Christmas in Zonei

The Zone Wars

© Copyright jvaughn, 2014, 2015

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter One

A gust of bitter wind tore through the desolate streets, whipping tiny ice crystals into funnels of rage. Blackened snow crunched underfoot as Kim hurried down the street, his hands shoved deep into his pockets, his shoulders hunched against the gale. The twilight washed away the muted colors of the structures and streets in K-Zonei, leaving shades of gray. Shadows lengthened as the hazy sun cast its last rays.

Kim shivered, not only from the cold. His dark eyes darted around, seeking movement in the shadows. He stayed to the center of the street, wary of each alley and dumpster he passed. Zonei did not usually host the random thugs and roving gangs of angry quents that infested some of the lower zones, but wariness was second nature to Kim, especially when the day darkened into night. He was usually safe within his secure unit by the time the sun went down, but with winter solstice approaching, daylight surrendered early. Unless he went directly home after work, he wouldn’t make it before nightfall.

Zonei was sparsely populated. By the twenty-second century, the middle class had almost ceased to exist, and Zonei was a middle zone. Most of the buildings in the zone had been built during the twentieth century and now stood vacant, their windows broken or boarded, their facades crumbling. Kim liked to imagine what the zone had been like when it was teeming with people, the buildings new and clean, the days warm and hopeful.

He was the only one foolish enough to be out in the deepening twilight and biting cold. His face, the only exposed area of his body, burned with chill. He slit his eyes against the blowing ice and tried to shift his thoughts away from the bitter cold.

He had spent the last of his credits on a used paperback. His conscience railed that he should have spent the money on food, and that he couldn’t afford the charge for light to read by, but he hadn’t been able to resist buying a book. He hated going home to his empty apartment. Sitting alone every night with nothing to do, no one to talk to, was slowly eating him away. He felt like he was crumbling, bit-by-bit, day-by-day … like the ancient buildings in Zonei.

He usually did okay on his own. In the summer he was fine. The light lingered long into the evening and he would sit by the window and lose himself in a book. It was only when the days were short and the holiday season approached, that he began to feel keenly the loneliness of his life. His mother had been gone almost two years now, passing away the day before Christmas. Last year at Christmastime he thought he was going to die of sorrow. He dreaded the holiday this year and wondered briefly if he could ignore it, pretend it was January already.

Noticing something large at the side of the street a little ways ahead, he squinted into the gloom. He couldn’t make it out. Whatever it was, it wasn’t moving.

He considered taking an alternate route home, but a sudden blast of icy wind clawed its way under his coat, ripping away what little warmth he had left in his core. He clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. His body shivered convulsively, overcome with chill.

The large dark lump on the side of the road was inert. It’s probably a couple big bags of garbage, Kim decided. He kept going.

The closer Kim got to the garbage, the less garbage-like it appeared. Even as he strained his eyes to make out what it was, he kept his awareness of his surroundings. It could be an attractive find set out to lure someone close so that quents could jump him and mug him—or worse. His stomach twisted in apprehension.

As he approached, awareness of what the object was suddenly hit him, taking his breath away.

It’s a man!

Indeed, it was a very large man. He was absolutely motionless and Kim wondered if he were dead. He started to veer away from the corpse, but then it occurred to him that if the person wasn’t dead, and wasn’t trying to lure him into a trap, he could be hurt. In any case with the temperatures well below freezing and plummeting, the man would be dead before morning if he didn’t seek shelter.

Kim’s brisk walk came to an abrupt halt as he stopped to deliberate.

Make up your mind, Kim! Standing here being a perfect target is the worst possible thing you can do.

Kim knew that if he gave the man a wide berth and went directly home, he’d stress over him all night—likely feel guilty for days. He took a few steps closer to the man. Even lying there in a crumpled heap, Kim could tell the man was huge—of gargantuan proportions.

Then Kim realized that there was something about him that looked familiar. Maintaining a good distance, he picked his way carefully to the other side of the man so he could see his face. His breath caught in his throat as he recognized the man.

He had seen him before. He was an addict who hung out on the street in Zonem. Kim had first noticed him about six month’s earlier and had seen him often since, when he dared to venture into Zonem to buy groceries. The man was usually slouched against a building, bottle in hand, sometimes smoking an opisig, his eyes red enough to bleed. Kim had also seen him staggering down the street, weaving back and forth, stumbling into obstacles. He’d always wondered what drove a man like that to throw his life away.

In Kim’s eyes, the man was perfect, at least physically. He was everything Kim was not. He was the largest man Kim had ever seen, standing more than two meters tall. His shoulders were as wide as Kim was tall. His coloring was light. His blond hair had been trimmed in a very short, military style when Kim had first seen him, but he hadn’t cut it in six months—he probably hadn’t even washed it in almost that long. It hung in limp, filthy tendrils around his shoulders. His gray-blue eyes might have been piercing if they were not clouded with drink and drugs. His cheekbones were high, his nose was aquiline, and from what Kim could tell, under his tangle of dirty beard, his jaw was square and manly. He could have been a movie actor, although his great stature might have precluded a leading role.

When Kim had first seen him, the man was not as shabby as he now appeared. His clothes were expensive, expertly tailored to his fit his large frame. Now his fine wool trousers were frayed to shreds at the hem, there was a tear in his overcoat along the shoulder seam, his once-white shirt was gray and spotted.

Every time Kim had seen him, his heart had gone to his throat. Even in his drunken stupor, the man had an aura of incredible sadness about him, as if he’d lost all hope. Seeing him always made Kim curiously melancholy.

Now Kim stared at him with wide eyes, trying to determine if he were still alive. He could not tell if his massive chest rose and fell under his bulky coat. As Kim eased closer to the comatose man, the stench coming off of him almost made him gag.

The man’s color wasn’t ashen, Kim observed; his nose was too red. His lips were horribly chapped. Noticing that both his hands were stuffed into his pockets, Kim dared to move even closer.

I need to figure out if he’s alive, and if he is, get him out of this wind. Kim had been so distracted by the man that he’d forgotten about the biting cold, but now he realized he was shivering violently, and in spite of his knit gloves, he could no longer feel his fingers.

He crept up to the man and crouched in the snow next to him, his heart pounding in his chest. He could kill me with one blow, Kim thought. He pulled off a glove and reached out slowly to hold his fingers in front of the man’s mouth and nose. Was there a ghost of breath? As the wind died down briefly, he felt the warmth of the man’s exhalation touch his hand.

He’s alive! Kim almost jumped back in fear, but steeled himself. The man was obviously sound asleep, perhaps even unconscious.

“Sir!” Kim’s voice came out a hoarse whisper. The man did not respond.

“Sir!” Kim tried a little louder with like result.

What if I can’t wake him up? I can’t possibly drag him anywhere, he’s too big. And there was no calling for emergency help without credits. Kim knew he couldn’t afford even a phone consultation with a doctor, and judging from the state of the man before him, he had no credits either. He slipped his glove back over frozen fingers while he pondered what to do.

Waking the man seemed his only choice. He pushed hard on the giant’s shoulder and yelled, “Sir! Wake up!”

Quicker than thought, the man grabbed Kim’s wrist in a painful grip as his eyes flew open then narrowed to slits.

Kim let out a squeal of fright. Oh shit!

“What?” The man’s voice was a growl, sounding more animal than human.

Kim heard a whimper come out of his mouth and cursed himself for cowardice. Fighting to control his voice, he gasped, “S … Sir … you need to get out of the cold. You’ll d … die here tonight.” Kim wasn’t sure whether he was stuttering from fright or chill.

The man let go of Kim’s wrist. Obviously deciding that the tiny man was no threat to him, he closed his eyes again with a sigh. “Then let me die,” he whispered.

Kim’s chest was suddenly tight and aching. “I … I can’t just let you die, Sir. Please.”

There was no response from the man.

“Sir,” Kim tried again, “let me help you get yourself home.”

“No home. No more.” The man’s words were almost inaudible. “Nothing.” The last word sounded so desolate that Kim found his eyes were suddenly blurry.

He glanced around. It was now almost fully dark. The streetlights had come on, but only one in three functioned, and their meager light did little to dispel the encroaching darkness.

What the hell do I do? Surely there’s someone he can call.

Boldly Kim reached over and gently pulled up the man’s sleeve to expose his intel, the he gasped in shock at the bare wrist. “What happened to your intel?” The skin was raw and red in a half-inch wide circle around his wrist, just where his intel should have been.

The man blinked his eyes open and stared at his wrist, as if he was just now realizing his intel was missing. Then a frown darkened his face. “It’s gone,” he slurred. “Stolen … a few days ago, I think.”

Hell! The hair on Kim’s neck stood on end. “You’re lucky you weren’t killed when they took it.”

“Don’t know if I’d call that lucky. But it makes no sense for them to steal it. Can’t do nothing with it. N’if they try they’ll get a nasty shock.”

“But how … how do you do anything without it? I mean…” Kim trailed off. He had heard that some of the people in the lower zones didn’t have intels, but he couldn’t imagine life without one. The intel was his identification, allowed him to move between approved zones, gave him access to his credit, connected him to the infonet, and provided a host utilities.

The big man closed his eyes, seeming to sink immediately back into a heavy sleep.

Oh, no you don’t. If you don’t get up and moving soon, we’ll both freeze to death. The numbing cold gave Kim courage he otherwise might not have had. He grabbed the man’s wrist and tugged hard. “Come on. Sit up.” It was like trying to move a mountain.

“Huh?” The man’s eyes fluttered but he made no move either to sit up or to push Kim away.

Kim tugged again as hard as he could. “Sit up!” he demanded.

The man groaned and, surprisingly, complied with Kim’s request. Not letting go of the man’s wrist, Kim scrambled to his feet. Still sitting, the man was almost eye-to-eye with him.

“My name’s Kim. What’s yours?”

“Raeden,” came the hoarse response. The man peered at Kim with unfocused eyes. “Wha’s going on?” he slurred.

“You’re coming home with me.” Kim shocked himself with this statement, but then he realizedthere was no place else to take him.In spite of his great size, Raeden did not seem like a danger to him, at least not immediately.

“No, jus’ let me sleep.” Raeden looked like he was about to sink back onto the ground and Kim used his leverage to yank on his arm, keeping him upright. “No. You need to stand up. Now!” Kim commanded.

The man looked at him blankly.

“Come on! Get on your feet, big man!” Kim encouraged.

With another loud groan, the man gathered his great bulk and launched himself to his feet, staggering to catch his balance.

Kim dropped his wrist and scrambled back a few paces, watching the man warily.

Raeden swayed on his feet while he swung his head around as if he were trying to figure out where he was.

“Come on!” Gathering the remnants of his courage, Kim grabbed Raeden’s sleeve again and tugged. “This way.”

Raeden stumbled after him, weaving back and forth on the sidewalk. He staggered and almost fell when they stepped off the curb, and Kim quickly dropped his hold to keep from getting pulled off balance himself.

The man continued to follow him for a short way, even without his touch. Finally he stumbled to a halt, leaning heavily against the side of a building.

“Wh … where are we going?” he slurred.

“Just up there.” Kim pointed to a concrete slab monstrosity a half-block up the street. Built in the latter half of the twentieth century, its façade was stained with rust. It dripped from the narrow steel window casings, like blood oozing down the drab gray walls. It was seven stories of sameness, and in Kim’s opinion, it was ugly as sin. But it had a modern security system, none of the windows were broken, and the plumbing worked.

Now that home was in sight, Kim’s shivers became violent, as if his mind had finally allowed him to fully feel the cold.

The derelict still leaned against the building, his eyes unfocused. He looked like he was ready to slide back down the wall and succumb to sleep again.

“No, we must hurry,” Kim said, grabbing Raeden’s sleeve and tugging. He felt like he was treating the man as if he were a small child, but it seemed to work. Raeden staggered after him, and shortly, he was urging him up the few steps to the front door of his building.

The original glass doors had long since been replaced with heavy steel. All of the windows on the first floor, which was used only for storage, had been covered with sheet metal, welded securely to the window frames. Even the windows on the second floor were secured with steel bars.

Kim stepped up to the scanner, pulled off his glove, and placed his frozen right hand on the cold plate. He looked directly into the optical scan aperture on the wall above his head, trying not to blink. He heard the click of the door mechanism release and he quickly pushed the door open.

“Come on,” he urged his large companion. The big man stumbled past him into the gloom and Kim hurried to follow, anxious to be out of the bitter wind.

The door swung shut and Kim heard the locking mechanism engage. A slowly brightening glow from high overhead lit the dark anteroom. Once he was in an enclosed space with Raeden, the stench coming off the big man was almost overwhelming: vomit and rancid piss. Kim wondered once again how he could have let himself get into such a state.

“Kim Arbonne and one other,”said a female voice with the flat inflection of a machine. “Please state name and purpose of other.”

Oh hell! He’s not going to be able to get past security with no intel. Kim cursed himself for not thinking of that. He wondered how security would remove Raeden once they discovered he was noncompliant and how much trouble he would be in for attempting to bring a derelict into his building.

“Raeden Smith. I am a guest,” Raeden replied with remarkable clarity. He seemed relaxed and confident.

How can he be so calm? He’s probably so stoned he’s forgotten he doesn’t have an intel, Kim thought. His stomach roiled as his mind flashed through various scenarios, none of them good.

“Raeden Smith, place your left wrist in the reader,” the voice commanded.

Kim opened his mouth to argue with the security system, to try to get out of this mess before Raeden was discovered, but he hadn’t yet figured out what to say, when Raeden stepped up to the reader and placed his bare hand into it. Then he looked at the security camera and a cocky smile spread across his face.

Kim’s heart lurched. The man was fucking insane. He was also insanely gorgeous.

“Raeden Smith, welcome to Shangri-La,” the voice intoned.

Kim’s jaw dropped open. What the hell? He has no intel. How did he do that?

Raeden stepped away from the scanner and looked at Kim expectantly. Kim blinked up at him, still processing the fact that Raeden seemed to have been approved by the security system … without an intel!

“Kim Arbonne, please place your left wrist in the reader,” the female voice commanded.

Kim moved up to scanner and placed his hand in it.

“Welcome home, Kim,” the emotionless voice said.

The lock on the inner door released and Kim scurried through it.

Raeden followed him into the dim hallway. Their breath still came out in white puffs. The building was not heated.

“How … how did you get past security?” Kim asked.

Raeden looked confused for a moment, then he let out a short bitter laugh. “Your security system is not. Secure, that is. The fingerprint and optical scanners at the front door are probably the only real security you have, if both of those are even working. The rest of your security is fake. It’s actually quite common for landlords to do that. It’s expensive to maintain an intel reader and access to the infonet.

Kim’s mouth gaped open as he stared at Raeden. “Fake?” he repeated. “That’s outrageous! They can’t do that. We pay plenty extra for the security.”

“So you’re just now figuring out this place isn’t really Shangri-La?” Raeden asked with a smirk.

Kim rolled his eyes. He was surprised Raeden knew what Shangri-La meant, the reference was a bit obscure. The building he lived used to be a hotel, and the owners had retained the original name. “Shangri-La indeed. More like Hades,” he grumbled.

“Or Siberia,” Raeden suggested, stuffing his reddened hands back into his pockets.

“I don’t know what the hell I’m paying for,” Kim said as he turned and started down the hallway. “Obviously not ascetics or heat. I thought I was paying for security, but I guess not that either.”

“Where we goin?” Raeden asked as he started to follow. “We gonna smoke opisigs?”

“No. I’m just giving you a place to sleep where you won’t freeze to death overnight.”

“Don’ wanna sleep. I need a drink.”

Kim decided not to answer that. Raeden was following him gamely enough and he seemed to be less drunk than he was before. He wanted to get him quickly ensconced in his unit before any of his neighbors saw them and became angry that he had brought a dangerous derelict into the building. Raeden might be able to fool a machine, but anyone who got close enough to smell him would know that he was a bad security risk.

Kim led his charge past the bank of elevators, which hadn’t functioned in decades, and into a narrow stairwell. He trotted up the steps, hoping the brief spurt of exercise would warm him.

At the first landing he turned to see Raeden standing at the foot of the stairs, holding onto the railing, swaying, and squinting at him blearily. “Where we goin?” he asked again.

“To my unit. Come on!” Kim tried to sound encouraging, but his gut swam with butterflies. Am I really bringing this huge man into my home? He briefly considered abandoning him at the base of the stairs. If he passed out there, he probably wouldn’t freeze to death. But if his landlord found out that he had let someone in and then let him wander free in the hallways, he would probably be evicted.

“Come on,” he urged. When he saw Raeden start to follow, taking the steps slowly and leaning heavily on the railing, he continued up the stairs. As he passed the door to the second floor the smell of cooking assailed him. Tortillas, he guessed. His mouth flooded with saliva—he was starving.

He glanced down at the big man struggling to follow him up the stairs. I wonder if I’ll have to feed him. He didn’t have much food left.

“Where we going?” the man slurred again, finally reaching the second floor landing. On the third floor landing he bellowed loudly, “Where the fuck’s the booze?”

“Shhh!” Kim hissed, horrified. “Don’t alert the neighbors. They’ll call security and have you thrown out.” Then they’ll have me thrown out for bringing you in here.

On the fourth floor Kim held open the door to the hallway and waited patiently for Raeden to climb the last flight. Once on the landing Raeden paused, swaying dangerously, then he abruptly leaned over and vomited his last meal onto the floor. When the stench hit Kim’s nostrils, he tried not to gag. Ugh! I’m going to have to clean that up.

When Raeden appeared to be done, Kim urged, “This way.” He led him down a dimly lit hallway. The worn beige carpet was heavily stained and the walls were badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. The familiar smell of chlorine bleach reached him—one of his neighbors was obsessively clean and spent every waking hour scouring her apartment with noxious chemicals.

Kim sighed. At least his unit didn’t smell like chlorine. He eyed the man who was following him with distaste. Now it’s going to smell like barf and piss. But it’s only for one night, he reminded himself. Tomorrow I’ll send him on his way.

He reached the heavy steel door of his unit and hesitated. Looking at the size of the man he had brought home, his heart leapt into his throat and began pounding for all it was worth. What the hell am I doing? This man could hurt me—badly. Kim, at barely one and a half meters tall, guessed that he weighed half of what Raeden did.

The big man stopped next to Kim, looking at him speculatively, his eyes more focused than they had been. He sniffed the air and grinned wolfishly.

Kim shivered and this time he was sure it wasn’t just from the cold. That grin was decidedly predatory, and Kim felt very much like a rabbit inviting a fox into his hole. Panic rose in his chest. He took a deep breath, willing his heart to slow.

“Are you afraid I’ll rob you blind?” Raeden asked.

“N … no. I don’t have much to steal.”

“You’re afraid I’ll hurt you then … maybe rape you?”

Kim bit back the whimper of terror that threatened to come out of his mouth as unwanted memories surfaced. That was exactly his fear.

Raeden barked out a short, bitter laugh. “Don’t worry. I’m not capable. Not anymore.”

What the hell does he mean by that? I don’t imagine he’s capable right now, no, but when he sobers up…? Kim turned back to his door in an effort to hide his fear. He knew every emotion would show on his face. What he didn’t know was that Raeden could smell his terror and hear his elevated heart rate.

I either need to kick him outside or let him in. I guess I’ve already made my decision.


He placed his bare hand on the small scanner next to the door and the locking mechanism whirred. As he swung open his door, relief for having made it this far without encountering any of his neighbors was quickly squelched by the fear of letting a dangerous stranger into his home.

Chapter Two

Kim fumbled by feel to his lamp and switched it on, lighting the room in a warm glow.

Raeden staggered past him, heading for the futon on the floor, but Kim grabbed his arm and pointed him toward the bathroom. “You can get cleaned up in there.”

The owners of the building hadn’t bothered to convert the hotel rooms into actual apartments, so the unit consisted of one large room, a closet and a bathroom. Kim had lived at The Shangri-La all his life. His parents had divided the main room into two rooms by hanging large, thick drapes across the middle. During the winter he only used the side closest to the door; the area near the windows was too cold. The bathroom had the luxury of full plumbing—only cold water, of course, but it was more than most Zonei residents had.

With a grunt Raeden stumbled into the bathroom. Not bothering to close the door, he fumbled with his trousers and soon Kim heard his strong stream splashing into the porcelain bowl.

At least he’s housebroken.

When Kim returned from cleaning up the mess Raeden had made in the stairwell, he surveyed the bathroom with dismay. Well, maybe not so much housebroken. It looked like Raeden had gotten as much pee on the floor as he had into the toilet. Kim quickly cleaned that up too.

Returning to the main room, he was dismayed to find Raeden sprawled diagonally across his double futon, apparently sound asleep. He didn’t look like he’d washed himself at all. Kim shuddered. I’ll have to boil all my bedding and the blankets. He probably has lice.

The man’s feet hung off the end of the futon, which was good because dirty snow was dripping off the bottom of his boots onto the rug. He knelt next to them, unlaced the boots, and carefully pulled them off, holding his breath. The big man groaned but didn’t protest. His socks were filthy and wet, so Kim peeled them off as well, flinging them aside as if they might bite. Raeden’s feet were pale, waxy, and ice cold. He picked up one of the folded blankets from the end of the bed and spread it over the big man, tucking it gently around his feet. It only covered him up to his waist, but he was still wearing his thick coat and hat. He would be okay. Kim needed the other blanket for himself.

He noted with surprise that he couldn’t see his breath anymore. Usually, when it was this cold outside, his room was freezing unless he ran the hotplate for a while. Raeden must put out a lot of heat, he thought. It’s too bad he puts out so much stench too.

He stared down at the man, wondering again how he could have let himself get into such a state. His face, in sleep, was peaceful. He looked years younger, almost sweet.

Kim stirred himself. He’s not sweet by any stretch of the imagination, he told himself. He picked up the discarded socks with tentative fingertips and whisked them into the bathroom, depositing them in the tub. Then he washed his hands thoroughly with frigid water, shivering the whole while.

Between cleaning up after the derelict and dealing with his smelly socks, Kim’s appetite had disappeared, but he busied himself heating some water for tea, holding his numb hands over the kettle as it warmed on the hotplate.

He knew without checking that he needed to recharge his PowerMonster. Luckily it was Saturday; he would be paid at midnight, the money automatically going into his account. Tomorrow he would drag his PowMon down to the charging station in the basement and recharge it.

He and his mother had both saved for months to buy the large battery that was their only source of power. The city only supplied electricity to the zones that could afford it—Zonegee and above. Everyone else either went without or ran on batteries. The PowerMonster had paid for itself within a year, and it was much more convenient to simply plug things into the PowMon than to have to purchase and change batteries continually.

Kim had taken the opportunity afforded by the PowMon to buy an antique lamp, a relic from the mid-twentieth century that he’d found in a second-hand store. He very rarely bought anything except food and the occasional book. He had everything he needed and little more.

The furniture in the unit was sparse. There was a long credenza with a cupboard and drawers that Kim thought was original to the hotel. On top of this sat the hotplate on one end and the lamp on the other.

Next to the futon, a large plastic container with a lid doubled as a nightstand and storage. A small battery-powered lantern sat on top of that. Most of his things, including what little food he had left, were stored in plastic bins which were stacked against the wall of the room on the other side of the curtain. A couple of large, worn easy chairs were in the other room as well. On long summer evenings he and his mother used to sit there together and look out the window at the city skyline and talk about life.

The kettle started to whistle and Kim made tea with the efficiency of someone who had done the task all his life. Then he sat down cross-legged on the threadbare wool rug that covered an even-more-worn carpet underneath, tea in hand, to brood over where he was going to sleep now that his bed was occupied by a smelly giant.

After his mother had died, he’d taken down the faded Asian fans that had decorated the wall above the bed and replaced them with equally faded vintage movie posters: Star Wars, Terminator, and Braveheart. He had seen the movie Terminator when he was seven; it had been the highlight of his young life. His mother had cleaned houses for families in Zonee and sometimes she would bring him with her to help. This family had been having a birthday party for their son who was just his age and they had graciously invited him to join in the festivities. The cake and ice cream had been delicious, but what had put him over the top was the movie.

He had only seen one other movie. Last Christmas, when he’d been missing his mother terribly, he’d treated himself to a movie at a theater in Zonee. He had watched Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, a book he’d read so many times it was in tatters. The ticket had been so expensive, he hadn’t been able to afford to recharge his PowMon, so it had been a week of cold-water washings, cold food, and battery powered lights, but it had been so worth it. He had worried that the movie experience that he’d had at the age of seven had been polished over the years until it held such shine that nothing could ever come close to it. But Lord of the Rings had more than lived up to his jaded expectations. He’d promised himself he’d go this year and see The Two Towers, even if it meant he starved for a week.

By the time Kim finished his tea, his stomach had woken up and was demanding to be fed again. With a small sigh he climbed to his feet and, grabbing his flashlight, he went behind the curtain to rummage in his fresh food box. There wasn’t much to paw through.

He pulled out a sweet potato, an onion, a turnip and a carrot. He had nothing left in the food box except another turnip, two more carrots, and a wrinkled apple. Good thing tomorrow’s payday. I should risk going to Zonem to shop. Zonem was dangerous but there was a grocery store close to the border where a hundred dollars would buy enough food for several days. If he shopped in Zonei, a hundred dollars was hardly enough for a single meal.

Soon he had his vegetables sautéing in a frying pan with a touch of oil and some herbs and spices. The smell was almost making him dizzy with hunger. I really shouldn’t go this long without eating. He was barely patient enough to wait for the vegetables to start to caramelize before he was dishing up a steaming plate and sitting cross-legged on the rug again to devour his simple meal.

He had only taken a few bites when Raeden launched himself to a sitting position with a groan. His face was scrunched with pain, his eyes glazed.

“Fuck!” he cried. He bent forward, whipping the blanket off of himself. He stared at his feet and then his hands. Another groan came out of his mouth and then he sucked air in with a hiss. Gingerly he touched one of his toes with a finger.

“Fucking son of a bitch,” he railed. “I can’t feel my hands or my feet, except they feel like they’re on fire! Fuck!”

Kim stared at him, not knowing what to do. Having experienced himself the rewarming of hands and feet that had gotten much too cold, he knew how painful it could be. Rewarming in warm water would speed the process, but by the time he heated up some water, the pain would probably be over. He got up and put the kettle on anyway. They could always use the water for more tea.

He heard Raeden begging, his voice husky with pain. “You gotta give me something, man. You got painkillers? Whiskey? Something?”

“I’ve got a couple of aspirin.” Kim quickly retrieved a bottle of aspirin from the bathroom and brought a cup and the pitcher of water over to set on the bin next to the futon.

Raeden had his arms crossed around his chest and was rocking his upper body back and forth. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut and his lips were clamped together. Small moans rumbled in the back of his throat, although he seemed to be trying to suppress them. A sheen of sweat had broken out across his skin and every now and again he took a gasping breath.

He opened glassy eyes and looked at Kim. “Fuckin’ A! Just give me the god-damned aspirin,” he gasped. “Don’t you have nothin’ else? Nothin’ stronger?”

Kim had poured a glass of water and now he shook a couple of aspirin into his hand.

Raeden looked at the two tiny pills incredulously. “That ain’t gonna do shit! In case you didn’t notice, I’m a little bigger than you are.”

Kim knocked another pill out of the bottle into his hand.

With a growl Raeden snatched the bottle from Kim’s hand so quickly that Kim barely had time to register what had happened before Raeden had his head back and was pouring the contents of the bottle directly into his mouth.

“Hey!” Kim grabbed for the bottle. Raeden let it go with a smirk. Pills went flying, scattering across the blanket. The big man picked up the glass of water. Sloshing some of it out on the way to his mouth, he took a big swig and swallowed.

Kim’s attention was caught by his adam’s apple bobbing under his scraggly beard. He wasn’t sure why he should find that sexy, but watching that huge throat swallow caused heat to flush into his groin.

What the hell? I can’t be that horny—I just jerked off this morning. Kim let himself become aware of Raeden’s stench and that quickly reversed his attraction.

With shaky hands, Raeden set the glass of water down on the bin-cum-nightstand. He crossed his arms, closed his eyes, and went back to rocking in pain.

Kim scrambled to pick up the scattered pills and then carefully replaced the cap on the aspirin bottle.

“You should never have taken so much,” he scolded.

“I’ll be fine.”

“You should eat something so you don’t get sick.” He held his plate of food out to Raeden. His stomach rumbled in protest.

“What is this shit?” Raeden asked, eyeing the meal skeptically.

“Just vegetables.”

“That’s what I thought.” Raeden scowled. “Don’t you have any meat or bread?” His voice was tight and his breathing labored. His brow was still covered in perspiration.

“No.”

“No? You don’t got shit do you? No food. No booze. No fuckin’ drugs. Why the hell am I here?” Raeden’s complaint was followed by another moan.

“I think I have an apple if you want it.”

Raeden snorted.

Kim arranged the blanket back over him, watching him warily.

He was clearly in a great deal of pain, his breath coming in sharp gasps. He pulled his lower lip between strong teeth, obviously fighting to control his moans of distress.

Kim shook off the sudden disturbing vision of Raeden in the throes of passion; if he hadn’t known the man was in pain his actions would have been sexy as hell. What the hell is wrong with me? I’m mentally molesting him while he suffers? Not only that, he’s rude and disgusting.

Kim settled back onto the rug to finish his now-cold dinner, then he slipped into the bathroom to get ready for bed.

When he returned to the main room, he was relieved to see that Raeden appeared to have fallen into a restless sleep. He retrieved one of the pillows off the futon, wrapped himself up in the second blanket, and curled into a ball on the rug. The smell of vomit and urine mingled with the fading scent of cooked onions. It took him a long time to fall asleep.

Chapter Three

“Fuckin’ son of a bitch!”

Hearing a deep angry voice so close to him, Kim was instantly wide-awake, heart pounding. He jumped to his feet and backed away from the giant on his futon. The events of the previous evening came back to him in a rush, but that did little to slow his rapid heartbeat.

Raeden was sitting up, looking at his feet.

Afraid to take his eyes off the man’s face, Kim’s took a quick glance at his feet as well, then did a double take. His filthy toes were dark, almost purple, and clearly swollen. Kim took a step closer and peered at the feet. There appeared to be large blisters sprouting up on his toes.

“Oh my god! What happened? That looks painful.”

“No shit! It hurts like a son of a bitch,” Raeden growled. “What is this place? Where the hell am I?”

“You’re in my unit. I brought you in because it was so cold last night.”

The look Raeden gave him was incredulous. “Why?”

“I … I couldn’t leave you out there. You would have frozen to death by now.”

Raeden’s eyes clouded, becoming unfocused, looking as bleak as Zonezee. He closed them and sank back to a prone position on the bed. “You should have left me there. It would have been a blessing.” His voice was hollow.

Empty. His life is empty. This realization came to Kim and he didn’t question it. His own life was lonely, but it paled in comparison to Raeden’s agonizing void. Somehow he knew this.

He wasn’t sure what to say and the silence stretched. He glanced at the slim black intel attached to his left wrist. It was five-thirty, the time he normally got up for work. He liked to sleep in on Sundays, his only day off, and even though he’d spent a restless night freezing on the floor, he couldn’t go back to sleep now. He was too agitated.

He became aware of the stench coming off of Raeden. How the hell do I get him out of my home?

His eyes roved over the derelict. He wasn’t asleep, Kim didn’t think. His breathing was too rapid and his face was pinched. He lay perfectly still, however, his hands on his chest. Kim’s stomach lurched as he realized the man’s fingers were dark and swollen too—they looked like they were starting to blister as well.

Oh shit! Kim realized, He’s got frostbite. He probably won’t be able to walk anytime soon.

Raeden groaned. “Fuck! You got some’in for pain?” His voice was gravelly, like course-grit sandpaper.

“Aspirin,” Kim offered.

“Hell! You got a gun? Just shoot me now!”

Kim had no response to that. The penalty for possessing a firearm was death. No one even talked like that anymore. Where’d this guy come from?

Raeden sat up abruptly, shifted his left arm so his wrist was exposed, then stared dully at the strip of red skin around his wrist. “Fuck! The little fuckers. Hope they sizzled their balls off when they tried to access my intel.”

His attention turned to Kim and he glared at him with an intensity that was frightening. “Go get me some fuckin’ alcohol. Tekila or gin or somethin’.”

“Uh … I can’t afford it,” Kim said softly, shrinking back in spite of himself. Raeden seemed unpredictable, even sober. And alcohol was expensive. If he bought a bottle or two he would short himself either food or power for the week.

Raeden lurched to his knees, his scowl dark and threatening.

Kim took a few steps back, readying himself to flee. He can’t chase me on those feet, can he?

His question was answered almost immediately as Raeden lifted one knee and placed his foot on the futon. He started to stand then fell back onto the bed, howling in pain and rage.

He rocked back and forth his face contorted in agony. “Fuck!” he screamed.

Kim did not come any closer but stood, shaking, near his front door.

Raeden turned a baleful eye on Kim. “You go get me some god-damned booze. Right now!” he yelled.

Kim shook his head silently, watching the derelict warily.

“I’m fuckin’ stuck here with Mister Namby Pamby.” His voice slipped into a falsetto, “I don’t do booze. I don’t do drugs. Here, have an aspirin for your mutilated feet.”

“Sorry,” Kim said. He felt redness creeping up his face.

Raeden snorted and reached for the aspirin bottle that Kim had left on the crate next to the bed. It had a childproof cap on it and as Raeden used his blistered fingers to put the pressure he needed on the lid to open it, his face bloomed with pain.

“Fuck!” he screamed and threw the bottle across the room. It slammed into the wall with terrific force, making Kim jump even though the bottle was nowhere close to where he was standing.

“I can’t fuckin’ do shit!” the giant screamed. “You fuckin’ should left me out there. What the hell were you thinkin’ bringing me in here like this?”

“Obviously, I wasn’t,” Kim said dryly.

“No, you weren’t!” Raeden huffed and crossed his arms across his chest, closing his eyes. He was clearly in a great deal of pain. It reminded Kim of the last days with his mother, when he was helpless to ease her suffering, except his mother had accepted her torment with strength and grace.

He crossed the room and picked up the aspirin bottle. Opening it, he dumped six into his hand. Keeping an eye on Raeden, his heart beating in his ears, he approached slowly.

Raeden opened his eyes and looked at him. Kim almost fell back at the fury he saw in the big man’s eyes, but instead he held out the pills in a shaking palm.

Wordlessly Raeden held out his hand, palm up and Kim dumped the pills onto it. While Raeden popped the pills into his mouth, Kim poured him a glass of water and handed it to him. Raeden took it and drained it, handing the cup back to him without a thank you. Then he lay back and stretched out on futon with a groan, closing his eyes.

Kim watched him for several long minutes. He appeared to be trying to go to sleep. Kim slid his shoes on and shrugged into his coat, then he stepped out the front door of his apartment. He paced to the end of the hall where there was a large window. It was snowing heavily outside, a billion tiny flakes making the buildings across the street appear washed out and nebulous.

He took a deep breath and steeled his nerves. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I haven’t done anything illegal. He put his wrist in front of his face and spoke into it. “Intel: Corpsec.”

“Is this an emergency?” The feminine voice had no inflection.

“No.”

“Connecting,” the voice said.

A few moments later another voice came on the line, as mechanical as the first. “Good morning, Mr. Takemoto. Please state your problem.”

“There is a man who needs help. He’s injured, and his intel has been stolen.”

“Your intel hasn’t been stolen. You are using it.”

Kim sighed. Artificial intelligence wasn’t—intelligent, that is. He hated going around and around with them. “I’m calling for someone else. Can I talk to a human, please?”

“You will need to get him to call in himself.”

“He can’t. His intel has been stolen.”

“Your intel hasn’t been stolen. You are using it.”

Kim groaned in frustration. Surely Corpsec had enough money to build a better front-end system. He suspected that they did this just to keep all but the most persistent from ever reaching them.

“I need to talk to a real human, please.”

“Mr. Takemoto. Please state your problem. I will help you with it.”

Twenty minutes later Kim disconnected with an abrupt, “End connection.” If he’d had a device he could throw against the wall, he would have. He’d spent ten minutes going around and around with the AI before he was finally allowed to talk to a real person.

The Corpsec lady had been even more frustrating than the AI. She had been adamant that Raeden would need to come in in person to have his intel replaced. Kim had explained why that was impossible: Raeden could not walk, and without an intel, he couldn’t hire a private pickup service. Corpsec did not do pickup, she’d insisted. Raeden would have to get to the closest Corpsec office himself.

Kim didn’t have the funds to hire a cab. Even if he could find a service that ventured into Zonei, their fare would be astronomical. Cab service was one of the few things that actually cost more in the lower zones than in the higher zones, because of the risk involved.

Kim had tried logic and reason with the lady first. Then he had resorted to pleading with her to help. When she’d figured out that he’d brought an injured stranger into his unit, she had laughed and told him he was an idiot. “There ain’t nothing I can do about your brain,” she’d said. When he continued to argue with her she’d finally lost her temper with him. He’d disconnected when she threatened to have him arrested for wasting her time. He wasn’t sure she could do that, but he didn’t want to chance it.

For the time being, he was stuck with Raeden.

He went back into his unit, surprised by how warm it was even though he hadn’t run the hotplate yet this morning. The object of his frustration was asleep. He filled the kettle and put it on. He needed to go grocery shopping, but he still had some tea left.

*****

Kim was still trembling slightly when he returned home. Grocery shopping was always a nerve-wracking ordeal for him. The actual shopping wasn’t a problem, but traversing the short distance between the border of Zonem and the store was always frightening. For the way back he always hired Carlos and Pablo to escort him. Otherwise, he may not have made it out of Zonem with groceries in hand, let alone unscathed.

Carlos had a crush on him, he was pretty sure. The big Latino always smiled broadly and ate him up with his eyes, but not in a creepy way. Carlos had a mental disability of some sort. He rarely spoke, but when he did, his speech was slow and measured and his words were simple. Pablo didn’t talk much either and never smiled. The brothers looked a lot alike: both were tall and beefy with bushy dark eyebrows, square jaws, and jet-black hair. The resemblance ended there though. Pablo was cold and hard; he’d seen way too much violence at an early age, Kim thought. Carlos likely had too, but it hadn’t affected him in the same way. Sometimes Kim wished he could be like Carlos—blissfully ignorant and perpetually optimistic.

The brothers had to leave him at the border of Zonei. Neither of them had clearance for any zone higher than Zonem. After that, Kim would move as fast as possible to his apartment. Compared to Zonem, Zonei was safe and secure, but he’d been attacked more than once. If he was lucky, the muggers would take his groceries and run.

Kim’s racing heart did not calm down as it usually did once he was behind the locked door of his unit. The urine smell, if anything, was even stronger than the day before and Kim wondered if perhaps Raeden had peed in his bed. Wouldn’t that be a treat? With a mixture of relief and revulsion, he noticed that the water pitcher, which was on the floor next to the futon, contained a suspiciously yellow liquid. Ugh!

Raeden was sitting up in bed watching him. Kim had forgone buying juice and eggs so that he could afford a large bottle aspirin and some laundry soap to accommodate his new guest. He set the bag of groceries on the counter.

“You’re like a rabbit or something,” Raeden said. “Always frightened.”

“I’m not a walking mountain like you, Raeden.” Kim bristled with indignation. He hated that he was a coward, but he couldn’t really help it.

Raeden raised an eyebrow and it made his face look suddenly open. Younger. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Kim.”

“Kim?” Raeden narrowed his eyes and he looked him up and down. “You’re not a girl.”

Kim rolled his eyes. He went through this routine every time he met someone new. He was small and slight and wore his black hair in a braid down to his waist. Sometimes he cursed his mother for giving him a girl’s name. He drew himself up to his full height, trying to make his thin shoulders look broader. Glaring at Raeden, he said, “Of course not. Kim is a Korean boy’s name. My mom was of Korean descent.”

“Korean?”

“You know … ancestors from the country of Korea?” Kim’s mother had been half-Korean, half Caucasian. His father had apparently been full-blooded Japanese, born in America.

“I’ve heard of it.”

Kim turned his back on Raeden and started unloading groceries. Dry goods went into his cupboard and the few things he’d bought that needed to be kept cold went into the food box near the window in the other room.

“What’d you get to eat? I’m starving,” Raeden said.

Kim sighed. I can barely feed myself and now I have to feed him. “What would you like to eat? How about some bread, cheese, and fruit?”

“You got any steak?”

Kim’s mouth dropped open and he looked sharply at Raeden. The big man looked completely serious.

Kim snorted. “I don’t buy meat. I’d end up spending my entire paycheck on one meal.” That was an exaggeration, but not by much. Meat was terribly expensive. He only ate meat once or twice a year.

“No meat?” Raeden looked incredulous. “How do you survive without meat?”

“You eat vegetables, beans, and rice.”

“Fuckin’ A! I ain’t no rabbit like you. I need meat.”

“Sorry,” Kim said bluntly, “bread, cheese, and fruit is what I got.”

Raeden grunted and glared at him. “All right. Give it to me,” he growled.

Grateful fucker, aren’t you? Kim thought bitterly as he prepared a small meal for himself and Raeden.

*****

“Why?” Raeden asked.

“Because you stink!”

“Get used to it.”

“No. You’re in my home. You will maintain a minimum standard and you’re way below it right now.”

“I didn’t ask to be here. You should have left me where you found me.”

“Yes, I should have, but I didn’t,” Kim snapped. “Besides, look at how filthy your hands and feet are. If those blisters pop, they’ll get infected.” By now Raeden’s blisters had gotten larger, and many of them were very dark, almost black. “You need to get clean if you don’t want to end up stuck here forever.”

Raeden growled something unintelligible, staring at his mutilated feet.

“Hand me your coat and hat and then see if you can crawl into the bathroom. I think you’ll feel a lot better once you’re clean.”

“Ain’t nothin’ gonna make me feel better.”

Kim stood at the foot of the futon and glared at him, hands on hips.

Raeden snatched the wool skullcap off his head and threw it at him, his anger apparent in the force of his throw. The soft cap smacked Kim harmlessly in the chest and he let the filthy hat fall to the floor. The big man’s greasy hair was plastered to his head where the cap had been. He started working on the top button of his wool jacket with his blistered, swollen fingertips, swearing under his breath.

“Here, let me.” Kim’s anger vanished as soon as he saw Raeden struggling to do as he’d asked. He dropped to his knees next to the bed and leaned over Raeden. Brushing the big man’s injured hands away, his own nimble fingers made short work of the buttons. Raeden scowled at him, but leaned forward so Kim could help him slide the coat off.

The room was a comfortable temperature now, having been warmed by the three teakettle’s worth of water Kim had heated for the bath. The gauge on the PowMon sat at one-point-five percent. He would recharge it while Raeden was soaking in the tub.

As he lifted the filthy coat away from Raeden, he realized there was a distinct vomit smell wafting off of it. Ugh! He tossed it onto the floor next to the skullcap. He would do laundry now too.

Raeden lurched to his hands and knees on the futon, resting his weight on the heels of his hands, his fingertips curled carefully away from the soft surface. With a determined look on his face, he began to crawl slowly off the futon, cursing as his fingertips grazed the edge.

Kim found he was holding his breath as he shadowed the big man on his slow progress to the bathroom. Daylight filtered through from the other side of the curtained partition and Kim shuddered as he got a look at Raeden’s blistered feet from the underside. The toes were almost unrecognizable as such and Kim wondered if the darkness he saw was the toes themselves or simply dirt. There was a long clear blister along the edge of one of his soles, and some smaller but still sizable blisters here and there on his feet.

Raeden’s pants were filthy, the seat of which was caked in dried mud. Kim was suddenly aware of the huge muscles moving underneath the layer of soiled fabric and he quickly looked away.

Once in the bathroom, Raeden flipped over to a sitting position. “Fuckin’ ridiculous. I don’t need no bath,” he grumbled.

Kim ignored his comment, applying toothpaste to a spare toothbrush and handing it to the man.

“You don’t have a sonic toothbrush?” Raeden asked. When Kim shook his head, Raeden took the brush and brushed his teeth without objection, taking his time and seeming to do a thorough job. Kim wondered how long it had been since he’d brushed his teeth.

He knelt up to spit and rinse in the sink, his giant stature making him almost as tall on his knees as Kim was standing.

When he finished, Kim took the opportunity to unbutton Raeden’s shirt for him. The act seemed intimate. It was different from when he helped his mother during her final days, more like something you would do with a lover. Kim found himself keeping his eyes averted lest Raeden catch him ogling.

When he stepped behind Raeden to help him slip it off, his breath caught in his throat. Raeden was wearing a skintight tank under his shirt, but it was clear that his massive shoulders and back were ripped. Kim had never seen such perfection and hadn’t expected it, given the vagrant’s deplorable condition.

Then he gasped in surprise and a tremor of fear ran through him. Raeden’s skin had a pattern on it, like scales. When he looked closely he saw it wasn’t something that had been inked into his skin—it was part of the skin itself. The faint, intricate lines covered his shoulders and the base of his neck, disappearing up into his hairline. His skin started to crawl as the realization hit him. He gasped out, “You’re a mod!”

“No shit!” Raeden’s response was irritated. “You didn’t figure that out by my size? No normal people are this big.”

Kim found that he had involuntarily taken a few steps back, but there was nowhere to go in the small bathroom. His heart was slamming against his ribs. “I … I’ve never seen a mod before,” he stammered, trying to get his terror under control. Mods were extremely dangerous … unpredictable.

Raeden smirked at him.

“I thought … I thought…”

“You thought mods were a myth?” Raeden quirked an eyebrow at him in amusement and somehow that eased his fear a notch. He stared at the scale pattern which seemed to cover every inch of Raeden’s exposed skin except his face.

“What can you do?” The question slipped out of his mouth unbidden.

“Nothin’ anymore,” Raeden growled.

Kim’s curiosity got the better of his fear. “But what kind of mod are you?” he pressed.

“Nothin’ anymore,” Raeden repeated. His voice had an edge to it and Kim decided he shouldn’t push for an answer. He wondered briefly if Raeden could read minds—he’d heard that some of them could—but he dismissed that thought. The giant didn’t seem like that kind of mod.

Raeden began to struggle out of his undershirt and Kim stepped close to help him. His bare back, when it was revealed, looked as big as the side of building to Kim. His impossibly broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist that was still twice as wide as Kim’s own. Hell, his biceps are probably bigger around than I am, Kim thought.

Then Kim noticed a gold chain around Raeden’s neck. It looked like real gold, which Kim had only seen in the upper zones. He wondered at its value. Raeden was wise to keep it hidden under his shirt. In spite of his size, he was not immune to attack, as was evidenced by the loss of his intel.

Kim moved around in front of Raeden, knelt next to him, and reached to unfasten his trousers with shaking hands. As he released the fastener, he needed someplace to look other than at what he was unveiling. He moved his eyes up and was startled to discover that the gold chain around Raeden’s neck held a delicate gold ring. It was tiny—much smaller than something Raeden could wear. It looked even too small for Kim. It had a dark blue stone inset in it; it looked like real gold with a real jewel. Kim blinked and swallowed. He had never seen anything so fine. Even in Zonee where Kim worked people didn’t wear things like that.

Suddenly he became aware that Raeden was extremely still and his body was tense. He glanced up at his face and to find the startlingly blue eyes glaring at him, cold with fury.

He took a quick step back, all the air leaving his lungs in a whoosh.

Raeden’s lip curled in a sneer. “Bunny rabbit!”

Kim’s flush of shame shifted to something else as Raeden pushed his pants and underwear down together so they were at mid-thigh.

