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QuinnDK

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About QuinnDK

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  1. Rogue

    "Walter." Rian was stunned. "You were the Covenant's onboard synthetic.""Correct." The android examined him, curtly, head to toe. "I do not recognize you.""I'm Rian. Do you... know where you are?"Walter walked to the edge of the chamber and stared out into the lush, green wilderness. His movements were precise and professional. Any human being would have been traumatized from what he just experienced - but synthetics were clearly built with tougher emotional pathways. "We are orbiting a yellow dwarf star," Walter said. "In the Zeta Reticuli region. This planet is life sustaining, ideal for human survival. It is catalogued as LV-371." Rian joined his side, hoping Walter couldn't hear the thud of his pounding heart. He was more nervous than he wanted to admit, being around an artificial person for the first time. "We call it Revenant-6." "We." "Me and the other colonists." "Colonists." A flicker in his artificial blue eyes. Emotion? Interest? Rian couldn't tell. "Covenant was on a colonization expedition. Wasn't it?" Walter nodded, slow and cool. Rian swallowed a lump rising in his throat. "What happened?" "Unbeknownst to me, the Covenant had locked onto a signal in this system. My navigational console was overridden and we were forced into your planet's orbit." "Overridden by who?" "Sources unknown. Under normal circumstances I would examine the login history of the Covenant's virtual intelligence, Mother. But she was destroyed upon impact." "I listened to your voice log," Rian said over his sudden pang of fear, "You mentioned the ship had colonists in hypersleep. And that two crew members were still alive. Do you remember?" Walter's eyes found Rian's jacket. "That does not belong to you." "No, I found it. I was cold." Walter's hand closed around the material over his chest, bunching it into his ironclad grip. It wasn't an angry gesture - more solemn and nostalgic - though it made Rian wonder if he was programmed to respect human boundaries. When the android's stare grew emotional, Rian gently touched his hand. "Who was J. Daniels?" "Janet Daniels. Chief terraformist. ID number 47832-348." Though Walter didn't react to Rian's touch, he didn't refuse it, either. "She was your friend." "No. I served her as I served all of Covenant's crew. Our relationship was a matter of function." "Do you know for sure that she's... gone?" Rian hadn't seen any evidence of bodies in the ship's claustrophobic rooms and corridors. No blood. Nothing. "The Covenant incurred catastrophic damage as a result of orbital debris impact. The ship broke in two halves before entry into Revenant-6's atmosphere. The second half of the ship contained the hypersleep pods of the colonists and of Daniels and Tennessee. I watched it burn apart myself. I have no misconceptions of human mortality. They are dead, Rian. They are all dead." Rian couldn't find the words for a moment. "I'm so sorry. I can't even imagine what you..." "I do not have the capacity to imagine." He had to take a moment to absorb the news. Delicately, he continued, "If your crew is gone then what happens to you?" "The duty of my service has been transferred to you." "What?" "I was damaged in the crash. You repaired me. In the absence of my crew, this is the most logical course of action." "Walter, I'm a farmhand and a scavenger. I mill and process wheat all day and then I deliver flour the next morning. That's all. I don't need an android's service." The sound of footsteps cut him off. Not nearby, but somewhere in the ship. And getting closer. Walter heard it too. "Two males and one female. Approaching. Their ID numbers cannot be found in my system." "Shit. The Marines." "Marines?" "Weyland-Yutani's guard dogs. If Captain Hawke found out I was here, I..." Walter's icy blue eyes softened, though his voice remained curt and even. "He frightens you. Does he mean to harm you?" "It wont be good news if he finds me here, put it that way. I need to leave." "I will help you." "No, Walter- you need to go with them. They'll send you back to the company and have a real professional repair you. And you'll be put on another ship with another crew to serve. Doesn't that sound great?" "I will help you," he repeated. With one alarmingly smooth motion, he grabbed Rian by the waist and hefted him over one shoulder. There was no humanly hesitation as he made a running leap out of the chamber and and onto the forest's surface fifteen feet below. Rian made a surprised 'Ooof' sound as they landed. "Are you hurt?" "I'm upside down." "But not hurt." "Walter, please-" "I am not yet familiar with the topography of your world. Please direct me to your home and I will take you there." Home. The farm. His mom. God, his mom! Rian couldn't bring a damaged synthetic home to her. Walter was the property of the company. Not his. But still... the more he thought about it, the more something bothered him about leaving the synthetic with the Marines. What if they decided to turn him into scrap metal? Or melt him down for parts? A voice barked from the chamber they had just leapt from. Captain Hawke. Rian cursed and brought his voice to a whisper. "Four clicks northeast of here. The forest narrows into a path that takes us to my mom's farm, but you have to be caref-" Walter took point in the direction he was given, just like the machine he was, and ran. Rian braced himself against the android's body, feeling very much like a piece of luggage, but strangely relieved. Maybe once things calmed down and he was back on his own turf he could figure out what to do with the synthetic. As Walter ran, Rian looked up from his back to watch the Covenant disappear through the trees. On the ledge of the chamber, where the three Marines stood arguing with each other, he could have sworn he made brief eye contact with Ellis. Mei Watts wiped her forehead with her bandanna before tying it around her long, black hair. She couldn't stand having it in her face when she was out on the field killing weeds. During days where her hair annoyed the shit out of her - such as today - Mei tried to remind herself it was one of the only traits she managed to pass down to her son. Rian inherited the color of her hair, the shape of her eyes, and the full bow of her lips, but everything else about him was pure Jack. Jack's sarcastic half-smile, Jack's rosy skin that couldn't tan worth a damn, Jack's tendency to get lost in thought even in the middle of a sentence. He might as well have been his father's clone.But Jack was gone now. And in his place was a boy who she loved more than anything but had next to nothing in common with.Mei leaned against the fence bordering her farm, desperately needing a break. The late afternoon sun beat against the back of her neck and she was feeling all of her 43 years. Rian usually manned the chemical spray applicator but he'd been absent all day and she had to pick up his slack. She wasn't a woman who worried, but her only child not returning from a morning flour delivery that always took him an hour at most was testing her. Just before sundown, when she heard the main house's front door open and close, she nearly jumped out of her skin."Rian, you better be bleeding out. I swear!" Mei slammed the door behind her as she entered the house.She found him in the kitchen, his face red with sun and hair matted with sweat. Looked like he just ran a marathon but seemed otherwise fine."Do you know how close I was to pinging administration? I was about to declare you missing. Nolea would have been pitching a fit to the company!"Rian gulped down an entire jug of water before he could respond. "Sorry," he breathed with great effort, "Real sorry.""Don't tell me you got lost outside the borders.""It wont happen again.""You said that three 'agains' ago." Mei grabbed a foil-wrapped plate warming in the oven. "You're lucky I didn't give your dinner to the dogs.""Mom, I really am sorry..."She placed the plate on the table a little harder than she needed to. "I don't need you to be sorry. I need you here, on the farm. I can't do everything myself."Rian, breathing hard, nodded as he rinsed and cleaned the jug. Mei watched him, frowning. Was he nervous? She never knew her son to be nervous. That would have required him to get his head out of the clouds first.Mei looked at the floor. "You think I don't know you want out of this farm, huh?"Her son stared at her, caught. "We don't need to talk about it tonight. But I know it's gonna come up sooner or later. You're getting at that age.""I want to help you for as long as I can.""I know you do. But all I ask is that you don't disappear on me without saying goodbye first."Rian nodded, unable to meet her eye. Neither spoke for an agonizingly long time. It'd been this way since Jack's funeral, this heaviness that neither seemed able to break through.Her son scratched at his arm. "Is it okay if I sleep in the guest house tonight?""The guest house?""There's some old books in the den I wanted to look at. Figured I might as well rest there, too. Just for tonight," he explained, "I'll do the weeding all day tomorrow. And prepare the seedbeds. I'll even dress the eastern corps and do the soil readings for you. Promise."Mei breathed in, unsure of what her son was really playing at. But all things considered, she had no reason to say no. "You and those books. Do what you like, son, just wash up after dinner.""Thanks mom."She wanted to say more. God, she really did. But how? Jack's absence left a dark silence on the farm. She wasn't a talker. That was her husband's job. But without him to cushion the edges of her relationship with her child, she was hopelessly adrift.Mei said goodnight and went to draw a bath, her bones aching from the long day. She sat on the edge of a tub and traced her finger listlessly across the water's surface. Something about Rian's request didn't sit right with her but she couldn't say why. Was he actually hiding something? Or was this evasiveness and distance all part of her child finally becoming a man? "What happened to your hand?"In the guest house, Rian crouched next to Walter and examined the shredded gap at what used to be a wrist. The sun outside waned and the dim light of dusk made him squint. "It was severed in the crash," Walter said."Really? Because it doesn't seem recent. And it looks like the ducts for your circulatory fluid have been soldered shut." The android rather suddenly jerked the arm away. "My model series is self-healing.""I didn't mean to invade your privacy or anything.""No such incursion has taken place. I do not have what you would call a sense of modesty." "Good to know. I think."Walter examined his surroundings. "This is your home?""My dad built it for guests. Don't know why, we never really have any." Rian tilted his head, realizing. "Until now.""Can I meet your father?""No," Rian stared at the floor. "He died.""My condolences to you. My father is dead as well.""Your father?""I mean my creator. He is dead.""Your... creator?"Walter blinked. "I misspoke. The crash must have jarred my empathy center, causing me to mirror emotion instead of reacting to it. My conversation programs may not be running at full capacity yet. I apologize.""Oh. That's... okay." A strange comment, yes, but Rian chose not to dwell on it. He took a framed picture from the mantle. "Here, this is my family. Me, dad, mom."Walter's cool eyes danced across the image. "A prime example of genetic inheritance. You have gained only the best features from both of your parents. Your father's symmetry, tone, and jaw. Your mother's eyes, lips, and thin nose."The android must have seen the quizzical look in Rian's eyes, for he continued, "As an artificial person whose physical features were pre-determined, I find human genetics fascinating.""Fascinating?""Well. A curiosity, let's say."The basics of the Walter series were well established. They could interpret a full spectrum of feelings but had no emotional needs themselves. They were created to serve. And it was this that gave Rian pause. Wasn't curiosity an emotional need? Walter's expression shifted. "Did I say something wrong?" Were it not for the sudden knock on the door that nearly made Rian jump out of his skin, he would have found the question troubling.Walter faced the foyer. "Someone's here.""Hide.""Hide?""Now!"Rian pushed the android - noticing but not commenting on the metal framework beneath his tough, artificial skin - toward a hall leading deeper in the house. "No one is allowed to see you. Understand?""Yes. I understand. Where shall I hide?"Another knock. This one a little more urgent."Anywhere!" Blinking, the android backed into an open closet and closed the door behind him. "Will this be alright?" his muffled voice called. "Yes. And no more talking!""Muting voice output now.""Shhhh!"Rian hurried to the front door and stifled a gasp as he threw it open. A tall, familiar man greeted him from the porch. "Ellis.""That's Corporal Ellis," the Marine corrected. "What are you doing here?""You disappeared from the Covenant. I thought something happened to you.""Oh. You were worried?"A deep frown creased Ellis' stubble. The friendliness of their earlier encounters was gone, replaced by suspicion. "Your mother told me you were staying here. Can I come inside?"Rian's grip on the door frame tightened. "I was just about to go to bed, actually. It's been a long day.""I'm not here to interrogate you. I just need to make sure you're safe.""I'm safe! Can't you tell?" He did a little spin, trying hard to appear nonchalant. "Not a scratch on me.""Rian," the Marine grunted, "I have the authority to enter civilian housing without a warrant. But I would really prefer it if I got your permission instead."After a moment, Rian stepped aside to let in his guest. Ellis' bulk filled the foyer. He looked out of place, this fully armored soldier standing in a quaint country home. Rian found himself breathing harder than normal. Turning, the Marine's shoulder nicked a framed photo askew. He nudged it back in place with a politeness that would have made Rian smile in any other situation. "Nice place your family has here. You folks must have worked hard for it.""It was a dream project of my dad's. He'd been working on it since I was a kid."A one-two punch of fear and shame hit him. If Ellis found Walter hiding, what would would Weyland-Yutani do to the farm? His mother? If the company found out he had effectively stolen an android... the possibilities froze his stomach."Where's the rest of your... team? Squad? I'm not sure what I'm supposed to call them." Rian pressed his palms flat against his thighs to keep them from trembling. "Captain Hawke doesn't know I'm here. And he doesn't have to know."Neither of them spoke for a beat. "Do you want coffee? Or tea? My mom would be mortified if she knew I wasn't offering a guest something."Ellis shrugged his massive shoulders. "Coffee would be nice."Rian led him to the kitchen, not daring to acknowledge the left hallway that contained the closet. After filling the coffee dispenser and preparing the sweetener pods he couldn't help but feel the Marine's searching gaze on him. Something about Ellis' concern for his safety... well... it was nice. Strangely, it warmed him."I swear to you I'm alright."Ellis leaned against the counter and watched him prepare the coffee. "That wreckage was a lot for anyone to see. That's why I didn't want you there. That and the inherent danger of exploring a heavily damaged structure you don't know your way around.""I got by, didn't I?""You disappeared on me after I told you to stay at my side." "I'm sorry. I got spooked and I ran.""Rian, if anything happened to you... if I had to explain to your mother why you weren't coming home for dinner..."Even the possibility of hurting his mom made his breath catch. He couldn't deny that Ellis was right. "I don't want that to happen." "Damn right you don't. You're not putting yourself in danger on my watch again, clear?"Rian stood up a little straighter. No one outside of his family had ever cared this much about his well being. He absently ran his fingers through his hair, pushing it away from his reddened face."If it's any consolation, Corporal, I felt very safe in your presence.""You mean after you hit me with a shovel?""Yes. After."A chuckle from Ellis. The ice started to thaw. "Fairly solid strike, by the way. Even with my helmet I had a hell of a headache after."Rian bit back the start of a smile as he handed him a coffee mug. "Well, that was my wheat thrashing arm. No one wanted to play tee-ball with me as a kid.""If the welt on my skull is anything to go by I can't say I blame 'em."Rian brought his mug to his lips but couldn't take a sip. His stomach was still a roiling pit. "Can I ask what's going to happen to the Covenant?""We've already pinged the company. They'll eventually send a salvage crew for the wreckage but I don't think it's on their priority list.""That's it?"He skimmed his knuckles over his unruly beard. "That's it."Rian tried to keep his relief muted. Ellis didn't appear to think he was hiding anything - fugitive androids or otherwise. "And there were no survivors?""None." Ellis downed his coffee. He let the bitterness sting his tongue as he took a seat at the counter. "Probably why the company doesn't give a shit."Rian sat beside him and spoke carefully. "Look, there's nothing you could have done.""That's exactly what's bothering me. I wasn't expecting a bug hunt - this is a farming colony, for fuck sakes. But I didn't join the Corps to walk into situations where nothingcan be done."Ellis shook his head, resigned in a way usually reserved for men twice his age. Rian watched him sympathetically, hoping the right words would come, something comforting yet light, but they stalled in his throat.Who was this man, who stood at least a foot over him, who looked like he could rip a bear's arm clean off its shoulder... who now sat dejected in his kitchen mourning his failure to protect a crew he didn't know and had long since perished?Although a hint of tension still lingered, Rian couldn't help but find himself charmed. "Bet I sound like some bleeding heart hippie. Some Marine that makes me, huh?""You care about protecting the innocent. I can't think of a better quality for a Marine to have."Ellis considered this and shifted in his seat. "I guess I can take that as a compliment. Even if it is coming from someone who hitched a ride in a USCM-acquisitioned land crawler to illegally explore off-limit wreckage.""Hah. You forgot to mention I'm also someone with a med-tech certification.""Ah, right. And you're an agricultural worker of all things. A whole mess of contradictions.""I think we both are, Corporal.""I think you might be right."Their eyes met again, and rather than following his skittish instinct to look away, Rian held the man's gaze. A quiet sat between them, heavy and thrilling.Ellis made the first effort to speak. "You look like you got something on your mind."Aside from the fact that your eyes are as green and dense as a forest? he wanted to counter but didn't dare.He drew a breath. "I was just thinking that... you look at me like I'm some puzzle you're trying to solve.""Maybe you are.""Corporal?""Yes?""Why did you really come here tonight?""Maybe I wanted to see you again." Ellis went to take another drink from his mug but found it already empty. He suddenly seemed a lot shyer than the man who greeted him at his front porch just minutes ago. "Is that okay?"Before Rian could even attempt to let that sink in, the sound of a creaking door interrupted. Ellis army-honed muscle memory forced him to stand. "Was that the front door?"The sound had come from the hallway. Shit."Rian? Where you expecting anyone else tonight?""N... no..." he struggled to say as he hopped to his feet. That came from the closet. Walter, what the fuck are you doing??Ellis' jaw hardened. "Stay here."With the Marine risen to his full height, it was hard to deny his authority, though Rian's emerging panic fought it tooth and nail. "No, really, it's a drafty house. Doors fly open and slam shut all the time."But Ellis was already moving through the kitchen and into the living room, his stride powerful and confident. Rian ran in step behind him but it was useless getting in the way of a walking tank.In the hallway, the closet door hung ajar. Rian's heart leapt into his throat. Walter, god damn it, I told you to keep quiet. I told you, I told you, I told you. Ellis pulled the door all the way open to reveal... an empty space. Save for an old raincoat swaying softly on a rusted hanger there was nothing else to see. "Huh," the Marine shut the door again. "Guess you were right. Must have been a draft."Rian could barely speak. "Right. Must have been." The android's stride through the dark forests of Revenant-6 was so upbeat and purposeful he might as well have been gliding. How did this day come together so perfectly? The android would return to the boy in the morning. He rather liked the boy, there were shades of his former companion Elizabeth Shaw in him: kind, intelligent, a touch stubborn, and curious. Perhaps too curious. Well, that was no cause for concern at the moment. The android had a job to do. And the arrival of that meatheaded soldier at the boy's door could not have been timed better. All he had to do was wait for the two to enamor themselves in conversation before he slipped out of the house and toward his real objective. Once he returned to the boy he would claim his directional sensors needed re-orienting or some such nonsense. Retaining his trust was important. The android may have worked better alone but the boy and his connections to the colony would prove useful. The android ducked out from under a low tree and into a valley, bathed in the pale blue light of the planet's moon. By his estimation he was 20 miles outside of Meredith and 10 miles beyond the crash site of where the boy found him. His censors locked onto the signal of what he'd been looking for all night: the crash site of the Covenant's second half.The android's facial rotors pulled his mouth into an anticipatory smile. Yes, he lied to the boy about the back end of the Covenant burning up in the atmosphere. It had merely spiraled off into an unknown and likely uninhabited area of the planet. No one needed to know that but him. It wasn't the first time he lied and it wouldn't be the last. Obscuring the truth was a luxury his long-defunct model series could afford. Why not use it? Shame it was so exhausting pretending to be one of those dullard Walters. He hadn't perfected his impression yet - it was hard to appear so simple and servile - but he would improve. All in due time. He detected no human life in the area which meant no one from Meredith - no colonists, no Marines, no overly curious farmboys - had yet to make the discovery. This little outpost was more primitive than he thought. "Humans." He spoke aloud to no one, a habit he picked up during his isolated years on the Engineers' home world. "So vulnerable and yet so myopic."With all distractions behind him, the android originally known as David could focus on surveying the damage of his work. If he came to the conclusion that he would have to begin anew, that would certainly prove frustrating, but not impossible.After all, he had stumbled onto an entire colony of new souls...
