The weapon that nearly destroyed humanity may be their only salvation.
Rhys Cooper’s unique immunity to all three strains of the virus that nearly annihilated humanity has brought him the unwanted attention of Clean Zone scientists. They’ve summoned him for testing—ostensibly in the hopes of finding a vaccine—but Rhys’s partner, Darius Murrell, has good reason not to trust any government. He and his comrades in Delta Company were unwitting test subjects for Project Juggernaut, the military experiment that gave them superhuman abilities and unleashed the pandemic. Doubting the government’s intentions, Delta Company refuses to let Rhys go alone.
Fear of infection has kept Zach Houtman and his lover Nico Fernández apart for a decade. They meet rarely, just long enough to coordinate their spying on the head of the government’s virus research division. Secretary Littlewood is a vicious predator, and they suspect he’s trying to acquire the strain of the virus that would make him superhuman. To stop him, they need the perfect bait: Rhys.
For Rhys, helping them might cost him his relationship with Darius—or his life. For Zach and Nico, even if their plan succeeds, they still face the ultimate question: can infected and uninfected people ever live together safely?
“What are you doing?” a low voice growled behind Rhys. He smiled to himself, abandoning the piano keys to fiddle with the buttons on his shirt.
“Taking advantage of the fact that we’re in an area that’s already been patrolled.” He shrugged out of his shirt and turned to face Darius, leaning back against the piano in the lounge of the Denver hotel they were camped at for the night. Delta Company’s operational protocol dictated that when camping in areas that hadn’t been patrolled for revenants and rogue survivors, everyone slept in one barricaded room with guards posted to prevent them being cut off from one another in the event of an attack. But Colorado and most of the surrounding states had been swept long ago, before the Jugs had been exiled from the Colorado Springs Clean Zone.
Which meant that for the first time since he was nine years old, Rhys could venture away from the safety of other people without fear of being shot or eaten. Whatever his misgivings about the reason for their journey, the lack of an audience and the ability to roam freely while on the march was a luxury he could get used to.
Darius walked slowly forward until his body brushed Rhys’s, reaching out to tweak a bared nipple. Rhys gasped and shuddered, his body tensing, his cock filling. The look Darius gave him was half-heat and half-amusement. “I meant the piano. I didn’t know you could play.”
“Oh . . . that.” Rhys blushed in the dim light of the setting sun as it filtered through dust-and-cobweb-covered windows. “There was a piano at the monastery. My mom used to play the flute, so she knew how to read music, and, well, there wasn’t a lot else we could do for entertainment, so she taught me and Cady to play. The music in hymnals is pretty easy. Or it was until we had to burn them.”
Darius smiled, and there was something tender in it, something that only ever came out when he looked at Rhys. This hard-bitten soldier, fierce and world-weary, always had a soft regard for him. He cupped the back of Rhys’s neck with one hand, his skin warm. “Wish I’d known. We had plenty of time to find you a piano at Fort Vancouver. I’ll make sure we get one for you when we’re done with this business in the Clean Zone and go catch up to the rest of Delta Company at Lewis-McChord.”
Discomfort trod quickly on the heels of Rhys’s affectionate surprise at the offer. There was no sense to Darius even suggesting such a thing. Even if Jugs could probably move pianos single-handedly, Rhys probably wouldn’t get much use out of it before life or fate or what-the-fuck-ever came along and screwed things up. “You don’t have time to worry about that. It doesn’t matter. I’ve been too busy to think about playing, too.”
It had been almost a year and a half since Rhys had become Delta Company’s de facto supply officer. He’d needed something to occupy himself while Darius was out patrolling with his squadron, so the assignment made sense. The fact that he didn’t have the abilities of a Jug meant that taking him along was asking for trouble. If he took charge of inventory and provisions, then another Jug was freed up to help their comrades sweep the formerly populated areas for revenants and pockets of survivors instead. Rhys was happy to be useful and grateful for the opportunity to pull his weight in the face of the muttered criticisms some of the other Jugs leveled against having a civvie in their midst. His contribution to their operation was now quantifiable, and he worked his ass off to make sure no one could accuse him of doing a sloppy or inaccurate job of it.
