That evening, as night fell across Caldwell and did absolutely nothing to improve the humidity, Mr. D stood in the hot upstairs bathroom of the farmhouse and peeled off a bandage he'd applied hours and hours earlier to his gut. The gauze was stained black. The patch of skin underneath was much improved.

At least one thing was workin' for him, although it was only the one. Less than twenty-four hours as the Fore-lesser and he felt like someone had pissed in his truck's gas tank, fed his dog rotten meat, and lit his barn on fire.

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He should have stayed just a soldier.

Although it wasn't as if he'd had the choice.

He tossed the dirty bandage into the drywall bucket the dead people evidently used as a wastepaper basket and decided not to replace it. The internal damage had been real big, going by how bad it had hurt and how far that black dagger had gone in. But for lessers, the intestinal tract was made up of useless meat. That his guts were a sure-fire tangled mess didn't matter none, long as the bleeding was stemmed.

Boy, last night he'd barely got out of that alley alive. If the Brother with the sissy locks hadn't been reined in, Mr. D was darned certain he'd have been deboned like a catfish.

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A knocking from downstairs brought his head up. Ten o'clock sharp.

At least they were on time.

He strapped on his heat, picked up his Stetson, and hit the stairs. Outside, there were three trucks and a beater in the dirt drive and two squadrons of lessers on the front stoop. As he let the boys in, the fuckers topped him by at least a foot, and he could tell they weren't impressed none too good about his promotion.

"In the living room," he told them.

As the eight of them filed past, he flipped free the holster strap on his gun, palmed the Magnum .357, and leveled it at the last one in the house.

He pulled the trigger once. Twice. Three times.

The sound was like thunder; none of that subtle popping like you got with nines. The slugs went into the small of the lesser's back, obliterating his spine and blowing a hole through the front of his torso. The guy hit the ratty rug with a thump, a little cloud of dust wafting up.

As Mr. D reholstered his weapon, he wondered when the place had last been vacuumed. Probably back when it had been built.

"I'm 'fraid I have to get m' spurs on," he said as he stepped around the writhing slayer.

While oily black blood oozed out on the brown rug, Mr. D put his foot on the slayer's head and pulled out the wallpaper section the Omega had burned the target's image onto.

"I want to make sure I got y'all's attention last night," he said as he held the thing up. "You find this male. Or I'ma pick you off one by one and start with a new crew."

The slayers stared at him in collective silence, like they had one brain and it was spinning to come to terms with a new world order.

"Y'all stop looking at me and look at this right chere, now." He jogged the picture. "Bring him to me. Alive. Or I swear to my Lord and savior that I will find me some new hound dogs and feed strips of you to 'em. We all on the same page here?"

One by one, they nodded as the downed man moaned.

"Good." Mr. D pointed the Magnum's muzzle at the lesser 's head and blew that fucker to smithereens. "Now let's get movin'."

About fifteen miles to the east, in the underground training center's locker room, John Matthew fell in love. Which was not something he expected to happen in that particular place.

"Kicks from Ed Hardy," Qhuinn said, as he held out a pair of sneakers. "For you."

John reached out and took them. Okay, they were hot. Black. White soled. Skull on each one with Hardy's siggy in rainbow colors.

"Whoa," one of the other trainees said on his way out of the locker room. "Where'd you get those?"

Qhuinn jogged his eyebrows at the guy. "Spank, huh?" They were Qhuinn's, John thought. Probably something he was really dying to wear and had saved up for.

"Try 'em on, John."

They're awesome, but really, I can't.

As the last of their classmates filed out, the door eased shut and Qhuinn's bravado eased off. He grabbed the sneakers, put them at John's feet, and looked up.

"I'm sorry for busting on you last night. You know, at A and F, with that girl... I was a prick."

It's cool.

"No, it isn't. I was in a bad mood and I took it out on you, and that is not cool."

See, this was the thing with Qhuinn. He could be out there and he could let his edge get away from him, but he always came back and made you feel like you were the single most important person in the world to him and that he was truly sorry for hurting your feelings.

You're a freak. But I really can't accept these¡ª

"Were you raised in a barn? Don't be ruuuuuuuuuuuuude, my boy. They're a gift."

Blay shook his head. "Take them, John. You're just going to lose this argument, and it will save us from the theatrics."

"Theatrics?" Qhuinn leaped up and assumed a Roman oratory pose. "Whither thou knowest thy ass from thy elbow, young scribe?"

Blay blushed. "Come on¡ª"

Qhuinn threw himself at Blay, grasping onto the guy's shoulders and hanging his full weight off him. "Hold me. Your insult has left me breathless. I'm agasp."

Blay grunted and scrambled to keep Qhuinn up off the floor. "That's agape."

"Agasp sounds better."

Blay was trying not to smile, trying not to be delighted, but his eyes were sparkling like sapphires and his cheeks were getting red.

With a silent laugh, John sat on one of the locker room benches, shook out his pair of white socks, and pulled them on under his new old jeans.

You sure, Qhuinn? 'Cuz I have a feeling they're going to fit and you might change your mind.

