Downtown at zerosum, Rehv was having a bad fucking night, and his chief of security was making it worse. Xhex was standing in front of his desk with her arms crossed, looking down her nose at him like he was dog shit on a hot night.
He rubbed his eyes, then glared back at her. "And why are you telling me to stay in here?"
"Because you're toxic and the staff are scared of you."
Which proved they had half a brain, he thought.
"What happened last night?" she asked softly.
"Did I tell you I bought that lot four blocks down?"
"Yes. Yesterday. What happened with the Princess."
"This town needs a Goth club. I think I'll call it the Iron Mask." He leaned in toward the glowing screen of his laptop. "Cash flow here is more than strong enough for me to cover a construction loan. Or I could just cut a check, although that would get us audited again. Dirty money is so fucking complicated, and if you ask me about last night one more time, I'm going to kick you the fuck out of here."
"Well, aren't we feeling precious."
His upper lip twitched as his fangs shot out into his mouth. "Don't push me, Xhex. I'm so not in the mood."
"Look, you can keep your yap shut, that's fine, but don't take your head fuck out on the staff. I'm not interested in cleaning up the interpersonal debris¡ª Why are you rubbing your eyes again?"
Wincing, he gave his watch a look-see. In the midst of his vision's flat plane of red, he realized that it had been only three hours since his last hit of dopamine.
"Do you need another dose already?" Xhex asked.
He didn't bother nodding, just opened his drawer and took out a glass vial and a syringe. Peeling his suit jacket off, he rolled up his sleeve, tourniqueted his upper arm, and then tried to push the needle's fine head through the red seal on the drug's container.
He couldn't quite manage to hit the bull's-eye. With no depth perception, he was fishing through empty space, trying to match the point of the needle with the top of the little bottle and getting a whole lot of skipping misses.
Symphaths saw only shades of red, and in two dimensions. When his drug didn't work, either because he was stressed or had missed a dosage, his vision change was the first sign of trouble.
"Here, let me."
As a wave of ill swept through him, he found he couldn't speak, so he just shook his head at her and kept at it with the syringe. In the meantime, his body started to wake up from its deep freeze, sensation flooding into his arms and his legs on a fleet of tingles.
"Okay, enough with your ego." Xhex came around the desk in all-purpose mode. "Just let me¡ª"
He tried to get his shirtsleeve down in time. Didn't make it.
"Jesus Christ," she hissed.
He shuffled his forearm away from her, but it was too late. Way too late.
"Let me do it," Xhex said, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Just ease up, boss... and let me take care of you."
With surprisingly gentle hands, she took the syringe and vial, then extended his wretched black-and-blue forearm straight out on the desk. He'd been shooting up so much lately that even with how fast he healed, his veins were decimated, all swollen and full of holes, pitted like roads too heavily traveled.
"We're going to use your other arm."
As he stretched out his right one, Xhex managed the whole needle-in-the-lid thing with no problem, drawing out what should have been his normal dose. He shook his head and held up two fingers so she'd double it.
"That's way too much," she said.
He lurched for the syringe, but she moved it out of reach.
He slammed his fist into the desk, and his eyes shot to hers, all stark demand.
With a couple of choice words, she drew more of the drug out of the vial, and he watched as she hunted around his drawer for an alcohol towelette, tore the thing open, and scrubbed a patch on the crook of his elbow. After she shot him up, she snapped free the tourney, and put his hit kit back in the desk.
Easing into his chair, he shut his eyes. The red persisted even with his lids down.
"How long's this been going on?" she asked quietly. "The double dosing? The shooting up without disinfecting the injection site? How many times are you doing this every day?"
He just shook his head.
Moments later, he heard her open the door and tell Trez to bring the Bentley around. Right as he was getting ready to no-fucking-way her, she took one of his sable dusters out of the closet.
"We're going to Havers's," she said. "And if you argue with me, I'm going to call the boys in here and they're going to carry you out of this office like a rug roll."
Rehv glared at her. "You are not... the boss around here."
"True. But do you think if I tell your boys how infected your arm is, they would take even a breath before manhandling you? If you were nice, you might end up in the backseat instead of the trunk. If you were a prick, you'd be the hood ornament."
"We tried that, remember? And neither of us liked it."
Shit, there was something he needed reminding of right now.