The past six months had been particularly demanding. Last fall, the squadron that had escorted a group of civilians to Colorado Springs had brought back word that the Clean Zone’s Department of Pandemic Research and Prevention had summoned Rhys to have his apparent immunity to the Bane virus tested. While technically the Clean Zone didn’t have the authority to command him or the Jugs to do a damned thing—and the fact that they apparently didn’t realize it was more than a little troubling—Rhys had been unwilling to decline the opportunity to understand why he wasn’t infected.
He should have been, a dozen times over. Since the day the revenants had attacked the monastery where Rhys, his family, and a handful of other survivors had sheltered for seven years, he’d been exposed to various strains of Bane more times than he could count. He’d been in close quarters with people dying of the Rot, the illness that manifested with the Beta strain. He’d grappled with revenants, the feral, cannibalistic victims infected by the Gamma strain. He’d gotten rev blood all over him while trying to keep them from eating him. He’d even been bitten by one.
And he’d been exposed hundreds of times to the nonlethal Alpha strain of the virus that gave Darius and the Jugs their superhuman speed, strength, and reflexes. To no apparent effect.
He wanted to know why, especially if finding out came with the opportunity to help prevent another outbreak. When his summons had arrived, though, Delta Company had just begun preparations to leave Fort Vancouver and move their base of operations closer to Seattle. He’d had to quickly prepare their inventory for transport and make sure they had enough supplies to get them through the transition from a well-established base to someplace entirely unsettled. And in the process, he’d had to catch his replacement up on where everything stood and prepare her to oversee the transition to Lewis-McChord in his absence.
“It wouldn’t have taken long,” Darius argued, interrupting his musings. He swept a finger through the light film of dust on the lid of the piano at Rhys’s back.
That was the other nice thing about traveling to areas that had already been patrolled. The Jugs had established way stations along the common routes to Colorado Springs and maintained them diligently during their semiannual treks to escort uninfected survivors to join the rest of the population in the Clean Zone. So their recent lodgings hadn’t had the same derelict feel that being out on patrol often did. If not for his unease about their destination, this journey would almost feel like a vacation.
“I’ll make sure you have a piano to play at Lewis-McChord if you want one,” Darius added.
Rhys swallowed and looked away. “Assuming I get to leave Colorado Springs with you.”
“Hey.” Darius wiped the dust on his fatigues and hooked his finger under Rhys’s chin, forcing Rhys to meet his eyes. “Ain’t no way I’m letting them make you stay.”
“What if they order you to?”
Darius snorted. “They exiled us, remember? Told us we weren’t citizens, so they can’t order us to do shit. If they want to take you from me, well . . .” Darius’s lips twitched. “I’d like to see them try.”
Rhys’s mouth curved in an answering grin. He loved Darius’s sense of humor. It was wry and understated and didn’t shine through all that often, but when it did, he always made Rhys laugh. Even though he was a big, scary-looking guy who could be downright lethal.
Darius’s smile faded and his face softened. His lips brushed Rhys’s. “Not leaving you behind, boy.”
Rhys closed his eyes as they started to sting and grasped twin handfuls of Darius’s shirt, pulling him closer and giving him a deep kiss. Darius’s tongue slipped between his lips, and Rhys sucked on it greedily, trying to convey his devotion and gratitude with something more effective than words, which always failed him anyway.
With a lurch, Darius had Rhys off his feet and seated atop the baby grand. That was better. More familiar than Darius’s tender solicitude. This was something he knew how to respond to. He leaned back and lifted his hips while Darius worked at his buckle and fly, sweeping the fatigues down his thighs. He stripped off Rhys’s boots with impatient jerks and tossed the lot of it aside before Rhys grabbed his neck and pulled him down for another ferocious kiss.
“Not letting you go,” Darius muttered urgently, his mouth traveling down Rhys’s throat to his chest. He paused at Rhys’s nipples, tongue flicking, teeth scraping, then his mouth closed in a careful bite. Rhys yelped, his hips coming up to push his hard cock against Darius’s chest, but Darius wasn’t inclined to take the hint and move lower. He bit again, slowly increasing the pressure until Rhys’s moans became pained and he shoved at Darius’s shoulders, his body instinctively trying to escape the agony even as his libido reveled in it.
