As night fell some sixteen hours later, Lash stood at the foot of a rolling lawn that led up to a sprawling Tudor house... and turned the ring the Omega had given him round and round.

He had grown up here, he thought. Been raised and fed and tucked into bed here as a young. When he was older, he'd stayed up to watch movies and read books with dirty shit in them, and surfed the Net and eaten junk food here.

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He'd gone through his transition and had sex for the first time up in his room on the third floor.

"Y'all want some help?"

He turned and looked at the lesser who was behind the wheel of the Ford Focus. It was the little slayer, the one he'd drunk from. The guy had pale hair like Bo from The Dukes of Hazzard, all curling up around the cowboy hat he wore. His eyes were a faded cornflower blue, suggesting that before he'd been inducted he'd been a real middle-America white boy.

The guy had survived the feeding, thanks to some true depravity on the Omega's part, and Lash had to admit he was glad. He needed help understanding where he was at, and he wasn't threatened by Mr. D.

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"Hello?" the lesser said. "Y'all okay there?"

"You stay in the car." It felt good to say that and know there wasn't going to be any discussion. "I won't be long."

"Yes, suh."

Lash looked back up at the Tudor palace. Lights glowed yellow in windows made of diamond-paned glass, and the house was spotlit from the ground like a beauty queen on a stage. Inside, people moved around, and he knew who they were by the shapes of their bodies and where they were.

On the left, in the sitting room, were the two who had raised him as their own. The one with the broad shoulders was his father, and the male was pacing, hand going up and down to his face as if he were drinking something. His mother was on the couch, all bobble-head proportioned with her elaborate chignon and her slender neck. She kept touching her hair, as if trying to make sure everything was in place even though it was no doubt sprayed stiff as a boxwood shrub.

To the right, in the kitchen wing, several doggen scurried around, moving from stove to cabinet to refrigerator to counter to stove.

Lash could practically smell the dinner, and his eyes watered.

By now, his parents must know about what had happened in the locker room and then at the clinic. They must have been told. They'd been out at the glymera's ball last evening, but they'd been home all day, and both appeared to be unsettled.

He glanced at the third floor and the seven windows that marked his room.

"You going in?" the slayer asked, making him feel like a pussy.

"Shut the fuck up before I cut your tongue out."

Lash unsheathed the hunting knife that hung from his belt and walked forward over the cropped grass. The lawn was soft under the new combat boots he had on.

He'd had to have the little lesser get him some clothes, but he didn't like what he was wearing. It was all from Target. Cheap.

As he came up to the mansion's front door, he put his hand to the security pad... but paused before he entered the code.

His dog had died a year ago. Of old age.

The thing had been a pedigreed rottweiler, and his parents had gotten it for him when he was eleven. They hadn't approved of the breed, but Lash had been adamant, so they'd adopted one that was about a year old. First night in the house, Lash had tried to pierce the thing's ear with a safety pin. King had bitten him so hard, the dog's fangs had punctured his arm and come out the other side.

They'd been inseparable after that. And when that mean old dog had kicked it, Lash had cried like a little bitch.

He reached out and entered the pass code, then put his left hand on the door latch. The light over the door flashed on his knife's blade.

He wished the dog were still alive. He would have liked to have one thing from his old life to carry forward into his new one.

He stepped into his house and headed for the sitting room.

When John Matthew came up to the doors of Wrath's study, he was about as relaxed as a golfer in a thunderstorm, and the sight of the king made the anxiety worse. The male was sitting behind his delicate desk, frown on his face, fingers drumming, stare locked on the phone like bad news had just come in. Again.

John tucked what was in his hand under his arm and knocked quietly on the jamb. Wrath didn't look up. "What's doing, son."

John waited for the king to glance across the way, and when he did, John signed with care. Qhuinn got kicked out of his family.

"Yeah, and I heard the beat-down was from an honor guard courtesy of them." Wrath leaned back in his chair, the slender bones of the thing squeaking. "That father of his... typical glymera."

