"This is just a club," the Omega's son said, his voice at once defeated and annoyed.

Mr. D turned off the Focus's wheezer of an engine and looked over. "Yup. And we're going to get you what you need here."

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They'd been driving around aimlessly for quite a while, because the Omega's son couldn't stop throwing up. The last heaving session had been about forty minutes ago, though, so Mr. D was pretty sure things had done settled some. Hard to know whether the pukin' were because of what the son had had to do or on account of his induction. Either way, Mr. D had taken care of him, even holding the son's head up at one point, because the guy had been too weak to do it himself.

Screamer's was the right place for them to be hauntin'. Even though the son of the Evil wouldn't be able to eat or have sex, there was one sure thing they would find here: drunken human males what could be used as punching bags.

Tired and overwrought as the son was, he had power in his veins, power that needed to be triggered. The club and its idiots were the gun. The son was the bullet.

And a fight would revive things real good. "Come on, now," Mr. D said, getting out.

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"This is bullshit." The words mighta sounded strong, but the tone was still that of a guy whose grain silo was empty.

"It ain't." Mr. D walked around, opened the son's door, and helped him out. "Y'all gotta trust me."

They walked across the street to the club, and when the bouncer at the head of the wait line glared at Mr. D, he slipped the big man a fifty, which got them in.

"We gonna just have a hang-around," Mr. D said as he took them through the crowd and over to the bar.

All through the club, hard-core rap thumped, while women dressed in bits of leather paraded by on cock patrol and men glared at one another.

He knew he'd done right when the son's eyes rifle-sighted a group of college-y guys who was barking loudly and sucking back hot sauce in martini glasses.

"Yup, we just havin' ourselves a little breather," Mr. D said with satisfaction.

The bartender came by. "Whatchu want?"

Mr. D smiled. "Nothing for us¡ª"

"Shot of Patr¨®n," the son said.

As the bartender went off, Mr. D leaned in. "You can't eat no more. No drinking 'n' no sex neither."

The son's pale eyes shot over to him. "What? Are you fucking kidding me?"

"No, suh, that's the way¡ª"

"Yeah, fuck that." When the shot glass came down for a landing, the son said to the bartender, "Start a tab."

Lash tossed back the tequila while glaring at Mr. D.

Mr. D shook his head and started scouting for the bathroom. Yeah, boy, when he'd tried the food routine he'd ended up hurling for an hour, and hadn't they already done enough of that tonight?

"Where's my second," Lash barked out to the bartender.

Mr. D swiveled his head back around. The Omega's son was standing there, happy as you please, tapping his fingers on the bar. The second shot came. Then the third.

After the fourth was ordered, Lash's pale eyes slid over, aggression flaring in them. "So what was this about no eating and no drinking?"

Mr. D couldn't decide whether he was looking at a bomb about to go off... or a miracle. No lessers were able to take food and drink once they'd been turned. The Omega's black blood nourished them and was incompatible with anything else. All they needed to survive was a couple of hours of rest every day.

"I guess you is different," Mr. D said with respect in his voice.

"Damn straight I am," the son muttered, and then ordered a hamburger.

As the guy ate and drank, you could see the color come back into his face and the spaced-out look get replaced by confidence. And while watching that hamburger and fries and all that tequila go down into Lash's gullet, Mr. D had to wonder whether the son would pale out as the rest of the lessers did. The regular rules were clearly not applying here.

"And what is this shit about no sex?" the son said as he wiped his mouth on a black paper napkin.

"We is impotent. You know, can't get¡ª"

"I know what it means, Professor."

The son eyed a blond loose goose at the end of the bar. The woman was no one Mr. D would have had the guts to go after, even if he'd been able to get it up. With her Play-boy body and her prom-queen face, he woulda given her a pass as out of his league. Not that she'd have noticed him to begin with.

She noticed the son, though, and the way she were looking at the guy made Mr. D measure his new boss right careful. Lash was a handsome sonofa, true 'nough, with his cropped blond hair and his chiseled face and those gray eyes. And he had the kind of body the women done go for, big and muscled, his torso an inverted triangle sitting on his hips, ready for all kinds of action.

It dawned on Mr. D that if they was still in school, he'd be proud to be seen with the son. And likely on the outs with the kind of people the son hung with.

But this weren't school, and Lash needed him. Knew it, too.

The girl across the way smiled at the son, picked the cherry out of her blue drink, and swirled her pink tongue around the dangler.

You could kind of imagine her doing that to a set of balls and Mr. D had to look away. Oh, yes'm, he'da been blushing right good if he'd still been human. He'd always been a blusher when it came to girls.

The son shifted off his bar stool. "No food. No sex. Yeah, right. Wait here, motherfucker."

The son turned away and headed for the woman.