He couldn’t help but look now. Raeden’s entire body was hairless, instead covered by the pattern of scales. He didn’t even have any pubic hair. The lack of hair did not detract one whit from his masculinity. He was a perfectly sculpted archetype of virility. As Kim’s eyes slid from cut pecs to an abdomen that could have graced the cover of Fit magazine, his mouth went dry. With his naked body on display, Raeden looked … Godlike.

Kim helped Raeden pull his pants the rest of the way off, while surreptitiously checking out his genitals. He couldn’t help it. Raeden’s flaccid penis was huge, easily eight inches, thick, and uncut. He had the largest set of balls Kim had ever seen, not that Kim had had the opportunity for much study. They hung low and full and were a beautiful dusky color. With surprise, Kim noticed that there was an odd ridge of skin on either side of his balls. He wanted to investigate further but didn’t dare. He had been staring at the giant’s sex long enough. He suddenly became aware of his own cock, already half hard. Oh shit!

Luckily, just then Kim caught a whiff of sour, overripe man, which immediately checked his rampaging libido. Heaven help me when he’s clean, he thought. He’ll kill me in an instant if he thinks I’ve got a hard-on for him.

Being careful of his fingers and toes, and not without a few grunts of pain, Raeden eased himself into the bathtub. He sank down, letting the water wash over his chest as his knees poked up. It was a standard-sized tub, but Raeden made it look like it was a baby bath. He sighed and closed his eyes, looking almost at peace.

Kim could not help but stare at his perfection. In spite of his size, he was flawlessly proportioned, with long muscular legs, narrow hips, and impossibly broad shoulders. His arm was resting casually on the side of the tub and Kim couldn’t help but ogle the bulging biceps. Each muscle was clearly defined as if he spent hours in the gym working on his form.

“How can you be so ripped when you don’t work out?” Kim asked the question without thinking.

The giant opened one eye to glare at Kim. “Breeding.”

“Oh.” Even though Raeden closed his eye again, Kim was unnerved. When he looked closely he could see the intricate pattern of scales covering his torso and arms. A shudder ran through him, no doubt the result of all the stories he’d heard about mods—genetically-modified humans. They were bred and raised by the Corporation for specific purposes and had extraordinary abilities which varied by mod-type. They were said to be ruthless; raised in institutions, they were without human emotions or compassion. They were bred and trained to kill without remorse.

Suddenly, Kim felt as if he couldn’t get enough air. He took a deep calming breath and said, “I’m gonna do a load of laundry. I’ll be back in a little while.”

Raeden grunted in acknowledgement.

Kim gathered up Raeden’s soiled clothing and ducked out of the room.

When he returned after loading the washer in the basement of his building—they had locks on them so that no one could steal the clothes—he offered Raeden soap and a washcloth.

The big man ignored him. He wasn’t asleep, but he wasn’t opening his eyes or taking the soap.

“Wash yourself,” Kim commanded.

“No. You want me clean. You wash me.” Raeden smirked without opening his eyes.

Kim didn’t know what to think. “But … you … I.”

The giant just lay there quietly in the tub, looking like he was about to drift off to sleep.

“Fine!” Kim grumbled, taking up the soap and washcloth. He scrubbed Raeden from his feet to his neck, avoiding the blistered areas and his genitals. By the time he was done, Kim was hard as a rock and glad that he was kneeling, his groin out of sight of the big mod.

Then he noticed the water was gray with an obvious film of oil floating on top. Ugh! His hard-on waned.

“We’ll need clean water. I’ll go charge the PowMon. Why don’t you get your hair wet, meanwhile?”

Raeden ignored him so he tossed the washcloth onto his belly. The giant kept his eyes closed and said nothing.

The PowMon charger was in the laundry room, so Kim transferred Raeden’s clothes to the dryer while he was down there. Upon returning to the room, he started more water heating and then checked on Raeden. He was in the same position he’d been in before he left, eyes closed, and he didn’t acknowledge Kim’s greeting. He didn’t even open his eyes when Kim drained and refilled the tub, although there was no way he could have slept through the extreme temperature changes.

Ignoring his irritation with the big man’s lack of caring, Kim squeezed a glob of shampoo onto his hair and shuddered in disgust as he started to work it in. The blond locks were so greasy that the soap didn’t lather. Kim started to wash his beard as well, then got a better idea.

“I’m going to shave you,” he said. He took Raeden’s lack of response for consent.

Twenty minutes later, after first clipping the beard close and then shaving it off, Raeden looked like a different person.

“You’re almost handsome under all that hair,” he teased. It was the understatement of the century. Kim was practically drooling over Raeden’s chiseled jaw. The big man still didn’t respond.

“Shall I shave your head too?” Kim asked.

It was like talking to a rock.

I guess it’s up to me. I bet his hair’s pretty when it’s clean and dry, but it’ll be a lot easier to care for short. And if he’s got lice… That last thought made up Kim’s mind and he made short work of ridding Raeden of his greasy locks. As he started shaving his head, he noticed the pattern of scales extended across his scalp as well. It was not completely uniform. Much like an animal’s scales, they were smaller in some places, like behind his ears, and larger at the back of his head. There were odd elongated scale patterns along the sides of his face, just beyond his hairline. Kim marveled that, in spite of the scale pattern, Raeden’s skin felt smooth—normal.

He couldn’t imagine what purpose the scales served. On animals, of course, scales acted as armor, but Raeden’s scale pattern was just that—a pattern. Maybe camouflage of some sort? He wished he knew more about mods. K-Corp kept the details about them—even the fact that they existed—under tight security.

Helping Raeden get dried off and back to bed was too much for Kim. He had always been attracted to large men and Raeden was a wet dream come-to-life. The naked giant on the floor on his hands and knees, his sculpted butt cheeks on prominent display, sent a flood of blood into Kim’s cock that he couldn’t have controlled if his life depended on it.

Kim’s heart raced; he wasn’t sure whether from fear or arousal. Realizing that his pants were obscenely tented, he started to turn his back on Raeden. He was terrified of what the giant might do if he knew Kim was boning on him. But he was too late. Raeden had already noticed. His eyes widened as they locked on Kim’s groin.

Kim froze, as if maybe the predator wouldn’t attack him if he kept perfectly still. He stopped breathing, but his heart was pounding so hard he could hear blood rushing through his ears.

Raeden’s face broke into a grin. The affect was devastating and Kim almost came right then.

“I’m irresistible, apparently to men as well,” Raeden said. “Or maybe just to little girly-boys.”

Kim’s face flushed, his arousal instantly curbed by Raeden’s insult. “You’re an ass,” he said, his temper flaring.

All trace of amusement fled from Raeden’s face and he began to crawl out of the bathroom. “I’ll be out of your hair as soon as I can walk again. Meanwhile, why don’t you run down to the nearest store and buy me some booze?”

Kim ignored him.

Chapter Four

Nothing Kim did made Raeden happy. Dinner, pasta with sautéed vegetables, was terrible, apparently. The fact that Kim didn’t have a computer or network connection was an abomination. Kim pointed out that even if he could afford those things, he couldn’t afford the power to run them. He didn’t think Raeden believed him. The big man, sober now, was as dark a soul as Kim had ever met.

He’s in pain, Kim told himself. Which he was, but that still didn’t explain the horrible emptiness in his eyes.

That night when it was time for bed, they argued about where to sleep. Kim had been freezing the night before, sleeping on the floor with only one blanket. Tonight it was supposed to get even colder, with temperatures dropping to single digits. He really wanted to sleep on the futon, but he didn’t want to kick the injured man out of the only comfortable sleeping surface he had.

Raeden, to his credit, volunteered to move to the floor, but Kim wouldn’t hear of it. Finally Raeden suggested that Kim share the futon with him. “You’re tiny. You’ll hardly take up any room at all.”

Kim, ever sensitive to comments about his size, huffed and almost declined, but the giant scooted over and patted the empty spot on the futon. Kim had already figured out that Raeden put out a lot of heat. The place next to him looked like heaven.

Before he could change his mind, he climbed in, turned his back on his guest, and settled. Raeden covered them both with the two blankets. It was the warmest winter night Kim had ever spent and he would have slept soundly if Raeden hadn’t been so restless. He tossed and turned and moaned in pain, sometimes cussing under his breath. Kim felt bad for him, but he’d given him a full dose of aspirin and there was nothing more he could think to do.

By the next morning, Raeden’s fingertips and toes were black, with huge blisters on them, and he was more morose than ever.

“Do you know how to treat frostbite?” Kim asked him, his stomach churning as he looked at Raeden’s feet. He wondered if he should buy some gauze so he could wrap them.

Raeden grunted and scowled, and Kim thought he wasn’t going to answer. Finally he said, “Normally I wouldn’t have to worry about an injury like this. My body is built to heal itself quickly … but I am no longer whole.”

Kim saw his eyes darken with sorrow before he closed them. He wondered if Raeden would ever tell him of the tragedy that haunted him so. He hated feeling helpless, but Raeden’s problems were beyond his ability to fix.

Before he left for work, he put food and water within Raeden’s reach and also a bucket, telling him not to pee in his water pitcher anymore.

“I’m going to work. I’ll be back before dark.”

There was no response from the big man and Kim tried not to let it bother him. He couldn’t help thinking it would be nice if another human being cared what time he was getting home. Raeden clearly did not.

*****

“Seek immediate medical attention,” was the advice given on the website. Yeah, right. That didn’t happen … even non-immediate medical attention is not going to happen. Kim backtracked to the search engine and tried one of the other links.

Twenty minutes later he’d discovered the most effective way to treat the devastating damage caused by severe frostbite was a new breakthrough technology called electroregen. Studies claimed it could reverse at least some of the damage, but when Kim looked at the cost, the bottom dropped out of his stomach. A single treatment would cost him at least three paychecks and most people needed multiple treatments.

On a whim, Kim typed, “mods with scale patterns” into the search box and clicked on the first link that came up.

“Mods are a myth disseminated by competing corporate states to frighten the good citizens of K-Corp.” The article went on to describe how the other corporations spread disinformation to the uneducated masses in the hopes of causing dissention and unrest. There was no actual information about mods. Kim backtracked in disgust and tried some of the other links. The information in those pieces was almost identical to the first, some word-for-word. Clearly the articles were propaganda penned by K-Corp goons. Mods were certainly not a myth; he had a real live one in his unit, eating his food, sleeping in his bed, and occasionally growling at him.

A red box popped up in the center of the screen informing him that his time was up and requesting approval to charge his account for another thirty minutes. Kim declined—he needed to get to work. The terminal switched to a thank you screen, and Kim drained the last of his rich, dark coffee laced with cream, savoring the taste of it on his tongue. He almost never bought anything to eat in Zonee, but he’d stopped at the small coffee shop on his way to work because they offered infonet access. Their beverages were expensive but customers could sit at a terminal for a reasonable rate, or access the infonet over wifi if they brought their own laptop.

Kim couldn’t help but stare longingly at the sleek teal and silver machine being used by a nearby customer. What he wouldn’t give to have his own machine and infonet access at home. That was a pie-in-the-sky dream though. He would never be able to afford the machine or the power. He had no hope of getting a better job than the one he had as an IT grunt. The training he would need to be considered for a higher paying position was beyond his means. K-Corp discouraged movement between zones. Born in Zonei, he was destined to live his life there unless something devastating happened to make him unable to work. In which case, he’d probably be assigned to Zonen or Zono and wouldn’t last a week.

He sighed and looked away from his dream machine. It did no good to lust after things you could never have.

Somehow that thought made him think of the beautiful, broken man he’d left snoring softly in his bed.

*****

The next few days passed in much the same way as the first day had. Kim noted bitterly that living with Raeden was almost like living by himself, except more expensive. The giant rarely spoke. When he did, it was usually to complain that there was no meat with their meal or to growl about the lack of booze and drugs.

Kim cleaned up after Raeden and prepared all the meals. He was appalled at how quickly his food was disappearing. Even though the giant didn’t seem to have much appetite, he still ate much more than Kim alone. The only positive aspect of having the morose man living with him was that his unit was ten degrees warmer than it otherwise would have been.

Kim had read online that he should abrade any clear blisters that Raeden acquired and leave all of the dark ones alone. He had bought a few medical supplies on his way home from work that first day, but he was hard-pressed to talk Raeden into letting him touch his injuries. The giant finally agreed to let Kim put antibiotic cream and loose bandages on them, but he refused to let him puncture his blisters. Most of the blisters were dark anyway, except for a few on his fingers. Kim was happy to have them hidden behind the bandages. It turned his stomach every time he saw the damage that had been done. He was worried that Raeden might lose his fingertips and his toes altogether.

If Raeden entertained such thoughts, he kept them to himself, like he kept everything. Kim knew almost nothing about the giant. He had found out his last name was Dearborn, but he never talked about his past. He never talked about his abilities. He seemed to have no dreams or desires beyond getting stoned out of mind. He was bored and restless and ill-tempered.

He would sit in the chair in front of the window during the day and either stare listlessly at the street below or read one of the small stash of paperback novels Kim kept on hand. In the evening he would sit on the futon and watch Kim make dinner, but when Kim tried to engage him in conversation, he would close his eyes and shut him out. At night he was a restless sleeper, often waking Kim up by tossing and turning and muttering in his sleep.

On Raeden’s fourth night in Kim’s apartment, in the middle of the night, Kim awoke with sheer terror crashing through him. Raeden’s large hand had slipped under his loose sweats and was caressing his bare ass. He felt a very large, hard bulge pushing against the back of his thigh as Raeden started to rock against him. His panicked scream drowned out Raeden’s mumblings. Before he was fully awake, he’d launched himself off the futon and twisted, putting his back against the wall and his hands out in front of himself to ward off an attack. He stood there panting, his heart trying to pound its way out of his chest, as he stared at Raeden fearfully.

Memories of the intense pain that accompanied being impaled with a hard cock swept over him, leaving him shaking and gasping. It was all he could do to keep himself from running, screaming, into the night.

But Raeden was not attacking him—apparently not trying to rape him. He had obviously been asleep, dreaming. As Kim fought to quiet his panic, Raeden stared at him in confusion. “Lyzel?” he said clearly. Then a look of such sadness Kim had never seen its like came over his face. “Lyzel,” he said again, but this time it was a moan of loss and sorrow. He rolled over onto his stomach, buried his face in his arms, and began to sob, deep gut-wrenching sobs. The sound of them reached inside Kim and squeezed his heart in a painful grasp.

He stared in shock at the giant in his bed. He had never imagined a man like Raeden would ever cry, let alone sob like a small child. He didn’t think he himself had ever cried like that, but clearly he’d never lost what Raeden had. The big man sobbed as if his world had ended, and maybe it had. Kim found he was blinking back his own tears. He wanted to offer Raeden some comfort, but wasn’t sure the big man would welcome it. In the end it was fear that kept him away. Raeden was clearly emotionally unstable at that moment, and although his terror at feeling that huge cock knocking at his backdoor had ebbed, it had been too close of call.

After some time Raeden’s sobs quieted and turned to hiccups and sniffles, and eventually he appeared to drop back to sleep. Kim stood frozen against the wall for a long time, pondering Raeden’s past and remembering the reason for his own fear. Finally he became aware that his body was shivering violently with chill. Swallowing down his fear, he knotted his sweats more tightly around his slim waist and cautiously crawled back into the warm place next to Raeden on the futon. The giant did not stir, but it was a long time before Kim settled enough to fall back to sleep.

Raeden was still sleeping when Kim left for work the next morning, but Kim was determined to ask him questions about Lyzel when he got home that evening. Raeden was clearly suffering from heartbreak, but was keeping it all bottled up. Kim’s mother had been adamant that telling your troubles to a sympathetic ear eased them, and Kim had found that after sharing his problems with her, he did feel better. He was hoping to give Raeden some relief.

Kim broached the subject carefully while they shared a meal of rice, beans, and fried apples. “Do you remember what happened last night?”

Raeden’s eyes flicked to his in surprise, then he shut down. His face became a blank mask, his eyes cold and hard. An involuntary shiver ran up Kim’s spine. Raeden looked just as they’d always described mods: a cold, emotionless killer. But Kim knew that Raeden was far from emotionless. His feelings ran as deep as any normal human, maybe even deeper.

He pushed forward in spite of Raeden’s forbidding countenance. “You called out someone’s name in your sleep.”

“No.”

“You called—”

“No!” Raeden cut him off more loudly. “You will not speak of this. This conversation is over.”

One look at expression on his Raeden’s face was enough to kill any protest Kim was about to make. The giant looked decidedly dangerous. Pushing him on this subject would be tantamount to pulling a tiger’s tail: just plain stupid.

With a small sigh he stirred some of his apples in with his rice and took a bite. When he was finished chewing he tried a different tact. “I’d appreciate it if you kept your hands to yourself when we’re in bed together.” He took another bite.

To his surprise, Raeden smirked at him. “Why? I thought a little girly-boy like you would enjoy the attentions of a man like me. Don’t you want a big hard cock pounding into your tight little ass?”

At the visual that Raeden’s words evoked, nightmare memories flooded Kim. His sharp intake of breath caused him to choke on his food. He set his plate on the floor next to himself and fought to regain control over his coughing and his emotions.

“I’m sorry.” Raeden’s voice was softer than Kim had ever heard it. “I didn’t mean to … I’m sorry.”

Kim glanced up at Raeden in surprise. The big man’s face was full of remorse and … sympathy?

“You’ve been hurt,” Raeden said. “Raped.” It was not a question.

Kim nodded and looked away. “Twice,” he said. He’d never talked about it before and wasn’t sure why he volunteered that tidbit of information now.

Both times he’d been attacked on the street. The first time, at age sixteen, he’d been gang-raped by a band of quents. He’d been in such bad shape afterwards, he’d barely made it home. His mother, of course, knew immediately what had happened. When she’d asked him about it gently, he had confessed that his own greed, his desire to save money for something he wanted, had caused him to forego hiring Carlos and Pablo. She had pursed her lips and said nothing more, but had kissed him on the cheek and given him a tight hug. He had clung to her and cried.

He had wanted to save the money so he could buy his mother a birthday present, but he didn’t tell her that. There was no point in making her feel guilty. He had, of course, lost all of the groceries he’d just bought, and while he spent the next few days recovering, his mother had gone to the store herself, the expensive one in Zonei. When her birthday arrived the only present he’d been able to offer her was a hug and a “Happy Birthday.” She’d assured him that that was enough.

The second time he’d been raped had been just a week after his mother’s death. He had been on his way home from work and had been so wrapped up in sorrow, lost in his own world of melancholy, that he hadn’t been paying attention. He hadn’t noticed the shadow lurking in the alley until it was too late. That time it had a been just a single, deranged man, but he was much bigger than Kim and he hadn’t a chance of fighting him off. It hadn’t been as bad as the first time, but bad enough.

“I am sorry,” Raeden said. “I’m sorry I’ve teased you for being afraid of me. You have good reason for your fear.”

Kim took a shaky breath. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not really,” Raeden said, his brow furrowing. Then he followed up with a question that marked the first time he’d ever broached an intimate discussion. “Have you ever … ever had good sex?”

Kim looked up at him in surprise. His face was more open that he’d ever seen it. Kim had not been planning to answer that question, but the words came out of his mouth anyway. “No, never. Not unless you count sex with myself.” He followed that statement with a short, bitter laugh.

“That is a shame,” Raeden said. “There is no better feeling on earth than joining with your heart-mate, body, mind, and soul.”

Kim felt his jaw drop and he stared at Raeden, but the giant closed his eyes and appeared to be trying to school his features back into the angry mask that he usually wore, and Kim knew the discussion was over. But Kim had caught the wistful tone of his voice. Raeden had loved very deeply—this Lyzel person. Loved and lost, and it had destroyed him.

Chapter Five

Kim’s hands’ shook slightly as he typed. He swallowed hard and managed to refrain from looking at the camera he knew was mounted on the wall above the desk, recording his every move.

This is so damn risky. I could lose my job. Hell, I could be arrested and reformed. He managed to stop the full body shudder—just barely. Just get it over with!

Holding his breath, he typed, “Information on mods.” He had turned off the sound on the system and was using the old-fashioned method of interaction. That in itself might raise suspicions, but a conversation with the computer about what he was searching for would surely condemn him.

“Mod: gene-modified human.

“There are twenty-seven known types of mods. They all have the following characteristics…”

Bingo! Finally some real information. Kim skimmed through the text. Much of the general information was stuff he already knew, either having heard it as rumor or from Raeden himself. Mods were bred for various purposes by the corporations. K-Corp held the patents for twelve different mods, and bred twenty-two different kinds in their top secret facilities. They had either stolen or negotiated the gene patterns for the ones they hadn’t developed.

Looking through the list of mod-types it appeared that most were bred for warfare. There were assassin mods, espionage mods—those were the ones who could read minds—and warrior mods. Kim clicked on the link to the warrior mods and was brought to a page with pictures of each kind of mod.

The hair on the back of his head rose as he looked through the images. Some of the warrior mods were truly grotesque, not really resembling humans at all.

A thump sounded down the hallway and Kim jumped. Fuck! I need to hurry. Representative Kenner could be back at any minute to find him accessing top secret information on his terminal.

He clicked on the link for one of the more human-looking mods and was taken to page for “Battle Boys.” After examining the images more closely, he clicked back to the main page. The Battle Boys were muscular, but didn’t seem to have the scale patterns that Raeden had.

Scanning down the list he caught sight of a creature who looked like a weird combination between a lizard and a man. He was huge and muscular and his body was covered with scales—not scale patterns—real scales. Even his face was hidden behind scales which seemed to come out of the sides of his head and wrap around it, shielding all but the eyes, which were sheltered behind the ridges, so deep set they appeared to be just sockets.

Kim shivered, hoping his body’s response to the eerie image would not be picked up by the camera.

Although the creature was not wearing any clothes, his genitalia was hidden completely behind more heavy scales. Kim was so engrossed in looking at the details of the giant man, that at first he didn’t even notice that there was a second creature on the man’s back. It was much smaller but was also covered in similar scales.

The computer identified this creature as a Warrior Pair. Huh! Odd, but probably not Raeden’s mod-type. Raeden didn’t have actual scales, just scale patterns.

Kim searched on, but there was nothing else that came close. Scrolling back up he clicked on the link to the Warrior Pair page. He just managed to keep from gasping in shock as a photo of Raeden rolled onto the screen.

There were a number of images, showing various Warrior Pairs both with and without scales. Kim read the descriptive text eagerly.

Background:

Warrior Pairs are designed to work together seamlessly as a single unit. They are a trans-mod (Kim clicked on the definition link to discover that a trans-mod is a type of mod whose physical characteristics transform under certain conditions to something sometimes radically different. They were the most advanced mods created to-date.) whose main function is hand-to-hand combat. These mods are incubated separately and segregated by sex until the age of eight, when the males and females start combined training. Very quickly they will begin to sort themselves into pairs. Within a few weeks, they will have chosen their life mates. Once bonded the pairs are never apart: they eat, sleep, and train together.

When they are old enough, they will engage in sexual intercourse with each other. This is allowed, even encouraged, as a way to enhance their natural life bond. As with all mods, they are infertile.

Advantages:

Warrior Pairs are the most effective battle mods yet developed, with a kill ratio of 142-to-1. The female of the pair, who is bred to be tiny, clings to the large male’s back when they fight. A special harness has been created so the female can stay securely in place in the heat of the battle and have both hands free for fighting. As the pair grows, they become mentally linked which allows them to work as a single unit during battle. Like most mods, the pairs have heightened senses and can hear, smell, and see six times better than the average human. They excel at physical activities: they are stronger, faster, and have more stamina than any other battle mods.

They also have an average IQ of 157. Their pairing gives them a distinct advantage over other battle mods, because they can confer with each other over strategy and communicate almost instantaneously, bypassing speech.

Disadvantages:

In spite of repeated attempts to create warrior pairs who are under complete control of the corporation, the pairs have remained fiercely independent. Within their pairing they are monogamous, extremely protective of their mate, and loyal to their mate above all else. The other disadvantage of the Warrior Pair is that if one is injured, it affects the ability of the other to fight. If one is killed, the other of the pair becomes useless. They lose their ability to transform into a warrior, sometimes becoming almost catatonic. Attempts to bond the surviving pair member with a new bond-mate have been unsuccessful. The survival rate for pair-members who have lost their mate is 60% after one month, 0% after six months. Typically they die by their own hand.”

Kim paused and reread that last two statements. That’s not true. He thought back to the first time he’d seen Raeden staggering down the street in Zonem. That had been at the beginning of the summer, more than six months earlier. He would have died if I hadn’t rescued him.

A minute vibration on his wrist snapped him fully into the present. It was the alarm he’d set for himself to tell him to get the hell out of there. He closed the browser window and efficiently erased all trace of his research from the machine. He then logged out of the representative’s account, logged in as an IT specialist, and spent a few moments fixing the security feed problems that were the cause of him being called to the representative’s office in the first place.

It had been a stroke of luck that such a high-ranking official had a network failure just when he was in need of classified information. The fact that he’d volunteered to go fix the representative’s machine when he usually avoided muckity-mucks like the plague might be suspicious, but with the security feed down, his actions could not be monitored in real-time, which was the norm for all machines within the corpnet. Every action was fed into the security system which sniffed for illicit activity. When the software alerted on something out of the ordinary, a human being, one of the security goons, would look over the logs and determine if further investigation was in order. Kim had seen more than one person get fired, or worse, when their actions were discovered. He’d always wondered why they had taken such a huge risk. Now he understood.

Making sure the representative’s system was secure, he logged the repair onto his order book and left the man’s office.

*****

That afternoon, he couldn’t concentrate on his work. His mind continually drifted back to dwell on the information he’d found about Raeden. When he wasn’t mulling over how devastating it would be to lose someone with whom you had a bond closer than twins, he was stewing over the likelihood that he would get caught and what the consequences might be if he was. Then it occurred to him that Raeden was likely to commit suicide—surely if what he’d read was true, the mod’s time was up. His mind started down a new and terrifying track of coming home to discover that Raeden had hung himself or had slit his wrists with one of his kitchen knives. Suddenly he couldn’t wait to get home so he could suicide-proof his unit.

It had been three days since he’d had the conversation with Raeden about sex, such as it was. That discussion seemed to have changed Raeden’s attitude toward him. He couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was, but the big man seemed gentler. He no longer complained about their meager fare or the lack of drugs and alcohol. Maybe he’s just come to realize that that’s how things are going to be while he’s living with me.

It seemed like more than that, though. Several times he’d woken at night to find himself pulled tight against Raeden’s chest, with the mod’s arm wrapped protectively around him. The first time it had happened he’d stiffened in fear until he realized that the big man did not have a hard-on and, indeed, he seemed to be sound asleep. Then he’d reveled in the fantasy that they were a couple, that Raeden loved him and cherished him and would protect him at all cost. At that point, lying warm in Raeden’s arms, smelling the other man’s unique scent, and feeling his heart beating steadily at his back, he had felt contentment such as he hadn’t known in a long, long time.

Careful, Kim, he’d told himself. This is not real. Someday soon he will disappear from your life forever. Don’t get carried away with your fantasies. He’s incapable of loving you.

With a sigh Kim glanced at the clock again. Two minutes had passed since the last time he’d checked the time. It was going to be a long afternoon.

*****

That night on his way home from work he did something he’d never done before. He went into a grocery store in Zonee. Eyes wide, he strolled through the aisles of neatly arrayed produce and other goods, amazed at the selection of items available. Glancing at the cans and jars of exotic food, he wondered what people made with all this stuff. He was tempted by the bananas—he loved bananas and had only had them a few times in his life. Tropical fruit was a luxury that only those in the higher zones could afford. Before he could change his mind and spend his meager income on something for himself, he quickly located the meat department.

The selection and quality of meat on hand was astounding. He found a medium-sized steak, packaged singly, and winced at the price. A brief perusal of the selection of beef told him that it didn’t get any better. He could go smaller, or with a less expensive cut, but really the price difference was not all that great. Any way he went it was expensive. He wouldn’t be able to charge his PowMon fully if he bought a steak, but if they were careful about their power consumption next week, they’d be all right. He picked the steak up, double-wrapped it in the plastic bags they had available—a luxury they didn’t have in zonei—and made his way to the checkout stand.

He hoped that Raeden would appreciate this. He didn’t have high hopes that the man would even thank him.

*****

“You bought meat?” Raeden’s eyebrows lifted toward his hairline of blond stubble. “Why?”

Kim couldn’t tell if Raeden was happy or not; he just seemed suspicious. “I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“Since when do you care what I want?” Raeden asked.

Kim shrugged and turned back to the stove, feeling heat rising in his cheeks. Why did I buy this fucking expensive meat? “I’m an idiot is all,” he muttered, not loud enough for Raeden to hear. In truth, he was worried about Raeden. His feet didn’t seem to be healing; if anything they looked like they were getting worse. He was hoping the meat would help Raeden to heal, even if it was just psychological.

“You’re not an idiot. I very much appreciate the meat. I wish I could help you out—with money, I mean. I have a generous stipend: not as much as when I was working, but seemingly a lot more than you make. Once I have an intel again, I’ll pay you back.”

“It’s not necessary,” Kim replied, but he felt better nonetheless.

He pan-fried the steak on high with garlic and cracked pepper. When it was done, he removed it to a plate and quickly made a sauce with the browned bits left in the pan. He served the steak to Raeden with the sauce and some boiled potatoes and carrots.

He helped himself to potatoes, carrots and the last of the sauce.

“You’re not having any steak?” Raeden asked, eyeing his plate.

“No.”

“Are you a vegetarian?”

“No.” Kim didn’t want to tell Raeden that he liked steak but couldn’t afford it. He didn’t want the big man to feel guilty. He glanced over and noted Raeden’s grimace as he struggled to cut the meat with his injured fingers.

“Here, let me help you with that,” he said, holding his hand out for Raeden’s plate.

“Only if you give yourself some of this steak.”

Kim looked at Raeden in surprise. His jaw was set and his eyes were intense as he glared at Kim.

“I bought the steak for you,” Kim protested.

“I won’t eat it unless you share with me,” Raeden said.

“Why do you care?”

“Care?” Raeden let out a bitter laugh. He looked like he was about to say something, but then thought the better of it. He held out his plate for Kim.

Kim cut the steak into bite sized pieces, but when he went to hand the plate back to Raeden the big man folded his arms across his chest. “Not until you give yourself some.”

Kim rolled his eyes, but scraped a few pieces of the meat onto his own plate. It smelled wonderful and he was suddenly starving.

“More,” Raeden demanded.

Kim decided it was useless to argue with Raeden. As he complied with his order by adding a few more pieces to his own plate, he said, “Pushy much?”

Raeden smirked. “I just like to be obeyed,” he said in a deep growly voice.

Kim shivered and popped a piece of steak into his mouth. Closing his eyes, he savored the flavor as he chewed slowly. When he opened his eyes he found Raeden watching him intently, a small smile on his lips.

“What?”

“Nice to see you enjoying something. Seems like you don’t have many pleasures.”

Kim’s startled heart started to slam into his chest. What the hell? Does Raeden actually care about my happiness? “Not since my mom died, no,” he said and then immediately wondered why he’d opened up to Raeden like that.

“You should treat yourself more often,” Raeden said.

Kim didn’t know what to say to that. He focused on his meal, and the rest of the evening passed in companionable silence.

The next morning, Sunday, Kim awoke, warm and comfortable, snuggled up next to his mod. He almost dozed off again but something made him open his eyes.

He found Raeden staring down at him in the dim light that filtered through the window. The big man’s face was calmer than Kim had ever seen it. Raeden smiled at him, then reached out to brush a strand of hair away from Kim’s cheek.

“You are beautiful, you know that?” Raeden whispered.

Kim’s first reaction was shock, then his heart leapt to his throat, he felt his face grow hot, and suddenly he was blinking back tears. He shifted, putting his back to Raeden to hide his emotions. Am I so starved for companionship that a touch and a kind word cause me to start bawling? he wondered. As he felt a tear slip past his closed eyes, he thought, Yes, I guess I am.

Chapter Six

Raeden ran through the forest, his bare feet crunching softly on the leaf-strewn path. The woods were deeply shadowed, the air cool and fresh. Birds twittered in the trees, their song lifting his soul. Lyzel’s joyous laugh mingled with that of the birdsong, a beautiful counterpoint. She was so light he almost couldn’t feel her clinging to his back, but he was ever aware of her loving presence.

I would not have imagined a place so wild and beautiful still existed on this earth, she said, using their mind link.

It is amazing, he agreed. I wonder how long it will take K-Corp to destroy it? He tried to block that last cynical thought from her.

Lyzel had somehow managed not to become jaded as, day after day, year after year, they were sent to fight. Often they fought against other corporations—corporate states as corrupt as their own whose citizens were pitiable victims of corporate greed. When they destroyed giant conglomerates of corruption, he felt a grim satisfaction. But all too often lately, they’d been sent out to fight the free peoples. There weren’t many pockets of them left. “Free peoples” were their name for them—his and Lyzel’s. The Corporation called them savages, but they weren’t. They were resource poor, but he thought they lived a much richer existence than any of the corporate citizens. He had heard they made their own rules, with freely elected leaders and laws that benefitted all. He had even heard a rumor that large areas of the world used to be covered with free peoples, before The Holocaust that had made most areas of the planet uninhabitable.

That devastating war had lasted twelve long years. He knew by heart the history that K-Corp had taught him and, when he was young, he even believed it. Over the years, he had come to question all information K-Corp disseminated. He realized that they twisted the truth to suit their own ends, which were never for the people, only for those few in power. Lyzel had begun to distrust the corporations too, but somehow she’d managed to hold onto a childlike innocence. She still had hopes for a better world, saw corporate evilness as a challenge to be overcome, and generally put a positive spin on events that left him bitter and morose.

Now he felt a wave of sadness roll off her and regretted his errant thought.

I hear water running, she said excitedly. Can we go see?

Of course. He could never deny her wishes, nor would he want to. She was the light of his life.

He slowed to a walk as he left the path. He had to duck under branches and pick his way around clumps of bramble and large ferns. The air grew noticeably cooler as they descended a small incline and approached the stream. Water tumbled and burbled over the rocks in a haphazard fashion. Water features were common in the upper zones, but they were always controlled. In comparison, this natural stream was wild and chaotic.

Breathtaking! Lyzel’s thoughts carried even more emotion than her voice did. Look Raeden! There are falls!

Raeden followed her gesture upstream to see a series of small waterfalls cascading down a steep hillside. He walked toward them and observed that, at the base of each fall, a small pool had formed, the rocks beaten away over time by the force of the water. Lyzel squealed in delight and swung off his back onto ground mossy with dew.

Oh Raeden, we could go swimming!

Swimming?

Well, we could get wet, rinse off the trail dust. She immediately began shedding her clothes.

Raeden looked around slowly, stretching his senses. The woods seemed deserted except for small animals and birds. Their assignment was to see if they could find evidence of human habitation. So far, they hadn’t seen any, and with such an open-ended assignment, they could get away with spending an hour or so shunning their duties.

By the time he’d made up his mind to join her, she had striped down to her underwear. He undressed at a more leisurely rate, watching her with appreciation as she took off her final garments. Standing stark naked on the bank of the stream she grinned up at him. Her tiny body was toned, her small breasts high and firm.

Hunger washed over him in a wave, causing blood to rush to his organ. He yanked his underwear down, freeing his cock. She laughed delightedly when she saw his growing erection. As he reached for her, she danced quickly away. He gave chase, and she leapt into the stream, squealing as she plunged into the frigid water, goose bumps shivering across her skin. He followed her in, heedless of the cold.

She turned and began to splash him. He laughed as he caught her up in his arms, preventing her onslaught of icy droplets. He picked her up easily, and she wrapped wet arms around his neck, wet legs around his torso, and her laughter bubbled into a fit of giggles. Her dark hair cascaded down her back, the ends shedding water onto her bare ass.

He looked into her wide eyes, captivated by their depths. Her long black lashes were a startling contrast to the vivid green of her irises. Her gaze shifted from his eyes to his mouth, and he kissed her without hesitation. Her tongue tangled with his and she let out a small moan.

Raeden, I love you so much, her thoughts reached him.

You are my life, my love, my everything, Lyzel. I love you more than the heavens are wide … more than the ocean is deep…

At that point she jabbed him in the ribs—hard. You are so corny!

Raeden laughed. Corny, maybe. But I meant every word.

They caught each other’s eye and immediately sobered as lust overtook them. He kissed her again, relishing the feel of her lithe body in his arms, his tongue thrusting hungrily against hers.

The only warning he got that they were in danger was the swish of something whizzing through the air. He heard the sickening sound of a hard, sharp object slicing through flesh and bone. Her body stiffened in his arms. He felt pain shred through her back and chest and she let out a small cry.

He drew back from the kiss to look at her in horror. Her eyes reflected the pain she felt.

“Raeden,” she gasped. “I love you.” Then her eyes rolled back in her head even as redness bloomed across her breasts. She sucked in one last painful breath of air and then was still. He felt her life force wrenched suddenly from her body and she was gone.

He stared at her in shock.

Lyzel! Lyzel! He shook her slightly even though he knew she was already dead.

Of course, she’s dead. This is a dream. She died last spring, without me.

His dreaming mind knew this.

The Corporation had separated them … insisted on doing training maneuvers with the Warrior Pairs as separate units. He had hated it, and the very second time they had trained apart, he’d lost her to a stupid mistake. One of the other female mods had been so disoriented by being without her mate, she had lost control of her automatic weapon and fired into a group of women. Many had been injured. Lyzel was the only one who died. She’d been hit in the back of the head and had died almost instantly. Even over the miles that separated them, he had felt her die. It had been the worst moment of his life.

The beginning of his dream had been almost as much a memory as a dream. Lyzel and he had shared an idyllic interlude in the cool forests of what had formerly been called Argentina and was now known as Q-Zone. They had not found any evidence of human habitation and had emerged from their assignment unscathed.

So he realized he was dreaming, but that did not lessen the horror he felt at watching her die in his arms.

As he stared at her lifeless face, she suddenly blinked her eyes open. Except they weren’t her eyes, they were Kim’s eyes, dark and exotic. Her chestnut hair became ebony, her face broadened, her lips plumped, and her body transformed until he was holding a naked and uninjured Kim in his arms.

A smile spread across Kim’s face, lighting up his eyes with affection.

Raeden startled awake. In the aftermath of his painful, confusing dream, the first thought that occurred to him was that he’d never actually seen Kim smile.

*****

 Raeden winced and stifled a gasp of pain.

“Sorry, sorry,” Kim said, trying to be even more gentle as he unwrapped the bandages from Raeden’s feet. He hated his task as nurse. It always made him queasy to look at the devastation that had once been beautiful feet.

“I don’t think you’re getting any better,” Kim said, shaking his head.

Raeden grunted.

“I wish … we need to figure out how to get you another intel so you can afford to get them fixed.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Raeden said.

“You want to lose your feet?”

Raeden shrugged.

Kim hated it when Raeden got so despondent. When he had first moved in, he had been morose most of the time. Lately, however, he had been coming out of his gloomy world more and more often. He seemed happy to see Kim when he got home from work and would chatter on about whatever book he was reading or even talk about sports, education, politics, or religion. He had some interesting perspectives and was very knowledgeable on a variety of subjects.

Raeden told Kim that he had lived in Zonesee when he was working, and that information was much more readily available to residents in the higher zones. He held that the government purposefully kept the masses uneducated and took every opportunity to move people to lower zones. Those with wealth and power wanted it all for themselves. “Greed is a sickness that grows like cancer,” he said.

Kim thought Raeden was perhaps a bit touched—had ingested too many drugs or maybe it was his altered DNA that made him paranoid. Kim didn’t want to believe the corporation was as sinister as Raeden described, however, he himself was already jaded. He’d come to the conclusion that the corporation really didn’t care about its citizens quite a while back, the first seed being planted when his father disappeared and the corporation did nothing to help them find him. If one of his mother’s employers hadn’t upped her wages considerably at that point, they would have had to move to Zonekay or Zonel. Perhaps even to Zonem. They probably wouldn’t have survived their first winter.

Kim gingerly cleaned Raeden’s feet, his stomach twisting into knots. He had already observed that Raeden had no feeling in his black toes at all; he was going to lose them. He might lose large chunks of the rest of his feet as well and several of his fingers. Kim wondered if Raeden would ever be able to walk again. He could, of course, get prosthetic feet if he could afford them, but they would never be the same. And time was running out for getting the electroregen treatment. It was supposed to be done within the first month and it had already been three and a half weeks.

Kim bit his lip as he worked and refrained from looking at Raeden. He didn’t want the big man to see the pity in his eyes. Finally, he finished bandaging Raeden’s feet and began to pick up the supplies.

“Thank you,” Raeden grunted.

Kim glanced up at him in surprise. Raeden had never thanked him for treating his feet before. In fact, he usually acted put out that Kim would even try.

“I wonder if I could hire someone to carry you to the nearest CorpSec security office,” he said.

Raeden snorted. “The nearest office is more than five miles away. I can’t take the rail or a bus without an intel. I weighed over 300 pounds, last I checked. You’d have to hire a bunch of guys.”

“And I don’t know anyone who would do something like that except Carlos and Pablo. They might have friends who would help, but they don’t have clearance for Zonei. This is so stupid! How can Corpsec be so inflexible that they won’t come pick you up?” Kim had called them more than once on the issue, but always with the same result: he had hung up worried that he was going to get himself in trouble.

“Corpsec is pure evil,” Raeden said. “They don’t care about citizens. They are structured so as to keep the members at each other’s throats in a dog-eat-dog fight for advancement and survival. It’s rather like watching a salamander eat his own tail. Sure, those high up in Corpsec live lavishly, but if you fail during the climb up, you end up dead—or worse—reformed.

Kim shuddered. He had heard horror stories of reform, had seen empty-eyed citizens performing menial tasks, had been told that they used to be brilliant professors or doctors or scientists. His already queasy stomach churned.

“There must be a way we can save your feet—and your fingers,” he said.

Raeden shook his head. “I haven’t come up with a plan yet. I was hoping my metabolism would kick in and start healing them, but I seem to have lost that ability.” He closed his eyes and lay back on the bed, and Kim knew that he’d be grumpy the rest of the evening.

 *****

 Raeden was dreaming again—a sex dream. The only time he ever got to have sex anymore was in his dreams, but they were always so emotionally painful, he hated them. He would be with Lyzel for a brief happy time only to lose her again when he awoke, or often, she would die in his arms at some point before he climaxed.

Even as he sucked on the tender skin at the juncture of her neck and shoulder, he tried to rouse himself. He did not need to go through another of these fucking nightmare dreams. Her scent was spicier than usual. She moaned low and writhed against him. He couldn’t help himself from stirring with desire.

He ran a trail of kisses down over her breastbone and to her nipple. Confusion washed over him as he realized she didn’t have any breasts, just hairless nipples on a flat chest. He looked up at her and realized, it wasn’t Lyzel he was making love to, it was Kim.

His beautiful face was etched in ecstasy, his hands twisted in the sheets. Raeden took a deep breath, savoring his scent. Kim’s naked body was smooth and toned, not as tiny as Lyzel’s had been, but still exquisite. Goosebumps pebbled his skin and his nipples jutted up in invitation.

Raeden took one in his mouth and sucked, eliciting a moan from Kim. His fingers found the other nipple and he pinched it gently. A small wail came from Kim and his hips jerked forward.

Raeden woke with a start. What a bizarre dream!

He heard Kim, who was sleeping on his back next to him, make a small, needy sound. He opened his eyes and propped himself up on an elbow to look at him.

It was clear he was dreaming. His face was scrunched and his breath came in shallow gasps. His fingers clenched the blanket, much like they had in Raeden’s dream. Is he dreaming about sex? Raeden wondered.

Clearly he was. His body was mostly covered, but Raeden could make out the bulge of his hard cock as his hips made small thrust upward. He could smell his precum, strong and pungent. Kim whimpered softly.

Exquite! Raeden thought. Kim’s waist-length ebony hair was splayed out about his face, cascading over his shoulders. A light sheen of sweat had broken out on his forehead. His barely writhing hips picked up their pace and suddenly he let out a loud groan. His face clearly showed that he was in orgasm and Raeden watched in fascination, wishing that Kim was naked so he could see the whole show.

Kim blinked his eyes open, still gasping for air.

“Oh,” he said, his face reflecting his confusion. His eyes focused on Raeden who was probably staring at him with a ferocious intensity. “Oh!” They widened in understanding and then a flush quickly climbed his chest onto his cheeks.

He looked away, tossed off the covers, and ran for the bathroom.

I wonder if he was dreaming about me, Raeden wondered, a small smile playing at his lips.

*****

 Kim felt heat flooding his face as he rinsed out his underwear and wiped the cum off his stomach with a cold, wet cloth.

If he knew I was dreaming about him like that, he’d kill me.

Kim’s dream had been unbelievable. In his dream, he’d woken up to Raeden kissing down his neck and collarbone. He’d moaned and Raeden had taken his mouth, his tongue thrusting hard and deep with passion. Kim had never been kissed by a lover and the sensations overwhelmed him. There was something terribly intimate about having Raeden’s tongue down his throat. He’d sucked on the organ and Raeden had let out a low rumble, deep in the back of his throat, that had sent sex shivers down Kim’s spine.

His cock had exploded into rock-hard readiness and he had whimpered around Raeden’s invading tongue. Raeden had ended the kiss to lave his tongue down Kim’s neck, sucking gently on the soft skin of beneath his collarbone. Raeden’s fingers, uninjured in his dream, had crept up to tease one of his nipples.

Electricity had swept through him, igniting his body like never before. A desperate need coalesced in his balls. Raeden had kissed further down until he was sucking on one of Kim’s nipple and when he pinched his other nipple between thumb and forefinger, Kim had let out a pitiful wail. His hips had jerked forward, thrusting his straining cock against Raeden’s washboard abs.

He’d climbed rapidly toward climax, his body alive and desperate, his muscles tightening with every thrust. Raeden bit down gently on one nipple, still pinching the other, and as he’d rubbed his cock against Raeden’s iron stomach, orgasm had washed over him in waves. A loud groan escaped him as his balls turned themselves inside out.

Kim wondered how much Raeden had seen. Surely, he knew that Kim had just had a wet dream. An awesome wet dream. Kim shuddered and sighed and pulled his sweats back on over his now-bare butt.

*****

Bitter cold wind whipped around Kim and he shivered as he stopped abruptly and squinted into the darkened doorway, trying to spot an address. There were no nice areas of Zonei, but this one was seedier than most. Trash was piled high at the edge of the street, many of the upper windows in the buildings were broken—boarded over on the inside, and not a soul was in sight. That didn’t mean there weren’t people watching him. He suppressed another shiver as a chill raced up his spine. He was sure there were eyes on him.

He stepped into the alcove, turning sideway so that his back was to the brick the wall of the alcove and not to either the street or the door. Searching the gloom, he saw no sign of a number plate or even a security panel. The building was old, mid-last century. The only upgrades he saw, if you could call them that, were the solid new-steel door and the new-steel bars on the windows. He pulled up his sleeve to access his intel while keeping an eye on the shadows, trying not to appear nervous.

He touched the face of the intel to expand the screen and as the faint blue light dispelled some of the shadows, he once again glanced around in vain for an indication that he was in the right place. He spotted two small security cameras recessed into the brick wall and shielded with security glass. They were positioned above the door on either side so they’d be able to capture anything in the alcove. Looking back at his intel, he saw that the blue dot that represented his location was almost on top of the green dot that showed his destination.

This must be it, he thought without relief.

Bringing his intel close to his lips, he spoke into it quietly: “Intel: connect me to Dr. Finneas Marcus, Zonei.”

“Connecting,” the male voice with a Japanese accent replied.

Kim tried not to fidget as he waited for the connection to go through. It seemed to take an eternity, but finally a female voice came through the speaker.

