Friday, May 24, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Thirty, Part Two

Notes: More story! And this isn't quite the end, so never fear, I'm not leaving things with some half-assed HFN this time around.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Thirty, Part Two

***


Chapter Thirty, Part Two

Rone sat beside him in a dark red chair—royal red, but somewhat faded. His hand on Cas’s shoulder was firm enough to comfort without pain, while Rone’s other hand was cupped loosely over his own knee. He wore plain clothes, for a prince and commander—no insignia, nothing of rank showing at all, just a loose, dark shirt and pair of pants. He might be barefoot for all Cas knew—it was warm enough in here to warrant it. “Where are we?” His throat was surprisingly whole, not cracked and dry like it should have been after a long period of unconsciousness.
“We’re at my home.”
Cas frowned and looked around more carefully. The room they were in was lighter than Rone’s bedroom, or any of the other rooms in the living suite in his mansion. The furnishings were older, and seemed more worn-in than what Cas was used to seeing. “Are we?”
“Yes. It’s just not the one in Obsidian. This is the country home, over a thousand miles from the capitol.”
Cas squeezed his eyes shut for a second, feeling a headache coming on. He’d have to deal with it the old-fashioned way, how novel. “Why is Doctor Weiss here?”
“Because he’s got the most experience of any medical professional on the planet when it comes to the phage, not that that’s saying much. Amiru insisted he come along to keep an eye on me.”
“Mmhmm. Who else has he sent to keep an eye on you?” Cas asked sarcastically. “Or me, I guess.”
To his credit, Rone didn’t try to dissemble. “Both of us, and there’s also a detachment of the royal guard here. We’re the subject of a lot of speculation at the moment, after all. It wouldn’t do to let us wander around without supervision.”
“Oversight, you mean.”
“Yes.”
Cas sighed. “I suppose I should count myself lucky that I’m not in prison.”
Rone shook his head. “I wasn’t going to let it come to that.”
God, he was so earnest. It was endearing and frustrating all at once. “You probably should have. You need to do everything you can to shore up your relationship with your brother in the public eye after what happened, don’t you?” Actually… “How much do people know about what happened in the palace?”
“The general public, very little. The military, a great deal more. They provide the personal guards my brother uses, on a rotating basis. It’s considered an honor post. The one that survived had a lot to tell them.”
“He did survive, then.” That was a relief. Fast on its heels was the deluge of remembering who hadn’t managed that much. “Rone, I’m so sorry about Darven.”
Rone frowned and pulled his hand back, folding them together in his lap and staring at them. Cas’s throat tightened. “Thank you,” Rone said after a moment. “I wish there was something that could have been done for him, but at least he wasn’t a slave like Freyne at the end. He died in control of his own mind.”
Cas wasn’t sure that really made it better for anyone who was dying, but if Rone thought so he wasn’t going to argue it. “Speaking of that…”
“Yeah. The phage.” Rone glanced at him. “How much did you hear with Doctor Weiss?”
“Enough of it, I think.” Cas looked up at the ceiling. It would hurt less to tell the next part if he didn’t have to face the man he’d lost his phage to. Gifted it to, really, and gladly, but it still hurt. “You won’t be able to get rid of the phage. Extracting it is impossible if it doesn’t want to leave. It can reform itself with as little as a hundredth of a percent of it left in your body, and it can hide in bones, in teeth, even in hair.”
Rone shifted in his chair. “You described it as a fight, between you and the phage. You talked about dominating it. Why haven’t I had the same issues that you did?”
“I think you probably have,” Cas said wryly. “You just got over them a lot faster. Did it try anything with you? Any visions, any promises?”
“It…” Rone paused. “Maybe? It said that we were an us, said it could give me all sorts of power. It let me see…well, it doesn’t matter what it let me see, but I knew better than to accept any of that.”
“What did you do?”
Rone shrugged. “I told it no. When it pushed, I held it down and didn’t let go until it promised to do what I said.”
Cas let himself look at Rone now, because honestly… “And that worked?”
“It seems to have. I haven’t had any trouble from it since then. No shapeshifting, no weird visions. My dreams are a little more intense than usual, but they’re still just dreams.”
