stolen

My short legs struggled to keep up with Taran’s strides as he led us through kilometers of dense forest. He had not paused to rest nor even speak for hours, and the rest of us filed behind, honoring the silence.



Without warning the tall blue-eyed hunter came to a stop.



“We’re almost there,” he told Grant and me, his breath heavy from exertion. “I must warn you, our people will react strongly to your presence, especially because of the way you’re dressed. As I mentioned before, City Dwellers are forbidden from entering the settlement. Just allow me to speak, and don’t take any action which might be interpreted as hostile.”



“Will they try to hurt us?” I asked, exchanging a worried look with Grant.



“We’ll make sure that they don’t,” Taran pledged. He paused, then said to the others, “I was thinking, perhaps it would be best to send ahead a runner, alert them we are coming.”



“That won’t be necessary,” an unfamiliar voice responded.



I jumped and clutched Grant’s arm. I saw at least a dozen men and women surrounding our group and drawing closer, each of their bows and arrows poised and ready to spring, pointed at Grant and me.



“Why have you brought strangers here, Taran?” a large woman with fierce eyes demanded. “You know outsiders are forbidden.”



“Don’t shoot!” the hunter cried, holding out his arms. He, Kuri and the others formed a protective circle around us, all of them shouting, waving the others down. “Please, don’t shoot. They aren’t outsiders. They’re two of the stolen children!”



A middle-aged man with wavy, shoulder-length hair lowered his bow and stepped forward. He studied Grant and me for a long moment, lingering on our faces.



He lifted his chin. “What are your names?”



“My name is Grant, and this is Astrid.”



“How old are you?”



“I’m thirty-one, and he is thirty-four years,” I answered, pressing against Grant as the group broke out into agitated chatter.



“Everyone, please, lower your weapons.” The man looked at Taran. “I assume you have proof of their claim.”



“Yes. They escaped with the help of strangers, one of whom gave them a data chip which she requested be delivered to Zarek.”



The air stirred with murmurs of speculation.



“Have you viewed the contents of this chip?”



“Part of it,” Taran answered. “Most of the message is encrypted; the woman on the recording said Zarek ‘holds the key’ to unlocking it. That’s why I decided to break protocol and bring them here.”



William turned to a couple of young people in the crowd. “Find Zarek. Tell him to meet me in my dwelling immediately.” He looked at the hunters and us. “Come.”



~*~*~




I looked around when the group came to a stop some time later. Although there were people milling about, all of whom stopped and stared as our party approached, I did not see any buildings, just more enormous trees.



“Astrid, look,” Grant said with a grin, pointing up.



I lifted my head and my mouth dropped open. Starting ten meters above our head lay a series of wooden buildings on platforms. Some were expansive, two or more levels anchored between several trees, while a single trunk bisected the axes of other, more modest structures. All were connected by a network of spiral staircases, bridges and ladders constructed of wood and rope.



“You…live in the trees?” I asked, giddy with delight. “I never imagined anyone could live in something so amazing!”



“It’s ingenious,” Grant agreed. “They blend right into the forest.”



The wavy-haired man smiled. “Storms like the ones we’ve been having are a risk, and we’ve sustained quite a bit of damage this season, but this year is not typical of most. On balance, we find our tree houses an elegant way to live in this environment.”



“It also helps protect us from raiders,” the large woman from the meeting party pointed out, her tone angry. “Let’s not gloss over the primary reason we took to the trees, William.”



“I haven’t forgotten, Enid.” The man lifted his head and, cupping his hands around his mouth, whistled like a bird.



“How did you do that?” I asked.



“Practice. I’m sure you can learn to do it as well.”



A few moments later a ladder was lowered from above. I peered upward and saw a man crouching over the edge of a cutout in the platform, feeding the braided rope through the hole.



William looked at the others. “I would like to speak with Taran and our guests alone. When Zarek arrives, send him up as well.”



“If this is about our children, we all deserve to hear this message; most especially those of us who lost loved ones,” Enid protested.



“She’s right, William!”



“It’s wrong to keep such information from the rest of us.”



The man lifted his hand, silencing the group. “I fully intend to share any information with you all. But first we must decrypt the message and verify its authenticity. I’m exercising my right as your leader to review the contents and question our guests first.”