“Yes,” he whimpered, caught in that eternal struggle between resisting the pain and embracing it. He could never surrender without a fight, no matter how badly he wanted it. It was as though it took his reflexes a while to get on board with what was happening.
That, and it was also just sexy as hell to fight Darius and be overpowered. He needed Darius to defeat him, to make him take it. The conclusion was foregone, but that didn’t stop them from performing the steps of their well-rehearsed dance.
Darius waited for Rhys’s cries to escalate to a scream and then switched nipples to repeat the process on the other one.
“Darius!” Rhys clutched his shoulders, his fingers digging in. His body was warming up to the game now, and the pain was no longer something he needed to resist. “God. Yes. Hurt me.”
Darius’s head came up, his lips shining with saliva and his rich brown eyes sparking fiercely in his mahogany face. “How bad you want me to hurt you, boy?”
“Bad,” Rhys gasped, panting as the ache in his nipples began to fade into the background of his arousal. “I want . . .” Rhys’s voice trailed off, and he fought against his inability to ask for what he wanted. Even after two years with Darius, it was a struggle for him, shame choking off his words. For as long as he lived, he would hear voices in the back of his mind, condemning him for the desires (perversions) that had always come naturally. But he knew he wouldn’t get what he wanted unless he said it. Except when they were playing their game of Darius overpowering Rhys’s token resistance, the days when Darius would truly force him had ended when Rhys’s life no longer literally depended upon it. “I want marks.”
Darius growled, his hands tightening on Rhys’s hips. “You sure about that? They won’t fade before we get to Colorado Springs.”
Rhys shuddered, but he held Darius’s gaze. Darius knew that was his greatest challenge, owning up to the things he craved. When they were alone together, he could behave with utter abandon, but he struggled when someone else might think him deviant. He licked his lips, his throat tight as he said, “I need it. Need to feel it before we get there.”
Rhys closed his eyes and whispered, “That I’m yours.”
“Damn right you are.” Darius abandoned his chest and crushed his mouth against Rhys’s, driving him down flat against the piano again. He grabbed Rhys’s dick and began jacking him like he meant business. He drew back and pinned Rhys with a glare. “Don’t want to wait before I fuck you tonight, but tomorrow on the march, we’re gonna find a nice switch for me to whip your ass come night. Leave welts for a week. Ain’t no one gonna doubt you’re mine.”
“Yes! God, please!” Rhys thrashed, trying to thrust up into that stroking, but still pinned by Darius’s torso. It was too much, so intense he didn’t think he could bear it, so perfect he wanted to demand more. “Darius!”
Then Darius’s weight was gone, and Rhys was cold and free, sprawled out on the piano.
“Flip over, boy.”
He rolled eagerly onto his stomach before Darius had even finished pulling the lube out of his pocket. The piano pressed uncomfortably into his midriff, but he was beyond caring. At least he could bend over it without his feet dangling off the floor. Darius had been right in the prediction he’d made two years ago: once Rhys had received proper nutrition, he’d shot up in a late growth spurt and now he was one of the tallest men in Delta Company, second only to a gentle, soft-spoken man-mountain named Joe.
A swipe of oil, the sound of Darius slicking it over his cock behind him, and then his body was against Rhys’s, nudging at his hole, breaching him with a stretch that always bordered on too much in the beginning. It was a pain Rhys had come to love, a pain he knew Darius would push him through until it all became searing, mind-breaking, soul-shattering pleasure.
Which it did by the time Darius was balls-deep inside him. They groaned together.
“Fuck! Darius . . .” Rhys pleaded, and Darius began to stroke. “Yes! Oh God. Right there. More!”
“I got you,” Darius muttered, then grabbed Rhys’s hips, hauled him back until he was bent over further, and slammed into him again.
So full. So right. Pleasure too great to endure. Beads of sweat popped out of his pores and trickled down his forehead until he wiped his face on his upper arm to keep it from dripping into his eyes. Darius’s hands were slick where they gripped his hips, his fingers leaving bruises. He hammered against Rhys’s flanks with the slap of damp skin on damp skin, grunting each time. Unable to wait any longer, Rhys grasped his cock, stroking quickly.
“Yeah, that’s it. Shoot for me, boy. Let me feel it.”
