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?