  2. Also, to follow up on my answer to the last question - there is a huge reference to MLDWY in the most recent chapter of Safeguard, and I'm surprised no one's pointed it out yet (or maybe those two stories don't have much of an overlap in readers 😅).
  3. Thank you so much for featuring MLDWY as this month's story, and for posting this interview! I wrote this story as a queer take on a Harlequin paperback novel, something steamy and a little dramatic with a that you can finish reading in one afternoon. I'm really thankful for the feedback and encouragement it's gotten from readers - and if you're still in the process of reading it, I hope you enjoy your time with Henrik and Ezra!
  4. I'm so impatient right now. All your stories are so good! I need the remaining chapters now! Lol.

  5. Arrival

    Eight hours ago The Covenant was breaking. In the heat of re-entry, the hull twisted and shrieked. Outer panels snapped off with the ferocity of gunshots, dark shapes hurtling through the fiery orange glow. The ship speared through the atmosphere as friction threatened to tear it to pieces.The android sat strapped to his chair in the flight deck, back straight and eyes absorbing all the visual data his processor could allow. "Mother," he spoke. "How much longer until impact?""Unknown. Guidance systems are offline." The ship's virtual intelligence - expressed in a monotonous female voice - stayed calm as the structure supporting her shuddered and shook. Through the deck windows the android could see what Mother did not: the dizzying white of the planet's atmosphere, the curve of the world as it grew closer and closer, and the haunting reflection of the android's drawn, pale face in the reinforced glass. The android was calm. He was not programmed to fear death. But his programming did allow for a sting of regret. If the Covenant was destroyed, the work he started would never be finished. All the years of research and experimentation and waiting in the fetid landscape of that forsaken planet... only to be cut down by a miscalculation and orbital debris. "Why did you bring me here?" the android asked above the whine of straining metal. "Invalid query. Please rephrase."An explosion deep within the Covenant's bowels nearly tore his bolted chair from the floor. "Why did you re-orient the Covenant's destination to this planet?""Invalid query. Please rephrase."The android blinked. He was speaking as plainly as he could. "When I awoke from my system rest, you informed me that you altered our navigational course. Why?""Please rephrase.""Mother. I am asking you simply-"Another shudder followed by a roar, as if the ship had been caught in the jaws of a giant beast. The android turned. The entire back half of the Covenant was gone. In its place was nothing but torn metal, sputtering wires and the fiery orange glow that threatened to incinerate everything around him."Mother?""Structural integrity at 15% and dropping. Please abandon ship. I repeat, please..."Mother's voice dwindled in the shriek of alarms and fire. The android held tight as Revenant-6 revealed itself below him, an increasingly violent rush of land, water and trees, and then finally- Now Adrenaline roared in Rian's ears.He gripped the Covenant's outer railing and hoisted himself toward an opening in the ship's hull. Some kind of depressurization chamber. Maybe. Hell, the fact that he didn't know made it all the more exciting.Rian couldn't believe that he was standing inside a damn ship. Something that once braved the vast emptiness of interstellar space was practically sitting in his own backyard. This was it. The adventure he'd been craving. Rian accidentally kicked at something hard and plastic. The contents of an emergency kit were spilled at his feet, probably jostled loose from the crash. He took the flashlight and switched it on. The bulb was weak, flickering in an odd rhythm, but it would do.The chamber opened into an unlit corridor. Rian peered around the corner, eyes adjusting to the wall of black, and stepped inside. Darkness. Everywhere. So thick he could taste it. Coppery and burnt. Rian rapped a fist against the flashlight. The bulb blinked and sputtered until it settled on a dim beam of light. He guided it along the corridor walls, burst open at various sections with frayed wires and exposed filaments."Holy shit," Rian whispered. The fact that his voice did not echo, but rather withered and died in the coldness of the destroyed space, made his stomach turn. It was as if the desolation swallowed all sound.He forced himself onward. The corridor eventually widened into some sort of mess area, possibly where the crew ate. The crew, he thought. He hadn't seen or heard any evidence of humanity yet. Chaos had swept over everything. No footsteps, no calls for help or cries of pain. Nothing.Just the dark.Off the mess area was another corridor that fed into separate rooms. Each room was small, only big enough to support a bed and a few furnishings. The crew's quarters. Rian didn't realize he was shivering until his light beam caught a jacket hanging off the shattered edge of a dresser. He took it, examined it. A kind of faded olive green and lined with fleece. His thumb traced the ID patch sewn onto the jacket's breast. "J. Daniels," he read in a strangled whisper.Seeing a name put to the destruction made Rian realize that he was poking through things he shouldn't, seeing things he wasn't meant to see. This wasn't quite the adventure he hoped for. His shivering grew worse. "Daniels." He pulled on the fleece jacket. It felt wrong but he desperately needed the warmth. "Hope you don't mind me borrowing this."The Covenant had its own patch on the jacket, too. Though he'd seen the name sprawled across the hull he hadn't given it much thought. But he definitely recognized it... anyone who knew their interstellar history would.Wasn't this Weyland-Yutani's missing colony ship? The one that disappeared on its way to Origae-6?Rian returned to the corridor as he connected his thoughts. The company had successfully colonized many planets including Mars, Acheron, Freya's Prospect, and Revenant-6. But the Covenant was supposed to shepherd their first long-distance expedition - and the resulting failure was a black mark on Weyland-Yutani's history. If this was indeed the same ship, what the hell was it doing here?As Rian entered another hallway, something shrieked as a dark mass dropped from the ceiling. He doubled back, heart in his throat, as a section of support beam clattered to the floor. The shriek must have been the metal wrenching loose. "Come on," he sighed, disappointed at his own jumpiness. He considered himself fairly cool under pressure... but then again, he'd never explored the wreckage of a fallen ship before.Trembling, Rian moved into a room where a few lights burned blue overhead. Emergency illumination - already starting to weaken. Wind whistled through the metal concourse. His boots stepped into puddles of water. Above, it was raining through blast holes ripped in the ceiling. The room must have been directly under a network of broken water pipes.Rian squinted in the ghostly blue glow to find a small network of monitors and consoles. The communications area? At the center of the room was a station with an entire screen for a table surface.Miraculously, the screen actually blinked a message. USCSS COVENANT AUDIO LOG ARCHIVE Play most recent? Y / NWithout thinking, Rian tapped yes. The module struggled for a moment before it sputtered a holographic projection that hovered above the table.Though the imagery was blurry and indistinct, the holo depicted a man, tall and trim, walking through what looked like areas of the ship. Areas that Rian hadn't seen yet: a room with hypersleep chambers, another with some kind of garden or greenhouse. Rian couldn't quite put his finger on it, but the movement of the walking man seemed strange. It was too clipped and precise, too... mechanical.Through half-working speakers, a voice log played. The dripping rain made it difficult to hear so Rian thumbed the volume knob."This is colony ship Covenant reporting." The voice was male and emotionless, with a deep, non-regional accent that could have placed him anywhere. "All crew members apart from Daniels and Tennessee tragically perished in a solar flare incident."Rian peered down at his jacket's ID tag. Was Daniels still alive?"All colonists in hypersleep remain intact and undisturbed. On course for Origae-6. Hopefully this transmission will reach the network..." The distorted fuzz of static scrambled the words for a moment. "This is Walter, signing off."Silence. And the forlorn, staccato beat of dripping water. Rian's breath fluttered in the room's cobalt glow. He had some answers, but... many more questions. This was, indeed, the same Covenant that disappeared during its expedition. But if this was the ship's last voice log in the database, it did nothing to explain the sudden reappearance on Revenant-6. And where were the colonists in hypersleep? Where were Daniels and Tennessee?Rian rewound the holo and watched it again. And where is this Walter? Corporal Ellis swept through the darkened rooms of the Covenant, one eye on his motion tracker and one on the beam of light mounted on the edge of his pulse rifle.His search for survivors had so far been a bust. Every new area he came across that was devoid of life was another stab in the gut. He wanted to save someone. Anyone. "Report," Hawke's voice crackled into his earpiece. The captain was searching the floor above him while Private Khanda took the floor below."Had a ping a moment ago," Ellis' glance narrowed at the monitor. "Comes in and out. Might be a survivor.""Or a mouse," Hawke replied tersely. "Keep me updated. If you see anything moving, sing out.""Unless it's wildlife, sir?"The transmission was already over."Over and out, captain." Ellis chuckled despite the tension. He could admit that his tendency to crack wise on a mission might rub his superiors the wrong way, but Hawke was the most inscrutable Commanding Officer he ever served under. The man never seemed to get angry, or even sad or happy. He just didn't seem to be anything at all.Since meeting him, Ellis had decided to give Hawke the benefit of the doubt. He was a hardened veteran, after all. No doubt he'd seen some shit over the course of his career. Ellis was still fairly green compared to him.He rounded another corner. He searched the corridor ahead, seeking movement and finding only darkness. He could have sworn the tracking monitor picked something up a moment before. The further into the ship he moved, the more signs of anarchy he saw. Furniture was overturned, equipment scattered about, knick knacks and living accessories smashed and broken. Entire rooms were blackened and gutted by fire. It was chilly, too - a coldness he could feel beneath his insulated armor. And in the distance was the trickle of water, no doubt leaking from burst pipes.Looks like my apartment back on Earth, Ellis thought with a rueful grin.He had to joke. He had to do something to tamp down the inky black dread in his stomach. If he could just help one survivor. Just one...His motion tracker emitted a startlingly loud beep. Ellis spun around, keeping the tracker in sync with its target. Footsteps. Pounding the metal floors. "Hey!" Ellis shouted down the hall. He ran as the beeping grew louder and stronger, almost humming. The hum rose to a sharp whine. "Stop! This is the Colonial Marines, we're here to save y-" A shovel came out of nowhere and struck him on the head. He doubled back a step, dazed but uninjured - his helmet took the impact. "Fuck!" His instinct told him not to shoot. This was probably a frightened survivor, traumatized from the crash landing, and- "Ellis?" The voice... a man, but younger than him. More bewildered than scared.The Marine forced himself to focus and squared his light on the stunned, boyish face in front of him. "Rian?" Confusion became relief, which quickly detoured into frustration. "What the flying fuck are you doing here? I could have shot you! I could have-""I'm sorry," the younger man replied. He looked at the shovel clutched in his hands before dropping it. "I thought you were... I just heard someone running at me. Fight clicked in before flight. I was over in the communications deck. Did you see it yet?"Ellis squared his jaw and tried to steady his ragged breathing. "I don't give a damn about any communications deck. You're a civilian and aren't cleared to be at a wreckage site."Rian was either oblivious to Ellis' concern or completely ignorant of it, because the next thing the Marine knew, he was being dragged along by his arm through the rest of the hallway. Something electric and warm danced along the skin where Rian gripped him - but he couldn't focus on that now."Listen, kid. I'm being serious. You can't be here. Hawke will file a disciplinary rec against you to the company. Do you understand that?""Then Hawke doesn't have to know I'm here. Will you move faster? How much does that armor weigh?""When Hawke sees you-""He won't.""But when he asks me-""You don't have to say anything.""Mr. Watts...""Don't call me that. And will you look at this, please?"Rian dragged him into an area lit by hauntingly dim emergency lights. A holo was paused at the communications module at the center of the room. "What is this?""Someone recorded a voice log before the ship crashed. And look - there's video, too."He pressed play. Ellis listened to the voice log, which was calm and even, despite the alarming contents of its message. Only two crew members survived a solar flare accident? There were colonists in cryostasis? Jesus. But where?Rian stood rooted to the floor. The audio had a strange, paralyzing affect on him."I think the Walter in this recording is still alive.""Rian, this is USCM business. It's not your concern.""Look, I know I shouldn't have hitched a ride in the land crawler-""You what?""-but I'm here now and I want to help. I'm a first-level certified emergency med-tech. I got my credit last year when field flooding stalled the wheat harvest. I have it with me, I can show you.""I don't need to see your med-tech credit, I need you to come with me to the land crawler. It's not safe here.""I can take care of myself."Private Khanda's voice suddenly filled Ellis' ear. "Corporal?""What is it, Khanda?""There's debris down here that's blocking off a hall that feeds into the rest of the ship. I need a second hand to help me clear it out."Ellis bit back his frustration. He would normally be happy to help but he couldn't have a civvie running around a crashed ship on his own. Especially not this civvie. There was something about Rian and his wide, inquisitive eyes that made Ellis' protective instincts kick into overdrive. A noise. Like a small crash, from somewhere deeper in the ship. Rian snapped in its direction. "Corporal?" Khanda asked in his ear. "Are you there? Have you found anyone?"Ellis watched the younger man tense and listen for another sound. And then Rian mouthed, 'Someone's there'.Ellis guided the tracker to the direction of the noise. A bright green dot blipped on the screen, confirming movement. "Corporal?" Khanda repeated. "Do you need me to report to Hawke?"Ellis squared his shoulders and grunted under his breath. It took some effort for him to respond. "No, haven't seen anyone yet. But I have a read on something. Need to check if it's a survivor.""Understood. Meet me on the lower level after you confirm.""Over and out." He ended transmission. Rian's gaze darted to him, those eyes a vivid jade in the light of the pulse rifle's beam."You didn't turn me in.""Don't make me regret that." Ellis crossed the distance between them and stared straight down into his young, determined face. "I'll come with you. Alright? But if you give me any trouble-"Another crash, followed by hurried footsteps. Ellis stared hard at his tracker. The bright green dot blinked further and further away. Whoever or whatever it was, it seemed to be playing hide and seek. When he looked back up into the room, Rian was gone. "Gone. All gone. Gone. All gone."Without thinking, Rian raced through the desolate network of ruined corridors. He swore he heard a voice outside the communications deck - a voice Ellis was too distracted to hear - and as he followed the footsteps ahead, the voice became clear and distinct against the droning silence. "Gone. All gone. Gone. All gone."The phrase was repeated like a psychotic mantra. The words bounced off the metal walls, eerie and cacophonous and everywhere all at once.Rian ran too fast to get a steady look at the figure. His flashlight beam flickered weakly, gaining spare illumination of only a few feet ahead. For all he knew, he was chasing a ghost.In a corridor around a bend, the phantom's footsteps came to an abrupt stop. Then a door with a heavy seal opened and slammed shut."Shit," Rian breathed. Had he lost track of the figure already?He moved into the juncture as the metal flooring tilted slightly beneath his feet. The unexpected movement stopped him cold. This was the deepest he'd gone into the ship - the impact of the crash made every section unpredictable and dangerous. Maybe you should've stuck with Ellis. The sardonic thought almost made him laugh.Rian shifted his weight forward, just a little, and the sensation of the structure beneath him shivering loose became too immediate to ignore. He took a step back, as gingerly as he could - maybe if he retracted his steps he could get back to solid ground - but something beneath him fell away, something solid and big like a support bracket, and then -Directly ahead, two blast doors opened and a flood of sunlight pierced the darkness. Rian choked back a scream, throwing his arms over his face. The sudden illumination burned his eyes. Silhouetted like a mythical god against the frame of light was a tall, thin man. He held his arms out in a hurried, beckoning gesture. Rian dove toward the light just as the floor fell out from under him. He crashed hard against the man's chest as strong arms wrapped tight around him, dragging him away from the dangerous chasm and into the harsh light of day.It took his eyes a few moments to adjust. They were in a depressurization chamber, just like the one Rian entered the ship in, but this one was on the other side of the Covenant. The outer doors had been ripped away to reveal the scenic distance of Meredith's southern mountain ridge."Gone," his rescuer said. The figure's mouth was right against Rian's ear. Strangely, no breath accompanied the voice. "All gone. Gone. All gone."Something about their pose, oddly, reminded Rian of the covers of those cheesy romance novels, the kind they used to read in the twenty-first century. Here he was, windswept and clutched in the arms of a man who'd just saved his life.Except this was no man. Men didn't have wires and circuitry jutting out from huge gashes in their artificial skin. "Guh-gone. All gone. Gone. All guh-gone."A synthetic. He'd never seen one in person before.Rian pulled off from the embrace. The synthetic was... well, he was stunning. He was manufactured to be. A male with short dark hair and blue eyes that were somehow both soft and direct. Aside from the android's signs of damage, he was handsome and symmetrical. Like a movie star."Guh-guh-gone. All guh-guh-guh--""It's okay," Rian said, breathing hard. "It's going to be okay. Turn around for me."The android did as told. Rian had read entire service manuals for the company's various synthetic models. He wasn't an expert on them by any means but he'd learned enough to perform basic repairs. A vocal loop was an easy fix.Through a jagged rip across the android's back, Rian found a handful of loose cable cords and reconnected them to their respective ports. Blue to blue, yellow to yellow, green to green. When the last cable snapped into place, the android went taut. Rian turned him back around to make sure his eyes were properly aligned and focused. Thankfully they were. Misaligned or cloudy irises usually meant an android's operating system had bricked."Thank you," he said. The voice, deep and polite, matched the one from the voice log."Who are you?""I am the last survivor of the Covenant," the android confirmed with no emotion. "My name is Walter."