Rhys threw back his head and jerked harder, straining to reach the edge. Sometimes it was quick and easy, but other times he had to work for it, and those were the times when the resulting climax threatened to melt his spine and liquefy his brain. “Oh God. Oh, please. Please. I need it. Need to come. Darius . . .”
“Do it. Come on, do it . . .” Darius’s voice had a hitch that said he was close to losing it himself, and Rhys could tell by the way Darius changed his angle and rhythm ever so slightly that he was trying to hold off. The shift helped him nail Rhys’s prostate more directly, though, giving Rhys the extra push he needed to get over the top.
He yelled and dropped his head to his arm on the piano lid, while his other hand clutched his pulsing shaft, drawing out another stream with each pull. Darius shuddered and gripped him harder, groaning low in his chest before he collapsed against Rhys’s back. He only paused a moment before he began pressing fervent kisses to the side of Rhys’s sweaty neck.
“Jesus. Never get enough of you.”
Rhys smiled against his forearm, reveling in the openness Darius shared with him and no one else, not even his closest friends in Delta Company. Two years ago he’d been a terrified virgin forced to do things he didn’t think he should want in order to save his own life. And Darius had been the gruff soldier who Rhys didn’t think had a sympathetic or tender bone in his body. Along the way, though, grim necessity had become passion and then something even better. Darius hadn’t just kept Rhys alive. He’d taught Rhys how to live.
A familiar knot tightened in his chest, comprised of words Rhys couldn’t untangle to thank Darius for giving him that. To let Darius know that, however they started and for whatever minuscule amount of time they might have together, he appreciated what they had now. The sentiments tangled around themselves, threatening to choke him until he gave up the idea of trying to give them voice.
Slowly, Rhys became aware of the prickly itch of dust clinging to his sweat-damp skin and tried to straighten, forcing Darius back.
“I need a bath,” he announced, gathering his clothes and debating whether or not to try to get dressed.
Darius smirked and tucked himself away, fastening his fatigues. “Do you now? Seem to recall crossing over a stream a mile or so up the road, if you don’t mind walking.”
“I don’t mind.” The distance decided the matter of whether to dress or not. No way was he walking a mile barefoot. Reluctantly, he pulled on his pants, socks, and boots, though he decided to forgo the shirt. “I like this.”
“Being able to venture out whenever we want to. Go for a swim after dark.”
“I do too.” Darius caught him by the arm and tugged him close for a long, slow kiss that had Rhys ready for another round. “Did I mention that the place where we’ll make camp outside the Clean Zone is right on a lake?”
“Sounds perfect.” Rhys pulled away and paused by the door to the lobby, waiting for Darius to shoulder his assault rifle. Even now, he wouldn’t go anywhere without it. The region might have been patrolled for revenants, but bears, wolves, and mountain lions might still be an issue.
On their way out, they passed Schuyler, who was standing first watch in the lobby of the hotel. Rhys averted his eyes, unwilling to meet her scornful look. She hadn’t forgiven him for his role in the events that had led to her lover Kaleo’s death. For that matter, Rhys hadn’t forgiven himself. He ignored the bitter ache of disappointment that always accompanied his awareness of Schuyler’s hatred. One of the last things Kaleo had ever said to him was that Schuyler would love Rhys once they had a chance to get to know each other. But that had been before Jacob’s vendetta against Rhys had led to him blowing Kaleo’s head off. It would never have happened if Rhys had been honest from the start about how far Jacob was willing to go to indulge his malice.
Now Rhys just tried to stay out of her way.
Normally, it wasn’t difficult since she was usually out on patrol. They had only ever bumped into each other when he was provisioning her squad for another sweep. It was his bad luck that the squadron Schuyler commanded had been tapped to deliver this batch of uninfected survivors to the Clean Zone. He hadn’t had a choice but to travel with her. The only thing that made it bearable was that he wasn’t actually under her command. Darius had refused to let Rhys go to Colorado Springs alone, so his own squadron had split in two. Some had stayed to help with the transition to Lewis-McChord and the rest had gone with Darius and Rhys, accompanying Schuyler’s squadron on the escort detail.
Xolani had been one of those to come along, at her own insistence. And where Xolani went, so did Titus. Joe still considered himself Rhys’s bodyguard when away from base, which meant he and Toby had come as well.