Well, then. It had all worked out for the best. It was better to lose the phage than to lose Rone, especially to Christala. Which, actually… “Christala is dead, right? I didn’t misremember that?”
“She is very much dead,” Rone assured him.
“And Amiru and his family are all right?”
“He’s been given a clean bill of health, which is good because he’s got a lot of work to do, most of it reassuring the senior staff.”
Cas raised an eyebrow. “Because they think you’re an untrustworthy security risk now?”
Rone huffed. “That’s the least of it. At least two people on the general staff wanted me put to death, preferably by throwing me into a lava flow, but they were overruled.”
Cas’s neck was getting a crick in it from twisting to look at Rone. “Either help me sit up of get in here with me,” he grumbled, and was astonished when Rone slipped into bed with him a moment later, snuggling in close against his side. He was warm, and he smelled so familiar, and there was something about the way his skin seemed to shift that reminded Cas of…
“It misses you,” Rone said quietly.
Cas shook his head. “No, it wanted you. I’ve never heard of a phage being so opinionated in my entire life, but I know what I felt. It wanted you from the moment we met you. That’s why I knew it wouldn’t kill you.” He shut his eyes, but a few traitorous tears slipped out anyway. “That’s why I could live with giving it away to you—why it left me at all. I couldn’t have forced it out, it had to want to go. And it did.” And now I have nothing left of it. But I have you, at least for the moment.
“It might want to be in me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t miss being in you. It’s more complicated than I thought.” He sighed. “This whole damn thing is complicated.”
“Yeah.” Cas sniffed, then exhaled shakily as Rone wiped the tears off his cheeks. “So. When’s the divorce?”
Rone’s hand stilled. “Do you want a divorce?”
The sound that came out of Cas’s mouth didn’t sound even close to the laugh he’d been trying for. “I don’t think what I want really comes into it now, does it? I’m a, a spy and a saboteur, and an assassin, and you’re a prince, and I put you and your entire family in danger. Staying married to me isn’t really an option.” Rone didn’t say anything, though, and finally Cas turned his head to look at him. “Is it?”
“That’s something we have to talk about,” Rone finally said. “It’s true that Amiru thinks the best thing would be for us to make a clean break, but he’s not going to force me into anything. And the kids…honestly, the thought of you not being around makes them kind of crazy. They adore you.”
His heart, it was going to burst and even if he had the phage, it wouldn’t have been enough to fix him. “I adore them too,” he whispered.
“I know you do.” Rone was silent for a long moment, then said, “How do you feel about me?”
Cas’s heart felt like it wanted to shrivel in his chest. Why, why did truthfulness have to feel like being flayed alive? “You can’t want me, not really.”
“Please don’t tell me what I want. I know what I want. I need to know how you feel about all this, Cas.”
“You don’t love me.” More tears leaked out, this time trickling down into his hairline. “If you loved anyone, it was Beren, not me. That’s understandable, that’s reasonable, and the fact that I love you shouldn’t enter into any decision you make about me. I knew what I was getting into when I lied to you. I used you, and I’ll be sorry about that for as long as I live, but I can’t regret it.”
“So you do love me,” Rone murmured. “I thought so, but you’re such a good actor I couldn’t be sure.”
Best to spell it out, then. Cas turned and looked Rone in the eyes. “I love you. But I don’t deserve you, or any part of your life.”
Rone touched his face again, smoothing a fingertip over the arch of his eyebrows, then down his nose. “When I married you, I knew exactly what I was getting into.”
“You couldn’t possibly have—”
“Complicated,” Rone interjected. “I knew I was getting complicated. We were always going to be complicated, whether you were Beren or Cas, phage-carrier or simple refugee. As far as I’m concerned, nothing has changed. We’re still complicated, and I still want you in my life more than I’ve ever wanted another person, apart from the kids.”
Cas felt light-headed, aching and empty and yet somehow, welling up with shivery, frightening hope. “How can it even be possible?” he asked. “Us, I mean? Now?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Rone said. “But I know I’m not going to give you up without a fight, not unless you’re done with me.”
Cas smiled. “You better get ready for the fight of your life, then.”
Rone leaned in and kissed him, soft and sweet, a promise more than anything else. “I’m ready.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

