"OH. My. God. That dress is a train wreck."

Cormia laughed and looked up at Bella and Zsadist's television. Project Runway was a fascinating "show," as it turned out. "What is that hanging down off the back?"

Advertisement

Bella shook her head. "Bad taste made manifest by satin. I think it started as a bow, though."

The two of them were stretched out on the mated couple 's bed, leaning back against the headboard. The house-hold 's black cat was between them, enjoying the fruits of some two-handed petting, and Boo didn't seem to like the gown any more than Bella did. His green eyes regarded the TV with distaste.

Cormia shifted her hand from the cat's back to his flank. "The color is kind of nice."

"That doesn't make up for the fact that it's like shrink-wrap for a boat. And has a grappling rope tacked on the butt."

-- Advertisement --

"I don't even know what a boat is. Much less shrink-wrap."

Bella pointed at the flat screen across the room. "You're looking at it. Just picture something that looks like a floating car under that nightmare and voil¨¤."

Cormia smiled and thought that her time with the female had been both revelatory and strangely disorienting. She liked Bella. She honestly did. The female was funny and warm and thoughtful, as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside.

No wonder the Primale adored her. And as much as Cormia had wanted to stake a claim on him around Bella, she found there was no need to exert her First Mate status. The Primale didn't come up as a topic of conversation, and there were no undertones to bump up against.

What she had perceived as a rival had turned out to be a friend.

Cormia went back to what was on her lap. The floppy booklet was big and thin, with glossy pages and lots of what Bella had told her were ads. Vogue, it said on the front. "Look at all these different kinds of clothes," she murmured. "How amazing."

"I'm almost done with Harper's Bazaar, if you want it¡ª"

The door burst open with such force that Cormia leaped off the bed and sent Vogue flapping into the corner like a startled bird. The Brother Zsadist was in the doorway, fresh from fighting, given the stench of baby powder he carried and all the weapons on him.

"What's going on?" he demanded.

"Well," Bella said slowly, "you've just scared the holy hell out of Cormia and me, Tim Gunn has called time for the designers, and I'm getting hungry again, so I'm about to call Fritz and ask for an omelet. Bacon and cheddar cheese. With hash browns. And juice."

The Brother looked around as if he were expecting to see lessers behind the drapes. "Phury said you weren't feeling well."

"I was tired. He helped me up the stairs. Cormia started here as a babysitter, but now I think she's staying because she's kind of enjoying herself, aren't you? Or at least she was, right?"

Cormia nodded, but didn't take her eyes off the Brother. With his scarred face and his huge body, he'd always made her feel uncomfortable, not because he was ugly in any way, but because he appeared so fierce.

Zsadist looked over at her, and the oddest thing happened. He spoke in a shockingly kind voice and raised his hand as if to calm her.

"Easy, now. I'm sorry I scared you." His eyes gradually turned yellow and his face softened. "I'm just worried about my shellan. I'm not going to hurt you."

Cormia felt the tension in her release and found herself understanding better why Bella was with him. With a bow, she said, "Of course, your grace. Of course you are worried for her."

"Are you okay?" Bella asked, looking at her hellren's black-stained clothes. "Is everyone in the family okay?"

"The Brothers are all fine." He went over to his shellan and touched her face with a hand that shook. "I want Doc Jane to have a look at you."

"If that would make you feel better, by all means, have her come. I don't think there's anything wrong, but I want to do whatever makes you feel more comfortable."

"Is it the spotting again?" Bella didn't answer. "I'll go get her¡ª"

"It's not much, and it's nothing different from what I've had before. Doc Jane would probably be a good idea, except I doubt there's anything to be done." Bella turned her lips to his palm and kissed him. "But first, please tell me what happened tonight?"

Zsadist just shook his head, and Bella closed her eyes, as if she were used to getting bad news... as if she had gotten it so often that words about the exact situations were no longer needed. Speech could add nothing to her sadness or his. Nor could it relieve what they clearly felt.

Zsadist dipped his head and kissed his mate. As their eyes met, the love between them was so intense, it created an aura of warmth Cormia could swear she felt from over where she was standing.

Bella had never shown this kind of connection with the Primale. Ever.

Nor, for that matter, had he toward her. Although perhaps that was just out of discretion.

Zsadist said a few quiet words, then left as if he were on the prowl, brows down, heavy shoulders set like beams for a house.

Cormia cleared her throat. "Would you like me to get Fritz for you? Or put your order in for a repast?"

