At ten after four, John climbed up into a shuttle bus lugging his duffel bag along with him.
"Hello, sire," the doggen behind the wheel said cheerfully. "Welcome."
John nodded and looked at the twelve guys who were seated in pairs and staring at him.
Whoa. Really not feeling the love here, fellas, he thought.
He took the empty seat behind the driver.
As the bus started to move, a partition came down so that the trainees were locked in the back together and none of them could see out the front. John shuffled around so he sat sideways. Keeping an eye on what was happening behind him seemed like a good idea.
The windows were all darkened, but the running lights on the floor and ceiling were bright enough so he could get a bead on his classmates. They were all like him, thin and small, though they had different hair colors, some blond, some dark. One was a redhead. Like John, they were all dressed in white martial-arts jis. And they all had the same duffel at their feet, a black nylon Nike bag big enough to fit a change of clothes and a lot of food. Each of them had a backpack, too, and he guessed they had the same stuff in it that he had in his: a note-book and some pens, a cell phone, a calculator. Tohr had sent out a list of required supplies.
John tucked his pack in close to his stomach and felt himself getting stared at. It helped to think about all the numbers he could text-message, so he repeated them in his head over and over again. Home. Wellsie's cell. Tohr's cell. The Brotherhood's number. Sarelle's…
Thinking of her made him smile. They'd spent hours online last night. Man, IM'ing, once he got the hang of it, was the perfect way to communicate with her. With them both typing words, he felt like they were equals. And if he'd liked her over dinner, he was really into her now.
"What's your name?"
John looked over a couple of seats. A guy with long blond hair and a diamond earring had spoken up.
At least they're using English, John thought.
As he unzipped the pack and took out a notebook, the guy said, "Hello? You deaf or something?"
John wrote his name and turned the pad around.
"John? What the hell kind of name is that? And why are you writing?"
Oh, man… This school thing was going to suck.
"What's your problem? Can't talk?"
John met the guy right in the eye. The laws of probability mandated that within every group, there was one alpha-male pain in the ass, and this towhead with the sparkler in his earlobe was clearly it.
John shook his head to answer the question.
"You can't speak? At all?" The guy raised his voice as if to make sure everyone heard. "What the hell are you doing training to be a soldier if you can't talk?"
You don't fight with words, do you? John wrote.
"Yeah, and all those muscles you're popping are really scary."
So are yours, he wanted to scribble.
"Why do you have a human name?" This question came from the redhead in the seat behind him.
John wrote, Raised by them, and then turned the pad around.
"Huh. Well, I'm Blaylock. John… wow, weird."
On impulse, John pulled up his sleeve and flashed the bracelet he'd made, the one with the characters he'd dreamed about on it.
Blaylock leaned over. Then his pale blue eyes shot up. "His real name's Tehrror."
Whispers. Lots of whispers.
John retracted his arm and eased back against the window again. He wished he'd kept his sleeve down. What the hell were they thinking now?
After a moment Blaylock pulled a polite one and introduced the others. They all had odd names. The blond's was Lash. And how flicking appropriate was that?
"Tehrror…" Blaylock murmured. "That's a very old name. That's a real warrior's name."
John frowned. And even though it would be better to get himself off these boys' high-def wide-screen, he wrote, Isn't yours? And the rest of theirs?
Blaylock shook his head. "We have some warrior blood in us, which is why we were chosen to come train, but none of us has a name like that. What line are you descended from? God… are you bred from the Brotherhood?"
John frowned. It had never dawned on him that he could be related to the Brothers.
"Guess he's too good to answer you," Lash said.
John let that one pass. He knew he was tripping all kinds of social wires, setting off land mines right and left, what with his names and the raised-by-humans thing and his inability to talk. He had a feeling this school day was going to be one hell of an endurance test, so he might as well save his energy.
The trip lasted about fifteen minutes, with the last five or so involving a lot of stopping and going, which meant they were going through the gate system into the training compound.
When the bus halted and the partition retracted, John shouldered his duffel and his backpack and got out first. The underground parking facility was just as it had been last night: still no cars, just another shuttle bus like the one they'd come in. He stood off to the side and watched the others mill about, a flock of white jis. Their nattering voices reminded him of the sound of pigeon wings clapping.
The center's doors swung open, and the group got good and transfixed.
But Phury could do that to a crowd. With his spectacular hair and his big body in black, he was enough to make anyone freeze.
"Hey, John," he said, lifting his hand. "What's doing?"
The guys turned and stared at him.
He smiled up at Phury. Then got busy trying to fade into the background.
Bella watched Zsadist pace around the bedroom. He reminded her of how she'd felt the night before when she'd sought him out: Caged. Miserable. Pushed too hard.
Why the hell was she forcing this?
As she opened her mouth to call the whole thing off, Zsadist stopped in front of the bathroom door.
"I need a minute," he said. Then shut himself away.
At a loss, she went over and sat on the bed, expecting him to be right back out. When the shower came on and stayed on, she fell into a churning introspection.
She tried to picture herself going back to her family's house and walking through those familiar rooms and sitting in chairs and opening doors and sleeping in her childhood bed. It felt all wrong, like she'd be a ghost in that place she knew so well.
And how would she deal with her mother and her brother? And the glymera?
In the aristocratic world she'd been disgraced before she'd been abducted. Now she would be shunned outright. Being handled by a lesser… trapped in the ground… The aristocracy didn't handle that kind of ugliness well, and they would blame her. Hell, that was probably why her mother had been so reserved.
God, Bella thought. What was the rest of her life going to be like now?
