After john cleaned up the locker room's shower area, he went into the office, sat at the desk, and spent God only knew how long staring at papers and spent God only knew how long staring at papers he should have been shuffling. In the silence, his fat lip throbbed and so did his knuckles, but those were just minor aches in the midst of the dull roar in his head.

Life was just too fucking weird.

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The vast majority of it passed at a predictable rate, events flowing by you at or just below the speed limit. Every once in a while, though, things happened in a flash, kind of like a Porsche sucking your doors off on the highway. Shit just came from out of nowhere and changed everything in a heartbeat.

Wellsie's death had been like that. Tohr's disappearance had been like that.

Qhuinn's move on Lash had been like that.

And the horrible thing that had happened to John on the stairwell... yeah, that, too.

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It was fate's version of a lead foot.

Clearly Lash's throat had been destined to be cut at that moment by Qhuinn, and time had sped up so that there could be no interference by anyone or anything else.

Giving up on the paperwork, John left the desk and headed through the back of the closet. As he stepped into the underground tunnel that would take him back to the mansion, he hated himself for hoping that Lash didn't survive. He didn't like thinking he was that cruel, and besides, if Lash died, things would be harder on Qhuinn.

He didn't want his secret to get loose, though.

As he stepped out into the foyer, his phone went off with a beep. It was Qhuinn: Hav left home. Dont kno hw long fone will work. Will turn self in2 Wrath wheneva he wants.

Shit. John quickly hit his friend back: Blay's ready 2 cum & pick u up.

No reply.

He tried again: Q? W8 4 Blay, don't leave w/o him. U can stay thur.

John stopped at the base of the stairs and waited for an answer. What he got a minute later was from Blay: Dont worry, im on Q. Will let u kno wen i hear bck frm him. Worst case? I pick him up.

Thank fuck.

Ordinarily, John would have gone over and met his boys at Blay's, but he couldn't face them just yet. How could they not be thinking about him differently? Plus, what had happened to him was going to be tight on their minds, just as it had been for him in the beginning.

After the attack had first occurred, he'd thought nonstop about what had been done to him. Then it had been most of the time during the day and all the time during the night. And then it was sometimes during the day, then every other day; then a whole week might pass without him giving it a thought. The nights had taken much, much longer, but eventually even the dreams had dried up, too.

Yeah, he had zero interest in looking into his friends' eyes right now and knowing what they were thinking. Picturing. Wondering about.

Nah, he couldn't be with them yet.

And besides, he couldn't shake the feeling that the whole thing with Lash was his fault. If he wasn't carrying that baggage around with him, the guy wouldn't have trotted it out in front of his friends and the fight wouldn't have happened and Qhuinn wouldn't have Rambo'd his first cousin.

Once again, that fucked-up shit from that stairwell was causing problems. It was like the aftershocks from what had happened to him were never, ever going to end.

As John passed by the library to go upstairs, he went in on a whim and scanned the stacks until he got to the legal section...which was about twenty feet in length. God, there must have been about seventy volumes on law in the Old Language. Evidently vampires were as litigious as humans.

He flipped through some of the tomes and got a picture from the penal code of what might happen. If Lash died, Qhuinn would go up in front of Wrath for murder, and things didn't look good, as Qhuinn hadn't been the one being attacked, so he couldn't argue self-defense. His best shot was to raise justifiable honor homicide, but even that carried jail time, in addition to a high fine that had to be paid to Lash's parents. On the other hand, if Lash lived, it was an issue of assault and battery with a deadly weapon, which would still lead to time behind bars and a fine.

Both outcomes raised the same problem: According to what John knew, the race had no jails, as the penile system for vampires had degraded over the four hundred years prior to Wrath's ascension. Qhuinn would therefore be held on house arrest somewhere until a prison was built.

It was hard to imagine Blay's parents being okay with keeping a felon under their roof indefinitely. So where would the guy go?

With a curse, John shoved the leather-bound volumes back into the stacks. As he turned away, he caught a vision in the moonlight and forgot about what he had just been reading.

On the other side of the library's French doors, Cormia was getting out of the pool, her naked body dripping with crystals of water, her skin so smooth it looked polished, her long, elegant arms and legs graceful as a summer breeze.

Oh... whoa.

How in the hell had Phury stayed away from her?

As she put her robe on, she pivoted toward the house and froze as she saw him. He felt like a total Peeping Tom while he raised a hand up for an awkward wave. She hesitated, as if she wasn't sure whether she'd been caught doing something bad, then returned the greeting.

Opening the door, he signed without thinking, I'm really sorry I'm late.

Oh, that was brilliant. She didn't know ASL¡ª

"You're sorry you saw me or that you're late? I'm guessing either one of those is what you said." When he tapped his watch, she blushed a little. "Ah, the late part."

As he nodded, she came over, her feet making no noise as they left wet prints on the flagstone. "I waited for you¡ª Oh, dearest Virgin Scribe. You're hurt."