"I think I'd better wait, if Doc Jane's going to examine me." The female's hand crept up onto her belly and moved in slow circles. "Would you like to come back and watch the rest of the shows with me later?"

"If you'd like¡ª"

"Absolutely. You're very good company."

"I am?"

Bella's eyes were impossibly kind. "Very. You make me feel calm."

"Then I shall be your birth companion. Where I'm from, a pregnant sister always has a birth companion."

"Thank you...thank you very much." Bella turned away as fear speared into her eyes. "I'll take any help I can get."

"If I may," Cormia murmured, "what worries you most?"

"Him. I worry about Z." Bella's eyes swung back. "Then I worry about my young. It's so strange. I don't worry about me all that much."

"You are very brave."

"Oh, you don't see me in the middle of the day in the dark. I fall apart plenty, trust me."

"I still think you are brave." Cormia put her hand on her flat stomach. "I doubt I could be so courageous."

Bella smiled. "I think you're wrong about that. I've watched you these past months, and there's an incredible strength in you."

Cormia wasn't so sure about that. "I do hope the examination goes well, and I'll come back later¡ª"

"You don't honestly think it's easy to be what you are, do you? To live under the kind of pressures the Chosen have to? I can't imagine how you deal with it, and I have tremendous respect for you."

All Cormia could do was blink. "You... do?"

Bella nodded. "Yeah, I do. And you want to know something else? Phury's lucky to have you. I'm just praying he figures that out sooner rather than later."

Dearest Virgin Scribe, that was not something Cormia had ever expected to hear from anyone, much less Bella, and her shock must have shown because the female laughed.

"Okay, I've made you feel weird, and I'm sorry. But I've wanted to say that to the both of you for the longest time." Bella's eyes shifted over to the bathroom, and she took a deep breath. "Now I guess you'd better go so I can get ready for Doc Jane and her poking. Love that female, I really do, but man, I hate when she snaps on those gloves of hers."

Cormia said a good-bye of sorts and left for her own bedroom, deep in thought.

When she turned the corner next to Wrath's study, she stopped. As if she'd summoned him, the Primale was at the head of the great stairwell, looming large and looking exhausted.

His eyes clung to her.

He must hunger for news of Bella, she thought. "She's feeling better, but I think she's hiding something. The Brother Zsadist has just gone for Doc Jane."

"Good. I'm glad. Thank you for watching over her."

"It was my pleasure. She's lovely."

The Primale nodded; then his eyes traced over her from her hair, which was up high on her head, to her bare feet. It was as if he were reacquainting himself with her, as if he hadn't been around her for ages.

"What ugliness have you witnessed since you left?" she whispered.

"Why do you ask?"

"You stare at me as if it has been weeks since you saw me. What have you seen?"

"You read me well."

"About as well as you avoid my question."

He smiled. "Which would be very well, huh."

"You don't have to speak of¡ª"

"I saw more death. Avoidable death. Such a damn waste. This war is evil."

"Yes. Yes, it is." She wanted to take his hand. Instead, she said, "Would you... join me in the garden? I was going to walk among the roses for a bit before the sun comes."

He hesitated, then shook his head. "I can't. I'm sorry."

"Of course." She bowed to avoid his eyes. "Your grace."

"Be careful."

"I will." She gathered her robing and walked quickly to the stairs he had just mounted.

"Cormia."

"Yes?"

As she looked over her shoulder, his eyes bored into hers. They burned in a way that took her back to the two of them on the floor in his bedroom, and her heart leaped to her throat.

Except then he merely shook his head. "Nothing. Just stay safe."

As Cormia went down the stairs, Phury headed for the hall of statues and the first of the windows that looked out over the back garden.

Going with her to see the roses was so not an option. He was raw right now, stripped of his skin, though he still wore his suit of flesh. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw those bodies in the clinic's corridor and the scared faces in that medicine closet and the bravery of those who shouldn't have had to fight for their lives.

If he hadn't stopped to help Bella up the stairs and then gone to find Zsadist, maybe those civilians wouldn't have been saved. Sure as hell, no one would have called him as backup, because he wasn't a Brother anymore.

Down below, Cormia emerged on the terrace, her white robe glowing against the dark gray stone pavers. She drifted over to the roses and bent at the waist to bring her nose to the blooms. He could almost hear her breath going in and the sigh of contentment she'd release as the fragrance registered.

His thoughts shifted from the ugliness of war to the beauty of the female form.

And to what males did with females in between satin sheets.

