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Description When a strange institution comes to town in a remote valley community in the Rockies, the locals are put off by the newcomers’ aloofness. But when things go wrong in the strangers’ compound, rancher Kevin and his sheriff’s deputy best buddy Pauly find out just how weird things are up there.

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Updated9 Dec 2016
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Part 1

Carraido Gorge was a long way from anywhere, but, as is often the case with isolated, far-flung communities well off the beaten path, the people who endure the isolation there tended, on the whole, to like it that way. On a map Carraido Gorge looked like some god with a chisel and a dark desire to do damage to the Earth had viciously gouged a long, curved defile between two ranges far enough north in the Rockies that no one would notice the vandalism, leaving a deep, crescent-shaped canyon with ragged, steep walls plummeting down a narrow floor. But what looked forbidding on a hiker’s topo map or staring straight down with Google Earth was in fact a comfortable ecosystem for the hardy, self-sufficient, and generally content wildlife and the couple hundred or so equally hardy, self-sufficient, and equally content human inhabitants of Carraido Gorge. The canyon walls were thickly forested, perfect for hiking as long as you had good boots, enjoyed crisp, clean air, and were fine with the general direction being “up” (or, at the end of your day’s exertions, “down”).

More adventurous wandering took you to even loftier heights as the wooded shoulders that walled in the valley erupted on either side into soaring, jagged ranges so vertical the sky seemed to be hauling up by some relentless and inexorable force the very foundations of the earth. Most impressive of these heights were the Kings of Carraido Gorge. That was the local name for the majestic snowcapped mountains dominating its southern head: Fassmore Peak (9,300 feet) and, just over its shoulder, Neardon Peak (8,400 feet).

Carraido Gorge was a long way from anywhere, but that was part of its appeal to the flinty, soft-spoken farmers and ranchers who benefitted from the valley’s rich soil and drank the cold, clean water of the loudly roiling Carraido River that coursed through the long, nail-paring-shaped canyon. They were inclined to be cautiously tolerant of the occasional outsider blowing into Carraido every few years or so, craving the sort of isolation the Carraidans took for granted, if only because what the stiff Rocky Mountain winds blew in they often blew out again. Some stayed, though, and became important threads in the fabric of the community.

More than a few of the chief farms and families of the valley owed their vitality and continued existence to the occasional sturdy newcomer who came looking for simple escape from the urban madness and toxic stupidity of the modern world and found, to their amazement, love, hearth, and home. Kevin Lynch, who operated a small family ranch near the extreme southern reaches of the valley, in the shadow of the Kings, was on his mother’s side the happy result of such a blow-in. That accounted for the high cheekbones and hairless chest that evoked his Japanese grandfather, though his impressive height and hard muscle, not to mention his uncannily bright, ice-blue eyes, the product of strong Nordic lines on both sides (including Margit, the straw-haired and fierce-eyed grandmother who’d married the itinerant Tanzan Asahara), made him look like a very child of the mountains that sheltered his farmstead. His dark, russet hair, usually kept long and shaggy, was a pleasant reminder of his mixed and colorful ancestry.

Thanks to his own heritage, Kevin knew as well as anyone in the Gorge the value of new blood into this close-knit, self-contained community he’d loved all his life. The faint resentment he and many of his fellow Carraidans had toward the Pinewood Institute was less about strangers coming into the valley than the fact that the newcomers kept themselves studiously aloof and separate. They holed up in the little compound partway up the slopes of Fassmore Peak and seldom ventured into the town even for necessities, preferring to have deliveries shipped from Laskey, the nearest small city beyond the concave, or inner, range that formed the westward wall of the bending Gorge. The Pinewood compound had once been a federal Fish and Wildlife outpost, and in the Eighties and Nineties there had been a steady trickle of government scientists on short projects studying the local trees and the clan of golden eagles who made their home in and around Neardon Peak. But the post had been abandoned for years until, one day about eight months back, a large, blue unmarked panel truck had sped through town and wound its way up the old gravel mountain road and Eugenia in the town hall started whispering about a sudden flurry of requests permits to be issued in the name of something called Pinewood Institute.

From his back deck Kevin could usually just barely glimpse a corner of the distant compound’s gleaming outer wall where it perched on a cleared promontory, tiny in the far reaches of the slopes above him but still present and somehow imminent. He’d often wondered, in the intervening months, just what the newcomers were up to. He”d assumed there was a “they”, but he’d only ever seen one of them: a skinny, taciturn young man with an unruly cascade of wavy, raven-black hair that made a striking contrast with his pale, almost milky-white skin, and a face that would have been beautiful if not for the perpetually knit brows and preoccupied glower behind glinting, steel-rimmed specs.

Kevin had seen him a total of twice in the eight months. Once was in town. He’d seen the man picking up some plumbing supplies in something of a hurry at Sid’s dry goods store about a month after the compound was reoccupied. A couple months later, Kevin had been mending his fences near the main valley road when he’d seen the man driving past in a green pickup that still read “United States Fish and Wildlife Service” on the door. The pale man was frowning as usual, as if he had some dark matter to settle in town—although he apparently hadn’t been heading for town, seeing as no one Kevin had talked to at the diner that night had seen the stranger, or noticed the ex-government vehicle actually come through the town center, so where he’d actually been heading was a mystery. Both brief encounters had stuck with Kevin, not least because each time he’d seen him the stranger had turned unexpectedly and made fleeting, intense eye contact with Kevin for the briefest of moments, long enough to skewer Kevin’s heart. Then he’d looked away again, and moments later he was gone, vanished once more into the unknown.

There were rumors of strange deliveries of unusual machine parts and exotic materials to the compound alongside more mundane and unremarkable imports of food and necessities. Most of these tales originated with Walt, the garrulous old UPS driver based in Laskey who regularly bent an elbow at the counter at Olivia’s diner or, some nights, at the Carraido Tavern. One story had the pale man in the steel-rimmed glasses telling Walt to be careful not to drop the small but heavy wooden crate strapped onto the hand truck as he negotiated the ramp down from the back of the van—unless he wasn’t particularly attached to the idea of having attached genitals. (Walt delivered the punchline to his laughing audience: “You can bet I was damn careful with that crate!”)

No one knew the pale man’s name, and he hadn’t volunteered it. All the deliveries were addressed to the Pinewood Institute. Someone had started referring to him jokingly as the Raven—Kevin presumed this was because of his mane of black hair and glowering demeanor—and the nickname had stuck, when the locals were bored enough to refer to him at all.