The tone suggested that was a compliment along the lines of asswipe.

He can't stay at Blay's forever, and he has nowhere to go.

The king shook his head. "Okay, I know where you're going with this, and it's a no. Even if this were a normal household, and it's not, Qhuinn killed a trainee, and I don't give a shit what you think Lash might have done to deserve it. I know you talked to Rhage and told him what happened, but not only is your boy out of the program, he's going to be up on charges." Wrath leaned to the side and looked around John. "You get Phury out of bed yet?"

John looked over his shoulder. Vishous was standing in the doorway.

The Brother nodded. "He's getting dressed. So is Z. You sure you don't want me to handle this?"

"The two of them were Lash's teachers, and Z was a witness to the aftermath of what went down at the clinic. Lash's parents want to talk to them and only them, and I promised that they'd be over to that house ASAP."

"Okay. Keep me posted."

The Brother took off, and Wrath put his elbows on the desk. "Look, John, I know Qhuinn's a buddy of yours, and I do feel bad about a lot of his circumstances. I wish I were in a position to help him, but I'm not."

John pushed, hoping he wouldn't have to go to his last resort. What about Safe Place?

"The females there aren't comfortable around males for good reason. Especially ones with violent histories."

But he's my friend. I can't just sit back knowing he's got no place to go, no job, no money¡ª

"None of that is going to matter, John." The words jail time hovered in the air."You said it yourself. He took deadly force into what was your basic argument between two hotheaded guys. The right response was peeling you and Lash apart. It was not popping a knife and slicing his first cousin's throat open. Did Lash come at you with a deadly weapon? No. Could you honestly say that the kid was going to kill you? No. It was an inappropriate use of force, and Lash's parents are arguing assault with a deadly with intent to kill, and proximal murder under the old law."

Proximal murder?

"The medical staff swear Lash had been resuscitated when that raid took place. His parents are assuming he doesn't survive his capture by the lessers and are going with but-for causation. But for Qhuinn's actions, Lash wouldn't have been at the clinic and he wouldn't have been abducted. Therefore, it's proximal murder."

But Lash worked there. So he could have been in the clinic at any rate that night.

"Except he wouldn't have been in one of the beds as a patient, would he?" Wrath's blunt fingers drummed on the delicate desk. "This shit is heavy-duty, John. Lash was the only son of his parents, both of whom are from founding families. It's not going to go well for Qhuinn. That honor guard is the least of his problems at this point."

In the silence that followed, John's lungs got tight. He'd known all along that they were going to reach this impasse, that what he'd told Rhage wouldn't go far enough to save his friend. And sure, he'd have done anything to avoid this, but he'd come prepared.

John went back to the double doors and closed them, then approached the desk. His hand shook as he took the file he had under his arm and placed his trump card on the king's blotter.

"What's this?"

With John's stomach using his pelvic cradle as a bouncy castle, he slowly pushed his medical record toward the king.

Me. What you need to see is the first page.

Wrath frowned and picked up the magnifying glass he had to use to be able to read. Opening the folder, he bent down over the report that detailed the therapy session John had had at Havers's. It was clear when the king got to the salient part, because the male's heavy shoulders tightened under his black T-shirt.

Oh, God... , John thought, he was so going to throw up.

After a moment, the king closed the file and put the magnifying glass back down on the blotter. In silence, he took care to arrange the two things so they were side by side and positioned perfectly, the ivory handle of the magnifier in line with the bottom of the file.

When Wrath finally looked up, John did not move his eyes away, even though he felt as if every inch of him were dripping with filth. That was why Qhuinn did it. Lash read my file because he was working at Havers's, and he was going to spill it to everyone. Everyone. So it was hardly your basic argument between hotheads.

Wrath popped up his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. "Jesus... Christ. I can understand why you weren't in a big hurry to come forward with this." He shook his head. "John... I'm so sorry about what happ¡ª"

John stomped his foot to bring the king's head up. I'm not letting you know for any other reason than Qhuinn's situation. I am not talking about it.

