, but it was the only way I could think of to ensure that I wouldn’t be found out. I’d never done it before. I knew the theory, but it was considered too risky to the recipient to attempt in most cases, because these were people you wanted alive. Killing someone was easy. Controlling their mind was hard.

It didn’t matter. I had to do what needed to be done, and if that meant turning Dr. Weiss into a temporary—temporary only—thrall, then it had to happen. I tried to clean the bad taste out of my mouth with a toothbrush, then dried off and dressed in a simple red suit that straddled the line between “modest” and “member of the royal family” thanks to the luxurious fabric. The clothes felt like a warm caress against my tight, tired skin. I made sure the phage was fully engaged, then headed out to the kitchen.

Rone had plated some sort of hash, a bunch of different things cooked up together that I hardly recognized, and prepared a cup of coffee for me. I sipped—mmm, sweet. It was just how I liked it, even if I rarely bothered to make it this way. I took a bite of the food and almost moaned at how good it tasted. The plate was full, but I was done with it by the time Rone turned around with his own meal.

“I see you liked it.”

“Yeah. Yes.” I wiped my mouth with my napkin and tried not to look greedily at his own, smaller plate. “I didn’t know you could cook.”

“There are a lot of things you don’t know about me yet,” he said conversationally as he sat down. “But as soon as the riots are completely under control, I’m hoping to change that. We should spend some real time together.”

“And the kids,” I added, because they’d be devastated to be left out.

He smiled. “Of course. I’m sorry it had to happen the way it did, but I’m glad Lilah won’t be throwing tantrums for you anymore.”

“Eh.” I wiggled my hand from side to side. “Let’s give it a few days and see before making a pronouncement like that.”

“No, Lilah’s loyal. Once you’re in her good graces, you’re there forever. Even the people who betrayed her she still regards as loved ones, despite them not deserving it.”

“Um…” I didn’t quite know what to say to that. Luckily, Rone filled in the blanks.

“You look like you’re still hungry. There’s more on the warmer.”

“Thank you.” I picked up my plate and went for seconds, grateful for a little break from sitting across from Rone, under his scrutiny. He seemed unusually intense today, for him. It was probably just residual nerves from yesterday.

Probably.

What else could it be?

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Mutable: Interlude: Rone POV

Notes: Something different today! Very different, but I felt the need to make it clear that Rone isn't, in fact, completely clueless.

Title: Mutable: Interlude: Rone POV

***


Interlude

Rone’s POV



Five hours.

His children had been missing for five hours. His husband was missing for four of those.

It was hard to think about the way that knowledge of that nature took over his entire life, every other care and worry—the trials of his brother, of the monarchy, of the rioters and his troops—suddenly sank into insignificance, pinpricks of warbling light drowned out by the throbbing, painful brilliance of a loss that eclipsed everything else. His children. God, his children. Lilah and Shar knew that that tunnel was a last resort, they knew it, but they hadn’t respected the use of it, hadn’t respected him or Beren. And why would they? It wasn’t as though Rone had taken the time to help them adapt. He’d basically thrown his old family together with his new and said, “Sort it out.”

Well, they certainly had done that.

You’re lucky they weren’t recognized. You’re lucky they’re not dead. You’re lucky he got them home again. Lucky, lucky, lucky. Rone didn’t feel lucky, but he knew better than to trust his feelings at this point in his life. The swell of anger that had risen in him when he learned his children were safe at home, found by their stepfather at the fucking arcade, of all the fucking places—it had been a tidal wave of fury fed by guilt, guided by his own culpability. If he had been his father, he would have released it, and drowned his affection for his children in it—at least temporarily.

But he didn’t let go. He held the anger back, let it wash back down his spine and into his bones, thrum there until it finally lodged into a small, seething nugget in the center of his guts. He could hold his anger there, keep it from hurting anyone, until he was able to let it go. He went to his children and instead of yelling at them, he embraced them. He tucked them close to his body—huge and useless, useless, Beren did more for his children than he had and he was just a slip of a thing—and kissed their heads and told them that he loved them.