“Dr. Finneas Marcus’s office. How may I help you?”

“Uh, this is Kim Takemoto. I have an appointment with Dr. Marcus. I think I’m standing in front of your office, but I don’t see a number.”

“One moment please,” the woman’s voice intoned.

Kim heard a whir and a click.

“The door is unlocked. You have eight seconds to enter,” the woman said.

Kim was having misgivings about this whole venture, but eight seconds didn’t give him time to waffle. He twisted the door handle and pulled hard. The heavy steel moved grudgingly, and as soon as there was a gap wide enough for him slip through, he did so.

He found himself in a long, dim corridor with doors leading off to either side at regular intervals. He hesitated until he heard the female voice intone, “Third door on the left.”

Just as he got there, he the snick of a lock. He opened the door and peered in.

“Come in and close the door,” a harsh male voice growled.

Kim’s nerves were taut wires, trembling, ready to snap. He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. The scent of garbage and sweat assaulted him. He was in a small room that was crowded with … junk. Machines of various shapes and sizes, most looking in need of repair, were piled along one wall. There was a tall bookcase that took up another wall, overflowing with haphazardly stacked books and piles of papers. A large, old-fashioned wooden desk was also strewn with books and papers, as well as knickknacks and fast food wrappers. A large, rotund man sat behind the desk, glaring at him with beady eyes that were heavily hooded by folds of fatty skin.

The only light in the room came from a small desk lamp. The man tilted it, so that the light shone in Kim’s eyes. He blinked as the man became a silhouette, black against gray.

“So, you are interested in electroregen,” the man said. His eyes were now just a glitter in the dark of his face, but Kim felt them raking him up and down. “You don’t seem injured.”

“It’s … it’s not for me,” Kim stammered, cursing his unsteady voice. “It’s for a friend. He’s not mobile. You’d have to come to our place. Your advert said you had a portable machine.”

The man grunted, then picked a soiled napkin up off the desk and spat into it. “I do. You don’t look like can afford it.”

Kim took a deep breath, trying to quell the flare of hope that ignited in his breast. It was a slim chance, at best, but he had to try, for Raeden’s sake. “I … I can pay you some now, and then make payments with each paycheck,” he said. Worried that the man would reject him outright, he hurried to add, “If it works … I mean, as soon as he’s mobile, we can pay you in full—even some extra for floating us.” Kim held his breath and tried to look sincere and humble, not desperate.

The man steepled his fingers and looked at Kim without saying anything for a long moment. Kim yanked on his long braid, running his thumb down the plaits. It was a nervous habit.

The man stood up and he seemed huge, although certainly not nearly as tall as Raeden. He probably weighed as much as Raeden, though, Kim thought. His stomach bulged out over the top of his pants, making his silhouette half again as wide as it was tall.

“I am not running a charity,” the man said, his voice dripping with acid. “Nor am I a loan shark.” As he spoke he stepped around the desk, moving out of the shadows until he was standing in front of Kim.

Kim forced himself not to shrink away. In the light from the lamp he could see that the man’s shirt stretched taut over his massive belly, showing every roll of fat. It was stained dark at his armpits and the acrid stench of his body odor permeated the air.

The man stared down at him with his piggy eyes, his expression unreadable. Kim felt a wave of heat rush through him as adrenalin coursed through his body. He really wanted to run, but was afraid the predator would give chase.

Instead, he looked up at the man boldly, holding his ground even as he felt his heart beating frantically in his chest. The man’s posture was not overtly threatening, but there was something insidious about him. A smile curled the man’s lips, but it was not friendly.

“The cost per treatment is $80,000. And most people need more than one treatment.”

“Eighty thousand dollars,” Kim repeated, his mind boggling at the price. There was no way—no way!—he could ever pay that back. He had $250 per paycheck in disposable income if he was careful with his food and power consumption, and some of that was need for incidentals. He wondered if Raeden even had that much money.

Suddenly the man reached out and grabbed a firm hold of Kim’s braid. His other pudgy hand slipped under Kim’s chin, and with a tug on the braid, he forced Kim’s face up to look at him. Terror streaked through Kim, but he was caught fast. The man’s fingers had a sour, smoky smell. Opisigs, Kim guessed.

“I can think of way you can pay me.” The man’s voice slithered over Kim’s skin like a snake.

Chapter Seven

It was well past dark and Kim wasn’t home yet.

Raeden knew something was wrong. He felt it deep in his core. Kim was alive out there; he knew that too somehow. But Kim wasn’t happy—he was afraid. He wondered how he could possibly know these things.

My imagination must be playing tricks on me.

He’d had a connection with Lyzel. He’d known Lyzel’s location at all times. He’d known her state of mind, always, even if they were too far apart to form a mind link solid enough for conversation. Their range for communication was further than most other mod-pairs—about two miles.

But there was no explanation for this connection he seemed to have with Kim. It was impossible. Kim was mundane—he wasn’t a mod with telepathic abilities. He couldn’t broadcast his emotions, and Raeden’s own telepathy didn’t extend to anyone other than his bond-mate. The thoughts and emotions of normal people didn’t seep into his consciousness. So whatever he was feeling must be his imagination.

Nevertheless, Kim was late. He always got home before dark and it was a full hour past sunset already. Raeden was on edge, gnashing his teeth. There was absolutely nothing he could do to help Kim, wherever Kim was. The only thing he could do was wait and worry—he couldn’t even pace—and he hated it.

Twenty minutes later, he crawled over to the window and stared out into the night, watching the snow drift silently to the ground. Kim was getting closer. He felt it and wondered why his mind insisted on taunting him with these impressions, although he wasn’t terribly surprised a few minutes later when he spotted Kim coming down the street. The very large man lumbering beside him, however, was unexpected. And Kim was struggling to carry something bulky and heavy.

Raeden furrowed his brow. What the fuck?

In all the time he’d known Kim, he’d never brought anyone home. He didn’t even seem to have any friends. He spoke of coworkers now and then, but he didn’t socialize with them. He never went anywhere except to the grocery store, he never did anything except sit in his unit and read, and he certainly never brought people home.

Well, he did bring me home, but we see how well that turned out. He would surely never bring home another charity case. So who the fuck is that man and what the hell is Kim carrying?

Raeden was to find out soon enough. He watched Kim struggle up the few steps to the apartment complex door and then he and the man disappeared from sight. Raeden shuffled back to the futon on his knees, arranging himself on the edge expectantly, wishing he could stand.

He had a bad feeling about the man who accompanied Kim. Something about his demeanor, even from a distance, did not sit right. Raeden didn’t trust him one whit.

Raeden smelled the man long before he walked in the front door. He reeked of sweat and nasty smoke, and by the time the front door opened, the scent was almost overpowering.

As Kim entered the room, Raeden felt, or maybe saw, some of the tension ease from his body. The fat man followed him in and Raeden surprised himself by letting out a low growl from deep in the back of this throat.

He didn’t personally feel threatened. Even injured and in his human form, the man was no match for him. But he did feel that he was a danger to Kim and that got his hackles up. His skin tingled. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought that he was feeling the beginning stages of morfing.

Kim grunted with effort as he set an odd machine down carefully on the floor near Raeden’s feet. “Hey, Raeden, this is Dr. Marcus,” he said breathlessly. “He’s agreed to treat your hands and feet with electroregen.”

Raeden whipped his head up to look at the man sharply. He didn’t look much like a doctor.

The fat man was staring at him in undisguised shock. Raeden was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt and sweats, even though the temperature in the room only thirteen degrees Celsius. He had gotten warm worrying about Kim and had taken his sweater off. Marcus had clearly noticed the scale markings that tattooed his arms.

“You’re a mod!” he said in a strangled voice. Not taking his eyes off Raeden, he started to back away. “You didn’t say anything about treating a mod.” Raeden could smell his fear. “The deal is off.”

By now he was at the door and he hesitated with his hand on the knob. “Bring me my machine. And you owe me, just for hauling my ass all the way out here.”

If the situation had been different, Raeden might have laughed at the expression on Kim’s face. He was clearly outraged.

“No! We had a deal!” Kim burst out. “You’ve come all the way over here. You need to treat him. He’s not dangerous. He can’t even walk.”

The fat man squinted his piggy eyes at Raeden doubtfully. “He’s a mod,” he stated again.

“He’s just a big teddy bear,” Kim argued. He was standing next to Raeden who was sitting on the edge of the futon, and now he leaned over and wrapped his arms around Raeden in a hug.

Raeden didn’t take his eyes off the doctor, but Kim’s arms were warm around his chest and his scent, stronger than usual because of his efforts carrying the heavy machine, enveloped him. A wave of emotion washed over him. He felt unexpectedly protective of the young man, and this stranger in his home felt like a threat. Unbidden, another low growl came out of the back of his throat.

“You’re not helping,” Kim hissed in his ear before taking a step away from him. He turned to the doctor. “Would you like some tea?” he asked. Without waiting for a response he went to the credenza and busied himself with tea preparations.

“You’re insane,” the fat man said, but his fear had diminished considerably. Raeden could no longer hear his heart having palpitations.

“How are we paying for this?” Raeden addressed his question to Kim.

Without turning to look at him, Kim answered. “You’re paying for it as soon as you’re better and can get an intel. Meanwhile, I’ll make payments to Doctor Marcus with each paycheck.” His voice quavered a little and Raeden looked at him sharply. There was more here than Kim was telling him.

“Why would he accept a payment plan?” Raeden asked.

“Because he’s charging exorbitant prices,” Kim replied.

Raeden refrained from scowling at the doctor. He didn’t want to scare away his best hope of regaining his mobility. Although once he could walk, he’d have no excuse to stay with Kim. The thought of being alone again almost had him refusing treatment. He had gotten better since he’d been living with Kim. He wasn’t well by any stretch of the imagination, but the young Asian had somehow managed to piece together a few tattered bits of his soul and was holding them in place with duct tape and baling wire.

Kim turned to look at him and the hope that was shining in his eyes was too much. Raeden couldn’t crush that. Kim had so little to hope for.

“How much?” Raeden growled.

Kim started and he and doctor exchanged a glance that was less than savory. Something was definitely going on here.

“Eighty thousand per session,” the doctor replied. “And you’ll need more than one.” Apparently the doctor had decided to treat him after all.

But then the doctor continued, “Although, I’m not even sure it’s possible to treat a mod. The sessions are extremely painful. I brought an anesthetic to knock you out, but I doubt it’ll work on you.”

“It would if you gave me a double-dose,” Raeden replied. His heart was suddenly beating faster, and saliva started pooling in his mouth at the thought of getting some drugs into his system. He had given up on talking Kim out of anything stronger than aspirin weeks ago.

“I didn’t bring a double-dose,” the doctor replied. He nodded toward Kim with a scowl. “He didn’t tell me I’d be treating a mutant.”

The fat man stepped away from the door and come toward Raeden, moving slowly and cautiously as if he were approaching a wild beast. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with,” he said.

Kim came over to help, gently unwrapping the bandages that protected Raeden’s black fingers. The doctor pursed his lips and shook his head when he saw them. “Three sessions, at least,” he said.

Kim knelt and removed the bandages from Raeden’s ravaged feet. They still hurt like hell even though he couldn’t feel large part of them at all.

The fat man’s piggy eyes widened as he stared at Raeden’s feet. “No amount of electroregen is going to fix those,” he said. “It should help some, but you’ll lose several of your toes for sure anyway. You should have them surgically removed so they don’t infect.”

Raeden was surprised at the surge of disappointment that washed over him at the doctor’s words. He hadn’t believed he was capable of caring anymore. He glanced at Kim and the distress on the young man’s face was heartbreaking.

“It’ll be okay,” he said to Kim. Addressing the doctor, he followed with, “Just do what you can. If this electroregen makes it so I can walk again, I’ll gladly pay you.”

The doctor turned to Kim, who had returned to making tea now that the water was hot. “The agreement was that you’d pay in full for each session, whether or not it’s successful,” he said sharply.

“Yes,” Kim hastened to agree. “It does work though, doesn’t it?”

“Usually,” the doctor nodded and, although Raeden didn’t trust the fat man as far as he could throw him, he didn’t get a sense that he was lying.

“We can do one session and see if it makes a difference,” Raeden said.

Fifteen minutes later Raeden was lying on his stomach on the futon while the doctor positioned his hands over a large glass plate on the electroregen unit, which was sitting on the floor in front of him. Marcus pressed a button on the side of the contraption and a metal plate lowered over the top of Raeden’s hands until it touched them and began to push them against the glass plate below. Raeden sucked in his breath in a hiss as pain shot through his fingers.

The doctor tapped the button again and the machine quit trying squash Raeden’s hands further, but they were already painfully crushed.

“It’s going to hurt like hell, but you need to keep your hands in there. If you jerk them out, you could break my machine, and that’ll cost you a lot more than eighty thousand and a few bl—”

“Doctor!” Kim interjected suddenly.

The doctor broke off and glared at him. “What?”

“Uh … how long does it last? I mean, how long do you need to zap them, or whatever?”

Kim was definitely hiding something. He had some sort of agreement with the doctor that he wasn’t letting on about, but Raeden couldn’t think through the fog in his head. Why did I ever think drugs were fun? he wondered. Oh yeah, he remembered. Not fun, just mind numbing. They make it okay. I don’t have to think about her then. Why am I going through this fucking treatment again?

“The session itself takes fifty-two seconds. It’ll take at least a few days after treatment before you start seeing results,” Dr. Marcus said. “You should wait at least a week and no more than two before treating them again.”

Kim nodded.

Raeden gritted his teeth. His fingers already hurt from the machine pressing down on his hands. “Just get it the fuck over with,” he growled.

“Fine,” the doctor snapped back. He seemed to have lost his fear of Raeden. “You just hold the fuck still.” With that he put his fingers on a switch and said, “Three, two, one…”

Raeden’s world exploded in pain. It felt as if he had stuck his hands into a raging inferno. And now he had to hold them there. He fought valiantly to keep from jerking them out of the machine and likely destroying it in the process. White-hot pain was his universe. He was distantly aware that his eyes were squeezed tightly shut and someone was making a tremendous racket. Slowly it dawned on him that the noise he was hearing was himself, screaming in pain. Just when he thought he was going to pass out, the heat dissipated.

He found himself panting for air. Kim was kneeling beside him, one of his small hands rubbing Raeden’s back, his other hand wrapped partly around his bicep. The doctor pressed a button on the machine and the top plate slid up.

Raeden stared at his hands. They looked exactly the same as before. He had expected his wrists to end in charred stumps—it had felt like his hands were being cremated right on his body. Suddenly he became aware that his stomach was churning and his mouth was flooded with saliva. He swallowed quickly. “Bucket!” he gasped out.

He was no longer using the bucket as his personal urinal, preferring to make his slow way into the bathroom on his knees. He was tall enough to pee into the toilet without having to stand.

Kim raced into the bathroom and returned just in time with the bucket. Raeden emptied his guts into it, then collapsed with a groan.

“Tea?” Kim asked, rubbing Raeden’s back again. Raeden glanced up to see that Kim was holding a cup of tea in front of him. He nodded and Kim brought the cup up to his lips, tilting it just enough for him to get a swallow.

“Thanks,” Raeden said. His voice came out in a rasp. His body was covered with a sheen a sweat and his limbs felt like jelly.

“I think it’s best if we do his feet bottom’s up,” the doctor said.

Raeden groaned. He wasn’t sure he’d survive another ordeal like the one he’d just gone through. His hands felt strange and tingly, and his fingers ached.

“Can you give him a few minutes to recover from the last one?” Kim asked.

The doctor grunted, then said, “The anesthesia will start wearing off soon. Best to get it over with.”

Anesthesia indeed, Raeden thought. That shit didn’t do fuck except make me feel dizzy. Regardless, at the doctor’s urging, he scooted around on the bed until his feet were hanging off the end, in easy reach of the torture device.

The doctor placed his feet on the lower plate and lowered the upper plate until his heels were firmly squashed. Raeden set his jaw and tried to prepare himself for the pain. Once again, the doctor counted down and then his feet were immersed in boiling lava. He didn’t even try to stop his screams. It took all of his intense focus to keep from kicking. The agony seemed to go on forever, and then, blessedly, he lost consciousness.

Chapter Eight

“He’s just unconscious,” the fat man said. “He’ll come around in a little while.”

Kim could see Raeden’s chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm and that eased his fears more than the doctor’s words.

Dr. Marcus was busy securing his machine for transport. Soon it would be time for Kim to make good on the other part of their agreement. His hands were clammy and his breath was coming too fast. Calm down, he told himself. It’s not a big deal.

But it was.

Sure enough, as soon as the doctor finished, he straightened up and his gaze fell on Kim. His small eyes glittered with lust and he stepped toward him, reaching for him with one hand, while his other went to the zipper on his trousers.

Kim danced quickly back. “Not here!” he said in a whisper.

“He’s unconscious,” the doctor said. “He won’t know.”

But Kim had already retreated to the bathroom. His stomach was doing flip-flops and something icky was sitting in his chest. He hated the thought of doing what he was about to do, but they had an agreement. Out of desperation, he had agreed. He wanted to save Raeden’s hands and feet. Not to get him out of his unit—oh no, he didn’t want Raeden to leave at all. But he couldn’t stand the thought of his perfect giant losing his fingers and feet, becoming permanently disabled.

He swallowed hard. How bad can it be? he tried to console himself. It’ll be over soon.

The doctor lumbered after him into the bathroom and the small room was instantly filled with the scent of his rancid sweat. Holding his breath, Kim squeezed past him to close the door behind him. Somehow he knew Raeden would be furious if he found out.

The fat man was palming himself through his pants, rubbing.

“Yeah, come here, you little girly slut,” the doctor growled. He reached for Kim’s braid and Kim cringed away. There was nowhere to go in the tiny room, but he managed to swing his braid out of reach of Marcus’s clutching hands.

“Let—” Kim’s voice came out in a croak. He tried again. “Let me sit on the toilet seat. I think that’ll put me at the right height.”

As he squeezed past the doctor again, facing away from him, the fat man slid an arm around his waist, stopping him. At the same time his other meaty paw grabbed Kim’s ass and squeezed, none too gently.

“Yeah, I want your slutty hole.” He pushed Kim hard against the counter and slammed his hips into Kim’s backside. “Yeah, wanna fuck your tight pucker.”

Terror streaked through Kim. Marcus was thrusting Kim’s groin painfully against the counter, and his mind was instantly flooded with memories of the searing agony he’d felt the last time he was breached.

“No!” Kim screamed, heedless of his volume. “No!” He struggled against the man. “That’s not our agreement!”

“You think I fucking care, you little whore?” the fat man yelled, but he stepped back, letting go of Kim’s waist. Kim didn’t have a chance to breathe a sigh of relief. Marcus grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him hard toward the toilet.

Kim lost his balance and careened into the wall, knocking his head against the plasterboard. His ears were ringing as he righted himself, his body sliding automatically onto the toilet seat lid.

The fat man had unzipped his pants and he pulled his cock out as he approached Kim. It wasn’t overly long, but was very thick. Then the scent of his crotch reached Kim and he almost gagged. He smelled rank, almost as if something had died in his underwear. Kim’s stomach, already unsettled, began to churn with the force of a tornado. His dry mouth was suddenly flooded with saliva.

“Wait!” he cried as the fat man reached for braid again.

The man ignored him, taking a painful grip on his hair. “You fucking whore. You love taking it up the ass. You love getting all your holes fucked. I’m going to fuck your mouth so hard, you won’t be able to eat for a week.” As he spoke he yanked on Kim’s braid to force his face up and brought his smelly cock up to Kim’s lips.

Kim heard himself whimper in pain and terror.

Suddenly the door burst open and a tremendous roar filled the room. Raeden was there on his knees, but he struggled quickly to his feet, seeming to fill the entire bathroom with his bulk. In one unsteady step he had Marcus in his grip, slamming the man against the wall, his great hand around the fat man’s neck.

The doctor let out a strangled cry, his eyes wide with terror.

Raeden seemed bigger than usual. The triple-X T-shirt that Kim had bought him at a second hand store hadn’t been large on him to start. Now it was stretched so tightly across his chest and shoulders it seemed about to rip out at the seams. Raeden’s skin was darker and the scale patterns, normally just faint reddish lines, now stood out starkly, a deep purple color. As Kim’s brain struggled to comprehend what was happening, Raeden’s skin began to oscillate colors, changing rapidly from red to a deep purple and back again.

He’s … he’s morfing, Kim realized. Then he noticed the doctor whose piggy eyes were bulging and filled with desperation. He’s strangling him! He’s going to kill him.

In spite of his intense dislike of the doctor, he couldn’t have Raeden murdering him. He jumped to his feet and put his hand on Raeden’s impossibly huge arm. “Stop!” he cried. “Raeden, stop! You’re killing him!”

“Yes,” Raeden said. His already deep voice was several octaves lower. His statement was almost unintelligible.

“Stop!” Kim repeated. “Raeden, I agreed to that. I told him he could. You can’t—you have to stop!” Kim tugged on Raeden’s arm with both his hands, putting his weight into it.

Raeden’s gaze shifted to Kim, his eyes glittering under a brow that was suddenly protruding. But he must have eased up on the doctor’s windpipe, because the fat man began to take great wheezing breaths.

“You agreed?” he asked, his voice still uncannily deep.

“Yes,” Kim cried. “It was the only way I could convince him to treat you. I agreed to give him twelve blowjobs for each session. This was only the first.”

“No!” Raeden’s voice reverberated through the bathroom, causing things in the cupboard to rattle. “No! You will not!”

“But…” Kim said in a small voice, awed and a little afraid of the change that had come over Raeden. His skin was no longer flushing with colors, though, and the lizard patterns seemed to be fading.

“But…we had an agreement.”

“Yes, we did,” the doctor gasped out.

“I said, no!” Raeden yelled again. He jerked the doctor forward and slammed him back into the wall. Kim heard a sharp crack as the doctor’s head collided with the plaster. He let out a sharp cry, but he remained on his feet.

Raeden released the doctor and whirled to face Kim, breathing heavily, his eyes dark with anger. “Absolutely not!”

“You owe me!” the doctor said, rubbing the back of his head where it’d hit the wall. His voice was hoarse, but he seemed to have mostly recovered from the near strangling. “I can file a claim with Corpsec. I bet they’d be very interested in knowing you have a mod in your unit.”

A chill raced down Kim’s spine. Immediate physical danger was one thing, but the threat of being hauled away and having his brain fried, that was something else entirely. He had to make good on his agreement.

Kim found himself unable to meet Raeden’s angry gaze. He stared at the chipped tile floor and took a deep breath. “We … I do owe him,” he said softly.

Raeden made a sound very much like an angry wild animal, then Kim heard him take several long slow breaths. Finally he spoke again, but his voice was still astonishingly low, “Here! Payment in full!”

Kim whipped his head up to see him grasp the gold chain around his neck and yank, breaking it. He held it out to the doctor, the sapphire and diamond ring dangling from the chain, catching the light as it swayed. Marcus automatically put out his hand, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.

“It’s real,” Raeden said. “And it’s worth a hell of a lot more than eighty thousand dollars.”

“Raeden, you can’t!” Kim cried, tugging on Raeden’s arm to get him to pull the ring away from the contemptible doctor. He couldn’t believe the sacrifice Raeden was willing to make. It was too much. A huge, painful lump was suddenly in his throat and he was unable to swallow it back down.

Raeden’s face was grimly determined as he completely ignored Kim’s protests and dropped the ring and chain into the doctor’s chubby hand. The doctor closed his fingers around it, his eyes glittering with greed.

“Now get the fuck out!”

The doctor stared at Raeden. He opened his mouth as if he were going to say something, but Raeden cut him off with a growl. “If you’re not out of this unit by the time I count to ten, I’ll fucking tear you limb from limb.” Then he started counting, not even leaving a full second between each number, “One, two, three…”

The doctor scrambled out bathroom the door, moving faster than Kim would have thought possible for someone his size. Raeden took up a position in the doorway and Kim couldn’t see around him, but he could still hear him counting. The doctor must have run for his machine and then raced out the door, because by the time Raeden got to nine, Kim heard the front door being opened and then slammed shut.

Raeden turned toward him and then sank to his knees with a groan. “My feet fucking hurt like a son of a bitch.”

Kim’s nerves were stretched taut. The intense emotion he had felt over the last twenty minutes suddenly overwhelmed him. He took a deep shuddering breath and covered his face with his hands. His body started to shake and he sank down onto the toilet seat lid once more.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he gasped out.

He heard Raeden approach him and then gentle hands were pulling him off the toilet seat onto a warm lap. Raeden sat on the floor holding him tenderly. “It’s okay,” he whispered, kissing the top of Kim’s head.

“No, it’s not!” Kim cried, pulling his face away from Raeden’s chest to look into his eyes. “I … you gave away your ring…Lyzel’s ring. Raeden, why did you do that?”

“Why did you agree to give that sleazy bastard blowjobs?” Raeden countered, anger once more flashing in his eyes.

“Because I didn’t want you to lose your feet.”

Raeden’s expression softened. “Well, I didn’t want you to lose your honor,” he said quietly.

To Kim’s horror, he burst into tears, hiding his face against Raeden’s chest. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

“It’s okay, little one. It will be okay.” He felt Raeden rubbing his back gently and through the thick haze of remorse that shrouded his soul, he wondered how he could do that with his ravaged, unbandaged fingers.

*****

Kim had finished his cry some minutes earlier. His breathing had evened out and the lump in his throat had finally eased, but he still sat on Raeden’s lap with his face buried in the big man’s chest. He didn’t know what to say to him. He was having a hard time comprehending what Raeden had done. He had thought the sullen mod didn’t care about him at all, but he’d been wrong. He had given away his most precious possession to save him from his ill-considered promise.

Suddenly the silence was broken by a very loud growl from Raeden’s stomach.

Kim sat up and looked at Raeden, astonished, and the big man started to chuckle.

“I’m starving, in case you couldn’t guess,” he said.

“I’ll go find something for dinner.” Kim started to jump to his feet, but Raeden grabbed his arm to keep him seated.

“Are you alright?” he asked, peering at Kim closely.

“Yes, I’m fine. But what about you?” Kim examined Raeden in return. His expression was one of concern, not sorrow.

“It was only a thing. A small, lifeless bit of metal.” His voice was huskier than usual, belying his words. He swallowed, his large Adam’s apple bobbing with the action. “I couldn’t stand by while you were hurt. I was well worth it.”

Kim felt his face flushing. “I am sorry. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t have anything else the doctor wanted…”

“Shhh,” Raeden soothed, pushing strands of Kim’s hair away from his face. “It’s over now. No regrets, okay?”

Kim caught Raeden’s huge hand in his own and examined his black fingers. “They … they look better than before, don’t they?” The darkness that had covered some of his fingers almost to his knuckles was now mostly just on the tips. His thumb was barely discolored at all.

“Yes, my fingers definitely feel much better. I’m getting some feeling back in them. My feet hurt worse than ever though,” he added ruefully.

“I thought Marcus said it would take days to see the results.”

Raeden harrumphed. “I don’t think these results are from that damn torture machine. I think this is from my partial morf. When I’m in my trans-form, I heal extremely quickly.”

“Oh! And you started to morf. I thought you said you couldn’t do that anymore.”

“It was a surprise to me as well. According to the mod scientists, warrior pairs that lose a mate, lose the ability to morf. And until today, I have not been able to, no matter how hard I try.” He let out a wry laugh. “I didn’t even try today, it was spontaneous.”

“So how does it work? I mean, normally you just think, ‘Okay, lizard form now,’ and voila? How long does it take to morf?”

Raeden smiled at Kim’s description of him in his trans-form. He did look kind of like a lizard man. “Yes, usually I can morf in a matter of seconds with just a thought. I have—had—considerable control over my body. For example, I could control my height to a certain extent. When I was fully morfed, I was over eight feet tall. But when we went out in public, I often shrank down to six six or so—not quite scary-monster size. I could also eliminate the scale pattern on my skin entirely if wanted to. It took a bit of effort and if I got excited, sometimes I would forget about it and it would start to show.

“The way I’ve been since you’ve seen me here is my natural form. It’s the form I take when I’m fully relaxed. It’s also the form I’m stuck with when I can’t morf, apparently. I’m not sure the scientists at corporate realized that I no longer had the ability to hide my scale patterns, otherwise they probably never would have let me out in public again. Sometimes, for as brilliant as they are, they’re not very bright. They’re also under a huge amount of pressure from the higher ups at corporate. I think they just wanted me out of their hair.”

“How did they happen to let you out?” Kim asked. “I mean, aren’t you valuable or dangerous or something? You were just living on the streets in Zonem for months.”

Raeden snorted. “They didn’t care. A trans-mod who can’t morf is worthless. Just a liability. I’m sure they didn’t think I’d last long anyway. They cut my contract, gave me my pension, and sent me on my way. And I’m not particularly dangerous—not to anyone but myself.”

“And Dr. Marcus,” Kim said, remembering the doctor’s bulging eyes with a small shudder.

“Yes, and scumbags who try to hurt you,” Raeden agreed, rubbing Kim’s back soothingly.

Just then his stomach let out another emphatic rumble.

Raeden grinned. “Healing myself always makes me super hungry.”

“Let me go see what we’ve got left to eat,” Kim said, scrambling to his feet. This time, Raeden let him go.

Chapter Nine

Kim glanced up at the sky and quickened his pace. It was the eve of the solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the stars were already starting to come out. It would be a clear, bitterly cold night. The temperature was negative ten Celsius and dropping, and a stiff breeze added its bite to the chill.

Kim clutched his bag of groceries more tightly to his chest. He usually tried to avoid going to the grocery store after work in the winter, or if he did go, he went to the one close to his house in Zonei. But Raeden’s appetite had picked up, and since he had partially morfed a few days earlier, he’d been ravenous. Kim wanted to make sure he had enough to eat. Fuel to help him heal, he told himself. But he couldn’t afford to buy the quantity and type of food he needed from the store in Zonei.

He had, however, hired Carlos and Pablo to escort him to the edge of Zonem. Now he was on his own, trying to turn the fifteen-minutes from the border of Zonei to his building into ten minutes.

He was only eight blocks from home when he saw the men. First he noticed one, standing very still in a shadowed doorway. He would have focused all of his attention on him, but something—perhaps a noise—caused him to glance to the other side of the street. There was a man there too, also standing in the shadows, almost opposite the first man. It was clearly an ambush, but whether they were waiting for someone in particular or just for the next available victim was unclear.

Kim had to make an immediate decision. Go between them and hope they didn’t accost him or turn around, back the other direction, away from home. He turned around and headed for the nearest cross-street, keeping his pace fast and even, straining to hear if they were following him.

Hearing nothing, he risked a quick glance back. One of the men was following at a distance, his pace matched with Kim’s. The other was nowhere in sight.

If he’s still following me after I turn the corner, I’ll ditch the groceries and run, Kim told himself, trying to keep a rein on the stark terror that was building in his chest. He reached the corner quickly and turned onto the side street—it was narrower than the street he’d been on, but not quite an alley. He hadn’t gotten very far when he saw someone enter the street at the far end.

Okay, an ambush for sure. He dropped his groceries then and ran toward the cross street he had just come from. He’d only taken a few steps when the man who was following him turned the corner, blocking his path. He was joined immediately by another man.

Shit! Kim got a look at their faces in the fading light. They were young—teens probably—and hungry. Quents! They were hungry for more than food, Kim guessed. Quents fed off violence and destruction.

Kim whirled and ran the other direction, trying to judge the size and swiftness of the youth who was blocking the exit at the other end of the street. He couldn’t allow himself to think about the last time he’d become a victim of quents—his brain would seize up entirely. He had to focus on escape.

His heart was pounding in his ears as his eyes swept up and down the street, looking for a way out. The quents had planned their strategy well. There were no alleyways off this street, only doorways. The businesses had all closed. Everything would be locked.

The quents behind and the one in front of him were not running to catch him. They were confident that they already had him trapped. The one in front stopped and waited for him, his teeth catching the light as he broke into a broad gin.

Then suddenly there was movement to Kim’s left. Another quent materialized from behind a garbage bin, not more than thirty feet away.

A whimper of terror came out of Kim’s mouth. On his right a short distance away was a set of grated metal stairs, leading up to an iron door. On instinct, Kim headed for them. The door would undoubtedly be locked, but perhaps he could use the height to his advantage somehow.

He was on the sixth or seventh step, about halfway up, when he was pulled to a halt by the large youth behind him. Kim tried to twist away, but the quent had a tight grip on his jacket. Without thought, Kim unzipped his jacket and, narrowing his shoulders and straightening his arms, he dove forward. His jacket slipped off and the youth fell backwards down the stairs, letting out a sharp cry.

Kim had lost his balance too, but managed to regain it with a few quick steps to the top of the stairs. He desperately tried the metal door, but it was locked, of course. Looking back down, he saw that the quent who had grabbed him was lying at the bottom of the stairs, rubbing his elbow and glaring up at him.

“You’re going to be so fucking sorry you did that,” he snarled.

Kim ignored his comment. His brain was too occupied with saving himself. It was at that moment that he realized the area under the stairs could be a sanctuary of sorts. It was enclosed by a sturdy newsteel fence with a gate that was padlocked. Whatever it had been protecting had long since been removed; the enclosed space held nothing but bit of debris. The risers on the stairs were open. Kim wasn’t sure he’d be able squeeze through them, but he was sure going to give it a try.

He knew he’d have to act fast. The other quents were reaching the bottom of the stairs now and the first one was climbing to his feet. As soon as they realized what he was attempting, they’d be upon him. Without hesitation he sat down on the second to the top step and slipped his feet through the opening. Flipping over to his stomach, he slid backward until his butt came in contact with the risers. Grunting, he used his hands to push, and shimmied his hips frantically.

“Hey!” One of the quents had noticed his escape attempt.

At that moment, his hips wiggled free. He blew all the air out of his lungs as he struggled to fit his shoulders through the narrow opening. Luckily he was thin. He turned his head sideways, and it was a tight fit. His ear caught on the metal grating and his wool hat came off as he pulled his head through. He let go with his hands just in time. One of the quents had made it up the stairs to grab him. His fingers brushed Kim’s arm as they slipped out of his reach.

He felt himself falling and braced for the landing. He lost his footing on the uneven pavement and fell, managing to protect his head with his arms as he crashed to the ground. He sat up, shaken but unharmed, then pulled himself to his feet and positioned himself against the brick wall, away from the fence but mindful that he wasn’t too close to the stairway. The quent who had almost grabbed him was now sitting on the stairs glaring down at him through the risers.

“You fucking little shit! You can’t get away you know. We’ll get to you.”

Kim knew he was right. His tactic had worked, but it would probably mainly serve to piss them off. It was only a matter of time before they figured out how to reach him.

Just then a fierce gust of wind whipped down the street, blowing snow crystals into Kim’s face. He shuddered violently. Or I freeze to death, which might happen first.

He folded his arms tightly over his chest and continued to shiver while he observed the quents quietly. They were gathered on the other side of the fence, discussing what to do. Even though the youngest of his attackers appeared to be no more than sixteen, all five of them were bigger than he was. They’d never be able to fit between the steps as Kim had.

He took a deep breath and tried to calm his frantic heart, but when he saw one of the quents pull some tools out of his pocket and start working on the padlock, his fear ratcheted back up. It probably wouldn’t take him long to pick the lock.

One of the quents had grabbed his bag of groceries, and now they all stood munching on his apples and cheese and jeering at him. They called him a cunt and a bitch and a faggot. The oldest quent, likely the leader spoke. “You know we’re gonna get to you, and you know what we’re gonna do then? We’re gonna fuck you up.”

“Fuck you up your ass!” one of the other boys crowed.

Hearing their words, terror swamped Kim. He closed his eyes and tried to shut down his thoughts entirely. Shortly, he opened his eyes again. He needed to pay attention so he didn’t miss an opportunity for escape. Good luck with that, a cynical voice in his mind said, but he wasn’t ready to give up just yet.

The quent that had been on the stairs had climbed off and wandered down the alley. Now he came back with a few stones. These he threw at Kim, one by one. Luckily, it’s difficult to throw a stone between the holes in a chain link fence. Most of them bounced off of it. A few did make it through, but Kim managed to dodge them.

With a curse, the youth took off again. The one working on the padlock was getting frustrated, cussing and finally kicking the gate in a fit of fury. The older quent pulled the tools out of his hands and slapped him hard in the face. “Didn’t I learn you nothin’?” He set to work on the padlock himself.

Kim shivered more violently. He was suddenly aware that warm blood had been running down the side of this face and now it was congealing in the cold air. I must have cut my ear when I pulled my head between the risers. He didn’t want to remove his gloves to investigate his injury. His fingers already ached with the cold. He danced a bit, back and forth on his feet, in a futile effort to keep warm.

The quent who had taken off down the alley now came back with a battered broom. He poked it through the fence at Kim, who shrank back against the cold brick wall. The broom was too short to reach him and the youth soon gave up.

“When we get to you, I’m gonna ram this up your girly ass,” he threatened.

Kim tried very hard not to imagine that scene.

Another gust of bitter wind howled around him, tearing the last vestiges of warmth from Kim’s body. He couldn’t help the whimper that came out of his mouth. He was colder than he’d ever been and absolutely miserable.

“It’s colder than a fucking polar bear’s prick out here. He’s gonna freeze to death soon with no coat,” one of the youth observed.

The leader paused in his efforts with the padlock and called out to Kim. “Why don’t you crawl on out of there and we’ll give you your coat back.”

Kim had absolutely no intention of leaving his sanctuary before the quents were gone. Maybe not even then, because they’ll likely just be hiding, waiting for me to try to escape. I’ll probably freeze to death right here. He wondered briefly what Raeden would think when he didn’t come home and what Raeden would do without him. But he couldn’t figure out how to get out of his current predicament. He was so cold he felt like his brain was starting to get sluggish, his thought processes slowly grinding to a halt.

“I know!” the youth who had tried to get to him with the broomstick suddenly spoke up. “Digger, come with me, I’ll need some help.”

The two of them dashed off down the alley, chatting and laughing.

Kim knew he should be worried about what they were planning, but his mind seemed to be fully occupied with the torment brought on by the biting cold. He bit his bottom lip to keep the whimpers from coming out of his mouth, but he could not stop his violent shivering. He sat down, pulled his knees to his chest, and buried his face in them. He had escaped the quents for now, but he couldn’t escape the penetrating cold.

“Fuck, son of a bitch!” the oldest quent yelled. He dropped the tool he was using to try to pick the padlock and started kicking the gate, making a horrible racket.

Kim barely glanced up. His shivers were starting to subside and he felt almost sleepy. Then he heard voices down the alley and realized that the other two quents were returning. He roused himself to look around. Hearing one of them climbing the steps, he uncurled himself and climbed to his feet, looking up warily.

Suddenly he was drenched in ice water. He let out an earsplitting scream. The water was so cold it felt scalding. His scream died down to whimpers, and then the other youth was also pouring a bucket of water on him. He staggered away, trying to get out of the path of the frigid deluge.

He careened into the fence and felt fingers clutching for him, but managed to dive back away before they were able to get a grip. He ended up with his back against the wall again. His hair and clothes were now soaked. He dropped to the ground and curled into a ball, not even trying to stop the pitiful noises that were coming out of his mouth.

He was vaguely aware of the quents on the other side of the fence, still discussing the best way to get to him. He was so miserably cold he wanted to die. As his mind slowly drifted toward oblivion, he realized he was likely to get his wish.

 *****

Raeden was frantic. Kim needed his help out there and he was stuck in the unit, unable to walk.

The trouble had come upon him suddenly. He’d been aware that Kim was getting closer, on his way home, and then abruptly Kim was terrified. The fear had been constant for at least ten minutes now. He didn’t think Kim was in pain, at least not much pain.

Part of his mind pondered how he could possibly have a mind link with a mundane, but he didn’t question it. He knew without a doubt that Kim was in serious trouble.

In spite of his mutilated feet, which were more painful now than they’d been since the night when they’d first thawed, he knew he had to do something. His body felt alive and vibrant. His skin tingled as it often did just before he morfed, and he felt his bones stretching and growing a bit. He shrugged into his coat, noticing that his chest was too broad for him to button it. He found his tattered boots in the bin by the futon, but looking between them and his mutilated feet, he realized he wouldn’t be able to get them on. Even if he took his bandages off, which he was loath to do, his feet were to swollen to stuff into the boots.

Rummaging deeper in the bin, he pulled out his hat and a couple of Kim’s sweaters. Grabbing the duct tape out of one of the credenza drawers, he set about making himself makeshift foot coverings with Kim’s sweaters and lots of tape. It would have to do.

He pulled his cap on and stood up gingerly, sucking in a sharp breath as his feet screamed in pain. He could still feel Kim’s terror, though and that spurred him on. He hobbled unsteadily to the door, cursing himself for not taking better care of himself—for allowing his hands and feet to get frostbitten.

That thought brought back a sharp memory of Lyzel and how she always scolded him when he did something dumb that could have gotten him hurt or into trouble. The horrible gaping wound in his soul ripped wide open again. He gasped in pain, but soldiered on to the front door. He had a mission now. He could grieve again later.

Once at the door, he realized that it would lock behind him as soon as he stepped out. Cursing under his breath, he staggered back for the duct tape. Then he carefully taped the latch down so that it wouldn’t be able to slip into the hole. He’d be leaving the unit unlocked, but he thought the odds that someone would even try the door were slim to none. Even if someone got in, Kim had little to steal. His PowMon was the only thing he owned of value.

Once he had closed the door behind him, he made his slow way to the stairs. He went down the stairs on his butt, bumping down each stair one by one, putting weight only on the heels of his feet, which were painful but not as bad as his toes.

His fingers, miraculously, seemed to have mostly healed. He had full use of his hands now, even though a few of his fingertips were still discolored and sore. For that he was immensely grateful.

It seemed to take forever for him to bump down four flights of stairs. At the bottom, he crawled rather than walked down the long hall to the front door. Once there he hesitated. He couldn’t duct tape the front door open; it had a more complicated locking mechanism. If he went outside, he wouldn’t be able to get back in without Kim’s retinal scan.

Kim’s level of terror had stabilized. Raeden was pretty sure he was not being hurt, but he was certainly still afraid and unhappy. He knew which general direction Kim was in, and he was pretty sure he was stationary. He tried to judge the distance he would need to go to get to Kim, but was unable to pinpoint him exactly. His bond with Kim was not nearly as strong as the one he’d shared with Lyzel. He sighed in frustration.

So be it. I need to try anyway.

Steeling himself against the pain, he staggered to his feet. He was just about to venture out when he heard Kim screaming in his mind. Without hesitation, he slammed open the door to the anteroom and crossed it in three steps. Then he flung open the front door and stepped outside into the bitter cold and howling wind.

If he couldn’t find Kim, or Kim was beyond help when he found him, he didn’t want to get back inside anyway, he told himself. He would just finish what he’d tried to do before and let himself freeze to death on the street.

Kim was no longer screaming in his mind. He had settled down some. He also didn’t seem terrified anymore, which surprised Raeden. But Kim was still unhappy and in pain. Raeden hobbled as fast as he could on unsteady feet toward Kim. Or at least toward where he thought Kim might be. He didn’t have anything to go on except his odd psychic connection.

He was in a state of partial morf. That mean he was bigger than usual, the pain in his feet bothered him less, and his senses were heightened. He glanced at his hands and saw that his scales had not yet hardened; they were still just patterns, although they were darker than usual.

As he staggered down the dark street, he became aware that his connection with Kim was fading. That means he’s probably losing consciousness, he realized. “Stay with me, Kim!” he commanded with as much mental force as he could gather. Although he got no response, he kept talking to Kim over his imagined mental link, urging Kim to be strong and brave and to stay awake. As he felt himself drawing closer to him, he also felt Kim slipping away.

And then there was nothing.

He wanted to scream in frustration and call out Kim’s name, but he knew the young man wouldn’t be able to hear him. He continued on in the direction he had been going, but now at each cross road, he stretched his senses down the side streets, listening, peering into the darkness, and scenting the air, trying to find some trace of Kim.

At the second cross street he came to after losing contact with Kim, he saw a group of thugs gathered down the street. They were surely up to no good and he advanced to investigate. He hadn’t taken more than a few steps into the alley when a gust of wind brought Kim’s scent to his nostrils.

He howled in rage and felt his body growing still more. Picking up his pace he headed toward the small band of men. They had obviously been frightened by his unearthly howl. After taking a look at him, they all started running for the far end of the street.

Raeden let them go. His focus was on the small figure he could see on the other side of a chain link fence. It was Kim, curled up on the ground, unmoving. Raeden let out a roar, grabbed the bottom of the fence with his hands, and heaved it upward with all his might. With a hideous groan, the metal twisted and warped, creating a large opening.

Although the gap under the fence was big enough for most people to crawl through, Raeden still didn’t fit. It took him another couple of tries to stretch the steel enough to allow his massive bulk to slide under it. Once he could reach Kim, he made short work of dragging him carefully out through the opening. Kim was soaking wet, freezing cold, and unconscious. But he was still breathing.

Raeden whipped off his hat and tugged it onto Kim’s wet head. Then he struggled out of a coat that had become much too small for him. Wrapping Kim up in it, he clutched the young man tightly to his chest and began to hobble back to The Shangri-La. He was aware of the youths shadowing him at a distance but he ignored them. They were no threat to him. His only thought was to get Kim out of the cold and warmed up as quickly as possible.

He was still in a partially morfed state, which helped him stay on his mutilated feet and make steady progress back to the unit. Kim lay inert in his arms and the urgency of getting him warm blared through his mind like an air raid siren.

When he finally staggered up the few steps to the door of Kim’s apartment building, he was faced with his next dilemma: how to get in. He pulled off Kim’s glove and placed his hand on the scanner, hoping that that would be enough. It wasn’t. The mechanical voice demanded that Kim look into the retinal scan.

“Come on baby,” Raeden begged, stroking Kim’s cheek. “You need to open those pretty dark eyes.”

Kim did not stir.

“Kim! Wake up!” Raeden demanded. Out of desperation he slapped his cheek sharply, but with controlled force.

Kim groaned in protest and Raeden shifted Kim to a more vertical position, facing the retinal scan. Holding him easily with one arm, he gently pried his right eye open with his fingers. At first Kim’s eye was rolled back in his head, only the whites showing, but he groaned again in protest to the manhandling and his eye slid into its proper position. Luckily the retinal scan was quick. The lock slid open as Kim closed his eye again.

Raeden lost no time in getting Kim into the anteroom and a short time later they made it into the hallway. Unfortunately, Raeden’s body decided to return to normal about that time, and he was unable to stay on his feet. He crawled on his knees, still clutching Kim to his chest, to the bottom of the stairs, cursing the useless elevators as he passed them.

Once at the stairs, he bumped up them on his butt, doing the reverse of what he’d done to climb down them. It was more difficult because this time he also carried a comatose Kim. Raeden was frantic to get Kim out of his wet clothes and warm, but that did not seem to make his journey any faster.

Eon’s later he finally deposited Kim onto his futon. Tearing to the bathroom as quickly as he could on hands and knees, he grabbed a dry towel. He made short work of removing Kim’s wet clothing, toweling him off, and wrapping his wet hair and head in the towel.

He was dismayed to see that the side of Kim’s face and neck were covered with dried blood, but he didn’t have time to examine that injury. He quickly stripped off all of his own clothes except for the shredded sweaters that were still taped to his feet. They would take too long to remove.

Then he shifted the blankets out from under Kim and lay down next to him, pulling the blankets over them both, covering even their heads. His own feet stuck out from under them, but Kim’s were covered. He shifted so that his body was fully on top of Kim. Touching the young man’s frigid flesh everywhere possible, he kept his weight on his forearms and knees to keep from crushing the tiny beauty.

