Yep, you heard me right ;)
Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Eight, Part Two
Chapter Twenty-Eight, Part Two
It slipped out before he had a chance to stop it, that simple, stupid, single word reply. It was foolish, but it was true. Cas didn’t want to talk to Rone—Cas didn’t even want to look at Rone, not right now, not anymore, not ever again. Looking at him felt like looking the ultimate failure straight in the face. Looking at him made Cas want to grab Christala’s knife out of Amiru’s shoulder and carve the phage out of his husband’s body. Which was impossible, of course.
He looked at Christala instead, who had turned back into her natural self. She seemed pale and sick, sweat standing out over her forehead and temples and along the thin line of her neck. She didn’t have enough phage in her any more to maintain her shift, and it was…odd, to see her again. It had been over a decade since Cas had last glimpsed her actual face. Seeing her smile made him want to rip it off, though.
“You’ll talk to me one way or another,” she murmured. “Directly or through Rone, I don’t care. But either you talk to me, work with me, or I kill you now.”
Kill me now, he almost said, but he couldn’t. It couldn’t end like that—he couldn’t give up, even though he wasn’t in any position to fight her. Cas couldn’t make thralls—he’d never been able to. He couldn’t put his phage into Rone and take control of his husband’s mind that way, wrest it back from Christala like children fighting over a toy. He had to convince her to give Rone back to him. “What do you want from me?”
“What do you think?” She sat up and pushed her lank hair away from her face. Her expression was surprisingly vulnerable. “We’re the last of our kind. And despite what you may think, I don’t want to be alone, Cas. I never wanted to be alone.” She pressed one of her hands against a thin cheek, digging her nails into the skin. “I didn’t think that part through. Thralls aren’t the same—it’s like trying to play chess against yourself, talking with one of them. I thought for a long time that I needed you dead, but now I know I’d rather have you alive.”
She pressed up onto her knees and looked at him, her eyes wide and pleading. “I’ll let him out to talk to you, whenever I don’t need him. Rone has to lead the conquest of the other planets, of course—Amiru’s going to order it, and then I can get rid of him and focus on Rone—but when he’s not needed in the public eye, I’ll give him back to you. And to the kids, too—I know you like those kids. You can keep them. You can keep him, keep what you have with him. He loves you, and I know you love him back.”
“You’ve destroyed what we had together,” Cas replied. His heart felt dead in his chest. “It’s already gone. You said it yourself—you’re inside of him. You always will be. I’d never be able to trust a single word that came out of his mouth, and he’d be disappointed in me if I did, because I know he’d rather die than be your thrall.”
Christala smiled knowingly. “Are you so sure of that?” Rone stepped up beside Cas and put a hand on his shoulder. A tide of longing surged through him, a meld of himself and his phage that was almost enough to knock him over. The phage tensed and reached, quivering inside of him as it gravitated toward Rone. It had liked the man from the start—liked him better than Cas did. Hell, he was pretty sure at this point that his phage liked Rone better than it liked its own host.
“Are you sure he’d rather die? Because he doesn’t feel like a man who’d welcome his own death to me.” Rone turned Cas’s head to look at him. “And I’m not,” he said, her words like sacrilege in his mouth. “I know what a suicidal thrall feels like, and there’s not a speck of that kind of desperation in this man’s body. He’s a fighter—more than you or me, or anyone else I’ve ever inhabited before. He’s not afraid to die, but he isn’t seeking it. He wants to live, Cas. And he wants you to live right along with him.”
“And what about his brother?” Cas asked, looking into Rone’s flat black eyes for any hint of purple. Please don’t be gone. Don’t let her be guessing. “Does he want him dead, like you’re planning? And what are you going to do with the queen and her children?”
“I’ll simply put them aside once he’s dead, out to one of the royal homes in the country,” Christala assured him. “I wouldn’t hurt them. I don’t need to. Amiru will be extraneous soon, but I’ll handle Rone’s anger killing him by promising him to keep you alive and well. He’d rather have you, you know. It’s a shameful secret he carries at the back of his mind, that he’d rather have you in his life than his own flesh and blood. There’s something about him that’s always preferred non-Imperians: first his children, now you. He wants to keep you, Cas. So do I. So let us keep you. Let us have you, alive and well, as a part of our family. Bring the children back, make us all whole. Let us usher in a new age of expansion here, together.”
“Expansion,” Cas said, nearly choking on the phage as it swelled in his throat, treating his wound for want of a better way to express itself. “That’s just another word for conquest. You want to rule everyone, but you can’t even keep yourself in check.”
Christala’s hopeful expression clouded. “I can rule people better than they rule themselves. Look at what I’m doing here, what I’ve done here. Look at how well I can plan. Just think about what I could do for the rest of the system, as long as they have to listen to me.”
Cas shook his head. “You don’t have enough phage to make everyone your thrall, and that’s what it would take to make them all listen to a would-be conqueror. You’re just one more small-minded, vindictive fool.”
“No one is more powerful than I am!” she snapped. “Look at me! Look where I started and see where I am now! I’m fucking amazing, and you’re just lucky to be along for the ride.”
A faint purple flicker flashed deep in Rone’s eyes. Cas stared up at him, every molecule of his body straining for his husband, and knew what he had to do. Rone was fighting Christala’s phage. He would break her hold, as long as he had the strength to do it.
This had better fucking work.
“I am lucky, I know,” Cas said, staring up at his husband. Rone was breathing heavily, fighting inside with all his strength. The phage crawled up Cas’s throat into his mouth, abandoning old haunts in tooth and bone and blood to settle like a mouthful of pond slime against his tongue. So lucky. Before Christala could jerk Rone back, Cas threw himself at his husband, wrapped his arms around his neck, and locked their lips together.
His phage left him in a torrent, as eager as a creature like that could be. It poured into Rone’s mouth, down his throat and into his stomach, then percolated through his organs, laying claim and seeking out its enemy. Rone choked, gasped, his hands clutching at his throat as he fell back.
“No!” Christala screamed.
Cas felt lightheaded, and weaker than he could ever remember being. He collapsed onto the hard floor and rolled over onto his back, wiping one hand across his dripping mouth. So this was what it felt like to lose a piece of yourself.
“You can’t have him as a thrall! He’s mine!”
“Not…my thrall,” Cas managed, turning his head to stare at Rone, to watch the battle taking place inside of him. “It’s all for him,” he whispered. “I gave it all to him.”