Yeah, it was a big no on being around Cormia right now. He wanted to replace the death and suffering he'd seen tonight with something else, something alive and warm and all about the body, not the head. As he watched his First Mate lavish her attentions on the rosebushes, he wanted her naked and writhing and slick with sweat underneath him.

Ah... but she wasn't his First Mate any longer, was she.

Shit.

The wizard's voice drifted through his head. Could you honestly have done right by her, though? Made her happy? Kept her safe? You spend a good twelve hours a day smoking. Could you light up blunt after blunt in front of her and have her watch you wilt into your pillows and nod off? You want her to see that?

Do you want her dragging you back into the house at dawn, like you did for your father?

Would you hit her in frustration someday, too?

"No!" he said out loud.

Oh, really? Your father said that to you. Didn't he, mate. Promised you right to your face that he'd never hit you again.

Problem is, the word of an addict is just that. A word. Nothing more.

Phury rubbed his eyes and turned away from the window.

To give himself a purpose, any purpose, he headed for Wrath's study. Even though he wasn't a member of the Brotherhood anymore, the king would want to know what had happened at the clinic. With Z busy with Jane and Bella, and the other Brothers helping out at the new clinic, he might as well make an unofficial report. Besides, he wanted Wrath to know the reason why he'd gone over there in the first place, and reassure the king that he wasn't disregarding his pink slip.

And then there was the whole Lash issue.

The kid was missing.

The tally of heads at the new clinic and the count of the bodies at the old one had revealed only one abduction, and Lash was it. The medical staff indicated he was alive at the time of the raid, having been resuscitated after his vitals crashed. Which was tragic. The kid might have been a bastard, but no one wanted him to fall into the hands of the lessers. If he was lucky, he'd died on the way to wherever they were taking him, and there was a good chance he had, given the shape he'd been in.

Phury knocked on Wrath's study. "My lord? My lord, you in?"

When there was no answer, he tried again.

He didn't get any response, so he turned away and headed for his room, knowing damn well he was going to light up and smoke out and take his place once again in the wizard's bleak kingdom.

As if you could be anywhere else, the dark voice in his head drawled.

Across town, at Blaylock's parents' house, Qhuinn was sneaked in through the back service entrance the doggen used. He did his best to limp along, but Blay had to carry him up the servants' staircase.

After Blay left his room to go lie about where he'd been and what he'd been doing, John took up sentry duty while Qhuinn settled on his buddy's bed with none of his usual relief. And not just because he felt like a punching bag.

Blay's folks deserved better than this. They'd been good to Qhuinn all along. Hell, a lot of parents wouldn't let their kids near him, but Blay's had been tight from the get-go. And now they were inadvertently jeopardizing their station in the glymera by harboring a disowned, PNG fugitive.

Just the thought of it all made Qhuinn sit up with the intention of taking off, but his belly had other plans for him. A sharpshooter went through his gut, like his liver had picked up a bow and arrow and taken aim at his kidneys. With a groan, he lay back down.

Try to stay still, John signed.

"Roger... that."

John's phone went off, and the guy took it out of the pocket of his A & F jeans. As he read whatever it was, Qhuinn thought back to the three of them going to the mall to shop and him fucking that manager in the dressing room.

Everything had changed since then. The whole world was different now.

He felt years older, not days.

John looked up with a frown. They want me to come home. Something's up.

"Take off then... I'm cool here."

I'll come back if I can.

"No worries. Blay'll keep you looped."

As John left, Qhuinn looked around and remembered all the hours he'd spent lying on the bed in this room. Blay had a sweet crib. The walls were paneled in cherrywood, which made it seem like a study, and the furniture was modern and sleek, not that stuffy antique crap all the members of the glymera collected along with ass-wrenching rules on social etiquette. The king-sized bed was covered with a black quilt and had enough pillows to get you comfortable without girling you up. The plasma screen high-def had an Xbox 360, a Wii and a PS3 on the floor in front of it, and the desk where Blay did his homework was as neat and orderly as all the cards to those gamers were. To the left, there was a dorm-sized refrigerator, a black Rubbermaid trash barrel that kind of looked like a cock, to be honest, and an orange bin for bottles.

Blay had gone green a while ago and was big into recycling and reuse. Which was so him. He gave monthly to PETA, ate only free-range meat and poultry, and was into organic food.

If there had been a vampire UN to intern at, or a way for him to volunteer at Safe Place, he would have done it in a heartbeat.

Blay was the closest thing to an angel Qhuinn had ever come near.

Fuck. He had to get out of here before his father got the whole family kicked out of the glymera.