Then he put his body into heater mode.

Chapter Ten

There was a noise, persistent and irritating, that sought to drag Kim out of his deep sleep. He was more tired than he could remember ever being. He tried to shut his ears against it, to ignore it, but it was impossible. Then he became aware of a different noise, a deep soothing voice that slid over his senses, caressing him, hushing him.

Abruptly he realized that the irritating noise he heard was himself, whimpering pitifully. As he fought to stifle his plaintive cries, he became aware that his body was shaking uncontrollably. He was cold. Extremely cold. A chill had settled so deep into his bones, he felt as if he would never warm up again.

But there was something very warm pressed against him. He stretched his arms around the warm thing and then wrapped his legs around it too, trying to pull himself closer against it. Another loud whimper broke from his chapped lips.

“Ssshhh, you’re okay. You’ll be alright now,” the soothing voice intoned. A gentle hand stroked up and down his side.

Flesh! Kim realized he was wrapped around warm—no hot!—flesh. He could feel the hard muscles of the huge man’s back under his frozen fingers, the bulge of his deltoids at his shoulder, the smoother muscles below them. He felt the great thighs under his calves, large as tree trunks and burning with heat. A rich, masculine scent enveloped him, familiar and comforting. Raeden.

He was naked. The giant was naked. They were touching intimately. He felt the large, warm fingers that had been stroking his side move down to wrap around his cold butt cheek, pulling him even closer. A bright wave of desire crashed over him, leaving him gasping for air and light headed. Another whimper broke from his mouth and he shuddered against the big man, but now more from lust than from cold.

His cock sprang to life and quickly became uncomfortable, smashed down against his leg. He eased his hips away from the firm, flat abdomen to give his cock some room and it immediately bounced up to slap against his own stomach. Raeden shifted, pulling Kim tightly against him again, still murmuring reassurances in his ear.

Kim felt as if he were in a dream and wondered distantly if he’d died and gone to heaven. The head of his cock rubbed against the Raeden’s smooth, hot hip. He couldn’t help but wiggle to get just a bit more of that delicious friction. A flame of exquisite pleasure surged down his shaft, igniting a fire in his balls.

Oh god! So, so good.

As his precum painted a slick patch on Raeden’s abs, he felt himself spinning out of control. He groaned and ground his cock against the larger man. His hands shifted down to Raeden’s hips, clutching in desperation, holding on tight as his primal instincts took over and he started up a rhythm.

Even as his lust rocketed out of control and his pace picked up, Kim tried to fight his way out of the confusion of his thoughts. I’m not really dead am I? His last memory was of freezing to death. So hard to think when I’m—

“Oh, god!” he cried out, overwhelmed by unfamiliar and intense sensations. A series of high-pitched whimpers began to fall from his lips as he writhed in ecstasy against the giant’s hot skin. He was lost in a fog of lust as he climbed higher, his body seeking release. The hand on his butt squeezed gently and Raeden’s deep voice in his ear encouraged him.

He fought against the consuming aphrodesia. I need to think … to understand… He clearly remembered being trapped behind the fence, numb with cold and tormented by quents. But now he was warm and—

Oh!

His thoughts were obliterated by a bolt of lightning that crackled through his body. Ecstasy blazed a path from his cock to his heart to his brain. He cried out as his balls drew up and his cock erupted, spilling hot spunk across both his and Raeden’s bellies.

He thrust a few more times against the giant mod as aftershocks quaked through him, his whimpers slowly dying out. Then his body relaxed completely. He was boneless. He sucked in great gulps of air as his mind slowly gathered itself and his brain cells once more connected with each other.

Then he was mortified. He had just humped himself off against a naked Raeden. Why is he lying on me naked anyway? How come I’m not terrified? Then he realized he hadn’t felt Raeden’s hard cock—that was why he wasn’t afraid. At that point his shame became even greater. He’s not even gay, not turned on by me at all, and I just spilled all over him. How embarrassing is that?

He pulled his hands out from around the giant and covered his blazing face with them.

“Are you feeling better?” Raeden asked. His voice sounded concerned, not upset.

Clearly, if Raeden didn’t want me to hump against him, he could have stopped me, Kim thought. He peeked through his fingers at Raeden to find the mod staring at him with a stark intensity.

He realized he was in his own bed.

“What … what?” Kim tried to gather his thoughts. “How did I get here?”

Raeden smiled at him warmly. Kim’s body was still shuddering slightly but whether that was from the aftermath of his intense orgasm or still from the cold, he wasn’t sure.

“I found you and brought you home,” Raeden said calmly, as if this weren’t an unbelievable feat.

“Found … how?” Kim demanded.

“Are you feeling better? Would you like some tea?” Raeden asked, shifting as if to get up.

“No!” Kim cried clutching at Raeden’s arm. “Stay!”

“Okay,” Raeden said, settling again next to him. His torso was still touching Kim’s everywhere except their chests. Raeden propped himself on an elbow, staring down at him, smiling.

“Are you still cold?” he asked.

“No … I’m okay now.” Kim put a hand on Raeden’s massive chest. “But you’re hot! How come you’re so hot? Are you feverish?” Kim moved his hand to Raeden’s flaming cheek. He could feel the heat of his skin through the blond stubble beneath his fingers.

“No, I’m just trying to warm you up.”

Kim looked at him in confusion.

“I can control my body to certain extent,” he reminded Kim. “One of the things I can do now—I couldn’t for a while, but I seemed to have regained the ability—is raise my body temperature.

“Oh,” Kim said, filing this information away to think about later. “And how did you find me?”

“Telepathy. Did you hear me calling you?”

Kim remembered hearing Raeden’s voice in his mind before he succumbed to the cold. Raeden had said he was coming, had urged Kim to stay awake. Kim had thought it was a dream.

“Yes, but … how is that possible?”

“I have no idea. I had a connection with Lyzel, of course, but she was another mod—my mate.” Raeden’s voice broke on the last couple of words and the shadow of sorrow that had so haunted him for most of the time he’d been living with Kim was back in his eyes.

Kim moved the conversation along, not wanting Raeden to drop into despondency as he so often did. “But how did you get to me? You can’t walk.”

“I partially morfed again which allowed me to withstand the pain in my feet enough to reach you and rescue you.”

“Oh,” Kim said again. He glanced down, perhaps expecting to see some evidence of Raeden’s lizard self. What he saw was both of their stomachs covered in white stickiness. He felt his face flushing.

“Here,” Raeden said. He grabbed the end of the damp towel that was wrapped around Kim’s head and gently pulled it off. Then he used it to wipe up their bellies.

Kim fought to keep from squirming as Raeden rubbed the soft towel across his skin. He was not used to being touched—until Raeden had moved in, he hadn’t been touched by anyone since his mother had died.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I—” Kim didn’t know what to say, what excuse he could give for his outrageous behavior. “I know you’re not gay, you’re straight, and I just…” He trailed off, not able to admit aloud what he had just done.

“I’m not straight,” Raeden said.

Kim looked at him in surprise.

“I’m not gay either.” He sighed heavily. “I’m monogamous. With Lyzel. I won’t be having sex—ever again.”

“Oh Raeden, I’m so sorry.” Kim’s distress must have shown on his face, because instead of slipping into melancholy as he expected, Raeden focused on him.

“It’s just the way it is,” Raeden said matter-of-factly. “I didn’t mind what you did though. I enjoyed helping you get off. In fact, you don’t need to go into the freezing bathroom every morning to jack off. You could stay in bed with me. I won’t mind. I might even help.”

Kim just stared at Raeden. He knows I jack off every morning?

Of course he knows. He’s a mod; he can probably smell me doing it. That thought had Kim blushing again. Waking up next to Raeden, especially now that he was keeping himself clean, was an exercise in self-control. Clearly something Kim had completely lost earlier.

Raeden finished wiping their stomachs and tossed the towel aside. Then he carded Kim’s hair so it fanned out around his face and would dry faster.

“You’re sure you’re okay?” he asked softly. He was staring at Kim again with that intensity that he so often had. Something crackled through the air between them.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Kim said slowly, his mind suddenly awhirl. Something was happening. Raeden’s stare was mesmerizing. Suddenly his chest felt tight and it was hard to breathe.

Then Raeden’s warm lips descended on his. At first it was the barest brush of lips. Then Raeden’s tongue came out and swiped over his bottom lip—just a taste. Then Raeden slid one of his hands into his hair, holding his head firmly, and he pressed his lips against Kim’s passionately.

Kim’s brain immediately exploded.

*****

Kim’s lips were rough and soft at the same time. Raeden feasted on them with the hunger of one who hadn’t had a meal in weeks. And truly, he was starving. Starving for the kind of intimacy he’d shared with Lyzel.

Kim responded to the kiss eagerly, meeting Raeden’s onslaught with one of his own. Raeden forced his tongue into Kim’s mouth and ravished it. A low deep moan rumbled from Kim’s throat as he gave himself over to Raeden’s aggression.

It seemed very strange to be kissing someone who wasn’t Lyzel. Kim tasted different—not as sweet—perhaps a bit spicy with an herbal undertone. Raeden liked the noises Kim made. The younger man was clearly enjoying his attentions and that made Raeden’s heart flutter.

He ran his hands across Kim’s smooth chest, enjoying the feel of warm flesh. His fingertips had feeling in them now—they were almost back to normal. He brushed them lightly over one of Kim’s nipples and Kim pulled out of the kiss to gasp, arching into Raeden’s touch.

Bringing Kim pleasure was delightful in a way. He wasn’t turned on like he most certainly would have been if Kim had been Lyzel. His cock lay flaccid and quiescent against his leg, perhaps just a smidgen thicker than usual. But he could feel Kim’s cock stirring against him, feel the tension in the young man’s body, hear the hitch in his breath as he pinched a nipple gently between his thumb and forefinger. It made him feel good. It was oddly satisfying to arouse Kim.

He focused his attention once more on the kiss, wondering if Kim had ever kissed anyone before. He was certainly responsive, opening his mouth and allowing Raeden to explore with his tongue, and then pushing back tentatively with his own tongue. It was a sweet kiss, a bit clumsy and sloppy, but no less delicious.

One of his hands was tweaking Kim’s nipple, gently but steadily now, and he brought his other hand up to provide the same attention to its twin. Kim made a needy noise and Raeden pulled out of the kiss to watch him. His eyes were closed and his mouth hung open, panting. As Raeden pinched and rolled his nipples, Kim let out a loud low cry. His face scrunched in ecstasy and his hips began to hump, pushing his now hard cock against Raeden’s tight abs.

Raeden put a restraining hand on Kim’s hip, stilling his movement. “Sshh. Let’s slow this down a notch. Let me take care of you,” Raeden whispered in Kim’s ear, pausing to lick along the shell. Kim shuddered.

He kissed slowly and languidly down Kim’s body, taking his time and exploring. Kim had a beautiful, slender neck. His pulse fluttered wildly below his Adam’s apple. The hollow at the base of his neck tasted salty. Raeden kissed across the ridge of his collarbone to his lightly muscled shoulders, pausing to scent the muskier skin of his armpit. Kim smelled like very aroused male.

Raeden smiled against the warm flesh as he moved his kisses back to Kim’s chest. He took his time with Kim’s nipples, sucking on one while he pinched the other, then switching sides. Back and forth he went while Kim slowly fell apart beneath him. The young Asian began making keening noises, tiny whimpers that flowed out of him in an increasingly frantic stream.

“Rae … Raeden!” Kim gasped. “Pulleeze!” His plea was desperate.

Raeden paused to grin up at him, but Kim didn’t notice. His head was thrown back, his eyes squeezed shut, and his body thrummed with tension. Glancing down, Raeden saw his cock was fully engorged, the perfect mushroom head a deep purple with his arousal. Precum dribbled from the slit to pool on his flat stomach.

Without thinking about it, Raeden dipped his head down to lap up the precum. It was bitter and salty and just a bit nutty. Kim let out a high-pitched whine that crawled up Raeden’s spine, pulling him into Kim’s pleasure. It was unbelievably wonderful to be connected with someone. Raeden had not thought it would ever happen again. His heart ached with loss and need, but it was also strangely full. How can it be empty and full at the same time? he wondered. He felt tears starting to flow down his cheeks and he did nothing to stop them.

Raeden finished cleaning Kim’s belly and turned his attention to his cock. He licked the tip, catching the fresh drip just as it was emerging. Kim let out a wail and his hips jerked involuntarily. His hands fisted in the blankets and his restless legs wrapped around Raeden’s chest in a vice-like grip. Raeden chuckled softly.

“You want something?” he teased.

But Kim was beyond responding. He was obviously too overcome with lust to speak.

Raeden held Kim’s hips firmly in place while he ran his tongue around the tip of the younger man’s cock. Licking down the outside of Kim’s hard length, he took one of his hairless balls into his mouth. Kim began to make a cacophony of desperate noises.

It felt odd to have someone’s ball in his mouth. He’d never even considered it before. But Kim smelled delicious, musky and earthy with a hint of his green tea bath soap. And Kim’s reaction to his ministrations was very rewarding. Judging from the sounds he was making and the amount of precum pouring from his cock, he was out of his head with pleasure. Raeden sucked happily on the other man’s balls for a few minutes before pulling off to treat both his balls and his taint to long slow licks.

As Raeden licked slowly back up to Kim’s cock, painful emotions ripped through him. He was sharing intimacies with someone other than Lyzel. It felt like a betrayal.

But she was no more. He gasped as the sharp shard of loss twisted in his heart. She would want this for me, he assured himself. She was one of the most selfless people he’d ever met, and he knew she would never deny him this bit of comfort he’d found in a younger man.

He pulled Kim’s cock away from his belly where it had been snugged up tight and then he plunged down on it, taking it all the way into his mouth so that the tip bumped against the back of his throat. He’d never sucked a cock before, but Kim was not too large. He had the perfect sized cock for his tiny body and Raeden accommodated him without any trouble.

Kim’s reaction to being inside Raeden’s hot mouth was immediate and extreme. He let out a primal scream and began pumping semen down Raeden’s throat. His hips slammed upward, breaking Raeden’s hold, helped along by his clenching thighs. Raeden held on for the ride, swallowing as fast as he could to accommodate the flow of salty cum. Kim’s orgasm seemed to go on and on, and Raeden found himself lost somehow in Kim’s ecstasy. They hadn’t been connected and then suddenly they were. He could feel Kim’s pleasure as if it were his own. It was almost like being with Lyzel again.

He gasped with the weird combination of physical pleasure and emotional pain, overwhelmed by the intensity. Kim’s body slowly relaxed as he let go of his tension. He trembled slightly under Raeden’s hands and Raeden’s mind retreated into its own space again. He laid his head on Kim’s belly and waited for his breathing to return to normal.

He felt Kim’s fingers in his short hair, playing with it. Kim was happy. Sated. He could feel that. A comforting warmth settle in his chest.

“Raeden?” Kim asked, his voice sounding uncertain. “Are you okay?”

Raeden propped himself up on his elbows to look at Kim.

“You’re crying!” Kim cried in distress.

“I’m fine, Kim. Really. It was good. Amazing, actually.”

“I’m sorry—”

Raeden silenced Kim with gentle fingers on his lips. “Nothing to be sorry about. I wanted to. I enjoyed it.”

“But … I can’t do the same for you.”

Kim was upset about that; he could feel it. And that’s when it hit him: he would need to leave. Kim deserved someone who was whole. Someone who could share equally in their lovemaking. He didn’t need half a man, a burned out shell who couldn’t reciprocate his passions. The sooner he left, the better it would be for Kim.

That thought caused him to shut down. He had to lock away his emotions or he’d never make it out of Kim’s unit. He would destroy himself first. He moved up and settled in behind Kim, pulling the younger man against his chest. He could feel Kim’s worry for him. It was strange that he could suddenly feel Kim’s emotions so well.

“Shhh, Little One. It’s okay. Everything will be okay.” He couldn’t help comforting Kim, and the younger man buried his concerns and snuggled happily back into his arms.

Raeden kissed his hair tenderly. It was wonderful to hold Kim, but it couldn’t last. Things wouldn’t be okay. Lyzel was gone and things would never be okay again.

Chapter Eleven

Unread messages: 2,342.

Dylan suppressed a groan. This frickin’ job is impossible!

When he’d first been selected to train as an investigator for CorpSec, he’d been so excited. God, was I naïve back then!

Every day more and more messages arrived. There was no way he could keep up; at the end of his shift, he always just deleted whatever messages he hadn’t gotten to—messages that he should have handled. He wondered how long it would be before his boss figured that out. He’d complained about the workload and was threatened with demotion if he couldn’t keep up.

He tried. Lord knows, he tried. If he were demoted, he’d lose his lovely apartment in Zonesee, and his girlfriend, gold digger that she was, would surely leave him. But if he were caught deleting important messages, he’d be lucky if he weren’t reprogrammed for garbage collection or sent to the front line as a foot soldier. He shuddered. He’d just have to work faster—that’s all there was to it.

In a near panic, he scanned through the list, deleting every message he thought he could possibly get away with. Down to 1,842. Then he started again at the beginning again, handling each one as quickly as he could. By early afternoon he was down to 1,200.

The next one was a mod alert that had come in at 18:02 pm the evening before. Shit! Shouldn’t this one have gone to the emergency guy on duty last night? He quickly opened and scanned the message. According to the tracking records, Raeden Dearborn had partially morfed on the street in Zonei. Fingers flying, he looked up the mod’s info and breathed a sigh of relief. He was a broken one. How the hell did he manage to partially morf?

There hadn’t been any mod sightings reported in the last twenty-four hours—he wouldn’t have missed that. Those came in as high alerts, flashing red with a corresponding alarm sound.

He scanned the vital statistics that had come through. Sometimes other events could appear to be a partial morf, such as a body’s last gasp before death took it. Maybe he just hadn’t gotten to the alert about the mod’s death yet.

He looked up Raeden’s current data feed, surprised to see that he was still alive. His vitals were normal and he was still in Zonei. Okay, odd. But do I really have time to investigate this? He’d already scanned Raeden’s info. After he’d lost his mate, he’d gone down the path of booze and drugs like so many other broken mods. If he was hanging out in Zonei, he was, no doubt, still an addict. Surely what had happened last night was just a precursor to his death throes and not a partial morf.

Shit, I’ve already spent way over my allotted time on this message. If I was erring on the side of caution, I’d send someone to investigate, but I don’t have the frickin’ time for that.

Dylan pressed the delete button and went on to the next message. This one was a report that a Professor Henry Wilders had gone on a radio talk show and insisted that the Corporation was manipulating history (well, duh!) and that they were systematically eradicating certain written works. He had cited an extensive list, which included everything from George Orwell’s 1984 to academic papers about government theory that had been written in the previous century, before the corporations had put a stop to such things.

Dylan groaned aloud this time. He would have to actually do something about his one. He looked up the current location of the erstwhile professor.

 *****

Kim had been in a giddy fog all day. It’s a damn good thing I can do my job in my sleep, he thought, smiling to himself. He couldn’t stop thinking about Raeden and what they had done the night before. The big mod had been gentle and loving and oh so sexy. Kim shivered as he remembered the feel of that hot, hot mouth on his cock.

Raeden had looked at him with wanting, he was sure of it. Just before he’d kissed him senseless, Kim had seen the raw need in his eyes. Now that Raeden had been weaned off the drugs and alcohol, his eyes were an amazing shade blue, almost like the ocean on a summer day, or how Kim imagined it to be: deep indigo blue. Raeden had looked at him with powerful emotions churning in his fathomless, blue eyes—and then he’d kissed him.

Kim’s toes curled as he remembered the kiss. It was his first, and what a kiss it had been! Kim had never dreamed that having another man’s tongue down his throat could be so erotic. His body had flushed with heat and he’d almost orgasmed right then, just from a kiss.

He adjusted his cock in his pants and brought his focus back to the computer in front of him. Damn, I need to quit thinking about Raeden before someone notices I’ve got a stiffie.

Still, he couldn’t stop his mind from drifting back to the evening before. After Raeden had blown his mind with an incredible blowjob, they’d lain tangled together and Raeden had stroked his skin tenderly. The closeness had been almost unbearably euphoric after so much time alone.

Kim heard himself sigh and brought his attention once more to his work. His message board was flashing. He clicked on it and the bottom dropped out of his stomach.

His boss wanted to see him at the end of his shift.

Mr. Thomas had never called him into his office before. He would sometimes drop by Kim’s cube and chat, and occasionally he sent him messages with instructions or praise, but he’d never requested that Kim come to office.

The first thing that occurred to Kim—in fact, the only reason he could fathom for his boss’s request—was that CorpSec had finally noticed the liberties he’d taken with Representative Kenner’s machine.

He tried not to panic. It could be anything, he told himself. Maybe they’re giving me a raise or promotion.

Yeah, right. That won’t happen.

If CorpSec had really caught him though, wouldn’t they just come pick him up and haul him away? He’d seen it happen to others. One minute they’d be working away, doing their job as usual, and the next minute two grim-faced corporate goons would be escorting them out the door—never to be seen or heard from again.

Kim swallowed hard. His stomach had tied itself into a tight knot and his hands were wet with perspiration, making it difficult to type. He had another two hours before his shift was over. He wanted to rush into Mr. Thomas’s office and demand to know what his boss wanted, but he forced himself to wait, to pretend like he was still working. It wouldn’t do to act guilty. Maybe it was nothing.

Yeah, not nothing, his intuition told him.

Finally—finally!—his shift came to an end. He wasn’t sure if he was happy about that or not. He forced himself to breath normally, not fidget, and to act like getting called into his boss’s office was an everyday occurrence.

His boss’s door was ajar and he knocked on it softly so as not to swing it wide open.

Mr. Thomas looked up from his computer and his expression darkened. He motioned for Kim to come in. “Hello, Mr. Takemoto. Close the door behind you please.”

Kim’s stomach flip-flopped. He knew for sure now that whatever his boss had to say was bad news. His hand shook as swung the door shut. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned to face his boss, trying to keep his expression neutral.

“Take a seat, Kim,” Mr. Thomas said. His voice was not unkind, but it seemed maybe a little sad. Kim had always liked his boss. He was fair and supportive, and although Kim wouldn’t describe their relationship as friendship, it was definitely friendly.

He took the indicated chair, sitting stiffly on the edge. Looking at his boss attentively, he tried to keep his expression neutral. When he realized his nails were digging into his palms, he unclenched his fists and focused on appearing relaxed.

“Kim, I’ll get right to the point,” Mr. Thomas said, typing into his computer and not meeting Kim’s eye. “It’s my job to pay attention to the work that everyone in my department does. I am required to look for and report anomalies. When you volunteered to fix Rep. Kenner’s machine, it stoked my curiosity because, unlike some of the other workers who like to curry favors, you normally avoid politicians.”

Mr. Thomas’s face showed no emotion as he spoke. Kim felt lightheaded. Oh my god! They’ve caught me. What are they going to do to me?

The video screen on the wall to his right caught his eye as it flickered to life. There on the screen was himself in Rep. Kenner’s office, typing away on his keyboard. His image glanced at Kenner’s door fearfully and then refocused on the machine.

That must have been when I heard the noise in the hall, he thought. He had certainly looked guilty.

“I’m not going to ask you what you were doing on Kenner’s machine, but I think it’s pretty clear from your actions that it was not sanctioned. You used manual entry instead of voice and there is no record of your keystrokes because the feed was down—the feed that you were supposed to be fixing. How you managed to bring the feed down, I have no idea.

Kim turned startled eyes on his boss. “I didn’t—”

His boss waved his hand at him, cutting him off. “It doesn’t matter. CorpSec will get to the bottom of it, I’m sure. In any case, it’s out of my hands.”

Kim’s insides turned to ice at the mention of CorpSec. He stared at his boss in horror.

Mr. Thomas focused on him for the first time since he’d been in his office and his eyes filled with sympathy. “I don’t know what information could have been so important that you risked breaking the law to find it. I can’t imagine what would be worth that gamble. In any case, you lost. I’ve reported the anomaly to CorpSec. That’s the extent of my involvement.”

“What … what is going to happen now?” Kim asked. His voice shook, but he didn’t spare any embarrassment for his fear. He was fucking terrified.

Thomas cocked an eyebrow at him. “I imagine they’ll come pick you up for questioning,” he said. “I don’t know where or when. I wanted to give you a heads up in case you had anything you needed to take care of, people you wanted to say goodbye to, before then.”

They both knew that people never came back after being picked up by CorpSec for questioning. They also both knew that it wouldn’t do Kim any good to run. He couldn’t get anywhere without his intel, and with his intel on, the government could locate him and pick him up wherever he was. There was no escape.

“You’ve been an exemplary employee up until now,” Mr. Thomas said. “I’ve noted that in your record. You are welcome to continue to work until you are taken away. I imagine all of your actions will be carefully scrutinized, so don’t do anything else stupid.”

He smiled at Kim sadly. “It’s been nice working with you, Mr. Takemoto. That is all.”

Kim rose from the chair stiffly. “Thank you for telling me, Mr. Thomas,” he said. His voice sounded hollow. “I’ve enjoyed working with you too.”

Then he was walking down the hall in a daze, back to his desk to pick up his coat and his lunch bag. On autopilot, he exited the building, walking at his normal pace to the train station to catch his regular train home, as if his world hadn’t suddenly turned upside down.

*****

While Kim stood on the crowded train for the twenty minutes it took to reach his stop, the ice inside him melted and became an inferno of panic. By the time the train pulled into the station in Zonei, he was in a full frenzy of distress.

He took off running toward his building, heedless of the looks he got from the few people on the street. He needed to be with Raeden. Maybe the big mod would know what to do, if there was anything to be done. At the very least, Raeden could offer him some comfort in his last hours of freedom.

That last thought brought a huge lump into his throat. His breath came in quick, hard gasps, whiteness rising in clouds about him. His lungs ached and he had the thought that maybe it wasn’t good for him to be running when it was so cold outside—maybe he would freeze his lungs. He was almost home by then, though, and completely out of breath. He slowed his pace marginally and a few moments later was dashing up the steps to the front door of The Shangri La.

His side ached and he was wheezing for air by the time he’d climbed the four flights of stairs to his unit. He burst into his home with Raeden’s name on his lips and then stopped abruptly, scanning the room.

Raeden was not there.

*****

Raeden’s stomach growled ferociously. He put a hand on his belly and rubbed. He couldn’t remember ever having been this hungry. His stomach was cramping from lack of sustenance.

He had scoured Kim’s unit, but they had eaten the last of the food the morning before. That’s why Kim had gone to the grocery store. Raeden’s partial morf had quickly depleted his calorie reserves and raising his body temperature to warm Kim had wiped out the rest.

Raeden had not found any cash when he went through Kim’s apartment, but he wasn’t sure he would use it even he had. He knew Kim wouldn’t mind him spending his money on food, but it wasn’t Raeden’s money to spend. Damnit! I need my intel back.

He had avoided looking at his feet since the night before. He hadn’t even removed the taped-on sweaters that he wore. He had noticed that he could move his toes though, which he hadn’t been able to do since he’d gotten frostbite. The partial morf had done wonders, he was sure. He didn’t want to think about being fully mobile, because that meant he could and should leave Kim’s place. Although he had made up his mind, he hadn’t mentioned it to Kim that morning. He would tell him when the time came.

His stomach rumbled again, sounding like an angry bear. He had been lounging on the bed and now he sat up suddenly in frustration. A wave of dizziness washed over him.

That’t it, he thought. I need to get food in me one way or another.

Placing one of his feet on the floor, he slowly put pressure on it. It hurt, but not badly. He placed his other foot on the floor and stood up gingerly. Trying a few tentative steps, he found that the pain, although harsh, was bearable.

Okay, so suppose I’m able to make it to the closest store or restaurant, I have no money. But maybe I can sell or trade something for food. Glancing around the unit, his eyes fell on his wool cap. It was finely made and clean, thanks to Kim. He wondered if he’d be able to trade it for enough to fill the void in his cramping stomach.

The only other possession he owned that might be worth selling was his coat. He had stitched up the ripped shoulder and the coat was clean, but it was also quite worn around the cuffs and the lining was threadbare in places. He would sell it as a last resort if he needed to.

He fetched the duct tape and fortified his homemade shoes, then he headed out in search of food. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get back into the building without Kim, but he could just hang out near the front and wait for him. It was another hour before he was due home.

As Raeden was shuffling slowly and painfully down the street, he suddenly felt Kim’s distress. He paused and focused on his psychic connection. Kim was rattled, but he wasn’t in any immediate danger. Something must have happened to upset him.

Raeden continued down the street. He could tell that Kim was still at work, or at least that he wasn’t in Zonei. His telepathic bond with the young man had strengthened dramatically with his last morf and the closeness they’d shared the evening before. He had a good idea of Kim’s location, but there was nothing he could do for him until he got to Zonei.

Maybe I can meet him at the train, he thought. Wouldn’t Kim be surprised?

His feet hurt like hell though, and without an intel he had no way to know in which direction he could find food. He was heading toward the more central area of Zonei, turning to follow the busier streets and observing that there were more and more people about as he walked.

He got the occasional odd stare. He was used to getting gawked at for staggering around drunk. Now he supposed people were staring because of his makeshift shoes and perhaps his giant stature. He didn’t have the energy to shrink himself at the moment.

As he walked, he realized that Kim was en route home. To meet him at the train station, he’d need to abandon his quest for food and head in that direction. Kim’s distress was ever-present, and it seemed like it might be getting worse, but he was still not in any immediate danger. Raeden wondered what could have brought about so much dread.

He paused as another wave of dizziness assailed him. He was starving and that wasn’t going away until he got something into his stomach. Raeden, ever practical, realized that he could deal better with a crisis if he were fed. In any case, his feet were killing him; he didn’t need to traipse all over Zonei. I can catch up with Kim at The Shangri La, he decided. He kept on his current heading toward the center of the zone.

Shortly a delicious smell wafted to him and saliva pooled in his mouth. Oh my god, I’m sooo hungry! He followed his nose and eventually spotted a “hot dog” stand. He was pretty sure there wasn’t any real meat in those dogs—not in Zonei—but they came with grilled onions and what could pass for cheese and they smelled wonderful. It’s amazing what they can do with soy protein these days.

It took him only a few minutes of bargaining to trade his hat for four fully-loaded dogs. It helped that it was quite cold out and the hot dog vendor had not had a hat of his own.

Raeden wolfed three of the dogs down immediately, feeling his dizziness finally subside as he was finishing the third. While he was wrapping up the last dog to take to Kim, he felt the young Asian arrive at the station in Zonei. Distress poured off of him in waves. Raeden set off toward their building at as quick a pace as he could manage on his damaged feet.

Kim was moving much faster than Raeden expected, and he hadn’t gotten very far when he felt a wave of anguish emanating from Kim.

Raeden, where the fuck are you?

Kim’s thought came through loud and clear. Raeden grinned at the strength of Kim’s telepathic sending even as guilt plagued him. He should have been there for Kim when he got home. He picked up his pace, wincing as his feet screamed in agony.

I’m here Kim. I’m coming home, he sent, but Kim didn’t acknowledge his thought. Kim was furious with him and his angry thoughts assailed Raeden with the force of a gale.

You coward! What are you thinking? You can’t just leave me. I’m coming to find you, and when I do, you’ll be so sorry!

Raeden winced again. He had indeed been planning to leave Kim, but he wouldn’t have gone without telling him why. Well, I would at least have left a note, he amended to himself.

He was shocked by the depth of Kim’s anguish at finding him gone. Whatever had had Kim in a panic when he reached home, it was nothing compared to what Kim was feeling now.

He cares about me, Raeden thought in wonder. He needs me.

*****

Kim slammed the door of his apartment building behind him in fury. Fucking moron! What the hell are you doing out here? Kim fumed.

Are his feet better now? he wondered. Maybe he’s gone to get his intel. Maybe he’s already back in Zonesee. What if I never see him again?

That thought caused Kim’s chest to constrict painfully and he had to pause to suck in a couple of deep breaths of air. Relax, Kim. You’ll find him, he tried to console himself. Certainly, if he didn’t calm down, he wouldn’t do anyone any good. He set off at a quick pace in the direction of the Zonei CorpSec office. If Raeden hadn’t gone to get a new intel, he had no idea where the giant might be.

He began to call out for him at intervals, hoping against hope that he’d find him lingering in a doorway. Hell, he’d even be happy to find him passed out drunk on the street.

He was only a few blocks from home, pausing to call down a side street, when he was suddenly grabbed from behind. A beefy arm snaked around his chest holding him tight, and his assailant also grabbed his braid, close to the nap of his neck, in a painful grip.

“I got you now, girly-boy,” a rough voice growled in his ear. “And this time you ain’t getting away.”

Kim let out a moan of terror as he realized that he had been caught by the leader of the quent gang that had assaulted him the night before. He struggled furiously to no avail as he was dragged into an alley, the other quents bouncing in glee around him.

Raeden! Kim’s mind screamed in panic.

“This time we’re not taking any chances,” the leader informed him as one of the quents held open a door and they dragged him into the cold darkness of a warehouse building. “This time we’re doing this in private, and we’re going to take our time and make sure you’re very sorry that you got away last night.”

Kim quit struggling. He shut down, cutting off all thought as he turned his mind inward to drift in a dark void of nothingness.

Chapter Twelve

Raeden could tell Kim was looking for him—calling him. He hurried in the direction from which the telepathic signal was coming, limping as fast and he could and cursing himself for causing Kim so much grief.

Without warning, Kim’s anxiety became sheer terror. Raeden knew instantly that Kim was in physical danger. Without any direction from his brain, his body started to morf.

When he was fully morfed, his mind was ruled mainly by instinct. Raeden knew he had just moments before he was no longer himself. One of the imperatives that had been drilled into him from an early age was to hide his morfing abilities in public. In circumstances like this, it couldn’t be helped. He could not stop himself from morfing, nor did he want to. He needed to get to Kim as quickly as possible, and in lizard form he was extremely fast.

He focused on slowing down the transformation as he dashed into the nearest alley. Thankfully, it was deserted. Kim’s hotdog was still in his hand. He ripped the packaging off and shoved it into his mouth whole, then he began to strip off his clothes as quickly as he could. They would be much too tight when he was fully morfed, constricting his movements, and the pants would not accommodate his tail. Temperature was not a concern. In lizard form, he could withstand extremes of heat and cold for hours, if not days, before he noticed any discomfort.

The clothes would also have hidden his camouflage. He had chameleon DNA in his genetic modifications, and when he was fully morfed his scales would take on the color of his surroundings, shifting instantaneously as he moved. In lizard form, he was almost impossible to see if he were moving quickly. People might notice a blur of motion, but they would have no idea what it was. Even stationary he was difficult to make out unless you were quite close to him.

Raeden’s body transformed, growing taller and wider, his muscles taking on huge proportions. His scale patterns quickly turned into real scales, hard and shiny, and currently mostly asphalt gray. He felt his head elongating and ridges forming over his eyes and down the center of his face. His hands and feet lengthened and his fingers and toes became razor-sharp claws. He used these to shred the final vestiges of clothing off his body, lastly ripping through the sweaters and tape that protected his feet. With hard scales covering him entirely, he didn’t need the protection of any type of clothing or footwear. His tail emerged and he swished its thick length back and forth, reveling in the feel of the unaccustomed appendage.

He could feel his heart rate speeding up. His sense of smell heightened and his mind’s reaction to the ten thousand scents around him was altered. In human form, he would have wrinkled his nose at the stench of rat dung and human urine, the predominate smells in the alley, but his lizard mind didn’t care about smells. His mate was in danger and he had only one thought in his head: destroy the threat.

He took off at a blinding pace, an invisible force, bent on annihilation.

*****

Kim’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut. He was trying to keep his mind shielded, trying to hide in a dark corner of his brain, to remain oblivious to anything that happened to him. He tried to shut down all thought.

But he could hear the quents yammering with excitement, both in the real world and in his head. He could feel their emotions. The leader, Conrad, who was carrying him, anticipated slaking his lust. Kim mentally cringed when realized Conrad’s cock was already hard. But there were other voices as well, crowding his mind. Jim—somehow Kim’s addled brain assigned him a name—was afraid. He didn’t want to participate, didn’t even want to watch. He didn’t want sex with a male and didn’t enjoy inflicting pain. He was afraid the other boys would find out and think him weak. Bill, the boy who had dumped water on him, was looking forward to hearing him scream. He was imagining doing things to him—Kim opened his eyes wide, gasping for air in an effort to shut down those images.

My imagination has gone wild. Where are these thoughts coming from?

Conrad was carrying him up a set of wooden stairs, dingy walls looming close on either side. One of the quents behind them must have been holding a flashlight; a small round pool of light on the stairs in front of them was the only illumination.

Get a hold of yourself, he told himself sternly. Look for an escape.

Conrad had a strong arm around his chest and another around Kim’s legs. He was facing forward, away from his abductor. Kim stayed limp in his arms until they neared the landing, then gathering his resolve, he twisted with all his might, pushing away from Conrad with his arms and scissoring his legs wildly.

“Hey, you fucker!” Conrad cried. He lost his grip momentarily and Kim started to fall, but before he even touched the floor Conrad had regrouped, grabbing him by an arm and a leg. They had reached the landing and Conrad swung him around, slamming his head into the wall.

Blinding pain shattered his thoughts and his vision dimmed. Kim went limp, fighting to stay conscious.

He sensed a roar of fury from some distant animal.

What the hell?

“I told you, you aren’t getting away this time.” Conrad sounded angry. “I’ll fuck you up good if you try.”

I’m gonna fuck you good anyway. That thought emanated from Conrad and Kim knew he was smirking, although in his present position he couldn’t see his face.

How can I know what he’s thinking? Why is my mind making up these weird thoughts? Kim was dizzy and nauseous and in pain. He couldn’t analyze the strange words in his mind with all that hammering in his head.

Conrad pushed through a doorway into a dark hall. The flashlight beam illuminated the filthy floor before them and doors to either side. One of the boys—Brian, his mind told him—passed by Conrad, bounding up to one of the doors. They all stopped and waited, anticipation running high, while he opened it with an old-fashioned key.

Brian stepped aside and let Conrad go in first. Kim felt the young quent’s eyes on him when they stepped past, and he felt his lust. He sensed Brian adjusting his hardening cock in his pants although he couldn’t see him anymore.

Kim fought against the terror that threatened to consume him. He considered struggling to get away again, but Conrad’s firm grip and his own splitting headache dissuaded him. He glanced around the room instead, moving only his eyes.

Tall windows along two walls of the large open space let in the last of the waning daylight. The building had been built in the early part of the twentieth century and Kim guessed its original use had been for offices. Indeed, there were several large metal desks that had been pushed against one wall. A couple of stained, dilapidated couches took up the center of the room and along another wall were some dirty mattresses. Piles of clothing and bags of who-knew-what were strewn about the filthy, gray carpet that covered the floor.

Conrad carried him over to the wall of desks and pushed him facedown onto one of them. “Yeah. Party time! Your ma works ‘til eight, right Brian?” Conrad verified.

“Yeah. My old man is off now, but he’ll stay out drinking until probably midnight. We have at least a couple of hours to play with him.”

Kim could not help the full body shudder that racked him at those words.

“I’ll hold him down. You guys strip him.”

Kim’s face was pressed firmly into the cold metal of the desk. It smelled of dust and old ink. When he felt hands on him, many hands, pulling at his clothing and removing his shoes, memories of the first time he’d been raped by a gang of quents assailed him.

He began to fight as hard as he could, lashing out with hands and feet, struggling to lift his head from the desk.

“Hoi!” Kim could feel Conrad grinning. “This one’s a little fighter.” He grabbed Kim’s ear and twisted. Pain shrieked through Kim, but he didn’t stop fighting. There were too many of them though, and they held him fast. After several minutes of hard struggle, Kim was completely out of breath. He was also, to his horror, completely naked. He still fought to get away with everything he had in himself.

Then someone grabbed one of his balls and squeezed hard.

Kim let out a howl as his body went rigid and his mind went white with pain. He heard an answering roar of fury from somewhere close by.

“What’s that?” Brian asked.

Kim wondered the same thing briefly, but then he heard Conrad opening the clasp on his pants and his mind was overwhelmed with panic. He started struggling again in earnest, in spite of the threat of having his balls squashed.

“Hold him still, would you?” Conrad said. “You’ll all get your turn, but I’m first.”

More hands were on him then, holding his arms out spread eagle, pinning them down. Conrad’s hands left his head, but they were immediately replaced by someone else’s keeping his face pressed against the desk. He felt Conrad’s hands on his butt, parting his cheeks.

That’s when he finally started to beg. “No, please. Please don’t.” His voice sounded broken.

His pleas were drowned out by a terrific roar as the door to the room exploded inwards in a shower of splintered wood. Then all hell broke loose.

*****

Everything happened so fast and was so unexpected and shocking it took several seconds for Kim to realize what had happened, even after it was over.

Conrad pulled away from Kim, whirling around. The cry of surprise on his lips was the last noise he ever uttered. A whirlwind of motion attacked him and his head and body went in two different directions, showering the room in bright red blood.

Inhuman shrieks of anger filled the air, savage and thunderous, but Kim’s eye had trouble tracking the creature—it was made of shadow and light rather than form. It picked up Bill and swung him around, bashing his head against the side of one of the sturdy metal desks. Bill’s skull cracked like an eggshell and the monster tossed him aside.

The other quents were in motion now, all heading for the exit. With a roar, the creature grabbed Brian by the leg and flung him across the room. His scream was cut off as he hit the wall with a sickening thud. He ended up in a crumpled heap on the floor.

The last two quents had made it to the door and the creature leapt after them.

Not Jim! Kim’s thought caught him by surprise. He didn’t think he could spare concern at the moment for anything except his own self-preservation. He hated those quents who may well have killed him after they were done “playing” with him, but he still didn’t want them dead.

The creature stopped suddenly and turned toward him.

Kim swallowed. He could hear his blood rushing through his ears. He had time to think, at least this will be a quicker death than what the quents had planned.

Then he had time to think some more. Time to notice the coppery smell of blood that permeated the room. Time for his eyes to be drawn to Conrad’s severed head where it lay, snugged up against the side of one of the couches, nose down, pooling blood onto the wooden floor. He quickly looked away, sickened, and found himself eye to eye with the monster. It was standing perfectly still, staring at him with huge golden eyes.

He could make out details of the creature now that he wasn’t moving. He was huge; his head almost reached the ceiling. His body was covered in shiny scales of varying hues. His hands and feet ended with long sharp claws and a thick tail hung low behind him, not quite touching the floor. His body resembled a human male in shape, although he was obscenely muscled. He appeared to have no penis at all. His head was reptilian: he had a long snout with small holes for his nose and a wide, wide mouth that wrapped around his lower face. Ridges over his eyes gave him a fierce look and his unblinking, intelligent stare was decidedly predatory.

A whimper of terror came out of Kim’s mouth. He was going to be this creature’s next meal.

Then a thought popped into his mind that wasn’t his. It’s me. Raeden.

Before he had a chance to assimilate that, the creature changed. His body and face shifted and contorted, shrinking and transforming. Within a few seconds Raeden stood before him, stark naked and breathing heavily. He had blood all over his hands.

“Kim, are you alright?” he asked, striding quickly toward him.

Kim pulled himself onto the metal desk and scrambled backwards until his back hit the wall. He’d never heard himself make a noise like the one that came out of his throat just then. It was a sound of sheer terror.

Raeden stopped in his tracks. Kim felt the mod’s hurt in his mind at the same time he saw it on his face. “I would never hurt you, Kim,” he said gently.

Kim pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. His brain was finally catching up to events of the last few moments. Raeden had fully morfed and had rescued him from the quents. But how terrifying and deadly he was in his lizard form! Kim could never have imagined it. Even now he was having trouble conceiving that Raeden was the whirlwind of shadow and light that had ruthlessly killed three kids in less than ten seconds.

“Raeden?” he gasped out.

“Yes, Little One, it’s me. I won’t hurt you. I promise.” Raeden moved toward him slowly.

Kim sat frozen, trying to untangle the confusing barrage of emotions he was feeling. Raeden stopped in front of the desk and reached for him.

Kim saw those huge bloody hands coming toward him and he shrieked in terror.

Raeden stepped back, emanating consternation. Looking down at his hands, he grimaced. “Sorry,” he said. He glanced around and then moved over to pick up a shirt that was lying on the floor. He spent a few moments wiping his hands off, even taking care to clean under his fingernails.

That small detail did much to reassure Kim that he was human again.

“That’s the best I can do right now,” Raeden said. “I’m sorry about the…” He made a motion with his head that encompassed the gory devastation around them. “—mess.” His eyes caught Kim’s. “I can’t say I didn’t mean to kill them, because I most certainly did.”

Kim made another sound—a whimper this time. He seemed to have lost his ability to speak and had no control over the noises that did come out of his mouth. His body began to shiver violently. He thought that was likely due to the aftermath of having so much adrenalin pumping through his bloodstream, but it could also be from the cold. Like most buildings in Zonei, this one had no heat, and the chill from the metal desk he was sitting on radiated into his naked body, stealing his warmth.

Raeden stood once more before him. “Can I hold you, Kim?” he asked in a quiet voice. “Please?” He was looking at him with that intense, concerned look which Kim had seen so many times, and when Kim caught his scent, Raeden’s unique brand of masculinity, familiar and comforting, Kim launched himself into Raeden’s arms.

Raeden pulled Kim tightly to his chest, wrapping his huge arms around him protectively. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s okay, Little One. It will be alright, he crooned, stroking the back of Kim’s head.

Kim buried his face in Raeden’s shoulder, shuddering, allowing himself to steep in the big mod’s warmth and comfort. His heart rate started to slow and the chaos in his mind began to sort itself into some semblance of rational thought.

Finally he realized that the words of comfort Raeden was giving him weren’t spoken. He could hear them clearly in his mind, but the room was silent.

“How can I hear you?” he asked.

I don’t know, Raeden replied, still not speaking. I could communicate with Lyzel like this—she’s the only other one I’ve ever been able to talk to with my mind.

But … I’m not a mod, Kim thought at him, trying out the strange new method of communication.

I know, but you must have some natural telepathic abilities.

I’ve never noticed before. I’ve always been intuitive, but … I could actually hear some of their thoughts! The quents, I mean.

You heard their thoughts? Are you sure?

Well, no, but I knew their names. How could I know their names? And it seemed like I could hear their thoughts.

Raeden was silent for a few moments. Kim could feel his concern, could tell he was muddling over what Kim had just said, but he couldn’t hear his thoughts.

I can’t tell what you’re thinking, Kim said. I can only hear you when you project, I guess.

I shield my thoughts. We are trained to do that so that enemies can’t take over our minds.

Kim, whose trembling had almost stopped, shuddered at the thought of someone invading his mind. Raeden rubbed his back soothingly as Kim calmed himself again.

After a few moments, Raeden said, You are my mate now. I have rebonded. He seemed very pleased with himself.

Kim pulled back to stare at Raeden in shock. “Mate? Rebonded?”

“Yes. I am now fully functional again.” Raeden grinned and moved Kim to the side, shifting him onto his hip and glancing down at himself. Kim looked down too and was appalled to see that Raeden’s cock was huge and steel-hard, pointing up at the ceiling. “I’m always horny after a fight,” Raeden said gleefully.

Terror streaked through Kim at the sight of the huge penis just inches from his bare ass. He shrieked in panic and squirmed desperately, trying to get away.

Stop Kim! Raeden commanded, stern and strong, holding Kim firmly. I won’t hurt you—ever, he said soothingly, using their mind link. But it was the emotion emanating from Raeden that calmed Kim. In addition to the lust, which was definitely present, there were feelings of protectiveness and love woven through Raeden’s emotions.