As Mr. D got left at the bar with an empty shot glass and a plate with smudges of ketchup and grease on it, he supposed he'd done good. He'd wanted to get the Omega's son thinking about something other than slaughtering his vampire parents... he'd just figured it was going to be a good fistfight.

Instead, the son had a nice little meal and got hisself some booze. And was now going to top things off by banging the experience out of his memory.

Mr. D shook his head at the bartender when he was asked if he wanted something. Damn shame he couldn't drink no more. He'd liked his SoCo. Could have used the hamburger, too. He'd loved his burgers, he really had.

"You got anything for me, Sam-dog?"

Mr. D glanced over. A big guy with a jackass smile and a dump-truck worth of ego had draped himself over the bar and was looking at the bartender. Under his black leather jacket, which had a terrific eagle embroidered on the back, he was dressed in jeans that were three sizes too big and construction boots. Around his neck were some diamond chains, and he had a flashy watch on.

Mr. D weren't into the jewelry, but he did jones the guy's class ring. It was yellow gold, unlike the rest of his stuff, and had a pale blue stone in the middle.

Mr. D would have liked to be graduated from high school.

The bartender came over. "I got some, yeah." He nodded at the group of guys what had pissed off the son a little bit ago. "Told them who to look for."

"Nice." Big Guy took something out of his pocket and the two shook hands.

Cash, Mr. D thought.

Big Guy grinned and straightened his leather jacket, that class ring flashing bright blue. He approached the guys from the side, then turned as if he was showing them the back of his coat.

There was a hoot and holler and then a lot of hands went in pockets and palms were shook and there was some more with the pockets.

Not smooth. Other people were looking over, and it was pretty obvious that they wasn't exchanging no business cards.

He weren't going to last long in the business, Mr. D thought.

"You sure you don't want anything?" the bartender asked Mr. D.

Mr. D glanced toward the bathroom Lash had taken the blonde into. "Nah, thanks. I'm just waitin' on my friend."

The bartender grinned. "Betcha he's going to be a while. She looks like she gives a nice ride, that one."

Upstairs in her bedroom, Cormia packed up everything... which wasn't much.

Staring at the small pile of robes, prayer books, and incense burners that she'd gathered together, she realized with a curse that she'd left her rose in the office. Then again, she wouldn't have been able to take it with her to the Sanctuary. The only things from this side that were allowed in were those of historical importance.

In the larger sense, of course.

She glanced over at her latest¡ªher last¡ªconstruction of toothpicks and peas.

She was such a hypocrite, criticizing the Primale for seeking strength in separation, when what was she doing? Leaving this world that challenged her so, with the intention of seeking a seclusion that was even deeper than the one she'd had before as a Chosen.

Tears came into her eyes¡ª

The knock on her door was soft.

"One moment!" she called out, trying to calm herself. When she finally went over and answered the door, her eyes widened and she pulled the lapels of her robe together, hiding the bite mark on her neck. "My sister?"

The Chosen Layla was on the other side, looking as lovely as ever. "Greetings."

"Greetings, indeed."

They exchanged lingering deep bows, which was as close to hugging as Chosen were permitted.

"Whither thou come?" Cormia asked as they straightened. "Are you to be of blood service to the Brothers Rhage and Vishous?"

Funny, the formality of her words seemed odd to her now. She'd grown used to more informal discourse. More comfortable with it.

"Indeed, I am to see the Brother Rhage." There was a pause. "And as well I sought to inquire after you. May I come in?"

"But of course. Please avail yourself of my quarters."

Layla entered and brought with her an awkward silence.

Ah, so the news had made it to the Sanctuary, Cormia thought. All the Chosen knew she had been passed over as First Mate.

"What is this?" Layla asked, pointing to the latticework in the corner of the room.

"Oh, it's just a hobby."

"Hobby?"

"When I have time on my hands, I ..." Well, that was an admission of guilt, wasn't it. She should have been praying if she had nothing else to do. "Anyway..."

Layla didn't cast condemnation in expression or words on the revelation. And yet her presence alone was enough to make Cormia feel bad.

"So, my sister," Cormia said with sudden impatience, "I am guessing it is known that another shall be elevated to First Mate?"

Layla went over to the toothpicks and the peas and ran a delicate finger down one of the sections. "Do you recall when you found me hidden by the Reflecting Pool? It was after I had seen John Matthew through his transition."

Cormia nodded, remembering how the Chosen had been crying softly. "You were quite upset."

"And you were so kind to me. I sent you away, but I was so grateful, and it is in that spirit that I... I have come here to return the gentleness you proffered unto me. The burdens we carry as Chosen are weighty and not always understood by others who are not one among us. I want you to know that, having felt as you do now, I am your sister in the heart at this moment."

Cormia bowed low. "I am... touched."