As dread choked her, the only thing that held her together was the thought of staying in this room and sleeping for days with Zsadist right next to her. He was the cold that made her condense into herself again. And the heat that stopped her from shivering.
He was the killer who made her safe.
More time… more time with him first. Then maybe she could face the outside world.
She frowned, realizing he'd been in the shower for quite a while.
Her eyes shifted to the pallet in the far corner. How did he sleep there night after night? The floor would be so hard on his back, and there was no pillow for his head. No covers to pull up against the chill, either.
She focused on the skull beside the folded blankets. The black leather strap between the teeth proclaimed it as one he had loved. Obviously he had been mated, though she hadn't heard that in the rumors about him. Had his shellan gone unto the Fade of natural causes or had she been taken from him? Was that why he was so angry?
Bella looked toward the bathroom. What was he doing in there?
She went over and knocked. When there was no answer, she opened the door slowly. A cold rush shot out and she jerked back.
Bracing herself, she leaned into the freezing air. "Zsadist?"
Through the glass door of the shower, she saw him sitting under an ice-cold spray of water. He was rocking back and forth, moaning, scrubbing his wrists with a washcloth.
"Zsadist!" She ran over and pushed the glass aside. Fumbling with the fixtures, she turned off the water. "What are you doing?"
He looked up at her with wild, crazy eyes as he kept rocking and scrubbing, rocking and scrubbing. The skin around the black-tattooed bands was brilliant red, completely raw.
"Zsadist?" She straggled to keep her tone gentle and steady. "What are you doing?"
"I… I can't get clean. I don't want you to get dirty, too." He lifted his wrist and blood oozed down his forearm. "See? Look at the dirt. It's all over me. Inside of me."
His voice alarmed her even more than what he'd done to himself, his words carrying the eerie, groundless logic of insanity.
Bella picked up a towel, stepped inside the stall, and fell into a crouch. Capturing his hands, she took the washcloth from him.
As she carefully dried off his ragged flesh, she said, "You are clean."
"Oh, no, I'm not. I'm really not." His voice started to rise, a terrible momentum growing. "I'm filthy. I am so very dirty. I am dirty, dirty…" Now he babbled, the words running together, the volume lifting until hysteria pinged off the tiles and filled the bathroom. "Can you see the dirt? I see it everywhere. It coats me. It seals me in. I can feel it on my skin—"
"Shh. Let me… just…"
Keeping an eye on him, as if he were going to… God, she didn't even know what… she grabbed blindly for another towel and dragged it into the shower. With a reach around his big shoulders, she draped him in it, but when she tried to pull him into her arms, he shrank back.
"Don't touch me," he rasped. "You'll get it on you."
She sank down to her knees in front of him, her silk robe catching the water, drinking it up. She didn't even notice the cold.
Jesus… He looked like someone who'd been in a shipwreck: his eyes wide and demented, his soaked sweatpants clinging to the muscles of his legs, the skin of his chest covered in goose bumps. His lips were blue and his teeth chattered.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered. And she wanted to reassure him that there was no dirt on him, but knew that would just set him off again.
As water dripped from the showerhead onto the tile, the rhythmic sound was loud as a snare drum between them. In between the beats, she found herself remembering the night she'd followed him up to this room… the night when he'd touched her aroused body. Ten minutes after he had she'd found him curled over the toilet, throwing up because he'd put his hand on her.
I'm filthy. I am so very dirty. I am dirty, dirty…
Clarity came to her in the shifting way of a nightmare, cleaving into consciousness with chilling illumination, showing her something ugly. It was obvious he'd been beaten as a blood slave, and she'd assumed that was why he didn't like to be touched. Except getting hit, however painful and frightening, didn't make you feel dirty.
But sexual abuse would do it.
His black eyes suddenly focused on her face. As if he'd felt the conclusion that had found her.
Driven by sympathy, she leaned in toward him, but the anger that bled into his face stopped her.
"Christ, female," he snapped. "Will you cover yourself?"
She glanced down. Her robe was open to her waist, the swells of her breasts showing. She yanked the lapels together.
In the tight silence it was hard to meet his stare, so she focused on his shoulder… then followed the line of muscle to his collarbone, to the base of his neck. Her eyes drifted up his thick throat… to the vein that pumped just under his skin.
Hunger shot through her, making her fangs elongate. Oh, hell. Like she needed bloodlust right now?
"Why do you want me?" he muttered, clearly sensing her need. "You're better than this."
"I know what I am."
"You are not dirty."
"Damn it, Bella—"
"And I only want you. Look, I'm really sorry, and we don't have to—"
"You know what? No more talking. I'm tired of the talking." He stretched his arm out on his knee, wrist up, and his black eyes became devoid of any emotion, even anger. "It's your funeral, female. Do it if you want."
Time stopped as she stared at what he grudgingly offered. God help them both, but she was going to have him. With a quick move she arched over his vein and scored him cleanly. Though it must have hurt, he didn't jerk at all.
The instant his blood hit her tongue, she moaned in bliss. She'd fed from aristocrats before, but never from a male of the warrior class, and certainly never, ever a member of the Brotherhood. His taste was a delicious roar in her mouth, an invasion, an epic, screaming blast, and then she swallowed. The torrent of his power ripped through her, a forest fire in the marrow of her bones, an explosion that pumped into her heart in a glorious rush of strength.
She trembled so badly she almost lost contact with his wrist and had to grab onto his forearm to steady herself. She drank in great, greedy pulls, starved not just for the strength, but for him, for this male.
For her, he was… the one.