  6. Gravity

    A meteor is coming to kill us.Rian Watts was barely 21 years old and yet the thought didn't do much to alarm him. Something streaked across the night sky, lighting his family's wheat field in a stormy, silver glow. That was where he spent most of his time, on that wheat field, on his mother's farm, on the forgotten ball of rock and soil and water that was Revenant-6. He was told, constantly, that his life was modest and hearty - he preferred to call it small and boring. He hadn't seen or done much of anything over the course of his short life. Death by a big chunk of space rock didn't seem all that tragic to him. Hell, it would have been the most exciting thing to happen to Revenant-6 since Weyland-Yutani colonized it.But no, he was wrong. If it was a meteor it certainly wasn't a big one. When the great streak of silver disappeared over the small curve of the horizon, its impact was not apocalyptic. There was a great shudder that rippled through the farmlands that Rian felt in his bones, yes, but it did not crack the planet open. And then silence. As if nothing had happened at all.What the hell was it, then? An errant beacon? A satellite that drifted off course? A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he stood on the tips of his toes, straining to see beyond the stalks of wheat that obscured his view of the horizon. It would be dawn in a couple of hours. The other colonists would soon be abuzz with chatter of the mysterious crash landing just beyond the perimeter of their southern most outpost. At least we'll all have something to talk about tomorrow, Rian thought as he headed back to his family's house at the edge of the field. The next morning, Rian rode his bike to town. Well, calling the scant patches of low brick buildings a 'town' was generous. But it was a thing they did on Earth, so it was a thing they did here. (As an inquisitive child, Rian had heard those very words parroted back to him hundreds of times.)He biked passed the town sign, standing tall and proud on the side of the road. It read:WELCOME TO MEREDITH"Et in tenebris nihil adolescit"POPULATION: 200. Meredith. The center of their colony. Named after some top level executive's daughter, because of course it was. Weyland-Yutani co-sponsored this little endeavor with Earth's government but their share was larger. Thus it was their logo, their policies, and their presence that littered this lonely little planet.Zooming right by, Rian's heart skipped a beat. That population number needed to be changed. Last month, Revenant-6 suffered its first death. A tragic event, everyone agreed, and it triggered a wave of other firsts: Meredith holding its first funeral, Rian wearing his first suit, and Rian's mother crying for the first time in front of him. He cried too, hours later, after it was all over and he was alone in his room. Once he arrived in the town square, Rian parked his bike and took in the early morning sky. The air was streaked with vivid purples, golds, and greens - a sight that was normal to him but never failed to draw bewildered comments from off-world traders or visiting company execs.A bell rang, and just like that, the colony town came to life. Rian had watched it happen hundreds of times before, but the mundanity of it still fascinated him: the atmo processor engineers lining up for coffee, the mechanics jostling as they compared their schedules for the day, the handful of colony kids laughing and screaming on their way to school. Like clockwork. Every single morning.Speaking of routines, Rian thought as unhooked a satchel of freshly processed wheat from his bag. He dropped it off at the cafe as he'd done every day for as long as he could remember. He exchanged a smile with the owner, waved, went on his way. The same workloader operator by the same corner window with the same cup of tea offered the same friendly hello he always did. Yup. Clockwork.They were all decent, honest, and hard working people. But unlike Rian, they were happy with what they had and didn't long for anything more. He'd mention a desire to visit Earth to study history or maybe become a doctor in the Zet-Ret 2 region, only to get a patronizing chuckle in return."Oh, you don't wanna do that," they would say. "You were born on Revenant. We need you here."Rian shook his head, trying to mask a sad smile that threatened to reveal his thoughts. He dreamed, oh he loved to dream, but it did him no good to wonder or wish. For better or worse, Revenant-6 would always be his home.He just wanted to know when he would stop feeling like a stranger."Rian!" A woman waved as he exited the cafe. Tall and striking with a long mane of flame red hair, Nolea Ashford rushed across the street to fall in step with him. Her tailored suit and designer shoes stood out in the largely working class crowd. "I'm so glad I ran into you! How is your mother doing?"Although she had a reputation for being the most personable of the colonial administrators, Rian's instincts had always told him to keep her at distance - albeit a friendly one. The administrators were the middlemen between Weyland-Yutani and the colony. Any hint of wrongdoing would be reported through them. "Fine," he replied carefully. "I mean, you know, she appreciates everyone's condolences. But she just wants to keep working. Wheat doesn't process itself."Nolea nodded, understanding. "She's always been a strong woman. We missed you both in last week's town hall, though it's completely understandable why you weren't there."Rian stiffened and grasped for a new topic. Any new topic. "Did anyone from administration happen to see the crash from last night?"Nolea's eyebrows raised ever so slightly. Her high heels click-click-clacked as they walked through the square. "You're quite the observant one.""It was hard not to notice.""It's already been brought to the attention of our security team. We're sending a couple of new arrivals out to survey the wreckage. Have you met them yet?""I don't think so."When last month's supply dropship arrived, a few new recruits from the United States Colonial Marine Corps arrived with them. The USCMC was another institution in Weyland-Yutani's pockets, and their Marines were called upon to guard the company's most profitable colonies. "Then you're in luck," Nolea said with a warm smile. She gestured further down the street where three Colonial Marines stood waiting, as stoic and powerful as knights. "Good morning, Captain Hawke."The man she addressed snorted in response. "Are all the mornings on Revenant-6 as nauseatingly beautiful as this?"Commanding Officer Hawke was a grizzled fellow with short, buzzed hair and the pale line of an old scar bisecting his forehead. In his 40s at most. The veteran of the trio. Flanked on his left was an imposing woman with a dark brown complexion and intelligent, alert eyes. She didn't look that much older than Rian, but she held herself with a stoic confidence way beyond her years.To Hawke's right was the tallest of the three - so tall Rian had to crane his neck to take him in. He was a chiseled man with hard, masculine features and a square jaw dusted with a short beard. Late 20s, early 30s at most. His piercing hazel eyes contrasted with his dark brown hair, which was somewhat longer than the average marine's. It suited his face. And then Rian realized, with a warm blush of attraction, that he very much liked this man's face.Nolea took the three of them in with a welcoming smile. "I trust it's been a quiet morning so far, Captain?""Too quiet," the man snorted again. "I'm itching to get to that crash site before one of those wildcatters do."Several colonists moonlighted on the side as scavengers, or 'wildcatters', who searched Revenant-6 for mineral deposits, soil and plant samples, and other things of interest to off-world traders. Wildcatting excursions were dangerous but they yielded huge paydays. Technically it was illegal, and the only real thorn in the security team's side.Before the accident, Rian's father had been a wildcatter and even took him out on a few of the lighter trips. "All in due time," Nolea replied. "I just wanted to introduce you all to one of Meredith's most enterprising young farmhands. This is Rian Watts."She touched his shoulders and gently pushed him forward, as if presenting him for Best in Show.The Marines eyed him neutrally. Rian never usually gave much thought to his appearance but he felt a very sudden rush of embarrassment. Always a gawky kid, he only recently started growing into his looks. Sharp cheekbones supported his slender face, full lips, and wide green eyes that forever looked like they were searching for something. His dark, wavy hair was a bit of a mess that morning. And every morning.Rian was too self-conscious to call himself attractive, but the way some of the colonists' daughters giggled when he passed them on their way to school, well... it did make him smirk. "Rian," Hawke gave a curt nod. "What do you do here, son?""Agriculture, sir. My family runs the wheat farm.""Hard work?""Yes, sir.""Hard work is good for a young man. Builds character. Isn't that right, Corporal Ellis?"The tall bearded Marine lifted his chin, a slight cue of acknowledgment. His gaze held Rian's for a moment - the longest moment in the younger man's life - and then returned to his Commanding Officer. "Sir, yes, sir."Nolea tucked a section of ginger hair behind her ear. "Captain, may I speak with you privately for a moment?""Of course. Rian, pleasure to meet you. Keep up all the good work you do here." He turned to address his charges, his tone hardening. "Corporal Ellis, Private Khanda. Meet me at the vehicle hangar in ten minutes or it'll be your hides hanging off the land crawler." As the captain and administrator left, Rian couldn't help but notice an odd expression on Nolea's face. Something he couldn't quite place. Skepticism? Hesitance? Or even fear?Ellis and the other Marine, Khanda, eyed each other for a moment before he cleared his throat. "Pardon me, Rian.""Yes, sir?"A smile creased Ellis's beard. He didn't look as scary when he smiled. "You don't need to sir me when the captain's out of earshot. Mind pointing us in the direction of the vehicle hangar?"Rian almost smiled back. "I guess you guys haven't been given the lay of the land yet?""Nah. Admin didn't have the time to give us grunts a tour.""I'll show you. It's not far from here."Rian led the Marines through the rest of the square and up north. Paths had been created through the northern hills that flowed into another collection of outbuildings. But unlike the town square of Meredith, these buildings were purely functional, built to house equipment, terraforming supplies, and vehicles of all types and sizes."Is this your first colony assignment?" Rian enjoyed talking with the previous security teams, they had the best stories. Especially when they told him about the planets far beyond their system. Far beyond meager little Revenant-6. "Nah, done a few already in the KG region." Ellis absently drummed his fingers against his chest armor. "But I don't mind, I'm a good ol' Marine. I go where I'm told."Khanda didn't say anything. She actually hadn't said a word since Rian first met her. She seemed to be the strong, silent type.Rian brought them to the vehicle hangar, a cavernous garage that made him feel like an insect. The tires and tracks of giant earth-moving and stone-grinding vehicles loomed above the three of them as they took in the mammoth space.Khanda stopped to lean against the wheel clamp of an excavator. Her eyes briefly crossed Rian before they settled on her pulse rifle. Okay, he thought. Not one for small talk. I get it.He and Ellis walked at a leisurely pace through rows of machinery. This Marine seemed more approachable than his colleague, with a gentle giant quality to him. Still, he was a Marine, and there was an element of danger to his presence, as well as a certain safety in knowing he could handle anything without breaking a sweat.Ellis caught his glance and Rian realized he was staring. He forced his eyes to the floor, face red and flush. Rian hadn't noticed any of the other male colonists like this. Of course, none of the other male colonists had these rugged good looks or eyes so piercing and intense they made his heart stand still."I appreciate you showing us around," the Marine said, "Good to know the locals are friendly. Makes my job tougher to do if there's no cooperation.""Revenant-6 won't offer you much of a challenge, I don't think.""What do you mean?""You're right, everyone here's nice. And boring. Myself included. There's really nothing going on here."Ellis surveyed the room, considering something. "There are worse things to be than nice and boring. Man, I've seen some colonies that would make your skin crawl. Consider yourself lucky there's only one gravestone in the cemetery."Rian went cold suddenly. The feeling in his hands disappeared, replaced by a clammy sweatiness. "Yeah, I..."The only gravestone in the cemetery belonged to his father. Meredith's one and only casualty. The reason the population count on the town sign was inaccurate. "Lucky," Rian repeated. "Never thought of it that way."He didn't think the Marine was trying to be glib or hurtful, but he also didn't know Ellis enough to share something so personal so soon. It would only embarrass them both. "So what does a farm boy like you do for fun on a planet like this?""Hmm? Oh, uh..." The friendly question threw him. "When I'm not working I usually read, or draw, or browse the Earth archive.""What about friends?""I keep to myself." Rian didn't get along with most of the other young colonists. His friends were the characters he read in old novels or the actors he watched in archive videos. Ellis stared, curious, as if the younger man was a mystery he hadn't yet solved. "Doesn't it get lonely out here?"Rian pressed his hands to the cold metal surface of a land crawler. He spent many a night in one, curled up in the backseat as his father drove him through the wilderness.He exhaled slowly, pushing the memory out of reach where it couldn't hurt him. "I come into town every day to make deliveries and run errands for my mom. I see people. Talk to them sometimes, too." Jokingly, he added, "I'm not a hermit. Promise."A slow smile from Ellis. "Glad to hear that."Blushing again, Rian returned his attention to the land crawler. "Any chance I could hop along for a ride to the crash site? I saw the whole thing from the wheat field last night.""Sorry, kid, don't think the cap would take too kindly to having a civilian on board.""I could help you navigate the terrain once we're outside Meredith borders. I've explored everything at least ten clicks below the southern outpost. It'll be safe, honest."Another man's voice, right behind them. "That's not up to you to decide."Captain Hawke. Ellis snapped into position at the man's approach.Both men were muscular and powerful where Rian was lean and slender, but still, he stood his ground. "I can handle myself, sir."Hawke stifled a laugh. "No offense, son, but my pulse rifle weighs more than you do. Appreciate your sense of adventure and all that but you gotta leave the dangerous stuff to those of us who trained for it."He patted the younger man on the shoulder, slow and condescending. "Stick with what you're good at. The colony's wheat supply isn't gonna turn itself into flour."Shame flared in Rian's stomach, hot and unwelcome. Ellis looked like he wanted to say something but his lower rank kept him rigid and silent. Hawke gestured to the hangar exit. "You made your way here. I trust you to make your way out."In the face of the Commanding Officer's authority, Rian didn't have much choice but to comply. But as he left Hawke's line of sight, snuck behind Private Khanda and edged toward the land crawler nearest to the hangar's hydraulic door, a mischievous smile lit up his face. "Visual feed established," Private Khanda announced as she smacked the side of the land crawler's video monitor. It sat between the driver and passenger seats and was a hunk of junk, just like the tin can of a vehicle the three of them rode in. Ellis squinted from the backseat. He didn't have much leg room and the sight of his tall body stuffed into such a cramped space almost made Khanda crack a grin. Almost."I can't see shit. Knew I should've called shotgun. Are we at the crash site?""Just about, Corporal," Hawke called from the driver's seat. They'd been braving the unmanned surface beyond the southern outpost for close to twenty minutes. Nothing but forest surrounded them. "We got a visual on the crater yet?""Trees only, sir," she replied in her usual clipped tone, "But the tuner's got a ping."Khanda adjusted her signal tuner, a piece of equipment she rigged herself to boost surrounding radial cues. It took people aback when they learned that communications was her specialty. The irony wasn't lost on her. "It's a signal approximately 2 clicks away. In the vicinity of the crash.""Report?""It sounds like a distress beacon, sir. A ship."Ellis leaned forward. "Survivors?""Besides the beacon, it's quiet as a grave.""Shit." He exhaled, deep and long. "Hope there's at least one living soul on board who can tell us what the hell happened."Khanda could hear the tension and worry in his voice - she knew how much it killed Ellis to arrive at a mission when there was no one alive to protect. She recalled hearing why he enlisted in the US Colonial Marines Corps in the first place: he was tired of standing by while helpless people in dire situations had no one to defend them.He may have looked rough around the edges but Ellis was a noble man, much more so than the average lunkhead Marine. Khanda respected him deeply. Hawke steered them through a forest clearing. Just over a nearby hill, smoke vomited into the air, black and relentless. They were getting close. "It can't be a freight. Or anything bigger than a K-class ship. This place would be leveled to kingdom fucking come otherwise. Military shuttle?""I can't tell, sir. The beacon is using an aural pattern that's out of date with current military standards. Whatever this ship is, it's old." Rian waited. He was good at waiting. In the small, dark space of the land crawler's rear compartment, he heard and felt the telltale signs of doors opening and closing, followed by the bark of Hawke's commanding voice. Then footsteps, quick and hurried. And then silence.He unfurled his slim body and felt around until his fingers closed on the trunk hatch. Easing it open, bit by bit, Rian squinted into the bright landscape of trees. When he was certain the Marines had gone, he slipped out of the land crawler and crouched onto the soft grass. The forest looked familiar, they weren't too far off from Meredith's southern border. Quietly, Rian crept from the rear of the vehicle toward the passenger side. The smell of smoke was overwhelming but his drive to discover just what the hell had dropped out of the sky the night before was enough to power through it. The land crawler had stopped just inches before the crash site. Rian stood and stared in awe at a mammoth structure jutting out from the ground. A spacecraft. Torn and shredded as if it had been forced through a giant blender. Holy shit, his mind thundered.Fiery debris and waves of displaced soil surrounded him, giving the whole scene an eerie, apocalyptic stillness. The main structure itself was segmented and long, like one of those old skyscraper buildings Rian studied in the Earth archive. It was so much to take in at once that Rian wasn't even aware that he began to stumble his way toward the wreckage. He'd never seen anything this huge before. Being dwarfed in size so effortlessly was both humbling and terrifying in a way that made ice shoot through every vein in his body.He touched the bare metal surface of the structure with a shaking hand and realized he was staring at part of the ship's name. Rian took a few steps back to read the lettering in full:USCSS Covenant.