Still, Kevin found that the man crept into his thoughts in unguarded moments. Occasionally, sitting on his deck with a Saturday evening whiskey watching the failing sunlight fall away from his little corner of the world, leaving the thick forests in deepening shadow, he’d see the tiny lights of the high compound spring up in defiance of the gathering night and wonder about that handsome, brooding man. What was he up to up there? Was he lonely, working up there away from the whole world, with only infrequent visits from old Walt for outside contact? Did he just need someone from the community down here in the valley to come up and say “hello” and welcome him to Carraido? Someone like Kevin, who could maybe use a new friend or two himself?

Most of the town was bugged by the newcomer’s self-enforced isolation, though, and for all his curiosity Kevin was put off by it too. Certainly no one, not even Kevin, had unbent enough to reach out to whoever was up on the mountain. Kevin joked about it sometimes with Pauly, his childhood friend and currently the Gorge’s sole deputy sheriff, as they hung out at the tavern or on their periodic weekend fishing excursions at the north end of the valley. For some reason that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, lately Kevin had been aware of a gathering unease in himself about both the stranger’s isolation and Kevin’s own preoccupation with it. Maybe that’s part of the reason Kevin reacted with an access of real distress when the compound exploded late one cold Thursday night a week after Halloween.

Kevin was in his kitchen, sharing a beer with Pauly, who was looking mighty fine in his deputy’s uniform, especially as lately the outfit’s strong beige fabric had been starting to look a little snug across the chest and shoulders thanks to Pauly’s recent fascination with the gym equipment he’d discovered a few months back in a basement room of his lonely sheriff’s outpost in town. Kevin had long known, from regular bouts of casual, shared shirtlessness watching football on Kevin’s big flatscreeen or aimless afternoon drives in Pauly’s sheriff truck, that Pauly had a significant mat of dark blond chest hair that was just a bit kinkier than the soft curls on his head that Pauly had previously tended to keep short but had been growing out a bit lately; and he kind of wanted to get a closer look at how that chest hair looked these days nestled between those developing pecs. He had been weighing making some kind of comment about Pauly’s emerging buffness, unsure as usual about the risks involved or even the extent to which his fishing buddy would appreciate Kevin’s … appreciation, when suddenly they heard a muffled boom, faint but distinct in the otherwise still November night.

Kevin and Pauly exchanged glances and then wordlessly moved toward the sound, through living room and out the sliding doors onto the deck. Their gaze drifted up the mist-enshrouded slopes thrusting straight up before them sat the end of the valley to where the Pinewood compound perched halfway up the mountain. Daylight had mostly ebbed away, the sun having all but made its escape beyond the western range, but between what was left of the day and the waxing quarter moon glistening in the deep cobalt sky there was enough light to see black smoke pouring out of the installation against the white mists sifting through the thick forest. Kevin thought there was something else too, a faint blueness he could barely perceive, an eerie light that was neither sun nor moon, but that was not made by men, either.

Even as he stared up at the drifting smoke Kevin felt his heart fill with fear. The Raven—!

Pauly uttered a curse. He was evidently thinking about the black-haired stranger as well, because what he said next was, “Fucker finally blew himself up.” He shook his head, as if consigning the stranger to the damnation of his self-constructed fate.

Kevin turned to Pauly, surprised at the alarm coursing through him. “We’ve got to go up there, Pauly,” he said.

Pauly narrowed his eyes slightly, giving Kevin a hard look. But what he said was, “I know.”

“He could have survived,” Kevin insisted, as if Pauly had objected. “And we don’t know for sure that there’s no one else up there.”

“I know,” Pauly repeated. He cocked his head back behind him, to where his sheriff’s truck was parked out front. “C’mon,” he said. “We should try to make it up there before it gets too late. There’s a big storm forecast for the middle of the night,” he added.

Kevin nodded. “Lemme go get my flashlight and emergency kit,” he said. “I’ll meet you at the truck.” Pauly gave him a quick nod in return and set off down the steps to their right and around the house.

Kevin was about to head back into the house when he heard one of the dogs yip once somewhere to his left. Curious, he headed over to the side of the deck and peered toward the side of the house. He couldn’t see much in the failing light, but then he noticed Rex, one of the sheepdogs, had trotted over to investigate something that had was into the bed of herbs near the kitchen door. Had a bird hit the window and fallen stunned to the ground at some point earlier in the day? But before Kevin could head down and check, Rex had already retrieved whatever it was and was heading back toward the deck with it carefully clasped in his teeth. Kevin moved over to the steps even as Rex padded up them, wondering what the dog had found. It looked big, but it also looked pink, as if the bird been not only confused but stark naked as well.

Rex dropped his prize at Kevin’s feet, where it hit the pressure-treated wood of the deck with a quiet thud. Kevin stared at it. It wasn’t a bird, that was for sure. It was a human hand.

Part 2

Stepping back, Rex sat on his haunches and panted up at Kevin happily, as if bringing his master human hands were a long-established part of their relationship.

Kevin crouched for a closer look at the hand, not quite ready to touch it. It was a big hand, bigger than his own—and he, the teasingly described mountain man, had pretty big hands himself. It was the hand of someone bigger than him and substantially bigger than average, maybe 7 feet or more if Kevin were to scale up from his own hands and the hands of guys a size smaller than him, like Pauly. Not a huge man necessarily, but, well, slightly huge.

A left hand, if that meant anything, though, not sure he was thinking clearly, he double-checked the placement of the thumbs on his own hands just to make sure. But what struck him was how pink and healthy the hand looked. It was a little scruffy with a smudge of dirt here and there, but it wasn’t bruised, or discolored from blood loss—nor was it bloody and maimed, as you’d expect a severed hand to be. In fact the base of the hand, where a wrist should have been, was just more smooth, pink skin, as if human hands were naturally separate and independent organisms.

Still crouching, he exchanged a glance with Rex, as if the dog might have more information that he’d withheld until now. Rex collapsed in a contented heap on the deck, which Kevin took as an expression of opinion to the effect that there was nothing to be concerned about. Kevin looked back at the hand. Slowly, heart fluttering, he reached out and touched the hand gently in the middle of the palm. He gasped as the fingers twitched and then froze, not daring to move, as the thumb lifted and, visibly tentative, brushed itself along the side of Kevin’s index finger.

The palm and the thumb both felt warm. Warm. As in—

The realization spread through Kevin’s shocked mind like a storm: this hand was…alive! Actually, “alive” didn’t seem to even begin to cover it. This was—fuck, this——!

Pauly’s shout from the front of the house interrupted his mental wheel-spinning. “Kev!” his buddy yelled, startling Kevin badly. “You coming?”

Kevin collected himself quickly, though he was still feeling shaken. “Be right there!” he shouted back, as loud as he could, not taking his eyes off the hand. He was fascinated by it, but he couldn’t quite think straight. His rational mind seemed derailed by the hand’s presence, not to mention its existence. He was certain only that he couldn’t just leave it here for the dogs to play with and the rain to pummel. He had to do something with it. Pauly might help—but no, something stopped him from bringing it to Pauly. It felt like something Pauly might not understand or want to deal with. Pauly was a smart man, but he was straightforward and practical. He liked things—explicable.