“But you can’t do that again,” he said somberly, pulling away to look each of them in the eyes. “You can’t use the tunnel to run away from Beren or me. You can’t waste that kind of security on something frivolous. If someone found out about it, it would be useless to us. We wouldn’t have the option of escape anymore. Do you understand?”

Shar nodded, and Lilah said, “Yes, Daddy. We won’t use the tunnel and we won’t run away from Beren again.”

That was the only good thing to come out of this entire clusterfuck—Lilah’s nightly complaints about what a boring, awful, rotten person her stepfather was had turned into glowing praise of him. Hero worship, Rone reasoned. He found them, after all. It was a terrible thing to have to go through to get them on his side, but Rone couldn’t argue with the results. Even now, both of them were glancing toward where Beren sat on the couch in the tall center room of their suite, his legs crossed, eyes gentle as he watched them talk. He had huge, sweet brown eyes—cow eyes, Rone’s mother had called eyes like that. They were just as soft and delicate as the rest of him. Rone was more than a little surprised that Beren had gotten up the courage to go after the kids by himself, but then…

But then, he had the feeling that there was a lot he didn’t know about his husband.

He didn’t get a better idea of just how much he didn’t know until dinner was eaten, the kids were in bed, and he’d convinced Beren to get some rest as well. Beren settled down in Rone’s room and fell asleep soon after, and Rone had had to fight the impulse just to stand at the door and watch him for a while, like the creepy son of a bitch he was. This marriage was supposed to be in name only, a way to get a young man out of a bad situation. Instead, it was a constant distraction. It had been a relief to get a message from Darven, asking for a meeting in the security center.

The center, a small room off the formal dining chamber connected to the front hallway, was empty of everyone but Darven when Rone got there. It was an express violation of his orders, but when he saw his friend’s face, Rone didn’t fight it. Darven looked poleaxed, his mouth slightly open, eyes unfocused for a few seconds after Rone entered the room.

“I got the footage,” he said after a moment.

“Excellent.” The citywide surveillance system had gone down due to the electrical storms, but plenty of local businesses had their own surveillance, and some of it was simple enough to be resilient. “Did you identify anyone?” Beren had spun a story about keeping the children out of the way of harm, and that much Rone believed, but he had seen the bruises here and there on his husband’s body when he was changing. Beren hadn’t even seemed to notice them, but it was worrying. He’d asked Darven to look for any vids near the arcade that might shed some light on the situation.

“No…but Rone…” Darven shook his head. “I want you to know that whatever you want to do after you watch this, I’m okay with it. That includes doing nothing at all. I don’t trust Beren the way you do, but he took care of Lilah and Shar, and after seeing this…”

Rone was getting worried. “What are you talking about?”

“Just…watch the vid.” Darven got up and headed to the door, pausing just a moment to lay a hand on Rone’s shoulder. “Take some time to think about it before you act, okay?” Then he was gone, and Rone was alone with a few minutes of indistinct, queued-up surveillance footage. He sat down in the chair Darven had vacated. “AI, play the vid.”

“Playing, sir.”

What he saw was—

It was—

You knew it was possible. The dark, curling voice in the back of his brain pushed the thoughts he didn’t want to face front and center. You know he should be dead twice over by now. More. Escaping the creatures on Leelinge. The fight with the engineer aboard your ship. You know how these things work. You know how to read a scene. Rone knew it better than most—he’d been in enough bloodbaths that he had practically a second sight for the progression of a fight. And these had been fights, not accidents, not luck. But this new footage, this vid…this wasn’t a fight.

This was a predator toying with his prey.

It didn’t make sense. Beren was one of the least aggressive people Rone had ever met. The diffidence, the shyness, was it all an act? If so, what was his game plan? What did he want here? Why had he come, and why like this?

He could kill you. Or you might kill him, in a fight like that. Could go either way. And that wasn’t something Rone said about many people.