SNOW IS BULLSHIT!



Come on, Colorado, you had one job: be ready for planting after Mother's Day!

I was sitting down writing last night--writing Mutable--when my husband looked out into the darkness and said, "Fuck, it's snowing."

What's the big deal, eh? What's a little snow in May, especially in Colorado?

The big deal is we just spent this entire last weekend putting seedlings in the ground. Vegetables, fruits, flowers, plus plants to go in our xeric garden as well. It's the result of months of growing along the windows in our dining room, or plants that we paid for as part of a xeric push our county is doing to lower water usage. All getting snowed on.

Cue swearing, reaching for shoes and jackets and plastic trash bags, running outside into the snow and trying to protect our wee baby plants. I returned cold, grumpy, and wet. I haven't finished the chapter yet. I might today. I'll try. If not, I'll post by tomorrow or Thursday--no more week-long waits this late in the game. But fuuuuuuck.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Thirty, Part One

Notes: OMG, we're almost at the end! Three more posts total after this, I'm thinking. For now, enjoy Cas getting some well-earned R&R...while under constant surveillance.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Thirty, Part One

***


Chapter Thirty, Part One

Overwhelming pain, for Cas, was usually like a flood, the water risen so high within him that the only thing to do was find a distant corner of the cavern of his mind and either hope the air held out, or drown there. The phage was poor at pain management—healing was fast, but it entailed enduring a lot of suffering over the duration. Mental discipline had been the best way to handle it, and that had been a brutal learning curve. Cas was used to it, though. He knew how to handle that kind of pain.
It was different this time. There was no ticking clock in the back of his head counting down the seconds he’d need to endure, no gritted teeth or forced calm. If pain was a flood, then Cas was definitely underwater, but this time…breathing didn’t seem to matter. His whole body felt cool and relaxed, his mind pleasantly empty of anything that might disturb him. He was probably on some really excellent painkillers, then.
He understood that there were sounds around him—whispering noises, people or machines, but rather than try to rise and face them, he let himself go deeper. Eventually he touched down in a place he barely remembered. It looked like his childhood home—two rooms, one for cooking and company and one for all of them to sleep in, with stone floors and walls and a slate ceiling. It was cold, but in a comfortingly familiar way. There was the rug his grandmother had hand-knotted, there was his mother’s favorite cup sitting beside the kettle, and there was—Beren.
He seemed like just a baby, barely old enough to play with the other kids outside. His big, dark eyes were full of wisdom when he looked up, though. “Is it better?” he asked in his sweet, childish voice.
Cas sat down next to him. “Is what better?”
“How you feel now.”
This isn’t a conversation you need to have, Cas argued with himself momentarily. Much less with your mind tricking you into seeing Beren. That’s playing dirty. But surprisingly, he didn’t mind it so much. Maybe because he knew Christala was dead. It was a sick comfort, but nevertheless a solid one to rest on. “It’s better,” Cas said after a moment’s reflection. “Because it means that the hardest part is over.”
“But you’re not done.”
“No,” Cas agreed. “But I also might not get the chance to finish any of the rest of it. I went after the most important person first, and she’s dead now. If that’s what I have to be satisfied with, then I can be.”
“Do you wanna be?”
“What, satisfied? With just her?” Beren nodded, and Cas looked at the floor between them for a moment, following a familiar white vein of quartz to its inevitable end at the wall. “It would be a comfort in some ways,” he confessed. “To just be done with it all. To forget about the others and be happy with the havoc I managed to wreak here on Imperia.”
Beren reached over and took his hand. “You saved them.”
“I know.” Cas squeezed reassuringly. “I know I did. They know it too, but that doesn’t mean anyone is going to admit it, and I did a lot of highly illegal stuff to get here in the first place, so…we’ll have to see how it all balanced out. I don’t think I can rely on anything.”
“Rone,” Beren said very simply.
