"Did you see the look on Phury's face?" Blay said.

John glanced across the island in the kitchen and nodded in total agreement. He and his buddies were sucking back relief beers. At a dead run.

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He had never seen any male look like that. Ever.

"That was some bonded-male shit, for real," Qhuinn said as he went over to the refrigerator, opened the door, and took out another three bottles from the queen's Sam Adams stable.

Blay took the one he was offered, then winced and prodded at his shoulder.

John cracked open his freshie and took a slug. Putting down the bottle, he signed, I'm worried about Cormia.

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"He won't hurt her." Qhuinn sat down at the table. "Nah, no way. He might have planted us in early graves, but not her."

John peeked out into the dining room. There were doors shutting. Loudly.

"Well, there are a lot of people in this house..." Qhuinn looked around like he was tackling a bad math problem in his head. "Including the three of us. Go fig."

John stood up. I have to go check. I won't... you know, interrupt anything. I just want to make sure everything's cool.

"I'll go with you," Qhuinn said as he started to get up again.

No, you'll stay here. And before you gum-flap, fuck you. This is my home, and I don't need a shadow all the time.

"Okay, okay, okay." Qhuinn's eyes shifted to Blay. "Then we'll hit the PT suite. Meet us there?"

"Why are we going to the PT suite?" Blay asked without looking at the guy.

"Because you're still bleeding and you don't know how to get to the first-aid shit from here."

Qhuinn stared hard at Blay. Blay stared hard at his beer.

"Why don't you just tell me how to get there," Blay muttered.

"And how are you going to handle your back?"

Blay took a long suck on his Sam. "Fine. But I want to finish my beer first. And I have to have something to eat. I'm starved."

"Fine. What kind of food do you want."

The two were a pair of Joe Fridays, stiff and staying to the facts.

I'll meet you guys down there, John signed, and turned away. Man, the two of them not getting along upset the whole world order in a way. It was just wrong.

John left through the dining room and was all but jogging by the time he made it to the top of the grand staircase. Up on the second floor, he smelled red smoke and heard opera coming from Phury's room¡ªthe poetic-sounding one he usually played.

Hardly the accompaniment for hard-core marking. Maybe they'd just gone to their separate bedrooms after an argument?

John crept up to Cormia's room and listened. Nothing. Although the draft drifting out into the hall was perfumed by a lush, flowery fragrance.

Figuring it couldn't hurt just to see if Cormia was okay, John lifted his knuckles and rapped on her door softly. When there was no answer, he whistled.

"John?" her voice said.

He opened the door because he assumed he was meant¡ª

John froze.

Cormia was lying across her bed on a tangled mess of duvet covers and sheets. She was naked, with her back to the door, and there was blood... on the insides of her thighs.

She lifted her head over her shoulder, then scrambled to cover herself. "Dearest Virgin!"

As she snapped the duvet up to her neck, John stood stock-still, his brain trying to process the scene.

He'd hurt her. Phury had hurt her.

Cormia shook her head. "Oh... damn."

John blinked and blinked again... only to see his younger self in a grungy hallway after what had been done to him had finished.

There had been things on the insides of his thighs, too.

Something in his face must have alarmed the hell out of her, because she reached for him. "John... oh, John, no... I'm okay... I'm okay¡ªtrust me, I'm¡ª"

John turned and walked calmly out her door.

"John!"

Back when he'd been small and helpless, there had been no vengeance to be had against his attacker. Now, as he stalked the ten feet to Phury's door, he was in a position to do something about his past and Cormia's present. Now he was big enough and strong enough. Now he could stand up for someone who'd been at the mercy of a person stronger than they were.

"John! No!" Cormia came rushing out of her room.

John didn't knock. No, there was no knocking. At this moment, his fists were not meant for wood. They were meant for flesh.

Throwing open Phury's door, he found the Brother sitting on his bed with a blunt between his lips. As their eyes met, Phury's face had guilt and pain and regret in it.

Which sealed the deal.