He nodded at Taran to proceed. Grant and I craned our necks, watching as he climbed higher and higher before disappearing onto the platform. William turned to us.



“Have you climbed a ladder before?”



“Not one quite so…flexible,” Grant admitted.



“Me neither,” I concurred.



“It’s not difficult, and the ladder is very strong. We use them so much, keeping the ladders, stairs and bridges in working order is one of our most important tasks. It helps if you don’t look down. When you reach the top, Taran will be there to help you if you need it.”



Grant looked at me. “Do you want to go first, or should I?”



“I think I’d like to try first.” I took hold of the rope and lifted my foot, fitting it inside the first loop. Lifting my other leg, I tested the ladder’s ability to hold my weight before stepping into the next loop. I took another step, and another, and soon I had made it more than halfway to the platform.



Excited by my progress, I looked down to celebrate my achievement with Grant. My stomach dropped when I realized how high up I was. I sucked in my breath and gripped the swaying ladder until my knuckles turned white.



“You’re fine,” William assured me. “Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Start again when you’re ready.”



To my embarrassment it took more than a few deep breaths, but within a couple of minutes I managed to continue until I reached the top, where Taran stood ready to help me onto the platform.



I sighed and tried to steady my quivering legs, relieved to be standing on something solid.



“Nice job,” the hunter said, patting my back and giving me a warm smile.



A minute later Grant appeared, followed by William.



“That was thrilling.” I gave Grant a hug. “But also a little scary,” I confessed, whispering in his ear. “I can’t believe I forgot about not looking down.”



“You did great. Personally, I’m a little more nervous about the trip back down.”



I giggled and hugged him tighter. “Me too.”



“Please, come this way,” William requested, touching my shoulder.



We passed through the doorway into a large six-sided room with long narrow windows all around. I wanted to admire the view, but the leader gestured for us to sit.



“Your home is so beautiful, it almost doesn’t seem real,” I told him as I settled next to Grant on a type of long seat designed to accommodate several individuals at once.



“Thank you. We’re very proud of what we’ve built here.” William paused. “I can see from your injuries, young man, that you experienced recent troubles. While we wait for Zarek, why don’t you tell me how you came to leave the city.”



Once again we recounted our story, starting from our chance meeting in the lift on my emergence day to the discovery of our forbidden relationship. We were in the middle of discussing our escape from the hospital when another individual entered the dwelling. Bald and slight of build with deep wrinkles etched all over his brown face, the man stepped with a surefooted gait belying his advanced age. Upon seeing Grant and me, he stopped dead in his tracks.



“Zarek,” the leader acknowledged. “This is Grant and Astrid. They have come from the city with an amazing story. One in which, apparently, you play a role. Please, have a seat.”



“Me?” The old man shook his head. “I have no idea who these people are, William.”



“From the looks on their faces, I don’t think they’re acquainted with you either. Please, sit.”



After summarizing our tale thus far for the latest arrival, William encouraged us to continue with our story. Zarek remained quiet until we spoke of Raja’s message.



“I haven’t had anything to do with the Ministry of Science for more than thirty years,” he protested. “Why would she want to direct this message to me?”



“You’re from the city?” Grant and I asked in unison, both our eyes wide.



The old man frowned. “Originally, yes.”



Before I could ask how he had come to live among the Outliers, William spoke. “I think it’s time we hear this message.”



Taran produced the pad and selected the file.



Hello. My name is Raja Das. I work for the Ministry of Science, Center of Reproduction. I direct this message to Zarek Wolfe. He holds the key to unlocking the heart of its contents. In the hope that you will deliver this message—



“I have no idea what this woman is talking about!” Zarek blurted.



“Please, Zarek,” William replied, holding up a finger to quiet him.



After listening to the identities and whereabouts of a dozen individuals, including Grant and me, stolen as infants to be raised inside the city, the wavy-haired leader turned to us and said, “Our medical facilities are not as advanced as those in the city, but in time, we may be able to piece together who your families are.”



We looked at each other. “You mean, you might be able to locate our original family units?” Grant asked.



“Yes. It’s very possible you have parents, siblings or grandparents living in this settlement.”