He couldn’t leave it, but he couldn’t show Pauly either. Bring it with him, but hidden? It wouldn’t be good for it to jostle around in his bag with the tools—

Kevin shook his head. Shoving it all aside in his brain for later, he snatched the hand up and stood, then, after only a second’s hesitation, shoved it where he shoved his shirt when he pulled it off on hot days, under the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back. Then, heading back into the house, he pulled on his long fleece-lined coat from the hall closet, hoping that would be enough to hide it. With any luck, Pauly would be too preoccupied with whatever was happening at the installation up the mountain to notice he had a moving bulge in the back of his coat. Kevin quickly grabbed the long, heavy-duty flashlight and the emergency tool satchel he kept in the mud room and hurried out to the truck.

Pauly was leaning against his door expectantly. He’d pulled his sturdy sheriff’s coat on too, and was watching Kevin trot down the front steps toward him with an arched brow. “Everything okay?” Pauly asked.

Kevin thought about the warm, disembodied human hand he had stashed behind him. Though he’d shoved the hand in more or less at random, it turned out he’d slid it in with the palm against his skin and the fingers pointed down, and even in that moment he felt the hand’s middle finger shift slightly so that it lay directly against the upper end of his crack. He felt the finger extend slightly, and then slowly draw back—then, calmly and deliberately, slowly extend again. It’s massaging my coccyx, he thought dazedly. He realized his cock was swelling rapidly in his boxer-briefs, already well past half-hard, and was glad he hadn’t had the impulse to shove the hand down the front of his pants. He drew in a breath and, remembering belatedly that Pauly had asked him if everything was okay, he responded with an effort at nonchalance, “Sure! Let’s go.” Pauly gave him an odd look—why, Kevin wasn’t quite sure—but turned and got into the car. Kevin followed suit, climbing carefully into the passenger side and seating himself gingerly. They pulled out, turning left onto the main road down-valley, in the direction of Fassmore Peak.

They didn’t speak much as they took the next turnoff, a mile down the rising gorge from Kevin’s place, and then started winding noisily up the gravel mountain road. Kevin’s thoughts returned to the steel-spectacled stranger, though his worries were continually interrupted by awareness of that middle finger slowly stroking his upper crack. He was fully hard now, and dreaded having to explain his arousal to Pauly should he happen to notice. Of course, Pauly had seen him boned up plenty of times since their hormones had overtaken them during puberty—Kevin’s arousal tended to run unusually high, and during their teens Kevin had been hard more often than not, especially around Pauly. Pauly complained about this, but mostly because it got him boned up, and his erections were even harder to hide than Kevin’s. To combat this problem the teens had initiated regular before-school shared jack-off sessions in Pauly’s bedroom (since his house was around the corner from school, so they could book it to homeroom as soon as they were done), and, though these hadn’t had much effect in staving off their near-constant erections, they’d kept the ritual up through to graduation and even beyond, so that now, five years out of high school, they still met up before Pauly’s shift most weekday mornings to beat off together, though now they tended to do it in the interrogation room of Pauly’s otherwise empty sheriff’s station, switching to Kevin’s barn occasionally for variety.

So it wouldn’t exactly be strange for Pauly to catch Kevin with a boner. But something felt strange about what was happening to him with the hand. It felt personal and private, like he had a connection with this hand that was, at least at the moment, beyond his understanding. He sighed and resisted the urge to adjust himself in his old, comfortable jeans.

After about half an hour of mutual preoccupation Pauly seemed about to break their silence—maybe to ask him, in his calm way, what the fuck was going on, Kevin thought guiltily—when suddenly Pauly stood on the brakes, scattering gravel as the truck skidded to a halt.

“Shit,” Pauly murmured, staring out the windshield. Kevin, lost in his own thoughts (and the steady, low-grade stimulation of the hand at his back, which had kept him hard the whole time from the moment his cock had filled and stiffened at the bottom of the mountain), looked up first at Pauly, then ahead. He saw what had caused the abrupt cessation of their progress toward the installation: the headlights shone across a massive tree that had fallen across the road. It was, like most of the trees in these woods, a Carraido fir—a larger, almost gigantified cousin to the Douglas fir with a tendency to soaring heights in excess of 400 feet and a riot of extra branches; but this one was huge even for a Carraido. It was easily 15 feet or more in diameter, and the way it disappeared into the gloom in both directions gave it the illusion of endlessness, as if it had fallen not just across the road but across the very forest itself.

Pauly climbed out, leaving the engine running and the headlights burning. Kevin did likewise, and they both stood on either side of the truck in the chilly night air, their breath misting as they stared balefully at the interrupting tree.

Pauly turned on his heels abruptly and headed for the truck’s enclosed bed. “I think I stashed the chainsaw in the truck last time,” he stated grimly.

“Come on, that’ll take forever,” Kevin objected immediately. “This thing’s a monster!” There were no branches anywhere along the stretch revealed by the headlights, though it seemed like there was a proliferation of them just out of sight as the bole disappeared to the right.

“Can’t leave it here blocking the road,” Pauly said in his Responsible Sheriff voice. He was already opening the back of the truck.

“You’ve got to be joking,” Kevin shot back. He took a few steps closer to get a better look at the fallen tree, moving carefully so as not to disturb his lodger. He wondered what had happened. Had the explosion somehow downed this mighty tree? The fall looked fresh, but not that fresh. Last month’s big storm would have been a likelier culprit, though you’d think the Raven would have complained, or done something about it himself. Was he that secluded that his road being blocked for three weeks hadn’t mattered to him. “Just call Forestry in the morning and get a crew out here,” Kevin called over his shoulder.

“Gimme a second,” Pauly said distractedly.

There were a few feet of clearance under the tree. Impulsively he scrambled under, wanting to see if their way was unimpeded on foot. A second later he was on the other side, feeling weirdly like he’d passed from one place into another. The woods felt cold and deep on this side of the tree, and fully disconnected from even the mild suppuration of civilization that had taken loose hold in Carraido. The stars seemed fierce and bright in the inky black sky overhead, night having almost fully fallen in the course of their brief journey, though he knew that with the overnight storm speeding their way the sky wouldn’t be clear for long. “Just leave it, Pauly!” he shouted to the other world beyond the tree. “We don’t have much time before the storm! And someone might be hurt—” As he said the words his eyes fell on something pale that lay to one side of the road ahead, partially buried in a patch of dead needles. His eyes were still adjusting to the night, but he could make out that it was there, and that it didn’t—it didn’t exactly look like a rock. Unbidden the memory came to him of the mysterious fallen object at his house; and, as if it sensed something strange, the hand wedged in at the small of his back stilled and tensed.