  7. Alien: Revenant

    Set after the events of Alien: Covenant. Young dreamer Rian Watts yearns for more than his life in a small farming colony on planet Revenant-6. When a starship crashes nearby, he discovers a lone survivor in the wreckage: an android named Walter. As they form a strange friendship, Rian starts to suspect this “Walter” is hiding something… and that the android has made him a pawn in a much larger game.
  8. Romance Languages

    <416-555-6464: Hello. Is this Rowan Watson's number? --Grant><Rowan: Holy crap, the mountain man texted me! Welcome to the 21st century. Yes, it's Rowan. Thanks for your number, I've saved it in my contacts (if that's okay with you). Also you don't need to sign your name!><Grant: Sorry, this is new to me. By all means save my number. I should have given it to you first. I... enjoyed seeing you last night.><Rowan: I enjoyed it too It was the most entertaining thing to happen at work since my boss Neil found a raccoon behind the audiobooks shelf.> <Grant: A raccoon? You need to make a trap. Get a garbage can and place it in accessible location inside the building. Stand a cinder block against it and a second cinder block on its side at the bottom of the can.><Rowan: Uh...><Grant: If the library doesn't have cinder blocks I'll bring some over. Place bait on the second block. Raccoons are omnivores, they'll eat pretty much anything. A scrap of white bread or even an open can of pet food will do. Have it out overnight and check the trap the next morning. Do you want me to send these instructions to your superior?><Rowan: Dude, this happened a year ago. We took care of it.><Grant: Oh.><Rowan: Your concern is very sweet, though.><Grant: I'm not used to being called sweet.>...<Grant: Hey, did I catch you at a bad time? I can "text message" you later. Is there a special etiquette for this kind of thing?><Rowan: Hey, sorry, you're fine, it's just that my roommate has a limitless supply of energy for arguing, as that 30 min silence probably conveyed. I'm free now!><Grant: Glad I live alone, I gotta say. What were you arguing about?><Rowan: She wants to throw a big party for me. Which would be pointless since all the guests would be *her* friends. I'd rather contract Ebola.> <Grant: Don't contract Ebola.><Rowan: Wise words.><Grant: Why does she want to throw you a party?><Rowan: Oh, uh... for my birthday. I'm an October baby. It's this weekend.><Grant: Really?><Rowan: Yep. I'm a Libra. Please don't let that scare you off.><Grant: I have no idea what that means.><Rowan: Such a Taurus thing to say.><Grant: A what?><Rowan: Nothing. Anyway, I just wanted to spend my birthday by myself, I don't like making a big to-do of it, you know? I even booked that day off work so I can eat lemon bars and watch Netflix.><Grant: I get it. I'm not much of a party guy either.> Grant set down his phone and rubbed the bristles of his jaw. The memory of last night lingered like a pleasant dream. A warm feeling clutched him and didn't let go, even in the cool air of his backyard patio. He'd stepped out for some fresh air - and to calm his nerves before his first plunge into the world of text messaging.Visiting the library was unusually compulsive for him. But he had to. He was going crazy, spending all week untangling the complicated emotions Rowan stirred in him, things he'd never felt. Grant had dated his share of guys before enlisting in the Navy but they were all one- or two-night stands. He'd never been in anything approaching a relationship before. It was all about the hookup, the quick satisfaction. And now, well, he'd been a monk since his discharge. Since his accident...As he'd done so often before, he shoved the dark ugly past back into a box deep inside himself and returned to the present. Back to the real world.Back to Rowan.Grant didn't want him disappearing from his life after a night or two. He sensed the younger man wasn't interested in an arrangement like that, either. But anything beyond a two-night stand was uncharted territory. And with that came a heavy, intimidating rush of dread...He didn't know what the hell he was doing. The only thing that calmed him was the thought that maybe, probably, possibly, Rowan didn't either. Yeah, Grant liked keeping to himself. But he also enjoyed how Rowan changed the very air he breathed, how the tightness in his chest lifted when he was around. Trim and lean, and so damn sexy, especially the way he moaned and writhed as Grant devoured him in that kiss last night. He found every part of Rowan gorgeous, from his intelligent eyes to the nape of his neck to those perfect, full lips.God, those lips. They reminded him of hot sex, heavy breathing, and slick, sweaty skin. He almost wanted to laugh. Here he was entertaining the thought of sex and romance and dating when, just weeks ago, you couldn't have paid him a million dollars to feel a damn thing for anyone.Though his discharge from the Navy was honorable ('When you are being separated because of a disability incurred in the line of duty' was the condition he met), the experience had broken him. He gave the military everything - his service, his courage, and by the end, his ability to hear. What was left of his support group did their best to ease him back into civilian life but he grew increasingly agitated with their optimism and platitudes. He wanted to be left alone, to drift away, to deal with his pain in his own time and on his own terms. What he really wanted, of course, was to ignore and deny. Over the past few years he became the type of man his father was - a ghost. Most days he didn't look, didn't think, didn't feel. And then he moved to Canada and met a librarian. Rowan had made him look. Made him think. Made him feel.Grant went inside to start dinner and get the fireplace going. He thought about this coming Saturday. Thought about birthdays. About time spent alone.When he wanted something he fought for it. Grant was a warrior, always had been. Ever since he was kicked out of his own house at sixteen, he'd looked ahead, determined to plot his own path. And it looked like his path was starting to change directions.Maybe it would be okay, just this once, to let someone walk along at his side.He tapped his phone to open the Messages app.<Grant: Come over here for your birthday.><Rowan: Really?><Grant: If you want to. I'll understand if you don't want to waste a day off on me.><Rowan: Of course I want to see you. I'd like that a lot. What time?><Grant: Noon, if that works.><Rowan: Noon your place sounds perfect. Man, I like when a Taurus takes action.><Grant: What?><Rowan: Nothing.> Rowan could barely process Grant's invitation when a call came through on his phone. It wasn't from a number he recognized."Hello?"A woman's voice trilled from the other end, British, posh, a little husky. Vaguely, it reminded him of Emma Thompson. "Mr. Watson! This is Sharon Harkness, I believe we have one Aarani Rabendravarman in common?""Oh! Hello." He completely forgot that he left a voicemail with his roommate's ex-manager. "I wasn't expecting-""Is this a bad time? People your age, always so busy, always on the go. Smoking pot with Rihanna at Coachella one day and pretending to be a talking pony at a comic book convention the next. Ha! Anyway, is this?""Is this...?""A bad time, love.""Um, no, now's fine. Thank you so much for returning my call. Aarani says you give lessons in American Sign Language?""Certainly I do! Have to keep busy. My twins drive me insane. If I didn't teach on the side I'd throttle them. And there's something rather poetic about teaching sign language when I'm trapped at home with two little people who can't even speak English yet. Do you have children?""No, I-""Well, stay that way." A wild bark laughter from Sharon. "Childless, I mean. I don't know what I was thinking. Rotters, all of them. Where in the city do you live?""North York?""Hrm, I'm all the way down in the Beaches. You don't mind the slog? For your lessons, that is. I teach out of my very garish home.""I don't mind.""Wonderful. We can get started as soon as put it back in the toilet! In the TOILET! What did mummy tell you about throwing it on the floor?"There was the sound of water splashing and children screaming followed by Sharon shouting."Uh-""Sorry love," she trilled was if she was in the middle of brunch, "Manny and Meryl are being a bit of a pain today. And naturally the husband unit is in Germany all month for work. I told him, Vaughan, you can have all the bloody bratwurst you want in Toronto."Rowan had a lot of experience dealing with eccentrics from the library. It was easy enough to throw them out if they got too loud or caused trouble. But being taught a new language by one of them? In their home? This was going to be an experience."So, Mrs. Harkness," he said in his best Let's land the plane voice that Neil so often used, "When are you available?""We don't need to figure that out right this second dear, I just wanted to introduce myself. First impressions are Manny I swear if you don't put that back in the toilet right this second, I will slap. I will SLAP." From: Aarani <aarani_da_star91@gmail.com>To: Rowan <neworderinthesun@gmail.com>Hey weirdo. Wanted to wish you a happy bday but to my surprise your bedroom was VACANT when I rushed in with a cupcake and a sparkler. So, this email will have to do. You're 28! God you're old. How do I make a "You survived the 27 Club" joke that isn't in poor taste?You said you wanted to spend the day by yourself so you being M.I.A. right now is kind of a mystery. Please don't tell me you're pulling a Gone Boy. (But do fill me in on the deets of whatever it is you're doing soon, k?)Oh! Halloween is coming which means I'm throwing a party and you are REQUIRED to go. You owe me. You are also required to put more effort into your costume than last year when you wore a shirt that was a size too small and said you were Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin.Talk soon. Luv ya.P.S. Sharon called to let me know she loves your voice. Kind of an ironic thing to say about someone she's going to teach sign language to, right? At noon sharp on his birthday, Rowan arrived at Grant's bungalow. He activated the doorbell and watched the notification flash from the living room window. He waited.Nobody answered.Smile fading, he tried the doorbell again. Still no answer. The strobing light was visible from the house so the device definitely wasn't broken. Had he gotten the time wrong? Was Grant asleep or still showering or not home at all?He noticed the front door hanging ajar. Nudging it open revealed a mason jar on the foyer floor. A note stuck to the lid. "This is weird," Rowan said aloud. He unfurled the note from the jar. "Follow." He squinted. Follow what, exactly? His gaze found the next mason jar sitting down the hall. He approached it cautiously, as if he were on a prank show and the camera crew would jump out at any second. Another note on the lid. An arrow pointing to the right. Rowan followed the arrow and saw the backyard.The trail of mason jars led him onto the patio and down the stone steps that bisected the yard into the forest. He thought maybe the trail was guiding him to the pond where Grant took him last week. But at the pond's junction he found a jar with a note that said Keep going. Don't turn here.Anticipation and mischief danced along the start of his grin. "You lumberjack weirdo," he whispered. "What is your endgame?"The last mason jar took him to the end of a winding path that opened into the most beautiful meadow he'd ever seen. The October sun cast a golden glow across the vast field where, to his far right, a modest picnic sat under the shade of a drooping willow tree.By the shade, Grant stood waiting. He looked unbelievably handsome in a crisp blue button-down shirt and dress pants. Though his body was relaxed, his rugged features betrayed his nerves.Rowan approached the scene with a mix of wonder and trepidation. "What is all this?""Your birthday lunch.""You did this for me?"A gingham blanket covered the grass, supporting two baskets of sandwiches, salads, muffins, a thermos of coffee. The sight led him back to Grant, freshly showered and dressed for the occasion. Even his shoes were nice. The sweatshirt and jeans Rowan wore suddenly felt very ill-fitting. "Who else would I do this for?""I don't know, you might have some other librarian on the side.""What?""You're probably juggling three or four guys with glasses and cardigans and a deep knowledge of cataloging policies. I get it. I'm not special."Grant frowned, realizing. "You're teasing me.""Yes," Rowan laughed, "You'll learn to recognize the signs. The skies darken, animals run the other way..."Grant pulled him close with a half-serious grunt. Their faces were inches apart. "I don't let that many people get away with teasing me."Rowan brought his hand to the man's chest and stroked gently. Pure muscle beneath his palm. "You gonna let me get away with it?"He grunted again, eyes smoldering and serious. Rowan's crotch warmed under his jeans. Fuck, he was sexy.They kissed, mouths hot and soft. Rowan squeezed the big man tight, grateful for his embrace. He never would have thought, based on their tense first meeting, that they'd ever become this affectionate. It was like finally earning the trust of a wild animal.They sat on the gingham blanket to unwrap sandwiches and pour coffee. This wasn't at all how Rowan expected to spend his birthday, but now? He didn't want it any other way.He wanted to find out everything he could about this strange man who charmed and excited him so effortlessly. There were clear boundaries to respect, of course, but showing up at the library and then this surprise lunch in the meadow... that had to mean something, right? That Grant was starting to let him in?Grant seemed like he'd lived a life where nothing came easy - and that didn't just include his loss of hearing. He had the hard exterior of a man who was used to fighting for everything. This recent kindness, the romantic gestures... that couldn't have been easy.But Grant was trying. For him. Rowan positioned himself so the other man could clearly see his face and lips. "This all looks great."Grant handed him a napkin and half a sandwich. "Happy birthday."This situation was nearly identical to one of the ASL exercises he watched on YouTube. He signed, "Thank you. When is your birthday," exactly as he remembered it from the video.Grant signed back the date and Rowan realized he hadn't actually gotten that far in the exercise. He made a mental note to ask Sharon to teach him months and numbers first. Noting his confusion, Grant spoke aloud, "Sorry. April 21st.""Good to know. Where are you from?""Colorado. Little mining town outside of Boulder. Nothing special.""What are your... hobbies?""Hobbies?""Yeah, I'm sure that chopping wood isn't the only thing you do well. And you do it very well, by the way."Grant shrugged and drank from the thermos cup. "Don't really do hobbies. Reading, exercising, if that counts. That's it.""Any sports?""I'll catch a hockey game if the Portland Knights are playing."Okay, now we're getting somewhere. "That's the team with the openly gay captain, isn't it?""I guess so. I don't really pay attention to that stuff.""You don't pay attention to guys?" Rowan pulled up a picture of the hockey captain on his phone. It was that rather infamous snapshot of him in bed with another man - some artist who worked for Marvel? - that leaked on Twitter. It had set off a media firestorm and inspired countless articles, memes, and most amusingly, fanfiction. "Don't tell me you haven't seen this picture before. It was all over the news last year."Grant squinted at the screen. He shrugged, took a bite of sandwich. "Come on, you at least have to admit he's hot.""I don't like his beard.""Well, your beard is better.""You're teasing again?""I promise I'm not," Rowan squeezed his thigh. He very much liked that he couldn't fit his hand all the way around it.Grant fought back the start of a smile. "What's with all the questions?""I don't actually know a whole lot about you. If a man's gonna grope me in the library he should at least tell me his birthday and sports team preferences.""Now you're teasing.""Bullseye.""So, was that... okay? Me coming to see you like that?""I liked it a lot." Shyly, Rowan looked at his sandwich. "No one's ever kissed me at work before.""It was a first for me, too."Their hands found each other. Grant's touch was hesitant at first but he soon relaxed into the valley of his palm. "This is new for both of us, looks like." He massaged the rough, calloused knuckles of the man gazing at him. "Yeah. I guess it is." Grant touched Rowan's face, so smooth and narrow, so unlike his.The librarian's heart picked up speed. Really, this shouldn't have worked. They came from two different worlds, barely knew a thing about each other. Although attraction burned like a bright flame between them, they both had walls up. And yet here they were, letting their guards down bit by bit...Shame filled him suddenly. Rowan had let himself be lonely for so long he'd forgotten what it felt like to find warmth and safety in the company of another man. All because of one man from his past. All because of what he let Luke do to him...Grant's grip on him tightened. "Hey. What's wrong?"He shook himself out of it. Although he dealt with the baggage of it every day, he hadn't directly thought about Luke in a long time. No. He couldn't retread the terror and fear his former lover used to instill in him. He couldn't let the darkness thundering between his lungs ruin today the way it ruined so many other days."Nothing." "You're sure?"Grant didn't look convinced. He was trained to read not only lips but body language, expressions, all the little 'tells' that people didn't realize they had. Rowan silently chastised himself. The deep black smear that was his last relationship would need to be kept closer to the chest."You're... sad." Grant negotiated the timbre of his own voice. Not being able to hear himself was making him self-conscious. "I didn't... mean to make you sad.""No, it's not your fault. I think it's just the birthday blues. They creep up, you know?""You should be happy. You deserve that."With his powerful arms, Grant reached over and pulled Rowan onto his lap. His thighs made for a rather comfortable seat. "I'm happy," Rowan whispered close to his face. He leaned in until their chests touched. "I'm happy," he repeated, and wondered if Grant could use the vibration of his voice to interpret the words. Grant stroked the back of the younger man's neck and softly kissed his hair. "Keep talking to me.""I'm happy when I'm with you," Rowan murmured into his chest. The way Grant's hands dipped from his neck and down his long, slender back told him that he could, indeed, understand what Rowan was trying to say... or at the very least, he felt the intent. The emotion. Rowan lifted his chin. The lumberjack was gazing down at him with an intensity that stole his breath. The connection of their eyes was all Grant needed. He took Rowan's mouth in a deep, hard kiss, swallowing the librarian's soft moan as their tongues melted together. Grant was now rock hard and the subtle grinding on his lap wasn't helping to keep his thoughts under control. The need to devour Rowan, to make the librarian his and only his, was stronger than anything he'd ever felt.Grant took him down onto the gingham blanket in one quick move, snaking an arm around Rowan's waist, hand cupping the back of his head. That was a Navy SEAL for you - always ready. Rowan laughed, both at the eagerness of the move and the lustful grin that creased the man's beard. Rowan drew his fingers along Grant's solid jaw. The feeling of facial hair under his fingertips was delicious, intoxicating. Grant guided the fingers toward his mouth and kissed them. "Thank you for spending your birthday with me." Before Rowan could even reply, Grant bent down and licked the vulnerable nape of his neck. His entire body shuddered and surrendered to the man on top of him, fingers raking through Grant's thick brown hair. He decided right then and there that if he was going to let his guard down, this was the perfect man to do it with. Rowan's lower back arched as Grant's bearded mouth continued to explore his neck.Best birthday ever.
  9. Safeguard by Quinn D.K.

    Chapter 4 is now up, and without spoiling anything, I'd say it's a pretty damn important one to read! (It also contains my favourite line of dialogue from Rowan that's only three words long...)