I wrinkled my brow. “I know siblings, but I don’t know what parents or grandparents are.”



“Remember when we were talking about reproduction back at the camp?” Taran reminded me. “Generally speaking, parents are the people who created you, and grandparents are the people who created them.”



“We could meet the people we were born to,” I marveled, looking at Grant, his smile as wide as mine.



“We can’t make any promises,” William cautioned. “Many individuals have died trying to protect their offspring. But we’ll do our best to reunite you with your families. Whatever the outcome, know this—you are one of us. We are all your family.”



I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Grant put his arm around me. “Thank you,” he said. “Your kindness means a great deal to us both. Can you tell us…do you know why we were taken?”



“That I can answer,” Zarek replied. “It’s an atrocity committed by a stupid, shortsighted people too cowardly to face that they are the architects of their own doom.”



“What do you mean?”



“I too once worked for the Ministry of Science at the Center of Reproduction. I was trying to figure out why the birth rate continued to drop despite advances in AWT, artificial womb technology. I had an inkling it might be linked to the chemical disinfectants we used, but all the official research indicated lowered fertility was the result of a mutation when our ancestors survived Bachmann’s Disease.



“Call it an instinct, but something about it didn’t sit right with me, so I decided to conduct an investigation of my own. That’s when I discovered hidden records of an entire population of humans, cut off from the rest of us, who had been living outside of the city ever since the Great Quarantine.”



The old man leaned forward. “The people who they called the Outliers had not experienced the same fertility problems as our population. At the time, the government had known about them for something like eighty years yet still kept it a secret. Then I found out why. Instead of figuring out what was causing the discrepancy, they had been systematically stealing their offspring in order to bolster the population!



“It was obvious this was a clandestine program, and I was naïve enough to believe if I exposed this outrage to the authorities it would come to a stop. Instead I was rewarded with two attempts on my life. I was an idealistic fool.



“I was fortunate to have a friend—a very good friend—who was an archeologist, among those few individuals who were authorized to travel beyond the city walls. As luck would have it, her team was about to embark on a dig, and I was smuggled out in a storage container. After that I had no place else to go, so I wandered around for more than a week, half-starved, trying to stay out of the patrol’s sight. Eventually these people took pity on me and brought me to their settlement. Of course their kindness was paid back with a raid a month later.”



William reached out and placed a hand on the old man’s sloped shoulder. I couldn’t help but notice Zarek hadn’t flinched from the contact. “My old friend, you mustn’t blame yourself. You were trying to help our people. They would’ve come eventually anyway.”



“Tell that to the families who lost loved ones.”



“Have you any thoughts on how to unlock this message?” the leader asked, changing the subject. “It appears she’s asking for a password or code.”



“I’m baffled,” the old man answered.



“She worded it very strangely. It reminds me of a puzzle, as if she were giving you a hint. ‘He holds the key to unlocking the heart of its contents,’” Grant recited. “It seems to me that ‘key’ and ‘heart’ are significant words. If you knew each other, she might’ve just asked for the password. But you don’t know each other, so she has to give you a hint instead. What do the two of you have in common?”



“They both worked for the same area of the government,” I pointed out.



“Right. Can you think of any references to hearts or keys relating to your former position?” he asked the old man.



Zarek thought for a minute, then shook his head. “No. Not a thing.”



“Well, let’s see; what else might you have in common?” He paused. “Wait. Raja mentioned knowing someone in the archeology department at the museum, someone who knew that the Outliers existed. And you said you were able to escape the city with the help of a friend who was an archeologist. Maybe you have that person in common.”



“The woman I knew was Imogene Kant.”



Grant sat up straight. “She’s my supervisor at the museum! Or, at least she was until a few days ago. I, I always had a feeling about Imogene, but she never gave me enough clues to be sure.”



“She lost a friend who was reported to the Ministry of Health for indecent behavior. He was taken to the hospital and never released. The experience made her cautious about revealing herself. She only did to me after I came to her for help. She said, ‘I know I might not ever see you again, but since you are entrusting your life in my hands I wish to do the same.’” Zarek stared into space with a strange look on his face. “The locket.”



“Locket?” William asked.