With a sense of foreboding Kevin crept toward the pallid object. Suddenly it shifted, all on its own, and Kevin stopped dead. The hand at his back, however, squirmed, and Kevin felt a pang of anxiety that it might wriggle free; and he was aware that it was odd that the hand leaving him would be a concern. But he shoved that thought aside, and as he did so the hand quieted. The object on the road did too, as if it were waiting for him.

Kevin moved closer. He tried to tell himself that what he was looking at wasn’t anything. An animal. A baby marmot, maybe, or—but Kevin knew what it was. Even so, when he bent down on his haunches before it, his stomach dropped and a cold thrill washed through his entire body as he took in exactly what he was looking at.

It wasn’t that it was a hand. A big, pale hand, just like the one at his back. It wasn’t that it was intact, and healthy, and moving, its fingers shifting slightly as if feeling Kevin’s intense stare. It wasn’t even that.

It was the fact that this living hand, fallen here in the needles by the side of the mountain road, was the same hand in every way as the one he’d found at his house, as if it was from the exact same, slightly huge person—except that people, even slightly huge people, didn’t ordinarily have two left hands.

Part 3

Now Pauly can have one for himself,” Kevin thought to himself a little hysterically. He felt a wave of giddy panic bubble up through him, because it was just now dawning on him that this was insane—literally insane. As in, only crazy people were capable of finding a string of wriggling, ass-crack-massaging disembodied hands. Hell, even crazy people didn’t see shit like that—certainly not any crazy person that he’d ever heard of. What the fuck was wrong with him? How would he hide his break from reality? Pauly couldn’t know he was crazy. Or—the thought chilled him—maybe Pauly should know? Maybe Pauly could get him the help he needed. That is, assuming Pauly—

As if all the heavy thinking about him had conjured his buddy, Pauly’s voice suddenly spoke from not far behind him. “Whatcha got there?” Pauly said.

Kevin stilled, his mind racing. In all his fixation on the strange hand by the road and his sudden agitation at the fact that he kept finding hands all over the place he’d missed the engine being switched off and the headlights doused, not to mention the brush of Pauly following him under the tree. They were now alone together in the silent, cold night of the mountain forest. Somewhere a horned owl hooted, asserting itself over some secret corner of the wilderness.

Kevin took a deep breath. Instinctively, he knew he wasn’t ready to lay his cards out for Pauly, not yet. All his life Kevin had been steady and cautious, shoring up his life against possible vulnerabilities as if it were the fencing on his ranch, taking chances only when he had to. Even with his best buddy he’d held himself at bay for years, staving off revealing to his friend the extent of his increasingly powerful attraction to him, even lately when it had gotten so intense it was impossible for Kevin to ignore. He wasn’t ready for Pauly to know how much Kevin wanted him—and he sure as fuck wasn’t ready for Pauly to know he was losing his grip on reality.

Kevin stood abruptly and faced his friend. Pauly had his official long-necked, high-powered flashlight in one hand and was shining it in Kevin’s direction, though, courteous as ever, he wasn’t aiming it right at Kevin’s face. “Dead squirrel,” Kevin said dismissively. “You grab my stuff?”

Wordlessly, Pauly held out the satchel with Kevin’s emergency kit and Kevin’s own flashlight. Kevin closed the distance between them and took the proffered objects, slinging the satchel over his broad shoulders. He snapped on his flashlight, carefully pointing it in the opposite direction from the hand on the side of the road. “No chainsaw?” he asked his friend wryly, cocking an eyebrow at Pauly.

Pauly shrugged. “It’s there,” he said. “But you were right. It’ll take ages to break down and shift this monster, and we’re fighting the clock as it is.” He added a little shamefacedly, “I take my civic duty a little too seriously sometimes.”

Kevin grinned. “And that’s what makes you so adorable,” he said.

Pauly eyed him narrowly, feigning dismay. “That‘s what makes me adorable?” he chided. “My civic-mindedness?”

“Okay, one of the things,” Kevin conceded. “Now c’mon, let’s get moving. We’ve still got at least an hour’s hike up to the compound.”

Pauly nodded, sweeping his flashlight before him grandly in the direction of the road. “After you, Master Lynch.”

Kevin, however, was acutely aware of that hand at his back, and the effect that a wriggling bulge in the middle of his coat might have on Pauly as he trailed behind him. The hand, for its part, seemed suddenly agitated, as if it were afraid Kevin was going to leave its brother behind, abandoned on the side of the road. Kevin wanted to tell it to relax, but wasn’t sure how to communicate his placations to the hand short of figuring out how to flex his butt muscles in Morse code.

Instead he mirrored Pauly’s gesture, indicating his buddy should go first. “You’re the LEO here,” he said with the appropriate mock deference. “After you, Deputy Parker.” When Pauly hesitated, he added, “Besides, your flashlight is better.” And so’s your ass, he wanted to add, but, as always, he held his tongue.

Pauly acceded politely and started crunching up the road into the night, his powerful flashlight bobbing along the gravel, scouting the way ahead. Kevin followed, but at an angle that took him first to the roadside where where the latest fleshly find lay waiting for him. In a single swift motion he took up the hand and, for lack of a better place, slipped it under his waistband in front as he hurried after Pauly, only just getting his coat back in place in time for Pauly to glance over his shoulder to check Kevin was behind him. Kevin nodded, Pauly nodded back, and they were on their way.

It took the new hand less than five minutes to find his cock.

They’d been walking steadily up the twisting gravel road. Kevin was trying to ignore the hand at his back, which had contently resumed its stimulation of the upper reaches of Kevin’s crack, trying to keep his attention on his feet and how grateful he was he’d been wearing his good boots; but the new hand, in front, seemed of a like mind with its identical compatriot and sought an opportunity to express its gratitude to its host in a similar fashion. Finding no ass crack in its own vicinity, however, it was at first content to slide its index finger along the sparse trail leading down from Kevin’s otherwise hairless torso to his small but lush patch of oddly unkinky pubic hair. A misplaced foot on the dark road made Kevin stumble, however, and as he regained his footing both hands managed to slide a little further down into his pants.

“You okay?” Pauly asked, glancing back at him. And it was at that exact moment that the hand in front found his huge, fat, ten-inch erection.

“Sure!” Kevin gasped. His cock had always tended to point upwards and to the left, along the crease of his hip, and that put his hot, aching boner in the perfect position for the downward-slipping front hand to find it and eagerly claim it for its own, wrapping its fingers and thumb possessively around Kevin’s throbbing girth.