"Be smart, Rehv. You're not winning this one, so why bother with the argue? Sooner you go, sooner you'll be back." They glowered at each other until she said, "Fine, leave out the double-dipping. Just let Havers look at your arm. One word: sepsis."
As if the doc wouldn't figure out what was doing when he saw the thing?
Rehv palmed his cane and slowly pushed up off his chair. "I'm too hot... for the coat."
"And I'm bringing it so that when the dopamine kicks in and you cool off you won't get a chill."
Xhex offered him her arm without looking at him because she knew he was too much of a pride-filled dickhead to lean on her otherwise. And he needed to lean on her. He was weak as shit.
"I hate when you're right," he said.
"Which explains why you're usually so short-tempered."
Together they walked slowly out of the office and into the alley.
The Bentley was there waiting, with Trez behind the wheel. The Moor asked no questions and made no comments, as was his way.
And, of course, all the crushing quiet always made you feel worse when you were being an ass.
Rehv ignored the fact that Xhex settled him into the backseat and slid in next to him as if she were worried he would get carsick or some shit.
The Bentley took off with the smoothness of a magic carpet ride, and that was so fucking apropos, because he felt as if he were on one. With his symphath nature battling his vampire blood, he was doing the seesaw between his bad side and his halfway decent one, and the shifts in moral gravity were making him nauseous as fuck.
Maybe Xhex was right to be concerned about the throwing-up thing.
They hung a left on Trade, hooked up with Tenth Avenue, and shot down toward the river, where they got on the highway. Four exits up, they turned off and glided through a high-rent district, where big houses on parklike lots were set back from the road, kings waiting to be knelt before.
With his red, two-dimensional vision Rehv didn't see much with his eyes. With his symphath side, he knew too much. He could sense the humans in the mansions, knew the inhabitants by the emotional footprint they emitted, thanks to the energy their feelings released. Whereas his sight was flat as a TV screen, his sense of the people was in three dimensions: They registered as psychic grid patterns, their interplay of joy and sadness, guilt and lust, anger and hurt creating structures that to him were as solid as their houses.
Though his stare couldn't penetrate the retaining walls and well-planted trees, couldn't breach the stone-and-mortar of the manses, his evil nature saw the men and women inside as clearly as if they stood before him naked, and his instincts came alive. He focused on the weaknesses percolating in those emotional grids, finding the loose parts in the people's boxes and wanting to rattle them even more. He was the canny cat to their meek mouse, the clawed stalker who wanted to toy with them until their little heads bled with their dirty secrets and their dark lies and their shameful worries.
His evil side hated them with calm detachment. To his symphath nature, the weak were not to inherit the earth. They were to eat it until they choked to death. And then you were to grind their carcasses in the mud of their blood to get to your next victim.
"I hate the voices in my head," he said.
Xhex glanced over. In the glow of the backseat, her hard, smart face was curiously beautiful to him, probably because she was the only one who truly understood the demons he fought, and that connection made her lovely.
"Better to despise that part of you," she said. "The hate keeps you safe."
"Fighting it's a bore."
"I know. But would you have it any other way?"
"Sometimes, I'm not so sure."
Ten minutes later, Trez pulled them through the gates of Havers's property, and by then the numbness in Rehv's hands and feet was returning, and his core temperature had dropped. As the Bentley went around back and stopped at the clinic's entrance, the sable duster was a godsend, and he huddled into it for warmth. When he got out of the car, he noted that the red vision receded as well, the world's full palette of colors returning to his sight, his depth perception putting objects in the spatial orientation he was used to.
"I'm staying out here," Xhex said from the backseat.
She never went into the clinic. But then, considering what had been done to her, he could understand why.
He palmed his cane and leaned into it. "I won't be long."
"You'll be as long as it takes. And Trez and I'll be waiting."
Phury returned from the Other Side and poofed his ass right to ZeroSum. He made his buy from iAm as Rehv was out and the Moor had been left in charge, and then he went back home and jogged up to his bedroom.
He was going to have a blunt to take the edge off before he knocked on Cormia's door and told her she was free to return to the Sanctuary. And when he talked to her, he was going to give her his vow that he would never call on her as Primale, and tell her that he would protect her from comment or criticism.
He was also going to make it clear that he was sorry for shutting her out on this side.