I won’t ever take you in pain and fear, Little One, Raeden assured him. When we make love, it will be the most wonderful experience of your life.

Kim believed him and his fear dissipated. Then, in the quiet moment that followed, they heard a low moan. Kim’s head snapped up and he became aware of his surroundings again. The coppery smell of blood still permeated the air and the bodies of the mangled quents still lay in grotesque disarray about the room. The moan had come from Brian, the quent who Raeden’s lizard-monster—Kim could not think of the creature as Raeden himself—had thrown against the wall.

“I guess he’s not dead,” Kim said, his voice tight with emotion.

Raeden let out a low growl and Kim tensed as another frisson of fear ran through him.

“He doesn’t deserve to live,” Raeden said, “but I won’t kill him now.”

“We need to get out of here.” Kim was suddenly panicked. “We … you’ve killed two people. If they find out, they’ll … well, I don’t know what will happen, but we need to go. Now!”

“No,” Raeden said calmly. “It’s already too late.”

“Too late? What do you mean?”

Raeden nodded toward the window. Outside the last vestiges of twilight were fading from the sky. In the silence that permeated the room, Kim heard the distinctive drone of a flyer engine. Multiple flyer engines. It was rare to see the vehicles in Zonei. They were used by the wealthy for transportation in the upper zones and by CorpSec when they were closing in on a criminal.

Kim’s heart jumped into his mouth. “Morf!” he cried. “Raeden, morf and run. They won’t be able to catch you.”

“Oh, yes they will,” Raeden said. “How do you think they found me? They must have implanted a tracking devise. And they know about you too by now,” he added. “They’ll have already scanned the building and taken note of your heat signature. Neither one of us can get away. It’s best if we face this together.”

“But, Raeden! They’ll kill you.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

Kim didn’t understand how Raeden could be so calm when his own chest felt ready to explode.

Then one of the windows on the far end of the room shattered inward, glass flying.

Get on my back, Raeden ordered. When Kim hesitated, he added, Now!

With Raeden’s help, Kim shifted around so that he clung to Raeden’s broad back, wrapping his legs around the mod’s torso.

Raeden stood tall and still. Kim watched with horror, peeking over Raeden’s shoulder, as a small drone flew into the room and approached them.

Raeden spoke to it. “I’m sure you already know that I’m Raeden Dearborn, 874928634. I have rebonded and—”

Raeden stopped speaking when a small projectile shot from the drone and buried itself in his neck. Kim felt the body beneath him growing and shifting, felt the warm flesh give way to hard scales, and then they were falling.

Raeden crashed forward onto the floor and Kim rode him down, pulling his feet out of the way so they wouldn’t get crushed by Raeden’s weight when he landed. Kim found himself crouched on the floor next to his unconscious protector. The scales melted back into Raeden’s flesh as he returned to his normal state. Kim was relieved to see that he was still breathing.

The drone hovered, whirring quietly. Kim cowered behind Raeden’s still form, staring at it fearfully, trying to figure a way out of their current situation.

Then he heard the clamor of many booted feet running on wood. His gaze shifted to the door in time to see a troop of heavily armed men in full riot gear pour into the room.

One of the foremost men raised his weapon and fired. Kim felt a sting in his neck and the world disappeared into darkness.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Raeden woke up with a roar of anger coming from his throat. He was lying naked on a padded table. He also seemed to be completely paralyzed, except for his head.

What the fuck?

Even as he started to morf, he took in his surroundings.

The room looked like an operating room: clinical and sterile, mostly white, with a multitude of gleaming equipment and machines. It smelled of antiseptic. Raeden had been in similar rooms before, but this was not one he recognized.

There were a couple of men dressed in white coats, although they weren’t wearing gloves or masks and didn’t look like they were about to perform surgery. One was tall and thin with a wispy blonde moustache and balding pate. The other was shorter and stockier with red hair and pale, freckled skin. They were standing a few feet away, staring at him with interest.

He had various electrodes attached to his body, including a few that were attached to his forehead and the back of his neck at the base of his skull. He assumed that was what was making it so he couldn’t move. The electrodes all fed into a machine that was suspended from the ceiling above his head.

All of this information he took in in a split second, even as his mind reached out for Kim and found … nothing. He immediately went berserk. Kim! he screamed as loud as he could over the mindlink.

There was only silence. He couldn’t feel Kim at all.

Panic gripped him. This was too much like when he lost Lyzel. Anguish overwhelmed him as he transformed into his lizard form. He had morfed when Lyzel died as well; that was the last time he’d been able to morf until he finally bonded with Kim. As his transformation completed, his mind switched to screaming, Mate! Mate!

There was still no response. His lizard brain was in control and he thrashed futilely against the invisible bonds that held him, his limbs barely trembling as he tried to move them with all his might. His deafening roars rattled the equipment and the lab men cringed, the tall wispy one covering his ears. He fought hard for several minutes, straining and gasping and screaming the entire time, until finally the red-haired lab man stepped up to the machine over his head and punched a button. He lost consciousness immediately.

*****

When next he awoke, he was lying on the same table, still unable to move. Wispy and Red were still there. He became immediately aware of Kim’s presence. He wasn’t in the same room, but he was nearby. He also wasn’t fully conscious, Raeden could tell, but he was cold. That thought came through to him loud and clear.

Raeden was flooded with relief that Kim was alive. At the same time, fury exploded within him that they were keeping him separated from his mate, and his mate was uncomfortably cold. He fought to keep control of himself. He didn’t want to morf again and lose his higher brain functions. He wouldn’t be able to get out of this situation with brawn. His captors, who he suspected were CorpSec goons, were obviously prepared to deal with mods. Although he was one of the biggest and strongest, he didn’t think he’d be able to break out of the invisible bonds that held him. He needed his brain so he could analyze the situation and determine his best course of action.

He took deep breaths and willed his heart rate to slow down. Kim was not in pain, he told himself. He’s just subdued and cold. His eyes sought the nearest lab technician, Wispy.

“Where is my mate and what have you done to him?” he asked, trying to keep the snarl out of voice.

The blonde paused for a second before answering and Raeden realized he must be wired. He was getting instructions from someone who wasn’t in the room. There would be cameras too, of course. Raeden didn’t even bother to look for them.

Raeden wasn’t a person, he was a specimen. Incubated in a test tube and raised in an institution, he was less than human. He was property—valuable property, but property none-the-less. He belonged to the Corporation, there was no doubt about it. In spite of his contract, the façade of rights and liberty, he was no more than chattel.

All of his life he’d chaffed under this knowledge, angry that he had been created in a lab from spliced together genes that weren’t even all human. He hadn’t been born out of love, or even lust, between a man and woman. He had fought for years to come to terms with the circumstances of his creation, to accept himself as a mod and as a man. With Lyzel’s help he had finally grown to understand that he was not a non-entity. He was a thinking, feeling, loving person. He was part of humanity even if they rejected him as such.

But he always resented reminders that he was considered less than human. And this—being held immobile on some sterile lab table while humans poked and prodded at him and recorded his every fart—this was irrefutable evidence that he was simply a lab rat. A genetically modified organism. A science experiment gone wrong.

“The man you were captured with is nearby,” Wispy said, “but he is not your mate.”

Raeden couldn’t stop the low growl that came out of his mouth. The audacity of these men to assume they knew anything about his thoughts and feelings. He may be a created organism, but he was a very complex created organism. Kim most certainly was his mate. That was undeniable. And he needed his mate by his side.

Cold. I’m so cold.

Kim was waking up, but he was uncomfortable. His head also hurt like hell and he was nauseous, Raeden could tell. Taking in his own surroundings, he realized that the temperature in the room was a chilly ten degrees Celsius. He noticed both of his lab techs were wearing heavy sweaters under their coats. The cold didn’t bother him, but if Kim were strapped down naked in similar conditions, he would be freezing.

The thought of Kim naked for all of these CorpSec goons to observe almost had him morfing again. He closed his eyes and sought to connect with Kim.

Kim! Are you alright?

Raeden! Where are you? I feel like shit and I’m freezing.

I’m in a different room. But nearby, I think. Are you immobilized?

I haven’t opened my eyes yet, but I think … Oh god, Raeden! I can’t move.

Raeden felt terror clawing at Kim’s throat. He was immediately ready to morf again. What is it, Kim?

They’ve got me held down in some sort of operating room. Are they going to reform me? I can’t … I can’t…

Raeden felt Kim’s panic. He hadn’t considered such a thing himself, because why would they want to reform a functioning mod pair?

Calm down, Little One. I’m pretty sure they are not going to reform you. I think they’re just trying to figure out how I can morf again. They don’t think you’re my mate, although as far as I’m concerned, you are.

He felt Kim’s small burst of happiness amidst his pain and fear. I’d like to be your mate, he said. Raeden felt his shyness, his trepidation at admitting his desires.

You are already, Raeden assured him. I’ve bonded with you. I don’t know how it happened, but because of you, I’m fully functional again. After I lost Lyzel, I thought my life was over. But you … you made me care again. I cherish you, Kim. You’re a miracle. I’m not letting you go.

*****

Raeden’s words thrilled Kim. In spite of his current circumstances, which were frightening indeed, he was ecstatic that Raeden had bonded with him. That meant they could stay together … they would take care of each other … for the rest of their lives. Kim’s joy was tempered when a stern voice spoke to him.

“Kim Takemoto, we know you’re awake. We have some questions for you.”

The rest of our lives might be pretty damn short and possibly pretty damn miserable, Kim realized. He was already miserable. His body felt achy, his head felt like someone was pounding on it with an anvil, and judging by the amount of saliva pooling in his mouth, he was going to be sick to his stomach very soon.

He had already taken a quick peek, but now he opened his eyes and looked around. Ignoring the clinical coldness of the room and the scary-looking equipment, he focused on its two other occupants.

One was a short, wiry black man wearing 1950s-style fashion glasses, and the other was of average height but built like a tank. His head was shaved smooth and tattooed all over with an intricate geometric pattern. The black man was looking at the readout on one of the monitors and occasionally typing on a keyboard. The tattooed man was glaring at him with dark, unreadable eyes.

Kim glared right back.

Be careful what you say, Kim, he heard Raeden speaking in his head. Apparently Raeden had heard the man’s statement over their mindlink. We need to convince them that we are a bonded pair. That will be very valuable to them. However, I’m not sure I want them to know about our mindlink. And especially don’t tell them that you could hear what the quents were saying. They’ll either think you’re crazy or they’ll keep you here forever to experiment on you.

Kim recoiled at his words, his nausea heightening. Pulling himself together, trying to appear calm and unafraid, he said simply. “I’m going to be sick.”

The black man—Gary, the thought came to him—glanced over at him in sympathy and then his fingers began to fly on the keypad. A moment later he asked, “Is that better?”

Kim was amazed to feel his nausea abating. His head still hurt like hell though and his body felt odd, as if he were catching the flu. And he was starting to shiver. “My stomach feels better. Thank you. But it’s freezing in here. Why is it so cold? And I feel like shit. What did you do to me?”

Poor kid. It’s unfortunate that he was shot with Xenoprine. No wonder he feels like shit. He’s lucky to be alive. Those were Gary’s thoughts. Kim looked at him in surprise and caught himself just before he replied. It sunk in that the man hadn’t spoken aloud.

What the hell, Kim? Raeden asked in alarm. Who is that?

Kim felt Raeden’s shock, mirroring his own.

It’s one of these guys here—the black one. How can I hear his thoughts? Those are his thoughts aren’t they? Maybe I’m just going mad.

You’re not crazy, Raeden affirmed. And you are lucky to be alive. Kim felt Raeden trying to rein in his temper. Xenoprine is a heavy-duty tranquilizer. It’s what it takes to knock a mod out. I can’t believe those idiots used it on you. Actually, I can believe it. CorpSec is not known for hiring the best and the brightest.

The tattooed man—Boris—answered. “We keep the temperature at ten degrees because some of the equipment is very sensitive and overheats easily.”

Kim’s temper flared. They were putting the comfort of the machines above his comfort. And they’d poisoned him for no good reason. They could have easily captured him without knocking him out at all. “What about me? I’m sensitive to cold.” He met Boris’s glare. “I’m not a mod, you know. I’m fucking freezing here with my nuts hanging out like this.”

And mighty nice nuts they are. That thought had come from Gary.

Raeden roared in fury in Kim’s mind and he felt the big mod struggling not to morf.

It’s okay, Raeden, he assured him. I think that was just a passing thought. He doesn’t seem malicious or even particularly horny.

“How did you meet Raeden?” Boris asked.

Kim stuck out his lower lip. He wanted to fold his arms across his chest in defiance, but he couldn’t move them. “I’m not answering any questions until I’m warmed up,” he said.

He felt Raeden smirking. You go, Kim!

“We can make you answer our questions,” Boris threatened. Kim felt something decidedly malevolent slide across the tattooed man’s mind.

“But there’s no need,” Gary interjected quickly, shooting Boris a look. Back off, Mongo. Kim heard that thought clearly. “They’re bringing blankets for him.”

Kim could tell that both Gary and Boris were getting instructions and commentary from someone who wasn’t in the room. Somehow he could feel their minds listening. Gary seemed easier to sense than Boris.

It’s so odd that I can hear their thoughts, Kim said to Raeden.

You’ll need to practice shielding your own, Raeden said. I haven’t sensed either of those guys trying to read you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if CorpSec brings someone in to try to read our minds.

Kim’s gut clenched at the thought of someone reading his mind and another wave of nausea rolled over him. He could tell his heart rate had sped up. Gary frowned at the monitor and glanced at him. Kim took a deep breath and tried to relax. He was shivering.

How do I prevent someone from getting in? he asked Raeden.

It helps to imagine a wall. Imagine building a wall around your mind. Here, let me show you. Try to read my mind.

Kim had no idea how to go about trying to read Raeden’s mind. He focused on following Raeden’s thoughts back to the origin, but he kept losing the thread along the way. Finally he managed to follow it all the back and then suddenly he was in Raeden’s mind. He had no doubt it was Raeden; it was familiar, almost like his scent. The first thing he felt was a barrage of emotion. Raeden was worried for him and frustrated at being physically separated. He felt Raeden’s intense need to be with him.

As he was processing this, he was suddenly shut out. Forcibly ejected all the way back to his own mind. He had to start over with finding and following a thread of Raeden’s thoughts. It was a little easier this time, but still took him a few tries. When he finally reached the source again, he found what seemed very much like a steel wall.

Is your wall made of steel?

Yes. When Raeden answered, some of his excitement leaked out, but the wall was quickly patched.

Kim moved around the wall, searching for a way in. The wall was made of steel panels, riveted together, completely encasing the contents of Raeden’s mind. Kim pushed on one of the panels right next to the seam. It flexed slightly. Kim pushed again harder and it bent inwards, creating a small crack.

Suddenly the wall was gone entirely and Kim was once more in Raeden’s mind. Raeden was filled with wonder and perhaps a touch of fear. He also seemed mentally breathless, if that were possible.

Good god, you’re strong!

Kim didn’t get a chance to respond, to find out exactly what Raeden meant. His blankets had arrived. Gary draped them over him. His body was racked with sudden shivers, but he sighed in contentment. The blankets had been warmed up. In no time at all his shivers subsided.

“Now,” you little brat, “tell us how you met Raeden,” Boris said.

*****

Raeden sighed. He’d have to tell the whole story, or at least most of it, otherwise they’d never believe that he and Kim were bonded. He desperately needed them to believe that otherwise, Kim was worthless to them and would likely be destroyed—unless they found out he could read minds, in which case it could be much worse.

Kim had already told his side of the story. There had been considerable skepticism when Kim told them about bringing a derelict stranger into his home, but Kim had been able to tell that the monitors attached to his body confirmed that he was telling the truth. This was backed up a few minutes later when they examined Raeden for evidence of frostbite. He hadn’t been able to check out his feet, or even his hands, while pinned down, but he had a sense that they were completely healed. Apparently the machines had been able to pick up evidence of increased metabolic activity in Raeden’s toes, consistent with his healing process, to further corroborate Kim’s story.

Now they wanted him to tell his story, and so he did, burying his emotions as much as he could while he described how lost he had been without Lyzel. When he finally finished his story, they started over with Kim. The questions went on for hours. Both he and Kim had to tell their story many times over. Every minute discrepancy was pounced on, but in the end, their stories held because they were the truth.

So far Raeden was not impressed with their methods, and he was concerned that things might get much worse before they were finally finished. He asked that they bring in Dr. Michelle Granger. She was one of the scientists who had worked closely with Lyzel and him. She was extremely bright and compassionate as well. She held a high regard for the mods, unlike most of the CorpSec personnel and many of the other scientists. His request was ignored, so he repeated it at intervals throughout the interrogation, trying to convince them that she would best be able to tell whether or not he and Kim were truly bonded.

Then they were left alone for some hours. Luckily, Kim had thought to ask for water and they had each been set up with a drinking tube in easy reach of their mouths. But they were starving, and even though they’d both asked for food, they hadn’t been given anything to eat.

Raeden helped Kim practice his mind-shielding techniques until they had both fallen asleep, exhausted.

They were woken up before too long when their technicians returned.

They are going to do something bad, Kim told him, his fear escalating.

Serves you right, you little brat, Raeden heard Boris think over their mindlink. Kim could tell that Gary was uncomfortable with the task he’d been given, but he dutifully punched buttons into his console.

Suddenly Kim shrieked in pain in Raeden’s mind. And continued to scream. Raeden felt what Kim was feeling, although a step removed. His whole body went rigid and every nerve ending caught fire. He felt like he was about to combust.

Raeden immediately morfed. He fought fiercely to free himself from his invisible restraints. The only thought going through his mind was to kill whoever was hurting his mate. It seemed like the pain went on forever, but it probably wasn’t more than a few minutes before they shut it off.

*****

Kim lay there panting. His body was covered with a sheen a sweat and he shivered under his blankets as a sudden chill took him. His mind was in shock, trying to process the blinding pain he’d felt.

Poor kid. I hope they figured out what they needed to know, otherwise that was sure not worth it. That thought had come from Gary.

Kim, are you alright? Raeden was beside himself with worry.

I’m fine. Kim hastened to assure him, still trying to get his bearings after such an intense experience. What about you? In spite of the extreme pain, he had been able to tell that Raeden had shared in his agony, that the big mod had morfed because of it.

Kim’s body spasmed with aftershocks. He took deep breaths and tried to settle himself.

What do you suppose that was about? he asked Raeden when he was able to think clearly again.

My guess is that they’re trying to see if we’re linked and, if so, how strong that link is.

Well, hopefully they’re convinced that we’re bonded now. I can’t imagine going through more of that kind of treatment. Kim shuddered.

Closing his eyes, he schooled his features into a calmness he didn’t feel. Then he reached out with his mind, seeking Gary’s. He wanted to know what they were going to do next, and didn’t want to be dependent on Gary projecting his thoughts, because that seemed to be rather random.

It was difficult to trace Gary’s mind. Raeden’s thoughts were much easier to locate. Kim assumed that was because he was bonded with Raeden. Or maybe because he knew him well. Kim wasn’t sure how the bonding process worked; for his part he thought maybe he was just in love. But love was probably the strongest bond of all.

What are you doing? Raeden had been able to tell Kim was focusing on something.

I’m trying to read Gary’s thoughts—to find out what they are doing, what they know.

Be very careful, Little One. Why don’t you let me help?

How does that work?

I’m not sure because mods can’t read people’s thoughts, but I think if you open your mind to me, I can be there with you and might be able to help keep your wall up while you do other things.

We can try it, Kim replied, softening their mindlink and trying to entice Raeden to come closer, to come inside. A few moments later he felt Raeden’s presence in his mind. It was a bit disconcerting but he trusted Raeden. He also had the feeling that if Raeden started tromping around, looking at his memories and such, he’d know it and be able to shut him down if needed.

Kim once more started searching for Gary’s thought thread. It helped that Gary’s emotions were running high. Kim felt his distaste and resentment and was able to follow it to its origin and slip inside.

Gary’s mind felt foreign. Raeden’s presence was a comfort and he could feel Raeden’s awe at the same time he sensed the wall that Raeden was holding around their minds. He wasn’t sure what to do now that he was in, but he thought the information he wanted should be at the top of Gary’s thought stack.

Just then he became aware that Gary was listening. He listened, too, to the voice that came over Gary’s earphones.

Clearly the mod can feel what we’re doing to the Asian. Kim got a sense that the man who was speaking was malevolent. He mentally stiffened and Raeden soothed him. The voice over the earphones seemed gleeful with anticipation. Let’s see if it goes both ways. Mr. Conner, apply the pain treatment to the mod, level five, please.

What? No! Kim was so startled that he let go of the mindlink with Gary. Then Raeden’s world exploded in pain and Kim’s along with it.

Kim didn’t have time to wonder if the reason he felt Raeden’s pain so intensely was because their minds were joined. He heard himself screaming as Raeden’s body spasmed with pain. He felt the big mod morfing and it was a very strange sensation.

Then Raeden was gone from his mind, at least the Raeden he knew, replaced with a different intelligence, one that was very base. Raeden’s lizard-brain, he realized. Raeden’s lizard was furious and Kim felt him fighting the invisible bonds, heard him roaring his anguish into the room, felt the fear and loathing of the technicians who were in with him.

But mostly he felt intense pain. As keenly as he felt it, Raeden felt it more. He wasn’t sure how the mod could stand it, how he even managed to stay conscious through such a barrage. Kim’s only thought was to make it stop.

The pain he and Raeden were experiencing was so fierce that it was impossible to think clearly. Impossible to think at all. His mind was tightly intertwined with Raeden’s lizard-brain. He reacted out of instinct, out of his need to save his mate. Through Raeden, he could feel the technicians in his room. The blonde one was controlling the pain. He could stop it. Kim reached for his mind and blundered his way inside. Once there he frantically screamed. Stop it! Stop it! Turn it off! At the same time, he applied his force of will.

Suddenly, the pain was gone. Instantly his connection to the blonde was gone as well.

He felt Raeden struggling to recover, morfing back into himself. He saw, when Raeden took in his surroundings, that the blonde technician had crumpled to the floor, either unconscious or dead. He felt Raeden’s alarm.

Oh shit! We’re in trouble now, Kim heard his mate’s thought. Then his connection with Raeden was severed and a fraction of a second later Kim lost consciousness as Boris hit a button on the machine above his head, shutting him down.

Chapter Fourteen

Kim came awake with a sense of deep dread and the feeling that he’d been asleep a long time. When he remembered that he was somewhere in the bowels of CorpSec the dread blossomed into heart-palpitating fear. Without opening his eyes, he reached out with his mind for Raeden but didn’t find him.

As his panic escalated, he tried to calm himself. He’s probably just sleeping. Kim was pretty sure he’d be able to sense Raeden’s presence if he were just asleep, but the weird comatose state that the technicians were able to put them in at the touch of a button seemed to shut off all higher brain function. That thought gave him chills. He wondered if they used the same equipment to reform people, shutting down parts of their brain permanently.

Do they know it was me who knocked that technician out? God, I hope I just knocked him out. What if he’s dead? Those thoughts put Kim into a tailspin. His stomach twisted and he was sure that if he’d had anything in it, it would have come spewing out of him. He swallowed hard and tried to focus on the present, rather than let his mind ruminate over “Kim, the cold-blooded killer.”

He was still immobile on the padded table. His arms and legs ached and he was desperate to stretch them. His stomach growled loudly and he realized he was starving. He also needed to go to the bathroom. They had catheterized him when they’d provided the drinking tube, but he’d apparently been on the table long enough for other body functions to need relief.

Gary and Boris were there. He knew that without even opening his eyes. He opened his eyes and confirmed that Boris was looking at the readout on a machine while Gary typed into a keyboard. They both looked up at him with apprehension when they realized he was awake. They appeared frazzled and disgruntled, like maybe they’d been working the entire time he’d been under.

Are they afraid of me? “Wha—” Kim’s voice came out in a croak. He drank some water from the tube, letting the coolness sooth his parched throat. Then he tried again. “Where is Raeden?”

“That is none of your concern.” Boris seemed to delight in control games, providing or denying Kim information at his own discretion. Kim realized he was trying to upset him with this comment, and it probably would have worked if Gary’s thoughts hadn’t come through to Kim just then, loud and clear. They’ve still got him under in the other room. After what he did to Daniel, they’re afraid to wake him up.

“What happened?” Kim asked. “Why did you put me to sleep for so long? It has been a long time hasn’t it?”

“Your ‘mate’—” The way Boris emphasized the word mate made it clear that he thought the concept was ridiculous. “—managed to knock out one of the technicians who was administering to him.”

Okay, they don’t realize it was me who did that. Relief flooded Kim. Of course they don’t. They are not expecting that I can read minds. But what will they do to Raeden?

“He got free?” Kim asked innocently.

“No, the mod shut Daniel down with his brain waves,” Gary said.

Boris threw Gary a dark glance. Maybe he just revealed too much information, Kim thought. Gary looked chastised.

“Really?” Kim tried to look appropriately frightened, which wasn’t hard. “I didn’t know he could do that.”

Neither did we. That was Gary’s thought.

“So what happens now?” Kim asked.

“Now…” Boris’s grin was decidedly evil. “Now we bring in someone who will find out what you know whether you want to tell us or not.”

Shit, shit, shit!

“How … how is he going to do that?” Kim could not keep the quaver out of his voice and decided that was okay. He wanted them to underestimate him.

Did I really take someone out with just my mind?

She is going to get into your little brain and sort through your little thoughts,” Boris replied with a smirk.

I am so fucked! Kim thought. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. If I build a wall around my mind, she’ll know I’m telepathic. If I don’t, she’ll waltz right in. A trained professional mind reader will probably just tear right through my defenses and find out anything she wants to know anyway.

Kim fought to quell his rising panic. He focused instead on taking slow deep breaths and letting his thoughts settle. When he finally let himself think about the upcoming “interrogation” it was with strategy in mind, rather than terror.

If I build a newsteel wall like the one I practiced with Raeden, she’ll be able to see it and will know that I’m telepathic. He tried erecting a wall made of thick plexiglass, but realized immediately that it was visible as well. What he needed was in invisible force field.

And, since it’s all in my head anyway, why not?

He focused on building an invisible wall made out of wind. He imagined when a mind reader came too close they would be blown off course. He had no idea if his idea would work. He knew that Raeden had been amazed with his innate ability and how quickly he’d caught on during their earlier practice session, but that didn’t mean he’d be able to fool an experienced mind reader.

But what choice do I have? I have to try to keep her out, otherwise… He steered his mind away from the possible consequences.

The mental walls not only kept others out, they kept stray thoughts contained. As long as he kept the wall in place, he would not leak whatever he was thinking into the ether. In fact, in order to project his thoughts, he needed to create a small opening for them to get through. He had practiced that with Raeden: making a miniscule hole to send his words through and then closing it back up immediately.

Kim practiced using various strengths for his wind, hoping to find one that was strong enough to keep the mind reader out, but subtle enough that she didn’t realize she was being thwarted.

I am so fucked! I have no clue what I’m doing.

His concentration was disturbed when he heard a female voice.

“Hello, boys. Have you been good?” This statement was followed by a sharp crack of leather on leather.

Kim’s eyes snapped open.

The woman was Asian—mostly Japanese, he guessed, but she was also tall and imposing. Her body language said that she owned everyone and everything in the room. Kim, immobile on an exam table, was obviously dirt under her shoe.

She was of indeterminate age—somewhere between thirty and fifty, he thought. She could be considered pretty if you liked severe. Her expression brooked no dissension. Her black leather pencil skirt fit her like a glove. She wore a sleek, fitted grey silk blouse that probably cost more than Kim’s monthly salary. But what caught his eye, and what had made the leather-on-leather sound, was a riding crop that she held in her right hand, poised, ready to strike.

Kim felt his sharp intake of breath. Holy shit! This is the mind reader? She’s a fucking dominatrix—times two!

Both Gary and Boris had snapped to attention and were obviously awaiting her next command, eager to perform for her. He might have been in the same state if he hadn’t been so terrified of her reading his mind. And if he’d been able to move. As it was, all he could do was lie there and wait for her to begin her assault. His stomach began flipping somersaults.

He fought to shut down his emotions, horrified that she’d hear him emanating his fear and know immediately that he was guilty. She must have felt something because her eyes flicked to his face.

“Hello, Kim. Pleased to meet you.” She had a slight Japanese accent.

Kim’s inclination was to stay silent in the presence of her overwhelming personality but, summoning an inner strength he didn’t know he had, he played his equal card.

“And you are?” he asked, his voice steady and strong.

She smiled, obviously amused by his offensive stance. “My name is Lieko, but you can call me ‘sir’.”

Kim swallowed, biting back the “yes, sir” that was on his tongue.

“Nice to meet you, Lieko,” he said grimly.

She drew herself up even taller and the look in her eye might have knocked him over if he’d been standing. She leaned toward him and he could smell her spicy perfume.

“You need to learn to show proper respect for your superiors. Your pretty mouth is altogether too undisciplined.” She ran a red lacquered nail across Kim’s bottom lip. “Perhaps a bit of punishment is in order?” She tapped him sharply on the nose and Kim would have flinched if he’d been able to.

Stepping back, with a flick of her hands she removed Gary from his stool and perched on it herself, crossing her slender legs. “Let’s get started, shall we? Dim the lights, please.”

As the brightness in the room faded to low, Kim took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and focused on constructing his wind shield.

He felt the woman’s mind outside of his own. It was encased in solid chrome, shiny and slick. As she got close, following a thread, he sent his wind. He blew gently at first, and when that had no affect, he sent a sudden gust.

She was knocked off course, buffeted by the wind. Kim felt her surprise and confusion. She searched for another thread to follow, but Kim was keeping his thoughts well contained behind his wind wall.

Finally, she found another one, tracing it back to its source. Kim blew at her again, another gust, but not quite so strong this time. Again, she was blown off course.

She huffed in frustration and Kim felt some of it emanate from behind her chrome façade. She didn’t seem nearly as good at keeping herself protected as Raeden did. He thought he could probably break in and read her mind, but he wasn’t about to try.

“So, Kim, how are you doing today?” That was Gary speaking.

Kim started and opened his eyes. Gary, was looking at him with sympathy, trying to distract him from the fact that Leiko was going to read his mind. Kim felt a sharp pang of irritation at Gary’s interruption and that was enough. He had lost his focus, and Lieko lost no time in following that thread of resentment.

He suddenly felt her alien presence in his mind and it chilled him to the bone. But she wasn’t malevolent. She seemed disgruntled at having been pulled away from her busy life to come read his mind. She wanted to get in, get out, and go home.

Even as these impressions registered, Kim realized that she would probably be able to easily “hear” anything that was at the top of his thought stack, such as the fact that he knew she was inside his mind. Acting instinctively, he focused his thoughts on Raeden. Wiping everything else from his mind, he thought about how much he missed the big man’s reassuring presence. He let her feel his anguish at being separated.

He could tell she was ruminating over this information, but he didn’t dare reach out to discover what she thought of it.

Then she was rummaging, turning over his memories and searching for information. Before he could figure out how to stop her, she found his memory of being shocked the first time he heard Raeden speak in his mind.

Keeping an iron lid on his panic, he lashed out with the only thing he could think of to keep her from discovering more.

Hungry, hungry, hungry!

He felt her recoil. Then she tried to push aside the hunger noise to discover something else interesting.

Pain, ache, need to stretch.

It wasn’t too hard to let his overwhelming physical discomfort take the forefront of his thoughts. What was harder was resisting the urge to monitor and analyze what this woman was doing in his brain.

She pushed the pain feelings aside.

Hungry, hungry, hungry! “I’m starving,” he said aloud to back up the thoughts he had swirling in his head.

Impatiently she scrabbled around the hunger thoughts.

I have to pooh, he thought, allowing the sensation to permeate his mind.

Ugh! The woman’s withdrawal from his mind was abrupt and unsettling, but as soon as he realized she was gone, Kim breathed a mental sigh of relief. He tried to keep the smirk off his face. He couldn’t help getting a tiny bit of satisfaction from her obvious disgust.

“I’m through here,” she said icily. “I’ve seen enough.”

Kim clamped down hard on his inner rejoicing. He had won round one, anyway. Although she had discovered his mindlink with Raeden, she didn’t realize the extent of his abilities. Hell, even I don’t know the extent of my abilities. He stayed on high alert, ready for a sneak attack, but she ignored him entirely.

Her gaze bore into first Gary and then Boris. They both visibly stiffened. “You boys be good.” She struck her thigh sharply with her riding crop, causing a loud sound. Both Gary and Boris jumped. She smiled in satisfaction, then tossing her long, shiny hair over her shoulder, she spun around and strode away, her red stiletto heels clicking sharply on the polished floor.

Kim heard a door open and close. Both Boris and Gary breathed a sigh of relief, and so did Kim.

*****

Captain Phillip Hernandez ogled the tall red-haired woman seated on the other side of his desk. Although she was older than the women he typically went for—early forties, he guessed—her face was beautiful and he couldn’t help but notice how well her breasts filled out her blouse. It gapped a bit at the buttons but she was wearing some type of lacy undershirt so that he couldn’t see much of her cleavage. Pity, that.

“Captain Hernandez,” she said through clenched teeth, “You must understand that Raeden is not an animal. He is a fully-functioning human.”

“He is a mod,” Hernandez reminded her. “Not human.”

“Alright, he is more than human, but certainly not the brainless monster you seem to think he is.”

Hernandez frowned. When he’d gotten the emergency notification that a broken mod had morfed, he’d thought that they’d discover it was a fault with their monitoring equipment or some random fluke that was impossible to reproduce. He had not expected to find a fully operational mod, complete with a mate on his back, ready to fight. He had reviewed the footage that had been taken by the drone, and it was impressive indeed.

“You cannot convince me that he not dangerous,” he said flatly.

“Raeden is not dangerous under normal circumstances,” she said. “He will only morf if he or his mate are threatened or when he’s put into a battle situation.” She glared at him, daring him to disagree, her gray-green eyes flashing.

I bet she’d be a spitfire in bed, he thought. He let his eyes drift once more to the enticing curves under her blouse.

“I would think that someone in charge of mod security would be well-versed in their physiology.” Her voice did not conceal the scorn she had for him.

Hernandez winced mentally. Guess I won’t be bedding her anytime soon. Not that he’d thought it possible anyway. She was married for one—he’d looked that up before he’d contacted her. And she was fairly high up in the CorpSci hierarchy. CorpSec and CorpSci had a long-standing rivalry that in recent years had gotten downright vicious. CorpSec held the upper hand, of course, because they had all the muscle. However, the folks at CorpSci were clever. They’d taken down more than one CorpSec captain with a well-plotted and executed coup. It wouldn’t do to underestimate the red-haired doctor.

He had called Michelle Granger in out of fear. When one of his technicians had suddenly collapsed on the floor during an interrogation, he had panicked. The technician still hadn’t fully recovered and the doctors had told him that they believed he was the victim of a telepathic assault. Someone had forced their way into his mind and brutally taken control of him. Hernandez shivered. He had no greater fear than of someone reading his mind. He had tried to learn the technique of defending oneself against such an attack and failed miserably. Apparently you needed telepathic abilities to defend against them and he had rated less than .03 on the scale when he was tested.

He knew he was out of his depth dealing with a mind-controlling mod, and in an uncharacteristic bout of common sense, he’d called in the woman who was the premier expert. Now he was regretting it.

He wanted a quick resolution to the mystery. He didn’t believe that a broken mod could rebond. CorpSci had tried for years to repair broken mods with zero success. Why, now, would a rogue broken mod suddenly bond on his own with a random human—a male human, no less? It just didn’t make sense.

Not only did Hernandez want to solve the mystery—surely the mod had found a miracle drug or some type of treatment to cure him—but he wanted credit for it too. He wanted to be lauded as the man who had reinstated a functioning warrior pair and discovered the means of fixing other broken mods. That was looking less likely by the minute. Dr. Granger was pressuring him to let her take them to the CorpSci labs. He couldn’t let them out of his control—if he did, all the glory would go to CorpSci and he would get a big, fat nada for his efforts.

“And he’s not capable of knocking anyone out with just his mind,” Dr. Granger was saying. “Your guy probably just fainted from low blood sugar or something.”

Captain Hernandez looked at her steadily. He knew his dark eyes were piercing but the doctor didn’t seem the least bit intimidated. “They’re hiding something and I intend to find out what it is. I don’t believe for a minute that Raeden has rebonded.”

Dr. Granger raised an eyebrow at him. “I read through all the information you forwarded me and I think it’s a pretty good bet that he has. I don’t know how or why, but if you let me take them back to my lab, I can find out for you.”

“I’m not done with them yet,” Hernandez snapped, unable to hide his frustration at the lack of progress his people had made on discovering the mod’s secret. “You can have them when we’re completely finished.”

“Will there be anything left of them by then?” she asked icily.

Just then there was a sharp rap on the door, and before the captain could even bid the visitor to enter, the door swung open and Ms. Matsuoka, one of CorpSec’s senior telepaths, stepped in.

Telepaths were few and far between. Almost twenty years ago, when the Corporation had first discovered that there were normal humans out there with telepathic abilities, they had started a program of testing. Those who rated a five or higher on the telepathic scale, which went from zero to ten, were taken to a secure facility to be trained. Unfortunately, there were only a handful of them, and some had not taken to the training. Those who had were now employed by CorpSec as interrogators and spies. They were held in very high esteem. Much like mods, CorpSec both revered and feared them. They were given high-ranking positions with all of the accompanying perks in an effort to keep them under CorpSec control. Hernandez wasn’t sure they had been entirely successful with regard to Ms. Matsuoka. No one controlled her but herself.

Although she was not one of the highest rated, registering just barely above a five on the scale, she was one of CorpSec’s most effective mind readers. Between her telepathy and her startling dominatrix persona, her ability to make both men and women cower in fear was legendary.

Captain Hernandez tried to keep from goggling at her red spike heels and tight leather skirt. When his eyes finally travelled up to her face his breath caught in his throat. She was glaring at him with an intensity that caused his balls to draw up. Now this is a commanding woman. I’ll get on my knees for you anytime, honey.

Her lip curled slightly as she continued to stare him down.

“Ah, Ms. Matsuoka.” Hernandez was pleased that his voice was steady. His insides were turning to jelly under her gaze. “Are you done reading the small one’s mind? What did you discover?”

“I’ve discovered that you have spared no expense in taking care of him,” she said, her voice dripping sarcasm. “He is so uncomfortable from your treatment, that there is almost nothing that can be pulled out of his mind. I did verify that the mod can establish a mindlink with him, but I don’t how strong it is. I got the sense that this is a recent discovery for them.”

“A mindlink,” Michelle murmured, a small smile playing on her lips. “So it is true that Raeden has rebonded.”

“That’s all you got?” Hernandez asked, disappointment coloring his words. She had been his best hope for a quick answer to the mystery.

Her glare intensified to a level that could have frozen Niagara Falls in a second flat. The Captain felt himself shrinking under her frigid gaze. She flicked her right wrist and a sharp crack reverberated through the room, making him jump.

Holy shit! How did I not notice the riding crop? She must have been holding it behind her back or maybe I was just too mesmerized by her steely glare. Now Hernandez couldn’t take his eyes off the leather implement. His cock, which had been half hard ever since the beautiful doctor arrived, now swelled to an uncomfortable stiffness. A vision jumped into Herandez’s mind: he was naked on the floor, his arms stretched out and hands tied to the legs of his massive desk. The telepath was standing between his thighs. “Legs up!” she ordered. He lifted his legs high into the air and she smacked his taint sharply with her riding crop.

Hernandez let out an audible whimper which startled him out of his erotic daydream. His eyes left the riding crop and snapped to Lieko’s face. She had a small smile playing on her lips.

Oh my God! Is she reading my mind? Does she know what I just imagined? Hernandez barely stopped himself from whimpering again. The vision in his head was back suddenly, striking him again sharply at the base of his balls as the real Lieko brought the riding crop once more against her leather-clad thigh.

“You’ve been a very bad boy, Captain,” the vision in his head said. “I think you need to be punished.”

Hernandez couldn’t breath. His cock was drooling precum all over his designer briefs. Please, yes please, his mind begged.

Lieko turned her attention to the doctor and Hernandez finally managed to take a breath.

“Well, hello Doctor Granger. What a pleasant surprise.” Lieko did not sound particularly pleased.

“Likewise,” the doctor replied dryly.

The telepath shifted her gaze back to Hernandez and he was trapped once more like a fly in honey.

“I won’t be able to get a thing from him until his physical needs have been taken care of,” she said, her tone leaving no doubt that she disapproved of his handling of the situation. “The only thoughts in his head right now are that he’s hungry, his legs hurt, and he needs to go to the bathroom. He’s been laying on that table so long he’s probably getting bedsores. I suggest you start taking better care of him, otherwise even I won’t be able to help you.”

She took a step toward him and raised her riding crop. He swallowed, unable to take his eyes off the black leather device. He flinched as she touched him lightly on the chest with it.

I’m officially on vacation now,” she said, running the crop very slowly down his chest. “If you have further need of my services, you’ll have to wait until after the first of the year.” She stopped when the crop reached the waistband of his pants.

Once more he found himself naked in his head, this time tied hand and foot to his chair, his rock hard cock dribbling all over his stomach as she teased him with the crop. One more strike, he thought. Hit me with that lovely crop one more time and I’ll cum all over the place.

She withdrew the crop, tucking it under her arm. “I hope you are not too frustrated with the delay,” she purred. Then she spun on her heel and strode out of the room, her leather-clad hips swinging with power, grace, and sensuality.

Hernandez took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He felt like he was waking up from a dream.

The red-haired doctor was glaring daggers at him. “Captain Hernandez,” she said tightly, “I will have the warrior pair transferred to the science lab at once. You are obviously unfit to care for them. I don’t believe you will get any more information out of them without extreme and destructive means. Need I remind you how valuable a functioning mod is to the corporation?”

“But—”

She cut off his protest. “I know how you got your position, Captain. I know why your predecessor was reformed.”

The captain’s blood ran cold. How much does she know? The previous CorpSec captain in charge of mod activities had taken a hard fall due to the fiasco that had resulted in Lyzel’s death and Raeden’s demise. Hernandez wasn’t sure exactly what had happened to him, but he hadn’t been seen since shortly after the incident had happened. Rumor had it that he had been reformed and sent to work in the arctic oil fields. Hernandez thought he had covered his own tracks thoroughly. Surely she can’t possibly know about my involvement in that incident.

“I did some research on the flight in,” the doctor continued softly.

Hernandez froze, staring at her in horror.

“I see that Raeden had a partial morf, not once but twice, during the days preceding his full morf on the twenty-second. CorpSec did not even check on him. That shows an appalling lack of competence and concern on the part of your department. It is incredibly irresponsible to ignore an unusual occurrence that involves a mod, especially one as potentially destructive as Raeden.”

This was news to the captain. He hadn’t had a chance to look into the records they kept on Raeden’s data feed. He stared at the doctor in dismay. How the hell did I end up with so many incompetent people working for me? Will the doctor report me to General Halbert? Holy shit! I’d better do something about that damaging data. He quickly schooled his features into an implacable expression, but he was sure that Dr. Granger had seen his flash of panic.

“I suggest you take care of your own house before you start worrying about mine,” she said, standing and smoothing her grey wool skirt. “Now, Captain Hernandez, while you make arrangements to have them transferred, I will meet with Mr. Takemoto.”

Chapter Fifteen

Kim stifled a groan as he stretched his aching limbs and rubbed circulation back into his hands and feet. His jailors had finally released him from electronic paralysis.

He had never been so terrified in his life as when he’d woken up unable to move and hooked to a machine. If it hadn’t been for his mindlink with Raeden, he might have gone insane. Now, however, although he was still worried about their future, he was too physically uncomfortable and emotionally exhausted to be terrified.

Gary offered a hand to help him off the table. He refused at first, but when he stumbled and almost fell as his wobbly legs tried to support him, he grabbed Gary’s arm.

Gary and Boris were happy that they could go home soon; Kim had caught that much of their thoughts without really trying. Apparently Kim and Raeden were being transferred somewhere else so they were finally getting off duty. Kim had tried to discover more information from Gary’s mind, but he didn’t seem to have any details. He only knew that they were leaving soon and that Raeden would be transported in an unconscious state to avoid any mishaps.

Since Kim had been into Gary’s mind a few times, he found it really easy to pick up his thoughts. Now he was surprised to catch a random thought from Boris.

Wow—he’s tiny! How could I possibly have been afraid of him?

Kim’s temper flared as it always did when people commented on his small stature. Because I can kill you with my mind! Kim thought, and then he was horrified with himself. Could I really kill someone? Would it be possible to take control and stop a person’s heart or something? Kim shuddered. I’m as much of a monster as Raeden’s lizard man.

Fortunately, Kim didn’t have time to ruminate on his new abilities. He was too busy trying to keep his feet under him. His legs felt like ten thousand needles were poking into them and his head was swimming dangerously.

As he leaned on Gary, he picked up on the other man’s admiration for his small form and his desire to see Kim again in a non-work situation. His main focus, however, seemed to be on taking care of Kim’s needs so he could go home. If he had been too lustful, Kim would not have been able to hold onto him for support as he shuffled slowly to the bathroom, and he needed the support.

Luckily, the bathroom was close. When they opened the door to the hallway a rush of warm air greeted them. The bathroom was just steps away and the corridor was empty.

Kim was much relieved to see that his clothes were piled neatly on a chair in the single-person, windowless bathroom. He was further relieved when his escorts allowed him to go into the bathroom on his own, taking up a station just outside the door.

He took his time using the facilities, washing his face and hands, and then swiping at his chest and pits with a paper towel. By the time he was done putting on his clothing with trembling fingers, he was a little steadier on his feet. He still felt light-headed, but he thought that was probably from lack of food. His stomach was so empty it ached.

He stared at himself in the mirror. In spite of the enforced sleep, he looked exhausted. Shadows darkened the skin under his eyes, made more noticeable by the pallor of his face. His eyes were dull and heavy-lidded. Tendrils of dark hair had escaped his messy braid and swirled in disarray around his face. He was just about to undo his braid, finger comb his hair, and rebraid as best he could when a pounding on the door caused him to jump.

“What the fuck’s taking you so long?” Boris yelled.

Kim sighed and tucked an errant strand of hair behind his ear. The braid would have to wait. If that meant he could be with Raeden sooner, though, he didn’t care.

Boris and Gary escorted him down a long, white corridor, finally stopping to knock on a closed door. It was opened by a tall, red-haired woman who smiled broadly at him and bid him enter.

“Thank you, gentlemen. Please let me know as soon as everything is ready,” she said to Gary and Boris, before closing the door in their faces.

Kim found himself in a small non-descript waiting room. The red-haired woman was the only other person there. She turned to face him, looking him up and down as if cataloging his physical details.

He did the same to her. She had wide, intelligent eyes, a prominent nose, and full lips. Her eyes were kind and her smile seemed genuine; nevertheless he guarded his mind carefully, getting the wind ready in case she attempted an assault.

“Hello, Kim. My name is Michelle. Dr. Michelle Granger.” She put out a hand and Kim shook it. Her hands were warm and her grasp was firm. “I am the mod specialist who worked with Raeden and Lyzel.”

Kim remembered the name and that Raeden liked her—had been asking for her. He relaxed fractionally. “Where’s Raeden? When can I see him?”

She smiled again and nodded slightly, as if mentally checking a box. “He is being prepared for transport. We’ll be leaving shortly for CorpSci headquarters. As soon as we’re there, I’ll wake him up and you can reunite.”

Thank God for that! Kim’s desire to see Raeden overshadowed even his raging hunger.