Qhuinn abruptly lifted himself off Blay and straightened his clothes with a sharp tug. "And now you offend my honor." Facing off at John, he flipped into a fencing stance.

"Touch¨¦."

Blay laughed. "That's en garde, you damn fool."

Qhuinn shot a look over his shoulder. "?a va, Brutus?"

"Et tu!"

"That would be tutu, I believe, and you can keep the cross-dressing to yourself, ya perv." Qhuinn flashed a brilliant smile, all twelve kinds of proud for being such an ass. "Now, put the fuckers on, John, and let's be done with this. Before we have to put Blay in an iron lung."

"Try sanitarium!"

"No, thanks, I had a big lunch."

The sneakers fit perfectly and somehow made John feel taller, even though he had yet to stand up in them.

Qhuinn nodded and made like he was sizing up a master-piece. "They look tight. You know, maybe we should rough your threads up a little. Get you wearing some chains. Hey, pierce your shit like mine and add more black¡ª"

"You know why Qhuinn likes black?"

They all whipped their heads around and looked to the shower. Lash was coming out of it, white towel held in front of his privates, water dripping off his heavy shoulders.

"It's because Qhuinn's color-blind, isn't that right, cuz." Lash sauntered over to his locker and flipped the thing open so it slapped against its neighbor. "He only knows he's got mismatched eyes because people tell him so."

John stood up, noting absently that the sneaks had awesome traction. Which, considering the way Qhuinn was glaring at Lash's bare ass, might be a useful thing in about a second and a half.

"Yeah, Qhuinn's special, aren't you." Lash pulled on a pair of camo pants and a muscle shirt, then made a show of sliding a gold signet ring onto his left forefinger. "Some people don't fit in and never will. It's sad as fuck that they keep trying to."

Blay whispered, "Let's go, Qhuinn."

Qhuinn gritted his teeth. "You need to shut your hole, Lash. For real."

John stepped into his buddy's grille and signed, Let's just go to Blay's and chill, okay?

"Hey, John, a question just occurred to me. When you were raped in the stairwell by that human guy, did you scream with your hands? Or just breathe really hard?"

John went devastation-still. As did his two friends.

No one moved. No one breathed.

The locker room became so quiet that the dripping from the communal shower sounded like a snare drum.

Lash shut his locker door with a smile and looked at the two others. "I read his medical file. It's all in there. He was sent to Havers's for therapy because he was exhibiting symptoms of"¡ªLash did air quotations¡ª" ¡®post-traumatic stress.' So come on, John, when the guy fucked you, did you try to scream? Did you, John?"

Surely. This. Was. A. Nightmare, John thought as his balls shriveled up.

Lash laughed and shoved his feet into combat boots. "Look at you. All three of you struck stupid. It's the cock-sucking Retardateers."

Qhuinn's voice took a tone it never had before. There was no bravado, no heated anger. It was stone-cold nasty. "You better pray this doesn't get out. To anyone."

"Or what? Come on, Qhuinn, I'm a firstborn son. My father is your father's eldest brother. Do you really think you can touch me? Hmm... nah, not so much, my boy. Not so much."

"Not one word, Lash."

"Whatever. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to get ghost. The bunch of you are sucking the will to live right out of me." Lash shut his locker and walked over to the door. Naturally, he paused and looked over his shoulder, smoothing his blond hair. "Bet you didn't scream, John. Bet you asked for more. Bet you begged the¡ª"

John dematerialized.

For the first time in his life, he moved from one spot to another right through the air. Taking form in front of Lash and planting his body against the door to block the guy's exit, he looked back at his friends and bared his fangs. Lash was his and his alone.

When they both nodded, the beat-down began.

Lash was ready for the first punch, all braced with his hands up and his weight on his thighs. So instead of throwing a fist, John ducked, lunged forward, and bear-hugged the bastard's waist, crashing him back into a wall of lockers.

Lash wasn't fazed in the slightest and recovered with a knee crack that nearly broke John's face. Recoiling from the smash, John stumbled back, then reengaged, grabbing Lash's throat, jamming his thumbs up under the guy's chin, and locking in tight. He head-butted Lash's nose, busting that fucker open like a geyser, but Lash didn't give a shit. He smiled through the blood that ran down into his mouth and threw a low rightie gut punch that kicked John's liver up into his lungs.

Fists were traded back and forth, back and forth, as the two of them plowed into banks of lockers and benches and trash bins. At some point, a couple of trainees tried to come in, but Blay and Quinn forced them out and locked the door.

John grabbed onto Lash's hair, reared back, and bit him on top of the shoulder. As he pulled away, flesh tore free, and the two of them spun around while Lash welded his palms together and swung a two-hander square into John's temple. The impact sent him tap-dancing into the shower, but he caught himself before he fell. Unfortunately, his re flexes weren't fast enough to keep him from getting cracked in the jaw.

It was like getting hit with a baseball bat, and he realized Lash had somehow slipped on a pair of old-fashioned brass knuckles¡ªprobably because he needed the advantage given that John was bigger. Another hit landed somewhere on John's face, and suddenly it was the Fourth of July in his head, fireworks everywhere. Before he could blink clear his vision, he got slammed face-first into the tiled wall in the shower and held in place.