As he shifted around to try to ease his lower back, he realized it wasn't all internal injuries that were making him uncomfortable: The envelope his father's doggen had given him had stayed put in the waistband of his jeans even through the beating.

He didn't want to see the papers again, but somehow they ended up in his dirty, bloody hands.

Even with his blurry eyesight and his case of the all-over agonies, he focused on the parchment. It was his five-generation family tree, his birth certificate, as it were, and he looked down to the three names on the last line. His was to the left, on the far side of his older brother's and his sister's. His entry was covered by a thick X, and underneath his parents' and siblings' listings were their signatures in the same heavy ink.

Taking him out of the family required a lot of paperwork. His brother's and sister's birth certificates would have to be modified like this, and his parents' marriage scroll would have to be edited, too. The glymera's Princeps Council would also need to receive a declaration of disinheritance, the renunciation of parentage, and a petition for expulsion. After Qhuinn's name was redacted from both the glymera's roll call and the aristocracy's massive genealogical file, the Council's leahdyre would then compose a missive that would be sent out to all the glymera's families, formally announcing the exile.

Anyone with a mate-able female of appropriate age needed to be forewarned, of course.

It was all so ridiculous. With his mismatched eyes, it wasn't as if he would have gotten some aristocrat's name carved in his back anyway.

Qhuinn folded up the birth certificate and returned it to the envelope. As he closed the flap, his chest felt as if it were caving in. To be all alone in the world, even as an adult, was terrifying.

But to contaminate those who had been kind to him was worse.

Blay came through the door with a tray of food. "I don't know if you're hungry¡ª"

"I've got to go."

His friend put what he was carrying down on the desk. "I don't think that's a good idea."

"Help me up. I'll be fine¡ª"

"Bullshit," came a female voice.

The Brotherhood's private physician appeared out of thin air, right in front of them. Her doctor's bag was the old-fashioned kind, with two handles at the top and a body like a loaf of bread, and her coat was a white one, just like they wore at the clinic. The fact that she was a ghost was a nonstarter. Everything about her, from her clothes and bag to her hair and perfume, became solid and tangible as she arrived, exactly as if she were normal.

"Thank you for coming," Blay said, ever the good host.

"Hey, Doc," Qhuinn muttered.

"And what do we have here." Jane came over and sat on the corner of the bed. She didn't touch him, just looked him up and down with an intense physician's eye.

"Not exactly a candidate for Playgirl, huh," he said awkwardly.

"How many of them were there?" Her voice wasn't joking around.

"Eighteen. Hundred."

"Four," Blay interjected. "An honor guard of four."

"Honor guard?" She shook her head, as if she couldn't understand the race's ways. "For Lash?"

"No, from Qhuinn's own family," Blay said. "And they weren't supposed to kill him."

Well, if that wasn't his new theme song, Qhuinn thought.

Doc Jane opened her bag. "Okay, let's see what's doing under your clothes."

She was characteristically all business as she cut off his shirt, listened to his heart, and took his blood pressure. As she worked, he passed the time looking at the wall, the blank TV screen, her bag.

"Handy... bag... you got there," he grunted as her hands palpated his abdomen and hit a soft spot.

"Always wanted one. It's part of my Marcus Welby, M.D., fetish."

"Who?"

"This hurt, too?" His gasp as she poked him again answered just fine, so he left it at that.

Doc Jane took off his pants, and as he went commando, he quickly pulled some sheets over his privates. She pushed them aside, looked him over professionally front to back, and then asked him to flex his arms and legs. After she lingered over a couple of spectacular black and blues, she covered him again.

"What did they work you over with? Those bruises on your thighs are severe."

"Crowbars. Big, massive¡ª"

Blay cut in. "Clubs. Had to be those ceremonial black clubs."

"That would be consistent with the injuries." Doc Jane took a moment, as if she were a computer processing an information request. "Right, here's where we are. What's going on with your legs is undoubtedly uncomfortable, but the contusions should heal on their own. You have no open wounds, and although it appears your palm was knifed, I'm assuming that happened a little earlier, because it's healing already. And nothing appears broken, which is a miracle."

Except his heart, of course. To be beaten by your own brother¡ª

Shut it, you pantywaist, he told himself.

"So I'm just fine, right, Doc?"

"How long were you out cold?"

He frowned, that vision from the Fade suddenly swooping down out of his memory like a black crow. God... had he died?

"Ah... I have no idea how long. And I didn't see anything while I was out. It was just blackness, you know... I was down for the count." No way he was talking about that little all-natural acid trip. "But I'm good, you know¡ª"

"I'm going to have to disagree with you there. Your heart rate's high, your blood pressure is low, and I don't like that belly of yours."