On a soundless roar, John launched himself across the room, and Phury did absolutely nothing to stop the attack. If anything, the Brother opened himself up to the pounding, falling back against his pillows as John punched him in the mouth and the eyes and the jaw over and over again.

Someone was screaming. A female.

People came running.

Yelling. Lot of yelling.

"What the fuck!" Wrath boomed.

John heard none of it. He was focused only on pounding the bloody hell out of Phury. The Brother was no longer his teacher or his friend, he was a brute and a rapist.

Blood ran on the sheets.

Which was only fucking fair.

Eventually someone peeled John off¡ªRhage, it was Rhage¡ªand Cormia ran to Phury. He held her off, though, rolling away.

"Jesus fucking Christ!" Wrath bit out. "Can we get a break around here?"

The opera in the background so didn't match the scene: The majestic beauty was at total odds with Phury's wrecked face, and John's shaking rage, and Cormia's tears.

Wrath wheeled on John. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"I deserved it," Phury said, wiping off his bloody lip. "I deserved it and worse."

Wrath's head whipped toward the bed. "What?"

"No, he didn't," Cormia said, holding the lapels of her robe close to her throat. "It was consensual."

"No, it wasn't." Phury shook his head. "It was not."

The king's whole body stiffened. In a low, tight voice, he said to the Chosen, "What was consensual?"

While the convention in the room looked back and forth between the two of them, John kept his eye on Phury. In the event Rhage's hold loosened, he was going after the Brother again. No matter who was ringside.

Phury sat up slowly, wincing, his face already starting to swell. "Don't lie, Cormia."

"Take your own counsel," she snapped. "The Primale did nothing wrong¡ª"

"Bullshit, Cormia! I took you by force¡ª"

"You did not¡ª"

Someone else started arguing. And another. Even John got into the act, mouthing filthy things at Phury while he strained against Rhage's deadweight.

Wrath reached over to the bureau, picked up a heavy crystal ashtray, and fired it at the wall. The thing shattered into a thousand pieces, leaving a dent the size of a head in the plaster.

"Next person who says one more fucking word, I do that with their skull, feel me?"

Everyone went quiet. And stayed that way.

"You"¡ªWrath pointed at John¡ª"get out of here while I sort this."

John shook his head, not caring about the ashtray. He wanted to stay. He needed to stay. Someone had to protect¡ª

Cormia came up and took his hand, squeezing it hard. "You are a male of worth, and I know you believe you are protecting my honor, but seek my eyes and see the truth of what happened."

John stared into Cormia's face. There was sadness, but it was of the poignant variety, the kind you got when you were in an unhappy situation. There was also resolve and a forthright strength.

There was no fear. No choking despair. No horrible shame.

She was not as he had been afterward.

"Go," she said softly. "All is well. Truly."

John looked at Wrath, who nodded. "I don't know what you walked in on, but I'm going to find out. Let me deal with this, son. I'll do right by her. Now everyone, out."

John squeezed Cormia's hand and left with Rhage and the others. The second he was out in the hall, the door was shut and he heard quiet voices.

He didn't go far. Couldn't. He made it to just outside of Wrath's study when his knees took a TO and he collapsed in one of the antique chairs that dotted the hall. After reassuring everyone he was okay, he let his head hang and breathed slowly.

The past was alive in his head, reanimated by the lightening strike of what he'd seen in Cormia's room.

Closing his eyes didn't help. Trying to talk himself down didn't help.

While he struggled to get the slipcovers back on his sofa, he realized it had been weeks and weeks since he and Zsadist had had one of their walks in the woods. As Bella's pregnancy had progressed and become more of a concern, his and Z's once-nightly sojourns where they traipsed through the forest in silence had become more and more infrequent.

He needed one now.

Lifting his head, he glanced in the direction of the hall of statues and wondered whether Zsadist was even in the house. Probably not, as he hadn't been in the room when the drama had rolled out. Given all the killings that had gone down tonight, the Brother no doubt had his hands full in the field.

John stood and went to his room. After he shut himself in, he stretched out on his bed, texted Qhuinn and Blay, and told them he was crashing. They'd get the messages when they came back out of the tunnel.