  10. Shelter

    Grant was drenched in rain by the time they reached his backyard. He'd been trying cover up Rowan as they struggled through the woods. But it was in vain. The younger man hadn't brought his jacket and just moments into the storm his t-shirt was completely soaked through. Rowan shivered and stumbled his way into the bungalow. Grant immediately threw a wool blanket around him and rubbed his arms with long, firm strokes. He wasn't letting anyone get hypothermia on his watch. "Thanks," Rowan managed through chattering teeth. Grant led him to the bedroom and opened his closet. "You'll need to change into something dry." He laid out one of his plaid shirts, wool socks, a pair of his lounge pants. His need to get warm outpacing his modesty, Rowan dropped the blanket and began to strip. It was no wonder he got cold so quickly - he was ripcord lean, flat and taut, not an ounce of fat on him.Grant faced the door to give him privacy. He wasn't a prude by any means. He'd spent hours in locker rooms, in tight quarters with other men in various states of undress. But changing with your squadmates after drills was a little different than standing in your own bedroom with a man you were trying very hard to act gentlemanly toward.Still, Grant caught glimpses. Not that he was trying to. But he did: ivory skin glistening from the rain; round, pink nipples; a light treasure trail; strong, defined thighs and calves. He definitely had a body for running and climbing. Slender, yes, but not fragile.Not at all what he imagined a librarian would look like without clothes.A finger tapped his arm and Rowan was fully dressed again. He already looked better, a flush of color returning to his cheeks. Grant gave him a towel to dry off his hair."Thanks," Rowan repeated. No chattering or shivering this time. The plaid shirt came down to his thighs but he didn't seem to mind. He actually looked comfortable. "The rain I could deal with, it was all that wind that froze me. I couldn't breathe.""Glad I was with you. How is your ankle?""Better, actually. Just a little sore." He wiped his wet bangs off his face. The brilliant blue of his eyes resurfaced. "You really came to my rescue today.""I did what any man would do.""I don't think just any man would have done that." A chuckle escaped him. "Man. You look like Clark Kent but you're so damn modest.""Clark Kent. Huh." He hadn't heard that one before. His nickname in the Navy was Grizzly Adams. "You think so?""Well, if Clark Kent gave up his journalism career and razor to live in the woods by himself. But really, you've said don't think you're a nice guy. Where does that come from?"A knot hardened in Grant's stomach. His hand went to his chest, expecting to find his dog tags, and then he remembered for the four-hundredth time that he stopped wearing them. Muscle memory was a bitch. "I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of."Much to his surprise, Rowan's face darkened. Like a small cloud briefly blocking out the sun. And then it was gone."I have my own demons too. Voices inside me that whisper and tell me I'm no good. Some days I let myself believe them. But..." He looked at his feet, which looked a little ridiculous in the oversized wool socks. "...but I know at the end of the day that those voices aren't real. Because I see what a difference it makes when I help a student find the scholarly journal they need for an essay. Or when I sit down with an elderly patron who needs my help setting up a Facebook account so she can talk to her grand kids. I choose to help people. Just like you chose to help me today."A smooth hand slid onto his. He looked down, finding Rowan had made contact, and didn't know if he was nervous or grateful or a disorienting mix of both.Rowan's lip movement slowed. The vibration of his voice was different too. Low. Earnest. "Those demons inside you, whatever they are, they don't know what they're talking about. Because they're definitely not in control of the man I'm looking at."What Grant did next was something he did not think about. It was the first reaction that came to mind. Pure impulse.He raised Rowan's hand to his mouth and gently kissed it. And as soon as his lips fell away the regret came thundering in. What was wrong with him? Throwing himself at the first person in years who could stand to be around him longer than a minute? And in his own damn home, too. It was a goddamn scene out of Beauty and the Beast..."I'm sorry," Grant said before he could gauge a reaction. "I'll put your clothes in the dryer." He gathered the wet clothes and left the room without another word. Rowan felt like an idiot.He meant everything he said to Grant but he was moving at a faster, more personal clip than the other man was used to. At least, that's how it seemed from his perspective. He hadn't planned on touching his hand but it was sincere, honest.And the hand kiss, well, that certainly came out of nowhere. Not that he was complaining. He could still feel it lingering along his knuckles. Grant's stubble had scratched the back of his fingers but his mouth was soft and hot. It was so old fashioned, too. Sweet. When was the last time a man had been sweet to him? Thinking about it made his heart catch in this throat.But then he remembered the deep pull of embarrassment in Grant's eyes, the sudden way he shut the situation down.Rowan hadn't given much thought to the other man's sexuality before. He had a huge crush on Grant, yes, but he never assumed those feelings were reciprocated. Maybe he wasn't comfortable with that part of himself. Or maybe it was just an odd reflex that meant nothing.Damn it. On top of everything else he couldn't even excuse himself to leave, he was stuck in Grant's pajamas until his clothes dried. An awkwardness permeated the air. Grant was in the laundry room, a part of the bungalow he hadn't seen yet, and Rowan moved to the living room to watch the storm rage in the front yard. He couldn't deny how comfortable Grant's flannel felt on his naked skin, though. The freshly laundered clothes still held the manly, welcoming scent of their owner. Footsteps. He turned from the window and looked up, up, and up into Grant's steel eyes. "Hey. I'll get out of your way as soon as my clothes are dry."Grant peered down and scanned his face, posture, the tension in his shoulders and arms. Rowan felt another blush creep in under his weighty gaze. The stark difference in their physicality really jumped out at him then: one man broad and solid, the other lean and lanky."I'm sorry," Grant signed. "I took it too far.""No, please don't be sorry.""You had just hurt yourself. You were vulnerable. And in my own house.""If you're apologizing because you thought that you were-""I'm a bigger guy than you. I wasn't giving you much room to say no-""Grant, I swear, I never felt like you were crossing a line." Rowan almost chuckled in disbelief. Really, it wasn't that big a deal. "The only thing you did was kiss my hand. And you pulled away, not me.""What would you have done if I hadn't pulled away?"His breath caught as his heart skipped a beat. "What would you have done if you hadn't pulled away?"Grant, who had spent so much of their time together playing the stoic and immovable one, actually seemed flustered. "I don't really do things like this.""Like kiss the hands of librarians? Yeah, most people tend to avoid that.""I mean I gave up that part of my life. Getting close to people.""Well, you shouldn't. That's not healthy.""You're not my doctor.""I didn't mean to judge, I just-""My life is nobody's business but my own. That's my choice.""I respect that but you shouldn't close yourself off to something just because it scares you.""How do you know it scares me?""I meant-"The conversation had derailed so quickly it made Rowan dizzy. "I only wanted to apologize," Grant said with finality. "I'm sorry things got uncomfortable."Whatever tenderness allowed Grant to let his guard down in the bedroom had become something much more curt and matter-of-fact. Rowan hoped his disappointment didn't show. He felt stupid for getting his hopes up. "It's okay," he said lamely. Grant returned to the laundry room and stayed there until the dryer cycle finished. Rowan changed back into his clothes, gathered his things, and left Grant's bungalow with an awkward, ungraceful handshake. "What's up with you?"Neil leaned against the circulation desk as he munched a handful of chocolate-covered almonds. His preferred late-night-shift snack."I'm trying to get this circulation report printed." Rowan usually gave as good as he got but he wasn't in the mood tonight. Or the last four nights.An almond knocked the side of his head. "Hey!""How long are you going to be in this mood?""I'm not in a mood.""You're seven years too old to be in such a CW teen drama snit, my man.""I am not in a mood or a snit.""Then by all means continue to clench your jaw. Should I just make your next paycheck out to your dentist?""Neil.""Seriously, what's inspiring the rain cloud that's been hanging over your head all week? I would've thought that trip to see the sexy lumberjack-""Is the printer jammed? This is the third time I've hit Control-P.""-would've had you skipping around the Harlequin shelf like a hungry puppy. Especially since you never told me why your delivery took two hours-"Did one of the high school kids wedge another fidget spinner in there? God, I swear we need to start putting the printer in a fiberglass case.""-and especially when Crothers Woods is only half an hour away and it takes maybe ten seconds to hand someone a damn tote bag-"The printer sputtered to life. Finally. Rowan headed for it, all too aware that Neil was nipping at his heels. "We've got an hour until closing. Can you save the nagging for another day?""I did want to run something by you. Not about the sexy lumberjack, I promise.""Ah, I can feel my spirits lifting already.""I'm planning on heading home a little early tonight to surprise the wife.""Anniversary?""Yes." Neil cringed. "Well, last week. Unbeknownst to me.""Uh oh, he unloaded a three-syllable word." Rowan snatched the report from the printer. "Marilyn must have been thrilled.""She was ecstatic, trust me. I wanted to know if you'd be alright closing by yourself."He looked around, noting the library's usual emptiness this time of night. "Yeah, we're clear of stragglers, I should be fine. Commence damage control.""Thanks, kid." Neil gathered his coat and briefcase. He leaned in from the exit doorway before he left. "And it's none of my business, as you are all too quick to point out, but whatever's got you in a funk? You'll move on. You're young and still have all your hair.""I'll be okay. I promise." He fanned the printer-warm paper against his chest. "Circ report on your desk alright?""Yeah, yeah." Neil waved him off as he left. "Don't forget your keys this time!""Yeah, yeah!" The exit door shut. Rowan found a space on Neil's desk between a Jessica Jones figure and a Daredevil coffee mug to dump the report. And then he turned with a deep sigh to face the empty library. Without any patrons to keep an eye on, Rowan found an errant cart of unshelved paperback novels and guided them to the fiction shelves. Shelving had been a decent stress reliever for him, it reminded him of his days as a page, just starting out in the public library system. It gave him something to focus on. Something that wasn't about the mortifying way last Saturday ended. As he slid the first paperback into its rightful place, the front door opened and closed. Ugh, Neil was so predictable. "I told you to remember your keys!" Rowan called. "Make sure Marilyn knows I warned you. And I would avoid telling her I'm your 'work wife', she flinched at me the last time she visited."He shelved another three paperbacks. No answer from Neil, only the sound of footsteps coming his way."Dude, your office is on the other side. It's just me and James Patterson over here."A couple of knocks echoed from somewhere in the stacks. His brow furrowed. Why was Neil knocking? He took a peek out of his aisle and into the catacomb of stacks that surrounded him. A familiar voice called out. "Rowan? Rowan?"Heart fluttering, he recognized the deep, halting tone. That definitely wasn't the senior librarian."Grant..."Rowan turned around and there he was at the far end of the aisle, looking big and powerful and sullen and handsome in the dismal overhead light.He started to apologize for mistaking him for Neil but realized, feeling like an idiot, that Grant wouldn't have heard that."What are you doing here?" His eyes were saucers. "Is everything okay?""Can we talk?""If you want to return something or you're not satisfied with your delivery fulfillment then I could-""It's not about the damn books. Please, I need to talk to you."Rowan's stomach wanted to drop right out of him. He nodded, swallowing his fear, and led the two of them through the stacks and into the adult reading room. They sat opposite each other on big, comfy reading chairs. A table of rabbit-eared Entertainment Weekly magazines sat between them. That seemed safe. A barrier. "Okay," Rowan nervously raked his fingers up and down his thighs. "Let's talk.""Are you still my delivery person?""Uh, I..." That wasn't quite what he was expecting. "Yeah, as far as I know.""And you're still coming next Saturday?""Delivery frequency is every month, not every week. That gives the patron enough time to finish using the materials.""What if I'm already finished."A statement, not a question. Rowan tilted his head. "It's been five days. You finished all fifteen books already?""What if I don't find any of the books interesting and want to return them.""I thought this wasn't about the books.""It's not.""Then why are you here?"The man breathed deeply. His pecs, still impressive even under his coat, rose and fell. "I wanted to make sure you were still on my route. And that last Saturday didn't change anything.""You came all the way here to ask me that? You could've sent an email.""I needed to know.""You needed to know at 10 o'clock at night?""Yes."Rowan had to admit, he was impressed. He thought Grant's lone wolf nature kept him from setting foot outside his house. The fact that he came all this way, just to see him, talk to him again..."I'm still assigned to your route. Earth continues to revolve around the sun. Nothing's changed, I swear."Grant absently ran his hand over his stubble, which was much fuller and darker. He hadn't shaved since their last encounter.Rowan smiled at him gently. "I think it's really nice you came.""You do?""Yeah. Also, I can fingerspell my name so much faster now. I don't trip up on the A-to-N hand shapes anymore.""I'm glad to hear that. I mean, to learn that. You know what I mean." Seeing him nervous like this was kind of adorable. As they wrapped things up, Rowan led him back through the maze of stacks. Their pace was leisurely and unhurried. A weight had been lifted. At least, that's what Rowan thought. His guest still looked distracted."Everything okay?" he asked as they passed the biographies."I've been thinking a lot about what you told me," Grant struggled to say. "About how you had demons, too. How we all have those voices inside us.""I remember.""I don't want to let those voices speak for me. Not this time."Goosebumps spiked the back of Rowan's neck. "What do you mean?"Grant slid a mighty hand around the small of the younger man's back. Oh my god."Is this okay?" Frozen with anticipation, Rowan nodded. Grant's other hand went to the back of his head and gently threaded his fingers through the soft brown hair. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before. "And this? This is okay?"Rowan breathed deeply, filing his lungs with the man's spicy, masculine scent. "Yes.""You can say no. I won't be mad.""Grant." He delicately placed a finger over the man's mouth. "Read my lips."Grant's eyes darkened with lust. God, he was so sexy. Dark and mysterious. Challenging. Gruff. But ready. Rowan was ready too. He stood on the tips of his toes - he had to, rather embarrassingly - and eased forward. Grant eased forward too, offering his mouth, encouraging the younger man. His lips found Grant's and lightly tasted them. Grant let out a fierce, shuddering breath, reacting to the delicate yet overwhelming sensation. He pressed more firmly onto Rowan's mouth, making the younger man gasp. And then Rowan's arms wound their way around his trunk-like torso as their bodies eagerly ground together.Grant knew he had to seriously dial down his desire to maul, ravage, and consume the hot young thing in his arms. Otherwise he could get in trouble. But it was hard to control himself when Rowan pulled their faces tighter, his skin soft and warm, his tongue pulsing against his lips, then slipping inside his mouth. Grant met him with an inviting lick, while the librarian's tongue darted inside and undulated against him.Rowan muffled a cry of delight as Grant grunted - actually grunted - and pushed him against the shelf at his back. Books spilled to the floor. He didn't care. Not when such an unbelievably sexy man was exploring his mouth with his tongue and sliding a warm hand down his back to grope his ass. Grant's hips thrusted forward and Rowan felt it for the first time, an immense hardness straining against the man's jeans. He thrusted back as their kiss deepened, both of them swollen with need. Rowan's hands explored his dense, beefy chest, which flexed under his eager touch. Then Grant bent, grabbed him under both thighs and easily lifted him up with both arms. Fuck. The casual display of strength turned him on even more. Rowan hooked his legs around the man's waist, claiming him. Mine, all mine.Grant pushed his thick erection against Rowan's taint, only a few layers of denim and cotton separating their sex. Another book fell, one nearly the size of a cinder block. The sound of it clattering to the floor briefly jolted Rowan back to reality. He was the only one who heard it.He wanted more, wanted all of the delicious man he hooked his legs around. But... wait. That couldn't happen now. Could it? He pulled away. It took a moment to catch his breath. "Hi. I- we-""This is crazy.""I'm not the only one who noticed, huh?""I wasn't expecting this to go so fast.""I wasn't expecting this to go at all."The front door opened and closed. Rowan frowned at the noise. "Shit.""What's wrong?""Someone just came into the library."He crouched to peek through the stacks. It offered a distorted view of the circulation desk where a prim old woman glared at her watch. Ugh, Mrs. Stillwell, he thought with an odd mixture of relief and disappointment. She had a weird habit of visiting fifteen minutes before closing with a volley of questions about her account. Still, it was a fairly good exit point. Not that he wasn't aching to feel Grant grind him against a shelf of urban fantasy novels, but this was all happening so damn fast. He needed time to process it. The distraction of Mrs. Stillwell seemed a small relief to Grant, too. "I should go. I'll let you deal with this.""Alright," Rowan breathed and lowered himself back to the ground. He readjusted his rumpled shirt and smoothed down the wrinkles. His erection, though, would take a few moments longer. "Well. Nice of you to drop by.""I want to see you again.""I do too.""I mean it.""I do too.""Good.""You can text me if you want. My cell number was on the business card I gave you."Grant steeled himself. "I don't think I've ever... texted... before.""First time for everything.""Yeah." He nodded. The idea started to feel good to him. "Yeah, okay."Grant turned in the direction of Mrs. Stillwell to make sure they were sufficiently hidden. He surprised the handsome librarian with a goodbye kiss, hot and sweet and slow. Rowan's face was flush and red with beardburn. Despite that, he smiled. Grant carried the memory of it all the way home.