Then, in quick, jerky movements of his hands, because he had to get this shit over with, he signed, When Qhuinn took out the knife, Lash had me pinned to the wall in the shower and he was taking my pants down. My friend did what he did not just to keep Lash from talking¡ªfeel me? I... I froze and... I froze...

"Okay, son, it's okay... you don't have to go any further."

John linked his arms around his body and tucked his shaky hands against his sides. Squeezing his eyes shut, he couldn't bear to see Wrath's face.

"John?" the king said after a moment. "Son, look at me."

John could hardly manage to open his eyes. Wrath was so masculine, so powerful¡ªthe leader of the whole race. To admit to such a male that this shameful, violent thing had happened was nearly as bad as going through it in the first place.

Wrath tapped the file. "This changes everything." The king reached over and picked up the phone. "Fritz? Hey, buddy. Listen, I want you to go pick Qhuinn up at Blaylock's and bring him to me. Tell him it's a command performance."

As the phone was set back down, John's eyes started to burn as if he were tearing up. In a panic, he grabbed his folder, wheeled around, and all but ran to the door.

"John? Son? Please don't go yet."

John didn't stop. He just couldn't. He shook his head, broke out of the study, and beat feet to his room. After he shut his door and locked it, he went to the bathroom, knelt in front of the toilet, and threw up.

Qhuinn felt like a heel as he stood over Blay's sleeping form. The guy slept as he always had ever since he was a kid: head wrapped in a blanket, covers pulled up to below his nose. His huge body was a mountain rising off the flat plane of the bed, no longer the little molehill of a pretrans¡ªbut his position was still the same.

They had been through so much together... all the big firsts in life, from drinking to driving to smoking to the change to sex. There was nothing they didn't know about each other, no inner thought that they hadn't broached one way or another.

Well, that wasn't entirely ture. He knew some things Blay wouldn't admit.

Not saying good-bye felt like something close to robbery, but that was the way of it. Where he was headed, Blay couldn't follow.

There was a vampire community out West; he'd read about it on one of the bulletin boards on the Net. The group was a faction that had broken off from mainstream vampire culture, like, two hundred years ago, and formed an enclave far away from the race's seat of Caldwell.

No glymera types there. Most of them were outlaws, as a matter of fact.

He figured he could make it there in one night by dematerializing a couple hundred miles at a time. He'd be a wreck by the time he landed, but at least he'd be with his kind. Outcasts. Roughnecks. AWOLs.

The laws of the race were going to catch up with him at some point, but he had nothing to lose in making the powers that be work to find him. He was already disgraced on every level, and the charges that were going to get laid against him couldn't get any worse. He might as well finally have a taste of freedom before he was boxed and mailed to jail.

The only thing he worried about was Blay. The guy was going to have a hard time being left behind, but at least John was going to be there for him. And John was good peeps all around.

Qhuinn turned away from his friend, slung his duffel over his shoulder, and quietly went out the door. He'd healed up like a charm, the rapid recovery being the one and only legacy his family couldn't strip him of. The surgery had left nothing but a stitch in his side, and the bruising was mostly gone¡ªeven from his legs. He felt strong, and though he was going to need to feed soon, he was good to go.

Blay's house was a grand antique, but it was done with a modern twist, which meant there was wall-to-wall carpeting down the hall to the back stairs¡ªthank fuck. Qhuinn ghosted along, making no sound at all as he headed for the underground tunnel that led out from the basement.

As he came into the cellar, the place was neat as a pin, and as always smelled like Chardonnay for some reason. Maybe it was the regular whitewashing of the old stone walls?

The hidden entrance to the escape tunnel was all the way in the far corner to the right and it was shielded by bookshelves that were on a slide. You simply reached out, pulled the copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight forward, and a latch released, causing the partition to retract and reveal¡ª

"You are such a moron."