Pauly slowed and walked backwards for a few steps, frowning at him as he shined his light at Kevin’s chest (and not, thankfully, at his crotch). “I’m okay,” Kevin said, struggling to make his voice sound normal even as the rear hand found a new position gripping Kevin’s right butt cheek, its index finger sliding tauntingly along the place where his glutes met and shifted against each other as he walked, obviously warning him it wouldn’t just be skimming the surface like that for long while at the same time letting him know it was in no hurry. Jesus, whosever hands these were was a devotee of the male form. “Just stepped in a pothole,” he told his buddy with a disarming smile. He nodded at the road ahead of Pauly. “You better turn around before you fall in a ditch yourself,” he said.

Pauly nodded, appeased, and turned around. Kevin took in a quiet, shuddering breath. This really is insane, he told himself as both hands settled comfortably into their new positions, the front hand edging its fingers a little up, a little down as it gripped his overstimulated shaft, while the matching stimulation along the surface of his crack made him just as frantic. Was this what it was like to be crazy? Did everyone who lost it get endless, intense erotic teasing in exchange for their marbles? Was he actually in a padded room somewhere, dreaming all this while he just crouched in a corner ceaselessly pleasuring himself? Or maybe the orderly was pleasuring him. Two orderlies, more likely, he thought, one in front and one in back, and both of them taking their own sweet time. We’ve got all night, baby, the gymnast-hot first orderly told him, bending forward to whisper in his ear. The next shift doesn’t come on for another six hours.

Kevin tried to hide his mounting stimulation, but after they had hiked nearly a half an hour, the hands had proven themselves adept at finding ways to somehow drag him to the brink only to pull back with maddening insouciance. Pauly must have started noticing Kevin’s increasingly ragged breathing even over the crunching of their boots, because he called back teasingly, “You that out of shape, old man?”

Driven to the point of almost intolerable frustration and arousal, Kevin irrationally snatched at the chance to act out physically. “Oh yeah? I’ll give you ‘old man’!” he cried manically. Dropping his satchel and flashlight he pounced onto the unsuspecting Pauly and pulled him to the ground with a squawk.

“Oh, you’re in for it now,” Pauly said gamely, and they wrestled boisterously, crunching and kicking up gravel as first one, then the other gained the upper hand. Pauly was laughing, his face warm and flushed. He was also hard as a rock, but that was normal for them, especially while they were wrestling. “Get your hand out of my crotch, you perv!” Pauly taunted happily, mistaking one of Kevin’s guest hands for Kevin’s own.

“You love it!” Kevin shot back. Suddenly Pauly had flipped them and was on top, pinning Kevin with what felt like newly acquired strength compared to what Kevin remembered, though he was breathing hard from the exertion. “Those workouts came in handy after all,” Kevin said, gazing up into Pauly’s dancing eyes in the dim light.

“Yeah,” Pauly said huskily. “They did.” Without warning, Pauly dropped his mouth right down onto Kevin’s, kissing him hard. Moaning, Kevin opened for him, and Pauly eagerly deepened the kiss, pushing his tongue impatiently into Kevin’s mouth, and Kevin responded with equal fervor as he wrapped strong arms around the deputy’s amazing body while Pauly, as if freed from all inhibitions, rutted urgently against him. The hands sensed what was going on and escalated their activities, the one in front anchoring its base against the edge of Kevin’s hip so it could stroke his leaking, huge cock in earnest, while the one in back had found his hole with its index finger and was avidly teasing his entrance, fair warning of an imminent intrusion by that larger than usual digit. But it was Pauly that took him over the edge. Every second of Pauly’s fervent kiss betrayed an intense and insanely arousing passion for Kevin—a passion that Pauly had evidently been hiding and silently stoking just as diligently and painfully as Kevin had been hiding his yearning for Pauly.

Before Kevin knew it the kiss, the groping, the rutting, and the hands were all bringing him rapidly to the cliff of orgasm and shoving him over. He shuddered and moaned into Pauly’s hot mouth as he bucked against him, the hand around his dick bringing him off with hard, enthusiastic strokes, and he came and came again as Pauly mauled him, until he collapsed back against the road, liquid and spent (though his dick was still mostly hard in the hand’s firm grip), his emotions flying with orgasmic euphoria and blissful relief.

Pauly was staring down at him amazed, his warm breath warming Kevin’s cheeks in soft puffs. “You come like that just from a kiss?” he asked, grinning like a fool.

“You’re a damn good kisser,” Kevin said. They laughed, and Pauly was bending to start what undoubtedly be a longer and more languid kiss when suddenly he stopped and cocked his head to one side. “What th—?” he started to say, but Pauly hushed him.

When Kevin frowned, Pauly said, “Hear it?” Kevin was about to say no, when, abruptly, he did: a wailing sob, not loud but also not very distant. Was it a person in pain? An animal’s cry? Kevin, in his disoriented and overstimulated state, wasn’t sure.

“It’s coming from the woods up the road to the right,” Pauly whispered.

Kevin nodded, agreeing. Pauly was already levering himself off of Kevin and climbing to his feet. He stared down at Kevin fondly. “Wait here,” he said, then, inevitably, he added in a stock T-800 voice, “I’ll be back.” After adjusting his sheriff’s jacket and retrieving his dropped flashlight he was gone up the mountain into the darkness ahead.

Still on his back, Kevin stared after him for a couple heartbeats with what he suspected was a ridiculous smile on his face. He grabbed his satchel, which fortunately was just within reach, and drawing it closer retrieved from an inner pocket the clean rag he kept in there for unexpected and unanticipated occasions like this, though truthfully there had never been an occasion as unexpected and unanticipated as this one. Checking again quickly that Pauly was nowhere to be seen, Kevin gingerly pulled both of the large hands out of his pants and carefully cleaned the one that had been in front of all the cum he’d gotten on it. It seemed happy to get the attention and the free rubdown, squeezing Kevin’s other hand affectionately where he held it up for ease of goop removal. Then he set it down on his stomach, where it relaxed contentedly, while he cleaned up his cock and the mess he’d made in his pants. Finally, he checked the other hand, worried it had gotten bruised or battered in the rough-housing, but it seemed intact and happy, so he dropped that one onto his stomach too to snuggle with the front hand, feeling like it was only proper to let them have some air after all that time in his pants. He’d have to hide them away again soon enough. In fact he was just starting to think he’d need to get up and stow his guests away again when he turned his head and noticed for the first time, only inches from his face just this side of where his satchel lay open, there was a pale, thick, serpentine form emerging from the gravel right there in the middle of the road, the business end aiming right for him.

Kevin caught his breath, alarmed. But as he stared at it he realized it wasn’t an actual snake rising out of the road to attack him. For one thing, snakes didn’t have heads quite like that, what with the piss slit and all. And he was pretty sure there were very few snakes in these parts with heads protected by wide, veiny foreskins. He’d missed reading about any turtleneck snakes in his local field guides, though they’d definitely mentioned it in health class.