“You think I can rely on him?” Cas considered it. “Maybe. Absolutely in some ways, almost certainly not in others. Again, it will be a balancing act. If I’m lucky, he’ll order me sent off to join a group of Delacoeurian refugees, with a new identity. I’m sure he won’t let his brother do anything permanent to me.” Almost sure. Nearly sure.
Beren patted his hand. “He won’t.”
“Okay.” Cas opened his arm, and his little brother climbed over and into his lap. He hugged him close and nestled his face against the smooth, glossy black hair and decided it was all right to remember how to breathe.
Gradually he became more and more aware of his actual surroundings—there was a blanket on top of him, just a wisp of weight that nevertheless did a good job of keeping him warm from the chest down. One of his arms was free—or not free, exactly, but not confined by the blanket. It was warm too, and so was the left side of his chest…
Ah. He’d been turned into a pillow. Hell, the children had to be exhausted, what was Rone thinking letting them lie with Cas here when he was little better than a lump?
“…soon as possible.”
“That’s not going to happen.” That was Rone’s voice, and the other one was…Doctor Weiss, maybe?
“Wishing it isn’t so isn’t going to change things.”
“Wishing doesn’t factor into it. And keep your voice down, the kids are asleep.”
There was a long sigh. “I don’t know if you understand how precarious Beren’s position here is. He knowingly carried a virulent alien parasite within reach of our royal family. Not just you and your children, but Amiru’s as well.”
“He was hunting down another carrier.”
“That doesn’t matter! He should have reported her instead of—”
“How successful would a report from a refugee from a distant planet have been? What kind of impact would that have made with the admiralty? Would Amiru ever have even seen it cross his desk? No. Cas did the only thing he could, which was follow her himself.”
“While deceiving you and everyone else around him.” Weiss sounded tired. “Cas, yes, not Beren. That’s a great deal of the problem, right there. How can you be so blind to it?”
“He saved Amiru’s life.” Rone’s voice was firm. “And he saved mine.”
“He infected you with his own parasite, which then did its level best to kill you, from the look of things. Without your genetic modifications bolstering your immune system, the results could very easily have proven fatal.”
“But they weren’t. I’m fine.”
“You’re nowhere near fine!” Doctor Weiss spoke in a furious whisper. “I can’t extract it, do you understand that? It consciously evades detection in your blood and tissues! And your body is viral-resistant, so to engineer a virus that could successfully hunt it down would have to be so strong it would almost certainly kill you! And we’ve seen what these things are capable of now, thank to the vids from your brother’s home. Do you honestly think there’s any chance of you salvaging your military career after this? You’ll be lucky if the king doesn’t stick you on an island in the middle of a sea of lava.”
“I didn’t know you cared.”
“I care about the strength of the empire. I care about Imperia’s future. With you and Amiru working together, I was…optimistic.”
It was Rone’s turn to sigh. “Optimistic about what? That we could continue our conquest of the other settled worlds unmolested? That I’d go back to doing my brother’s dirty work without a qualm? Believe it or not, I think the phage is a good thing for us to know about. It proves that there are things out there that we don’t have a handle on and can’t control. Maybe it’ll make Amiru think twice about exerting the control of the crown over planets that have nothing to do with us.”
“You used to think that way too,” Doctor Weiss said thoughtfully. “Did the children change you so thoroughly?”
“They did,” Rone said. After a moment, he added, “Not just the children.”
“I can see that. Well, I can’t—” The doctor paused. “Ah. I think he’s waking up.”
“Good. Let’s move the kids. I want to talk to him alone.” There were sleepy grumbled, and the sudden absence of comfortable warmth, and then…silence. If Cas had still had his enhanced hearing, maybe he would have been able to detect Rone’s heartbeat or breathing, but to him it sounded like…nothing. Had Rone left him too? When was he coming back?
“Cas.” A big, broad hand covered his bare shoulder, and Cas shuddered with relief. “Look at me.”
With a grunt of effort, Cas opened his eyes.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Nine, Part Two