“After she smuggled me out of the city, when we were saying good bye to each other, she gave me a gift. I didn’t appreciate the significance of it at the time. I was too busy, caught up with the misery my life had become, and remember being irate, thinking, ‘I’ve lost everything and you’re giving me some trinket you found buried in the dirt?’ It’s a gold locket in the shape of a heart with a tiny key connected to it by a chain. It has an engraving on the back—’All you need is love’.”



The pad chirruped.



Passphrase acknowledged.



Taran looked down at the device. “You unlocked the file!” he exclaimed, grinning at the old man.



Zarek shook his head and smiled. “That Imogene. If I had known then what I do now…”



William nodded at the hunter. “Taran, go ahead and play the file.”



Greetings, Zarek. Imogene was certain you would decipher her clue. She asked me to tell you she “sends her love”.



Fourteen years ago I found an encrypted file containing your research. Since then I’ve dedicated myself to completing the work you started. Zarek, you were correct; PuriFi is making us infertile.




We listened as Raja brought to light the history of a society struggling to rebuild after the near annihilation of humanity by pandemic. Although all survivors possessed an immunity to the disease, the psychological impact of a plague spread first by bodily contact before mutating into an indirectly transmissible strain traumatized the tiny population. Individuals became obsessed with cleanliness, wearing gloves and full-body suits and eschewing direct contact with others.



Because people rejected physical intimacy, the population did not recover as it should. This spurred the growth of artificial insemination as an alternative means of reproduction and, in time, the development of artificial womb technology.



Whole industries dedicated to feeding the public’s demand for a contamination-free environment flourished, from full-body scanners and sanitizing equipment, to protective clothing and virtual pleasure services. Eventually no aspect of society was left untouched by the desire to remain untouched.



The greatest growth of all occurred with the advent of personal decontamination chambers. Clenzcorp’s PuriFi, a body disinfectant whose slogan, “Are you really clean?” helped propel sales of the devices into the stratosphere, until every home, and virtually every floor of every public and private building housed one or more units.



The first references I found suggesting a downward trend in the birth rate appeared nearly a century ago, ten years after two archeologists reported making contact with a previously unknown population of survivors living outside the city.



These archeologists-turned-anthropologists were encouraged to live amongst this newfound population in order to study them but were not permitted to make the discovery public. They did, however submit regular reports of their findings to an oversight committee, reports which included birth and death rates.




Even though the Outlier population was considerably smaller, a fraction of the city’s numbers, their birth rate outpaced the urban center’s. Over the course of studying this discrepancy, a small group of scientists discovered a link between the widespread use of PuriFi and a significant drop in fertility. Citing economic collapse and social chaos, powerful interests in both the corporate and governmental sectors suppressed the information. The scientists disappeared and their findings destroyed, although one of them managed to conceal a single file containing their research.



Five years later, in an effort to bolster the sagging birth rate by alternative means, a dozen infants, all six months or younger, were stolen from the Outlier settlement in a raid; eleven adults died trying to protect them, including the archeologists. The raids continued at irregular intervals, twice or more per decade, up until fifteen years ago, when they were driven back by the native population, and suffered a great many casualties in the process.



Raja spoke of the current government’s growing desperation to increase the birth rate, leading her to suspect a recommencement of hostilities was not only inevitable, but forthcoming. Although she admitted having no proof to support this belief, she urged the Outliers to remain vigilant.



Over the course of my investigation, I have made contact with a small but dedicated group of sympathetic colleagues. We believe some of the damage is reversible if the public discontinues use of the disinfectant.



We are dedicated to exposing the truth about PuriFi, but we know it will be extremely difficult convincing the public. Two years ago, one of my colleagues discovered the formula for an entactogenic drug, one which will temporarily reduce inhibitions for a period of twenty-four hours. I, along with several of my associates, have taken this drug, dubbed U4EA, and its effect is powerful; it induces a sense of openness and…intimacy which is, admittedly, difficult to comprehend.


We watched as the black-haired woman on the tiny screen stopped to take a deep breath, blinking back tears as she struggled to maintain her composure.



She then revealed their intention to infiltrate the utility grid in the early morning hours of the solstice, introducing the substance into the disinfectant supply lines. Because of the holiday, coupled with the accepted practice of decontaminating upon rising, they predicted an exposure rate of greater than ninety-five percent by midmorning. She indicated that during these first hours, when the drug’s effect was still building to peak levels, they planned to expose the truth over public communication channels.