Even so, they hadn’t exactly warned him they could get this big. Like the hands, this specimen was larger than average, though it was generous even on that scale—completely flaccid it seemed easily seven inches long and almost as many around, and it was still, inexplicably, partially submerged in the thin gravel and the earth below it.

Turning slowly on his side, so as to let the hands laying on his stomach drop gently to the road, he reached out with his own right hand and grasped the errant phallus at its thick base. To his surprise it resisted his initial pull, while at the same time responding to his ministrations in the way of all phalluses, so that it was growing and expanding even as Kevin firmed his grip and tried pulling again. The stiffness of the erecting phallus did make it easier to maintain purchase on it, and he was able with some tugging to pull it up—though this served mainly not to release it but rather to reveal that there was more of it to be pulled up from the gravel. It was even bigger than it looked. He tugged again, harder, and the phallus, which was also harder, was drawn further out of the earth, exposing inch after new inch—and then suddenly it yanked free, sending Kevin rocking onto his back with the momentum, holding the mighty erection aloft.

He gaped up at it, hard and pallid against the starlit sky. It was truly massive, probably fifteen or sixteen inches and as thick as a one-liter soda bottle. It throbbed and wiggled in his hand, begging for further stimulation, but it was all Kevin could do to goggle at it uncomprehending.

There was room in Kevin’s brain for one further realization. Somehow he had been thinking that these body parts had fallen to earth both down on his land and up here on the mountain. It all had to do with the explosion, or so he’d been assuming: somebody—somebody slightly huge, and with more than one left hand, but somebody—had been blown to bits by the explosion, and the parts had rained down here, there, and everywhere, though that didn’t explain how they were whole, discrete, and unharmed. Or maybe—a big shipping container full of hands had exploded, resulting in the strangest weather ever as stray body parts pelted the surrounding landscape?

But he’d been completely, one hundred and eighty degrees wrong. These parts hadn’t been falling from the sky—they’d been coming out of the ground.

A noise from down the road set his heart racing. Without thinking he shoved the enormous erection and both of the stray hands into the front of his pants while trying to clamber to his feet at the same time, keeping his back to whoever was approaching from down the mountain until the last possible moment. He’d just barely gotten his big, obfuscating coat back in place when he heard a familiar voice call out to him from behind him.

“Hey!” Pauly called out, sounding angry. “What gives, Lynch?”

Kevin whirled around, confused. Coming up the mountain road, flashlight bobbing with the brisk pace he was setting, was Pauly, and he was looking mighty pissed.

“What the hell?” Kevin gasped. “Why—why are you coming from down there?”

Pauly caught up to him and stood a couple feet from where Kevin stood in the middle of where the wrestling, and other things, had been taking place only minutes earlier. “Because that’s where you left me, dumbass!” he groused. “Seriously, what gives, Kev? I came under the tree to find you, except for some reason you were already long gone! Why didn’t you wait for me?”

“Wh-what?” Kevin stammered, staring at him in deep confusion, his mind in chaotic disarray. For some reason the only thing that seemed real to him right now was that he had a new 16-inch monster erection shoving out of his crotch and straight up under his coat, right next to his old, fat ten-inch erection. Except it wasn’t his 16-inch monster erection. Or—actually, he was pretty sure it was his erection, or at least, it was now, because he could sure feel every hyper-aroused inch of it. Not to mention the stimulation one of the hands was giving it was just as crazy-making as what the other was doing to his ten-incher.

Crazy-making? Fuck. He was already there.

Deciding he wasn’t going to get an answer out of his best friend, Pauly snorted and smiled with studied resignation. “You’re getting too old for this, pops,” he teased, clapping a hand on his thick shoulder and moving around him.

“We’re the same age,” Kevin huffed automatically, totally on autopilot.

“Uh huh,” Pauly said, with the brash confidence of a man who knew he was indeed the younger man—if only by five weeks. He was already crunching up the road, following in the footsteps of where he, or someone who’d looked exactly like him, had disappeared moments ago. “Grab your gear, buddy,” this Pauly said. “We’ve still got a ways to go.”

Part 4

Kevin caught up with the person who appeared to be Pauly just as they turned a gentle bend in the darkened gravel road, revealing, maybe a quarter-mile ahead, what could only be the walls of the Pinewood complex’s three low, boxy, closely clustered main buildings. They stopped a moment to stare at it, Kevin making sure to stay a step behind Pauly. He wanted to keep his bulging coat out of his friend’s sight as long as possible.

Most of the day’s waning light had already seeped out of the cobalt-dark sky above them, already flecked with precocious stars, and the high forest around them was black with endless shadow, enough to lose them if they hadn’t had the pale gravel road to guide their boots. But the distant compound seemed faintly, almost timidly aglow, as if its large, log-cabin-style structures were bathed in blue phosphorescence. The eerie blue fire that had seemed to engulf the compound in the moments after the explosion suddenly returned to Kevin’s mind, and he huffed, his breath steaming into a pallid, ghostly white mist in the increasingly cold night air.

“Looks intact,” Pauly mused after a moment. Kevin frowned. It was true that, while they could only see parts of the three conjoined structures, there certainly seemed to be no sign of the kind of catastrophic damage they should have been seeing after an explosion massive enough to be heard all the way down in the Gorge. But maybe the fact that the buildings were still standing should take a back seat to the fact that their plain, pale walls were shimmering with a freaky blue ghost light.

“Whatever that boom was,” Pauly added slowly, “maybe it wasn’t a proper explosion.”

“Or maybe it happened in another building in back,” Kevin said. Then: “Pauly,” he forced himself to continue, “are you seeing … what I’m seeing?”

“Yep,” Pauly answered curtly.

Kevin nodded to himself. He knew his best friend well enough to understand that tone. They were here on search and rescue, and no uncanny glimmers were going to get in the way of that. As if to underline Kevin’s thoughts, Pauly started crunching forward again, his long strides taking them towards the compound as Kevin followed hastily after.

Kevin knew his buddy—his childhood friend, his fishing buddy, his jack-off partner and all around life counterpart. His quiet, handsome man. Dirty blond, well put together, tall and lean despite being half a head shorter than Kevin, and increasingly irresistible as they’d matured together. The object of a desire and need that was, lately, becoming impossible to ignore. Kevin knew all too well the shoulders and ass of the man marching a step ahead of him, as much by their bearing as by their familiar, touch-tempting shape. He’d seen that man from the back almost as much as the front over the years: Pauly always took the lead, solemnly taking point whether they were spending a weekend hiking the rough trails of the North Gorge or trolling the aisles at Sid’s sprawling all-purpose store, gathering supplies for a two-man barbecue. And Kevin liked trailing after him, not just because he’d developed a lusty preoccupation with Pauly’s perfect ass, but because Pauly’s personal strength made even Kevin, a thick-muscled, flint-jawed man-mountain himself, feel safe and secure. Walking behind Pauly felt right, normal, and familiar, a slot that Kevin fit into more naturally than treading the paths of Carraido alone ever could.