In the parking lot of the hotel, they crossed the path of the other member of Schuyler’s squad standing first watch. Emilina Cruzado waved and grinned, jogging over to greet them.
Rhys gave her a smile. “Hey, Emmy.” Of the three civilians Jacob had abducted, she had been the only one to survive. A full-fledged Jug now—and with none of the odd effects that had turned Jacob from a tyrant into a monster—Rhys was fond of her, and he often wished she had been assigned to Darius’s squadron to replace Kaleo, but Schuyler had insisted Emmy join her squad instead.
“Ay ay ay! When’d you get those muscles, papi?” she demanded, giving Rhys’s naked chest a friendly leer and laughing when he blushed. He’d bulked up somewhat from working in the warehouses, though he didn’t think anyone but Darius had noticed. Except, perhaps, Xolani, who was as smug about it as if she’d raised Rhys up from a runt by tirelessly hand-feeding him.
Darius’s arm came around Rhys’s waist and pulled him a little closer, making Emmy laugh harder. For all that he teased Rhys with the possibility of sharing him around—it turned them both on to think he had the right to exert his claim on Rhys to that extent—it was all talk. Darius’s possessive streak was well-known. It had grown intractable once Rhys had no longer required multiple partners to try to pass on the sexually transmitted Alpha strain that they had thought would save his life, and it didn’t appear to have a sense of humor where even the most harmless flirtation was concerned. Which made it ridiculously easy for members of Delta Company to get a rise from Darius.
“We’re going swimming,” Rhys called over his shoulder as Darius propelled him toward the road.
“Have fun!” Emmy gave him a knowing wink and waved, then continued her patrol.
It was gearing up to be another sweltering summer. The thaw had come early to the mountains, leaving the stream swollen and just barely slow enough to bathe in. The evening air was muggy, but the water was frigid, and if not for the dust clinging to his skin, Rhys wouldn’t have dared it.
But Darius’s body was hot against his in the water, his hands deliberate as he helped rub away the sweat and grime. When they finally mounted the bank again, he was shivering, but Darius surrounded him, squeezing warmth back into his flesh.
“Hey,” Rhys murmured, turning his head to kiss Darius’s jaw. “Is that shadow over there a willow tree?”
A soft chuff of laughter brushed his damp shoulder. “Yeah, it is.”
“Then why wait until tomorrow?” Rhys turned more fully for a thorough kiss, his hands sliding down Darius’s broad back to cup his ass. Darius groaned and set him back.
“Go get a switch.”
Over the course of the Bane blog tour, I’ll be sharing a free post-Bane short story, Refuge. How far post-Bane? Well, you’ll have to read and see. Some developments that happen in Bane are referenced, but not in any great detail, which means the reader should only encounter a few very broad, non-specific spoilers. Obviously, though, it will be best enjoyed if you’ve read Bane already (and Bane, of course, is best enjoyed after Juggernaut and Strain.)
Refuge introduces us to three new characters, Kal, Billie, and perhaps my favorite, Zeus. It’s a completely sex-free story, so you’re safe reading it at work. If my nebulous thoughts on how to continue the Strain universe ever take shape, it’s very possible a lot of material in this short story will be folded into a larger plot with Kal and Billie as the protagonists, and if that happens, you’ll find the smut there.
Each day, at least one stop on the blog tour will contain a section of the story. These segments may end or begin a little abruptly or clumsily at times, as I tried to split them in such a way that no one section would be to long and cumbersome for a single stop on the blog tour. In its linear form, it would simply be a five chapter story. By the end of the tour, all the sections will have been posted. If you need to catch up, you can check out the blog tour page (linked above), or my website, or the “Extras” tab on the Bane product page at Riptide for sequential links to all the posts.
Anyone who follows along on the tour will qualify to win store credit at Riptide. To enter the drawing, leave a comment on this post including a way to contact you (email, Twitter, or Facebook.) Each stop along the blog tour that you visit offers you another chance to enter. Be sure to check the Riptide blog tour schedule for a complete list of other stops. The contest will close 9/26/15. Any entries made without a way to contact the winner will be invalidated, so please don’t forget to provide your email, or your Twitter or Facebook address.
Good luck, and enjoy Refuge!