Beren wouldn’t kill Rone, though. He hadn’t yet, at least, and there had been plenty of opportunity. He seemed to be determined to be as placid as possible, at least when he thought he was being observed.

Kill him. Put him in prison. Send him back to Leelinge. Those were the smartest options. No one on Imperia would bat an eyelash if he decided to do any of the above. But then…

Then Rone would never know why.

He watched the vid twice more, sat and thought a while longer, then finally got up and left the security center. Darven was waiting for him outside it, his expression somber.

“Well?”

Rone nodded toward the console. “Destroy it. Forget you ever saw it.”

“Rone—”

“I’ll take care of it.” He softened his voice and laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I promise, I’m not taking this lightly.”

“He’s staying, then?”

Rone nodded, once. “For now.” He left Darven and headed back to his suite, checked on the children to make sure they were well—his blood chilled a little when he thought of who, or what, he’d left them with. But they were fine. Sleeping peacefully, and Lilah had a smile on her face. Lilah, who hardly smiled for anyone, had been beaming non-stop since Beren had rescued her.

No matter what else might be going on, that was immutable fact. Beren had saved his kids.

Rone sighed and headed for his own bedroom. The darkness was almost total, but he had no problem seeing in it. He stripped off his uniform and boots and got into bed, too tired to take the time to shower right now. Beren made a sleepy, questioning sound, and rolled toward him.

“S’okay?” he asked as he pressed his forehead against Rone’s shoulder.

Rone looked down at this boy, this gentle young man he didn’t know at all, who looked up at him with dozy, trusting eyes. Cow eyes, but there was nothing helpless or vulnerable about Beren. Nothing except for the vulnerabilities he let Rone see.

Those would have to be enough, for now.

Rone tilted his head and kissed Beren’s forehead. “Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.”

“Mmm.” Beren stayed curled next to him, and Rone put an arm around his shoulder and pulled him in tighter.

Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.

Which are you, I wonder?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Nineteen, Part Two

Notes: Hey darlins! Everyone is still sick here, but feeling better enough to handle a new chapter. This one is extra long, as a thank you for being patient. Plus, it has Cas kicking some ass! Enjoy :)

Title: Mutable: Chapter Nineteen, Part Two

***


Chapter Nineteen, Part Two



The tunnel let out underneath a bridge two blocks away from Rone’s enormous house, in an area labeled “UNSAFE: DO NOT ENTER.” It looked unsafe, at first glance, the smooth rock of the interior of the tunnel giving way to crumbly chalk beneath his feet, but Cas knew a well-preserved blind when he was inside of one. Hells, there was another one of those goddamn murder circles embedded at the exit of the thing. It was well-disguised, but again—Cas had built these sorts of tunnels with his own hands, and he wasn’t going to be fooled just because this one was high tech.

He pursed his lips, then slid out the end of the tunnel before he could second-guess himself. Nothing except a faint glow from the security device. Good. Now, to find the kids.

He was almost positive they’d head for the arcade, a place of near-mythic proportions that Lilah couldn’t stop talking about. “You can fly in there, and there are good games there, not dumb games like these ones, and the food is better, and you can pretend to be a spider.” Cas didn’t get the appeal, but he didn’t have to. Clearly it all meant enviable fun to Lilah and Shar.

The arcade was a little over a kilometer away, along a route that Cas had traced out in the dark last night while giving the phage a break. From here, he needed to go…up onto the main street, then left for two blocks, then right for seven. That was the most direct route, the one the kids had most likely taken.

You let his kids run away on your watch. You’re terrible at this.

“Shut up,” he muttered to himself as he tied Lilah’s shirt over the lower half of his face and climbed up onto the main street level. It was…

Loud. Cas had forgotten how loud a riot could be. There were shouts and screams, the constant crackle of some sort of energy weapon that seemed popular, the slow-burning sizzle of melting glass in storefronts where some people were concentrating those weapons. The arcade would probably be abandoned.

Fuck. That meant the kids could be anywhere.