Notes: Rocks fall, but nobody dies! Well, that's not exactly true, but it's all good. Well, that's not exactly true either, but...anyway, please just enjoy and read on.

In a side note--holy crap, this story is over 80k! It'll probably be 90k by the time I wrap it up! Which should be this month, methinks *wipes forehead*

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Nine, Part Two

***


Chapter Twenty-Nine, Part Two

A second after Christala’s talon punctured his skin, she was ripped off of him—almost, but not quite, in time for her to close her fingers around his throat and take it with her. It was still agony, his blood flying off her hand to speckle his own face, but there was agony to feel instead of nothing at all, and that was an unexpected sweetness. Cas tried to sit up, tried to follow her flying body back, but there was nothing he could do now. He was broken, a sad, listless shade of his former self, and there was no phage to save him from suffering. He stared up at the ceiling, feeling a little like he wanted to rip his own throat out, and tried to remember to breathe. His body didn’t seem to want to do it for him.
No near-death experience had ever led to Cas’s life flashing before his eyes. There were never any midnight confessions, no secret things he’d wished he hadn’t left unsaid, and certainly no thought of a fond reunion with the ones he’d lost on the other side. There was no other side—there was only this side. So it was a little surprising when faces seemed to swim before his eyes—Lilah and Shar, fretful, their eyes teared up like they had been when he left them in the foyer…only they hadn’t been crying then. Had they?
“Move, kids.” The voice was vaguely familiar, but this wasn’t Rone. Amiru? Why would Cas be seeing Amiru right before he died? “It’s been a long time since I had to put in any time as a medic,” the king muttered as he pressed what felt like burning coals dipped in acid against Cas’s neck. Something cool followed them, and after that a blissful numbness started to spread from his ripped-up throat up through his head, and down toward his brutalized joints.
“We should get Daddy,” Lilah said worriedly. “He’ll fix him.”
“Your daddy is going to need to get a hold of himself first, and he’s not going to do that until he’s beaten that bitch’s body into an unrecognizable pulp, apparently,” Amiru replied.
“She’s…dead?”
“If she wasn’t, I wouldn’t be talking to you like this, kiddo.” He pressed a hand to his eye and pulled it away a moment later, a speck of black smeared across one fingertip. “Fuck. Fuck!” He raked his hand across the carpet by Cas’s head, rubbing almost hard enough to break the fibers. “That fucking…” The look he turned on Cas was a glare now. “How could you do that to someone? What kind of sick sons of bitches—”
He stopped speaking when Shar pressed a hand against his mouth. The child shook his head, and after a moment Amiru nodded. Shar took his hand back, and the king sighed. “Your auntie would have my head if she could hear me, wouldn’t she?” he asked tiredly.
“No swearing,” Lilah agreed. “Where is Aunt Tiyana?”
“She’s…safe, with the kids. I think.” He rubbed his eyes again, but this time his hand came away clean. “Lilah, I need you to go to the front of the house and let in the rescue workers who are on the way, all right? Bring two of them in to take care of Cas here.”
Lilah shook her head. “His name is Beren.”
“Oh, baby girl. He’s got a lot to talk to you about.” Amiru scowled down at him. “When he can speak again, that is. Go get the rescue workers and come back fast, all right?”
“Okay.” She pressed to her feet and ran, leaving Shar and Amiru both hunched over Cas like stone-eye frogs.
“I don’t know for sure who you really are,” Amiru said to him after a moment. “I don’t know how much of what I think of you comes from her and how much of it comes from you, and none of that knowledge tells me how much of it is lies. But I’ll tell you this, Cas.” He leaned in close, his dark eyes cold. “If you cost me my brother with what the two of you have done, I’ll do things to you that will make tearing your throat out seem benevolent, do you understand me?”