As he sat on his bed and picked up his rolling papers, he tried to practice what he would say to her... and ended up thinking of her undressing him the night before, her pale, elegant hands tugging at his belt before taking on the waistband of his leathers. In a rush, a shot of red-hot rabid-erotic nailed into the head of his cock, and though he did his best not to dwell on it, pretending he was calm and cool was like being in the kitchen of a house that was on fire.
You tended to notice the heat and all the smoke alarms that were going off.
Ah... but it didn't last. The fire engine and its crew of masked and gloved arrived in the form of an image of all those empty cribs. The memory of them was like a loaded gun to his head, and sure as shit put the douse on his flames.
The wizard appeared in his mind, standing in his field of skulls, silhouetted against the gray sky. When you were growing up, your father was drunk night and day. Do you remember what that made you feel like? Tell me, mate, what kind of papa are you going to be to all of these young of your loins, considering you're smoked out twenty-four/seven?
Phury stopped what he was doing and thought of the number of times he had picked his father up out of the weeds of the garden and dragged him back into the house right as the sun was rising. He'd been five when he'd first done it... and terrified that he wouldn't be able to get his father's tremendous weight to shelter soon enough. What a horror. That messy garden had seemed big as a jungle, and his little hands had kept losing their grip on his father's belt. Tears of panic had streamed down his face as he'd checked the sun's progress over and over and over again.
When he'd finally gotten his father into the house, Ahgony 's eyes had opened, and he'd slapped Phury across the face with a hand as big as a frying pan.
I'd meant to die there, you idiot. There had been a beat of silence; then his father had burst into tears and grabbed him and held him and promised never to try and kill himself again.
Except there had been a next time. And a next time. And a next time. Always with the same exchange at the end.
Phury had done the saving, because he'd been determined that Zsadist would come home to a father.
The wizard smiled. And yet that wasn't what happened, was it, mate. Your father died anyway, and Zsadist never knew him.
Good thing you took up smoking so that Z got to experience the family legacy firsthand after all.
Phury frowned and looked through the double doors of the bathroom to the toilet. Closing his fist around the bag of red smoke, he started to get up, ready to do some serious flushing.
The wizard laughed. You won't be able to do it. There's no bloody way you can quit. You can't even make it for four hours in the afternoon without getting panicked. Can you honestly imagine never having another smoke for the next seven hundred years of your life? Come on, mate, be sensible.
Phury sat back down on the bed.
Oh, look, he has a brain. What a shock.
His heart was killing him as he finished the lick and twist on the blunt in his hand and put the thing between his lips. Just as he got his lighter out, his phone went off across the room.
Intuition told him who it was, and when he fished the cell from his leathers, he was right. Zsadist. And the brother had called three times.
As he answered, he wished his blunt were already lit. "Yeah?"
"Where are you?"
"I've just come back from the Other Side."
"Okay, well, get your ass down here to the clinic. There was a fight in the locker room. John Matthew started it, we think, but Qhuinn finished it off by knifing Lash in the neck, and the kid's already gone into cardiac arrest once. They say they've stabilized him, but no one knows what's going to happen. I've just tried to call his parents again, but I'm getting voice mail, probably because of that gala. I want you here when they arrive."
Wrath must not have told Z about the big boot that had been fired up Phury's ass.
"Hello?" Zsadist snapped. "Phury? You got a problem with me?"
"No." A quick flip of his lighter top and a stroke of his thumb and he had a flame. As he put the hand-rolled back to his mouth and leaned in, he braced himself. "I can't come, though."
"What do you mean, you can't? My fucking shellan is pregnant and bed-bound, and I managed to get here. I need you as a rep for the training program and a member of the Brotherhood¡ª"
"Jesus Christ, I can hear you smoking up! Put down the fucking blunts and do your goddamned job!"
"I'm not a Brother anymore."
Pure silence on the phone. Then his twin's voice, low and almost inaudible. "What."
It wasn't a question. More like Z knew the answer, but was hoping for a miracle anyway.
Phury couldn't give that to his twin. "Look... Wrath removed me from the Brotherhood. Last night. I assumed he'd told you." Phury inhaled hard and let the smoke roll out from between his lips slow as molasses. He could just imagine what his twin looked like at the moment, RAZR clenched in a fist, eyes black from anger, distorted upper lip curled back.
The snarl that shot into his ear was so not a surprise. "Great. Well fucking done."
The phone went dead.
Phury dialed Z back and got dumped into voice mail. Also not a surprise.