Qhuinn jumped like an Olympian. There, in the tunnel, seated in an outdoor lounger like he were getting a tan, was Blay. He had a book on his lap, a battery-operated lamp on a little table, and a blanket over his legs.

The guy calmly lifted a glass of orange juice up in toast, then took a sip. "Hellllllllo, Lucy."

"What the fuck? You're like lying in wait for me or some shit?"

"Yup."

"What was in your bed?"

"Pillows and my head blankie. I've had a nice little chill sesh hanging here. Good book, too." He flashed the cover of A Season in Purgatory. "I like Dominick Dunne. Good writer. Great glasses."

Qhuinn looked beyond his friend at the low-lit tunnel that disappeared into what appeared to be an infinite dark distance. Kind of like the future, he thought.

"Blay, you know I have to leave."

Blay lifted his phone. "Actually, you can't. Just got a text from John. Wrath wants to see you, and Fritz is coming for you as we speak."

"Shit. I can't go¡ª"

"Two words: Command. Performance. You bolt now and you're not only a fugitive from the glymera, you're on the king's list of things to do. Which means the Brothers will be going after you."

They were going to do that anyway. "Look, this thing with Lash is heading for a royal tribunal. That's what the message from John is all about. And they're going to put me away somewhere. For a long, long time. I'm just leaving for a while."

Read: for as long as I can stay hidden.

"You're going to defy the king?"

"Yeah, yeah, I am. I have nothing to lose, and maybe it will be years before I'm found."

Blay moved the blanket from his legs and stood up. He was dressed in jeans and a fleece, but somehow looked as if he were wearing a tuxedo. Blay was like that: formal even in his scrubbies.

"You take off, I'm going to go with you," he said.

"I don't want you to."

"Tough. Shit."

As Qhuinn pictured the land of outlaws that he was headed for, he felt a buildup of pressure in his chest. His friend was so steadfast, so true, so honorable and clean. There was still an essential, optimistic innocence to him, though he was fully a male now.

Qhuinn took a breath and squeezed out, "I don't want you knowing where I end up. And I don't want to see you again."

"You can't be serious."

"I know..." Qhuinn cleared his throat and forced himself to go on. "I know the way you watch me. I've seen you looking at me... like when I was with that chick in the dressing room at A and F? You weren't looking at her, you were looking at me, and it was because you were jonesing for me. Weren't you." Blay took a stumbling step back, and, like they were in a fistfight, Qhuinn hit harder. "You've wanted me for a while, and you think I haven't noticed. Well, I have. So don't follow me. This shit between us ends here, tonight."

Qhuinn turned away and started walking, leaving his best friend, the male he cared about most in the world, more even than John, in that chilly tunnel. Alone.

It was the only way to save the guy's life. Blay was exactly that flavor of noble idiot who would follow those he loved right off the Brooklyn Bridge. And since you couldn't talk him out of anything, you had to cut him off.

Qhuinn walked fast and then even faster, heading away from the light. As the tunnel went right, Blay and the glow from the basement were lost and he was by himself in the dim, steel cage deep in the earth.

He saw Blay's face clear as day the whole way along. With each step he took, his friend's crushed expression was the beacon he followed.

It was going to stay with him. Forever.

By the time he reached the end of the tunnel, put in the pass code, and opened the way into a gardening shed about a mile away from the house, he realized he did have something to lose after all...that there was a level lower than he thought he'd bottomed out at: He'd shredded Blay's heart and crushed it under his boot, and the regret and pain he felt were almost more than he could bear.

As he stepped out into a stand of lilacs, he came to a change of mind. Yes, he was disgraced by birth and circumstance. But he didn't have to make that worse.

He took out his phone, which by now had only one bar of battery left on the screen, and texted John where he was. He wasn't sure whether he still had service¡ª

John hit him right back.

Fritz would be there to pick him up in ten minutes.

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