He wondered if things were going to be better for them in the Corporate Science headquarters than they had been at CorpSec. They couldn’t get much worse, he thought. Then a vision jumped into his head of himself in a giant rat cage, complete with exercise wheel, an evil-looking scientists peering at him through the bars while he readied a giant syringe. Oh hell! I can’t think like that. He resisted the urge to try to read Dr. Granger’s mind. Not only was it probably considered very rude—a violation—but he had no way of knowing whether or not she had any telepathic talent or training. The last thing he wanted to do was give himself away.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. “I’ve heard they haven’t been treating you very well while you’ve been here.

Kim suppressed a snort. “I’m okay. A little shaky. I’ll be better once I see Raeden.”

“Have a seat while we wait,” she said, indicating one of the comfortable-looking chairs.

As he sat down, Kim noticed a protein bar and a sports drink on a small table next to the chair and immediately his mouth began to water.

“Go ahead and eat.” Michelle nodded at the food. “We’ll find you a real meal when we get there, after Raeden’s awake, but maybe this will tide you over until then.”

Kim could not get the packaging off the protein bar fast enough. He devoured it with such speed it was embarrassing.

*****

Raeden felt like he was swimming in mush. He fought his way toward the surface, heaviness pressing down upon him, making it impossible to open his eyes.

He slowly became aware of his arms and legs. Instinctively he stretched them and sharp pain shot through his limbs. He heard himself groan as he automatically started to morf. Whatever was wrong with him physically would heal much faster if he were in his lizard form.

Raeden?

Kim was calling him and he was close. Then Raeden smelled his warm scent and his libido kicked in. Mate!

There was another human there too, Raeden’s senses told him. Female. Dr. Granger, he identified by scent. He relaxed a fraction. His lizard form was familiar with Dr. Granger. She had never done anything to cause him harm.

He opened his eyes and sat up slowly. He recognized his surroundings: he was in one of the SciLab’s examining rooms. Kim was standing in front of him, just feet away, staring at him in awe. Dr. Granger was standing back, but she was beaming at him.

“Hello, Raeden. It’s great to see you,” she said. “It looks like you got your abilities back.”

Raeden took a quick inventory and realized he wasn’t injured, just incredibly stiff, a tad achy, and ravenously hungry. He immediately morfed back into his natural form, lest he start hunting for the bugs and rodents he could smell nearby.

Kim’s eyes widened as he watched Raeden’s transformation. Raeden established their mindlink and didn’t sense any disgust or revulsion on Kim’s part, only wonder and admiration. And … love?

Once he was fully back to himself, which only took a few seconds, Raeden smiled at his mate. Kim! It was so wonderful to be near him again. It seemed like he’d been stuck on that cold table forever.

Kim’s face broke into a grin, his eyes dancing with joy. Raeden’s heart skipped a beat. This was the first time he’d ever seen Kim smile and the young man was stunning. The worry fell away from him and pure happiness shone from his lovely eyes. His skin seemed to glow and the smile made his cheekbones even more prominent.

Raeden opened his arms wide. “Kim,” he said aloud.

Kim stepped into the circle of his arms, burying his face in Raeden’s chest and wrapping his small arms around his neck.

“Oh god, Raeden! I’ve been so worried about you.”

Raeden took a deep breath, scenting his mate, assuring himself that the smaller man was not injured or in distress. The lingering scent of antiseptic hung over both of them, but underneath he could smell Kim, warm and slightly herbal and definitely in need of a shower. The scent was intoxicating.

He pulled Kim up onto his lap and the younger man immediately molded against his body. Raeden felt he could not get close enough to Kim. He wrapped one arm tightly around Kim’s torso while he ran his other hand soothingly up and down his back, soaking in the closeness of his mate.

Are you alright, Little One? They didn’t hurt you did they?

They tried to read my mind, Raeden! They brought in a woman who had abilities.

A thought-seeker! Raeden’s alarm spiked. He wrapped his fingers in Kim’s messy braid and pulled his head back gently so he could look into his mate’s exotic eyes. What did they find out? Dread had a vice-grip on his heart, but Kim didn’t look or feel overly distressed.

They know about our mindlink, Raeden. I’m sorry. I got distracted and she found that memory. But I don’t think she discovered anything else. I was so hungry and uncomfortable that it was easy to let those thoughts and feelings cloud my mind.

Well, they would have found out about our mindlink sooner or later anyway, Raeden assured him. I’m very impressed that you were able to avoid further invasion into your thoughts. You have an extraordinary ability, Kim.

Kim sighed in contentment and his warm breath ghosted over Raeden’s cheek. Raeden zeroed in on Kim’s plump lips. Desire slammed into him and he crushed his mouth over Kim’s, forcing his tongue inside and drinking in Kim’s flavor. Kim’s tongue dueled with his and small, muffled whimpers began to pour from the other man’s mouth, flipping all of Raeden’s switches.

So good. So good, Kim moaned over their mindlink.

Raeden was lost, overwhelmed by the devastating sweetness of his new mate. He could have kept going, wanted to keep going, never wanted the kiss to end, but he heard a rustling across the room and the spell was broken.

Dr. Granger is here, Kim said, pulling out of the kiss, breathless.

Yes, I know. Raeden inhaled deeply, mentally shaking himself, trying to focus on the real world again. He glanced across the room. Michelle had taken a seat on a stool and was typing into a portable keyboard, undoubtedly taking notes about their interactions.

Raeden slid off the table, pulling Kim onto his hip, supporting the slight man easily with one arm. Kim seemed content to wrap his legs around Raeden’s torso, his arm around Raeden’s shoulder.

“Did you know you have rodents in the building?” he asked.

Michelle looked startled for a moment and then she let out a small laugh. “There are rats and mice in the lab on the next level down.” She continued to smile as she looked him up and down. “I see you’ve regained all of your abilities.” She glanced meaningfully at Raeden’s crotch.

Raeden looked down and realized that he was still completely naked. His cock was fully hard, standing stiff and proud away from his body, the head swollen to a deep red. Kim noticed at the same moment and Raeden felt a shiver of unease run through him.

It’s okay, Little One, he soothed. I won’t hurt you. I will never hurt you.

“Do you have any clothes for me?” Raeden asked the doctor.

Michelle nodded toward a closed door. “There are some sweats, a T-shirt, and flip-flops in the bathroom for you. It’s all I could come up with on short notice. I hope they fit.”

“Oh, thank god!” Raeden said as he headed for the indicated door. He paused in the doorway and looked at Kim, still in his arms. “Will you come in with me?”

Kim’s unease had lessened, but he still seemed hesitant. “If…if you don’t mind,” he said.

Raeden grinned. “I never mind having you with me, Little One—especially when I’m naked.”

“No hanky-panky in there you two!” Dr. Granger called after them as Raeden closed the door.

*****

Michelle smiled to herself as she typed notes into her device. Raeden had most certainly rebonded—and with a male! They are so hot together!

Focus, Michelle, she chastised herself.

It was incredible. She wanted to know all the details of their relationship: how they met, how they got to know each other, what had happened to make Raeden morf. Maybe there was hope for other mods who had lost their mates. It was rare to lose a single from a warrior pair, but when it happened the biggest tragedy was the one who was left behind.

She had worked closely with Raeden and Lyzel. They had been one of her favorite warrior pairs. Lyzel had been beautiful, inside and out, bubbling with life, happy, inquisitive, and spontaneous. Raeden had grounded her without clipping her wings. He was more somber. He saw the bad in life as well as the good. He was a big picture person. Contemplative and sometimes moody, he was also capable of letting go and enjoying life immensely. He was deeply loving and caring and attentive to his mate’s every need. They had complemented each other perfectly.

It would be interesting to observe Raeden and Kim together. Kim was as lovely as Lyzel had been and tiny as well, but there the similarities seemed to end. So far she had observed that he was quiet, serious, and very reserved. Raeden seemed to bring out his joy in life, which was an odd twist because that’s what Lyzel used to do for Raeden.

So the new mate does not necessarily have to be like the lost mate.

She had created a list of questions for them and she couldn’t wait to find out the answers, to start putting the together the puzzle of Raeden’s miracle. She knew they needed rest and time alone together after their ordeal. And it was Christmas Eve. She herself wanted to get back to her family. She had a flight scheduled for early evening to G-Zone where she would rejoin her husband and children. They were spending the holidays with her in-laws.

She would take a few hours now to interview Raeden and Kim so that she’d have information to go over and ponder during her vacation. She would come back after New Years with a research plan for determining how a mod could rebond. She went over her questions, refining some and adding a few more.

Presently Raeden and Kim emerged from the bathroom, Kim walking on his own now, but close to Raeden’s side, holding his hand. Their faces were flushed and their lips kiss-swollen. She refrained from looking at their crotches. She didn’t want confirmation on whether they did or did not have sex in the bathroom.

She stood. “I’ve ordered lunch for us. It’s being delivered,” she said, leading the way out of the small exam room and down a long hall. Christmas lights twinkled around every doorway, and all available wall space displayed a wreath or a star or some other Christmas bauble. Their receptionist, Randy, had gone overboard on the decorations this year.

She glanced behind her to see Kim goggling, his wide eyes jumping from one decoration to the next.

Her office had an amazing forty-second-story view of the surrounding city and the hills beyond. The furniture was Corporate-issue, sleek, modern, and utilitarian. She would have preferred something more old-world, in real mahogany or cherry, but that hadn’t been an option in the corporate catalog and she’d decided against spending her own money on office furniture.

She had picked out the fabric that covered the couch and chairs, however: a rich, aubergine jacquard. She had eschewed the corporate lighting in favor of her own eclectic lamps, which featured African animals carved into the wooden bases. There were colorful, jungle-theme prints on the walls, and an abundance of greenery—ferns, palms, peace lilies, and prayer plants—brought the room to life.

Her office had not been immune to Randy’s decorating whims. Christmas lights encircled the large window, garlands snaked across her credenza, and a very large snowman cutout had taken up residence in the corner of the room, leering maniacally at them with his coal-piece eyes and raisin mouth.

She led the way to the sitting area in front of the massive windows. Turning to offer her guests seats, she was startled by the look on Kim’s face. His eyes were as big as saucers, staring out the window. His mouth parted slightly. He moved forward slowly as if completely unaware of his surroundings.

Raeden, watching him with amusement, led him to the window. “You’ve never seen the city?” he asked.

“No. Not like this,” Kim replied, his eyes sweeping the view, face still full of astonishment. “It’s amazing. I didn’t realize it was so big. And you can see the area outside the city. I’ve seen glimpses of the hills, but I didn’t realize…” He leaned forward, putting his face near the glass and looking from one side to the other. “The land goes on forever!”

Raeden chuckled. “Did you expect it to just stop?”

“Well, no but … I just didn’t imagine it would look like this.”

“You’ve never even seen pictures?” Michelle asked.

“Well, yes, of course. On the infonet. But they don’t do justice to the real thing at all.” Kim’s voice was exuberant and when he turned to look up at Raeden his eyes shone with excitement.

Raeden laughed and hugged him from behind affectionately. “Shall we sit?” he asked. “There is a good view from the couch as well.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Kim said, suddenly seeming embarrassed by his display of naivety.

Raeden led Kim to the seats and sat down, his massive bulk taking up most of the couch. He pulled Kim into his lap. The smaller man squirmed for a few seconds, as if he wasn’t used to sitting on Raeden’s lap, then he settled, leaning his head against Raeden’s shoulder and wrapping an arm around behind his back. Michelle, ever observant, caught his small sigh of happiness.

The two of them were quiet as she went to the small refrigerator and pulled out bottles of water for all. Seeing their intent expressions, she guessed that they were carrying on an animated conversation over their mindlink.

Just as she finished passing out the water, her intel vibrated. Answering it with a flick of her finger, she was informed that her pizza had arrived.

“I’ll deliver it to your office if you let me have a slice,” the receptionist bargained.

Michelle laughed. “Randy, you eat more than people twice your size. How you manage to stay so skinny is one of life’s big mysteries. But, yes, you’ve got yourself a deal. Only one piece though. Raeden is ravenous.”

She turned to Kim. “I hope you like pizza. I got two of them. One is half cheese, half vegetable. The other is a meat combo that I know Raeden likes. I also got a Caesar salad.”

“I’ve never had pizza,” Kim said shyly, “but I’m sure it will be fine. I’ve always wanted to try it.”

Both Michelle and Raeden goggled at Kim.

“How did you make it to twenty-years old without ever having tried pizza?” Raeden asked.

Kim shrugged, looking embarrassed. “Zonei,” he said by way of explanation.

Michelle knew that citizens in the lower zones lived in extreme poverty but to have never tasted pizza? For some reason that thought was unsettling to her. Such disparity.

“What else would you like to drink?” she asked. “I’ve got coffee, tea, soda, juice, beer and wine. I could mix a cocktail too, if you’re so inclined.”

“Ooo! Beer, please,” Raeden said.

Kim shot him a sharp look and they seemed to have a silent argument. Kim finally said, “I’ll try a beer too—something else I’ve never had.”

Michelle raised an eyebrow but said nothing. It was definitely going to be interesting to get to know Kim. She had never really spoken with anyone from the middle zones.

“Lager or ale?” she asked, checking out her beer selection.

“Ale, please,” Raeden answered.

Kim looked befuddled for a moment, glanced at Raeden, and then said, “Lager, please.”

Michelle smiled as she fetched the beers, deciding uncharacteristically to have one herself. After all, it was Christmas Eve.

It turned out Kim didn’t like beer, neither the lager nor Raeden’s ale which he also tried a sip of. He loved the pizza and the salad, though, and both the men ate ravenously, until there were only two pieces left. She slid them into a sealable, plastic baggie for them to save for later and didn’t miss that Kim eyed the baggie curiously. They don’t have baggies in the lower zones? she wondered.

As soon as they finished eating, she prepared to interview them. She was just about to start when her intel buzzed.

“Yes, Randy?”

“Doctor Granger!” Randy’s voice was high-pitched with excitement. “There are CorpSec security guys on their way to your office! I couldn’t stop them! They—”

What now? That Captain Hernandez is a piece of work. Who knows what scheme he’s concocted to get them back? She had already informed her boss of the entire situation and was fairly confident that they had a good bargaining position.

“It’s okay, Randy,” she interrupted. “I’ll deal with them.”

Chapter Sixteen

Specialist Casey McNeil raised his eyebrows as he saw the name emblazoned on the building where their wayward pickup was hiding: “Corporate Science Headquarters.” He had been astonished to discover that this morning’s pickup, who lived in Zonei and only had clearance through Zonee, was somehow in Zonesee. Now he stared in awe at the gleaming silver monolith that was the home of the Corporation’s science department.

This morning’s job had seemed routine at first. Easy. The subject was a short, slight Japanese American who, until he had illicitly used Representative Kenner’s computer for his own means, had never put a toe out of line. Poor schmuck, he had thought. He was probably just trying to discover the secret to solving the latest video game.

Picking up those who were deemed a threat to the Corporation and delivering them to CorpSec Detention Center was his job. It was a horrible job and one he was increasingly loath to do, but he didn’t have any other options. It’s not like he could quit and find another job. The world didn’t work like that anymore. And even though living in Zonegee wasn’t luxurious, it was worlds better than whatever lower zone he’d be tossed into once he was no longer useful to the Corporation.

“Holy shit! How the fuck did the little fucker get in there?” his partner, Brad, asked.

Casey shook his head. “No idea. I guess maybe he’s not as much of a non-threat as he seemed at first.”

“They’re all guilty,” Brad said.

Casey disagreed. It seemed that more and more often they were picking up average citizens who he couldn’t imagine being a real threat to the Corporation. Maybe Brad just needed to convince himself of their guilt in order to sleep at night. Heaven knows, Casey hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since he’d started this job almost two years earlier.

“Let’s just get this over with,” he said. Although he and Brad were low-level CorpSec employees, they had clearance to go anywhere except Zoneay or Zonebee to perform their job. It was rare to have a pickup in Zonesee and this was the first time he had ever fetched someone from a zone for which the pickup didn’t have clearance. He wondered how the hell Mr. Takemoto had gotten in and who could possibly be hiding him in CorpSci headquarters.

CorpSci seemed to have a deep-seated fear and mistrust of CorpSec—well deserved in Casey’s opinion—and they were detained right off when they attempted to cruise through CorpSci’s security. They were obviously heavily armed, but their uniforms and badges, usually an immediate pass in, were not enough for the stern matron who manned the security scanners. She made them cool their heels for nearly twenty minutes while she checked and rechecked their references and then conferred with one of her superiors.

Eventually she had to let them in, though. It was the law. They had every right to pick up citizens who were a threat to the Corporation.

Once in, they got the runaround from the man who sat behind the information desk. He insisted that there wasn’t anyone by the name of Kim Takemoto in their building. He was not in the official registry of visitors for the day. The man did a quick scan and declared that, in fact, he had never visited CorpSci Headquarters. He assured them that they were mistaken.

By this time Brad was losing his temper and things might have gotten ugly if Casey hadn’t just hauled him to the elevator. “If he was smuggled in, then he wouldn’t be on the visitor’s list. We can just find him through his intel.”

They got off the elevator a floor below where the subject was located, but quickly discovered their mistake and took the stairs up one more level. There a very cute and obviously gay receptionist attempted to detain them. Casey wouldn’t have minded flirting more with the young man—maybe even getting his number—but Brad was out of patience and went charging down the hall.

Casey followed reluctantly.

They paused outside the door to the office where the GPS locator said he was hiding, pulling out their guns and double-checking that they were set to stun. Then Brad pushed the door open and they quickly trooped in.

There were three people in the room and he located their quarry immediately. He was standing behind the biggest man Casey had ever seen. The third person in the room was a tall imposing redheaded woman who was standing in front of the other two. The expression on her face was like a thundercloud about to let loose with the storm of the century.

“Kim Takemoto,” Brad began. “You are under arrest for crimes against the—” He broke off what he was saying and his mouth dropped open in amazement.

The huge man was changing. Before their very eyes he grew bigger. The color of his skin started to darken and the shape of his face changed dramatically. Oddly, he whipped off his sweats just as a huge tail emerged behind him. Suddenly they were no longer looking at a man, they were looking at a monster.

The small Japanese man quickly scrambled onto the monster’s back and peered at them over his shoulder with wide dark eyes.

“Holy shit!” Casey said, not even aware that he was speaking. His heart started thundering in his ears as he automatically raised his weapon. He had heard of mods but had never seen one. He was obviously looking at one now. He couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Don’t you dare!” the flame-haired woman cried, stepping between them and the monster. “Captain Herandez and I had an agreement. He can’t send his goons in here to sweep them away. It doesn’t work like that.”

“Ca—Captain Hernandez?” Casey stammered. The captain was his boss’s boss’s boss. Adrenalin was racing through his system. His body was ready to fight. It made it difficult to focus on a conversation.

Brad seemed to recover himself first. Using his intel, he projected a holographic image of the official arrest warrant. “An arrest warrant has been issued against one Kim Takemoto.” He glared at the smaller man who was still on the monster’s back. His eyes were huge in his finely boned face. “Mr. Takemoto, we have been granted the authority to use all necessary force to bring you in for questioning. Will you come with us willingly or do we have to do this the hard way?”

The red-haired woman snorted. “You may have the authority, but you certainly don’t have the means to bring down a warrior pair. If you try, you will dead in two seconds flat and there won’t be anything I can do to save you.”

Meanwhile the monster let out a low growl that raised the hair on Casey’s neck. This was definitely far beyond any experience he’d had thus far in his career.

He caught Brad’s slight movement out of the corner of this eye and realized his partner was about to fire his weapon.

“Hold, Brad!” he said, but he was too late. His partner fired a shot over the red-haired woman’s shoulder. The monster moved so fast that he wasn’t even visible. A great roar reverberated through the room.

“Raeden, calm down. I can fix this,” the woman said calmly. Why she was not cowering in fear, Casey couldn’t imagine. She wasn’t even armed and she had her back to the creature.

It appeared that the stun had missed him, or if it had hit him, it’d had no effect.

Brad raised his weapon again. This time Casey responded more quickly. He dropped his own weapon and practically tackled his partner.

“Brad, stop!” he cried as he grabbed the other man’s arms. He held onto them and looked his partner in the face. “We have no idea what we’re dealing with here. Let’s get more information before we do anything rash.”

Brad was clearly angry. He’s never been thwarted during an arrest before, Casey realized. They had had pickups resist—many of them resisted—but they were always easy to subdue. This time it was clearly not the case. “Brad, the stun didn’t work on him. It makes no sense to try again.”

“I’ll set it to kill,” Brad growled.

Casey kept a tight hold on his partner’s arms. All the while they were talking, a low ominous rumble reverberated throughout the room. Casey had his back to the monster as he talked his partner down and that made him extremely nervous.

“Brad, if you accidentally kill the woman, it would be the end of your career—probably even the end of your life as you now know it. She’s obviously very high up in CorpSci. I mean, just look at this office! Besides, we don’t know what we’re dealing with. Even set to kill, your gun might not have any effect on the creature. Let’s just talk for a minute and see if we can get this resolved without violence.”

Brad glared at him. Casey met Brad’s eye, taking deep steady breaths, willing his partner to calm the fuck down.

Just then there was a loud thump. Both of them jumped and Casey whirled to face the danger, regretting that his weapon was now on the floor.

The monster was pacing back and forth behind the woman, clearly agitated. He was difficult to see—it seemed he blended into the background somehow, but Kim was visible on his back. The creature’s massive tail swished to and fro with lightning speed. The couch sat at a cock-eyed angle and the lamp on the table next to the couch rocked dangerously before it settled. Brad realized that the thump they had just heard was likely the creature’s tail hitting the couch. He noticed that his hands ended in long sharp talons.

He could turn us into minced meat in two seconds flat, Casey realized. That’s likely what the woman was talking about.

Casey addressed the woman, as she clearly seemed to the one in charge. “We have a warrant for Mr. Takemoto’s arrest. It is legal and binding. We may not have the means to remove Kim right now, but with a phone call I’m sure we can get enough firepower to subdue your … mod. You might as well send Mr. Takemoto with us now to avoid further violence.”

The monster let out another hair-raising growl.

“What is it that Mr. Takemoto is accused of?” the woman asked. She seemed calm, but it was the kind of calm that happens before a storm.

“He illegally used a computer with a higher security clearance than he is allowed. We don’t know what information he pulled off of it because he managed to erase his tracks. CorpSec wants him for questioning.”

The monster had stopped pacing, and now the woman turned and addressed the man on his back. “Is this true, Kim?”

The Japanese man answered in a small voice. “Yes. I couldn’t find any information on mods and I needed to find out more about Raeden. Opportunity came my way—the representative’s feed to CorpSec went down so my actions were untraceable—so I did a quick search.”

“Is that all?” the woman asked, rolling her eyes. “The fact that CorpSec even attempts to keep information on mods secret is a testament to their lack of intelligence. Everyone has heard of mods. Most people already believe in their existence. Quite a few people have actually seen mods. As more and more mods are created and integrated into society, there is no way they can continue to keep this secret. It’s ludicrous.”

She turned back to Casey and Brad. “So your orders don’t come directly from Captain Hernandez? This is just a routine pickup for you?”

Well, this is anything but routine. Casey didn’t voice that thought. “This was on our roster of jobs for today,” he replied. “I don’t think Captain Hernandez is personally involved, but I couldn’t say for sure.”

“And what needs to be done to get the arrest warrant cancelled? You won’t be able to remove Kim from Raeden’s side and I don’t think you want to take the mod with you.”

“Uh, no,” Casey said, eyeing the creature. He was easier to see now that he was standing still. He was standing too still. His eerie golden eyes bore into Casey with an intensity that sent a shiver down his spine. He looked like a predator ready to pounce on his next meal.

“Um, I’m not really sure how to get an arrest warrant cancelled. I’d have to call my boss.” His boss was an idiot who saw everything in black and white. If they brought their pickup in it was a success. If they didn’t it was a failure, regardless of the circumstances. They were screwed.

“Why don’t I call Captain Hernandez instead?” she suggested.

Casey really didn’t want anyone that high up involved in this fiasco, but she seemed to know the captain. Maybe things would work better that way. “Whatever you think is best,” he said with a sigh. He hoped this wasn’t going to mean a demotion, or worse, for him.

She stepped over to the window to have a quiet conversation on her intel. Casey could not quite catch what she was saying. Meanwhile, the monster stood motionless, staring at them with his inhuman eyes. It was most unnerving.

The woman finished her conversation and came back over, smiling. “It’s all taken care of. The order should be cancelled shortly.”

He and Brad waited, shuffling restlessly. He picked up his weapon from the floor, set the safety, and holstered it. Brad holstered his as well.

The call came a few moments later, both of their intels chiming at the same time. He pressed the button to answer and his boss’s voice came out loud and clear. “Etherington! McNeil! Get your butts back to headquarters pronto.”

“Yes, sir!” they both said. Casey exchanged a look with his partner. His boss was obviously pissed.

Another chime sounded and Casey glanced at his intel. A message flashed across the screen informing him that the arrest warrant had been cancelled.

“Sorry to have disturbed you,” Casey said to the trio as he and Brad trooped out.

The attractive receptionist was hovering down the hall and watched them as they passed. Brad was too worried about what his boss was going to do to him to give the boy more than a passing glance.

Once back at CorpSec headquarters, however, he had a pleasant surprise waiting for him. The red-haired she-devil had sent his boss a message commending him for his calm handling of a potentially disastrous situation and recommending him for promotion. His boss was apparently even considering it.

*****

“Well, I think that just about wraps things up for now,” Michelle said, setting aside her tablet. She stood up, stepped over to her desk, and picked up a large manila envelope. Raeden and Kim stood as well. Raeden rolled his tight shoulders.

“Kim?” Michelle smiled at him sweetly. “Can you run this up front to Randy, please?” Raeden noted that the envelope was sealed and had, “Randy” scrawled across the front. “And tell him he can go home now.”

Raeden narrowed his eyes at her. What is she up to?

As soon as Kim was out the door, she pressed a button on her intel. When her receptionist answered she said, “Randy? Kim is on his way up there with your Christmas present. Can you keep him occupied for a few minutes before you let him come back here please?”

After Randy answered in the affirmative and Michelle turned her attention to him, Raeden said, “You’re not going to fool him, you know. He’ll know that you wanted to talk to me alone.”

“Why? Because he can read minds?” she asked, watching him sharply for his response.

Raeden couldn’t help the startled look that raced across his face. “No, because he’s smart,” he answered dryly.

“Yes, I’m sure he is,” she replied. “His father has an IQ of 152. And the first time he was tested, he was practically off the scale in telepathic abilities. He seems to have lost them though, for some inexplicable reason. The last few times he’s been tested his score has been close  to zero.

Raeden stared at Michelle in shock. “Kim’s father is still alive?”

Chapter Seventeen

Something was buzzing around in Kim’s belly and he wasn’t sure why. They were out of danger—at least immediate danger. Who knew what the future would hold, but they had an entire ten days to themselves before they were due back at CorpSci headquarters for more questions and testing. He should be happy, excited, and starting to relax now, but his mind was a blur of scary images and memories from the past several days. His body was still on high alert and he couldn’t identify the source of his anxiety.

Christmas was on Friday this year. CorpSci shut down the entire week between Christmas and New Years and was closed on Saturday and Sunday too. Kim had never had so much time off in his life: ten glorious days to spend with Raeden in an apartment in Zonesee. And then they would discover that he could read minds and who knew what would happen to him?

He glanced up at Raeden. The big man was grinning ear-to-ear as he met Kim’s eye. “It’s Christmas Eve, Kim. You have plenty of time to worry about the future later. Let it go.”

Kim smiled back. You’re right. I … just … there is so much to take in.

Raeden’s huge hand was wrapped around his, warm and comforting. Kim hurried to keep up with the giant’s long strides. The pace seemed a leisurely stroll for Raeden.

Raeden pulled him to a stop in front of a store window. Stylish men’s clothing was on display. Kim did a double take before he realized the mannequins weren’t real, just extremely lifelike. They were wearing cashmere sweaters in red or cream and dark wool slacks. One of them had a tie loosened about his neck that featured reindeer. They were posed in such a way that they looked like they were at a party … relaxed, laughing, chatting. Myriad candles glowed on the mantle of what appeared to be a brick fireplace, complete with logs and real flames. An elegantly decorated tree added to the holiday motif.

“Too bad they’re not still open,” Raeden said, “We need to go shopping soon and buy you some new clothes.”

“Me?” Kim teased, eyeing the flip-flops and sweatpants that Raeden still wore. “What about you?”

“I wouldn’t mind buying a few things for myself, but Michelle said Randy had my stuff moved from storage into our new unit, so hopefully I’ll have a change of clothes waiting for me when we get there.”

“It’s a damn good thing that this is all enclosed,” Kim said, “otherwise you’d be freezing running around outside without shoes.”

Raeden shrugged. “The cold doesn’t bother me. But I suppose it would attract attention.”

Kim scoffed. “It’s well below zero out there and you just barely got over frostbite.”

Raeden grinned at him. Thanks for worrying about me. They started moving down the street again.

It wasn’t a street as such, more like a very wide hallway. Raeden had told him that in Zonesee you didn’t need to go outside unless you wanted to. There was an enormous network of internal passages that connected all of the buildings. They had already crossed two sky bridges—glass-enclosed pedestrian walkways that ran between skyscrapers. Scooters and personal mobility devices (PMDs) were allowed on the pedestrian “streets.” Raeden had told him that taxi services were available at street level and flyers could also be hired on many of the rooftops to take you anywhere you wanted to go.

The stark difference between Zonesee and Zonei had Kim goggling at everything he saw. He had thought Zonee, where he’d worked, was luxurious. It wasn’t even close to the opulence of Zonesee.

The street they were on was relatively empty, most of the shops having closed early for Christmas. The passageway was as wide as a two-lane street, with thirty-foot ceilings—appearing to be a cloudy, slate-gray sky—overhead. Kim noticed that the light, which appeared to come from the ceiling, had dimmed slightly as they walked, and now the old-fashioned street lamps came on, glowing with what looked like real gas-fueled flames. The area had a fairytale feel to it. It appeared as if they were walking through one of London’s wealthiest shopping districts, circa 1750. Modern clothing and the occasional scooter or PMD zipping by were the only hints that they hadn’t stepped through a time machine.

The amount of high-quality goods in the window displays was staggering. The street had been tastefully decorated for the season, with garlands of holly wrapping each of the street lamps and baskets full of poinsettias and other seasonal flowers that Kim didn’t recognize hanging at regular intervals along the brick walls.

Kim paused to stare through a shop window at a miniature train that was chugging merrily along a track. An entire tiny village had been set up, complete with people and dogs.

“Oh, Raeden, look! There’s even a miniature manger scene.”

Raeden smiled. The warm glow from the lights in the window illuminated the masculine planes of his face and seemed to bring out a twinkle in his eye.

It’s magical, isn’t it?

But Kim wasn’t watching the train anymore. He was transfixed by Raeden’s beauty. It certainly is.

Raeden must have caught some of his thought, because his eyes shifted from the little train to Kim and widened slightly. The gleam in his eye became predatory and Kim felt lust roll off of him.

He thinks I’m sexy? Kim was startled by that idea. He’d never thought of himself as sexy. He was too small and too thin to be sexy. But clearly Raeden was attracted to him. He could feel it.

He didn’t have time for any more thoughts, because Raeden cupped his chin, leaned over, and took his mouth in a possessive and passionate kiss. The world around them dropped away and there was only Raeden, warm and strong and dominating. Raeden’s tongue invaded, tasting of pizza and beer and mountain spring water—or like Kim imagined mountain spring water would taste, clean and slightly mineral.

Raeden’s tongue pushed past all of Kim’s defenses, pulling a deep groan from his throat. Kim’s tongue seemed to have a mind of it’s own, dueling deliciously with Raeden’s. Kim’s hands tangled in Raeden’s hair as he sought to get closer even; they were already somehow chest-to-chest. Kim was helpless to stop the moan of desire that came out of his mouth. Raeden took a quick gasping breath and plunged back in, ravishing him with a fierce hunger.

Just when Kim thought he was about to pass out, Raeden pulled his mouth away, but kept his face close, resting his forehead against Kim’s. They both panted for air. Kim realized that Raeden had picked him up at some point during the kiss. His back was against a brick wall, his legs were wrapped around Raeden’s toned torso, and his arms had entwined themselves around Raeden’s neck.

God, Little One, what you do to me! Raeden opened his mind to Kim and he felt the other man’s insane desire. Raeden’s cock felt too tight—hot and heavy and ready to burst. Shivers of blazing need thrummed through his body every few seconds. Kim felt Raeden trembling slightly under his hands and realized how hard the big man was fighting to maintain control. Kim himself had never experienced such intense cravings.

He suddenly became aware of his own cock, pressing urgently against the zipper of his slacks. His underwear was already soaked with drool. He bit his lip to keep a whimper from escaping as his cock throbbed with yearning.

I guess we’d better take this home, huh? Raeden chuckled into his hair.

Kim pulled his face away from Raeden’s, glancing apprehensively up and down the street. It was nearly deserted. A couple walked along the other side, laden with packages, chatting happily with each other, ignoring them. A young man zipped by on a hover board. The scene was so different from Zonei, Kim felt like he’d been transported to another world. Even if Raeden hadn’t been with him, he might have felt almost safe. There were no quents or derelicts or crazies. He supposed they must have crime, even in the upper zones.

“Is there even any crime here?” he asked.

“It’s rare,” Raeden said. “Crimes of passion, sometimes.” Grinning, he waggled his eyebrows at Kim.

“I’m serious,” Kim said, smiling. “It just seems so peaceful.”

“It’s usually busier here, but most of the stores are closed now. Speaking of which, there’s a little deli around the corner that I’m hoping is still open. Maybe we can pick up something for dinner.” Raeden gave Kim one more quick peck before he swung him down and set him on his feet.

Kim looked down at himself. His cock was still a half-hard bulge—not too visible in his loose slacks—but a growing wetness on the fabric near the head gave him away. He quickly shifted his coat that he was carrying in front of himself to conceal his indiscretion.

Raeden smiled sheepishly down at his own crotch. His cock was still tenting his sweats and they were also wet with precum. “Not much I can do about myself,” he said with a grin. Michelle—or more like, Randy—had not provided Raeden with underwear. The T-shirt that had been found for him was too small, hugging his chest and arms, showing off every exquisitely-defined muscle and riding up when Raeden moved to show a small strip of smooth skin at his waist. Kim had noticed that Raeden’s scale pattern was no longer visible and assumed he was hiding it.

“Actually,” Raeden continued on the topic of crime as they started walking down the street once more, “there are cameras everywhere here.” He gestured upward toward the ceiling. “If anyone so much as puts a toe out of line, CorpSec is here immediately to haul them away.”

“Really?” Kim looked apprehensively up at the fake-sky ceiling which now showed the last vestiges of a pink “sunset” in what Kim assumed was the west. A shudder ran through him. “I think I’d rather have the dangers and anonymity of living in Zonei than be watched all the time.”

Raeden shrugged. “As long as you don’t do anything illegal, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Kim said. He had the feeling that CorpSec didn’t pay too much attention to the strict letter of the law when it came to detaining citizens that they deemed to be inconvenient. The presence of those cameras and the possibility that there were microphones around too to pick up their conversation kept him from voicing that thought.

“Oh, good! It’s still open,” Raeden said. He led the way to the door of a small store that had a staggering display of meats, cheeses, and wines in the window. “They have great stuff here.”

A chime tinkled as they stepped through the doorway. Raeden grabbed a wicker shopping basket from a stack and held it in front of his crotch.

The proprietor of the store looked up from where he was wiping down the counter. His smile froze on his face as he took them in, replaced by a look of dark suspicion. With no effort on his part to read the man, Kim felt wariness and distrust emanating from him.

Kim glanced up at Raeden and saw him from the shopkeeper’s viewpoint. The giant appeared unkempt. His blonde hair was too short to be disheveled, but it was dirty. He had several days’ growth of beard shadowing his chin and dark circles under his eyes. Together with his ridiculously small clothes and flip-flops, Kim was sure he was way below the normal standard for patrons of that store.

Kim glanced ruefully down at himself. His clothes were of poor quality and starting to show their wear. His boots in particular were disgraceful: he had duct-taped one of the toes a few days earlier because the sole was separating from the faux-leather and he couldn’t afford a new pair yet. His beard didn’t grow at the rate that Raeden’s did, but he imagined, with his messy hair flying around his face, he looked just as scruffy.

Raeden gave the shopkeeper a dazzling smile. “Hi Mr. Sanders. I’m really glad you’re still open. ”

The shopkeeper’s dark looked was replaced by one of shock. “Mr. Dearborn! I haven’t seen you since…” His surprised expression changed abruptly to one of discomfort. “I heard about your wife. I’m so sorry.”

Kim was hit with a wave of sadness that rolled off of Raeden and just about knocked him off his feet. He drew in a deep, gasping breath. The emptiness and the grief that Raeden felt was unbearable.

Such pain! How could he live with such pain? Instinctively, he reached out and ran a comforting hand down Raeden’s arm.

Raeden was looking at the floor, his expression unreadable. Now he glanced up at him and Kim felt his loneliness fade a bit. Kim smiled at him, a small, supportive smile.

The corners of Raeden’s mouth pulled up slightly. He looked up at the shop owner and simply said, “Thank you.”

The shopkeeper looked between the two of them, still obviously uncomfortable. “Well, it’s great to have you back. What can I help you with today?”

Raeden set the proprietor to work slicing prosciutto and coppa while he and Kim browsed through the rest of the store. Kim had never seen the likes of most of the food there. He’d had no idea that all of this stuff even existed.

When they stopped in front of a shelf of fine chocolates, Kim picked up a bar and caught his breath. Oh my God, Raeden! You’re not seriously going to buy one of these chocolate bars are you? The price is outrageous. It was more than Kim usually spent on a whole day’s worth of food.

Raeden shrugged. We have money, Kim. “Have you ever tried one of those with the coconut in them?” He nodded at the bar Kim still held in his hand.

Of course not. I’ve never tried anything like any of these. “No.”

“Well then, we have to get it, of course.” Raeden took the bar out of Kim’s hand and tossed it into the basket.

By the time they were ready to checkout, Kim was having a difficult time keeping the incredulity off his face. He was sure his eyes were huge. The basket was filled with chocolates, fresh exotic fruits, a huge gourmet frozen lasagna, a large fresh salad, an assortment of odds and ends that Raeden had plucked off the shelves, several bottles of fine Italian wine and a bottle of something called prosecco.

Meanwhile, the shopkeeper had assembled a vast array of Italian meats and cheeses, pickled vegetables, olives, and several loaves of fresh bread. As he was ringing them up Raeden placed a beautifully wrapped package onto the pile. It was labeled “Panettone.”

In spite of the fact that everything in the store, with the exception of some of the packaging on the foodstuffs, looked authentic to 1750’s London, the checkout system was state-of-the-art. Kim watched with interest as the shopkeeper pressed a hidden button and a sleek panel slid out of a recess in the polished wooden counter. He waved a small device over each item and its price registered on the panel.

Kim steeled himself for the cost but couldn’t help the gasp that came out of his mouth when the shopkeeper stated it. The total was more than he normally made in two weeks of work. Raeden! We … we can’t spend this much money! He protested, glad for the ability to communicate without speaking aloud.

Raeden smirked. Watch me.

He moved his intel over the panel and nothing happened. Frowning he repeated the movement, with like results. After several tries he pulled his wrist up to his face to inspect the device.

“It’s a temporary intel,” he explained to the shopkeeper. “I ran into some trouble and my old one was destroyed. Because it’s Christmas Eve, I was unable to obtain a new one. I hope this loaner one’s not defective.” The temporary intel was attached to his wrist with a thick elastic strap. It was most unusual, but because of Raeden’s shifting abilities, he needed a device that could expand to accommodate his growth. He had told Kim that his old intel was built to shift in size when he did. He was unable to use a standard-issue intel and thus the need for a loaner device until CorpSci was back from vacation and able to fit him with a new specialized unit.

Now he polished the sensor plate with a corner of his t-shirt, adjusted the positioning of the device on his wrist, and tried again. After several more passes a chime sounded indicating that the charge had gone through. Kim sighed in relief and the shopkeeper’s smile returned.

Several minutes later, laden with sturdy cloth bags containing their purchases, they continued on their way down the street. Raeden seemed buoyant, happiness radiating off of him. Kim couldn’t help but feel some of Raeden’s joy, although there was still an undercurrent of unease running through him. Unwilling to examine the source too closely, he put it down to being unfamiliar with his surroundings.

Presently they left the shopping district behind, taking a cleverly hidden elevator up to a higher floor. When the doors opened, Kim felt as if he’d stepped into the future. The hallway was as wide and tall as the one they’d just left, but there the similarities ended. The street was made out of some sleek, shiny material that reflected the lights around them. Purple and blue neon outlined the edges of the street as well as the doorways and windows of the buildings on either side. The ceiling overhead was black as pitch. The buildings appeared to be made of newsteel in shades of lilac and periwinkle, but Kim thought perhaps the steel was just picking up the colors from the lighting.

Neon signs proclaimed the businesses that lined the street. They passed a drugstore, an insurance agency, a law firm, a bar, and some sort of office center before Raeden stopped in front of a set of doublewide doors.

They were imposing: solid, dull black and with no handles of any kind. Raeden ran his intel in front a panel several times, muttering under his breath when nothing happened. He adjusted the strap and held it in place while he tried again and the doors slid silently open. After they stepped through, the doors immediately closed behind them and they were in a small room with another set of doors before them.

A female voice with an Australian accent welcomed them politely and requested that they look at the flatscreen display above the door in front of them. It appeared to be showing a typical government propaganda video. As they watched, it changed abruptly to a live feed of the two of them taken from the front. Kim had a deer-in-the-headlights expression and Raeden displayed his typical cocky grin.

They are doing a retinal scan as well as picking up the signals from our intels. Their computer system will also compare our images, heat signatures, heart rates, and so on with the ones on file for us. It will only take a few seconds, Raeden explained.

Heavy security, Kim commented.

It’s because we are entering the mod area. Once we’re on the other side, I won’t have to hide my abilities.

“Welcome back, Mr. Dearborn. Welcome, Mr. Takemoto. We at CorpSec wish you a pleasant and relaxing holiday season,” the female voice intoned dispassionately as the doors in front of them slid open.

Yeah, right, Kim thought sarcastically. CorpSec doesn’t give a shit about our holiday.

Raeden led the way through the doors into a large, modern lobby. Colorful abstract art adorned the walls. There were several seating areas and what looked to be a coffee bar that was currently closed. A huge Christmas tree, decorated in silver, blue, and turquoise, took up one end of the lobby. Raeden led the way to a bank of elevators and pressed the button.

A few minutes later they stepped from the elevators into a yet another endless hallway. This one was of standard size, with doors spaced evenly on either side that presumably led to apartment units. Kim let out a mental sigh. He was so ready to be somewhere where he could sit down and relax.

Raeden had started off down the hall, leading Kim by the hand, and now he paused and looked back at him. We don’t have much further to go, but you can jump on my back for a ride if you want. Kim noticed that Raeden’s scale patterns had returned.

Kim was about to say no, when he heard the sound of feet running up behind him. Heart rate skyrocketing, he whirled around, taking a step backwards. Coming down the hallway toward them at a fast pace was a giant man. Kim gasped involuntarily. The man was almost as big as Raeden.

Raeden’s big hands wrapped around him, pulling him back against his warm frame. It’s okay, Little One. These are my friends Derek and Jeni.

At that moment Kim noticed a tiny woman riding on the large man’s back, her long blonde hair flying out behind her. They were moving fast and were upon them in no time, skidding to a halt.

“Raeden!” the man exclaimed, looking him up and down. Shock emanated from both of them.

The big man was wearing gym shorts and a tank top that showed off an impressive array of muscles and smooth bronzed skin with a faint scale pattern. His brown hair was damp and the chest and underarm areas of his tank were dark with sweat. The girl on his back was similarly attired, with a white sweatband holding her hair back from her delicately featured face. Her pale skin looked flushed and Kim detected faint tracings of scales on her bare arms and legs as well. Her huge blue eyes widened as she took Kim in, her gaze fastening on the possessive arm that Raeden had around his chest.

“I never thought we’d see you again, Rae,” Derek said. “I mean … it’s been since March…” He trailed off, the implications of his words clear.

Once again Kim felt the sharp agony of the gaping wound that had been torn through Raeden’s heart. But when he spoke, his voice was steady, sounding almost lighthearted, “You mean, why am I still alive?”

“Uh … I didn’t mean it exactly like that … and I don’t even want to ask how you are. I can’t imagine—”

Raeden cut him off. There was an edge to his voice that Kim was pretty sure he didn’t intend. “I’m doing much better, thank you. And I did almost die. Kim here rescued me, took me into his home, and cared for me. I’ve rebonded.”

“Kim?” the big man said, seeming to notice Kim for the first time. His jaw dropped slightly as he looked at him. “Rebonded? With a man?” He sounded horrified and Kim winced internally.

A tinkling laugh broke out from the small woman on his back. Derek does it really matter whether man or woman? You should be happy for Raeden.

But a man? I can’t imagine being with a man.

“But he’s a beautiful man, isn’t he?” Jeni said aloud.

Kim realized with a mild shock that he was hearing them converse with each other through their bond. It felt wrong to listen in to such an intimate conversation, but he didn’t know how to keep from hearing it. To him it was as if they were speaking aloud.

Besides, you can’t even imagine being with another woman either, can you? Jeni asked.

Well … no … but…

Whatever else Derek was going to say was lost to introductions. In spite of Derek’s initial reaction, Kim did not sense any animosity from him, only surprise and a bit of discomfort. He thought maybe the discomfort was just from being aware of the huge loss Raeden had suffered and not wanting to think about it.

“We just got done working out at the gym,” Jeni said, her words tumbling out quickly and her voice full of exuberance. “We were running home to shower and change. Tanya and Eddie are having a party tonight. You should come, Raeden, and introduce your new bondmate to everyone.”

“Thanks. I’d like to see everyone again, but we are just now getting home after being … uh … detained for three days at CorpSec headquarters. We need to clean up, eat, and rest. We haven’t even seen our new home yet.”

“Oh?” Jeni eyed Raeden curiously and Kim felt that she had lots of questions. “Which unit are you in?”

“Fifty-six fifteen.”

“Ooh! That’s a nice one. Corner unit. How did you rate that?”

Even though Raeden was still behind him, Kim felt him smirk through their mindlink. “We haven’t even signed a contract yet, but Dr. Granger pulled out all the stops—trying to make up for cutting me adrift to my own devices, I guess.”

“I had no idea rebonding was even possible,” Derek murmured, his mind obviously still wrestling with the concept.

“Nobody thought it was possible. It surprised the heck out of me too when I started having partial morfs.”

“Wow! I can’t wait to hear your story,” Jeni jumped in. “But we’re running late. Can we call you in a day or two? Maybe we can get together for a meal and catch up.”

“I’d like that,” Raeden said.

Kim smiled at them, but was afraid that it didn’t look sincere. He wasn’t comfortable around strangers and the warrior pair was definitely intimidating. Kim wondered if they were going to start comparing him with Lyzel and he really didn’t want to overhear any of those comments.

Jeni caught his eye and the smile she gave him was warm. “I’m so glad you rescued Raeden, Kim. I’m looking forward to getting to know you.”

Kim felt his smile slide into a real one. “You too,” he managed to say, and then they were off, running ahead of them down the hall.

Do we still have time for shower sex before the party? Kim heard Derek ask over their mindlink.

We can be a little late, Jeni replied, reaching around to tweak one of Derek’s nipples.