So who the fuck had he been making out with back there on the road? Who was the man who had finally forced his reserve to shatter, who had made him erupt with a lifetime’s gout of cum and a heart-thudding orgasm just from the passion of his embrace and the earnest hunger of his deep, soul-wrenching kisses, only to get up, smile and him, and rush away from the road into the forest—only to be replaced by a Pauly who’d never kissed him and groped him and made him cum like he never had before? Kevin felt as if the very second he’d had a chance to wonder if he’d made the right move with his buddy, he’d been given a cosmic do-over so that the whole thing had never happened. Was it a guardian angel’s second chance, or a trickster god’s cruel joke?

And where was the first Pauly? Was he still out there, looking for whoever or whatever had made that noise that sounded like a sob? Or perhaps was he a figment of Kevin’s broken mind—a shadow-figure that vanished into nothing once he was out of sight, like a character in a play that doesn’t really exist after he’s exited the floodlit stage and rejoined the dark.

Kevin was, by this point, pretty sure that something had gone wrong in his brain. All this time he’d been trying desperately to ignore the chest-high monster erection under his coat and the eager hands that were gripping and deliberately stimulating both that oversized organ and his own ten-inch, rock-hard prick. The firm, shifting ass of the man stalking ahead of him, criminally highlighted by unexpectedly well-fitting uniform trousers, seemed to be filling his thoughts and saturating his own cock and the giant guest cock with imperative need. The oversized dick, half again as big as his own, had already surpassed merely sharing its sensations with Kevin. It had already gone beyond Kevin feeling that giant dick as his own. No, it was more than that. Kevin ached to feel his new giant dick against the hard, hot, well-proportioned body of the man he’d been lusting after, with spiraling intensity, for as long as he could remember. He ached to rip their clothes off and clutch Pauly against him, rutting his new, massive tool against his flesh.

He wanted to make love to Pauly. He yearned to push himself deep into Pauly’s furnace-hot ass, inch after inch, driving deeper into his lover than any man had ever even dreamed of being. Kevin could almost feel it as he marched after Pauly, the imagined sensation washing over him like a drug, and he almost gasped at the previously unimagined heights of pleasure and need that flooded him as he felt himself balls deep inside Pauly, his own original cock still outside, thrusting between the muscular cheeks, as he held his naked, sweet lover in his strong arms. And fuck, he could finally touch Pauly everywhere. Not just the slaps on the ass, or the jostling of shoulders as they sat close to each other whenever they hung out, or the bouts of play-wrestling like the one that had suddenly turned into … something else back there. No, he could finally really touch Pauly. Touch him everywhere, stroke his newly strong shoulders and chest, grope his tight abs and hairy legs. And now he had four hands. It wasn’t just the monster cock that had become bound to him, practically enthralling him with all its sensations and needs. The hands—he wasn’t just feeling them aggressively stimulating his mismatched cocks. He was feeling the big new hands exactly as if they were his own hands, as much a part of him as the hands we was born with that hung loosely at the ends of his arms, swinging slightly as he walked. They were his hands now. He could feel them. He could use them. He could touch Pauly … everywhere.

Fuck—were Pauly’s nips sensitive, like his? He didn’t know. That would be —

Pauly, who’d been hiking steadily up the road just ahead of Kevin and a quarter-step to the right, now stopped suddenly, and Kevin, lost in his erotic reverie, plowed straight into him. Instinctively, Kevin reached out his right hand to steady himself, grabbing the side of Pauly’s waist. And he was so caught up in his warm, brain-soaking need for his beautiful, taciturn buddy that he knew he could not let go. Not right now, not yet. Now that he was touching him, his hand needed to be exactly where it was: in contact with the physical presence that was thrumming through every cell of Kevin’s body, quivering the flesh and core of every part of him, new and old alike. The huge cock shuddered, and the big new hands, still hidden in his coat, still gripping his rigid, desperate cocks, stilled in tense anticipation.

Pauly twisted his head to look over his shoulder up at Kevin, meeting his gaze. He seemed surprised and a little bemused at Kevin’s latching onto him, but he didn’t pull away. In fact, it felt very much like Pauly pushed his hard, round ass back a little bit, pressing that much harder against the base of Kevin’s groin. Kevin sucked in a breath, not wavering as he held Pauly’s gaze. It occurred to him to wonder for the first time whether there was something about this … event … that was making them horny—not just Kevin, but Pauly too. That might explain the unstoppable boner he’d had since leaving the valley. And the kiss, and all that had come with it. And this simple, intimate moment of contact between two friends who might be more.

Kevin’s cocks surged with almost unbearable want. He almost pushed his chest against Pauly, letting them both feel the rampaging, sternum-tickling erection he had throbbing under coat. But something held him back. As much as he was swimming in the lurid fantasy of making sweet love to Pauly, his rational brain told him harshly he couldn’t expose what had happened to him to his best friend. Probably because his rational brain still believed that what had happened to him was not the acquisition of extra body parts and a moment of long-yearned-for bliss back there on the road, but rather a simple, tragic psychotic break. There was a faint, timid, blue-tinged light around them, but all he could see in this moment was Pauly.

“Wh-what’d you stop for?” Kevin stammered, feeling a need to derail the silent stare that had held them both for the last several chest-rattling heartbeats.

Pauly’s lips curved. God, it was torture not to lean down and kiss him, hard and deep. “We’re here,” Pauly said, definitely sounding amused. Kevin glanced up for a second—the main entrance to the compound was indeed in front of them—but he brought his gaze back to Pauly’s dark eyes almost immediately.

Pauly’s little smile bloomed into smirk. “Geez, Lynch where’s your brain?” he drawled cheekily, tossing out the words of a running gag they’d lobbed at each other since their first hormone-drowned tension-release sessions back in the days when their greatest worries were football tryouts and algebra midterms.

Kevin’s own lips twitched almost automatically. He tossed back the same cocky response the always used with each other. “Same place as yours, Parker,” he said.

To his amazement Pauly turned around on him, making a full, close-quartered one-eighty within Kevin’s tight, one-armed embrace. Kevin was now staring straight into Pauly’s stormy, lust-darkened eyes, Pauly’s warm breath huffing pleasantly across Kevin’s lips in the chill evening air. His hand, almost vibrating with the unknown thrill of sliding across Pauly’s amazing, round ass as he’d turned, was now clamped onto Pauly’s left hip, and Kevin, still holding Pauly’s steady gaze, brought up his other hand as well to Pauly’s other side, drawing Pauly toward him into what was, for men who’s hugged before a thousand times, their first real embrace.