"It's just a little sore."

"I'm worried something's ruptured."

Great. "I'll be fine."

"And your medical degree is from where?" Doc Jane smiled, and he laughed a little. "I'd like to give you an ultrasound, but Havers's clinic got hit tonight."

"What?"

"What?" Blay asked at the same time.

"I assumed you knew."

"Were there survivors?" Blay asked.

"Lash is missing."

While the implications of that little news flash sank in, Jane reached into her bag of goodies and took out a sealed needle and a vial with a rubber top. "I'm going to give you something for the pain. And don't worry," she said wryly, "it's not Demerol."

"Why, is Demerol bad?"

"For vampires? Yes." She rolled her eyes. "Trust me."

"Whatever you think sounds good."

When she was finished shooting him up, she said, "This should last you a couple of hours, but I plan to be back way before that."

"Dawn must be close, huh."

"Yup, so we're going to have to move fast. There's a temporary clinic set up¡ª"

"I can't go there," he said. "I can't... That would not be a good call."

Blay nodded. "We need to keep his whereabouts on the DL. He's not safe anywhere right now."

Doc Jane's eyes narrowed. After a moment, she said, "Okay. Then I'll figure out where I can get you what you need in a more private setting. In the meantime, I don't want you to move from this bed. And no eating or drinking, in case I have to go in."

As Doc Jane packed up her Marcus-whoever-he-was bag, Qhuinn counted the number of people who wouldn't have come near him, much less try to treat his injuries.

"Thank you," he said in a small voice.

"My pleasure." She put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "I'm going to fix you. Bet your life on it."

In that moment, as he looked into her dark green eyes, he honestly believed she could fix the whole wide world, and the wave of relief that washed over him was as if someone had tucked a soft blanket all around his body. Shit, whether it was the fact that his life was in capable hands or the result of whatever she'd pumped into his arm, he didn't really care. He'd take the easing where he found it.

"I feel sleepy."

"That's my plan."

Doc Jane went over and whispered to Blay for a moment... and though the guy tried to hide his reaction, his eyes widened.

Ah, so he was in deep shit, Qhuinn thought.

After the doc left, he didn't bother to ask what had been said, because there was no way Blay was going to go there. His face was a closed cupboard.

But there was still plenty of other stuff to cover, thanks to the shit storm they were all in. "What did you tell your parents?" Qhuinn asked.

"You don't have to worry about a thing."

In spite of the exhaustion that was dragging at him, he shook his head. "Tell me."

"You don't¡ª"

"You tell me... or I'm going to get up and start doing fucking Pilates."

"Whatever. You've always said that was for pansies."

"Fine. Jujitsu. Talk before I pass out, would you?"

Blay took a Corona out of the little fridge. "My parents guessed it was us coming in. They're just back from the glymera's big party. So Lash's folks must be finding out now."

Fuck. "You tell them... about me?"

"Yeah, and they want you to stay." The beer made a gasping sound as Blay opened it. "We're just not going to say anything to anybody. There'll be speculation about where you've gone, but it's not like the glymera's going to do a house search for you, and our doggen are discreet."

"I'm only staying today."

"Look, my parents love you, and they're not going to toss you out on your ass. They know what Lash was like, and they also know your parents." Blay stopped there, but the tone he'd used added a lot of adjectives to the words.

Prejudicial, judgmental, cruel...

"I'm no one's burden." Qhuinn glowered. "Not yours. Not anyone's."

"It's not a burden, though." Blay's eyes dropped to the floor. "I just have my parents and me. Who do you think I'd go to if something bad happened? John and you are all I have in this world apart from my mom and dad. The two of you are my family."

"Blay, I'm going to jail."

"We don't have any jails, so you're going to need a place to be under house arrest in."

"And you don't think that'll be public record? You don't think I'll have to disclose where I stay?"

Blay swallowed half his beer, got out his phone, and started texting. "Listen, can you stop playing spot-the-obstacle? We're going to have enough problems of our own without you pulling more out of your ass. We'll figure a way for you to stay here, okay?"

There was a beep.

"See? John agrees." Blay flashed the screen, which read, GREAT IDEA on it, then polished off his beer with the satisfied expression of a male who had sorted out both his basement and his garage. "This is all going to be fine."

Qhuinn eyed his friend through lids that had become heavy as tile roofs. "Yeah."

As he passed out, his last thought was that, sure, things were going to work out... just not how Blay had it planned.

-- Advertisement --