Zarek, we know the action we are about to take is both highly dangerous and morally tenuous. For more than a year we debated the ethics of intentionally drugging the populace, even if it’s for, we believe, a greater good. But our people are dying, Zarek. If things don’t change, now, we have no future.



After everything both you and the Outliers have lost at the hands of our people, we know we have no right to ask you for help. But we’re concerned about the psychological effect of this event on the children. While we’ve modified U4EA to affect only the adult population, this will include the caretakers. We’re asking for your people’s assistance in helping these individuals manage their emotions during this period. With the information we’ve provided regarding the location of your offspring, we invite you to take this opportunity to reunite with your loved ones as well.




Raja directed us to a sub-file containing nearly two hundred names, all those she managed to identify over the past decade and a half as individuals born to the Outliers. She also provided maps and other information detailing the finer points of their plan.



Silence fell over the group as the message ended. William looked at each of us in turn before he spoke. “Taran, I wish to speak with Zarek in private. Will you take Astrid and Grant to your dwelling, find them something to eat and allow them to rest if they wish?” The hunter nodded. The older man turned to Grant and I. “Would you like to bathe—wash yourselves with hot water—and change into fresh clothing as well?”



“Yes; thank you,” I answered.



“Good. Taran can attend to that as well. I must ask all of you to say nothing at this time about what we have heard on this chip.”



“We’ll do as you say, William,” the hunter replied, “but keep in mind that there is probably not a single individual in this settlement who isn’t aware of their arrival or hasn’t heard that they came bearing a message.”



The older man nodded. “I understand. I don’t intend to keep this information secret for long, but first I must meet with the Council tonight to discuss it.” He looked at us. “I’m not asking you to remain silent about your lives in the city or even how you escaped. If you wish to discuss such matters with others, you may do so. I only request that you refrain from revealing Raja’s plan and her request to us. This is something I must share with our people myself.”



Grant and I exchanged a glance and nodded. “We understand,” he told him. “We will honor your request.”



“Thank you. I may call for you to appear in front of the Council later this evening, so remain nearby.” He addressed the hunter. “Speak with your friends about organizing a gathering for tomorrow evening.”



“Is that when you plan to reveal the City Dweller’s request?”



“Yes. But there’s no reason we cannot celebrate Grant and Astrid’s return as well. Plan on an informal gathering to coincide with the evening meal, followed by a formal gathering at eight o’clock.”



~*~*~




“What do you think his decision will be?” I asked Taran after we left the leader’s home.



He shook his head. “I don’t know. It all depends on what the Council has to say. Given the strong opinions our people have about yours—I mean, about City Dwellers—I think the only thing that’s certain is a fierce debate.” The hunter stopped at the edge of the platform and turned to face us. “That woman is asking us to expose ourselves to save her kind. After everything they’ve done to us, maybe they deserve to die out.”



“But virtually no one in the city even knows you exist,” Grant pointed out. “To the general population, the Outliers are a myth. Should they be condemned for the actions of a few?”



“You heard Zarek, and even that woman. The City Dwellers chose to embrace a life of isolation, from the outside world and even from each other. Now they have to live with the consequences.”



“Grant and I didn’t choose that life,” I responded. “And neither did hundreds of others like us—your own people.”



“And I’m not even sure the rest of the population did either,” Grant added. “They’re all just living the life they were born into. If they were given a choice, who knows how they might live?”



Taran stood quietly for a moment. “Well, like I said, the debate will likely be fierce. And with the solstice only six days away, who knows what they’ll decide?” He lowered his voice. “I think it best if we save this discussion for another time and place. Others are watching.”



Grant and I glanced around and saw a number of individuals peering at us from their homes and other platforms.



“Come,” the hunter beckoned, stepping onto the bridge. “There’s a bathhouse below, a short distance from here, that’s very relaxing,” he noted, “but since William has asked us to use discretion, I think it prudent to go straight home. We have hot water, and a place to bathe. It’s not luxurious, but it is private.”



“That sounds good to me,” I responded, staring at the back of his head as I tried to ignore the way the bridge swayed with every step.



