As john sat next to cormia, he checked his phone again for two reasons. The sex scene was making him feel awkward, and he was twitching for word about Qhuinn and Lash.

Damn it.

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He texted Blay again, who hit right back and said he hadn't heard from the guy either and was thinking it was time to get out the car keys.

John let the phone rest on his thigh. Qhuinn couldn't possibly have done something really stupid. Like hang-himself -in-the-bathroom stupid. Nah. No way.

That father of his, though, was capable of anything. John had never met the male, but he'd heard the stories from Blay¡ªand seen the evidence in that black eye Qhuinn had sported the night after his transition.

John felt his foot tapping and stopped it by putting his palm on his knee. Superstitious son of a bitch that he was, he kept thinking about that old wives' tale that said bad news always came in threes. If Lash died, there would be two to follow.

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He thought of the Brothers out on the streets with lessers . And Qhuinn in the night somewhere, alone. And Bella with her pregnancy.

He checked his phone again and mouthed a curse.

"If you need to go," Cormia said, "I'm happy to be here on my own."

He started to shake his head, and she stopped him by lightly touching his forearm. "Take care of whatever it is. It's obvious you've had a difficult evening. I would ask you to talk about it, but I don't think you would."

Just because it was on his mind, he typed out: I wish I could go back and not put the shoes on.

"I'm sorry?"

Well, shit, now he had to explain or he looked like an idiot. Something bad happened tonight. Right before it went down, my friend gave me this pair of sneakers I'm wearing. If I hadn't changed into them, the three of us would have been gone before... He hesitated, thinking that he and his buddies would have been gone before Lash got out of the shower... what happened went down.

Cormia looked at him for a moment. "Would you like to know what I believe?"

When he nodded, she said, "If it hadn't been the shoes, you would have dallied wherever you were for another reason. It would have been someone else putting something on. Or a conversation. Or a door that wouldn't open. As much as we have free choice, absolute destiny is immutable. What is meant to happen does, through one measure or another."

God, he'd been thinking along those lines back in the training center's office. Except...

It's my fault, though. It was about me. The whole thing happened because of me.

"Did you wrong another?" When John shook his head, she asked, "So how is it your fault?"

He couldn't go into the details. No way. Just was. My friend did something horrible to save my reputation.

"But that was his choice as a male of worth." Cormia squeezed his forearm. "Do not mourn his free will. Instead, ask yourself what you may do to help him now."

I feel so damn powerless.

"That's your perception. Not reality," she said quietly. "Go and think. The path will come to you. I know it."

Her quiet faith in him was all the more powerful because it was in her face, not just her words. And it was exactly what he needed.

You are really cool, he typed.

Cormia glowed with pleasure. "Thank you, sire."

Just John, please.

He handed her the remote and made sure she knew how to work the thing. When she caught on quickly, he wasn't surprised. She was just like him. Her silences didn't mean she wasn't smart.

He bowed to her, which felt a little weird but seemed like the thing to do, and then he beat feet out of there. On his way down the stairs to the second floor, he texted Blay. It had been about two hours at this point since they'd last heard from Qhuinn, and it was definitely time to go looking. As he was likely to have stuff with him, dematerializing wouldn't be an option, so he couldn't have gone far because he didn't have a car. Unless he'd used one of the household's doggen to take him somewhere?

John punched through the double doors that opened to the hall of statues and thought Cormia was so right: Sitting on his ass wasn't going to help Qhuinn as he grappled with having been kicked out of his family, and it wasn't going to change whether Lash lived or died.

And however awkward he felt about what his buddies had heard, the two of them were more important than those words that had been thrown out with cruelty in that locker room.

Just as he hit the stairs, his phone went off with a text. It was from Zsadist: Lash has f latlined. Doesn't look good.

Qhuinn walked along the side of the road, his duffel slapping his ass as he put one foot in front of the other. Up ahead, a stripe of lightning snaked down out of the sky and illuminated the oak trees, turning their trunks into what looked like a line of thick-shouldered thugs. The thunder that followed was not so far off in the distance and there was ozone in the air. He had a feeling he was about to get drenched.

And he was. At first, the storm's raindrops were fat and far between, but then they grew smaller and greater in number, kind of like the grown-up ones had jumped out of the clouds first and the young guys had followed only after it was safe.

The water hitting his nylon duffel made a popping sound, and the hair on the top of his head started to flatten out. He took no measures to shield himself, because the rain was going to win. He didn't have an umbrella and wasn't about to stand under an oak tree for shelter.

Extra-crispy was so not a look.

It was about ten minutes after the rain started that the car pulled up behind him. Its headlights hit his back and cast his shadow on the pavement ahead, the glow growing brighter as the engine's whine dropped on the approach.

Blay'd come after him.

He stopped and turned around, shielding his eyes with his forearm. The rain showed up as a fine white pattern in the lights, and mist drifted across the beams, reminding him of episodes of Scooby-Doo.

"Blay, could you dim the highs? I'm going blind here."

The night went dark and four car doors opened, with no interior light coming on.

Qhuinn slowly dropped his duffel to the ground. These were males of his species, not lessers. Which, considering he was unarmed, was only moderately reassuring.