She was a lot of other things too. Amazed, for one thing, that they were speaking of this at all. The candor was unusual.

Layla looked back to the construction. "You do not wish to return unto the fold, do you."

After weighing her options, Cormia decided to trust the Chosen with a truth she could barely admit to herself. "You read me well."

"There are others of us who have sought another way. Who have come to pass their lives on this side. There is no shame."

"I'm not so sure of that," Cormia said dryly. "Shame is like the robes we wear. Always with us, ever clothing us."

"But if you shed the robe, you are free of the burdens and the choice is yours."

"Are you sending me a message, Layla?"

"Nay. Verily, if you return to the fold, so shall you be welcomed back with full hearts by your sisters. The Directrix made it plain of sight that there is naught of impropriety in the change of First Mates. The Primale holds you in his highest esteem. She said so."

Cormia started pacing. "That is the official stance, of course. But honestly... you must know what the others think in their quiet moments. There are but two explanations. Either I was found wanting by the Primale or I denied him. Both are unacceptable and equally egregious."

The silence that followed told her she'd drawn the correct conclusion.

She paused by the window and looked out over the pool. She wasn't sure she had the strength to leave her sisters, she thought. Moreover, where would she go?

As she thought of the Sanctuary, she told herself that there had been enjoyable days there. Times when she had felt a sense of purpose and been nourished by being part of a greater good. And if she became a sequestered scribe, as she intended to be, she could avoid contact with the others for whole cycles at a time.

Privacy struck her as a grand thing.

"Is it true you care naught for the Primale?" Layla asked.

No. "Yes." Cormia shook her head. "I mean, I care for him as I should. In the same manner you do. I shall be joyous for whomever shall become the next First Mate."

Apparently, Layla didn't have a bullshit meter like Bella's, because the lie floated out into the air and the Chosen didn't question a syllable of it¡ªshe just bowed in acknowledgment.

"May I inquire after something then?" Layla asked as she straightened.

"Of course, sister."

"Has he treated you well?"

"The Primale? Yes. He has been very solicitous."

Layla went over to the bed and picked up one of the prayer books. "I read in his biography that he is a great warrior and that he saved his twin from a horrible fate."

"He is a great warrior." Cormia looked down at the rose garden. She imagined that all the Chosen had read his volumes in the Brotherhood's special section of the library by now¡ªand she wished she had done the same before he'd brought her here.

"Does he speak of that?" Layla prompted.

"Of what?"

"How he rescued his twin, the Brother Zsadist, from an unlawful blood slavery? That is how the Primale lost his leg."

Cormia's head whipped around. "Truly? That is how it happened?"

"He has never spoken to you of it?"

"He has not, no. He is a most private individual. At least with me."

The information was a shock, and she thought of what she had said to him, that he loved the fantasy of Bella. Was that true of herself with the Primale? She knew so little of his history, so little of what had shaped him as the male he was.

Ah, but she knew his soul, didn't she.

And she loved him for that.

There was a knock at the door. When she called out, Fritz put his head in.

"Pardon me, but the sire is ready for you," he said to Layla.

Layla's hands went to her hair and then smoothed over her robe. As Fritz ducked out of the room, Cormia thought that the Chosen was taking special care with her¡ª

Oh... no...

"You are... going to see him? The Primale?"

Layla bowed. "I am to see him now, yes."

"Not Rhage."

"I am to serve him afterward."

Cormia stiffened as ice ran through her. But of course. What had she expected. "You'd better go then."

Layla's eyes narrowed, then flared wide. "My sister?"

"Go on. Better not keep the Primale waiting." She turned away to the window, suddenly ready to scream.

"Cormia... ," her sister whispered. "Cormia, you care for him. Verily, you care for him deeply."

"I never said that."

"You don't have to. It is in your face and your tone. Sister mine, why ever... why are you stepping aside?"

As Cormia pictured the Primale with his head between her sister's thighs, his mouth making Layla arch in pleasure, her stomach rolled. "I wish you very well in your interview. I hope that he chooses well and chooses you."

"Why are you stepping aside?"

"I was cast aside," she bit out. "The decision was not mine. Now, please do not keep the Primale waiting. After all, God forbid, we can't have that."

Layla paled. "God?"

Cormia waved her hand back and forth. "It's just an expression they use here, not an indication of my faith. Now, please, go."

Layla seemed to need a moment to collect herself after the spiritual slip. Then her voice became gentle. "Rest assured he will not pick me. And know that should you ever need a¡ª"

"I won't." Cormia turned away and stared out the window with total fixation.

When the door finally clicked shut, she cursed. Then marched across the room and kicked the ever-living crap out of her construction. She ruined every last section, breaking every single neat little box until the order that had been was rubble on the carpet.

When there was nothing else to destroy, her tears christened the mess, as did the blood on the soles of her bare feet.

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