“Where do you live?” Grant asked when we reached the other side.



Taran pointed, and my stomach flipped. I gulped. “All the way up there?”



“As a hunter, it’s helpful to live in a location where you can see a greater distance. Don’t worry; it’s safe. I’ve lived there with Kuri and Nissa for three years, and other than a little swaying in the wind, it’s just like living on the ground.”



Grant gave him a wry smile. “Somehow I doubt very much it’s anything like our flats back in the city.”



He grinned. “Perhaps not,” he acknowledged, stepping onto the spiral staircase.



~*~*~




We arrived to find Taran’s four hunting companions waiting in the living area. At once they pounced on us.



“I’m sorry, my friends, but William has forbidden us from speaking of it,” the blue-eyed man explained. “He wishes to discuss the matter with the Council first.”



“That is so unfair,” Nissa complained. “We helped rescue them.”



“I know. I’m not happy about it either, but he intends to speak with everyone tomorrow evening at eight o’clock.”



“Tomorrow evening?”



He shrugged. “Sorry. By the way, I need your help. Our leader wants us to organize an informal gathering for tomorrow as well, to celebrate Astrid and Grant’s homecoming.”



“Nothing like a party to keep our minds off a mystery, eh?” Kuri asked, raising an eyebrow.



Taran smirked. “Something like that. By the way, would you mind throwing together something to eat while I take these two up to the bathroom, give them a chance to shower and change into fresh clothing?”



The black-haired man rolled his eyes. “You’ll do anything to get out of cooking, won’t you?”



He chuckled. “You already know the answer to that. Come on, Astrid, Grant; this way.”



We followed the hunter up a flight of stairs to the second floor.



“There’s the sink, toilet and shower. There’s hot water, but only enough for about fifteen minutes. It’s heated by the sun, so once you use it up, it will be hours until there’s more, which, since it’s getting late, means at least midmorning tomorrow. I recommend turning off the water periodically, just to make sure it doesn’t turn cold on you. I’ll go get you towels and some clean clothes.” He paused and cocked his head. “You’ve never used a shower before, have you?”



We shook our heads. “I’m afraid not,” Grant replied.



Taran grinned. “Well, then you’re in for a treat.” He explained soap and how to work the shower. “I’ll be right back with those towels and clothes.”



After a minute he returned with the bundle. “You remember that conversation we had back at the camp about certain pleasurable activities? Well, the shower is an ideal location for indulging in such pleasure.” He handed us a small bottle. “It’s oil; it makes things more comfortable, if you’re so inclined.”



My cheeks flushed as Grant and I exchanged a knowing look.



“Take your time,” Taran told us, winking at me just before he closed the door.



I pulled my hair out of the ponytail and used my fingers to detangle the strands while I watched Grant undress. “It’s so strange, being around people who encourage us to engage in sexual intercourse. It makes me feel a little self-conscious thinking of Taran, and probably the others, imagining us coupling up here.”



He came to me and grasped the bottom on my shirt. “Oh, I don’t know,” he replied, giving me a kiss, “whenever we were at Oliver’s house, he knew what was going on.”



I lifted my arms as he slid the garment up and off my body. “That’s true,” I conceded, stroking his back, savoring his tight muscles, “but that was different. We never spoke openly about sexual intercourse with Oliver; it was more like it was understood.”



“You have a point,” he acknowledged, smiling with half-lidded eyes when I shivered, pressing myself against his hands as he fondled my breasts. “But personally, I find it very arousing to think that there are people nearby who know I’m enjoying your body right now.”



I moaned when he drew one of my nipples into his mouth. “It was a little exciting, wasn’t it, back at the camp when we came out of the shelter and realized they’d heard us?” I admitted, closing my eyes.



Grant lifted his lips. “It was more than a little exciting. I only wish we’d had more time before being interrupted. I would’ve liked for them to hear you crying out for me.” He resumed suckling my breast.



“Oh, Grant,” I murmured, trembling under his touch.



“They were envious, you know.” He smiled and slid his hands inside my pants. I gasped when he grasped my buttocks. “Especially Taran. I bet right now he’s wishing it was him in here instead of me, touching you like this.”