He put his hand up to the bruise on his mouth, wishing her eyes weren't so good in the dark. He started to sign something to divert her attention, got frustrated with the communication barrier, and had a flash of inspiration.

Taking his phone out, he typed into a text: I'd still like to watch a movie, if you're up to it?

It had been a hellacious night so far, and he knew that when the Brothers returned from the clinic and Lash's outcome was made clear, things were going to get even harder. As he could barely stand to be in his own skin, much less his own head, the idea of sitting in the dark with her and zoning out was all he could handle at this point.

She measured him for a time, eyes narrowing. "Are you all right?"

Yeah, just fine, he typed. Sorry I was late. Would really like to watch a movie.

"Then it would be my pleasure," she said with a bow. "I should like to rinse and change, however."

The two of them went back in through the library and up the grand staircase, and he was impressed. She wasn't overly awkward, considering all he'd seen, and that was attractive, it truly was.

At the top, he waited for her as she went into her room and expected to be there for a while, but she was back in a flash. And her hair was down.

Oh, sweet Jesus, what a sight. The blond ringlets fell down to her hips, the color darker than its usual pale wheat because of its dampness.

"My hair is wet." With a flush, she held out a handful of gold clips. "I shall put it up as soon as it is dry."

Not on my account, John thought as he stared at her.

"Your grace?"

John snapped to it and led the way down the hall of statues to the pair of flapping doors that marked the entrance to the staff quarters. He held them open for Cormia and then went to the right, over to a leather-padded door that pulled wide to reveal carpeted steps inset with strips of glowing lights.

Cormia picked up her white robes and ascended, and as he followed her, he tried not to watch the curling ends of her hair brush the small of her back.

The movie theater on the third floor had a real 1940s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer vibe, its black and silver walls done up with art deco lotus reliefs and ornate gold-and-silver light sconces. The stadium seating in the place was the quality of what you'd find in a Mercedes, not a ballpark: Twenty-one leather chairs were set back in three sections, the aisles marked with more little lights. Each of the superpadded ass-palaces was the size of a twin bed, and collectively they had more drink cup holders than on a Boeing 747.

All down the back wall of the theater were thousands of DVDs, and there were eats, too. Along with a popcorn machine, which hadn't been turned on, as they hadn't told Fritz they were coming, there was a Coke fountain and a real candy counter.

He stopped and looked over the Milk Duds, Raisinets, Swedish Fish, M&M's, and Twizzlers. He was both hungry and nauseated, and had to vote with the greasy feeling in his stomach, but he thought maybe Cormia would like some. As she was busy looking around with wide eyes, he took out M&M's, because they were a staple, and a bag of the Swedish Fish in case she wasn't into chocolate. He popped two Coke cups free, stocked them with a ton of ice, and fired up two dark and lovelies.

Whistling softly to get her attention, he nodded down toward the front. Cormia followed, seemingly fascinated by the inset lights that went down the low stairs. Once he got her situated in one of the loungers, he jogged up the stairs and tried to figure out what the hell to put on.

Okay, straight horror was out, both because of her delicate sensibilities and because of the real-life nightmare he'd been in earlier. Of course... that eliminated about fifty percent of the collection, because Rhage was usually the one who put in movie requests to Fritz.

John bypassed the Godzilla section because it reminded him of Tohr. Raunchy comedies like American Pie and Wedding Crashers weren't classy enough for her. Mary's collection of deep, meaningful foreign films was... yeah, way too valid for John to sit through even on a good night. He was looking for escapism, not a different kind of grinding torture. Action flicks? Somehow he didn't think Cormia would grasp the subtleties of Bruce Willis, Sly Stallone, or Ahnold.

That left chick flicks. But which one? There were the John Hughes classics: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club. The Julia Roberts section with Mystic Pizza, Pretty Woman, Steel Magnolias, My Best Friend's Wedding... Jennifer Aniston's layer upon layer of forget-table. All the Meg Ryans from the nineties...

He slid a case free.

As he turned the thing over in his hand, he thought of Cormia dancing over the grass. Bingo.

John was just turning around when his phone went off. The group text was from Zsadist, who was evidently still at Havers's clinic: Lash doesn't luk gud. Treatment ongoing. Will keep all posted.

The message was a blast to everyone in the house, and as John reread it, he wondered if he should forward it to Blay and Qhuinn. In the end, he put the phone back in his pocket, figuring the two of them had enough to deal with without flip-flopping reports about Lash's condition. If the guy died, then John would get in touch with his friends.

He paused and looked around. It was utterly surreal to be doing something as normal as copping a movie, and it felt vaguely inappropriate. But right now was all about waiting. He and everyone else involved were in neutral.

As he went over to the DVD player and put the disk on the machine's black tongue, all he could see was Lash down on that tile, fear in his eyes, blood running out of his neck.

He started to pray that Lash would make it.

Even if it meant he had to live in fear of his secret being exposed, better that than having Qhuinn condemned as a murderer, and a death on John's conscience.

Please, God, let Lash live.

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