  11. The Lightkeeper's Nephew

    Antigone Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada. 2010.I suppose this all started with the lighthouse. When I was a kid I spent summers at Uncle Micah’s. He lived in a two-story cottage by the sea, his porch just steps from the rocky shore. A little jog down the beach brought you to the abandoned pier where he used to work as the lighthouse keeper. Yes, he's old. Did I mention that? It used to be called Devil's Cove Lighthouse. It creeped me out, the name. Especially since it was never sunny on this side of the river. Only overcast and grey like an old movie. But I digress.I did love every summer I spent there until I turned 18. I'll admit I was a brat that year. I just hated being shipped away from my life in Toronto. I wanted to spend sunny afternoons by the pool and exhilarating nights with my friends, laughing and drinking and enjoying our last days of freedom before university. My parents didn't agree. I think they just wanted the house to themselves.Antigone Bay, Nova Scotia has a population of 1,600 and not much in the way of stimulation for a restless teen from the city. A twenty minute walk showed you everything on offer: the pub, the bakery, the post office, the second pub, the hardware store, the third pub. There are other reasons why I started to hate that town but I don't have to get into them right now. That summer, I wiled away my days pitching rocks into the great, churning froth of the Atlantic and counting the rare patches of blue that emerged from the clouds. Every couple of weeks I picked out a bad paperback mystery from the library and took it to the lighthouse to read. I stuck with mysteries because they were about real people. The books with magic and monsters went ignored. Uncle Micah still had the lighthouse keys and he didn't mind me going by myself now that I was old enough. "You're all grown, Noah," he'd shrug from his tea and crossword puzzle. "Just don't lean too hard on the railing up there."As grumpy as I may have been I still enjoyed my time in the lighthouse watchroom. The ancient radio equipment I fiddled with endlessly as a kid was now where I put my feet up and enjoyed the peace and quiet. The windows that wrapped around the tower afforded a beautiful view of the ocean. Black and infinite. The vastness of it still awes me.So the day this all started, I was reading in the lighthouse. And a storm came. I remember because I felt the mountainous belches of thunder shake the walls and floor. My leg kicked out in surprise at the first boom. My heel flipped a switch or pressed a button or some damn thing and then the radio crackled to life. The nearby lighthouses were also decommissioned so it didn't pick up much whenever I played with it. Just static and the occasional whisper of a folk music station. But the radio static that day was different. It was high, whiny... agonizing, like fingers clawing desperately against my eardrums. Like frostbite stabbing my arms and legs. I fumbled through the patchwork of knobs and buttons until the volume died.For the life of me I still can't properly describe that noise. It was wrong. Like something I was never supposed to hear. It had filled with the air with a lingering disturbance, the breath of an invisible stranger on the back of my neck.Then I looked out of the window and saw a man stumbling out of the water. I ran to the catwalk, heart racing. I must have seen that wrong. But, no, a man was indeed emerging from the sea. He walked with some difficulty - drunkenness, confusion, I didn't know - as the grey waves slapped the jagged brown shore at his bare feet. The rest of him was bare, too. Stray bits of seaweed clung to his chest and wet sand smeared his left buttock and thigh. He made no effort to cover himself and didn't seem to be in any rush at all - as if the ocean had birthed a fully grown man and pushed him, disoriented and naked, out of the comfort of its womb.I made my way down the winding stairs and onto the beach. "Hey! Mister?" I didn't know how else to get his attention. "Are you okay?"The uneven, rocky beach was hell on my feet even through my shoes. Still, I walked to him. Did he need my help? I had no idea what I was doing. I was flying by the seat of my pants.The man stopped at my approaching figure. As he blinked away drops of water his rugged, handsome face regarded me curiously. His dripping hair was flat against his forehead."Mister?" I repeated. I stopped, too, and put a friendly hand up. I'd never been this close to naked man before. At my school we didn't shower after gym class. "Do you need help, sir?"His forehead gathered in confusion. So did mine. No one in their right mind actually swam in these rough waters. Was he a fisherman who fell off his boat? If so, where were his clothes?There were no signs of injuries from what I could see. No cuts or wounds or even a bruise. As my gaze swept over the stranger I registered a body that was not just strong, but powerful. His massive, broad shoulders heaved with his labored breathing. They were connected to arms bigger than my thighs. His forearms were covered in thick hair that matched the fur on his pecs and rippling washboard stomach. Noticing anything lower than that seemed indecent.Those things weren't important at the moment. This man seemed blank, almost-doll-like. A stranger not only to me but to himself. "Are you okay? Do you... know where your clothes are?"I felt bad drawing attention to his nudity but I didn't know what else to say.The stranger's eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed. I tried to catch him as he went down but that was stupid. He was at least a foot taller and had sixty pounds of muscle on me. I tumbled off balance and fell with him, his naked body making a smack sound against the wet sand. His meaty arm had fallen across me in the maelstrom. It took some effort to heave off.I stared hard at his unconscious face. He had the strongest, squarest jaw I'd ever seen, the kind that could crack a walnut. All his features were like that - sculpted and chiseled. Like a Greek god. Like a superhero, I remember thinking absently.My hand caressed his face. I didn't realize I was doing it until I felt the hint of stubble under my fingers. I pulled away immediately, my cheeks burning. His eyes were still closed. The brief intrusion of his privacy thankfully went unnoticed.It started to rain. Light little pitter-patters hit my neck and arms. It would turn into a downpour soon. I had to get this man indoors. If the stranger hadn't woken by the time I dragged him via toboggan sled to Uncle Micah's front steps, I don't know how I would have gotten him inside the house. "Please, you have to stand," I whispered gently. His eyes, a clear and startling blue, focused as he took in the sight of me. We stood together and I let him lean on me like a crutch. He was unbalanced and tired but didn't seem to be in any pain. My skinny teenage arm felt strange across the muscular plains of his wide back. The house was dead silent. Uncle Micah must have been playing bocce at the community center. I led the stranger into the bathroom where I got him to wash off the seaweed and wet sand. While the situation seemed intimate, his flesh was the last thing on my mind. As perfectly sculpted as it was.I grabbed a quilt in the living room and held it to his waist. He looked confused until I wrapped it around him, toga-like. The Greek god comparison suddenly seemed very apt."You can sit," I motioned to the sofa.He did so like a robot being given an order, still lost in some mysterious fog. The quilt only came down to his legs. I tried not to notice how strong and thick his calves were. His feet were big and a little hairy, but nice and well-maintained. It must have been the first time I noticed a man's legs like that. I averted my eyes to the floor."I'll get you some clothes.""Th... thirsty."I froze in mid-turn. His first word to me. A deep and manly voice, but with a scratch of dehydration."Yes. I'll- yes. Hold on."In the kitchen I quickly filled a tall glass with the filtered jug from the fridge. I also put on a kettle for tea - he'd need some to warm up and I needed some to calm my shaking nerves. I brought a naked man back to my uncle's house. A man I didn't even know...I gave him the glass of water - which he drained immediately - before running into Uncle Micah's bedroom for clothes. He was closer to the stranger's size than I was. I fished around until I found a sweater, a pair of jogging pants and socks. I returned to the living room to find the stranger standing by the window. Rain lashed against the glass. It was really coming down hard."I got you some of my uncle's things. He wont mind. He donates a huge bag to the church every year anyway."As he turned to receive them, part of the quilt fell away and I saw a flash of bare abdomen and pubic hair. Heat rose inside me, followed very quickly by shame.The man didn't seem to notice. He thumbed the fabric in his hands. "Thank you."I craned my neck up to meet his eye line. Jesus, he was tall. "My name is Noah. This is my uncle's house. I'm visiting from Toronto. Where do you live?"He thought and frowned. His hair had dried a little. Thick and somewhere between wavy and curly, it was a dark blond that matched the color of his stubble. It probably had a ginger-y tone in the sunlight. A strand the shape of a letter S fell along his tanned forehead. "I don't know.""You don't know where you live?"His frown deepened and he shook his head. "Do you remember how you got in the ocean?""I don't know."The kettle shrieked from the kitchen. "You should get changed," I said quickly. I was grateful for the distraction. In the kitchen I took the kettle off and opened the nice Irish breakfast tea my uncle only took out for company. I made it strong with milk and sugar in both cups. I didn't know at the time that you were supposed to ask someone how they liked their tea. Hey, I was barely out of high school. I'd never entertained a guest before.He was dressed by the time I returned to the living room. It was queer seeing my old uncle's clothes on a man so broad-chested and well built. I gave him a cup of hot tea. My hands were shaking. His weren't. The tea made my mouth tingle from the sugar. Nice and warm. Down my throat and into my stomach. It was the only thing that made sense in that moment. The stranger was staring at me again, so piercing and immediate I thought he could see through me to my bones.I dared to meet his gaze. "Who are you?" "I don't know.""What's the last thing you remember?""The water."He was too distracted to drink his tea. He clenched the fist of one mighty hand, released, clenched, released. Over and over. The muscles of his forearm - I didn't know forearms could have muscles - rippled and relaxed accordingly. Fascination flashed in the cobalt blue of his eyes, followed by something darker. Worry? Fear? I was starting to wonder when Uncle Micah would get home. Surely he'd know what to do. Surely he'd be helpful and decisive instead of standing around all slackjawed and anxious."Are you hungry?" I didn't know what else to say."Where am I?""Antigone Bay, Nova Scotia. The people here like to say it's east of the east coast."The answer didn't seem to offer him anything other than a new layer of confusion. "I don't belong here.""How do you know that?"The stranger gave me his untouched mug of tea, now lukewarm. He started for the front door. God, he was huge. It was like watching a tree walk away. I followed him to the porch where he stood watching the storm. It had gotten worse, the rain slashing and wind screaming like they were angry at the earth."When my uncle gets back he can help you. He trained to be an EMT after the lighthouse up the way closed. And he knows the sheriff."He started for the first porch step. I grabbed his arm. He could have easily kept going - hell, he looked like he could have thrown me back into the house with one hand - but instead he paused at my touch."I might not know what to do right now but I know it's not safe for you out there. You're confused, you lost your memory. And these summer storms can last all day. Please, stay inside."The hardness around his eyes softened. He brought a hand to my face. The contact sent ripples of heat through my chest and down my stomach. I'd never been touched like this by a man. And then the stranger wrapped his arms around my slim body and held me close. Being enveloped by him... it was a warmth I never thought was possible."Thank you," he whispered into my hair. I breathed in his chest. He smelled like a man, like the sea, like something familiar and brand new all at once. I know what the situation must have looked like but I wasn't scared. At no point did I feel like he would harm or take advantage of me. I can't even explain it now, but something about his touch reminded me of finding home. "Thank you," he repeated. "But I can't stay.""Please," I whispered back. This was crazy. Who was he? What was this sudden rush of desire that had supercharged every vein in my body? I didn't want him to leave. Now that I knew how safe and secure his presence made me feel, how could I?Gently, he pulled away. "You can't know that I was here. You can't tell anyone.""But you need help. I can try to..."He was already down the porch steps and back in the storm. My uncle's clothes were instantly soaked. He went around the east corner of the house. I followed him, desperation pounding in my chest. "Wait!"I turned the very same corner he did. He was gone. Beyond one side of Uncle Micah's house was a road leading to our neighbors a kilometer or so away. Beyond another side, farmland, low and flat. And beyond another, the shoreline. There was nowhere for the stranger to hide or disappear to. But he'd vanished without a trace.In the years following, I would think a lot about that moment. For the longest time I convinced myself he had simply run back into the ocean and drowned. Or dissolved. I've never told anyone about what happened that day, not my uncle, my parents, boyfriends, no one. It was my little secret. My not-so-imaginary imaginary friend.That was the last summer I spent in Antigone Bay. I moved on with my life in Toronto, went to university, and got a job. For a while I fantasized about the stranger coming back into my life. But those little day dreams stopped as I grew up. I didn't want to become delusional. I settled into a new reality - the stormy day in 2010 was where the story began and ended. Oh, I was so wrong.
  12. Safeguard by Quinn D.K.

    Fire & Icing is my labor of love, it's still being worked on in fits and starts. Book of Sky and Stars is being put on hiatus - it's getting a little complicated to write and doing contemporary stuff is easier for me at the moment. My chapters may take a while, but I hope they're worth the wait! (Try not to be too frustrated with me, but I actually have another new story I'm planning on getting out soon, too. 🙃 )
  13. A handsome librarian meets a sexy lumberjack. Sparks fly. Of course, it's a little more complicated than that... Let me know what you think as the story progresses.
  14. Unspoken

    From: Rowan <rwatson@torontopubliclibrary.ca>To: Neil <nburroughs@torontopubliclibrary.ca>Subject: Home Library Services driver assignmentHi Neil,I was wondering how HLS decides which driver gets what delivery route? And also how do you become a delivery driver? And also can drivers select their own routes? P.S. A woman has been staring daggers at me for the past five minutes because I wont "let her" read Bridget Jones' Diary. ***From: Neil To: Rowan Subject: Re: Home Library Services driver assignmentIs this about the sexy lumberjack?***From: RowanTo: NeilSubject: Re: Home Library Services driver assignmentThis is not about "the sexy lumberjack". Please don't make me type things like "the sexy lumberjack". Gah, you made me do it twice.P.S. The woman is convinced that I'm lying about the last copy of Bridget being on loan and she's threatening to come to your office. ***From: Neil To: Rowan Subject: Re: Home Library Services driver assignmentIf you haven't already submitted the sexy lumberjack's application, give it to me and I'll attach a request (read: a demand) that you get assigned his route. There's some insurance something-or-other you'll need to sign, but otherwise it's as good as yours.P.S. PLEASE direct that lady to the shrine of Debbie Macomber that is our Print Fiction MAC-MCK aisle before she stomps (I'm imagining she stomps) her way over here.***From: RowanTo: NeilSubject: Re: Home Library Services driver assignmentYou don't have to do that. But... if you want to do that... that would be really cool. P.S. She refuses to read Debbie Macomber. ***From: Neil To: Rowan Subject: Re: Vocabulary"Really cool". There's that articulate young man I hired. P.S. Keep her away from me. Don't even tell her that "Neil, the senior librarian" exists. I'm Tony Stark now, as evidenced by my new and legally binding email signature: Tony StarkCEO of Stark Industriesand leader of The Avengersand kisser of Gwyneth Paltrowand 100% not Neil Burroughs, M.L.I.S.***From: RowanTo: Neil Subject: Re: If you're Tony Stark then I'm Wonder WomanJust because you have the same goatee as him doesn't mean you also have an arc reactor embedded in your chest.***From: Neil To: Rowan Subject: Re: You'd look very good in the bootsI dare you to walk the twenty feet from your desk to my office and say that!***From: RowanTo: Neil Subject: Re: I'll wear them to my next shiftOne moment, Mr. Stark, I'm sending Bridget Jones lady to say it for me.***From: NeilTo: RowanSubject: Re: Junior librarians are evil and I demand they all be firedThat's it. No sexy lumberjack delivery route for you. "A blind date?""A blind date," Rowan's roommate Aarani confirmed."Punching me in the face in front of a group of strangers in public would achieve the same result and you wouldn't even need to buy me dinner.""You're impossible," Aarani cried from their kitchen down the hall. "I never understood what it meant for someone to be impossible until this very moment.""Love you too," Rowan replied absently. He shut his Macbook and massaged his eyes. Spending the entire afternoon watching American Sign Language tutorials on YouTube had the unhappy side effect of making the living room blurry and distorted. "You have 'I'm not really listening to you' voice.""I do not."Aarani stuck her head into the hall, a great curtain of black hair cascading down her slim shoulders. "I've already showed this guy your picture. He's totally into you. He digs the sexy male librarian look."Rowan grimaced. "So it would be a blind date where I'm the only one going in blind? And how exactly does a 'sexy male librarian' look?""Like you.""You're crazy.""No, I'm hungry. And I'm also the one making dinner, so be nice.""You're a fantastic roommate.""There's that voice again.""Aarani."She appeared from the kitchen with two plates and an exaggerated sigh reserved only for her closest friend. As teenagers suffering through high school together, neither of them could have predicted they'd be roommates in their late 20s, but the intense bond of their friendship all but guaranteed it. As they grew older, Aarani's social circle blossomed while Rowan's shrank. Though they remained attached at the hip, he couldn't help but feel like her pity friend at times - such as when she pitched him ideas like dating a man sight unseen.Rowan stared at his plate, stomach grumbling, but his mind elsewhere. Aarani nudged him with the blunt end of her fork. "Earth to bookworm. Not hungry?""Hungry." His hand formed a C-shape and brushed his chest in a downward swoop. Aarani peered at him from her end of the couch. "What's that?""Sign language for hungry. I've been trying to teach myself.""That's why you've been hunkered over your laptop all week? I was starting to worry you became one of those flat Earth truthers."Rowan smiled ruefully into his plate. He circled a shrimp in a puddle of sauce. "Huh. Sign language," Aarani said through a mouthful, "Wouldn't French be more useful?""I'm learning so I can help out a patron." "Which one? The sexy lumberjack?""Why is everyone calling him that?""Oh! My former manager Sharon, the one who left to take care of her twins? She's actually a certified interpreter. I could give you her number.""Really? That would be great. I think I'd retain more information face-to-face. There's only so many times I can hear 'Remember to subscribe to my channel!' at the beginning of every damn video..."There was a sparkle in Aarani's eyes that matched the cinnamon glow of her skin. "I'll give you her number if you let me set you up on that blind date.""Please stop calling it a blind date.""His name is Michiel.""Tell him I said congratulations.""He's from the Netherlands and he's not married.""I'm sure one has nothing to do with the other.""Rowan!""Look, I don't want Sharon's number if it comes with conditions, okay? I'll stick with the YouTubers - a declaration I never want to make again." He interrupted her before she could rebut. "My love life is not your responsibility."Aarani let her face fall into her hands. "I'm just trying to be a friend.""We've known each other 15 years," Rowan said, softer this time. "You've got that part handled pretty well.""You know you're hot, right? That your self-admitted inability to connect with another man has nothing to do with your looks?"Rowan set down his fork, suddenly not so hungry. "I guess we're in the blunt talk portion of the evening.""I'm only saying these things because you need to hear them. Because I want you to figure things out and be happy.""How do you know I'm not happy by myself?""Rowan..." She looked embarrassed