Staring up at the ceiling, he thought... of the number three. Bad things did come in that number, and did not always involve death.

Three times he had lost it within the last year. Three times his temper had snapped and he'd attacked someone.

Twice Lash. Once Phury.

You're unstable, a voice said.

Well, except he'd had his reasons, and they had all been good ones. The first time, Lash had gone after Qhuinn. The second time Lash had more than deserved. And this third time... the circumstantial evidence had been overwhelming, and what kind of male walked in on a female like that and didn't take action?

You're unstable.

Closing his eyes, he tried not to remember that stairwell in that grungy apartment building where he'd lived by himself. He tried not to remember what those boots on the steps had sounded like as they'd rushed at him. He tried not to remember the old mold and the fresh urine and the sweaty cologne that had tunneled into his nose when what had been done to him had been going down...

He couldn't shake the memories. Especially of the smells.

The mold had been from the wall he'd been pushed face- first into. The urine had been his own and had run down the insides of his thighs to the pants that been ripped down from his hips. The sweaty cologne had been his attacker's.

The scene was as fresh as where he was now. He felt his body then as clearly as he knew it now, saw the stairwell as he did the room he was currently in. Fresh... fresh... fresh... and there appeared to be no expiration date on the horrible episode's milk carton.

It didn't take a psychology degree to know that this explosive temper of his was rooted in all he kept inside.

For the first time in his life, he wanted to talk to someone.

No... not exactly.

He wanted back the one who was his. He wanted his father.

After John's Oscar de la Hoya routine, Phury's face felt as if it had been spit-broiled and put on a bed of fresh-cut I've-hit -bottom. "Look, Wrath... don't get angry with John."

"It was a misunderstanding," Cormia said to the king. "Nothing more."

"What the hell happened between you two?" Wrath asked.

"Nothing," Cormia replied. "Absolutely nothing."

The king so wasn't buying it, which proved their fearless leader had half a brain, but at the moment Phury didn't have enough left in him to argue for the truth. He just kept mopping up his busted mouth with the back of his forearm as Wrath kept talking and Cormia kept defending him, God only knew why.

Wrath glowered from behind his wraparounds. "Look, do I need to break something else to get you two to cut the shit? The hell it was nothing. John's a hothead, but he's not a¡ª"

Cormia cut the king off. "John misinterpreted what he saw."

"What did he see?"

"Nothing. I say it was nothing and therefore it is as such."

Wrath gave her the once-over, as if checking for bruises. Then he looked hard at Phury. "What the fuck do you have to tell me?"

Phury shook his head. "She's wrong. John didn't misunder¡ª"

Cormia's tone was sharp. "The Primale is clothing himself in blame that is unnecessary. My honor was not impeached in any fashion, and I do believe that is my call to make, is it not."

After a moment, the king inclined his head. "As you wish."

"Thank you, Your Highness." She bowed deep and low. "Now, I shall be taking my leave of you."

"Would you like me to send Fritz with some food¡ª"

"No. I am taking my leave of this side. I am returning home." She bowed again, and as she did, the blond hair that was still drying from her shower slipped off her shoulder and brushed the floor. "I wish you both the very best and proffer my kindest regards to the rest of the household. Your Majesty." She bowed again to Wrath. "Your grace." She bowed to Phury.

Phury leaped up off the bed and rushed forward in a panic... but she disappeared into the thin air before he reached her.

Gone. Just like that.

"Will you excuse me," he said to Wrath. It wasn't a request, but he didn't give a shit.

"I really don't think you should be alone right now," Wrath said in a dark tone.

There was conversation at that point, some sort of back-and -forth, which must have reassured Wrath on some level, because the king left.

When he was gone, Phury stood in the middle of his room, still as a statue, staring at the imprint of that ashtray on the wall. On the inside he writhed, but on the outside he was utterly motionless: The choking ivy was growing underneath his skin, instead of over it.

With a flick of his eyes, he checked the clock. Only an hour before dawn.

As he headed into the bathroom for a cleanup, he knew he was going to have to be quick about this.

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