I giggled. “You’re so bad.”



Grant chuckled. “That’s right,” he confirmed, pulling my pants down. “Come on, I’m very curious about this shower.”



He turned on the water and we both gasped with delight when a warm spray cascaded down into the stall. We stepped in together, laughing as we wet our hair and bodies, jubilant to experience this new sensation together.



I turned my face into the stream and filled my mouth with water. Looking at Grant with a naughty smile, I pursed my lips and squirted him in the face.



“Talk about bad!” he exclaimed, turning off the water. Grabbing my arms, he pulled them behind my back and whipped me around. Swallowing the mouthful, I laughed as I tried to break free.



I gasped when, without warning, he slapped my backside with his open palm.



Grant dropped his hands. “I-I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I did that.”



I looked over my shoulder at him. “That’s okay,” I told him, smiling as I bent over, hands on my knees. I wiggled my hips. “I deserved that.”



His eyes widened. “Do you—you want me to do it again?”



“Yes.” My eyes glanced at his penis, stiff and swaying.



I giggled as his hand came down, warming my buttocks. “Do it again.”



He did as I asked. “Are you sure it doesn’t hurt?”



“Actually, it does. But in a good way. One more time, then you can stop.” I stood up straight and picked up the chunk of soap from the shelf. “How about if I rub this all over your body?”



Grant smiled and kissed me. “Only if you let me do the same.”



We turned on the water for a moment, wetting the soap and ourselves before taking turns massaging the foamy substance all over each other’s skin.



“Ohhh,” I sighed as his soapy fingers reached between my legs. “I never thought getting clean could be so pleasurable.”



I sucked in my breath and shivered when his one of digits strayed and touched my anus.



“Does that feel okay?” he asked as he continued circling the area with his fingertip.



Trembling, I nodded. “Yes. Actually, it feels really good.” I turned around and bent over, parting my buttocks to give him better access.



He resumed fingering my hole and groaned. “It’s so arousing seeing you like this.”



Closing my eyes, I savored this newest form of stimulation. While he traced the puckered skin my whole body tingled, and I felt a pull, an ache deep inside me as I became more and more aroused. Despite my misgivings, I wanted more; at that moment all I wanted was to feel him inside me.



I stood up slowly and turned around. “Let’s rinse off. I want you to use some of that oil and see if you can put a finger inside. Taran and the others said you have to stretch open the anus with your fingers before trying with your penis.”



“You want to have anal intercourse?” Grant asked, turning the water back on. He ran his hands down my body, washing away the suds.



“Don’t you?” I replied, kissing him while my hands stroked his powerful buttocks.



He groaned. “I, I, of course. I just didn’t expect you to be so willing. I guess I thought you might need persuading.”



“That was before I knew how good it would feel to have you touch me there.” I reached around and turned off the shower. I kissed him and picked up the bottle of oil, handing it to him before turning around again.



I moaned when his slick fingertip entered my tight opening. “Uhhh… I can’t believe how good that feels. It doesn’t seem like it should. Try moving your finger in and out.” I shuddered. “Yesss, like that.”



After I adjusted to his finger I encouraged him to try two. Reaching between my legs, I found myself swollen with excitement. I cried out with pleasure when I came a few minutes later, playing with my clitoris while Grant’s fingers penetrated my anus.



“Fuck me with your cock,” I begged him. “I need to feel you inside me.”



“Are you sure you’re ready? Maybe I should use another finger first.”



“No. I need you inside me now.”



“Woman, you’re so bad,” he scolded, smacking my bottom.



I jumped. “That’s right. Do it again, Grant; teach me a lesson.”



Whap.



“Mmm. One more time, a little harder.”



Whap.



My buttocks stinging, I stood up straight and turned around. With a saucy grin I picked up the bottle of oil. “I remember the look on your face when the hunters told us about anal intercourse,” I purred, staring into his eyes while I poured a pool of the slippery liquid into my palm. “You wanted to do it right then, didn’t you?”



“Yes,” he groaned, his eyes rolling up while I massaged the lubricant over the full length of his penis.



“Then do it now,” I encouraged, turning back around and spreading my cheeks apart. “Take me. Stretch me open with that fat cock of yours.”