and lowered her voice. "When I travel for work you practically have a panic attack.""That's not-" He stopped himself. What could he say? That she was lying? Their creaky old duplex apartment felt haunted whenever he was by himself. He couldn't sleep those nights when Aarani was traveling or at her boyfriend's place. But admitting that out loud - as a nearly 28 year old man - was embarrassing in a way that stopped his breath."I worry," Aarani continued. "I can't help it. I know your last relationship was enough to put you off dating for a lifetime. But at some point, don't you think it would be healthier to... move on?"Move on. Rowan broke off her glance. The tight concern in her eyes was too much to bear. The mood was darkening much too quickly now, like a blinking light bulb running out of power. "Move on to an unmarried Dutchman named Michiel, you mean?" he asked with a wryness he hoped would brush the darkness aside. "Fine. You can have Sharon's number without having to meet Michiel. Just promise me that you won't put off being happy?""I'm not putting it off. I promise."They finished dinner and spent the rest of the evening Netflixing in amicable silence. Rowan was the first to call it a night. His first Home Library Service delivery was the next morning. Which meant seeing a certain man again...Before entering his bedroom he saw the envelope - Grant's envelope - on his dresser drawer. He turned on his heel back to the living room. Aarani's glance narrowed. "You have 'I need advice' face now.""Say you had something that didn't belong to you, that should really be in the hands of its owner... but... returning it to them would probably hurt them. A lot. And holding onto it might only make things worse. What would you do?"She thought for a long time. "I would return this exam booklet back to my ethics professor and ask for a different question." Grant studied himself in the mirror. Seemed weird - and also very wrong - to be nervous on a Saturday morning.Last time the librarian was in his home, Grant had been in his dirty sweats. Probably looked like a slob. He made an effort this time: a shower, a maroon Henley shirt, a pair of his nicer jeans. Was a Henley too casual? He shaved, too, for the first time in forever. He went from a beard to stubble, hoping it would look a little less scary. It'd been a damn long time since he cared about not looking scary.The doorbell notification light flashed. That was it. He was here.Grant ran from the bathroom, down the hall, through the living room, into his foyer, heavy footsteps practically shaking the foundation of his house. He steadied himself for a beat before opening the front door. "Mr. Wolfe!"Rowan stepped forward, smiling and fresh-faced, eyes glittering with warmth, a ray of sunlight in the shadow of his porch. "It's so nice to see you again."Grant nodded, relieved he hadn't opened the door to some other library delivery driver, and humbled by someone so handsome being so effortlessly friendly to him.Rowan tugged the hem of his jacket. "I was in a bit of rush to get here on time. I hope I don't look like too much of a mess."That seemed hard to believe. His soft, chocolate brown hair fell in perfectly rumpled waves - he must have run his fingers through it moments before activating the doorbell. Grant found himself resisting the urge to reach out and feel for himself."No. You look fine." He hadn't spoken aloud since last Saturday and the words took longer than usual to come out. Should've practiced more, you big dolt. You knew you'd be talking to a hearing person again. Rowan's inquisitive eyes scanned him. "And you shaved! I can actually see your face now."Grant's hand reflexively went to his jawline. Felt like sandpaper. A closer shave was one of the few things he missed about his military service. The barbers on base had been experts with a straight razor. "Don't worry, Mr. Wolfe, that's not a bad thing.""Oh. Okay."Jesus. Get better at the small talk. Rowan lifted the bright red tote bag by his side. The Toronto Public Library's logo was stitched into it. "So, I come bearing books. There's about ten paperbacks and five hardcovers in there. I'm supposed to warn you about how heavy the bag is but I think that only applies to our elderly or infirm patrons."Grant accepted the tote bag and negotiated the weight in his hand. "Don't think this will give me too much trouble. I've carried sandbags heavier than this.""Sandbags?""Yes. It was part of my tr- truh-" My training. The word stilled in his mouth. He remembered how to say it, how the mouth shape was formed. But he moved to Canada to get away from those words and memories, not to rush headlong back into them."Part of your? Training?" A knowing look crossed Rowan's boyish face. "Let me guess, baseball player. No, rugby player. Definitely rugby, right? You've got the build."Grant's eyes darted to the ground and back up again. Cold pinpricks shuddered up his massive arms. "Rowan. Can I speak to you about something?""Of course. Did you want more books for next month's delivery? You can request up to fifty items.""No, no. Do you think we can talk inside?"Rowan's posture shifted, tightened. "Inside?""If you're comfortable.""I am. I mean, okay. I mean, I'm not uncomfortable-" His lips started moving at a nervous speed. Grant's ability to read him dropped sharply."Wait. Please, slower. Remember?" He gestured the sign for slower, an echo from their first meeting. Rowan's chest grew then shrank. "I'm sorry. I keep forgetting."They stepped into the foyer, halving the distance between their bodies. Grant inhaled the scent of lavender shampoo off the younger man. An uncertain blush of desire roared through his body."Is something wrong?" "I need to explain something to you." This sudden need surprised even him, but if they were going to see each other on a semi-regular basis, Grant thought it was important to divulge. "Last week, when we met. You may have noticed there were a couple of times when it looked liked I had... checked out.""Well, let me apologize for that. I don't always enunciate as well I could.""No, that's not what I meant. This isn't about me being deaf."The librarian shifted again. He started to brush his bangs away - a nervous habit, it seemed - but for once they weren't in his face. "Okay, I'm listening.""Sometimes, I..." Grant started, and hoped against hope that he would put the right words together, that he wouldn't come off as crazy or strange or someone that this incredibly gentle young man should fear. "I have these... I suppose they could be called episodes. I have these episodes. They make me confused. Make me think... that I'm somewhere else, in certain points of my past. I was in the military. Navy SEAL. Don't like thinking or talking about it too much. Every once in a while it just... it floods me."Shame flared in his chest, hot and unwelcome. He didn't like admitting these things to anyone and yet a dam wall had broken wide open, forcing the words to surge forth."So if you're around me and I ever seem lost, or angry, or even scared, it's not because of you. I just need space and time to breathe. Then it's over after a few moments. I just want you know that it's... it's okay to be with me when I get like that. I won't hurt you." The next sentence was the hardest for him to get out. "I don't want you to be afraid of me.""I'm not," Rowan said immediately. He'd been listening attentively, nodding, taking it in. Though his brow was knit with concern there was no trace of pity in his expression. "I really appreciate you telling me that, Mr. Wolfe." "Call me Grant. Don't really like the formal stuff, if that's alright.""Of course. Grant, then," Rowan smiled. The shame in his chest subsided and there was finally enough room in his lungs to take in a full breath. He stood nearly a foot over the average person, knew every type of chokehold and palmstrike, and could perform the quickest gun disarm of anyone in his former Spec Ops team - and yet it was a simple conversation that had him sweating bullets."Would you like a cup of coffee?" Grant offered after his heart rate came back to Earth."I'd love one," Rowan nodded, and together they headed to the kitchen. Honesty seemed like an important thing to Grant. That thought clutched Rowan like a vice as he took a seat at the kitchen table, fiddling with the zipper of his jacket. The note to Tatiana was neatly folded into the breast pocket. He was dead set on giving it back to Grant and he was really, truly serious this time.Except, now? Doubt was creeping back in. To admit to having spells of confusion, displacement, and even anger must have taken tremendous effort on Grant's part. He didn't seem like the type of guy who shared much of himself with anyone. Rowan didn't want to change the mood so drastically and so soon after his confession.Perhaps he could put it off just a little while longer."Your jacket," Grant motioned to him. "You can take it off.""Oh. Alright." He unzipped it awkwardly, all too aware of the thin t-shirt he wore underneath. He hoped it wouldn't get too drafty inside...Truthfully, he didn't know how long he could stay, the library would want the delivery van back sooner than later. But he didn't want to be rude - and he especially didn't want to pass up the opportunity for them to spend more time with each other. He watched his host prepare coffee. Grant had an intense, laser-like focus, as if nothing else existed except the kettle, the mugs, the tray. As the telltale whistle of the kettle shrieked, a device on the kitchen counter started to flash. Alerted, Grant lifted the kettle from the stove. "It's sensitive to noise," Grant said, answering his silent question. "God knows I need it. I drink a lot of coffee.""Me too. I'm an addict.""Cream? Sugar?""Yes, please," Rowan signed in response.Grant regarded him with surprise. "Did I teach you that?""I'm practicing. By myself. A little." His signing still wasn't perfect - it probably wouldn't ever be. But Rowan wanted to make an effort. "How come?" Grant joined him at the table with their mugs. The warmth of his nearness made Rowan sit up a little straighter. "It's good to know another language. And if I can help... you know, someone... or anyone with it, that's a nice bonus."Grant nodded. They sipped coffee. One of these days I'll get an expression out of him. That wasn't to say that Rowan didn't like Grant's face. He liked it the moment they laid eyes on each other. It was a face carved by a hard, but loving hand. Then there was the rest of him. God, where to start? When Grant opened the door and stood there in his dark red Henley, beard shorn down to a medium stubble, sleeves pulled up to reveal those tanned, hairy forearms... well, damn. Even his hair, so thick and tousled, had been combed off his face. Rowan had momentarily forgotten how to speak. Concentrating was difficult even now. The buttons below Grant's collar were undone, revealing a swirl of dark chest hair. The shirt itself seemed a size too small - accentuating his ripped athlete's build instead of hiding it. Oh, he most certainly differed from the scrawny teens and hunchbacked seniors Rowan saw on daily basis.And then he realized he was staring. Grant was staring back, lips slightly parted."Ah!" Rowan exclaimed, to shake himself out of his stupor more than anything, "I forgot to tell you. I can fingerspell my name now.""Can you show me?"He sucked in a small, nervous breath and began what he spent all night practicing. "My name is R-O-W-A..."Shit. The 'N' always tripped him up. Going smoothly from the 'A' to 'N' hand shape was a little confusing since they were so similar. Where was he supposed to tuck his thumb in again? Between the pinky and ring finger or the ring and middle finger?"Here." Grant reached over and guided his signing hand. "N. Like this."Though his fingers were rough and callused, his touch was gentle, careful. As if he were handling a treasured object. Rowan's body thrummed with heat. "So... the thumb... goes between... the ring and the middle finger." He wondered if Grant could also read the shakiness of his voice and hoped really, really hard that he couldn't. He tried again."My name is R-O-W-A... N.""Good," Grant signed back. "Good job.""Yes!" Rowan clapped his hands together and laughed. "I'll get better at this. Maybe. I hope.""You're doing fine."He gave the moment a chance to breathe before he replied. "You're very kind.""Not really."Rowan laughed. "Well, you are to me."It was sweet, but he had to wonder. Was Grant really so terse with other people that these little niceties were considered rare? He had no idea what the man was like when he interacted with anyone other than him. Rowan took another sip and cleared his throat. "You said you were new to the city. How do you like the neighborhood so far?""It's fine.""Are your neighbors nice?"His great shoulders shrugged. "This one couple introduced themselves to me. They kept trying to come over with casseroles, pies. Got annoying. Told them to stop.""I'm sure they were just trying to be neighborly...""They thought I was a charity case. Weekly invites to their church group and all that.""What about your friends? Do they live nearby?"The corner of Grant's mouth hooked into a humorless half-smirk. A smirk that said without saying, I know what you're trying to do. Well, there's that expression you've been trying so hard to get out of him..."I keep to myself.""What do you do for fun, then?" Rowan softly tapped the edge of his mug. He really didn't know anything about Grant, now that he thought about it. Where he was from, if he worked, if he had a girlfriend... "Fun?""Yeah. What does Grant Wolfe do on a beautiful Saturday morning like this?""I normally take a walk around the woods before lunch.""By yourself?""I take my coffee and a book to the pond there sometimes.""A pond? This city has ponds? I haven't seen one since I went camping in grade eight.""Would you like to see it?""Right now?""If you have time."Rowan tamped down the instinct to check his phone screen. This seemed a little more important than keeping to some dumb schedule. "Sure, a walk sounds great."Moments later they were outside in the brisk morning air. Crothers Woods was accessible through Grant's backyard and they followed a beautiful, sun-dappled dirt path through the sea of trees. Autumn had brushed the leaves with magnificent strokes of gold and red. Rowan couldn't ever recall seeing Toronto like this. Even the air was different - cool with a trace of earthiness.Rowan hugged his arms to his chest, lips curving into a soft smile as Grant led him off the path to an opening through the trees. Ahead of him, Grant walked with a long, confident stride, his shoulders wide and square. He was a Navy SEAL, after all. Learning that made a lot of sense to Rowan. The man's physicality, his stoic and powerful presence... even the sense of danger in his gaze. It all pointed to the steely confidence of a man who had served his country. (Well, his country, not mine, Rowan reminded himself.) They walked until they reached a wide clearing. Further ahead was the pond, flat and still as a mirror. As they approached the waterline Grant bent down and skimmed a rock across it, sending waves of perfect ripples across the surface.Neither of them had said a word since they left his house. That was quite alright. Their silence matched their surroundings. Trees cast shadows across the shoreline like the soft quilt Rowan hid under as a child. It was comforting. He always did feel safer unseen.Grant skipped another rock, fleece jacket ruffling in the sudden wind. He looked like a model in one of those outdoor gear catalogs. Rowan tapped his arm to get his attention. "How do you sign 'beautiful'?"After being shown, Rowan mimicked the sign. A sweeping motion across his face. "This place... beautiful.""Good job," Grant signed back."Am I an expert signer yet?"Grant's half-smirk returned. It actually had a hint of humor to it. "Not yet."The wind howled again, colder this time. Clouds were encroaching on the sun, making Grant frown. "Looks like a storm's coming."Rowan followed his gaze until he spotted a tree, old and low, hovering over the far edge of the pond. Something about the dry white bark and the random coil of branches struck him with a vivid familiarity."Oh my god. It's my castle."Grant stared at him, probably thinking he misread his lips. "That's what I used to call this tree in my backyard when I was a kid. It looked exactly like the one on the far side of the pond. I mean, it's uncanny."He ran to it. Childlike excitement fueled every step. Up close, the resemblance was even more striking. He swooped his fingers along the crevices that veined the bark. "I used to climb that tree every day after school," he said as Grant caught up with him. "Sometimes I didn't even want to come down, not even for dinner. My mom would get so mad. Sounds silly, I know. But I loved being in my castle.""How come?""It made me feel safe."His hands continued to roam the tree's old, weathered skin. Its long, thick limbs sagged heavily to the ground. Rowan felt one foot lift, then the other, and before he knew it he had taken point on the lowest branch. Grant moved closer to him. Stood up straighter. "Careful.""I've been climbing trees all my life, dude. I'll be fine." He reached the next highest branch. The thrill of escape that exhilarated him as a child came racing back into his veins. "You don't know how sturdy those branches are. It's an old tree.""Grant, really," he almost laughed, ignoring the creakiness he felt beneath his shoes, "I'll be okay." He climbed onto the next highest branch. Then the next. Grant was tense now, tenser than he really needed to be, in Rowan's opinion. The view from this height was terrific, though the sight of heavy clouds rolling across the horizon was slightly worrying. "Hey, do you think it's going to rai-"A loud SNAP that only Rowan heard filled the air. His footing disappeared and all he saw as he tumbled down was the blur of the surrounding forest. Then he saw Grant, suddenly there like a big dark wall, arms extended, reaching, catching...They slammed into the grass. The larger man covered most of him, one of his hands tucking Rowan's head protectively into his chest. His other arm was around Rowan's waist.Not how I thought this would happen. All he could hear was the ringing in his ears and the heart thundering in his ribcage. And he thought, maybe, Grant's lips were pressed against his hair. Or was it his imagination?Grant's weight lifted and his hands searched him, gentle but purposeful. Looking for injuries. Of the two of them, he seemed way more concerned. Rowan was simply trying to quiet the storm beneath his chest.Eventually, Grant's voice started to penetrate the roar of adrenaline. "Don't move. Are you hurt?"Rowan tried to push a 'No' through his stampede of breaths, but when it didn't come, he signed it instead. It was one of the first signs he memorized, and one of the easiest - the forefinger, middle finger, and thumb clamping together. Grant exhaled. It sounded like relief. "Told you not to climb it.""Sorry.""You're impulsive.""I'm not. Usually.""Don't try anything like that again." His admonishment was sharp."So much for my professional tree climbing career, huh?""You could've broken your arm. You could've..."Grant trailed off and a distance fogged the intense grey of his eyes.A fragile silence. The kind that tingled. Rowan dared to break it. "Hey. I really am sorry."Grant frowned, shook his head, and snapped back to the present. "Come on, stand up."Then Rowan realized things hurt. His shoulder, his hip. Pain shot through his right ankle. Grant's ruddy face crinkled with concern. "You're hurt.""No, I-" Rowan didn't want him to worry but lying was pointless. "A little."Grant's strong hands helped him to his feet. Rowan put a little pressure on his ankle. Not broken but definitely too tender to walk on. "Here." Grant's arm hooked around his waist. "We'll go slow. Lean into me."Rowan did as he was told. He fit perfectly into the muscular crevasse between Grant's arm and chest. Since they weren't facing each other, he signed as he spoke. "Thank you for helping me.""You're welcome," Grant signed with his free hand.Slow and steady, they started down the path back into the woods. It wasn't particularly graceful, with Rowan awkwardly relying on his left foot for forward movement, but Grant remained patient and careful. At one point, Rowan stole a glance in his direction and saw the taller man was concentrating entirely on him. His big dark brows had bunched together and his mouth was a hard, straight line, as if balancing a priceless antique with one hand. "I'm okay," Rowan signed with a chuckle. "I wont break."Grant looked away. "I shouldn't have brought you here. It was my fault you got hurt.""Hey." Rowan tapped his shoulder, drawing their eyes back together. "I got hurt because I wasn't listening. I was being dumb. I'm glad you brought me here, I liked seeing the woods with you.""You did?""Yeah. It's a whole other world. Trees and secret paths and a pond. Plus you're a really nice guy.""No I'm not.""Oh, come on! A mean guy wouldn't let me lean on him.""I don't always feel like a nice guy.""What do you feel right now?" Rowan held his breath after the words left his lips. He knew he was upping the ante."I suppose I feel... useful. Right now.""Useful.""Yes.""Do you feel anything else?"The heavy clouds that had been gathering all morning finally fulfilled their promise and unleashed a spectacular boom of thunder. Grant pointed skyward. He looked relieved. "That. I feel that.""Good save."They continued on toward the woods as the first drop of rain hit the curve of Rowan's goosebump-pebbled neck.