Kim’s face flushed. Some things were best not overheard.

“It’s strange being back. It will be odd seeing all of my old friends…” Raeden trailed off and Kim heard him finish the sentence in his mind, without Lyzel. The sharp pang of loss was right there on the surface, making it hard to breathe again, and Kim felt Raeden wrestling to get his emotions under control and bury his pain. Raeden shifted his focus to Kim and the big man’s hand, which had been around his waist, moved to palm one of his glutes. Kim felt a wave of desire wash over Raeden as heat flushed his own body from the mod’s intimate touch.

Can’t wait to get you home, Raeden murmured, bending slightly to kiss the top of Kim’s head.

They passed one other person going the opposite direction as they traversed the long hallway. He was tall, 6’3 or so Kim guessed, and was so obscenely muscled his head appeared to sit on his chest—the muscles of his neck bulging off to either side of his chin. His biceps were as big around as his narrow waist and the muscles in his thighs were so big that his walk was bow-legged to accommodate them. He nodded to them politely as he passed, his eyes widening slightly when he noticed Kim, but he didn’t say anything.

That’s Bob. He’s a Battle Boy. I don’t really know him. We don’t hang with them much. They all seem a bit pompous and not particularly bright, Raeden explained over their mindlink. Kim felt a wave of guilt wash over Raeden then. I’m sorry. I should probably try to get to know some of them better before I judge them, he added. They may be perfectly nice.

“Here we are,” Raeden said a moment later, pulling to a stop in front of a door labeled 5615. He passed his intel over the state-of-the-art reader that was mounted next to the door. Nothing happened.

Fucking loaner intel. Why don’t you try, Kim?

Kim was startled for a second. The whole afternoon had seemed unreal to him. It didn’t seem possible that he had access to a luxury apartment in Zonesee—that it was actually his own … well, his to share with Raeden. He passed his intel over the reader and was pleasantly surprised when he heard the click of the lock releasing.

Raeden opened the door and ushered Kim inside in front of him.

Kim barely got a glance at a huge room with picture windows all along one wall and a night cityscape spread out beyond that. Raeden slammed the door shut, swept Kim up into his arms, and deposited him onto a flat surface—the kitchen counter, Kim realized. He caught site of Raeden’s eyes, wild with lust, just before warm lips crashed down on his and a strong tongue invaded his mouth.

All thought flew out of Kim’s mind. His world became sensation: Raeden’s slick tongue thrusting into his mouth, his big hands touching his body everywhere, moving at lightning speed, stroking his arms, his sides, his legs. Raeden untucked his shirt with an impatient yank and one of his hands snaked underneath, rubbing his stomach and chest.

His tongue continued to explore, licking and tasting Kim’s mouth. When Raeden tweaked his nipple, a desperate whimper came out of the back of Kim’s throat. He clutched Raeden’s head, running his hand through the short-cropped hair, tracing the shell of his ear and then feeling the stubble along his jawline. His other hand drifted to Raeden’s stomach, touching the smooth skin between his low-slung sweats and the too-small t-shirt.

He felt hot all over, burning with a desire so intense he almost couldn’t bear it. He could feel Raeden’s hunger too, overwhelming in its urgency. The big man growled and shifted him so that his crotch was flush with his own. Kim wrapped his legs around Raeden’s torso as the bigger man began to grind against him, holding him close with a firm hand around Kim’s waist as his hips started a fast rhythm.

Kim’s cock was fully engorged, straining against his slacks. The friction Raeden was creating was too much. He felt the warning shocks of impeding orgasm racing through him, and then he felt something that stopped it cold.

Raeden’s cock was enormous. He could feel the massive, iron-hard shaft thrusting against his own cock, and what should have been ecstasy turned into terror as a vision of Raeden forcing his monstrous cock into his own small channel suddenly overwhelmed him.

Oh my god! He wants to have sex with me and I can’t … I can’t! Kim swallowed back a whimper of terror as cold fear spread over him, extinguishing the last flames of his passion.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Raeden felt terror ripple through Kim and it pulled him quickly out of lust-fugue. His senses automatically went on high alert, trying to detect the cause of his mate’s fear, even as he stopped his hip movements and pulled out of the kiss. Sensing no immediate danger, he kept his face close to Kim’s, panting into his delicate ear as he tried to beat down his raging libido.

Kim’s fear eased a notch, although his anxiety level was still through the roof. That’s when it hit Raeden that Kim was afraid of him. With that realization came a deluge of hurt. Raeden knew that, prior to meeting him, Kim’s only sexual experiences had been terrifying and painful; it was perfectly natural for him to be afraid. But Raeden couldn’t help his emotions. He was crushed that Kim didn’t trust him.

He doesn’t know you well. You’ve only been together six weeks. Lyzel and you had spent most of your lives together before you even started having sex. This is all new for Kim and he doesn’t trust easily.

In spite of his pep talk, he was flooded with a deep sense of loss. He had lost the close bond that he’d had with Lyzel. It felt as if a critical part of him—an arm or a leg or an eye—had been cut off. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to reach the same level of intimacy with Kim. He closed his eyes against the burning that signaled oncoming tears as gut-wrenching pain tore through his heart. He heard Kim gasp and, realizing that his new mate was feeling his emotions, he tried to focus on Kim instead of himself.

He licked slowly along the shell of Kim’s ear, taking in his comforting scent, slowing his breathing and his heart rate. Kim stroked the side of his face, his anxiety now almost completely replaced by concern. He cares deeply for me. That thought eased his hurt and sorrow more than his mind’s monologue had.

He pulled away enough to look Kim in the eye. The beautiful dark eyes met his, full of worry for him and guilt.

He feels guilty for not wanting sex with me? Raeden didn’t know how to fix that. He had already told Kim he wouldn’t hurt him, but words didn’t seem to be enough. He would have to convince him with his actions. He would take it slow, seduce Kim gently—even if it was a year before they had intercourse, he wouldn’t take him when he was afraid. His libido whimpered pitifully at that thought.

It’s Christmas Eve. We shouldn’t have all this angst. So rather than bringing up and talking about their feelings, Raeden danced around the subject.

“I’m sorry I attacked you, Kim.” He forced a grin. “You smell so damn good and … it’s been a very long time for me.”

Kim smiled at him sweetly and ran his finger across Raeden’s lips. “I can’t imagine I could possibly smell good at this point. I really need a bath.”

“Or a shower,” Raeden said. “I’m sure there’s a shower here somewhere.”

As if suddenly realizing where they were, Kim looked around and his jaw dropped open. He sat up abruptly, his head swiveling back and forth to take everything in.

The apartment was definitely nice even by Raeden’s standards. The main room was large enough for three distinct areas: kitchen, dining, and living. Two walls of the great room were taken up by windows, and a glass door opened onto a sizable balcony that wrapped around the corner. On the fifty-sixth floor, they were higher than most of the buildings around them and the night cityscape view was spectacular.

The apartment was furnished with a white fabric couch and chairs, and matching glass and steel coffee and end tables that Raeden didn’t really care for. They looked fine, but would be difficult to keep clean; he much preferred faux leather and real wood. And the décor—a few paintings on the walls, lamps, assorted knick-knacks, and rugs—while tasteful, was non-descript. “We can get our own furniture. This is all probably rental stuff,” he said.

Kim, still agog, taking it all in, did not reply.

The bones of the apartment were beautiful. The floor looked like a grey stone of some sort, polished and veined with white. There was a white brick fireplace along one wall. The kitchen countertops were pale gray, made of some modern material, the appliances shiny black and state-of-the-art. The fixtures were modern and sleek, and all the basics appeared to be there: coffee maker, microwave, toaster, dishtowels and so on. Raeden was sure the cupboards held dishes and pots and pans.

The dinning room table seated six but Raeden observed that there was room for a much larger table. The center was graced with a large vase of fresh flowers in Christmas reds and whites. Reluctant to leave Kim’s side but curious about the tag hanging off of the flowers, Raeden stepped over to read it.

“CorpSci sent us flowers and wishes us Merry Christmas—probably Michelle’s doing.” A full-sized, real-pine Christmas tree had been set up in the corner where the window walls met and Raeden noticed there were a few wrapped packages under it. Now he wandered over and checked these out too.

“They’re from Randy and Michelle,” he said. “That’s awfully sweet of them. I wonder when they time to do all this. Michelle probably had Randy running around all day. We’ll have to do something nice for them in return. Randy probably expected to have the day off and Michelle came back from her vacation to rescue us.”

“Wow! I can’t believe this is all ours!” Kim said. His voice held a hushed awe that reflected the expression on his face.

“All ours, Little One, except…” Raeden frowned as he glanced around. Surely they wouldn’t have … but of course they did. He looked at Kim. “Do you mind if I switch to lizard form for a few minutes? I want to clean the bugs out of this place. It’ll be in our contract that they can’t do that, but we haven’t actually signed a contract yet and I wouldn’t put it past them to try.”

“Bugs?” Kim echoed, and then his eyes widened. “Oh, you think they’re spying on us?” A visible shudder ran through him. “No, I don’t mind—please do. But why lizard form?”

“I’ll be able to smell whatever electronics they might have hidden here, no matter how tiny or discreet. It’ll only take a minute.”

Kim, still sitting on the kitchen counter, nodded. “Okay.”

Raeden lost no time in slipping off his clothes, shifting to lizard form, and rampaging through the unit. By the time he was done, his anger was barely in check. He shifted quickly back to human form, where he had better control.

“Fucking goons!” he grumbled as he dumped the last of the of electronics onto the pile that he’d made on the kitchen counter next to Kim, who had stayed put and watched him with wide eyes. “I can’t believe they thought they could get away with this. Fucking pervs even had cameras set up in the bedrooms and bathrooms.”

He looked around, opening cupboards and drawers until he found a box of plastic garbage bags. Sweeping the pile of expensive electronics into the bag, he went to the disposal unit built under the kitchen counter, pressed the button for recycle, and dropped the bag inside. With a swish it was swept away to the recycling center somewhere in the depths of the high rise.

Kim’s eyes were wide. “You won’t get in trouble for removing those?”

Raeden let out a low growl. “I will not live with someone spying on me in my own home. If they don’t like it, they can kiss my ass. I’m sure regular citizens end up with hidden bugs or whatnot in their units, but none of the mods will put up with it. Most of us can detect them easily.”

He slid his arms around Kim and kissed his forehead. “The shower in the master bath is big enough for two.” He couldn’t help waggling his eyebrows.

Fortunately Kim’s reaction was to let out a small laugh. So he’s not afraid of the idea of being intimate with me, Raeden guessed. He’s just afraid of the act itself. I can work with that.

Kim pulled slightly away and glanced down at Raeden’s cock, which was half hard, lying gently against his thigh. “Umm … you don’t have a cock when you’re in lizard form?”

Raeden laughed. “Yes, I do. But most of the time they are retracted, like a lizard’s. Unlike a lizard, I actually have control over when they emerge.”

Kim’s eyebrows flew up. “They?”

“When I’m in lizard form, I have hemipenes. I can show you sometime if you’re curious. They are rather … bizarre-looking.”

Raeden didn’t know if Kim knew what hemipenes were but he obviously got the concept. His emotions were an odd mix of curiosity and trepidation.

“Did you … did you and Lyzel ever make love in lizard form?” Kim asked. Raeden could sense another strong emotion, but couldn’t quite catch what it was.

“We tried it, of course. I wouldn’t call it making love, though. For lizards, it really is just fucking. We do retain some of our human mind while in lizard form, but unfortunately, lizards don’t really enjoy sex. It’s just an instinctual act for them. So we only tried it once—it really wasn’t fun—not the way it should be.”

“Oh,” Kim said. Raeden sensed his relief. He’s comparing himself with Lyzel and worried that he won’t measure up.

“Don’t worry, Little One. You have everything I need and more.” He smiled into Kim’s eyes and was relieved when Kim’s worry eased. Needing to be close to his mate, he nuzzled Kim’s cheek. This led to kissing down his lovely long neck. When he got to the hollow of his collarbone, his fingers sought the buttons on Kim’s shirt. He undid them one by one tasting the luscious skin on his mate’s chest as he went. The young man shivered under his touch.

When he finished with the last button he straightened and slid the shirt off of Kim’s shoulders. “I’m naked. It’s only fair that you get naked too,” he teased. Kim smiled at him shyly and Raeden feasted on the sight of his slender, toned arms and torso. He didn’t have a classic six-pack but his narrow hips seemed to V toward his groin, enticing Raeden to want see what his slacks were hiding. His smooth skin was a lovely pale almond color, his nipples dark temptations, stiff and erect.

Raeden ran a light hand down Kim’s chest, loving how the younger man’s skin pebbled with goose bumps from his touch. He circled an areola and Kim’s head dropped back, his full lips parting with a low gasp. Raeden gently brushed the nub with his thumb and Kim pulled his botom lip between his teeth, biting.

How can I resist such a responsive lover?

Rubbing his thumb over one hardening point, he bent to lick its twin, pausing to enjoy the slightly herbal scent that wafted from Kim’s skin. “Kim … love,” he murmured in awe, then took the nipple into his mouth, sucking gently.

Kim responded with a loud whimper and a thrust of his narrow hips. Raeden could tell that he was trying not to react, fighting to hold himself still and quiet, but the wave of want that crashed over him swept away his control. Raeden loved making Kim lose control. He continued to suckle one nipple while he pinched the other gently. As all of Kim’s defenses broke down, the tiny man began humping into Raeden’s stomach, his legs wrapping around his torso, and his mouth letting out a string of piteous moans and whimpers.

The heat of desire swept through Raeden’s body like a tsunami, urged on by his lover’s impassioned cries. His cock rose to full stiffness, butting up against Kim’s ass cheek. As Kim rocked his hips, rubbing his balls and the base of this cock wantonly against Raeden’s taut stomach, the big mod’s cock was treated to the resulting friction of Kim’s still-clothed butt moving against the head of his cock. Precum spewed forth, making a sticky trail across Kim’s slacks.

As wild as Raeden was with desire, he was still conscious of his lover’s fragility. He didn’t want to scare Kim again, so he took things down a notch, kissing up Kim’s chest to suck at the hollow of his throat again, while the hand that had been teasing the younger man’s nipple slid around to rub the small of his back in a gentle rhythm.

Kim let out a long low groan. Raeden smiled into his neck as he heard the other man panting, obviously fighting for control.

“Oh my God, Raeden,” Kim said with a gasping breath. “I … I had no idea my nipples were so … fuck!”

“Erogenous?” Raeden suggested, pulling away enough to look at his lover. Kim’s eyelids were heavy with lust, his eyes black as black, his pupils blown with lust. His skin was flushed and dewy with desire. Raeden almost groaned aloud as he fought to keep himself from pushing for more. He had never seen Kim looking so sexy.

“Shall we check out the shower?” he asked, his voice rough with need. How on earth am I going to restrain myself?

Kim nodded dreamily, as if not quite awake.

Raeden swept him off the counter into his arms and whisked him down the short hallway and into the master bedroom where he set him down gently. This room was also furnished and decorated with mostly standard furnishings. One full wall was taken up with windows and there was a small balcony off of it as well.

Kim stared at the bed. “It’s huge!”

Raeden grinned. “It’s mod-sized.”

“My little unit must have seemed so dingy to you.”

Raeden slid his arms around the small man’s chest, pulling him gently back against him. He kissed the top of Kim’s head. “You had everything you really needed, and I was in no condition to even notice.” He chuckled ruefully. “The only thing that drove me crazy was the lack of drugs, alcohol, and meat. I’m sorry I was such an ass when we first met.”

“You really were,” Kim agreed.

“Hey!” Raeden protested, running his fingers down to Kim’s taut stomach, tickling.

Kim squealed and tried to squirm away. Raeden boxed him in with his arms, still tickling lightly. Kim retaliated in kind and they both dissolved into fits of laughter, eventually ending up tangled together on the bed, breathless.

With Kim on top of him, squirming and laughing, Raeden’s cock immediately took notice. Raeden’s laugh was replaced by small groan as he wrapped his hand in Kim’s hair and pulled the other man’s face close for a scorching kiss. His whole body was instantly on fire as white-hot need coursed through his veins. He could sense Kim’s emotions. There was a small bit of anxiety there, but the younger man was burning with lust as well.

Determined to take things slowly, Raeden pulled out the kiss before he began wantonly humping into Kim. He gazed into Kim’s lust-heavy eyes, admiring the planes of his face and his plump, kissable lips. Reaching up, he tugged the tie out of Kim’s hair and combed through the plait with his fingers until the ink-black hair spilled over Kim’s shoulders and teased Raeden’s chest.

“You’re the prettiest man I’ve ever seen,” he whispered.

Kim looked startled and maybe even a bit confused, but Raeden felt the other man’s pleasure at his words. A gorgeous blush spread across Kim’s face. He opened his mouth to say something, but Raeden put a finger on his lips.

“Don’t deny it. Just accept it.” He moved his finger so he could capture the perfect lips again in another heavenly kiss. Kim’s hair fell about them like a black silk curtain, sheltering them from the outside world, from the painful past and from the uncertain future. There was only this place and this time and the sweetest, smartest, most beautiful man in the world in his arms. Raeden sighed blissfully into Kim’s mouth.

*****

Kim felt like he was dreaming. Things like this did not happen to him. He would surely wake up soon, alone in his old unit in Zonei. Meanwhile, he should enjoy the dream, because the most gorgeous man he’d ever seen was naked, lying partially on top of him, and gazing at him with undisguised lust.

“Shall we go check out the shower?” Raeden asked.

Kim shifted to sit up. “Yes, I definitely need a shower … like yesterday.”

Raeden stood up, a seven-foot tall God of perfection. He held out his hand for Kim and helped him out of bed. How can someone so big and fierce be so gentle? Kim wondered. As Raeden led the way into the bathroom, Kim’s eyes were drawn to the twin globes of his ass, which looked soft and hard at the same time. His hand seemed to have a mind of its own and it reached out to touch, to feel whether that enticing butt was as firm as it looked. It was warm and pliant under Kim’s hand and he couldn’t help but squeeze it, reveling in the feel of those massive muscles.

Raeden grinned at him as they entered the bathroom. “You’re a butt-man?”

“Most definitely,” Kim replied, and then caught sight of Raeden’s thick cock. It wasn’t fully hard, but it was rapidly getting there. Unlike Kim, Raeden was cut, showing off a ruddy mushroom tip. Prominent veins ran down the front of his cock, leading the way to a set of heavy balls. His cock unfurled to stand proud, leaning slightly to the left. Once again, Kim’s hands seemed to have a mind of their own. He reached out and grabbed the obelisk, wrapping his hand around the hot shaft and realizing that his hand was barely big enough to go halfway around it.

The thread of unease this caused was derailed by the sound that Raeden made. Kim looked up at him and was enraptured by his face. His eyes were at half-mast, his lips parted, and the sound of pure need that came from his mouth flipped Kim’s insides over.

“Kim…” Raeden groaned. He looked like he wanted to say more, but he swallowed instead. Kim watched his Adam’s apple bob as he drew his hand slowly up Raeden’s fat cock.

“Uunnhhg!” Raeden said.

Kim glanced down at the huge member in his hand and saw precum pooling at the slit. He slid his hand up and ran his thumb over the tip, rubbing the warm viscous liquid around the head. Raeden let out another primal sound.

“Kim!” Raeden cried out. “I … stop!” Kim had started moving his hand rhythmically up and down Raeden’s shaft, and now the stilled, looking up at the big man, wondering if he’d done something wrong.

“I’m gonna…” Raeden panted a few times and took a deep breath, pulling himself together. “It’s been so long … I almost came. I don’t want to come quite so quickly.”

“Oh,” Kim said, a smile pulling at his lips. He pulled his hand away from Raeden’s cock and licked the precum off of his thumb. It was salty and bitter and oh so delicious.

Raeden let out another low groan as he watched Kim. “Oh my God! You are so hot!”

Kim smiled affectionately up at the big mod and then suddenly realized that his pants were uncomfortably tight. Feeling self-conscious of his tiny thin body next to Raeden’s huge muscle-bound one, he nevertheless toed off his shoes. He pulled off his dirty socks, tossing them aside, and then realized that the stone floor was warm under his feet.

For the first time, he looked around, noticing the bathroom. It was huge—almost as big as his main room at the Shangri La. There was a Jacuzzi tub in the corner that could easily hold four—well maybe only two if they were Raeden’s size. The glass-enclosed shower was like a room of its own, with multiple showerheads, a hand-held sprayer, and a control panel that looked complex enough to run a small ship.

The floor was white stone and the tub looked like it was made out of black granite, polished and flecked with gray. The floor of the shower was out of the same material. Along one wall was a long white tile counter with two deep sinks in teal porcelain. The toilet was also teal. Sets of fluffy teal and black towels were neatly stacked on a shelf above the toilet and there were teal bath mats in front of the shower and tub.

“Wow!” Kim said. He felt too overwhelmed with the space and the fixtures to come up with anything more intelligent to say.

Raeden chuckled low. “It is nice, isn’t it?”

“The floor is warm.”

“Yep.” Raeden’s grin became predatory and he reached for Kim, sliding an arm around his waist as the other went to the snap on his slacks and undid it with practiced ease. His voice was deep and husky when he said, “These need to come off.” He tore open the tab closure, a twenty-second century invention that had all but replaced zippers, and slid his long fingers inside.

Kim’s cock jumped eagerly toward Raeden’s fingers, which stroked up and down it, outside his cotton briefs. The touch was exquisite, sending shock waves of pleasure through Kim’s body. Raeden’s thumb found and circled the head, causing fresh waves of precum to erupt and further drench Kim’s already soiled briefs.

Kim found himself panting. He felt dizzy. Suddenly he needed his slacks off! He grabbed the waistband and yanked both his pants and his briefs down to his knees in one quick move. His cock bobbed out in greeting, a fleck of precum flying off of it.

Raeden took a step back and stared at him. Kim didn’t look at Raeden as he self-consciously stepped out of his pants and briefs. Once he was standing there naked next to the giant, he felt his face flushing in embarrassment. He looked at the floor, hoping that his long fall of hair would hide his reddening cheeks.

“Kim…” Raeden said softly as he reached out and, putting his fingers under Kim’s chin, tilted his face up. Kim looked into Raeden’s wide blue eyes which were smiling at him with affection. Kim’s discomfort faded as he felt the very real emotions of love and desire radiating off of Raeden. The big mod’s gaze slid away from his eyes to peruse down his chest and torso, pausing to take a long look at his groin. Kim thought he should have felt self-conscious again, except the expression on Raeden’s face and the emotions he was emanating were pure appreciation and desire.

“You are exquisite,” Raeden said.

Still not comfortable with praise and with the intensity of Raeden’s gaze, Kim stepped past him into the shower. “And dirty,” he said. He paused in front of the panel.

Raeden stepped up behind him and pointed out buttons, which all had various icons on them. “This one turns the left showerhead on.” He demonstrated and cool water began to pour out of the fixture, splashing on Kim’s lower leg. “This controls the positioning of the nozzle. This sets the temperature—press this to switch the temperature setting between the two showerheads and the sprayer. How warm do you like it?” Raeden pressed the up arrow and the digital readout began to climb even as Kim felt the water on his leg grow warmer.

“I don’t know. I’ve never taken a warm shower before.”

“Never—?” Raeden looked at him aghast.

Kim shrugged. “We didn’t have hot water at the Shangri La and I’ve never showered anywhere else.”

“Oh…” Raeden ruminated on this for a second. “You took cold showers?”

“Only when it really hot outside—once or twice a year maybe. Otherwise it was always baths, which were usually lukewarm because of the expense and time involved in heating up teakettles full of water.”

“I’ve always appreciated a warm shower, but I never realized what a luxury it was,” Raeden said.

“Yeah, probably most of the population doesn’t get to take hot showers.”

“You’re right.” Raeden’s brows had furrowed into a frown and Kim felt his dark thoughts.

“But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to enjoy taking one right now,” Kim said, stepping under the spray and groaning with pleasure as the hot water hit his skin. “Wow!” His mind immediately seemed to slip into a dream state. “Better than I imagined.” Kim closed his eyes.

He heard Raeden chuckle. “I’m going to go put the food away that we left lying on the floor by the front door, and then I’ll be back to join you. Enjoy yourself.”

“Oh, I will,” Kim said with a smile. He still hadn’t opened his eyes so was startled when Raeden’s big hand slid behind him, pulling him close to his massive body. One of Raeden’s hands went to butt and squeezed; his other went to his hair and pulled, not hard enough to hurt but hard enough for Kim’s face to snap up. His lips were taken in a fierce kiss, with a hot tongue thrusting down his throat in an aggressive, possessive move that almost had Kim swooning.

All too soon Raeden let him go and stepped out of the shower. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Kim couldn’t wait.

Chapter Nineteen

Steam billowed out the door as Raeden stepped into the bathroom. He could see Kim standing in the shower, his head thrown back, water running down his chest. His spill of ink black hair brushed the top of his tiny but oh-so-shapely ass. A shudder of desire ran through him. His cock, which had stayed semi-erect with anticipation the entire time he was putting the groceries away and the lasagna in the oven, now fattened and lengthened toward full readiness.

Balancing the wine glasses he carried, he carefully opened the door of the shower enclosure.

“Hey,” he said in soft greeting, not wanting to break the spell that Kim seemed to be under.

Kim opened his eyes and smiled dreamily up at him. Dazzling.

“Sip of wine?” Raeden offered him the glass of the Italian white he’d opened.

Kim took it and gave it a sniff before taking a small sip. Raeden tasted his own, rolling it around on his palate before swallowing. It was crisp and dry—not quite as cold as it should have been but still very drinkable.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“It’s fine.” Kim’s neutral expression matched his words, but Raeden felt his distaste.

“What do you really think of it?” he chided.

“It’s not what I was expecting,” Kim admitted. “All of the wine I’ve had before has been quite sweet. This is sort of sourish or maybe bitter.”

“Yes, it’s on the dry side.”

“Of course. ‘Dry.’ Must be an acquired taste.”

“I can get you something else,” Raeden offered, but now that he had finally made it back to Kim’s side, he was loath to leave it.

“No, this is fine. If we’re going to live in your fancy world, I should acquire a taste for good wine.” He smiled up at Raeden and took another sip.

Raeden reached out and push a wayward strand of wet hair away from Kim’s face. “Have you washed your hair yet?” he asked.

Gorgeous color crept into Kim’s cheeks. “No … I haven’t done anything at all except stand here and … luxuriate.” Suddenly he stiffened, a shock of concern emanating from him. “How much will it cost—this long hot shower?”

“It’s fine, Little One,” Raeden assured him. “We can afford it. We do live in a world of scarce resources, so I wouldn’t recommend taking a forty-five minute shower every day, but once in a while is just fine.”

Kim relaxed again and took another sip of wine before handing Raeden his glass. “I guess I’d better get on with it though.”

Raeden stepped out to set the glasses on the counter before joining Kim in the shower again. He stopped him just as he was about to pour shampoo into his palm. “Let me. I love to touch your hair.” He took the small bottle away from Kim and proceeded to lather his young lover’s hair with the fragrant liquid, massaging his scalp while he was at it.

Kim let out a moan of bliss that reverberated through Raeden. He would never get enough of hearing Kim’s sounds of pleasure. He ran his fingers through the silken strands of Kim’s long fall of hair. “So amazing. I love your hair.”

“Yeah? I was thinking of cutting it.” Kim’s voice was a dreamy murmur.

Raeden frowned. “Why on earth would you cut it?”

“It seems kind of juvenile now. I always kept my hair long because my father had a long braid. I used to love tugging on it. I remember so little about him.” Raeden felt Kim’s wistfullness and it brought a lump to his throat. He fervently hoped his plans worked out. He still couldn’t believe Kim’s father was alive and apparently well after all these years.

“…and it’s a pain to wash,” Kim was saying.

“I’ll wash your hair for you anytime, Little One. Especially if that means you don’t cut it. It’s way too beautiful to destroy.”

Kim looked up at Raeden, his dark eyes sparkling. “Okay. I’ll keep it long for you—for now.”

Raeden finished washing Kim’s hair and began working a basil-scented conditioner into it. Meanwhile Kim had found the shower gel and a washcloth and was rubbing suds across his broad chest. His skin shivered with pleasure under Kim’s gentle hands. When his lover stroked the rough cloth across one of his sensitive nipples, the erotic sensation wrenched a gasp from Raeden.

Kim smiled at him slyly. “You like that?” He brushed the cloth back and forth across one nipple while he began pinching the other nipple. Raeden dropped his head back and let out a long drawn out groan. His hard cock twitched, bouncing toward Kim’s chest as if it were magnetic.

Raeden felt a tendril of fear break through Kim’s pleasure. He looked down to find the young man staring at his cock with wide eyes. Dropping to his knees, he sat back on his heels in a non-threatening position and felt Kim’s anxiety drop away.

Taking the washcloth out of his mate’s hand, he squirted more soap onto it and began to rub it lovingly across Kim’s pale wet skin. Kim wound his fingers into Raeden’s short hair and tugged gently. Then he poured shampoo into his hand and used that as an excuse to thoroughly entangle his fingers in the blond crop.

Raeden was lost in a haze. Between the feel of warm, supple skin under his fingers and the scrape of Kim’s fingernails against his scalp, he was in heaven. He leaned forward and planted a kiss on the curve of Kim’s hipbone. He felt a tremor run through the other man. This close, he could smell Kim’s sex, clean and earthy.

He ran the washcloth across Kim’s butt cheek with one hand while he kneaded its twin with the other. Pushing the cloth into Kim’s crack, he ran it slowly forward across his perineum, to wash his balls from behind. Watching the eggs jiggle in their wrinkly sacks, Raeden needed a taste. He pulled one gently into his mouth to a squeal from Kim. The hands washing his hair suddenly clutched and pulled. He rolled the ball around in his mouth, giving it a thorough tongue bath. Kim’s breath hitched and he let out a small needy sound.

Raeden let the orb go only to swallow up the other one, giving it the same treatment. The grip on his hair tightened and Kim’s small hips thrust forward. Then the young man slid one of his legs over Raeden’s shoulder, giving him full access to his taint and balls. Raeden adjusted his hands, taking part of Kim’s weight and steadying him as he renewed his efforts to map his lover’s balls with his tongue.

“Nnngh!” Kim said.

“So delicious,” Raeden murmured, nuzzling.

As the fingers of one hand automatically sought Kim’s puckered hole, petting softly, his tongue wound its way upward, tracing the veins on Kim’s slender cock. He sucked gently on the head, pushing the foreskin down with his lips to slide his tongue around the ridge.

“Rae!” Kim cried out and Raeden savored the sound of his name coming so desperately from his lover’s lips. He wanted more. He tongued Kim’s slit and then greedily sucked on the ruddy head.

“Raeden—oh!”

Raeden smiled around the cock in his mouth and then sucked it in, sliding his lips to the base, the head of Kim’s shaft bumping the back of his throat. He set up a rhythm then, steady and fast, his hands on Kim’s butt urging him to fuck his face.

Kim no longer cried out his name. Instead all manner of small frantic noises fell from his lips. His fingers scrabbled, trying to get a better grip on Raeden’s short hair. Raeden could feel the trembling in his legs and the build up of tension in his muscles even as he sensed Kim’s impending orgasm through their mind connection.

His own body was an electric wire, crackling with energy. He felt more alive than he had since—

He shut down that line of thought, forcing himself to stay in the here and now, in the moment. It wasn’t hard. His senses were swamped by Kim: his lovely, needy sounds, his intoxicating scent, the warm, wet skin under his hands, and the sheer pleasure flowing through Kim’s mind.

And then Kim came. He felt it through their mindlink—that moment when the pleasure and tension became just too much. The orgasm rocketed through Kim’s body, spilling into his mouth in a torrent of salty spray. Kim screamed his name as he thrust his hips helplessly into Raeden’s face. He was only peripherally aware of the painful grip Kim had on his hair, of himself swallowing quickly to keep up with flood of Kim’s release. Caught in the maelstrom of his mate’s orgasm, he couldn’t tell where Kim’s ended and his own began. He grabbed his leaking cock, pumping furiously, and in three strokes he his seed erupted from his organ in a pulsing torrent. He let out a guttural cry that mingled with Kim’s whimpers.

Everything was white noise for several long moments, then Raeden heard Kim gasping for air, felt his body starting to relax, heard a sweet moan of satiation come from Kim’s lips. He gave a few more soft licks to his lover’s spent member, then rested his head against Kim’s narrow hip, panting. The world was still spinning dizzily. He ran his hands up and down Kim’s legs, the motion soothing him, helping him to gather up the tattered remnants of his mind.

“Oh, Rae,” Kim said on a gasp as he collapsed against him. Raeden gathered the tiny man up in his arms, holding him close. He was still too overwhelmed to speak. It was the first orgasm he’d had in eight months and it had been … momentous. He felt tension that he didn’t even realize he’d been carrying ease away on a sea of bliss.

He’d thought his sex life was over forever. He hadn’t even been able to get hard since Lyzel’s death. And now this beautiful, erotic young man had given him one of the best orgasms ever. He was overwhelmed with love and gratitude.

After a few moments Kim began to giggle. “You still have soap in your hair.”

Raeden pulled back to look Kim in the eye. His mate’s dark eyes met his, sparkling with a joy that Raeden had never seen in him before. Raeden grinned back, feeling happy and relaxed and downright wonderful for the first time in a very long time.

*****

“Wow! Oh, wow!” Kim stared in awe as the lights on the Christmas tree began to blink. Raeden had just turned them on. Multicolored light reflected off shiny bulbs and cast pastel-hued shimmers across the walls. “I’ve never had my own Christmas tree before,” he said softly. “We never had enough money for such things.”

“I love the way the real ones smell,” Raeden said. “It seems a waste to grow them and then chop them down, especially since we’re so short on farmland. It must have cost a small fortune. Lyzel and I had a fake one, but it was a good fake one. I suppose I still have it somewhere with all the rest of our stuff—” He broke off not wanting to dwell on the boxes that were piled high in the spare bedroom. It was too painful to think about. He wasn’t sure when he’d find the strength to go through them.

He stepped up behind Kim and pulled the young man back against his chest, taking comfort in his warmth. His fingers automatically sought their way between the folds of his robe to splay across his bare chest. Raeden bent and nuzzled his hair, his melancholy slipping away with the touch of his new mate. His fingers brushed across a nipple and Kim shuddered.

Raeden caught Kim’s earlobe in his mouth and bit gently while he worried the nipple with his fingers.

“Rae!” Kim cried out, grasping Raeden’s wrist in his small hands and tugging. “I … you’re…” he panted.

“What?” Raeden asked with a smirk, letting Kim pull his hand away.

“God! Just one touch and I’m like—‘zing!’—ready to go again.” Kim looked down at himself and Raeden leaned over his shoulder to follow his gaze. They were both wearing nothing but the white terry robes they’d found in the bathroom, and Kim’s robe was starting to tent. Raeden was in the same condition.

“And that’s bad because…?”

“Because I’m hungry.”

Just then Raeden’s stomach chimed in with a loud growl. They both laughed. “I guess we’d better eat then.” Not wanting to lose the solace of Kim’s touch, Raeden grabbed his hand and led him to the kitchen area. Glancing at the timer, he said, “We’ve got thirty more minutes on the lasagna—just enough time to enjoy some antipasto.”

Working together they made short work of slicing the cheese, bread, and salami, and arranging it on a large plate with some of the olives and pickled vegetables. As Raeden filled their wine glasses, he said, “Let’s eat on the rug in front of the fire.”

“An excellent plan,” Kim agreed. “I want to enjoy the tree and the view, but that white couch—that is such a bad idea for me. I know I won’t be able to eat anywhere close to it without spilling something on it.” Kim carried the tray into the living area and set it on the coffee table. Raeden followed with the wine and napkins.

“Is it always going to be like this with you?” Kim asked as he nibbled a piece of cheese and stared, trancelike, at the Christmas tree. He was nestled between Raeden’s legs, leaning back against his chest. “Perfect?”

Raeden snorted. “I’m far from perfect, Kim. I can get grumpy and irritable and be a downright ass. Surely you haven’t forgotten that.”

Kim turned surprised eyes on him. “I thought—” He broke off, but sensing his emotions, Raeden could guess what he had been about to say.

“You thought that I was cured now?” He chuckled softly. “You saw me at my worst, I will say. But I do get that way now and again. It usually doesn’t last long—I’ve never slid into a funk for months at a time before, but I’m not always a nice guy, so I’ll apologize in advance.”

“Nobody’s perfect,” Kim said, settling back against Raeden’s chest, “but you’re about the closest thing that I’ve ever seen.”

*****

Kim awoke to the realization that he was stark naked and there was a very large cock nudged against his butt cheek. Terror flashed through him, but he caught Raeden’s scent and immediately started to calm down. Raeden wouldn’t hurt him—he’d promised and Kim trusted him. The night before he’d been so gentle with him; they’d made love three times and each time Raeden had treated him with reverence. They hadn’t gone all the way, but they’d exchanged blowjobs and hand jobs and frotted, and it’d been better than he’d imagined it could be. Raeden had not pushed for more—had not even hinted that he might want more.

The big mod stirred. “What is it, love?” he mumbled sleepily.

“Nothing. I’m good. It’s early. Go back to sleep.”

Raeden pulled him a bit more tightly to his chest, nuzzled his hair, and his breathing dropped back into slow steady rhythm.

Kim sighed in contentment. Am I really going to wake up every morning in his arms? It seemed too good to be true.

Kim was awake now and he sensed it was early morning, too close to the time he normally got up for him to fall back to sleep, but he wasn’t ready to move from Raeden’s embrace. He opened his eyes and stared sleepily out the window.

The sky was still dark with no sign of the late winter dawn, but big fat flakes swirled lazily down, and the ambient glow of the city lights reflecting off the new fallen snow gave a brightness to the world that belied the night. Kim’s thoughts drifted along with the snow, not following any particular line, but mostly focused on Raeden and the magical evening they’d spent together.

“Merry Christmas, Little One,” Raeden whispered in his ear.

Yes, Christmas! Kim had forgotten. “Good morning. Merry Christmas. I didn’t know you were still awake.”

“It doesn’t look like it, but it’s quarter to seven,” Raeden said. “And it’s Christmas morning. How could I possibly go back to sleep?”

“I haven’t gotten you anything,” Kim said with regret. “I … there hasn’t been time.” Kim pushed the memories of the terrifying days they’d spent at CorpSec headquarters out of his mind. He didn’t want any bad thoughts to encroach on his beautiful Christmas morning with Raeden.

“I haven’t gotten anything for you either,” Raeden kissed along Kim’s shoulder, “but just spending time with you is enough for me.”

“It is more than enough for me too, but I’d still like to get you something. Maybe we can have a second Christmas in a few days after we’ve had time to shop?”

“You just want more presents,” Raeden chided, but Kim heard the smile in his voice.

He shifted around so he was facing Raeden. “More something,” he said suggestively, eyes fastening on Raeden’s wide lips. He had no more time for thought before his mind was blown with a crushing kiss.

*****

Kim’s jaw ached slightly, a pleasant reminder of their morning sixty-nine session. Much to his surprise, he’d fallen back to sleep afterward. Now he’d woken alone in bed. “Jingle Bells” was playing over the speakers in the bedroom. Stretching his mind as well as his ears, he detected Raeden in the kitchen. It was odd to have that sixth sense—the awareness of another’s mind and along with that a knowledge of their whereabouts.

He sensed Raeden approaching just before the big man bounded into the room.

“It’s Christmas! Up and at ‘em. There’s presents awaiting.” Raeden’s grin was huge and the expression on his face was so reminiscent of a little boy that Kim couldn’t help but catch his enthusiasm.

Not waiting for Kim to climb out of bed, Raeden whipped the covers back and scooped him into his arms. Kim started to protest, but Raeden circumvented him with a kiss, then he jogged into the living room and deposited him on the couch.

Kim pulled a throw blanket around his shoulders, shivering slightly as he looked at the fresh snow that was now several inches deep on the back porch. Raeden whisked into the kitchen and returned a few seconds later with a platter of the Italian Christmas cake they had bought the day before, sliced, as well as the exotic fruit, plates and napkins. One more quick trip to the kitchen and he was delivering a cup of hot coffee into Kim’s waiting hands.

“I could get used to this,” Kim said, taking a sip of the dark brew.

Raeden added milk to his coffee and then began munching on the sweet, dense cake. “What do you suppose they got us?” he asked, nodding towards the two wrapped packages still sitting under the tree.

“I can’t imagine,” Kim replied. “Shall we open them?” Without waiting for a response he got up and retrieved the presents. Noting the weight of the boxes, he said, “Clothing of some sort, is my guess.”

He settled cross-legged on the couch next to Raeden, his knee touching the mod’s thigh. He tossed Raeden’s gift at him and they both set about opening them. The packages were labeled from Randy, but they each had an envelope from Michelle tucked into the ribbon. Raeden opened his envelope first.

“Oh, way cool! She got us tickets to a Crushers’ game.” The Crushers were K-Corporation’s basketball team. Professional sports had all but died out after the war, but recently some of the corporations had put together teams for basketball, football, soccer and baseball. They competed with teams from other “friendly” Corporations, although there weren’t really enough teams to make a full season’s worth of games. Kim didn’t know much about any of the sports and didn’t really understand the attraction, but Raeden seemed quite pleased with the gift.

Kim opened his envelope to find tickets to the opera.

“Opera?” Raeden said aghast. “What was Michelle thinking?”

“I’ve always wanted to go to an opera,” Kim said. “I’ve read about them. You’ll come with me, won’t you?”

“As long as you’re there, it won’t be all bad,” Raeden conceded, smiling.

Then they both attacked their packages from Randy. Kim’s gift turned out to be black fleece lounge pants with a pattern of white doves and a black long-sleeved tee with a single dove in the center. They looked like they would fit perfectly. “These are great!” Kim said, holding them up. Then he noticed something else in the bottom of the box: violet briefs in a silky fabric. He snatched them up and ran them through his fingers. He’d never owned anything except cheap cotton briefs. His eyes misted slightly as he stared at the sexy underwear.

“Can’t wait to see you in those.” Raeden’s husky voice sent a shiver up Kim’s spine.

He smiled up at his lover. “What’d you get?”

With a grin, Raeden held up a pair of Santa boxers and matching red tank top. “But I also got some sexy underwear.” He tossed the clothes back in the box and held up a pair of blue silk briefs.

Kim launched himself into Raeden’s lap, bowling him back onto the couch. He attacked Raeden’s mouth with his lips, but they both started laughing too hard to give it a good go.

“There mere sight of sexy underwear gets you going—I can’t imagine what you’ll be like once I get them on,” Raeden teased.

Kim plucked at the boxers Raeden was wearing. “Let’s find out.”

*****

“A taxi? Really? Do they even go to Zonei?” Kim knew they did. He’d seen them there before, but the sight was so rare that he had to question the notion.

“Of course,” Raeden answered. “You have to hire the high-security taxis, but they’ll take you into Zonen even. Not usually Zoneo or lower, but I’m not sure why anyone would want to go there anyway.”

Kim shivered slightly, trying not to imagine what life might be like in the lowest zones. “But it must cost a fortune.”

“Kim, we have money.” Raeden’s tone was exasperated. “You need to quit worrying about it.”

Kim clenched his teeth against a hot retort. He and Raeden had already had that argument several times in as many days. Kim did have money now—tons of his own money, it seemed. As Raeden’s new mate, somehow he’d inherited all of Lyzel’s assets. By rights her money and belongings went to Raeden. The mods didn’t have any family other than their mate. They could have willed their assets to someone else, but Raeden said he’d never heard of that happening. Mods were usually killed as a pair and then all of their assets returned to the Corporation. It was unprecedented for a mod to outlive his or her mate for more than a few months, let alone retain the wherewithal to do something with their partner’s wealth.

Raeden seemed to relish sticking it to the Corporation. He could have kept Lyzel’s money for himself, but he’d assured Kim that he didn’t need it. He’d said it made more sense for Kim to have it because then Kim wouldn’t have to come to him if he ever needed anything expensive. Kim would have his own salary soon enough, and Michelle had assured him it would be generous. Kim imagined it would be way more than he would have any idea what to do with.

The first day that the banks were open after Christmas, Raeden had had Lyzel’s accounts closed and all the money transferred into Kim’s account. The amount had been staggering. Kim was still reeling in shock. Even Raeden had been surprised with the sum.

“I hadn’t realized she was such a savvy investor,” he’d murmured, looking stunned. “She always seemed to spend without thought and she didn’t like to talk about money so we didn’t. I figured she had some set aside, but I had no idea…”

At that point, Kim had tried to get Raeden to take it back, or at least take most of it back, but he refused. “If you don’t want it, you can give it away,” he’d said. Kim had considered that. Was still considering it but wasn’t sure where the money would do the most good. He had decided to sit on it for the time being. Then that afternoon he had spent a small fortune on Raeden’s Christmas present.

He was very excited about what he’d found to give Raeden. He hoped his new mate would be overwhelmed by it—in good way—but he was nervous. He wasn’t sure if his gift would bring up sad memories or be comforting. Raeden himself seemed quite nervous about the gift he was giving Kim and that piqued his curiosity. Like Kim, Raeden was not carrying a visible gift, only a bag of food for lunch.

They’d agreed on only one personal present for each other and, for some reason, Raeden had insisted that they exchange gifts at Kim’s old unit in Zonei—he seemed to think it’d be romantic, although Kim couldn’t think of anything more romantic than the night before Christmas when they’d spent their time snuggling in front of the fireplace and gazing at the city lights spread out below them—with the twinkling Christmas tree adding magic to the mood. But in any case, they needed to pick up the things Kim wanted to keep from his old life and figure out what to do with the things he didn’t, so Kim had readily agreed to Raeden’s plan.

Now he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right,” he conceded. “We can take a taxi there, but I think we should take the train back.”

Raeden smiled at him. “It’ll get easier,” he said.

“What will?”

“Spending money.”

Kim laughed. “I imagine it will.” They’d gone shopping the day after Christmas and bought clothes for both of them. They’d also ordered groceries and things for the apartment on the infonet. Kim’s mind goggled every time he looked at a bill. “Much easier to go from having no money to having lots of money than the other way around, I imagine.”

Raeden grinned. “Yes, definitely.”

The taxi was indeed high security. Both he and Raeden had to provide not only their intel but also their retina scan before the unit opened for them. The vehicle itself was heavily shielded—able to withstand a significant-sized blast, according to their infonet ad. It ran on surface streets and was driven by computer rather than an actual human being. It did come with an armed guard, however, who politely introduced himself before raising the shield between the front of the cab and the back.

The guard would have frightened Kim if he hadn’t been with Raeden. The man was completely encased in high-tech riot gear and carried a high-powered automatic weapon. What disconcerted Kim, however, were the thoughts he picked up from the man—his brain was that of a thug: he was hoping for a confrontation because he enjoyed killing. Kim shivered and shifted closer to Raeden on the red faux leather seat, fully aware that although they seemed to be in private, the guard was observing and listening to them via a hidden video monitor.

When Kim brought that up to Raeden via their mind link, Raeden confirmed that he had already smelled the spy electronics. They kept their audible conversation to the mundane, but mostly Kim stared out the window in horrified fascination as they passed from one zone to the next and their surrounding became shabbier and more dangerous.

In due time they arrived at The Shangri La and it looked even more tawdry than Kim remembered.

I’ve been gone less than a week and already this doesn’t feel like home.

Good! Your home is with me. Raeden smiled at him but Kim could feel his nervousness. He didn’t think it was caused by Zonei—it was caused by the Christmas present that he was planning to give Kim. Kim stringently refused to let himself pry into Raeden’s private thoughts, and as nervous as he was, Raeden wasn’t allowing his thoughts to leak out.