He merged with the crowd, dodging around people flying grotesque signs high above their heads and others firing off bolts of energy into the air, ramping each other up with every step. Everyone’s faces were covered, some with plain cloth but others with some sort of smart fabric that looked electronic, shimmering and distorting their entire face. Cas’s hands itched to grab one, but he had to focus. He had to look for the kids.

He started to push left, toward the edge of the crowd, so he could get going in the right direction.

“Hey! Wrong way, asshole!” A young man carrying one of the tri-pronged zappers clacked the triggers irritatedly. “This is the fastest way to get around the park and to the prince’s gates.”

“I’ve got someone to find first,” Cas replied.

“You’re getting distracted from the fucking mission, man!” He clacked the triggers again, this time in Cas’s direction.

Cas shrugged. “Not my mission.”

“It’s everyone’s mission!” He engaged the triggers, and Cas heard the device prepare to discharge.

Faster than his attacker could react, Cas grabbed the barrel of the device and twisted it up with one hand while sliding in close and driving his elbow in the guy’s solar plexus. The guy bent over, gasping, and Cas put his free hand on the back of the man’s neck and smashed his head down into Cas’s rising knee. Crack. Cas wrenched the zapper out of the guy’s hand, then let go of him.

Blood sheeted down Cas’s erstwhile-attacker’s face, and he staggered away into the arms of two other people, who were watching with wide eyes over their facemasks. “Bye now,” Cas said, clacking the triggers mockingly, then made his way to the side of the press of people and along the nearest building until he could turn right again.

The alleys were quieter, all doors and windows closed off. They looked secure—for a place used to dealing with falling ash or worse from volcanoes, they’d have to be. Cas went as fast as he dared, looking for more signs of either child as he went. He needed to know he was going the right way…but there was nothing. If they weren’t at the arcade…

Panic later. He would find them. They were kids, not enemy operatives. They had a goal in mind, they went for it. They could slip through the crowd easier than an adult, and Lilah would never let herself be separated from Shar, so they were together. They were at the fucking arcade, and Cas was going to find them there. So get to it.

The arcade stuck out along the street—which considering the weird, eye-poppingly strange ways of attracting attention these buildings had, was saying something. It was taller than any of the other buildings by an extra story, and festooned with the sorts of bright colors and cartoon-like characters that Cas could remember watching on stolen media with Beren when they were young. Just like he had thought, it was closed, every one of those colorful doors shuttered. The glass was scuffed and dinged in a few places, maybe evidence of someone trying to break in, but Cas doubted it was the kids.

There were way fewer people to contend with here—the arcade was pretty far from any official government buildings or royal residences. Cas climbed halfway up the nearest lamppost—it connected with a twin across the street, and would set the filament connecting them ablaze with light as soon as dusk hit—and looked around for a small, safe hiding place. Somewhere the kids would fit together, but people wouldn’t think to look inside.

There were bubble-like pop outs on one side of the arcade, hollow spheres that were probably usually lit up with digital displays. Right now they were in what seemed like their sleep mode, swirling, wavelike patterns in neutral colors. One of them, near the bottom of the wall, was broken—maybe it had been hit by a car? Whatever it was, the damage was new enough to be jagged and unrepaired, and it didn’t light up. It was, however, fairly large. Large enough for…

Cas climbed down, darted over to the side of the arcade, and crouched to look inside the sphere.

A blue-clad little foot lashed out at him, barely missing his head.

Cas leaned back far enough to be out of the line of fire. “Hey, Lilah. Hi, Shar.”

Shar’s face peeped around the broken edge. He smiled wide, looking a little relieved.

“Are you okay?”

“We’re fine!” Lilah’s voice was a little muffled, and decidedly not fine.

“Are you sure?” Cas went ahead and sat down on the ground next to the bubble, taking himself out of the sight line of any wanderers as possible. “You sound a little upset. I know I am.”

“Why are you upset?”

“Well, there were an awful lot of people out here. Way too many for me. I don’t like when it’s so crowded.”

There was a pause, and then, “Me neither.”

“Plus, some of them were shouting nasty things. I didn’t like hearing it.”