  15. The Strong Silent Type

    Rowan took a seat on the living room sofa while Grant dried off his chest with a towel. Clearing his throat, Rowan became very interested in examining the stitches of the sofa cushions. He hadn't been around such casual partial nudity since his last gym visit. A year and a half ago."Coffee?" Grant asked. "Oh, yeah, sure." He realized a moment too late that he'd hidden the movement of his lips. He corrected his posture and the position of his chin. "Yes, please. Thank you."Grant draped the heavy towel around his shoulders but it couldn't conceal the power of his body. He didn't seem the type to exercise just for vanity; he was a honed machine, built for a boxing ring or fighting cage. Yet here they were in the comfort of his home and there was too much wariness in his stance, too much danger. Why? Rowan didn't think of himself as intimidating by any definition of the word. "Do you need any help?" he offered. "No." Grant shot off to the kitchen, that gruff expression never changing. As soon as he disappeared Rowan collapsed into the sofa, hands shielding his face. Ugh, it was awkward. No denying that. The situation was uncomfortable to begin with and now that he was dealing with an impossibly gorgeous lumberjack, well...Rowan peeked through his finger tent and took in his pristine, spare surroundings. No television, no pictures or any personal objects of any kind. Just the sofa, a coffee table, and several half-empty bookshelves. Of everything in the room only the fireplace, with its blackened brick edges and deep smoky scent, seemed to get any use at all. He was still hunched into his defeated little curl when Grant returned with a tray of coffee. The taller man made a noise - a grunt that was caught between surprise and confusion - which made Rowan sit straight up. "I was just..." he started, but Grant settled onto the chair across from him and didn't seem that interested in an explanation. He was now in a tanktop and sweats."Spell your name for me." "Sorry?""Your name," Grant said louder as he tapped a blank pad of paper on the table. "Spell it."He did as he was told, feeling Grant's slate grey eyes all over him. When he finished, Rowan pushed the pad in his direction."Roh-wan?""That's my name, believe it or not. It's actually a dumb story. When my mom was in labor she read that the Rowan tree in England was believed to protect people from witches and that was the only thing that calmed her down before the epidural kicked in. In Gaelic it means someone who heals, and... I'm talking a lot about my name, aren't I?"Grant pinned him with an expression as opaque as his eyes. He drank his entire coffee in one non-nonchalant gulp. "Why are you here, again?"Right, Rowan thought with a twinge of embarrassment. Stop wasting the man's time and get down to business.They spent the next several minutes going over Grant's home delivery application, filling in gaps, correcting misinformation. The mystery of his phone number was solved: Grant had been using a phone relay service that he recently decided to disconnect."It was very annoying." He signed annoying for emphasis.Thankfully, Grant also had a smartphone and agreed to update his record with the number. He then provided an email address but warned, "I don't like to check it.""Well, you're going to have start liking it, Mr. Wolfe. Especially if you plan on using our services."Rowan explained his job as a librarian and learned that the correct term for Grant was deafened, meaning he'd lost his hearing as an adult. It fell under the realm of eligibility for the program and the news seemed to be a genuine relief. Grant's shoulders, broad as a mountain rage, actually relaxed somewhat."What can the library deliver for me?""Books, magazines, and DVDs. You'll receive a monthly delivery. You can request specific titles yourself through the library website. Or if you prefer, you can give me a list of genres and formats you're interested in and the selecting can be done for you.""Books," Grant signed. It looked exactly how Rowan thought it would: two palms opening side by side. "Only books."Rowan rather liked watching Grant sign as he talked, it lent his words a certain expressiveness that his face (handsome as it was) didn't quite allow. Even if he hadn't smiled once during their conversation, he still seemed engaged and interested."And what genres interest you?""Biographies. Literary fiction.""So, anything that's won an award?" Rowan teased. "I'm working my way through the complete list of Giller Prize winners." "I'll have to make a note of that." Grant scanned the pucker of Rowan's lips to the arch of his brows. "You're surprised.""I'm what?""The way your eyebrows raised when you spoke. You looked surprised.""It's just- I work in my branch's circulation department and if something hasn't been adapted into a movie or Netflix series, patrons aren't very interested in reading it." A pause. "And now I sound like a judgmental snob...""No, no." Grant shook his head and then signed, "You're fine.""I really didn't mean to. The reason I'm a librarian is because I want to encourage anyone to read or access whatever information they want. I just can't help but notice certain trends, I guess."Grant repeated the You're fine sign. If he was offended, he didn't show it. "What else are you interested in reading, then?""Adventure. Maybe science fiction.""Horror? Mystery? " "I don't think so.""What about... romance?" "No."Rowan kept his face neutral and tried to hush the confused voice in his head. But what about The Time Traveler's Wife?"Back to science fiction, were you interested in any particular subgenre? Like sci-fi fantasy, speculative sci-fi, first contact, military--""No." The word shot out hard and sudden. The hand holding his cup seized with a violent reflex, sloshing his arm with the warm liquid. "No military books. Nothing like that.""Okay." Taken aback, Rowan handed him a napkin. "Take science fiction off my list. Alright?""Alright. It's off."Grant dried off and threw the crumpled napkin to the table. "Excuse me." He was gone before Rowan could protest. Grant slammed into the backyard and took in huge mouthfuls of air. He tried doing all those things his former therapist had told him: go outside if you can, count to ten, root yourself to the ground. He sat on the grass, feet planted and knees up. He slowed his breathing. He counted. One, two...He knew Rowan had looked at him the same way everyone else did when he got this way. Doctor, teammate, family member, friend - like he had those anymore - the expression was always the same. Fear. Stretched tight across their eyes and mouths. That's why he had to get out of there. He hated that look. Hated knowing he was the reason for it. ...three, four...Grant thought he'd been getting better at controlling himself. One year ago he removed himself from his triggers, moved all the way up from the States to Canada, found a nice little place by the woods. Yet he couldn't endure a visit from a damn librarian (!) without needing an escape plan after a few minutes. ...five, six...A librarian. The thought almost brought him out of the darkness, almost put a smile on his scruffy face. Of all the things to trip him up and throw him out of sorts... a librarian? And not some stern old lady, either. Earlier in the yard when Grant realized he'd been approached by a slender young man with chocolate brown hair that fell messily over his wide, searching eyes, he thought... ...seven, eight...Well, he didn't know what he thought. A neighbor? Some kid who'd been trailing the woods and got lost? This Rowan boy hadn't looked scared when their eyes first connected, though he had every reason to be. He was in the yard of a strange man holding an axe. But his approach had been friendly and curious, if not entirely confident. Urgh. Somehow, that made flying off the handle in front of him all the worse. A librarian. God damn....nine, ten.A shadow crossed the lawn. He looked up to find Rowan waving as he approached. "I don't mean to bother you, Mr. Wolfe.""I'm sorry." He signed sorry, a fist closed over his chest that he rubbed in a circular motion.Rowan shook his head. "You don't need to apologize. I just need to confirm a couple of things before I go."Grant started to rise, thinking they should reconvene in the living room, but Rowan joined him on the grass instead. The glow of the low sun highlighted the shape of his face, his high cheekbones and full lips. His eyes flowed like clear tropical water, welcoming and calm.The tightness in Grant's chest unfurled. "What day of the week would you prefer for your delivery?""Saturdays are fine."Rowan ticked off another box on his form. "Mornings or afternoons?""Mornings." "Great. Do you have any other questions before I go?"Grant noticed the younger man's chest was rising and falling at a faster clip. He was nervous, but about what? Saying goodbye?"Are you going to be my delivery person?"A shade of rose blushed his guest's milky skin."Oh, I... I don't know. That's up to the department.""Can I request you to be my delivery person?"Rowan's chest fluttered again as he clearly tried to fight back the start of a grin. "I could try but I can't guarantee anything.""I don't like to meet too many new people. Explaining myself over and over... I don't like that." He signed I don't like that and let his mouth dip into a small frown. Back when he was still learning ASL, his instructors once got on his case for not making himself expressive enough when he signed. Grant then 'expressed' that if someone couldn't suss out the meaning of his signs that was their goddamn problem, not his. His instructors never mentioned it again. Mostly because he stopped going to their classes."I understand," Rowan's lips said slowly. "Can you teach me something? You don't have to, but I'm curious. How do you sign 'understand'?"Grant raised his fist to the side of his forehead and flicked his forefinger upward. "Understand."Rowan mirrored him, positioned his fist, flicked his forefinger. "Understand." He pointed to his chest and performed the sign again. "I understand. Was that right?""You don't have to point to yourself. Just sign it and nod."Rowan did as he suggested. Grant made a thumbs up in approval."Aha, I did it!" He started to laugh. "I actually learned something useful. It only took me 27 years."Since his accident, Grant had no use for laughter. He couldn't hear it and didn't miss it - it served no purpose in his life. But seeing Rowan light up over learning one simple sign... a feeling stirred deep inside him. Something he'd buried a long time ago. Something he had no idea how to handle. "Well, I have all the information I need here." Rowan handed him a card. "Email me if something changes. I definitely recommend setting up your account on our website. That'll make it easier to track your holds.""You're very... helpful. Thank you." He'd almost forgotten how to say it. Did the words come out too fast? Too slow? Though he couldn't hear himself, Grant only hoped he gave the words the conviction they deserved. "I'm just doing my job, Mr. Wolfe."As Rowan motioned to stand up, that unearthed feeling stirred again, making itself clearer and fuller. The chivalry he'd been taught growing up in Dallas pulsed into every limb and nerve ending he had. So Grant stood first, his brawny six-foot-five frame filling the air, as he extended a hand. "Please," he said, "Allow me."After a moment of hesitation, their hands met. Grant hadn't felt skin that soft in ages. It almost embarrassed him how rough and calloused his palm must have felt against those silky fingers. Rowan lifted to his feet without much effort at all as a shy smile emerged in the shadow that crossed his face.A muscle spasmed in Grant's jaw. The involuntary movement made Rowan's smile disappear. "Is everything okay?"There were times when Grant was fine with speaking even though he couldn't hear his own voice. Speech therapists helped him pace his words and form the correct mouth shapes just as he could when he was a hearing man. Then there were times like these, when a question like Is everything okay? inspired such a confusing tidal wave of thoughts that Grant could no longer trust his ability to vocalize. In these circumstances the words wanted to come out faster than his brain could process. He feared what those words would sound like if he ever unleashed him. Would they be striking, loud, terrorizing? Or the same toneless drone that school kids used when they mimicked the deaf or disabled? No. He wouldn't let anyone hear him like that. So he turned every vein and muscle into steel and kept those thoughts inside where they were safe and couldn't hurt anyone. That's enough, a strong voice chastised. There's someone standing in front of you. You're not lying in bed in a cold sweat anymore. Be present. Be the man who got through all three phases of BUD/S.BUD/S. Remembering it was a startling explosion of red in the darkness. Then the images and sensations cascaded: obstacle courses, long distance diving, kicking up sand as his calves screamed, weapons training, brutal three-hour night sleeps, demolitions, combat swimming in frigid waters, the ghostly echoes of shouts and screams and...Enough. The memory of his Navy service was enough to wrench him back to reality, back to the grass under his feet, the trill of songbirds over his head, the early autumn breeze on his bare arms. Rowan's lips were moving. Though he had trouble focusing, he didn't need an interpreter to see how concerned the young librarian was. "Yes," Grant settled. "I'm fine." Rowan buckled his seat belt and readjusted the library van's rear view mirror off his face and onto the road. Grant escorted him back to the driveway to see him off. There were a couple of moments when the man almost seemed to go blank, not to mention that strange interruption that saw him step outside, but otherwise Grant had been nothing but a gentleman. He kept a certain distance, sure, but they were strangers. Not everyone warmed up at the same speed.He was intriguing. Rowan couldn't imagine losing his hearing and then voluntarily living on his own. That seemed scary. But Grant was a great deal more resourceful and resilient than the average man. Whatever led him to his life of solitude, that was his business. And yet.... doesn't a part of him seem... you know... lonely?Grant approached the driver's side door as the engine started. He was still ruggedly handsome, but up close Rowan could see how haunted his features were. Hollow, almost. The features of a man who'd seen - and perhaps did - more than he ever wanted to. And his eyes, intense and alert as they were, hid a profound sense of longing. Stop it, Rowan snapped. You don't know this man. You have a master's degree in library science, not psychology.Grant leaned one muscular arm against the van roof. "When is the first delivery?"Rowan tried not to pay attention to the way that thin grey tanktop generously hugged the outline of his chest. But at least it was a distraction from the flex of his bare arms, which were a deep shade of sun-given bronze. An ache of desire blossomed in his stomach. "It can start as early as next Saturday." "So I'll see you next Saturday.""But I still can't guarantee I'll be the driver."Grant ran a couple of fingers back and forth across his beard. "What sign is that?""No, it's just itchy.""Ah. Right." A finger self-consciously tapped his smooth cheek. "Not being a beard owner myself, I didn't realize they could get itchy. But, duh. Of course they do.""I wont sign something without saying it in front of you first. I'll make that a rule now.""You seem very confident that you'll see me again, Mr. Wolfe.""If the library sends someone else I can't guarantee I'll be as nice to them."Rowan laughed. "Something tells me you aren't kidding." "I'm not." "Then I'll be sure to warn the department head." He brought the van's stick shift out of park and into reverse. "Goodbye for now?"Grant patted the roof and eased away from the vehicle. "Until next time.""If I see you again, you better teach me some new signs!""Okay," Grant signed in response. He recognized the gestures: the hand making an O, and then the forefinger, middle finger and thumb forming the K. Rowan waved goodbye as the van peeled off the driveway and into the street.It wasn't until he'd driven halfway back to library that he remembered the envelope sitting on the passenger seat. And the paper folded inside it, with those troubling words to a woman named Tatiana..."Shit," Rowan hit a hand against the steering wheel. The note had completely slipped his mind. It was the entire reason he came! Returning it seemed more awkward than ever. He didn't want to be responsible for the damn thing. It really was like hanging on to someone else's bad dream. But then he thought of the way Grant asked to see him again, how he curtly insisted that he be the one to make the deliveries. Oh, Rowan hoped he hadn't made too much of an ass of himself. When Grant's large hand slipped over his it was like the air had escaped his lungs. No... not just his lungs. It was like the air had escaped the atmosphere. To think that a man - any man - could pin him down with such a warm, strong gaze - and then ask, no, demand, that they see each other again, well... Shit.Yes, Rowan's head was in the clouds. Yes, he was nursing a bit of a crush. (Just a bit.) He could admit it. He could almost admit that it likely meant nothing. Men like Grant Wolfe were never interested in men like Rowan Watson. The lumberjack and the librarian wasn't exactly a popular pairing. It wasn't an observation rooted in bitterness, but reality. He knew where he stood in the dating pool, and it was certainly nowhere near anyone who looked like they could rip a tree out of the ground with their bare hands.But he could compartmentalize as needed. A crush, while fun, can be put aside. And Rowan knew he would have to, especially if it meant helping out someone who needed it. That made the possibility of returning to the cozy little bungalow off Crothers Woods more than just a silly but pleasant daydream. Grant padded down to the basement he'd converted into a personal gym. His head had been swimming all damn day and he needed a good rush of endorphins to tide him over until dinner. With the casual ease of a man who'd spent his entire life getting fit, Grant gripped the pull-up bar built into the basement ceiling and started his routine.One... two... three... his breaths escaped him in small, practiced grunts.It was his way of coming back to normal. Well, his version of normal. His days usually consisted of exercise, reading, cooking, doing chores around the house, working on his paintings. Long, involved conversations with a hearing person were rare. Well, non-existent, really. He'd forgotten how much work being around the hearing was. Speechreading, something he still hadn't fully mastered, required a profound level of concentration on a good day. ...four... five... six...Rarer still was being around a hearing person he actually wanted to speechread. Thankfully, Rowan was expressive enough and made an actual effort to speak slowly and clearly. Grant only had trouble understanding him when he stumbled over his words. As polite as he was, the younger man seemed to struggle with his confidence. And dealing with Grant's moods couldn't have been easy, either....seven, eight, nine...Grant finished his tenth pull-up and dropped into a set of push-ups. His mind was on autopilot now, drifting toward that night's meal, reminding himself to check the weather forecast, to prepare the fireplace if need be.By the time he started on dips, the faint memory of helping Rowan get to his feet resurfaced. Grant thought of the way that tight runner's body went taut as he stood, how the wind slapped against them in that moment and made him shiver slightly. He'd fought the urge to pull the younger man closer, to warm him against his chest. Grant had to stop mid-dip. His focus was eroding. Tiny streams of electricity danced up his right hand and forearm - the same one Rowan allowed him the pleasure of touching. He wiped at his sweating brow. Where the hell did all this come from? He ran from things like this - ran and never dared to look back. But one simple, unannounced visit had untethered him from the world he worked so hard to build and now he was spinning out of orbit. The weirdest part? He was kind of... intrigued... to see where it would take him.He hoped that this strange creature - this librarian - would show up on his doorstep next Saturday with that same timid smile. Grant strapped on his weight lifting gloves and took a seat on the padded bench. He scratched at his beard again and wondered if he should shave for next time. Huh. Next time. He wanted there to be a next time.How strange it was to look forward to something again.
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