Shar looked unhappily between his uncle and Cas, the tears that had welled up finally falling. He bent over at the waist and pressed his forehead to Cas’s shoulder. Cas couldn’t quite feel it—everything was numb—but he twisted his hand outward until it bumped what he assumed was Shar’s knee, and left it there. Amiru looked like he wanted to move him, but then a noise pulled his attention away. He groaned and pressed to his feet, then shuffled off toward…what, his wife? His brother? Fresh guards, medical personnel? Cas didn’t know, and he didn’t care.
He was done. It was done, it was over. Christala was dead. Amiru was right—she wouldn’t relinquish control of him unless she was actually incapable of maintaining it, and with the way Rone had pulled her back, quickly and so violently, the odds were good that he’d followed up by killing her. Christala was dead. Beren was avenged, or as close to it as possible. Cas could…stop, now. He could just stop. He could die right now, and he would have accomplished the greatest proportion of his goal. He could die, and Rone and his family could recover without him.
Or…
Or the phage could burn through Rone’s body like a plague, spread to his children, spread to Amiru’s children. Or he could traumatize the kids by dying here on the floor in a puddle of his own blood. Or he could never find out what Christala had promised the other Delacoeurians who had turned on their own people, could let them live out their new lives in perfect harmony with the blood of thousands on their hands. He could leave his husband alone. His husband. Rone.
Fuck that.
Cas closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, keeping it slow and controlled, keeping his heartrate as low as he could manage. He was still losing blood, but slowly, and as long as he maintained his focus he could keep his body working for the time being. He was aware of the sound of Shar breathing next to him, quiet, hitching breaths, like he was crying and trying not to let on. Oh, baby. I’m sorry. It was awful that Shar had to see him like this, but it would be infinitely worse if he died in front of the kid. He could do this. He could live. He had to live.
“—off the ground by now, are you kidding me?” Cas heard Rone above him, his voice as fiery as a guardian angel. He would have smiled if he had the energy for it.
“My priority was checking that you weren’t having your brain liquified by that parasite they carry!” That was Amiru, a harsh, discordant note in the humming net of sound that surrounded Cas.
“I already told you, I’m fine, and he’s—shit, he’s still bleeding. Shar, honey, go with your uncle, okay? I’ve got to get Beren to the doctor.”
“Lilah’s already gone for—”
“Lilah is nine, Amiru! She’s nine and she’s scared and I’m not going to put the onus of saving her parent’s life on her ability to run emergency medical personnel into the far side of this damn fortress!” Cas vaguely felt his body jostle as Rone got his arms beneath him, and gingerly, but with limbs that were oh-so-familiarly strong, lifted him into the air. His knee screamed, but the pain was distant, like it was the result of empathy instead of personal experience. They began to move, fast, and the sway of his head pulled a whine out of him. Okay, the throat, that hurt.
“We’re almost there,” Rone told him gently. “Almost to help. You helped me, I helped you, this is what we do for each other, right? You saved me, now it’s my turn to save you. The phage, though…” He actually chuckled, a tense, strained sound. “That was a shot in the dark. You realize how close I came to losing my fucking mind?”
Cas had an idea, but before he could force his eyes open to look at Rone—before he could do anything at all—his own mind abruptly decided it had had enough. He passed out to the sound of Lilah shouting, “Daddy!