The doors shut in a round-robin series of thunch. As another bolt of lightning shot through the sky, he got a gander at what he was facing: The four were dressed in black and had hoods covering their facial features.

Ah, yes. The traditional honor guard.

Qhuinn didn't run as one by one they took out black clubs; he fell into his fighting stance. He was going to lose this one and lose it big, but damn it, he was going down with two sets of bloody knuckles and the teeth of these boys on the road.

The honor guard surrounded him in classic group-pound fashion, and he circled in place, waiting for the first strike. These were big guys, all his size, and their purpose was to exact physical reparation out of his body for what he'd done to Lash. As this was not a rythe, but repayment, he was allowed to fight back.

So Lash must have lived¡ª

One of the clubs nailed him in the back of the knee, and it was like getting Tasered. He fought to keep his balance, knowing that if he got grounded he was fucked, but someone else took out his other leg with a ripping crack to the thigh muscle. As he landed on his hands and knees, clubs pummeled his shoulders and back, but he lunged and caught one of the guards by both ankles. The guy tried to step forward, but Qhuinn kept his prize, causing a mad shift in the male's center of gravity. Fortunately, while the bastard went down like an anvil, he was kind enough to take one of his buddies with him.

Qhuinn needed a club. That was his only shot.

In an awesome surge, he made a grab for the weapon of the one he'd throw-rugged, but another club caught him square on the wrist. The pain was like a neon sign reading, Fuckin' A, and his hand was instantly incapacitated, hanging limp and useless off his arm. Good thing he was an ambidextrous motherfucker. He grabbed the club with his leftie and nailed the one in front of him right in the knee.

Things got fun after that. Standing up was a no-go, so he was lethal quick on the ground, going after their legs and their 'nads. It was like being surrounded by snapping dogs as they rushed up and fell back, depending on where his swing was at.

He was actually thinking he could hold them off when one of them picked up a fist-sized rock and threw it at his head. He ducked just fine but caught the bitch on the rebound from the pavement¡ªright in his temple. He went still for a heartbeat, and that was all it took. They crowded around him, the true beating getting started. Tucking into a ball, he put his arms over his head and protected his vital organs and his brain as best he could while he got good and pounded.

They weren't supposed to kill him.

They really weren't.

But one of them kicked him in the small of his back, nailing him directly in the kidneys. As he arched, because he couldn't help it, he opened up a clean shot to the underside of his chin. Which was where the second kick nailed him.

His jaw wasn't a good shock absorber¡ªin fact, it was an amplifier, as his lower teeth banged into his upper ones and his skull sucked up the brunt of the impact. Stunned, he went limp, his arms loosening their hold, his defensive position weakening.

They weren't supposed to kill him, because Lash was still alive if they were doing this. If the guy had died, he would have been taken in front of the king by his cousin's parents, and they would have argued that he should be put to death even though he was technically a minor. No, this beat-down was just an eye for an eye for a bodily injury. Or at least, that was the way it was meant to be.

Trouble was, they kicked him over onto his back, and then one of them took a running start and planted both his combat boots in the center of Qhuinn's chest.

His breath shot out of him. His heart stopped pumping. Everything came to a halt.

And that was when he heard his brother's voice, "Don't do that again. It's against the rules."

His brother... his brother... ?

This wasn't for Lash's injury, then.

This was from his own family, to recoup the injury to their name.

Qhuinn gasped for air and got nowhere with the inhales as the four argued with one another. His brother's voice was the loudest.

"That's enough!"

"Fucking mutant bastard, he deserves to die!"

Qhuinn lost interest in the drama as it dawned on him that his heart still hadn't started up again¡ªand not even the panic he suddenly felt at the realization kick-started the damn thing. His eyesight went checkerboard and his hands and feet started to numb out.

That was when he saw the bright light.

Shit, the Fade was coming for him.

"Christ! Let's go!"

Someone leaned down to him. "We'll be back for you, asshole. Without your fucking brother next time."

There was a scramble of boots, a lot of doors opening and closing, and then a screech as the car took off. When another approached close on its heels, he realized the lights on him were not the afterlife, but someone else driving down the road.

Lying in the heap he'd been left in, he had some passing thought that maybe he could pound on his own chest. Like pull a Casino Royale and do self-CPR.

He closed his eyes. Yeah, if only he could 007 it... Not a chance, though. He couldn't get his lungs to work in more than shallow draws and his heart was still nothing but a loose knot of muscle in his chest. The fact that he had no pain anymore was even more worrisome.

The next white light that came to him was like the mist that hung over the road, a gentle and soft fog that bathed him, eased him. As he was illuminated, he went from being terrified to utterly unafraid. This, he knew, was not a car. This now was the Fade.

He felt himself levitate off the pavement and he soared, weightless, until he was at the head of a white corridor. Down at the far end, there was a door he felt compelled to go and open. He walked toward it with growing urgency, and the moment he reached it, he went for the knob. As his hand wrapped around the warm brass, he had some vague thought that once he walked through, that was it. He was in between as long as he didn't open the door and step into what was on its other side.

Once he was in, there was no going back.

Just as he was about to twist his palm, he saw an image on the panels of the door. It was hazy and he paused, trying to figure out what it was.

Oh... God... he thought, when he realized what he was looking at.

Holy... shit.

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