We moaned when his organ began to do just that, stretching my opening, far more than I expected. It burned a little, and I found myself torn between fear and excitement, not knowing how I could possibly take him, yet unwilling to stop now.



Guhhh. You’re really, really tight,” Grant told me, gritting his teeth. “I don’t want to hurt you.”



I felt my sphincter dancing around the head of his cock. “Give me a second,” I gasped. “Nissa said it’s important to relax.” Closing my eyes, I took a few deep breaths, concentrating on the pleasurable sensations I experienced when he was using his fingers. “Okay, try again; just go slowly.”



He pressed forward, groaning as little by little, he eased himself inside my body. The reluctant muscular ring of my anus rippled over every millimeter of his cock, and we both released a deep sigh when at last his pelvis rested against my buttocks. My hole twitched around the base of his thick steely rod, and I gasped, amazed that we’d managed it, amazed that my body could fully accommodate him.



Reaching around, Grant bent over and pulled me close. He slid his hands over my breasts, stroking them until I relaxed into him, sighing with delight. “Ready?” he rasped, suckling my earlobe, his breath hot in my ear.



I whimpered and nodded. “Yes. Take me.”



Grant reached back and turned the shower on. The warm water rained down on us, caressing our bodies as he shifted us under the stream. One of my hands slipped between my thighs while the other found the wall, propping me up while he began to fuck me, slow and deep.



I threw back my head and moaned, swimming in pleasure tinged with pain. “Oh yes, fuck me. Fuck me good.”



He pinched my nipples, tugging on them between his fingers. “Tell me how it feels,” he whispered in my ear, grinding his hips against my bottom with every in stroke.



“Your cock feels so big, like it’s splitting me open. Uhhh…every nerve in my body is on fire.”



“Do you like it?” he asked, stubble scuffing my skin as he kissed the back of my neck, his thick member continuing its anal assault. “Do you like having my cock up your ass?”



“Oh, yes,” I groaned, fingers dancing over my erect nub.



“Good,” he grunted, toying with my nipples, “because I love fucking your tight ass.”



Water sprayed in all directions while our bodies slapped together again and again, and I burned from the delicious friction of his cock possessing my forbidden passage. Of the things we’d done, this was the most deviant of all, but the conflict it aroused only enhanced my pleasure.



My frenzied fingers picked up speed to match his thrusts. “We’re so…bad… Uhhh!” I cried out as the orgasm swelled, overtaking me. My hole throbbed, squeezing his shaft, pulsing as one with my enflamed pussy. I ground myself against him, trying to force him all the way to the root. With a long, low moan he thrust hard and came deep inside me, holding me close while our bodies heaved and quaked.



We panted on quivering legs, leaning against the wall for support. A few moments later Grant kissed my neck and withdrew, leaving me stretched and empty. Turning around, I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and kissed him. “Mmm,” I moaned, smiling against his mouth as I felt the contents of his release oozing from my tender anus. “Who would’ve thought something that seems so dirty and wrong—”



“Could feel so good and right?” He smiled and kissed me back. “You were…beyond words. I can’t wait—”



I screamed and Grant shouted, both of us jumping, when all at once the water turned icy cold. Laughing, we hurried to finish up, dried off and got dressed.



“Look at you two!” Nissa exclaimed when we emerged from the stairwell with wet hair, dressed in borrowed clothes. “You both look great, much better than when you were wearing those silly uniforms.”



“Didn’t I warn you about using all the hot water?” Taran scolded. “Now I’ll have to wait till tomorrow, or go all the way down to the bathhouse to bathe.”



My face flushed. Just before I opened my mouth to apologize, I realized he was smiling.



At their urging, Grant and I sat down. While we answered their questions about our lives in the city, I noticed a delicious savory scent wafting from the kitchen. A short time later Kuri appeared in the doorway between the kitchen and living area. “Dinner’s ready. Come on in and help yourselves.”



I sniffed the air and smiled. “Mmm. It smells absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for making us dinner, Kuri.”



“Yes, thank you very much,” Grant agreed.



The slim black-haired man returned my smile. “My pleasure,” he replied, nodding at Grant. Glancing sidelong at Taran and the others, he added, “It’s nice to hear some people appreciate my efforts.”

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