Dirty snow crunched under their feet as they stepped out onto the curb and a biting wind stole Kim’s warmth within seconds, reminding him that he needed to buy a warmer coat. The taxi immediately buttoned itself up and took off back the way it had come.

Kim went through the familiar ritual of getting through security. The cold seeped into him and by the time they were standing in front of the door to his unit, he was shivering in spite of just having climbed four flights of stairs. He was about to place his hand on the scanner to open the door when Raeden grabbed it.

Hold, Little One. Raeden then knocked on the door.

What’s going on, Rae? Kim asked in confusion. Then he heard the sound of someone approaching the door from the other side.

Who the hell is in my unit?

Raeden didn’t respond but his anxiety peaked. Kim felt his stomach flipping over. He was thoroughly perplexed and would have been having a panic attack if his protective mate, whom he trusted implicitly, wasn’t standing right next to him with a nervous grin on his face.

The door swung open and Kim found himself face to face with an older Japanese man.


Welcome, son, a voice rang out clearly in his head.

Chapter Twenty

Kim stared at the man in front of him in disbelief. Was this really his father? His memories of his father were vague but he had looked at pictures of him often enough. The man did look like his father. He had aged, of course, but still looked young for his forty-five years. His full head of salt and pepper hair was cropped close. He was a few inches taller than Kim, and from what Kim could see of his body—he was dressed in a fitted black tee and tight blue jeans—he was incredibly fit. The man was smiling at him, a great, huge grin. That smile he recognized.

Somehow, incredibly, his father stood before him.

“Dad!” Kim threw himself into his father’s arms, blinking back the tears that threatened to overflow. As the older man’s wrapped him into a tight hug, a lump bloomed in his throat. He buried his face in his father’s neck, the long-forgotten herbal scent washing over him along with a million memories of his earliest years.

Caught up in the maelstrom of his emotions, he barely noticed when he was shuffled into the small unit and Raeden closed the door behind them. Finally, taking a deep breath, he pulled away from the clinging hold he had on his father to look him in his face again.

Hiroshi was still smiling, the corners of his eyes crinkling. Kim became aware that his face was wet and he quickly drew the back of his hand across his cheeks.

“How … how can you possibly be alive after all these years?” Kim’s happiness and astonishment was tempered with a flare of hurt and anger. Had his father abandoned them?

“Please…” His father’s voice was low and calm. He released his hold on Kim’s shoulders, but touched his arm gently. “Sit. Relax. Let me make you some tea. Then I will answer your questions.” He gestured toward a pile of cushions scattered across the floor and Kim looked around the room in surprise.

The heavy curtain that had separated the room into two halves was gone and bright winter sun shone through the windows. The worn overstuffed chairs had also disappeared and in their place were a large woven tatami mat, seating cushions, and throw pillows. The plastic boxes that held Kim’s things were stacked neatly in a corner, but a Japanese-style, dark wood, modular unit, with drawers and cupboards, took up one whole wall.

The next thing Kim noticed was that the room was warm. Looking around, he spotted a large modern space heater, plugged into the PowMon. How lovely it would have been to have had that while he’d lived here. His father obviously had means. More questions came to mind, but he bit them back. Perhaps sensing his impatience, Raeden took his hand, led him over to the cushions, and settled down with him.

He waited with high anticipation while his father went through the ritual of making tea. It seemed surreal to be sitting in his old unit watching his father making tea in his old teapot. He fidgeted and Raeden laid a calming hand on his knee.

Leaning close, Raeden said quietly, “Merry Christmas, Kim!”

“This is your present for me?” Kim asked, agog.

“Yes. Do you like it?”

“I’m overwhelmed! I … I never imagined… ” He let out a short laugh. “Of course, I like it. I love it! Oh my God! My dad! How on earth did you find him? You did find him? He didn’t just come back on his own?”

“Michelle found him,” Raeden replied, “but I’ll let him tell you his story.”

Hiroshi had placed the tea set on a small tray which he now set on the floor in front of them. Dropping gracefully onto one of the cushions, he said, “I’m sorry. I still need to buy a zashiki table.”

Kim could only guess that his father meant the short tables that Japanese used when they were sitting on the floor. Another pang of loss swept over him; if he’d grown up with his father around, he would surely have known this already.

Hiroshi smiled at him, a sort of wistful smile as if he knew what Kim was thinking. He served in silence, settled back, and took a sip of tea. “So, what I am going to tell you is for your ears only. Do I have your agreement that my story does not leave this room?”

Both Kim and Raeden nodded solemnly.

“You are, of course, familiar with the Corporation’s former policy of testing everyone for telepathic inclinations?”

“Former policy?” Kim echoed. He’d wondered why he’d never been tested, but wasn’t aware that the government had discontinued the program.

“A few years ago they decided that the results they were getting were not worth the expense. You were never tested, were you?”

Kim shook his head. “No, never.”

His father smiled tightly. “I’m glad.”

“So what happened to you? Where have you been all these years?”

“The day I never returned home to you and your mother was the day I was tested for telepathic abilities. As soon as they saw my score, they whisked me away to be studied, poked, prodded, and trained. I’ve been a prisoner ever since.”

Kim stared at his father in horror. “Seventeen years! They’ve kept you prisoner this whole time?”

His father nodded. Kim glanced at Raeden. The big mod’s face was stony and while anger was radiating from him, there was no surprise. Raeden had obviously already known this.

“But you … you are well?” Kim asked. His father looked healthy.

Hiroshi let out a mirthless laugh, shaking his head. “Recently, I’ve been mostly left alone. Confined but not molested. The early years—when they didn’t know what they were doing and I had no means to defend myself—those years were rough. I’ve been imprisoned in virtual solitude for quite some time now. I am sure it has taken its toll on my psyche. I cannot judge my own mental health. Nevertheless, I am alive and functioning still, and I’ve been reunited with my son, so that is something.

Kim threw himself at his father, pulling him into a tight embrace. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” he murmured into his father’s neck. After a brief moment he realized that Hiroshi was not hugging him back; his body was stiff as a board. He started to pull away and his father patted him awkwardly on the shoulder.

“You will have to forgive me. I’m not used to such close contact.”

The lump that had been in Kim’s throat since he’d entered the unit swelled to choking proportions.

“It’s okay, Kim,” Hiroshi said gruffly. “I know it’s normal for family to comfort one another. It will take some time before I adjust, but I enjoyed your hug.”

Kim nodded and retreated back to his own cushion where Raeden wrapped a comforting arm around him. Kim snuggled into Raeden’s warmth. Not trusting himself to speak, he nodded at his father to continue his story.

“So, as I said, the beginning years were rough. I missed you and your mother terribly. Every day I chafed against confinement and fought my captors with every means I had available to me. Their restraints were unassailable and the more I fought them openly, the harsher their punishments became.

“But they were training me in telepathy during this time. I learned a great deal and started picking up on their thoughts. I realized the hopelessness of my situation and ceased to fight them openly. But I never gave up hope of escape—well, sometimes in my darkest hours hope would desert me—but when I saw the sun again it would always return. I thought of you and mother constantly and wondered how you were doing. Worried about how you would cope without my income. It looks like you managed to keep your Zonei status, at least.” He smiled again, a small wan smile. “When I am done with my story, I would very much like to hear yours.”

“Of course. There’s not much to tell.”

Hiroshi cocked an eyebrow at him and looked meaningfully at the giant mod whose lap Kim was practically sitting in.

“Well … until I met Raeden, anyway.” He felt heat rising in his cheeks and quickly turned the conversation back to his father. “So, what did the Comporation want from you?”

“They wished to train me to be one their spies, but I didn’t want to work for them. And I certainly didn’t want to comb through peoples thoughts and report on them. The more I resisted the harsher their methods became.”

Kim shuddered. He did not want to imagine what his father had gone through, but sitting on his slate-blue cushion, telling them his story, the older man was composed. A deep sense of calm emanated from him and Kim wondered at its source.

As if reading his thoughts, Hiroshi said, “I have studied the old ways. I meditate daily for at least an hour. It has been a balm to my soul.”

Kim nodded.

Your father is amazing. Raeden spoke clearly in his mind and Kim noticed a minute widening of his father’s eyes.

I think he can hear us, Kim responded.

Hiroshi smiled. Yes, I can. I’m sorry. I did not mean to eavesdrop, but your mental conversation is as clear to me as if you had spoken aloud.

“But the information I received is that you lost your telepathic abilities,” Raeden said, speaking aloud.

Kim’s father nodded. “Yes. It was how I survived. How I eventually escaped—with your help, of course. It would have taken me another year or two to do it on my own.”

Both Kim and Raeden looked at him expectantly, waiting for further explanation.

This is one of the things I don’t want to leave this room, Hiroshi said, using their mindlink. The only reason they let me go is because they no longer have any use for me. I managed to gain enough telepathic ability to fool their tests. I let my ability appear to gradually wane, of course. I didn’t want to give them any reason to study me further. Slowly, slowly, with each test they administered my score dropped. I am now, apparently, completely mundane. Have been for three years.

Kim’s heart started thumping with hope. You fooled their tests? That’s possible?

Yes. It wasn’t easy. The telepathy test involves a trained telepath reading your mind and judging how well you can sense them. Sometimes they’ll strike using a technique that is very painful to a telepath, but would not be noticeable by a mundane. You need to learn to withstand that without appearing to notice. You also need to put some thoughts on display for them to tromp through and to hide your real thoughts so well that they don’t even realize you’re hiding them. It took me a long time to perfect my techniques.

So you are a powerful mind reader? Raeden asked.

Yes. I have met no one better.

Can you train Kim to fool the testers?

Likely, but whether or not he can learn well enough before they test him is doubtful.

Kim shuddered slightly. Would they take him away from Raeden and torture him like they had his father? Then another thought occurred to him and he was horrified.

If they succeed in reading my mind, they’ll find out about you!

Yes. Hiroshi’s calm demeanor didn’t change. It was a risk I was willing to take because I don’t want to lose you to the same fate that befell me. But we have much to do. Raeden said that you will report to CorpSci next Tuesday morning to begin training as a warrior pair. I expect they will test you soon thereafter. I would like you to remain with me until then and I will spend every waking moment training you. His father grinned evilly at him. And I might not let you sleep.

Kim glanced at Raeden to see his reaction. The big man was frowning at his father and Kim sensed his trepidation. Kim trusted his father instinctively even though he really didn’t know him at all anymore. But the thought of spending time away from Raeden when they had just gotten together was an anathema. He could feel Raeden’s horror at the idea as well.

“What do you think, Kim?” Raeden asked, his voice neutral in spite of the conflicting emotions pouring off of him. “It’s up to you. I could stay here with you, if you like. I can sleep on the floor.”

Kim brightened at that thought, but then Hiroshi said, “No.” You are a distraction that he can’t afford right now. He will need all of his focus on his studies.

Taking in Kim’s expression, Hiroshi’s stance softened. “Raeden may visit every day.” He addressed his next comment to Raeden. It would be good for you to train as well. Although you already know how to shield your mind, your shields won’t hold up against a well-trained and determined interrogator. We’ll set up times for you to come train with us.

Hiroshi shifted his gaze back to Kim. “It’s decided then?”

Kim was torn but he knew that if he wanted to have any hope of fooling the telepathy tests that he should give it his all. And he desperately wanted to fool those tests. “Yes, I’ll stay with you,” he said, already feeling bereft.

Raeden patted his hand. “It’s only for six days. I think it’s the right decision—although in all the time I was with Lyzel, I never spent a single night apart from her. I’m not sure how I’ll make it on my own.”

“You’ll visit me every day,” Kim said, as much to assure himself as Raeden.

“Good. Let’s get started,” Hiroshi said, all business.

“Shall we eat lunch first?” Raeden suggested, reaching for the basket he’d set aside.

“And I still need to give you your Christmas present,” Kim reminded him. Then he turned to his father. “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything for you.”

Hiroshi laughed. “You didn’t even know you’d be seeing me, so how can I expect you to have a gift for me? And Raeden has already given me access to a small fortune, which I have been spending willy-nilly.” He addressed his next comment to Raeden. “I assure you, I will pay you back as soon as I start working.”

“You’re getting a job?” Kim asked. Somehow he couldn’t imagine his father going to work for the Corporation and there were few other jobs to be had.

“I have some ideas on how I can make money,” Hiroshi answered, “but that will need to wait until you are trained.”

As Kim got out his small package for Raeden, his father got up and went to the cupboard, returning with two beautifully wrapped packages. “I, of course, knew I’d be seeing you.”

“Oh you shouldn’t have,” Kim said.

“I’ve missed all those Christmases,” his father said, gazing at Kim wistfully. “This is for me more than for you.”

Kim swallowed the lump in his throat and took the package that his father handed him. He let Raeden open his first. It was a long thin package that turned out to hide a traditional Japanese fighting knife, simple in design with a wooden handle and a bamboo scabbard.

Raeden’s eyes widened as he took in the treasure. He ran his finger carefully along the blade.

“It belonged to my great grandfather.”

“I … it’s very beautiful, but I can’t take this. It’s a family heirloom.”

“You are my son’s partner and protector. I want you to have it,” Hiroshi said firmly.

“Thank you. I will cherish it,” Raeden replied. He slid the knife into the inside of his boot. “Look. It fits perfectly.”

Kim thought Raeden’s claws were certainly a more effective weapon than the knife, however, it was a beautiful and unique gift. He smiled warmly at his father.

Carefully removing the exquisitely decorated paper from his own gift, he found a framed photo of his parents. They were young and sitting together on a park bench. His father was holding both of his mother’s hands in his own and they were staring into each other’s eyes. It was clear from their rapt expressions that they were very much in love. The picture was black and white and a little grainy, but it was printed on very high quality photo stock and matted in a black lacquer frame.

“Wow! It’s … I will cherish this always,” Kim said, feeling overwhelmed with emotions. His parents looked so young. “How old were you when this picture was taken? How come I’ve never seen it before?”

“We were young … younger than you are now, I think. And you haven’t seen it before because I just discovered it a few years ago.”

Kim looked at him in surprise.

“I’ve had much time on my hands, especially the past few years when they had no use for me. They let me have a laptop and access to parts of the infonet. I found a program that was designed to recognize visual patterns and trained it to look for me. Then I set it to comb through all of the old videos and photos that were available on the infonet. It found this one. I found pictures of you and your mother in the same way. I was able to find a snapshot or video of you every few months when you were growing up.”

His voice became heavy. “When Raeden told me your mother had passed away, I had already guessed as much. The past several years there have been no new images of her and the few I’ve found of you—you looked very sad and lonely.”

Kim nodded. “I was terribly lonely until I met Raeden.”

Raeden pulled him closer, hugging him tightly. “You saved my life,” he whispered into Kim’s hair.

“Well, we need to get started with your training.” His father broke the pensive mood.

“Raeden still needs to open his present from me,” Kim protested.

“Of course.” Hiroshi nodded.

Kim’s hand shook slightly as he handed Raeden his small package. “I hope you like it.”

“I’m sure I will,” Raeden responded. He made short work of the scrap of wrapping and carefully opened the box.

His eyes widened in shock as he stared at the contents. “How…?” Wonder was mixed with love and happiness poured off of Raeden.

Kim sighed in relief.

Raeden pulled him onto his lap and kissed him thoroughly until Hiroshi cleared his throat.

Kim felt his face coloring. “You like them? It’s okay?” he asked even though he had already felt that Raeden loved his gift.

“Kim, it’s amazing. How on earth did you find them?”

“My dad is not the only one who knows how to use the infonet. I just searched for used sapphire rings and then looked carefully at the photos until I found Lyzel’s in a pawnshop in Zonee. But meanwhile I also found the other one for sale too. It is yours, isn’t it?”

“Yes, we had them made as a pair.” Raeden slipped the larger ring, the twin to the tiny ring that had belonged to Lyzel, onto his finger. Then he turned to Kim with the smaller ring between his fingers, clearly intending to slide it onto Kim’s finger.

“It won’t fit me,” Kim said, “and it’s not mine anyway. I got it for you.”

“I could have it sized to fit you,” Raeden said.

Kim shook his head. “It wouldn’t feel right.”

Raeden nodded silently. “Thank you so much, Kim. I will cherish these always.” He put the tiny ring carefully back into the box and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Then he hugged Kim tightly again.

Kim sighed happily.

“Well, shall we get started with your training now?” Hiroshi interrupted his bliss.

“Not until we’ve eaten,” Raeden said, shifting Kim off his lap and reaching for the picnic basket.

Chapter Twenty-One

Kim closed his eyes against the relentless pounding in his head. Already it had diminished some. The brief walk to the taxi through the cold evening air had helped. Raeden’s commanding presence had helped even more. As soon as they’d climbed into the cab, the big mod had pulled Kim back against his massive chest and now he massaged his temples with surprisingly gentle fingers.

“You were wonderful, the way you stood up to my dad,” Kim murmured, breathing deep of Raeden’s calming scent.

“You were in pain. There shouldn’t have been any disagreement,” Raeden growled.

“He wants me to be ready.”

“Yes, but continuing to make you practice when you clearly are in no condition to do so is counterproductive.”

“He didn’t see it that way. I’ve never met anyone so focused and dedicated. He’s downright scary at times.”

“He’s fanatical.” Raeden’s voice was hard and Kim felt his disapproval. Kim didn’t entirely disagree with Raeden’s assessment. His father’s single-minded determination to mold him into a peerless telepath had run him ragged—more than ragged. Over the past four days his training been relentless. Exercises started at 5 a.m. and ran late into the night. Even while they were eating, his father continued to challenge him. Kim found the work frustrating, tedious, and exhausting. And he’d acquired a monster headache that would not go away even with aspirin.

Today was New Year’s Eve, and by the time Raeden had arrived in the late afternoon he’d been dead on his feet and close to tears. Raeden had taken one look at him and insisted that he be allowed the night off. A short, intense argument had ensued, but in the end Raeden had bundled him up and whisked him into a taxi with a promise to bring him back the next day—but not before noon.

“He spent half of his life in captivity. He lost so much. I think that’s why he’s so…” Kim trailed off, not finding a proper descriptive.

“So much of an asshole?” Raeden filled in helpfully. Kim could still feel the anger rolling off of him.

“Give him time.”

“Meanwhile, he’s working you to within an inch of your life.”

“He’s worried about me.”

“Humph!”

Kim caught the flickering of Raeden’s thoughts even though the mod was shielding. The mod agreed that his father was worried about him, but he didn’t entirely trust the older man.

Kim let out a small sigh and Raeden’s thoughts immediately turned solicitous. “I’m sorry little one,” Raeden said. “I’m worried about you too.” He kissed Kim lightly on his temple and Kim let go of just a little bit more of his anxiety.

*****

“I will take care of you. You don’t need to do anything,” Raeden said as they entered their shared unit.

Kim smiled tiredly at him. His headache had lessened to a dull throb but he was weary in a way he’d never been before. Physically he was fine. Even though he’d been confined to a tiny apartment for four days, his father had begun teaching him aikido. That had provided him an opportunity to use his muscles but they hadn’t spent so much time training that he was sore. He was also sleep-deprived, but what had really exhausted him had been the unending hours of focus needed to learn telepathic self-defense. Holding shields against a determined attack was incredibly taxing. After a while it had become downright painful. And when his father did manage to break in, it was sometimes excruciating.

Kim stumbled to a halt in the middle of the main room, looking around blearily. Evidence of Raeden’s habitation showed throughout. The couch pillows were in disarray and dirty dishes littered the coffee table. Shoes, socks and a shirt were strewn about.

“Sorry about the mess,” Raeden said as he headed toward the Christmas tree which was still standing in the corner. “I wasn’t expecting to bring you home just yet.”

Home. Kim still couldn’t believe this was his new life.

Raeden flipped a switch at the base of the tree and the lights sprang to life sending colors dancing across the room.

Kim stared at it, entranced by its beauty.

Raeden stepped behind him and gently massaged his shoulders. “What do you want to do first? Eat, bathe, nap?”

“Hmmm,” Kim answered. The massage felt exquisite and his brain seemed to have already shut down.

“Are you hungry?” Raeden tried a different tack.

“No,” Kim answered with a sigh.

“Then I think a nice hot bubble bath should be first on the agenda.”

Kim let himself be led into their sumptuous bathroom. He stood numbly on the soft rug as the big man ran the bath and poured a fragrant liquid into the water that frothed into a sea of white bubbles.

Raeden lit a host of candles that were scattered on the tub’s edge and the counter, then flipped off the glaring overhead light. Kim blinked at the sudden dimness and finally roused himself enough to sit down on the toilet seat and pull off his socks.

Raeden helped him to his feet and gently removed his sweater and his T-shirt. Kim shuddered as the mod kissed along his bare collarbone. He was too tired to even think about sex, but as Raeden helped him out of his pants and underwear, his cock started to swell. It didn’t need his brain engaged to perform.

Raeden cupped his balls gently and murmured, “Exquisite.”

A small moan escaped Kim’s throat as heat raced through him, but Raeden led him to the tub and helped him settle. The groan that came out of Kim as he submerged himself in the heavenly warm water sounded erotic.

Raeden smiled at him. “You okay here for a few? I’ll be right back.”

Kim nodded dreamily and Raeden disappeared. Presently the strains of “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy,” filled the room with soothing music. Soon Raeden returned with a couple of glasses of red wine and bowl of what looked like dried vegetables.

“Asian snacks,” Raeden answered Kim’s curious look. “I found them last time I bought groceries. They’re pretty good.”

“Are you going to join me?” Kim asked. The tub was big enough for both of them.

“Maybe next time. This time is all about you.”

Kim was too tired to even argue.

Raeden sat on a stool next to the tub. They drank wine and finished off the bowl of salty snacks while discussing Kim’s training. They avoided the subject of Kim’s father, but Kim could tell Raeden was still simmering.

By the time he finished his wine and Raeden had washed his hair and body, Kim felt like a well-cooked noodle. His headache was entirely gone and his eyelids were drooping.

Raeden had stripped down to his boxers to help Kim wash, and now he reached down and plucked Kim out of the water as if he weighed nothing. Setting him on his feet on the rug, Raeden made short work of toweling him dry with a huge fluffy towel. Then he whisked him off to bed.

Kim languidly allowed Raeden to position him on his stomach on the bed, but when the big man knelt over his thighs with a jar of cream in his hand, alarm shot through him and he stiffened into a board.

“Oh sweetheart…” Raeden spoke softly into his ear and then kissed the side of his neck and his shoulder. “Relax little one. This isn’t about sex. You’re much too tired to properly appreciate that right now.”

Then Raeden smeared cool cream across his back and began to massage his tense shoulders with practiced hands. Kim quickly gave up his concerns and melted into the mattress. In no time at all he fell asleep.

*****

Raeden stood in their bedroom doorway watching Kim sleep. The tension around his eyes and furrowed brow had disappeared. He looked peaceful. Content.

When Raeden thought about how stressed out, unhappy, and exhausted he’d been when he’d arrived at Kim’s old unit in Zonei, he became furious all over again. He knew that Kim’s father was doing what he thought was necessary to protect Kim, but Raeden strongly disagreed with his methods. The older man was like a stone: completely unfazed by Kim’s distress. And Kim was bending over backwards to please him. When his father said, “jump,” Kim asked, “how high?”

Raeden sighed. He wasn’t sure how to fix that problem. Kim needed training and there was no one else who could do it. Finding Kim’s father had been a miracle. I’ll visit more often and if Kim’s health starts to deteriorate again, I’ll intervene. I’ll stay there if I have to. In fact, that’s not a bad idea.

His mind made up, Raeden set his concerns aside. He had a lover to feed and care for. He walked over and sat down slowly on the edge of the bed. He hated to wake Kim, but he needed to eat, and he was pretty sure Kim would be upset if he let him sleep through New Year’s Eve. It was already almost nine.

“Kim?” he called gently, reaching over and brushing a lock of dark, silky hair off of his lover’s brow.

“Mmmm?” Kim stirred but didn’t open his eyes.

Raeden leaned over and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. Graceful arms twined around his neck and when he pulled away slightly, Kim blinked at him with sleepy eyes.

“Good morning, lover,” Raeden said.

Kim’s eyes widened. “Morning?”

“No … sorry. That was just an expression. It’s almost nine though. I thought maybe you would want to get up for a few hours … have something to eat?”

“Mmmm … yeah.” Kim sat up slowly shaking his head. He was clearly still trying to throw off the vestiges of sleep.

Raeden’s gaze traveled down Kim’s lean torso. His dusky nipples stood out in stark contrast to his pale skin. The blanket pooled around his narrow hips, just low enough for Raeden to catch an enticing glimpse of dark hair. The smell of Kim’s sleep-warmed skin sent waves of desire crashing through him. A growl came from deep in his chest and he pushed Kim back onto the mattress and devoured his lips. One of hands snaked under the covers and grabbed his small tight butt, pulling him firmly against his own hips. Heat flared through him and he groaned with need. Kim was responded hungrily to his kiss, rocking his small pelvis against his own. He felt Kim’s hard length under the covers, greedily seeking friction.

He whipped the offending covers away, but couldn’t spare the time pull off his boxers before he was humping against Kim frantically. The thin fabric, wet now with precum, was hardly a barrier.

Kim wrapped his legs around Raeden’s waist and met his quick thrusts. Whimpers of pleasure poured from his sweet lips, urging Raeden on. Oh, how Raeden wanted to be inside him … to feel his tight heat on his shaft … to spill his seed deep within his lover and claim him fully as his own. But there was no time now. Between the feel of his tiny lover writhing against him and the beautiful, desperate sounds he was making, Raeden was plunging toward orgasm like a runaway train.

“Kim!” he cried out. “Oh, Kim!” He pushed against the younger man with bruising force.

Kim threw his head back and let out a wail as his body stiffened. Raeden felt wet heat splash across his stomach. The scent of his lover’s spill lit him up like a flaming geyser and he let out a roar as his own orgasm took him.

Then he was panting and groaning and Kim was shuddering in his arms. He stroked Kim’s glossy hair and kissed him slowly and sensuously as they wound down.

Finally, reluctantly relinquishing the kiss, he asked, “Are you okay?”

“Of course.”

“I wasn’t too rough?” Raeden ran his fingers gently over the red mark on Kim’s hip where one of his hands had gripped him.

“No, you were perfect. I loved it.” Kim’s eyes were dancing and Raeden let go of his worry.

“Are you awake now?”

Kim laughed. “I guess I am. I’m sticky too.”

Just then they heard a gentle but insistent chime coming from the kitchen. Raeden sat up. “That’s my cue to preheat the grill,” he said.

“Grill?” Kim seemed mystified.

“We’re having grilled steaks for New Years. Proper caveman food.” Raeden shucked his soiled boxers and tossed them into the laundry basket as he headed for the kitchen to turn off the alarm.

*****

Kim smiled to himself as he wiped the evidence of his release off of his stomach with a warm washcloth. He felt much better than he had earlier. All traces of his headache were gone. He was still groggy from his long nap, feeling lethargic and relaxed.

Raeden joined him presently and, rewarming the washcloth, he cleaned the mod’s stomach and genitals as well.

“You know, it’s not going to do much good to clean me up. I’m just going to get sticky again,” Raeden said with a husky voice as Kim lingered over his swelling cock.

“Maybe next time I’ll clean you up with my tongue,” Kim teased. Raeden’s cock surged in his hands. His own cock started to mimic it and Kim pulled away. “I think maybe we should eat first, though.” Now that he was awake, he was starving.

Deciding he would sacrifice style for comfort, Kim pulled on a pair of yoga pants and a long sleeved tee.

Raeden, watching him, let out an appreciative growl. “No underwear. I like that.” He followed suit by slipping on a clean pair of boxers and a tee-shirt with a picture of a chameleon on it.

Once in the living room, Raeden headed for the glass door to the balcony. Kim’s eyes widened as he swung it open and stepped outside into the swirling snow. The mod tromped across the icy surface to the far corner and began turning knobs on what Kim guessed was a large black grill. He’d never actually seen one in person, but he’d read about them. Curious, Kim lingered in the doorway and watched.

It wasn’t long before Raeden returned to him, wiping the snow off his bare feet on the little rug just inside the door. Kim shivered with the cold. “I can’t believe you went out there barefoot.”

Raeden smiled at him. “The cold doesn’t bother me.”

Kim went to stand in front of the fire, still shuddering from chill. Looking around he saw that Raeden had cleaned up. The place looked amazing, especially with the Christmas tree lights casting pastel colors around the room. Classical Christmas music still played in the background.

“What else is for dinner? What can I do to help?” Kim asked.

“You can stand there and look beautiful,” Raeden said. “I’ve got everything under control. The steaks are ready to go on the grill, a macaroni and cheese casserole is in the oven and I’ve made a fresh salad. I also got crab cocktail for us, because it’s New Years, and we need special food on New Years. And there is cherry cheesecake for dessert. I bought the cheesecake from Tivoli’s—you’ll love it.”

Kim was overwhelmed. “I’m sure I will. You made mac and cheese?” It was one of his favorites.

“Yep. Found a recipe on the infonet. It wasn’t too hard. Hope it comes out okay.”

“It’s not from a box?” Kim teased.

“Not for New Years. Not for you. You’re special. You deserve special.”

Kim was going to deny that he was special, but he caught the look in Raeden’s eyes and it stopped him. Raeden was looking at him as if he’d hung the moon and created the stars with a single frosty breath. Maybe, for some extraordinary reason that escaped him, maybe he was special to Raeden.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Raeden’s eyes hardly left Kim throughout dinner. Being separated from his mate for four days had been excruciating. Lyzel and he had not spent a single night apart since they had bonded. The sadness that swept through him at the thought of his lost mate was tempered with a warm feeling of relief. He wasn’t alone anymore. Kim was not only his new bondmate, but a wonderful person as well. He admired his intelligence, his bravery, and his convictions. And he wallowed in Kim’s attention like spoiled dog.

His beautiful lover’s face glowed in the warm light from the fire. They were sitting once more on the rug in front of the hearth to eat; it just seemed so much more intimate than the dining room table. Raeden had spread a chenille blanket over the rug—to protect from possible red wine spills, he had told Kim, but the blanket also played into his seduction plans. It was much softer than the rug.

Kim smiled at him and his heart leapt to his throat. Kim’s dark eyes picked up a spark of light from the fire, appearing large and luminous. Raeden’s gaze slid down to his mouth and fixated there, taking in the lovely curve of his lower lip, naturally pouty and sensuous.

Kim had long since finished eating and now Raeden pushed his own plate aside and stalked to his lover on hands and knees. Kim was only a few feet away and in no time Raeden was pushing him gently back onto the blanket, running kisses down the side of his neck.

Kim laughed delightedly and wrapped his slender arms around Raeden’s neck. Raeden breathed deep of the scent of his bondmate: Kim’s own slightly herbal scent was overlaid with the remnants of cherry-blossom-scented bubble bath and a hint of red wine. Raeden ran his tongue up the side of Kim’s neck, tasting.

The younger man arched against him languidly.

Raeden’s lips found Kim’s and he kissed him, slowly and sensuously. Kim responded with ardor and before long Raeden tangled a hand in Kim’s hair, controlling the kiss, pressing harder. Kim parted his lips on a gasp and Raeden slipped his tongue in, relishing the taste and feel of his lover’s mouth.

Kim made a needy noise that sent a shiver a desire through Raeden. The kiss deepened and Raeden’s other hand, the one that wasn’t tangled in Kim’s hair, found its way to the edge of Kim’s shirt, pushing the fabric up so he could run his fingers over Kim’s smooth, warm skin. His lover shuddered under his touch, fueling his desire.

Reluctantly he pulled his mouth away from Kim’s and his fingers out of Kim’s hair. Dark eyes met his, full of passion and need. Kim lunged up, trying to regain contact with his mouth. Raeden laughed and moved back, both hands now on the hem of Kim’s shirt.

“Can I take this off? Will you be warm enough?” he asked.

In answer, Kim sat up and helped him, and then Raeden was staring down at the expanse of Kim’s bare chest. The skin around his nipples pebbled and the nubs grew hard and pointy.

“Are you sure you’re warm enough?” Raeden was surprised he still had the wherewithal to ask the question. His mind was melting into a pool of lust.

Kim didn’t answer. Instead he tugged on Raeden’s tight tee shirt. “You too.”

Raeden stripped off his shirt and tossed it aside, his eyes still drinking in the sight of his lover. Stretched out on the dark blue fuzzy blanket, his glorious hair waves of raven around his head and his skin as pale as the snow that was starting to pile against the balcony door, Kim was a picture to behold. Raeden could smell his arousal and a glance down showed that his cock was fully engorged, clearly outlined against the tight yoga pants.

Raeden leaned over and nuzzled the hard length through the cloth, breathing deep of the sweet muskiness. His breath caught in his throat and he let it out in a long, hot stream over the head of Kim’s cock.

Kim whimpered, his hips shifting restlessly. Raeden smelled the sharp scent of his precum seconds before it dampened the front of Kim’s pants. All of his plans for a slow, sweet seduction disintegrated under the force of his need. In spite of having orgasmed only an hour earlier, he was suddenly desperate to mate. He tore down the yoga pants, growling in frustration when they caught on Kim’s feet.

Kim was making fervid, whimpering noises himself, fighting to help get the pants off, running his tiny hands over the hard muscles of Raeden’s chest. His cock bobbed as his slender hips undulated.

The pants finally off, Raeden grasped Kim’s hips in both hands and stilled them. Staring at his lover’s face, he ran his tongue slowly from the base of Kim’s balls all the way the to his leaking tip. Kim’s mouth dropped open, panting. His eyes glazed over.

As Raeden swirled his tongue around the head of Kim’s cock, his lover’s head dropped back and his hips pushed against Raeden’s hold.

“Rae—Raeden!” Kim’s cry was high-pitched and needy.

Raeden smiled around Kim’s cock as he accepted it deep into the back of this throat. Salty bitterness spread across his tongue. He lapped at the slit and was rewarded with another spurt of precum. Raeden let out a low groan, then set up a fast rhythm, going deep each time until Kim was shaking underneath him, fighting to get his hips free of Raeden’s firm hands and so he could fully participate in plunging his cock deep into Raeden’s throat. Not wanting him to come just yet, Raeden gave a last lick to the head of Kim’s cock and nuzzled lower, breathing deep of the musky scent of Kim’s balls and taint. Tenderly he pulled the balls into his mouth, sucking on the tender orbs as Kim serenaded him with the most exquisite whimpers. He took his time, savoring the delicacies.

Then he pulled Kim’s hips up off the blanket and slid his tongue lower, across his taint, and then further to the puckered opening. He lapped at it and Kim came unglued. His hips strained against Raeden’s strong hands as he tried to thrash wildly. A cacophony of keening mewls poured out of his mouth, rising in pitch as Raeden breached him gently with his tongue.

Raeden fucked the fluttering opening slowly, letting his tongue lengthen and fatten as Kim’s muscles relaxed and let him in. Eventually his tongue was long enough to find that special spot, and he knew when he touched it because Kim jerked convulsively and cried out. He flicked his tongue back and forth across it and Kim’s body stiffened and began to shudder. His beautiful, frantic noises filled the room and Kim reached down and grabbed his cock, starting to pull himself off.

Raeden stilled his hand. “No, love,” he whispered. “That’s mine.”

He’d of course had to pull out of Kim to talk, and Kim gasped for breath, his head thrown back and his face etched with ecstasy. His body was tense with need, so very close to orgasm. His cock had made clear, sticky trails all over his stomach.

“Please, oh please,” Kim begged.

Something about his lover’s tone lit an inferno within Raeden. With a growl he lurched up and tore off his damp boxers. His cock bounced before him, swollen and blood red, as he leaned down to give Kim a scorching kiss. His body began to tremble with need.

So close, so close. I’m about to claim my mate. It’s going to happen.

His cock nudged gently against Kim’s opening and Kim whimpered again. This time, though, there was a different quality to the sound. Raeden caught a ripple of terror coming from Kim even though he could tell Kim was trying to hide it.

He paused, taking iron control of himself. Looking down into Kim’s eyes, said, “I want you Kim, more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.”

He felt a flare of guilt in Kim, which had not been his intention at all. “I want you too,” Kim whispered, “but I’m afraid.”

“Trust me, Kim. I would never hurt you.”

“I … I do trust you. But you’re so big and I’m so small. I don’t see how it could possibly … not hurt.”

“Ah, love. You forget that I’m not entirely human.”

Kim’s eyes widened as he looked up at Raeden. He wanted to trust him, Raeden could tell, but he couldn’t let go of his fear.

“How do you think I managed to tongue fuck you so thoroughly? I have the ability to make my tongue longer. I also have the ability to make my dick smaller.”

Kim blinked at him, slowly comprehending.

“This…” Raeden waved at his huge cock. “This is just for show.” It wasn’t really. Raeden was naturally big, but he didn’t have to be.

“You can shrink yourself?” Kim asked, obviously having a bit of trouble with the concept.

Raeden focused for a second, pulling his flesh back into himself, making his cock as small as it could go until it was short and stubby. “What do you think? Talk about a pencil dick.” Raeden smiled as he looked down at himself. His cock still leaked precum and was hard, but it was about the size of Kim’s thumb.

Kim looked down at him burst into laughter. Raeden couldn’t help but laugh with him. The tiny cock looked ridiculous on his big frame, but he didn’t mind. His lover was happy and no longer afraid.

*****

Tears flowed from Kim’s eyes and he fought for breath. When he finally had enough control over himself to speak, he gasped out, “Oh my God, Rae!” Then he was taken by another bout of uncontrollable laughter.

Raeden’s cock looked miniscule, dwarfed by his large, low slung balls. It was still beautiful, just … tiny—much smaller than Kim’s own cock, which had started to soften with the distraction of hilarity.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to laugh at you.” Kim paused to chuckle a bit more. “It’s just that it looks so unreal. Does it hurt to do that?”

“No, not at all.” Raeden smiled at him and Kim felt his amusement.

“I don’t think you need to go quite that small. I … I can probably handle a bit more.”

“Whatever you want Kim,” Raeden murmured, starting to kiss along Kim’s jawline.

“Does it…?” Kim paused, afraid of Raeden’s answer. “Does it still feel okay to have sex when it’s so small?”

“Oh yes. It feels amazing no matter what size I am.” Raeden was now running his tongue along Kim’s collarbone. Then without warning he swooped down and nipped one of Kim’s nipples.

Kim cried out as a burst of heat tore through him. Raeden licked the abused nub, then sucked and nibbled on it. Kim erection burgeoned once more into full hardness.

“I want you, Kim,” Raeden rumbled. “I want to be in you. I want to fuck you hard and fast. I want to fill you with my seed.”

Kim’s fear had entirely disappeared in the face of Raeden’s wondrous abilities, and his lover’s low growly voice as much as his inflammatory words stoked Kim’s desire to new heights. “Yes, oh yes,” he begged.

“I’m going to pound into you … claim you. Make you mine. Make you feel so good. Make you come so hard.”

Kim’s begging dissolved into whimpers as Raeden pulled Kim’s hips up and arranged his legs over his massive arms. Raeden’s cock, still small, but hard and leaking, nudged his entrance.

Kim could feel Raeden’s barely controlled need. He was shocked that the big mod had the ability to pause and look him in the eye and say, “Tell me you want this, Kim. Tell me to make you mine.”

“Yes!” Kim gasped out. “Yes, please, please … Raeden make me yours. Now. Please!”

Raeden must have heard the desperation in Kim’s voice or maybe he felt the insane craving Kim was broadcasting, because he pushed in, not quickly, but steadily. Kim felt a stretch, not quite a burn, and then Raeden was past the ring of muscle and sliding further in. The summer sky eyes never left his own and the tenderness emanating from him caused an ache in Kim’s chest.

You’re okay? Raeden’s question came into his head. He knew that Raeden knew the answer to that already. As Raeden rocked his hips gently, his cock filled Kim’s channel perfectly, and Kim’s mind exploded in bliss.

“Oh, yes! Oh, please!” Kim sang out and he slammed his hips up to meet Raeden’s tentative thrusts. “Fuck me. Oh, fuck me!”

Raeden let out a long groan and Kim felt his mind go white with blinding passion. Then Raeden was pounding into him, his need catching Kim and hurling him along with the raging torrent. He felt Raeden’s cock swell and lengthen and it began to hit his prostate with every frenzied stroke. He heard himself babbling incoherently. Then, as if a damn broke, a huge cascade of ecstasy washed over him, tumbling him over and over, drowning him with its power and ferocity.

He was vaguely aware of Raeden’s cries joining with his own, loud and impassioned. Somebody’s balls turned themselves inside out and he wasn’t sure if the sensation was his own or Raeden’s or maybe both of theirs. His screams turned to whimpers and his body shuddered and shook with the last vestiges of delirium. Raeden collapsed on top of him but not crushing him. Then Raeden grabbed him and shifted and suddenly he was lying on top of Raeden, the big man’s cock still buried and throbbing in his sated hole.

He became aware of the sharp crack of explosions. He had thought they were part of his orgasm but now realized they were coming from outside.

“Fireworks,” he mumbled. “It must be midnight.”

“Happy New Years, love,” Raeden whispered in his ear.

Kim let out another soft whimper and his mind shut down completely.

*****

Kim became aware of a sensation on his head: a slow, repeated, gentle tug on his hair. He was lying on something hard and warm, that smelled … like Raeden after sex. His front was toasty where he lay against the hot mod, but his back was cool. He shifted his hips slightly and realized Raeden’s cock was no longer in him, but he could feel a bit of wetness leaking from down his thigh. He let out a contented sigh.

You okay? Raeden asked.

Kim blinked his eyes open and shifted his head, peering up at Raeden. The dim light from the tree cast deep shadows across his face, making the planes of Raeden’s cheekbones and his square jaw seem all the more masculine. His eyes, robbed of their wonderous color by the gloom, were on Kim with concern.

I’m fine. I’m great, actually. Why wouldn’t I be?

Just making sure, little one. Kim could feel the affection in Raeden’s words.

I love you, Rae. It just slipped out. Kim had thought that he had fallen in love with Raeden, but hadn’t planned to mention it just yet. His spike of anxiety was immediately relieved when he felt a jolt of happiness run through his lover.

And I love you, Kim. I can’t believe I found you.

I believe I found you, Kim corrected teasingly.

That you did.

And I’m never letting you go.

I should hope not.

But you’re not the most comfortable surface to sleep on. My God Rae, you’re like a rock.

Raeden chuckled and sat up, shifting Kim gently into his lap as he did so. I suppose we would be more comfortable in bed.

Kim stretched and then slowly climbed to his feet, relishing the pleasant ache in his backside.

You sure you’re okay? Raeden had stood up as well and was looking him over with a gimlet eye.

Never better. Will it always be so amazing … making love to you?

Well, I can’t promise that, but yeah… Raeden cupped Kim’s face in his big hand and swooped in for a long, lingering kiss. When he finally pulled away and smiled down into Kim’s eyes. “Yeah, it will always be amazing between us.”

Kim sighed again happily. When had his life turned into a romance novel?

Seeming reluctant to leave his side, Raeden eventually pulled away. He went over and turned off the tree lights, removing the warm glow and leaving the room bathed in the bluish lights of the city outside.

“We should take the tree down tomorrow,” he said.

“Maybe the day after tomorrow.” Kim wished they could keep the tree up year round. But then it wouldn’t be special and drying needles were already littering the carpet.

Kim stepped to the sliding glass door, staring in wonder at the fresh inches of snow that blanketed the balcony and the railing. Flakes were still swirling down, like tiny dancers pirouetting and dipping their way across the sky. Kim shivered more from the coldness of the scene than from any real chill.

A soft blanket settled over his shoulders and Raeden stepped up close behind him, pressing his warmth against Kim’s back. He caught Kim’s hands in his own, wrapping their fingers together and then folding their arms around Kim’s chest.

Kim felt safe and protected and loved.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Raeden spoke softly.

“It is,” Kim agreed, leaning his head back against Raeden’s solid chest. The lights of the city spread out before them, a multitude of jewels giving way to blackness at the edge of the lighted zones—the rest of the city went on in utter darkness.

An ache welled up in Kim’s chest at the unfairness of it all. He had always chaffed against the zones and the fact some had so much more than others. Now that he was one of the haves, the disparity and injustice seemed all the more wrong.

What’s wrong, Kim?

Nothing really. I mean nothing I can do anything about. I was just thinking of all those people in the lower zones with no warmth or light or hope.

Who says you can’t do anything about it?

Kim twisted to look at Raeden’s face. The big man was staring pensively out the window at the sprawling city. It’s a new year, Kim. We’ll have to see what changes it brings. And what we can do to move things toward a better future for us all.

It was a nice sentiment. Kim couldn’t imagine that anything he could do would make a bit of difference.

A chime, almost like a bell, went off in Kim’s head. Curious and slightly alarmed, Kim turned his attention to it.

Hello Kim. It was his father.

Hi Dad. Happy New Year.

Yes, I didn’t want to bother you, but I felt you were still awake and wanted to wish you Happy New Year.

Thank you. I’m sorry I didn’t spend it with you.

No you’re not. Kim felt his dad’s amusement.

Well, I guess not. Kim felt himself blushing and wondered if his dad somehow knew how he’d spent his evening. But I’m really happy you’re here, back in the city again.

Me too. Now get some sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.

Good night, Dad.

Kim felt the connection with his father end. That was nice. My Dad just connected—um mentally—to say Happy New Year, he told Raeden.

Yes, I felt him. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I knew you were talking to him.

Kim smiled. “I can’t believe you found him after all this time. I can’t believe I have my father back. I have a family again. You and me and him.”

“Yes, family.” Raeden agreed, hugging him more tightly and brushing a kiss across the side of his neck.

Kim stared once more out the window at the snow and the city and the darkness beyond. For the first time in many years he had hope. Hope that the future would hold something more than strife and struggle. He had found love and comfort. He’d found family.

With their steadfast support, he felt he could face anything.

And, yes, maybe he could find a way to make a difference.

&nbsp

The End

69 thoughts on “Christmas in Zonei

  1. Wow! This government needs to be toppled. Does Michelle know what was done to Hiroshi? I’m surprised she didn’t tell Raeden to work with Kim on blocking and such if so. I don’t think they would dare separate a warrior pair, esp. the first rebound warrior. Does Hiroshi know if there were many others like him? What did they actually use him and his power for? Isn’t he worried that if they are watching Raeden and see him without Kim that they may look for him and find him with the father? Great chapter. I wonder if they will be able to handle being apart?

  2. I’m suspicious of dad. How can he have this nice stuff without getting robbed? Why is he in such a hurry to split Kim and Raeden up? Won’t it be more distracting if Kim feels Raeden’s anxiety at being separated? Besides, Kim already knows how to do what Hiroshi said — he put up a fake wall of thoughts when that chick tried to read his mind. I think dad is a trap.

  3. great chapter. The father is an enigma still. I know he was tortured and imprisoned for so long, but is he right in thinking the threat is as big as he thinks? Why isn’t the government catching on to someone still being in kim’s old apt? i’d be afraid they’d find him there. I hope we get to see what he was learning with the dad…what are they going to try to do besides read his mind? What other psychic attacks etc? I loved the way Raeden took care of him in this chapter. it was the sweetest! It really showed him caring for him the way we got the feel he’d cared for his first mate. It also reminded me of how Kim cared for him in the beginning.

  4. Thank you so much for this amazing story!! I always do the dance of joy when I see a new chapter has been posted. Can’t wait for the sequel!!

  5. Hi J,
    I keep coming back to this story, it’s one of my favorites. Glad to hear that you are continuing with these two, it’ll be fun/frustrating to find out what they get up to.

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