Lash reached around to the front of John's pants.

"How about a replay, John-boy?" the guy rasped. "Or do you only like humans in your ass?"

The feel of a big body pressing into his from behind froze John solid.

It should have energized him. It should have sent him wild. Instead, he became the frail boy he'd been, helpless and terrified and at the mercy of someone much, much bigger. He was instantly where he'd been in that decrepit stairwell, pushed against the wall, trapped, overpowered.

Tears sprang to his eyes. No, not this... not this again¡ª From out of nowhere, a war cry came, and the weight was lifted from him.

John fell to his knees and threw up on the wet tile floor.

When his retching receded, he let himself fall onto his side and twisted into a fetal position, shaking like the nancy he was¡ª

Lash was down on the tile right next to him... and his throat was cut wide-open.

The guy was trying to breathe, trying to hold his blood in, and it wasn't working.

John looked up in horror.

Qhuinn stood above them both, panting. In his right hand was a bloody hunting knife.

"Oh, Jesus..." Blay said. "What the fuck did you do, Qhuinn?"

This was bad. This was life-altering bad. For all of them. What had started as a brawl... had likely ended up as a murder.

John opened his mouth to holler for help. Naturally, nothing came out.

"I'll get someone," Blay said, and ran out.

John sat up, whipped off his shirt, and leaned over Lash. Taking the guy's hands away, he pressed what had been on his back to the open wound and prayed the blood would stop. Lash met his eyes, then brought his own hands up as if to help.

Lie still, John mouthed. Just lie still. I can hear people coming.

Lash coughed and blood came out of his mouth, spattering over his lower lip and running down his chin. Shit, the red stuff was everywhere.

But they had done this before, John told himself. The two of them had fought right here in this shower, and the drain had run red then, too, and it had been okay.

Not this time, a voice inside of him warned. Not this time...

A roar of panic flared, and he started to pray for Lash to live. Then he prayed for time to go backward. Then he wished for this to be a dream...

Someone was standing over him and saying his name.

"John?" He looked up. It was Doc Jane, the Brotherhood 's private physician, and Vishous's shellan. Her translucent, ghostly face was calm, her voice even and soothing. As she knelt down, she became as solid as he was. "John, I need you to step back so I can get a look at him, okay? I want you to let go and step back. You've done a good job, but I need to take care of him now."

He nodded. But even still, she had to touch his hands to get him to release his hold on his shirt.

Someone picked him up off his knees. Blay. Yeah, it was Blay. He could tell by the guy's aftershave. Jump by Joop!

There were a lot of other people in the locker room. Rhage was just inside the shower, and next to him was V. Butch was there.

Qhuinn... where was Qhuinn?

John looked around and found him across the way. The bloody knife was gone from his hand, and Zsadist was next to the guy, looming.

Qhuinn was paler than the white tile, his mismatched eyes unblinking as he stared at Lash.

"You're under house arrest at your parents'," Zsadist said to Qhuinn. "If he dies, you're up for murder."

Rhage went over to Qhuinn, as if thinking that Z's hard tone wasn't helping the sitch. "Come on, son, let's get your stuff from your locker."

Rhage was the one who led Qhuinn out of the locker room, and Blay followed them.

John stayed right where he was. Please let Lash live, he thought. Please...

Man, he didn't like the way Doc Jane kept shaking her head as she worked on the guy, her doctor's bag cracked open, instruments flying as she tried to stitch up Lash's neck.

"Tell me."

John jumped and turned his head. It was Z.

"Tell me how it happened, John."

John looked back down at Lash and replayed the scene. Oh, Jesus... he didn't want to go into the whys. Even though Zsadist knew about his past, he couldn't bring himself to tell the Brother the reason Qhuinn had hard-cored it.

Maybe it was because he still couldn't believe his past had come out like that. Maybe it was because the old nightmare had just been renewed.

Maybe it was because he was a pussy who couldn't man up for his friends.

Z's deformed lip tightened. "Listen, John, Qhuinn's in deep shit. Legally he's still a minor, but that's assault with a deadly against a first son. The family is going to come gunning for him even if Lash survives, and we're going to need to know what happened here."

Doc Jane stood up. "He's closed, but he's at risk for stroke. I want him to go to Havers's. Stat."

Z nodded and called forward two doggen, who had a gurney between them. "Fritz is ready with the car, and I'll be going with them."

As Lash was lifted up off the tile, the Brother pegged John with grim eyes. "You want to save your friend, you're going to need to tell us what went down."

John watched the group roll Lash out of the locker room.

As the door eased shut, his knees wobbled, and he looked at the pool of blood in the center of the shower.

Over in the corner of the locker room, there was a hose that was used for the daily cleaning of the facilities. John forced his feet to go across to where the thing was mounted on the wall. Uncoiling it, he turned the water on, pulled the head over into the shower, then twisted the nozzle open. He swept the spray back and forth, back and forth, moving inch by inch, chasing the blood away toward the drain, where it was swallowed with a gurgle.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

The tile went from red to pink to white. But it didn't clean up the mess. Not in the fucking slightest.

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