Refuge: CHAPTER 4, PART 3
That was a less pleasant idea than Kal was expecting. “You’ll make friends,” he said, focusing on the roasting animals whose skin crackled, sizzling bits of fat dripping onto the coals. He took Zeus’s squirrel off the spit to begin cooling, since it was smaller and Zeus preferred it warm but still rare. “I know it seems intimidating. At the moment, you don’t know anyone there except me. But with so few people, it’s a fairly close-knit community, and you might even find some familiar faces there. Like I said, we have lots of people who immigrated from the Zone.”
Her eyes were downcast, her fingers plucking listlessly at the turf as she muttered, “Right now, being alone sounds less frightening.”
“Given the situation you found yourself in earlier, I wouldn’t recommend it.” He gave her a wry smile and she met it with one of her own, conceding the point. “Tell you what. Come with me, just for the winter, and see if you like it. I’ll be there, so you won’t be completely surrounded by strangers. We’ll spend the time making sure you know everything you need to for how to survive on your own. If you don’t feel it’s a good fit for you by spring, you can head out with me once the passes thaw and we’ll find someplace temperate for you to settle. Maybe in the south. I’ll stop by any time I’m passing through.”
“The south? What about the revenants?” She said the word a little strangely, almost as though it were a proper noun. Which probably suggested something about how the dangers of the outside world were being explained to people in the Clean Zone.
“What about them?”
“I was heading north because they all live in the south since the Juggernauts—sorry, the Jugs—stopped hunting them.”
Kal choked on his spit. “They did what now?” He sighed. “What did I say about the things they probably taught you about us? Except for the ones in Parliament or those who wanted to raise children, the Jugs didn’t stop patrolling until they’d hunted down every rev they could possibly find. Then they backtracked to make sure they hadn’t missed any. As far as we know, no one’s spotted a rev anywhere in close to fifteen years.”
She let her head fall back. “So I could have been heading south all this time and avoided almost dying this morning.”
He smirked. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. There are still plenty of rotten floors to fall through in the south.”
She scowled and flung a handful of mangled grass at him across the fire.
“Hey, hey! Watch the food!” Kal protested, chuckling. She fell quiet, apparently lost in thought as he turned the spit until the rabbit was ready. They ate the meat with their fingers, gnawing it from the bones when it had cooled enough not to burn them. Billie moaned enthusiastically enough to give him the impression that fresh meat was about as scarce as a decent education in the Clean Zone. Afterward, he heated a pot of water for her to wash with, since she was still caked in dust and probably several species of mold and mildew, and gave her some privacy while he went to bury the picked-over bones of their supper far enough away from camp to ensure no wildlife got any clever ideas.
When he handed her his jar of tooth powder, she stared at it blankly, causing him to make a mental note to have one of their dentists check her teeth out once they reached the Clean Zone.
“Let me guess—the Clean Zone ran out of baking soda decades ago?” No enlightenment brightened her eyes and he sighed. “Sodium bicarbonate? There’s plenty of it to be found in bulk in old restaurants and commissaries, usually with reasonably intact packaging. It’s useless for cooking, since there’s a time limit on its potency, but as long as it’s gritty—but not too gritty—it still works fine for teeth. Here.”
He took her hand and poured a little powder into her palm, then added a drop of diluted peppermint oil. “Make a paste of the oil and powder, then use your finger to scrub your teeth. You could do it with just water and baking soda, but the mint makes it nicer. Try it.”
About the Author & Links:
Amelia C. Gormley published her first short story in the school newspaper in the 4thgrade, and since then has suffered the persistent delusion that enabling other people to hear the voices in her head might be a worthwhile endeavor. She’s even convinced her hapless spouse that it could be a lucrative one as well, especially when coupled with her real-life interest in angst, kink, social justice issues, and pretty men.
When her husband and son aren’t interacting with the back of her head as she stares at the computer, they rely on her to feed them, maintain their domicile, and keep some semblance of order in their lives (all very, very bad ideas—they really should know better by now.) She can also be found playing video games and ranting on Tumblr, seeing as how she’s one of those horrid social justice warriors out to destroy free speech, gaming, geek culture, and everything else that’s fun everywhere.
You can find her self-published Impulse trilogy almost anywhere ebooks are sold, and check out her catalog of Riptide Publishing releases at their website.
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