“They were shouting about Daddy and Uncle Amiru. And they had mean pictures of them.”

Oh…oh, she’d seen some of the…fuck those graphics, it was an atrocious thing to hold above your head and display so anyone could see it, twice as bad when children could see it. Ten times as bad when the kids looking at drawings of their dismembered parent were Rone’s kids.

“Yeah, those were awful,” Cas agreed. “I didn’t want to see them, so I stopped looking up. I kept my eyes on the ground, looking for clues.”

Lilah’s face joined Shar’s. “Hey, that’s my shirt!”

“I know, I needed to borrow it. Sorry.”

“Hmmph.” She frowned at him for a moment, then reluctantly asked, “What kind of clues?”

“Clues about where you guys would be. You were really sneaky getting out of the house.”

Lilah nodded. “Daddy showed us how.”

Oh, I know he did. “Well, I’m lucky I found you.”

“Are you a detective?”

Cas smiled. “Not really.” Although there was a lot of investigative work ahead of him. “I guess I just know you guys a little bit by now.”

“I guess…”

“So.” Cas leaned in a little closer. “Do you think you guys are ready to—”

“Hey, fucker!” One of the signs that had disturbed Lilah so much crashed against the wall next to his head. Cas instantly jumped to his feet and moved away from the broken bubble where the kids were hiding.

It was the idiot from the other road, along with two of his friends. They had already broken into a run, each of them holding some kind of weapon. Seeing them coming at him like this, eager for it, unwilling to negotiate…it made a tension release inside of Cas.

If they were going to try and kill him, then he didn’t have to hold back.

They were all wearing facemasks, but he could smell the blood from the broken nose he’d already given the one in front. Cas slipped under the metal pole that the man swung at him, drove his palm up and into his attacker’s nose—he felt it break in another spot—and swept his foot out from under him at the same time, sending him flying onto his back in under two seconds.

He didn’t bother with the zapper, he didn’t bother picking up the pole. Cas moved like a striking eel, gliding up to his prey and snapping up the guy’s nearest limb, controlling it and reeling him in, then disabling him joint by joint—elbow, shoulder, neck—not quite hard enough to break it, although he was tempted. He ran the second attacker over the first one’s body, dropping him on top, then leapt over both of them to confront the third, who was charging his own zapper and trying to keep his distance. Cas wouldn’t reach him in time to avoid taking a hit with that, so he’d have to—

“Hey!” A blue shoe hit the man in the side of the head, distracting him. Lilah was outside the bubble, barefoot, hoisting her other shoe in her hand.

If Cas could have spared the time for a heartfelt “Fuck!” he would have right then. Instead he took advantage of the guy taking the time to change his target to a little girl—and Cas had never been so sure another person deserved to be maimed—and closed the distance, kicking the zapper out of the man’s hand before stomping down on the top of his foot. Half a dozen little bones shattered under his heel. The man had just enough air to scream before Cas rammed the blade edge of his hand into his hyoid bone, dislocating it. The man dropped, both hands clutching his throat.

Eh, he’d live. Cas took a deep breath, checked the make sure the phage was still up, then collected Lilah’s shoe and brought it back to her. “Thank you,” he said, handing it back. It wasn’t like it would help to get mad, anyway. “I think we should make our way home, don’t you?”

Shar came out and joined his sister. The pair stared at him with wide eyes. “How did you do that, Beren?” Lilah whispered.

“It’s a secret, special thing I can only do when someone is counting on me,” he said. “Like you and Shar.”

“And only us know?”

“Only you.” Cas set a hand on each of their shoulders. “Can you help keep my secret?” They both nodded eagerly.

Thank goodness the surveillance systems are still out. It didn’t really matter if the kids talked about it, Rone probably would just attribute it to overenthusiasm on their part, but anything that encouraged a little bonding between them was good. And frankly, Rone deserved to be left in the dark after neglecting to tell Cas about the damn escape route in his kids’ bedroom. “Okay then. Let’s get back.”