Kevin didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he felt Paul’s hands finally snaking around Kevin’s lower back, and he sighed out a gust of warm air in relief. Pauly’s hands seeking Kevin’s warm flesh under his coat and shirts made his heart pound in exhilaration. His racing mind tickled with the memory of the hand that had been tucked back there not long ago, now thankfully no longer there to find; of the sexy roll in the road with that other Pauly. None of that was important. This was what was real, this was what mattered: holding Pauly in his arms. His best friend, his man, his goddamned heart.

Their locked gazes did not waver, and they spent several long moments just staring into each other’s eyes, holding each other, and breathing. Kevin’s blood rushed in his ears, drowning the sounds of the forest around them. He might have expected a moment like this to ratchet up his tension: he had long shied in real fear from the risk of losing Pauly, if a sudden access of unaccustomed intimacy ended up ruining their lifelong bond of friendship. But this moment, breathing together, embracing each other even here, bundled up against the chill of an up-mountain November night, and staring into each other’s eyes, was calming them both. They were acclimating—acclimating, Kevin realized with a thrill, to this, a Kevin and Pauly who touched, and held each other, and kissed.

They moved at the same time. Pauly pushed up toward him, and Kevin lowered to meet him, their lips coming together in a rush of mutual desire. They were rough and a bit cold at first, but as the kissing progressed they rapidly became hot and slick with their increasing enthusiasm. Pauly opened first, letting Kevin deepen their kiss, and Kevin felt a flood of euphoria as he tightened their embrace, his rigid cocks raging and straining in their prisons, his heavy, tight balls churning with uncontrollable lust. It was beyond amazing. Pauly wanted this—he wanted him. He wanted Kevin as much as Kevin wanted Pauly. The revelation was so staggering that Kevin broke their kiss and pulled back, just enough to stare at his buddy in sheer, unmitigated wonder.

Pauly smiled up at him, his lips kiss-swollen and dark in the dim, uncertain light. They were both panting, their hearts clamoring in their chests. Kevin’s cocks—his old fat ten-incher and his new, nip-nuzzling monster tool—were shaking with urgent necessity, rigid and stimulated almost beyond endurance. Kevin thought he could feel Pauly’s club of a cock jutting rudely against his hip through their jeans. Its nearly foot-long length had been wondrous and incomparable before tonight, and it was still the most beautiful cock Kevin had ever seen or would ever see, bar none.

“Fuck, Kev,” Pauly huffed up at him, his eyes wide with the same wonder Kevin felt burning within himself. “Just … fuck.”

Kevin’s still-tingling lips bent into a wide, uncontrollable grin. “Okay,” he agreed.

Pauly burst out with a laugh. “All right then,” he said. Then he added with a grin, “We have an agenda,” hauling out the phrase that Todd Unger, the town manager, managed to use at every town meeting without ever seeming to realize he had a catch phrase the whole town employed in affectionate mockery whenever the occasion suited. Kevin let out a laugh of his own. Their lips seemed to draw together and touch again as if out of some magnetic principle of physics, as if the laws of the Newtonian universe demanded that their mouths be in sweet, beautiful contact with each other. Kevin, it need hardly be said, was down with that.

Pauly was breathing hard as he pulled back, just an inch, as if that was all the separation he could bear at the moment. “There’s another item on that agenda,” he said.

“Yeah?” Kevin said. His heart was pounding, mostly out of lust and need, but also with a taint of foreboding. “What’s that?”

Pauly licked his lips, meeting Kevin’s gaze with eyes full of unmistakable want. “You explaining how you’re suddenly packing a dick the size of Fassmore Peak,” he said.

Kevin stared down at him, heart battering at his chest like it wanted to get out. All kinds of fears and trepidations had wound and twisted through him for years before now, before this moment. But his fears were dead now, dissipated and gone, melted into nothingness by the pulsing rightness of their being together. There was only him and Pauly. That was what was real and true, and nothing else mattered.

“Do you want to feel it … or talk about it?” he asked, boring his gaze into Pauly’s. He let himself, finally, push his monster cock hard against Pauly’s chest.

Pauly gasped at the thrust, the intimacy, the feel of Kevin and him holding hard to each other. His eyes were dark and desperate with a passion that was not, Kevin knew, for Kevin’s equipment, but for Kevin himself. It was the mirror of Kevin’s own need for him.

“Both,” Pauly answered. There was a quaver in his voice as he added, “And definitely … in that order.”

Kevin’s lips quirked and he bent to kiss his best friend and future lover, but a motion nearby caught his eye and he glanced up. What he saw made him stare, mouth still half-open, his body stilled against Pauly’s.

“What is it?” he heard Pauly ask, concerned. Pauly started to turn, but Kevin, instinctively, held him tight, holding him in place.

Coming around the corner of the building was a man carrying a pale, naked body in his arms. The unconscious man was scuffed and, from the waist down, dark with long, dirty smudges, as if he’d been half-buried and pulled out of the earth. The pale skin, the thick, uncontrolled mane of jet-black hair, even the steel-rimmed glasses—all the markers of the Pinewood Institute’s resident enigma were present and correct. But the body was … different. The man they knew as the Raven had been lithe and skinny, while this Raven was built like a fitness model who couldn’t seem to stop adding luscious, beautiful, hard-carved muscle to every corner of his alabaster form. His four arms were bulging with strength and power, his chest was piled high with obscene quantities of pec muscle, and the jumbled stack of what had to be six or eight dirt-smeared legs looked like they could run a hundred marathons.

Even with all that, though, the thing that made Kevin’s heart trip in his chest was not just the wildly mutated Raven. It was the man carrying him, though, at one level, he was the less strange. Unlike Raven, this man wasn’t altered in any way. He was exactly as Kevin knew him. Uncommonly tall; massive shoulders; long, unruly russet hair; uncanny blue eyes that were staring hard at him with the same surprise and alarm that Kevin felt.

Kevin had stared into those eyes before—every day, in the mirror. But he’d never seen in them what he saw now: fear, amazement, and—he was startled to realize—a hint of hot, fiery jealously.

He realized he was clinging to Pauly. He forced himself to look down at him. “What is it?” Pauly demanded again, his tone now serious and uncompromising. His deputy voice.

“Our agenda will have to wait,” Kevin told him, just as seriously. He lifted his gaze to meet the other Kevin’s. He let out a breath and said, “Things just got strange as fuck.” The other Kevin slowly nodded.

Description When a strange institution comes to town in a remote valley community in the Rockies, the locals are put off by the newcomers’ aloofness. But when things go wrong in the strangers’ compound, rancher Kevin and his sheriff’s deputy best buddy Pauly find out just how weird things are up there.

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