He didn't just want to smooth things over with Zsadist; he wanted to know what the hell had happened down in the training center. Was John all right? Was Qhuinn? Both of those boys were hot tempered, as all newly transitioned males were, but they had good hearts.
Lash must have done something awful.
Phury smoked his way through the blunt in record time. As he rolled another and lit up, he decided Rhage would hook him up with details. Hollywood was always the source¡ª
The wizard shook his head. You do realize, mate, that Wrath wouldn't appreciate you getting all into the Brotherhood 's business. You're just a houseguest here, you sodding bastard. Not family anymore.
Upstairs in the movie theater, Cormia settled back in a seat that was so comfortable it was as the water in the pool had been, all-encompassing, the palm of a gentle giant.
The lights dimmed and John came down to the front.
He typed something into his phone, then flashed her the screen: You ready?
When she nodded, the dim room was lit up by a massive picture and sound came from everywhere.
John reached over and put his hand on top of hers. After a moment, she calmed and focused properly on the screen, which was suffused in shades of blue. Images of humans appeared and disappeared, the males and females dancing together, their bodies pressing close, their hips gyrating to music.
English writing appeared in a pink color at intervals.
"This is the same as the television?" she said. "It works the same way?"
John nodded just as the English words Dirty Dancing appeared in pink.
Abruptly, there was a machine called a car going down a road through green hills. There were people in the car. A family of humans with a father, a mother, and two daughters.
A female voice came from all around the room: "It was the summer of 1963..."
When John pressed something into her hand, she could barely stand to look away from the screen long enough to see what it was. The thing turned out to be a bag, a small, dark brown bag that was open at the top. He made a motion to take something from it and put it in her mouth, so she dipped her hand in. Little multicolored rounds came out and she hesitated.
They were definitely not white. And even on this side she had eaten only white food, as was traditional.
But honestly, what was the harm?
She glanced around, even though she knew there was no one else in with them, and then, feeling as if she were breaking the law, she popped a few into her¡ª
Dearest... Virgin... Scribe!
The taste made her tongue come alive in a way that made her think of blood. What was this food? Cormia looked at the bag. There were a pair of cartoon characters on the front that looked like the candy. M&M's, the package read.
She needed to eat the whole bag. Right now. It didn't matter that what was inside was not white.
As she had more and moaned, John laughed and handed her a tall drink that said Coke on the red container. Ice rattled inside, and there was a stick punched through the lid. He lifted his own and took a draw on the stick. She did the same and then went back to her bag of magic and the screen.
A bunch of people were now lined up at the edge of a lake, trying to follow the lead of a pretty blond female as she moved to the right, then the left. The young female, Baby, the one who'd been doing the talking, struggled to get her body going where everyone else's was.
Cormia turned to ask John a question and saw that he was looking at his phone and frowning as if disappointed.
Something had happened earlier in the evening. Something bad. John was far more grim then she'd ever seen him, but he was also incredibly reserved. Though she wanted to help in any way possible, she wasn't going to press him.
As someone who kept many things to herself, she understood the importance of privacy.
Leaving him be, she settled into her chair and allowed herself to get swept away by the movie. Johnny was handsome, though not as much as the Primale was, and oh, how he moved when the music played. And the best part was seeing Baby get better at the dancing. Watching her fumble and practice and stumble and finally do the moves well made your heart cheer for her.
"I love this," Cormia said to John. "I feel like I'm living this."
John's phone appeared. We've got more movies. Tons of them.
"I want to see them." She took a pull from her cold drink. "I want to see all of them¡ª"
Suddenly, Baby and Johnny were alone in his private space.
Cormia was transfixed as the two of them came together and started to dance in private. Their bodies were so different, Johnny's so much bigger than Baby's, so much more muscular, and yet he touched her with reverence and care. And he wasn't the only one doing the stroking. She returned his caresses, running her hands over his skin, looking as if she loved what she was feeling.
Cormia's mouth parted and she sat up, getting closer to the screen. In her mind, the Primale took the place of Johnny and she became Baby. Together they were moving against each other, hips rubbing, clothes disappearing. The two of them were alone in the dark, in a safe place where no one could see them or interrupt them.
It was what had happened in the Primale's bedroom, only there was no stopping and there were no other implications, no weighty traditions, no fear of failing, and her thirty-nine sisters were out of the picture.
So simple. So real, though it was only in her head.
This was what she wanted with the Primale, she thought, staring at the movie. This was it.